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World

How the battle against the Islamic State is redrawing the


map of the Middle East
By Liz Sly December 30, 2015

CONFRONTINGTHECALIPHATE|Thisispartofanoccasionalseries.
AMIRIYATFALLUJAH,IraqAlongthevast,zigzaggingperimeteroftheIslamicStatesselfstyledstate,themilitants
aresteadilybeingpushedbackastheforces
rangedagainstthemgaininstrength.
Intheprocess,newbordersarebeingdrawn,newfiefdomsarebeingcarvedoutandtheseedsofpotentialnewconflictsare
beingsown.
AwarseenbytheUnitedStatesasprimarilyaimedatpreventingfutureterroristattacksinAmericaisbeingprosecutedfor
verydifferentreasonsbythediverseassortmentofShiite,KurdishandSunnifightersbattlinginbothIraqandSyria,often
inpursuitofcompetingagendasthatworktosubvertthegoalofdefeatingthemilitants.
InnorthernIraqandSyria,KurdsarebusilycarvingouttheborderstonewKurdishenclaves.Shiitemilitias,nowthemost
powerfulforceinIraq,areextendingtheirreachdeepintotraditionallySunniareasofnorthernIraq.TheSyriangovernment
isfocusingitsenergiesonreclaiminglandseizedbyitsopponentsduringthefiveyearoldrebellionagainstit,whiledeeply
dividedSyrianrebelsinturnarefightingatwofrontwartoholdtheirgroundagainstboththegovernmentandtheIslamic
State.
Inthisfragmentedlandscape,theIslamicStateisbutoneofamultitudeofgroupscompetingforterritoryanddominance
overthecollapsednationstatesofIraqandSyriaasymptomasmuchasacauseofthescrambleforpowerunleashedby
theU.S.ledinvasionofIraqin2003andthe2011revoltinSyria.
TheIslamicStatemayormaynotbevanquishedsoonandastringofdefeatsinflictedinrecentmonthsinnortheastern
Syria,northernIraqandmostrecentlyRamadihaveraisedhopesthatitsdemisemaybecloserthanhadbeenthought.
Butalreadyitisbecomingclearthatvictoryoverthemilitantswontendthebloodshedintheregion,saidFawazGerges,a
professorofinternationalrelationsattheLondonSchoolofEconomicsandPoliticalScience.
Thereislittlethoughtbeinggiventothemorningafter,andthemorningafterisgoingtobeasbloody,aschaoticandas
destabilizingasthesituationweareseeingnow,hesaid.TheheartoftheMiddleEasthaschanged.Thefragilestate
systemisnolongerthere.
Alongsomeofthewarsfrontlines,thewaysinwhichthebattleagainsttheIslamicStateisredrawingthemapofthe

MiddleEastperhapsirrevocablycomesharplyintofocus.
Menofallagesandinafewplaces,womenarefightingcourageouslyagainstdesperateandwellarmedjihadists,in
someinstancescarryingonlythehuntingriflestheirfamiliesownedlongbeforetherewaswar.
Butthereisnosingleunifyingplan,andnooverarchinggoal,onlyajigsawpuzzlecomposedofthecollapsedfragmentsof
IraqandSyria.

Kurdish push in Syria


OnepieceofthepuzzleistakingshapealongaroadcalledtheM4onmostmaps,andtheInternationalHighwaybythose
wholiveinitsvicinity.ItlinksnorthernIraqtotheMediterraneancoastofSyria,andithasservedasasupplyrouteforthe
IslamicStateacrossthemostlyerasedSyriaIraqborder.
InnortheasternSyria,italsoroughlytracksthefrontlinebetweenthefrontieroftheIslamicStatessocalledcaliphateand
thelandsclaimedbySyriasminorityKurds,whohaveemergedasoneofthesinglemosteffectiveU.S.partnersinthe
war.
Raqqa,theIslamicStatesselfproclaimedcapitalandthenextpriorityoftheU.S.militarycampaign,lies30milestothe
south.
ButRaqqa,anArabcity,isnotapriorityforthePeoplesProtectionUnits,orYPG,theKurdishforcethatisbusy
consolidatingitscontrolinnortheasternSyria.Inthepastyear,theYPGhasexpandedtheterritoryunderitscontrolby
186percentcomparedwitha14percentshrinkageforthefarlargerterritorycontrolledbytheIslamicStatemakingit
byfarthebiggestwinnerinthewiderwar,accordingtofigurescompiledbytheIHSConflictMonitor.
TheYPGssightsarenowsetonanotherstretchofKurdishland,theisolatedenclaveofAfrinfartothewest,inthe
provinceofAleppo,surroundedbyterritorycontrolledbyanassortmentofSyrianrebels.InanefforttolinkupwithAfrin,
thefocusofthefightinghasshiftedthere,puttingtheKurdsinconflictwithlocalFreeSyrianArmygroupsand,potentially,
Turkey,whichhasvowedtopreventthecreationofaKurdishenclaveinthearea.
TheRaqqafrontlinehasbeenlefttoaraggedassortmentofformerRaqqarebelswhoweredrivenoutofthecitybythe
IslamicState.TheyarefightinginsandalswithancientKalashnikovsalongsideacrudeearthbarrierthrownupinthedesert
justtothesouthofthetownofAinIssa.TheirrelationswiththeYPGaretense,andtheyhavebeenoverlookedintheeffort
bythePentagontoarmSunnialliestotakeontheIslamicStateinSunniareas.
ButastrategythatreliesonaKurdishforcetocountertheIslamicStateinArabareasisdestinedtomakethingsworse,not
better,saidRobertFord,theformerU.S.ambassadortoSyriawhoisnowwiththeMiddleEastInstitute.

TheAmericansareaidingintheestablishmentofaunilaterallydeclaredautonomousKurdishzone,andArabSyrianswill
notacceptit,hesaid.WherethisleadstoisthepartitionofSyria,anditsgoingtomakeitharderifcountriesare
fragmentedinthiswaytotakeontheIslamicState.

Kurdish-Arab fault line


AsimilardilemmaprevailsacrosstheborderintheKurdishregionofnorthernIraq,onthebattlefieldjustsouthofthe
oncemixedKurdishArabtownofMakhmour,whosecapturebytheIslamicStateinAugust2014helpedprecipitateU.S.
airstrikes.Thejihadistoccupationlastedbarely48hoursbeforeU.S.warplanesintervenedandtheIslamicStateretreated,
inthefirstindicationthatairpowercouldprovedecisiveinstemmingandthenreversingthemilitants
advances.
Thefrontlinesincehasbarelyshifted.Alabyrinthoftrenches,earthenbarricadesandsandbagssnakingacrossthefertile
plainsofnorthernIraqsNinevehprovinceseparatesthecombatantsandalsoformsthesouthernmostfrontierofthe
territoriesclaimedbytheregionalgovernmentofKurdistanaspartofitsstillundeclaredKurdishstate.
ThevillagesbeyondarewhollyArab,andtheKurdishpeshmergaforcesmanningthelinesaytheyhavenointentionof
pressingforward,eventhoughtheybelievetheycould.
HereonthisfrontlinewewontadvanceanyfurtherbecausethisisArabland,explainedCol.YadgarHijran,who
commandsforces
alongastretchofthefrontline.Ifanyoneistofreetheseareas,itshouldbeArabs,becauseifKurdsfree
them,thenitwillbecomeanethnicwar.
Inmanyways,italreadyis.SpanningtheKurdishArabfaultlinethatrunsacrossnorthernIraq,Makhmourhaslongbeen
contestedandwasamongtheareastargetedinthe1980sbySaddamHusseinsArabizationprogram.Surrounding
KurdishvillageswererazedandtheirlandsgiventoArabsettlers,oftenfromotherpartsofthecountry.TheKurdish
peshmergaseizedcontrolofMakhmourafterU.S.troopssweptintotheareain2003,andmanyofthoseArabsfled.
UnderIraqsnewconstitution,thefinalstatuswastohavebeensettledbyareferendum,butthatplanhasbecomemoot
sincethewaragainsttheIslamicStatebegan.ThepresidentoftheKurdishregion,MasoudBarzani,hassaidtheKurdswill
neversurrenderanyofthelandstheyhaverecaptured.Talkofafarbolderreferendum,tovoteonthecomplete
independenceofKurdistan,isbeingrevived.
Thereisaneedforbravedecisions,tolookattherealitiesandletpeopledecidewhattheywant,saidMasrourBarzani,
Kurdistansnationalsecuritychief.Iraqhasbrokenapart.SunnisbelieveinaunitedIraqonlyifSunnisruleit.Shiites
believeinaunitedIraqonlyifShiitesruleit.ThereisnosingledefinitionofaunitedIraq.
Tryingtokeepthecountryunitedagainstthewillofthepeopleisnotgoingtosucceed,hesaid.

Shiite conquests

ThatsnotaviewsharedbytheShiitemilitiafightersbattlingtheIslamicState40milestothesouth,outsidethedestroyed
Baijioilrefinery.ThefacilitywasfinallyrecapturedinOctoberaftermorethanayearofbackandforthbattles,withShiite
militiasfightingundertheumbrellaoftheHashdShabiasthepopularmobilizationunitsareknownplayingan
instrumentalroleinsecuringthevictoryalongsideIraqiarmyunits,accordingtotheIraqigovernmentandarmyunitson
theground.
ThefrontlinenowhasshiftednorthwestintotheMakhoolmountains,astrategicridgeofbarrenhillsoverlookingthe
refineryandalsothemainhighwayleadingtoMosul,thebiggestcitycontrolledbytheIslamicStateandakeytargetofthe
fight.
ThisisalsoindisputablySunniterritory,nowintheprocessofbeingconqueredbyShiitesfightingfarfromtheirhomesin
theShiitesouthofthecountrymotivated,sayyoungfighters,bydutytotheirreligiousleaders.Alongthelengthofthe
200milehighwayleadingnorthtoBaijifromBaghdadlietheruinsofSunnitownsandvillages,destroyedbyairstrikesand
artilleryinthefighttodislodgetheIslamicState.
WearefollowingtheordersofourmarjayatheShiitereligiousauthoritiesinNajafsaidSattarAhwan,oneofabout
twodozenmenmassedbeneatharidgeonthehillsideasbulletszingedandmortarfirecrumpedoverhead.He,alongwith
manyofthefighters,woreanarmbandfeaturingthefaceofthelateIranianleaderAyatollahKhomeini,areminderofthe
divergentloyaltiescomplicatingthebattlefield.
TheShiitefightersarenonethelessfightingforaunitedIraq,insistedtwocommandersfromtheKataebSayedShuhada,a
ShiitemilitiathathasalsosentfighterstoSyria,atacommandpostbehindthefrontlinesontheedgeofthenearbytownof
Baiji.TheHashdarethesonsofIraq.OurroleistofightforthesakeofIraq,saidAlaaalHusseini,whocomesfrom
Najafandwearsaturban,signalinghisroleasareligiousadvisertothefighters.WeareallIraqis,SunnisandShiites,and
thiscrisishasmadeusunite.
Behindhim,theflagsoftheassortedShiitemilitiasparticipatinginthefightflutteredoverBaiji,longsinceemptiedofits
inhabitantsandnowalmostdestroyed.

A separate Sunni entity?


ForthefewIraqiSunnisengagedinthefightagainsttheSunniIslamicState,thesymbolismofsuchscenes,broadcast
widelyontelevision,isobviousandworrying.
AmiriyatFallujah,inthewesternprovinceofAnbar,isoneofthefewSunnitownsthatheldatbaytheIslamicState
onslaughtintomostofthecountrysSunniregionslastyear,anditisoneofthefirstwherelocalSunnisarebeingdeployed
inthefightagainsttheIslamicState.SeveralhundredlocalSunnitribesmentrainedbyU.S.troopsreturnedthereinlate
October,andtheylaunchedtheirfirstoffensiveinNovember,alongsideIraqiarmytroops.
Itwentwell.AfrontlinethathadenduredsincetheIslamicStatesadvances
earlyin2014crumbledwithin36hours.The

tribesmentookcontrolofanextrathreemilesorsoofland.Thenewfrontlineisbarelydistinguishablefromtheold,except
thattheoldtrenchduginthedeserthadfilledwithplasticbagsandwaterbottles,whereasthenewoneisdugfromfreshly
churnedearth.ItalsoputsthefightersthreemilesclosertoFallujah,thefirstIraqitowntobecapturedbytheIslamicState
nearlytwoyearsago.
Asisthecasealongotherfrontlines,thefighterssaytheyareconfidenttheycouldeasilygainmoregroundandperhaps
takeFallujahitselfiftheyhadsufficientsupportfromtheIraqigovernmentandfromalliessuchastheUnitedStates.
Assoonastheysawour
forces,theyranaway,saidFaisalalIssawi,alocaltriballeaderwhocommandsforces
alongone
stretchofthenewlydugfrontline.Theystillhavepower,butitsnotthesameasayearago.Airstrikesmadethemweak
andarebreakingtheirstructures.Everyweektheyexecutefourorfivemembersbecausetheyrefusetoobeyordersortryto
turnagainsttheirleaders.
Butweaponshavebeenhardtocomebyonthisneglectedfront,whereactualfightingisrare.Noneofthetribalfighters
wearuniforms,andsomearearmedonlywithancientrifles,ownedbytheirfamiliesforgenerations,accordingtoone
fighter,whosaidhewas60butlookedolder.
TheShiitedominatedgovernmenthasbeenreluctanttoarmtheSunnitribesforfearofempoweringpotentialrivals,and
theSunnisherearealreadyquestioningtheirfutureinanIraqnowmorefirmlydominatedbyShiitesthaneverbefore.
EventhosewhoareloyaltothecentralgovernmentandfightISISaretreatedlikeforeignersbythecentralgovernment,
saidShakeralIssawi,themayorofAmiriyatFallujah,ashevisitedhismenonthefrontline.
HeisamongasmallbutgrowingnumberofSunniswhoarestartingtoembracetheideaofformingaseparateSunnientity,
alongthelinesofthesemiautonomousKurdishenclaveinthenorth.
IfthepeopleofAnbarfeltrespected,asIraqis,theywouldbeloyaltousandfightISIS,hesaid.Butwearenot
respected,andIfeartheonlysolutionisaSunnistate.
ItisnotamainstreamviewamongIraqiSunnis,SuhaibalRawi,thegovernoroftheprovinceofAnbar,saidinaninterview
inBaghdadaheadoftherecentvictoryofIraqigovernmenttroopsinRamadi.
Itsnotonlyabadidea,itwouldbeacatastrophe,hesaid,citingthebattleforRamadi,foughtbytheIraqiarmy,as
evidencethatIraqcansurvive.Iraqwasalwaysaunitednationandagreatregionalpower.Itisinthebestinterestof
everyonetoremainunited.
Buttheyarenotunited,saidGerges,theLondonSchoolofEconomicsprofessor,whoquestionsnotwhetherIraqorSyria
shouldbepartitionedaspartofanultimatesolutionbutwhethertheycanbesalvagedatall.
Thepuzzleis,howdoyougluethesestatesbacktogetheragain?hesaid.Theyregone.Theyregoneintoamillion

pieces.
ThisispartofanoccasionalseriesaboutthemilitantgroupIslamicStateanditsviolentcollisionwiththeUnitedStates
andothersintentonhaltingthegroupsrapidrise.
Readmore:
ThehiddenhandbehindtheIslamicStatemilitants?SaddamHusseins.
LifeintheIslamicState:Spoilsfortherulers,terrorfortheruled
InsidethesurrealworldoftheIslamicStatespropagandamachine
Fromhiphoptojihad,howtheIslamicStatebecameamagnetforconverts
5storiesyoushouldreadtoreallyunderstandtheIslamicState
MustafaSaliminBaijiandAmeriyatFallujah.contributedtothisreport.

Liz Sly is the Posts Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East,
including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.

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