By Viviana Angelini
After long months of siege, the fighters of the deadly jihadist group called the Islamic State (IS) conquered its first city, Raqqa, located along the Euphrates River in northern Syria. This conquest, on March 2, 2013, is the first territory to become part of the caliphate forged by the Islamic State. Tens of thousands of ruthless soldiers are fighting for the IS, and their numbers are increasing. While the CIA estimated there to be 31,000 IS fighters in Syria and Iraq last September, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights now estimates there to be 50,000 IS fighters in Syria alone. War is horrible by definition, but the tactics of the IS are barbaric in the extreme; its beheadings, mass executions, and IEDs target opposition fighters and civilians indiscriminately. This article, the second in a series, examines the military actions of the Islamic State.
Raqqa was the first city of the caliphate envisioned by the IS to cover large swathes of the Middle East—and possibly extend even to Northern Africa and Eurasia. In the end, Raqqa’s conquest proved surprisingly easy for the IS, as the opposition simply melted away. This reflects the complicated situation on the ground in Syria.
Since 2011, the country has been engaged in a brutal civil war, in which over 100,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed. The military forces of Syrian President Assad, the National Defense Force, has been battling numerous opposition groups for control of the country, among which is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a relatively moderate secular group. A subgroup of the FSA, the Syrian Revolutionary Front, has been armed and trained by the United States in an effort to prevent the spread of terrorism.
In late 2011, the IS sent operatives from its base in Iraq to organize jihadists cells in Syria, which rose to rebel prominence as Jabhat al-Nusra (now also known as the Nusra Front, NF). The IS and NF fell out when IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi tried to merge the two groups in 2013. After battling each other for more than a year, the IS and NF have now agreed to a ceasefire and military alliance. The groups jointly seek to destroy the US-supported Syrian Revolutionary Front. The IS/NF militants also continue to conquer territory as they gain control of more Syrian cities and towns. The number of refugees and civilian deaths continue to mount in the face of this onslaught.
While the world became inured to the ongoing violence in Syria, it was shocked from complacency when IS forces overran Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities, in June 2014. The United States had spent trillions of dollars and lost thousands of lives in the ten-year Iraqi War following 9/11. A key US objective was training the Iraqi military and security forces to defend their country against terrorists. Yet, when the IS attacked Mosul, the Iraqi policemen shed their uniforms, dropped their weapons, and fled from their posts. This lack of opposition has reportedly been repeated in other Iraqi towns, including Tikrit. Elsewhere, the Iraqi Army has staged opposition–especially as the IS advances towards the “Baghdad belt” (the villages surrounding Iraq’s capital). The civilian death toll in Iraq during 2014 is estimated to exceed 16,000, and still the fighting continues.
Meanwhile in Syria, the combined IS/NF forces have progressed to the far north to besiege the city of Kobani, less than a mile from the Turkish border. As a member of NATO, Turkey’s proximity to the conflict is of vital interest to the United States. In their 1949 treaty, NATO members agreed to consider an attack against one to be an attack against all. NATO cold-war era doctrine even includes the idea that if any member is aggressed, the United States would respond with a large-scale nuclear attack. Such considerations loom in the background as armed Turkish troops observe IS forces attacking the Kurdish inhabitants of Kobani just across the border.
If the IS overruns Kobani and moves to attack Turkey next, would America be compelled to join the fight? Arguably, the United States has already joined the fight against the IS by launching airstrikes and sending military advisors to the Middle East. As of the date of this article, 1,700 US troops are training fighters in Iraq, with a total of up to 3,100 troops authorized by President Obama. Might NATO rules further obligate the United States to send ground troops to defend Turkey in the event of an IS invasion? On the other hand, there are reports that the IS launched attacks on Kobani from Turkey’s territory. If Turkey has cooperated with the IS in its fight against the Kobani Kurds, is the United States also complicit as Turkey’s ally?
The military situation is confusing and fluid, with allegiances shifting rapidly as further violence unfolds. Refugees continue to stream from the fighting zones, seeking safety, food, and shelter as the winter deepens. The US and its coalition allies are responding with increasingly intense airstrikes and more troops. Yet, the Islamic State continues its relentless and brutal march toward establishing its extremist caliphate.
The third and final article in this series will examine the world’s response to the IS—those supporting IS rule, those opposing IS rule, and those finding themselves under IS rule.
Click here to review the first article in this three part series.
Header photo from ISIS propaganda via Twitter.