The World Today for January 11, 2017

NEED TO KNOW

The Countdown

With the Islamic State (IS) effectively driven out of their North-African stronghold in Libya, the Mosul operation well underway and the group incurring tens of thousands of casualties, it looks like the so-called caliphate’s days are numbered.

But 2017 will present challenges in delivering IS its final blow – both on and off the battlefield.

The terror group’s existence is due to a series of power vacuums left in both Iraq and Syria. Factional infighting in the absence of US oversight presented an opportunity for takeover in Iraq. And the quagmire of the Syrian civil war allowed IS to incrementally grab territory there. In 2014, it was estimated that the group controlled swaths of both countries totaling the size of the United Kingdom.

Two years later, the terror group’s perverse brutality, radicalization techniques and lone-wolf assaults around the globe have made it a household name – and the target of an international coalition bent on its destruction. According to US military estimates, some 50,000 militants have been killed over the past two years.

In Syria, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of rebel groups including the Kurdish YPG, have made major gains near the group’s Syrian headquarters in Raqqa, capturing some 1,300 square kilometers of formerly-held territory and killing a major general.

The Syrian assault, now in its second phase after gains in November against positions in the north, seeks to capture Raqqa in 2017 as IS’s defenses “disintegrate” and US-Russian coordination in the region intensifies.

Meanwhile, the Mosul offensive in Iraq has slowed since US-trained Iraqi forces began their march on the city in October.

Iraqi forces have effectively driven IS out of many neighboring municipalities and much of the eastern bank of the city, with militants forced to consolidate in Mosul’s densely populated west.

This presents problems for a speedy liberation, Al Jazeera reports.

“It’s going to take longer now. ISIS has no principles. They’re taking the Iraqis as shields and they don’t care about the innocent,” said Ali Al-Dabbagh, a former Iraqi government spokesman.

While Mosul’s liberation is shaping up to be a sure bet in 2017, analysts worry that multicultural coalition forces won’t be able to settle deep-seeded differences once they defeat their common enemy, Politico reports. The result could be another power vacuum or even all-out civil war.

And even though IS is slated for major territorial losses across the board in 2017, analysts predict it won’t go away quietly: The terror group will ramp up propaganda efforts and engage in more guerrilla-style attacks abroad, similar to those in Berlin, Nice and Brussels last year, Business Insider reports.

“As the Islamic State continues to lose ground, the international community should brace for a surge in international terror,” West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center told Business Insider in March.

The Islamic State’s days may be numbered, but they’re sure to make those last days a headache in the meantime – or worse.

WANT TO KNOW

Inside Strait

It’s hard to know when China is bluffing, but Taiwan isn’t taking any chances.

The island nation – which the US pretends to accept is a breakaway province of China, as Beijing insists – scrambled jets and naval vessels early Wednesday as a group of Chinese warships including the mainland’s sole aircraft carrier sailed into the Taiwan Strait, Reuters reported.

Taiwan’s defense ministry said that the Chinese warships had not trespassed into Taiwan’s territorial waters, but they had crossed into its air defense identification zone. China has said the carrier was conducting drills to test weapons and equipment in the disputed South China Sea, and its movements are in accordance with international law.

The apparent saber rattling comes in the wake of a Chinese warning to US leaders not to deviate from the traditional practices of the so-called “one-China policy” just hours after Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen met with Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Greg Abbott during a stopover in Houston en route to Central America on Monday.

Funeral Protest

A rare opposition protest erupted at the funeral of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on Wednesday, as mourners chanted the name of a former presidential candidate who has been under house arrest since 2011 and shouted slogans against Russia – Iran’s ally in the conflict in Syria. People also called for the release of hunger strikers in Iranian prisons.

Iranian state television effectively edited the protests out of its coverage of the event, but they were allowed to proceed without police or military intervention, the New York Times reported.

A prominent leader among reformists who would like to see improved relations with the West and other more liberal policies, Rafsanjani died Sunday at age 82 – raising questions about how his demise might impact upcoming presidential elections and the eventual selection of a successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 77 and has been treated for prostate cancer.

Once a staunch conservative, Rafsanjani sympathized with anti-government protesters during the so-called Green Revolution following the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. But his state funeral erased such deviations, and the government told potential troublemakers like former reformist President Mohammad Khatami not to attend.

Russian Sanctions

Amid reports that US intelligence agencies warned Donald Trump that Moscow might be poised to blackmail him, Senate Republicans and Democrats joined forces to challenge him over his continued dismissal of allegations that Russian hackers meddled in the US election.

The 10 lawmakers, five from each party, introduced sweeping legislation on Tuesday designed to ramp up the sanctions against Russia already levied by the Obama administration, the New York Times reported.

“We should all be alarmed by Russian attacks on our nation,” the paper quoted Republican Sen. John McCain as saying.

US intelligence officials released a declassified report Friday that said Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an “influence campaign” to undercut public faith in the US political process and to damage Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

But that news paled in comparison to more recent, unsubstantiated reports that US intelligence agencies warned Trump that Russian agents may seek to blackmail him with alleged video footage of Russian prostitutes defiling a Ritz-Carlton bed where President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama had stayed on a previous occasion at Trump’s request.

Using Twitter, Trump decried the report as “FAKE NEWS — A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”

DISCOVERIES

Horribly Funny

The Islamic State’s brutal patriarchal culture is no laughing matter.

But given that the group’s goal is to be feared in the West, is it fair game for satirists?

That’s exactly what Britons are debating after the premiere of a new sketch on the BBC Two series “Revolting.”

“The Real Housewives of ISIS” attracted millions of views on social media after its debut – and just as much controversy, the New York Times reports.

The sketch – which opens with a British woman donning hijab and lamenting that “it’s only three days to the beheading, and I’ve got no idea what I’m going to wear!” – has some reeling from the BBC’s decision to greenlight the show.

Still, others see the series as a poignant attack on the fanatical group.

“The whole point of satire is to bring people down to a level,” Irfan Mansor, who identifies himself as a Muslim, wrote on BBC Two’s Facebook page. “If you can mock something, you’re not scared of it.”

Click here to see the sketch for yourself.

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