11 November– Last week, airstrikes conducted by the anti-ISIS coalition targeted an assembly of the group’s leaders in Mosul. Reports have emerged that the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was among those in attendance. Iraq’s defence ministry reported that Baghdadi had been injured in the strike, and that his deputy, Abu-Muslim al-Turkmani, was killed. Rumours have circulated that the ISIS “caliph” was either grievously injured or killed. ISIS has not refuted the claim; while copycat ISIS sites claim that Baghdadi was not present, there has been no word from official ISIS channels as to the whereabouts or health of Baghdadi.
Baghdadi oversaw operations that gained ISIS a large swath of territory in Iraq and Syria earlier this year. In June, the leader declared the newly controlled land a Sunni Islamic caliphate, and declared himself the caliph. Baghdadi has scholarly knowledge of Islam, and claims he has ascendency from the Prophet Muhammed.
This self-declaration, particularly based on a bloodline, is in conflict with the premise of Sunni Islam. At the time of Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 AD, many followers believed that his successor should be determined by a community of Muslims. However, a small faction believed that the successor should be a member of his family, favouring Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law. To this day, Sunnis favour consensus appointment of leaders, and Shia’s familial ascendency.
In claiming his right to become caliph based on his bloodline, Baghdadi has dismissed an important tenet of Sunni beliefs, compensating for this only by agreeing that his successor would be appointed. Further, it is unknown whether his claim to the bloodline is real; in the Arab world, it is not uncommon for documents to be falsified to suggest that a family is descended from Prophet Mohammed; it is considered a point of pride among many.
Those joining ISIS blindly follow Baghdadi despite the conflicting nature of his actions. He is perceived as charismatic and convincing, with credentials both academic and relational. Baghdadi has become a symbolic figure as much as a leader, tying together both the actions and ideologies of his followers.
In the event of Baghdadi’s death, the question arises as to what would become of ISIS. Analysts do not believe that a sufficient replacement exists among the group’s ranks. It is unknown whether Baghdadi has selected a successor from among his high-ranking leaders. Among the likely successors is Omar Shishani, a former sergeant for the Georgian army who is now a commander for ISIS. It is widely believed that Shishani is responsible for planning the military operations which led to the rapid gain of territory in Iraq over the summer. Another prosepect is believed to be Shaker Abu Waheeb, who escaped from an Iraqi prison in Tikrit in 2012, and is now an ISIS field commander in the Anbar province.
While both candidates have worked toward seeing Baghdadi’s mission to fruition, neither have the same scholarly credentials, charisma, or bloodline as Baghdadi. It is expected that under their leadership, ISIS would be unlikely to continue with the same momentum or devotion. Further, as Baghdadi’s successor will be determined by consensus, the group could break into factions, weakening the entire entity.
It is suspected that successful targeting of ISIS leadership and controlled resources, including oil refineries, will result in the eventual dissolution of the caliphate. As ISIS weakens, so too could its hold on the territory it currently controls, allowing government forces and opposition fighters an opportunity to retake confiscated lands. In this event, fewer domestic and foreign fighters will seek to join the ranks, and existing membership will either return to their native nations or attempt to join other organisations.
On Wednesday, Lebanon’s Parliament voted to extend their terms in office to 2017, arguing that the nation’s fragile security situation makes it too difficult to hold elections. The lawmakers, who were elected to four-year terms in 2009, voted last year to remain in office, citing the same security threats. The decision has been denounced by foreign diplomats and human rights organizations who feel that the vote undermines the democratic process. However to many Lebanese citizens, the decision does not come as a surprise.
Lebanon’s government has been paralysed by disagreements among powerful political blocs, and decisively split on the issue of Syria’s civil war. The Prime Minister appointed a new cabinet in February, but the group has been unable to achieve much. Nearly two decades after the end of their own civil war, policymakers have only agreed to prevent new battles from erupting within the nation.
Lebanon has been without a president since May. The Lebanese Parliament does not elect the president; rather the chosen leader is “rubber stamped” after a regional consensus is met. Currently, the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is forestalling that agreement, and Lebanon’s growing battle with ISIS has become a proxy battle between the two nations.
ISIS relies upon a strategy of destabilising a region and entrenching themselves, while avoiding local organised fighting forces until they are ready to engage. This strategy is currently being enacted on the Syrian border with Lebanon. Last week, the terror group killed 11 soldiers north of Tripoli, and ISIS leaders have threatened to plunge the country into another civil war.
Lebanon, a member of the US led coalition to combat ISIS, has received approximately $1 billion in training and equipment from the US since 2006. However the US has been constrained in providing further support as the threat of ISIS encroaches upon the Lebanese border. This is in part due to an American domestic law that guarantees that the US will provide Israel a “qualitative military edge” over its neighbours in the region.
In the absence of US support, Saudi Arabia and Iran have offered competing aid packages to Lebanon; the combined offers amount to billions of dollars in arms from the two opposing nations. However, the offers of assistance are being perceived as political one-upmanship between the foes. Lebanon’s acceptance of either aid package amounts to tacit approval of either the Shiite or Sunni dominated governments.
On Tuesday, France and Saudi Arabia signed a contract to give $3 billion worth of French-made weapons to Lebanon’s military. In August the kingdom provided a $1 billion grant for emergency aid to Lebanon’s military and intelligence agencies. The combined pledges are more than twice the Lebanese estimated annual military budget. The aid, which is set to arrive in the first quarter of 2015, will include training, as well as land, sea and air equipment, including armoured vehicles, heavy artillery, anti-tank missiles, mortars and assault weapons.
In September, Ali Shamkhani, secretary to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council offered a package consisting of antitank weapons, artillery and heavy machine guns. Lebanese Defense Minister Samir Moqbel’s delegation declined to formally respond to Iran’s offer, which could violate a 2007 U.N. Security Council resolution restricting Iranian arms trade.
The Saudi government believes that the Iranian weapons will be directed toward Hezbollah; a Shiite dominated political organization that is opposed by Saudi Arabia. Hezbollah supports President Assad, whose troops are battling Sunni opposition, which is backed by Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom believes that Iran is more interested in countering Saudi backing than assisting the Lebanese military.
The 65,000-strong Lebanese military (arguably the least sectarian organization in the country), is less effective than Hezbollah, whose armed wing is better equipped and organized, and battle hardened after wars with Israel. However as many Hezbollah fighters have deployed to the war in Syria, the group has become increasingly reliant on the Lebanese military. The Lebanese military has not prevented Shiite Hezbollah fighters from entering Syria to confront Sunni militants fighting against Assad, and they deploy to areas that Hezbollah has cleared and set up checkpoints.
Because of this relationship, Tehran now has a perceived interest in supporting the Lebanese military. However, this relationship has also led the Sunni Muslim community in Lebanon to believe that the army is now taking orders from Hezbollah.
As ISIS moves closer to Lebanon’s border, they benefit from the Lebanese military’s unwillingness to cooperate with Assad. Experts believe that Syria has the only Arab military currently capable of confronting ISIL. More worrisome, Hezbollah has shown a reluctance to battle ISIS, arguing that their involvement will enflame already strained sectarian tensions in Lebanon. It is this enticement that leads ISIS to believe they can ignite a second civil war. ISIS has expressed interest to create new supply routes between Lebanon and Syria as winter unfolds.
In recent weeks, the Lebanese army has suffered setbacks along its long border with Syria. Lebanon shares a short border and rocky relationship with Israel on its only other border. Israel is not a member of the ISIS coalition. The nearest ally, Jordan, does not have the capacity to confront ISIS in Lebanon and protect its own borders with Syria.
Meanwhile, in the absence of a president and a split parliament, the Lebanese policymakers are in gridlock, agreeing only to preserve civil peace and avoid civil or sectarian clashes. However in the face of a growing threat, it is likely that peace will become more difficult to maintain. The nation is relying on a consensus between Saudi Arabia and Iran before it can put its government in working order, and it appears that consensus is not forthcoming.
3 November– Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are in discussions to develop a military agreement to combat Islamic militants, with the possibility of a joint force to intervene around the Middle East. The Sunni-dominated nations share a view that the region is threatened by Sunni Islamic militants and Islamist political movements. The military pact goes beyond the current engagements in Iraq and Syria as part of the US-led coalition; aiming to target additional hotbeds of extremist activity. The alliance would focus on Libya and Yemen, where radicalised militants have seized control of territories from their respective governments. Egyptian President Abel Fattah el-Sisi has warned that extremists must be dealt with in several places, and that would require “a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy in the region.” Jordan and Algeria have also been approached to join the alliance.
While the talks remain secret, unnamed Egyptian officials have reported that the discussions are in advanced stages. The alliance is considering the establishment of a core force made up of elite troops, aircrafts, and an intelligence service comprised of members of the alliance. The nations have already held bilateral and multilateral war games the past year in advance of an alliance. Reportedly, there remain differences regarding the size of force, funding, location of headquarters, and whether to seek Arab League or U.N. political cover for operations. If the joint forces cannot be agreed upon, the alliance still aims to coordinate military action for pinpoint anti-militant operations. It is thought that actions such as these have already taken place; Egypt and the UAE are believed to have conducted targeted airstrikes in Libya over the summer, and Egypt has reportedly carried out unilateral strikes in Libya; although the Egyptian government denies involvement in either operation.
The alliance is being discussed as violent clashes intensify in Benghazi as the Libyan army attempts to retake areas seized by Islamist militants. On Monday, extremist fighters hit an oil tanker with a rocket propelled grenade, causing fire and major disruption at Benghazi’s port. The Libyan army asked residents in the central al-Sabri district to evacuate ahead of a major military operation. Over 200 people have been killed and several homes destroyed since the Libyan army began its offensive in October, yet residents are fearful of getting caught in crossfire while travelling.
Libya is currently divided by rival governments. The internationally recognized and recently elected government has taken shelter in Tobruk; Islamist militias that overran Tripoli during the summer have reinstituted the previous Islamist government in Tripoli. The nation is also facing a surplus of warring militias and militant groups, and has become a safe-haven for radicalised fighters.
In Yemen, where the government has been battling one of al-Qaeda’s most active branches for years, the government is also contending with Houthi Shiite rebels. The Houthis successfully overran Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, last month. Saudi Arabia has offered support against the Houthis in 2010, believing that the Shiite Houthis are serving as proxy fighters for Iran.
Pan Arab alliances in the past have not succeeded. However the impetus is strong for the coalition. Saudi Arabia and Egypt face a growing militant threat within their borders, and Gulf nations are eager to keep militant threats away from their borders and foreign interests. The multi-national alliance is also intended to serve as a symbol of unity and strength against the perceived influence of Iran. The nations will seek a nod of approval from the US, however Washington has not yet been privy to the talks.
The battle in Kobane (also spelled ‘Kobani’) is being called “the most decisive battle” in the campaign against ISIS, yet help has been slow to arrive. For weeks the town’s residents have been under siege as ISIS has battles to take control of the region, causing thousands of Syrian refugees to flee into Turkey.
Despite the increasing humanitarian crisis and the consequence of letting Kobanefall into ISIS hands, the town has been omitted from US and coalition strategy. Fighting began in the town on 16 September, and while the US has conducted air-strikes around the town, US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Mid October that “Kobane does not define the strategy for the coalition in respect to [ISIL].” It was only on Sunday that the US began to air-drop weapons and supplies to Kurdish fighters. Earlier today, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he had been informed that agreement was reached for 200 Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga reinforcements to pass through Turkey to help defend Kobane. It is expected that ISIS will take heavy losses numbering into several hundreds, yet they are prepared to do so.
Kobane’s Importance to ISIS
The fall of Kobane would result in a major strategic win for ISIS for a number of reasons. First, it is a heavily agricultural region. A large percentage of the residents are farmers, and there is significant grain and wheat production. Access to this agricultural resource would be a boon for ISIS, in terms of supporting the population within its own territory and providing another avenue of income.
Second, Kobane sits on the Turkish border with Syria. If ISIS were to capture the town, they would gain a significant and strategic expansion of their territory along the Turkish border. Capture of the region would give ISIS control over a main road that connects Raqqa, the city which headquarters ISIS operations, with Aleppo. Further, it would add an additional border crossing for weapons, supplies, and radicalised fighters to enter into ISIS controlled territory.
Finally, the predominant strategic value of Kobane is that is a majority Kurdish town. An ISIS win at Kobane would weaken the Kurdish resistance. Kobane is one of three administrative cantons of the Syrian Kurds. If it Kobane falls, it will weaken the other cantons which secure Syria’s 1,200 kilometre border with Syria. Effectively, a win in Kobane could potentially allow ISIS to capture full control of the Turkish Border.
Kobane’s Importance to the Kurds
Kobane has become a symbol of Kurdish aspirations for an autonomous state. One analyst states, “Kobane symbolises the Kurdish resistance, not only in Syria but in other parts of the Middle East. Its loss would translate into a defeat for the entire Kurdish nation.”
The Turkish and Syrian Kurdish community remains close in culture, language and proximity. In the early 1900s, Kobane stretched across both Turkey and Syria. In 1921, a border was put in place by Mustafa Kemal, dividing the Kurdish village in two. The demarcation is a railroad that has served as the border between the two nations. Since the siege on the town, over 100,000 refugees from Kobane and other nearby towns have fled to the Turkish side, now called Mursitpinar.
This closeness of Syrian and Turkish Kurds has remained in place. The current crisis has gelled efforts to keep Kobane standing. Over several weeks of fighting, Kobane has resisted falling to ISIS occupation, creating a symbol of resilience against ISIS and hope in the face of others who have denied Kurdish autonomy. Mostafa Minawi, director of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative at Cornell University.”Kobane [now] lies at the heart of a Kurdish dream. It is less connected with history and more connected with future ambitions. Kobane was phase one of the implementation of a wider local-rule model [for both Syria’s and Turkey’s Kurds].”
Kobane’s Importance to Turkey
Despite the threat of an ISIS capture of Kobane and the imminent threat on his border, President Erdogan has appeared slow and reluctant to provide aid to Kurdish fighters. “For Turkey,” one analyst says, “Kobane is essentially a PKK issue.” Erdogan has long opposed the establishment of a Greater Kurdistan, and Ankara has deemed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) a terrorist organization.
Earlier this week, the US delivered air-dropped weapons and medical supplies in Kobane, which were provided by Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. Erdogan criticized the move. In a statement today, Erdogan criticised the move. In a phone call between Erdogan and US President Barack Obama, Erdogan said, “America did this in spite of Turkey, and I told him Kobani is not currently a strategic place for you. If anything it is strategic for us.”
Several analysts, as well as the Kurdish population have become critical of Erdogan’s intentions. They believe that the Turkish government has purposefully delayed the allowance assistance to Kurdish fighters, allowing ISIS to ‘do the dirty work’ of reducing the gains that Syrian Kurds have made in the power vacuum of the Syrian war. Critics use as evidence Erdogan’s call for the establishment of a buffer zone in Syria, citing it as an attempt to occupy the region.
In fact, Erdogan has used Kobane as a negotiating chip with the PKK. In order for Iraqi Kurds to supply Syrian Kurds with weapons or fighters, their options are to cross through ISIS controlled territory, or go through Turkey. The former is unrealistic; the latter requires permission from the Turkish government, which has been slow coming as Turkey has sought to bolster their position against a Kurdish nation. To this end, peace talks between Kurdish leaders and Turkey have been jeopardised as Kurdish leaders interpret Erdogan’s stance as tacit support for ISIS. Leaders in Ankara deny supporting ISIS but it has become apparent to some analysts that they are using the situation as an opportunity to gain an upper hand with the Kurds.
As a result, Turkey finds itself pressured by the coalition and forced to work in tandem with a group that it opposes. The outcome in Kobane will not only be significant to ISIS, but will have longstanding ramifications for the Kurds in the diaspora and their relationship with Turkey.
5 October, 2014– Ansar Beit al Maqdis (ABM), a Sinai-based militant group, released a video showing the execution of four men accused of spying for the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, and the Egyptian army. In the video, the four men recorded their ‘confessions’ and urged other ‘spies’ to publicly repent. The victims said that ABM knows who the spies are, and they will not be spared. Three of the victims were beheaded, their heads placed atop their backs. A fourth was shot multiple times.
In the video, an ABM spokesman cautioned that the militants would storm peoples’ homes to kill and capture those they suspected as being army agents. The video is the second depicting ABM beheading victims accused of spying for Egypt or Israel. A video released in August shows the beheading of four Egyptians accused of providing Israel with intelligence for an air strike that killed three of its fighters. In September, Sinai residents found a decapitated corpse bearing a note signed ABM. The victim was also accused of being an Israeli spy.
The ABM videos are similar to those released by ISIS, and underscore the connection between ABM and the notorious group. A spokesman for ABM said last month that ISIS had been advising them on how to operate more effectively. This weekend’s footage shows members of Ansar Beit al Maqdis manning checkpoints to search for spies, and overlays statements from a September speech given by ISIS spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, in which he urges Sinai-based militants to kill Egyptian security personnel.
In what appears to be a response to this call, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis announced they would launch attacks targeting police and soldiers during Eid al-Adha, an Islamic holiday which began on Saturday.
Prior to the holiday, on Thursday unknown assailants travelling by motorbike threw a bag containing a bomb near the municipal governor’s in Egypt’s Gharbia governorate. The blast wounded Gharbia security chief, Mohamed Rizk, and a security guard. One of the men is said to be in a critical condition. One security source says at least five explosions hit the governorate on Thursday; the bombers are suspected to be members of ABM. On Sunday, a ‘sound bomb’ detonated near the Evangelical Church in Minya. No casualties or damage has been reported. ABM has not taken responsibility for this attack.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has been a major security threat since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. The group has killed hundreds of police officers and military personnel and targeted security infrastructure. The attacks have also resulted in civilian casualties. Authorities have struggled to combat ABM and to dismantle their relationship with ISIS. On Sunday, security forces have arrested four Egyptian nationals who were suspected members of a militant cell recruiting fighters for ISIS.
On 3 October, the Egyptian army announced that they have killed twelve militants and arrested 68 in raids across four different governorates: North Sinai, Ismailia, Port Said and Daqahlia. Among those killed was Mohamed Abu Shatiya, a field commander of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. The military also claims to have seized 17 vehicles and 49 motorcycles, and destroyed a field hospital which was used by the militants. The government is in the midst of a large-scale campaign to eradicate militant groups in the region, and has systematically demolished houses and tunnels being used by extremists.