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A month ago, ISIS’s advance looked unstoppable. Now it’s been stopped.

A Kurdish fighter poses next to a destroyed ISIS truck.
A Kurdish fighter poses next to a destroyed ISIS truck.
(Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Watching the news, you could be forgiven for thinking that ISIS is an unstoppable juggernaut, sweeping Iraq and Syria in an unending, unstoppable, terrible blitzkrieg.

But you'd be wrong. The truth is that ISIS's momentum is stalled: in both Iraq and Syria, the group is being beaten back at key points. There are initial signs — uncertain, sketchy, but hopeful — that the group is hurting more than you may think, and has stalled out in the war it was for so long winning. ISIS isn't close to being destroyed. But they are reeling.

ISIS's defeats in Iraq are more important than its gains

iraq situation ISW 10.28

(Institute for the Study of War)

In mid-October, ISIS advanced to within 16 miles of the Baghdad airport. Many observers (and many Iraqis), fearing an ISIS assault on Baghdad itself, understandably panicked. But to Michael Knights, the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the ISIS advance meant something else.

"The threat posed to Baghdad this autumn is emerging less because [ISIS] is winning the war in Iraq," he wrote in Politico Magazine, "and more because it might be slowly but steadily losing it."

To understand what Knights means, you have to understand the basic dynamic of the see-saw war between ISIS and the Iraqi government. The war has been bifurcated: while ISIS has been making big inroads in the western, heavily Sunni Anbar province, it's being pushed back in the other major battlefields around the country, including Rabia, a northwest border town linking ISIS's holdings in Iraq and Syria.

In late October, ISIS suffered a defeat in an even more crucial area. Iraqi government forces took Jurf al-Sakhar, a town (in the area labeled Northern Babil in the above map) that Knights describes as an ISIS stronghold. This was a real defeat. As Reuters put it, "the victory could allow Iraqi forces to prevent the Sunni insurgents from edging closer to the capital, sever connections to their strongholds in western Anbar province, and stop them infiltrating the mainly Shi'ite Muslim south."

The question, then, is whether ISIS's recent victories in Anbar have been more important than its defeats. That's not obvious. It's also not obvious that its advances in Anbar can be translated into victories elsewhere; the Anbar campaign owes a lot to the tactical acumen of one commander, the Chechen fighter Abu Umar al-Shishani.  "You have Shishani running wild in Anbar, employing very different tactics than ISIS is employing in the rest of Iraq and Syria," says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

The contrast makes ISIS's setbacks outside of Anbar look even more significant. Shishani doesn't control broader ISIS strategy, nor does he seem capable of turning it around even if he did run it. "In terms of their offensive operations, Anbar is going well," Gartenstein-Ross says. "Everywhere else, they appear to have hit their limitations."

ISIS's siege of Kobane has been a disaster

kurdish fighters in kobane

(Ahmet Sik/Getty Images)

Kurdish fighters in Kobane. (Ahmet Sik/Getty Images)

In Syria, ISIS isn't facing the same kind of concerted counter-offensive that it is in Iraq. But it's suffering from a self-inflicted wound: the stupid, counterproductive siege of Kobane, a Kurdish town in Syria on the border with Turkey.

For months, ISIS has been trying and failing to take Kobane. Its recent push, beginning on around September 16, looked likely to succeed. But Kurdish fighters, with heavy American support, have pushed ISIS back. Kobane could still fall, but the Kurdish resistance has shattered the perception of ISIS invincibility — a crucial element of its recruiting pitch.

"The [loss of] prestige in the jihadi movement could do a lot of damage to them," Garteinstein-Ross suggests. "ISIS can draw so many recruits because they're seen as the strong horse, because they're winning. [Kobane] shifts that perception."

Moreover, they've thrown a ton of manpower into Kobane. "They may have lost 4,000 fighters trying to take Kobane," Gartenstein-Ross says. He cautions that the 4,000 number is a spitball estimate; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that about 500 ISIS fighters have died since September 16. But there's been fighting over Kobane since August 2013.

The loss of prestige and of personnel compound one another. The more people ISIS loses, the more it needs new fighters. But the defeats make people less likely to volunteer. ISIS has already been conscripting local Syrians and Iraqis to fill its ranks; they may need to conscript even more to make up for the losses, and the involuntary fighters - some of them children - will likely be less effective than voluntary recruits.

Three reasons the war may soon get even worse for ISIS

airstrike kobane (Kutluhan Cucel/Getty Images)

An airstrike near Kobane. (Kutluhan Cucel/Getty Images)

There are at least three major causes of ISIS's recent defeats. Each gives us reason to believe that ISIS may only become more vulnerable as time goes on.

First, while American airstrikes are not going to defeat ISIS, they have seriously limited the group's ability to conduct offensive operations. "Airpower has made it difficult for ISIS to concentrate its forces in large numbers," Jason Lyall, a political scientist at Yale University and an expert on counterinsurgency, writes via email. "It has made it more dangerous to reposition its equipment and forces, slowing down its reaction times and complicating its command and control. As a result, ISIS is a far more dispersed force than it was in June."

The harder it is for ISIS to fight in the open, the harder it is for it to put together troop-intensive drives to conquer territory. If ISIS can't expand, it can only preserve what it has or retract.

Second, ISIS's enemies are adapting. ISIS "is a military power mostly because of the weakness and unpreparedness of its enemies," Knights writes in West Point's Sentinel journal. ISIS's advances depend on its ability to launch lightning-quick strikes against opponents that aren't ready for it. Iraqi and Kurdish forces, with American support, are finally learning how to counter these tactics.

Third, ISIS's so-called caliphate has hamstrung its military options. "When they declared the caliphate, their legitimacy came to rest on the continuing viability of their state," Gartenstein-Ross writes.

If ISIS didn't have to run the caliphate, its smart strategic move would be to melt into the surrounding populations, wait for Iraqi and Syrian troops to enter the area, and then fight them as an insurgency. But the obligations of running a caliphate means that the fighters need to stay visible and out in the open —leaving them exposed and vulnerable.

But don't count ISIS out yet

Kashmiri ISIS demonstrators

Kashmiri demonstrators hold up an ISIS flag during a demonstration against Israeli military operations in Gaza, in downtown Srinagar on July 18, 2014. (Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images)

These setbacks are significant, as is the group's slowing momentum. But to be clear, none of it specifically points to ISIS getting closer to collapsing. "On balance, ISIS is probably in a stronger position today than it was" in mid-July, Lyall writes. ISIS has consolidated control over its core strongholds, such as Mosul in Iraq and Raqaa in Syria.

"It would be a mistake to read too much into these local reversals" in Iraq, Lyall writes. "ISIS has proven adaptive, especially in moving its forces around on the battlefield and in coordinating multi-pronged offensives. A temporary setback in one area may only mean that ISIS is repositioning for a wider effort somewhere else."

Things like US air strikes are good for stalling ISIS's advance, but to be clear, they are not going to defeat the group. "Airpower alone is insufficient to defeat ISIS or even degrade it seriously," Lyall cautions. "Instead, its role is to make ISIS work harder to control and extend its territory while buying time for the Iraqi Army."

So it's best to see the recent ISIS setbacks as evidence that ISIS is vulnerable rather than as a harbinger of any looming collapse. The fact that is being rolled back in some areas indicates that the group can be budged, but the group's total defeat is unlikelyabsent a collapse in Sunni civilian support and more effective opposition in Syria.

"I don't think these latest losses are things that ISIS is incapable of recovering from," Gartenstein-Ross says. "There are always ebbs and flows in any war, and I expect there to be [ISIS] gains. But overall, they're a weaker organization than they were at the beginning of August."

Watch: Obama's 2014 evolution on ISIS, in under 3 minutes

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