June 26, 2015 | Quote

Vulnerabilities Exposed, Islamic State is Evolving Again

PENTAGON – Once bent on advancing at all costs to establish its self-declared caliphate, the terror group known as the Islamic State has increasingly been willing to cede territory in battles with Kurdish forces and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias, raising questions about how and where it would draw its line in the sand and fight unconditionally.

On the surface, IS appears to be losing momentum. U.S. defense officials say its recent losses in northern Syria – specifically in Tal Abyad, a key hub for foreign fighters and supplies – were a serious blow.

Yet there is also a sense that, even as the Islamic State’s forces appear to be on the run, the group is operating with a new pragmatism or sophistication that ultimately could make it even more difficult to defeat.

The intelligence official cautioned some setbacks for the Islamic State could be attributed to commanders deciding to cut their losses and fight another day, and warned against confusing the appearance of vulnerability with definite weakness.

Such a disciplined battlefield strategy would represent a significant change from earlier this year, when U.S. military officials estimate the Islamic State lost more than 1,000 fighters to airstrikes alone in a failed attempted to hold the Syrian border town of Kobani.

“In the past their strategy tended to be [that] they wouldn’t retreat, only advance. That’s why they poured way more resources into taking Kobani than was wise,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It seems like they’re doing less of that. They’re doing less of refusing to cede an inch.”

The reasons for the change are not clear. Some analysts attribute it to a shift in leadership, with second-in-command Abu Alaa al-Afri having more sway following reports airstrikes injured or incapacitated Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Others say it is simply more evidence of the Islamic State’s ability to learn and adapt.

Either way, Gartenstein-Ross believes the shift in battlefield doctrine should not be ignored.

“They may be fighting more effectively as an organization from a strategic perspective,” he said.

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