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Tracking Islamic State

Iraqi special forces pose for a photograph in front of an Islamic States drawing inside a building east of Mosul on October 21.

An Iraqi-led coalition that includes Kurdish and U.S. Special Forces has now begun its campaign to drive the extremist group Islamic State (IS) from its stronghold of Mosul, the group’s second-largest city. Dabiq, the site of what IS suggested would be an apocalyptic battle signaling the end times, and a town central to IS’s ideology, fell just a week earlier -- without even a fight. IS is losing territory everywhere; the "dawla," or "state," that IS has brutally carved out over the past two years, is being torn apart.

But the seemingly inevitable collapse of IS’s self-proclaimed caliphate will not spell the group’s demise. Despite its pretensions of statehood, IS has always been a terror group, albeit one that managed to conquer large parts of Syria and Iraq, and like all terrorist organizations, once it is driven from its main urban holdings it will melt away into the villages and the towns and the desert to fight like the insurgency group it has always been.

As IS recedes in Iraq (though for how long and to what extent remains in doubt) and faces increasing pressure in Syria, a broader question naturally arises: What does this mean for the broader conflicts in the two countries that have been raging for longer than IS has been involved in either nation?

And herein lies the problem. Neither Iraq’s internal strife nor Syria’s civil war, both of which IS has exacerbated with its fastidious brutality and sophisticated propaganda, can be solved militarily. In Iraq, Sunni-Shia tensions -- and bloodshed -- will remain, even if IS is finally defeated. In Syria, with Russia and Iran backing Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, the opposition cannot defeat the regime; meanwhile, Damascus is in no position to win back all the areas it has lost. A bloody stalemate is the only foreseeable future.

Which means that the problems must be solved politically, and solved with the support of fellow Middle East states and the West. The question is: How committed is the West to solving the Syrian crisis?

Diplomatic Wavering Breeds Uncertainty

Recent events are instructive here.

Around three weeks ago, in what was something of a minor scandal, the British authorities confiscated the passport of Syrian anti-Assad activist Zaina Erhaim when she arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport. The Syrian authorities, she was told, had reported it as "stolen." It was only thanks to a second passport that she was able to enter the country.

Arguably, the United Kingdom was, in effect, clamping down on Syrian dissenters; it was doing Assad’s dirty work for him. To make it worse, as Erhaim told RFE/RL in an e-mail, "This has not just happened to me. I know five activists/journalists who discovered that their passports were reported stolen when applying for visas in Turkey. So obviously the regime is publishing the passport numbers of all of those who dare to challenge its crimes and are trying to speak out [against them] in the West."

What makes her situation yet more surreal is that Erhaim is a "Chevening Scholar" -- an award sponsored by the British state for "future leaders, influencers, and decision-makers." She continued: "They [the U.K. government] are technically following the rulebook, despite the fact that what they are dealing with is a war criminal persecuting a journalist. They clearly still consider Assad’s regime as a legitimate government."

The U.K. government's actions might have been made even more shameful by the pro-Assad propaganda that subsequently emerged from them. As Erhaim explained: "They acted as the arm of Assad in helping to silence me and others. Russia state media then wrote about this incident proudly, showing off that the regime they support is still treated as a legitimate government."

Actions like this only serve as evidence to those Syrians fighting Assad on the ground that they are likely to get nothing in the way of any significant help from the West -- that, in fact, the West seeks to keep Assad in power. And the more Syrians who believe this, the more will flock to the ranks of IS or other anti-Western organizations that they see as arguably the most effective force in fighting the regime's brutality.

The more that powers like the United Kingdom and, critically, the United States, are discredited as honest brokers, the less likely the Syrian rebels are to trust them in negotiations to try to reach a political settlement -- the only way to stop the bloodshed. Instead, they see little in the way of significant assistance and much in the way of horror as Russia enters the war, ostensibly to strike at IS but in reality to strike at them and anyone else who threatens their puppet Assad and their naval facility at Tartus.

Meanwhile, Assad's other major backer, Iran, which made a deal over its nuclear program with Washington and other world powers last year, is slowly being integrated back into the international fold, while its proxy Shi'ite militias on the ground in Syria continue to kill their Sunni counterparts.

As far as IS is concerned, it's a perfect storm. Taken together, the propaganda value these various factors yield is enormous and ensure that as it suffers defeat after the defeat on the ground IS will continue to draw yet more Sunni recruits -- left with almost no other choice -- to its black flag.

And in the meantime, the perennial victims in this ever-expanding catastrophe are, of course, the Syrian people.

Erhaim concluded: "This will be my last trip to the West. I have no space whatsoever on my second passport, which is 9 years old and has no more free pages for stamps or visa, and is anyway expiring next year. So I will be joining the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who are no ones, residents of nowhere. I will have no papers, no residency, no bank account, no work, and no future. I hope the U.K. government, which gave me the 'Chevening scholarship,' is feeling proud."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Syrian rebel fighters pose near Islamic State calligraphy and drawings in Dabiq after capturing the city on October 16.

We may be witnessing the end of the extremist group Islamic State (IS) as we know it.

Over the weekend, the coalition of Turkish military soldiers and Syrian rebel groups, backed by a small number of U.S. Special Operations Forces and air support, captured the Syrian city of Dabiq from IS. In and of itself, this would be an important battle. The Turkish-led coalition is now set to advance toward Al-Bab, IS's westernmost stronghold in northern Syria, a position that lies on the most important road that runs between Aleppo city and Turkey.

Perhaps even more importantly, IS's propaganda states that Dabiq is the city from which the apocalypse will start. The city is so important to the extremist group that its English-language magazine, one of IS's most important recruiting tools beyond the physical borders of its "state," shares the city's name.

And yet, there was no epic battle for Dabiq. The last 100 IS militants withdrew without a fight. There will be no apocalypse, it seems.

But that wasn't even the main headline. On the morning of October 17, the world awoke to find that a full-throated effort to dislodge IS from its most important stronghold in Iraq, Mosul, had been launched by Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi military, bolstered by U.S. air strikes and Special Operations Forces.

An animation made by LiveUAMap shows how IS's easternmost flank began crumbling in just a few hours. Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani told Al-Jazeera that the operation had captured over 200 square kilometers of territory from IS on Day 1. Al-Jazeera also reported that this included nine villages outside the main city. Progress on Day Two was slower, but still steady.

Simply put, the "dawla," the state controlled by IS, is collapsing. To be sure, the fight for Mosul will be very tough. Videos taken by international media organizations like CNN show IS fighters dug in. One fighter is seen jumping out of a hole and shooting Peshmerga fighters in an ambush before blowing himself up in an unsuccessful suicide attack. IS also launched several waves of car-bomb attacks against the Peshmerga front lines. Despite the hopes of many in the anti-IS coalition, it seems the extremists are going to fight for the villages outside Mosul, and everyone seems to fear that the fighting inside the city will be even worse.

But Mosul will fall. The crumbling of the dawla is now inevitable.

Turkish forces are rolling across IS's territory in Syria in the west, the battle rages in Mosul in the east, and at IS's center, Kurdish forces, backed by the United States, are within 50 kilometers from the extremist group's headquarters, Raqqa.

A World War II Land Grab

This situation has a historic parallel. In 1944 and 1945, the defeat of the Axis powers was already nearly guaranteed. In Europe in particular, what transpired then was a race between competing interests to capture as much territory as they could before the war came to a close. The Soviet Union stormed into German-occupied territory from the east, the allied powers of the United States, United Kingdom, and a coalition of fighters from across the world pushed from the Atlantic Ocean in the west. After the war was over, the United States sought to shape the territory it controlled through the Marshall Plan, a bid to rebuild and unify Western Europe in order to prevent future conflicts there and stop the spread of communism. The Soviets in the east were less subtle, opting to directly control the territory they had captured in the hopes of advancing their own imperial goals. The result of the final days of the war with Germany thus shaped the entire future of geopolitical and regional power dynamics, which resonate to this day.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces advance to the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants on October 17.
Kurdish Peshmerga forces advance to the east of Mosul to attack Islamic State militants on October 17.

With such grand consequences, it's easy to forget that all of this was determined inch by inch, foxhole by foxhole, region by town by neighborhood, by the actions and reactions of individual soldiers and commanders on both sides.

In the Middle East, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq are all competing for power, but so, too, are various sectarian groups -- Sunnis, Shi'a, and Kurds. What may appear like a united front to end IS is really a fractured coalition of powers, each with competing interests.

Inside Iraq, the Kurdish Peshmerga are clearly making a power play, asserting its military might while wrangling for political -- and perhaps physical -- territory. Iraq's Kurds have wanted greater autonomy or independence from Baghdad for a very long time, and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq granted them that opportunity. IS poses an existential threat to that autonomy, but it also presents a great asset. By the end of this campaign, the Kurds will have played a major role in the reestablishing of order in the country, and they will have proven their military effectiveness.

Against this backdrop, the besieged government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi is struggling to win the narrative. Abadi has been locked in a prolonged battle with those who oppose his reform agenda, including his predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki, who has undermined him at nearly every opportunity. But Abadi has also had to placate Shi'ite militiamen, many loyal to the infamous Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who are frustrated at the lack of reforms and Abadi's desire to free Iraq from sectarian politics, which hard-line sectarians like Sadr blame for the growing influence of the Kurds and the previously unchecked power of IS: Sunni militants. Abadi has attempted to stress the involvement of Iraq's military in the victories over IS. In reality, Shi'ite militias played a major role in the victory over IS in Fallujah and are likely to be heavily involved in the Mosul campaign, as well. While the extent of the ties between the various Shi'ite militia groups and Iran is a complicated issue, clearly Iran is also seeking to increase or at least maintain its own level of influence in Iraq through Shi'ite dominance.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's gamble in Syria has produced exactly the results he had hoped.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's gamble in Syria has produced exactly the results he had hoped.

Further complicating the picture: the involvement of Turkey in both the Syrian and Iraqi fronts. In August, just one month after a failed coup attempt aimed to topple the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish forces crossed the border into Syria to launch their own offensive against IS. At the time, however, I wrote that Turkey's primary motive was obviously not the fight against Islamic State. After all, Turkey has shared a border with IS for two years. Instead, Turkey was reacting to U.S.-backed Kurdish groups that were rapidly advancing deep into IS territory, occupying space that was once controlled by moderate Syrian rebel groups that Turkey has supported for years.

Not only was Turkey watching its proxies lose territory to IS and the coalition that supports the Syrian government, Erdogan was also watching one of his principal rivals -- Kurdish groups with ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) -- fill that vacuum.

In the short term, Erdogan's gamble in Syria has produced exactly the results he had hoped. IS is retreating, almost without a fight. The Kurdish groups have withdrawn from some of the territory right on Turkey's border.

About one month ago, I sat down with Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek on the sidelines of the Yalta European Strategy meeting in Kyiv. He was enthusiastically bragging about Turkey's intervention in Syria and broke the news to me that U.S. special operations forces were assisting the mission, dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield. But in comments made during a panel earlier that day, Simsek stressed that the Erdogan government is beset by enemies on all sides -- IS and Kurdish extremists had both ramped up terrorist attacks in the months preceding the coup, and then there was the coup itself. Simsek stressed the narrative that followers of Fethullah Gulen had infiltrated all levels of the Turkish government and the crackdown on dissenters and the purge of suspected Gulenists that many in the West claimed was authoritarian was really the reestablishment of democratic values.

Journalists and experts present for Simsek's comments were rightfully skeptical. Still, the exchange was a clear illustration of the central issue in Turkish politics: Many aspects of Turkish society -- from the economy to the security situation to Turkey's regional standing -- have been challenged in recent years. Turkey's intervention in Syria, and the Turkish government's purge of suspected Gulenists, are Erdogan's attempt to reestablish some element of control, at least over the narrative, if nothing else.

RFE/RL spoke with Ilhan Tanir, a Turkish analyst and journalist based in Washington, D.C., who stressed that Erdogan is busy creating a narrative.

"The economy is doing terribly," Tanir said. In order to distract from Turkey's problems, Erdogan, much like Putin, has created external crises for him to fight, whether that be Gulenists and the Kurdish PKK at home, or IS and the Kurdish groups affiliated with the PKK beyond Turkey's borders. One consequence of the coup, Tanir explained, is that the Turkish media have either been targeted by the postcoup purge or are now echoing the Turkish government's party line.

"There is no critical media left in Turkey, and so whatever Erdogan says right now goes straight to the public," he said.

Erdogan, however, will soon face another problem with this narrative: His intervention in Syria is literally running out of room. With Dabiq having been liberated from IS, Turkey will set its sights on Al-Bab, a large and strategic town on a key road that runs from Aleppo city to the Turkish border. However, once Al-Bab is in Turkish control, Erdogan will have a new problem: In order to advance to IS's next stronghold, Raqqa, Turkey may have to move through territory currently controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish groups or by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. At the moment, neither of those options is attractive to Turkey as they could broaden the conflict and alienate either Russia or the United States -- or both. There may be nowhere to go.

In other words, if Erdogan is dependent on external crises to serve his political needs, he may run out of crises. It is for this reason that Erdogan wants the Turkish military to get involved in the fight for Mosul.

On October 18, Erdogan said that Turkey has a "historical responsibility" in Mosul and Kirkuk, as they were both historically Turkish land, therefore, "If we say we want to be both at the table and in the field, there is a reason."

Iraqi men use a shoe to hit a picture of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they gather outside the Turkish consulate in the southern city of Basra to protest against the continued presence of Turkish troops in northern Iraq on October 14.
Iraqi men use a shoe to hit a picture of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they gather outside the Turkish consulate in the southern city of Basra to protest against the continued presence of Turkish troops in northern Iraq on October 14.

He also warned Iraq's Shi'ite militias, which have been accused of anti-Sunni atrocities, to not get involved in the fight. As of right now, however, the government in Baghdad has rejected Turkey's request to join the fight in Mosul, and on October 18 thousands protested outside the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad against a Turkish military presence in Iraq. Two of Turkey's best-known media organizations, Daily Sabah and Anadolu, said that the protests were "dangerous" and had been organized by Muqtada al-Sadr.

If Turkey is not allowed to intervene in Mosul, will it try to anyway? Will Turkey attack Kurdish forces in Syria, even if it angers the United States?

"What's going on in Iraq and Syria is a land grab," Tanir told RFE/RL. Various factions -- the Kurds, the Turks, the Shi'a -- are all using the fight against Islamic State to advance their own causes. And just like how the 1945 land grab in Europe and Asia set the stage for the Cold War, so, too, will the events in the Middle East impact the power struggle in the region for years to come.

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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