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Middle East Redrawn By Struggle Against Islamic State
By Tom Coghlan
The Times
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This still from video provided by private terrorism monitor SITE Intelligence Group on November 19, 2014 shows Abu Maryam (L), Abu Osama (2nd-R) and Abu Salman (R), French fighters sitting with other fighters in the Islamic State group (AFP photo).
In the thin, deserted alleys of Baqofah, an ancient Assyrian town retaken from Islamic State, a local Christian militia holds sway. With a few dozen old weapons and the support of Peshmerga forces, its members vow to defend their land against all comers. Yet, south of Baghdad, efforts to co-opt Sunni tribes into Iraq's fight against IS (also known as ISIS) have all but collapsed. In Syria, the only modest advance by western-backed rebels has been achieved with the help of al-Qa'ida-backed jihadists -- the same group in the firing line of US bombers in the north of the country. The war consuming Iraq and Syria covers a multitude of battlegrounds contested by an array of combatants, in shifting patterns of alliance. Global and regional powers are struggling to balance their own interests and the humanitarian cataclysm that has already displaced more than ten million people. The Middle East is being reforged from the ground up, with far-reaching consequences none can yet predict. CHRISTIANS In one of the first areas retaken from IS in northern Iraq, 50 Christian men have come together to create a militia group known as the Dwekh Nawsha (self-sacrifice). They patrol Baqofah, 50 miles north of Mosul on the plains of Ninevah. The town is deserted, barely two miles from IS-held territory. Before the war it was famed for the 200-year-old St Gorgiz monastery, described by one fighter as a tribute to the "elegance of the Mesopotamian civilisation". Now it is a lonely battlefront, and the Christian fighters have armed themselves as best they can, helped, according to reports, by funding from foreign Christian organisations. Asked why he had stayed behind, the group's spokesman, Albert Kisso, could not contain his emotions and broke down crying. "This is the land of our ancestors, we're the inheritors of the Assyrian empire. We will not give our earth to Daesh [the Arabic acronym for IS ] or any foreigners, because these are our people, our history, we will never let it be taken from us. We are ready to fight to the death for our land." The Assyrians are an indigenous Christian group descended from the ancient Mesopotamians. Their roots are Semitic and they speak an eastern Aramaic dialect. The intolerance of IS has driven out the entire 120,000-strong Christian community around Mosul. They are among more than one million refugees, many from minority religious groups, now trapped in Kurdish-held areas. After the collapse of Iraq's armed forces -- trained and equipped at a cost of tens of billions of dollars by the US government -- other irregular forces are filling the void, with varying levels of support from Baghdad and the international community. The secondary consequences remain unpredictable. Baqofah is surrounded by Sunni Arab villages that now lie deserted. The local Peshmerga commanders warn that it is their intention it should remain that way. "Most of the people who fled the other villages were Daesh. They will not be allowed to return," said a Peshmerga general, Tariq Sleman Ramadan. SUNNIS In south-eastern Iraq, hopes of fostering a new "Anbar awakening" -- a revolt by Sunni tribes against IS -- are facing collapse owing to sectarian division and extremist brutality. A critical part of Washington's strategy is to repeat the 2007 American-sponsored tribal uprising against al-Qa'ida that helped to stabilise Iraq's previous civil war, but Iraqi government plans for a national guard force from the tribes have been ridiculed. Tribal leaders said Sunnis in Anbar refused to entertain any deal with a Shia-dominated central government seen as antipathetic to Sunni interests. Sheik Yahya Sonbol, secretary-general of the general tribal revolutionary council in Anbar province, said: "Our rights have been violated. We have been killed since 2003 because we were accused of being al-Qa'ida, and now they kill us because they think we are Isis." The Iraqi government has spent recent days trumpeting successes against IS north of Baghdad, where security forces and Shia militias reached the town of Baiji and the oil refinery close by. However, tribal leaders and analysts say that only with the support of the tribes can Iraqi security forces push IS out of the Sunni heartlands of Anbar. "We absolutely refuse the [Shia ] militias in Anbar," Sabah Karhoot, provincial council chief of Anbar, said. A series of widely publicised appearances on the front line by Qassem Suleimani, Iran's powerful spy chief, have deepened Sunni mistrust. Mr Sonbol said that the tribes remained convinced that Baghdad was still being "played" by Iran. "America cheated the Arabs. They say they brought us democracy, but in fact America sold us to Iran. They know what Iranian leaders do in Iraq but they say nothing," he said. Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security analyst with close ties to the Saudi government, said: "Mobilising the tribes has become a joke. Isis has successfully terrorised those communities. I don't see anyone sticking their neck out for any reason. The lesson of the last awakening is that, when it is over, you will be left alone to be slaughtered by al-Qa'ida." SYRIAN REBELS Over the past weeks, a coalition of rebels has quietly clawed back a network of towns, roads and army bases in southern Syria, cementing rebel control of a swathe of territory south of Damascus. It is not just the so-called moderates who are gaining this ground: in some of the most critical battles, men from the al-Qa'ida affiliate Nusra Front have fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions. This southern Front rebel alliance, incorporating more than 90 groups, has pushed the rebel front line as far as Nawa, 50 miles south of the capital. The battlefront represents the only coherent block of the moderate rebel forces that originally rose in opposition to the Assad regime. It also throws into relief the complexity of the Syrian war. In northern Syria, Nusra Front fighters have turned on the moderates, defeating prominent US-backed groups northwest of Aleppo. The attacks appeared designed to take out western-aligned forces after US aircraft bombed Nusra Front bases. In the south of the country, tribal connections run deep, and that has spared this motley crew of rebels some of the infighting that has paralysed other areas. Blood, not politics, binds members of Nusra and the FSA. A senior southern Front commander, known by the nom de guerre Abu Hamza, said tentative talks were taking place about establishing a separate government in the new rebel territory. "We just met and talked about the political future of Syria," he said. "We did not issue a statement regarding this matter or define a political program. Our sole aim now is to continue fighting and get rid of the regime of Assad." Rebel commanders report that groups are closely monitored by Jordanian intelligence, and co-ordinate with western military advisers. "From time to time the leaders of the southern Front of the Free Syrian Army go to Jordan through the border check [Tel Shehab ] and meet with Jordanian intelligence and the 11 donor countries in a joint operations room called MOQ," Abu Hamza said. Michael Stephens, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute office in Qatar, said that the southern Front represented a key point of leverage for any future negotiations with the Assad regime to end the war. "Aleppo is no longer a must-win front. The aim in the south is to protect Jordan and threaten Assad," he said. ALEPPO DEFENDERS Hundreds of air strikes, and stubborn Kurdish resistance, have slowly reversed the IS advance on Kobani, in northern Syria. However, a more strategically important siege 50 miles to the southwest is moving to a critical juncture. The rebel defenders of Aleppo have been battling to prevent Syrian government forces seizing a hill north of the city at Handarat, threatening the last resupply route from Turkey. Aleppo has been contested since July 2012 in a grinding war of attrition in which government forces have battered rebel areas with air and artillery fire, and rebels have responded with mortars and tunnel bombs. In recent months, government forces have slowly retaken territory around the city. Rebel leaders complain that the regime has benefited from the US air strikes, which hit IS and other jihadist groups, but do not target the government positions. Omar Hebbo, an activist, said that residents were facing daily government air strikes despite Damascus agreeing to the UN's call for a ceasefire. "There are still massacres going on in Aleppo. Yesterday 25 people were killed by barrel bombs," he said. "There have been missile attacks from MiG jets for the past four days, and barrel bombs yesterday and today. The regime is trying to destroy the opposition in Aleppo because it knows it is losing in Daraa."

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