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ISIS Fighters Being Driven Out Of Mosul And Raqqa


We'll start the program today with a look at events in Iraq and Syria. In both of those places, the Islamic State, or ISIS, is losing ground. Today, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in the city of Mosul after nine months of intense fighting with the Islamic State. And now, anti-ISIS fighters in Syria have started an offensive to push the group out of the city of Raqqa in northern Syria. Raqqa's known as ISIS's de facto capital. All of this is taking place as a new cease-fire agreement goes into effect today in Syria, brokered by the U.S. and Russia.

We wanted to find out the strategic importance of Raqqa and Mosul and what might come next in the strategy for fighting ISIS, so we called Jennifer Cafarella. She's a military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. Jennifer, welcome.


SINGH: It does seem like progress is being made in Iraq and in Syria. Is it too early to definitively call these events victories?

CAFARELLA: Well, they are tactical victories in their own right. Every piece of terrain recaptured from ISIS has been a considerable accomplishment and an important step forward in this fight. However, we are unfortunately still a long way away from dealing this enemy a final defeat. So while we have, you know, just declared victory in Mosul, and hopefully we'll recapture Raqqa in the next few months, if not before, those two cities are not actually the only cities under ISIS's control. ISIS still holds large areas of the Euphrates River Valley, southeast of Raqqa, stretching into western Iraq and has a few other strongholds in both Iraq and Syria that will need to be cleared as well.

SINGH: I know we'll get into that a little more in a bit, but first, when you look at a timeline of the Islamic State's gains and losses in Iraq and Syria, there's been a lot of movement lately. What's causing it, Jennifer?

CAFARELLA: The movement on the battlefield is always a fluid encounter. The U.S. and the anti-ISIS coalition are, of course, counter-attacking ISIS in Iraq and Syria, attempting to recapture the terrain that ISIS seized. But the enemy gets a vote. And ISIS is still mobile on this battlefield and has the ability to continue to conduct its own military operations. So this is still a very dynamic battle space and likely will continue to remain dynamic so along as ISIS still holds large portions of southeastern Syria and has strongholds in Iraq.

SINGH: Let's hone in a moment on Raqqa. What's so important about Raqqa?

CAFARELLA: Well, Raqqa is a large provincial capital. ISIS has held it since it captured the town from al-Qaida and Syrian rebel forces after the creation of ISIS in 2013. So it's a very long-standing symbol of ISIS strength. And it had been the location from which ISIS was designing and resourcing much of its attack plots abroad in Europe and elsewhere.

SINGH: If U.S.-backed coalition forces succeed in taking back Raqqa, what happens next?

CAFARELLA: It's unclear what happens next in Syria, actually, after Raqqa falls. The partnered force that the U.S. is using inside of Raqqa does not have enough combat capability to retake the rest of ISIS-held terrain in southeastern Syria. Moreover, the Syrian regime and its external backers - Russia and Iran - have been making some moves to position themselves out in southeastern Syria in that ISIS zone.

Now, they don't have enough strength themselves to clear ISIS from that zone. Their intent is actually simply to block the United States, so it's unclear whether the U.S. can actually address those remaining ISIS strongholds without actually developing a policy towards the Assad regime that contains the regime, as well as its external backers, Russia and Iran.

SINGH: That was Jennifer Cafarella. She is a military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. And she joined us from Washington. Jennifer, thank you.

CAFARELLA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.