Isis makes further advances in Syria while West vacillates over Iraq

Pershmerga forces are not capable of resisting extremists, while Washington is blind to the threat further north

As the West dithers about how to respond to the plight of Christians and Yazidis fleeing fundamentalist gunmen, the fighters of Isis, which calls itself Islamic State, are making important gains hundreds of miles away in Syria.

In the last two days they have taken the towns of Turkmen Bareh and Akhtarin 30 miles from Aleppo, enabling them to take over the strategically valuable country on the way to the Turkish border. The Isis offensive started on Tuesday, reinforcing the position of the movement as the dominant force in the military opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. Isis already controls one-third of Syria, including most of its oil wells, while Sunni rebel groups hostile to Isis are fleeing, disintegrating or joining the victors.

These little-reported developments in Syria illustrate how far the US, UK and their allies are from developing a strategy to deal with Isis and the rapidly expanding caliphate, now encompassing much of northern Syria and Iraq. Western policy in the two countries remains contradictory and self-defeating. In Iraq, the West supports the government in Baghdad and its counterparts in the quasi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in their battle to stop Isis. But in Syria Western policy is to weaken and displace Assad, though his government is the only force in Syria capable of battling Isis successfully. The West, Saudis, Turks and Qataris claim they are training and funding a “moderate” military opposition but this no longer exists in any strength on the ground.

The only other military force which can resist Isis in Syria is the militia of the 2.5 million-strong Kurdish minority. Divided into three enclaves, the Syrian Kurds have been holding off Isis attacks for weeks. Surely we should be helping these doughty fighters whom Isis cannot crush?

 

Unfortunately, we do not do so because they are the military arm of the PYD, the main authority among the Syrian Kurds. The PYD is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which the US, EU and Nato label as “terrorists”. This is a pity because the PKK has plenty of recent military experience and rushed to combat Isis with some success when the armed forces of the KRG fled.

One of the revelations of the last week has been that the Peshmerga (“those who confront death” in Kurdish) did not deserve their high reputation as a military force. This should not have been the surprise it was. One veteran expert on Kurdish affairs has long referred to the Peshmerga as the “pêche melba”. Brave self-sacrificing guerrillas they may have been in the 1980s, but they have not fought anybody for over a decade. Even in 2003, the last time they heard a shot fired in anger, the Peshmerga advanced slowly, supported by a massive US air umbrella battering Saddam Hussein’s demoralised army that was not shooting back. It is even difficult to find out how many Peshmerga there really are, as Iraqi government officials discovered when the KRG asked the central government to pay for them.

 

Even if the Peshmerga were more effective, they would have difficulty in defending their 650-mile-long border with Isis-controlled territory. There were reports yesterday of Isis fighters massing at Qush Tappa for another push against the Kurds. But limited American air strikes have more effect than might be imagined because they help restore Kurdish morale. Nevertheless, Isis is gaining crucial ground around Baghdad in the Sunni towns to the south of the capital, enabling Isis potentially to surround the capital.

Displaced people from the Yazidi religious minority, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town Displaced people from the Yazidi religious minority, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town (Reuters)
At Jafr al-Sakhar, a Sunni town 37 miles south-west of Baghdad, local men are joining Isis and are being paid between $400 and $500 a month, though payment may be irregular. Imad Farouq, a 22-year-old local man, told the online magazine Al-Monitor that “the main reason why some young people are attracted to Isis is because they are looking for jobs and it is easy to join it. Isis has opened the door for Sunnis in the area that stretches from southern Baghdad to the outskirts of Fallujah, by providing a good salary.” If Isis takes over this area, it will encircle Baghdad on three sides.

The Sunni Arabs in Iraq number five or six million and the evidence is that they still back the Isis-led revolt. They might split later – many Sunni are alienated by the bloodthirsty savagery and crude ideology of Isis – but there is no sign of this happening yet. Suspicion of a Shia-dominated Baghdad government runs high, particularly as the Sunni fear that, if it retakes their cities, its revenge for recent defeats will be merciless. Moreover, Isis is well prepared to prevent any stab in the back by its allies and has been swift to consolidate its power.

The replacement of Nouri al-Maliki by Haider al-Abadi as Prime Minister is not a magic wand that will suddenly make the Baghdad government acceptable to the Sunni. They are wondering how much has really changed. Ibrahim al-Shammary, the spokesman for the Islamic Army, a resistance group, asks in a tweet: “Whoever rejoiced about Abadi; how does he differ from Maliki?” After a decade of Shia rule, government apparatus is filled with adherents to Shia religious parties who have no intention of giving up power.

Baghdad and its Western allies have been over-optimistic about the chances of the departure of Mr Maliki opening the door to compromise with the Sunni. President Obama and the Europeans have spoken of great things that are to be expected from an “inclusive government”, the phrase implying a real share in power for the Sunni. This might have worked in 2010 but not today when the Sunni have already seized power in Sunni-majority provinces. Sunni politicians in Baghdad hoping for top jobs dare not return to their home cities and towns where Isis is likely to cut their heads off.

Iraqi Yazidi refugees at Newroz camp in Al-Hassakah province, north eastern Syria Iraqi Yazidi refugees at Newroz camp in Al-Hassakah province, north eastern Syria (Getty Images)  

Hostile takeover: the rise of Isis

Q What is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis)?

A Isis, which also takes the name the Islamic State, is an armed group that is an offshoot of al-Qa’ida which has taken over large parts of Iraq and Syria. In the areas it  controls it has also introduced sharia law, or law according to the Koran, which insists on a way of life detailed in Muslim texts including harsh punishments for crimes and a treatment of women that were common in the seventh century.

Q Whom is it fighting?

A In Syria, Isis is fighting the Syrian government, Syrian rebels, Syrian Kurds and their fundamentalist rivals the al-Nusra Front. In Iraq, Isis is fighting government forces and the Kurdistan Regional Government. It is also being hit by US air strikes.

Q Who are the people behind it?

A Isis is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who gained experience fighting the US in Iraq after 2003. Most of its soldiers are Iraqi and Syrian but it has large numbers of foreign fighters. Most are from the Middle East but with significant groups from the Caucasus and Europe, including the UK.

Q Why is it so successful?

A It has a strong core of former soldiers and fighters who have trained large numbers of new recruits.  They are committed and  prepared to die for their cause. It also seems to be well funded and recent successes against the Iraqi army have given it access to large amounts of modern weapons. Its opponents seem badly led, under-equipped and fearful of Isis.

Q Is it committing genocide?

A Isis is keen to publicise its shooting and beheading of men of military age and its crucifixion of people it judges to be criminals. It is also clear that it gives non-Muslims the opportunity to convert, pay a tax or flee. There is, as yet, no evidence that it has killed women or children or anyone who could be a soldier  against it, or that it has tried to kill an ethnic or religious group en masse.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of ‘The Jihadis Return: Isis and the New Sunni Uprising’, published by OR Books, available at orbooks.com

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