PARIS — US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday said Islamic State (IS) would be “very seriously” weakened in Syria and Iraq this year, as France announced that about 22,000 jihadists had been killed by the US-led coalition.
Air strikes by the alliance that includes Gulf states, France and the UK have been pounding IS positions since August 2014, with Washington claiming major gains against the extremists.
“I think that by the end of 2016, our goal of very seriously denting Daesh in Iraq and Syria and of trying to have an impact on Mosul (in Iraq) and Raqa (in Syria) will be achieved,” Mr Kerry told reporters on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, using an alternative name for IS.
“We are on track, we are doing serious damage to Daesh today,” he said.
The Pentagon estimates that IS has lost 20%-30% of the total territory they were in control of in Iraq and Syria, including up to 40% in Iraq alone.
Mr Kerry said he would meet the foreign ministers of 24 coalition nations in Rome on February 2 to discuss strategy and possible “additional commitments”. The US has called on allies to contribute special forces as a key part of the efforts to bolster coalition forces fighting the jihadist group.
US special forces are already directly engaged in pinpointing targets and launching raids against IS in both Syria and Iraq, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said on Thursday.
“These forces have already established contact with new forces that share our goals, (opening) new lines of communication to local, motivated and capable fighters, and new targets for air strikes and strikes of all kinds,” Mr Carter said in Paris.
No nation is providing precise figures on how many of their special forces are operating in the region, but it has become increasingly clear that elite Western troops are providing more than training, and shifting towards more of a frontline role.
In Iraq, “we now have a specialised expeditionary targeting force in place that is preparing to work with the Iraqis to begin mounting sudden, long-range raids, going after IS’s fighters and commanders, killing or capturing them wherever we find them, along with other key targets,” Mr Carter said.
French President Francois Hollande said the anti-IS coalition would “accelerate” its air strikes.
His comments followed a meeting by the defence ministers of seven countries in the coalition on Wednesday, who said their strategy was to free the IS “power centres” of Raqa and Mosul.
“They also decided to reinforce support to Arab and Kurdish forces fighting Daesh on the ground,” the French president said.
About 22,000 jihadists have been killed by the US-led coalition fighting IS since mid-2014, France’s own defence minister said on Thursday.
“The figure given by the coalition… is about 22,000 dead since the start of operations in Iraq and Syria,” Jean-Yves Le Drian told the France24 news channel, adding that the figure was “approximate”.
Meanwhile, the European Union’s counterterrorism co-ordinator chief Gilles de Kerchove said IS’s military losses in Syria and Iraq could prompt some of its leaders to relocate to strife-torn Libya, where they would face less pressure.
“There, for the time being, it’s the perfect chaos they like,” he said.
The anti-IS coalition’s attacks have intensified since November’s deadly jihadist attacks in Paris, with oil sites among the main targets, in a bid to cut the group’s key revenue stream.
Mr Le Drian said the group’s finances were “beginning to dry up”.
United Nations (UN)-brokered Syrian peace talks had been tentatively set for Monday in Geneva, despite disagreements over who would represent the opposition.
But the United Nations said the talks could be delayed by a few days.
“It is likely the 25th may slip by a few days for practical reasons,” Jessy Chahine, a spokeswoman for UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, said on Thursday.