Excerpt of an article originally published under the title "Striking a Winning Formula as Locals Take the Fight Back to Islamic State."
In late December, I travelled to northern Syria to take a closer look at how things were working out. Is Islamic State being contained and eroded? And if it is, who are the forces on the ground that are achieving this?
Kobane is a good place to start. This once anonymous Kurdish town on the Syrian-Turkish border was the subject in 2014 of Islamic State's predatory intentions. The jihadists wanted to remove the logistical irritation of a Kurdish enclave poking into their domain. Abu Omar al-Shishani, the most feared of the Islamic State commanders, declared that he would "drink tea in Ayn al-Islam" (the name Islamic State gave the town). He came close to achieving his objective.
By October 2014, the nearly surrounded Kurdish forces were preparing for a last stand. The fighters of the YPG (the People's Protection Units of the de facto Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria) were determined, but outgunned.
Then something changed. The intervention of US power, partnering with the lightly armed but determined Kurds, turned the tide and proved the formula for success against Islamic State. More than 2000 jihadists died inside the ruins of Kobane, under the relentless US air attacks and the determined assaults of the YPG. In January, the group abandoned the attack. Kobane had survived.
Western air power is partnering with local ground forces across a broad front stretching from the Syrian-Turkish border to Iraq.
This formula for success — Western air power in partnership with carefully selected and directed local ground partners — is now being applied across a broad front stretching from Jarabulus on Syria's Turkish border all the way to deep inside Iraq.
Kobane today bears fearful testimony to the awesome destructive capacity of modern war. There is hardly a building that is not damaged. Roads are ploughed up. Craters made by the bombs, filled with rainwater, offer mute testimony to the fierceness of the fight. Once residential streets are now just lines of damaged structures — rubble and masonry and foundation walls rising like outstretched hands towards the sky.
But, importantly, the war is now far from here. Once the assault on Kobane ended in January last year, the YPG and its US allies continued to push the jihadists back: 196 villages and an area of 1362 sq km were liberated from the jihadists. As of now, since the capture of Ain Issa, the front lines at their most forward point are situated just 30km from Islamic State's "capital" in Raqqa City.
196 villages have been liberated by Syrian Kurdish forces in the past year.
This has enabled life to begin tentatively to return to Kobane. About 40,000 people are now living in the town, although its reconstruction remains in the opening stages. It has also set the stage for the current phase of the war in which Islamic State is often no longer on the attack. Rather, it is being slowly pushed back. What comes next, I asked Colonel Talal Silu, spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, at a facility in al-Hasakah city. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose existence was announced in October last year, is the 40,000-strong military alliance with which Western air power and special forces are partnering in the war against Islamic State.
Silu, an ethnic Turkmen from northern Syria and a member of the Jaysh al-Thuwar (Army of Revolutionaries), is a living example of the purpose of the SDF.
The victories against Islamic State at Kobane and to its east were won by the combination of determined Kurdish ground forces and US air power. This partnership works militarily. Politically, however, it is problematic.
The US is committed to the maintenance of Syria as a territorial unit. The PYD (Democratic Union Party) in Syrian Kurdistan is a franchise of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which is based in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan and is engaged in an armed conflict with Turkey. The PYD is widely believed by Syrian Arabs to be seeking to secede from Syria. Yet, more problematically, the PKK remains on the US and EU lists of terrorist organisations. And the secular, leftist YPG in Syria is clearly the creation of the PKK, though spokesmen deny formal links.
Syrian Kurds have taken the initiative in the war with Islamic State.
Syrian Kurds have taken the initiative in the war with Islamic State.
The SDF, which brings in non-Kurdish organisations and fighters around the nucleus of the 30,000-strong YPG, is intended to remedy this situation. It serves a purpose for both Kurds and Americans. It enables the YPG to present itself as an integral part of Syria. The US, meanwhile, can claim to be working with a multi-ethnic alliance rather than a Kurdish nationalist force.
This latter aspect is of particular importance because of Turkish concerns. The Turks have warned the YPG not to cross west of the Euphrates River. Ankara is concerned at Kurdish ambitions to acquire control of the entire long border between Syria and Turkey. At present, an isolated Kurdish canton in the area of Afrin in northwest Syria remains cut off from the main area of Kurdish control. Areas of rebel and Islamic State control separate the two.
Silu, however, is not interested in discussing the intricacies of Levantine power politics on the morning that we met. What needs to come next, he tells me, is heavy weapons. On October 14, the US dropped 50 tonnes of ammunition to the SDF. This, the colonel says, is not enough. "What they dropped was only enough to fight for two or three days. Not so useful."
So, what would be useful? "Heavy weapons, tow missiles, anti-tank missiles ... The Americans gave million to people who did nothing. Saudi Arabia is supporting forces and providing high-quality weapons. But we are the only force that is fighting Islamic State seriously."
YPG and YPJ fighters at the funeral of three comrades killed fighting Islamic State.
This sentiment is repeated again and again as we follow the SDF front lines down south of al-Hasakah to the last forward positions before the town of al- Shaddadah. The SDF liberated al-Hawl on November 16 and is now pushing beyond it.
The remnants of Islamic State rule are plainly visible as we drive through the town. "The Islamic Court in al-Hawl", one painted structure proclaims grandly. But the building is ransacked and deserted, and someone has painted a livid red YPG emblem above that of the former Islamist rulers. Islamic State is on the retreat.
"If we had effective weapons, we could take Raqqa in a month," says Kemal Amuda, a short and energetic YPG commander on the front line south of al-Hawl. "But the area is very large. And the airstrikes are of limited use."
'If we had effective weapons, we could take Raqqa in a month,' says YPG commander Kemal Amuda.
What would help? Once again: "Anti-tank weapons, tanks, armoured vehicles."
The reason the heavy weapons these commanders desire have not been forthcoming may relate to the provisional nature of the alliance underpinning the SDF.
The Western forces want to use this force as a battering ram against Islamic State. But the Kurdish core of the force has other ambitions, which include the unification of the cantons and acquiring control of the border. The Western coalition may well prefer to neutralise Islamic State advantage in heavy weapons by employing air power, rather than afford the Kurds an independent capacity in this regard.
But despite the absence of such weapons and the political complications, the SDF is proving a serviceable tool in the battle against Islamic State. The strategy appears to be to slowly chip away at the areas surrounding Raqqa City in order to weaken the jihadists' ability to mount a determined defence of the city. The loss of al-Hawl meant Islamic State also lost control of the Syrian section of Highway 47 from Raqqa City across the Iraqi border to Mosul, Iraq's second city and the other jewel in the Islamic State crown.
The SDF captured the Tishrin Dam on December 27.
The SDF captured the Tishrin Dam on December 27.
The conquest of the Tishrin Dam by the SDF on December 27 further isolates Raqqa. The dam was the last bridge across the Euphrates controlled by Islamic State. Its loss significantly increases the time it would take for the jihadists to bring forces from Aleppo province on the western side of the river to the aid of the city.
So the SDF, partnering with US air power, appears to be aiming to split Islamic State in two, before attacking its most significant points.
The YPG component, which accounts for most of the SDF's fighting strength, is an irregular force. It lacks the resources and the structure of a regular army. The fighters have only the simplest of equipment. No body armour. No helmets. Night vision equipment also appears to be absent. Medical knowledge and supplies are basic.
Concerns have been raised regarding the high rate of attrition in this force, including fighters who suffered wounds that ought not to have been fatal had skilled medical attention been close at hand.
But despite all this, they appear to get results, and morale was clearly high among the young combatants that I interviewed in the frontline areas south of al-Hawl and al-Hasakah.
A particularly striking element was the constantly repeated refrain that Islamic State fighters suffered from severe attrition and noticeably declining motivation.
Islamic State fighters reportedly suffer from severe attrition and declining motivation.
As we pass through an eerily silent and seemingly deserted frontline area close to al-Bassel Dam, 30km east of Shaddadah, I come across a group of YPG men defending a position about 3km from the jihadists.
The officer commanding this group refuses to give his name or to be recorded. "Journalists aren't really supposed to be around here," he remarks with a smile. Nevertheless, in the conversation that follows, the commander gives a precise description of the changing tactics used by the jihadists, and what in his view this portends for the fight against Islamic State.
Once, the jihadists attacked en masse. The order, as described by the commander, was that a number of "suicide cars" — vehicles filled with explosives and intended to spread panic among the defenders — would appear first, followed by suicide bombers on foot, who would try to enter the positions of the defenders and detonate themselves. Then a mass of ground fighters would follow behind, with the intention of breaking through the shocked defenders.
These methods had been effective, but also very costly in terms of manpower. Now, however, the jihadists are evidently seeking to preserve the lives of their force. Their tactics have changed accordingly. They move in smaller groups, preferring to leave only token forces to defend areas subjected to determined attack.
The change, suggests the commander, derives from a dwindling flow of eager recruits in comparison with mid-2014. "Formerly, they were attractive as conquerors. Their power derived from intimidation and imposing terror," he says. "This has now gone."
This decline in the stream of recruits for Islamic State probably explains an amnesty for deserters announced last October, as revealed in a recent trove of Islamic State documents leaked to British researcher Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi. The announcement suggests Islamic State can no longer maintain in their entirety the ruthless and draconian methods that characterised its early stages. The need for manpower precludes this.
The turn to international terrorism by Islamic State in recent months is probably also explained by its loss of momentum in Iraq and Syria. The group needs "achievements" to maintain its "brand". Its slogan is "baqiya wa tatamaddad" (remaining and expanding). But expansion of its territorial holdings is no longer taking place. The downing of the Russian Metrojet passenger airliner on October 31, the coordinated attacks in Paris on November 13 and a series of attacks in Turkey suggest action on the global stage may be a substitute for gains on the battlefield closer to home.
What is most striking about the large swath of northern Syria now administered by the Kurds is its atmosphere of near normality. This was not always the case. This reporter first visited "Rojava", as the Kurds call Syrian Kurdistan, in early 2013 — just a few months after the Assad regime pulled out of most of northeast Syria. At that time, the security structures put in place by the Kurds were rudimentary and somewhat chaotic. And the remaining regime presence in the cities of al-Qamishli and al-Hasakah was far more extensive.
By the end of last year, however, the rule of the PYD and its allies had taken on a look of solidity. Pictures of martyrs are everywhere, testimony to the high cost the maintenance of the enclave continues to exact. But the YPG checkpoints and the presence of both the Asayish (paramilitary police) and the "blue" police force established by the Kurds leaves no doubt as to who is in control here.
Syrian Kurds have carved out an enclave constituting more than 20 per cent of the country's territory.
The US decision to partner with the Kurdish de facto force in this area is an acknowledgment of this achievement. Finding physical evidence of the American presence, however, is a challenge. YPG commanders interviewed by me insisted the process of calling in airstrikes was handled by the YPG alone, via a control room that was in contact with US forces. The Americans, in this telling, were responsible only for advising and some training of forces.
Yet it seems likely that the small complement of US special forces committed to Syria (up to 50 operators, according to the official announcement) are doing more than simply training and advising.
In neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan, evidence has already emerged of the ground involvement of US special forces in operations against Islamic State. Similar events are likely taking place in Syria, too.
According to a recent report in the regional newspaper al-Hayat, plans are afoot to broaden the US presence, with the construction of a base in which, according to a Western official quoted by the paper, "US experts will reside and from which they will travel to battle lines". The base, according to al-Hayat, is set to be built outside the town of Derik (al-Malikiyah), deep in the heart of the Kurdish-controlled area in northeast Syria. These reports, if they have substance, suggest a deepening of the military alliance between the US and the Kurds of Syria.
But this war, in truth, looks nowhere close to conclusion. In the meantime, the Syrian Kurds have carved out an enclave constituting more than 20 per cent of the country's territory of the country and established at least a semblance of normal life.
The jihadists are far from a spent force. On January 15, they launched a ferocious counterattack against Assad regime forces in the Deir ez-Zor area. A massacre of civilians followed. Islamic State's capacity for mass murder should not be underestimated.
Still, as we crossed the Tigris River from northern Syria into Iraq, two memories remained particularly vivid.
The first was of Kobane. As we entered the ruined city, a celebration was taking place. About 100 young Kurds were dancing in an open area, Kurdish music blaring from a primitive sound system, with the ruined, macabre buildings casting their shapes all around.
The second was of a clump of strange mounds that we found by the roadside in the desert south of al-Hawl. These, on closer inspection, turned out to be the torn corpses of a group of Islamic State fighters — killed perhaps in an airstrike. Their foes had covered them lightly with earth before continuing south. The sightless eyes stared skyward.
The war against Islamic State and the larger war of which it is a part are far from over. But on this front at least, the direction is clear. The SDF is moving forward.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.