Comfortable in its bastions along the Euphrates river in Syria and Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State (IS) has struck at its two ends --- in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and Iraq’s Jabal Sinjar. Barred from entry into Baghdad and from making a dash to Damascus, the IS has moved with dramatic ferocity into Iraq’s northwest and into the breadbasket of Lebanon. A resolute Lebanese Army response in Arsal stopped the IS advance down the Bekaa toward Beirut. A delegation from the Muslim Scholars Association helped the IS and Lebanon’s government broker an agreement for the withdrawal of the fighters over the mountains into Syria. Consistent aerial bombardment by the Syrian government moved the IS and its sometimes ally, Jabhat al-Nusra, back north toward the city of Raqqa. An uneasy quiet reigns for now in Lebanon. But not so in Iraq.
Superiority and fearlessness
After regular shelling and threats of extermination, the Islamic State finally left Mosul for the towns of Sinjar and Qaraqosh. The Kurdish fighting force, the legendary Peshmerga (“those who confront death”), could not hold their defensive lines. “What took place was a tactical retreat,” said Brigadier General Azad Jalil – the Peshmerga do not have the capability to fight the Islamic State across the region. It retreated to defend Irbil, its capital. The Peshmerga is poorly armed and badly paid. In May, a Peshmerga division blocked the Duhok-Akre road with the complaint that it had not been paid in two months. Morale has been low among the soldiers, who could not withstand the firepower and braggadocio of the jihadi army. The Islamic State was, therefore, able to threaten Iraq’s largest power and water source --- as the Peshmerga fled from Mosul dam. Each victory makes the IS more powerful --- they get arms, they get new infrastructure, and they get momentum.
Sinjar, Qaraqosh, Tal Kayf, Bartella, Karamlesh, Nahum —-- these are towns with ancient lineages, home to communities with the most fascinating lineages. It is here that the Islamic State has now arrived with a demand to the Yazidis, Chaldean Christians, Shabak, Syrian Christians and Turkomen that they must either submit to the faith of the IS or die. Most people have fled, 2,00,000 according to the United Nations. Towns that are not yet in the Islamic State's hands are being emptied as people lose faith in the ability of the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army to act. Forty thousand Yazidis took refuge in their holy mountain, cut off for several days from any humanitarian aid. Marzio Babille, UNICEF’s Iraq chief, said that children were “dying on the mountain, no the roads. There is no water. There is no vegetation. They are completely cut off and surrounded by the Islamic State. It is a disaster. A total disaster.” Over the first two days of their flight, Mr. Babille said, 40 children had died. United States transport aircraft dropped food and water for 8,000 people ---- four days into their siege. A slow transit has begun to Syria, without any proper humanitarian corridor established. The various Kurdish armed factions, the PKK (from Turkey), the YGP (from Syria) and the Peshmerga, have begun to operate together but only tentatively. The PKK and YPG are hardened forces. They can seriously threaten the Islamic State on the battlefield.
The geography of Iraq’s northwestern highlands provided isolated valleys that shelters heterodox ethnic and religious communities. They drew from a variety of traditions and languages to create their own unique worlds. The Yazidis took their inspiration from Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Fiercely protective of their culture and independence, the Yazidis fought off the attempt by the Ottomans, the British and the Iraqi state to integrate them into the country’s institutions –--- formal religion and the military. During the 1930s, the Yazidis refused to be conscripted into the Iraqi Army, so their chief Dawud al-Dawud walked with his followers to Jabal al-Akrad, near Latakia on the coastline of Syria. Many would return in the following decades. The Yazidi refusal to submit to the Islamic State, and their migration to Syria now follows an old pattern. It is unlikely that they will make it to Jabal al-Akrad --- where the fighting in that civil war continues to rage. They will likely find refuge among the Syrian Kurds. A year ago, 30,000 Syrian Kurds fled into Iraq over a weekend. These migrations reverse the trend, saying a great deal about the pendulum effect of this war and the trials it has inflicted upon civilians.
An Iraqi war?
Alignment among the countries of West Asia to tackle the Islamic State is meagre. Suspicion between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army prevent these natural allies from proper coordination. Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised to send his air force to assist the Peshmerga. But the question is: what air force? When the U.S. destroyed the Iraqi state in 2003, it was slow to allow the military to be rebuilt and rearmed so that it could operate independently of U.S. air cover and heavy weaponry. Iraq’s army, like Afghanistan’s army, formed under U.S. tutelage, was to operate as the front-line forces for U.S. operations. It is simply not able to fight the Islamic State on its own --- which is why it consistently asks the U.S. for aerial support, a dependent mentality that reproduces the idea that only the U.S. is capable of being the world's policeman. “America is coming to help,” said U.S. President Barack Obama on August 8. But only because the U.S. has created a situation where Iraq cannot help itself. The U.S. also bombed U.S.-made M198 howitzers, which the Islamic State had stolen from the Iraqi Army in June and had deployed near Irbil.
Syrian chaos as catalyst
The Islamic State’s continued gains come as Syria remains in chaos. It is the Great Syrian Desert that allowed the IS to widen its ambitions from Iraq’s Anbar province, to imagine itself as a regional or even world leader. The Syrian war allowed the IS fighters great battlefield experience, and helped them draw in jihadis from around the world (including India, according to a July 23 report to the U.N. Security Council). IS slipped through the cracks of regional disunity. Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey (the anti-Assad powers) refuse to join a united front with Iran, Iraq and Syria to tackle the IS threat. With absent coordination, IS will continue to thrive. None of the anti-Assad powers have come to terms with the reality that the Syrian civil war is now a cesspool of instability that will not end with any good outcome.
United Nations paralysis is clear. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on countries “with the influence and resources” to act --- but to do what? Humanitarian aid today is not going to solve the humanitarian crisis tomorrow when the Islamic State changes direction back toward Lebanon or Jordan. U.N. Resolution 2161 already has an arms embargo and financial sanctions against the Islamic State --- but neither of these are germane since IS now draws its money and arms from the territory it conquers. There is no stomach among the western powers to allow for a regional solution --- for that would force them, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to retreat from their hostile position against Syria.
Saudi Arabia’s influential Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud told CNN last month that the problem is more than the Islamic State. He referred to Iran. The Saudis are not convinced that the Islamic State poses a threat to the region ---- although under immense pressure the King said that he was unhappy that “a handful of terrorists” took it upon themselves to “terrify Muslims.” One would have thought that when the IS’ al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself the Caliph, he had declared war directly against the Saudi King, who is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. That should have forced Saudi Arabia to rethink its regional strategy. But there was no policy direction, no demand that Gulf Arabs cease their private support for the group, and no recognition that a regional solution (that includes Syria) is needed to stem the tide of the IS. The Saudi Kingdom shares with IS its antipathy to Iran and to Shiism, and the Kingdom seems willing to allow IS to run riot through Iraq’s diversity to suit Saudi Arabia’s regional ambitions.
Flight is the current strategy for minorities in the flight path of the Islamic State. They have no other choice.
(Vijay Prashad is the author of The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, LeftWord, 2013.)