As I write this column on the morning of November 15, there appear to be signs pointing to some success in checking what appeared a month ago to be the inexorable advance of the Islamic State (IS) towards the creation of an administratively and financially viable state in the Sunni majority areas of Iraq and the neighbouring Syrian provinces.
It seems that the nearly 900 air strikes carried out by the US and its allies have prevented the takeover of Kobane — the Syrian city on the border with Turkey. This result came at least in part because the Turks, swallowing their many misgivings, finally permitted Kurds from Iraq to transit Turkey and help the Syrian Kurds defend Kobane. The IS has not been completely thrown out of Kobane but it is likely that if further Kurdish reinforcements arrive, the devastated city may be ‘liberated’.
The Americans claim that their air strikes have caused sufficient damage to the refineries that the IS had captured in Syria to reduce considerably the one million dollars per day that the IS was earning by selling the products of these refineries to smugglers.
In Iraq, where the main IS effort is focused, it seems that the Iraqi forces have been able to retake Baiji, the site of Iraq’s largest refinery located only a short distance from Baghdad. Instead of the fear that the IS would soon move against Baghdad, there are indications that the induction of another 1,500 US advisers will give the Iraqi army units the fillip needed to attempt a recapture of Mosul and other cities in Anbar province.
While there have been carefully worded denials that President Barack Obama’s letter to Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khamanei, established any connection between the nuclear deal currently being negotiated and a softening of the American stance on Bashar al-Assad’s removal from his seat of power, there have been advances on the proposal of Stefan Mistura, the United Nations Secretary General’s representative for Syria for local ceasefires in the battle that is being waged between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian Army. Obviously, Iran, Bashar’s principal supporter, will find this a very positive development and find this an incentive to cooperate covertly, if not overtly, with the US against the IS.
On the other hand, there seems to have been little progress towards the training of the FSA. American plans for such training and equipping appear still to be a year away from fruition. The FSA has complained vociferously that it is short of funds and equipment and is, therefore, unable to hold on to its fighters.
In Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki is gone and his successor has pledged to give Sunnis a greater share of power but according to Sunni tribesmen in Anbar who have been fighting the IS, corrupt Iraqi officials are embezzling whatever little is being sanctioned by the new prime minister.
There had been rumours that the leader of the IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been wounded in one of the US air strikes, but the recent release of an audio tape deemed authentic by some analysts showed that he is still active. More ominously, there are reports that the Jabhat al-Nusra and the IS are uniting. If this does happen, the fate of the FSA as the representative of the moderate secular opposition to Bashar al-Assad will be sealed. It is also important to take into account foreign volunteers, who will flock to the combined banner of these two organisations.
The IS is far from defeated and while our interior minister may assert that there is no IS presence in Pakistan, we must take whatever measures we can to ensure that we do not become another recruiting ground for these organisations or have more of our own extremists pledge loyalty to the IS and the self-proclaimed caliph. In my next article, I will outline what less complacent countries have done in this respect.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 17th, 2014.