After a month of conflict, the ISIL paramilitaries in Iraq have gained control of substantial territory but have little prospect of making much further progress. A week ago there was a possibility that they would try to overrun Baghdad (see "Iraq, days of danger", 3 July 2014). Since then, however, three factors have come to the fore to counter this.
The first is that a number of determined Shi’a militias have organised themselves to oppose further ISIL advances (see “The Iraq Crisis Part IV): Into the Second Month", Oxford Research Group, 9 July 2014).
The second is an increase in foreign military support for the Iraqi government. Russian Su-25 attack-aircraft have been delivered and further Su-25s from Iran have been operating against rebel forces, including some piloted by Iranians (one of whom was killed in combat).
The third factor is that the United States is quietly increasing its forces, which now include Apache helicopter-gunships and drones operating out of Baghdad international airport. In addition the US carrier George H W Bush, operating with its battle-group of a cruiser and five destroyers in the Gulf, has been reinforced by an entire Amphibious Ready Group led by the USS Bataan with a thousand marines of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit on board, and accompanied by two more amphibious-warfare shops, the USS Gunston Hall and the USS Mesa Verde.
These forces are designed to provide considerable resources should US diplomats and other civilians be threatened. But the presence of such a large combined force, including those now in Baghdad, means that if ISIL did put Baghdad at risk the US - along with the Iranians - would make it far more difficult for the group to advance into the city.
The Iraqi balance
In the areas of conflict in Iraq, three important strategic sites remain contested: the Haditha dam complex on the Euphrates, the Baiji oil-refinery and the huge Balad air-base with all its weapons and munitions. The Haditha complex remains under government control, at least for now; ISIL controls the Baiji refinery, though it may not be possible to operate it successfully with government forces nearby; ISIL has not overrun the Balad base, but is sufficiently close to prevent the Iraqi armed forces using it.
At first sight, then, ISIL is facing a stalemate in Iraq. Yet it is becoming clear that the Iraqi government forces alone cannot regain ISIL-controlled territory. That view has been expressed by the chair of the US joint chiefs-of-staff, General Martin Dempsey, implying that the US aim is more modest: to ensure that ISIL is contained, not defeated (see Andrew Tilghman, “Dempsey: Iraqi military can’t regain lost territory on its own”, Military Times, 3 July 2014).
ISIL is already adapting to the situation, not least because other rebel groups across the border are now joining it to oppose the Bashar al-Assad regime. Yet it still faces major problems: the declaration of an Islamist caliphate cannot disguise the fact that it has only progressed so far in Iraq because of cooperation with more secular groups, including Ba’athists.
It will now seek to plan and organise for the long term, attempting to set itself up as the natural leader of Islamist resistance to the (from its perspective) unacceptable non-Islamist regimes across the region, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
This is no small task, and in the ordinary way would not have too much of a chance of progress. But it may be helped by the confluence of events in Israel and Palestine, especially Gaza. The reality is that what is now happening in Gaza is closely connected to ISIL’s future prospects - an aspect of the region that is very largely missed by western analysts.
The Israeli factor
The kidnapping of three young Israeli men in the occupied territories on 12 June 2014, who were subsequently murdered) led to extensive Israeli security sweeps across the West Bank, killing and injuring Palestinians. From these origins has developed a confrontation with Hamas in Gaza, leading to an Israel reaction that has involved air-attacks on 550 sites in Gaza in seventy-two hours, including the homes of all the Hamas brigade commanders. Over fifty Palestinians have been killed and scores injured.
The assault has so far failed to stop the firing of scores of crude unguided rockets, some of which have the range to reach well beyond Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. This is resulting in deep frustration among Israeli political leaders, who now face the unwelcome prospect of having to order a full-scale ground invasion and possible temporary occupation of Gaza.
Israel can be described as being “impregnable in its insecurity” see "Israel's security complex", 28 July 2011). In regional terms it is nothing less than a superpower - the only state with nuclear weapons and an advanced air-force that can strike at targets over 1,600 kilometres away. Yet it is facing opponents armed with crude weapons that nevertheless induce fear, and this fear is felt not just by people living very close to Gaza but extending to most of the country's population.
It is a thoroughly unpalatable situation for Binyamin Netanyahu's government, one highly likely to produce even greater Israeli force. This would be very welcome to ISIL communicators and, indeed, to Islamist propagandists right across the Middle East and beyond.
Western observers may see it as an issue that is primarily internal to Israel and Palestine, but this is not how it is viewed in the region. Much more common is the view that Israel is an outpost of the west, working intimately with a United States whose foreign military assistance programmes bankroll Israel's military.
Indeed, when Apache gunships and F-16 strike-aircraft are used by the Israeli air-force in Gaza, they are readily seen as US weapons in the hands of what is merely a local surrogate - Israel. This may seem unfair, given that Barack Obama is being far more cautious than George W Bush, but it is the uncomfortable reality. The blunt truth is that ISIL's media operators, always with an eye to the long-term, will be earnestly hoping that Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza will exceed Operation Cast Lead, the three-week conflict in 2008-09 that killed well over 1,000 Palestinians and wounded 5,000.
Israel may calculate that it has no alternative to the use of considerable force in Gaza - and this may even extend to Lebanon if Hizbollah gets involved. The view from Jerusalem is that this is an eminently reasonable internal response to the actions of a terrorist organisation. The long-term consequences, though, may stretch well beyond Israel.
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