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A Russian SU-25 strike fighters takes off from the Hmeymim airbase, outside Latakia in Syria. The emergence of the self-declared Islamic State extremist group in the region has allowed Moscow to intervene in the Syrian conflict under the guise of combating the group's horrific atrocities.

A Russian SU-25 strike fighters takes off from the Hmeymim airbase, outside Latakia in Syria. The emergence of the self-declared Islamic State extremist group in the region has allowed Moscow to intervene in the Syrian conflict under the guise of combating the group's horrific atrocities.

Karl Rove is relaxed but adamant: "The threat from Russia is definitely growing," he says. "Putin is becoming more bellicose; he feels he can push the edge of the envelope further than ever before." (The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

Karl Rove is relaxed but adamant: "The threat from Russia is definitely growing," he says. "Putin is becoming more bellicose; he feels he can push the edge of the envelope further than ever before."

The former senior adviser and Deputy Chief of Staff to U.S. President George W. Bush has no interest in being diplomatic as we sit on a pristine white sofa inside the Mystetskyi Arsenal in central Kyiv, Ukraine's capital city.

The arsenal is a grand building with high and rounded brick ceilings and large, arched, almost church-like, windows. Completed in 1801, it once housed the garrison charged with guarding Kyiv; now it stands as a monument to Ukrainian culture and art. Today, however, it houses the Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference, sponsored by Ukrainian businessman Viktor Pinchuk, which has brought politicians and diplomats from all corners of the world to discuss the situation in Ukraine -- and that is simply impossible to do without discussing Russia.

Rove continues: "[Putin is doing] anything that can and will expand Russian influence to U.S.S.R.-era levels of power. Russia is back in the Middle East for the first time since 1972. As well as Ukraine, he is menacing the Baltics and the Nordic countries, and critically, he is willing to tolerate the cost to his country, which is considerable."

He's right. Putin first began to reassert Russian power in the Georgian war of 2008. He followed this, in 2014, by illegally annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine. Late last year, Russian forces entered Syria. It's been a heady few years for the Kremlin.

But Russia has suffered considerably as a result of all this adventurism. International sanctions and declining oil prices have combined to pummel its economy. When he began to consolidate his power in the early 2000s, Putin's deal with the Russian people was simple: They would receive economic stability -- and, critically, much higher standards of living -- in exchange for a loss of freedoms. Today, that deal no longer looks sustainable, so a new, unspoken one now lies on the table: In exchange for a (further) loss of freedoms and (now) economic hardship, the Russian people will swell with national pride at a Russia -- once mocked and belittled by the West -- now retaking its rightful place at the center of global power politics. Economic growth is out; chauvinism is in.

Mass Support For Putin

At the moment, it is a deal that seems to be holding. During my visit to Moscow and Siberia in April, it was clear that beyond educated and globally engaged millennials, mass support for the president still existed. "Russia is strong once more" was a comment I heard, in various formulations, again and again during my time there. Criticism of Putin was largely confined to journalists or tattooed youths in the capital's hipster bars.

Putin has arguably played his cards well, especially when it comes to his latest global show of strength: Syria. The emergence of the self-declared Islamic State extremist group (IS) in the region allowed Moscow to intervene in the conflict under the guise of combating the group's horrific atrocities. In essence, it has assumed a leadership role in Washington's largest foreign-policy initiative of the 21st century: the "Global War on Terror." Putin is using American policy to further Russian ends. He has used the doctrine as cover to further expand Russia's sphere of influence; for Putin, Islamic State is a geopolitical gift he can use to secure his country's strategic influence in the Middle East.

Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove

Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove

And some argue that he has been allowed to do so by exploiting Western indecision. Rove adds: "President [Barack] Obama has mishandled Syria from the beginning. You don't say the use of chemical weapons is a red line and when they are deployed not take any effective action. Now we are seeing close coordination between Russia and the U.S. in combating Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State, which may not be the best of moves -- we will have to see how it works in practice. [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad is a Russian client and Russia is merely concerned that he remain in power, despite the destruction of Syria and the threat to Sunni Muslims he poses. Moscow is merely concerned with strengthening Assad's hold over part of the country, which also includes its [Russia's] naval facility [at Tartus]."

Depressingly Prophetic

Rove's words proved depressingly prophetic. The cease-fire that had been brokered between the U.S. and Russia between forces loyal to Assad and the assorted rebel groups opposing it -- designed to allow Moscow and Washington to join forces and smash IS and the other jihadist groups -- agreed upon on September 12, is over. Even worse, U.S. air strikes that were first believed to have mistakenly killed 60 Syrian troops instead of IS now appear to have killed regime prisoners forced to put on Syrian army uniforms.

Putin claimed that while the Syrian regime was "fully abiding" by the cease-fire, rebel groups (some of which the U.S. backs) were using it merely as an opportunity to regroup, and he accused Washington of being more concerned with retaining its military capacity in the area than with trying to weed out the extremist rebel groups from the more "moderate" ones.

On the ground, things appear to be in more disarray than ever. Perhaps most shockingly, footage emerged of Free Syrian Army rebels (FSA), the group with arguably the closest ties to Washington, ordering U.S. Special Forces out of the town of Al-Rai in northern Syria, screaming in the process that "Christians and Americans have no place among us." Hours later, U.S. soldiers reportedly returned to the town accompanied by FSA fighters, and the rebels who led the protest were reportedly "discharged," likely under orders from Ankara.

A 'Net Loss'

All of this suits Russia just fine -- for the moment. The question remains: How long can it sustain its imperial adventures? Rove concluded: "Putin has temporarily succeeded through the popular support of the Russian people, but that will decline after another year of economic stagnation. At the same time, his actions have forced Europe to rethink its energy policy" -- whereby Europe is heavily reliant on Russian gas -- "so at the same time he is also losing customers. Overall, this is going to be a net loss for him."

In the meantime, however, Putin marches onward, with troops still massed on Ukraine's border while he swaggers across the global stage, trying -- ostensibly -- to bring "peace" to Syria while at the same time trying -- ostensibly -- to eradicate the threat from IS. The reality that Russian forces have in fact spent their time in Syria mostly attacking non-IS targets who are hostile to Assad in order to prop up their client is merely the final layer of hypocrisy within which the brutal cynicism of Russia's Syria policy -- especially regarding IS -- is coated.

At a panel discussion at the YES conference on September 17, the former director of policy planning for President George W. Bush, Richard Haass, struck a glum note. "[Former Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev still had to deal with the Politburo during the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis," he told an audience of Ukrainian MPs, foreign diplomats, and journalists.

"But I see no equivalent checks and balances for Putin. In fact, I'm not even sure there is a Russian expression for 'checks and balances.'"

Iraq: The Islamic State Group's Forgotten War

  • David Patrikarakos
A member of Iraqi government forces flashes the sign for victory as he stands on a military vehicle while smoke billows from oil wells set ablaze by Islamic State militants before they fled the region of Qayyarah late last month.

A member of Iraqi government forces flashes the sign for victory as he stands on a military vehicle while smoke billows from oil wells set ablaze by Islamic State militants before they fled the region of Qayyarah late last month.

With all eyes recently focusing on Islamic State in Syria, developments in Iraq are proving equally, if not more, instructive in illuminating the extremist group's changing fortunes and -- critically -- its changing strategy in response to them. (The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

Another week, another cease-fire in Syria. Following a U.S and Russia-brokered deal, a "cessation of hostilities" between Bashar al-Assad's forces and opposition groups was set to go into force on September 12. This, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, would allow for cooperation to defeat the extremist group Islamic State (IS) and other jihadist groups.

The cease-fire deal, timed for the start of Eid al-Adha, comes in the wake of an intense round of fighting over the divided city of Aleppo. Optimists hope that it will at least enable aid to be brought into the beleaguered city. No one seems to think it will last for any serious length of time.

But while all eyes have focused on IS in Syria, developments in Iraq are proving equally, if not more instructive, in illuminating the group's changing fortunes and -- critically -- its changing strategy in response to them.

Iraq has been consistently central to IS's pursuit of its ideological goals. It was only when it captured the country's third-largest city, Mosul, in the summer of 2014, that its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi felt finally able to declare the accomplishment of the group's long-stated objective: the establishment of an Islamic caliphate that stretched across Syria and Iraq -- demolishing the colonial-era Sykes-Picot border between the two countries in the process.

Back in 2014, IS controlled an area larger than Great Britain. Two years on, things look very different indeed. As the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces --as well as Iranian-backed Shi'ite Muslim militias -- have fought back, IS has lost about half the territory it held at its peak, including control of vital oil fields. According to Reuters, by the end of July IS had lost access to three of the five Iraqi oil fields it once controlled. The article further reports that IS used to be able to sell at least 50 tanker truckloads of oil a day from the Qayara and Najma oil fields, south of Mosul. In the face of Baghdad's fight to restore control, this has dropped to around five small tankers. That analysis was written before Turkey's ground forces crossed into northern Syria on August 24 and captured 770 square kilometers of territory in just two weeks.

Financially weakened and under siege, IS now faces the imminent threat of losing Mosul to the Iraqi military, which, along with Raqqa in Syria, is one of the twin symbols of its claimed caliphate. Government forces and militia scored a big victory over IS when they recaptured the Qayyara air base just 65 kilometers south of Mosul this summer. According to commanders, a "big push" against the city could come as soon as late next month.

Vicious Sectarianism

But all is not as well as it might seem in the fight against IS. Part of the reason for the growth of IS in Iraq was the vicious sectarianism of former Shi'ite Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which pushed many persecuted Sunnis, reluctantly, into the arms of IS. This is a problem that remains. As Rashad Ali, a resident senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London, observes: "A major problem in defeating IS is that the Hashd al-Shabi [an umbrella group of around 40, mainly Shi'ite, militias] play a leading role in the fight against it, and have, upon defeating IS forces, committed atrocities against local Sunni communities in towns and cities they have 'liberated' from IS. These are not just problematic in themselves, but have also led to a greater level of grievance against Baghdad and pushed the population toward supporting more Sunni resistance and terror groups in the region."

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (file photo)

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (file photo)

Put simply: the forces battling IS often act as both its enemies and its recruiters -- continuing at a military level the persecution of Sunnis that Maliki conducted at the political level.

The second point of interest is IS's changing strategy in response to its increasing military defeats. As Ali observes: "Even the CIA have commented IS's military defeats actually create a larger likelihood of terror attacks both in the region and outside as fighters disperse and the organization seeks to continue to try to project power."

Islamic State 2.0

In essence, as it suffers more defeats Islamic State is changing its tactics accordingly; as it loses at home in Iraq, it has tried to "win" abroad in Europe. The IS attacks in Paris, Nice, and Brussels over the past year are a testament to a group that may be in the process of morphing essentially from a statelet with its own standing army into, once again, a more traditional terrorist group that employs guerrilla and insurgent-style activities on the battlefield, and urban terror attacks in the cities of the West.

Syria and Iraq have always been distinct arenas for IS. The strategic vacuum the civil war created in Syria meant that it was able to both take territory but also create a symbiotic relationship with Assad's regime -- one that lent each justification and legitimacy. For Assad: the presence of IS allowed him to claim he was fighting jihadists. For IS, Assad's Iran-backed slaughter of Sunnis enabled the group to present itself, as Ali notes, as the only real and effective alternative.

In Iraq, while the group has fed off of Baghdad's persecution (and slaughter) of Sunnis in a way similar to that in Syria, the military tactics of IS have always relied on defeating largely unmotivated, and often frightened, Iraqi military forces in strongly Sunni areas of the country. Unlike in Syria, they have not allowed themselves to become too attached to any city or town; often abandoning areas rather than risk losing too many of their core fighters -- using more traditional terror tactics like IEDs to cause as much damage to incoming coalition or Iraqi troops as possible. In Iraq, it has always been more of a terror group than the army it is in Syria.

This makes it likely that this year could see Baghdad make further gains on the ground. But Baghdad is not fighting an opposing army there and the response will likely be an intensification of the trend of more insurgent attacks rather than outright battles, while those in Europe must brace themselves for yet more terror atrocities.

In Iraq we may be witnessing the emergence of IS 2.0. No matter the reversals it faces, as the recently killed IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, declared: "The battle of wills remains.

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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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