Is Kobani A Distraction?

Over the weekend, ISIS launched a new offensive on the Syrian-Turkish border town, where Kurdish fighters are still holding on after six weeks under siege. While others have called Kobani ISIS’s Stalingrad or its Waterloo, Mark Thompson relays concerns “that the focus on saving Kobani is giving ISIS free reign elsewhere in its self-declared caliphate—that the U.S., in essence, could end up winning the battle while losing the war”:

“The U.S. air campaign has turned into an unfocused mess,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote Friday. “The U.S. has shifted limited air strike resources to focus on Syria and a militarily meaningless and isolated small Syrian Kurdish enclave at Kobani at the expense of supporting Iraqi forces in Anbar and intensifying the air campaign against other Islamic State targets in Syria.”

Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., expressed frustration that the Obama Administration believes its latest fight against ISIS will yield success when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq didn’t. “We understand the definition of insanity: continue to do the same thing and expect something different to happen,” he said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation. “If we can contain them there, leave them there, I don’t know what else to do. They’re intent on destroying each other, and they’ve been doing it for 1,400 years.” The chattering classes are likewise not impressed by the fight for Kobani and the overall U.S. strategy against ISIS.

But Drum isn’t sure that we can judge the success of that strategy just yet:

The flip side of this is the obvious one: have patience. “Here we are not three months into it and there are critics saying it’s falling apart; it’s failing; the strategy is not sound,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Friday. “The strategy is sound and it’s working and there’s no plans to deviate it from right now.” If we’re really engaged in a years-long battle against ISIS, then a few months here or there doesn’t matter much. And saving Kobani is not just a moral good, but can also demonstrate to others that ISIS is not some magical, unstoppable force destined to overrun Iraq. It’s just an ordinary group of guerrilla soldiers who can be defeated with determination and patience. Stay tuned.

Still, there are other battles going on. Dettmer calls attention to Aleppo, where commanders “from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army are calling on the United States to launch airstrikes that will help them halt Assad’s forces”:

Without such action, they fear, many of their surviving troops may be lured into the ranks of ISIS. The offensive has been building up since early October. Now, Syrian army units backed by Shia Muslim fighters from Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iran are poised to cut the one remaining land route into Aleppo used by mainly Sunni rebels to resupply their forces, ferry in reinforcements, and evacuate their wounded. If the Assad regime severs the Castillo Road, which connects the rebels with the Syrian countryside and Turkey, it would set the stage for a full-scale siege of rebel-held districts in the city. …

Rebel commanders express deep frustration with the U.S.-led coalition focusing airstrikes on the defense of the Kurdish town of Kobani in a bid to lift a month-long assault by ISIS militants. They argue that a siege of Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial hub, risks even greater ramifications, not only for the Obama administration’s objective to “degrade and defeat” the self-proclaimed Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL, but also for the course of the uprising against President Assad.

Meanwhile, fighting broke out over the weekend in northern Lebanon between the military and Sunni militants linked to ISIS:

The violence is the worst in months and has centered in Tripoli, an impoverished city of predominantly Sunni Muslims that has experienced regular unrest because of sectarian divisions over the three-year-old Syrian conflict. Ten soldiers and one civilian have been killed in the clashes, a Lebanese military spokesman confirmed in a text message, which also said soldiers had arrested 25 militants. The violence began Friday evening with militant attacks on army positions. More than a dozen troops also have been wounded in the fighting, and at least one has been reported kidnapped.

Tripoli’s Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods have served as a microcosm of the Syrian conflict’s sectarian dimension since the war began three years ago, playing host to frequent clashes. Walter Russell Mead stresses the human and social costs the Syrian war has imposed on Lebanon thus far. All things considered, it’s a bit of a miracle the country hasn’t fallen apart entirely:

In a country of less than 5 million, including some 500,000 Palestinian refugees, there are now 1.2 million registered Syrian refugees, with an unknown and possibly huge number of unregistered refugees. (Looking to hedge further exposure to the Syrian crisis and avoid a demographic disaster, Lebanon closed the border to refugees earlier this week.) To top it off, the alienation of Lebanon’s Sunnis has begun to affect even the national army, which has seen soldiers defect to join ISIS or al-Nusra. And even without the threat to morale that defections pose, the Lebanese army isn’t in the best of shape; it doesn’t have the financing to properly equip itself. … The small, poorly equipped, untested Lebanese army leaves Lebanon dangerously vulnerable to ISIS—and to the fast-growing threat from within its own borders.

Fear And Loathing In Lebanon

Sulome Anderson checks in from Tripoli, the northern Lebanese town that has become a microcosm of the Syrian civil war and which today “seems to lie in ISIS’s shadow”:

Although the extremist and ultraviolent Sunni group has few open supporters here, the appearance of pro-ISIS paraphernalia and graffiti, the clash last month in the Bekaa, and the fact that Tripoli’s Sunni-majority population has a historical tendency toward radicalism, have raised worries that the group might gain a foothold here and send the city into a spiral of deepening violence.

Local tensions in Tripoli follow essentially the same ethnic lines as those in Syria’s war:

Sunni citizens largely support the increasingly fundamentalist Syrian opposition — ISIS being the most notoriously brutal of the groups fighting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad; meanwhile, the Alawites of the Jabal Mohsen neighborhood are overwhelmingly sympathetic to Assad’s regime (the Syrian leader is Alawite) and its Hezbollah allies. There are frequent and bloody gunfights between Jabal Mohsen and the Sunni district of Bab el-Tabbeneh, which border each other. Fearing violence would engulf Tripoli and potentially spread to other regions in Lebanon, the army moved in, establishing a security zone within the city limits last year. That hasn’t stopped the bloodshed, though, and the situation in Arsal triggered fresh clashes at the end of August, in which an 8-year-old girl was killed.

Also, the local Christian community is feeling threatened in a way it never has before:

Tripoli’s Christian population has been a bit skittish lately. Several churches were vandalized at the beginning of September, their walls spray-painted with ominous threats including “The Islamic State is coming” and “We come to slaughter you, you worshippers of the cross.” Crosses were allegedly burned in retaliation for the #BurnISISFlag social media movement, Lebanon’s version of the Ice Bucket Challenge, in which people have been posting videos and pictures of themselves setting fire to the group’s banner.

Father Samir Hajjar sits in the priest’s quarters of the city’s Syriac Orthodox Church, one of the buildings that was vandalized. He is measured about the incident, but admits it was worrying. “At first, we thought this could just be ordinary vandals, or the work of children,” he says. “I’ve been here 17 years, and no one bothers us. We respect our neighbors and they respect us. But this graffiti on the walls of all the churches, that’s not children’s work. They used stencils. It’s a serious matter.”

ISIS Gains Ground In Northern Iraq

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The Islamic State has taken over the town of Sinjar in the country’s northwest, near the Syrian border. Sinjar is the homeland of the Yazidis, a religious minority that Joshua Landis warns is now in grave danger of persecution:

One of the few remaining non-Abrahamic religions of the Middle-East, the Yazidis are a particularly vulnerable group lacking advocacy in the region. Not belonging to the small set of religions carrying the Islamic label “People of the Book,” Yazidis are branded mushrikiin (polytheists) by Salafis/jihadists and became targets of high levels of terrorist attacks and mass killing orchestrated by al-Qaida-affiliated jihadists, following the instability brought about by the War in Iraq.

Today’s IS assault is already bringing about devastating consequences for Yazidis, who make up about 340,000 of Sinjar’s 400,000 inhabitants (this is a high estimate). Many have fled on foot through the desert, without food or water. Others fleeing in cars for Dohuk have been unable to make a clean escape, due to the inability of the roads to accommodate such a large flux of people. Thousands of cars are currently stranded west of the Tigris River.

Andrew Slater also fears for Sinjar’s religious minorities:

By the afternoon of Sunday, August 4, with ISIS in full control of Sinjar, terrified families from the area began their dangerous exodus. The speed with which ISIS engulfed the entire mountain range attests to the large numbers of fighters they brought to bear for this major offensive. Villagers in the Sinjar area gave accounts of girls and young women from their families being abducted by ISIS fighters and carried away. Countless families fled to the mountains above their villages where they are currently surrounded by ISIS controlled areas and are desperately calling friends and family members who escaped, pleading for help. Pictures of families hiding in the mountains have circulated widely on Iraqi social media.

Besides the Sayyida Zainab mosque, ISIS forces were reported to have blown up the Sharif Al-Deen shrine on the Sinjar mountainside, a holy place for Yezidis. The ISIS flag was also raised over the only remaining church in the Sinjar area. Within 24 hours, Sinjar has been transformed from a bustling community into a string of ghost towns.

In its rampage through northern Iraq, ISIS may also have captured Iraq’s largest dam:

Capture of the electricity-generating Mosul Dam, which was reported by Iraqi state television, could give the forces of the Islamic State (Isis) the ability to flood Iraqi cities or withhold water from farms, raising the stakes in their bid to topple prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shia-led government. “The terrorist gangs of the Islamic State have taken control of Mosul dam after the withdrawal of Kurdish forces without a fight,” said Iraqi state television of the claimed 24 hour offensive. Kurdish officials conceded losses to Isis but denied the dam had been surrendered. A Kurdish official in Washington told Reuters the dam was still under the control of Kurdish “peshmerga” troops, although he said towns around the dam had fallen to Isis.

Meanwhile, jihadists affiliated with ISIS and the Syrian jihadist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra have taken over the Lebanese border town of Arsal, but Zack Beauchamp assures us that this isn’t as scary as it seems:

ISIS’s actions in Arsal aren’t part of a deliberate expansion of the caliphate into Lebanon. Rather, Lebanese forces picked a fight with ISIS fighters who’d been pushed out of Syria. In purely geographic terms, this interpretation of the fighting makes more sense. … Lebanon, down near Damascus in the west, is really far from ISIS’ bases in north-central Iraq and northern Syria. It would be very, very hard for ISIS control territory far away in Lebanon in the same way it controls the caliphate proper.

That said, ISIS’ presence in Lebanon really could be destabilizing all the same. The Arsal fighting alone has already displaced 3,000 people and killed at least 11 Lebanese soldiers. And while ISIS is not trying to seize territory in Lebanon outright (not yet, anyway), the group is ramping up terrorist attacks there. “They’ve been bombing things, trying to get cells in Tripoli [and] Damascus,” Smyth says. “They’ve tried to use these different cells to bomb Iranian and Hezbollah targets there.”

In any case, Keating remarks that these developments are changing the calculus regarding ISIS’s staying power:

A few weeks ago, it seemed unlikely that ISIS could hold out for that long given the sheer number of regional actors it had picked fights with. But it seems like it’s not only holding out, it’s expanding its activities into new areas and taking on new rivals. It’s hard to imagine how it will be contained unless the various forces fighting it can somehow find a way to coordinate. For now, the center of the conflict seems to be the Mosul Dam. Will the prospect of power cuts or catastrophic flooding be enough to get Maliki’s government to work with his Kurdish rivals?

Siddhartha Mahanta notices that ISIS’s recent gains have prompted the Baghdad government to start cooperating with the Kurds:

That massive setback — which the peshmerga claim is a strategic retreat — reportedly led Maliki to back up the peshmerga with air support, as Reuters reported on Monday. “We will attack them until they are completely destroyed; we will never show any mercy,” a Kurdish colonel told the news agency. “We have given them enough chances and we will even take Mosul back. I believe within the next 48-72 hours it will be over.” So while Maliki is making good on his threat to use legal power to seize Kurd-claimed oil, he’s also sending in the planes to back the Kurds just as the myth of their apparent invincibility takes a potentially serious hit. It’s either a shrewd political move or a truly desperate cry for help. Baghdad and Erbil. These days, theirs is a tale of two frenemies.

And Dexter Filkins argues that we should be helping the peshmerga, too:

The militants in ISIS have swept across much of northern and western Iraq, and there is no sign that they have any intention of slowing down. In a surprising—and encouraging—turn, Maliki has apparently ordered the Iraqi Air Force to carry out air strikes to help the Kurds. That said, the Iraqi Army has proved itself utterly ineffectual in combating ISIS. If the U.S. decided to help the Kurds, there would be no guarantee that the Kurds wouldn’t later use those weapons to further their own interests. But what other choice is there? If anyone is likely to slow down ISIS, it’s going to be the Kurds—regardless of whatever they’re planning to do later on.