“The Islamic State has now shifted to guerrilla operations, increasing the likelihood that it will continue to operate in eastern Syria and western Iraq for years,” said Seth G. Jones, the director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
American and Western intelligence and counterterrorism officials also say the Islamic State’s defeat on the ground in Syria and Iraq, and a growing shadow war against the group’s branches in West Africa to Afghanistan, has failed to stifle its ability to mobilize a potent global following through social media.
“ISIS’s online messaging has multiple themes, and if battlefield losses force the group to shift away from messages emphasizing the holding of territory, the group can pivot toward its claim to victimhood,” Joshua A. Geltzer, a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council in the Obama administration, said in congressional testimony last week, using a common name for the Islamic State.
Since the fall of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital, late last year, allied warplanes have relied mainly on Syrian Kurdish militia to kill remaining insurgents, flush them out of their hide-outs and fortified fighting positions, or pinpoint their locations. That served up targets for allied fighter-bombers. But those militia fighters and their commanders started leaving eastern Syria in late January to defend other Kurds, in the country’s northwest, against Turkish attacks.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces were the mainstay in routing the Islamic State from Raqqa and chasing insurgents fleeing south along the Euphrates River Valley to the Iraqi border. Without them, the remaining, less capable Syrian Arab militias struggled to contain the few hundred fighters that were left in two main pockets.