2016 was beginning of end for ISIL: experts
DAMASCUS -- Last year marked the beginning of the end for the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) in Syria and Iraq, with the group losing numerous areas that had been under its control and many of its leaders, experts told Diyaruna.
The group's demise was hastened by the launch of operations to retake the last two major cities under its control: al-Raqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.
On October 17, after two years of intensive preparations and training, joint Iraqi forces launched an operation to recapture Mosul and have since reclaimed a large section of the city's east.
On November 5, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) kicked off the Wrath of the Euphrates campaign to retake al-Raqa and its hinterland from ISIL.
The first phase of the operation led to the liberation of a large number of villages and farms in the countryside around al-Raqa, and the second phase, launched December 10, is currently under way.
The operation seeks to isolate al-Raqa city and besiege ISIL inside it.
The international coalition is providing aerial cover to Iraqi forces and the SDF in their fight against ISIL.
"The year 2016 was the year of intense international airstrikes against ISIL," terror group specialist and retired Egyptian military officer Maj. Gen. Wael Abdul Muttalib told Diyaruna.
In Syria, the coalition's support to SDF fighters on the ground helped them liberate Manbij in 2016, and the cities of Kobani and Tel Abyad in 2015.
On October 16, Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions backed by Turkey seized villages and towns in northern Aleppo from ISIL, including the symbolic town of Dabiq, as part of the third phase of Operation Euphrates Shield.
FSA forces also recaptured the strategic town of Jarablus on August 24.
Losing Manbij and Jarablus "deprived ISIL of the freedom of movement in and out of Syrian territory", Abdul Muttalib said, noting that they had served as vital corridors for smuggled oil and trade and hubs for connection to other regions.
In Iraq, ISIL sustained losses at the hands of the Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces, who retook the cities of Tikrit, Sinjar, Ramadi and Fallujah.
Hitting ISIL's funding sources
The year 2016 "was disastrous for ISIL with regard to funding, as coalition airstrikes were able to sever most of the group's supply lines that it used to sell oil and other stolen materials", said Cairo University economist Nasser al-Assiouty.
Consequently, all forms of trade the group engaged in were halted, including the sale of agricultural crops, cotton and antiquities, he told Diyaruna.
ISIL has financed many of its activities by smuggling crude oil from wells in the region, including al-Qayyarah to the south of Mosul, which is one of the oldest and most important oil fields in Iraq.
ISIL was pushed from al-Qayyarah on August 25, losing its last and most important oil-rich area in Iraq.
"The international coalition also was able to tighten the security-financial cordon, which resulted in cutting off the funding the group received from abroad," al-Assiouty said.
The loss of funds has had a real impact on the group's financial capabilities, forcing it to reduce the salaries of its fighters by half, reports have revealed.
This caused many of them to flee outside Syria and Iraq, or to other areas that are not under ISIL control, he said.
"Financial incentives were the most effective means the group used to recruit fighters to its ranks, and without this weapon, the flow of fighters has stopped," he added.
Loss of first-line commanders
In addition to losing several strategic cities and oil smuggling routes in 2016, ISIL has been steadily losing senior leaders who yielded great influence among its followers.
"The group lost many of its first-line commanders in 2016, which caused severe turmoil in its ranks and led to mass and individual desertions on many battlefronts," said Mohammed al-Abdullah, a Syrian journalist who lives in Cairo.
ISIL elements also began to defect to former al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front (ANF), now known as Fatah al-Sham Front, he told Diyaruna.
Senior leaders targeted by the coalition include ISIL spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, whose real name is Taha Sobhi Falaha, who was killed in an August 30 airstrike in northern Syria, the Pentagon confirmed September 12.
Al-Adnani was "second-in-command after the group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi", al-Abdullah said.
In July, the group confirmed the death of top commander Abu Omar al-Shishani, whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, in the Iraqi town of al-Sharqat. Al-Shishani moved frequently between Iraq and Syria.
A November coalition airstrike in al-Raqa also killed Tunisian Boubaker al-Hakim, "a key figure with extensive historical and current involvement in facilitation and external operations" for ISIL, the Pentagon said in a December 10 statement.
ISIL "minister of information" Wael al-Fayad, also known as Abu Mohammad al-Furqan, was killed in a September 7 precision strike near al-Raqa, al-Abdullah said. Similarly, Sami Mohammed al-Jubury, the group's official in charge of oil operations, was killed in August in al-Qaim near the Iraq-Syria border.
In rural Aleppo, near the Tishrin dam, Kurdish forces were able "to kill ISIL emir Abu Firas Safrani" in July, he added.
A November strike in rural al-Raqa killed Abu Mohammed al-Banyasi, the official in charge of car bombs; while the SDF killed ISIL emir Osama al-Tunisi during the June offensive on Manbij, al-Abdullah said.