This graphic, based on data released by the Department of Defense, shows how the U.S. military's focus has shifted over more than three years of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
The big picture: “ISIS has largely been eliminated as a terrain-holding organization," according to Chris Kozak, senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. But the larger truth that the data doesn't show, he said, is that ISIS "still retains the willpower and safe haven to regrow and potentially regain" the territory it has lost.
How we got the data: We wrote software to scan through more than three years' worth of press releases issued by the Department of Defense, and parsed each release to collect detailed information about the location of every airstrike. The resulting data is publicly available here.
What to look for:
- Through 2015 and 2016, areas near the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Ramadi bore the brunt of the bombings. By the end of 2016, the U.S. military had shifted much of its focus to Syria.
- For 11 straight months — from December 2016 to October 2017 — areas near Raqqa, Syria, were the primary target for U.S. airstrikes. After ISIS was forced out of Raqqa, U.S. military focus on the region swiftly shifted.
- The focus of airstrikes has recently shifted to one of the last remaining pockets of ISIS fighters along the Iraq and Syria border, near Abu Kamal.
Between the lines: Kozak told Axios that many of OIR's reports name a largely-populated city as the focus of strikes, but operate in a radius around that city. So while there seems to be an uptick in strikes in Abu Kamal, a southeastern city in Syria, they're really in the area surrounding it, as it's on the west side of the Euphrates river — a deconfliction line agreed upon by the U.S. and Russia.
The U.S. can't cross the river into Abu Kamal, which is held by pro-Syrian regime forces and sustaining attacks from ISIS. Kozak said the U.S. military is focusing on "our" side of the river, and Russia is ultimately responsible for what happens to theirs.