At its height in late 2014 and early 2015, ISIS controlled vast swathes of land across Syria and Iraq, a territorial size that only eight other Arab states surpassed.
Yet in 2017 the scene has shifted: ISIS’ territory has been reduced to less than 5% of Iraq, from a highpoint of 40%. In Syria, the story is much the same, with the group reduced to less than 7% of the country’s territory, a percentage that is declining daily.
Moreover, the number of the group’s former “Wilayat” or “Provinces” have decreased. Formerly naming four provinces in Iraq (Kirkuk, Nineveh, Anbar, and northern Baghdad) and four in Syria (Homs, Deir ez-Zour, Raqqa and Aleppo), the group only retains a significant presence in Anbar and Deir ez-Zour, and the so-called 9th province of Albu Kamal & al-Qa’im on the border between Iraq and Syria.
But how did ISIS lose so much territory so quickly? In 2017 and 2016, ISIS militants lost battle after battle. Yet, onlookers see the battle for Kobani, known in Arabic as Ain al-Arab, as the origin of the group’s demise.
Located in northern Syria on the border with Turkey, ISIS had taken hundreds of towns and villages south of Kobani throughout the course of 2014 eventually besieging and reaching the gates of the city by the end of September 2014. In response, International Coalition forces, in conjunction with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), eventually began launching a counter-offensive to push back the militants.
After a brutal four months, the YPG announced at the end of January that they had pushed ISIS away from the city, and by April 2015, the Kobani canton had been completely clear of militants.
For the anti-ISIS forces in the region, ISIS’ defeat in Kobani was an indication that they could be defeated, contravening the hype that surrounded the group at the time. Further defeats continued as the YPG pushed east of Kobani, taking the towns of Tal Abyad and Ain Issa, the latter which would be the springboard for assaults on Raqqa in 2017.
But 2017 has arguably been the most damaging for ISIS. The group has lost its Iraqi and Syrian centres of Mosul and Raqqa, and is on the cusp of losing Deir ez-Zour in Syria. Moreover, the group’s presence in Iraq is on the cusp of being wiped out.
But for many observers, the question now remains where will ISIS go? Some believe the group and its militants will return underground, acting as an insurgency movement much like its former iteration al-Qaeda in Iraq did in 2008. While others believe areas such as the Anbar or Syrian deserts, or even further afield in Libya or Afghanistan will be the next place for militants to continue to feed off. Yet, what remains clear for now is the rapid demise, at least militarily, of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.