ISIS militants on Sept. 17 detonated explosive charges to destroy the Citadel of Tikrit, birthplace of Salahaddin Ayubi (popularly rendered Saladin), one of the most important archeological sites in Iraq. Iornically, Saladin is a revered figure in Islam, who liberated much of Palestine from the Crusaders and recaptured Jerusalem for the Muslims in 1187. But ISIS charged that the place is revered as a shrine, and the fact that Saladin was Kurdish may have added to their intolerance of the site's veneration. Since seizing northern Iraq. ISIS have bombed many cultural, archeological and holy places of all the region's religions, including the tomb of the Prophet Younis in Mosul, the tomb of Baba Yadgar in Kakayi and other holy places of the Yazidis and Christians. (BasNews, IraqiNews, DiHA, PUKMedia, Sept. 17) ISIS is so extreme in its rejection of "idolatry" that it has even announced its aim to destroy the Kaaba, Islam's most sacred site. This may backfire and eventually lead to a Sunni uprising against ISIS in their areas of control. Meanwhile, cultural treasures are being lost every day.
In extremely disturbing news, ISIS seized control over 21 Kurdish villages in northern Syria after fierce battles with local PPK-aligned YPG militias, resulting in a large number of casualties. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other local sources, ISIS used heavy artillery, rockets and tank shells in its attack on the town of Kobani (Ain Arab), Halab (Aleppo) governorate. (IraqiNews.com, DİHA, Sept. 18)
The US House of Representatives on Sept. 17 approved President Obama's plan to train and equip what the media persist on calling "moderate" Syrian rebels. The Senate is expected to follow suit. News accounts were unclear on whether this means the Free Syrian army or the "moderate" Islamist factions that the US has opened dialogue with. In any case, it is clear that the aim is, as the Washington Post put it, "to counter the growing threat of the Islamic State organization" —in other words, not the dictatorship of Bashar Assad. Ironically, there was greater Republican than Democratic support for the vote, reflecting the cynical stance of "progressives" (sic) on the Syrian war.
French President Francois Hollande on Sept. 12 became the first European head of state to visit President Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil, pledging his support for the KRG's struggle against ISIS. (Kurdish Globe, Sept. 15)
Backed by Western powers, the KRG's Peshmerga forces have made gains against ISIS in northern Iraq. But Kurds on the Syrian side of the border clearly feel betrayed. "How can NATO stand silent when they have Patriot batteries on the border and IS is exploiting this border?" asked Seydo Girespi, the YPG commander responsible for the defense east of Kobani. "It is clear that NATO does not want to fight terrorism." (Rudaw, Sept. 17)
Many residents in Raqqa, the de facto ISIS capital in Syria, are moving away from known ISIS targets in the city center, in anticipation of US air-strikes. But it maye not help. Theodore Karasik, research director at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), told Syria Deeply website: "Based on what we've seen from airstrikes by the Syrian regime, ISIS is putting civilians into areas that are next to key buildings of the ISIS government. ISIS is also beginning to disperse itself and its military hardware into civilian areas. The purpose is just like in any other conflict—to make sure that these civilians are being used as human shields. This is a tactic that many non-state actors have used to make sure that if there's any collateral damage, civilians are casualties. And then those numbers can be published in ISIS media."
Human Rights Watch meanwhile called on the Iraqi government to investigate an air-strike that hit a school housing displaced people in ISIS-held territory near Tikrit on Sept. 1. The attack killed at least 31 civilians, including 24 children, and wounded 41 others. According to three survivors, no ISIS fighters or other military targets were in or around the school at the time. "Iraq's allies in the fight against ISIS need to put pressure on Baghdad to stop this kind of violence," said Fred Abrahams, special adviser to the rights group. "ISIS is incredibly brutal, but that's no excuse for what the Iraqi government is doing."
On Sept. 13, new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered Iraq's air force to "halt shelling of civilian areas even in those towns controlled by ISIS." Human Rights Watch applauded the move, but said accountability for unlawful attacks is still needed. (HRW, Sept. 14)