Thursday, July 10, 2014

ISIL in Syria and Iraq

In The Times, 23/6, Melanie Phillips, former columnist for the Daily Mail, writes in support of the position of the paper's leader, that now is not the time to make "an ally" of Iran. The Times piece is behind its pay wall, but similar arguments could be found in The Jerusalem Post, another newspaper in the Murdoch stable (With Iran, my enemy’s enemy is still my enemy, Jun 20, 2014):
the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a savage terrorist army previously known as al-Qaida in Iraq, has routed the Iraqi army and now controls territory from the outskirts of Aleppo in Syria to Fallujah and Mosul in Iraq, even threatening Baghdad.
Leaving aside the fact the whole of the Iraqi army has not collapsed, only 2 divisions, this is somewhat misleading as to the amount of control ISIL (ISIS) has (or had) in Syria and ignores the extent to which they had been pushed back by other rebel groups. Charles Lister, in a paper from May:
By late January 2014, ISIS had lost control of 28 separate municipalities across Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, al-Raqqa and Deir Ezzor governorates. Rather than suffering total defeats in these positions, however, ISIS strategically redeployed its forces into better-defended and more valuable positions, presumably preparing for its next move. This came on February 2 when a large ISIS force unexpectedly attacked and captured the financially valuable Conoco gas field (said to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per week) from Jabhat al-Nusra and allied tribal forces in Deir Ezzor. This surprise attack [..] prompted a major counter-attack by Islamist militants (including Jabhat al-Nusra), FSA-branded fighters, and local tribesmen, resulting in ISIS’s near-total expulsion from the governorate by February 11. Meanwhile, continued pressure against ISIS in northern Syria saw the group withdraw from its positions in northern Aleppo on February 27 and redeploy eastwards, while by March 13 it had completely withdrawn from the northwestern governorates of Latakia and Idlib. This left ISIS in control of parts of eastern Aleppo and, crucially, the key transport routes leading to the jewel in ISIS’ crown: the city of al-Raqqa. There, the true face of the organization has since become clear with harsh punishments now being meted out, including the March 22 crucifixion of a man accused of murder.
Even where it lost control of territory, though, ISIL continued to play a destructive role against forces fighting the Assad regime. It "has been blamed for several car bombings at rival group headquarters, checkpoints, and at the Bab al-Salameh and Bab al-Hawa border crossings with Turkey" and for the assassination of leaders from rival groups Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Jeremy Bowen reports from Aleppo (16 Jun), "Islamist fighters of different levels of radicalism dominate the rebel side in Aleppo. In rural Aleppo, east towards Iraq, Isis territory begins."

From a later piece by Charles Lister for the BBC (27 Jun): "[Isis] controls large swathes of territory - stretching from al-Bab in eastern Aleppo province in Syria to as far as Suleiman Bek 415 miles [..] away in Iraq's Salahuddin province." The map, as used on many other BBC web pages, shows 3 towns in northern Syria under complete ISIL control, without naming them. According to a map shown on CNN, they are, leading North-East from Aleppo, al-Bab, Manbij and Jarabulus, near the Turkish border (*).

On 28 Jun, Al Jazeera English (AJE) reported that there had been clashes around Deir Az Zor between ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra and that 2 JN commanders had deserted to ISIL.

Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) is al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, Yemenis from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula may be in northern Syria, collaborating with JN, passing on bomb-making skills (**). According to a report by Paul Wood from Idlib (3 June 2014), the black flag of the Islamic Front is almost indistinguishable from that of ISIL, though IF's ideology is considerably more moderate.  

So, the West may have legitimate concerns that are not limited to ISIL. But purely from a Syrian point of view, ISIL must be distinguished from all the other groups. For the Syrian people, who in the overwhelming majority still want to be rid of Assad,  ISIL is not on their side. Objectively, it is an element that is against the revolutionary (anti-Assad) forces. When people talk about "infighting among the Syrian rebels" (***), let us be clear: fighting between the other groups is minimal; nearly all the "infighting" is between ISIL against the rest.

AJE, Listening Post, 5 Jul, +07:00; see also the map from @deSyracuse.

** Richard Barrett, formerly of MI6, C4 News, 3 Jul; Chris Yates, BBC WS, Weekend, 5 Jul; Frank Gardner, BBC.
*** See, for example, this discussion on C4 News, 1 Jul (2nd video).

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