Thanks to its rapid expansion across the Middle East, the Islamic State, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has become a hot topic in the news. Its goal of creating a new Caliphate has captured the focus of governments around the world as they scramble to figure out how the Islamic State threatens them and how they can mitigate that threat. For all the talk, however, scarce little has been done to stop the Islamic State from its goal.
This past week, the Islamic State has made gains on opposite sides of its dominion, pushing into Lebanon even as it displaces Yazidis in Iraq from the area around Sinjar. Even amid reports of retreats from several villages in eastern Syria and positions near Mosul, these gains are significant in their own respects.
Push into Lebanon:
Invading Lebanon, should such happen outright, would drag Lebanon further into the Syrian conflict and provide the Islamic State the potential for a greater pool of fighters. Anger over sectarian violence perpetuated by Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has been rife in some Sunni neighborhoods in Lebanon, and with the Lebanese party Hezbollah playing a direct role in assisting Mr. Assad, Lebanese Sunnis with a taste for revenge may see their opportunity by joining the Islamic State. Even if they do not go voluntarily, the Islamic State has shown its penchant for conscripting young men, sometimes forcibly, anyway. The Islamic State has demonstrated it is a master of manipulating sectarian warfare through its Iraqi campaign and it may seek to replicate that success in Lebanon. Though the circumstances are different (a lot of Islamic State fighters are native Iraqi), the appetite is there. However, it should be noted that the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's official group in Syria, has a much larger presence in Lebanon than the Islamic State. The two have also been fighting alongside together in Arsal: Read more here.
Establishing a presence in Lebanon would be a massive propaganda boost for the Islamic State, so it makes sense for the group to go for it – the more land the Islamic State can claim to dominate, the greater its appeal to extremists worldwide becomes. Lebanon is just another piece in the goal of expanding the Caliphate. Other short term pieces include countries like Jordan, where the Islamic State is likely infiltrating sympathizers in alongside refugees to stir up trouble. What better way to convert people into believers of Mr. Baghdadi’s cause than to show the Islamic State still gaining land even as international powers try to craft a way to stop it? Even countries as far away asIndonesia are worried that the Islamic State could inspire renewed extremism.
The push into Lebanon can aid the Islamic State in terms of manpower and propaganda. The takeover of Sinjar aids it in another way. While the Islamic State is risking a massive counteraction by regional powers through displacing Yazidis into nearby mountains where they lack the means to survive, the Islamic State has gained a strategic victory in the fighting west of Mosul.
Capturing the Mosul Dam:
Crucially, the extremist group has reportedly taken control of the country’s largest hydroelectric dam, giving it far more leverage over Mosul and even the country. Dislodging it from the dam can prove tricky, for excessive damage to the dam could cause “catastrophic” flooding according to a US report.
Taking the Mosul Dam is part of a familiar strategy of the Islamic State’s. The extremist group has constantly sought to contest energy sources, like oil fields, and major areas of transit by capturing highways. Decisive defeats against an enemy army can win a war, but against an Iraqi army that has chosen to retreat rather than fight (and in truth is far larger than the Islamic State and so theoretically should be able to win a direct battle), the Islamic State can win the war by capturing strategic locations to constrict the Iraqi government rather than running around looking for an army to butt heads with. It can also bolster its coffers in the process, adding on to its ability to fund itself through internal production. If nothing else, say a major counter-offensive were to occur, the Islamic State now at least has more bargaining chips with
which to strengthen its case.
In the early days of the invasion of Mosul, the Islamic State’s doom seemed like a given. If not to occur at the hands of any number of regional governments and militias that oppose the organization, the wisdom was that the extremist group would collapse due to internal inadequacy. I have constantly supported the narrative that there is evidence to suggest that the Islamic State’s grip is tenuous, but that its downfall is anything but certain. These recent advances confirm that, if left largely to its own devices, the Islamic State will only grow stronger rather than weaker