Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobane, seen from near the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border, on Oct. 14, 2014
Umit Bektas—Reuters
By Rishi Iyengar
October 16, 2014

The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has suffered setbacks and has begun retreating from parts of the Syrian border town of Kobani, according to a local official, who said Kurdish forces were advancing against the militant group.

Idris Nassan told the BBC that ISIS had previously controlled almost half the town but currently occupies “less than 20%.”

The retreat comes after the U.S. stepped up the intensity of air strikes in the region, with al-Jazeera quoting U.S. officials as saying Western coalition forces had launched about 40 air strikes in the past two days. “We know we’ve killed several hundred of them,” said Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, while admitting that the strategically important Syrian-Turkish border town could still fall to the radical Islamist group.

Air strikes have also been launched in parts of neighboring Iraq, where ISIS is rapidly making inroads into the Anbar province, and is reportedly advancing on a town just 25 miles from the capital Baghdad.

“That’s probably ISIS’s key victory here,” Matthew Gray, a senior lecturer at the Australian National University’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, tells TIME. Gray is of the opinion that although Kobani’s location on the border with Turkey — and thus with NATO and the Western world — makes it important to defend, Anbar’s proximity to Baghdad and the economic advantages it represents make it far more significant strategically. “If I were ISIS, I’d probably be happy to let Kobani go as long as I have Anbar,” he says.

Despite the recent achievements of Operation Inherent Resolve, as U.S. President Barack Obama has now termed the battle against ISIS, Gray says there’s a limit to how much air strikes — even with helicopters as opposed to fixed-wing aircraft — can achieve without ground troops.

Even so, the current retreat is “significant,” says Gray, “especially if they’ve lost several hundred.”

“It doesn’t neutralize the other observation that to completely destroy or thoroughly degrade ISIS will require substantial action from troops on the ground,” he adds.

Read next: More Americans Say Boots Are Needed on the Ground to Fight ISIS

Write to Rishi Iyengar at rishi.iyengar@timeasia.com.

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