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For Iraqi forces, 2016 ushered in the recapture of the Islamic State (IS) group’s headquarters in Ramadi, the capital of vast Anbar province. Three months later, the Syrian army reclaimed the historic Syrian city of Palmyra from IS group forces in late March.
While those battles remained largely symbolic in the overall campaign against the IS group, the counter offensive has, in recent days, begun closing in on the jihadist nerve centres of Fallujah in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.
Once dubbed “the head of the snake” by former Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, Fallujah was the theatre of vicious fighting between Iraqi insurgents and US soldiers in 2004. It was there – barely 30 miles from Baghdad – that the movement that eventually evolved into the IS group first took form, forging its religious ideology and military strategy.
Located in central Syria, Raqqa became the capital of the IS group’s self-styled caliphate after its capture in March 2013. The city became a major magnet for foreign recruits, and strict Sharia law has been brutally enforced.
Still under the IS group’s control, those two strongholds are in the crosshairs today. Iraqi forces, backed by US-led coalition airstrikes, have entered the outskirts of Fallujah while Russian-backed Syrian troops have moved to within 75 kilometres of Raqqa ahead of what many predict will be a long and bitter battle.
‘Daesh will lose’
In terms of military momentum, “the tide has clearly turned”, said Myriam Benraad, a researcher at the France-based Institute for Research and Studies on the Arab and Muslim World (Iremam).
“The IS group has been weakened. Attacks on multiple fronts have made it vulnerable. The propaganda machine is still going, but the reality is that things are going badly and morale is low,” she told FRANCE 24.
As international military pressure has mounted over the past year, the Sunni jihadist group has lost territory and seen revenue sources and the flow of foreign recruits dry up, the Iraq specialist said.
The trend has not gone unnoticed by Western leaders, who have adopted a more optimistic tone on the complex and bloody conflict in recent days. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian last week went so far as to predict victory.
“Daesh will be gradually eliminated,” Le Drian said on French television, using an Arabic acronym for the jihadist movement. “I am convinced it will be [a] difficult [fight], but for the first time I am saying Daesh is retreating and Daesh will lose, including in Raqqa.”
Less than a year ago, the situation looked far grimmer from Western viewpoints.
“The years 2014 and 2015 were difficult for the United States, and were largely marked by trial and error,” Benraad said. “In Iraq, air strikes proved insufficient, and the Iraqi army had largely deserted.”
The researcher said the situation started to change at the end of 2015 with the arrival of US special forces, more air strikes and the rise of Shiite militias. David Rigoulet-Roze, a researcher at the French Institute for Strategic Analysis (IFAS) thinktank, agreed that US military trainers and Shiite paramilitaries have played a critical role.
“There was a professionalisation of the Iraqi army thanks to US trainers, while better leadership of Shiite militias have made them much more efficient,” Rigoulet-Roze said.
In Syria, it is mainly the emergence of Russia that has changed the game. Initially interested only in preserving President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow has since committed itself to destroying the IS group.
“Both Moscow and Washington want to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict, but that can only happen if the Islamic State is flattened. Therefore there is a strategic convergence, and it is interesting to note that contacts have been established between the two to achieve this,” Rigoulet-Roze said.
US officials have consistently denied any direct coordination of military activities with Russian forcesin Syria, but observers maintain that double-pronged attacks could not happen without some prior agreement.
“There is political posturing, and then there is what actually happens behind the scenes,” said Benraad. “A global threat exists, and Russia and the United States have started serious discussions about what to do in Syria. That is very clear now.”
Winning hearts and minds
Experts also agree that even if decisive battles are now on the horizon, defeating the Islamic State group in the Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, or in the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Mosul, will still take time.
Le Drian has spoken of the end of 2016 as a possible target. The French defence minister nevertheless recognised in his recent book, “Who is the enemy?”, that victory on the ground would be followed by a long fight to change the extremist ideologies that have prospered in the territories controlled by the IS group.
“There is a political, cultural and ideological dimension in the battle against the IS group that goes well beyond military strategy,” agreed David Rigoulet-Roze. “The ideological work of the IS group at the local level, especially in relation to the representation of Sunni Muslims in countries like Iraq and Syria, is not going to suddenly disappear.”
The tricky battleground of ideas is one area where the IS group already appears to be succeeding. In a recent audio message, and in apparent anticipation of losses on the ground, IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani warned: “Will we lose if you control Mosul, Raqqa and other cities … ? No, because defeat is only the loss of the wish and will to fight.”