Behind the Lines: Islamic State’s explosive advance

Islamist group is advancing on three fronts, but the fantaticism that serves it well in the battlefield is leading to increased internal and external resistance.

DISPLACED DEMONSTRATORS from the minority Yezidi sect gather during a protest against militants of the Islamic State, in Arbil, north of Baghdad. (photo credit: REUTERS)
DISPLACED DEMONSTRATORS from the minority Yezidi sect gather during a protest against militants of the Islamic State, in Arbil, north of Baghdad.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A number of incidents have taken place this week that further confirm the power and reach of the Islamic State organization. IS is now engaged in war on three fronts – in Iraq, Syria, and as of this week, Lebanon.
Yet the week was also witness to the first stirrings of active opposition to the rule of the jihadis from within the boundaries of their self-declared state.
In a dramatic development, Sunni jihadi fighters seized control of the northern Bekaa Valley town of Arsal. The fighting began after Lebanese authorities arrested Ahmad Joma’a, an Islamist rebel commander. IS and Jabhat al-Nusra gunmen took control of the town and demanded Joma’a’s release as the price of their withdrawal.
As of now, IS terrorists are battling the Lebanese for control of Arsal, and some media reports have asserted that Hezbollah fighters are taking part in the battle alongside the Lebanese Army. The movement itself denies this; but in past battles between the army and Syrian jihadi forces, such as in Sidon, Hezbollah fighters were proven to be involved despite the party’s denials.
Thus, it is likely they are in Arsal as well.
The Nusra fighters, according to Lebanese media reports, have largely withdrawn. A number of Lebanese Army soldiers, meanwhile, have been captured by the jihadis.
The fighting in Arsal does not yet represent a general eruption of the Syrian war onto Lebanese soil, in the way that it has spilled over into Iraq. But its outbreak casts light on a number of important elements.
Firstly, the Arsal fighting makes a mockery of the claims by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and Hezbollah that they were approaching a final victory in the long battle to drive the rebels out of the area adjoining the Lebanese border.
The story the regime and Hezbollah have been telling the media is one of slow but steady progress. But while the regime undoubtedly has made some gains, it appears the Sunni rebels are still able to operate freely across the border, even after six months of a focused regime attempt to prevent this.
Secondly, the events in Arsal may offer a worrying pointer to the shape of future events in Lebanon.
Arsal is a town whose population has become swollen by an influx of Syrian Sunni refugees. The jihadis are able to count on the support – or at least the acquiescence of this population – for their activities.
Probably around a million Syrian Sunnis have arrived in Lebanon as a result of the war. This has upended the sectarian balance of power in the country. It appears to also have introduced a militant jihadi subculture previously alien to Lebanon. It remains to be seen whether fear of Hezbollah and dread of civil war will continue to prevent a wholesale spillover of the conflict.
Further east, meanwhile, IS made dramatic advances against the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, in the process triggering a general crisis in the Kurdish Regional Government area of northern Iraq. The jihadis took the towns of Sinjar and Zummar, triggering a refugee crisis as 200,000 inhabitants of Sinjar fled to Kurdish-controlled areas.
Sinjar is inhabited by Yezidis, followers of a pre-Islamic, non-monotheistic creed; they are regarded by the IS as “devil worshipers.” Given the treatment meted out by IS to Christians in Mosul, their decision to flee was probably a correct one. However, a refugee crisis is now developing, with thousands of Yezidi refugees trapped on Mount Sinjar, lacking food and water and exposed to the elements. Indeed, a number have already died from dehydration.
In Sinjar itself, meanwhile, there are reports of atrocities including mass killing and rapes.
The Kurds are dismayed at the poor performance of their well-regarded Peshmerga armed forces, who abandoned Sinjar, and a counterattack is currently being planned. Reinforcements are arriving; 5,000 highly motivated Syrian Kurdish fighters from the YPG organization have crossed the border to fight alongside the Iraqi Kurds. PKK fighters are also heading for the Sinjar area, from their bases in the Qandil Mountains area on the Iraqi-Turkish border.
The Iraqi air force is set to back up the ground forces in the attack, which will also involve the use of artillery and heavy armor.
Much depends on the success of this counterattack.
So it has been a good week for IS. Still, the organization is already beginning to experience some of the difficulties involved in ruling.
The first signs of tribal resistance and resentment have begun to surface.
Fighting took place between IS fighters and members of the Shaitat tribe in Deir al-Zor, following the detention by the jihadis of three members of this powerful tribe. There have been manifestations of popular opposition to IS rule in Mosul city in Iraq.
Moreover, in Deir al-Zor, a new organization has appeared – the White Shroud – which is committed to violent resistance against IS.
So even as IS expands the borders of its quasi-state, a contradiction emerges. The same fanaticism that serves it well on the battlefield leads to rapid alienation and then resistance among the populations it controls. It was this very factor that enabled the US to defeat the Sunni insurgency in western Iraq during the “surge” of 2007.
As of now, however, the West is absent, and it is not clear if local forces will be strong enough to do anything more than hold IS in its current position. The Islamic State is likely to be an explosive factor in the Levant for some considerable time to come.