A Syrian Payoff For ISIS Assault In Iraq?

The Islamist radical group's conquests in Iraq could help it take control of parts of eastern and northern Syria it had been forced to abandon.

ISIS fighters in Syria in a photo taken last year
ISIS fighters in Syria in a photo taken last year
Karen Leigh

Last Wednesday, images surfaced of militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) driving U.S.-made Humvees across the Iraqi border, into the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. If confirmed, the photos would offer further evidence that the border between Iraq and Syria is now an open road for ISIS fighters hoping to establish a Sunni caliphate in the region.

To the leaders of the extremist group, the battles in Iraq and Syria are part of a single fight.

Analysts say the financial and strategic spoils of ISIS's capture of Mosul and Tikrit could provide a significant, nearly unstoppable boon to its Syrian arm, helping turn the tide in the months-long battle for Deir Ezzor.

"The weapons and money that they're gaining through the takeover of Mosul and other areas in Iraq can be used not only to consolidate what they're doing in Iraq, but to send money back into Syria," says Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who studies the Syrian jihad.

Zelin says the resources could help their operations not only in Deir Ezzor, but eventually to push further into the northern part of country, including the cities of Aleppo and Idlib, where they'd been pushed back.

Since late March, Deir Ezzor has seen relentless fighting between ISIS and their main rivals for supremacy in eastern Syria, the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. Control of the sprawling oil fields in the resource-rich province is a top priority for both groups. In April, the Carnegie Endowment estimated that Syrian oil sales, much of them from the province, are still hitting up to $50 million per month. Some of the oil from Deir Ezzor is smuggled to markets in Aleppo, implying that it transits through ISIS-controlled territory in Raqqa.

A nonexistent border

Since its emergence in Syria in 2012, ISIS has been moving fighters, weapons and goods across the Iraq-Syria border. Between Hassakeh province, on the Syrian side, and Nineveh in Iraq, it has effectively dominated land routes since last summer.

North of Deir Ezzor, "the border has been porous for some time, and ISIS has been able to use it with impunity," says Aymenn al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Center who studies Syrian military dynamics. "If they capture the province, it makes it all the easier for them to move freely between Iraq and Syria."

The synergies of a growing presence in Syria and a consolidating base in Iraq have strengthened the group's hand in both countries. "The spoils from Iraq definitely give them additional military and financial resources to devote here. The tide of battle has turned to ISIS as they push deeper into Deir Ezzor."

Valerie Szybala, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who focuses on Deir Ezzor and the eastern provinces, isn't convinced the border is gone, but says it is clearly not well enforced right now.

"The Syrian regime has little to no presence there, and they're not going to step up and do anything about this now," she says. "Iraqi security forces are not up to the task. The only bulwark against ISIS now is the Kurds from neighboring Hassakeh. "ISIS really has a lot of freedom of movement right now. You can't normally just roll a tank from Iraq into Deir Ezzor through an official border checkpoint."

For ISIS, the fusing of controlled territory from Deir Ezzor to Mosul is a major step towards its stated goal of creating a unified Sunni caliphate in the region.

"The conflicts in Iraq and Syria have long been fusing," says Peter Harling, the Damascus-based project director for the International Crisis Group's Middle East program. "ISIS operates across the border and steps up its activities on one side when it feels either empowered or under pressure on the other. The frontier line is eroding."

ISIS expansion

The organization, which Western officials now consider more dangerous than al-Qaeda, is run by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a merchant's son regarded as the ideological heir to late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

In Syria, ISIS has made the city of Raqqa its de facto capital, taking over the city last year. But it has struggled in recent campaigns to expand the area it controls.

ISIS faltered its bid to wrest control of terrain from Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel groups, and its attempts to implement an ultra-conservative form of religious law has been met with resistance from Syrian civilians.

Women are now forced to wear head-to-toe Islamic dress when out in public, while cigarettes and Western products such as Coca-Cola have largely been banned. Earlier this year, civilians in Raqqa began to protest after the reported hangings of Syrian journalists and activists, accused of criticizing ISIS rule. Across the north and east, the group's violent tactics both on and off the battlefield have made them increasingly unpopular.

"We've seen them do well in Syria before, in Idlib and Aleppo, and then there's backlash and they get kicked out," Zelin says. "They have a lot of enemies everywhere. So far, because of the general destabilization in Syria and Iraq, they've been successful. But that doesn't mean they'll have momentum."

For now, the group is claiming that it's already reaping the rewards of this week's Iraq advance.

"On Twitter, they've had pictures that they claim are American tanks from Iraq being brought into Deir Ezzor and inspected by their leaders there," Szybala says. "They claim they are already getting benefits from the spoils of Iraq."

The gains could push the Syrian army into action against ISIS. Analysts say that Iran, President Bashar al-Assad"s most important regional ally, is insisting that he take action. Iran, a Shiite power, and ISIS, a Sunni insurgency, have rival goals in the power battle of Syria's war.

Szybala says there are signs the regime is beginning to take on ISIS, attacking the group's strongholds in Raqqa and Hassakah earlier this week.

"If that's really happening, I don't think it's just for show," Szybala says. "This is partly Iran's game, and now that ISIS is proving itself to have real military power and to be a trans-national threat, Iran can't afford that and would be pushing the regime to finally take action. ISIS is acting like an army now."

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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