On the face of it, the Islamic State, one of the most vicious Islamist groups ever to darken the Mid East, handied an ultimatum to Washington when a black-clad executioner murdered two American journalists, James Foley on Aug. 19 and Steven Sotloff, on Sept. 3. The message was: Back off air strikes against Islamist forces in northern Iraq and we’ll stop beheading American and British hostages.
But that motto is just another tool in a campaign of propaganda and disinformation designed to deceive. The horrendous images are propagated by video to instill fear and trembling in the West, whip up zeal for Arab and Muslim jihadist recruits, and impress Arab and Muslim opinion – but not, say DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources, to convince the US to call off its air strikes.
In fact, ISIS would like them to continue for a number of reasons:
1. The US bombardments pose no real military threat because they are limited to targeting scattered Islamist armored vehicles and isolated positions. So far they have not bombed substantial targets, such as main ISIS command centers and bases in the town of Mosul, or the dozens of captured Iraqi oil fields, from which ISIS pumps tidy revenues.
2. Islamist operational planners don’t mind it when US, Iraqi and Kurdish spokesmen claim that the air strikes helped the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga recapture this or that Iraqi town from Islamist hands – or even the vitally strategic Mosul dam, although sections of the dam remain in IS hands. They believe that these false reports will put the Obama administration on the spot, forcing it to explain why the air strikes are still necessary, or admit that the Islamists are in fact still in charge.
As a result, US air activity over Iraq is diminishing by stages, while IS strengthens its grip on captured locations in Iraq.
Focus on Iraq distracts attention from IS’ primary game in Syria
3. If they had a choice, IS strategists would rather the Americans continue their air raids than give the Peshmerga weapons. While media headlines convey the impression that the US is arming the Kurds, Islamist fighters in the field would be the first to know if they had, and so far they have not encountered Kurdish troops wielding American weapons.
4. It also suits Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for world attention to be fixed on his group’s operations – and atrocities – in Iraq, and still more, for President Barack Obama to delay a decision on extending air bombardments to Syria. It is there, away from world notice, that Baghdadi keeps his most important bases. And, above all, the gruesome events in Iraq grab world attention, enabling him to operate unnoticed in the Syrian shadow to bring forward moves towards his grand scheme.
The entire Euphrates-Tigris basin, site of the Mesopotamia, is the prize
DEBKA Weekly’s sources disclose that the self-styled “caliph” at the head of his jihadi army is on the way to conquering the entire Euphrates River basin (see map).
They began heading out of Raqqa in northern Syria, taking a route parallel to the Syrian section of the Euphrates River to Deir a-Zor, 130 km away to the east, and continuing further east to al Qaim on the Iraqi border, thence to the Iraqi bank of the river.
Their next lap of 430 km takes them to Fallujah, capital of Iraq’s western province of Anbar. The Syrian and Iraqi contingents of the Islamic State are intended to link up for the first time at Mahmoudiya, the point where the great Euphrates and Tigris Rivers run in closest proximity (see exclusive DEBKA map).
The Islamists’ surreptitious advance is intended to enclose a chunk of eastern Syria and western Iraq to give them control of the Euphrates and Tigris River basins, without having run into a single Iraqi or Kurdish soldier to impede their progress – or being bombed by US jets.
Sway over this strategic domain will give the Islamic State a dominant military position over the Shiite provinces south of Baghdad and in relation to Saudi Arabia to the south and Jordan and Israel to the west.
Baghdadi’s exercise, if successful, would connect his northern Syrian and western Iraqi strongholds, buttressing them as powerful extremities of a contiguous line.
His plan is to lead an invincible army of fervent jihadists along this line to achieve his grand scheme to create an Islamic empire within the approximate boundaries of ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.
His army is creeping forward toward this goal under the cover of the sound and fury of US military action in northern Iraq and Kurdistan.
To understand Obama’s military and intelligence thinking on Iraq, read a separate article in this issue.