At the multinational conference on Iraq held in London on 22 January 2015, the United States secretary of state John Kerry was able to claim that the tide was turning in the war against Islamic State. The evidence cited includes well over 2,000 airstrikes since August 2014, Iraqi army ground incursions backed by coalition support, more than 700 km sq of territory retaken, thousands of Islamic State fighters killed, hundreds of military vehicles destroyed, and half of Islamic State’s top military commanders “eliminated”.
If what Kerry says is accurate, then Islamic State must be facing serious problems. The narrative is supported by reports that the Iraqi army is planning an assault later this year to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city which lies at the core of Islamic State’s rapid expansion in June 2014. Moreover, Kurdish sources claim that their peshmerga forces are now in control of the fiercely contested town of Kobane in northern Syria.
If the claim about the Islamic State military commanders is accurate that would be the biggest blow so far to the movement. Many of these men are Iraqi and they are among the most experienced paramilitary fighters to be found anywhere in the world. Many survived the long and bitter shadow war fought with United States and British special forces in central Iraq from 2004-07, especially Operation Arcadia in 2006; some are also veterans of the action that killed Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, the then leader of al-Qaida in Iraq - the antecedent of Islamic State - in June 2006.
On all these counts, then, the west's campaign seems to be making serious progress - quite a change from the gloomy predictions in the last months of 2014. The problem is that appearances may deceive. At least, there are indications of very different dynamics at work.
Between the lines
It is not just the repeated indications of a surge in recruits to Islamic State from abroad, reportedly running at around 1,000 a month to add to close to 20,000 already there. The numbers from western states may be in the very low hundreds, but a range of countries across the Middle East and north Africa - not least Morocco, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia - remain a significant source of new operatives, There are also clear signals that some western ground-troops are already becoming involved in direct combat with Islamic State.
Defense News reports in recent days that Canadian special forces operating with Iraqi and Kurdish forces in north-east Iraq close to Islamic State positions came under mortar and machine-gun attack, with Canadian snipers responding. They were part of a group of sixty-nine that has also been involved in target-designation for coalition aircraft, illuminating the targets with lasers. Defense News commented aptly that it was "a surprising bit of openness about a mission often clouded in secrecy”. It is certainly the case that United States, British and Australian military sources have been far more cautious about the activities of their own special forces - all known to be operating in Iraq, and some quite possibly in Syria as well.
Since then, there have been other Canadian special-force contacts with Islamic State fighters. Military Times reports this from a widely circulated Associated Press wire, adding an almost poetic gloss: “Canadian special forces in northern Iraq have engaged in two more firefights against Islamic State group militants, but Canada’s government denies they’re involved in combat”. On its own this is a reasonably clear indication of mission-creep - the one remaining issue being to define when “combat” is “not combat”, with that distinction apparently the responsibility of government not media.
A revealing reverse
There is, however, a far more striking illustration of this "war of new connections". This relates to Britain's involvement and a decision that has been almost entirely missed by the country's media.
The defence secretary Michael Fallon announced in December 2014 that Britain was going to commit hundreds of troops to a new mission to help retrain the Iraqi army. A battalion-sized group involving around 200 trainers supported by a strong protection force of a broadly similar size, this “heavy” force was scheduled for deployment in January 2015.
The current edition of Jane’s Defence Weekly, the authoritative defence publication, says that the entire plan has been put on hold. The troops will not, after all, be sent in the foreseeable future. The core reason is most indicative both of domestic priorities and of the real state of affairs in Syria-Iraq.
The decision, reports Jane’s, was taken at a meeting of the UK's national-security council (NSC) on 16 December 2014, chaired by prime minister David Cameron. “According to senior defence sources in London, fears that UK troops could be killed or taken hostage in the run-up to the UK general election in May were behind the rejection of the plans” (see Tim Ripley, "UK puts training Iraq mission on hold", Jane's Defence Weekly, 19 January 2015).
The political calculation is all too obvious. For a government facing a tight election and a public expressing strong opposition to further British involvement in wars in the Middle East, the prospect of video of captured soldiers in orange jump-suits prior to execution by beheading was too difficult to contemplate.
This kind of development helps explain why it is hard to assess the true course of the war against Islamic State. All that can be said is that some accounts of what is happening simply do not gel with the optimistic statements from John Kerry. Islamic State may have experienced some recent reversals, but that it is anywhere near defeat seems highly unlikely.