Losing battles isn't ISIL's only problem. They're also losing momentum, revenue, and a lot of disenchanted recruits are going AWOL even though this, too, is a capital offense. Of course, under ISIL almost everything is a capital offense. I heard on the radio today that they even executed a couple dozen young boys merely for watching a soccer game. ISIL's ambassadors are certainly doing very little to make Sharia law attractive to any civilized individual.
Strategy Page has an interesting account of the tribulations ISIS is suffering and also inflicting on their fellow Muslims. Here are some excerpts:
ISIL is the most ruthless of dozens of rebel coalitions (or the government forces) involved [in the Syrian civil war]. Moreover ISIL territorial gains have mainly been thinly populated desert in the west or depopulated (by years of fighting) areas in the north and central Syria. When it comes to actually controlling population ISIL is at a big disadvantage. The degree of savagery practiced by ISIL, especially against unarmed civilians who do not cooperate has made ISIL the group people are most likely to flee.There's more at the link. An army of evil, savage men can do a lot of harm and create a lot of terror, but eventually it begins to eat its own and when it does it's doomed. ISIS in Iraq will require a trained Iraqi army to root it out and kill it, but that'll eventually happen, maybe as early as this spring or summer. What it's fate will be in Syria where there is no competent army to confront it is a different matter, but in any case it seems that it's no longer the juggernaut it was a few months ago and its power is waning.
Most other rebels and the Assads offer civilians benefits (economic and personal security) if they stick around. Not so ISIL which treats civilians like farm animals to be exploited and, if they are troublesome, killed. ISIL is the classic example of why Islamic radicalism has failed in reality (but never in theory or in the sermons of hard core clerics) for over a thousand years. The only benefit of this nightmare is that ISIL’s actions have united the Islamic world like nothing else for a long time. Conservative and more secular Islamic leaders are all condemning ISIL and some are even asking that something be done within the Islamic world to kill this endemic support for extremism once and for all. That last development is long overdue.
The air strikes against ISIL have been most effective at hitting economic targets. ISIL has been trying to establish an “Islamic State” in the thinly populated areas it controls in eastern Syria and western Iraq. These areas contain working oil fields and there has long been a network of dealers in the area who will buy oil, cheap (about $25 a barrel from ISIL), for cash and no questions asked. That only works if the oil fields are undamaged and still capable to pumping oil.
The air strikes not only shut down most ISIL oil production but have driven away the technicians needed to make even an undamaged oil field work. ISIL has been advertising for replacement staff, offering high pay and security. ISIL’s reputation makes it difficult to attract competent people especially since the Arab and Western nations opposing ISIL would prosecute anyone going to work for ISIL, especially skilled oil field technicians and managers.
The economic activity in ISIL controlled territory is either wrecked by fighting or crippled by poor access to the outside world. ISIL is willing to allow food and other aid into their territory but given the ISIL reputation for kidnapping aid workers (even Moslem ones from Syria or Iraq) there is growing reluctance to even send aid. This fear is made worse by the experience with groups similar to ISIL (like al Shabaab in Somalia) who would sell a lot of aid to fund their terror operations.
In short, time is against ISIL because as the months go on the population of its Islamic State grows hungrier and more desperate to rid themselves from this nightmare. ISIL, like al Shabaab, will try some imaginative, desperate and ultimately futile ideas to remedy the situation but there really is no solution for Islamic State that is, economically, a failed state from the beginning.
The best example of the ISIL future is seen in Raqqa, the capital of the west Syrian province of Raqqa. ISIL has remained in control of Raqqa, the largest city in eastern Syria, since early 2014. Normally Raqqa has a population of 220,000 but nearly half have fled since ISIL took over. These refugees all tell the same stories of a wrecked economy and savage rule. Throughout ISIL occupied portions of Syria schools have been closed, leaving over 600,000 children without an education.
Raqqa still has some phone service and some residents risk execution by reporting, usually to family outside the city, what is happening in Raqqa. Apparently many of the inhabitants are hoping the Americans will invade and free them from ISIL control. This despite the fact that American and Arab air attacks on Raqqa have killed hundreds of civilians living near ISIL targets. Yet that is not the major cause of violent death. Since mid-2014 ISIL is believed to have executed nearly 2,000 people. Most of the victims have been civilians or captured soldiers and police. But a growing number of the executions involve ISIL members who attempted to desert or otherwise misbehave.
ISIL is facing a very costly, public and embarrassing defeat at the town of Kobane on the Turkish border. A three month effort to take the town from Kurdish defenders has turned into a slaughter of the ISIL attackers. Over a thousand ISIL men have been killed and over 3,000 wounded in Kobane since October. Worse, by mid-December the Kurds began pushing ISIL out of Kobane and other areas around the town. By early January the Kurds control over 80 percent of Kobane.
Despite ISIL counterattacks the Islamic terrorists keep losing ground. This is largely because the Kurds are better (trained, experienced and led) fighters, and have air support. A major factor in the high ISIL losses was the air support. There were over 200 air attacks since September. The Americans appear to have had air controller teams with the Kurds in or near Kobane as well as UAVs constantly watching the town from the air for targets and movements by the ISIL gunmen.
By December it appeared that ISIL was no longer sending its best fighters to Kobane but instead using mainly new recruits. These men have, at most, a few weeks training (and indoctrination) and don’t last long against the Kurds. For new ISIL recruits orders to go to Kobane came to be seen as a death sentence or, as their leaders put it, a quick ticket to paradise (after a glorious death as a Holy Warrior). ISIL made a big deal of showing no fear of the air strikes, but the reality was that those smart bombs and missiles killed you whether you were afraid or not.
It is known that ISIL has been accusing senior officials of treason and spying for the enemy and some of these ISIL officials have been executed. From what is known (via civilians inside ISIL territory talking to kin “outside”) ISIL is caring for lots of casualties and ISIL deserters (who are now being executed by ISIL if caught trying to leave) report heavy losses among new recruits. These men get a few weeks training but are still basically amateurs going into their first fire fight and most do not survive more than a few weeks. This is normal for armed groups like this, there is decades of data from research and interviews with survivors to prove it.
ISIL has released recruiting videos showing the training of young (apparently as young as 14 or less) teenagers. Refugees report that children of that age are often coerced (taken at gunpoint from their families) and compelled, on pain of death, to undergo “training” which, initially consists mainly of indoctrination. Those that seem to resist the indoctrination are killed, which encourages others to at least pretend to be enthusiastic. It has been noted that a growing proportion of foreigners among ISIL dead and those taken alive. Deserters and refugees report the same trend. Fewer Syrians and Iraqis want to work for ISIL, which is not a good sign for the Islamic state seeking to gain control over all of Syria and Iraq. You can occupy territory, but without a population you preside over a wilderness.