MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Florida— -- The combination of American airstrikes and Iraqi and Kurdish military operations are beginning to undermine ISIS’s confidence on the battlefield but an Iraqi offensive to take back territory is a long way off, U.S. military officials believe.
It could be as long as a year before Iraq’s military is capable of launching a major offensive operation to retake Mosul and maybe just as long before a force of U.S. trained Syrian rebels can begin their own offensive operations against ISIS, the militant Islamic group also known as ISIL or the Islamic State.
Officials at U.S. Central Command told reporters Thursday that it’s still too soon to determine the strategic impacts in the fight against ISIS, but they are encouraged by improved Iraqi military operations and the resistance of Syrian Kurdish fighters in Kobani.
The officials said ISIS wants to maintain its freedom of movement across the non-existent border between Iraqi and Syria, so it has focused its operations on establishing two major west-to-east supply routes between Iraq and Syria. A southern route links eastern Syria with Fallujah in Iraq’s Anbar Province. The Iraqi Army has continued to fight ISIS to prevent them from establishing full control of the highway to Fallujah, but their operations have been limited in scope.
A second northern route for ISIS extends from northeastern Syria past the Mount Sinjar area and into the Iraqi city of Mosul. Kurdish Peshmerga forces have taken back the Mosul Dam from ISIS and checked the group’s offensives east of Mosul.
One U.S. official said the Iraqi Army currently has “an ability to conduct localized counterattacks” to contest ISIS advances in Iraq, but he would not say they are in the midst of a counteroffensive.
“We need to help the Iraqi Army take the counteroffensive and that’s going to require a more sustained effort,” the official said noting it will need U.S. help in rebuilding its intelligence-gathering, logistics and military planning efforts.
While the official predicted it might be a matter of months before a sustained counteroffensive could be launched he also said it could still be “months, maybe a year” before Iraqi security forces attempt to retake Mosul. The official said that before that Iraq’s security forces have to overcome the neglect in recent years to their intelligence gathering, logistics and military planning.
The officials said ISIS has stopped moving in large ground formations because doing so makes them vulnerable to targeting by airstrikes. That happened earlier this week when a dozen airstrikes helped repel an ISIS offensive against Kurdish forces at the Mosul Dam.
While ISIS continues to attack outside of Baghdad, one official said the tactical change also means ISIS can no longer mount a large scale threat to Baghdad.
Meanwhile ISIS has decided to make the battle for Kobani a focal point of their ground campaign in Syria. One official said ISIS had “double-downed" on their attempt to take over the city by continuing to send reinforcements to take over the city.
While cautioning that Kobani could still fall into the hands of ISIS, the officials said that possibility has lessened as Kurdish fighters have held on to the western part of the city during a weeks-long assault.
One of the officials speculated that the resistance by the Kurdish fighters has challenged ISIS’ narrative of “inevitable victory” that is heavily promoted online by the group’s “information campaign” to attract new followers and garner international support
The officials also provided reporters with new details on the formation of a force of 5,000 Syrian moderate opposition forces to be trained by the U.S. in Saudi Arabia.
The actual vetting of potential recruits is still months away and officials have said the first trained teams might not return to Syria until the late spring.
According to one official, the goal of the training program is to train units of 100 to 300 men who will initially provide “local defense” for their towns and villages, partly as a means of ending refugee flows.
But it could be quite some time before they morph into a force that could conduct offensive operations against ISIS. “We see this kind of as a long-term thing,” said the official. “It could be a year to 18 months, what have you, to be able to see an effect on the battlefield, we’re talking about an offensive effect.”
Another official suggested that if the American strategy’s initial focus to degrade ISIS inside Iraq is successful, the trained moderate Syrian rebels might be facing a different kind of ISIS when they return to Syria.
“They’re going to be looking at a lot less mobile ISIL, a lot less capable ISIL, a lot more hunkered down and possibly insurgent ISIL,” said the official.