“I don’t think they’re gaining strength. What is true is that from the start, our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them. They have not gained ground in Iraq. And in Syria they’ll come in, they’ll leave.”
Barack Obama, 12 November 2015
The US president has been criticised by Republican rivals for not taking the threat of the so-called Islamic State group seriously enough.
A day before the terror group struck in Paris, Barack Obama said the US-led coalition had succeeded in “containing” IS – words that were flung at him by political opponents after the full scale of Friday’s atrocity became clear.
The US fact-checking site PolitiFact has already shown that Mr Obama’s critics were unfair to try to use the phrase “we have contained them” against him.
It’s clear from the context of the interview with broadcaster ABC that he was specifically talking about the spread of IS in Iraq and Syria – not its abilities to carry out terror attacks overseas.
But is the US president right to say that IS – also commonly known as Isis, Isil and Daesh – is being contained in its Middle Eastern heartlands?
The fluid nature of the fighting in Iraq and Syria makes it hard to get an angle on whether IS is winning or losing the fight to defend its self-styled Islamic Caliphate against multiple enemies including the Iraqi and Syrian regimes, Kurdish forces and foreign opponents including the US, Britain, France, Gulf Arab states, Turkey, Iran and Russia.
The picture can change quickly and there have been multiple reverses of fortune for almost all sides in the conflict.
But there is evidence from several sources that IS has been losing its grip on some of the territory it won in a series of lightning land-grabs in 2014.
In May and June, IS took the Iraqi cities of Ramadi, Tikrit and Mosul, Iraq’s second city. By September they were reported to be within a few miles of the Iraqi capital Baghdad.
In a major offensive in August the jihadis took Sinjar and the Mosul Dam, and by October they had swept through parts of northern Syria, cornering local Kurdish forces in the town of Kobani, right on the border with Nato member Turkey.
But the group’s attempts to take Kobani failed, with IS taking heavy casualties, and 2015 has seen the group suffer a string of setbacks, offset by some territorial gains.
The defence publication IHS Jane’s 360 calculated that IS lost just under 10 per cent of territory it had previously controlled in Iraq and Syria between 1 January and 29 June 2015.
Most notably, after breaking the IS siege of Kobani, Syrian Kurds made a serious of strategic gains, retaking territory close to the Turkish border and advancing to within about 30 miles of Raqqa, IS’s main stronghold in Syria.
These and other IS losses cancelled out some of the widely-reported gains the group made during the same period, including the capture of Palmyra in western Syria in May, where they destroyed ancient archaeological sites.
IHS Jane’s calculated that the net total territory controlled by IS fell from 91,531 to 82,940 square kilometres – an area slightly bigger than Scotland – between January and June this year.
Using a different timescale, the US Department of Defense estimated IS land losses between August 2014 and 2015, calculating that the group had seen its control over populated areas of Syria and Iraq fall by 20 to 25 per cent in that time (green=IS territorial loss):
Since this map was produced, IS has suffered more losses in around Baiji, Kirkuk, Ramadi, Sinjar and elsewhere.
In a Guardian article this week, Michael Clarke, director of the British defence think-tank Rusi, said various forces had “pushed Isis back to just over half the territory they occupied at the high watermark of their advances last year”.
IS’s de facto capital Raqqa has been under continual bombardment from the US-led coalition and, more recently, Russia and France.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has said that at least 33 IS fighters died in air strikes in Raqqa this week. Activists said senior IS members had begun to move their families away from Raqqa to Mosul in northern Iraq because of the bombing campaign.
Analysts anticipate an operation to push IS out of Mosul – a city of more than 2 million people before the fighting – in the near future.
Last week the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, announced the liberation of Sinjar from IS and said the victory “will have a big impact on liberating Mosul too”.
In Syria, Russia’s opponents have accused of Moscow of attacking more moderate opponents of its ally, the Assad regime, rather than IS.
But that could change with President Vladimir Putin’s vow to punish the perpetrators of the Sinai plane bombing.
The Institute for the Study of War recently noted an “apparent shift in the Russian air campaign to expand the targeting of ISIS forces, threatening core regime terrain as well as ISIS-held positions in eastern Syria more broadly”.
The exact number of casualties suffered by IS is impossible to know.
Last month, a US government source put the number of IS fighters killed by the coalition bombing campaign alone at 20,000, but said that the group’s strength remained at around 20,000 to 30,000 as new recruits from overseas replenish the ranks.
The US casualty claims cannot be independently verified.
In April this year SOHR said more than 65,000 Syrian and foreign fighters from rebel and Islamic groups had died since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, but it could not say how many were loyal to IS. And these figures could be grossly understated, it admitted.
It’s possible that the US is underestimating IS’s total strength, with others putting the size of the jihadi army at 200,000, ten times the lower estimate favoured by the Americans.
IS has reported lost a number of high-level personnel to drone strikes in various countries, including Hafiz Saeed, leader of the affiliate in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Libyan chief Abu Nabil, Tunisian Tariq al-Harzi and possible deputy leader Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali.
If anything, President Obama may have been over-cautious in his assessment of the fight against IS. Many analysts agree that the group is losing ground on multiple fronts.
But it has shown itself capable of regrouping and counter-attacking successfully in the past. And recent situation reports suggest IS still controls considerable swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.
The Institute for the Study of War calls the group “an adaptive and resilient enemy” and warns that it will continue to expand its operations worldwide as well as holding on to its so-called “caliphate”.
Michael Clarke of Rusi and Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center have both warned that the Kurdish forces who have shown themselves to be an effective counterweight to IS may be reluctant to expand operations outside northern Kurdish areas.
Nevertheless, it remains possible to read the terror attacks on Paris and elsewhere as a sign of desperation rather than strength.
IHS Jane’s made the point in June that IS made increasing use of suicide bombers as its regular forces lost territory in the first half of this year.