Barnabas Edit: Resurgent Al-Qaeda fights for Islamic state in Iraq, Syria and beyond

January 17, 2014 by  
Filed under newsletter-world

The north-eastern Syrian city of al-Raqqah is under al-Qaeda control

The north-eastern Syrian city of al-Raqqah is under al-Qaeda control

January 16, 2014: Since the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, the US has proudly heralded the defeat of Al-Qaeda. But contrary to President Obama’s repeated statements that the Islamists have been been “decimated” and are “on the path to defeat”, al-Qaeda is alive and kicking, even extending their territory. The militants are fighting to create a cross-border Islamic state in the Middle East as the conflicts in Iraq and Syria fuel each other and spill over into Lebanon.

The jihadists are fighting in the territory under the name of “The Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIS, sometimes ISIL). The second “S” in the acronym ISIS stems from the Arabic word, al-Sham which refers to the Greater Syria or Levant area. ISIS formed in April 2013, an expansion of an existing group, the Islamic State of Iraq.

It has gained control of parts of northern Syria, though most of ISIS’s fighters are foreigners, including Iraqis, Libyans, Saudi Arabians and Europeans.

ISIS’s campaign is part of a wider regional conflict that pits Sunni and Shia forces against each other in a battle for supremacy. The Sunni militants, backed by wealthy Gulf states, see themselves as the defenders of their co-religionists in places where they are perceived to be oppressed by Shia regimes.

A spokesman for ISIS last week declared war on Shiites in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Sunni minority was dominant politically and economically. But this changed with the removal of Saddam Hussein, and the current government of Nouri al Maliki is Shiite-dominated, which is greatly resented by Iraqi Sunnis.

In Syria, the Sunni majority is ruled by an Alawite (Shia sect) minority. The opposition to President Bashar al-Assad is a patchwork of Sunni rebel groups, of which ISIS has been a leading force.

In Lebanon, the population is fairly evenly divided between Sunnis, Shias and Christians, with power being shared along sectarian lines. The legacy of the country’s civil war of 1975-1990 endures, and tensions between Sunnis and Shias in particular have been exacerbated by theSyria conflict, which has been spilling over into Lebanon.

Fighters from the Lebanon-based Shiite militant group Hezbollah have helped shore up Syrian President Assad’s forces, while ISIS have been launching attacks in Lebanon.


Al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremists were largely checked in Iraq by US troops, but since the Iraqi security forces have taken sole command, the militants have escalated their terrorist activities. Although al-Qaeda’s hold is weaker than at its peak between 2004-07, it has recently reclaimed vast swathes of the country.

Last year was the most violent in Iraq since 2008; more than 7,000 people were killed, around double the figure for 2003, raising the spectre of a civil war. ISIS has been staging mass-casualty attacks and prison breaks.

It is currently focusing its efforts in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province, which bordersSyria. In a highly significant development earlier this month, ISIS seized Fallujah and parts of Ramadi; fighting over the territory continues.

The violence in Iraq over the last decade has resulted in a mass exodus of the country’s historic Christian community; they have been deliberately and mercilessly targeted by Islamist militants who want to purge Iraq of all traces of Christianity.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) recently estimated that 850,000 Christians have left Iraq since 2003. Many fled to Syria, but that is no longer a safe haven for them.

The Islamic State of Iraq, as it was known then, committed the deadliest-ever attack on Iraqi Christians: the hostage siege at a church in Baghdad in 2010 that left 58 people dead. The horrific incident prompted another wave of Christian emigration.


ISIS is one of the militant groups fighting against President Assad’s troops, but increasingly its battle is becoming more about establishing an Islamic state. This has created conflict with other rebel groups, even Islamic ones. Although some share the same ultimate goal, they perceive – correctly – that ISIS’s hardline Islamist approach is alienating both the Syrian people and potential Western backers. This has led to serious rebel infighting, a war within a war essentially, making the prospect of peace all the more elusive for the beleaguered Syrian people.

The rebels are on a spectrum with secularists who want a pluralistic Syria at one end and ISIS who want a strict Islamic state at the other, with a host of others in between; the al-Nusra Front, which has also declared allegiance to al-Qaeda, is close to ISIS on the scale though remains a distinct group.

ISIS has reclaimed significant parts of the north that other rebel groups had wrested away last week. In territory under its control, notably the north-eastern city of al-Raqqah and parts of Aleppo, the militants are imposing strict Islamic law.

A report released by Amnesty International last month said:

The people of al-Raqqah and Aleppo are suffering under a new form of tyranny imposed by ISIS.

Amnesty said that the Islamists had committed serious rights abuses, some of which amounting to war crimes, such as abductions, torture and unlawful killings. ISIS has set up sharia courts, where detainees are said to be subjected to “grotesquely unfair trials”; some are held for “crimes” against Islam, such as smoking and drinking alcohol.

Christians in ISIS-held areas are acutely vulnerable. In September, the militants stormed two churches in al-Raqqah and sent a clear signal of their intentions; they destroyed crosses and other Christian symbols and hoisted a black flag, which represents jihad, over one of the buildings.

Following the church attacks, al-Raqqah residents took to the streets demanding that ISIS leave their city. The militants do not have the backing of the ordinary Syrian people, but ominously, this has not diminished their influence in the country.

ISIS and other Islamist militant bands in Syria are following a set strategy, deliberately destroying Christian areas and engaging in a form of ethnic cleansing.


How likely is ISIS to succeed in its goal of establishing an Islamic state in the Levant? Global intelligence company Stratfor says it will not succeed, as the group does not have the human resources to overcome its many enemies.

But it is certainly capable, as we are witnessing in Iraq and Syria, of causing carnage, exacerbating deep-rooted sectarian tensions and establishing sharia-ruled enclaves. It thus poses an enduring threat to the prospect of peace in the region and to the future of the diminishing Christian community.

If the territory becomes overrun by al-Qaeda, Christianity would be all but destroyed there. And the blowback in Western countries, from where increasing numbers of radicals are coming to fight alongside the terrorists, could be devastating.

As the Geneva II conference gathers next week and world leaders try to find a breakthrough to end the civil war in Syria, they must address ISIS’s wider aspirations and take steps to cut off the group’s supply lines, including weapons from the Gulf and the recruitment of Western jihadis.

The way forward for Syria is extremely difficult to envisage, but what is clear is that the embattled country’s future, and that of its neighbours, must not be allowed to fall into ISIS’s hands.

– dr patrick sookhdeo

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