ISIS Faces Big Setback in Iraq

Iraqi’s Kurds scored a major victory today, retaking the Northern Iraqi City of Sinjar from ISIS. Kurdish troops, known as Peshmerga, spent two days fighting to reclaim Sinjar’s fifty square miles of territory with the support of US airstrikes. Sinjar is a key point on the road to Mosul. Iraq’s military hopes that holding Sinjar will help choke of the flow of supplies to Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Mosul has been held by militants since June 2014. Kurdistan is jubilant to see a victory over ISIS. Massoud Barzani, the president of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, told fighters in Sinjar. “It’s time for the Yazidi girls to raise their heads up. Revenge has been taken for them.”

ISIS also saw setbacks in Syria today. A coalition of Syrian fighters known as the Democratic Forces of Syria, took over the ISIS-hold village of Hols. This was the latest in a series of small victories for the collation, which is armed by the US and includes Arab Christians, Turkish Kurd forces, and Syrian Arabs. Also opposing ISIS is a coalition of Hezbollah, Syrian government forces, and supported by the Russians. Yesterday, the government coalition took the town of Hader from ISIS, giving them control of most of Aleppo province. 

The Middle East, however, is nothing if not complex, and the influence of ISIS is bigger than Syria and Kurdistan.  ISIS has taken credit for three suicide bombings in the last 48 hours. Two successive bombings took place at a Hezbollah-supported community center in Beirut today, killing 43 people and injuring at least 240. In Baghdad, ISIS claims credit for a suicide bombing at the funeral of a member of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Eighteen people were killed. The PMU (and the Pershmerga) are probably the most effective forces fighting ISIS in Iraq; ISIS explicitly stated that the bombing was aimed at the PMU. Hezbollah has taken a strong role fighting ISIS in Syria; the Beirut bombing looks like revenge too.

One more element of the complexity of the Middle East: almost every actor in this conflict has an ugly history. The PMU is backed by Iran, and has been accused of war crimes by Amnesty International. The Kurdish forces fighting with the Democratic Forces of Syria had to form a special splinter group to avoid the terrorist designation that applies to Turkey’s Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK.  Syrian rebels have been implicated in any number of horrors. Not to mention Iran, Hezbollah, and the Assad government.

ISIS, however, is the only one which has been officially declared to be genocidal. The US Holocaust Museum released a report today that stated, “We believe Islamic State has been and is perpetrating genocide against the Yazidi people.” This follows a trip by Holocaust Museum to bear witness and examine ISIS atrocities. 

The victory against ISIS in Sinjar has both symbolic and strategic importance. It was the sight of the genocide against the Yazidi people last year, and the town is at a key crossroads linking disparate parts of ISIS controlled territory. But even with today’s victory, millions of people in Syria and Iraq, including several hundred thousand in Mosul, live under ISIS’s brutal grip.