Ten days after the United States carried out its first airstrike on Aug. 8 against the Islamic State on Iraqi territory, government forces regained control of the biggest dam in the country, near Mosul, the country’s second city. A ferocious al-Qaida-inspired jihadist group that controls swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq and wants to turn the entire region into a caliphate, the Islamic State looks as if it is at last on the defensive in northern Iraq.
Thanks to a series of U.S. air raids, Kurdish and Iraqi forces scattered Islamic State fighters who had hoisted their black flags on the walls of the great dam. The Iraqi government in Baghdad hailed the event. The Iraqi Kurds in their capital, Irbil, posted photographs of their peshmerga forces lording it over the turquoise lake. President Barack Obama cited the recovery of the dam as “important progress.”
With American aerial help and the advice of nearly 400 American advisers on the ground, Iraq’s government forces and the Kurdish peshmerga have made gains elsewhere, too. Most of the tens of thousands of Yazidis stranded on Sinjar mountain since the Islamic State raided their towns at the start of August have been carried to safety. Irbil is secure. The Americans, who have now carried out at least 60 air raids on the Islamic State, have revived the morale of the Iraqi government forces, who fell apart at the start of the jihadist offensive in June. On Tuesday, Iraq’s army said it had started a campaign to recapture Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, which lies about 112 miles northwest of Baghdad.
But the Islamic State is far from contained, let alone defeated. It continues to massacre people belonging to non-Sunni sects in a string of villages around Mosul, which it captured in June, and along the border with Kurdistan. In Tikrit it may be beating back the government’s forces. It still holds a slew of towns in Anbar province and along the Euphrates river on both sides of the border with Syria. Even hitherto anti-American Iraqis, such as Hakim al-Zamili, a parliamentarian from Muqtada al-Sadr’s populist Shia movement, want the Americans to increase their air attacks on the Islamic State.
More significantly, the Islamic State has been consolidating its grip over large chunks of northern and eastern Syria, and has been gaining ground against moderate rebel Syrian groups opposed both to Bashar Assad’s regime and to the Islamic State. Though the Americans say their strikes have hurt the Islamic State badly, the group is still expanding its membership. The vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims reject the group’s claim to speak for them, but it is increasingly popular among global jihadists.
Hundreds of recruits are thought to have joined since June, when a caliphate was declared, many of them from countries outside Iraq and Syria. New groups claiming to be cells of the Islamic State have popped up recently as far away as Morocco. This month an Islamic State unit made a foray into Lebanon. With fresh acquisitions of land, oil fields, cash and global support, it is trying to consolidate its rule in Syria, while performing the functions of a state in such towns as Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.
Moreover, the Islamic State presents a threat beyond Iraq and Syria.
“First, they may not be imminent but it’s only a matter of time before transnational operations are launched,” said Fred Hof, a former State Department man now at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “Second, nationals who return home pose a threat.”