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Tracking Islamic State

Friday 26 May 2017

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Iraqi troops fire artillery toward Islamic State positions in western Mosul on March 11.

Protecting the lives of their soldiers is obviously of paramount importance, but the military battle against IS on the ground in Mosul will only eventually yield one winner. The issue is then what comes next. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

The coalition battling to take the Iraqi city of Mosul from the extremist group Islamic State (IS) is closing in. Earlier this year, coalition forces captured eastern Mosul (the city is bisected by the Euphrates River) and are now squeezing the city's western half.

According to Brett McGurk, the U.S. State Department's special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter IS, the Islamic State group is trapped.

"Just last night, the Ninth Iraqi Army Division, up near Badush, just northwest of Mosul, cut off the last road out of Mosul," he said last week. "Any of the fighters who are left in Mosul, they're going to die there, because they're trapped. So we are very committed to not just defeating them in Mosul, but making sure these guys cannot escape."

Progress has been slow, but with good reason. As James Miller, managing editor of The Interpreter magazine notes: "The coalition is being very cautious. IS is throwing suicide bombers, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs, in essence car bombs), snipers, and booby traps at the advancing soldiers. As a result, progress is slow -- which is smart, because IS's military defeat is all but certain and each coalition death is just fodder for their propaganda and a major hit to coalition morale. Second, there is also a balance between quickly freeing civilians and avoiding heavy fighting which might kill civilians. ... The reality is that IS is an invader, the civilians are human shields, but IS must be defeated and must not be allowed to spread."

In truth, the coalition forces need to be cautious for a third, perhaps even greater, reason. Protecting the lives of their soldiers is obviously of paramount importance, but the military battle against IS on the ground in Mosul will only eventually yield one winner. The issue is then what comes next -- and for this Miller is prescient when he talks about the need to avoid heavy civilian casualties.

Safeguarding civilian life is considered a necessary guiding moral principle for any army, let alone one that seeks to battle an enemy it rightly decries as a barbaric death cult. IS must be defeated, but it must be defeated by a force that refutes its detestable practices. Righteousness must be a strategy of war. This conflict is as much moral as it is military.

But this issue is complicated in the case of the Mosul offensive. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) fly Shi'ite flags freely from their armored vehicles -- the image of Ali, a key figure in Shi'ism, is ubiquitous on the ground. To make matters worse, alongside the ISF fight the highly sectarian, Iran-linked Shi'ite militias, which have on previous occasions massacred Sunni populations in towns they have "liberated" from IS. High civilian casualties must be avoided at all cost to prevent Mosul's majority Sunni population from following in the footsteps of so many other Sunni Iraqis in the face of Shi'ite persecution and flocking to the black flag.

Once IS is driven out of Mosul, it will need soldiers more than ever. The best way to drive a steady supply of new recruits into the arms of IS would be to take the city with utter disregard for human -- specifically Sunni -- life. If that happens, the coalition forces will have simultaneously defeated IS in Mosul but put it on "life support" as it retreats into the desert.

Once it does retreat into the desert, however, all pretense that it is still a state will evaporate. As Miller observes: "Islamic State put a tremendous amount of emphasis on the 'dawla,' their physical territory. It was their main propaganda recruiting tool. Now the caliphate, the physical 'state,' is doomed to fall ... but they've proven that they can slow down the advancing coalition in major cities. After Mosul, the coalition will have to push west into Syria, and I would expect them to get similarly bogged down in major cities and towns in Syria: Al-Bukamal, Deir ez-Zour, and, of course, their capital city, Raqqa."

Nonetheless, IS is in serious trouble: surrounded, cut off from foreign recruits, and in a propaganda retreat. The halcyon days of 2014 and early 2015 -- when it seemed an unstoppable force and drew thousands to its ranks every month -- are long gone.

IS will lose its physical caliphate but -- critically -- the group will not disappear along with it. Rather, its fighters will melt into the desert and continue to fight from there. Like a butterfly regressing back into a caterpillar, the group will regress from fighting like a standing quasi-state army to fighting like the terror group it has always been. And it will not stop. Salafi-Jihadism is as strong as ever -- as the continuing success of the Taliban and numerous Al-Qaeda franchises shows.

Alongside military power must come soft power; alongside guns must come words. Coalition forces must push a powerful message -- a counternarrative to IS's narrative of Sunni victimhood and of Shi'ite and Western perfidy. For this, it is crucial that Middle Eastern forces take the lead in the battle against it; that it is Sunnis, Shi'a, and Kurds, not British, Turkish, and American forces that are the primary actors in its downfall.

Those who created IS were defeated before, in Iraq, but they came back -- in a more dangerous and sophisticated form -- because they were able to successfully create a narrative that spoke to many Iraqis and Syrians. It held that foreign and sectarian forces were responsible for all their misfortunes; that, once more, those seeking to exploit the region for their own gain had invaded the Middle East. This mistake must not be repeated.

As Miller concludes: "Sectarianism and the narrative that the United States is fighting a war against Islam, or at least against Sunni Islam, are the most important enemies to defeat. And they can't be killed with bombs."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Russian soldiers patrol the recaptured rebel stronghold of Aleppo in Syria.

The world is becoming ever more tumultuous. But amid the general storm one country can be relied upon to maintain a sanguine -- and sanguinary -- course: Vladimir Putin's Russia. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

The world is becoming ever more tumultuous. But amid the general storm one country can be relied upon to maintain a sanguine -- and sanguinary -- course: Vladimir Putin's Russia.

The Russian president has, with stolid determination, taken advantage of the world's focus on the political upheaval in Europe and the United States to quietly advance his foreign-policy agenda. On January 29, after months of (relative) quiet in Ukraine, separatist forces backed by Russia launched a large attack against the city of Avdiyivka, just north of Donetsk airport in the country's east. At least four Ukrainian soldiers were killed in a single day, and the entire Ukrainian military was put on alert across the front. Since then, increased fighting and heavy casualties has again shaken faith that a cease-fire, and a permanent peace, can be established.

Putin's main foreign-policy goal is clearly the destabilization of Ukraine -- and he continues to do so while barely provoking a squeak of protest from the international community. And it appears that foreign-policy goal No. 2, Russian interference in Syria, is escalating, too.

It was almost a year ago, following a series of defeats for Western-backed rebel groups in Syria, that Putin declared that "the objectives [that were] set for the Defense Ministry to be generally accomplished" in Syria. He would, he further announced, be withdrawing the "main part" of the Russian expeditionary force that had been deployed to the country to prop up Moscow's client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and to protect its naval facility at Tartus.

The vow to withdraw proved premature, as Russia actually increased its presence and ramped up its bombing of Syria's rebels and civilians alike with an almost gleeful abandonment. But, on December 29, 2016, coinciding with a Russian and Turkish-brokered cease-fire following the recapture of Aleppo, Putin again ordered Russian forces to leave the region. Again the time seemed ripe. Following the regime's recapture of the rebel stronghold of Aleppo and several other key victories it was clear that Assad would not be overthrown; the rebels would not win. For Moscow it was "Mission Accomplished."

The beginning of 2017 accordingly saw what appeared to be a genuine withdrawal from the Mediterranean of a naval group led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, announced that "in accordance with the decision of the supreme commander of the Russian armed forces, Vladimir Putin, the Russian Defense Ministry is beginning the reduction of the armed deployment to Syria."

However, right away there were signs that once again Russia was not pulling back from Syria. Shortly after that, two U.S. officials told Fox News that Russia had deployed four new fighter jets, the Su-25 (similar to the U.S. Air Force's A-10), which is used for close air support and has reinforced armor to protect them from ground fire.

Russian air strikes, it seems, are not going to be stopping any time soon.

Permanent Stalemate

The escalation is not particularly large but it is significant. As Jonathan Spyer, director of the Rubin Center for Research on International Affairs who has reported extensively from Syria and Iraq, tells RFE/RL: "Russia is there to defend the Assad regime and ensure its continuation, and it can be expected to ensure sufficient forces to achieve this goal. Russia's presence ensures that rebel victory is no longer a possibility in the Syrian war. At the same time, Russia's end goal may well not be the forcible reunification of the entire country by Assad/Iran, but rather a semi-frozen conflict in which the regime survives."

A semi-frozen conflict -- words that echo in both Syria and Ukraine.

Any idea that Assad could regain all of Syria is absurd to the point of fantasy. But this bothers his backers Iran and Russia not one whit. Both would be happy to see a loose, truncated "Assadistan" that secures Iran's land bridge to Hizballah in Lebanon, through which it can better fight Israel by proxy for geopolitical mastery of the Middle East. Russia, meanwhile, will be satisfied with securing its naval facility and proving to the world and its own people that it can protect its client; that it is the only superpower capable of winning wars in the Middle East; and that it alone is "fighting terrorism," while positioning itself as the primary peace broker. The message will be heard, as unequivocal as it is loud: Moscow is a global player once more.

The narrative does not need to be true. Because of course Russia's stated aim -- that it entered the Syrian conflict to fight jihadism, notably in its most virulent manifestation, the Islamic State (IS) group, is largely a lie. The "global war" on jihadism is perhaps the great military trope of our age. And it is both a trope that withstands scrutiny and a war that needs fighting -- unyieldingly and relentlessly. It also, however, provides the perfect cloak for a state with imperial ambitions within which to envelope itself.

As Spyer further notes, Russia has done little to fight IS. Indeed, most of its efforts have been directed against more mainstream Syrian rebel groups fighting Assad. The primary ground partners of the Western coalition in the war against IS are the Syrian Defense Forces, which is essentially an offshoot of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), plus a few others. In truth, neither the Russians, nor Assad, nor the Iranians, nor their Sunni rebel enemies are majorly involved in the war on terror in Syria.

A 'Superpower' Returns

Nonetheless, Russia's strongman will brag about how he was able to bring disparate groups to the negotiating table to seek a permanent peace. A deal will be (or has already been) cut between Turkey, Iran, the Syrian government, and perhaps even the Trump administration in the United States. In Ukraine, Russia brags that it has pushed for a diplomatic solution to that crisis through the Minsk peace process. Even if Russia were to find permanent diplomatic solutions, either in eastern Ukraine or in the Middle East, it would be only finding solutions to problems it played a leading role in creating.

With a declining economy and a population in desperate need of placation, Russia's global ambitions will almost certainly grow unchecked for the foreseeable future. Yet as the geopolitical wheels turn it is highly likely that Russia may see improved relations with the United States and several major European powers, a reward for "fixing" these crises. This is bad news for global stability and for the liberal, Western system that has largely upheld the international order since World War II, as it only encourages Russia's crimes.

But most immediately it is bad news for the people of Syria, whose suffering seems set to continue. For them, the only foreseeable future is one of more misery -- and more death.

David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the Guardian, Politico, Foreign Policy, The Spectator, The New Republic, The New Statesman, and many others.
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.

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