The Cable

Mapped: The Islamic State Isn’t Doing as Well as You Think

The terrorist group dominated headlines in 2015, but a string of battlefield defeats has cost the group 14 percent of the territory it used to control in Iraq and Syria.

TOPSHOT - A member of Iraqi pro-government forces stands amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in the Hoz neighbourhood in central Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, about 110 kilometers west of Baghdad, on December 27, 2015 during military operations conducted by Iraqi pro-government forces against the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group. Jihadist fighters abandoned their last stronghold in Ramadi today, bringing Iraqi federal forces within sight of their biggest victory since last year's massive offensive by the Islamic State group. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE        (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A member of Iraqi pro-government forces stands amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in the Hoz neighbourhood in central Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, about 110 kilometers west of Baghdad, on December 27, 2015 during military operations conducted by Iraqi pro-government forces against the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group. Jihadist fighters abandoned their last stronghold in Ramadi today, bringing Iraqi federal forces within sight of their biggest victory since last year's massive offensive by the Islamic State group. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

The Islamic State began 2015 in control of vast swaths of Syria and Iraq and at one point this summer controlled three of Iraq’s biggest cities. The terrorist group ends the year in far worse shape, with a U.S.-led air campaign hammering its fighters from the skies while Iraqi soldiers, Iranian paramilitary operatives, Shiite militias, Syrian rebels, and Kurdish Peshmerga battle them on the ground.

The map below shows where the Islamic State stands at year’s end. In Syria, the militant group managed to seize Palmyra in May but elsewhere has been forced to give up a sizable stretch of land along the Turkish border in the face of a concerted push by Kurdish fighters backed up by U.S.-led air power. And in Iraq, Baghdad’s slow-moving army has managed to score three significant victories, dislodging the Islamic State from Tikrit in March and Baiji in October, and this week wresting control of the pivotal western city of Ramadi back from the militants.

The fight for Ramadi is notable not just for the retaking of the city, but for how the Iraqi government did it. Baghdad managed to keep the powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias out of the fight, thereby removing a major point of friction with the local Sunni populace. That, combined with the use of well-trained troops backed by overwhelming American air power, will likely prove to be a model in the coming fights for Fallujah and Mosul.

Overall, a recent analysis by IHS Inc. calculates that during the course of 2015, the Islamic State lost 14 percent of the territory it controlled at the start of the year, while the Iraqi government increased its share by 6 percent and the Iraqi Kurds by 2 percent. The situation looks much different on the other side of the border, however, where the Syrian Kurds have emerged as the big winner, increasing their share of territory by 186 percent.

 

Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

C.K. Hickey is Foreign Policy’s resident interactives and features designer, but you can call him CSS Wizard for short. A film studies major from Los Angeles, C.K. flirted with television as an FX Networks production intern until technology and journalism wooed him away. Prior to FP, he honed his writing and coding skills at Salon, Current TV, KQED, and the Virginian-Pilot. C.K.’s interactive documentary, The Town: Reckoning at Mammoth Lakes, won a Digital Storymakers Award from the Atavist in 2013, and he won four Virginia Press Association awards for features he produced at the Pilot. C.K. has worked at FP since 2015. When not developing projects like Global Thinkers, he’s probably cooking, playing his piano, hiking, or watching old movies. @seekayhickey

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