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ISIS Shifting Strategy as Empire Dreams Crumble

With 'capital' of Raqqa lost, analysts say group is returning to 'underground insurgency'
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 17, 2017 1:24 PM CDT
ISIS Loses Its 'Capital.' Now What?
Members of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa, Syria, on Monday.   (Syrian Democratic Forces, via AP)

(Newser) – US Central Command is holding off on official confirmation for now, but accounts on the ground appear to have confirmed the inevitable: ISIS has been routed from its de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria. The defeat means that the Islamic State, which once had grand plans for an expanding caliphate, no longer controls a single major city anywhere, reports Reuters. Its account sees the Raqqa development as "a potent symbol of the jihadist movement's collapsing fortunes," noting that the last ISIS flag flying over the city was taken down Tuesday by members of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Here's a look at related coverage and developments:

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  • Next for ISIS? Now that the idea of a physical empire appears to be over for the Islamic State, the New York Times talks to analysts who see a shifting strategy already underway. ISIS is "morphing back into the kind of underground insurgency it started as, when it took root among disaffected Sunni populations that were willing to tolerate, if not wholeheartedly embrace, its ultraconservative brand of Islam."
  • Toll on Raqqa: It's brutal. One human rights group estimates that only about 1% of the prewar population of 300,000 is still there, per Al Jazeera. Whole neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble by US-led airstrikes, and the city largely has no electricity or potable water. With ISIS out, the city will be turned over to a civilian council, but two competing councils are vying for control, which could inflame tensions between Kurds and Arabs.

  • The ISIS fighters? Several hundred holdouts were believed to have been in Raqqa, and their fate is unclear. Earlier reports said many were allowed to evacuate, and a previous story in the Times took note of that phenomenon: Though ISIS militants had long vowed to fight to the death, mass surrenders were becoming more common. Of course, what those fighters do next—go home and give up the fight or return to war—remains a troubling concern, per this post at the Independent.
  • Another battlefront: The AP reports that ISIS militants are now on the run in eastern Syria, where they control about 80 miles of territory in the oil- and gas-rich region. They are being chased not only by the SDF but by Syrian government forces backed by Iran and Russia, and the competing factions have accused each other of firing upon one another.
  • Final days: As noted, the main force that ousted ISIS from Raqqa after three years is the Syrian Democratic Forces, made up of mostly Kurd but also Arab soldiers. The Kurdish-led SDF's advance began in 2016, and the Atlantic has a collection of images from the final weeks of war, with an emphasis on the plight of civilians.
(Read more ISIS stories.)

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