After months of sweeping across Iraq, ISIS may have come significantly closer to its goal of forming a "Caliphate" in Iraq and Syria. It is armed with weapons, armoured personnel carriers and artillery left behind by Iraqi troops as they fled from the fate of their dead comrades-in-arms. The Syrian district of Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, is now feeling an ISIS push against Kurdish armed groups. MEMO spoke to Human Rights Watch's Syria researcher Lama Fakih, who verified a "significant number of casualties" during this recent "mission".
ISIS is gaining ground in several Kurdish villages in north-eastern Syria, from Raqqa in the east in a curve over Idlib and Aleppo to Latakia in the west, met with hearty force by non-state armed groups.
The chilling photos of ISIS fighters' brutal execution of Iraqi soldiers in massive trenches, which went viral, was only part of the story seen by the international community. Over 100 Kurdish children were taken hostage by the group recently and massacres of civilians in Kurdish areas in northern Syria continue to be a possibility, Fakih told MEMO. Women have experienced harsh discrimination, harassment and ill-treatment under the "rule" of the groups. "Regulations have been forcefully implemented that curtail religious freedom and, especially, women's rights and their ability to move freely," Fakih confirmed.
MEMO spoke to Yanar Mohammed, President of the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), who told of an incredibly precarious situation for women. "The women fled their towns overnight when ISIS and Shia militias were fighting... One of the women woke up to ISIS storming into her house in Telafar, killing her husband and 8 year old son, and kidnapping her 14 year old daughter," Mohammed explained. She also gave information about the countless "raids" ISIS had conducted at her shelter in their search for "war brides" (young women abducted and used as sex slaves for the fighters). "Our supporters found one woman traumatised in Karbala, with torn clothes. She is waiting for relatives to come and take her to Baghdad," she said.
International and sectarian threats of ISIS
Mustafa Osso, a Turkey-based Kurdish activist who has wide contacts in northern Syria, told Al-Arabiya that the Kobani area is key for ISIS to link up their position in eastern Syria. Iraq's ambassador to the UN, Mohamed Ali Alhakim, revealed the played-down yet significant threat of the 40kg of uranium kept at Mosul University when he met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier this month. ISIS captured Mosul on June 10, including the largest oil refinery, Baiji, having held the Raqqa oil fields since November. Raqqa is said to hold about 17 per cent of Iraq's oil reserves. With Syria's largest oil field at Al-Omar coming under ISIS control on July 3, the group is establishing itself economically in the region as it sells oil on the black market.
Osso told MEMO that those standing against ISIS are members of the People's Protection Units, the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, commonly known as the YPG. "We have called for support from Kurds around the world," said Khalil, an official with the party.
An ever-growing fear for politicians in Baghdad and international powers is the division of Iraq along sectarian lines; it would have ramifications regionally and internationally. As foreign fighters within ISIS are gradually being replaced by Sunni military groups, the organisation is gaining ground against the disorganised Iraqi army. Authoritarian rulers in Iraq have for decades used sectarianism as a divide and rule ploy, pitting Sunni against Shia, and contesting the legitimacy of a Kurdish State of Northern Iraq.
It is thus no wonder that many fighters from the mixed make-up of the Iraqi army refuse to fight, and flee when they come under attack by the Sunni hardliners of ISIS. Danish correspondent Puk Damsgaard reported from Baghdad how sporadic attacks by ISIS within the Iraqi capital have taken place for quite some time but are not yet viewed as an actual threat. A large part of the Iraqi army fought alongside soldiers loyal to the Syrian regime and are therefore more battle-hardened and ready to fight, using tactics arguably no less extreme than ISIS.
Around 25 per cent of ISIS is made up of foreign fighters, from across the region as well as from Western countries. It is a predominantly Sunni organisation, whose aim is to terrorise its way to victory, starting in the Middle East but also boasting of a potential attack in New York. "We'll see you in New York," they once bragged to US troops. Naser Khader, a Hudson Institute researcher, told of ISIS having 500 suicide bombers, all "ready" to sacrifice their lives in order to control Sunni-majority areas of Syria and then threaten the West.
On this basis, HRW's Fakih stressed the international community's responsibility to ensure that there is no cooperation with and absolutely no support for ISIS. "It is important that neighbouring countries have strict border policies in order to prevent foreign fighters joining the group," insisted Fakih. Any potential financial links or partners should be investigated thoroughly to avoid military support of any kind for ISIS. Human Rights Watch says that countries who provide any kind of support to this group will be complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity.