US warns Isil shows no signs of weakening
Almost a year after the United States began its multi-billion-dollar military campaign to defeat Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), the jihadist group shows no signs of weakening, according to US intelligence agencies.
Its hold on social media and flow of oil revenue means it can draw on a steady stream of recruits and has held almost all its territory, despite losing 10,000 fighters. It has managed to expand into new theatres in Libya, Egypt's Sinai peninsula and Afghanistan.
"We've seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers," a defence official said, citing estimates that put the group's strength at 20,000 to 30,000 fighters, the same as when the strikes began last August.
Jessica Stern, a Harvard expert on terrorism and the co-author of Isis: The State of Terror, said the group remained attractive to foreign and local recruits, stemming their losses.
The assessments will be a bitter blow to an administration that has tried to talk up success in Syria and Iraq and suggested Isil was losing ground.
Their military strategy relies on an aerial bombing campaign and a much-derided effort to train local fighters.
While the Pentagon trumpets the number of sorties flown by the US-led coalition since August 8 last year - almost 20,000, at a cost of about $10m (€9m) a day - and the number of targets destroyed - almost 8,000 - analysts say it could still take a decade to drive Isil from its safe haven.
Opponents have questioned a strategy that does not allow US boots on the ground. John McCain, the Republican senator, said that since air strikes began, Isil still held over half the territory in Syria, and controlled every border post between Iraq and Syria.
"It is right, but ultimately irrelevant to point out, as the president did, that we have conducted thousands of air strikes, taken out many Isil fighters and much equipment, and pushed it out of some territory," he said during a recent hearing of the Senate armed services committee. "None of the so-called progress that the president cited suggests that we are on a path to success."
Ashton Carter, the US secretary of defence, admitted it was a slow process. "The strategy for defeating Isil on the ground in Syria and Iraq is to train and then enable local forces," he said. "That takes some time."
So far, only 54 fighters have undergone training. This week, the US was forced to admit their leader and his deputy, along with six other fighters from their unit, had been kidnapped by the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's regional affiliate.
However, there has been progress. Isil's recent successes in Palmyra and Ramadi came at the expense of losses elsewhere, according to an assessment by IHS, the conflict monitoring group, which said Isil lost 9.4pc of its territory in the first half of this year. A special forces raid in Syria that killed Abu Sayyaf, an important financier, has produced a treasure trove of intelligence, said officials.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry returned yesterday to the Middle East for security talks in Egypt and discussions in Qatar with Arab foreign ministers whose countries are wary of the nuclear deal struck with Iran.
He will not visit Israel, America's foremost ally in the Middle East and the primary foreign opponent of the Iran deal. US officials noted that defence secretary Ashton Carter had visited the Jewish state in mid-July and that contacts with Israeli officials continue to be robust.
Officials said the Iran-related portion of the trip was primarily designed to follow-up on a May meeting that President Barack Obama hosted for Arab leaders at Camp David at which the US promised them enhanced security cooperation and expedited defence sales to guard against a potential Iranian threat.
In addition to Iran, Kerry and the Arab ministers are expected to look closely at the situation in Syria and Iraq. Kerry has said he plans to meet separately in Doha with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss Syria, Iran and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
Kerry's first stop will be in Cairo tomorrow for a strategic dialogue with Egyptian officials that has been on hiatus because of political unrest since 2009. Despite human rights concerns, the Obama administration is increasing military assistance to Egypt as it confronts growing threats from extremists.
The US announced this week it would be delivering eight F-16 warplanes to Egypt as part of an ongoing military support package to help the Egyptians combat terrorism. (© Daily Telegraph, London)