West Asia

Looming shadows

Print edition : January 23, 2015

Smoke rises from the town of Kobane after an air strike by the U.S.-led coalition, on October 13, 2014. Kobane has been retaken by Kurdish fighters. Photo: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP

Kurdish peshmerga fighters in Mount Sinjar on December 22, 2014, the day after Kurdish and Yazidi fighters took Sinjar town back from the Islamic State after breaking a months-long siege. Photo: Reuters

Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani at Mount Sinjar on December 21. He said: "We will not leave an inch of the land of Kurdistan for the Islamic State, and we will strike the Islamic State in any place it is located.” Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP

The I.S. will remain a threat as long as Turkey persists with its ambiguous stand over the organisation and there is no serious understanding between Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdistan leadership.

THE aerial bombing of “Islamic State” (I.S.) positions around the city of Kobane, in northern Syria, by the United States and the Gulf Arab countries stopped the advance of its fighters. A complicated deal between the West and Turkey allowed Iraqi Kurdish fighters to resupply and relieve the exhausted Syrian Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) inside Kobane. Iraqi peshmerga (military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan) brought in their mortars and Dushkas (Soviet/Russian heavy machine gun) as the heavy artillery of the Kurds, while the YPG held the frontlines. Turkish involvement in the advance of the I.S. remains on the minds of Kurdish commanders. On November 29, a suicide bomber drove a truck through the Mursitpinar Turkey-Syria border post, allowing I.S. fighters to enter Kobane from Turkey (a claim that Turkey contests). Once more, Kobane was under threat of collapse to the I.S. Resilient fighting from the YPG and the peshmerga held off the I.S. fighters, with the aerial bombing by the U.S. and the Gulf states disrupting any attempt to resupply the I.S. fighters from their capital in nearby Raqqa. For now, it appears that the battle for Kobane (“Siege of Kobane,” Frontline, October 17)—a major symbol of Kurdish resistance—has been won by the Kurdish forces.

Significant success

Across the border in Iraq, the peshmerga and fighters from the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), supported by the Iraqi army and U.S. aircraft, have pushed the I.S. fighters away from Jabal Sinjar. This is a significant move because it was on Jabal Sinjar that the beleaguered Yazidis had taken refuge. Horrible atrocities against the Yazidis by the I.S. have come to define their brutality towards minorities. An Amnesty International report ( Escape from Hell: Torture and Sexual Slavery in Islamic State Captivity in Iraq, December 2014) tells the story of the women and girls of the Yazidi community who had been captured by the I.S., forced to marry, raped, and sold into sexual slavery. Amnesty’s Donatella Rovera says that the women were “tortured and treated as chattel. Even those who have managed to escape remain deeply traumatised”. The tales are horrid, although there are, even in these terrible times, instances of hope. A 13-year-old told the Amnesty investigator that an I.S. fighter took her (as well as her younger sister) to his home and put them under the protection of his wife. The man “said he had bought me because he felt sorry for me and wanted to send me and my little sister back to my family and indeed he did so”.

When Jabal Sinjar was fully secured, the leader of the Iraqi Kurds, Massud Barzani, personally went to the mountain. Barzani said: “We will not leave an inch of the land of Kurdistan for the Islamic State, and we will strike the Islamic State in any place it is located.” The town of Sinjar is not technically in Iraqi Kurdistan, but in Iraq proper. Tensions between Iraqi Kurds and Baghdad remain strong, despite their unity against the I.S. In the Qandil mountains in the northern tip of Iraq, the PKK has its main military base. It is from here that the PKK—still seen as a terrorist group by the West—has been organising the military campaign against the I.S. in both Syria and Iraq. On October 14, Turkish jets struck PKK positions on the Turkish side of the border, north of the Qandil base. It says a great deal about Turkey’s strained role in the fight against the I.S. that it would prefer to bomb the PKK than use its aircraft against I.S. positions. Cemil Bayik, PKK co-founder, told the journalist Fazel Hawramy that one of the problems with the current campaign against the I.S. is the double-faced character of the Turkish government. The fragility of Iraqi unity was another. Without clarity from Turkey as to the threat of the I.S. and without a serious understanding between Baghdad and the leadership in Iraqi Kurdistan, matters will be bleak. “If Iraq is divided,” Bayik said, “the war will intensify and the threat of Da’esh [the I.S.] to smaller communities will become greater.”

Bayik’s warning is not for the future. Even as he was speaking, I.S. brigades routed Iraqi positions in Wafaa, south-east of Ramadi in Anbar Province. This region has been prone to I.S. assault, with the city of Ramadi having largely been under I.S. control for a year. The Iraqi government had begun to replicate the old U.S. strategy of arming tribes to fight the I.S. It was only partially successful when the U.S. tried this manoeuvre; initially, the Sons of Iraq, as the tribemen were called, fought the precursors of the I.S. during the Anbar Awakening ( ahwat al-Anbar) of 2005-2007; but then, they turned against the American and Iraqi troops, joining, in many cases as I found, the I.S. last year. Giving Kalashnikovs to the tribesmen is of little use against the heavy armour of the I.S. At the same time, the sophisticated battlefield manoeuvres of the I.S. help it easily outflank the tribesmen, who are amateur fighters. Iraq’s Army, weakened over the past decade by privatisation, is in no position to take on the I.S. by itself. This is the reason why Bayik’s plea for political unity is appropriate—it will take raised morale and a sense of united purpose from Irbil to Baghdad to create a strategy to take on the shadows of the I.S.

One of the essential elements of the I.S. is that it operates like a pendulum. When it was hit hard in Kobane, its fighters moved towards the Lebanon-Syria border and back into Iraq’s Anbar Province. They do not stand fast in the face of defeat. Retreat and regroup is the methodology of their battle groups. In the Qalamoun mountains that divide Syria from Lebanon, the I.S. sent some of its most battle-ready fighters and its most respected clerics to try and absorb Al Qaeda’s fighting group, Jabhat al-Nusra. Al-Akhbar’s Radwan Mortada saw them in action trying to weaken the resolve of the al-Nusra fighters and to threaten the remainder of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to join its ranks. A revered cleric of the I.S., Abu al-Walid al-Maqdisi, is now in the Qalamoun region putting out statements to show that al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army are apostate groups. Pressure on the al-Nusra and FSA fighters to join the I.S. comes from the superior firepower of the I.S. fighters and their monthly salary of $400. Last year, the Syrian Army and Hizbollah beat back al-Nusra fighters from the Qalamoun region. Now, it looks as if the fight will restart at a more dangerous level. When struck hard there, as they will be by the Syrians and Hizbollah, the I.S. will move elsewhere. Without regional coordination, the I.S. is at an advantage in Greater Syria.

Thus far, Jordan has remained outside the theatre of the I.S. Quick moves by Jordan’s security services froze any I.S. work in the refugee camps on Jordan’s border with Syria. Under pressure from the U.S., Jordan joined the coalition against the I.S. despite the fact that the kingdom did not want to do anything direct to provoke the I.S. Jordan is aware that wells of sympathy for the I.S. have grown in jehadi pockets in its major urban centres (the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was, after all, Jordanian). An old political dance between the Palace and the Muslim Brotherhood has enabled the kingdom to keep in control the threat of armed jehadi violence. But those older alignments are no longer easy to manage. When a Jordanian pilot, First Lieutenant Moaz al-Kasasba, was shot down over Syria, he was taken captive by the I.S. Some senior Jordanian parliamentarians released a statement called “Not Our War”, asking that the kingdom restrict itself to border security. The King had said, “The War Against Terror is our war,” which is precisely what is now being contested. Jordan warned of “grave consequences” if al-Kasasba is harmed. The threat to al-Kasasba could be a way to draw Jordan deeper into the conflict against the I.S., indeed to pull Jordan into the arena of the war. This is exactly what the I.S. desires.

The long shadow of the I.S. lengthens across the region. Intelligence officials from the Arab capitals, who typically like to appear certain about events, are out of their depth. Where matters lie is as complex for them as where things will go. No strategy on the table seems to be adequate to the I.S. Nothing less than a regional compact is necessary to deal with the I.S., but the politics between the states in the region block any such development. It is to their own peril.

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