TSG IntelBrief: The Caliphate Loses Ground
December 1, 2014

The Caliphate Loses Ground

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• The motto of the Islamic State is “remaining and expanding” (Bāqiyah wa-Tatamaddad, or باقية وتتمدد); however, after losing control over parts of the Iraqi provinces of Salahuddin and Diyala, the Islamic State is remaining but slowly contracting, though at great cost

• Reports of fierce fighting along the road between Bayji and the all-important oil/gas refinery outside of the town show how determined both the Iraqi government and the Islamic State are to hold the area; the Islamic State has reportedly been pushed out to the northern and western outskirts of the town but is fighting hard to regain control of the refinery road

• Reflecting losses in the province, the leaders of the group have reportedly relinquished administrative control of the “State of Salahuddin” and now labels the areas it still controls as the “State of Southern Mosul”

• The Islamic State will likely need to update its map several more times in the coming six months, as the Iraqi security forces (which includes the Iraqi army, Shi’a militias, Sunni opposition units, and Kurdish peshmerga, along with coalition support) begin to push the terror/insurgent group out of hard-to-defend areas such as additional parts of Diyala and Salahuddin

• The group, however, remains an existential threat to Iraq and is in relatively firm control of Mosul as it continues its bombing campaign against Baghdad.

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Since its victories in early summer, the Islamic State has broadcast its motto at every chance: “Remaining and Expanding.” The motto was created to counter criticism of its decision to declare itself a caliphate, as detractors called it both religiously illegitimate and tactically unwise, given the tenuous nature of its conquests. In the last two weeks, the Islamic State has experienced meaningful setbacks in two Iraqi provinces and has, for the first time since June, been pushed out of areas it once controlled. It’s one thing to have its offensives blunted, as is the case in Kobani, Syria, and Irbil and Sinjar in Iraq; it’s something altogether different to lose territory already listed on the proclaimed map of the Caliphate.

Iraqi Security Facility, Bayji (Photo: The Islamic State)

In the Salahuddin town of Bayji, site of a critical oil/gas refinery, Iraqi forces have reportedly broken the months-long siege by the Islamic State, though at heavy cost. This success has lead Iraq’s Oil Minister, Adel Abdul Mehdi, to say in an interview with The Telegraph that the Islamic State is no longer a threat to Iraq’s oil production. The Islamic State has tried for months to control the refinery, or at least to stop the government from using it, and its apparent defeat is both a symbolic and strategic setback. On social media, Islamic State supporters are ignoring the defeat and highlighting the renewed fighting on the refinery road. However, given the increasing pressure from the opposition on the group, it is unlikely the Islamic State will regain control of the area.

The Islamic State’s loss of control over several towns in Salahuddin province has led to reports that the group no longer lists “State of Salahuddin” on its official map, preferring to include the provincial towns of Tikrit, Sherqat, and al-Alam in the “State of Southern Mosul.” Yet to be verified, these reports illustrate the reputational damage such piece-meal losses inflict on a self-declared caliphate. Islamic State recruitment relies on a message of inevitability and divine intervention; the undeniable losses of caliphate territory will hurt, though the fighting in Syria remains a powerful magnet for foreign fighters regardless of what happens in Iraq.

Islamic State fighters promising to stay in Bayji (Photo: The Islamic State)

Online, the Islamic State is trying hard to counter the factual narrative with videos of its fighters in Bayji. It highlights the fierce fighting on the refinery road, overlooking how a battle for renewed control suggests that the group lost control of the road last week. It has released videos with high-production value of its fighters attacking Iraqi army posts. The group continues to highlight suicide attacks by its foreign fighters with videos showing an Algerian by the pseudonym Abu Adel al-Jazeeri blowing up a truck at the gates of an Iraqi outpost in Bayji. This online propaganda will help ensure a flow of recruits willing to die for the Islamic State, but it does little to reverse the reality of an ebbing tide of the group’s fortunes in Iraq.

Islamic State fighters using T-barriers as covered trenches (Photo: The Islamic State)

One interesting image from Islamic State propaganda shows that the fighters are using the ubiquitous concrete T-barriers that are synonymous with the Iraq conflict as a form of covered trench warfare. When attacking fortified Iraqi positions that have the U.S.-military inspired T-barriers, Islamic State fighters tip them over into an inverted V shape that provides decent cover from light to medium weapons as they move into position. Still, the tactical improvisation won’t reverse the trend lines facing the group.

Adding to Islamic State losses, in the last two weeks, Kurdish peshmerga (with support from the Iraqi army, Sunni opposition units, and Shi’a militias) have pushed the Islamic State out of Saadiya and Jalawla in northern Diyala province. Diyala is of particular importance as it opens a northern front to Baghdad. The losses in Diyala aren’t crippling to the group but further indicate that the Islamic State is losing ground to a resurgent opposition. Criticism of coalition airstrikes focused on the lack of immediate results, and, while airstrikes will in no way solve the problems that precipitated the rise of the Islamic State, it appears that the strategy of containing the group while building up its opposition is beginning to bear positive results.

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