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IS in Syria under strain but far from collapse

There's a long way to go before the tide turns decisively against the group in Syria

A screengrab taken from a video released on 1 July 2014, allegedly shows members of the IS (Islamic State) parading on top of a tank on a street in the northern rebel-held Syrian city of Raqqa. Picture: YouTube.

SYRIA - Islamic State's defeat in Kobani and other recent setbacks in Syria suggest the group is under strain but far from collapse in the Syrian half of its self-declared caliphate.

Islamic State's high-profile defeat by Kurdish militia backed by US-led air strikes capped a four-month battle that cost Islamic State 2,000 of its fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the war.

Further from the spotlight, Islamic State has also lost ground to Syrian government and Syrian Kurdish forces elsewhere. Its foes have noted unusual signs of disorganisation in its ranks, while reports of forced conscription may indicate a manpower problem as the group wages war in both Syria and Iraq.

There is a long way to go before the tide turns decisively against the group in Syria, where it has faced less military pressure than in Iraq. Islamic State still has a firm grip over its Syrian stronghold in Raqqa province and territory stretching all the way to the other half of its caliphate in Iraq.

The group faces no serious challenge to its rule over those Sunni Arab areas, where it has violently crushed all opposition.

It may yet respond to the Kobani defeat by opening new fronts in Syria. And its capacity to wage psychological warfare was amply demonstrated by this week's video showing the group burning to death a captive Jordanian pilot.

Yet the Kobani defeat marks the first significant setback for Islamic State (Isil) in Syria since the rapid expansion of its territorial grip there last year following its capture of Iraqi city of Mosul in June.

Islamic State had paid "a very heavy price in Kobani", said Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gilleran, a US military officer and media official in the US-led alliance against Islamic State.

"Outside of Kobani, there are admittedly many areas in Syria where Isil is uncontested by opposing ground forces. However, there are multiple areas as well where they are indeed under pressure by Syrian Regime Forces, Kurdish elements, and other opposition groups within Syria," he told Reuters.

DEFENSIVE POSITIONS

Beyond Kobani, Islamic State recently lost territory to Syrian government forces in an important battle near an air base in Deir al-Zor province, the Observatory reported.

It also lost ground to government and Kurdish forces in the northeastern Hasaka region, a province bordering Iraq, according to the Observatory and a Kurdish official.

Furthermore, the collapse of oil prices is thought to be straining the group's finances.

In Hasaka, the jihadists are hunkering down in defensive positions and their attacks in the area over the past month have been unusually disorganised, said Kurdish official Nasir Haj Mansour of the Kurdish defence authority in the northeast.

"This doesn't mean it lost all of its strength. But it is not at the same level of ferocity as before," he said, speaking via Skype from the area.

The group had deployed its full arsenal in the Kobani battle, including suicide bombers in armoured personnel carriers, according to the Observatory. US air support and Iraqi peshmerga Kurdish fighters were crucial in helping the Kurdish YPG militia win back the town.

Kobani was of little strategic significance. But the battle - reported extensively by international media from the adjacent Turkish border - became a focal point for the fight in Syria.

Two Islamic State fighters reached via Skype said the group's withdrawal from Kobani was tactical.

The group has been under greater pressure in Iraq, where it still holds Mosul and much of Anbar province but heavily armed peshmerga have regained considerable ground elsewhere.

One of the fighters said recent attacks in Egypt showed it was broadening its reach.

"Some units of the Islamic State army move from Syria to Iraq and vice versa," said the fighter, who was speaking from Raqqa and did not give his name in a Skype interview.

The US-led air campaign has struck Islamic State fighters and equipment moving from Syria to Iraq as well as targets in Hasaka and elsewhere. But it is widely acknowledged that it will take ground forces to roll back Islamic State.

In Deir al-Zor province, which links Raqqa to Iraq, the group's grip has tightened, said one rebel leader whose mainstream group operated in the area before Islamic State expelled it.

Yet pockets of resistance have emerged, with small groups staging ambush-style attacks against its fighters.

The government still controls a major air base. Its forces, backed by allied militia, recently took ground from Islamic State around the base.

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