Islamic State saw its territory in Iraq and Syria shrink almost 10 percent in the first six months of the year, as recent victories in Palmyra and Ramadi were outweighed by “significant” losses elsewhere, a report said.
The area in which Islamic State is the dominant military force now spans about 82,940 square kilometers (32,000 square miles), the U.K.-based research center IHS said in a study published Friday. That’s about the size of Austria. The militants lost territory in north Syria near the Turkish border, and in Iraq around the city of Tikrit.
The group’s reverses in Syria mostly came at the hands of Kurds and associated Sunni groups, starting with defeat at Kobani early in the year, report author Columb Strack said in an e-mailed reply to questions.
The real breakthrough though “came with the capture of the Tal Abyad border crossing last month, which was the Islamic State’s main access point to the Turkish border from its de-facto capital in Raqqa,” he said.
In Iraq, most of the territory lost was in the northern province of Salahuddin, most notably Tikrit, which had been seized by Islamic State during its lightening advance across the country’s north last year. It was recaptured by Iraqi forces in March. Islamic State also failed to hold key areas in the central Anbar province, such as the supply corridor from the Syrian border to the provincial capital Ramadi.
Ramadi itself is among the group’s notable gains in the period, and some of those are “arguably of much greater strategic significance” than the territory it lost, Strack said. The group’s consolidation of control in Ramadi and surrounding areas also enabled it to tighten its grip on Fallujah, which it captured earlier, he said.
Islamic State is likely to make further gains in western Syria if President Bashar al-Assad’s army is pushed back, Strack said. Ultimately, the group’s main rival in the areas where it operates may prove to be other radical Islamist movements that are also fighting against Assad and gaining territory, such as the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front, he said.