ISIS is not squandering its momentum after its capture of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. Reports are emerging that Syrian government forces withdrew from the town of al-Tanf ahead of an ISIS advance, giving up their control of the final border crossing point with Iraq. The fall of al-Tanf allows ISIS to more easily link up its holdings in Iraq’s Al Anbar province with its holdings in Syria’s Homs province. By some measures, ISIS now controls 50% of Syria. And although much of the territory under its control is strategically insignificant, nevertheless the scenario many have feared since the rise of ISIS—that the group would be able to carve a geographically coherent, Sunni-majority state out of the wreck of Iraq and Syria—has grown much closer this week.
Meanwhile, while ISIS is consolidating the Sunni heartlands in Iraq and Syria, it’s fomenting religious division in Saudi Arabia, where it claimed responsibility this afternoon for the suicide bombing of a Shi’a mosque in the Kingdom’s Eastern Province during midday prayers that killed as many as 10 people. An attack like this both strengthens ISIS’ claim to be a pan-Sunni, anti-Shi’a “defense” force and sows division within what ISIS would see as a rival for the leadership of the Sunni world, Saudi Arabia. ISIS last struck in that region in November.
President Obama, who is still insisting that American boots on the ground are out of the question, is facing increasingly widespread criticism of his strategy to confront ISIS, with the normally cautious Financial Times publishing an editorial this morning lambasting the events of the week that the President called “a tactical setback” as actually “potentially a disaster”.
Could this all have been avoided, and what are some better options for combating ISIS, you ask? Well, dear readers, our next issue, heading to the printers early next week, takes a crack at some answers. Stay tuned!