This year’s interview with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on the anniversary of the end of the Second Lebanon War focused on the new danger preoccupying the Mideast’s power brokers: the Islamic State’s expanding reach. Compared to this extreme Sunni faction, even Shi’ite Hezbollah seems moderate.
Nasrallah described the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) as a monster heading toward Jordan and Saudi Arabia. He called on the Arab world to unite and oppose this threat.
But Nasrallah is apparently more worried about two other fronts on which the Islamic State has made progress – north-central Iraq and the Syrian-Lebanese border. Hezbollah, a relatively small force of around 20,000 fighters, has had to stretch itself to the limits at the behest of its Iranian patrons.
According to some reports, more than 1,000 Hezbollah fighters were sent to Iraq to help the Iraqi army thwart attacks by the Islamic State. Another 3,000 fighters are permanently in Syria, protecting President Bashar Assad’s regime against Sunni organizations, among which the Islamic State is the most threatening.
If that weren’t enough for Hezbollah, the trouble has spilled into Lebanon. Extremist Sunni groups have been attacking Hezbollah for two years, and recently the Islamic State launched a surprise attack and briefly overran the town of Arsal on the Syrian border. To repel the foray, Hezbollah and the Lebanese army, which have been collaborating more closely, had to move units from the Israeli border to the Bekaa Valley and Syria border.
Nasrallah continues to verbally attack Israel and praise the Gazans for battling it. For now these are just words unlikely to be followed by action. Nasrallah’s main problem, which is also facing Iran, Syria and Iraq’s Shi’ite government (all part of the Iran-led Shi’ite sphere of interest), is the ISIS effect.
This concern is shared by the moderate Sunni states — Jordan, Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf States. Egypt and to some extent Israel, which has grown closer to this camp over the past year, are worried about the Islamic State’s crazed onslaught across Iraq and Syria.
Israeli analysts attribute its military success to two factors: unusual mobility aided by simple yet effective firepower, and sophisticated psychological warfare marked by increasingly extreme behavior.
The Islamic State has repeatedly launched surprise attacks with small forces deep into the desert. It uses four-wheel-drive pickup trucks and jeeps carrying large gasoline tanks and old Russian-made machine guns. This was enough to collapse the Iraqi, Syrian and Kurdish defenses. With its successes, the organization has gotten hold of its rivals’ armored personnel carriers, tanks and other equipment.
It has crossed difficult desert and mountainous terrain, surprising its enemies deep inside Syria, Kurdistan and even reaching south of Baghdad last month. Arab media have compared it to the Mongolian horsemen who overran the Arab world in the 13th century and whose leader Hulagu Khan — a grandson of Ghengis Khan — took Baghdad and caused the decline of Iraq.
According to an article by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Islamic State started out with only 15,000 fighters. It then forged a network of alliances with central Iraqi Sunni tribes that feel they’re not getting enough of Iraq’s oil revenues. The organization also relies on former Sunni soldiers and officers from Saddam Hussein’s army that fell to the American-led coalition in 2003.
The effect of the rapid mobility is enhanced by the fighters’ extreme determination. It’s not only a fanatic ideology but also a willingness to sacrifice akin to a suicide bomber. All these elements are combined in a murderous campaign that has created hundreds of thousands of refugees.
The videotaped executions and beheadings, the methodical massacres of other sects and reports on the rape and abduction of women have an objective beyond sadism. They clear vast areas of people.
The group’s advance has roused Western nations, leading to U.S. air strikes originally meant to save the Yazidi people and U.S. diplomats. This effort has now been expanded to protect a dam near Mosul. There are worries that vast areas will be flooded if this dam is opened. European nations, meanwhile, are assisting the Kurds.
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