By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published on The Hindu.
U.S. air strikes halted the columns of Islamic State (IS). Toyota trucks, armoured personnel carriers and howitzers lay flattened on their march toward the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil. Bombardment just north of Baghdad sent the IS fighters back toward the river Tigris. It allowed the Iraqi Army and Shiite militias (Badr and Salaam Brigades) to reclaim Amerli, a largely Shia town. What they did not do was to destroy or even degrade the legions of the IS.
The IS retaliation for these air strikes came in two brutal taped executions of U.S. journalists — first James Foley and then Steven Sotloff. The London-accented IS militant announced to U.S. President Barack Obama, “As your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people. We take this opportunity to warn those governments that enter this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State to back off and leave our people alone.” Beyond these murders, and more that may follow, it is unlikely that the IS can do any more damage to the U.S. directly.
Swinging into Syria
Like a pendulum, the fighters of the IS swung into Syria. They had no intention to face the U.S. bombers. Instead, their columns rushed through the Great Syrian Desert past their “capital” of Raqqa, across the River Euphrates, to take the Tabqa airbase. A fierce gunfight ended with the retreat of the Syrian government troops. Close to 400 IS fighters died in this battle (they are estimated to have at least 20,000 men in arms). In a grotesque scene, the IS forced marched 150 government troops — young men stripped to their underwear — into the desert and shot them. Based on this massacre and another near Tikrit (Iraq) in June, the United Nations has now accused the IS of crimes against humanity.
Capture of the Tabqa base at the crossroads of northern Syria is significant for many reasons. It had been the eyes and ears of the Syrian regime for the northern belt that includes most of the Turkish border. It is across this border that many of the jihadis have been trafficked from around the planet to join the IS — many crossed over between Kilis and A’zaz (where Sotloff had been abducted). Taking Tabqa allowed the IS control of the roads that lead directly to Aleppo and to Hama. Intense fighting along the belt that links Mhardeh and Houla suggests that IS and its allies (including its fractious cousin, Jabhat al-Nusra) have the ability to threaten the western coastal towns of Tartous and Latakia. The Syrian Army was able to block an al-Nusra and IS advance toward the largely Christian town of Mhardeh. Tension remains high as morale in the IS soars.
On the Mediterranean coast, both Lebanon and Israel are threatened as the pendulum of the IS moves toward them. IS beheaded one of the Lebanese soldiers it had captured last month in the Beka’a Valley, and threatened to execute the nine other soldiers that it holds captive. It did not help him that the Lebanese soldier, Ali al-Sayyed, is a Sunni Muslim. Nor did it help Syrian journalist Bassam Raies, also executed by the IS (a death ignored by the world media). Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra took the Quneitra crossing that straddles the disputed Golan Heights claimed by Syria and Israel. Al-Nusra captured 44 Fijian U.N. peacekeepers, while 40 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers escaped with the help of both Syrian and Israeli air cover. Al-Nusra has ambitions to secure this region as a launch pad to Damascus, as the IS makes its move from the northern roadways. Syria’s 90th Brigade and 7th Division sit along the road near Khan Arnabeh, blocking access to Damascus. Things are quiet for now, but perhaps not for long.
Discomfort is palpable in the regional capitals. U.S. air strikes cannot destroy IS. The canny IS prefers to swing across the vast territory that it threatens. A proper ground assault against IS cannot come because of the contradictions of U.S. policy in the region. In Iraq, U.S. air power did not only deliver the advantage to the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, but also to the Turkish and Syrian Kurdish fighters (the YPG and the PKK). Turkey and the U.S. see the PKK as a terrorist organisation, although it and its Syrian ally the YPG have been fierce in their defence of what they called Western Kurdistan (Rojava or north-eastern Syria). The Shiite militias of Iraq (Badr and Salaam Brigades as well as the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq) and the Shiite militia of Lebanon (Hezbollah) have also been unyielding against the IS — again the U.S. and the Europeans claim Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation and they hold the Badr Brigades, trained by Iran, at arm’s length.
Syrian armed power, degraded by its long civil war and by defections to the Free Syrian Army, is still strong enough to seriously damage the long-term prospects of the IS. But Syria’s regime has restricted its Army to defend its main corridor between Damascus and the coastline. It will not direct its armies to the north. To do so would leave it vulnerable to the rebels’ Southern Front, which continues to be egged on by the West to seize Damascus. The U.S. trains Syrian rebels in the deserts of eastern Jordan. Full Syrian participation against the IS will not happen if the threat to Damascus remains intact. Major U.S. allies in the region, such as Turkey and Jordan also seem in two minds. Jordan has indicated to the U.S. that it will defend its borders, but it does not want to enter the conflict. The King’s advisers fear that al-Nusra and the IS have cells amongst the close to a million Syrian refugees in the country, and amongst Jordan’s home-grown radicals. Turkey’s economy has taken a hit from the emergence of IS – markets in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria are no longer easily accessible. Legitimate trade has been eclipsed by smugglers, including those who traffic jihadis and journalists as well as IS- delivered oil from Syria’s Omar oilfields. Despite threats to Turkey, its new Prime Minister Ahmet Davutog˘lu can only bring himself to describe the IS as “a radical organisation with a terrorist-like structure.” Options for Jordan and Turkey remain limited, mainly by their commitments to the overthrow of Assad.
Responsibility for the emergence of the IS vests with a number of key actors. The United States’ reckless war on Iraq created the reservoir for jihadis, as money from the Gulf Arabs came to sustain them in an emerging sectarian clash against an ascendant Iran. The narrow and suffocating Assad and al-Maliki regimes – which alienated large sections of Sunnis – propelled the disenfranchised to reckless rebellion. In 2007, the cartoonist Ali Ferzat said of the process called the Damascus Spring (2005), “either reform or le deluge [the flood].” It was the flood. Alienated people who measure their alienation in sectarian terms (Sunni) cannot be only defeated in the battlefield. Political reforms need to be on the cards. So too must an alternative to the economic agenda pursued in both Iraq and Syria since the mid-2000s. Under U.S. pressure, the Assad and al-Maliki governments pursued neo-liberal policies that increased inequality and despair. Absent a politics of class, the platforms against neo-liberal corruption took on a harsh sectarian cast. The IS fed on that alienation for its own diabolical agenda. It can be halted by air strikes and degraded by ground warfare. But only if the social conditions that produced the IS — the inequality and the despair — are altered could it be truly vanquished.
(Vijay Prashad is the author of The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (LeftWord, 2013).)