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What’s behind the recent retreat of ISIS in Northern Iraq?

Over the past few days, pro-Western Kurdish fighters, with the aid of American air power, have forced ISIS fighters in Northern Iraq to retreat from territory they seized last summer. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington, D.C. with more on the largest offensive operation carried out against ISIS so far.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In recent days, pro-western Kurdish fighters, backed by American air power, have forced ISIS fighters in Northern Iraq to retreat from territory they seized last summer.

    For more about this, we are joined by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Cordesman previously served in the State Department and was the director of intelligence assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

    So, what happened in the past few days?

  • ANTHONY CORDESMAN:

    What happened is that a combination of Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. and other airpower, opened up a line where Yazidis — these are a minority group who have been stranded on a mountain range for months — could actually move out along the ground.

    Now, this was important not only because the Yazidis for the first time were given a secure ground route to escape, but there are estimates that up to 8,000 Kurdish troops were involved, that they were able to make effective use of air support, that this is the largest operation so far as an offensive ground-air operation against the Islamic State.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, strategically it's important because they are able to maintain control of a region?

  • ANTHONY CORDESMAN:

    Well, it's important because they were able to operate a significant ground force with air support. We need to remember that again and again, we've been told it's going to take two to three years to create an effective combination of Kurdish, Iraqi, and Sunni Iraqi forces that could actually liberate the parts of Iraq occupied by the Islamic State.

    This is not a decisive victory. The Islamic state is still making some gains in the south. It hasn't affected the situation in Syria. There still has been no really effective operation by the Iraqi ground troops, except in a refinery area in Beiji. This is very early days in a very long but low-level struggle.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Speaking of Iraqi ground troops there, have been reports there have been almost mass desertions in some corners from Shiite forces that signed up. They were crucial in order to take back certain gains that ISIS has made, but is Iraq slipping again from maintaining that morale and maintaining that troop force that can hold off ISIS?

  • ANTHONY CORDESMAN:

    We have to understand there are an awful lot of reports here, and some of them are more accurate than others. There were a lot of Shiite militias involved. These are not forces that can really stay on the ground. They really had only limited capability to push Islamic forces out. They were helpful in defense.

    The core is the Iraqi army, frankly, collapsed under the previous prime minister, a combination of corruption, bad leadership, almost everything that could go wrong did. We are now trying to salvage some nine brigades out of a force that once had 46 brigades.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. So, what's happening in the Mosul area now?

  • ANTHONY CORDESMAN:

    Well, the fact is it remains under the control of the Islamic State. The air campaign, efforts to shut off the illegal export of petroleum — all of these have weakened the Islamic State.

    There is really a problem with power. Almost all of it has to come from local generators. There are problems with water. There are no real jobs in the area, and, oddly enough, it's the Iraqi central government that is paying for the schools that the Islamic State now supervises.

    So, you have some elements of a state from the Islamic State, but the situation in Mosul and the areas it controls seems to be steadily deteriorating.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Anthony Cordesman joining us from Washington, thanks so much.

  • ANTHONY CORDESMAN:

    Thank you.

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