Only Iran is confronting ISIS, says commander of Quds Force

Reuters reports: The general in charge of Iran’s paramilitary activities in the Middle East said the United States and other powers were failing to confront Islamic State, and only Iran was committed to the task, a news agency on Monday reported.

Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force responsible for protecting the Islamic Republic’s interests abroad, has become a familiar face on the battlefields of Iraq, where he often outranks local commanders.

“Today, in the fight against this dangerous phenomenon, nobody is present except Iran,” the Tasnim news agency quoted Soleimani as saying on Sunday in reference to Islamic State.

Iran should help countries suffering at the hands of Islamic State, said Soleimani, whose force is part of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Mehr news agency reported.

The Sunni militant group has taken key cities in Iraq and Syria in the past week, routing regular forces in both countries with apparent ease.

“Obama has not done a damn thing so far to confront Daesh: doesn’t that show that there is no will in America to confront it?” Mehr quoted Soleimani as saying, using a derogatory Arabic term for Islamic State.

“How is it that America claims to be protecting the Iraqi government, when a few kilometres away in Ramadi killings and war crimes are taking place and they are doing nothing?” [Continue reading…]

Christian Science Monitor adds: The comments have created a “Twilight Zone”-esque conversation in which former US military officers – whose troops were killed during the height of the Iraq War by the roadside bombs that Quds force advisers helped Iraqi insurgents make – say that Soleimani may have a point.

“Quite frankly, Soleimani is correct,” says retired Col. Peter Mansoor, who served as the executive officer for Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq.

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Syria regime ‘to accept de facto partition’ of country

AFP reports: Weakened by years of war, Syria’s government appears ready for the country’s de facto partition, defending strategically important areas and leaving much of the country to rebels and jihadists, experts and diplomats say.

The strategy was in evidence last week with the army’s retreat from the ancient central city of Palmyra after an advance by the Islamic State group.

“It is quite understandable that the Syrian army withdraws to protect large cities where much of the population is located,” said Waddah Abded Rabbo, director of Syria’s Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the regime.

“The world must think about whether the establishment of two terrorist states is in its interests or not,” he said, in reference to IS’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, and Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front’s plans for its own “emirate” in northern Syria.

Syria’s government labels all those fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad “terrorists,” and has pointed to the emergence of IS and Al-Nusra as evidence that opponents of the regime are extremists.

Since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011 with peaceful protests, the government has lost more than three-quarters of the country’s territory, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor.

But the territory the regime controls accounts for about 50 to 60 percent of the population, according to French geographer and Syria expert Fabrice Balanche.

He said 10-15 percent of Syria’s population is now in areas controlled by IS, 20-25 percent in territory controlled by Al-Nusra or rebel groups and another five to 10 percent in areas controlled by Kurdish forces. [Continue reading…]

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Chaos in Iraqi forces contributed to ISIS’s biggest win this year

The Washington Post reports: It was around 9 p.m. when police Col. Hamid Shandoukh peered across the dark waters of the Euphrates River and spotted the skiffs carrying Islamic State fighters toward his front line in the city of Ramadi.

The commander mustered his forces — a mixture of tribal fighters and local policemen — to defend their position on the river snaking through the city.

But it soon became clear that this was no ordinary assault. As the security forces trained their guns on the river in front of them, they came under attack from behind. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS and the Shia revival in Iraq

Nicolas Pelham writes: “We’re ridding the world of polytheism, and spreading monotheism across the planet,” an ISIS preacher recently said in a video recording. Behind him one could see the ISIS faithful using sledgehammers, bulldozers, and explosives to destroy the eighth-century-BC citadel of the Assyrian king Sargon II at Khorsabad, ten miles northwest of Mosul in northern Iraq, and the colossal statues of human-headed winged bulls that had guarded it. Amir al-Jumaili, an antiquities professor at Mosul University, has recorded the destruction of some 160 sites by ISIS since June 2014, when it conquered Iraq’s second city. He showed me some recent entries in his logbook:

5 March 2015—Nimrud destroyed; 6 March 2015, Hatra destroyed; 9 March 2015, Khorsabad destroyed [i.e., the fourth capital of the Assyrians].

The full extent of the damage to these enormous and remote sites remains unclear. But on March 18, 2015, Iraq’s distraught archaeologists and antiquities experts gathered for a government-sponsored conference in Baghdad. Iraq has 12,000 archaeological sites—too many to protect, I was told by Ahmed Kamel Mohammed, the director of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, the country’s greatest collection of antiquities, which had been looted when the Americans took Baghdad in 2003. Some of the experts proposed drafting a UN Security Council resolution to entrust the protection of the sites to the US-led coalition. Others advocated the creation of a national antiquities guard. Iraq’s national security adviser, Faleh Fayadh, promised to consider this and then nodded off during a presentation about the ancient temple to the sun god at Hatra, one of ISIS’s reported targets.

Islamic heritage has fared no better. In the 1920s puritanically strict Sunni fighters, who were followers of the eighteenth-century religious leader Muhammad ibn al-Wahhab and allies of the Saudi tribes, cleansed Mecca and Medina of saint-worship following their takeover. So their ISIS successors today set off explosions that demolished over a dozen mosques in Mosul. These included the Nithamiya, a twelfth-century Seljuk madrasa, which they razed because it contained a shrine to Ali al-Asghar, the youngest child of the great Shia imam Hussein, killed in the seventh century. Over two days in February 2015, al-Jumaili noted in his log, ISIS also set fire to Mosul’s public library and theater. [Continue reading…]

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Why are teenagers joining ISIS?

The New Yorker: In 2009, a fourteen-year-old Belgian named Jejoen Bontinck slipped a sparkly white glove onto his left hand, squeezed into a sequinned black cardigan, and appeared on the reality-television contest “Move Like Michael Jackson.” He had travelled to Ghent from his home, in Antwerp, with his father, Dimitri, who wore a pin-striped suit jacket and oversized sunglasses, and who told the audience that he was Jejoen’s manager, mental coach, and personal assistant. Standing before the judges, Jejoen (pronounced “yeh-yoon”) professed his faith in the American Dream. “Dance yourself dizzy,” a judge said, and Jejoen moonwalked through the preliminary round. “That is performance!” Dimitri told the show’s host, a former Miss Belgium named Véronique de Kock. “You’re gonna hear from him, sweetie.”

Jejoen was soon eliminated, but four years later, when he least wanted the attention, he became the focus of hundreds of articles in the Belgian press. He had participated in a jihadi radicalization program, operated out of a rented room in Antwerp, that inspired dozens of Belgian youths to migrate to Syria and take up arms against the government of Bashar al-Assad. Most of the group’s members ultimately became part of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, joining more than twenty thousand foreign fighters engaged in the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Today, ISIS controls large parts of both countries. With revenue of more than a million dollars a day, mostly from extortion and taxation, the group continues to expand its reach; in mid-May, its forces captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, and, last week, they took control of Palmyra, in Syria.

About four thousand European jihadis have gone to Syria since the outbreak of war, in 2011, more than four hundred from Belgium. (It is estimated that at least a hundred Americans have joined the fight.) The migration of youths from seemingly stable and prosperous communities to fight with radical Islamists has bewildered not only their families but governments and security forces throughout Europe. [Continue reading…]

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Jihadi threat requires move into ‘private space’ of UK Muslims, says police chief

The Guardian reports: Islamist propaganda is so potent it is influencing children as young as five and should be countered with intensified monitoring to detect the earliest signs of anti-western sentiment, Britain’s most senior Muslim police chief has warned.

Scotland Yard commander Mak Chishty said children aged five had voiced opposition to marking Christmas, branding it as “haram” – forbidden by Islam. He also warned that there was no end in sight to the parade of British Muslims, some 700 so far, being lured from their bedrooms to Syria by Islamic State (Isis) propaganda.

In an interview with the Guardian, Chishty said there was now a need for “a move into the private space” of Muslims to spot views that could show the beginning of radicalisation far earlier. He said this could be shown by subtle changes in behaviour, such as shunning certain shops, citing the example of Marks & Spencer, which could be because the store is sometimes mistakenly perceived to be Jewish-owned. [Continue reading…]

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Warnings about the ISIS threat to the ruins of Palmyra could become a self-fulfilling prophecy

Hassan Hassan writes: Amid the horrors that Islamic State has unleashed across the Middle East, many observers are holding their breath as they contemplate the fate of one of the world’s most cherished cultural sites.

The clock is ticking for the Roman world heritage site at Palmyra, in central Syria. After Isis obliterated the historical Assyrian city of Nimrud in Iraq last month, many fear a similar fate awaits the ruins after the group seized Palmyra from the Assad regime.

The city was once a Silk Road hub and one of the cultural centres of the ancient world. It has mythological status in Syria and is home to some of the most beautiful and well-preserved ruins of antiquity, including the Temple of Bel, built in the first century.

The Observer’s architecture critic, Rowan Moore, says the ancient Roman site is “exceeded by very few others: those in Rome itself, Pompeii, possibly Petra in Jordan. Its temples, colonnades and tombs, its theatre and streets are extensive, exquisite, distinctive, rich. The loss of Palmyra would be a cultural atrocity greater than the destruction of the buddhas in Bamiyan.”

So what is the logic behind such destruction? And how likely is it to occur? Warnings about the fate of Palmyra might do more harm than good. Most of the historical sites in Isis territory in Iraq and Syria remain intact. In March, the group even released a photo essay of historical sites in Raqqa, Syria.

The ruins at Palmyra would not normally qualify for destruction by Isis, but the attention drawn to the site might tempt the group to destroy them as a way to inflict psychological pain. [Continue reading…]

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Syria says ISIS executes hundreds in Palmyra

Reuters: Islamic State fighters have executed at least 400 people in Palmyra since capturing the ancient Syrian city four days ago, Syrian state media said on Sunday.

It was not immediately possible to verify the account, but it was consistent with reports by activists that the Islamist fighters had carried out executions since capturing the city from government troops.

BBC News: The United Nations says it has received reports that Syrian forces in Palmyra prevented civilians from leaving, ahead of its fall to Islamic State militants.

The UN, though not present in Palmyra, cited “credible sources”.

It said it was “deeply concerned” about the plight of civilians remaining in Palmyra, amid reports of summary executions.

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Barack Obama still misunderestimates ISIS

J.M. Berger writes: The Obama administration’s misguided rhetoric on ISIL finally sped over the edge of a cliff over the last week. Officials stand now like Wile E. Coyote, still taking steps over thin air, bemused, in the moment before gravity takes hold.

With the fall of Ramadi, and continuing through the fall of Palmyra, officials up to and including President Barack Obama have sought to recast the Islamic State’s victories as “tactical” setbacks. Variations on this line were trotted out by the Pentagon and other officials first, and reiterated by the President in an interview published Thursday, in response to a question about the loss of Ramadi: “No, I don’t think we’re losing. There’s no doubt there was a tactical setback, although Ramadi had been vulnerable for a very long time, primarily because these are not Iraqi security forces that we have trained or reinforced.”

For those who do not speak Wonkese, making reference to an enemy’s “tactical” success is code for saying that the enemy is not “strategic.”

To be strategic, according to the dictionary definition, is to identify long-term goals and take action to accomplish them. In the Washington vernacular, the act of Being Strategic implies a near mystical quality of superior thinking possessed by some, and clearly lacking amongst the vulgarians of the world — heedless brutes such as ISIL. Tactics are short-term ploys, easy to dismiss. Strategy is for winners.

Perversely, the United States is itself sorely lacking in strategy, whether in its pedestrian or mythical definitions, with regard to the problem of ISIL. We have deployed a fairly limited collection of tactics, with an increasingly baseless confidence that these will “buy time” for improbable political resolutions in Iraq and Syria. Buying time is inherently tactical, or in this case, magical.

In contrast to the Mideast hopes and dreams we have tossed in a box labeled “strategy,” ISIL does in fact have a strategy, which it is pursuing aggressively. ISIL’s long-term goal is a transnational caliphate, and its strategy to achieve that has been clearly laid out if you take the time to understand it: [Continue reading…]

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ISIS burned a woman alive for not engaging in an ‘extreme’ sex act, UN official says

The Washington Post: Amid all the Islamic State’s atrocities — its massacres of civilians, its beheading of hostages, its pillaging of antiquities — the systematic violence the jihadists have carried out against countless enslaved women and girls never fails to shock. For months now, we’ve heard appalling testimony from women who escaped the Islamic State’s clutches, many of whom endured rape and other hideous acts of violence.

Zainab Bangura, the U.N.’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, recently conducted a tour of refugee camps in the shadow of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, war-ravaged countries where the Islamic State commands swaths of territory. She heard a host of horror stories from victims and their families and recounted them in an interview earlier this week with the Middle East Eye, an independent regional news site.

“They are institutionalizing sexual violence,” Bangura said of the Islamic State. “The brutalization of women and girls is central to their ideology.” [Continue reading…]

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ISIS and the new ‘Army of Conquest’ in Syria are headed for a showdown

The Daily Beast reports: Two successive months and two stunning battlefield reversals for the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — one dealt him in the east by the so-called Islamic State, the other in the north by a new coalition of rebel forces that includes an affiliate of al Qaeda in a leading role. Now, as the two armies look to expand their territorial gains at the Assad regime’s expense, they’re also converging on each other.

The clash between the terror state widely known as ISIS and the newly emerged Jaish al Fata, or Army of Conquest, is likely to come sooner than later. Most likely it will happen in the vicinity of Homs, referred to by many rebels as “the capital of the revolution.” Ironically (or maybe not), Homs stands on the ancient caravan route between the ISIS-overrun Palmyra and the Mediterranean.

U.S. officials have been arguing in recent weeks that the ISIS/Syria/Iraq war is destined to last a long time, saying there are no signs the parties are exhausted yet or that foreign backers are ready to call a halt to the carnage, as they eventually did with the long-running Lebanese civil war. “We remain in a period of dangerous military stalemate, and it is likely to continue for some time,” argues Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute, a think tank in Washington.

That may be so, but as Slim acknowledges, “the trend in Syria today is definitely not in favor of the regime.” That’s a point her colleague at the institute, former Ambassador Robert Ford, emphasized even before the fall of Palmyra, arguing, “Despite constant Western media assessments that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s situation is secure, the reality is that the Syrian war is one of attrition. And minority regimes usually do not fare well in prolonged wars of attrition.” [Continue reading…]

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Where ISIS gets its bombs

The Daily Beast reports: Within sight of an unoccupied watchtower, and a couple of hundred meters from the border gate at Akcakale on the Syrian-Turkish border, two small girls are skipping on stacks of piping ready for shipment to the town of Tel Abyad, now controlled by the Islamic State, or ISIS, across what the Turks claim is a locked-down frontier.

It is the weekend and so in this slow-paced, dusty border town, decorated with multi-colored banners and pennants of Turkish political parties campaigning for next month’s parliamentary polls, no one is hurrying to transport the suspicious cargo. And so here the pipes, several meters long and three inches in diameter, remain.

Around the corner there are more pipes — larger ones, six inches in diameter. Smugglers say the piping can sustain high pressure and will be used by jihadists in Syria to manufacture pipe bombs, improvised explosive devices and launch-tubes for mortars. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS claims responsibility for bombing at Saudi mosque

The New York Times reports: The Islamic State extremist group claimed responsibility Friday for a suicide bombing during midday prayer at a Shiite mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Health Ministry said at least 21 people had been killed and more than 120 others injured.

It appeared to be the first official claim of an attack inside the kingdom by the Islamic State, which has seized control of much of Syria and Iraq.

The group attributed the attack to a new unit, the Najd Province, named for the central region of Saudi Arabia around Riyadh. But it was unclear whether the attack was planned by Islamic State leaders, initiated independently by a Saudi sympathizer, or merely claimed opportunistically after the fact.

The attack was a sign that Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the sectarian conflict in Yemen may be escalating tensions at home. Members of the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia, who make up about 15 percent of the population and live mainly in the Eastern Province, have long complained of insults and discrimination by Saudi Arabia’s Sunni majority and its clerical establishment. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS controls 50% of Syria after seizing historic city of Palmyra

The Guardian reports: Islamic State now holds sway over half of Syria’s landmass after its seizure of Palmyra, where it has begun massacring a rebellious tribe and faces no opposition to its entry and sacking of the historic city’s ancient ruins.

“There are no forces to stop them [entering the ruins],” Rami Abdul Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, said. “But the important thing also is they now control 50% of Syria.”

Isis seized Palmyra on Wednesday night after a week-long siege that led to the collapse of forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. The militants are drawing closer to his strongholds of Homs and Damascus and severing supply lines to Deir Ezzor in the east, which faces an overpowering Isis crackdown.

Local activists said Isis had imposed a curfew and was sweeping the city for remnants of Assad’s forces. Isis has also massacred members of the Shaitat tribe, which fought alongside the Assad regime in Palmyra and had railed against Isis in Deir Ezzor – a rebellion in which the militant group killed 800 members of the tribe.

Control of Palmyra leaves Isis with unopposed access to the city’s magnificent ruins, amid fears that they will destroy significant chunks of Syria’s heritage as they did in Iraq.

But more significantly, Isis controls vast swaths of Syria, from Palmyra to Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in the country’s west, a tract that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates to be 95,000 sq km, or more than half Syria’s landmass. With its seizure of the Arak and al-Hail gas fields near Palmyra, it also controls much of the country’s electricity supply – those two fields power much of the Syrian regime’s strongholds in the west. [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast adds: According to Khaled Omran, a member of the Palmyra’s anti-Assad Coordinating Committee, the regime tried to reinforce its collapsing front lines Wednesday with detainees from the notorious Tadmour Prison. Most, however, ran away from the ISIS onslaught rather than stay and fight for their jailers. “I saw about 10 busloads of prisoners being driven to the front,” Omran said Wednesday evening via Skype. “Maybe 1,000 men.” They added to the regime’s “thousands” of soldiers and forcibly conscripted tribal militias who were used, in Omran’s words, as “cannon fodder.”

Assad’s military were stationed throughout the city and its outlying districts, which are home to several security installations, including an important airbase that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has used in the past to deliver resupplies to its overstretched and attrited ally, and the Syrian air force has used to wage sorties on mostly civilian and non-ISIS targets in the war-torn country. However, the use of prisoners to defend against ISIS stands as an interesting contrast to how the terror army did the jailbreaking in Ramadi earlier in the week in order to swell their own ranks.

“Four days ago, ISIS started their preparations to storm” Palmyra, Omran explained. “Regime forces called in reinforcements, mainly to the military security branch and the citadel, but relied heavily on their air force. The number of ISIS fighters was quite small—they were in the hundreds. They weren’t very heavily equipped, save for antiaircraft guns mounted on trucks in six positions around the city.” These rudimentary air defenses were enough to deter to the fighter planes and attack helicopters. “I didn’t see them down any jets, but the guns were enough to deter most of the aerial assaults.” [Continue reading…]

Oryx Blog says: With the strategically important town of al-Sukhna falling just over a week before, and the Iraqi city of Ramadi just days before Tadmur, it appears the Islamic State is far from being under control, and possibly attempting to revive the seemingly unstoppable upmarch of last summer.

Tadmur [Palmyra], which is also home to Tadmur airbase, is of high strategic importance due to its position at the base of the vital M20 highway, which leads through the recently fallen al-Sukhna to the regime’s last holdout in the East of the country: Deir ez-Zor. Without access to this highway and with little prospect of retaking both of the Islamic State’s newest gains, the Assad-regime will face extreme difficulty in keeping its troops in Deir ez-Zor supplied, and the fall of the city and associated airbase might soon become inevitable.

The town of Tadmur is best known for the ancient Roman monuments and ruins, which, given the Islamic State’s history with the destruction of historical sites, is now feared to be a target for vandalism. Although this aspect will likely incite a lot of coverage from Western media, it should not be forgotten that there are also thousands of lives at stake, with hundreds of casualties reported so far and many dead, despite earlier reporting from Syrian State Media that citizens were being evacuated. Of course, with mainstream media eager to find new stories that might interest a diverse public, events such as renewed poison gas attacks and the current offensive are less likely to be covered than a story on ancient Roman ruins in danger of destruction.

Also of great importance are the massive weapon depots located in Tadmur, one of the largest in Syria. While the exact contents of the depots remain unknown, there are reports of ballistic missiles being stored here. Should this be the case, it is likely images of such missiles in Islamic State’s hands will surface again soon, even though it is unlikely that they will get any to work. Perhaps more of interest is the fact that many other types of weaponry captured by the fighters of Islamic State as Ghaneema (spoils of war) will provide the means for future offensives, allowing the Islamic State to exert pressure on fronts throughout the region. [Continue reading…]

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European nations unify laws to prevent foreign fighters

The Associated Press: European governments agreed Tuesday to synchronize their laws to bar citizens from going abroad to fight for the Islamic State group and other extremists.

A document signed by foreign ministers from the 47-nation Council of Europe requires countries to outlaw specific actions, including intentionally taking part in terrorist groups, receiving terrorist training or traveling abroad for the purpose of engaging in terrorism.

Analysts say European laws vary, with some countries like France charging people with crimes if they plan to leave to join a violent extremist group, and others, such as in Scandinavia, lacking a legal way to prevent their citizens from becoming foreign fighters.

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Palmyra and its ancient ruins have fallen to ISIS

The New York Times reports: Islamic State militants swept into the desert city of Palmyra in central Syria on Wednesday, and by evening were in control of it, residents and Syrian state news media said, a victory that gives them another strategically important prize five days after the group seized the Iraqi city of Ramadi.

Palmyra has extra resonance, with its grand complex of 2,000-year-old colonnades and tombs, one of the world’s most magnificent remnants of antiquity, as well as the grimmer modern landmark of Tadmur Prison, where Syrian dissidents have languished over the decades.

But for the fighters on the ground, the city of 50,000 people is significant because it sits among gas fields and astride a network of roads across the country’s central desert. Palmyra’s vast unexcavated antiquities could also provide significant revenue through illegal trafficking.

Control of Palmyra gives the Islamic State command of roads leading from its strongholds in eastern Syria to Damascus and the other major cities of the populated west, as well as new links to western Iraq, the other half of its self-declared caliphate.

The advance, in which residents described soldiers and the police fleeing, wounded civilians unable to reach hospitals and museum workers hurrying to pack up antiquities, comes even as the United States is scrambling to come up with a response to the loss of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province.

The two successes, at opposite ends of a battlefield sprawling across two countries, showed the Islamic State’s ability to shake off setbacks and advance on multiple fronts, less than two months after it was driven from the Iraqi city of Tikrit — erasing any notion that the group had suffered a game-changing blow. [Continue reading…]

Prof Kevin Butcher writes: From modest beginnings in the 1st Century BC, Palmyra gradually rose to prominence under the aegis of Rome until, during the 3rd Century AD, the city’s rulers challenged Roman power and created an empire of their own that stretched from Turkey to Egypt.

The story of its Queen Zenobia, who fought against the Roman Emperor Aurelian, is well known; but it is less well-known that Palmyra also fought another empire: that of the Sasanian Persians.

In the middle of the third century, when the Sasanians invaded the Roman Empire and captured the Emperor Valerian, it was the Palmyrenes who defeated them and drove them back across the Euphrates.

For several decades Rome had to rely on Palmyrene power to prop up its declining influence in the east.

Palmyra was a great Middle Eastern achievement, and was unlike any other city of the Roman Empire.

It was quite unique, culturally and artistically. In other cities the landed elites normally controlled affairs, whereas in Palmyra a merchant class dominated the political life, and the Palmyrenes specialised in protecting merchant caravans crossing the desert. [Continue reading…]

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Anyone telling you ISIS is in decline isn’t paying attention

Hassan Hassan writes: Once again, in less than a year, Iraqi soldiers abandoned their positions en masse and fled in the face of advancing Islamic State forces. The fall of the city of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province, leaves no doubt about the jihadi group’s capabilities: Despite U.S. attempts to paint it as a gravely weakened organization, the Islamic State remains a powerful force that is on the offensive in several key fronts across Syria and Iraq.

Ramadi is far from the only front on which the Islamic State is advancing. The group last week launched an offensive, supported by multiple suicide operations, in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor against President Bashar al-Assad regime’s holdouts in the military air base. In the central city of Palmyra, it attacked a regime base near the ancient Roman ruins. It also recently clashed with Syrian rebels and the regime in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, the provinces of Homs and Hama, and the southern city of Quneitra, near the border with Israel.

Nor are the Islamic State’s gains in Iraq confined to Ramadi. The group has advanced deep into the Baiji oil refinery, the largest in the country. And it has since pushed on from Ramadi, attacking the nearby town of Khalidiya; if the group is successful, that might provide it with the territorial depth to advance on Baghdad.

The Islamic State’s recent advance did not take the world by surprise, as it did when the group captured Mosul and other areas across Iraq last year. This time, the United States said it conducted seven airstrikes in Ramadi, in an effort to prevent its fall, in the 24 hours before the city was lost. Local officials in Ramadi, meanwhile, had repeatedly warned that the city would be overrun if they did not receive urgent reinforcements. But the international and Iraqi support that arrived was simply insufficient to hold the city.

Therefore, the prevalent narrative that the Islamic State is destined to decline appears to be false. Rather than suffering from resource and manpower shortages, the group is only increasing its grip on the local populations in its strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa, Syria; it is also attracting a considerable number of recruits, especially among teenagers. [Continue reading…]

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Fall of Ramadi to ISIS weakens rule of Iraqi premier

The New York Times reports: As Shiite militiamen began streaming toward Ramadi on Monday to try to reverse the loss of the city to the Islamic State, the defeat has given new momentum to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s rivals within his own Shiite political bloc.

At the urging of American officials who sought to sideline the militias, Mr. Abadi had, in effect, gambled that the combination of United States airstrikes and local Sunni tribal fighters would be able to drive Islamic State fighters out of the city as fighting intensified in recent weeks. The hope was that a victory in Ramadi could also serve as a push for a broader offensive to retake the Sunni heartland of Anbar Province.

But as the setback brought the Shiite militias, and their Iranian backers, back into the picture in Anbar, intensified Shiite infighting appeared to leave the prime minister more vulnerable than ever. And it presented a new example of how developments on the Iraqi battlefield have sometimes instantly shifted political currents in the country.

“Abadi does not have a strong challenge from Iraq’s Sunnis or Iraqi Kurds,” said Ahmed Ali, an Iraqi analyst in Washington with the Education for Peace in Iraq Center. “It’s from the Shia side.” [Continue reading…]

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