The Feast of Saint Christopher Magallanes and his Companions
The real situation on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq is, as always, difficult to gauge but some significant events seem to have occurred over the last week. First the Islamic State took over Ramadi, the Iraqi government’s last urban stronghold in western Iraq, on May 17. Now last night the caliphate seized the Syrian city of Palmyra, 300 miles away which is littered with natural gas fields and sits at a major road junction that controls the passage between eastern Syria and Damascus and the Iraq/Jordan/Syria border area, not to mention being the site of some of the most fantastic Roman ruins in the Middle East.
The Islamic State has clearly recovered from the setback it suffered in late March and early April when it lost control of the city of Tikrit in north central Iraq and withdrew in the face of pressure from the Iraqi government and Shi’ite militias. Predictions at that time of the road to Mosul being opened and the looming end of the Islamic State seem however to have been out of place. To be able to launch near simultaneous succesful major operations at opposite ends of a large battle area is not indicative of a force that is planning on disappearing any time in the near future. What does the future hold now?
Who knows? is the only real honest answer an honest man can give at this point. I would just make a couple of observations based on the facts as I perceive them to be. The Islamic State’s road of advance is probably much easier in Syria than it is in Iraq. For all of the Iraqi army’s demonstrated incompetence the country does have one advantage that Syria does not possess: it is solidly majority Shi’a and the Iraqi Shi’ites know that the Islamic State would massacre them and annihilate the shrines that are sacred to them if they ever lose control of Iraq. They will fight to the death and, as disorganized as they can be, they have the numbers to hold off the Islamic State for a long time if not indefinitely. Baghdad alone is a Shi’a majority city with a population in the several millions where Shi’ite militias that are armed to the teeth are in total control. The Islamic States does not at present possess a force capable of dislodging them from that city and I suspect they know it. Not to mention that Iraq possesses a long land border with Shi’a Iran and supplies will keep coming over that border to keep the Islamic State from advancing into the Shi’a areas of the country.
Syria on the other hand is a different story. Bashar al-Assad’s Alawites comprise only about ten percent of the population. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, and while they generally oppose the Islamic State their opposition is not, nor could it ever be, as fanatical as the Iraqi Shi’a. Palmyra is a big deal, not just because of the ancient artifacts but because it sits at a road junction where the major highway that crosses the Syrian Desert from the Islamic State’s stronghold in eastern Syria and western Iraq branches in two with one spur running on through a couple of other junctions to the Damascus region and the other turning east toward the city of Homs. There are reports circulating that the Islamic State now controls half of Syria, geographically speaking. That might be true in theory, but probably ninety percent of that half is empty desert in the east that was long abandoned by the regime. The population in Syria mostly resides in the far west of the country near the Mediterranean littoral and in the south in the regions around Damascus.
Whatever happens now I think that it is safe to say that the post World War I political order in the Middle East that existed on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 will never return. It is difficult to see that the Iraq/Syria border will ever be put into place again save by a simultaneous miracle recovery of both Bashar al-Assad’s state and the Iraqi government And the only way that Iraqi government could conquer Anbar province in the west is likely with a campaign of sectarian genocide that would shatter the region, and there is nothing in Anbar to merit that effort save possibly revenge and national pride. What will come of this we don’t know?
Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and for their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples. And join the Rosary confraternity!