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US-led strikes in Syria, Iraq hit IS 'middle-management'
Beirut (AFP) Dec 31, 2015

War on IS 'starting to pay off': French minister
Manama (AFP) Dec 31, 2015 - French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told forces on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf Thursday that the war against the Islamic State group was starting to bear its fruit.

"The war (against IS) is being played out here," he said aboard the Charles de Gaulle, which is participating in the US-led coalition carrying out air strikes on IS in Syria and Iraq.

"The strategy is starting to pay off. Everywhere our sensors show that Daesh is going on the defensive... as shown in the loss of Ramadi," he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

Earlier this week, Iraqi forces pushed IS fighters out of the city west of Baghdad with air support from the coalition in an important setback for the group.

"Several weeks ago, France was hit at its heart," Le Drian told 250 French troops gathered in the carrier's aircraft hangar among Rafale and Super Etendard jets.

The Charles de Gaulle set off for the eastern Mediterranean shortly after IS claimed November 13 bombing and shootings in Paris that killed 130 people and wounded many more.

"The aggression on our soil calls for a retaliation where Daesh is organising to hit us," he said, referring to IS training camps in Syria.

The aircraft carrier has been stationed in the Gulf since December 20.

"Our aim is this terrorist organisation's destruction, pure and simple," he said.

"To destroy an enemy, you have to degrade its capacities, contain it," he said, referring to the airstrikes against the group's positions since summer 2014.

"You then must reduce it. For that, you need to act on the ground and that's what our local partners are doing with our support."

Earlier this week, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces in Syria rolled the jihadists back across the Euphrates River.

Marines from accompanying German and Belgian frigates were also aboard the aircraft carrier.

Le Drian is to visit French pilots in Jordan on Friday and, the following day, legionnaires training Iraqi army units in the United Arab Emirates.

US-led strikes against Islamic State group officials in Iraq and Syria are robbing the jihadists of one of their most valuable resources: experienced mid-level commanders.

Ten of the group's higher-ups, including one with "direct" ties to the alleged mastermind of the Paris attacks, were killed in air strikes in December alone, the US military said.

According to analysts, these deaths chip away at IS "middle-management" -- seasoned and skilled commanders within the group.

"Because of their operational role and their experience, these figures are an invaluable human resource and a huge loss for IS," said Mathieu Guidere, a jihadism expert at the University of Toulouse.

Instead of focusing on IS's political chiefs the US-led coalition has targeted "technical cadres and the mid-level commanders who, though they don't take the decisions, execute them", said Guidere.

"Without them, nothing could be done on the ground."

Most of the commanders were killed in Iraq, where Washington is working with government forces, but others were targeted in Syria.

The dead include Charaffe el Mouadan, who had ties to the Paris attacks "cell leader" Abdelhamid Abaaoud and was killed in a coalition strike in Syria on December 24, according to the Pentagon.

Yunis Khalash, IS's "deputy financial emir" in the group's Iraqi stronghold Mosul, was killed on December 9, it said.

"His death will burden senior ISIL (IS) cadres to find a technically skilled and trustworthy replacement," said US-led coalition spokesman Colonel Steve Warren.

- 'Experienced cadres' eliminated -

Also killed in Iraq earlier this month was Khalil Ahmad Ali al-Wais, IS's "emir of Kirkuk province", according to the Pentagon.

Iraqi analyst Hisham al-Hashimi said Al-Wais, known as Abu Waddah, also headed IS's internal communications and mail service.

He named several other IS operatives killed in December, including leading members of the "Hesba" -- the force that implements IS's strict religious and social code.

"On the one hand, IS has lost its operational and executive capacity. On the other hand, it has lost its ability as a structured hierarchy to work together as a team," Hashimi said.

IS has also been dealt a series of military blows on the ground in recent weeks.

Earlier this week, Iraqi forces pushed the group out of the city of Ramadi, while an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces in Syria rolled the jihadists back across the Euphrates River.

Yezid Sayigh, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, said IS's recent losses could be a sign that the United States is receiving better intelligence on the group's activities.

"But it may also be a result of weakening security practice among IS personnel as more experienced cadres are taken out of action," he said.

The "cumulative impact" of these deaths could be a turning point in the war against the jihadist group, he said.

"What the trend really reveals is that IS reached the full extent of its potential in 2014 and was unable to expand its resource and socio-political base or maintain high levels of mobilisation."

- 'Double-edged sword' -

Analysts say IS has benefited from its decentralised structure, but may now be forced to close its ranks, leaving it more vulnerable as it struggles to push forward.

IS "has transformed over the past year from a decentralised organisation to a highly centralised one, relying on total control, which will cause it to erode further," Hashimi said.

The jihadist group will also have difficulty finding replacements with enough institutional knowledge, added Guidere.

"It's not so much the replacement itself that is a problem, since there are plenty of candidates," he said.

"The problem is not the quantity but the quality, which is at risk of becoming rare."

The vacuum could result in more brutality, said Mia Bloom, a jihadism expert at Georgia State University.

"The strategy of divide and conquer, in which one aims to foster splinters and divisions within terrorist groups, is a double-edged sword," Bloom said.

"With the loss of a leader there are incentives for the up-and-coming middle management to distinguish themselves and this is often done in very bloody and violent ways," she said.

Candidates could "try to outbid each other with deadly attacks" with newly-promoted leaders seeking to "establish their street cred", she added.

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