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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 16, April 11, 2015

Islamic State (IS) Declines

Sunday 12 April 2015, by Harish Chandola

It may be too early to say that the days of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (IS) appear to be numbered. It has lost quite a lot of territory and revenue and has been completely driven out of the Kurdish region and much of Iraq. From 35,000 square kilometres of territory it used to hold at its peak, it has lost about 13,000 square kilometres in Iraq and some estimate that it is now left with just about a quarter of what it controlled. Over 1000 of its fighters and 17 top commanders were killed in its battle to capture Kobane, a Kurdish town of Syria, on the Syrian-Turkish border some months ago. The Kurds have taken back all their territory from the IS. It has, however, gained some areas in Yemen with the Houthis coming down and with the capture of the town of Idlib in Syria on March 30. About ten million people live in the territory it now controls.

Not only territory, the IS has lost much of its income or 75 per cent of revenue since August last year. On March 8, American aircraft destroyed the Tel Abyad oil refinery in northern Syria which the IS controlled and made money from the sale of its oil. The ransom money it used to receive for releasing hostages it held has also been drying up.

It had repressed the people it controlled and its large-scale beheadings had made some of its fighters unhappy. It practised extreme brutality. It had burnt alive a captured Jordanian pilot it had shot down. Its draconian laws banned smoking and prevented women from going out of homes without a “hijab” or veil, upsetting the people. The more repressive the IS became the more it alienated the people under its control.

Within its ranks there has been unhappiness over the wages paid to fighters. These ranged between the equivalent of US dollars 90 to 500, with foreigners getting higher amounts. There have been reports of some of them leaving. The IS ‘emirs’ or princes, as its rulers are called, who are mostly Iraqi, have not been popular in Syria, where it controls a good bit of territory. Because of its repressive nature it is becoming unpopular in areas under its control.

The biggest reason of its losing territory and decline has been the fight put up by the Kurdish, Iraqi, Syrian and now Iranian forces of Revolutionary Guards, that have entered Iraq and Syria to fight it. Numbering about 100,000, the Iranians have pushed back the IS fighters in Iraq. Iran also provides funds for this fight, trains men and provides weapons and advisers.

A coalition of some 60 countries set up by the United States has been conducting a dozen air strikes a day in the IS areas, including oil producing centres.

The United States has supplied weapons to the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters against the IS. It may also start providing them to Syrians battling the IS. The Shi’a elements in Syria and Lebanon have rallied in support of the Bashar Asad Government in Damascus. The struggle in the region is turning Shi’a versus Sunni. The Iranians have trained almost 100,000 Syrians for its paramilitary National Defence Force, which is looking after Syria’s border with Israel and the south.

Sunnis outnumber the Shi’a in the region and the world, almost eight to one. Sunnis have a larger reach in the world, as their attacks from Paris to Sydney have shown. Fighters for the IS continue to come from the Arab and other parts of the world, of late from Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. The head of the IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has of late accepted pledges of allegiance from groups in Libya and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula and from the Boko Haram in Nigeria.

The US and its allies have come up against the Sunnis, as their bombing of the IS-controlled areas shows. The US, however, does not trust the Shi’a completely, as shown in its differences over the Iranian nuclear development. It would not want Iran to emerge as the dominant power in the Middle East. But what can it do to prevent it?

A large number of Iranian Revolutionary Guards have entered Iraq to fight the IS. The Iranians are commanded by Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds branch of the Revolutionary Guards. With their arrival, Baghdad is now well fortified and aircraft can now fly in and out of it safely. A 12-year curfew in the Iraqi capital has been lifted and the tense atmosphere in it since the 2003 American invasion has largely ended.

The Iraqi Army and various Shi’a militias fighting for five months, are close to capturing Tikrit, in the northwest of Iraq.

The IS holds allure for Jihadi Moslems all over the world. Its fighters are young and they are likely to threaten countries and regimes they consider as their enemies for a long time to come.

The new Iraqi Government of Haider al-Abadi, who became the Prime Minister last year, has reduced the Shi’a dominance of the previous Iraqi Government of Maliki. Demands are now being made for the release of prisoners taken in Maliki’s time. There is also the demand that Iraqi Sunnis be armed, but there are fears that if that is done they will go to support the IS.

The situation in the region is confusing at the moment. With the shape the new forces there are taking at the moment, it appears likely that the IS. will lose the dominance it managed to establish so far.

This region of fighting is of great historical importance. It was here that barley and wheat was first cultivated from wild grasses and farming invented around 9500 BC, where people settled in permanent villages, civilisation developed and empires emerged. Akkad had conquered most of what is now Iraq, winning against Lagash, Ur and Umma, Sargon had set up Governers, fortified Syria and campaigned as far as the Caucasus and Mediterranean. It was here that the ancient city of Nimrud existed. The region was littered with remnants of the earth’s first civilisation and its monuments. Most of them have been stolen and sold in world markets, dealing a big blow to the history of our civilisation.

The author is a veteran journalist who has written extensively on West and Central Asian developments.

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