An IS (aka ISIS) fighter surrendering to Kurdish forces last month
The Islamic State this week executed kidnapped American journalist Steven Sotloff – in 'retaliation', the group said, for US bombing of its area of control in Iraq. The murder of Sotloff once more indicated the savage brutality of this group.
But while the IS may be almost without rivals in terms of its capacity for cruelty, events on the ground in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Syria are indicating its limitations as a military force. IS tactical setbacks, however, do not yet cast a serious shadow over the future existence of the Islamic State.
In early August, IS reached far into Iraq in a lightning offensive that left it 45 km from the Kurdish capital of Erbil and in possession of the city of Mosul and the Mosul dam, which provides water and electricity to northern Iraq and to the capital, Iraq. The group's fighters humiliated the Iraqi army in the taking of Mosul and the Kurdish Pesh Merga forces in the capture of the Sinjar mountain area.
IS went on to carry out atrocities against the Yezidi population of the Sinjar area, and the Christians of the Mosul area, creating a large refugee population. It was only airstrikes by the United States Air Force commencing on August 8th which prevented the fall of Erbil.
The Islamic State remains deployed close to the Kurdish capital. This reporter last week visited one of the frontline positions of the Kurdish Pesh Merga, at Khazer north west of Erbil. The lines around the city are eerily quiet at the moment.
This is because IS knows that were it to attempt to roll across the bare, flat ground towards the city, the US air response would be swift and fierce., and would result in the obliteration of the jihadi force.
The halting of the jihadi advance toward Erbil is testimony to the might of US arms, when they are directed with will and a clear goal.
The US has also been engaged, in cooperation with the Pesh Merga, Shia militias and the Iraqi army, in beginning to turn back the IS advances in western Iraq.
This week, the siege on the city of Amerli was lifted by Iraqi and Shia militia forces, paving the way for the re-conquest of Salahuddin province. The advance was preceded by US airstrikes on IS positions in the town.
The Pesh Merga has also had a good few days. The strategic Mosul dam was recaptured in late August, in a joint operation with Iraqi forces. This week the town of Zumar was retaken.
Evidence is emerging that US Special Operations forces are also engaged in the Iraq battles. It is not clear what precise role these forces are playing, but their presence has no doubt contributed to the relatively strong showing of the Iraqi and Kurdish forces in recent days.
The evidence indicates that the tactics of the Islamic State which enabled the group to achieve its rapid gains in Iraq in the course of the summer are of less application when defending areas against a determined attacker. IS has fast moving, mobile light infantry forces and employs terror tactics to intimidate populations. It has limited manpower, however, and no particularly original tactical abilities in defense, beyond its fighters' willingness for self-sacrifice.
Further west, in Syria, when IS fighters have faced the well motivated and determined Kurdish YPG militia, they have failed to gain ground. In Hasakeh province, and further west in the beleaguered Kobani enclave, the lightly armed but highly motivated and well-trained YPG fighters have succeeded in holding off the jihadis (albeit with heavy losses on the Kurdish side). This was so even when IS began to deploy US weapons systems captured in Mosul against the Kurds in Kobani. The enclave remains intact.
So the Islamic State is not invulnerable. Nevertheless, its continued existence is under no immediate threat. This is because of strategic, not tactical issues.
The forces that would like to destroy the Islamic State cannot, and those that could do not wish to.
Airstrikes can be useful in enabling the Iraqi forces and the Pesh Merga to eat away at the eastern edges of the Islamic State territory in Iraq. But air power alone cannot root out the jihadis from their heartlands in Syria, or indeed from their Iraqi conquests as a whole. This could only be achieved by ground forces.
Assad's army would certainly like to reunite eastern Syria with the rest of the country. But Assad's forces have been losing ground to IS in Raqqa province – the latest defeat being the loss of the Tabqa air base and the subsequent massacre of the garrison.
The Iraqi Army and its allied Shia militias would also like to win back the areas lost to IS, but there is no reason to believe that these forces at present have the offensive capacity to do so. The Iranians are probably in the process of seeking to transform these forces, in a similar way to that achieved with regard to Assad's fighters in late 2012/early 2013. Again, the Iraqi Shia are relevant only with regard to Iraq. But the IS heartland remains in Syria.
The United States lacks a clear strategy for how to deal with IS other than placing clear red lines before Erbil and Baghdad , and assisting the Iraqi army and the Kurds. And Syria remains largely off-limits, it would appear, despite the increasingly fictional nature of the border between Iraq and the country to its west.
There is no political will for the kind of commitment of western forces which could obliterate the Islamic State. And the Kurdish forces – both YPG and Pesh Merga – are interested in defending and maintaining Kurdish areas of control, not in offensive operations.
This means that despite the setbacks it has been suffering over the previous week, the survival of the Islamic State does not appear presently in question. The Islamic State will exist until someone has the ability and the will to destroy it. This time does not appear to be imminent.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.