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How ISIS’ Attacks Harm the Middle East

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 11/28/2015 Mina Al-Oraibi
A national flag waves on an Iraqi Army Abrams tank as Iraqi forces, supported by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, advance their position during clashes with Islamic State group in the western suburbs of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015.: A national flag waves on a tank as Iraqi forces, supported by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, advance their position on Saturday during clashes with Islamic State group in the western suburbs of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province. © Osama Sami/AP A national flag waves on a tank as Iraqi forces, supported by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, advance their position on Saturday during clashes with Islamic State group in the western suburbs of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province.

Paris. Baghdad. Beirut. Sharm el-Sheikh. Ankara. In striking these cities in the last several weeks, the Islamic State group has made it clear that it's raising the stakes. 

On Nov. 13, the same day as the Paris attacks, the jihadi terrorist organization carried out an attack that claimed 26 lives in Baghdad. On Nov. 12, bombings in Beirut left 43 dead. A month earlier, 100 Turks were killed after a bombing targeted a rally in Ankara. Meanwhile, the attack on the Russian Metrojet flights on Oct. 31 killed all 244 on board. While no proof has been presented that all of these atrocities were coordinated by the group's leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State group is keen to present it as one concerted effort.

The attacks came in quick succession for maximum psychological impact; like the beheadings broadcast in 2014, the sheer brutality is terrifying. Nadim Shehadi, Director of the Fares Center for East Mediterranean Studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, warns against "a comfortable approach" of attributing all of the attacks to the Islamic State group, as it has various factions within it, even though it has made a point to claim responsibility for all of the attacks. 

The weekend of the Paris attacks witnessed three noteworthy developments. First, this was the largest attack in a Western city carried out by at least one militant trained in Syria, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, and it was timed close to attacks in Baghdad and Beirut to fuel sectarian flames. Second, members of the International Syria Support Group, meeting in Vienna, are united in the desire to end the civil war in Syria, even if they cannot yet agree on how to do so. While still distant, that goal would weaken the militants eventually. Third, the Islamic State group was ejected from the strategic town of Sinjar by Kurdish militias supported by U.S. troops on the ground.

Taken together, those three developments are a microcosm of the many complexities related to the jihadists. In both Iraq and Syria, the jihadists have lost ground. Turkey has tightened its borders. Gulf financiers have been named and sanctioned by the United Nations, and 8,216 airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition since August 2014 are taking their toll.

Pressure was mounting on the terrorist group, also known as ISIS, and Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens from the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation believes it was just a matter of time before they expanded their attacks. "Like most global jihadist groups, ISIS was eventually going to pose a direct threat to both its local region and the West," he said. "Now that they are under greater military pressure, they will likely step up their international terror campaign."

While airstrikes have significantly curtailed the Islamic State group's advances, ground assaults have had the greatest impact. Instrumental to the terrorist group's survival is the movement of fighters between Syria and Iraq. U.S. forces provided strategic guidance to Kurdish forces that were able to seize the main road between Mosul and Raqqa. The coalition was able to cut off part of the terrorists' main supply route. YPG forces in Syria seized the main Tal Abyad crossing between Syria and Turkey in June and are advancing on the last checkpoint the terrorists control on that border.

But even as their strongholds are attacked, the terrorist group and its followers look to influence international political discussions to end the stalemate in Syria. The Paris attacks occurred just hours before the second round of Vienna talks, a political process that could pull the rug from under the militants' feet if successful. The move could breathe new life into Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's regime. Rami Jarrah, a Syrian activist in Aleppo explains: "Russia target ISIS, however it is and will always be very careful that its effectiveness in doing so is not powerful enough to defeat it before it defeats Al-Assad's opposition."

Al-Assad is content to have "the war against terror" take center-stage. In an interview with Italian state television, he said any timetable to start the political transition "starts after starting to defeat terrorism." This can also be said for Iraq, where certain sectarian militias, like Badr Brigades supported by Iran, do not benefit from the elimination of the Islamic State group until they are fully in command. Using the terrorists as a fig leaf to cover the lack of responsibility for protecting civilians has played into the hands of the militants on all sides.

When it is stumbling militarily, the Islamic State group depends on fueling sectarianism and hatred to maintain morale among its fighters. This is how the attack during the funeral of a Shiite militia fighter in Baghdad on Nov. 13 fits into their tactics. More mosques, gatherings and funerals have been targeted in Iraq. The UN estimated 714 Iraqis were killed in acts of terrorism and armed conflict in October. In Beirut, the Shiite-majority Dhahiya suburb has been targeted several times since the start of the Syrian war, though the Nov. 12 suicide bombings were the first since June 2014.

In its typically cold and calculating way, the Islamic State group banks on voices of fear and hatred to rise in order to reignite the flames of sectarianism and extremism, filling the pipeline with more jihadists. Attacks on Muslims in the Middle East only add fuel to the fire; Republican calls to discriminate against Muslims in the West fan the flames.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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