Kobani: ISIS’s Stalingrad?

Syrian Kurds Battle IS To Retain Control Of Kobani

Last night, American military transport planes delivered weapons, ammunition, and medical supplies to the Kurdish fighters still holding the northern Syrian border town of Kobani against a lengthy siege by ISIS militants:

The supplies were not provided by the U.S., but instead came from other Kurdish forces outside of Kobani, the official told FP. U.S. aircraft merely facilitated the airdrops. American warplanes have been bombing Islamic State targets in and around the city for weeks, but the airdrops escalate that effort and mean that the U.S. is now facilitating direct assistance to the Kurdish fighters defending the city.

The defenders of Kobani welcomed the aid but warned that it would not be enough to decide the battle. Much still depends on how much help Turkey will allow across its border. Obama reportedly gave Erdogan advance notice of the drop on Saturday night, but Juan Cole interprets it as defiant of the Turks’ wishes. Since then, Ankara has been sending its usual mixed signals:

In comments published by Turkish media on Monday, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan equated the main Syrian Kurdish group, the PYD, with the PKK. “It is also a terrorist organization.

It will be very wrong for America with whom we are allied and who we are together with in NATO to expect us to say ‘yes’ (to supporting the PYD) after openly announcing such support for a terrorist organization,” Erdogan said. Also on Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Turkey was facilitating the passage of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters to Kobani to aid Syrian Kurds defending the town against Islamic State militants. Cavusoglu, speaking at a news conference, did not provide details on the transfer of the fighters.

Looking at the big picture, Henri Barkey considers the battle of Kobani a seminal moment in the national history of the Kurds:

Kobani will have two different effects on the region. First and foremost, it will be an important marker in the construction and consolidation of Kurdish nationhood. The exploits of Kobani’s defenders are quickly joining the lore of Kurdish fighting prowess. After all, the Iraqi Kurdish forces, not to mention the Iraqi army, folded in the face of a determined IS onslaught only a couple of months ago. The longer the city resists, the greater will be the reputational impact (although it is already assuming mythic proportions).

There is another, rather unique aspect of the resistance that is adding to its mythic character: the role of women in the fight. The juxtaposition of an Islamic State, which enslaves women or covers them from head to toe, with the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has large numbers of women fighting and dying alongside men, is particularly striking. Social and other media outlets have brimmed with stories of the heroism and sacrifice of these women. The fighting in Kobani, and especially the emergence of women fighters, has now entered the Kurdish lore and imagination.

Paul Iddon also grasps the battle’s symbolic significance. He hopes it will prove to be the Islamic State’s Stalingrad:

The reason I stress the symbolic importance of this is because as was the case during the Battle of Stalingrad the name was of great significance to the invading Third Reich whose ruler saw destroying that city and killing all of those who resisted to be of great symbolic and psychological importance given the fact it was named after the dictator of the country they were attempting to conquer. Kobani for similar reasons has become a symbol of Kurdish defiance to IS and is the reason that group is pouring more resources into in order to try and break that towns spirit and the Syrian Kurds ability to resist and repel its advances. And like Stalingrad the locals there have shown they will fight building-to-building to the death before they let IS overrun their town.

(Photo: Heavy smoke from an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition planes rises in Kobani, Syria, October 20, 2014 as seen from a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, in Sanliurfa province, Turkey. By Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images)

The Plight Of The Yazidis Still Isn’t Over

George Packer checks in with his Yazidi contact “Karim” in northern Iraq, who reports that his community remains on the brink of a humanitarian disaster two months after a much-heralded rescue effort:

Yesterday, I spoke on the phone with Karim. He’s still at the top of Mt. Sinjar, living in a military camp with around a hundred fighters, the majority of them Kurdish, the rest Yazidis. They sleep in United Nations tents and eat canned food brought in by humanitarian airdrops. There is no real way out except by airlift—in the past ten or twelve days, according to Karim, ISIS has pushed Yazidi fighters out of villages north and west of Mt. Sinjar, and they now surround the mountain. Karim told me that there are still about a thousand civilians around the mountain, also living in tents. The humanitarian airdrops are not enough, food is running low, and the past few nights have been cold with the approach of winter. The Yazidi resistance fighters want an international ground force to liberate Sinjar—something that they are unlikely to get.

A few hours before we spoke, Karim said, five Yazidi girls arrived at the mountaintop camp. The youngest was nine, the oldest twenty. They had walked several dozen miles from their town to the south of the mountain. They carried nothing with them and were barefoot. The girls said that they had been held prisoner for weeks by ISIS fighters, and were badly beaten, according to Karim. Other Yazidi girls and women have been distributed in slave markets to ISIS fighters, and when I asked Karim if the girls had also been raped, he told me, “I couldn’t bear to ask that question, to be honest.”

Ralf Hoppe interviews a Yazidi woman who was kidnapped by ISIS but managed to escape after nine days in captivity:

Their captors beat them, sometimes several times in a single day, for no apparent reason. There was a man with a beard who used an electric cable, while two others preferred wooden switches. Sometimes they were also punched and kicked, and they were repeatedly sexually abused.

Nadia doesn’t give a literal account of these rapes. It is virtually impossible for her to talk about them, and it contravenes the conventions of her culture. She merely says: “We were taken individually to another room, to one of the men.” Then she lowers her head, in silence, awash with shame. “What else could we do?” she says after a while, now speaking very quietly. She says the men were merciless. Some women threw themselves at their tormentors’ feet, kissed their knees and hands, and — eyes filled with tears — pleaded for mercy. It was no use. The men remained unmoved. It only entertained them.

The jihadists are claiming a theological justification for enslaving the Yazidis in their English-language propaganda newsletter Dabiq:

The Islamic State newsletter, released online at the weekend, also contains an article by John Cantlie, a British journalist being held hostage, in which he says he fears he will soon be killed like his four fellow hostages, James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines and Alan Henning. But most of it is devoted to theological justifications for Islamic State behaviour, citing early clerics and the practices of the Prophet Mohammed and his Companions during the early years of Islamic expansion.

“The enslaved Yazidi families are now sold by the Islamic State soldiers as the mushrikin were sold by the Companions before them,” the article, entitled “The Revival of Slavery before the Hour”, says. It says that “well-known” rules are observed, including not separating mothers from their children – something which may account for the number of teenage girls being used in this way, according to their families. It says that 20 per cent of women are being taken in this way, in accordance with rules demanding a fifth of property captured in war to be handed over as tax.

Will ISIS March On Baghdad?

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Recent gains by ISIS in western Iraq’s Anbar province, including the capture of a military base on Monday, are raising fears that the militants might soon attempt to move on Baghdad:

Militants seized the base, located near the town of Hit and a major highway from Baghdad to the Syrian border, after heavy fighting with soldiers, according to Ahmed al-Dulaimi, a Sunni tribal leader. Its capture increases the threat to Ramadi, Anbar’s capital, and to Iraq’s second-largest dam at Haditha. …

Islamic State captured the Anbar towns of Hit and Kubaisa last week, and its fighters are battling Iraqi forces in Abu Ghraib, 18 miles (29 kilometers) from Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone that houses embassies and government offices. The town of Haditha is “completely besieged” by Islamic State militants and will fall within days without U.S. action to prevent it, Faleh al-Issawi, the deputy head of Anbar provincial council, said by phone late yesterday. He said the jihadists control 80 percent of Anbar province.

Joel Wing attributes these advances primarily to the weakness of the Iraqi Security Forces:

The fact that the ISF still appear hapless in most areas does not bode well for the future. They have broken again and again in just a few days. Both Baghdad and the American led coalition need to intervene in a much more determined fashion to reverse the situation, because even if places like Ramadi and Haditha are able to hold on they are cut off from their supply lines and need to be supplied by air something the government forces are not good at. If not there could be more bad news coming out of western Iraq very soon.

In Walter Russell Mead’s view, there is “a lot to be nervous about”:

CBS News cites a figure of 60,000 Iraqi troops assigned to defend Baghdad, but given the rampant corruption in the Iraqi armed forces, the official numbers on paper are one of the least important facts about the defending forces. As Haaretz noted in June, a large portion of the Iraqi army is made up of “ghost soldiers” who appear in the official troop count but pay their commanders a portion of their salary in return for being excused from duty. Graft has always been rampant in the post-Ba’athi Iraqi military, with officers stealing not only money and equipment, but even reportedly food and water from their soldiers during ISIS’ June blitz. These factors, while perhaps attenuated, are still very much at play today. And the chances for turning things around look ever-more remote.

Even if the jihadists can’t take and hold the capital, Paul Shinkman argues that they can still do enough damage to seriously undermine the government’s authority:

Defense officials and analysts agree the Islamic State group likely could not seize and maintain control of Iraq’s capital city. Chiefly, militias within the Shiite Muslim neighborhoods in the east would resist the Sunni extremists’ onslaught and reject their attempts to recruit moderate citizens to their cause. There are, however, measures of extremist success other than all-out capture. It’s no coincidence that the Islamic State group has approached Baghdad from the west, taking control of most of Anbar province, including territory near the capital city that flows into western neighborhoods mostly populated by fellow Sunnis.

Any doubts among locals that their government would not be able to protect them feeds directly into the formula the Islamic State group has used with great success to seize control of large cities like Fallujah in Iraq or parts of towns like Kobani near the Turkish border in Syria. “For them, nothing succeeds like success. They’re on a roll and they’re not really being impeded,” says Bruce Hoffman, a former adviser to coalition forces during the Iraq War and counterterrorism scholar at the CIA. He now teaches at Georgetown University. “At this stage, it’s whoever can provide security.”

But Michael Knights interprets the push toward Baghdad as a Hail Mary pass of sorts:

In truth, the threat posed to Baghdad this autumn is emerging less because ISIL is winning the war in Iraq and more because it might be slowly but steadily losing it. All across north-central Iraq, ISIL is being challenged by joint forces comprised of Sunni tribes, Shia militias, Iraqi soldiers, Iranian advisors and U.S. airpower. ISIL is struggling to maintain its grip on this battlefield of strange bedfellows, and it could be moving on Baghdad now out of a desperate need for a big victory more than anything else. Even as ISIL appears to be making progress in marginal places like Kobane, the Syrian Kurdish border town, inside Iraq the group has been faltering and needs a new front to rejuvenate its campaign.

Among the less-noted victories against ISIL recently: In early October, Kurdish peshmerga forces and local Sunni tribesmen of the Shammar confederation – usually bitter rivals – cooperated in a three-day blitzkrieg that recaptured the vital Rabiya border crossing that links the ISIL territories in Iraq and Syria. In Dhuluiya, 45 miles north of Baghdad, Sunni tribesmen of the Jabouri confederation are pushing ISIL back from their lands in collaboration with both Iraqi Army forces and, stunningly, Iranian-backed Shia militiamen from the Kataib Hezbollah movement.

Don’t get too excited about any victories by the Shia militias, however. Justine Drennan flags an Amnesty International report that accuses these militias of carrying out revenge attacks on Sunni civilians:

The report, released on Tuesday, alleges that since the self-proclaimed Islamic State started grabbing territory in Iraq, Shiite militias supported by the Iraqi government have abducted and shot dozens of Sunni civilians, apparently in retaliation for the Sunni extremist group’s attacks on Shiites. Many of the Sunnis being killed have no apparent connection to the Islamic State, and just seem to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, the report says.

“Scores of unidentified bodies have been discovered across the country handcuffed and with gunshot wounds to the head, indicating a pattern of deliberate execution-style killings,” the international human rights group stated on Tuesday. The group’s report is based on six weeks of interviews with victims, observers, and government officials in central and northern Iraq between August and September.

The Syrian-Turkish-Kurdish Clusterfuck

Turkey launched airstrikes yesterday – not against ISIS, but against Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey:

Turkish news reports said the strikes had been aimed at fighters of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, known as the P.K.K., and were in retaliation for the shelling of a Turkish military base. Such airstrikes were once common, as Turkey fought a Kurdish insurgency in a conflict that claimed almost 40,000 lives over nearly three decades. But hostilities essentially ceased two years ago when the peace process began, and both the Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah and an online statement from the P.K.K. said the airstrikes on Monday were the first since then. The Turkish military also released a statement, but it did not mention airstrikes specifically, only an exchange of fire with “terrorists.”

Authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan are now pressing Ankara to let their fellow Kurds cross the border to help defend the Syrian town of Kobani, which remains under siege from ISIS:

Speaking on a visit to RFE/RL in Prague on October 13, Falah Mustafa, the foreign minister of the Kurdish regional government (KRG), said Ankara should heed calls from the international community to help the city, which has been under siege for almost four weeks.

“It’s a moral responsibility for all of us to move in order to help the besieged [city of] Kobani,” Mustafa said. “We hope that there would be an understanding by Turkey to the calls from the international community and to the needs of these people who have proven to be bravely fighting the terrorists throughout this period, from the day they have been besieged.” He said Ankara should establish a corridor between its border checkpoint of Mursitpinar and Kobani, whose northern edge is less than a kilometer from the Turkish frontier.

Today and yesterday, ISIS positions in Kobani and elsewhere in Syria came under heavy attack from US planes:

Centcom said the 21 strikes in and around Kobani destroyed two of the group’s staging locations and damaged another, destroyed one an ISIS-held building and damaged two others, damaged three ISIS-held compounds, destroyed one ISIS truck, and destroyed one ISIS armed vehicle and another ISIS vehicle. The US military also struck an additional seven ISIS staging areas, two ISIS mortar positions, three ISIS occupied buildings, and an ISIS artillery storage facility. Centcom said early indications were that these strikes were “successful.” Separately, the US military conducted an additional strike on an ISIS-held oil refinery near Dayr az Zawr. Centcom said this strike was also successful.

But the jihadists are apparently making gains in Iraq:

“The militants, they now control 80% of Anbar province,” said Faleh al-Issawi, a local politician from Anbar, detailing weeks of miserable performance on behalf of the Iraqi military. Government forces, he says, are constantly on the back foot, rarely launching offensives to regain territory. Outgunned and beleaguered, he says, Iraqi army units in Anbar are beginning to collapse. “We are renewing our call for American or International troops to come to Anbar province and begin ground operations,” he said, expressing a policy desire completely at odds with that of the central government.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is claiming that Turkey has agreed to allow US warplanes carry out strikes from its bases, but Turkish officials won’t confirm that:

[National Security Advisor Susan] Rice said Ankara had joined Saudi Arabia in agreeing to allow its bases for training moderate Syrian opposition forces and had agreed that “facilities inside Turkey can be used by the coalition forces, American and otherwise, to engage in activities inside of Iraq and Syria.” Incirlik Air Base, located about 50 kilometers inland from the Mediterranean Sea in southern Turkey, is home to the U.S. Air Force’s 39th Air Base Wing and about 1,500 American military personnel and is key to protecting NATO’s southern flank.

On Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu denied there was such an agreement on bases, according to state-run Anadolu Agency. “There is no decision at the moment concerning Incirlik or any other issue,” the agency quoted Cavusoglu as saying[.]

Meanwhile, Jamie Dettmer is dismayed at the anti-Western rhetoric Turkish President Erdogan whipped out in a speech yesterday:

About T.E. Lawrence—who is still viewed as a hero in the West and by many Arabs—the Turkish President showed nothing but disdain, then used Lawrence as a vehicle to heap opprobrium on others. Erdoğan dismissed the British officer as “an English spy disguised as an Arab.” And he told the university audience—the speech was televised—that Westerners are “making Sykes-Picot agreements hiding behind freedom of press, a war of independence or jihad.”

Erdoğan argued there are modern-day Lawrences in Turkey right now “disguised as journalists, religious men, writers and terrorists.” And the remark was especially ominous on the day five foreign journalists—three of them German—were hauled before a court for a preliminary hearing in the southeastern Turkey of Diyarbakır, following their arrests at the weekend by anti-terrorist police.

Marc Champion believes Erdogan has miscalculated:

Erdogan appears to believe he can squeeze the PKK and its affiliate in Syria, while negotiating a settlement with Turkey’s Kurdish community. If so, he would be underestimating how quickly a massacre in Kobani could push events beyond his control. Erdogan is a formidable politician and never to be underestimated, yet I suspect he is making a big mistake for Turkey.

That’s because only one of the two very risky paths for Erdogan has a chance of a positive outcome. The Turkish leader has a real prospect of building a long-term alliance with the Kurds and creating a stable buffer against the chaos of the Middle East, partly because he has already done a lot to repair relations with Kurds in Iraq and Turkey in recent years. Islamic State, however, can offer nothing but instability and fear.

Michael Crowley returns to our other big problem in Syria – Assad, with whom Erdogan and the Syrian rebels would like us to go to war as well:

Obama may find it increasingly difficult to battle ISIS without coming into conflict with Assad’s forces. “Sooner or later the linkage is going to be forced,” said Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute. Salem wonders how Obama would react if American-trained rebels come under aerial bombardment by Assad’s air force: Would U.S. forces pounding ISIS targets elsewhere in the country refuse to intervene? (That would hardly inspire goodwill among the rebels.) How should the U.S. respond [if] Assad’s forces move to claim territory cleared by ISIS after coalition attacks? And will Obama tolerate Assad’s infamously brutal attacks on civilian populations now that U.S. fighter-bombers are mere minutes away from the scene of such crimes?

Larison sure hopes we don’t take the bait:

It is unreasonable to expect anti-regime forces to do Washington’s bidding against other enemies of the regime when their overriding concern is to fight regime forces. However, that isn’t an argument for doing what the rebels want. It draws our attention back to why the war has been misguided and unlikely to succeed from the start, especially once it expanded into Syria. If both Turkey and the “moderate” opposition refuse to cooperate unless the U.S. attacks the Syrian government, that tells us that the war against ISIS cannot be fought effectively at an acceptable cost. That should be a clear warning to the administration to stop now before it gets in any deeper. Warring against both sides in the same civil war not only appears absurd, but it greatly increases the chances of costly failure.

Max Fisher, on the other hand, asserts that an alliance with Assad is the only logical outcome of Obama’s Syria policy:

Obama doesn’t want to build up the rebels enough to defeat ISIS, he doesn’t want to invade and occupy Syria (rightly), and he doesn’t trust Turkey enough to sponsor a Turkish invasion. With those options off the table, only Assad is left as someone who is able to re-conquer ISIS-held territory and occupy it for many years, which is what it would take to end the ISIS threat. So it looks increasingly likely that Obama will come to view Assad as his only real option if he wants to defeat ISIS.

Panetta’s Plaint

Panetta Gives Speech On  Leadership and Public Service

In his new book Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace, the former defense secretary harshly criticizes Obama’s handling of Iraq and Syria:

Mr. Panetta, who was C.I.A. director before taking over the Pentagon, recounted decisions that he disagreed with, including the withdrawal of all troops from Iraq in 2011, the failure to intervene in Syria’s civil war by arming rebels and the abrupt reversal of Mr. Obama’s decision to strike Syria in retaliation for using chemical weapons on civilians. Mr. Obama “vacillated” over the Syria strike and “by failing to respond, it sent the wrong message to the world,” he wrote. Had the president followed different courses, Mr. Panetta said in the interview, the United States would be in a stronger position as it now tries to counter the rise of the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He added that he believed the president has turned a corner and “is going a long way in terms of repairing some of the damage I think took place as a result of the credibility issue that was raised on Syria.”

Beinart finds the “credibility” argument about Syria silly:

Since he declared war on ISIS, the Obama administration has been recruiting other countries to join the United States. And whatever you think of the war itself, that diplomatic effort has been remarkably successful. Ten different Arab countries have agreed to participate in the anti-ISIS campaign. Even John McCain and Lindsey Graham have praised the administration’s coalition-building skills. All this illustrates the silliness of Panetta’s claim.

It was one thing to speculate a few months ago that Obama’s chemical-weapons about-face would make it harder for the U.S. to convince allies to join a military coalition the next time. But the next time is now here. Roughly a year after supposedly squandering America’s credibility by standing down on chemical weapons, Obama has mustered enough credibility to convince a bevy of Arab countries to help us bomb fellow Arab Muslims in the heart of the Middle East.

And Drum responds to Panetta’s assertion about working in the Obama admin, that “for the first four years, and the time I spent there, I thought he was a strong leader on security issues. … But these last two years I think he kind of lost his way”:

Think about this. Panetta isn’t even a super hawkish Democrat. Just moderately hawkish. But his basic worldview is simple: as long as Obama is launching lots of drone attacks and surging lots of troops and bombing plenty of Middle Eastern countries—then he’s a “strong leader on security issues.” But when Obama starts to think that maybe reflexive military action hasn’t acquitted itself too well over the past few years—in that case he’s “kind of lost his way.”

That’s the default view of practically everyone in Washington: Using military force shows strong leadership. Declining to use military force shows weakness. But most folks inside the Beltway don’t even seem to realize they feel this way. It’s just part of the air they breathe: never really noticed, always taken for granted, and invariably the difficult but sadly necessary answer for whichever new and supposedly unique problem we’re addressing right now. This is what Obama is up against.

Panetta also believes that the fight against ISIS could turn into a “30-year war” and will likely require the deployment of ground forces. That statement understandably upsets Greenwald:

Only in America are new 30-year wars spoken of so casually, the way other countries speak of weather changes. He added that the war “will have to extend beyond Islamic State to include emerging threats in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere.” And elsewhere: not just a new decades-long war with no temporal limits, but no geographic ones either. … At this point, it is literally inconceivable to imagine the U.S. not at war. It would be shocking if that happened in our lifetime. U.S. officials are now all but openly saying this. “Endless War” is not dramatic rhetorical license but a precise description of America’s foreign policy.

Panetta is, of course, not the first former cabinet member to come out with a book critical of the president’s leadership. Dana Millbank wonders why this is:

The lack of message discipline is puzzling, because Obama rewards and promotes loyalists. But he’s a cerebral leader, and he may lack the personal attachments that make aides want to charge the hill for him. Also, as MSNBC reporter Alex Seitz-Wald tweeted in response to a question I posed, Panetta, Gates and Clinton didn’t owe their careers to Obama. Clinton was a rival, Gates was a Bush holdover, and Panetta is a Democratic eminence grise. Loyalty didn’t trump book sales — or Clinton’s need to distance herself from Obama before a presidential run.

(Photo: Leon Panetta delivers remarks at Gaston Hall of Georgetown University February 6, 2013 in Washington, DC. By Alex Wong/Getty Images)

An Actual War On Women, Ctd

Colum Lynch relays the nauseating findings of a new report on ISIS:

By the end of August, the U.N. documented the abduction of up to 2,500 civilians, mostly women and children, from the northern Iraqi towns and regions of Sinjar, Tal Afar, the Nineveh Plains, and Shirkhan. Once they were in captivity, fighters from the Islamic State sexually assaulted the teenage boys and girls, witnesses told the United Nations. Those who refused to convert to the groups ran the risk of execution. “[W]omen and children who refused to convert were being allotted to ISIL fighters or were being trafficked … in markets in Mosul and to Raqqa in Syria,” according to the report. “Married women who converted were told by ISIL that their previous marriages were not recognised in Islamic law and that they, as well as unmarried women who converted, would be given to ISIL fighters as wives.”

A market for the sale of abducted women was set up in the al-Quds neighborhood of Mosul. “Women and girls are brought with price tags for the buyers to choose and negotiate the sale,” according to the report. “The buyers were said to be mostly youth from the local communities. Apparently ISIL was ‘selling’ these Yezidi women to the youth as a means of inducing them to join their ranks.”

Previous Dish on ISIS’s use of rape and sexual slavery here.

Our Allies Have Their Own Ideas

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Mohammed Ghanem urges the US to coordinate more closely with Syrian rebels in the fight against ISIS, arguing that doing so would help defeat the group in Iraq as well:

Airstrikes alone will not defeat the Islamic State. Despite nearly two months of strikes in Iraq, Islamic State fighters attacked Iraqi army checkpoints close to Baghdad last weekend, and reports this week indicate a strong Islamic State presence just a mile west of the city. Although Obama administration officials are correct that the anti-Islamic State campaign will take time, they need to accelerate and significantly modify the effort to prevent further advances toward Baghdad. Close coordination with Syrian rebels would accomplish this. By enabling rebels to escalate ground attacks on the Islamic State’s western front, coordination would force the group to divert resources from Baghdad. And unlike the Iraqi army, moderate Syrian rebels have a proven record of rolling back Islamic State forces. But no coordination of any significance is occurring.

But Shane Harris questions Ghanem’s premise that Baghdad is at risk:

But if Baghdad were to fall, it would effectively put the Islamic State in control of Iraq and spell political disaster for the White House. That the Syrian rebels are connecting the fate of Iraq with their fight next door underscores how desperately they want help from the United States, and how unsuccessful they’ve been in securing it.

Dettmer attributes the Free Syrian Army’s growing disillusionment with the US to a clash of priorities:

While the Kurds see the American intervention as one that can be parlayed into their independence, the Sunni Muslims of northern Syria express deep anger towards America. They see themselves being set up as a sacrifice for a U.S. policy meant to prop up Iraq. They are furious with what they view as the cynical U.S. decision to enter this war not with President Bashar Assad as the target—not to help topple a dictator whose refusal to permit reforms triggered a conflict that has left nearly 200,000 dead—but to focus instead on ISIS alone. Across the dizzying, fragmented spectrum of rebel factions—from moderates to Islamists—commanders insist that since the start of the U.S.-led coalition’s air offensive on September 23 Assad has increased the tempo of his own airstrikes on rebel positions, reassured that he is not the butt of American rage and is now free to let the U.S. deal with ISIS.

The rebels aren’t the only ones quibbling with our choice of targets. In Sinan Ülgen’s view, Turkey’s hesitation in joining the anti-ISIS coalition owes partly to a belief that Syria’s problems can’t be solved without getting rid of Assad:

Turkey’s leaders believe that the international community’s response to the Islamic State should be far more ambitious, seeking to redress the underlying causes of the current disorder. Such a strategy would have to include efforts to compel Iraq’s new government to break with the sectarianism of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, while supporting the new leadership’s efforts to provide basic health, educational, and municipal services to all of Iraq’s citizens. As for Syria, the only plausible route to normalcy begins with forcing President Bashar al-Assad to cede power. To this end, the US and its allies should consider striking Assad’s strongholds in Syria, while establishing safe havens for the moderate opposition under the protective cloak of a no-fly zone.

Juan Cole sees Ankara’s recent moves in a similar light:

Turkey has gotten enormous pressure from President Obama, French president Francois Hollande and UK PM David Cameron to join. For their part, they need the region’s largest Sunni Arab country on their side to avoid having the campaign against ISIL look like a Christian-Shiite Jihad against Sunnis. Turkey values its NATO membership and will want to fulfill obligations to other NATO members. President Tayyip Erdogan also very much wants Turkey to be accepted into the European Union, and may figure that proving Turkey’s worth in fighting a Muslim extremism that seems threatening to Europe may gain him some good will in the EU. Also, Turkey fears that if the West does manage to inflict attrition on ISIL, the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad might benefit, but Turkey wants to see it overthrown. Being in the coalition allows Turkey to demand that pressure be kept on al-Assad to step down.

Discussing the potential pitfalls of military coalitions, Micah Zenko identifies such conflicting agendas as a major concern and concludes with an important question:

In the months after 9/11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld often pointed out how 90 countries were participating in “the largest coalition in human history” in the global war on terrorism. That initial level of commitment dissipated as time passed and as the United States pursued its war on terrorism in a manner that many former coalition members fundamentally opposed. Rumsfeld also liked to say, “The mission determines the coalition; the coalition must not determine the mission.”

An easy prediction is that at some point, some members of this coalition will want to redirect their airstrikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. When that becomes the mission, what becomes of the coalition?

(Photo: Fighters loyal to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) pose with their weapons in a location on the outskirts of Idlib in northwestern Syria on June 18, 2012. By D. Leal Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

The Friend Of Our Friend Is Our Enemy

The “moderate” Syrian rebels aren’t happy about us bombing their extremist allies:

Thousands of civilians and rebels across Syria protested allied airstrikes against extremist militants that continued on Saturday, underscoring the challenge the U.S.-led campaign faces in dealing with complex ties among rival rebel factions.

Jacob Siegel remarks that “America is competing with al Qaeda for the support of those rebel groups. And so far the momentum is on Qaeda’s side”:

The alliance between America and rebel forces has been strained by the U.S. refusal to directly attack the Assad regime. In some ways, the U.S. and its chosen proxies are fighting different wars, despite sharing a common enemy in ISIS.

The rebels consider the Assad regime, which has slaughtered tens of thousands of Syrians over years of brutal attacks, their primary enemy, while the U.S. has condemned Assad but focused its attacks only on ISIS and al Qaeda.

That tension led to a symbolic break last week when Harakat Hazm, one of the few vetted rebel groups to receive American weapons and training, called the U.S.-led airstrikes “an attack on national sovereignty” that would only strengthen the Assad regime.

Larison saw this coming:

Supporters of expanding the war against ISIS into Syria seem to assume that “moderate” rebels will pursue Washington’s goals, but that isn’t going to happen. Like any proxy group, the “moderate” opposition was always going to pursue its own agenda, and there was never going to be much that the U.S. could do about this, especially when it was so intent on trying to “shape” events. These opposition protests confirm what opponents of arming Syrian rebels have taken for granted from the start: providing arms to rebels isn’t going to gain the U.S. the influence or control that Syria hawks want, and the belief that the U.S. can build up a “moderate” alternative to both the regime and jihadists has always been a fantasy.

The Other Coalition America Is Forming

ISIL’s rejection of Al Qaeda’s senior leadership weakened the latter group’s grasp on foreign fighter flows and donor cash. By striking both ISIL and Al Qaeda’s official arm in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, the United States may be encouraging ISIL and Al Qaeda to return to coordinating rather than competing against each other. There are already hints of this happening elsewhere.

Last week, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, two Al Qaeda affiliates losing manpower and momentum to the hot new kid on the block — ISIL — called for unity among jihadi groups in the fight against America. If Nusra and ISIL, rather than eroding each other’s support and competing for resources, join forces to combine ISIL’s resources and skill at insurgency in Iraq and Syria with Al Qaeda’s international terrorism knowhow, the danger to the United States and its interest around the world could multiply rapidly. In other words, the United States could win some tactical victories by hitting both groups hard in Syria, but might be committing a massive strategic blunder by uniting a jihadi landscape it desperately sought to fracture over the past decade.

Eli Lake heard a version of this argument earlier in the week.

Hitting ISIS In The Pocketbook

Mark Thompson remarks that strikes on ISIS’s oil refineries amount to America “going to war against oil, not for it”:

The fact that the U.S. and its allies attacked a financial hub of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) on Tuesday–the first day of strikes in Syria—and spent Wednesday and Thursday bombing its oil-production facilities, highlights ISIS’s predicament. Unlike a smaller terrorist organization—al-Qaeda, for example—ISIS now occupies, and purports to govern, a wide swath of desert straddling the Syrian-Iraqi border. It needs the estimated $2 million a day it’s grossing by smuggling oil because many, if not most, of its 30,000 fighters are in it for the cash, not the ideology. But the refineries represent only a small slice of ISIS’s oil revenues. It makes most of its money from crude oil, and the U.S. has refrained so far from attacking oil fields in the region. If the money eventually dries up, Pentagon officials believe, many ISIS fighters will head back home. The terrorists control about 60% of Syria’s total oil production, according to a Syrian opposition estimate.

But Jamie Dettmer calls cutting off ISIS’s oil wealth “a monumental task”:

Hitting a dozen rudimentary refineries isn’t going to undercut the group, according to analysts. They say the oil refined by ISIS inside Syria is for the militants’ own immediate transport needs and not for sale to dealers in Turkey, Jordan, and Iran. Revenue is generated from the sale of crude oil, according to Luay al-Khatteeb, an energy expert at the Brookings Doha Center.

To deprive ISIS of its oil revenue would require the U.S. and its allies to bomb nearly a dozen oilfields and hundreds of wells the group has seized in both Syria and Iraq—an operation that would require a huge commitment from the coalition’s air forces and if conducted would cause an environmental hazard. And the government in Baghdad has tied the Pentagon’s hands when it comes to oilfields seized by ISIS in Iraq; it has asked the U.S. not to bomb them, hoping to recapture them intact.

Even more than bombing, a key component in stopping ISIS from profiting from oil will be blocking militants from getting their oil to market by locking up the border with Turkey and Jordan and pressing Kurds to stop dealers in semi-autonomous Kurdistan from trading. The Turks have shown little enthusiasm for halting the trafficking in the past, although in recent weeks they have interdicted some tankers carrying illicit oil.