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Tracking Islamic State

A screen grab from a video released by the Islamic State-affiliated Amaq news agency, said to be in Palmyra on December 11

There are at least four separate coalitions that claim to be battling the extremist group Islamic State (IS). Three of those coalitions are reporting great success, and the failures of the fourth coalition tell us many things about the state of regional and geopolitical affairs.

The physical "dawla," or "state," that was solidified by IS in 2014 at one point stretched from northwestern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad in Iraq. Now it is attacked on all sides and is rapidly shrinking.

On the eastern front, the Iraqi government, the Kurdish peshmerga, Turkish military units, Iraqi militias, U.S. Special Forces, and a broad coalition of international air support led by the United States has liberated Ramadi and Fallujah from IS control and is now rapidly retaking IS's western Iraqi stronghold, Mosul. It has been a tough fight, but progress in Mosul is now daily, or even hourly, news.

On the western front, in Syria, the Turkish military and Syrian rebels have dealt major blows to IS. Azaz, Jarabulus, Mari, and (most importantly) Dabiq have all been liberated from IS since August. The Turkish coalition has met heavy resistance in the IS stronghold of Al-Bab, but they are making progress in cleaving IS's territory in two pieces. IS's defeat is only a matter of time -- and lives.

At IS's center, the U.S. backed Syrian Defense Force (SDF), made up largely of Kurdish fighters, has eaten a giant crater in the northern part of IS's territory. The SDF is now threatening the IS capital, Raqqa, which is now regularly targeted by U.S. and coalition air strikes.

Together these three coalitions are besieging all of IS's most important cities. They are threatening to capture IS's most important oil and gas resources as well. Perhaps most importantly, the United States believes that it has trapped many of the extremist group's most important leaders in this area.

It's hard to imagine, then, that a fourth coalition, fighting for far less important outposts, would be losing ground to IS's offensives.

This fourth group is the coalition supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It is made up of Russian soldiers, special forces, and private mercenaries (many of whom cut their teeth during Russia's invasion of Ukraine), as well as commandos from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Lebanese Hizballah extremists, and Shi'ite militiamen from Iraq. The purported mission of this coalition is to fight terrorists. And yet they have often let extremist groups like IS expand their territory while they concentrated on defeating U.S.-backed rebel groups, some of which were specifically organized to fight IS.

During the pro-Assad coalition's campaign to capture Aleppo from anti-Assad rebels, IS launched a surprise operation to recapture the historic city of Palmyra. IS easily won a victory there because so few military units were left to guard the city.

Even though the battle for Aleppo has ended in an Assad victory, IS has been allowed to expand its territory west of Palmyra. Though heavy battles are being waged near this city today, nothing like a full-scale operation has been launched to halt the IS advance. Though Russia announced it was withdrawing from Syria, evidence suggests that the opposite is true, and the focus of Russia's military might in particular has been moderate rebel groups north of Damascus -- not Al-Qaeda-linked groups in the north, and not IS near Palmyra.

All of this seems to confirm what evidence has told us all along -- that the Russian-led victory in Palmyra nearly one year ago had little to do with fighting terrorism, but was simply an opportunity to spread the propaganda that Russia and Assad were standing up to IS.

Last week, new evidence emerged that Russia and Assad may have had a mutually beneficial relationship with IS rather than an adversarial one, though that relationship dynamic appears to be changing.

The Syrian city of Deir ez-Zour has been largely controlled by IS since 2015, but an oddly shaped part of the city and its surrounding areas have remained under the control of the Syrian military. Most importantly, the military airport has never fallen to IS, allowing the Syrian regime to continue to move troops, ammunition, and supplies into and out of the city. In the last week or so, IS has launched a concerted effort to drive the Syrian military from those positions.

Russia is now scrambling to bomb IS as the extremist group has cut Assad's position there in two.

It is a tale told in two maps -- last week, as IS was collapsing in Mosul, it was advancing in Deir ez-Zour.

But Deir ez-Zour is more than 250 kilometers away from the nearest Assad-held position in Syria, in the heart of IS's caliphate. If IS could have seriously threatened those positions, why did this only happen now when it is in such a weakened state?

Russian propaganda networks and pro-Assad journalists would have us believe that the United States is allowing large numbers of IS fighters to withdraw west to Deir ez-Zour. We have not seen any evidence to support this conclusion. Furthermore, any IS extremists who escape Mosul could threaten U.S. Special Forces who are operating in Syria, so this strategy would make little sense. Even if it were true, why would IS wait until it was so weak to launch a new offensive, rather than send those forces to any of its more important positions that are in need of reinforcement?

The obvious answer is that IS has allowed the Syrian military to hold those positions, and the Syrian military has given little cause for IS to change its mind. Though battles have certainly been fought between these two groups before in Syria, the situation there has been mutually beneficial for Assad and IS. By keeping its positions there, the Syrian government has been able to maintain that it is locked in a desperate struggle against IS extremists. IS's proximity to Syrian military positions has discouraged U.S. coalition air strikes against the extremist group. Instead, when the U.S. had intelligence on potential high-value targets within Deir ez-Zour earlier in the month it launched a risky special-forces raid on the outskirts of the city.

IS is collapsing. It needs victories. And so it is attacking Syrian positions, in Palmyra and Deir ez-Zour, because it knows that it can probably win. Experts have repeatedly warned us from the start of this conflict that the Syrian government played a role in the creation of IS. We should not be surprised that the pro-Assad coalition and IS have at best taken advantage of a mutually beneficial relationship and at worst have openly colluded to create the mess in Syria and Iraq that we see today. If the West is to take the fight against IS seriously, it should do so with eyes open as to the motives of both the Assad government and the foreign powers, particularly Russia, that support it.

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

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"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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