BEIRUT — As European governments scramble to contain the expanding terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State, on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria the group is a rapidly diminishing force.
In the latest setbacks for the militants on Thursday, Syrian government troops entered the outskirts of the historic town of Palmyra after a weeks-old offensive aided by Russian airstrikes, and U.S. airstrikes helped Iraqi forces overrun a string of Islamic State villages in northern Iraq that had been threatening a U.S. base nearby.
These are just two of the many fronts in both countries where the militants are being squeezed, stretched and pushed back. Nowhere are they on the attack. They have not embarked on a successful offensive in nearly nine months. Their leaders are dying in U.S. strikes at the rate of one every three days, inhibiting their ability to launch attacks, according to U.S. military officials.
Front-line commanders no longer speak of a scarily formidable foe but of Islamic State defenses that crumble within days and fighters who flee at the first sign they are under attack.
“They don’t fight. They just send car bombs and then run away. And when we surround them they either surrender or infiltrate themselves among the civilians,” said Lt. Gen. Abdul-Ghani al-Assadi, commander of Iraq’s counterterrorism forces, who is overseeing the latest Iraqi offensive to capture the town of Hit in Anbar province.
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