ISIS gains ground as diplomats dither

The New York Times offers this sobering lede on the anti-ISIS summit now underway: "With Islamist militant fighters on the ground in Syria and Iraq moving faster than the international coalition arrayed against them, a meeting in Paris by coalition members on Tuesday seemed unlikely to reverse the momentum anytime soon. With the French and American governments playing host, 24 foreign ministers or their representatives have been meeting here in the aftermath of serious losses to the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria last month and the possibility that more territory will be lost in the coming days." Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose forces are virtually collapsing, was of course on hand to appeal for more aid. (Reuters) Disgracefully, no Kurdish leaders were invited to the summit—despite the fact that Kurdish forces have been by far most effective on the ground against ISIS. "The [Iraqi] federal government didn't invite any representative from Kurdistan to the Paris meeting and have participated in this gathering alone," reads a statement from the Kurdish Regional Government. "The Peshmerga are the only forces that have so far bravely battled the terrorists and driven them out of our territories." (IBT) Needless to say, no representatives of the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Syria were invited either.

Trying to put a good face on it, US deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken told French radio that over 10,000 ISIS fighters have been killed since the coalition began its air campaign nine months ago. "We have seen a lot of losses within Daesh since the start of this campaign, more than 10,000," Blinken said , using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. "It will end up having an impact." (Al Arabiya, June 3) The number strikes us as inflated.

ISIS advances on Aleppo, Hassakeh
ISIS has meanwhile mounted a major assault on the predominantly Kurdish city of Hassakeh in the northeast Syrian governorate of the same name, where Kurdish and allied forces have been making gains against ISIS in recent weeks. The provincial capital itself seems to be held by a mix of Kurdish and pro-regime forces in an uneasy de facto alliance. (Before the ISIS advance on the city, the Kurdish and pro-regime forces had been battling each other.) The Syrian air force is said to be taking part in the battle for the city. (AP, June 3) The Kurdish forces are in a more formal alliance with the anti-regime Free Syrian Army (FSA) against ISIS in northern Syria.

In Aleppo, in contrast, the Assad regime appears to be in a de facto alliance with ISIS. With ISIS advancing on the city (which is divded into areas of control by rebel and regime forces), the Damascus regime is bombing the FSA and other rebel forces defending the city. Writes the New York Times: "Syrian opposition leaders accused the Syrian government of essentially collaborating with the Islamic State, leaving the militants unmolested as they pressed a surprise offensive against other insurgent groups—even though the government and the Islamic State are nominal enemies—and instead striking the rival insurgents."

ISIS waits on cultural cleansing of Palmyra 
France24 notes that ISIS is engaged in a public relations effort over the fate of Palmyra, the ancient city it has seized in central Syria. The account too credulously quotes an ISIS commander named as Abu Leith in comments to an opposition Syria radio station: "Concerning the historical city, we will preserve it and it will not be damaged, God willing, but what we will do is destroy the statues that the infidels used to pray to. As for the historical monuments, we will not touch them with our bulldozers as some tend to believe." First, the notion that only statues will be destroyed is not exactly comforting. Secondly, in the widespread media relief that the ruins of Palmyra have not (yet) been destroyed, it is forgotten that ISIS was in control of Mosul for several months before it began destroying the archaeological sites of Hatra and Nimrud. The militants are probably waiting to consolidate their control over the area before beginning the destruction.

The account offers an explanation as to what happened to the detainees at Tadmur prison in Palmyra, which was destroyed by ISIS, claiming that the Damascus regime transferred all of the prisoners before the jihadists took over.

Michael Danti, the academic director of the Syrian Heritage Initiative at the American Schools of Oriental Research in Boston, encouragingly told Science that sources in Palmyra informed him that most of the artifacts at the Palmyra museum were removed before ISIS arrived. But he added that what might remain are the large statues and bas-reliefs affixed to the museum's walls. (Science, May 28)

ISIS wthholds Euphrates waters
ISIS is once again reported to be using water as a weapon of war, closing the gates of a dam on the Euphrates River in the Iraqi city of Ramadi which the jihadis seized last month. The move lowered the level of the Euphrates and cut water supplies to the areas of Khaldiyah and Habbaniyah to the east—some of the last held by pro-government forces in Anbar governorate. "Cutting the water to Khaldiyah and Habbaniyah will lead to a major humanitarian crisis," said Sheikh Rafa al-Fahdawi, a leader of the Albu Fahad tribe, which is fighting ISIS.

Aoun Dhiyab, a former head of the Iraqi water resources department and an expert in water issues, said "the goal of [ISIS] is not to cut the water, but to reduce the level, to take advantage of it for military purposes. When the water level is reduced, it allows them to infiltrate from Ramadi to Khaldiyah and then easily move to other areas." But we again fear this could be morale-boosting denialism. A counter-offensive to retake Ramadi has not yet entered the city. AFP says the stalled campaign is being led by "Iraqi forces," but this actually means Shi'ite militias loyal to the Baghdad government—not the official Iraqi army, whose forces collapsed when a numerically inferior ISIS force seized the city last month.