As the Iraq government forces and Shiite militias are still on their way to Tikrit in the now three-week long operation to recapture the Islamic State-held city, the Islamist militant group seems to have expanded its area of operations. While a series of suicide bombings left 45 Kurds dead in Syria on Friday night, a similar attack took place in Yemen, with even greater consequences on the civilians.
The unlikely Iraqi coalition that brought together government forces with local tribes and Shiite militias enjoyed a promising start of its military operations and many believed that the city of Tikrit, an important ISIS stronghold in northern Iraq, will soon fall. The Iraqi government unexpectedly called for a two-day break last week, allegedly to allow better equipped reinforcements to join the fight.
The pause, that is now stretches to almost a week, reveals that flaws in the coalition might call the offensive to a halt. Iraqi military officials and Shiite leaders have reportedly begun arguing with each other, discouraged by somewhat higher losses than anticipated. More than 1,000 Shiite militiamen died in the first days of fighting, representing around 5 percent of their total troops, and more casualties have been reported even as the offensive stopped.
Militia commanders offered a full frontal assault plan on Islamic State positions that would have the Iraqi army lead the attack, to the disagreement of government officials. While Iraqi military top figures believe although such an assault might be successful, it would come at a too greater cost for their own troops.
If the government forces will be outnumbered by the Iran-backed Shiite militias, another conflict between the two now-allies might be inevitable, and so the two parties have started to view each other with distrust. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi also fears giving the militias free hand would lead to an uncontrolled spree of pillage and raping against the local Sunnis. While he is hesitating in the wait for a better plan from the US forces, the Islamic State is taking advantage.
As the locals in the northeastern Syrian town of Hassakeh were celebrating the Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year on Friday night, ISIS saw the event as another opportunity to spread terror among the opposing civilian population. A twin car bomb attack in the city left at least 49 people dead and 177 wounded, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
No group claimed responsibility for Friday night attack, but Kurdish officials blame the Islamic State militants, whom they have been fighting in the region since the civil war started. Hassakeh city was under the control of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who struggles to maintain order over a province bordering Iraq and Turkey. They clashed frequently with ISIS forces in the area, and Kurdish commander Joan Ibrahim expressed no doubt the Islamist group is behind the attack. “The crime that occurred today in Hassakeh will not pass without retribution,” Ibrahim promised.
Meanwhile, more than 70 people died in militant attacks on government held provinces of Homs and Hama, raising the Friday death toll in Syria to over 100.
The Kurdish forces, once seen as natural enemies of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, chose not to side with the Islamic State after the group’s sudden rise on the front, provoking great discontent among ISIS leaders. Pan-Islamist propaganda has been a big part of their message to Muslims worldwide, and the Kurdish resistance shows that the ISIS indoctrination is failing closer to home.
Those who came in close contact with the Islamic State are those who most fervently refuse to accept its “caliph” as rightful leader for all Muslims. But ISIS has decided to stop limiting its activity to Iraq and Syria, and lately they have been looking to expand elsewhere. A few weeks ago a Nigerian militant group, Boko Haram, pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State, and recent reports show ISIS has found adherents in the remote Arabian Peninsula country of Yemen.
A series of horrendous suicide bombings took place at two mosques in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, with latest reports claiming 137 people died and more than 350 were injured. The event is seen as part of ISIS agenda to become a global power, as a counter to the joint military operations against the militant group in Syria and Iraq.
The ISIS branch in Yemen praised the attacks as “a blessed operation against the dens of the Shia”. However, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that the Islamic State may have claimed responsibility in the attacks for its propaganda value, as there are some strong indications they might have been the result of the increasingly sectarian divide Yemen is going through lately. Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, representing the Houthis who have been in control of Sanaa since September, blamed al-Qaeda, as fighters from the terrorist group formerly lead by Osama bin Laden took over the southern city of al-Houta yesterday.
Since the beginning of the year, the Islamic State’s recruitment campaign has rallied radical militias from Lybia to the Taliban forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is difficult to assess the real power ISIS holds, as no proof of effective influence over its supposed allies has been found yet. But the alarming fact remains that al-Baghdadi’s message is a unifying factor for terrorist factions around the world, who even if they act in a uncoordinated manner still seem to follow the same objectives.
So far, neither the US nor other countries seem to have a strategy to counter the effects of ISIS’s propaganda. Specialists assume that if the West does not quickly come with a plan to degrade Islamic State’s influence among the Muslim radicals, then it may soon really face a global adversary.
Image Source: BBC