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A member of the Iraqi federal police fires toward Islamic State militants during clashes in eastern Mosul on January 13.

A member of the Iraqi federal police fires toward Islamic State militants during clashes in eastern Mosul on January 13.

The dawn of the new year has unsurprisingly witnessed global media turn toward the incoming U.S. administration with an intensity bordering on the obsessive. Meanwhile, events of arguably equal or greater importance are sacrificed in favor of the story of the day. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

The dawn of the new year has unsurprisingly witnessed global media turn toward the incoming U.S. administration with an intensity bordering on the obsessive. Cabinet confirmations, Russia's alleged hacking activities, and intelligence agency squabbles now dominate international headlines.

Meanwhile, events of arguably equal or greater importance are sacrificed in favor of the story of the day. Nowhere is this failing clearer than with the lack of recent coverage of the ongoing campaign to drive the extremist group Islamic State (IS) from one of its last remaining urban strongholds: Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul.

The battle for Mosul is as much symbolic as it is strategic. The city stands at the center of IS's emergence as a global force of terror.

Before IS took Mosul on June 10, 2014, security services largely dismissed the threat it posed. The prevailing attitude was perhaps best summed up in U.S. President Barack Obama's interview with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker magazine, in January of that year.

"The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate," he said, "is if a J.V. team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant."

But the "JV team" entered the big leagues when it captured Mosul. Indeed, it was the city's seizure that allowed its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to announce on June 30, 2014, the establishment of IS's long-standing goal of an Islamic caliphate that straddles Iraq and Syria. At its peak, the caliphate encompassed an area the size of Great Britain. No extremist group in modern history had been so successful. IS, with the wealth captured from stolen oil fields, looted antiquities, and "taxes" levied on the population under its control, became hugely wealthy. It ran hospitals. It had its own police force and administrative authorities. It was a state in almost everything except formal recognition. The global brand that IS has become was only made possible through its capture of Mosul 2 1/2 years ago.

As we enter 2017, things look very different indeed.

The group has lost vast swaths of territory. Along with Raqqa in Syria, Mosul is the last major urban center left under the group's control. Its once seeming invincibility -- its inexorable march across the Middle East that drew thousands of recruits from across the Arab world, South and Central Asia, and the West toward the black flag -- is long gone.

Iraqi Special Operations Forces react after a car bomb exploded during an operation to clear the al-Andalus district of Mosul of Islamic State militants on January 16.

Iraqi Special Operations Forces react after a car bomb exploded during an operation to clear the al-Andalus district of Mosul of Islamic State militants on January 16.

Now IS is attacked from all sides. On the western edge of IS's "state," Turkish forces and Syrian rebel groups dealt the extremist group some serious defeats over the late summer. They are besieging the IS stronghold of al-Bab and are pushing deeper into IS territory, though those efforts have slowed considerably in recent weeks.

In the center of the caliphate, U.S.-backed Kurdish forces are advancing downward from northern Syria, just west of the IS capital city of Raqqa. That campaign is making significant gains, though that success could breed more problems since Turkey considers these forces to be linked to a terrorist organization.

On the eastern front, Iraqi security forces backed by Turkish Army units, Kurdish militia groups, U.S. Special Forces, and coalition air strikes, are advancing. The operation to retake the city, which began late last year, saw the coalition make strong initial progress as several villages and towns around the city were seized before the offensive slowed.

That changed on January 13, when Iraqi special forces entered Mosul University and took control of a neighborhood bordering the university and the technical institute within the campus.

"We broke through the terrorists' defenses and we destroyed their lines and their units and their bases," said Major General Sami al-Aridi, who oversaw the operation.

Iraqi forces have now almost completely surrounded Mosul, but the city's layout makes taking it difficult. Bisected by the Tigris River into eastern and western halves, Mosul contains two distinct sections that will have to be conquered in order to drive IS out for good. Iraqi security forces are pushing heavily into IS's eastern front (where the university is), but the extremists still maintain a stranglehold on the city's west.

More alarmingly, IS has had ample time to prepare for the assault. The city will undoubtedly be filled with booby traps to inflict as many casualties on Iraqi security forces as possible once they enter the city. Meanwhile, IS militants have dug tunnels and fortifications that will further increase the difficulties facing Mosul's potential liberators.

As Alberto Fernandez, vice president at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), observes: "It is a very tough fight and not unexpected. Mosul is the single-largest population center left to ISIS. In the past (such as in Ramadi), they fought hard and eventually cracked, and this may happen again."

Members of the Iraqi rapid response forces fire a missile toward Islamic State militants during a battle in the Somer district of eastern Mosul on January 11.

Members of the Iraqi rapid response forces fire a missile toward Islamic State militants during a battle in the Somer district of eastern Mosul on January 11.

The fight will be difficult. It will be bloody. It may even be long. But it is difficult to see anything other than IS's eventual expulsion from the city. The question then naturally arises: What comes next?

Fernandez rightly points out that "two big questions will be: What shape [Iraqi security forces] will be in on total liberation day; and can local governance be (even slightly) more effective and inclusive than it was in 2014? ISIS will survive the fall of Mosul but will be diminished, and there will be more pressure on it to show that it can still model its global ambition and inspire more international acts of mayhem."

Part of the reason IS was able to grow so large and so fast in such a short space of time was that it took advantage of the harsh sectarian rule of former Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki. Maliki's exclusion of Sunnis from government, combined with a series of national policies designed to persecute them across Iraq, drove many into the arms of IS as the only counterweight to the suffering they endured. Mosul may well be liberated, but once that happens it will have to be governed efficiently or else Baghdad will have driven IS out but failed to solve the underlying problems that led -- in part -- to the city's capture in the first place.

As far as IS goes, once Mosul falls, so does any remaining realistic claim that the group still controls a state of any kind. But, as Fernandez points out, IS will not go quietly into the night. Instead, the group will seek to its expand its extremist activities, ideally (as far as it is concerned) in the West.

This is the Catch-22 facing the world. The more defeats IS suffers in the Middle East, the more it must expand its operations abroad. The more military battles with tanks and soldiers it loses, the more it will resort to classic terror tactics of suicide bombers and lone gunmen.

IS may be losing battles, but the war is still a long way from being won.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

Ominous Start To The New Year In Turkey

  • David Patrikarakos
People carry the coffin of Yunus Gormek, 23, one of the victims of the Reina nightclub attack, during his funeral in Istanbul on January 2.

People carry the coffin of Yunus Gormek, 23, one of the victims of the Reina nightclub attack, during his funeral in Istanbul on January 2.

2017 has begun in much the same way 2016 ended: with the world in an uproar over yet another act of bloodshed claimed by the extremist group Islamic State. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

2017 has begun in much the same way 2016 ended: with the world in an uproar over yet another act of bloodshed claimed by the extremist group Islamic State.

In the early hours of January 1, 2017, a gunman opened fire on crowds ringing in the New Year at a trendy Istanbul nightclub, killing 39 and injuring 69 more.

Like the IS-claimed Christmas market attack in Berlin that left 12 dead and scores injured in December, the massacre has reaffirmed the extremist group's international reach. For Turkey, which has vowed to carry on with its military campaign against IS in Syria, it is an ominous sign of a long year to come.

The target, popular with celebrities and foreign tourists, appeared to be carefully chosen. A high-profile nightspot where people gather to drink alcohol and dance, it is a symbol of the country's secular culture, which has come under threat from the increasingly autocratic and Islamist rule of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan was quick to blame terror groups that were "trying to create chaos" and "demoralize our people and destabilize our country."

Even before Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, all evidence pointed to it being their work. It is unclear why IS waited more than 24 hours before taking credit, but as New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi, an expert on jihadist groups, explained via a series of tweets, IS has been traditionally more reluctant to claim responsibility for mass atrocities than for targeted killings in Sunni-majority countries (likely for fear of alienating its supporters). Set against this, she continued, has been an upsurge in anti-Turkish IS rhetoric that has included calls for attacks against the country, including from the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Both the timing and nature of the attack bore the hallmarks of a classic IS attack. Since Turkish forces crossed the border into Syria in August, Ankara has made itself a target for a variety of forces engaged in the country's vicious civil war. Turkish troops are now battling not only IS but also Kurdish factions allied with U.S.-backed rebels fighting the Syrian government.

By entering the war directly, Turkey de facto aligned itself with Russia, with which it recently worked to broker a fragile cease-fire, even though the two countries back different sides. Following the failed coup in July, Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin before bringing his troops across Syria's border. The relationship between the two has been unusually pleasant since. Even after Moscow's ambassador to Ankara was assassinated in late December, Putin and Erdogan appeared to move closer together, not further apart, arguing that the violence was intended to undermine their efforts to work together to fight terrorism. Russia is also -- ostensibly -- fighting IS. In reality, however, Moscow is more concerned with fighting other Syrian opposition groups to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power and has come to be loathed by the rebels.

Moreover, like Russia, self-interest lies behind Turkey's intervention: Its stated objective of overthrowing Assad is not the priority. Rather, Ankara is more concerned with defeating Kurdish groups allied to the rebels, which, with their separatist designs, it considers an existential threat to Turkish sovereignty. All of this has some analysts believing that Erdogan and Putin may have made some sort of bargain for Syria, likely resulting in the partitioning of the country, with some areas under Turkish influence or control and the rest in the hands of Assad.

"With [Turkey's] recent alliance with Russia, it has effectively placed itself at odds with the Syrian opposition, as well as more extreme elements," explains Rashad Ali, a senior fellow at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an organization dedicated to combating extremism. "The level of infiltration of [Al-Qaeda] and IS in Turkey, as well as its indigenous problems, already make managing the various security threats more and more complicated and difficult."

This can only be tackled "with local intelligence and municipal-level cooperation with the state and global apparatus," Ali adds. "Whilst Turkey is generally commended for how it has dealt with the fallout of the [Assad government's] war against the Syrian people, its political stance of prioritizing the Kurdish question over its former stance of diplomatic and strategic support for the Syrian rebel factions means it has inadvertently placed itself on the opposite side of the Syrian people, not just the extremist factions."

Ali also points out that -- as a moderate Islamist and increasingly authoritarian regime that is allying tactically with the West -- Turkey is seen by IS as being almost worse than the extremist group's sectarian enemy, the Shi'a.

"IS may describe the Shi'a as rawafidh (those who reject) and majus (magicians), but the secularized sellout Islamists and the sellout Wahhabis are more culpable in their hypocrisy," Ali says.

As ever, the apostate is despised more than the infidel.

Shift To More Traditional Terrorism

Critically, Turkey's entrance into the Syrian civil war also comes at a time when IS is suffering repeated losses on the ground. The so-called caliphate it once controlled -- and that was, at its peak in 2014, an area the size of Great Britain -- has shrunk drastically. The "victory" narrative that was once the foundation of IS propaganda has long receded. Turkish forces are now playing an integral role in the drive to push IS from Iraq's second city of Mosul. It was the city's capture in June 2014 that gave Baghdadi the confidence to declare the establishment of the caliphate that same month.

As IS has suffered on the ground, it has been forced to switch its focus. Military defeats damage the group's "brand" and must be supplemented with successes elsewhere. These have consistently taken the form of terror attacks abroad, which allow the group to project power internationally and ensure it remains in global headlines.

IS's November 2015 attack on the Bataclan theater in Paris and its surrounding areas, in which a combination of coordinated suicide bombings and shootings killed 130 people and injured almost 400 others, echoes the January 1 attack in Istanbul: A high-profile venue in which revelers drank and danced, activities considered haram (forbidden or proscribed by Islamic law), was targeted by gunmen who fired into the crowd.

Outrage -- and its attendant publicity -- has brought IS directly into people's living rooms once more.

"IS has decided to project its war elsewhere, away from the focus point from its loss of territory," Ali explains. "But also like all terrorism, it serves multiple purposes, including projecting power as well as diverting resources away and eyes and attention away from its losses. It has been preparing to return to its primary focus as a guerrilla-type and terrorist outfit, which we will see more of regionally and more attempts globally. A diffused IS means a diffused strategy of terrorism."

In short, the bloodshed and killing is likely to continue for a long time to come -- with disastrous consequences for innocent civilians from the Middle East to the heart of Europe.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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