The expansion of ISIS in Iraq and Syria seems to have reached a turning point in the past 24 hours. In Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in coalition with the Popular Mobilisation Unit (PMU) took back the Iraqi city of Ramadi, which was just one hour from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
Lost in May 2015, ISF troops along with U.S. air support have besieged the city for the past two months, but were only able to enter the city in the past 24 hours routing the 500 or so ISIS fighters that controlled the city.
On the Syrian side of the Islamic State’s territory, the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) in coalition with the moderate FSA and the Kurdish YPG have captured a large swathe of territory south of Kobani, including the strategic Euphrates River crossing point of Tishrin Dam.
This means that ISIS control over Syrian territories west of the Euphrates is now under threat, and there are indeed reports that towns on that side have already fallen.
All of this would not have been possible without the significant actions of the Kurdish minorities in Syria and Iraq who form the largest component of the SDF and ISF infantry.
The Kurds on top
According to military think tank IHS Janes, in a recent study the Islamic State has lost approximately 14 percent of its territory in Iraq and Syria, with its territory shrinking from 34,749 mile² (90,000 km²) to 30,116 mile² (78,000 km²) in the past year. Of that territory, 4,942 mile² (12,800 km²) has returned to the hands of the Kurds of Iraq and Syria.
Rudaw.net, a Kurdish news site, stated that in the past year alone the Kurdish autonomous forces have been able to triple the size of their fledgling autonomous territory since they broke the siege on Kobani, and thanks to their actions ISIS has also suffered financial difficulties.
According to IHS Janes senior Middle East analyst Columb Strack, there has been “a negative financial impact on Islamic State (ISIS) due to the loss of control of the Tal Abyad border crossing prior to the recent intensification of air strikes against the group’s oil production capability.”
This financial loss will now be compounded with the return of Tishrin Dam to the SDF. But ISIS may have already reached its limits; Janes also noted that its gains in Iraq came at the expense of the Kurdish territories, as it reportedly pulled fighters from one area to the other indicating it was overstretched.
The biggest threat to the defeat of ISIS at present is Turkey. Turkey has allowed their border to be somewhat permeable to ISIS supporters, and since it views the Kurdish YPG, who make up the bulk of the SDF, as aligned with a Turkish terrorist group called the PKK, this is unsurprising.
Some theorists have speculated that Turkey is utilising the war against ISIS to try and hinder the development of an autonomous Kurdish area on their border. Supporting this theory was the turkish bombings of areas near the Kurdish town of Zargala, in August 2015.
The Turkish PM Davutoğlu has also said that Turkey will not allow any “hostile groups” to cross the Euphrates, something which appears to be a thinly veiled threat against the YPG and SDF.
However, Turkey has yet to close their borders or create a buffer zone towards Syria and Iraq. This may be a good sign as a hostile Turkey determined to hinder the Kurdish Syrian forces is not a positive outcome for the war against ISIS.
Dr. Victoria Kelly-Clark received her doctorate in political science and international relations from the Australian National University. She has lived in Central Asia and specializes in Russia and its former Soviet territories. For more information, go to Central Asia and Beyond.