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— As the Islamic State group tries to expand and take root across the Middle East, it is struggling in Syria — part of its heartland — where it has stalled or even lost ground while fighting multiple enemies on several fronts.

Signs of tension and power struggles are emerging among the ranks of its foreign fighters.

The extremists remain a formidable force, and the group’s hold on about a third of Iraq and Syria remains firm. But it appears to be on the defensive in Syria for the first time since it swept through the territory last year and is suffering from months of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and the myriad factions fighting it on the ground.

“They are struggling with new challenges that did not exist before,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Kurdish forces dealt the Islamic State its heaviest setback by driving it from the border town of Kobani in northern Syria last month. Since then, those forces have joined with moderate Syrian rebels to take back about 215 villages in the same area, according to Kurdish commanders and activists, including the Britain-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The gains have strained supply lines between the Islamic State group’s westernmost strongholds in Aleppo province from its core territory in eastern Syria. The Kurdish-rebel forces are now expected to take the fight to some of those strongholds, particularly the large towns of Minbij and Jarablus, as well as Tal Abyad, a border crossing with Turkey that is a major avenue for commerce for the extremists.

Around the town of al-Bab, one of the Islamic State group’s westernmost strongholds, the extremists are making tactical withdrawals. Residents have noted a thinner militant presence in al-Bab.

The militants are also finding themselves bogged down in costly battles with the government forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The extremist group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has been stuck in fierce fighting with the Syrian army near the Deir el-Zour air base, the last major Syrian military stronghold in the eastern province. Islamic State launched an unsuccessful attack to seize the base last month, and it continues to try.

It is too early to call the shifts a turning point, but they represent the slow grind of the international campaign against the Islamic State group, which long seemed unconquerable as it seized territory stretching from outside the city of Aleppo in northern Syria’s at one end to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad at the other.

In Iraq, the combination of coalition airstrikes, Kurdish forces, Shiite militias and Iraqi troops have pushed IS back around the edges, but the militants succeeded this week in taking new territory for the first time in months.

But it was in the Syrian town of Kobani that the Islamic State suffered its worst single loss — more than 1,000 militants killed — and much of its heavy weaponry and vehicles destroyed. The January defeat followed five months of fighting by mostly Kurdish ground forces and coalition airstrikes that left about 70 percent of the town in ruins and sent tens of thousands of its residents fleeing over the nearby border into Turkey.

After the loss of Kobani, signs of fissures within the Islamic State group have emerged.

Bari Abdellatif, a resident of al-Bab who also has fled to Turkey, said friction between Chechen and Uzbek militants recently led to clashes between the two that ended only with the intervention of Omar al-Shishani, a prominent Chechen Islamic State commander.

Mission begins April, May

The operation to retake Iraq’s second largest city from Islamic State militants will likely begin in April or May and will involve about 12 Iraqi brigades, or between 20,000 and 25,000 troops, a senior U.S. military official said Thursday.

Laying out details of the expected Mosul operation for the first time, the official from U.S. Central Command said five Iraqi Army brigades will soon go through coalition training in Iraq to prepare for the mission. Those five would make up the core fighting force that would launch the attack, but they would be supplemented by three smaller brigades serving as reserve forces, along with three Peshmerga brigades who would contain the Islamic State fighters from the north and west.

The Peshmerga are Kurdish forces from northern Iraq.

Source: Associated Press

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