IS is loosing control, slowly

IS is loosing control, slowly

The Syrian government’s wresting control over the ancient city of Palmyra from the grip of the Islamic State (IS) group is reason for cautious optimism. It confirms the terror group’s declining capacity to hold on to the territory. It has been losing land steadily in recent months; it controls just 40% and 20% of the land it held in Iraq and Syria respectively, when it was at its peak in 2014. In Iraq, the government forces have driven out the IS from the key city of Ramadi and could recapture Mosul soon. It was in May last year that the IS captured Palmyra. The Syrian city is a virtual treasure trove of artefacts, temples and palaces representing a civilisation that goes back several millennia. Millions across the world watched in horror as IS fighters systematically destroyed the city, blowing up statues as they represented idolatry or dismantling monuments to sell them in the international black market for antiques. Fierce fighting between government forces and IS fighters over the past fortnight – Palmyra has immense strategic value as well as it is located just 130 km from the Syrian capital, Damascus – has reduced large parts of this Unesco heritage city to rubble. The city must be defended against the IS’ efforts to recapture it.

The decline of the IS has been attributed to Russia’s intervention in the Syrian war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad. Prior to the Russian intervention, analysts were predicting the fall of Assad’s regime; in the first 8 months of 2015, his government had lost 18% of Syrian territory to the IS and opposition forces. A coalition including Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, which backed Assad played an important role in driving back the IS.

While the IS’ loss of Palmyra marks a milestone in the campaign to defeat the terror group, it is too early to celebrate as it continues to have powerful backers in the international community. Also, while the IS’ control of territory is on the decline, its capacity to terrorise civilian populations remains intact. As its strength to hold territory in Iraq and Syria declines, it can be expected to unleash spectacular violence – the reported crucifixion of an Indian priest abducted in Yemen and the bombings in Brussels are examples – on civilians elsewhere. Such attacks are aimed at deflecting attention away from its territorial losses. The IS’ decline is heartening but it is still a long way from being defeated. Governments must join hands against it.

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