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Behind the lines: Under Gaza’s shadow, Islamic State advances
By JONATHAN SPYER
08/03/2014
The recent global media focus on the fighting in Gaza should not be allowed to obscure potentially far more significant developments in the broader region. The Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria is on the march.
 
In recent weeks, far from the attention of the world’s media, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (IS, formerly ISIS) has been fighting its enemies and expanding its borders.

There is mounting evidence that IS has obtained a chemical weapons capacity of some kind, and has utilized it on at least one occasion during intense combat against the Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria. The organization has achieved signal successes against regime forces in Raqqa and Hasakeh provinces that culminated in the capture of the Division 17 base, and the subsequent gruesome execution of over 200 members of the garrison.

There is also clear evidence of Palestinians, specifically Gazans, fighting in Syria in an organized unit under the IS banner, and of at least one clearly IS-linked group operating in northern Sinai and in Gaza itself.

The overall picture is one of a vigorous, capable and savagely brutal Islamist entity, but one which nevertheless has clear limitations on its capabilities.

Let's take a look: Following its lighting capture of Mosul on June 10, many observers expected the jihadi group to continue to push on into Iraq, and perhaps make a bid for the capital city, Baghdad.

This has not happened. IS has set about implementing its brutal version of Shari’a in the city, but has made no serious effort to push further east.

Instead, the movement has integrated the weapons taken in Mosul into its structures in Syria, and is concentrating its attention on expanding in a westward and northern direction.

The first IS assault using the new weapons systems was launched against the Kurdish enclave of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) adjoining the Syrian-Turkish border. This area of Kurdish autonomy juts into the IS area of control; it prevents the movement from using the direct road from Raqqa city, which it controls, to Jarabulus and Menbij, on the Syrian-Turkish border.

IS has long sought to destroy this enclave. On July 2, it launched renewed offensives against Kobani from the west and the east. The offensives included the use of US-made Humvees, captured in Mosul.

It also, according to Kobani Health Minister Nisan Ahmed, used a chemical agent which killed three Kurdish fighters while leaving their bodies unmarked. According to Ahmed, a medical team assembled by the Kurdish authorities found that “burns and white spots on the bodies of the dead indicated the use of chemicals, which led to death without any visible wounds or external bleeding.” Perwer Janfrosh, a local Kurdish activist, said the attack took place on July 12, in the village of Avdiko in eastern Kobani.

These claims have yet to be examined by international medical bodies. But an article on the Lebanese Almodon news website (in Arabic) quotes a resident of Raqqa city who alleges that IS has transported chemical weapons materials from the Muthanna complex, northwest of Baghdad, which has fallen into its hands. The source notes that among the materials transported was cyanogen chloride, an agent whose use might be consistent with the claims made by the Kurdish officials (which require further investigation).

Despite the introduction of the captured weaponry, however, the IS offensive on Kobani ran aground following a Kurdish mobilization; the Kobani enclave remains intact.

IS then turned its attention to the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. On July 24, the movement launched attacks on regime positions in the Raqqa and Hasakeh provinces, adjoining the western borders of the “Islamic State,” and near Aleppo city.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the attacks gained ground and took a heavy toll on regime soldiers. The Division 17 base fell on July 25.

Most of the garrison managed to escape to the nearby Brigade 23 base, but around 200 remained behind. The Observatory reported that at least 50 of these men were subsequently decapitated by IS forces. Footage has become available on the Internet showing severed heads placed on a fence in Raqqa city; according to the voiceover, the heads belong to soldiers from the Division 17 garrison.

The IS gains against regime forces reflect the movement’s desire to clear Assad’s men out of the Euphrates Valley, and incrementally expand their area of control.

The IS presence is now nudging up against the main Kurdish enclave in Hasakeh province. But the failure of the regime to make a major effort to defend the areas in question also likely reflects its priorities.

Assad can afford to cede isolated positions in the remote north and east of Syria, without these constituting any threat to his survival. His stronghold in the south and west of Syria is not currently threatened by IS.

As far as IS links to Gaza: An identifiable Gaza contingent named the Sheikh Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi Brigade is active with IS forces in northern Syria, and photographic evidence has emerged of this group’s activities. This group is named after a well-known Salafi sheikh from southern Gaza, killed in an abortive revolt against the Hamas authorities in 2009.

IS also has an identifiable franchise within Gaza and northern Sinai itself, according to a prominent researcher of the IS phenomenon, UK-based Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi; the name of the group in question is Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis.

At the moment, these are relatively minor phenomena. Yet Tamimi suggests that the presence of the Gazan contingent in northern Syria indicates that genuine contacts with IS exist, and these are not merely enthusiasts seeking to borrow the symbolism of jihadi success that IS represents.

So IS remains on the advance, and continues to shock with its astonishing brutality. At present, it has focused its energies back on Syria. Its forces have suffered setbacks against the determined and well-trained fighters of the YPG – defending an enclave that the Kurds consider vital for their “Rojava” project.

IS has enjoyed greater successes against regime forces – in the process raising a big question mark about recent claims by non-IS rebel spokesmen and supporters that the movement is a puppet of Assad or the Iranians.

IS may also have used chemical weapons. Lastly, the first signs of its appearance on the front against Israel may be discerned.

The recent global media focus on the fighting in Gaza should not be allowed to obscure potentially far more significant developments in the broader region. The Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria is on the march.
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