Tracking Islamic State
Thursday 27 April 2017
Protecting the lives of their soldiers is obviously of paramount importance, but the military battle against IS on the ground in Mosul will only eventually yield one winner. The issue is then what comes next. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)
The coalition battling to take the Iraqi city of Mosul from the extremist group Islamic State (IS) is closing in. Earlier this year, coalition forces captured eastern Mosul (the city is bisected by the Euphrates River) and are now squeezing the city's western half.
According to Brett McGurk, the U.S. State Department's special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter IS, the Islamic State group is trapped.
"Just last night, the Ninth Iraqi Army Division, up near Badush, just northwest of Mosul, cut off the last road out of Mosul," he said last week. "Any of the fighters who are left in Mosul, they're going to die there, because they're trapped. So we are very committed to not just defeating them in Mosul, but making sure these guys cannot escape."
Progress has been slow, but with good reason. As James Miller, managing editor of The Interpreter magazine notes: "The coalition is being very cautious. IS is throwing suicide bombers, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs, in essence car bombs), snipers, and booby traps at the advancing soldiers. As a result, progress is slow -- which is smart, because IS's military defeat is all but certain and each coalition death is just fodder for their propaganda and a major hit to coalition morale. Second, there is also a balance between quickly freeing civilians and avoiding heavy fighting which might kill civilians. ... The reality is that IS is an invader, the civilians are human shields, but IS must be defeated and must not be allowed to spread."
In truth, the coalition forces need to be cautious for a third, perhaps even greater, reason. Protecting the lives of their soldiers is obviously of paramount importance, but the military battle against IS on the ground in Mosul will only eventually yield one winner. The issue is then what comes next -- and for this Miller is prescient when he talks about the need to avoid heavy civilian casualties.
Safeguarding civilian life is considered a necessary guiding moral principle for any army, let alone one that seeks to battle an enemy it rightly decries as a barbaric death cult. IS must be defeated, but it must be defeated by a force that refutes its detestable practices. Righteousness must be a strategy of war. This conflict is as much moral as it is military.
But this issue is complicated in the case of the Mosul offensive. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) fly Shi'ite flags freely from their armored vehicles -- the image of Ali, a key figure in Shi'ism, is ubiquitous on the ground. To make matters worse, alongside the ISF fight the highly sectarian, Iran-linked Shi'ite militias, which have on previous occasions massacred Sunni populations in towns they have "liberated" from IS. High civilian casualties must be avoided at all cost to prevent Mosul's majority Sunni population from following in the footsteps of so many other Sunni Iraqis in the face of Shi'ite persecution and flocking to the black flag.
Once IS is driven out of Mosul, it will need soldiers more than ever. The best way to drive a steady supply of new recruits into the arms of IS would be to take the city with utter disregard for human -- specifically Sunni -- life. If that happens, the coalition forces will have simultaneously defeated IS in Mosul but put it on "life support" as it retreats into the desert.
Once it does retreat into the desert, however, all pretense that it is still a state will evaporate. As Miller observes: "Islamic State put a tremendous amount of emphasis on the 'dawla,' their physical territory. It was their main propaganda recruiting tool. Now the caliphate, the physical 'state,' is doomed to fall ... but they've proven that they can slow down the advancing coalition in major cities. After Mosul, the coalition will have to push west into Syria, and I would expect them to get similarly bogged down in major cities and towns in Syria: Al-Bukamal, Deir ez-Zour, and, of course, their capital city, Raqqa."
Nonetheless, IS is in serious trouble: surrounded, cut off from foreign recruits, and in a propaganda retreat. The halcyon days of 2014 and early 2015 -- when it seemed an unstoppable force and drew thousands to its ranks every month -- are long gone.
IS will lose its physical caliphate but -- critically -- the group will not disappear along with it. Rather, its fighters will melt into the desert and continue to fight from there. Like a butterfly regressing back into a caterpillar, the group will regress from fighting like a standing quasi-state army to fighting like the terror group it has always been. And it will not stop. Salafi-Jihadism is as strong as ever -- as the continuing success of the Taliban and numerous Al-Qaeda franchises shows.
Alongside military power must come soft power; alongside guns must come words. Coalition forces must push a powerful message -- a counternarrative to IS's narrative of Sunni victimhood and of Shi'ite and Western perfidy. For this, it is crucial that Middle Eastern forces take the lead in the battle against it; that it is Sunnis, Shi'a, and Kurds, not British, Turkish, and American forces that are the primary actors in its downfall.
Those who created IS were defeated before, in Iraq, but they came back -- in a more dangerous and sophisticated form -- because they were able to successfully create a narrative that spoke to many Iraqis and Syrians. It held that foreign and sectarian forces were responsible for all their misfortunes; that, once more, those seeking to exploit the region for their own gain had invaded the Middle East. This mistake must not be repeated.
As Miller concludes: "Sectarianism and the narrative that the United States is fighting a war against Islam, or at least against Sunni Islam, are the most important enemies to defeat. And they can't be killed with bombs."
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
The world is becoming ever more tumultuous. But amid the general storm one country can be relied upon to maintain a sanguine -- and sanguinary -- course: Vladimir Putin's Russia. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)
The world is becoming ever more tumultuous. But amid the general storm one country can be relied upon to maintain a sanguine -- and sanguinary -- course: Vladimir Putin's Russia.
The Russian president has, with stolid determination, taken advantage of the world's focus on the political upheaval in Europe and the United States to quietly advance his foreign-policy agenda. On January 29, after months of (relative) quiet in Ukraine, separatist forces backed by Russia launched a large attack against the city of Avdiyivka, just north of Donetsk airport in the country's east. At least four Ukrainian soldiers were killed in a single day, and the entire Ukrainian military was put on alert across the front. Since then, increased fighting and heavy casualties has again shaken faith that a cease-fire, and a permanent peace, can be established.
Putin's main foreign-policy goal is clearly the destabilization of Ukraine -- and he continues to do so while barely provoking a squeak of protest from the international community. And it appears that foreign-policy goal No. 2, Russian interference in Syria, is escalating, too.
It was almost a year ago, following a series of defeats for Western-backed rebel groups in Syria, that Putin declared that "the objectives [that were] set for the Defense Ministry to be generally accomplished" in Syria. He would, he further announced, be withdrawing the "main part" of the Russian expeditionary force that had been deployed to the country to prop up Moscow's client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and to protect its naval facility at Tartus.
The vow to withdraw proved premature, as Russia actually increased its presence and ramped up its bombing of Syria's rebels and civilians alike with an almost gleeful abandonment. But, on December 29, 2016, coinciding with a Russian and Turkish-brokered cease-fire following the recapture of Aleppo, Putin again ordered Russian forces to leave the region. Again the time seemed ripe. Following the regime's recapture of the rebel stronghold of Aleppo and several other key victories it was clear that Assad would not be overthrown; the rebels would not win. For Moscow it was "Mission Accomplished."
The beginning of 2017 accordingly saw what appeared to be a genuine withdrawal from the Mediterranean of a naval group led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, announced that "in accordance with the decision of the supreme commander of the Russian armed forces, Vladimir Putin, the Russian Defense Ministry is beginning the reduction of the armed deployment to Syria."
However, right away there were signs that once again Russia was not pulling back from Syria. Shortly after that, two U.S. officials told Fox News that Russia had deployed four new fighter jets, the Su-25 (similar to the U.S. Air Force's A-10), which is used for close air support and has reinforced armor to protect them from ground fire.
Russian air strikes, it seems, are not going to be stopping any time soon.
The escalation is not particularly large but it is significant. As Jonathan Spyer, director of the Rubin Center for Research on International Affairs who has reported extensively from Syria and Iraq, tells RFE/RL: "Russia is there to defend the Assad regime and ensure its continuation, and it can be expected to ensure sufficient forces to achieve this goal. Russia's presence ensures that rebel victory is no longer a possibility in the Syrian war. At the same time, Russia's end goal may well not be the forcible reunification of the entire country by Assad/Iran, but rather a semi-frozen conflict in which the regime survives."
A semi-frozen conflict -- words that echo in both Syria and Ukraine.
Any idea that Assad could regain all of Syria is absurd to the point of fantasy. But this bothers his backers Iran and Russia not one whit. Both would be happy to see a loose, truncated "Assadistan" that secures Iran's land bridge to Hizballah in Lebanon, through which it can better fight Israel by proxy for geopolitical mastery of the Middle East. Russia, meanwhile, will be satisfied with securing its naval facility and proving to the world and its own people that it can protect its client; that it is the only superpower capable of winning wars in the Middle East; and that it alone is "fighting terrorism," while positioning itself as the primary peace broker. The message will be heard, as unequivocal as it is loud: Moscow is a global player once more.
The narrative does not need to be true. Because of course Russia's stated aim -- that it entered the Syrian conflict to fight jihadism, notably in its most virulent manifestation, the Islamic State (IS) group, is largely a lie. The "global war" on jihadism is perhaps the great military trope of our age. And it is both a trope that withstands scrutiny and a war that needs fighting -- unyieldingly and relentlessly. It also, however, provides the perfect cloak for a state with imperial ambitions within which to envelope itself.
As Spyer further notes, Russia has done little to fight IS. Indeed, most of its efforts have been directed against more mainstream Syrian rebel groups fighting Assad. The primary ground partners of the Western coalition in the war against IS are the Syrian Defense Forces, which is essentially an offshoot of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), plus a few others. In truth, neither the Russians, nor Assad, nor the Iranians, nor their Sunni rebel enemies are majorly involved in the war on terror in Syria.
A 'Superpower' Returns
Nonetheless, Russia's strongman will brag about how he was able to bring disparate groups to the negotiating table to seek a permanent peace. A deal will be (or has already been) cut between Turkey, Iran, the Syrian government, and perhaps even the Trump administration in the United States. In Ukraine, Russia brags that it has pushed for a diplomatic solution to that crisis through the Minsk peace process. Even if Russia were to find permanent diplomatic solutions, either in eastern Ukraine or in the Middle East, it would be only finding solutions to problems it played a leading role in creating.
With a declining economy and a population in desperate need of placation, Russia's global ambitions will almost certainly grow unchecked for the foreseeable future. Yet as the geopolitical wheels turn it is highly likely that Russia may see improved relations with the United States and several major European powers, a reward for "fixing" these crises. This is bad news for global stability and for the liberal, Western system that has largely upheld the international order since World War II, as it only encourages Russia's crimes.
But most immediately it is bad news for the people of Syria, whose suffering seems set to continue. For them, the only foreseeable future is one of more misery -- and more death.
David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the Guardian, Politico, Foreign Policy, The Spectator, The New Republic, The New Statesman, and many others.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
2017, it seems, will be no less chaotic than its predecessor -- an aphorism made plain by a mere glance at the state of international politics extending from Paris to Washington. But nowhere is this trend clearer than in that most tumultuous of countries, Syria. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL)
2017, it seems, will be no less chaotic than its predecessor -- an aphorism made plain by a mere glance at the state of international politics extending from Paris to Washington. But nowhere is this trend clearer than in that most tumultuous of countries, Syria. The end of 2016 saw the fall of the city of Aleppo, the primary stronghold of the rebels battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now, it appears, the rebels are beginning to turn on one another.
On January 26, the Syrian Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham incorporated six other rebel groups into its ranks in northwestern Syria in order to battle Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), a former Al-Qaeda franchise once known as the Al-Nusra Front.
The announcement came just days after JFS attacked Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups west of Aleppo, accusing them of conspiring against it at Russian-backed peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, that began in the closing days of January.
In reality, JFS's attack is rooted in weakness. Over the summer, as the siege of Aleppo progressed, JFS played an increasingly important role in the defense of the city, using suicide bombers to blow open Assad's front line positions. This forced Russia and Iran to commit more resources to the battle, which eventually turned the tide.
Since the Assad coalition's seizure of eastern Aleppo in December, JFS and the rebels in general have found themselves boxed in. Their options are running out. Idlib remains their only major stronghold in northwestern Syria.
The more moderate, mainstream factions among the rebels have had a problem since the second summer of the Syrian civil war: Jihadist groups have consistently proved themselves to be the most effective fighting force against Assad. Syrians were initially reluctant to deal with, let alone welcome, forces like JFS, but without sufficient support, groups like the FSA -- made up primarily of former Syrian army officers -- were forced to accommodate the more committed radical groups.
The loss of Aleppo has given JFS a chance to consolidate power. As Hassan Hassan, co-author of the New York Times bestseller, ISIS: Inside The Army Of Terror, and resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, observes:
"JFS has sought to bring the rebel forces under one umbrella to run the north, especially focusing on Islamist and jihadist groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nourreddin al-Zinki. With the failure of the merger attempts and the loss of eastern Aleppo, JFS wanted to consolidate its dominance in the north by force. So the ongoing campaign by JFS against some rebel forces is designed to clean up these areas to rule what remains of the north. JFS recognizes it is the most powerful and organized group in that region, and that its rivals are incapable of effectively organizing against it."
As Hassan further observes, JFS's end game is to ensure that Idlib and surrounding areas do not have the forces capable of eventually turning against it. JFS would usually seek consensus, build alliances, and infiltrate small and big groups to ensure it remains ahead of the curve.
But the rapid developments over the past few months have added urgency to its open campaign. These developments include the participation of major groups operating in the north in the Russia-sponsored peace talks that are under way in Astana. As the pro-Assad coalition is building up military and political momentum in northern Syria, JFS cannot afford to continue to play its old game of playing nice with fellow anti-Assad forces.
Indeed, things are becoming ever more chaotic in Syria's north. In the city of Azaz, an FSA group, the Levant Front, clashed with the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, which reportedly captured its headquarters and some checkpoints, forcing it to withdraw fighters from a battle it was fighting against the extremist group Islamic State (IS) in the neighboring city of Al-Bab. To make matters worse, the fighting prompted Turkey to close the border crossing at Oncupinar, across from the Syrian city of Bab al-Salam -- a critical corridor for Turkish support to certain rebel factions in northern Syria.
Rise Of The Jihadists
Jihadist groups now stand ascendant among the coalition battling Assad. JFS in particular has spent years ensuring its indispensability to the antiregime effort. Those opposing the JFS are unlikely to succeed in any open war against it. The FSA and associated groups fought against IS in 2014, when they were much stronger -- a campaign that cost them dearly. Those groups simply cannot afford to fight against JFS as well. As it stands, little can stop JFS from near total control of northwestern Syria.
All of this is of course a gift to Assad. Not only are the rebels fighting among themselves, and in the process weakening the coalition against him, but the regime can double down on a longstanding propagandist tactic of arguing that it is on the front lines of the battle against Jihadism. "Us or them?" runs the argument: an argument that, though largely fallacious, is being strengthened by the day.
Indeed, Turkey -- once seen as the great ally of the FSA and a direct threat to the Assad government -- is now fighting virtually side by side with Syrian soldiers in the campaign against IS in Al-Bab. The regime may be witnessing either a rebel implosion or a jihadist takeover of the opposition, both of which it will welcome with glee. It will help Turkey defeat IS while Al-Qaeda linked groups prosper.
This is a calculated move by the Assad regime, which has shown little interest in confronting jihadists of any stripe.
As Hassan concludes: "It is important to remember Idlib is small, it is only 1.5 percent of Syrian geography. Northwestern Syria is the only area where Al-Qaeda is dominant, so it is a major battle that the international community should keep its eyes on and try to shape."
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
There are at least four separate coalitions that claim to be battling the extremist group Islamic State (IS). Three of those coalitions are reporting great success, and the failures of the fourth coalition tell us many things about the state of regional and geopolitical affairs. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)
There are at least four separate coalitions that claim to be battling the extremist group Islamic State (IS). Three of those coalitions are reporting great success, and the failures of the fourth coalition tell us many things about the state of regional and geopolitical affairs.
The physical "dawla," or "state," that was solidified by IS in 2014 at one point stretched from northwestern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad in Iraq. Now it is attacked on all sides and is rapidly shrinking.
On the eastern front, the Iraqi government, the Kurdish peshmerga, Turkish military units, Iraqi militias, U.S. Special Forces, and a broad coalition of international air support led by the United States has liberated Ramadi and Fallujah from IS control and is now rapidly retaking IS's western Iraqi stronghold, Mosul. It has been a tough fight, but progress in Mosul is now daily, or even hourly, news.
On the western front, in Syria, the Turkish military and Syrian rebels have dealt major blows to IS. Azaz, Jarabulus, Mari, and (most importantly) Dabiq have all been liberated from IS since August. The Turkish coalition has met heavy resistance in the IS stronghold of Al-Bab, but they are making progress in cleaving IS's territory in two pieces. IS's defeat is only a matter of time -- and lives.
At IS's center, the U.S. backed Syrian Defense Force (SDF), made up largely of Kurdish fighters, has eaten a giant crater in the northern part of IS's territory. The SDF is now threatening the IS capital, Raqqa, which is now regularly targeted by U.S. and coalition air strikes.
Together these three coalitions are besieging all of IS's most important cities. They are threatening to capture IS's most important oil and gas resources as well. Perhaps most importantly, the United States believes that it has trapped many of the extremist group's most important leaders in this area.
It's hard to imagine, then, that a fourth coalition, fighting for far less important outposts, would be losing ground to IS's offensives.
This fourth group is the coalition supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It is made up of Russian soldiers, special forces, and private mercenaries (many of whom cut their teeth during Russia's invasion of Ukraine), as well as commandos from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Lebanese Hizballah extremists, and Shi'ite militiamen from Iraq. The purported mission of this coalition is to fight terrorists. And yet they have often let extremist groups like IS expand their territory while they concentrated on defeating U.S.-backed rebel groups, some of which were specifically organized to fight IS.
During the pro-Assad coalition's campaign to capture Aleppo from anti-Assad rebels, IS launched a surprise operation to recapture the historic city of Palmyra. IS easily won a victory there because so few military units were left to guard the city.
Even though the battle for Aleppo has ended in an Assad victory, IS has been allowed to expand its territory west of Palmyra. Though heavy battles are being waged near this city today, nothing like a full-scale operation has been launched to halt the IS advance. Though Russia announced it was withdrawing from Syria, evidence suggests that the opposite is true, and the focus of Russia's military might in particular has been moderate rebel groups north of Damascus -- not Al-Qaeda-linked groups in the north, and not IS near Palmyra.
All of this seems to confirm what evidence has told us all along -- that the Russian-led victory in Palmyra nearly one year ago had little to do with fighting terrorism, but was simply an opportunity to spread the propaganda that Russia and Assad were standing up to IS.
Last week, new evidence emerged that Russia and Assad may have had a mutually beneficial relationship with IS rather than an adversarial one, though that relationship dynamic appears to be changing.
The Syrian city of Deir ez-Zour has been largely controlled by IS since 2015, but an oddly shaped part of the city and its surrounding areas have remained under the control of the Syrian military. Most importantly, the military airport has never fallen to IS, allowing the Syrian regime to continue to move troops, ammunition, and supplies into and out of the city. In the last week or so, IS has launched a concerted effort to drive the Syrian military from those positions.
Russia is now scrambling to bomb IS as the extremist group has cut Assad's position there in two.
It is a tale told in two maps -- last week, as IS was collapsing in Mosul, it was advancing in Deir ez-Zour.
But Deir ez-Zour is more than 250 kilometers away from the nearest Assad-held position in Syria, in the heart of IS's caliphate. If IS could have seriously threatened those positions, why did this only happen now when it is in such a weakened state?
Russian propaganda networks and pro-Assad journalists would have us believe that the United States is allowing large numbers of IS fighters to withdraw west to Deir ez-Zour. We have not seen any evidence to support this conclusion. Furthermore, any IS extremists who escape Mosul could threaten U.S. Special Forces who are operating in Syria, so this strategy would make little sense. Even if it were true, why would IS wait until it was so weak to launch a new offensive, rather than send those forces to any of its more important positions that are in need of reinforcement?
The obvious answer is that IS has allowed the Syrian military to hold those positions, and the Syrian military has given little cause for IS to change its mind. Though battles have certainly been fought between these two groups before in Syria, the situation there has been mutually beneficial for Assad and IS. By keeping its positions there, the Syrian government has been able to maintain that it is locked in a desperate struggle against IS extremists. IS's proximity to Syrian military positions has discouraged U.S. coalition air strikes against the extremist group. Instead, when the U.S. had intelligence on potential high-value targets within Deir ez-Zour earlier in the month it launched a risky special-forces raid on the outskirts of the city.
IS is collapsing. It needs victories. And so it is attacking Syrian positions, in Palmyra and Deir ez-Zour, because it knows that it can probably win. Experts have repeatedly warned us from the start of this conflict that the Syrian government played a role in the creation of IS. We should not be surprised that the pro-Assad coalition and IS have at best taken advantage of a mutually beneficial relationship and at worst have openly colluded to create the mess in Syria and Iraq that we see today. If the West is to take the fight against IS seriously, it should do so with eyes open as to the motives of both the Assad government and the foreign powers, particularly Russia, that support it.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
The dawn of the new year has unsurprisingly witnessed global media turn toward the incoming U.S. administration with an intensity bordering on the obsessive. Meanwhile, events of arguably equal or greater importance are sacrificed in favor of the story of the day. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)
The dawn of the new year has unsurprisingly witnessed global media turn toward the incoming U.S. administration with an intensity bordering on the obsessive. Cabinet confirmations, Russia's alleged hacking activities, and intelligence agency squabbles now dominate international headlines.
Meanwhile, events of arguably equal or greater importance are sacrificed in favor of the story of the day. Nowhere is this failing clearer than with the lack of recent coverage of the ongoing campaign to drive the extremist group Islamic State (IS) from one of its last remaining urban strongholds: Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul.
The battle for Mosul is as much symbolic as it is strategic. The city stands at the center of IS's emergence as a global force of terror.
Before IS took Mosul on June 10, 2014, security services largely dismissed the threat it posed. The prevailing attitude was perhaps best summed up in U.S. President Barack Obama's interview with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker magazine, in January of that year.
"The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate," he said, "is if a J.V. team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant."
But the "JV team" entered the big leagues when it captured Mosul. Indeed, it was the city's seizure that allowed its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to announce on June 30, 2014, the establishment of IS's long-standing goal of an Islamic caliphate that straddles Iraq and Syria. At its peak, the caliphate encompassed an area the size of Great Britain. No extremist group in modern history had been so successful. IS, with the wealth captured from stolen oil fields, looted antiquities, and "taxes" levied on the population under its control, became hugely wealthy. It ran hospitals. It had its own police force and administrative authorities. It was a state in almost everything except formal recognition. The global brand that IS has become was only made possible through its capture of Mosul 2 1/2 years ago.
As we enter 2017, things look very different indeed.
The group has lost vast swaths of territory. Along with Raqqa in Syria, Mosul is the last major urban center left under the group's control. Its once seeming invincibility -- its inexorable march across the Middle East that drew thousands of recruits from across the Arab world, South and Central Asia, and the West toward the black flag -- is long gone.
Now IS is attacked from all sides. On the western edge of IS's "state," Turkish forces and Syrian rebel groups dealt the extremist group some serious defeats over the late summer. They are besieging the IS stronghold of al-Bab and are pushing deeper into IS territory, though those efforts have slowed considerably in recent weeks.
In the center of the caliphate, U.S.-backed Kurdish forces are advancing downward from northern Syria, just west of the IS capital city of Raqqa. That campaign is making significant gains, though that success could breed more problems since Turkey considers these forces to be linked to a terrorist organization.
On the eastern front, Iraqi security forces backed by Turkish Army units, Kurdish militia groups, U.S. Special Forces, and coalition air strikes, are advancing. The operation to retake the city, which began late last year, saw the coalition make strong initial progress as several villages and towns around the city were seized before the offensive slowed.
That changed on January 13, when Iraqi special forces entered Mosul University and took control of a neighborhood bordering the university and the technical institute within the campus.
"We broke through the terrorists' defenses and we destroyed their lines and their units and their bases," said Major General Sami al-Aridi, who oversaw the operation.
Iraqi forces have now almost completely surrounded Mosul, but the city's layout makes taking it difficult. Bisected by the Tigris River into eastern and western halves, Mosul contains two distinct sections that will have to be conquered in order to drive IS out for good. Iraqi security forces are pushing heavily into IS's eastern front (where the university is), but the extremists still maintain a stranglehold on the city's west.
More alarmingly, IS has had ample time to prepare for the assault. The city will undoubtedly be filled with booby traps to inflict as many casualties on Iraqi security forces as possible once they enter the city. Meanwhile, IS militants have dug tunnels and fortifications that will further increase the difficulties facing Mosul's potential liberators.
As Alberto Fernandez, vice president at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), observes: "It is a very tough fight and not unexpected. Mosul is the single-largest population center left to ISIS. In the past (such as in Ramadi), they fought hard and eventually cracked, and this may happen again."
The fight will be difficult. It will be bloody. It may even be long. But it is difficult to see anything other than IS's eventual expulsion from the city. The question then naturally arises: What comes next?
Fernandez rightly points out that "two big questions will be: What shape [Iraqi security forces] will be in on total liberation day; and can local governance be (even slightly) more effective and inclusive than it was in 2014? ISIS will survive the fall of Mosul but will be diminished, and there will be more pressure on it to show that it can still model its global ambition and inspire more international acts of mayhem."
Part of the reason IS was able to grow so large and so fast in such a short space of time was that it took advantage of the harsh sectarian rule of former Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki. Maliki's exclusion of Sunnis from government, combined with a series of national policies designed to persecute them across Iraq, drove many into the arms of IS as the only counterweight to the suffering they endured. Mosul may well be liberated, but once that happens it will have to be governed efficiently or else Baghdad will have driven IS out but failed to solve the underlying problems that led -- in part -- to the city's capture in the first place.
As far as IS goes, once Mosul falls, so does any remaining realistic claim that the group still controls a state of any kind. But, as Fernandez points out, IS will not go quietly into the night. Instead, the group will seek to its expand its extremist activities, ideally (as far as it is concerned) in the West.
This is the Catch-22 facing the world. The more defeats IS suffers in the Middle East, the more it must expand its operations abroad. The more military battles with tanks and soldiers it loses, the more it will resort to classic terror tactics of suicide bombers and lone gunmen.
IS may be losing battles, but the war is still a long way from being won.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
2017 has begun in much the same way 2016 ended: with the world in an uproar over yet another act of bloodshed claimed by the extremist group Islamic State. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)
2017 has begun in much the same way 2016 ended: with the world in an uproar over yet another act of bloodshed claimed by the extremist group Islamic State.
In the early hours of January 1, 2017, a gunman opened fire on crowds ringing in the New Year at a trendy Istanbul nightclub, killing 39 and injuring 69 more.
Like the IS-claimed Christmas market attack in Berlin that left 12 dead and scores injured in December, the massacre has reaffirmed the extremist group's international reach. For Turkey, which has vowed to carry on with its military campaign against IS in Syria, it is an ominous sign of a long year to come.
The target, popular with celebrities and foreign tourists, appeared to be carefully chosen. A high-profile nightspot where people gather to drink alcohol and dance, it is a symbol of the country's secular culture, which has come under threat from the increasingly autocratic and Islamist rule of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan was quick to blame terror groups that were "trying to create chaos" and "demoralize our people and destabilize our country."
Even before Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, all evidence pointed to it being their work. It is unclear why IS waited more than 24 hours before taking credit, but as New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi, an expert on jihadist groups, explained via a series of tweets, IS has been traditionally more reluctant to claim responsibility for mass atrocities than for targeted killings in Sunni-majority countries (likely for fear of alienating its supporters). Set against this, she continued, has been an upsurge in anti-Turkish IS rhetoric that has included calls for attacks against the country, including from the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Both the timing and nature of the attack bore the hallmarks of a classic IS attack. Since Turkish forces crossed the border into Syria in August, Ankara has made itself a target for a variety of forces engaged in the country's vicious civil war. Turkish troops are now battling not only IS but also Kurdish factions allied with U.S.-backed rebels fighting the Syrian government.
By entering the war directly, Turkey de facto aligned itself with Russia, with which it recently worked to broker a fragile cease-fire, even though the two countries back different sides. Following the failed coup in July, Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin before bringing his troops across Syria's border. The relationship between the two has been unusually pleasant since. Even after Moscow's ambassador to Ankara was assassinated in late December, Putin and Erdogan appeared to move closer together, not further apart, arguing that the violence was intended to undermine their efforts to work together to fight terrorism. Russia is also -- ostensibly -- fighting IS. In reality, however, Moscow is more concerned with fighting other Syrian opposition groups to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power and has come to be loathed by the rebels.
Moreover, like Russia, self-interest lies behind Turkey's intervention: Its stated objective of overthrowing Assad is not the priority. Rather, Ankara is more concerned with defeating Kurdish groups allied to the rebels, which, with their separatist designs, it considers an existential threat to Turkish sovereignty. All of this has some analysts believing that Erdogan and Putin may have made some sort of bargain for Syria, likely resulting in the partitioning of the country, with some areas under Turkish influence or control and the rest in the hands of Assad.
"With [Turkey's] recent alliance with Russia, it has effectively placed itself at odds with the Syrian opposition, as well as more extreme elements," explains Rashad Ali, a senior fellow at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an organization dedicated to combating extremism. "The level of infiltration of [Al-Qaeda] and IS in Turkey, as well as its indigenous problems, already make managing the various security threats more and more complicated and difficult."
This can only be tackled "with local intelligence and municipal-level cooperation with the state and global apparatus," Ali adds. "Whilst Turkey is generally commended for how it has dealt with the fallout of the [Assad government's] war against the Syrian people, its political stance of prioritizing the Kurdish question over its former stance of diplomatic and strategic support for the Syrian rebel factions means it has inadvertently placed itself on the opposite side of the Syrian people, not just the extremist factions."
Ali also points out that -- as a moderate Islamist and increasingly authoritarian regime that is allying tactically with the West -- Turkey is seen by IS as being almost worse than the extremist group's sectarian enemy, the Shi'a.
"IS may describe the Shi'a as rawafidh (those who reject) and majus (magicians), but the secularized sellout Islamists and the sellout Wahhabis are more culpable in their hypocrisy," Ali says.
As ever, the apostate is despised more than the infidel.
Shift To More Traditional Terrorism
Critically, Turkey's entrance into the Syrian civil war also comes at a time when IS is suffering repeated losses on the ground. The so-called caliphate it once controlled -- and that was, at its peak in 2014, an area the size of Great Britain -- has shrunk drastically. The "victory" narrative that was once the foundation of IS propaganda has long receded. Turkish forces are now playing an integral role in the drive to push IS from Iraq's second city of Mosul. It was the city's capture in June 2014 that gave Baghdadi the confidence to declare the establishment of the caliphate that same month.
As IS has suffered on the ground, it has been forced to switch its focus. Military defeats damage the group's "brand" and must be supplemented with successes elsewhere. These have consistently taken the form of terror attacks abroad, which allow the group to project power internationally and ensure it remains in global headlines.
IS's November 2015 attack on the Bataclan theater in Paris and its surrounding areas, in which a combination of coordinated suicide bombings and shootings killed 130 people and injured almost 400 others, echoes the January 1 attack in Istanbul: A high-profile venue in which revelers drank and danced, activities considered haram (forbidden or proscribed by Islamic law), was targeted by gunmen who fired into the crowd.
Outrage -- and its attendant publicity -- has brought IS directly into people's living rooms once more.
"IS has decided to project its war elsewhere, away from the focus point from its loss of territory," Ali explains. "But also like all terrorism, it serves multiple purposes, including projecting power as well as diverting resources away and eyes and attention away from its losses. It has been preparing to return to its primary focus as a guerrilla-type and terrorist outfit, which we will see more of regionally and more attempts globally. A diffused IS means a diffused strategy of terrorism."
In short, the bloodshed and killing is likely to continue for a long time to come -- with disastrous consequences for innocent civilians from the Middle East to the heart of Europe.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
While IS and bloody defeats in its strongholds make headlines, more silent threats loom large.
In 2014, the world was gripped by news of two deadly epidemics.
Both were bloody, vicious afflictions that killed many who came in contact with them. Local populations were being devastated, but so, too, were foreigners who traveled to affected areas to help. Fears spread quickly that both would cross borders, infect cities, and threaten major events. There was panic on TV and in world capitals as politicians and pundits debated shutting borders or even denying travel to people from affected countries.
One, the Ebola virus, has been largely contained geographically and combated with proper equipment and training, and no longer captures headlines. It is a terrifying killer that has claimed around 15,000 lives since its detection in 1976. But it is arguably less devastating on a global scale than, say, HIV/AIDS, which has killed more than 3 million people since its identification in 1981, or malaria, which kills hundreds of thousands of people each year. Simply put, Ebola has so far been isolated and made to burn itself out.
The other affliction, the extremist ideology of Islamic State (IS), shares some attributes with Ebola hemorrhagic fever. Both kill victims in terrifying, public, and cruel manners. While Ebola's victims often bleed to death, IS has crucified, beheaded, or burned its victims alive, among other methods. It is the stuff of nightmares.
But by sheer numbers, IS has killed relatively few people worldwide. The University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism has estimated that more than 33,000 people were killed by IS or other terrorist groups loyal to IS between 2002 and 2013. For perspective: There are estimates that as many as 1 million people have been killed in Syria between 2011 and 2016 -- only a tiny fraction of them by IS.
Just as Ebola essentially disappeared from public debate in the past year, major news outlets may not be talking about IS a year from now. Also as with Ebola, media attention could snap right back to 24-hour panic mode if fears arise of a new outbreak.
But more troublingly, in the case of IS, such a focus could lead to complacency about an arguably more dangerous threat: the growing cloud of Al-Qaeda, which has benefited tremendously from the events of the last few years.
The Collapse Of The Physical State
The "dawla," or "state" -- the physical territory controlled by IS -- once stretched from just west of Baghdad, Iraq, to just east of Aleppo, Syria. The region has essentially operated as a quasi-state, run by extremists -- with local governance, tax collection, industry, law and order, border control, and a multifaceted intelligence apparatus, to say nothing of the obvious: a military.
And today the "dawla" looks to be in total collapse.
On the eastern front, a U.S.-backed coalition of Iraqi Shi'ite militias, the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi government, a collection of international air forces, and U.S. special forces are hammering away at IS in Iraq. Ramadi and Fallujah have fallen to this coalition, which has now set its sights on Mosul. Once that northern Iraqi city is retaken, IS will have lost its de facto capital in Iraq. Only weaker pockets of surrounded IS fighters will remain.
At IS's center, the U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Force (SDF) has pushed from northern Syria down like a dagger toward Raqqa, the heart of IS territory. Mostly comprising Kurdish forces aligned with the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG (considered a terrorist group in Turkey), the SDF has captured the most territory from IS over the last two years. Throughout the summer, the SDF also pushed west of the Euphrates River, capturing territory along the Turkey-Syria border.
It appears to have been SDF progress that prompted another country -- Turkey -- to intervene on IS's western front. Since the Turkish government considers the YPG to be an enemy of the Turkish state, the loss of the border to the Kurdish group is something that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was clearly unwilling to accept.
Less than a month after Turkey's failed coup on July 15, Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then, on August 24, Turkish military units crossed the border into IS-controlled territory, capturing key towns near the border that seemed bound to fall to the SDF without Turkish intervention.
Turkey continues to advance. In October, Turkish forces attacked the town of Dabiq. While not militarily important, Dabiq was a sufficiently important symbol for IS's English-language propaganda magazine to have been named after the town. According to the Hadith, an ancient text that reportedly recorded some of the teachings and acts of the Prophet Muhammad, a great apocalyptic battle between the followers of Islam and non-believers was to take place there.
What better symbol could there be for the Ebola of geopolitics than control of the city from which the apocalypse starts? And yet IS fighters left the town without a fight, a symbol to some that the collapse of the "state" was inevitable and might accelerate.
Now, Turkish forces and moderate Syrian rebels are besieging the IS stronghold of Al-Bab, once a symbol of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which was held by moderate rebels backed by Turkey and the United States before IS seized it in the summer of 2013.
This fight on the western edge of the would-be caliphate, like those on the eastern front in Mosul and in Raqqa, will be a tough one. But IS's military defeat in all three places is all but certain. In all likelihood, the territorial "Islamic State" as we have come to know it will be gone by the close of 2017.
But does that really mean the extremist group IS will simply disappear?
The Evolution Of A Disease
Despite media reports touting the imminent death of Islamic State, not a single expert interviewed for this article said they believed that the recapturing of IS territory in Iraq and Syria would mark the end of that group. There's a simple reason for this: history. IS has been militarily defeated before -- under a different name -- and it came back more virulent than ever.
In their book, ISIS: Inside The Army Of Terror, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan trace the beginnings of IS back to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi, a Jordanian-Palestinian who became an uneasy ally of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the lead-up to 9/11 and the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Even then, there were clear tensions between the two leaders.
Like the organizations they founded, each leader subscribed to a radical jihadist ideology. Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at King's College London's International Center for the Study of Radicalization, has described the brand of Salafi-Jihadism that Al-Qaeda and IS follow as seeking a return to the practice of Islam in its purest form, as was seen in the earliest days of the religion. As Maher lays out in his new book, Salafi-Jihadism: The History Of An Idea, the goal of these fundamentalist organizations, then, is to create a caliphate, a kingdom on earth to bring about this radical purification.
Kyle Orton, research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, summarizes Maher's writing by saying that Salafi-Jihadism rests on five pillars:
According to Mr. Maher, Salafi-jihadists all adhere to five ideological pillars, and learning to identify them will help us understand an enemy that has shown itself to be highly adaptable. The first of these pillars is jihad, the method by which the Salafi-jihadists' millenarian vision is to be realized, upending the existing world order and creating a utopia. Liberal interpreters of Islam would explain jihad as an internal struggle or an overcoming of the self. But to Salafi-jihadists, it is a military matter and an obligation second only to accepting the faith itself, and must continue until the end of time.
In order to endure, however, revolutions must define an in-group. Jihadists do this through adherence to the pillars of tawhid (the oneness of God) and hakimiyya (God's sovereignty), which define the limits of belief and the nature of legitimate authority. Those who don't belong to the in-group must be shunned, according to the pillar of al-wala wa-l-bara, based on the concepts of al-wala (devotion to god and his believers) and al-bara (the disavowal of and severance from the disbelievers). The final pillar identifies internal corrupters, who must be subject to takfir, or excommunication.
Bin Laden and Zarqawi, and now Al-Qaeda and IS, portrayed themselves as holy warriors fighting to protect Islam from enemies that include imperial powers like Russia, whose troops under Soviet rule occupied Afghanistan, and the United States, which toppled the Taliban and attempted to hunt down Al-Qaeda's leadership after the 9/11 attacks.
Far Versus Near Enemies
But there were significant differences between the two men. Bin Laden was principally concerned with targeting the "far enemy," the foreign "occupiers," non-adherents to Islam, and members of decadent and corrupt societies that had deployed their militaries to what bin Laden regarded as Islamic lands. Zarqawi, on the other hand, was a takfiri, focused on those (including other Muslims) who he believed were undermining Islam itself. Zarqawi considered the Muslim governments that had cooperated with the United States to be a "near enemy" worth killing. In Zarqawi's vision, the "murtad," apostates who betray Islam, are worthy targets of holy war.
Crucially, that interpretation of "murtad" includes not only allies of the West who call themselves Muslims but also all who practice what Zarqawi defined as impure Islam -- including all non-Sunnis.
To bin Laden, this was unacceptable for several reasons. First, bin Laden's mother was a Syrian Alawite -- a sect of Shi'ite Islam -- not Sunni, and so while his theological beliefs likely included Shi'a in the column of people who were not practicing pure Islam, they were not an immediate concern. Second, bin Laden was far more practical, and believed it would be hard to rally fellow Muslims around the cause of toppling domestic, Islamic governments, killing innocent Muslims in the process.
Paving The Way For A Caliphate
Clearly, bin Laden's more pressing target was the non-Muslim foreigners who might be driven from Muslim lands by a concerted effort of bin Laden and those who would follow him. In that sense, zealots might describe bin Laden as someone who was clearing the way for the creation of the caliphate.
Through his works and example, bin Laden hoped to inspire a movement that would eventually become an Islamic state; in order to pave the way, he believed he needed to stand up to foreign powers, principally the United States.
Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda was focused on sending a message, through terrorism, that the United States should withdraw its troops from the Middle East. The death of innocents was not the goal but a method to help achieve that goal. Killing Muslims was acceptable if they died as collateral victims of bin Laden's jihad or if they were working directly with the Americans.
Zarqawi and the organization he founded have concerned themselves with their versions of ideological purity now, the immediate creation of a caliphate, a physical state, and a spiritual state of ideological purity. The deaths of non-believers and impure Muslims has been the goal, and terrorism one method of advancing that goal.
Zarqawi's theology, then, was far too radical -- far too "rigid," to use bin Laden's term -- and far too impractical for it to be compatible with bin Laden's vision.
And yet takfirism -- alleging apostasy by fellow Muslims -- would find the perfect opportunities to take root, first in Iraq and then in Syria.
Zarqawi went to Iraq as early as October 2002, when the United States was already debating the invasion and forcible removal of Saddam Hussein. Bin Laden saw Iraq as an opportunity to bog the United States down in a different conflict, relieving the pressure against his organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Zarqawi was more than willing to accept the assignment, as it was a near-perfect breeding ground for his deeply sectarian worldview. Just barely more than half of Iraqis are Shi'a, but a long line of Sunnis had controlled that country since soon after the end of World War I.
Zarqawi exploited that sectarian dynamic, planting seeds of distrust between Sunnis and Shi'a, conducting terrorist attacks to exploit and widen these tensions, and ultimately seizing control of large parts of the country in order to resist both the foreign invaders and the local Shi'ite government that rose to power after Hussein's removal.
The results are seemingly obvious. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which eventually became Islamic State of Iraq, had captured large parts of the country by 2006. By their reckoning, the caliphate was at hand. But it was not meant to be. Between 2006 and 2008, the United States boosted the number of troops it had on the ground and rallied the local Sunni population to rise up and defeat this radical organization. U.S. officials were able to convince Sunnis that it was AQI's radical theology, its brutal methods, that had destroyed the country: AQI's apocalyptic death cult and its pursuit of ideological purity at any cost ruined the lives of the very people it was supposed to save. It was time for AQI to end.
The levels of violence dropped significantly during that period, frequently referred to as the "Sunni awakening." Groups like the Iraq Body Count, which attempt to monitor the numbers of civilian deaths in the conflict, went from reporting more than 3,000 deaths per month in 2006 to reporting fewer than 500 per month in 2009. The Obama administration, following a document drafted by the Bush administration, withdrew U.S. combat troops from Iraq between 2009 and 2011. As Retired Colonel Peter Mansoor told NPR: "All of the intelligence that we had gathered, all of the results of the surge, all of the detainees we had in our detention system, all of the information we had coming to us from people on the ground, from the tribes, indicated that Al-Qaeda in Iraq was defeated."
But Al-Qaeda in Iraq was not defeated. Like Ebola, the outbreak was over but conditions on the ground that led to the outbreak only worsened between 2011 and 2013. By 2013, the organization that eventually became Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (greater Syria) and, ultimately, Islamic State, had found new breeding grounds just across the border.
With Enough Death, Propaganda Becomes Truth
Early on in the Syrian uprising, protesters in the streets of western and southern Syria were not calling for the removal of the regime. The protesters were demanding reform from the Assad government, which had been in power for 40 years.
What happened next is well documented. Protesters were pushed around by police, but the crowds grew. Then came the tear gas, the beatings, and arrests. The protests spread. By the summer of 2011, the Assad security apparatus had begun to fire into crowds of protesters with live ammunition, and it was soon deploying armored vehicles to Syrian cities like Homs.
In time, many of Assad's soldiers refused to fire on peaceful crowds. Those soldiers were then themselves fired upon, and a peaceful protest movement turned into a revolution, started initially not by the protesters themselves but by those who had been ordered to kill to preserve the regime.
In the early days, a sectarian dynamic was not the defining characteristic of the events in Syria. Yes, Syria, a majority-Sunni state, had been ruled by Shi'ite leaders for four decades. But there were plenty of reasons to be frustrated with Assad that went beyond sectarianism.
Protesters in Hama whom I interviewed in 2011, for example, told me that after witnessing the sectarian madness of Iraq, they were working to avoid encouraging any narrative that would further divide the country or push it toward civil war. But while the opposition movement -- from the grassroots level to the Syrian National Council, a government formed in exile in August of 2011 -- tried to push back against the sectarian narrative, the Assad regime adopted it from the start, branding anyone who opposed Assad's rule as a Sunni terrorist despite the presence within the movement of Kurds, Christians, Shi'a, and Druze.
That is history, however. Current events tell a different tale. In the last four years, the Syrian military and its allies have leveled Sunni neighborhoods and forcibly relocated civilians, and pro-Assad militias have conducted massacres of Sunni villagers in rural areas of the Homs and Hama provinces. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the ideology of Zarqawi and the fighters who follow it decided to make a home in Syria.
Like a perverted phoenix, the ideology of AQI reemerged from the ashes of its defeat in Iraq. Video that appeared during the summer of 2013 showed convoys of armed men crossing the border from Iraq near Al-Bukamal. Soon, the group that would come to be known as IS imposed its strict Shari'a law across large parts of eastern Syria. And while the Syrian government has killed far more people in Syria than IS has, the extremist group has been hauntingly and myopically sectarian.
Iraq, Iran, Hizballah fighters from Lebanon, and extremists from all over the globe have flocked to Syria in order to advance sectarian goals. Predominantly Sunni states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have seemingly backed rebel groups out of sectarian interests. Shi'a-dominated Iran is currently fighting proxy wars against the Sunni Gulf states in both Syria and Yemen. There is no denying that what is going on in Syria and Iraq has become a sectarian land grab that will have consequences for years to come.
Such sectarianism might appear to reinforce Zarqawi's original vision. Sunni extremists are locked in an existential struggle against Shi'ite Muslims, backed by foreign powers (including the United States) and Kurds. Sunni rebels who have opposed IS are locked in a desperate struggle against the Shi'ite Syrian regime backed by Iran's Shi'ite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Shi'ite Hizballah extremists from Lebanon, Shi'ite Iraqi militias, and the might of the Russian military. Civilians, mostly Sunnis, are caught in the crossfire, and in Aleppo and many other places across Syria they are being actively hunted by the pro-Assad coalition.
Those are some of the dynamics that enabled IS to build what it regards as its caliphate, and absolutely none of this will change when IS's caliphate crumbles.
Al-Qaeda's Silent Threat
IS in many ways embodies the worst fears of counterterrorism experts and government officials. It is the complete package, as they say. First, it features an ideology that is far more radical and apocalyptic than that of its predecessor, Al-Qaeda.
Second, IS has been able to control large swaths of territory. This has enabled it to use the economic resources of a small quasi-state to fuel its larger ambitions, and it has provided IS with a physical, palpable symbol -- a seeming embodiment of its ideology. With access to oil pipelines and captured U.S. firepower, by some measures the physical territory poses a greater threat than the Taliban's control of Afghanistan prior to September 11, 2001, which Al-Qaeda utilized to launch its attacks on the other side of the globe.
Third, IS has managed to inspire others, worldwide, to either travel to the Middle East to join the organization or, perhaps more troublingly, to conduct terrorist attacks in their homelands. That syndication effect is neither new nor unique to IS, or even to its rival Al-Qaeda. But what is new is the number of IS sympathizers who have proven willing to make themselves martyrs for Islamic State, and the scale of the violence that has ensued. Insurgencies fueled by IS franchises can be found in Egypt and Libya, across large parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. But terrorists who have declared allegiance to IS have conducted attacks in the United States, France, Belgium, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.
In other words, Islamic State is arguably more dangerous and effective than Al-Qaeda ever was. It is also potentially the next stage of evolution for a radical, violent form of Salafism that has been developing for decades.
Multiple experts consulted by RFE/RL said that Islamic State is likely to see a massive military defeat this year. As with Ebola, however, there could be new outbreaks. Hassan Hassan, a weekly columnist for The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi who is from Al-Bukamal, scene of IS's entrance into Syria from Iraq, warned that the recent Islamic State victory in Palmyra is an excellent example of how the group is likely to go underground rather than go away. "They'll operate as bands until they can take over areas again," Hassan said.
The real and unaddressed problem, however, is that while IS has been burning out, Al-Qaeda -- the ideological construct that was ultimately responsible for the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil in history -- is going strong. Since Al-Qaeda has not generated the same kind of international response as IS has, it has escaped the latter's fate.
Benefiting From Brutality
Again, as with Ebola, those infected with IS's virulent strain of Salafi-Jihadism frequently die quickly. In IS's case, the brutality of its actions has alienated many Sunni Muslims and scared Muslims and non-Muslims of many sects and nationalities into joining the fight and defeating the movement.
But in an odd way, IS has also seemingly advanced Al-Qaeda's goals. Many who do not subscribe to Salafism have fled the Middle East. World powers are afraid of intervening in the region. And IS's extreme levels of violence have normalized Al-Qaeda's (slightly) less radical approach. "Al-Qaeda -- and, more importantly, the Salafi-jihadist ideology and movement -- is spreading; probably the fastest-growing Islamic trend right now," Kyle Orton told RFE/RL.
Unlike Ebola -- but rather akin to AIDS or malaria -- Al-Qaeda's ideology has spread to a much wider population, particularly in Syria. Al-Qaeda elements have even allied themselves with non-radical elements of Syrian society. During the siege of Aleppo, for instance, a massacre conducted by the pro-Assad coalition in which Russia played a role has been front-page news in every corner of the globe.
And yet while world powers have failed to stop the bombing campaigns of the Russian and Syrian air forces, Al-Qaeda elements have played a crucial role in trying to break the siege of the city from the outside. Over the summer, they nearly succeeded when Al-Qaeda suicide bombers blew apart military bases that had been besieged by moderate rebel forces since 2012, nearly reversing the momentum of the Assad regime's military campaign in the north.
Nasser Weddady -- a consultant and influential behind-the-scenes player who was raised in Syria and has worked to combat extremism and find a solution to the conflict -- put it succinctly. By avoiding the kinds of terrifying behavior for which Islamic State is infamous, Al-Qaeda has also avoided alienating Syrians in the same way IS has. And with many thousands of civilians trapped in Aleppo, Al-Qaeda was free to bill itself to the Syrian people as the only effective power that was willing to risk it all to stop the killing.
In the eyes of many Syrians, Weddady told RFE/RL, Al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups "became the saviors, and the West allowed this to happen."
"At the end of the day, you, America, the civilized world, the UN Security Council -- where were you?" Weddady said.
Syrians, Weddady argued, are not "duped" by Al-Qaeda but "they are like a firefighter who comes to your home while your house is on fire: You're not going to tell them to shut off the hose because you disagree with them, or even because you hate them. The world, through inaction or whatever you call it, handed Al-Qaeda a gift on a silver platter, the gift of really defending the people in their hour of need."
Faysal Itani, a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, agreed. Itani has written extensively about how the sectarian nature of the military campaign against IS has jeopardized the fight against the extremist group's ideology. "I think we will see Islamic State bottled up as soon as we have an actual ground force component that we are willing to back without compromising other core interests," he told RFE/RL. "Al-Qaeda is more pernicious and quieter."
He added: "As a whole, the Syrian war might teach people that these people were more trouble than they were worth, but the lesson to outsiders may be lost. I don't know whether [Al-Qaeda] is growing, but it doesn't seem to be receding."
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
Fears that the world is in a pre-1914 period -- slowly drifting toward war -- are rife. Then, an assassination became the spark that caused World War I. Now many are asking whether the killing of a Russian ambassador could be an "Archduke Ferdinand" moment. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)
It could have been a still from a Quentin Tarantino movie: the image of a photogenic young man -- armed and dangerous, and impeccably dressed in a dark suit and white shirt -- surrounded by an audience of TV cameras and smartphones, went viral in minutes.
He shouted in fury while the body of his dead victim lay motionless in the background. His right hand tensed by his side, clutching a gun. His left raised skyward to denote "Tawhid" (the oneness of God), usurping the traditional Muslim symbol for declaring God's unity in prayer, long since subverted by jihadists across the world.
In fact, he got it wrong. He should have raised his right hand, but it had just been used for murder and was otherwise engaged. Even this mistake seemed somehow to encapsulate our posttruth age. It was terrorism of the most contemporary kind, likely not conducted by a well-indoctrinated holy warrior, but by a frustrated, hopeless young man.
Mevlut Mert Altintas, a 22-year-old policeman from Ankara, had just shot dead Andrei Karlov, Russia's ambassador to Turkey. His motives in the December 19 killing seemed clear enough as he shouted a series of religious and political slogans, beginning with an Arabic hadith (an ancient text that reportedly recorded some of the teachings and acts of the Prophet Muhammad) from Sahih al-Bukhari that referenced the Battle of the Trench (Ghazwah al-Khandaq) in which Muhammad and a band of followers tactically overcame a numerically superior army.
The assassin then laid out his grievances in Turkish. "Don't forget Aleppo; don't forget Syria. Don't forget Aleppo; don't forget Syria," he raged. "Until our provinces are safe and secure, you will not taste security," he continued, ordering the crowd to "stay back" before completing his diatribe: "Only death will make me leave this place; and whoever has played a role in this brutality will have to give an account for their actions."
The massive bombing campaign Russia carried out against the Syrian city of Aleppo, allowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces to reclaim the city from rebels, was clearly at the heart of the assassination. Russia killed thousands of Syrians in Aleppo; Altintas killed a Russian official in response, shooting him first in the back, for a reported total of nine times.
This has been a year of tumult, unexpected political events, and geopolitical uncertainty -- including Brexit, the U.S. presidential election, the continuing global refugee crisis, massacre in Syria and Yemen, and more Russian aggression in Ukraine. Fears that the world is in a pre-1914 period -- slowly drifting toward war -- are rife. Then, an assassination became the spark that caused World War I. Now many are asking whether the killing of a Russian ambassador could be an "Archduke Ferdinand moment."
The answer is an unequivocal "no," at least not in the way that some may conceive it. Far from being a source of increased tension between Turkey and Russia, bringing the two countries closer to war, Karlov's assassination could bring them closer together and have repercussions on the ongoing war against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.
Gift To Erdogan
For Turkey, the assassination can be seen as a gift to its increasingly autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who in July crushed an alleged attempted coup against his rule that Ankara claims was orchestrated by the U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is accused of leading what Turkish officials have labeled the Gulenist Terrorist Organization (FETO), and following the botched coup attempt thousands of officials, from the army to the judiciary to even the education system, were arrested or expelled from their posts, accused by the government of being "Gulenists."
Now, in the wake of Karlov's killing, which Gulen has condemned, Ankara has wasted little time laying the blame squarely at the feet of his followers, informing the United States on December 20 that it believed they were responsible.
Erdogan will now have even more of an excuse to purge supposed Gulenists from all branches of government and state apparatuses. A foreign diplomat has been killed: he has a blank check on which to write the names of yet more of those who oppose him. He will only become stronger now.
But his alliance to the United States may become even weaker, a process that has been ongoing for some time but was made worse by the failed coup attempt. Turkey is a NATO ally, but the United States has been slow to act on Ankara's demand that Gulen be extradited immediately to face trial in Turkey over his alleged role in the coup attempt, which the cleric denies.
Green Light For Moscow
As far as Moscow is concerned, the picture, perhaps counterintuitively, could be more advantageous. The killing of a Russian diplomat on Turkish soil is hugely embarrassing to Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin now has significant political leverage over him. The Turkish president is in his debt. The two have had closer relations since the July coup attempt. Instead of that process being interrupted, it will likely gather momentum.
Interestingly, Russian media coverage of the assassination reveals a clear pattern. It is sticking to the Turkish "Gulenist" line, but is taking care to cite it as the Turkish view on events rather than fact.
Moscow is keeping its options open. Soon after the assassination, Putin went on Russian state TV to say that the assassination was "undoubtedly...aimed at disrupting the normalization" of bilateral ties between the two countries. More pertinently, he said it was also aimed at disrupting the "peace process in Syria." And more chillingly, he declared that "there is only one possible response to this -- the strengthening of the fight against terror, and the bandits will feel it themselves."
WATCH: Russian President Vladimir Putin said the killing of his ambassador in Turkey was a "provocation" aimed at spoiling Russia-Turkey relations, and derailing the Syria peace process. He spoke about the incident during a meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Kremlin. (Reuters)
His import was clear. As Karlov's killing will allow Erdogan to further his primary domestic goal -- the crushing of all and any opposition to him -- it will allow Putin to further his primary foreign-policy goal in the Middle East: winning the war in Syria. Russia will now be able to pursue its war with even more confidence that Turkey will not try to stop it. There is suspicion that a deal may have been cut between Erdogan and Putin in August that would allow both Russia and Turkey to advance their own agendas in Syria. That deal will now almost definitely remain in place.
The Russian argument will be clear, and simple, and deadly. A terrorist sympathizer shot a Russian diplomat in revenge for the carnage of Aleppo. The terror threat from IS and other jihadist groups that Russia claims it is fighting in Syria has not diminished. The only response must be to strike at IS and its affiliates harder. Aleppo has fallen. The Russians will not stop. Idlib may well be next. Thus will Putin's Russia continue to project its "imperial power" in the world while at the same time ensuring that its puppet Assad remains in nominal control of the country, preserving Moscow's naval facility at Tartus in the process.
To Putin, it does not matter how much of Russia's narrative is true, and much of it is not. What matters is that Moscow's military campaign remains unchallenged, and its narrative is just one way that the Russian government has ensured that a strong opposition to Putin's methods has yet to materialize, at least not at the state level.
Was the killing of Andrei Karlov an assassination that draws the world one step closer to all-out war? No, it was merely a tragedy that Moscow and Ankara could exploit to further their own political and military ends. This is not a step toward a wider war -- except for the Syrians, many more of whom will now be killed in the name of "fighting IS." This is realpolitik, at its dirtiest and most cynical. It is realpolitik, in the style that has come to characterize the Middle East in the post-Arab Spring era -- just with a Russian twist.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
In the uproar over the collapse of rebel forces in Aleppo, one incident seems to have been forgotten -- Islamic State (IS) militants retaking the ancient city of Palmyra. It was an astounding reversal of fortune given the group's loss of large swathes of its self-proclaimed caliphate over the past six months. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)
December 13, 2016, will live in infamy -- the day the resistance battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces essentially crumbled and yielded their stronghold of the city of Aleppo to government forces. Social media was ablaze with pro-Assad supporters talking of the city's "liberation," while those who vehemently oppose Assad's regime tweeted their despair and fear of the brutalities that might be meted out to the civilian population.
Such fears appear to well-grounded, considering this tweet from the official feed of the United Kingdom's mission to the United Nations:
But in the uproar over Aleppo, one incident seems to have been forgotten. Mere days before the city fell, another event of significance occurred in Syria's never-ending catalogue of military victories and defeats, attacks and retreats, seizures and counter-advances. On December 11, the extremist group Islamic State (IS) recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from the pro-Assad coalition: It was an astounding reversal of fortune given the group's loss of large swathes of its self-proclaimed caliphate over the past six months.
When IS was driven from the city in May, largely thanks to the power of Russian air strikes and, reportedly, private military contractors, it was hailed as vindication for Moscow, which claimed to have joined the Syrian conflict to defeat IS -- despite focusing most of its military firepower against more moderate CIA-backed rebel groups, some of which were fiercely battling IS. Indeed, it appeared that Russia was more concerned with protecting its naval facility at Tartus and propping up Assad than any genuine desire to battle the most successful jihadist group in history.
Even before Russian President Vladimir Putin declared mission accomplished in Syria and announced a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria in April 2016 (a withdrawal that never materialized), Washington had estimated that 80-90 percent of Russian air strikes targeted non-IS rebels.
But the capture of Palmyra, crowed commentators like the Independent's Robert Fisk, proved that this was not the case. Palmyra provided some with the ammunition to advance the narrative that it was in fact Russia, and not the United States, that was truly taking the fight to IS.
Now, barely six months later, Assad's Russian-backed forces have allowed Palmyra to slip from their hands. This is instructive. Russia's original seizure of the city was never about fighting IS. Rather, its goal was two-fold: to seize oil and gas fields in the area, and to score a symbolic victory of recapturing such a historic city from notorious extremists.
Moscow made full propagandistic use of its victory -- holding a concert among the city's ancient ruins, in front of journalists flown in from all over the world, to show the world that it had driven IS from the city. From start to finish it was a marvelously executed spectacle.
Even after the fall of Palmyra, however, Russia had a problem -- a perennial one: the incompetence of Assad. Despite all the assistance he was receiving from his coalition that has kept him in place -- a loose grouping that includes fighters from the Lebanese extremist group Hizballah, Shi'ite militias from Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commandos, and the Russian military and private mercenaries, the rebels began to drive regime forces out of the strategically vital city of Aleppo over the summer.
Russia was, accordingly, forced to turn its attentions to Aleppo -- a city with no IS presence whatsoever -- which it began to pound from the air in order to achieve its true goal -- keeping Assad in power. The result was inevitable -- in both cases. Aleppo fell and Palmyra, now devoid of Russian attention, was retaken by IS -- its first successful territorial conquest in two years.
This was a state of affairs not lost on Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, who tweeted:
What makes matters worse is that Aleppo's fall and Palmyra's recapture come just as Washington has agreed to send 200 more troops to Syria to fight IS.
IS's Treasure Trove
Their job will now be made all the harder -- and more dangerous. Thanks to Russia's abandonment of the city to focus on destroying rebel opposition to Assad in Aleppo, IS easily saw off Syrian forces who were so keen to flee they left behind a treasure trove of military hardware for IS in their wake. According to Syrian expert Hassan Hassan, the National Defense Force, a pro-Assad militia unit, "left most of the heavy weapons without a fight." Amaq, IS's news outlet, he continued, claims that 100 pro-regime fighters were killed in the battle and that, critically, IS seized 30 tanks, six BMP infantry fighting vehicles, six 122mm artillery pieces, other smaller artillery, and "untold antitank missiles, grad missiles, tank shells & ammunition."
A video of IS's spoils of war shows that the extremist group captured artillery pieces, heavy antiaircraft machine guns that pose a potent threat to both helicopters and targets on the ground, crates of Kalashnikov assault rifles, submachine guns, large quantities of artillery and mortar shells, and boxes of ammunition. Beyond this, IS will now be in possession of more supplies that are useful for running a military campaign in the desert. An investigation by The Interpreter shows that bank cards from Russian financial institutions and other items with Cyrillic script are present in the video. Whoever was there before IS showed up -- the Russian military, Russian private military contractors, or someone else -- left in a hurry and left behind a good amount of firepower and equipment.
These are weapons may now be turned against U.S. forces that are genuinely battling IS in Syria and Iraq. IS's seizure of the Jazal oil field, the Al-Mahr oil field, the Jahar gas field and the Hayan gasoline company in the areas surrounding Palmyra could also enable IS to replenish its coffers by selling oil and natural gas from the area once again.
Since there do not seem to be any new developments on the geopolitical front that would change Russia's calculus, it seems clear that Russian efforts to prop up Assad -- and destroy the shrinking nonjihadist opposition -- will continue unabated.
It's a salutary reminder that the fall of Aleppo is a catastrophe for the Syrian people but of little relevance to the fight against IS. In fact, as Palmyra shows, Russian actions have only strengthened the beleaguered Islamic State -- an accomplishment that may possibly be paid for in American lives.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
Many Americans -- especially those of an isolationist bent -- fear Islamic State as a global terrorist threat and support an air campaign against the extremist group but discount its direct threat in Syria as of little concern. This is wrong. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)
On the afternoon of August 31, 2013, French Rafale fighter jets bristled on their runways, readied for war. As far as French President Francois Hollande was concerned, D-Day had arrived; at 3 a.m. his planes would begin air strikes against missile batteries and command centers of the Syrian Army's 4th Armored Division -- the Syrian military's most trusted military unit, and the one in charge of chemical weapons.
The reason: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had crossed U.S. President Barack Obama's "red line" when, just 10 days earlier, he had apparently used chemical weapons in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, against the rebels battling him and the civilians who, as usual, bore the brunt of Assad's fury. According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, it was the regime's third -- and deadliest -- use of sarin gas to date. Now it was time to for the United States and its allies to make good on the president's word.
But at the last minute, Obama called Hollande to tell him the strikes were off; he would instead seek the backing of Congress before any military action was taken. It was support he most likely knew he would not get; at nearly the last possible moment, he had changed course.
This development was perhaps not entirely unsurprising. A key tenet of Obama's first presidential campaign was to withdraw the United States from its costly and bloody adventurism in the Middle East, a promise that was well received by an American public that had been at war since the 2001 intervention in Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Since then, Obama has largely managed to keep his country out of the Middle East despite the region's descent into sanguinary chaos as Libya, Iraq, and Syria have steadily disintegrated while the militant group Islamic State (IS) has murdered its way into global headlines.
The United States has conducted air strikes against IS targets in Syria and Iraq, while it has "advisers" on the ground supporting the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and various groups battling IS in Syria. But, despite the White House's seeming refusal to be drawn into battle on the ground, U.S. involvement may go deeper than many Americans believe. This month an improvised explosive device (IED) killed a U.S. Navy bomb-disposal technician in the town of Ain Issa, less than 60 kilometers from the de facto capital of IS's self-proclaimed caliphate -- making Senior Chief Petty Officer Scott C. Dayton the first U.S. serviceman to die in Syria and the fifth to be killed while fighting IS since 2015.
Many Americans -- especially those of an isolationist bent -- fear IS as a global terrorist threat and support an air campaign against the extremist group but discount its direct threat in Syria as of little concern. This is wrong. U.S. soldiers are indeed involved in the fight on the ground. America's sons and daughters in Syria are personally at risk from IS -- a fact that has so far been downplayed in the public discussion.
As Michael Weiss, senior editor at the Daily Beast and author of The New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside The Army Of Terror, puts it: "U.S. Special Forces have been recorded embedded with Pentagon-backed rebel forces, such as Liwa al Mutasim, in northern Aleppo, where they were shouted at by Islamist rivals. Their remit may be to 'advise' or to help call in air strikes but it's naive to think that they won't, or don't, engage in combat."
He continues: "Their counterparts in Syria have traded direct fire with [IS] militants who have ambushed Kurdish Peshmerga (one incident previously resulted in the death of another U.S. soldier). The Pentagon likes to fudge this with terminology but the fact is: American boots are on the ground, and American servicemen are in an active state of war against [IS] -- and potentially any other hostile parties they come in contact with."
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter echoed Weiss's point, albeit more obliquely, with a public statement on Dayton's death: "I am deeply saddened by the news on this Thanksgiving Day that one of our brave service members has been killed in Syria while protecting us from the evil of ISIL," he said, using another shorthand term for IS. "It is a painful reminder of the dangers that men and women in uniform face around the world to keep us safe."
War By Any Other Name
There are around 500 U.S. troops in Syria -- in April, President Obama sent 250 to add to the 50 that were already in the country. The number since then has, accordingly, almost doubled. Earlier in November, Carter announced that the U.S.-supported coalition of Kurdish and Arab forces fighting IS known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had begun the task of retaking Raqqa. As Iraqi forces meanwhile close in on the city of Mosul, in Iraq, the dual IS losses could signal the end of the last pretenses of its purported caliphate.
The numbers may be small, but evidence of "mission creep" is clear. Again, Weiss is unequivocal: "We are involved on the ground," he says. "We have CIA operatives in Iraq and Syria and U.S. soldiers. About 300 in Syria, close to 5/6K in Iraq. It's just not an occupation or 'major combat role,' but this is where 'war' is given to sort of Orwellian euphemisms that U.S. bureaucracy loves to use to deny it is doing exactly what you think it is doing."
The United States is fighting IS in Syria and Iraq in all but name. And as IS becomes increasingly besieged in both countries, it will become more desperate -- and more violent. Traditional warfare will be forsaken in favor of greater use of insurgency tactics. More booby traps and IEDs will lie in wait for both the SDF and ISF; and more U.S. servicemen may die.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has promised to bomb IS heavily and has talked about "extreme vetting" of Muslims traveling or potentially immigrating to the United States for fear of terrorist infiltration. But these views do little to address the reality on the ground that IS poses a threat not just as a worldwide militant group that can inspire atrocities on U.S. soil but also as a military threat to U.S. soldiers already fighting in Syria.
As much as some may deny it, the United States is once again fighting a war in the Middle East.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
Islamic State's ability to recruit members everywhere from France to the United States and to get its message into the international mainstream media is only possible through the ability of sites like Facebook and Twitter to do two things above all else -- to mobilize people and to amplify messages. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)
Earlier this month I attended the Web Summit conference in Lisbon where, among an assorted crowd of politicians, coders, and Silicon Valley millionaires born in the 1990s, I sat on a panel discussing the role narratives play in 21st-century terrorism. Speaking alongside me was Helan Abdulla -- known as Helly Luv, a Kurdish-Finnish singer, dancer, and actress -- who told our audience a story.
As a Kurd, Luv told us, she had taken an interest in the Syrian civil war from its beginnings. In a February 2014 music video titled Risk It All and filmed inside a Syrian refugee camp filled with Kurdish refugees fleeing the war, Luv proudly sang about Kurdish independence dressed in high heels and a short dress, while backing dancers held AK-47s.
Luv received a barrage of online abuse -- including death threats -- both for its political content as well as its supposed provocative imagery. Things only worsened with her next video, Revolution, which continued the central themes of Risk It All.
But it was with the emergence of the extremist group Islamic State (IS) into the global consciousness -- with its capture of Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, in June 2014 -- that things got really bad for her. It was Mosul's fall that prompted the autonomous Kurdish regional government to expand its borders, seizing vital oil areas as the Iraqi military retreated in the face of the IS's blitzkrieg across the country.
Just weeks after Mosul fell, she posted photos to her Facebook account of her visiting Kurdish Peshmerga troops, who had recently been involved in fighting IS, and told Reuters she had been close to Mosul, which lies less than 10 kilometers from Kurdish territory.
As we sat on the panel in Lisbon, Luv recounted the almost daily torrent of death threats and abuse she received -- from Islamists, jihadists, and IS sympathizers -- and, most critically of all, her repeated reporting of all of it to both Twitter and Facebook. Despite the clear threats against her life, nothing was done. No accounts were taken down; the threats continued.
Luv's story is a key to a central problem of battling terrorism in the age of social media. IS has become arguably the most effective and globally renowned terrorist group in history because of its effective use of social-networking sites. IS is not just an extremist organization, it is a brand -- and a global one at that. Its ability to recruit members everywhere from France to the United States and to get its message into the international mainstream media is only possible through the ability of sites like Facebook and Twitter to do two things above all else -- to mobilize people and to amplify messages.
IS understood this from the beginning -- and it also understood something else, too. Social-media sites, from which we increasingly get our news and information about the world are, above all, capitalist enterprises. Facebook and Twitter may be so ubiquitous as to seem a part of the fabric of life, but they are not neutral -- they are designed to generate as many clicks and shares as they can, to encourage as many users to join. The more of these they get, the more advertising revenue they generate, the more their shareholders benefit. It's a story as old as capitalism itself.
Using West's Freedom Against It
Social-media platforms also have something else of great use to extremist groups like IS: A libertarian ethos; the belief that people should be free to say what they want is more or less the idea at the heart of the founding of social networks. If there is any doubt over this fact then a quick scroll through Islamist or alt-right Twitter accounts should rapidly assuage it. The idea is especially embedded given the censorship of the Internet that goes on in countries like Iran and China. No American company wants its practices to be compared to those of a totalitarian state. And rightly so.
So in its early days IS was able to rely on a vast network of thousands of "fan boys," sometimes deemed -- with grandiose hilarity -- the "Knights of the Uploading" to promote the group's content; everything from fatwas and pronouncements to videos showing idyllic life in the caliphate to, of course, barbaric videos of killings. The fan boys would also, of course, threaten and harass anyone, especially high-profile targets, deemed to be pushing against their narrative.
U.S. government officials involved in anti-IS counter-messaging have spoken to me of their frustration at this: at how their adversary was able to wage information war using Western technologies to promote their narratives so successfully. But Facebook and Twitter, which have more users than most countries have populations, carry huge lobbying power in Washington and the major European capitals. Until recently, the social-networking giants largely left these accounts alone, and there was little that U.S. officials could do to change that.
Thinking began to shift with the horrific video of the beheading of journalist James Foley on August 19, 2014. There had been beheading videos before, of course, but this was of a different order entirely. This was an American civilian beheaded in a video with high production values that went global. Almost every major news network carried the story, with many showing the video as well.
The uproar was international and -- critically -- much of it came from tens of thousands of Facebook and Twitter users, many of whom castigated the companies for allowing the video to be broadcast on their platforms, while others vowed not to retweet or share it.
Pressure from the U.S. State Department was one thing, but criticism from users was another. Finally, Facebook and Twitter began to dramatically up the rate at which they took down pro-IS accounts. For every one taken down a new one would invariably spring up -- it became a game of cat and mouse between users and the platforms -- a war of attrition.
Finding The Limits Of Online Behavior
And to a degree it has worked: Many pro-IS accounts still undoubtedly remain; but the fan boys can no longer act with near impunity on Twitter and Facebook and have been forced to take refuge in services like Telegram, the private messaging app. Recruitment still goes on as before but spreading propaganda virally across networks has become more difficult.
But not, alas, impossible: High-profile anti-IS tweeters and Facebookers are still harassed and attacked with regularity. The propaganda still flows. Freedom of speech is sacrosanct but many think the time has come for governments and the networks to come together to create a formal, legally binding code of conduct of what is acceptable behavior on social-networking sites.
The freedom to offend and to discomfort must remain -- this is an inviolable element of free speech, and one guaranteed by law in the constitutions of countries like the United States. At the same time, terrorists must not be given a platform through which they can manufacture more murderers.
The task is a difficult one. But the time has come to face it.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
While it will be bloody, in the end Mosul will fall to the loose and disunited triumvirate of Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi Security Forces, and the Shi'ite militias. Between these disparate forces is a gulf of mistrust and, in some cases, barely concealed hostility. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)
On June 30, 2014, around three weeks after the extremist group that was then known as Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL) captured Iraq's second city of Mosul, its spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani declared the establishment of a caliphate across Iraq and Syria. ISIL, he continued, was no more: instead the group would know be known as Islamic State (IS). With the capturing of vast swaths of territory, the most successful terrorist brand in modern history had been born.
Just over two years later things look vastly different. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, backed by U.S. air strikes, recaptured many of the cities and towns lost to IS over the course of 2013-14, notably Sinjar and Ramadi late last year, while the Iraqi Army retook Fallujah in June.
Just recently, IS lost Dabiq, an insignificant town strategically, but vital to the group's theological message, being the purported site of battle between Muslims and infidels that will bring about the end of days.
IS's Iraqi franchise is in retreat everywhere. Mosul is its last major stronghold in the country and, unlike Dabiq, with a population of 1.8 million it is a major strategic city and carries significant symbolic value. It was the capture of Mosul in 2014 that allowed the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to announce that IS had achieved its goal of establishing a caliphate in the Middle East, bulldozing the British- and French-created Sykes-Picot border between Iraq and Syria in the process. After all these other defeats, if Mosul falls, IS, at least in its present incarnation, will have been defeated. Claims of it controlling a state-like caliphate will no longer be credible.
IS forces have long been preparing for the coming battle and reportedly have 3,000-5,000 fighters inside the city, along with networks of tunnels and booby traps they have constructed. On October 31, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi told them that there was "no escape" and to "surrender or die."
But as IS retreats from the villages surrounding Mosul it is forcing locals to march to the city to act as human shields against the inevitable onslaught. The battle will be bloody; neither side will yield.
In the end though, Mosul will fall. The question is not if but when. The combination of forces allied against the extremist group is simply too strong. And herein lies the problem. The alliance against IS is a loose and disunited triumvirate of Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and the Shi'ite militias, many backed by Iran, known in Arabic as Al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces). In the background, supporting all three, are U.S. air strikes and special forces on the ground. Between these disparate forces is a gulf of mistrust and, in some cases, barely concealed hostility.
The first problem lies with the fear these forces instill in many of those they are coming to "save." Oz Katerji, a writer and journalist embedded with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and ISF, has been as close as 15 kilometers from Mosul and has spoken to many in the surrounding villages that have been liberated. "The civilians in these areas suffered greatly under IS but were also terrified of the shelling and bombardment," he told me. And while life under IS was horrific, the thought of the Popular Mobilization Forces coming to "liberate" them is also terrifying. "Many of these people suffered immensely under the rule of sectarian Shi'a militias," he continued, "and tit-for-tat sectarian violence has been an almost daily routine in Iraq for many years now."
"Reports from liberated residents vary, but some have spoken of a very heavy-handed nature by those freeing them from IS rule. Militias moving in and putting all the men in blindfolds and arresting innocent people."
When the Shi'ite militias freed Fallujah from IS in June, they reportedly executed more than 300 Sunni residents of the city as well as torturing many more. Iraq's Sunnis do not forget.
"I've seen many Iraqi Army units drive around flying Shi'a religious flags. This is worrying many Sunni locals who fear reprisal attacks against civilians," Katerji adds. And the militias are not the only ones liberated locals fear and mistrust. "Families have been killed by coalition air strikes and this has naturally enraged locals and increased hostility towards both Baghdad and the West."
The second, perhaps even greater problem lies within the coalition itself. The Iraqi Kurdish region's prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, has said Peshmerga forces will play a "central role" in Mosul's liberation. That puts him at odds with the ISF, which has insisted that the Kurds confine themselves to the city's surrounding areas. The Kurds are also demanding a referendum on Kurdish independence once IS is defeated -- part of a quid pro quo for the huge role they have played in fighting and weakening the group; a demand opposed by both Baghdad and Washington.
Meanwhile, the Shi'ite militias have also demanded a central role in the capture of Mosul, alarming the United States, ISF, and Kurds, who view with trepidation the possibility of more sectarian killings if the militias enter Mosul.
Tensions are already building. "There is great mistrust and hostility growing between Kurdish forces and Iranian-backed groups. Many of the Kurds I have spoken to out here are terrified of Hashd al-Shaabi," Katerji told me.
The problem thus presents itself: what happens once IS loses Mosul? Without a common enemy to fight, the loose bond between Iraqi Sunnis, Shi'a, and Kurds will dissolve. As Katerji concludes:
"Ultimately Iraq has deep problems; removing the IS threat only solves one problem but opens a new one -- who will move in to control Sunni-majority areas and how will those relationships progress? As sectarian attacks continue to proliferate and suicide bombings still occur frequently, there are no easy answers here. There needs to be a great deal of collaborative international involvement to ensure civilians of all sides and sects are afforded the protection of their human and civil rights."
The next fight may well be an internal one -- for control of Iraq. And it may well be even bloodier.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
If you're reading this, then you have Internet access, and no matter where in the world you live, you probably know a lot more about the U.S. presidential candidates than you probably want to. It's no secret that this year's election cycle has been particularly negative, with candidates and pundits slinging plenty of mud at each other.
Arguments broke out in the course of the campaign over recorded comments made more than a decade ago by Donald Trump, in which the Republican candidate appeared to brag about what amounted to sexual assault. Much time was spent discussing his respect for women, the language he has used about Mexicans and Muslims, and other personal qualities of the real-estate mogul turned politician. Trump, of course, fired back, accusing Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton -- whom he often refers to as "crooked Hillary" -- of hiding donors to her family's charitable foundation and of colluding with her husband to bury accusations that the former president was himself involved in sexual malfeasance.
As election day approached, much of the focus turned to the reopening of an FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server during her tenure as secretary of state and internal communications that have been published by WikiLeaks that are potentially embarrassing to Clinton and her staff.
These are only a few of the issues that have come to characterize the last year and a half of American politics. And you may have noticed by now that none of them is focused on specific policies.
If you are a member of the extremist group Islamic State (IS), or if you happen to be the president of Russia or Syria, this is music to your ears.
What is currently taking place in Syria and Iraq is a tangled mess of alliances and fighting groups , extremist organizations and pro-democracy activists, and sectarian tensions that are arguably being heightened by the very military campaign that is designed to dismantle IS's sectarian warfare machine. In Iraq, the political balance between Sunnis, Shi'a, and Kurds is in turmoil, with the Kurds and the Shi'a competing to retake territory controlled by the Sunni extremists IS. But both groups, particularly the Shi'ite militias that have varying degrees of association with Iran, have been accused of their own sectarian war crimes.
Across the border in Syria, there are arguably two (nearly) completely separate wars being waged. The one that has received the most media attention over the last few years is the fight against IS conducted by U.S.-backed Kurdish groups, U.S.-led air strikes, the Turkish military, as well as Turkish and U.S.-supported Sunni rebel groups.
Just kilometers away from this conflict lies the northern edge of Syria's second war -- or rather the first war, since it predates the war against IS by more than three years: the war between a large portion of the Syrian populace and the Assad government. This conflict did not start out as a war but as a protest movement -- a popular uprising against more than four decades of rule by a single family that was met with the utmost brutality. When a large percentage of Assad's own soldiers refused to shoot civilians and many instead opted to protect them, the Syrian war was born.
Since that time, a wide variety of external parties have become involved. Russia and Iran have provided arms, fuel, supplies, and money -- to say nothing of political support and, eventually, soldiers -- for the Assad government and the Syrian military. Private citizens across the Middle East provided funding to various rebel groups (with various ideologies, ranging from moderate to extremist). Countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Qatar, and the United States have each assisted or directly armed and trained individual rebel units.
No, the Syrian crisis did not start as a proxy war, nor did it necessarily begin with wider geopolitical consequences. And while Russia and Iran had a clear strategy from the beginning -- the protection of Assad at all costs -- none of the opposing players fully committed to the effort to topple him. The result is that the opposition to Assad is now a splintered mess, with various rebel groups catering to whatever ideological beliefs they believe are most likely to get them the most support. Radical Islamic Saalafism, or even jihadism, has been adopted by some groups by choice, while it has been tolerated to greater or lesser degrees by others who cannot afford to fight against Assad, Iran, Russia, Hizbullah, Iraqi Shi'ite militias, and their fellow Sunni rebels.
In this vacuum, Islamic State continues to wage its wars and its terrorism campaigns, Al-Qaeda is growing, and governments like Russia and Assad continue to kill civilians without consequence.
It's a mess.
It's tempting, then, to dismiss this mess as unfixable. Many analysts, however, believe that the threat of terrorism and the wave of refugees originating from this region means that this complicated knot is now tangled around our throats. Others believe that the various countries across the world are complicit in the creation of this crisis and so have a responsibility to fix it. Still others believe that at the very least we can no longer do business with those who are making this crisis worse.
There appears to be a consensus that has emerged from both the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump that something must be done about this crisis. Clinton has advocated establishing a no-fly zone in northern Syria, at least. So did Trump's running mate, Mike Pence, who was overruled five days later by Donald Trump himself. Clinton has not explained how she will implement her plan without triggering war with Russia. Trump, on the other hand, has claimed that both Assad and Russia are fighting IS and should be allowed to continue to do so, statements that have drawn the ire of Syrian groups that oppose the so-called Islamic State and that do not align with investigations of Russia's air campaign in Syria conducted by RFE/RL and other organizations.
In other words, though there have been heated exchanges about Syria, IS, and Iraq, there is no consensus between the two candidates about the facts. There is no real debate about policy taking place. Neither candidate has addressed sectarian tensions, the role of the Kurds, the intervention of Turkey, or even basic questions like which of the competing warring parties should play a central role in the capturing of IS's strongholds of Raqqa or Mosul.
This is not to say that neither candidate has opinions or insight into these complicated matters. But what it means is that there has been little public debate about what, specifically, can be done to address the sectarian warfare, humanitarian suffering, growing geopolitical tensions, or the threat or terrorism that is seething in the Middle East and beyond as a result of these conflicts. This means that there is no robust debate among experts, journalists, activists, or politicians about what can and should be done since, without a specific policy debate, all discussion of these eventualities can only take place in generalities and hypotheticals.
This is problematic because things in Syria and Iraq are moving so quickly. There are about 80 days until the next U.S. president will be inaugurated. Even if they have a specific policy prescription to address this crisis, it will take time to lay the political and logistical groundwork to execute that plan. Typically, the first 100 days of a presidency are dominated by domestic policy goals. That points to a long wait -- perhaps 180 days, or possibly longer -- for Syria and Iraq to be addressed, and a lot can happen in that time. As an example, the Turkish invasion of northern Syria took place less than 80 days ago. The Syrian military's siege of Aleppo, which has come to dominate the conversation about Syria, only began about 130 days ago.
What will Syria and Iraq look like in 180 days?
Whatever steps the next president takes will have to happen quickly. This timeline opens up two unwelcome possibilities -- that a policy to address these problems will be pushed through quickly and with little public debate, or that the process will be stretched out to the point where, at best, it may be harder to steer the response to the crisis or, at worst, it may be too late.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
As IS recedes in Iraq and faces increasing pressure in Syria, a broader question naturally arises: What does this mean for the broader conflicts in the two countries that have been raging for longer than IS has been involved in either nation? (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)
An Iraqi-led coalition that includes Kurdish and U.S. Special Forces has now begun its campaign to drive the extremist group Islamic State (IS) from its stronghold of Mosul, the group’s second-largest city. Dabiq, the site of what IS suggested would be an apocalyptic battle signaling the end times, and a town central to IS’s ideology, fell just a week earlier -- without even a fight. IS is losing territory everywhere; the "dawla," or "state," that IS has brutally carved out over the past two years, is being torn apart.
But the seemingly inevitable collapse of IS’s self-proclaimed caliphate will not spell the group’s demise. Despite its pretensions of statehood, IS has always been a terror group, albeit one that managed to conquer large parts of Syria and Iraq, and like all terrorist organizations, once it is driven from its main urban holdings it will melt away into the villages and the towns and the desert to fight like the insurgency group it has always been.
As IS recedes in Iraq (though for how long and to what extent remains in doubt) and faces increasing pressure in Syria, a broader question naturally arises: What does this mean for the broader conflicts in the two countries that have been raging for longer than IS has been involved in either nation?
And herein lies the problem. Neither Iraq’s internal strife nor Syria’s civil war, both of which IS has exacerbated with its fastidious brutality and sophisticated propaganda, can be solved militarily. In Iraq, Sunni-Shia tensions -- and bloodshed -- will remain, even if IS is finally defeated. In Syria, with Russia and Iran backing Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, the opposition cannot defeat the regime; meanwhile, Damascus is in no position to win back all the areas it has lost. A bloody stalemate is the only foreseeable future.
Which means that the problems must be solved politically, and solved with the support of fellow Middle East states and the West. The question is: How committed is the West to solving the Syrian crisis?
Diplomatic Wavering Breeds Uncertainty
Recent events are instructive here.
Around three weeks ago, in what was something of a minor scandal, the British authorities confiscated the passport of Syrian anti-Assad activist Zaina Erhaim when she arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport. The Syrian authorities, she was told, had reported it as "stolen." It was only thanks to a second passport that she was able to enter the country.
Arguably, the United Kingdom was, in effect, clamping down on Syrian dissenters; it was doing Assad’s dirty work for him. To make it worse, as Erhaim told RFE/RL in an e-mail, "This has not just happened to me. I know five activists/journalists who discovered that their passports were reported stolen when applying for visas in Turkey. So obviously the regime is publishing the passport numbers of all of those who dare to challenge its crimes and are trying to speak out [against them] in the West."
What makes her situation yet more surreal is that Erhaim is a "Chevening Scholar" -- an award sponsored by the British state for "future leaders, influencers, and decision-makers." She continued: "They [the U.K. government] are technically following the rulebook, despite the fact that what they are dealing with is a war criminal persecuting a journalist. They clearly still consider Assad’s regime as a legitimate government."
The U.K. government's actions might have been made even more shameful by the pro-Assad propaganda that subsequently emerged from them. As Erhaim explained: "They acted as the arm of Assad in helping to silence me and others. Russia state media then wrote about this incident proudly, showing off that the regime they support is still treated as a legitimate government."
Actions like this only serve as evidence to those Syrians fighting Assad on the ground that they are likely to get nothing in the way of any significant help from the West -- that, in fact, the West seeks to keep Assad in power. And the more Syrians who believe this, the more will flock to the ranks of IS or other anti-Western organizations that they see as arguably the most effective force in fighting the regime's brutality.
The more that powers like the United Kingdom and, critically, the United States, are discredited as honest brokers, the less likely the Syrian rebels are to trust them in negotiations to try to reach a political settlement -- the only way to stop the bloodshed. Instead, they see little in the way of significant assistance and much in the way of horror as Russia enters the war, ostensibly to strike at IS but in reality to strike at them and anyone else who threatens their puppet Assad and their naval facility at Tartus.
Meanwhile, Assad's other major backer, Iran, which made a deal over its nuclear program with Washington and other world powers last year, is slowly being integrated back into the international fold, while its proxy Shi'ite militias on the ground in Syria continue to kill their Sunni counterparts.
As far as IS is concerned, it's a perfect storm. Taken together, the propaganda value these various factors yield is enormous and ensure that as it suffers defeat after the defeat on the ground IS will continue to draw yet more Sunni recruits -- left with almost no other choice -- to its black flag.
And in the meantime, the perennial victims in this ever-expanding catastrophe are, of course, the Syrian people.
Erhaim concluded: "This will be my last trip to the West. I have no space whatsoever on my second passport, which is 9 years old and has no more free pages for stamps or visa, and is anyway expiring next year. So I will be joining the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who are no ones, residents of nowhere. I will have no papers, no residency, no bank account, no work, and no future. I hope the U.K. government, which gave me the 'Chevening scholarship,' is feeling proud."
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
We may be witnessing the end of the extremist group Islamic State (IS) as we know it. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)
We may be witnessing the end of the extremist group Islamic State (IS) as we know it.
Over the weekend, the coalition of Turkish military soldiers and Syrian rebel groups, backed by a small number of U.S. Special Operations Forces and air support, captured the Syrian city of Dabiq from IS. In and of itself, this would be an important battle. The Turkish-led coalition is now set to advance toward Al-Bab, IS's westernmost stronghold in northern Syria, a position that lies on the most important road that runs between Aleppo city and Turkey.
Perhaps even more importantly, IS's propaganda states that Dabiq is the city from which the apocalypse will start. The city is so important to the extremist group that its English-language magazine, one of IS's most important recruiting tools beyond the physical borders of its "state," shares the city's name.
And yet, there was no epic battle for Dabiq. The last 100 IS militants withdrew without a fight. There will be no apocalypse, it seems.
But that wasn't even the main headline. On the morning of October 17, the world awoke to find that a full-throated effort to dislodge IS from its most important stronghold in Iraq, Mosul, had been launched by Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi military, bolstered by U.S. air strikes and Special Operations Forces.
An animation made by LiveUAMap shows how IS's easternmost flank began crumbling in just a few hours. Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani told Al-Jazeera that the operation had captured over 200 square kilometers of territory from IS on Day 1. Al-Jazeera also reported that this included nine villages outside the main city. Progress on Day Two was slower, but still steady.
Simply put, the "dawla," the state controlled by IS, is collapsing. To be sure, the fight for Mosul will be very tough. Videos taken by international media organizations like CNN show IS fighters dug in. One fighter is seen jumping out of a hole and shooting Peshmerga fighters in an ambush before blowing himself up in an unsuccessful suicide attack. IS also launched several waves of car-bomb attacks against the Peshmerga front lines. Despite the hopes of many in the anti-IS coalition, it seems the extremists are going to fight for the villages outside Mosul, and everyone seems to fear that the fighting inside the city will be even worse.
But Mosul will fall. The crumbling of the dawla is now inevitable.
Turkish forces are rolling across IS's territory in Syria in the west, the battle rages in Mosul in the east, and at IS's center, Kurdish forces, backed by the United States, are within 50 kilometers from the extremist group's headquarters, Raqqa.
A World War II Land Grab
This situation has a historic parallel. In 1944 and 1945, the defeat of the Axis powers was already nearly guaranteed. In Europe in particular, what transpired then was a race between competing interests to capture as much territory as they could before the war came to a close. The Soviet Union stormed into German-occupied territory from the east, the allied powers of the United States, United Kingdom, and a coalition of fighters from across the world pushed from the Atlantic Ocean in the west. After the war was over, the United States sought to shape the territory it controlled through the Marshall Plan, a bid to rebuild and unify Western Europe in order to prevent future conflicts there and stop the spread of communism. The Soviets in the east were less subtle, opting to directly control the territory they had captured in the hopes of advancing their own imperial goals. The result of the final days of the war with Germany thus shaped the entire future of geopolitical and regional power dynamics, which resonate to this day.
With such grand consequences, it's easy to forget that all of this was determined inch by inch, foxhole by foxhole, region by town by neighborhood, by the actions and reactions of individual soldiers and commanders on both sides.
In the Middle East, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq are all competing for power, but so, too, are various sectarian groups -- Sunnis, Shi'a, and Kurds. What may appear like a united front to end IS is really a fractured coalition of powers, each with competing interests.
Inside Iraq, the Kurdish Peshmerga are clearly making a power play, asserting its military might while wrangling for political -- and perhaps physical -- territory. Iraq's Kurds have wanted greater autonomy or independence from Baghdad for a very long time, and the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq granted them that opportunity. IS poses an existential threat to that autonomy, but it also presents a great asset. By the end of this campaign, the Kurds will have played a major role in the reestablishing of order in the country, and they will have proven their military effectiveness.
Against this backdrop, the besieged government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi is struggling to win the narrative. Abadi has been locked in a prolonged battle with those who oppose his reform agenda, including his predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki, who has undermined him at nearly every opportunity. But Abadi has also had to placate Shi'ite militiamen, many loyal to the infamous Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who are frustrated at the lack of reforms and Abadi's desire to free Iraq from sectarian politics, which hard-line sectarians like Sadr blame for the growing influence of the Kurds and the previously unchecked power of IS: Sunni militants. Abadi has attempted to stress the involvement of Iraq's military in the victories over IS. In reality, Shi'ite militias played a major role in the victory over IS in Fallujah and are likely to be heavily involved in the Mosul campaign, as well. While the extent of the ties between the various Shi'ite militia groups and Iran is a complicated issue, clearly Iran is also seeking to increase or at least maintain its own level of influence in Iraq through Shi'ite dominance.
Further complicating the picture: the involvement of Turkey in both the Syrian and Iraqi fronts. In August, just one month after a failed coup attempt aimed to topple the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish forces crossed the border into Syria to launch their own offensive against IS. At the time, however, I wrote that Turkey's primary motive was obviously not the fight against Islamic State. After all, Turkey has shared a border with IS for two years. Instead, Turkey was reacting to U.S.-backed Kurdish groups that were rapidly advancing deep into IS territory, occupying space that was once controlled by moderate Syrian rebel groups that Turkey has supported for years.
Not only was Turkey watching its proxies lose territory to IS and the coalition that supports the Syrian government, Erdogan was also watching one of his principal rivals -- Kurdish groups with ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) -- fill that vacuum.
In the short term, Erdogan's gamble in Syria has produced exactly the results he had hoped. IS is retreating, almost without a fight. The Kurdish groups have withdrawn from some of the territory right on Turkey's border.
About one month ago, I sat down with Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek on the sidelines of the Yalta European Strategy meeting in Kyiv. He was enthusiastically bragging about Turkey's intervention in Syria and broke the news to me that U.S. special operations forces were assisting the mission, dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield. But in comments made during a panel earlier that day, Simsek stressed that the Erdogan government is beset by enemies on all sides -- IS and Kurdish extremists had both ramped up terrorist attacks in the months preceding the coup, and then there was the coup itself. Simsek stressed the narrative that followers of Fethullah Gulen had infiltrated all levels of the Turkish government and the crackdown on dissenters and the purge of suspected Gulenists that many in the West claimed was authoritarian was really the reestablishment of democratic values.
Journalists and experts present for Simsek's comments were rightfully skeptical. Still, the exchange was a clear illustration of the central issue in Turkish politics: Many aspects of Turkish society -- from the economy to the security situation to Turkey's regional standing -- have been challenged in recent years. Turkey's intervention in Syria, and the Turkish government's purge of suspected Gulenists, are Erdogan's attempt to reestablish some element of control, at least over the narrative, if nothing else.
RFE/RL spoke with Ilhan Tanir, a Turkish analyst and journalist based in Washington, D.C., who stressed that Erdogan is busy creating a narrative.
"The economy is doing terribly," Tanir said. In order to distract from Turkey's problems, Erdogan, much like Putin, has created external crises for him to fight, whether that be Gulenists and the Kurdish PKK at home, or IS and the Kurdish groups affiliated with the PKK beyond Turkey's borders. One consequence of the coup, Tanir explained, is that the Turkish media have either been targeted by the postcoup purge or are now echoing the Turkish government's party line.
"There is no critical media left in Turkey, and so whatever Erdogan says right now goes straight to the public," he said.
Erdogan, however, will soon face another problem with this narrative: His intervention in Syria is literally running out of room. With Dabiq having been liberated from IS, Turkey will set its sights on Al-Bab, a large and strategic town on a key road that runs from Aleppo city to the Turkish border. However, once Al-Bab is in Turkish control, Erdogan will have a new problem: In order to advance to IS's next stronghold, Raqqa, Turkey may have to move through territory currently controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish groups or by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. At the moment, neither of those options is attractive to Turkey as they could broaden the conflict and alienate either Russia or the United States -- or both. There may be nowhere to go.
In other words, if Erdogan is dependent on external crises to serve his political needs, he may run out of crises. It is for this reason that Erdogan wants the Turkish military to get involved in the fight for Mosul.
On October 18, Erdogan said that Turkey has a "historical responsibility" in Mosul and Kirkuk, as they were both historically Turkish land, therefore, "If we say we want to be both at the table and in the field, there is a reason."
He also warned Iraq's Shi'ite militias, which have been accused of anti-Sunni atrocities, to not get involved in the fight. As of right now, however, the government in Baghdad has rejected Turkey's request to join the fight in Mosul, and on October 18 thousands protested outside the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad against a Turkish military presence in Iraq. Two of Turkey's best-known media organizations, Daily Sabah and Anadolu, said that the protests were "dangerous" and had been organized by Muqtada al-Sadr.
If Turkey is not allowed to intervene in Mosul, will it try to anyway? Will Turkey attack Kurdish forces in Syria, even if it angers the United States?
"What's going on in Iraq and Syria is a land grab," Tanir told RFE/RL. Various factions -- the Kurds, the Turks, the Shi'a -- are all using the fight against Islamic State to advance their own causes. And just like how the 1945 land grab in Europe and Asia set the stage for the Cold War, so, too, will the events in the Middle East impact the power struggle in the region for years to come.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
The norther Syrian town of Dabiq is central to the highly sophisticated propaganda operation of the extremist group Islamic State (IS). The group's official magazine even carries its name. At Dabiq, IS claims, the ultimate battle between Christians and Muslims will be fought.
The town of Dabiq, in northern Syria, around 25 miles from Aleppo, with its population of just under 3,500, is an unimpressive site for a battle that is supposed to herald the Apocalypse.
Yet, according to the Hadith (a collection of reports about the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad), that is exactly what will happen: According to Abu Hurayrah, a companion of Muhammad, the prophet said, "the Last Hour would not come until the Romans land at al-A'maq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina [to defeat them]."
Dabiq is central to the highly sophisticated propaganda operation of the extremist group Islamic State (IS). The group's official magazine even carries its name. At Dabiq, IS claims, the ultimate battle between Christians and Muslims will be fought. That last claim is less than half-right. A coalition of U.S. Special Forces and air support (nominally Christian), supporting Turkish forces, and Syrian rebels (both Muslim) is now advancing on the town. "If matters proceed as planned, within 48 hours we will be in Dabiq," Ahmed Osman, commander of the Sultan Murad Free Syrian Army (FSA) group, told Reuters on October 4.
Unlike the nearby city of Aleppo, the town is not militarily significant for IS, being merely one among many that must be cleared on the way to Al-Bab and (ultimately) the city where Islamic State is headquartered, Raqqa. But if IS were to lose Dabiq, it would still be a blow. As Kyle Orton, a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, points out, IS uses the Hadith on Dabiq to "call on Muslims to come and buttress the ranks of Islam in this fight. In combination with the formation of an actual statelet, this propaganda has worked: the apocalypticism and the caliphate have given IS an appeal its jihadi rivals don't have and this is reflected in the number of foreign volunteers who have flocked to their banner as compared with, say, Al-Qaeda."
IS originally conquered Dabiq on August 13, 2014, and it has held it ever since. The Turkish intervention into the conflict, crossing the border and then on 24 August, along with its proxy rebel forces, throwing IS out of Jarabulus -- a crucial point for passing militants -- was the beginning of the advance on Dabiq. In recent days, Turkish bombers have struck several IS targets in the areas around the town.
Turkey's entry into the war has complicated almost everything. Mistrust of the United States is rife across forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad due to their belief that it has done little to prevent his massacre of the Syrian people since the conflict began in 2011. As Orton further points out, the situation -- and mistrust -- is deepened as Washington has chosen fighters associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as its primary proxy on the ground. Based across Syria and Iraq, Turkey views the PKK as a separatist force, working to establish a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria and parts of Turkey (which the PKK denies) and therefore a potential threat to its territorial integrity. The PKK's supposed separatist agenda is, however, divisive across all parties. "If there is one uniting factor for Syrians -- regime and rebel," says Orton, "it is Syrian unity."
Fighting around the town, led by U.S.-led air strikes, which has already claimed 15 rebels and 13 IS fighters, is intensifying and a showdown is imminent. IS, for its part, has protected the town with land mines and other explosives as well as calling on its strongest fighters in other areas to travel to Dabiq for its defense.
'Fiercest Ever Battle'
In truth, the town's fall is inevitable. Mostafa Sejari, from the FSA-linked Al-Mutasim Brigade, told the British newspaper the Daily Express: "We expect that the battle of Dabiq will be the fiercest ever. Daesh" -- a derogatory term for IS -- "has brought hundreds of fighters into the area, including their special forces, to confront us.... [It] has built its myth in Dabiq, exploiting the ignorance and lack of knowledge among people and taking advantage of history and religion to achieve its evil project. By controlling Dabiq, we break the myth of Daesh and open a road to reach Marea."
The question is: At what cost? IS, while operating in some senses as a traditional army (with its own quasi-state), also operates as an insurgent force. If the odds are stacked against it, which in Dabiq they are, the group is likely to put up a show of force (given the town's importance to its brand, it has no other choice), but it is unlikely to waste significant manpower in what is a fight it knows it cannot win. If the battle for Dabiq follows previous battles IS has fought in urban centers, it is likely to retreat in the face of a superior enemy but -- as with the insurgents in Iraq -- leave the city filled with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), booby-trapped buildings -- along with the odd sniper and suicide bomber thrown in for good measure. It may lose; but it won't go quietly.
Nonetheless, the war in Syria is not going well for IS. Further incursions into its territory are inevitable, but as Orton concludes: "They have already prepared the ground ideologically for this loss. The end of the state and the return to the deserts is part of the cycle...and conditions for a revival are favorable. The Coalition's chosen method of dismantling the caliphate -- particularly its collaboration with Iran's proxy militias and the PKK as replacement forces -- means the Islamic State has much to work with going forward. The stress on hardship in Islamic State propaganda also means that they can just say this is one more test for the believers, and the grand contest will come next time."
Not for nothing has IS repeatedly been called the most sophisticated terror group ever. Almost as important as its mastery of insurgent tactics on the ground is its mastery of social media. IS might lose this battle, but it will continue to rally more fighters to its cause; more will be radicalized online; more will flock to the black flag. And the violence will continue unabated -- possibly for many more years to come.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Ahmad Khan Rahami may not have been a very effective terrorist. He may not have been connected with a wider terrorist network. He may not have been fully committed to his cause.But we know that Rahami is a test case for what law enforcement and counterterrorism officials fear the most. (The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)
Ahmad Khan Rahami nearly became a household name. Instead, he will likely fade from memory.
The 28-year old naturalized American citizen stands accused of placing four different bombs across New York and New Jersey. One of those devices exploded as intended on September 17, injuring 29 people. Another was placed nearby, possibly intended to injure people fleeing from the first explosion, but it did not go off. Another, discovered earlier that day in Ocean County, New Jersey, near the start of a charity run to benefit the U.S. Marine Corps, misfired, resulting in no injuries, but triggered memories of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people and wounded 280. A fourth device was found in Elizabeth, New Jersey, near a train station and a busy pub.
To say that America got lucky is an understatement.
The Boston Marathon bombers used two bombs, and when the carnage was done the killers were still on the loose and able to kill again -- which they did three days later when they shot MIT police officer Sean Collier, kicking off events that led to the lockdown of parts of the Boston area while police hunted for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Rahami had four devices, in four locations. The police have questioned why Rahami picked the targets he did. Aside from perhaps the road race, none had symbolic significance, nor were the bombs particularly well positioned to cause mass casualties.
“We don’t understand the target or the significance of it,” a police officer told The New York Times.
“It’s by a pile of Dumpsters on a random sidewalk.”
During the shootout after which he was detained, he shot two police officers, neither of whom was seriously injured. So far the investigation appears to indicate that Rahami operated alone.
In other words, things could have been much worse.
For all practical purposes, Rahami’s failures appear to be his own, not the result of law enforcement foiling his plots. He successfully placed the bombs without getting caught, but they were largely ineffective. The police apprehended him because he was sleeping in a doorway, in the open. He engaged in a shootout with police, but he was not in a fortified position when doing so, nor was he equipped with anything more powerful than a Glock 9mm handgun.
The scary reality is that Rahami may not have been a very effective terrorist. He may not have been connected with a wider terrorist network. He may not have been fully committed to his cause. We still don’t know all the details, but we do know that Rahami is a test case for what law enforcement and counterterrorism officials fear the most.
How do you stop someone like Rahami?
Perhaps the most important answer is learning how someone like this starts down the road that leads them to terrorism in the first place.
According to a New York Times investigation into Rahami’s life, here is what we know about him so far: He was born in Afghanistan in 1988 and he moved to the United States with his family at the age of 12 or 13. In 2005, he traveled to Karachi, Pakistan. Friends back home in New Jersey considered him to be a normal, Westernized young man, though there were clearly some problems -- namely struggles with his immigrant father and the fathering of a daughter with his high school girlfriend. According to those who knew him, his attitudes and behavior changed significantly after spending three months in Pakistan in 2011 and nearly a year in Quetta, near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, in 2014.
Upon his return, Rahami’s friends said that he was noticeably different -- more stern, more distant.
“He grew a beard and exchanged his typical wardrobe of T-shirts and sweatpants for traditional Muslim garb. He began to pray in the back of the store,” the Times reported.
Unbeknown to them, their friend had gotten married in Pakistan. Representative Albio Sires, a New Jersey Democrat, said Mr. Rahami had contacted his office in 2014 for help bringing his pregnant wife over from Pakistan. The matter was complicated by the fact that the United States Embassy in Islamabad told her that she needed to wait until her baby was born for both of them to come, said Mr. Sires, who added that he did not know whether they eventually did.
The Guardian reports that Rahami spent those three weeks in Pakistan in 2011 at the Kaan Kuwa Naqshbandi madrasah, a religious school with ties to the Afghan Taliban. Rahami’s father offers a slightly different story, saying that his son traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2013 and came back a changed person, which is why he informed the FBI that he was concerned that his son might have become a terrorist.
The FBI conducted an “assessment” of Rahami, his father recanted his statements, and the investigation never led to any formal charges, nor was Rahami ever placed on the terrorist watch list. This matches a separate investigation by The New York Times that found 2013 to be the year of Rahami’s radical transformation from class clown to, ultimately, an accused terrorist.
The investigation into Rahimi’s activity and overseas connections are ongoing, but clues from his writing give us insight into some of his thinking.
When Rahami was taken into custody after being shot, police found a journal, penetrated by their bullets and soaked with his blood. Through the crimson filter, Rahami praises “Sheikh Amwar,” presumably a reference to Amwar al-Awlaki, the famous American cleric who started his ministry by preaching peace but who became one of militant Islamism’s most effective preachers. Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter who was an apostle of Awlaki’s, also gets a mention. Rahami’s journal speaks about how “Brother Osama bin Laden, offered you truce,” likely referring to an address made by the Al-Qaeda founder about how his terrorist organization would keep killing Westerners until all foreign powers pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rahami writes: “You continue your slaughter against mujahedin be it in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sham, Palestine..." but the rest of the sentence cannot be read through the damage to the journal.
The journal refers to “Brother Adnani,” Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami, the spokesman for the extremist group Islamic State (IS) and one of its most important leaders. Rahami mentioned the “Dawla” -- the State -- and his desire to travel to Sham, or greater Syria. Short of that, Rahami wrote the words “attack the kuffar (non-believers) in their backyard," which appears to be exactly what Rahami tried to do.
Certainly, many people in the intelligence community are asking how Rahami slipped through the net. Surely, traveling to areas of Pakistan known for fostering militants, attending a pro-Taliban madrasah, and having a complaint filed to the FBI by one’s father should have put Rahami on the radar screen. Still, traveling to the Middle East is common, and the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, TIDE, more commonly known as the terrorist watch list, had 1.1 million names on it in 2013.
Terrorists will slip through the cracks.
Ultimately, the most effective method for stopping terrorists is perhaps to ensure that they never become terrorists in the first place by eliminating the conditions that breed violence and by destroying terrorist leaders who inspire or train others. The problem with this should be obvious for anyone looking at Rahami’s journal, however.
Bin Laden, Awlaki, Adnani -- these men have already been killed by U.S. antiterrorism efforts. Nidal Hasan is in prison awaiting execution. The “Dawla” in “Sham” is slowly but steadily collapsing militarily, under heavy attack by the U.S. military, a coalition from across the region and the world, Kurdish ground troops, the Iraqi military, and now a Turkish ground offensive.
Rahami is a reminder that while the military defeat of terrorism organizations is important, jihad cannot be defeated by bombs alone.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Karl Rove is relaxed but adamant: "The threat from Russia is definitely growing," he says. "Putin is becoming more bellicose; he feels he can push the edge of the envelope further than ever before." (The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)
Karl Rove is relaxed but adamant: "The threat from Russia is definitely growing," he says. "Putin is becoming more bellicose; he feels he can push the edge of the envelope further than ever before."
The former senior adviser and Deputy Chief of Staff to U.S. President George W. Bush has no interest in being diplomatic as we sit on a pristine white sofa inside the Mystetskyi Arsenal in central Kyiv, Ukraine's capital city.
The arsenal is a grand building with high and rounded brick ceilings and large, arched, almost church-like, windows. Completed in 1801, it once housed the garrison charged with guarding Kyiv; now it stands as a monument to Ukrainian culture and art. Today, however, it houses the Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference, sponsored by Ukrainian businessman Viktor Pinchuk, which has brought politicians and diplomats from all corners of the world to discuss the situation in Ukraine -- and that is simply impossible to do without discussing Russia.
Rove continues: "[Putin is doing] anything that can and will expand Russian influence to U.S.S.R.-era levels of power. Russia is back in the Middle East for the first time since 1972. As well as Ukraine, he is menacing the Baltics and the Nordic countries, and critically, he is willing to tolerate the cost to his country, which is considerable."
He's right. Putin first began to reassert Russian power in the Georgian war of 2008. He followed this, in 2014, by illegally annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine. Late last year, Russian forces entered Syria. It's been a heady few years for the Kremlin.
But Russia has suffered considerably as a result of all this adventurism. International sanctions and declining oil prices have combined to pummel its economy. When he began to consolidate his power in the early 2000s, Putin's deal with the Russian people was simple: They would receive economic stability -- and, critically, much higher standards of living -- in exchange for a loss of freedoms. Today, that deal no longer looks sustainable, so a new, unspoken one now lies on the table: In exchange for a (further) loss of freedoms and (now) economic hardship, the Russian people will swell with national pride at a Russia -- once mocked and belittled by the West -- now retaking its rightful place at the center of global power politics. Economic growth is out; chauvinism is in.
Mass Support For Putin
At the moment, it is a deal that seems to be holding. During my visit to Moscow and Siberia in April, it was clear that beyond educated and globally engaged millennials, mass support for the president still existed. "Russia is strong once more" was a comment I heard, in various formulations, again and again during my time there. Criticism of Putin was largely confined to journalists or tattooed youths in the capital's hipster bars.
Putin has arguably played his cards well, especially when it comes to his latest global show of strength: Syria. The emergence of the self-declared Islamic State extremist group (IS) in the region allowed Moscow to intervene in the conflict under the guise of combating the group's horrific atrocities. In essence, it has assumed a leadership role in Washington's largest foreign-policy initiative of the 21st century: the "Global War on Terror." Putin is using American policy to further Russian ends. He has used the doctrine as cover to further expand Russia's sphere of influence; for Putin, Islamic State is a geopolitical gift he can use to secure his country's strategic influence in the Middle East.
And some argue that he has been allowed to do so by exploiting Western indecision. Rove adds: "President [Barack] Obama has mishandled Syria from the beginning. You don't say the use of chemical weapons is a red line and when they are deployed not take any effective action. Now we are seeing close coordination between Russia and the U.S. in combating Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State, which may not be the best of moves -- we will have to see how it works in practice. [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad is a Russian client and Russia is merely concerned that he remain in power, despite the destruction of Syria and the threat to Sunni Muslims he poses. Moscow is merely concerned with strengthening Assad's hold over part of the country, which also includes its [Russia's] naval facility [at Tartus]."
Rove's words proved depressingly prophetic. The cease-fire that had been brokered between the U.S. and Russia between forces loyal to Assad and the assorted rebel groups opposing it -- designed to allow Moscow and Washington to join forces and smash IS and the other jihadist groups -- agreed upon on September 12, is over. Even worse, U.S. air strikes that were first believed to have mistakenly killed 60 Syrian troops instead of IS now appear to have killed regime prisoners forced to put on Syrian army uniforms.
Putin claimed that while the Syrian regime was "fully abiding" by the cease-fire, rebel groups (some of which the U.S. backs) were using it merely as an opportunity to regroup, and he accused Washington of being more concerned with retaining its military capacity in the area than with trying to weed out the extremist rebel groups from the more "moderate" ones.
On the ground, things appear to be in more disarray than ever. Perhaps most shockingly, footage emerged of Free Syrian Army rebels (FSA), the group with arguably the closest ties to Washington, ordering U.S. Special Forces out of the town of Al-Rai in northern Syria, screaming in the process that "Christians and Americans have no place among us." Hours later, U.S. soldiers reportedly returned to the town accompanied by FSA fighters, and the rebels who led the protest were reportedly "discharged," likely under orders from Ankara.
A 'Net Loss'
All of this suits Russia just fine -- for the moment. The question remains: How long can it sustain its imperial adventures? Rove concluded: "Putin has temporarily succeeded through the popular support of the Russian people, but that will decline after another year of economic stagnation. At the same time, his actions have forced Europe to rethink its energy policy" -- whereby Europe is heavily reliant on Russian gas -- "so at the same time he is also losing customers. Overall, this is going to be a net loss for him."
In the meantime, however, Putin marches onward, with troops still massed on Ukraine's border while he swaggers across the global stage, trying -- ostensibly -- to bring "peace" to Syria while at the same time trying -- ostensibly -- to eradicate the threat from IS. The reality that Russian forces have in fact spent their time in Syria mostly attacking non-IS targets who are hostile to Assad in order to prop up their client is merely the final layer of hypocrisy within which the brutal cynicism of Russia's Syria policy -- especially regarding IS -- is coated.
At a panel discussion at the YES conference on September 17, the former director of policy planning for President George W. Bush, Richard Haass, struck a glum note. "[Former Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev still had to deal with the Politburo during the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis," he told an audience of Ukrainian MPs, foreign diplomats, and journalists.
"But I see no equivalent checks and balances for Putin. In fact, I'm not even sure there is a Russian expression for 'checks and balances.'"
With all eyes recently focusing on Islamic State in Syria, developments in Iraq are proving equally, if not more, instructive in illuminating the extremist group's changing fortunes and -- critically -- its changing strategy in response to them. (The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)
Another week, another cease-fire in Syria. Following a U.S and Russia-brokered deal, a "cessation of hostilities" between Bashar al-Assad's forces and opposition groups was set to go into force on September 12. This, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, would allow for cooperation to defeat the extremist group Islamic State (IS) and other jihadist groups.
The cease-fire deal, timed for the start of Eid al-Adha, comes in the wake of an intense round of fighting over the divided city of Aleppo. Optimists hope that it will at least enable aid to be brought into the beleaguered city. No one seems to think it will last for any serious length of time.
But while all eyes have focused on IS in Syria, developments in Iraq are proving equally, if not more instructive, in illuminating the group's changing fortunes and -- critically -- its changing strategy in response to them.
Iraq has been consistently central to IS's pursuit of its ideological goals. It was only when it captured the country's third-largest city, Mosul, in the summer of 2014, that its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi felt finally able to declare the accomplishment of the group's long-stated objective: the establishment of an Islamic caliphate that stretched across Syria and Iraq -- demolishing the colonial-era Sykes-Picot border between the two countries in the process.
Back in 2014, IS controlled an area larger than Great Britain. Two years on, things look very different indeed. As the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces --as well as Iranian-backed Shi'ite Muslim militias -- have fought back, IS has lost about half the territory it held at its peak, including control of vital oil fields. According to Reuters, by the end of July IS had lost access to three of the five Iraqi oil fields it once controlled. The article further reports that IS used to be able to sell at least 50 tanker truckloads of oil a day from the Qayara and Najma oil fields, south of Mosul. In the face of Baghdad's fight to restore control, this has dropped to around five small tankers. That analysis was written before Turkey's ground forces crossed into northern Syria on August 24 and captured 770 square kilometers of territory in just two weeks.
Financially weakened and under siege, IS now faces the imminent threat of losing Mosul to the Iraqi military, which, along with Raqqa in Syria, is one of the twin symbols of its claimed caliphate. Government forces and militia scored a big victory over IS when they recaptured the Qayyara air base just 65 kilometers south of Mosul this summer. According to commanders, a "big push" against the city could come as soon as late next month.
But all is not as well as it might seem in the fight against IS. Part of the reason for the growth of IS in Iraq was the vicious sectarianism of former Shi'ite Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which pushed many persecuted Sunnis, reluctantly, into the arms of IS. This is a problem that remains. As Rashad Ali, a resident senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London, observes: "A major problem in defeating IS is that the Hashd al-Shabi [an umbrella group of around 40, mainly Shi'ite, militias] play a leading role in the fight against it, and have, upon defeating IS forces, committed atrocities against local Sunni communities in towns and cities they have 'liberated' from IS. These are not just problematic in themselves, but have also led to a greater level of grievance against Baghdad and pushed the population toward supporting more Sunni resistance and terror groups in the region."
Put simply: the forces battling IS often act as both its enemies and its recruiters -- continuing at a military level the persecution of Sunnis that Maliki conducted at the political level.
The second point of interest is IS's changing strategy in response to its increasing military defeats. As Ali observes: "Even the CIA have commented IS's military defeats actually create a larger likelihood of terror attacks both in the region and outside as fighters disperse and the organization seeks to continue to try to project power."
Islamic State 2.0
In essence, as it suffers more defeats Islamic State is changing its tactics accordingly; as it loses at home in Iraq, it has tried to "win" abroad in Europe. The IS attacks in Paris, Nice, and Brussels over the past year are a testament to a group that may be in the process of morphing essentially from a statelet with its own standing army into, once again, a more traditional terrorist group that employs guerrilla and insurgent-style activities on the battlefield, and urban terror attacks in the cities of the West.
Syria and Iraq have always been distinct arenas for IS. The strategic vacuum the civil war created in Syria meant that it was able to both take territory but also create a symbiotic relationship with Assad's regime -- one that lent each justification and legitimacy. For Assad: the presence of IS allowed him to claim he was fighting jihadists. For IS, Assad's Iran-backed slaughter of Sunnis enabled the group to present itself, as Ali notes, as the only real and effective alternative.
In Iraq, while the group has fed off of Baghdad's persecution (and slaughter) of Sunnis in a way similar to that in Syria, the military tactics of IS have always relied on defeating largely unmotivated, and often frightened, Iraqi military forces in strongly Sunni areas of the country. Unlike in Syria, they have not allowed themselves to become too attached to any city or town; often abandoning areas rather than risk losing too many of their core fighters -- using more traditional terror tactics like IEDs to cause as much damage to incoming coalition or Iraqi troops as possible. In Iraq, it has always been more of a terror group than the army it is in Syria.
This makes it likely that this year could see Baghdad make further gains on the ground. But Baghdad is not fighting an opposing army there and the response will likely be an intensification of the trend of more insurgent attacks rather than outright battles, while those in Europe must brace themselves for yet more terror atrocities.
In Iraq we may be witnessing the emergence of IS 2.0. No matter the reversals it faces, as the recently killed IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, declared: "The battle of wills remains.
The “state of Islamic State” is weak, indeed. The extremist group has suffered a series of crushing defeats in Syria, but it has also lost battles in Iraq, and one of its most important leaders has been killed in Syria.
What a difference a month makes.
At the start of August, the extremist group that calls itself Islamic State (IS) controlled a large part of the border between Syria and Turkey, while the U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), a multiethnic group made up primarily of Kurdish YPG fighters, raced to recapture as much of that territory as they could, as quickly as they could. On August 24, Turkish tanks and soldiers crossed the border near Jarablus and have since driven IS out of the entire border area. The Turkish military and the Syrian rebel groups it directly supports have advanced approximately 20 kilometers south and 50 kilometers west from Jarablus in just two weeks.
On September 7, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli told journalists that could push deeper into Syria. Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reports:
Canikli spoke to reporters after a cabinet meeting in Ankara and said: “By the 15th day of the operation, unfortunately, we have four martyrs and 19 injured so far.
"Sixteen from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have been martyred and 27 others have been injured. Nearly 110 Daesh [a derogatory term for IS], PYD and YPG terrorists were killed and there are five injured as well", he added.
The deputy PM said over 770 square kilometers of territory had been cleared of Daesh and was now under the control of the FSA.
Several fascinating data points can be gleaned from Canikli’s statements. The most glaring: In the eyes of the Turkish government, there is no difference between IS and the Kurdish groups which the United States has armed and supplied to fight IS. This could have serious consequences for the fight against IS moving forward since, again, the Kurdish SDF has been Washington’s main tool against IS in Syria. This also could lead to a wider conflict between Turkey and various Kurdish groups, which raises the second point: Canikli is signaling that Turkey is willing to push deeper into Syria, particularly into territory already either owned or adjacent to areas currently under the control of the SDF.
In fact, on the same day Canikli spoke to the press, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke with U.S. President Barack Obama at the G20 meeting and told journalists that the two leaders agreed to push together toward the IS hub of Raqqa:
"Raqa is the most important center of Daesh," Erdogan told Turkish journalists aboard his plane as he returned from China, according to the daily Hurriyet.
"Obama wants to do something together especially on the issue of Raqa," he said. "I said there would be no problem from our perspective."
"I said 'our soldiers should come together and discuss, then what is necessary will be done'," Erdogan was quoted as saying without giving further details.
This opens the possibility that Turkish ground troops will be spearheading the campaign against IS. The Turkish military is professional, well-equipped, and as a member of NATO is proficient at coordinating with the United States, which will likely provide Turkey air support. It also means that Erdogan means to hold the United States to its word that it will not support Kurdish groups that operate west of the Euphrates River. Assuming the SDF understands this, withdraws before the advancing Turkish military, and there is no significant widening of the war between Turkey and the Kurds, all of this could be very bad news for IS.
Turkey’s statements also belie another key fact -- the Turkish military has advanced extremely quickly, while suffering very few casualties. IS fighters have traditionally held their ground and fought to the death -- against the SDF in Syria and against the coalition in Iraq that is dominated by Iran-backed Shi’ite militias. Yet IS withdrew from Jarablus without firing a shot and has completely folded in the face of the advancing Turkish troops. It’s hard to say why this is so. There have certainly always been whispers of deep ties between the Turkish military intelligence apparatus and IS. This could just as easily be chocked up to sectarianism -- IS, a highly sectarian organization, can perhaps more easily justify to their adherents fighting Kurds and Shi’ite militias to the death than they can defying their fellow Sunnis. Of course, Occam's razor would suggest that the simplest answer is the most likely -- that IS has never fought a force as strong as Turkey, and that it is doing so while it is in an extremely weakened state.
In fact, the “state of Islamic State” is weak, indeed. It has suffered a series of crushing defeats in Syria, but it has also lost battles in Iraq, and one of its most important leaders has been killed in an apparent U.S. air strike in Syria.
IS’s Amaq News Agency announced on August 30 that Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the spokesman for IS, was killed “while surveying the operations to repel the military campaigns against Aleppo.” An unnamed U.S. defense official told Reuters that the U.S. coalition targeted Adnani in an air strike in the Syrian city of Al-Bab on August 30 but was unable to confirm his death.
That day, journalist and Syria watcher Julian Röpcke noticed unusual air traffic above Aleppo Province, in the area between the IS stronghold of Al-Bab and Aleppo city. One of the aircraft continued to make tight turns, crisscrossing the airspace repeatedly. It’s a solid bet that this was a U.S. spy plane, perhaps a remotely piloted aerial vehicle.
On August 31, the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that Russian forces had killed Adnani and 40 other IS fighters in an air strike conducted by an Su-34 bomber in Ma’arrat Umm Hawsh. U.S. defense officials quickly responded by telling Reuters that the Russian claim was a “joke,” a statement which could be read as almost a confirmation that the U.S. was responsible for killing Adnani.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook confirmed that Russia’s claims are improbable since Russia has not targeted IS’s leadership, has spent little time bombing IS in general, and generally does not use precision weapons in Syria -- all points that match what multiple analyses of Russia’s military campaign there have confirmed.
Adnani’s prominence inside the extremist group is hard to overstate. Officially, he was IS’s spokesperson, the mouthpiece for some of its most important statements. It was Adnani, not Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the terror group, who first declared the creation of the caliphate in 2014. It was Adnani who also formulated one of the central tenants of IS’s message, one that sets it apart from its counterparts like Al-Qaeda, that the self-declared Islamic State is not just a physical territory but also a state of spiritual being and a calling, and those who want to see the coming of an Islamic State should stay in their home countries and conduct terrorism there.
He was second in charge of the entire outfit, and his titles indicate that he would have taken over IS if current leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were to be killed. He is also one of IS’s “old guard,” one of the few remaining members of IS who had ties to the founder of the organization, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
But Adnani was important for another reason: Not only was he effectively the governor of Syria, he was also born there, one of the few high-ranking officers in IS who call Syria home. Adnani hailed from Binnish, one of the hotbeds of protest against the Assad government. His death means that not only is IS without a governor in Syria, and without a spokesperson, and without one of its important theological architects, but it has also lost some of its legitimacy in Syria.
IS has always claimed that those Sunnis who live within its physical borders are now part of the founding of the Islamic caliphate. Yet as Turkish tanks roll in and liberate Syria from IS control from the north and west, and as the SDF continues to pressure IS from the north and east, it has become impossible to escape the images of Sunni Muslims, and indeed many others, celebrating in the streets after their oppressors have been pushed out.
IS is losing many battles, but the moral defeat it is suffering might be the most important development of them all.
With Russia and Islamic State complicating the conflict in Syria, the role of Iran in this quagmire has been largely overlooked, even though it has supported President Bashar al-Assad since almost the moment his brutal crackdown on demonstrators turned mass protest into a civil war.
Like rivers, wars surge and recede; like oceans they move in tides. Early this month, the tide of Syria's civil war appeared to turn sharply in favor of the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad when they managed to break the regime's siege of the strategically vital city of Aleppo.
It was a serious setback for Assad's forces, a loose coalition consisting of Hizballah, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Iraqi Shi'ite militias, potentially more than 2,500 Russian private military contractors,
Russian soldiers, the remnants of the Syrian Army, and Kurdish splinter groups. Since then, the Russian air-powered fightback has begun.
Much of the recent media attention on Syria has fallen on Russia's entry last year into the war to help prop up Assad. Its air strikes have been devastating -- especially to Syria's beleaguered civilians.
Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to secure Russia's naval facility at Tartus, which will enable him to continue to project power in the Middle East. It also provides yet one more imperial adventure to distract his people from the contracting economy and increasingly lower standards of living they are now facing. And of course, he gets to thumb his nose at U.S. President Barack Obama, who has repeatedly stated that Assad must go.
Iran Spends 'Billions' On Assad
The fear of a revanchist Russia, threatening European stability with its interference in Ukraine and now threatening Middle East stability with its meddling in Syria, has transfixed observers. Turkey's recent foray into the conflict, on August 24, when its tanks and soldiers, backed by U.S. coalition air strikes, crossed the border to attack positions held by the militant group Islamic State (IS) near Jarablus, has only broadened -- and complicated -- the spectacle.
But largely lost in all of this has been the role of Iran, which has supported Assad since almost the moment that his brutal crackdown on demonstrators turned mass protest into a civil war. The Syrian military, especially its air force, was always more of an arena for politicking than an effective fighting force. Without Iran -- and specifically the IRGC, led by the supremely gifted military strategist Qassem Soleimani -- there would be no Assad for Russia to prop up.
Just days ago the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an exiled Iranian opposition group, presented a dossier to MailOnline, which claimed that, as well as running Iranian operations in Syria from a secret HQ in Damascus known as "the Glasshouse," there are, in fact, 60,000 fighters under Iranian command in Syria -- far more than the 16,000 previously thought. It also asserted that Iran has spent "billions" -- possibly as much as $100 billion -- on supporting Assad since 2011.
Given its hostility to the Islamic republic, the NCRI has most likely inflated these figures, which, the MailOnline article concedes, have not been independently verified but have been deemed "credible" by "intelligence experts." Matthew McInnis and Paul Bucala, analysts from AEI's Critical Threats team, told RFE/RL that those numbers are high. They estimate that at any given point in time, between 13,000 and 15,000 Iranian proxies -- including fighters from Hizballah and Shi'ite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan -- are overseen by approximately 3,000 Iranian military officers and other personnel in Syria. "These numbers are not static and fluctuate based on rotational cycles and changing military requirements," McInnis noted. AEI estimates that beyond this there are at least 100,000 fighters who make up the Syrian National Defense Force (NDF), which the IRGC and their paramilitary Basij force have helped to establish to prop up the Assad government.
What is not in doubt is that Iran has -- at a time when sanctions (since lifted following the deal struck last year to curb Iran's nuclear program) have bitten deep into its economy -- invested precious resources into a quagmire that it cannot afford. Its economy is in disarray, and even with the return of frozen assets and the possibility of increased global trade it is struggling with a host of serious domestic problems -- some of which, particularly the youth of its population and the state's inability to provide adequate employment for them, may yet prove existential.
The question is why? And the answer is integral to understanding Syria's civil war.
Iran is, like Israel, a regional outsider: a Shi'ite, Persian state in a predominantly Sunni Arab Middle East -- something it discovered to its cost when almost all the Arab states lined up behind Iraq during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Syria was an exception. The two countries are long-standing allies.
But it is more than that; Russia is not the only revanchist nation in great power politics today. Iran, increasingly guided more by the concerns of the IRGC than the clerics of the holy city of Qom, now seeks to dominate the Middle East. And for that Syria is vital. As Jonathan Spyer, the director of the Rubin Center at the IDC Herzliya, observes: "Iran wants to build a contiguous line of Iran-aligned states between the Iraq-Iran border and the sea. Syria forms an essential component in that. Syria is also essential for the maintenance of supply lines from Iran to its main proxy organization, the Lebanese Hizballah. It is Hizballah which gives Iran its physical connection to the struggle against Israel, a struggle to which Iran is committed both for pragmatic and ideological reasons."
With its traditional adversary, Iraq, now to all intents and purposes a failed state under huge Iranian influence, and "the great Satan" -- the United States, as it is known by some of Iran's hard-line conservatives -- seemingly determined to pivot away from Saudi Arabia toward Tehran, the geopolitical map has re-formed almost perfectly in its favor.
But maintaining this status quo is largely dependent on keeping Assad in power. As long as the supply routes to Hizballah remain open it can continue to harass and pressure Israel, Iran's only regional rival of any real power. More than this, if Assad falls he will almost certainly be replaced with a Sunni regime utterly hostile to Iran, both for sectarian reasons (since Sunnis make up more than 70 percent of the country's prewar population and because its likely constituents will have spent years being killed by Iran and its proxies.
With Russian air power now in the fight this scenario is unlikely unless, as Spyer further observes, there is an opposing "commitment of Western air power to aggressively advance the rebels' cause." This is something he rightly assesses "almost certainly will not happen."
At the same time, Assad remains too weak to reconquer most of the regions in Syria he has lost.The most likely scenario is a truncated "Assadistan" that allows Iran to keep both its supply lines to Hizballah and the contiguity of allied states. And Russia naturally gets to keep its air base.
The losers are, once again, the Syrian people. Realpolitik in the Middle East is a dirty and nasty business, and Iran is its master practitioner.
A new contest is raging in northern Syria. This time, however, it's not a battle but a race.
A new contest is raging in northern Syria. This time, however, it's not a battle but a race.
On August 24, Turkish tanks and soldiers, backed by U.S. coalition air strikes, crossed the Syrian border to attack positions held by the militant group Islamic State (IS) near Jarablus.
This town lies near the frontier with Turkey and is approximately 95 kilometers northeast of the city of Aleppo.
On the same day, the BBC reported the following:
Military sources told Turkish media 70 targets in the Jarablus area had been destroyed by artillery and rocket strikes, and 12 by air strikes.
Turkish-backed Syrian rebels are accompanying the Turkish advance.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the operation was aimed against both IS and Kurdish fighters.
Despite the fact that Turkey is fighting IS in this area, fighting terrorists may be the mechanism that Ankara is using to engage in northern Syria rather than the primary motivation. Such a scenario envisages Turkey trying to reverse a series of foreign policy defeats it has suffered in recent months, a cycle that has been accelerating in recent weeks.
Aleppo Province is quickly becoming the conflict's most complicated arena. As LiveUAMap illustrates, the region is divided by (at least) six distinct groups of fighters:
Kurdish SDF (northeast)
Kurdish YPG (northwest)
Anti-Assad rebel coalition (in and around Aleppo city)
Free Syrian Army in the Azaz pocket (Turkish border, north of Aleppo)
The coalition supporting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad
The city of Aleppo, once Syria's financial capital, is largely controlled by antigovernment rebel forces and is besieged by a coalition comprising the Syrian military, fighters from Hezbollah, Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commandos, Iraqi Shi'ite militias, and Russian contract soldiers, with the former two groups representing the bulk of the party.
Lately, however, the tables have turned. In the past two weeks, rebel forces, with the help of Al-Qaeda-linked groups, have broken the siege of the city and are now locked in a desperate and bloody battle for the Syrian government's last real stronghold in the north. If the forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad lose this fight, the anti-Assad rebels would have a nearly unified front and would be able to push deeper into the regime's heartland.
But the power dynamic in this area is made more complicated by the other competing factions in the region. The westernmost reaches of territory held by IS protrudes north of Aleppo city. To the northeast of the city, the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) are now rapidly capturing territory from IS. The SDF is made up mostly of Kurdish YPG fighters, although it also contains Arabs and other non-Kurds, and they have been armed, trained, supplied, and otherwise supported by the United States in an effort to create a ground force in Syria that is capable of taking and holding territory from IS. They have taken control of Manbij, about 70 kilometers east-northeast of Aleppo city, and are pushing farther west and south in the process. Crucially, they are also advancing north of Manbij toward Jarablus, the target of Turkey's invasion.
Making things even more complicated, there is another group of anti-Assad rebels that is also predominantly occupied with the fight against IS. Due north of Aleppo city, members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) control a crescent-shaped sliver of territory sometimes called the Azaz pocket, with their backs to the Turkish border, IS controlling the majority of their perimeter, and a separate group of YPG Kurdish fighters to the west. These FSA fighters are said to have received training, equipment, and support from Turkey and the CIA, but they have been fighting a desperate battle for survival for months.
In the spring, Russian air strikes and ground troops reportedly tipped the balance of power in this region and split the rebel lines in two, cutting off the anti-Assad rebels in Aleppo from the Turkish border, and from the rebels in Azaz. IS, smelling blood in the water, struck north and west, capturing huge amounts of territory from the FSA and other rebel groups. The YPG also saw opportunity, and worked to expand its control in the region.
Since then, the SDF -- which the United States says is made up of more than just YPG fighters but which some analysts say is primarily interested in advancing Kurdish interests in the region -- has benefited from strong support from the United States and has flanked IS. Rebels in the Azaz pocket have capitalized on IS's weakness and have pushed west, but at a snail's pace compared to the advances made by the SDF.
To simplify: What is taking place in northern Aleppo Province at the moment is effectively a race to see who can capture the most territory from IS the fastest. Just like the end of World War II, when the United States and Britain were advancing into German territory from the west and the Soviet Union was gobbling up the Nazi empire from the east, so too are the Kurds and the various non-Kurdish rebel groups fighting to stake their own claims as IS collapses under the combined weight of its enemies. Just like 1945, the outcome of this race could have major implications for the regional balance of power and could set the stage for the next war in the region, whether hot or cold.
So far, the major losers in this race are arguably the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Turkey, while Kurdish groups have gained the most. Between 2012 and 2014, the FSA led the fighting against the Assad regime in northern Syria and captured the vast majority of this territory. Between 2014 and 2016, IS seized control of vast swaths of northern Syria. In the last year, foreign support for the Assad military, particularly Russian air power, has helped gobble up even more territory from the anti-Assad rebels. Now, with robust U.S. support, the SDF is capturing that territory and controlling it itself.
In mid-August, Syrian activist Omar Sabbour shared a map made by Syrian journalist Hadi Abdullah that clearly illustrates how much territory has shifted. In 2013, most of northern Syria was covered by the dark-green color of the anti-Assad rebels. IS had yet to be formed, Assad had been pushed out, and the light-green color denoting Kurdish territory was relatively small. In 2014, almost the entire map was gray, having been taken over by IS. But since 2016, the light-green of the Kurds has displaced much of the gray, while Assad's forces have once again entered this zone of control.
The perception among many Syrian activists in this area is that U.S. support for moderate rebels has been lacking while U.S. support for the SDF has been robust. Sabbour's opinion of these developments is strongly worded. “The US has essentially stolen vast swathes of Syria liberated by the FSA between 2012-13 and given them to the YPG. Between 2012-13 -- when these areas were liberated -- the US was actively blockading military supplies coming in from neighboring countries,” he wrote. Since this post, the SDF has advanced even farther.
There are those, of course, who would dispute that worldview. But Sabbour's opinion is not uncommon. Reports suggest there is a sense among many Sunnis that the U.S. government's strategy in Syria and Iraq has empowered Shi'ite and Kurdish groups at the expense of Sunnis who once controlled Iraq and who have always been the strong majority in Syria.
Turkey, a major supporter of the anti-Assad rebels and a country that is effectively at war with the Kurdish PKK and, to a lesser extent (for now) the YPG, has watched as its own proxies have struggled while a group it considers to be a terrorist organization gains power just across its border. Kurdish groups have been blamed for a series of terrorist attacks inside Turkey this summer, including several last week. Jarablus appears to have been the last straw.
Earlier in the week, Turkey fired warning shots, with artillery, at SDF positions in northern Syria. On August 22, the SDF commander of the newly-formed Jarablus military council, Abdulsettar Al-Cadiri, was assassinated after announcing the beginning of the fight for the city. There is no proof for the claim, but there are suggestions that Turkish military intelligence was responsible.
Turkey's engagement in Syria could complicate the situation further, since it is entirely possible that the Turkish military or the rebels it supports could go to open war in northern Syria. Such a development could derail the fight against IS and efforts to end the Syrian conflict, and even widen the war. Any conflict of that nature could also exacerbate sectarian tensions at a time when stability and peace are already at a premium in the region. In short, it's an oil barrel, surrounded by powder kegs, surrounded by flame.
The U.S. government is responding. At the time of writing, the breaking news was that visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden had told Kurdish forces that they "must move back across the Euphrates River." He said "they cannot -- will not -- under any circumstance get American support if they do not keep that commitment," according to the AP news agency.
Now there are new questions: Will Turkey continue to expand its operations in Syria? Does this mark a new, much more robust phase of NATO intervention in the conflict? Will Turkey then turn on Assad? Will the SDF and other Kurdish groups respond, or might they lose U.S. support? And how will Russia and Assad respond to their loss of control in northern Syria, which may very likely be permanent?
The race for northern Syria has just heated up. Who will win?
The ostensible good guys, the Syrian rebels, who are battling an enemy that has barrel-bombed and butchered them ever since they started out as a peaceful movement merely asking for greater civil rights during the Arab Spring five years ago, are now in debt to jihadists.
Good news should be easy to discern in wartime. War, we assume, makes it easy to separate the good guys from the bad; to separate the oppressor from the oppressed; to separate right from wrong.
Sometimes, though, these questions become muddled, and no more so than in the surreally unstable and violent world of the Middle East. Recently, the rebel forces opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made great gains in breaking the regime's siege of the strategically vital city of Aleppo.
The problem remains, however, that the unquestionable success that the rebels have made in Aleppo is, to a large extent, partly down to the efforts of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front -- essentially Al-Qaeda in Syria). The ostensible good guys, the Syrian rebels, who are battling an enemy that has barrel-bombed and butchered them ever since they started out as a peaceful movement merely asking for greater civil rights during the Arab Spring five years ago, are now in debt to jihadists.
The debt is a significant one -- and one that is not lost on Syria's population. As Thomas Pierret, senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and an expert on Syria observes over e-mail: "If they [the rebels] manage to keep open the southern access to Aleppo, which was made possible (among other factors) by Fatah al-Sham's [vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices] VBIEDs. If the regime retakes the southern access to Aleppo, things might be different, but Fatah al-Sham would still remain one of the regime's most efficient opponents, which will inevitably reflect positively on its popularity."
Despite this risk, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo was supposed to bring relief to the citizens who were trapped in the city. That has yet to happen. International aid groups say that it is too dangerous to enter the city without a real cease-fire. While Russia and Assad have nominally accepted those conditions, the Syrian and Russian air forces are ruthlessly bombing the civilian populace in the city, and across much of Syria. The death toll continues to skyrocket.
On August 18, the image of a 5-year-old boy, Omran Daqneesh, became front-page news. Omran had just been saved by a group called the White Helmets, also known as the Syrian Civil Defense Forces, a collection of local Syrians who have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to help save civilians from the growing pile of rubble and corpses that their country is increasingly becoming. Pictures and video of his tiny face, matted with dried blood and dust, as he and his siblings were loaded into an ambulance and rushed to the hospital, went global. The world was horrified.
But Omran was lucky: he and his family survived, and he has since been released from the hospital. Meanwhile, more than 80 people were killed across the country that night, nearly two dozen of whom were children.
There have even been reports that the United States may join with Russia -- which unequivocally backs Assad -- in a joint military effort to stop the rebels' progress in Aleppo. Such a scenario remains unlikely, but it is a testament to how precarious the situation is in Syria -- and how utterly confused it is.
So why has a major responsibility in the war against butchery been handed to butchers?
The answer is depressingly simple: No one country is willing to risk getting involved in a major war in the Middle East to stand up to the Syrian and Russian governments. For five years, Assad has been allowed to kill with impunity -- literally in the vicinity of U.S. jets that looked on helpless to act. Washington is in an admittedly tricky situation. A war-weary American public elected Barack Obama in 2008 partly on his promise to end the U.S. military's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The people were sick of dead Americans, Afghans, and Iraqis. The last thing Obama wanted to do was to get sucked into another Middle East nightmare. And there is a valid logic to that line of thought.
Root Cause Of Insurgency
Obama's decision not to intervene in Syria -- to avoid having to once more expend American life and resources at a time when the country is still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis -- is considered by many to be the right move. But not all agree with that assessment. As Pierret once again observes, "critics of Obama generally reproach him for backtracking on his 'red line' with regard to the use of chemical weapons in 2013, but perhaps an even bigger mistake was the decision to intervene alongside the Syrian Air Force in September 2014 while not moving a finger to curtail daily attacks against civilians." Syrians saw more bombs drop from the air, this time from the United States as well as Assad; and yet more civilians, not merely members of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, were killed in this process.
"At the time there was no Russian air force around, and it would have been very easy for the overwhelmingly superior USAF [United States Air Force] to make it clear to the decaying Syrian Air Force that it wasn't allowed to bomb the USAF's zone of operations, i.e. the northern half of Syria. This has of course contributed to the perception by many Syrians that the United States is in fact complicit with Assad…hence to anti-Western radicalization," he says.
But this fact does not in any way detract from the root cause of the rebel insurgency, which is Assad's barbarity, which began during the first days of the uprising when the regime arrested, killed, and tortured the then-peaceful protesters. And the more it increased its barbarity, the more radicalized the insurgents became. The more the world ignored their plight, the more they were forced to turn to anyone who would help them.
This month, while Russia bombed Aleppo's hospitals -- and then boasted about it on state media -- the victorious rebel groups, let by jihadists, brought fruit to its starving population. Brutal they may be; jihadist they most certainly are; but they know how to do public relations -- especially in a field where due to the timorousness of the onlooking world they have little competition.
Nonetheless, the jihadists don't have it all their own way. Again Pierret is on point: "The level of distrust towards jihadists among the rest of the opposition (including non-jihadi Islamist insurgents) is frequently understated (if known about at all) in the West," he writes. And he is right. Assad and his acolytes deny that such a thing as a "moderate" opposition exists but the rebels continue to form a kaleidoscopic mix of elements -- from the secular to the extreme. This past week, as U.S.-backed rebels liberated Manbij from IS, videos showed residents celebrating: men cut their beards, while women burned their niqabs and smoked cigarettes, as they celebrated their freedom from their oppressive theological overlords.
"It has long been assumed by many Western observers and decision-makers," Pierret concludes, "that there are no good guys in Syria, or at least that the good guys are irrelevant. Yet, this assumption is proven wrong by the fact that we still see them dying every day after five years of conflict. The problem is, good guys are dying fast, and in such apocalyptic circumstances, [and] are increasingly replaced by radicalized people."
And herein lies the ultimate dilemma of the status quo in Syria. The more the rebels succeed, the more the democrats among them face ultimate defeat. Those fighting Assad are fighting to defeat visceral barbarism; to defeat a tyrant with absolutely no regard for the democratic process; to defeat a man who is responsible for slaughter on a massive scale. And in that endeavor our natural reactions should be to wish them every success.
The inescapable problem is who and what exactly are the Western countries supporting? If Assad goes -- and we must hope that he does -- what comes next? The answer to that question will define the Middle East for generations to come.
David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at the Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. He is working on a book on social media and war. The views expressed in this piece are the author's own
Russia is using an Iranian air base to launch strikes inside Syria, purportedly against Islamic State militants. The United States has cited Moscow's continued bombing of moderate Syrian forces that the United States and its allies support. But there may be a method to Moscow's madness.
On August 15, Al-Masdar News, an outlet with close ties to the Syrian government’s security apparatus, released photos of a Russian TU-22M3 long-distance strategic bomber, which were reportedly taken at the Hamadan airfield in Iran. By the next morning, Russian state-run media was running reports that Russian strategic bombers had taken off from the Iranian base and struck targets in Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor, and Idlib provinces in Syria.
Syrian activists and citizens posted videos of the massive devastation and reportedly high casualty rates on the ground as the result of air strikes, some of which were presumably the work of Russia’s TU-22M3s. While a statement from Russia’s Defense Ministry said the August 15 strikes had killed militants from the Islamic State (IS) extremist group and Jabhat Al-Sham (formerly the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front), Colonel Christopher Garver, a spokesman for the U.S. military’s Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters that "we don't see concentrations of ISIS" in the areas of Aleppo and Idlib, where the majority of the Russian air strikes hit.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner told Voice of America that Russian jets appear to have continued their pattern of “continually, predominantly target[ing] moderate Syrian opposition forces.”
Since September 2015, the Russian Air Force has been conducting air strikes across Syria. Most of the aircraft used in these operations have been launched out of the Russian air base in Latakia, in northeastern Syria. TU-22M3s have been used by Russia in Syria, but they are too large for Russia’s air strips in the country, so they have flown from bases in Russia. The use of the Iranian air base shortens the length of the bombers’ sorties, which would potentially save the Russian Air Force time, fuel, and maintenance costs, although those savings could be at least partially offset by the expense of operating in a new country.
It is also questionable whether the strategic bombers add much to Russia’s operational capabilities. The anti-Assad rebels they appear to be targeting aren’t holding the kinds of heavily fortified ground positions or using sophisticated tanks that the missiles fired by the TU-22M3 were designed to destroy. Instead, Russia has mainly used strategic bombers in Syria to carpet-bomb cities and towns, a tactic that is devastating to civilians below. Russia has also used strategic bombers to launch cruise missiles, a move which many experts consider to be symbolic, rather than tactical, in nature.
The use of Russian strategic bombers, however, is not without purpose. First, when Russia starting using cruise missiles in the fall of 2015, those missiles had to travel through Iranian and Iraqi airspace, which meant those countries had to approve the flight plans. This week, once again, Russia sought clearance to use the airspace over Iran and Iraq to launch cruise missiles. Thus, Russia was signaling to its adversaries that its mission in Syria had legitimacy and had been approved by other countries.
Second, as so many of Russia’s air strikes have targeted armed groups that have fought IS and have received backing from the United States, the Russians were sending a message when these bombers first appeared, to Syrians -- and indeed the world -- that Moscow was willing to back its allies with the entire might of the Kremlin, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop them.
During the summer of 2015 that preceded the start of Russia's air campaign, the military of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had lost significant ground to anti-Assad rebels who were cutting deeper and deeper into government territory. Russia's intervention, thus, was designed to reverse their momentum and crush Assad's opposition. It worked, for a time. Until last month, Syria's rebels were on the retreat in much of the country, as the Syrian government advanced with the help of the Russian Air Force, Russian mercenaries, Hizballah fighters, Shi'ite militias from Iraq, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commandos.
In the last month, however, Syrian rebels have broken the siege of Aleppo and have potentially reversed the momentum of the war once again, a testament to the weakness of the Assad military. Russia may once again be ramping up its direct involvement in the conflict in order to push the rebels back.
Third, not only did Russia prove that it, too, was still capable of waging a war beyond its immediate borders, it also demonstrated several previously untested weapons systems, with the potential to make lots of money in arms sales in the process.
Russia might also have more malign aims. In the fall of 2015, at the start of Russia’s bombing campaign, Raed Fares, a well-known Syrian activist living in Kafranbel, in Idlib Province, told me that despite the fact that the town was controlled by a U.S.-vetted moderate rebel group, the Forsan al-Haq Brigade, and IS had not held positions anywhere near the town in two years, a Russian air strike created the most spectacular and frightening explosion he had ever seen. In Kafranbel, a symbol of the anti-Assad revolution that has been heavily bombed by Assad since 2012, that’s saying something.
The result, for Fares, was a feeling of hopelessness.
“Assad has been killing us for five years, then Hizballah, and Iran, then Russia...All of them are killing us, but no one in the world cares for us,” he told me then. It seems that a key component of the pro-Assad coalition’s strategy is to chase people like Fares from Syria. If no one is left in the country but jihadists and Assad supporters, because moderates have either been killed, turned into refugees, or radicalized, then the Russian narrative that all those who oppose Assad are terrorists will finally become the truth.
Furthermore, the sowing of further chaos and the creation of yet more refugees also benefits Assad and Russia. Many more refugees will flee to Assad’s regional adversaries, making them weaker in the process. Others will flee to Europe, where far-right, sometimes pro-Kremlin, Euroskeptic political parties are helping trying to weaken the European Union from within.
The effects of the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey continue to ripple through the country, and indeed far beyond. It's just the latest event to stress the relationship between Turkey and the West, and as that alliance deteriorates it will have serious repercussions for regional security in the Middle East, the crisis in Syria, geopolitical balance, and the fight against terrorist groups like Islamic State (IS).
The effects of the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey continue to ripple through the country, and indeed far beyond. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has placed blame for the coup attempt squarely at the feet of cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. The coup attempt is just the latest event to stress the relationship between Turkey and the West, and as that alliance deteriorates it will have serious repercussions for regional security in the Middle East, the crisis in Syria, geopolitical balance, and the fight against terrorist groups like Islamic State (IS).
The aftermath in Turkey continues, jeopardizing key Turkish state institutions. About 80,000 people who are suspected to be affiliated with the Gulen movement, which Turkey declared a terrorist organization in 2015 under the name Gulenist Terrorist Organization (FETO), have been removed from their jobs at various Turkish state institutions, including about 45,000 workers from the Education Ministry alone. Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag's latest numbers state that 18,000 people have been formally arrested, while another 6,000 detainees are still being processed.
Reports indicate that Turkey's penal system was already overstretched with crowded prisons and backlogged courts. This spring, Turkey's prisons held 188,000 detainees, around 8,000 more than existing capacity. Now, it faces the added burden of handling an influx of tens of thousands detained in the aftermath of the attempted putsch. Since about 3,000 prosecutors and judges are among those detained, accounting for a little more than 20 percent of Turkey's judiciary staff, challenges at Turkish courthouses and jails are becoming overwhelming. And President Erdogan has declared that these arrests are only the tip of the iceberg, so it is reasonable to expect many more to be arrested in the coming days.
Erdogan is working to shore up his personal control of the country, and any critics of his government may be caught up in his net. Under rules governing a state of emergency, which can only be declared by the president, authorities can detain anyone for up to 30 days without needing to show any evidence or bring any charges. Seventy-seven journalists are currently sitting in jails, 42 of whom are implicated in some kind of involvement with the attempted coup. The true number of arrested journalists may be higher, as the detentions of local reporters often go unrecorded across Turkey.
According to testimonies, jailed journalists have been asked about their writings in their columns, tweets, or books, but were not presented any evidence by authorities that would tie them to the failed coup. They are effectively being held for alleged thought crimes, accused of "embracing FETO" and "excusing the coup attempt," which are very vague accusations. Kurdish reporters are being rounded up as well, even if they have no known ties to Gulen.
A Wide Net
Before the coup, many Turkish politicians, leaders, and high-level bureaucrats were racing to receive Gulen's blessings. As a result, now almost anyone from any Turkish political party can be arrested in Turkey for allegedly being a member of, or associated with, the Gulen movement or FETO. In fact, former Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu -- who was instrumental in quelling antigovernment protests in 2013 over plans for Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park on behalf of Erdogan -- was arrested for allegedly being a member of FETO, and he has since confessed to speaking with Gulen in 2012.
Meanwhile, some of the jailed journalists and others are having difficulties finding a lawyer because many human rights lawyers are also detained or on the run. In Turkey, lawyers can be detained over the types of suspects they are defending, a brazen attack on fundamental rights and the essence of the judicial institution.
Turkey has never had a free press. However, in the past relatively independent newspapers tied to various powerhouses in Turkey made the country's media environment vibrant and more representative of various segments of Turkish society. As Erdogan consolidated his power and became Turkey's unrivaled political leader, the press's editorial freedom and room for debate narrowed accordingly. According to Reporters Without Borders, Turkey ranked 151th out of 184 countries in the 2015-16 Press Freedom Index, faring even worse than Russia.
Following the coup, things have become much worse. A single decree issued by Erdogan's palace on July 27 effectively banned more than 130 media organizations (TV channels, magazines, newspapers, news portals, etc.). It's true that many of those media outlets are affiliated with the Gulen movement, but many other media outlets on the list are not.
This crackdown, which has been criticized by many Western leaders, is only further distancing Turkey from its Western allies.
The attempted coup, as Erdogan put it in the first hours of July 16 during his Ataturk Airport press conference, was "a gift from God," as it would help him cleanse the military of "members of the gang," or "viruses." However, it seems that there are many others apart from Gulenists who are also being "cleansed" from state institutions. For example, neo-nationalist and secular columnist Emin Colasan complained loudly that many "pro-Ataturk, republican, and secular" citizens also became victims in the guise of the Gulenist witch-hunt.
Syria, A Catalyst For Turkey's Break With The West
When looking back, 2013 seems to be the year when everything started going in the wrong direction as far as Erdogan's international standing is concerned.
Then-Prime Minister Erdogan visited the White House in May 2013, and was given a high-level reception. However, behind the scenes of goodwill and roses (there was a press briefing at the Rose Garden), leaders were unable to agree on the main issue -- how to respond to the crisis in Syria. Only two weeks after the visit, the Gezi park protests started. The way Erdogan quelled the protests attracted worldwide condemnation, including from the United States and others in the West. Erdogan's smiling and reformist face suddenly turned upside down as his image morphed into that of an authoritarian-Islamist leader. Erdogan, despite warnings from U.S. President Barack Obama in the face-to-face meeting, continued his Syria policy of supporting all kinds of fighters against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including jihadists.
Tension between the United States and Turkey continued over Syria, the fate of Assad, the response to IS, and the stance with regard to Syrian Kurdish groups. After the June 7, 2015, elections, in which Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to get a majority, the Turkish government decided to open the Incirlik air base to the U.S.-led coalition for anti-IS operations.
Many observers thought this could be the turning point for Turkey's relationship with the West. However, the honeymoon did not last long. Turkey resumed its fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) -- which is considered to be a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union -- at the same time it opened the Incirlik base to anti-IS operations.
Ankara's stance to the Syrian Kurdish group PYD and its military wing, the YPG -- which the United States has not designated as terrorist organizations and which are major players in Washington's strategy against Islamic State -- also became much more hawkish. Insisting there was no difference between the PYD and the PKK, Erdogan said that one "cannot speak of good terrorists and bad terrorists" and that one terrorist organization "should not be given a cloak of legitimacy" under the guise of fighting IS. Erdogan asked the United States and the West to agree with him. Instead, the United States increased its support to Syrian Kurds against IS with the help of its Incirlik operations. In other words, while Erdogan was condemning the PYD/YPG as terrorist organizations, the United States was expanding its logistical help to the same groups from an air base on Turkish soil.
Erdogan's Syria policy never became popular with the Turkish public. As the crisis across the border turned into a full-scale civil war and millions of Syrians began seeking safe haven in Turkey, Erdogan's Syria policy became a liability. However, since Erdogan has kept increasing his influence in the Turkish private media world, and since as president he controls state TV stations, radios, and news agencies, his ability to shape public opinion, at least among his base, has been left unrivaled. Erdogan masterfully manipulated voters by scapegoating various foreign leaders -- including Syria's Assad; Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who toppled elected President Muhammad Morsi; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; or Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qassem Soleimani -- blaming each for various problems over the years that slowly isolated Turkey further, and deeper.
While polarizing the country between seculars and conservatives, Alevis and Sunnis, Turks and Kurds -- at any given time Erdogan has been able to divide and rule. Incompetent opposition leaders were busy consolidating their powers within their own parties by eliminating rivals, working to stay at the helm of their respectful political parties, rather than finding ways to reach out to broader segments of Turkish society to earn the top executive job. Consequently, Erdogan, as unpopular as it has been, has not had to change his Syria policy as president due to the lack of credible challenges coming from opposition forces.
Despite all the power he has accumulated inside Turkey, Erdogan's "erratic" behavior, antidemocratic policies, and anti-Western statements kept alienating both Western and Eastern friends. While Erdogan cut a deal with European leaders to curb the flow of migrants to the EU, the deal did not significantly boost his international standing. Even after Erdogan overcame the coup attempt, Western leaders steered clear of visiting Ankara. As Erdogan has repeated many times, not a single EU member-state leader has visited Erdogan since the coup attempt to offer condolences.
And Then There Is The Fight Against Islamic State
On top of all of Turkey's internal issues and fight with the PKK, IS started bombing targets inside Turkey within the past year. IS militants first hit Kurdish targets before and after the June 2015 elections that elevated Erdogan to the presidency. Then, tourists in Sultanahmet were targeted in January, and Israeli tourists in Beyoglu in March. On June 29, two weeks before the coup attempt, Istanbul's Ataturk Airport was hit by a deadly attack that Ankara says was carried out by IS militants.
Turkey's already-challenged system has become more fragile since July 15. One month since the coup attempt, Erdogan must now make some big decisions both domestically and regionally. The first is how long he will continue his crackdown on democratic institutions, opposition groups, and governmental checks and balances. If he continues down the same authoritarian road, Turkey's economic and political regression, along with the potential collapse of its institutions, could cause further instability.
All indications suggest that Erdogan is extremely angry, to say the least, at the United States and the European Union for their perceived lack of sympathy to Turkey's civilian rulers after the coup. Accusations that the United States was behind the coup, openly and repeatedly stated by state-run media and government ministers, are clues that relations between Turkey and the West have become even further strained. It's anybody's guess how long Turkey can hold to this type of anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric and expect to stay allies with the United States and Europe. Gulen's stay in Pennsylvania surely makes relations thornier.
Will Erdogan turn to Moscow and Tehran instead of Washington and Brussels if he cannot get Gulen extradited? Can Russia and Iran really replace the West? Does Erdogan really want to untie Turkey's hundreds of years of anchorage to the West and 70 years of history with NATO?
These questions are now being asked every day, on TV news shows, and in tea houses across Turkey.
Ilhan Tanir is a Turkish analyst and journalist based in Washington, D.C.
Just one week ago, the rebels who controlled the last few neighborhoods of Aleppo that remain in opposition hands found themselves surrounded and running out of time. Today, the situation is very different. But this battle comes at a price -- a key Al-Qaeda-linked group has helped spearhead the attack on the city.
Just one week ago, the rebels who controlled the last few neighborhoods of Aleppo that remain in opposition hands found themselves surrounded and running out of time. The Syrian government and its allies had surrounded what was once Syria's largest city and the country's financial capital. Many feared a humanitarian disaster would unfold, and the regime's recapture of Aleppo would be a devastating blow to anti-Assad forces who do not have full control of a single major city in all of Syria.
Today, the situation is very different.
On August 6, rebel forces broke through the walls of perhaps the most important military base in all of northern Syria. As I explained for The Interpreter on August 1, the Ramouseh artillery base and academy has served as the foundation of the Assad regime's control of Aleppo city -- and with it all of Aleppo Province -- since the city was first attacked by rebel groups in 2012:
The Ramouseh artillery base and academy was the key to maintaining some control in Aleppo for the Assad regime between the summer of 2012 and today. The artillery units there were crucial to [intimidating protesting students], and later in the regime's efforts to flatten the Hamadaniyah and Salah el Din districts just north of the base. The artillery turned regime strongholds into death traps, transforming the battle for Aleppo into a game of inches waged by snipers, artillery, and aircraft. Since regime forces were often outnumbered over the course of those years, this leveled the playing field.
The victory may relieve the humanitarian situation in Aleppo (though this remains to be seen). Furthermore, if the base falls and the regime does not quickly recapture it, Assad could be in danger of losing all of Aleppo. This battle is a testament to how weak the Assad military has become. Even with direct support from the Russian Air Force, tanks, and troops, as well as militants from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, Assad may have just snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
How, then, does he ever hope to restore order to Syria?
But this battle also comes at a price -- a key Al-Qaeda-linked group has helped spearhead the attack on the city. Operating under the umbrella organization Jaish al-Fatah, Army of Conquest, the newly rebranded Al-Nusra Front, now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, used suicide sappers and tunnel bombs to break open the Syrian Army's battle lines and main defenses, through which various rebel groups are now streaming. As David Patrikarakos explained for RFE/RL on August 4, while many more moderate rebel groups also played very important roles, Al-Qaeda's leading role may impact the entire trajectory of the war moving forward.
As history has shown us, without a singular leader, and without unified and consistent outside support, whichever group wins battles usually becomes the banner carrier on Syria's battlefields. History shows us that victory is the key for Syrian rebel groups. To see this in action, we should look to the beginning of the crisis.
Protesters first took to the streets against Syrian President Bash al-Assad in March 2011, starting the Syrian chapter of the regionwide protest movement that had already swept through much of the Middle East. At first, the demand was not the removal of the president but instead a series of pro-democratic reforms. Those protests were met with violence. As more cities and towns took to the streets and the protests in each one of them grew larger, so, too, did the violence against the protesters grow more intense.
First, protesters were arrested and beaten, then teargassed, and then they were shot at. As members of the military and police grew disgusted by their orders to shoot unarmed civilians, those who did not follow orders were also attacked by the military. By the summer of 2011, regime defectors were hiding in the deserts and mountains, and the battle for the future of Syria began.
By February 2012, the protest movement in Syria was making its final transition into a full-blown civil war. By this time, Homs, a working-class city in the center of Syria, was in full rebellion. Assad, in direct contradiction to his agreement with the Arab League, deployed his tanks and artillery to the city. The death toll exploded, and even peaceful protesters began to realize that Assad would stop at nothing to kill all those who opposed him. For many Syrians rebels whom I've spoken with over the years, the siege of Homs was the moment they realized that there was no peaceful solution to the conflict. It was time to take up arms.
Despite what Syria has become, it might come as a surprise to many that at this time there were effectively no armed groups that had an obvious jihadist or Salafist ideology. Syria was a secular country with a secular military, most rebels were former military or police, and despite being driven to take up arms, they were not particularly interested in overthrowing their government, much less installing some sort of Islamic caliphate, the stated goal of groups like Al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), which were relative latecomers to this crisis. What Western leaders often refer to now as the “moderate opposition” made up nearly the entirety of the opposition back in early 2012.
But already there were rumors of “bad men” among some rebel groups. Syrian activists whom I consulted at the time, both nonviolent activists and rebels, warned of a group that was increasingly popular with both rebel fighters and some citizens alike – the Al-Farouq Brigade. At a time when most of the armed opposition simply identified as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Farouq took its own name. It operated under its own orders, often overruling other FSA fighters and commanders in the area around Homs. The rumors quickly spread, some propagated by the Assad regime and others by rival rebel groups or scared civilians, that it was ruling Homs like a mafia state, collecting taxes and intimidating the populace. More than anything, though, the Al-Farouq Brigade was more committed to doing whatever it took to defeat Assad. It was the first rebel group to focus on taking and controlling inhabited cities and towns, and it preferred to take the fight to Assad in offensive battles.
The group's reputation soon grew because it was winning, and because it was taking the initiative. Many FSA fighters saw their leaders as weak and indecisive, and so Farouq was a welcome alternative.
Success bred success. The more battles it won, the more popular the group became.
But the Al-Farouq Brigade was still part of the moderate opposition. Soon, another group was gaining prominence in northern Syria -- the Al-Nusra Front, Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate. Al-Nusra started as little more than a YouTube video in January 2012. By taking credit for terrorist attacks, some of which it may not have even perpetrated, Al-Nusra soon proved that it, too, was capable of doing what it took to win. Its radical Islamic ideology allowed it to motivate its followers behind a religious objective – the destruction of the government of the Alawite sect and the construction of a Sunni Salafist caliphate. Its adherence to Shari'a law, not pro-democracy ideals, gave it an excuse to dictate orders from the top, rather than seek consensus, which made its leadership, its rule, appear stronger than it really was.
Soon, Al-Nusra had a new rival, Islamic State, which was even more focused, even more brutal, and even more successful on the battlefields of Syria. By early 2014, the most extreme members of the Al-Farouq Brigade, perhaps sensing their own obsolescence, had joined one of these more successful and bloodthirsty groups, while still more members of Al-Farouq joined less radical groups that still had a strong religious identity, reducing the group to one that is now of limited importance. Other Free Syrian Army units are still numerous, but their leadership is more splintered and their ideology, while relatively moderate, is less iconic, less unified, and much harder to define.
After five and a half years of war, the Assad regime, not any terrorist group, is responsible for the vast majority of the deaths in Syria, and an even larger number of the refugees who have fled the constant killing. Groups like Al-Nusra and Islamic State rely on their history of defeating the Assad regime and restoring law and order, even if it is a barbarous order, as their main tools of controlling the people and attracting new members.
When Al-Nusra's suicide bombers opened the way for the opposition to win key bases in Idlib Province, it became the dominant force in that region. When IS's path of bloodshed led to its victories in Syria's east, it was soon able to consolidate territory and declare its caliphate.
There is a real danger that, unless they score a major win soon, moderate groups in Aleppo Province could also give way to groups with more radical ideologies, such as the victorious Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, with all of the problems that such a development would entail.
The insurgent offensive under way right now in Aleppo aimed at breaking the Damascus government's siege of rebel-held areas in the east of the city may reshape the direction of the entire war in Syria.
The Syrian civil war is as confusing and opaque as it is sadistic and bloody. On one side stands Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a barbarous tyrant backed by Iran and Russia, Hizbullah, and Shi'ite militias from Iraq, the remnants of the Syrian army, and the odd Kurdish splinter group.
Against him are arrayed multiple rebel groups including the Islamic State extremist group, Al-Qaeda, and a host of more moderate rebel factions. It is often hard for the observer to make sense of events, let alone understand their true importance. But one thing is clear: the insurgent offensive under way right now in Aleppo aimed at breaking the government siege of rebel-held areas in the east of the city may reshape the direction of the entire war.
On the weekend of July 30-31, the surrounded rebels who held the center of Aleppo city and a larger body of rebel groups to the west of the city tried to reconnect their battle lines, striking at a position in the strategic Ramouseh district. But, as ever, outgunned, the regime fought back: using Russian airstrikes to try to halt the advance.
Syria's revolution is now unequivocally in the balance. As Kyle Orton, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, points out in an e-mail interview with RFE/RL, Aleppo is the last major urban holding of the mainstream armed opposition in Syria. If the political process is to amount to anything other than a regime victory in all but name, the rebels have to hold Aleppo City. For its part, the regime, with Russian and Iranian help, has severely lessened the strategic threat from the insurgency already -- for them to retake Aleppo City would kill it. Orton is blunt: "In short, the course of the entire war is in the balance with the fate of Aleppo."
If the rebels succeed in breaking the siege then the pro-regime coalition will suffer a serious strategic setback. As Orton further notes, "the pro-Assad forces [are holding] out in northwestern Syria by some relatively tenuous supply lines through Hama and southern Aleppo." If the rebel positions in Idlib Province and southwestern Aleppo are expanded to include areas of Aleppo City, Assad's bases in the north come under serious threat, and with it Assad's chance of crushing the rebellion entirely.
Detoxifying The Islamist Brand
But there is another more complex and disturbing possibility that encapsulates the problems of Syria in a microcosm. The main rebel players in the offensive are Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front), Ahrar al-Sham, and Free Syrian Army brigades. Al-Qaeda in Syria's renaming of itself as Fatah al-Sham -- officially for the sake of "rebel unity" -- is, in reality, little more than a move to publicly detoxify its brand.
And this is where a major question about the timing of the offensive comes in. Endless rounds of failed peace talks have yielded nothing for the rebels. Discussions of talks scheduled for late August are likely to yield nothing once again. With Iran and now Russia behind it, the regime is now so strong it has little incentive to compromise. Meanwhile, Russian support is not merely confined to the battlefield. Its diplomatic efforts have deftly changed the conversation from one centering on Assad's removal to the conditions under which he will stay in power.
As each cease-fire inevitably failed (almost invariably broken by pro-Assad forces), Al-Qaeda was eventually able to claim, back in December 2015, that the entire peace process was a "conspiracy" against the revolution. And its absurd claims gained traction among an increasingly desperate population who saw little reaction from the onlooking global community. More than this, after each cease-fire ended, Al-Qaeda was the mainstay of much of the rebel fight back -- it was even able to make significant gains in southern Aleppo. In essence, the rebels allowed Al-Qaeda back into the mainstream opposition by their own adherence to previous cease-fire agreements.
Under its new Jabhat Fatah al-Sham banner, the group can now use the Aleppo offensive as a means by which to further integrate into the mainstream rebel alliance. As Orton states, it presents the group with its best chance yet of using "the rebellion as a shield against external attack, annexing what is an objectively good cause -- breaking the nascent terror-siege of Aleppo City…[to] show its utility as the military tip of the spear to act as a kind of special forces for the insurgency -- and…make connections and alliances that can facilitate its vanguardist program."
Meanwhile, the possibility of (yet another) humanitarian catastrophe becomes increasingly distinct. The UN estimates that some 300,000 people are trapped inside the city with rapidly shrinking medical supplies and, critically, declining stocks of food. The regime is clearly going all-out to capture Aleppo and crush the rebellion once and for all.Thus far, however, it has been slow to respond to the rebel counterattack. This state of affairs will not last. It will rain down destruction from the air and the ground.
So far reports are sketchy due to an insurgency media blackout in the area, but it does appear that the rebels are making significant steps toward breaking the siege. According to some reports, on August 1, they captured the strategic Al-Mishrefah area, south of the Ramousah air force artillery base. But they still needed to advance another 2.5 kilometers to take the city's artillery base, one of the biggest in all of Syria and a base that has been the linchpin of Assad's defenses in the city.
Achieving this would allow them to reach their fellow rebels on the Aleppo side. Now, according to Orton, "fragmentary reports [say] there has been intense fighting and very rapid and significant gains for the insurgency…coming within several hundred yards of breaking the siege on eastern Aleppo City."
If these reports are true -- or if the rebels are able to make minor gains or at least maintain the status quo in the city -- then once again it will be Jabhat Fatah al-Sham that benefits the most. In leading the charge to rescue the besieged population while the world looks on, it will have irretrievably bound itself to the armed opposition in Northern Syria.
And that is a scenario that benefits no one -- not the mainstream rebels and most of all, not Syria's long-suffering people.
Brussels, Paris (twice), and now Nice: Four crippling jihadist attacks in just over 18 months. The extremist group Islamic State’s fastidious sadism has arrived in Europe, and it looks like our problems are only just beginning.
Brussels, Paris (twice), and now Nice: Four crippling jihadist attacks in just over 18 months. The extremist group Islamic State’s fastidious sadism has arrived in Europe, and it looks like our problems are only just beginning.
Last week, on July 14, as evening celebrations for Bastille Day (France’s version of Independence Day) took place on the Promenade des Anglais -- the central promenade of the Mediterranean coastal city of Nice -- Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian living in France, deliberately drove a 19-ton refrigerated truck into the crowds, killing 84 people and wounding more than 300.
Panic broke out among the thousands that had gathered to watch the evening’s fireworks as the attacker entered the promenade, repeatedly swerving to hit as many people as possible. He exchanged some initial fire with police but was able to continue for almost 2 kilometers before they were finally able to surround the truck, strafe it with gunfire, and finally kill him. By that point, hundreds of twisted bodies and pools of blood littered the seafront. It was a true act of savagery.
As French security officials scrambled to make sense of the situation, it initially appeared that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel might be a “lone wolf” attacker, one with perhaps psychological problems or unknown grievances. He had, it emerged, a criminal record, mostly for violence and petty theft, as well a history of psychiatric problems. Critically, however, he was not on the French intelligence “fiche S” list of suspected jihadists.
Two days later, however, IS claimed responsibility for the attack, announcing on its Amaq News Agency channel that the “executor of the deadly operation in Nice, France, was a soldier of the Islamic State. He executed the operation in response to calls to target citizens of coalition nations, which fight the Islamic State.”
It does appear that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel may have been part of a wider network. On July 17, two Albanians were arrested on suspicion of supplying him with the 7.65 mm automatic pistol he used to fire on police.
But according to historian and Arabist Pieter Van Ostaeyen, the delay between the attack and IS’s claim of responsibility for it raises doubts over the true extent of his links to the group -- an assessment the French authorities appear to share.
“It seems he became radicalized very quickly," French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on July 17. "This is a new type of attack. We are now confronted with individuals that are sensitive to the message of [IS] and are committed to extremely violent actions without necessarily being trained by them."
This would be in keeping with IS strategy. As far back as September 22, 2014, IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani ash-Shami had advised wannabe jihadists who wanted to carry out lone attacks on the various means by which they could strike at the infidel:
“If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car...”
“This call to kill crusaders has been repeated many times since,” Van Ostaeyen told me by e-mail, and clearly it struck a chord with Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, on whose computer police found many IS videos.
But perhaps the real clue to all this goes even further back, to 2004, when the Islamist strategist Abu Bakr Naji published, online, The Management Of Savagery, a pamphlet aiming to provide a strategy by which Al-Qaeda could eventually form an Islamic caliphate. Published before IS even came into being (in its present form), it has since become one its guiding principles; it is reportedly read widely among the group’s commanders.
Central to Naji's ethos is that the more military responses Islamic extremists can provoke from the West, the more those powers will become worn down through a process of attrition -- both in terms of resources, public support at home, and anger among the ummah -- the world’s global Muslim community. If nothing else, the Iraq war proved him right on this count.
A more recent example came in November of last year, when, just two days after the Bataclan concert hall attack, which left 130 people dead, France launched its most extensive bombing campaign against IS to date, repeatedly pounding its stronghold of Raqqa. In essence, French President Francois Hollande played right into Naji's hands. But he had no choice. The enraged French public needed to see their leader take clear and decisive action. Thus did France expend military resources and anger Muslims in the Middle East -- without making a significant dent in IS’s capabilities.
IS has taken Naji's strategy and improved on it -- namely by forcing Western nations into a double bind by the use of terrorist acts carried out by (usually) locally born militants to create divisions, and preferably sow hatred, between minority Muslim communities and the majority in Western countries. The formula is simple yet deadly effective: The more homegrown jihadists appear in France, Belgium, and the U.K., the more their respective governments must monitor their Muslim communities. And the more they monitor them, the more it fuels resentment among them. And the more resentment that is fueled, the more jihadists are produced. It’s the definition of a vicious circle.
And that this strategy is working is plain to see. The attack was a gift to the French far right. The day after the attack, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front party, issued a statement urging the country to “declare war” against “the scourge of Islamist fundamentalism.” Several more attacks like Nice could one day see her become France’s president. What comes after that could destabilize the whole of Europe.
In the meantime, one thing is for sure: European jihadism is here to stay. And all Western countries that have participated in international military coalitions in the Middle East are targets.
As Van Ostaeyen explained: “The logic followed is that of qisas or retaliation (an eye for an eye, blood for blood). I'm afraid this climate of terror will haunt us for many years to come."
David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Guardian, Politico, Foreign Policy, Spectator, The New Republic, The New Statesman, The Telegraph, and many others.
The extremist group now known as Islamic State (IS) first claimed statehood, with clear pretentions to a new caliphate, in 2006 -- and in 2014 made it explicit. Two years later, this looks like an unsafe proposition.
The extremist group now known as Islamic State (IS) first claimed statehood, with clear pretentions to a new caliphate, in 2006 -- and eight years later made it explicit.
"Now the dream has become a reality," Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani) said in his speech on June 29, 2014, declaring that the territory IS held in Syria and Iraq constituted the rebirth of the caliphate. "The State will remain."
Two years later, this looks like an unsafe proposition.
After IS openly seized control of territory in northern and central Iraq, adding it to their Syrian domains, in the summer of 2014, it controlled an area roughly the size of Great Britain. Since then, IS has lost about half the territory it held in Iraq and about one-fifth in Syria -- and a further one-tenth overall in the first half of this year. Operation Inherent Resolve managed to hold IS out of Kobani in late 2014 but then in early 2015 suffered a setback: After IS was driven out of Tikrit, the extremist group took over Ramadi and Palmyra. Since then, though, progress against IS has been steady.
In June 2015, IS lost Tel Abyad, due north of Raqqa on the border between Syria and Turkey, and with it one of its main access points to the outside world. Iraq’s Sinjar Province was finally cleared in November 2015. Large parts of Ramadi were recaptured from the militants in December 2015. IS lost Shadadi (east of Raqqa) in February 2016, Palmyra (central Syria) was retaken in March, and Fallujah (west of Baghdad) in June. In northern Syria, IS-held Manbij is completely surrounded and its fall will precipitate the collapse of IS's position in Aleppo Province, closing off its access to Turkey. And in Iraq, the removal of IS from its last important urban center in Saladin Province, Shirqat -- a development that will further open the road to Mosul -- is only a matter of time, Meanwhile, IS has come under tremendous pressure in Sirte, its de facto capital in Libya.
What reason, then, to call the military campaign against IS anything but a success?
One reason is that IS has actually been making (modest) gains even as the net result is a loss of territory. While IS is losing its access to the Turkish border via Manbij and soon al-Bab, it is -- albeit in a very fluid situation -- gaining territory around Azaz, another border town. In southern Syria, IS has pulled off the remarkable feat of growing an organic wing of the organization, partly playing off the U.S.-led coalition's foolish decision to stop the rebels in the area fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and to redirect them against the Jihadi-Salafists. This left the rebels vulnerable to charges of being hirelings of foreigners who have betrayed the revolution, and opened the space for the jihadis to position themselves as the banner-carriers of the anti-Assad struggle. And in the mixed Iraqi province of Diyala, from which IS was expelled in early 2015, IS has shown greater activity recently -- not coincidentally after a spate of atrocities by the radically sectarian Shi'ite militias controlled by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
More broadly, IS has adapted to its new environment -- with lethal consequences far outside Iraq and Syria. Falaha effectively conceded in both the IS newsletter al-Naba and a major speech in May that the demise of IS's statelet is approaching. The organization is therefore switching back to insurgent and terrorist tactics. The car bombings in the shopping district in Karrada, Baghdad, on July 3 -- which killed 300 people, the second-worst atrocity IS has conducted on Iraqi soil since it arrived in 2002 -- foreshadowed this. So did attacks in Tartus City and Jableh on May 23. IS has nearly doubled the rate at which it employs suicide bombers in the last six months, averaging about three per day.
The reversion to insurgency underlines the question of how IS views territorial control. Doubtless IS ultimately intends to create an Islamist imperium, but it is not operating as if it believes now is the moment it can forge a durable state.
A study released as IS fell back in Tikrit noted that, while IS "holds out until the last possible moment" in the cities, it "seems more focused on actively defending the rural zones in which urban areas are located. In many cases, the urban center may be the part of the defended zone allocated the smallest proportion of available Islamic State forces."
"The jihadists fight as if they were pirates, with the desert being their sea," Nibras Kazimi has written. "They treat the cities and towns they have captured as ports of call, for booty and resupply. When challenged by superior forces attempting to retake these ports, the jihadists dissolve away into the desert, leaving small and determined bands of fighters to deflect and bleed out the invading force."
IS's strategic thinking is deeply shaped by the work of Mohammad Hasan Khalil al-Hakim (Abu Bakr Naji), the author of the infamous Management Of Savagery, and Mustafa Nasar (Abu Musab al-Suri), whom they personally revile. Both stress exhausting the jihadists' foes.
"Were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq and were in the desert without any city or land?" Falaha asked in May. "And would we be defeated and you be victorious if you were to take Mosul or Sirte or Raqqa or even take all the cities and we were to return to our initial condition? Certainly not!" IS sees this war as cyclical and attritional, and it sees its enemies' will fading. Last time around, there were tens of thousands of Western soldiers on the ground. This time there are only special forces and air strikes. Next time there will be even less, IS predicts.
It is not to deny that IS is heading into a period of hardship: Its leadership has been dented, the flow of foreign volunteers has been restricted, and less territory means fewer people to be taxed. It is to say that, given IS's strategic vision and proven capacity to adjust to conditions in pursuit of it, territorial control per se is not only not the defining metric of the progress of the war, but the focus on it at the expense of all else is dangerous.
The caliphate is the "driving" force behind IS's recruitment, the U.S. representative to the anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk, recently said. "So we have to shrink the core". Less than a week later, CIA Director John Brennan said, "Despite all our progress against [IS] on the battlefield … our efforts have not reduced the group's terrorism capability and global reach." The answer to the discrepancy in the two statement lies in the nature of IS's territorial losses.
In Syria, IS's losses are largely to ground forces dominated by the local branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), and in Iraq to IRGC-run militias -- both of which are regarded as illegitimate by the local populations in areas from which IS has been displaced. The PKK clearly intends to use its U.S.-backed campaign in Aleppo to link its cantons in the east of the country to Efrin, encompassing much territory where the inhabitants do not wish to be part of a Kurdish nationalist project. The support to the IRGC-controlled militias is especially toxic given the recent record of the United States and especially in tandem with U.S. overtures to Russia, solidifying the perception in the region that the United States has sided with the Iranian axis against the Sunnis. In the medium term, this has created the political space for IS to return to the cities, but this narrative of IS as the vanguard against a global anti-Sunni conspiracy enables it in the short-term to call on its foreign sympathizers to "punish" the countries engaged against it.
The foreign terrorism track is not, as some have argued, reactive to the territorial losses; it has always been integral to the state-building project and this increased activity is partly a sign of maturity. "Don't hear about us, hear from us," was IS's mantra. The group developed a mania for pre-emptively infiltrating its near-abroad -- and areas well beyond -- in response to its having been infiltrated and pulled apart during the Surge-and-Sahwa period. The return to insurgency has, however, certainly had an impact on the timing of these strikes by IS.
Put simply, on the current trajectory the coalition is allowing IS to "convert territorial losses into legitimacy." Unless IS is replaced by an accepted local force, the "dream" that Falaha spoke of will find a larger and larger audience as the least-bad alternative -- ensuring IS's territorial collapse is merely a prelude to another cycle of violence.
Kyle Orton is a research fellow and Middle East analyst for the Henry Jackson Society.
If there was any illusion that the fight against the extremist group Islamic State (IS) was nearing its final chapters, that naive notion should have been shattered in the last few weeks.
If there was any illusion that the fight against the extremist group Islamic State (IS) was nearing its final chapters, that naive notion should have been shattered in the last few weeks.
In the past month alone, IS has suffered major defeats, won major victories, and conducted some of its most impactful and successful terrorist attacks yet, proving that the fight against this group is at least as complicated as the battle to subdue its predecessors in Iraq.
When Al-Qaeda In Iraq (AQI) was formed following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, it had several advantages over the United States.
For starters, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started as fairly traditional combat missions against fighting forces (the Taliban and the Iraqi Army, respectively) that were concerned with holding territory, and quickly scattered once this territory was captured by the overwhelming firepower of the U.S.-led coalition. Both wars soon devolved into asymmetrical counterinsurgencies which are much harder to fight.
AQI, however, had another trick up its sleeve -- the blending of asymmetrical and more traditional warfare. Coalition military commanders quickly learned that it was not enough to capture territory, but that territory had to be held, preferably by local forces which had to be convinced of the worthiness of the cause.
But whereas AQI was successful in briefly holding neighborhoods and even cities like Fallujah while conducting terrorist attacks in other regions of Iraq, IS has taken this blending of war plans to the next level, simultaneously occupying vast areas of land while conducting attacks across the entire Middle East and far beyond while inspiring attacks across the planet. Islamic State is at once a military, a terrorist group, a guerrilla warfare organization, and an idea, and all four of those aspects are proving difficult to fight.
In recent months there has been a lot of speculation that IS the military organization would be the easiest part of the terrorist group to beat. To be sure, IS has lost a series of battles in both Iraq and Syria. According to a newly-published report by experts at IHS, a data analysis company, Islamic State lost 14 percent of its territory in 2015 and another 12 percent in the first six months of this year.
As a result of those defeats, the extremist group is already changing its narrative by focusing more on conducting terrorist attacks abroad than in using propaganda to praise its more traditional military victories. This is undoubtedly a sign of weakness, but a wounded animal is clearly a very dangerous one.
Furthermore, IS still has the advantage of being able to use the power it derives from holding territory to project terrorism and fear beyond its borders. As a consequence of that dynamic, the faster it is defeated militarily, the better. The recapturing of more than a quarter of IS's physical strongholds in 18 months is certainly an important first step in ultimately defeating the terrorist group. But does this mean that it will take six years to militarily defeat IS?
There are also indications that the battle is not going as well as many expected. Fallujah has been recaptured from IS after many months of siege and more than a month of nearly-constant combat. But Fallujah was one of IS's most vulnerable positions, originally captured by the militants primarily for its symbolic power. The Atlantic Council's Faysal Itani told RFE/RL that the city likely fell so quickly because Islamic State is overstretched in the region. Battles for places like Mosul and, ultimately, Raqqa, IS's "capital" in Syria, could take much longer.
Elsewhere, in Syria, there have been setbacks for the anti-IS coalition. IS forces launched attacks earlier in the week against the Syrian Defense Force (SDF), a primarily Kurdish group that is key to U.S. efforts to defeat the terrorists. Those efforts may have been reversed.
An Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman, U.S. Army Colonel Christopher Garver, was optimistic in his assessment on July 6, in which he stated that the SDF was resisting IS in Manbij and that other vetted opposition forces were making gains further west, near the hotly contested "Mara Line."
The SDF now claims that Islamic State is fleeing Manbij. Still, especially near Mara, Western-backed rebel forces are striking back against an IS offensive launched this spring rather than advancing deeper into the heart of IS's territory. Momentum is clearly lagging.
Worse yet, another key part of the U.S. strategy to defeat IS in Syria has suffered a major setback. In the last week of June, we reported on Russian air strikes against the New Syrian Army (NSA), a group dedicated to fighting IS which is backed by the United States and Britain.
Consisting largely of former Syrian special forces units that deserted the Assad regime, the NSA is important on several levels.
First, the NSA is made up of predominantly Sunni fighters -- an important symbolic balance to predominantly Kurdish and Shi'ite forces backed by the United States elsewhere.
Second, NSA's position south of IS's strongholds opens a new front against the terror group. Within a week of the Russian airstrikes, the NSA launched their own offensive against Islamic State in Al-Bukamal, the back door between IS's territory in Syria and Iraq. Despite initial success, the NSA was routed and retreated across 150 miles of open desert.
It's unclear whether the Russian air strikes weakened the group enough to enable its defeat, but the United States also decided to reroute air support for the NSA to Iraq, to target IS in Fallujah. On July 7, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that the United States had "missed an opportunity" in not providing air support for the NSA offensive.
Even in military victory there are setbacks, however. As the Associated Press points out, the mission to retake Fallujah was led by powerful Iraqi Shi'ite militias, and their victory has already taken on a troublesome sectarian dynamic. Unfortunately, this is exactly what experts predicted would happen.
Islamic State will be defeated militarily. It has to be. The world does not have a choice. Even though progress is being made, the slow pace of victory and concerns about worsening regional sectarian tensions are indications that much work remains to be done.
Osama bin Laden may be dead but the July 4 bombings in Saudi Arabia demonstrate that his playbook is still in full effect -- albeit with some major alterations.
Osama bin Laden may be dead but if the July 4 bombings in Saudi Arabia demonstrate anything to a global audience forcibly becoming, if not numbed, then wearily resigned to the horrors of jihadist violence, it’s that his playbook is still in full effect -- albeit with some major alterations.
On July 4, in what were clearly coordinated strikes, three suicide attacks targeted the Saudi cities of Jeddah, Qatif and, most stunningly of all, Islam’s second holiest city, Medina, the burial place of the Prophet Mohammed.
In Jeddah, a Pakistani expatriate targeted the U.S. consulate, injuring two security officers in the process. A Shi’a mosque was targeted in Qatif. In Medina, it was a security office near the Prophet’s Mosque. Four guards were killed.
Both the timing of the attacks and choice of targets are vital to understanding their nature. So far, no group has claimed responsibility for them but indicators suggest that they are almost certainly the work of the terrorist group which calls itself Islamic State (IS).
The attacks took place during the end of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, which, according to Nicholas Heras, a Middle East researcher and the Bacevich fellow at the Center for a New American Security, “fit into the timetable of the would-be Caliphate's ongoing Ramadan campaign.” Islamic State, he told RFE/RL over e-mail, “has declared the month of Ramadan as a time of bleeding [for] what it views to be infidels and enemies -- Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”
Yet more instructive is the choice of targets -- and it is here that bin Laden’s legacy can most clearly be seen. Bin Laden, a Saudi national himself, always denied the legitimacy of the House of Saud, which rules the kingdom, as the rightful custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites for the entire global Muslim community, or Ummah -- Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed, and Medina. IS’s overriding goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate as far across the world as possible; central to this goal -- in fact, almost an absolute necessity -- would be to take control of Islam’s holiest territory.
In the words of Heras: “ISIS [Islamic State] would be sending a blunt message to the Saudi state, delivering a shot across the bow directed at the Al-Saud monarchy: we are coming for you.”
The Pillars That Prop Up Saudi Arabia
Two primary pillars hold up the Saudi monarchy: The first is the legitimacy it derives from being the custodian of Islam’s two holiest places. But it is a contested legitimacy. The Al-Saud tribe took what became Saudi Arabia by force in 1932. It has no real religious credentials and has only survived since by allowing its clerics to promote a severe brand of Wahhabi Islam across the kingdom in return for which the royal family receives much-needed religious backing. The combination of this backing and the custodianship of Mecca and Medina enhances the kingdom’s influence across the Muslim world accordingly. Not for nothing is the House of Saud called "The Sunni Lion.”
And here is where the attack in Medina comes in. It’s a risky move for IS to say the least. An attack on Mohammed’s resting place was always likely to enrage the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia's highest religious body has condemned the attacks unequivocally. Meanwhile, the hashtag #PrayForMedina has been retweeted across the Muslim world.
But the perpetrators were careful. They didn’t attack the Medina mosque itself, just a security office near it; an attack which can be read as being designed to call into question the Saudi’s monarchy’s claim to be competent “protectors” of the two holy sites. The attack, then, targeted the Saudi state’s security apparatus, not the Prophet.
The second pillar of the House of Saud is U.S. support (irretrievably entangled with the oil riches that financially prop up the kingdom). An IS attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah (which is also Saudi Arabia’s most cosmopolitan city) is a clear strike against its ultimate ideological Western foe, and coming as it did on July 4, U.S. Independence Day, has an inescapable and morbid symbolism that is plain for all to see.
But it is the attack on the Shi’a mosque in Qatif that has perhaps the most dangerous regional consequences. The Middle East is already in the throes of a battle between Sunni and Shi’a, approaching almost genocidal proportions in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. For the Sunni Islamic State terrorist group, the apostate Shi’a are almost worse than the infidel West.
This attack is designed to do two things. First, as Heras told RFE/RL, IS clearly intended “to send a signal to the Shi’a of Saudi Arabia that they are infidels that should go out from the holiest lands of Islam.” The second is to create more divisions between Saudi Arabia’s persecuted Shi’a minority and the government, yet one more way of destabilizing the country. The fact that Qatif -- and the majority of the country’s Shia population -- is located in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province, where the center of the Saudi state-controlled oil industry resides, only further serves to compound the problem for Riyadh.
Beyond Saudi Arabia, Shi’a militias that are now battling IS in Iraq and Syria -- many of which are backed by Iran -- are unlikely to take the attack on the mosque well, to say the least. Brutal reprisals against local Sunni populations in both those countries -- always a distinct possibility if not often a near certainty -- are now likely to increase. In Fallujah, there is already evidence that this retaliation is under way. As history has shown, many Sunnis on the receiving end of such brutality have, with no one else to protect them, joined the ranks of Islamic State.
The planning, the execution (although imperfect), and, most critically, the apparent intended effects of these attacks indicate Islamic State is to blame. The bombings were as cunning as they were designed to be brutal, and their goal, like bin Laden’s, was to send a message to the Middle East’s premier Sunni state. This time, however, the stakes are higher. Islamic State seeks not just to overthrow the Saudi royal family but to conquer the state itself.
Welcome to Jihad 2.0.
David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at the Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. He is working on a book on social media and war.
Islamic State's crimes are horrific enough with its present capabilities, but a question increasingly asked among politicians and military officials is: What if IS were to acquire the unthinkable -- a weapon of mass destruction?
From Fallujah to Mosul, Paris to Brussels, the terrorist organization that calls itself Islamic State (IS) murders, maims, and enslaves with wanton abandon, if not exactly impunity. By now the world has woken up to the serious threat that the group poses, not just in the Middle East but also in Europe and the United States.
Islamic State's crimes are horrific enough with its present capabilities, but a question increasingly asked among politicians and military officials is: What if IS were to acquire the unthinkable -- a weapon of mass destruction (WMD)?
Earlier this month I attended the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe in Amsterdam, an NGO set up to tackle exactly this type of problem. And what emerged is that the danger of IS acquiring its most fearsome weapon yet is now a significant one.
According to an expert who participated in the forum, the danger is twofold. The gravest threat would come if IS were able to get its hands on nuclear materials. These would mean, for example, the type of enriched uranium Iran uses in its nuclear program -- from which IS could theoretically make a small nuclear bomb with further enrichment -- or existing weapons-grade plutonium, from which it could do the same.
But the probability of IS being able to do this is slim. The requisite materials are located in only 24 countries and are in highly guarded facilities. Set against this fact, however, have been several lapses in security. In 2012 an 82-year-old nun and peace activist, Megan Rice, broke into the Oakridge nuclear reservation in Tennessee. Rice never got near any nuclear material but a lot of systems had to fail for her to get as close as she did. Likewise, according to a British Ministry of Defense report, guards at one of the U.K.'s nuclear facilities were caught sleeping on the job. And then there is the problem of poor levels of security at a host of nuclear research centers in the former Soviet Union.
The probability of IS taking advantage of these lapses in security is low, but not insignificant. The greatest danger comes from the most unstable countries with the largest amounts of documented radical activity: Pakistan, Russia, and India -- with Pakistan at the top of the list.
Moreover, as retired Major General Vladimir Dvorkin, a chief researcher at the Center for International Security at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of World Economy and International Relations, told me: "there is a lot of illegal activity, trafficking in illegal natural material...so [IS] could either pull off a purchase for a significant amount of money or intercept illegal trafficking. Plus, they seem to have enough money to recruit scientists to build a rudimentary nuclear device. Not a nuclear warhead, but an explosive nuclear device; it may, in fact, only weigh a few tons but it's still something you could assemble close to an urban area, or on a vessel that could then be brought to U.S. or European shores."
Many Ways To Dirty Bomb
Another problem would be a conventional weapons attack on a nuclear facility, which could conceivably cause a Chernobyl-like disaster or worse. It remains nearly impossible to attack a nuclear power plant, as they have substantial protection, but attacking nuclear-research facilities that have reactors filled with nuclear materials is far easier, and a lot of cities have these. According to Dvorkin even bombing a nuclear-storage facility with a relatively small bomb would mean the destruction of buildings within a 3-4-kilometer radius and fallout covering a much larger area and creating a lasting effect.
The second and far more immediate threat is that of attack with a radiological device. The materials for this are located in over a 100 countries and, critically found not just in specialized facilitates but in hospitals and research centers used, for example, in treating cancer -- places that, unlike major nuclear facilities, don't have gates, guards, and guns. The expert who attended the forum warned me that IS has many such facilities within the land it already controls and that is where the "dirty bomb" (a radiological as opposed to nuclear bomb) threat is now unequivocally real.
One can easily use conventional resources to make a dirty bomb, use agents to plant it in a major urban center, then simply watch it ignite and cause billions of dollars of damage. The loss of life would likely be modest -- only those in its immediate vicinity would die. But the psychological element would be huge; as a nuclear specialist told me, the public hears "radiological" and immediately panics. Then there would be the cost of demolishing and rebuilding the buildings that had been contaminated in a far wider area.
While nothing is certain when dealing with what is clearly a fanatical organization, it is clear that IS is organized and thinks strategically. As Dvorkin points out, the chances of IS using even a rudimentary nuclear device are accordingly slim. First, it would risk alienating even Sunni Muslim communities across the Middle East that might presently have some sympathy with its aims. Second, what is now a fractious coalition fighting against IS would almost certainly unite and bring its combined weight to utterly annihilate the organization.
Nonetheless, as The New York Times reported in February, a man linked to the November 13 Paris attackers was found in possession of surveillance footage of a high-ranking Belgian nuclear official. With IS any horror is possible, even if it is not probable.
The question more realistically facing us is not whether IS can employ a dirty bomb -- most likely in Europe or the United States -- but will it? And experts fear the worst. According to Dr. Moshe Kantor, president of the Luxembourg Forum, "the threat of a terrorist group, such as Islamic State, staging a nuclear bomb attack on a major European city, such as London, is 'high.'"
Given that IS has already carried out numerous chemical-weapons attacks in Syria, its willingness to use a WMD of some kind is clearly present. As Kantor continued "the threat of a so-called 'dirty bomb' attack is at its highest level since the end of the Cold War."
The world should be worried.
David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at the Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. He is working on a book on social media and war
It appears Russia is continuing to focus exclusively on preserving the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even if that means drawing out the conflict, or even allowing terrorism to flourish.
On June 16, U.S. F-18 fighter jets scrambled to intercept a group of Russian Su-34 fighter-bombers that had just conducted an air strike against a camp of soldiers who are central to the mission of the United States and the United Kingdom in their efforts to defeat the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.
The camp that was hit was relatively new, and a British newspaper had just recently broken the news that British special forces regularly operate there, though it's unclear whether British or U.S. soldiers were in the camp at the time. Regardless, the commanders of the U.S.-led coalition believed that the Russian air strikes needed to be stopped, and they sent fighter jets to stop them.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the F-18s reached the Su-34s on emergency broadcast frequencies and told them to cease their activities, a capability the United States and Russia put in place in order to avoid accidental conflicts or midair collisions. But when the F-18s left the area to refuel, the Russian bombers ignored the U.S. threats and conducted a second bombing raid on the same camp.
If this story played out in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003, during the NATO mission to end genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 or in Kosovo in 1999, this incident would have made front-page news, with 24/7 coverage of the growing threat of war plastered across every television in the United States.
But since the incident occurred in 2016, in a small desert town in Syria called Al-Tanf, near the border with Jordan and Iraq, the Western media and political apparatus does not seem to care. Perhaps some are confused by the complicated conflict and don't know who to trust on the topic of Syria. Perhaps some have bought the Russian line, echoed by some Western politicians, that Russia is fighting IS. For sure, everyone is tired of headlines about war in the Middle East.
To be sure, the Pentagon addressed the issue with both the Russian Defense Ministry and the press, expressing its "strong concerns about the attack." A U.S. official told the Los Angeles Times that this was "an egregious act that must be explained." The unnamed source continued: "The Russian government either doesn't have control of its own forces or it was a deliberate provocative act. Either way, we're looking for answers."
It appears Russia is continuing to focus exclusively on preserving the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even if that means drawing out the conflict, or even allowing terrorism to flourish. I argued previously that Russia's bombing campaign, which started in September 2015, was nearly exclusively focused on bombing anti-Assad rebel groups, including groups that were backed by the United States and which played a major role in ejecting IS from northeastern Syria.
In May, Russia did indeed assist the pro-Assad coalition in recapturing the ancient city of Palmyra from IS. As I noted, those actions served to accomplish three aims, all of which strengthen the Assad regime: to consolidate territory, to secure access to the energy-rich fields of central Syria, and to propagate the myth that Russia and Assad are primarily locked in a battle against terrorists.
That was six weeks ago. As my new analysis of the work done by the Institute for the Study of War shows, since then there has been a significant increase in Russian air strikes, almost exclusively against civilians or rebel groups that have been trained and armed by the United States. Russia has largely returned to its pattern of ignoring IS. Russian air strikes, by crippling Western-backed rebels that oppose IS, have allowed the terrorist organization to expand into new territory.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Frederic Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and former special adviser for transition in Syria at the U.S. State Department, says that "Russia's decision to bomb an anti-[IS] unit trained by the U.S. and the U.K. illustrates two points: the low priority Moscow places on fighting [IS]; and the contempt in which today's Russia holds the U.S."
He continues: "Assad and the Russians see [IS] as Assad's ideal adversary: a horrific organization that may serve as Assad's ticket back to polite society, notwithstanding all of the regime's war crimes.... Moscow's assessment of American leadership emboldens it and encourages it to act in ways that may prove -- during the time left to this administration or in the next -- reckless, destabilizing, and dangerous."
The Orlando shooter was a lone wolf. And he is also exactly the kind of person Islamic State wants to encourage.
Details continue to emerge about the man who killed 49 people and wounded 52 others at an Orlando gay nightclub on June 12. While we cannot say with confidence what the killer’s motivations were, we are learning more about what he told emergency dispatchers when he called 911 in the midst of the massacre.
According to FBI Director James Comey, Omar Mateen professed allegiance or affinity toward a wide-ranging group of disparate and often-opposed terrorist organizations. The Associated Press reports:
The Orlando gunman professed allegiance during the attack on a gay nightclub to the leader of the Islamic State militants, even as he called the Boston Marathon bombers, who had nothing to do with the extremist group, his homeboys. Before that, the FBI said, he claimed family connections to Al-Qaeda and boasted of ties to Hezbollah, organizations deeply at odds with the Islamic State extremists.
“Deeply at odds” to say the least.
The Islamic State (IS) extremist group has significant disagreements with Al-Qaeda and the Al-Nusra Front, Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate. The two groups have even fought heavy battles against each other. Al-Nusra and IS, both radical Sunni groups, are literally at war with Hizballah, a radical Shi'ite militia and terrorist group based in Lebanon and a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Furthermore, the online media presence of all of these groups -- their publications, Twitter accounts, YouTube videos, and blog posts -- often focus on these internal divisions. Dabiq, the slick English-language magazine published by IS, focused their entire last issue on internal divisions between Muslims. Just this month, supreme Al-Nusra Front religious official Sami al-Oreidi released a video statement that stressed the need to destroy Alawites, the sect of Shi’a Islam to which Assad and many of his supporters belong and to which Hizballah is allied.
In other words, it is clear that the Orlando gunman may not have been particularly indoctrinated in even the basic tenets of the radical groups he pledged allegiance to. Far from being a devoted apostle of a particular form of radicalized Islam, the gunman was described by U.S. President Barack Obama as a self-radicalized example of “homegrown extremism.”
The Orlando shooter was a lone wolf. And he is also exactly the kind of person Islamic State wants to encourage.
Whereas Al-Qaeda prefers to strike landmarks and symbols of Western decadence or imperialism, while largely avoiding civilian casualties, IS believes there is no such thing as collateral damage. Everyone who does not accept their narrow and radical prescription of Islam, whether they be in the West or in the Middle East, is a worthy target. Whereas Al-Qaeda prefers its “soldiers” to have some sort of ideological and theological foundations, IS will welcome all sinners as long as they are willing to die for Islam.
In many ways, this is the natural evolution of a concept spread in the preachings of infamous jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki, who told the story in his online propaganda of Usairin, a non-Muslim who fought for the Prophet Muhammad at the battle of Uhud and died just after accepting Islam. Crucially, he was granted acceptance into Jannah (paradise) without having followed the rest of the path set out by the Prophet. Usairin's story, popularized in propaganda videos, is perhaps the perfect example of the kind of person IS is so eager to inspire -- those who are lost, seeking a cause and identity, rather than those who are already committed to one.
Hassan Hassan, a journalist and expert on IS who hails from the first town in Syria that the terror group took over in 2014, wrote in The Financial Times that this issue is yet another dividing line between Al-Qaeda and its syndicate Al-Nusra Front on one side and IS on the other:
Al-Qaeda presents itself as a vanguard movement whose aim is to rally the Muslim masses to the cause of jihad. The very existence of sympathisers means its project is working and so is regarded as a gain in and of itself.
Isis, on the other hand, views sympathisers as potential recruits to its army. Al-Qaeda has also done so from time to time, but Isis is different in that it views the mobilisation of its sympathisers strategically, rather than as a revenge tactic or a short-term call for action.
But just who are these “lone wolves” who are fighting and dying for IS's cause? That, too, is evolving, in perhaps the most disturbing way.
Six days before the attack in Orlando, I wrote that IS's version of terrorism is an evolution from what Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda envisioned just 15 years ago. I contrasted the 9/11 attacks -- which the official U.S. government commission report estimates cost Al-Qaeda between $400,000 and $500,000 -- with the Paris and Brussels attacks, which were conducted by a terror cell using simple nail bombs and guns.
Yet the Orlando attack was orders of magnitude less complicated than what took place in Paris and Brussels. From what we know now, Islamic State extremists based in the Middle East never coordinated with the attacker, nor spent a single dollar to facilitate the attack. Instead, Mateen, with his half-cooked radical jihadist ideology, legally bought a gun that typically costs $500 to $600 and takes less than an hour to purchase.
In many ways, this could be a worst-case scenario -- IS can now potentially inspire terrorists who appear to have little indoctrination, limited religiosity and, based on what we know so far about the Orlando shooter, plenty of personal problems.
The haunting and ultimately unanswerable question is whether Omar Mateen ever would have committed such a horrifying act if it were not for the existence of the Islamic State militant group.
As the extremist group Islamic State and its rival Al-Qaeda have captured pieces of Iraq, Syria, and other countries in the region, they have had to balance their global aims with the specific local concerns of the communities under their control. Al-Qaeda's latest attempt to do so shows that its leaders believe they can rally Syrians to their cause by appealing to a deadly, particularly Syrian form of sectarianism.
As the extremist group Islamic State (IS) and its rival Al-Qaeda have captured pieces of Iraq, Syria, and other countries in the region, they have had to balance their global aims with the specific local concerns of the communities under their control. Al-Qaeda's latest attempt to do so shows that its leaders believe they can rally Syrians to their cause by appealing to a deadly, particularly Syrian form of sectarianism.
All Salafi jihadists reject the idea of al-qutariyyah, or Muslims' division into what they consider artificial states. This is part of why Islamic State has been so fixated on the destruction of state borders, like the one separating Iraq from Syria. But while IS has relentlessly suppressed local difference and impressed its supranational identity on its subjects, Al-Qaeda has proved more willing to accommodate local priorities. Unlike IS, which has deployed its conquered territories and peoples in the service of its own universal war, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates like Syria's Al-Nusra Front have sought to install themselves as the vanguard of Sunnis' existing national or regional armed struggles.
These organizations' goals are all, ultimately, global. Yet Al-Qaeda has advanced its aims by speaking the language of local conflict. Now, with the latest video address from supreme Al-Nusra Front religious official Sami al-Oreidi, we can hear an example of how Al-Qaeda argues for jihad in Syrian vernacular.
Oreidi's speech comes after Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri's May 8 audio message, titled Hasten To Syria, in which Zawahri emphasized the centrality of Syria within the global jihad.
Sami al-Oreidi's June 3 Ramadan video address, titled When The People Of Al-Sham [Syria] Have Been Corrupted, Then There Is No Good Left In You, is a sort of companion piece to Zawahri's message. But where Zawahiri directed a message about Syria's factional rebel politics to a narrow audience of militants and fellow-traveling Islamists, Oreidi seems to have made an appeal for jihad to Syria's Sunni public on Syrian terms.
In the video, Oreidi situates Syria's war within an overarching struggle between truth and falsehood. Yet he argues for that war in terms of Syria's special religious significance, Syrian history and, in particular, Syria's specific sectarian resentments. It turns out that, when the Al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda want to tap into an indigenously Syrian sentiment to fuel their jihad, they look to toxic -- even genocidal -- sectarianism.
First, though, Oreidi opens by pointing to Syria's religious symbolism, citing instances in which the Prophet Muhammad attested to Syria's importance. The title of the video has itself been relayed from a saying of Muhammad. According to Oreidi, "God on high made the devotion of the people of Al-Sham, or their corruption, the measure of the state of the Islamic nation."
Oreidi recounts how Syria and Damascus were the center of the Umayyad Caliphate, a period he says was "akin to a historical miracle," and one that witnessed the spread of Islam and a flourishing of scholarly and economic life.
Syrians today are restoring that historical prestige, Oreidi says:
Here is Al-Sham today, shaking off the dust of humiliation and shame, and attempting to return to its glorious history -- after the Nuseiri sect [a derogatory term for Alawites, the sect to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs] first surrendered Muslims' land to the Jews and then seized the system of rule and power in Al-Sham – to begin a new stage in the struggle between the people of Truth and the people of Falsehood.
As a model, Oreidi holds out Marwan Hadid, who founded the militant Muslim Brotherhood splinter group the Fighting Vanguard and agitated for Sunni rebellion before dying in a Syrian prison in 1976. Hadid remains a symbol of Syrian Sunni militancy and, posthumously, has been adopted as one of the forefathers of jihadism. In Oreidi's telling, Hadid recognized the "Nuseiri" [Alawite] plot to wipe out Syria's Muslims. Thus, Oreidi relates:
He spoke the truth. He argued for the illegitimacy of the infidel's rule over Muslims and argued for jihad against this infidel regime, and he worked to spread the spirit of jihad in Muslims' hearts and those of his followers.
Much of the upper tier of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, bound together by intermarriage and kinship networks, hails from the Alawite sect, and Alawites have historically been represented heavily in the country's elite military and intelligence services. Over the course of the country's ongoing civil war, the regime has rallied support from the country's Alawite community -- as well as members of the country's other sects, including the Sunni majority -- to defend the Syrian state against what it has argued is the threat of oppressive Islamist theocracy and genocidal terror.
And the verdict on Syria's Alawites, Oreidi makes clear, is death.
Oreidi cites medieval Islamic jurist Imam al-Ghazali, who wrote, "Proceed with [the Alawites] as you would with apostates.... The land must be purged of them." He also quotes Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, himself Syrian and among the formative influences on modern Salafism:
This people called the "Nuseiriyyah" [Alawites], along with all types of esoteric Qarmatians [a Muslim sect that fused elements of Shi'a Islam and Persian mysticism], are more infidels than the Jews and the Nasara [Christians]; more infidels, in fact, than many polytheists. Their harm to the nation of Muhammad, peace be upon him, is greater than the infidels waging war on it.
To conclude, Oreidi warns that the struggle ahead will be costly and divisive, but that this price must be paid to distinguish the righteous. Lastly, he calls for the Islamic country's scholars to speak the truth, as Ibn Taymiyyah once did.
Oreidi's call for the extermination of Syria's Alawites was the speech's most attention-grabbing element, but in many ways it was nothing new. The Al-Nusra Front has gained a reputation for "moderation" in large part thanks to the comparison with the hyperextreme, murderous Islamic State. Yet the Al-Nusra Front has set itself apart mostly with its comparatively reasonable treatment of fellow Sunni Muslims -- not heterodox Islamic sects like Shi'a or Alawites.
'Expect An Ugly Death'
Al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani actually commented on Syria's Alawites in a May 2015 Al-Jazeera interview:
Even after all the massacres [the Alawites] have committed against us, our religion is one of mercy, and we're not criminals or murderers. We fight those who fight us, and we fight to stand up against oppression. Even the Alawites, if we clarify their mistakes to them and how they've left their religion [Islam], and they renounce [Alawism], lay down their arms, and wash their hands of the actions of Bashar al-Assad, then we would consider them safe. In fact, we would take responsibility for protecting and defending them.
Some mistakenly interpreted Jolani's remarks as newly tolerant or conciliatory, but implicit in what he said is that Alawites are apostates from Islam. The message was that if they do not repent and convert en masse to Al-Nusra's vision of Islam -- another sort of cleansing -- they can still expect an ugly death.
This sort of hostility to Alawites and other heterodox Muslim sects goes beyond jihadism, of course. Given Ibn Taymiyyah's foundational influence, it is arguably hardwired into Salafism, and it has resonance even among some who subscribe to less austere varieties of Sunni Islam.
But in Syria, anti-Alawite antipathy is also tangled up in decades of oppression by a regime dominated by a single, largely Alawite clique. When Jolani listed Sunni Syrians' grievances against Syria's Alawites, they were temporal, not theological: barrel bombs, torture, and rape.
Oreidi's latest address puts a scholarly sheen on the same sort of sectarian anger. Oreidi has attempted to build a bridge between Al-Qaeda and Syria's Sunni public. And between global jihad and Syrian concerns, he seems to have calculated that sectarian revanchism is the common ground.
What are the chances of another 9/11-style attack occurring, and is it possible to measure the importance of the detainees who are still locked up in Guantanamo Bay?
The pretrial hearings for Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and his four co-defendants resumed in the last few days of May. The accused mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States has been held in Guantanamo Bay's detention center since March 1, 2003, and he and his fellow detainees have become the focal point of a debate about how the U.S. deals with terrorism suspects in a post-9/11 world.
Thirteen years after his detention, there is still no indication of when his trial will be held. The Guantanamo hearings were suspended in 2015 when one suspected terrorist, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, relayed messages back home to his family in Yemen through his defense council, raising concerns that the detainees could still be sending coded messages to Al-Qaeda. But as Public Radio International's Arun Rath points out, this was hardly the first delay, and the proceedings at Guantanamo Bay have revolved around the debate about the legal status and treatment of the detainees more than they have focused on the 9/11 attacks.
"The court had to deal with the discovery of hidden microphones in rooms where the defendants had confidential talks with their lawyers; authorities "ransacking" the defendants' cells while they were in court; and a mysterious, invisible censor shutting down audio feeds from the courtroom, to the confusion of the judge."
Rath also suggests that the narrative on the trial may be shifting. This week prosecutor Ed Ryan petitioned Judge James L. Pohl to let the court hear statements from the victims' families -- before the trial even begins. This is an unusual step, since court statements would be public and would hypothetically be accessible to potential jurors. Rath explains:
"In an impassioned delivery, prosecutor Ed Ryan referenced two witnesses whom he said the government had intended to call, but who passed away in the last several months. 'Passages of life are happening, and can happen quickly,' Ryan said, arguing they needed to record witness testimony now, rather than to "just sit back waiting for bad health to arrive.' He went on to list 10 potential witnesses with advancing age and health concerns.
"More broadly, it sounded like Ryan was trying to change the narrative of the hearings. The court had heard 'much about the treatment of the accused...the word "torture" used over 500 times,' he said, while noting the phrase '9/11' had only been used about 200 times."
Despite the complicated legal and moral issues at play in Guantanamo Bay, the prosecutor appears to be trying to remind the court, and perhaps the American people, that the entire purpose behind the infamous prison was to house those who are most capable of bringing about another nightmare like 9/11.
But we have not witnessed another attack of similar magnitude anywhere, much less on U.S. soil, in the 15 years that have followed 9/11. What are the chances of another 9/11-style attack occurring, and is it possible to measure the importance of the detainees who are still locked up in Guantanamo Bay?
There are many reasons why we have not seen another 9/11. The Al-Qaeda that Osama bin Laden built in the late 1990s does not resemble terrorist organizations that exist today. Terrorist groups are hunted wherever they try to settle. U.S. drones hunt terrorists from Africa to Asia, and raids like the one that led to the death of bin Laden demonstrate that even international borders cannot keep terrorists safe. It is not that terrorists have no place to hide; it is that there is no longer any country in the world where they can live without hiding. This is one reason why these groups have focused on establishing their own state-like organizations in places like Yemen, Libya, and of course Syria and Iraq: No sane government in the world would openly harbor these terrorist groups the way the Taliban did in Afghanistan.
The good news is that 9/11-style attacks have become more logistically difficult. In an interview with RFE/RL, Nicholas A. Heras, Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security and an associate fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, said that U.S. intelligence is now shared and counterterrorism efforts are coordinated at the federal, state, and local levels. Aggressive intelligence sharing, security procedures at air and sea ports, and if necessary counterterrorism operations, are also coordinated with overseas partners.
According to Heras, sophisticated attacks like 9/11 require too much coordination among the attackers at various levels, and so they are more likely to be disrupted by the United States and its allies. Both Heras and another expert we consulted, Kyle Orton, a research fellow with the Henry Jackson Society, agreed that there remains the strong possibility that a bomb could be detonated on an airliner; but 9/11-style hijackings and complex coordinated attacks are likely a thing of the past. Heras also pointed out that blind luck has played a role in thwarting some of these attacks.
But terrorism is very much alive. Terrorist groups have traded fantastic weapons for familiar ones. Large and relatively expensive operations like 9/11 have been replaced by less sophisticated attacks that utilize homemade bombs and readily available guns like the attacks in Paris, Brussels, and before that in 2008 in Mumbai. The 9/11 attacks gave Al-Qaeda the aura of an almost mythical all-powerful international terrorist organization, like Cobra from the fictional world of G.I. Joe. For months, or years, every jet airliner in the sky was cautiously eyed as a potential threat, every high-rise building and landmark was seen as a potential target. Sadly, terrorism has evolved. The smaller-scale attacks of the last decade are simultaneously harder to stop and more terrifying, since anyone capable of carrying a gun could be a threat and every shopping mall, coffee shop, or movie theater is a potential target.
Worse yet, terrorist organizations have proliferated in recent years, and while they have focused on developing state-like organizations in the Middle East and elsewhere, rather than launching attacks on the West, they have also adopted a strategy of appealing to those who already live in the United States and Europe to launch attacks for them. Heras explains:
"The global jihadist movement as a whole is more widespread and controls more territory than it did prior to 9/11/2001, and this includes the recent rise of the ISIS organization in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Many of the affiliates of the global jihadist movement, whether they identify with Al-Qaeda or ISIS or another organization, are generally more focused than bin Laden's Al-Qaeda was on controlling local territory, and building statelets that can then be used for community cover for global jihadist networks to plan attacks on the United States, or, increasingly, on Europe.
"In particular, ISIS has developed a more advanced form of strategic deterrence threat against the United States Coalition partners in Europe, and from the Middle East, from its territorial base in Syria and Iraq, than al-Qaeda ever enjoyed in Sudan and Afghanistan, or what it has in Yemen, and what it is trying to build in northern Syria's Idlib governorate. ISIS's network in Europe that conducted the Paris and Brussels attacks are an example of ISIS' increasing realization that even as it loses territory in Syria and Iraq, it can present a real and deadly strategic deterrent threat to use against the West, if not the United States as directly."
Kyle Orton, research fellow with the Henry Jackson Society, agrees. Islamic State (IS) "has been able to inspire true 'lone wolves' in a way Al-Qaeda largely failed to do, and IS is happy to claim credit for these attacks by people who are basically fanboys -- low-skilled and with no direct connection to the organization," he told RFE/RL. "This is a microcosm of the differences between Al-Qaeda and IS in their conceptions of jihad: For Al-Qaeda, it is an elitist pursuit of a vanguard; for IS, it is a more 'democratized' endeavor."
In many ways this is harder to stop -- a speech given in Syria or Yemen, echoed through the Internet, can inspire terror attacks on the other side of the globe without having to be coordinated and financed by Middle Eastern terrorists.
Virtually no one would argue against the notion that the dismantling of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda has made the world a safer place to live, but the ideology of terror has not yet been defeated. Guantanamo Bay's inmates still pose a threat. Both Heras and Orton stress that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence estimates that about one-third of the prisoners who have been released from Guantanamo Bay and returned to their home countries have conducted terrorist attacks.
This is why the Obama administration, even while it has pushed to close Guantanamo Bay, has not advocated returning all of the detainees to their home countries. Most of the remaining prisoners at the facility are said to be the "worst of the worst," who may eventually be transferred to the mainland United States to serve out their sentences in super-max prisons, but in all likelihood none will ever be sent to their home countries.
But as a result of the "democratization" of terrorism, the fate of those detained in Guantanamo Bay is unlikely to have a larger impact on the war on terror.
Even if Islamic State is defeated quickly in Fallujah, there is a risk that sectarian tension could be inflamed further in the process. Defeating IS militarily is just the first step toward healing Iraq's and Syria's sectarian wounds and ensuring that another, similar group does not emerge.
The fight against extremists from the Islamic State (IS) militant group is heating up on two fronts.
Since May 23, a coalition consisting of the Iraqi army and primarily Shi'ite militias, backed by U.S. air strikes, has advanced towards Fallujah, 40 kilometers west of Baghdad.
"The Islamic State began moving families living in the outskirts to the center," resident Salem al Halbusi said by telephone. "They are locking some families down inside the hospital building," added al Halbusi, who did not want other information about him disclosed to protect his safety.
The civilian populace could slow Fallujah's liberators down, but those who have successfully fled the city told Reuters that the trapped population could starve before Islamic State is defeated, or be killed while they are trying to flee. Either way, all eyes will be on the coalition that the United States has helped build.
As David Patrikarakos wrote earlier this week for RFE/RL, even if the IS militants are defeated quickly in Fallujah, there is a risk that sectarian tension could be inflamed further in the process. Defeating IS militarily is just the first step toward healing Iraq's and Syria's sectarian wounds and ensuring that another, similar group does not emerge.
A similar pattern is playing out in the battle for Raqqa in northeastern Syria, the capital city for the self-declared Islamic State. As Wladimir van Wilgenburg explained earlier this month, efforts to defeat IS on the Syrian side of the border are being led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition that includes both Arab and Kurdish fighters. But while the SDF is diverse -- and becoming more so -- it is still dominated and led by the People's Protection Units (YPG), the fighting branch of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is closely associated with Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Escalation In Turkey
The problem with this is that the PKK -- which is designated as a terrorist organization by both the United States and Turkey -- is effectively at war with Turkey, a NATO ally and a major stakeholder in the outcome of the war in Syria. In April, U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby told the press corps that "YPG's not a designated foreign terrorist organization. PKK is. Nothing's changed about that."
Crucially, however, Turkey does not see a distinction between the PKK and the YPG. Neither do several experts whom RFE/RL consulted in researching this article. One source in territory controlled by the Kurds, who wished to remain anonymous due to security concerns, told RFE/RL that there is no doubt that the YPG reports directly to the PKK's guerrilla leadership.
A report by The Atlantic Council's Aaron Stein and Michelle Foley has established the link between the YPG and PKK, and Kurdish fighters have also confessed that the two are part of the same organization. That report suggests that Turkey was willing to tolerate the YPG as long as IS and the Kurdish group were fighting each other, but that tolerance has reached its end as the fighting between Turkey and the Kurds has heated up.
U.S. soldiers are supporting the YPG on the ground in Syria. Photos taken this week by an AFP photographer show U.S. Special Forces soldiers operating alongside Kurdish fighters near the front lines in Raqqa Province. Some of those soldiers are wearing patches of the YPG and their all-female battle unit the YPJ -- patches that, as Syrian expert Michael Weiss points out, are derived from the PKK's flag.
On May 27, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told journalists that "wearing an insignia of a terrorist organization by U.S. soldiers, who are our ally and are assertive about fighting against terrorism, is unacceptable. Our suggestion to them is that they should also wear Daesh [IS], al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda insignias during their operations in other regions of Syria. They can also wear the Boko Haram insignia when they go to Africa.”
Hours later, U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the U.S.-led coalition against IS, announced that the soldiers had been instructed to stop wearing the patches, a reversal from statements made by the military just the day before.
Fighting between the PKK and Turkey has escalated in recent weeks.
On May 13, a PKK fighter shot down a Turkish AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter with a Russian-made shoulder-fired SA-18 missile. Experts at The Aviationist and in Turkey said this was the first time the PKK has successfully used an antiaircraft weapon against a Turkish aircraft.
While the source operating in Kurdistan told RFE/RL that the PKK have had such weapons for some time, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War suggested that, while the weapon could have come from Syria or Iraq, "more likely that the PKK acquired the weapon from an external actor."
A likely candidate for supplying the weapon is Russia, which has seen its relationship with the Turkish government disintegrate since the Russian air campaign in Syria began last September. Tensions rose when the Turkish air force shot down a Russian jet in November following several warnings from Turkey that Russian jets were violating its airspace.
The idea that Russia -- or its allies in Syria and Iran -- could be arming the PKK has been amplified through the Turkish press. The Anadolu Agency has reported that, according to its sources, such efforts began sometime in December after the Russian jet was shot down. Regardless of whether this is true, such accusations could fuel a proxy war between Turkey and Russia, which could further inflame the region.
But which side of that proxy war does the United States take if its main allies in the fight against IS in Syria are the very fighters that Turkey says are waging war against them across the border?
In February, there were heavy clashes between YPG fighters in northwestern Syria and multiple rebel groups, which had been backed and trained by the CIA and Turkey. One now-infamous video showed a rebel group, Liwa' Suqour al-Jabal (The Mountain Hawks Brigade), firing a U.S.-made TOW antitank missile into a YPG tank in the town of Azaz. This led some analysts to conclude that the United States was "in a proxy war with itself" in Syria since it supports some Syrian rebel groups and, via the SDF at least, the Kurdish YPG.
This has two potentially dangerous consequences. The first is that Turkey is a NATO ally that is already under immense pressure. Turkey has signaled that it feels abandoned, or even betrayed, by U.S. policy in Syria, a sentiment which could weaken the NATO alliance. But Turkey is also a Sunni state, and the Sunnis already feel that they have been the victims of U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria. Both of the major offensives against IS, in Syria and in Iraq, could further exacerbate this dynamic.
The sectarian tension between groups that the U.S. currently backs -- whether it's the Shi'ite/Sunni tensions in Iraq or the Kurdish/Sunni tensions in Syria -- should not be easily dismissed. One should remember that it was sectarian tension in both Iraq and Syria which gave rise to Islamist extremism and sectarian violence there, and the Islamic State militant group is just the newest and most radical incarnation of that tension. Victory over Islamic State is important, but if it weakens the NATO alliance or sets the stage for future sectarian conflicts, it could only be a Pyrrhic victory.
The battle for Fallujah has begun. Late on May 23, Iraqi troops, comprising a combination of the government's Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and a combustible mix of Shi'ite militias, backed by U.S. air strikes, attacked the city, seeking to wrest it from the control of the extremist group Islamic State.
The battle for Fallujah has begun. Late on May 23, Iraqi troops, comprising a combination of the government's Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and a combustible mix of Shi'ite militias, backed by U.S. air strikes, attacked the city, seeking to wrest it from the control of the extremist group Islamic State (IS).
Fallujah is one of the last remaining large cities under the Iraqi part of what IS calls its "caliphate." Lying only 65 kilometers from Baghdad, it is also of considerable strategic importance. An attack was inevitable. But its timing is interesting.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi needs a win. He is perceived as weak. Since taking over from Nouri al-Maliki, who fractured Iraq's already fragile political unity with his vicious sectarianism, Abadi has been unable to bring either political stability or security to Iraq. This is painfully highlighted by the recent spate of bombings in Baghdad -- the latest coming only last week,
when Sunni terrorists associated with IS killed at least 70 people in a largely Shi'ite district.
But there is a broader issue at work here. While the ISF has been taking the fight to IS, it is the Shi'ite militias -- notably those under the main umbrella group, Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi (The Popular Mobilization or PMU) -- that have dominated the fight against the terror group over the past couple of months or so, specifically the conflict around Fallujah.The infighting between the ISF and PMU is intense and some form of de-escalation is needed, but it's not clear whether this battle will help accomplish that or just make things worse.
Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland, uses the example of World War II's Operation Market Garden -- in which a mixture of British, American, Polish, and Dutch troops were parachuted into the Netherlands under the command of British General Bernard Montgomery, with U.S. Lieutenant General Lewis H. Brereton also taking a leading role.Like Market Garden, the battle for Fallujah features parallel command structures with a mix of troops on the ground. And the diversity of the fighting forces is not just a question of the ISF and the militias.
Iraq In Microcosm
The Shi'a militias themselves are far from homogeneous, with many overtly Iranian proxies like Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Harakat al-Abdal and, most prominently of all, Kata'ib Hizballah in the field alongside militias like Firqat al-Abbas and Liwa Ali al-Akbar – which are loyal to Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Ali al-Sistani, who rejects Iranian influence in Iraq.
Iraq's other leading Shi'ite cleric is the infamous Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia, Saraya al-Sala'am, is also involved in the battle for Fallujah and has also fallen out with the Iranians. Perhaps no figure in Iraq is more synonymous with sectarian tension that Sadr, who in 2013 described Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Qasem Soleimani as "the most powerful man in Iraq."
According to Smyth, it's clear from open-source materials that it is the Iranian proxies calling the shots in the advance on Fallujah, but the other organizations do have a degree of independence. The result is, of course, a mess: it's Iraq in microcosm, with a seemingly endless number of sectarian groups with varying networks of external allegiances vying for control.
But there is a potential positive: When you have a mix of different, often opposed, forces then one way you can de-conflict these groups is through a concerted, combined campaign against a common enemy. While it failed to achieve its ultimate objective, Market Garden is an example of the coordination of such a mix of commanders and troops -- although they were not hostile to one another. The battle to take Fallujah is a strategic necessity but it's also an attempt to deal with the sectarian and logistical problems facing Iraq's armed forces.
And this problem will have to be dealt with. As much as the Iraqi government and Washington would love to rid themselves of the problem of the Shi'ite militias, they simply can't. The militias have proved to be one of the most effective 'pro-government' fighting groups on the ground -- far better than the ISF. In addition, they have infiltrated many government units and are also strongly present in the social and political spheres -- the militias have everything from popular songs to their own NGOs to members in the Iraqi parliament. They have built a diverse multitude of support bases within Iraq.
Beat Them Or Join Them
For the Iraqi government it's either beat them or join them; and it is not going to be able to beat them any time soon. But the fact that so many of these groups answer to the Iranians makes governing the country even harder.
Abadi and the United States badly need a win in Fallujah, but so do the militias. The ISF needs to show the Iraqi population that it is a strong national force -- it is not -- and Washington is desperate for them to prove this as well.
Meanwhile, the militias want to continue to demonstrate that they are in fact the forces that are saving Iraq from Islamic State. This is a narrative that the Iranians are also strongly pushing: it's good geopolitical propaganda for them across the Middle East. According to Smyth, the Iranian message is clear: "It's our proxies' forces that are defeating [IS]. The United States says it wants to fight IS but what has it really done? In fact it has an ulterior motive, and that is simply to get more Iraqis killed.”
Along with their fighting prowess, the Shi'ite militias bring with them their own sectarian baggage, which complicates the process of re-taking Fallujah – a staunchly Sunni city. The animus between Sunni and Shi'a, exacerbated by Maliki, has only increased due to the often brutal tactics of the militias towards their Sunni fellow Iraqis. When the militias retook Tikrit from IS late last year they deliberately set about destroying hundreds of homes and shops in the city as well reportedly abducting 200 Sunni residents -- 160 of whom still remain unaccounted for.
The Sunnis don't forget. Indeed, part of the reason that IS gained so much traction in Iraq in the first place is that the anti-Sunni policies of the Iraqi government and behavior of the Shi'ite militias drove many Sunni Iraqis into its arms.
The residents of Fallujah are trapped. Islamic State is using them as human shields against the air and ground attacks that began on May 23, but they also know that if Islamic State is defeated then what is coming may be almost as bad.
Syria, Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri has made clear, is now the center of the jihadist world.
When the self-proclaimed Islamic State declared the establishment of a global Muslim “caliphate” in 2014, the move accelerated a race for legitimacy within the international jihadist movement. IS’s rival Al-Qaeda -- which had long held out a righteous Islamic state as a far-off ideal, not something that could be realized in June 2014 in the Syrian desert -- faced new pressure to deliver on jihadist aspirations and shore up its own credibility.
Yet, unlike IS, Al-Qaeda could not do it alone. IS has imposed jihadist unity at the point of a sword, crushing its militant rivals and monopolizing control within its “caliphate’s” borders. In contrast, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, like Syria’s Al-Nusra Front, have attempted to manage a complex set of relationships with local factions and, wherever possible, rally them behind Al-Qaeda’s leadership.
This was the impetus for Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri’s May 8 audio message called Hasten To Syria, in which he urged Syria’s “mujahedin” (holy warriors) to unify, calling it “a matter of life and death.”
While Zawahri used the recording to speak to various constituencies, his primary audience seems not to have been the Al-Nusra Front or the Salafi-jihadist hardcore. Rather, Zawahri was apparently addressing Syria’s other Islamist rebels -- chiefly opposition faction and Islamist movement Ahrar al-Sham -- groups which have rejected IS but which have been wary of Al-Nusra Front’s affiliation with Al-Qaeda.
Syria, Zawahri made clear, is now the center of the jihadist world.
“Syria today is the hope of the Muslim nation,” he said, “because it is the lone popular revolution of the Arab Spring revolutions that has adopted the correct path.”
Syria’s fighters are on their way to erecting a righteous Islamic state -- not IS’s tyrannical, false “caliphate,” he suggested. But he warned against the conspiracies of what he termed Crusader enemies and their Arab puppets.
Zawahri did deliver at least one message aimed at the jihadist base, affirming that the IS’s members are “Khawarij,” a historical Muslim sect of hyper-extremist deviants. Labeling the Islamic State group as such has been controversial within Salafi-jihadism -- theorist Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi has resisted it -- in part because it requires jihadists to act on the Prophet Muhammad’s prescription for dealing with the Khawarij: “qatl Ad,” or total extermination. Zawahri has now come down firmly on one side of this intra-jihadist debate.
But much of the rest of the recording was implicitly directed at Syrian rebels outside the narrow circle of Salafi-jihadism, whom Zawahri attempted to reassure about Al-Qaeda’s intentions. Zawahri emphasized that Al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda are not interested in monopolizing power in Syria but rather in championing God’s law and an Islamic state chosen by Syria’s people. “We are not -- by the grace of God -- seekers of power, but rather seekers of the rule of God’s law,” said Zawahri. “We do not want to rule Muslims; rather, we want to be ruled, as Muslims, by Islam.”
And if it were necessary to establish this righteous Islamic government, Zawahri said, then “organizational membership (i.e., Al-Nusra Front’s Al-Qaeda affiliation) would never -- God permitting -- be an obstacle to these great aspirations.”
Some in the media thought this meant Zawahri was giving Al-Nusra Front the green light to cut ties with Al-Qaeda. But, in fact, Zawahri was laying out a trade: The dissolution of Al-Nusra Front’s Al-Qaeda affiliation is conditional on the erection of an Islamic government that meets Al-Qaeda’s purist standards.
This was no real concession, but rather an endorsement of Al-Nusra Front’s existing stipulations for breaking its Al-Qaeda link. In fact, Zawahri’s arguments were entirely in line with those of Al-Nusra Front and its chief, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, who made the same point in an interview with Al-Jazeera in June 2015:
“We’ve said to all the [rebel] factions: When we really come together and create an Islamic government -- and these are not my words, these are the words of Dr. Ayman [al-Zawahri] himself -- he said that when Syria has a righteous Islamic government approved by the consensus of its factions, when it is governed by consultation, when the law of Greatest God is the authority, then we will be the first soldiers of this righteous government.”
Short of this condition, Al-Nusra Front has refused to break with Al-Qaeda. That is what apparently scuttled rebel merger talks in January, when Ahrar al-Sham’s insistence on breaking the Al-Qaeda ties and Nusra’s refusal brought negotiations to an impasse.
With that in mind, Zawahri’s discussion of an Islamic government seemed mostly theoretical. He was speaking broadly about the mujahedin’s ultimate aim in Syria, not issuing an urgent call for the creation of an Islamic emirate.
Zawahri did not say this explicitly, but there are a number of obstacles to the declaration of an Islamic emirate in the near term, including rebels’ current preoccupation with a defensive battle against the Syrian government and its allies. But -- more pertinent in this case -- an emirate also requires the consensus endorsement of Ahl al-Shoukeh (the People of Influence), including Syria’s most important rebel factions. So long as Ahrar al-Sham and others continue to object to Al-Nusra Front’s Al-Qaeda link and refuse to jointly declare a jihadist emirate (and thus become international pariahs), then an emirate is off the table.
In the meantime, Zawahri seemed unperturbed by the controversy over Al-Nusra Front’s Al-Qaeda link, which he dismissed as the product of foreign dictates, “an attempt,” he said, “to distract the mujahid Muslim community in Syria from its real enemies.”
Just as Al-Nusra Front’s leader Jolani did in his June 2015 interview, Zawahri questioned what good it would do if the group somehow split from Al-Qaeda. Would that be enough, Zawahri asked rhetorically, or would these “Crusader criminals” extract a series of more and more humiliating concessions from its members before ultimately tossing its members in prison, as happened with the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Geneva talks, truces -- all of these are conspiracies, Zawahri said. And he warned rebels who have been partnering with regional patrons and tentatively engaging in the political process not to listen to “the whispers of these subservient, puppet, apostate governments.”
Zawahri instead called on rebels to emulate the Taliban’s Mullah Omar, who famously sacrificed his emirate rather than surrender Osama bin Laden to the West. According to Zawahri, this steadfastness is what defeated the “Crusader” military apparatus, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq.
And therein lies the tragedy when Al-Qaeda has adopted your cause: Al-Qaeda operates in a frame of reference in which Syria has been the lone success story of the Arab Spring, not an insane bloodbath; in which Afghanistan and Iraq were victories, not permanently destroyed countries and societies.
Now, Zawahri said, Al-Qaeda has wed its fortunes to that of the Syrian revolution.
“Your victory is our victory,” he said, “your honor is our honor, and your empowerment is our empowerment.”
And while he may ultimately aspire to an Islamic state -- not more butchery and death -- he and Al-Qaeda are clearly ready to pay a terrible human cost along the way.
Sam Heller is a Beirut-based freelance writer whose work has been published by VICE News, The Daily Beast, World Politics Review, War on the Rocks, IHS Jane's, and elsewhere. Follow Sam on Twitter at @abujamajem
The Sykes–Picot Agreement, signed 100 years ago, divided the Ottoman Empire into spheres of imperial control, and is often held responsible for establishing the current borders of the Middle East. Understanding it is also central to understanding the ideology (or at least the propaganda) of the Islamic State (IS) militant group.
One hundred years ago, on May 16, 1916, representatives from the United Kingdom and France (with the agreement of Russia) met in secret and signed what has come to be known as the Sykes–Picot Agreement. The pact, signed amid World War I, divided the Ottoman Empire into spheres of imperial control, and is often held responsible for establishing the current borders of the Middle East.
The agreement has been widely criticized in recent years, particularly after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, because to many its borders are not just a symbol of foreign imperialism but also reflect what they see as the lack of understanding of the Middle East -- then and now -- demonstrated by world leaders. Ethnic groups were split across borders and when sectarian violence erupted in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, many blamed Sykes-Picot for pitting ethnic groups against each other.
Understanding Sykes-Picot is also central to understanding the ideology (or at least the propaganda) of the Islamic State (IS) militant group. In the summer of 2014, the terrorist organization had seized large amounts of territory in both Iraq and Syria. The group had recently pronounced that it was changing its name from Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Greater Syria) to just "Islamic State."
According to IS's well-crafted message, it was no longer an organization operating within two countries: It was its own state, and by establishing an Islamic caliphate in the region, it was actively destroying the vestiges of foreign imperialism. IS's English-language propaganda outlet, the Al-Hayat Media Center, released a video called The End Of Sykes-Picot, which showed the destruction of the border between Iraq and Syria. An IS fighter provided a video tour, in clear English, of the border crossing that Iraqi soldiers had abandoned. The "so-called border," according to the IS fighter, was established by Arab leaders and Western imperialists. There is no border, he said, the world belongs to Allah, "we are all one country," and IS-held territory should not be divided. He quoted IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as saying he was "the breaker of barriers."
In the propaganda video, IS was echoing and amplifying the sentiment that Sykes-Picot is a symbol of foreign meddling, but the militant group was also modifying this message for their own purposes, and crucially accusing Muslim leaders of complicity in these crimes, a key theme of IS propaganda.
The reality, however, is much more complicated. There's an argument to be made that the agreements made at the 1920 San Remo conference -- attended by leaders from Britain, France, Italy, and Japan -- rather than the Sykes-Picot deal, are ultimately responsible for the internal borders we know today. Regardless, those agreements didn't actually establish the internal borders -- only the larger imperial ones. As such, Sara Pursley, a historian who works on the modern Middle East, has pointed out that the map drawn by Sykes-Picot actually more closely resembles the map used by IS than the current geopolitical borders we're familiar with. The internal borders were established over a long period of time and the process had a great deal to do with local power struggles, rather than simply foreign imperial meddling.
There's another major flaw in IS's logic: Sykes-Picot actually placed Deir-ez-Zour -- the regional capital in eastern Syria and an IS stronghold -- outside of the territory that we now know as Syria. Pursley points out that it was actually an internal conflict that eventually landed Deir-ez-Zour in Syria. Pursley writes that the then-Ottoman province was placed on the French side of the border, but after a conflict with the Arab army in Syria local leaders appealed to the British to annex the region, which they did, but locals soon petitioned Damascus to reincorporate the region in Syria.
"Ironically, it was the Iraqi nationalist officers of al-Ahd al-Iraqi who were ultimately responsible for the inclusion of Dayr al-Zur within Syria. They hoped to use the region as a base for launching attacks from Syria on British occupation forces in Iraq -- and that is what they did, thereby helping to spark the 1920 revolt. In 1923, Baghdad-based Iraqi nationalist Muhammad Mahdi al-Basir explained the Dayr al-Zur decision: 'Iraqis [in Syria] were working for the liberation of Iraq, even if that required annexing much of its land for the Syrian government.' Leading British officials, including Acting Civil Commissioner in Iraq at the time, A.T. Wilson, later asserted that Britain's acquiescence at Dayr al-Zur -- i.e., the evacuation of its troops and relinquishing of the province to the Arab army in Syria -- helped precipitate the entire 1920 revolt, not only by providing the Iraqi nationalist officers in Syria a base for cross-border military operations but also by giving other opponents of the British Mandate within Iraq a sense of Britain's vulnerability."
In other words, discord between Muslims living in the heart of what is now IS territory led to the border being established where it is now. Western imperialism played a key role, but only in so much as they were reacting to political realities on the ground.
Crucially, however, IS's message is not working. If the militant group's goal is to inspire others to break down these borders and unify under a single Islamic state, there does not seem to be any sign IS is tapping into a wider collective desire.
Anthropology professor Jon W. Anderson of the Catholic University of America says that the borders established after World War I are widely accepted by those in the Middle East, and with each passing generation they become more firmly established.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Anderson said that, save for the wishes of Islamic State militants, "there doesn't seem to be much sentiment for revision" of the borders. He points out that "the longest-running internecine conflict, the Lebanese civil war, was over dominance within those boundaries and resulted in a settlement affirming them." Jordan and Israel are not going anywhere, either. Neither is Syria -- in fact, the Syrian opposition that opposes IS has also vocally opposed the breaking up of Syria, as has Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Despite IS's propaganda, and 100 years after Sykes-Picot, it seems there is little appetite to rewrite the map of the Middle East.
In a week where Russia spared no expense in celebrating victory in World War II, Moscow also enjoyed another propaganda coup when Western news outlets seemed inclined to report exactly what the Kremlin wanted them to in Syria.
It's been a banner week for the Kremlin's propaganda machine. At home, and across the border in the parts of Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists, Russian military hardware was out on display for the May 9 Victory Day parade marking the defeat of the Nazis in World War II.
But the biggest propaganda victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin may not have been broadcast by his state-run propaganda outlets like RT, but by Western news outlets which accepted Russia's offer to report exactly what the Kremlin wanted them to in Syria.
Earlier this year, the Russian military and Russian private mercenaries played a key role in helping the Syrian government recapture the central Syrian city of Palmyra, a fabled and ancient city known for its historic ruins, from the hands of Islamic State (IS) extremists.
In the first few days of May, the Russian military escorted teams of international journalists across the war zone to observe a concert in Palmyra's ancient amphitheater. The reporters were treated to a magnificent performance of famed musicians conducted by Valery Gergiev, the conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and a fierce supporter of Putin.
The Washington Post's Andrew Roth detailed the entire trip, focusing on the steps that the Russian government took to ensure that the journalists who participated in this guided tour only wrote positively and on the subject that their Russian minders desired. Other news agencies seemed more than happy to toe the Russian line.
CNN's article on the event nearly glows, highlighting the significant military operation needed to get the journalists to a concert near the front lines of the battle against IS fighters. It notes that just this past July, IS militants filmed themselves executing 25 prisoners in the same theater. There is only one line in the article that even resembles criticism -- that famed cellist Sergei Roldugin, "who was recently named in the Panama Papers as having moved hundreds of millions to offshore companies, a claim he denies," played in the concert.
Euronews posted a similar story, though the French news outlet did note a caveat: its media facility in Syria is "provided by the Russian Ministry of Defence and our reporting is not subject to any military control." That article carried a quote from the head of St Petersburg's State Hermitage museum who told the audience that the UNESCO heritage site could have been saved.
Without naming names he appeared to criticize the US-led coalition.
"Look at its geographical situation. The battle for Palmyra went on for so long and many of the exhibits were able to be smuggled out. [The militants] approaching Palmyra could have been bombed into the ground in an instant, but they weren't. Well our guys weren't there back then!" said Mikhail Piotrovsky, the museum's director.
Curiously that quote was published without noting that Palmyra's "geographical situation" is at the center of the country on a key road between the Syrian government's capital city, Damascus, and Iraq -- far from the U.S.-led coalition's campaigns against IS strongholds in northeastern Syria and western Iraq.
Neither CNN nor Euronews note that, according to new documents obtained by Sky News, the Russian-led offensive to retake Palmyra culminated in a deal between the Syrian government and IS forces that allowed the terrorists to remove their heavy weaponry in exchange for the retaking of the city.
Neither report notes that the main target of both Russian and Syrian air strikes are groups that have fought IS, not IS itself. And neither article mentions the fact that, according to the detailed database maintained by the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, at least 100 civilians were killed by the Assad regime in Palmyra prior to IS's arrival, most of whom were killed while in detention.
No Wider Context
Instead, both articles read exactly how the Russian government would like them to read -- Russia helped Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad liberate this ancient city from the most brutal terrorists.
Worse yet, the wider context of events in Syria is completely missing from both the CNN and Euronews reports. While Russian cellos were playing mournful tunes for those killed by Islamic State terrorists, at least 30 refugees were killed as bombs tore through a camp for internally displaced persons near the border with Turkey. Activists said air strikes -- possibly Russian -- were to blame. Euronews, however, ran a special report on how Russian soldiers are demining the ruins. That report does not ask the question that Reuters asks -- if IS planted the mines so that they would explode when the Syrian and Russian soldiers captured the city, why didn't any of them go off?
CNN also reported that the Russian mission in Syria is much larger than media reports had previously suggested. The CNN correspondent noted that he was impressed by the "professionalism of the troops and the pristine state of the equipment they were using," and concluded that "while the exact size of Russia's military presence in Syria is still unclear, the things we saw while embedded with them indicate that it is bigger and more sophisticated than most believe."
That the Russian government is brazenly showing off its forces in Syria should come as no surprise. Independent analysis conducted by our team at The Interpreter, an RFE/RL partner, advanced the argument months ago that, when Putin was claiming that he was withdrawing from Syria, large numbers of Russian forces were staying to fight.
When Putin announced his withdrawal from Syria, he wanted the world to think he was serious. He wasn't. Now Putin wants to send a different message: he's not going anywhere. And uncritical reports from the front lines only help him to underscore this message.
The Kurds seem to fit perfectly into the current U.S. strategy of focusing on defeating jihadist groups and not Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is the focus of most moderate rebel groups.
QAMISHLI, Syria -- The Kurds have never been lucky with geography, being landlocked and divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. However, due to the Syrian crisis and the threat of an Islamic caliphate bordering Kurdish areas in Syria, the Syrian Kurds have become one of the most reliable coalition allies against the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Most likely they will play a prominent role in capturing the IS capital of Raqqa.
The Kurds seem to fit perfectly into the current U.S. strategy of focusing on defeating jihadist groups and not Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is the focus of most moderate rebel groups. Supporting some moderate rebel groups presents problems for Washington as those groups have partnered with the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front and the Salafist Jaish al-Islam to fight against Assad. Some rebel groups have also given U.S. supplies to jihadists.
While IS fighters have recently defeated rebel offensives in northern Syria, the Syrian Kurds have been more successful on the battlefield, having proven themselves able to fight IS near the Turkish border. "They've been courageous. They have been successful," U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby recently said in Washington. Battered by Syrian and Russian air strikes, the rebels were quite successful in defending their territory for years, but have been unable to make many in-roads against IS.
While anti-Assad rebels have been losing battles near the Turkish border, the Kurds have been on the advance in northeastern Syria. Colonel Talal Silo, the official spokesperson of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), says they have three possible directions for campaigns after finishing the Shadadi operation last February: west toward Manbij, south to liberate the countryside around Raqqa, or southeast toward Deir el-Zour. Some critics have suggested that the SDF is unwilling to expand beyond traditional Kurdish areas, but when I asked Silo about the subject he rejected this, saying: "Our goal is not only Kurdish cities. The target of the SDF is not only to liberate Kurdish regions, because for example the countryside of Shadadi and the southern region of Hasakah that were liberated, were completely Arabic." "Our forces do not only contain Kurds, but also Arabs, Christians, Turkomans. It's for everyone," Silo said.
One of the main goals of the SDF is to take control of northern Syria, including opening a corridor from Kobani to the Kurdish enclave of Efrin. This conflicts with the goals of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels that want to use the countryside of northern Syria as a supply line to Aleppo, currently besieged by Syrian regime forces. Recently, fierce clashes erupted again when Aleppo's rebels tried to recapture Tel Rifaat from Kurdish-led SDF forces, leading to the deaths of dozens of rebels, especially from the Jaish al-Sunna group that originates from Homs.
The Syrian Kurdish fighters are dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is close to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the militant left-wing organization which is banned in Turkey. That is a problem for Turkey as Ankara is against any form of coalition support for the Syrian Kurds, even more so after the cease-fire between Turkey's Kurds and the Turkish state collapsed in July 2015. Therefore, Turkey has tried to back rival rebel groups and even jihadist groups to defeat the PYD and the People's Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, without any real results.
In February, Turkey started to shell Kurdish-led groups in Aleppo, after the Kurds took advantage of Russian bombings of Syrian rebel groups near Azaz and took the Menagh air base. Turkey has also shelled the YPG-allied forces trying to cross the river into the IS-held city of Jarabulus in July 2015. Off the battlefield, Turkey managed to exclude the Kurdish PYD from the peace talks in Geneva.
However, the PYD, unlike the Iraqi Kurdish parties, follows a multiethnic ideology and its leaders have realized that it's better to also recruit Arabs in a region that is not predominantly Kurdish. In March, the PYD announced its desire to establish a federalized Syria, where all of northern Syria, not only Kurdish "Rojava" -- Syrian Kurdistan -- would be represented. Therefore, they have appointed Mansour Saloum, an Arab from Tal Abyad, as the co-head. "We are all people living in this area, and all the ethnic groups will work together to achieve this project," Saloum said.
The move was condemned and rejected both by the Syrian opposition and the Assad government. This plan also contrasts with the approach taken by the rival Kurdish National Council (KNC), which is part of the Syrian opposition and wants a Kurdistan region, similar to the one in Iraq. As a result the KNC condemned the recent announcement by the PYD and its allies and accused the PYD of seeking "Syrian federalism," instead of the establishment of a Kurdistan federal zone.
The support for federalism may have gained the YPG new enemies. In the mixed city of Qamishli, where there were clashes between the Syrian regime and the Kurds in late April, many of the local fighters are Arabs not Kurds. There have been low-level clashes before between the regime and Kurds in Aleppo, Hasakah, and Qamishli, but this was the first time that the clashes spread throughout Qamishli and the surrounding countryside. Kurds there think the Syrian regime attacked them because the regime feels stronger due to Russian support and to show the Kurds that they reject any form of federalism.
Strong And Diverse Coalition
The PYD's cooperation with Arabs is not new. They have focused on working with Arab tribes since they captured the Syrian-Iraqi border with fighters from the Shammar tribe in October 2013. Relations with the United States were established later, when IS tried to capture Kobani and were pushed back, losing hundreds of fighters due to U.S.-led coalition air strikes and ammunition supplies. After receiving U.S. support, they have achieved several victories, such as defeating IS in Tal Abyad, Al-Hawl, Al-Shaddadi -- all of them Arab areas.
From my observations, the SDF is focusing on recruiting more Arabs for future operations. Although U.S. officials have spoken about the Syrian Arab Coalition, in reality these are the Arabs that have joined the SDF. So far, I haven't met anyone who claims to be representing the Syrian Arab Coalition in northern Syria. "What's the Syrian Arab Coalition?" asked Bandar al-Humaydi, from the Arab Sanadid forces allied to the YPG. Arabs most likely join the SDF for financial reasons, or due to the fact that it is the strongest force in northern Syria. Moreover, it's one of the few forces that can really confront Islamic State in northern Syria -- having both a strong ideology and military force. Nevertheless, the command and control of the SDF is still dominated by Kurds from the YPG, and Arabs do not play a large role in the military leadership.
In the former IS-stronghold of Al-Shaddadi, two Arab members of the local police whom I interviewed told me they receive a salary of around $80 per month. "I joined to liberate the city from Daesh [IS]," said Xalaf Mohammed, a 23-year-old Arab. Although human rights organizations have accused the SDF of rights violations against Arabs, in many Arab regions of Hasakah, local civilians have welcomed the SDF forces.
"In the beginning the Kurdish percentage [of soldiers in the SDF] was like 60 percent, now it's changed, because the people that are joining the SDF now are mostly Arabs," Silo said.
At a former government-controlled prison in Alaya, Arabs who have joined the Kurdish security police, are now protecting the facility. "Arabs are working against the regime, because the regime has oppressed them, and they have seen humanity from our side," said Bave Egid, a Kurdish police officer stationed at the prison.
The SDF is a strong and diverse coalition and one that, for the foreseeable future, will likely be a key partner in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg is currently in Qamishli, in northern Syria, conducting a research project for the Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies (IIST), funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) on Syrian Kurds.
Despite military victories against the Islamic State militant group in Syria and Iraq over the last 20 months, even the commanders of the U.S. coalition fighting it admit that there are new challenges ahead.
On June 29, 2014, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave a speech from the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq, announcing the formation of an Islamic caliphate, the newly proclaimed "Islamic State" did indeed have many of the hallmarks of an actual state.
It had borders, patrolled by its agents. It had a military, special-forces units, police, an intelligence apparatus, a press office, tax collectors, engineers, a stratified leadership, and both foreign and domestic policies. Unlike its predecessors Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had only been able to establish a state of mind among their followers, Baghdadi's organization had managed to capture and rule actual territory, not just individual cities or neighborhoods.
That is no longer the status quo. If an observer were giving a State Of The So-Called Islamic State speech, one would have to acknowledge that the "state" is weak. The United States estimates that Kurdish forces and the Iraqi military have taken back 40 percent of the territory held by Islamic State (IS). An unnamed U.S. defense official recently told USA Today that IS oil revenues had been cut by 50 percent. U.S. Major General Peter Gersten said that a series of coalition air strikes have destroyed as much as $800 million in cash that IS was hiding in various safe houses and hidden stockpiles, and that there had been a 90 percent increase in IS defections.
Gersten also said that there has been a massive drop in the flow of foreign fighters to IS, from a high of about 2,000 per month just a year ago to about 200. If true, it is now likely that the U.S.-backed coalition is killing IS extremists faster than foreign fighters can join the organization's ranks.
To make matters worse for IS, many of the militant group's top leaders have been killed by coalition air strikes. In March, a strike killed Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, IS's "top financier." Earlier that month, another air strike killed Umar al-Shishani, or "Omar the Chechen," the "minister of war" for IS.
A slew of less infamous IS leaders has also been killed, including the IS-appointed "governor" of the Al-Hamadaniya district of Iraq, Barzan al-Husam, and many other field commanders. While the big names make the headlines, the killing of local governors and military commanders and the strikes that hit IS in the pocketbook may have a more tangible impact on disrupting local governance, and thus shaking the perception that IS is indeed a state rather than just a terrorist insurgency.
Not Dead Yet
However, for all the military defeats IS has suffered, it is far from dead -- and a number of challenges for the United States remain.
The United States has had a military presence in one form or another in Syria for months. While U.S. soldiers have been in Syria since late last year, working with coalition members on the ground to "tighten the squeeze" on IS and establishing a headquarters at the Rmeilan air base in northern Syria, it appears that this mission may be expanding. U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that the United States will deploy 250 Special Forces soldiers to Syria.
One key challenge is that the United States does not have adequate intelligence on the ground to effectively target its air strikes. According to recent statements by U.S. Central Command's (CENTCOM) Colonel Pat Ryder, the anti-IS coalition has flown 91,000 sorties and conducted 12,000 air strikes -- that sounds like a lot until you realize that only about 13 percent of coalition sorties end in air strikes. As IS shrinks on the battlefield, it will only become more difficult to find, identify, and destroy targets from the air.
IS's leaders have also adopted a simple-yet-sinister plan to block U.S. air strikes -- militants are reportedly covering the roads of cities they occupy with canvas roofs. An activist news agency covering the IS occupation of Raqqah, its so-called capital, has posted pictures of these canvas awnings, which make it impossible for coalition drones or jets to follow the movement of IS fighters below.
It could become very difficult, then, to differentiate the terrorists from the civilians that they are terrorizing. Worse, if this strategy works we can expect to see it copied in other locations IS controls, a move that could prove to be far more effective at stopping U.S. air strikes than even the most advanced antiaircraft weapons. IS may be hemorrhaging money, but tarps are a lot cheaper than guns.
Changing U.S. Tactics
To help defeat IS, the United States may be attempting to refine its tactics and address a sectarian dynamic that is working against Washington.
Last week, pro-IS social-media accounts tweeted pictures they say show that U.S. fighter jets and A-10 Warthogs have been supporting the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime who have been locked in heavy battle with IS for months but are currently backed up against the Turkish border.
Earlier in the year, a coalition of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) troops, Hizballah fighters, and Iraqi Shi'ite militias fought side by side with the Syrian military to break the battle lines of the anti-Assad rebels who have held northern Syria for years. IS took full advantage of this situation and launched its own offensive, capturing large amounts of territory as its fighters pushed west from their strongholds and north toward the Turkish border. Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters to the west also launched an offensive against the struggling anti-Assad rebels, and a small group of those rebels are now trapped.
The rebels in the area east of Azaz had been making gains against IS in early April, but by the middle of the month that progress had now been reversed. While it's dangerous to ever take the word of jihadist propaganda as truth, the presence of the A-10 in this area would suggest that the United States is providing close air support for the anti-Assad rebels as they push back against IS -- a level of coordination between the United States and local ground forces typically reserved for Iraq or eastern Syria.
If the United States is conducting air strikes against IS, and in support of anti-Assad rebels, it may be an attempt to protect the Turkish border and reassure a frustrated NATO ally. However, IS is still making gains. On April 27, there were reports that IS had captured five rebel-held villages, including Dudyan, west of Al-Rai and right on the Turkish border. IS is now close to closing off and destroying the anti-Assad rebels who are defending their most important border crossing -- and the only one they still control in northern Aleppo.
IS, even more so than Al-Qaeda before it, which survived 15 years of the war on terror, has proven its ability to constantly adapt to both its victories and its defeats. Despite military victories against IS over the last 20 months, even the commanders of the U.S. coalition admit that there are new challenges ahead. IS is currently exploiting the military weakness of one of its principal enemies, the anti-Assad rebels, and it is digging in to its positions in both Syria and Iraq.
The next phase of this fight is far less straightforward, and IS clearly knows that the storm is coming and is preparing accordingly -- with new offensives and canvas tarps.
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