STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's assess just how much territory has been taken back from ISIS. U.S. and Iraqi forces have celebrated advances this week. They say they've cleared out much of the Iraqi city of Ramadi. That's one of the major towns that the extremist group seized earlier this year. The news comes at the end of a year of fierce fighting. NPR's Alice Fordham has covered this story four years, and she's on the line from Beirut.
Alice, what have the U.S. and Iraq gained?
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: In the main area of Isis's control this year - which is to say, the parts of Iraq and Syria that they call their caliphate - they have definitely lost some towns and some smaller cities, mainly on the edges of their territory. So earlier in the year, if you remember, we saw the fight to push them out of the Syrian town of Kobani where Syrian Kurdish fighters worked with the U.S.-led coalition in a huge battle that left many ISIS fighters dead, although it did largely destroy the town, and those Kurdish fighters are still pushing into ISIS turf with American support. And then over the border in Iraq, in addition to Ramadi - which we do have to remember ISIS only took in May this year - the extremists have been pushed out of several cities - Tikrit, Sinjar, Baiji - sometimes by security forces, sometimes by an array of various ethnic or religious militias. And there's been other actions by the coalition that have affected them - more aggressive airstrikes on oil infrastructure, tightening of borders, squeezing of finances in various different ways.
INSKEEP: Has this really affected the group's power?
FORDHAM: To answer that question, I think it's helpful to look a little bit beyond Iraq and Syria. Much of their work this year has extended beyond the borders of what they call their caliphate. They have taken advantage of the chaos in Yemen and Iraq to build up franchises there. They have taken responsibility for attacks to include the bombing of the plane in Egypt killing mainly Russian tourists, and, of course, the attacks in Paris. You can look at the loss of territory in Syria and Iraq as potentially limiting the group's ability to look strong, to appeal to people, to recruit franchises and individuals to do these attacks. That's actually something that's very difficult to measure. And they're still churning out propaganda. The leader, Abu bakr al-Baghdadi, released an audio recording just this weekend.
INSKEEP: But at the same time, there is the question of whether they can continue to hold what they have. Is there any sense as to whether there's momentum in one direction or another here?
FORDHAM: Well, the Iraqi security forces are certainly very keen to say that they now plan, having taken Ramadi, move into the cities of Fallujah and Mosul, which are ISIS strongholds. There are other military sources that say this might be a bit unrealistic based on the fact that Fallujah and Mosul are heavily populated, unlike Ramadi and Tikrit and Sinjar which were largely depopulated by the time the battles happened there. And honestly, on the basis of the still quite limited capacities of the Iraqi security forces, ISIS have been in these cities for a year and a half, two years now. They're deeply entrenched. Analysts have also for a long time said the problem of ISIS in Iraq and Syria won't be resolved until there's strong central governments in those places who can offer the people living under ISIS a better life than what they currently have. And right now that's still, on balance, not really the case.
INSKEEP: Meaning that even if you were to formally retake territory, you might still have chaos there, you might still have unrest, you might still have armed groups.
FORDHAM: And a roiling insurgency, no doubt.
INSKEEP: Alice, thanks very much as always.
FORDHAM: Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: That NPR's Alice Fordham.
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