All photos property of Jonathan Spyer.
Islamic State territorial gains (green) and losses (red) in 2015.
Erbil, Iraq — Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, in the last days of 2015 is a place that appears to have risen from a near-death experience.
In the summer of 2014, the fighters of the Islamic State (IS) got to within 45 kilometers of this city. Around 30 percent of the inhabitants left. The foreign companies that had turned Erbil into a boom town hurriedly pulled out.
In their place, throngs of refugees filled all the available empty spaces. US air power stopped the advance of the jihadis, but the Iraqi Kurds were left bruised and shaken.
I visited the city at that time. It was a place in a state of shock. Since the 1990s, the Kurds of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north of strife-torn Iraq had become accustomed to viewing themselves as a haven of sanity and industry in the heart of the Middle East. In the summer of 2014, the Iraqi Kurds discovered just how fragile all that was. And just how easily the most frenzied of the region's furies could force their way in.
A year on, they have recovered their composure. The refugees are still here, but they are now in tent encampments or housing, rather than on the streets and in disused buildings. The foreigners have begun to return. The restaurants are full on weekday evenings. The Islamic State has been driven back to the western side of the Tigris, all along the plain between Erbil and Mosul.
Now it is the Kurds and their allies who are outside the main cities of IS, rather than the other way round. Yet, Erbil has not become immune. An IS suicide bomber hit the US Consulate on April 17 – a cocky demonstration on its part that even the most security-saturated parts of the city were not immune to penetration.
Kamal Kirkuki (left) and the author with a captured Islamic State flag, Kirkuk area, December 2015.
I am here again to take a look at the ground war against IS in Iraq and Syria, a year after the jihadis reached their furthest point of advance.
The year 2015 was not an especially good one for the Islamic State. Its slogan, famously, is "baqiya wa-tatamaddad" – remaining and expanding. As of now, the first of these objectives remains firmly in place, the second far less so. With the Kurdish Pesh Merga outside Mosul, and further south the Iraqi Golden Division inside Ramadi City, and Tikrit, Baiji and Sinjar lost in the course of the year. 2015 was a year of slow contraction for IS in Iraq.
In Syria, too, IS has lost ground. Here, the unlikely partnering of US air power with a local franchise of the Kurdish PKK, the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party, is mainly responsible for the advances. In Syria, too, it was US air power that was the crucial addition to the fight that halted and reversed the headlong advance of the jihadis.
The initiative in northern Iraq is now in the hands of the Kurds.
In both the Iraqi and, even more, the Syrian cases, the crucial contribution of air power was to nullify the advantage enjoyed by the jihadis because of their possession of heavy weapons. Neither the Pesh Merga, the KRG's military force, nor the lightly armed YPG People's Protection Units in Syria had any real response to the up to date artillery, armored vehicles and Humvees – looted from the garrison at Mosul – that the jihadis could put into action.
US air power served to even the playing field. The courage and tenacity of the Kurdish fighters could then come into play. It is a formula that has proved tentatively successful. It halted the jihadis and is now very slowly pushing them back.
Interviews with commanders and fighters of the Pesh Merga, revealed a growing confidence that the Islamic State had passed its high point as a semi-conventional military voice.
Captain Rebin Rozhbayane, a commander of the Pesh Merga special forces, describes largely quiet frontlines in which the initiative is now in the hands of the Kurds. "Mortars, sniping but no major attacks at the moment," he tells me, as we meet in the lobby of a hotel in the Christian section of Erbil.
Rozhbayane, a 10-year veteran of the Pesh Merga, commands a rapid reaction force of 80 fighters on the Gwer front.
IS is no longer seeking the initiative, the captain notes. Rather, they now appear content to wait. It is the Kurds who are moving forward. "Mosul is the next target," he asserts. Once Iraq's second-largest city with a mainly Arab population, Mosul is likely to prove a tougher target. IS's ability to proclaim itself a "state or caliphate" rather than simply a jihadi fiefdom in Iraq largely rests on its holding Mosul. The taking of this city in August 2014 was the key moment in the Islamic State's advance and the group will defend it with all means available.
This is not the case, however, with the generality of its holdings. IS now needs to conserve resources.
Rozhbayane notes that the latest major victory of the Kurds, in Sinjar city, was achieved against relatively minor resistance. The desperate determination with which IS pressed its offensive in Kobani at the end of 2014 against the YPG and US air power cost it heavily. Some 2,000 jihadi fighters are thought to have died in the ruins of that Syrian Kurdish city. But by the end of January, IS was forced to retreat. The lesson the jihadis learned from this is that unless a point absolutely must be held, it is better to abandon it than to risk another costly defeat like Kobani.
Even in Ramadi, which IS clearly wanted to keep, a force of only about 1000 jihadis was left to face the assault of 10,000 Iraqi government troops, backed by US aircraft.
The sense that IS is returning to focused terror attacks as it retreats militarily was repeated to me many times.
Kamal Kirkuki, former speaker of the KRG's parliament, a veteran of the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and now a commander of the Pesh Merga on the north-west Kirkuk front, tells me that "ISIS has declined and is morally weak. They no longer have the force to attack us. "What they can do," he adds, "is terror attacks." Kirkuki is referring to specific events in the Kirkuk area. But the sense that IS may be returning to focused terrorist attacks as its ability to expand militarily evaporates was repeated to me many times during the course of my time in Iraq and Syria.
The turn of the jihadis toward international terrorism – with the downing of the Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 on October 31 and the coordinated attacks in Paris on November 13 – are ominous signs of the potency that a refocused IS could have.
A European volunteer with the Pesh Merga told me in Erbil that "we need to fight IS here or we'll be fighting them in Europe in 10 years."
The rhetoric of this statement is impressive and there is a deeper truth to it. However, it may well be that, tactically, the correlation is more complex. The more IS loses ground in its "state," the more it may turn its attention to terrorism against both near and far enemies to maintain the sense of momentum on which it depends.
For the Iraqi Kurds, there is, of course, a larger political context to all this. Kirkuki, who is known as one of the more nationalist of senior KDP members, refers to Iraq as a "failed state" and advocates the establishment of three states to replace it – "Kurdistan, Shia-stan and Sunni-stan."
KRG President Massoud Barzani recently announced the recommencement of preparations for a referendum on independence in the KRG area. Plans were afoot before IS erupted across the border in the summer of 2014. Now that the jihadis have been held and the immediate danger has passed, the notion is returning to the agenda.
There are complications, however. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the KDP's rivals, is close to Iran and would be likely to oppose a bid for political separation. The West's position remains ambivalent.
But the very fact that independence has returned to the agenda is an indication both of the perceived waning threat of IS and of the persistent, structural problems facing Iraq, of which the Sunni jihadis are a manifestation, rather than a cause.
Syrian Kurds hope to unite their non-contiguous cantons along the Syrian-Turkish border.
In Syria, the situation is even more complicated. The "border" that separates northern Iraq from northern Syria is now administered by Kurdish forces on both sides. The process of administration and passage at the FishKhabur/Semalka crossing is orderly enough. A traveler passes through one set of Kurdish officials, across the Tigris river in an old metal barge, and then past a second bureaucratic process on the other side.
But the seeming tranquility belies a strained reality. The Kurds may control an uninterrupted area of ground all the way from the Iraq-Iran border to seven hours' drive into Syria. But the Iraqi Kurdish KDP and the PKK-oriented Syrian Kurdish PYD remain implacable rivals.
In northeast Syria, though, the ambiguities go beyond the narrow Kurdish context.
The last positions of the Assad regime still remain deep in the area of Kurdish control, with tension between the sides never far from the surface.
The regime's presence has been eroded in recent years. Where once there was an imposing government checkpoint at the entrance to Qamishli city, the main urban center of "Rojava," the Syrian Kurdish domain, now Assad's forces remain confined to a few clearly defined points of the city.
The regime soldiers look scruffy and exhausted, not so different from the rebels. Every so often, one sees a well-fed mukhabarat (secret service) type in a leather jacket moving about close to the regime facilities. Caution is advised. The regime tries every so often to force young Kurds into the ranks of its army. The Kurdish security forces resist.
Syrian Kurdistan is a much poorer, more provisional affair than the KRG. In the KRG, a class of KDP-linked people has enriched itself enormously and an atmosphere of consumerist normality prevails. IS put a dent in this in 2014, but it has now been contained.
In Syrian Kurdistan, by contrast, there is still something of the atmosphere of revolution, of scant resources and devotion. The YPG militia has proven the most powerful irregular force in northern Syria apart from IS itself. The partnering of US air power with Kurdish determination on the ground has brought the YPG to within 30 kilometers of the "capital" of the Islamic State – Raqqa City.
There is a central dilemma in this partnership, however. The PKK, the evident "mother organization" of the PYD and YPG, remains on the US and EU list of terrorist organizations. There appear to be no serious efforts under way to amend this.
The result is that while YPG fighters are responsible for calling in US airstrikes against IS targets, legal restrictions on supplying their fighters mean that they operate in the most primitive conditions, almost always without helmets and body armor, often without boots, without night vision equipment and without anything approaching adequate medical provisions.
The former IS "Islamic Court" in al-Hawl.
In spite of all this, they are covering ground, and driving IS back.
In the town of al-Hawl, 40 kilometers east of Hasakeh city and liberated in mid-November, I saw the swiftly rotting remains of the primitive administration that IS had established in the town. The painted black signs proclaiming the "Islamic court" in Hawl painted over with the YPG's vivid red and the building broken and abandoned.
The next target is Shadadi, further south, Kemal Amuda, a YPG commander tells me at a frontline position south of the city. The intention is to cut Mosul off from Raqqa and split the Islamic State in two.
"We need better weapons systems," says Amuda. "Anti-tank weapons, tanks, armored cars. Then we could take Raqqa in a month. Support from the air isn't enough."
As of now, the US appears to be supporting a rebranding of the Kurdish YPG that will allow the deepening of cooperation.
In October 2015, a new anti-IS coalition, called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), was announced. This force brings together the YPG with the remains of non-jihadi rebel formations in northern Syria – Shams al Shamal, Thuwar Raqqa and others, and with a militia of the Shammar tribe, the so-called Jaysh al Sanadid (Army of the Brave).
It is a somewhat lopsided affair, however. The 40,000 strong YPG accounts for around 90 percent of its strength. The Sanadid has about 5,000 fighters, the remaining rebel groups substantially fewer. The goal of the SDF is clearly to enable the Kurds to avoid (or seek to avoid) accusations of separatism, and the US to avoid accusations of favoring the Kurds.
There is a built in tenuousness to the political side of the alliance. The American goal is to bring a force into the IS capital of Raqqa city, and by so doing terminate any notion of the Islamic State as an actual quasi-state entity.
The Syrian Kurds are more interested in uniting the Kurdish cantons along the Syrian-Turkish border and thus completing their control of the Syrian side of the border (a prospect that alarms and infuriates the Turks). On December 26, the SDF completed the conquest of the Tishreen Dam.
This target could form part of a drive toward Raqqa (it removes from IS the chance to rush forces from Aleppo province to the city). Or it could be the commencement of a Kurdish push westward to begin the unification of the cantons.
IS once sent waves of men across open ground, preceded by 'suicide' cars; now it deploys small groups, seeking to preserve manpower.
But while the politics remain deeply ambiguous, once again, the military direction seems clear – IS is losing ground in northern Syria, slowly, but surely.
A YPG commander at a frontline position describes to me the changing tactics employed by the jihadis. Where once they sent waves of men across open ground, preceded by "suicide cars," now they move in small groups, cautiously, seeking to preserve manpower. "Their power is derived from intimidation and imposing terror," suggests the commander. "This has now gone. They are afraid of us and of the international coalition."
It is important, of course, not to exaggerate the advances made against IS. Both Raqqa and Mosul remain formidable targets, along with much additional territory. But the direction of Western supported coalition forces is clear – and it is forward.
Even if IS continues to be eroded, this will not answer the bigger questions concerning the future arrangement of what was once Iraq and Syria. The clashes of formidable regional powers – Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey – and global ones – the US and Russia – will continue independently of the fate of the jihadi entity.
Remains of an IS fighter south of al-Hawl, northeastern Syria.
But in a region in which good news is scant, the survival of two very different Kurdish projects in northern Iraq and northern Syria, and their successful rallying in partnership with the West against perhaps the most graphically murderous manifestation of political Islam in recent times is a point of light.
In the desert south of Hawl, I came across what initially looked like a small clump of mounds on the side of the road. On inspection, these were the bodies of IS fighters torn apart in a coalition air strike during the fighting a month earlier. The sightless eyes stared skyward. The Kurds had covered the bodies lightly with sand before continuing south. These unrespected dead were a silent indication of the current direction of the war.
As of now, the Islamic State is remaining – but retreating.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.