October 28, 2014 | Quote

A Month Ago, ISIS’s Advance Looked Unstoppable. Now It’s Been Stopped.

The question, then, is whether ISIS's recent victories in Anbar have been more important than its defeats. That's not obvious. It's also not obvious that its advances in Anbar can be translated into victories elsewhere; the Anbar campaign owes a lot to the tactical acumen of one commander, the Chechen fighter Abu Umar al-Shishani. “You have Shishani running wild in Anbar, employing very different tactics than ISIS is employing in the rest of Iraq and Syria,” says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

The contrast makes ISIS's setbacks outside of Anbar look even more significant. Shishani doesn't control broader ISIS strategy, nor does he seem capable of turning it around even if he did run it. “In terms of their offensive operations, Anbar is going well,” Gartenstein-Ross says. “Everywhere else, they appear to have hit their limitations.”

“The [loss of] prestige in the jihadi movement could do a lot of damage to them,” Garteinstein-Ross suggests. “ISIS can draw so many recruits because they're seen as the strong horse, because they're winning. [Kobane] shifts that perception.”

Moreover, they've thrown a ton of manpower into Kobane. “They may have lost 4,000 fighters trying to take Kobane,” Gartenstein-Ross says. He cautions that the 4,000 number is a spitball estimate; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that about 500 ISIS fighters have died since September 16. But there's been fighting over Kobane since August 2013.

Third, ISIS's so-called caliphate has hamstrung its military options. “When they declared the caliphate, their legitimacy came to rest on the continuing viability of their state,” Gartenstein-Ross writes.

“I don't think these latest losses are things that ISIS is incapable of recovering from,” Gartenstein-Ross says. “There are always ebbs and flows in any war, and I expect there to be [ISIS] gains. But overall, they're a weaker organization than they were at the beginning of August.”

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