IS suffers 'devastating' blows but biggest fighting still ahead

IS suffers 'devastating' blows but biggest fighting still ahead
Iraqi Sunni fighters from the Jubur tribe celebrate after defeating Islamic State group (IS) in the village of Sharween in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, on January 27, 2015. Iraqi forces have "liberated" the province from IS group, retaking all populated areas of the eastern region, a top army officer said on January 26, 2015.

BAGHDAD - The Islamic State group has suffered "devastating" blows in Syria's Kobani and on several Iraqi fronts, but analysts warn such victories in the fight against the jihadists cannot be replicated everywhere.

Kurdish fighters backed by US-led airstrikes this week ousted IS from most of Kobani, after a four-month battle whose symbolic importance had far outgrown the small Syrian town's military value.

Simultaneously, Iraqi forces flushed the jihadists out of their last urban bastion in the eastern province of Diyala, further shrinking the borders of their self-proclaimed "caliphate".

"Kobani shows that intense air strikes concentrated in a small space can succeed in containing IS," said Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum.

"The air strikes were devastating. IS lost a lot of people in Kobane and they're not even trying to spin it," said Patrick Skinner, an analyst with the Soufan Group intelligence consultancy.

In a rare audio message released on Monday, IS spokesman and top leader Abu Mohamed al-Adnani made no reference to Kobani, which both sides had made the nexus of their military efforts.

According to observers, the jihadists lost around 1,200 fighters in the battle of Kobani and some US officials have said that American-led airstrikes killed 6,000 jihadists since the air war started in August.

Over the past month, Iraqi Kurdish forces have also scored significant victories, cutting the group's main supply lines between their hub of Mosul and the Syrian border.

While the noose is tightening on Iraq's second city - IS' largest urban stronghold - the capital Baghdad is breathing more comfortably following the "liberation" of Diyala province.

"The group has definitely lost momentum. That goes against (the) notion of continual expansion" it is trying to project, Tamimi said.

"Generally, IS is either losing territory, not making advances at all, or having to recover territory," as is the case in the strategic Iraqi town of Baiji, which the jihadists lost in November.

'Strongholds still intact'

Compounding IS' woes is the resurgence of its jihadist rival in Syria, the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

"IS has been under such concentrated pressure - they're really having some bad times - while Jabhat al-Nusra has been under the radar," Skinner said.

He said Al-Qaeda had been successfully coopting other rebel outfits and positioning itself to become the most influential group whenever the "moderate" forces being trained by the West are launched into the fray.

However, while Western aerial might played a crucial part, recent victories for anti-IS forces were achieved in areas where the ground offensive was spearheaded by homegrown troops.

In Kobani, the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) did the grunt work, in northern Iraq the Kurdish peshmerga are leading the way and in Diyala Iran-backed Shiite groups were omnipresent.

"IS control over its most important strongholds in Syria and Iraq remains intact and there is a lack of a local military force to challenge IS in places like Mosul," Tamimi said.

The United States and other powers are training the Iraqi army, and Sunni groups opposed to IS are preparing for battle, but analysts said the process required more time.

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