The Islamic State

The Feast of Saint Louis

Over the past two weeks the United States has begun a military air campaign in northern Iraq to prevent the forces of the Islamic State from advancing into Kurdistan and devastating Kurdish peshmerga forces and to help them regain control of the Mosul Dam.  The Islamic State then withdrew its forces from those locations and its advances in Iraq appear to have, for the moment, been blunted.  So whither the Islamic State?  Whiter Iraq and whither Syria?  What is going on here? Has the insertion of limited US air power in northern Iraq and the entrance of a few hundred military advisers into the country fundamentally changed the situation or not?

The American air strikes have so far been limited and the capabilities of the Islamic State are much more advanced than any terrorist group has had in modern times.  The have begun to actually form themselves into a state in the territories they have taken over and most importantly they have a serious budget.  Seizing large amounts of cash in Mosul, gaining oil revenue from the fields they have captured in Syria, and presumably garnering some sort of tax revenue from their conquered territories makes them essentially a terrorist army, a force that may end up being a serious threat to the current world order.

And while the Islamic State has temporarily paused its offensive in Iraq it has done no such thing in Syria.  Yesterday its forces seized the Tabqa airbase southwest of the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqah in north central Syria, thereby clearing that province of all Syrian government forces.

But here is the issue.  The Islamic State needs to be defeated in both Syria and Iraq and the border between those two countries needs to be reestablished as it was before June.  Unless the United States is prepared to send several hundred thousand ground troops into both Syria and Iraq (which it will not do) then it will need to coordinate with both Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which Barack Obama will be loathe to do, and some sort of working government which does not yet exist in Baghdad and have them work in concert to set things back to the way they were.  Does anyone see that happening?

The rise of the Islamic State and its declaration of caliphate is nothing less than an attempt at world revolution akin to what the Nazis and the Bolsheviks did in the last century.  If it is not strangled in the cradle then this world will be far different by the time the next decade ends.

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 Muslim peoples.  And join the Rosary Confraternity!

Caliphate: June 29, 2014

On this feast of Saints Peter and Paul the Shura council of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام ) has now, officially at least, transformed the Islamic state into a caliphate, with its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph (الخليفة) of all Muslims and its borders stretching from Aleppo to Diyala province of Iraq.  Caliph is the ancient Islamic term for a position that by the Catholic mind may well considered a combination of Pope and Emperor.  The first four caliphs conquered much of what is now the Islamic world in a series of lightning campaigns that greatly weakened what was left of the Catholic Roman Empire in the east and destroyed the Sassanian Persian Empire during the half century after Muhammad’s death.   After that the position, while remaining powerful, diminished in the eyes of the Muslims as it was occupied by a series of corrupt rulers with the title then being tossed around after the destruction of the Abbasid Empire to whomever was the strongest Muslim ruler of the day before finally landing in the lap of the Ottoman Sultans.  They held it for nigh on half a millennium after they conquered Constantinople and the position was finally eliminated by Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, in 1924.

The importance of this moment will of course only be known in the future.  The Iraqi government is already launching an offensive against the gains made by the Caliphate in northern Iraq but it has brought what can at best be described as mixed results.  This may be a very significant moment or it may be a flash in the pan, but these fighters are determined, cunning, bold, and brutal and that should never be underestimated.

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 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.

A barren stretch of desert and the end of a world

For most of the first three quarters of the twentieth century this was the failed dream of Arab nationalists like Gamal abd al-Nasser: to undraw the borders of the former Ottoman Empire that the European powers who dismantled that empire drew after the First World War.  Today it might actually be happening.  The militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام) have now seized the great bulk of Iraq’s border crossings with Syria (the Kurds in the north now hold one) along with Iraq’s one border crossing with Jordan along with the town of Rutbah that sits astride the highway leading from Baghdad to the Jordanian border.  The Iraqi government, has now effectively lost control of its western border regions and after taking the al-Qa’im crossing yesterday and the al-Waleed crossing today the militants whose operations straddle both sides of the Iraq/Syria border have, for the moment at least, erased that border.

The Iraqi commanders in Baghdad announced that their forces had conducted a ‘tactical retreat’ from the border crossings and were regrouping for an assault to retake them.  We shall see.  If the ISIL can hold their gains then they will have transformed this barren stretch of wasteland (save al-Qa’im in the Euphrates valley the Iraqi/Syrian/Jordanian border runs through one of the most inhospitable deserts on earth) into the birth of a whole new Middle East and possibly a new world.

It isn’t just a matter of a few border crossings or even a few cities falling into the hands of marauding Islamic militants.  There has been a progressive breakdown of central authority in Iraq since the American invasion in 2003 and a massive breakdown of central authority in Syria since the revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s regime started in 2011.  Prolonged absences of trust in or respect for or fear of the central government followed by a sudden onslaught such as the ISIL just launched have a way of permanently changing things.  It is doubtful that either of the regimes in Baghdad or Damascus possess or will possess any time soon the strength or the resources to remove the ISIL from the scene and to erase what they have done in the last two weeks.  ISIL is a more formidable force than anyone seems to have realized.  After their first victories in Mosul and Tikrit when the road to Baghdad seemed open they didn’t take it like everyone (myself included) thought they would.  Instead they have focused on securing their flanks in Diyala and Anbar provinces and eliminating the Iraqi/Syrian border to gain them freedom of movement and to show that they could in fact destroy that border which has always been one of their goals.  They will of course have to move on Baghdad at some point in order to dismantle the Iraqi state as the world has known it for the last 80 years.  If there is any kind of central government in Baghdad there is always the great possibility that it will regroup and destroy them, but if that goes away then there will be very little threat anymore to the existence of ISIL.  And then they could move on Damascus.  Time will tell but the earth is moving under our feet here.

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 their salvation and for 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 people.

The Turn of Tikrit

The forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant ( الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام) continued a rapid advance south of Mosul today seizing the city of Tikrit (95 miles north of Baghdad) and large parts of the city of Baiji (120 miles north of Baghdad).  Heavy fighting was also reported in the Shi’ite holy city of Samarra (about 60 miles north of Baghdad).  This onslaught means that the ISIL has effectively cut off the highway that runs north of Baghdad through Tikrit, Samarra, and Baiji to Mosul.  Any Iraqi reinforcements sent by the central government in Baghdad will have to fight their way through these cities to wrest Mosul out of the Islamic state’s control.  The only immediated threat to the city at present is the Kurdish peshmerga militia dug in on the east bank of the Tigris River.  Whether the Kurds will seek to intervene on Baghdad’s behalf is doubtful but the possibility shouldn’t be entirely dismissed since the rapid ISIL advance may begin to pose a threat to the stability of the Kurdish region.

It is difficult to imagine the ISIL launching a sustained assault on Baghdad (an urban metropolis of many millions) simply due to their lack of numbers, but this group has proven themselves to be determined, resourceful, audacious, and extremely cunning so I really wouldn’t put anything past them.  And it should be noted that the rapid collapse of Iraqi forces in Mosul and the surrounding region allowed a mass of armored vehicles and even some military helicopters to fall into the hands of ISIL which will aid them greatly in any push on Baghdad.

The world is changing.  I do not know what the end result of this chaos in Iraq will be.  ISIL could advance too far too fast and find themselves vulnerable to counterattack (they seem to have a long exposed flank to the east of Highway 1), but maybe they won’t.  And the longer they can sustain these gains the harder it will be to dislodge them.  And since their ideology to which they are ruthlessly committed is to destroy the borders of the Middle East drawn up by the European powers after the First World War and to replace it with a unified Islamic state this will, if accomplished, create a whole new world.

In any case 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 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 and for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.

The Fall of Mosul: the caliphate advances

It seems that the declaration of a renewed Islamic caliphate in the western Iraqi city of Fallujah last January is something that was far more than a publicity stunt and indeed will need to be taken very seriously.  The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام) has apparently taken control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city of nearly 2 million souls, roughly 200 miles north of Baghdad, roughly in the same location as the ancient capital of the Assyrian empire Ninevah.  This is the same group who declared the caliphate just after the New Year in Fallujah and who have been fighting over a broad swathe of western Iraq and eastern and northern Syria for the past couple of years.  The ISIL has apparently seized the provincial government office in Mosul and several other important sites on the west bank of the Tigris River including the airport (with several military aircraft) and several prisons.  Iraqi security forces are reported to have dropped their weapons, shed their uniforms and fled once the fighting became serious.  Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki asked his Parliament to declare a nationwide state of emergency and pledged to send reinforcements north to contain the militants.  Mosul is on the edge of the Kurdish autonomous region and its leader Massoud Barzani appealed for international help as thousands of refugees fled to the Kurdish region from the beleaguered city, but he made no commitment for his peshmerga to make any move against ISIL in the city.

Whether this is the start of some new Islamic empire I cannot say, nor can anyone else.  Great movements in history have small beginnings.  The ISIL has seemed to prove itself more effective in Iraq than in Syria where it finds itself at odds with other rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al Assad, but its influence in Syria should not be underestimated.  In any case they seem to have reduced the Iraq/Syria border to a mere line on a map in many areas and they seem to be quite well armed and funded and if they can succeed in holding Mosul then it will be the greatest propaganda coup in the group’s history.

Chaos is spreading in the Middle East and we are seeing how the efforts of a few well motivated individuals can change the course of history.  But there are other means than guns or bombs or vast military offensives.  These are of the world and must perish as the world perishes.  Prayer and sacrifice and the offering of one’s life through Jesus Christ to the glory of the Father will yield eternal results.  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 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 and for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.