Isis raises the stakes

Patrick Cockburn

The killing of James Foley by Isis caused an upsurge of international revulsion and condemnation with harsh words from the US defence secretary and others. But the Obama administration is trying hard not to be sucked into a war that could be more serious than the US invasion and occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2011. What Isis showed by Foley's very public murder is that it will always raise the stakes in any confrontation with the US and anybody else. It trumped America's reassuring portrayal of the recapture of Mosul Dam by the Kurds aided by US air strikes as a sign that Isis could be defeated.

How much has really been changed by the US airstrikes? Possibly less than first appeared: one of Isis's great strengths is that it can switch its military campaigns from Iraq to Syria and back again, and much that happens on the Syrian battlefields remains unreported. It helps Isis that the US, Britain and their Arab allies don't know how to retreat without humiliation from their three-year attempt to bring down President Bashar al-Assad, Isis's main opponent in Syria. The rest of the Syrian armed opposition is retreating, disintegrating or changing sides. In the long term the US and their allies may well develop a degree of mostly covert co-operation with the Assad government but it will probably be too late.

All the attention in the last two weeks has been focused on the Isis offensive against the Kurds and Yazidis. But over the same period there has been much heavier fighting in Syria than in Iraq, with Isis storming an important Syrian army base at Tabqa on Sunday, capturing much equipment including jet aircraft. This was not a walkover as in Sinjar, but a bloody battle with 346 Isis fighters and 170 government soldiers reportedly killed. Isis is winning victories where it counts, capturing two other Syrian army bases near Tabqa and a fourth in Hasakah province. The bottom line is that Isis fighters are now driving westwards, threatening Hama and Aleppo. They are only 30 miles from the latter, and could well take over the rebel-held part of the city. Washington, London and their allies still cling to their bankrupt policy of vainly seeking to displace Assad as Isis advances on the ground.


  • 25 August 2014 at 4:21pm
    Emmryss says:
    What I still don't understand is how ISIS got to be such effective fighters. Where did they train? Who trained them? And who equips them? Wouldn't a more effective strategy be to cut off their funding?

    • 26 August 2014 at 6:03am
      SixthPartWorld says: @ Emmryss
      Baathist military command + Chechen jihadi mafia + all-expenses paid Turkish club med vacations/ get out of jail free safe haven = effective fighting force.

      Cut off their funding? Talk to Tayyip.

    • 26 August 2014 at 6:36am
      SixthPartWorld says: @ SixthPartWorld
      Effective strategy would be to give to the PKK/PYD better weapons. No one else is up for the fight.

  • 25 August 2014 at 10:14pm
    telzey says:
    In what sense is the US opposition to Assad's slaughter of his own people "bankrupt"? Please explain.

  • 26 August 2014 at 12:13am
    tony lynch says:
    No, you explain why that is an intelligent request. Good luck.

  • 31 August 2014 at 9:37pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    No, again, to alynch, who thinks that an assertion is a fact. Telzey asked a straightforward question, and alynch responded by descending into "snark", that invincible posture of the know-it-all who appears to know very little. Dear alynch, Good Luck with your remedial education.

    • 2 September 2014 at 7:42pm
      SixthPartWorld says: @ Timothy Rogers
      No, to your filibustering no -- it is painfully, blatantly, morally bankrupt in the sense that the West has true to form, following its own disastrous templates, unabashedly aided and abetted genocidal jihadi-mercenaries who've ravaged Syria and Iraq just so that the Gulf sheiks could build a pipeline to Turkey/Europe at the expense of Iran's planned pipeline and Russia's current European energy monopoly... so, anyone such as the original commenter who dissembles and pretends not to know this should be snarked till the cows come home for doing the bidding of the biggest liars and confidence-men around, the crude speculators writing Obama's hand-wringing speeches on Syria.

      Please don't reply, just have a nice long think about what the West has chosen to do the Syrian people and what has motivated them all along.

  • 4 September 2014 at 5:13pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    I stopped to think about about SixthPartBrain's jeremiad, and came up with a fascinating rhetorical question: Have any of the Syrian people chosen to do nasty things to other Syrian people, and what has motivated them all along? Or are they all just mindless pawns in the "geopolitics of oil" scramble? In SPB's feeble light (accompanied by an amok sound amplifier)apparently the latter. Give me break, go beat your hollow drum on some other street corner.

    • 12 September 2014 at 6:56pm
      SixthPartWorld says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Could the wreckage of Syria on this scale have occurred without organized external forces motivated by substantial geo-political stakes? Why try to obfuscate that it simply could not have?

      Yes, my previous posts were hyperbolic and self-amusing, in regardez-moi fashion. But I want to draw attention to the horses the West is backing, the repercussions of this gamble, and how little this gamble has being criticized in the Atlanticist media.

      Desperately constructing pantomime villains like Assad seeks to normalize the suffering we are seeing as somehow native to the Middle East. This is very sinister and relieves regime-change adventurists in the State Department (who of course are nowhere near to pulling all the strings) and the Gulf financiers of proxy armies from proper scrutiny.

      The Saudi-Iranian oil rivalry is just one very conspicuous factor fueling the civil wars Syria and Iraq. Syrians and Iraqis of course have their own motivations and grievances. This gets attention at the expense of the macro-perspective. Sorry if I upset you by going out on a limb. Please take issue with anything I have said specifically if you think it's out of line.

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