TIME Middle East

Israeli Navy Intercepts ‘Freedom Flotilla’ Bound for Gaza

Israel Gaza Boat
Majdi Fathi—NurPhoto/Corbis Palestinians wave their national flag as they ride boats during a rally in support of activists aboard a Pro-Gaza flotilla made up of four boats aimed at defying Israel's blockade of Gaza, at the seaport of Gaza City on June 28, 2015.

The "Freedom Flotilla" was boarded without force

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s navy intercepted a Swedish vessel attempting to breach a naval blockade of Gaza early Monday and was redirecting it to an Israeli port, the military and the activists said.

The military said that after exhausting all diplomatic efforts, the government ordered it to block the vessel. Israeli naval forces boarded the Marianne ship and searched it in international waters without needing to use any force, the military said.

The ship was carrying about 20 activists, including Israeli Arab lawmaker Basel Ghattas and former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki. Three other ships that were part of the original flotilla reversed course before encountering the Israeli navy.

The Freedom Flotilla group posted a photo on Twitter apparently showing a group of its activists onboard a ship. It said in the post that Israeli forces intercepted the Marianne and it was currently en route to Ashdod port. The ship was expected to arrive in Ashdod in 12 to 24 hours.

Petros Stergiou, a member of flotilla’s media team in Athens, said the group would continue its acts of protest until the blockade of Gaza was lifted.

“Once again, the Israeli state commits an act of state piracy in the Mediterranean Sea,” he said. “The government continues this policy of non-tolerance, which means that it will continue to enforce the collective punishment against the 1.8 million people in Gaza.”

A 2010 Israeli raid against a Gaza-bound flotilla left nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists dead. It sparked international criticism of Israel and delivered a serious blow to its previously close ties with Turkey.

Israel has maintained a blockade of Gaza since Hamas militants took power in 2007. Islamic militants in the coastal strip have fired thousands of rockets toward Israel and have repeatedly tried to smuggle in arms through the sea.

While Israel insists there is no siege, there are severe restrictions on Palestinian movement and trade, with virtually no exports. The international community, including the United Nations, has repeatedly called for an end to the blockade.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the naval blockade of Gaza is in accordance with international law and has been endorsed by a United Nations committee.

“This flotilla is nothing but a demonstration of hypocrisy and lies that is only assisting the Hamas terrorist organization and ignores all of the horrors in our region,” he said. “We are not prepared to accept the entry of war material to the terrorist organizations in Gaza as has been done by sea in the past.”

Israel says it transfers about 800 trucks a day into Gaza and recently brought in more than 1.6 million tons of goods. It says it assists in hundreds of humanitarian projects, through international organizations, including the building of clinics and hospitals.

TIME Middle East

What We Have Learned Since ISIS Declared a Caliphate One Year Ago

ISIS has had victories and defeats and it has been bombed relentlessly but it does not appear to be any weaker

On June 29, 2014, the apparent leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared that he stood at the head of a Caliphate, a Muslim state that spanned Syria and Iraq. He was speaking in the city of Mosul which ISIS forces had taken from the Iraqi army a few weeks earlier. ISIS still hold Mosul and while they have had recent setbacks, on Thursday, they launched fresh assaults on the northern Syrian towns of Kobane and Hassakeh.

One year ago, the success of ISIS seemed to emerge from nowhere, but now we know much more.

Supporters of Saddam Hussein are a key factor in the sucess of ISIS

Last summer, it seemed like a bunch of fanatical jihadis got together and took swathes of territory from an army the U.S. had spent $25 billion training and equipping. One year later, the roots of the military prowess of ISIS is more clear — Saddam Hussein’s ex-officers form the core of the organisation; as many as 25 of the ISIS leadership previously took orders from the late Iraqi leader.

That means, rather than a disorganized gaggle of theocrats, ISIS is being run by trained military officers with decades of experience, which means they are disciplined and able.

In the last year, ISIS has managed to expand its territory both in Syria and Iraq, despite the U.S.-led coalition’s efforts to contain it. Mosul the largest city taken by ISIS remains firmly under its control despite months of training for Iraqi security forces and numerous dates promised for the operation to retake it.

ISIS’s agility and endless supply of suicide bombers has helped give them the upper hand, says Christopher Harmer, a senior analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, who completed several tours with the U.S. Army in Iraq, but the participation of the members of the old, secular, Baathist regime has been militarily key.

“What ISIS brought to the fight was a bunch of bodies and a willingness to fight, and what the Baathists brought was a knowledge of the terrain and how the Iraqi army would fight…and an understanding of strategic and operational planning,” says Harmer.

He points out that despite having an estimated 25,000 fighters, ISIS has essentially defeated everyone they’ve come up against, though he adds that Kurdish forces as well as Shi’ite militias have managed to win some battles with the organization.

Recent ISIS defeats do not amount to a ‘turning point’

Earlier this month Kurdish-Syrian forces ousted ISIS from the strategic Syrian-Turkish border town of Tel Abyad, and are continuing to push into the Caliphate.

However, this isn’t necessarily a sign of wins to come. When Shi’ite militias and Iraqi security forces finally managed to take Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit from ISIS in March, many were quick to proclaim the victory a ‘turning point’ in the war against ISIS but last month ISIS, rather easily, took Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province and Palmyra in Syria.

As Kenneth M. Pollack, a specialist in Middle East political-military affairs and a former CIA analyst pointed out, “Tikrit was not like Stalingrad.”

ISIS likes to micro-manage

If you want to play a game of table football in the Caliphate, you’ll need to behead the players — that’s according to a decree issued by ISIS earlier this year.

“They have to cut of the heads of the figurines or they might resemble idols for worship,” explains Aymenn al-Tamimi, a researcher at the Philadelphia-based think tank Middle East Forum, who has analyzed more than 200 ISIS administrative documents.

From education curriculum and textbooks, to fishing regulations and fines for littering ISIS has laws and by-laws that are more detailed than some recognized states.

Beyond the small stuff, the Caliphate has a structure that mirrors modern states. “Now it’s a lot more like the conventional ministries and state departments you recognize in governments around the world,” says al-Tamimi, adding we have a much clearer idea of ISIS’s government structures than we did a year ago.

These structures include a responsive economic system with multiple sources of income. As the U.S. targets ISIS oil infrastructure making it more difficult to sell the product, ISIS has been raising taxes in parts of the Caliphate, selling antiquities and telling their subjects to stock-up on grain.

Al-Tamimi points out that all this micro-management has helped ISIS maintain control and keep out competing Islamist groups, as well as bringing a “sense of order,”

ISIS will not be simply bombed out of power

Not everyone hates living under ISIS. For some the sense of order is better than the chaos and war that preceded it.

Since President Obama declared war on ISIS last summer, the U.S. has spent nearly $3 billion on thousands of air strikes against the group, but they’ve made only a dent. It’s testament both to ISIS’s military ability but also the need for a political solution. For some, particularly the millions of Iraqi Sunnis who were neglected and marginalized for years by the Shi’ite-lead government in Baghdad, the Caliphate is an improvement.

“The native Sunni populations doesn’t trust the alternative to ISIS,” says Hamid. Until real political moves are made to gain the trust of Sunni populations and tribal leaders, ISIS is likely to maintain a support base despite strict and violent rule.

ISIS represents so much more than terrorism

Part of this failing strategy against the militants might also be that Washington considers ISIS as just another terrorist group. “We saw ISIS as a terrorist organization, but ISIS was never primarily a terrorist organization in the traditional sense of the word,” says Hamid. Unlike groups before them, ISIS prioritized capturing and holding territory, rather than attacking political targets. “The fact that we had this rubric of terrorism I don’t think prepared us for understanding what ISIS was really about and what it was trying to do.”

This territorial expansion and vision that goes far beyond just violence, has also made ISIS the world’s premier jihadi group. ISIS has managed to establish, expand and govern a Caliphate, something Osama bin Laden only talked about.

Another key difference with al-Qaeda; it hasn’t orchestrated terror attacks on the West. Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS has been putting its efforts into the Caliphate project, maintaining and expanding its borders and trying to solidify its control.

“Al-Qaeda saw one of its primary objectives as provoking the West,” says Hamid. While the American intelligence community has warned that ISIS is a threat to the U.S., the group hasn’t devoted resources to attacks on American soil. However, they have been quick to encourage and congratulate supporters in the West who do so. “ISIS, as an organization, the leadership structure, that’s not what their about, that’s not what they are focused on.”

ISIS has used propagand to shock and entice

ISIS has skilled producers who produce stylish videos of military action and choreographed executions. In their latest polished broadcast ISIS finds new, horrific ways to execute its victims — submerging five men in a cage in a swimming pool and beheading another group with necklaces of explosives.

Since declaring their Caliphate, ISIS has put out dozens of well-produced videos documenting their massacres and atrocities, many featuring Mohammed Emwazi, a British fighter nicknamed Jihadi John who became notorious for beheading kidnapped foreigners.

While this propaganda may have helped attract foreign and local recruits, Hamid points out that the idea of the Caliphate was likely the key to the appeal for many. “I think 99% of Muslims disagree with ISIS’s version of the Caliphate, but the idea of a Caliphate is powerful and will continue to be powerful because it speaks to the weakness of the Muslim world,” says Hamid. “The Caliphate harkens back to a time when Muslim empires were successful and strong in military and economic terms, so it was brilliant marketing.”

As many as 20,000 foreigners have joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria and while some now wish to leave, disillusioned with what they’ve experienced, others continue to make the journey into the Caliphate.

TIME Middle East

ISIS Launches Offensive in Northern Syria

ISIS
AP ISIS militants seen near Hassakeh city, Syria, in a photo released on a militant website in May 2015.

After a series of reverses, ISIS has struck back at the cities of Kobani and Hassakeh

BEIRUT — Islamic State militants in Syria stormed government-held neighborhoods in the predominantly Kurdish northeastern city of Hassakeh on Thursday morning, capturing several areas of the city, officials and state media said.

The attack came after the Islamic State group suffered several setbacks in northern Syria against Kurdish forces over the past weeks. The city of Hassakeh is divided between Bashar Assad’s forces and Kurdish fighters.

Redur Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, said IS militants attacked government-held neighborhoods on the southern edge of Hassakeh, and captured some areas.

Syrian state TV reported intense clashes inside Hassakeh’s southern neighborhood of Nashawi. According to the report, IS fighters killed several people they captured in the city, including the head of a military housing institution. It said the militants sustained many casualties, including the commander of the group who is a foreign fighter.

IS tried to storm the city earlier this month and reached its southern outskirts before facing strong resistance from Syrian government troops who pushed them away.

Also Thursday, IS staged a new attack on the Kurdish town of Kobani, which famously resisted a months-long assault by the Islamic militants. The attack involved a suicide car bombing that wounded scores.

“A group of fighters deployed in some areas of Kobani. We are defending a position now,” Ghalia Nehme, a commander with the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units, told The Associated Press by telephone from inside the border town.

After months of bloody street fighting, the Kurdish forces in Kobani, which lies along the Syria-Turkey border, succeeded in pushing out IS militants earlier this year. That was a landmark victory against the IS, enabled in part by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

Two Turkish officials said Thursday’s attack involved a suicide bomber who detonated his car near the border gate that separates Kobani from the Turkish town of Mursitpinar.

The first official, from the local governor’s office, said that 41 wounded were taken across the border to a hospital in Turkey. Surveillance footage showed a fiery explosion rocking Kobani in the dim light of dawn, he said, adding that video came from one of the 24 cameras monitoring the border crossing.

The second official, who is with the district government, put the number of wounded at 43 and said that sporadic gunfire could still be heard from the other side of the border later in the morning as well. He said one person, a child, had been killed.

There was no immediate way to resolve the discrepancy between their reports. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

Syrian state TV said the extremists crossed from the Turkish side of the border into Kobani, adding that are casualties. It gave no further details.

Read next: The Kurds are building a country with every victory over ISIS

 

TIME Middle East

Druze Residents of Israel Beat to Death an Injured Syrian Fighter

Mideast Israel Druze syria
AP Israeli medics examine an ambulance which was attacked at the Golan Heights, June 23, 2015.

The victim was taken from an Israeli ambulance on suspicion that he was an Islamic extremist

JERUSALEM — Dozens of Druze residents of the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights attacked a military ambulance carrying two wounded Syrians Monday night, beating one of the Syrians to death on suspicion that they were Islamic militants. The incident displays the spiraling anger inside Israel’s Druze community — which has been pushing for the Israeli government to do more to help Druze Syrians caught up in that country’s civil war.

Two Israeli soldiers in the ambulance were also lightly wounded, and the other injured Syrian was evacuated to an Israeli hospital in critical condition. It was the second incident in one day in which Druze villagers confronted an ambulance that they believed was transporting injured Syrian militants.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday harshly condemned the attack.

“We will not allow anyone to take the law into their own hands. We will not allow anyone to disrupt Israeli soldiers in their missions,” he said. “We will locate those who carried out this mob killing and bring them to justice. We are a country of law and are not a part of the anarchy that is spreading around us.”

The Druze, a religious sect that began as an offshoot of Shiite Islam, are among Israel’s most loyal citizens and serve in its military. But they are also increasingly worried about the plight of their brethren in Syria. Earlier this month the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, killed as many as 20 Druze citizens.

Druze residents of Israel have also been angered by the Israeli government’s policy of extending medical aid to injured Syrian rebels, suspecting that some of those treated have been Islamic militants. The Israeli military did not identify whether the injured Syrians in the ambulance on Monday were rebel fighters or civilians, but the military has denied treating Islamic militants in the past. Israeli media on Tuesday reported that the injured Syrians were rebel fighters.

Israel’s estimated 130,000 Druze live mostly in the north of the country, where some have taken to the streets, demanding more decisive action to help the Syrian Druze. Some of demanded that Israel provide weapons and air support; others have proposed that thousands of Syrian Druze be allowed to take shelter inside Israel, if necessary, or that they themselves be allow to cross the border and fight on behalf of the Syrian Druze.

The Israeli government insists it will not allow the Druze to be massacred but has stopped short of major action.

The Druze leadership in Israel condemned the pair of attacks Monday and was convening Tuesday for an emergency meeting to address the growing anger in their community.

In Israel, the Druze have a particular tight bond with Jews that dates much farther back than helping them win independence in 1948. The Druze revere Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, whose tomb in northern Israel is one of their most sacred sites. In recent days the community has enjoyed widespread solidarity from other Israelis, though that has partially been replaced by outrage after the violent attacks on military ambulances.

 

TIME Middle East

Possible War Crimes By Both Sides in Gaza War, U.N. Finds

Ramadan in Gaza City
Ali Hassan—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images Muslim Palestinians break their Ramadan fast amid the debris of buildings destroyed in last year's Israeli attacks in the Shajaiya neighborhood of the Gaza Strip on June 19, 2015.

Evidence of "serious violations of international humanitarian law" by Israel and Palestinians

JERUSALEM (AP) — A United Nations report into the 2014 Gaza war has found that Israel and the Palestinians may have committed war crimes.

The much-awaited inquiry was released Monday. The commission says it gathered “substantial information pointing to serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law” by both sides.

Israel launched its offensive last July 8 in response to heavy rocket fire from Hamas and other militant groups. More than 2,200 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, were killed during the fighting, according to U.N. and Palestinian officials, while 73 people died on the Israeli side.

Israel, which has long had a contentious relationship with the United Nations, preemptively slammed the report as biased.

A similar report following a 2008-2009 Gaza war was harshly critical of Israel and Hamas.

TIME Syria

Powerful Images Show Syrians Fleeing Border Fighting Into Turkey

Many escaped through a hole cut into a border fence

Intense fighting near a key Syrian border town on Sunday sent thousands of people streaming into Turkey. The masses surged out after a hole was cut into a fence separating Syria from its neighbor, which has taken in more than 1.8 million refugees in the four-plus years of civil war, the Associated Press reports.

The influx was a result of increased fighting around Tal Abyad between Kurdish fighters and the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. An activist group said the Kurds gained control of a number of nearby villages from ISIS on Sunday.

A state-run news agency later reported that Turkey opened its border to accommodate for more refugees to cross, but that ISIS militants barred them from leaving.

Read more at the Associated Press.

TIME Middle East

Jihadist Believed Killed By U.S Air Strike Had Been Eclipsed by ISIS

airstrike
Hamad Mohammed — Reuters Planes have been taking off from the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN77) to strike key positions taken over by the Islamic State fighters in Iraq, August 12, 2014.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who gained notoriety for an attack on an Algerian oil field in 2013, had "faded" as a threat

A U.S. air strike targeting a top militant leader in Libya on Sunday underscored the complex and ever shifting politics of Libya’s internal conflict that has created a haven for insurgents from elsewhere in the region.

The air strike early on Sunday targeted Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian man once regarded as one of the top militant leaders in North Africa. Libya’s internationally recognized government announced that Belmokhtar had been killed in the U.S. air strike near the Libyan city of Ajdabiya. The U.S. military confirmed Belmokhtar was the target but did not say whether he had died.

Belmokhtar took refuge in Libya, where state institutions have unraveled in the years following the 2011 revolution that toppled the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. The political disintegration of Libya created an opening for transnational jihadist groups including the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which found footholds in Libya after overrunning large parts of Iraq and Syria last year.

In the context of the power vacuum in Libya, ISIS and other groups have come to eclipse Belmokhtar and those loyal to him, who are best known for the 2013 attack on a gas field near In Amenas, Algeria, in which more than 100 people died. Capitalizing on a complex civil war between two rival governments, ISIS has established affiliates in each of Libya’s three regions.

“I think that his star in the broader jihadist galaxy of leaders and groups has faded,” said Imad Mesdoua, a political analyst with the consultancy Africa Matters in London. “He represents this group shift, the growing changes. The jihadist world is undergoing, in its depth, serious changes amongst themselves.”

The arc of Belmokhtar’s personal story maps onto a larger history of militancy in North Africa. Born in Algeria, he fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan, and returned to fight in in Algeria’s brutal civil war in the 1990s. He later moved to Mali where he became a fixture of a local insurgency. He funded his activities through hostage taking and cigarette smuggling and as a result earned the nickname Mr. Marlboro.

In spite of his notoriety (French intelligence once reportedly described him as uncatchable), Belmokhtar’s importance had already begun to wane in the lead-up to the attack on the In Amenas gas field. Prior to the attack, the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) wrote to him, scolding him as one might chide an intransigent employee. In the correspondence, discovered by the Associated Press in a house once used by the group, he is criticized for failing to file expenses and to make himself available for phone calls. Worst of all in his al-Qaeda superiors’ eyes, he had simply failed to deliver a major attack.

Belmokhtar split with AQIM, and the “spectacular” attack his bosses had hoped for came in the form of the siege on the gas field near In Amenas. “In Amenas was his claim to fame,” says Mesdoua. “It was his moment to shine in jihadist circles because he conducted a major operation.”

Belmohktar’s role in the murky and ever shifting undercurrents of the Libyan conflict is less clear. The U.S. airstrike targeting him comes at a moment of instability in Libya. In recent days, rival militias have attempted to push ISIS out of the eastern city of Derna, where the group first found local partners in Libya.

News reports indicated that the strike also targeted members of the Libyan Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, which is aligned with al-Qaeda and recently has been positioning itself as a bulwark against ISIS, including in Derna.

“I think the message is being sent that Ansar al-Sharia will continue to be on a possible hit list. This is understandable. It’s also problematic because in other areas of Libya we’re seeing Ansar al-Sharia pitching itself as a bastion against ISIS,” said Claudia Gazzini, a senior analyst with International Crisis Group. “Bottom line, there is a risk of creating ripple effects. What these effects will be is still not clear,” she said.

“The U.S. air strike will definitely have some destabilizing effect within Libya,” said Mohamed Eljarh, a Libyan political analyst. “Some people will be using it within Libya in the wider political struggle. It is bad time for the political dialogue that is taking place,” he said, referring to the U.N.-mediated effort to broker a peace deal in the country.

TIME isis

As ISIS Grows Its Territory, It Becomes Increasingly Dangerous

By gaining territory in Iraq, Syria and Libya the extremist group adds credibility for its caliphate, a potent concept to Muslims

When ISIS wins more ground, it gains more than just territory. Every additional inch on the map produces an inflated sense of both the group’s own power and the credibility of its claim to be the presumptive leader of the world’s Sunni Muslims. The extremist group may hold mostly stretches of desert, but desert, after all, is what most of what the Middle East is. At this point any expansion summons associations with the historical caliphates whose growing footprints are recalled with a certain pride by all Muslims, including moderates who disdain the group.

Consider the map below. It shows the reach of history’s largest Islamic caliphate, the Ummayad dynasty, circa 700 AD:

reddit

 

And here’s a New York Times map now online, labeled “Areas with ISIS cells”:

Credit: New York Times

 

It’s a gross exaggeration, of course. ISIS actually controls perhaps 1 percent of that sprawling yellow expanse, as the more detailed maps in the Times graphic make abundantly clear. But in every one of those maps, ISIS turf is growing. And that growth feeds the narrative of momentum and inevitability that in turn feeds recruitment to ISIS. After all, the group is not simply a terrorist organization. It claims to have established the system of governance under which Muslims lived until 100 years ago, when World War I ended the Ottoman Empire, the last dynasty to include a caliph, the name given for the leader of the faithful after the 632 A.D. death of the Prophet Mohammad. Last June 29, not three weeks after taking Mosul, the leader of ISIS, previously known by the nom de guerre Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared himself Caliph Ibrahim, and the Syrian and Iraqi soil under control of the Islamic State a new caliphate.

“One of the prerequisites of a caliphate is a significant swath of territory,” says Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “So the more territory you have the more legitimacy your caliphate will have. That’s historically been the case, and ISIS very self-consciously thinks it’s modeling the first generations of Islam, where you these very impressive territory conquests in a short period of time.”

Every student of Islam remembers seeing those conquests spreading across maps as in the .gif below, a green tide that appeared to move as fast as horses could carry the warriors.

 

Credit: Wikipedia

Historians say the extraordinary pace of that conquest rose from a combination of factors, not least the appeal of the faith itself, as seen in both the zeal of Mohammad’s followers and their success at winning converts (encouraged by a tax levied on nonbelievers). Some areas were exhausted by years of war between other empires, and some places, such as Persia, where state religion Zoroastrianism was in decline, were ripe for change.

Polls show very few Muslims support ISIS. Most prefer to live in the modern world, and to observe the moderate understandings of Islam that predominate globally. But most Muslims also will say that the West’s war on terror, defined by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, is also a war on their faith, and a great many express either nostalgia or banked hope for the notion of a caliphate. That gap offers ISIS room to maneuver.

“The concept of the caliphate is very much alive in the collective memory of society,” columnist and author Ali Bulac told me a full nine years ago, in Istanbul, where the last caliph was bundled onto the Orient Express, in 1924, by the secular founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk. “There is absolutely nothing to keep Muslim society together at the moment,” Bulac said. I found a degree of longing for the caliphate in every strata of society in Turkey, a NATO member that at the time was still being held up by Washington as a model of Muslim democracy and moderation. “Why do you keep invading Muslim countries?” a tailor named Kerem Acar asked me. “I won’t live to see it, and my children won’t, but one day maybe my children’s children will see someone declare himself the caliph, like the pope, and have an impact.”

ISIS claims to be doing exactly that.

“If their territory was rolled back significantly, it would be harder for them to make various arguments,” says Hamid, whose new book, Temptations of Power, is on Islamist movements. “If eventually they were reduced to a very small piece of Syria, then the idea of a caliphate wouldn’t resonate as much with potential supporters.”

But that’s not what’s happening. Six months ago, ISIS appeared to be hemmed in. Its lightning advances in Iraq had been turned away at the country’s north by the Iraqi Kurds, and in the east by Shiite militias. In Syria the extremists lost a hugely symbolic battle at Kobani, the border town that became a last stand for Syrian Kurds, and a turkey shoot for U.S. warplanes. The Obama administration and Baghdad had some breathing space to revive the Iraqi military as an effective fighting force.

But the tide has changed. ISIS just had a very good month. In Iraq it took Ramadi, the largest city in Anbar Province, and began an assault on the last government-held population centers between it and Baghdad, 70 miles to the east, where it already surrounds the international airport. In Syria, ISIS swept up the ancient city of Palmyra, and moved toward Aleppo, the country’s shattered largest city. In Libya, groups that have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi’s caliphate gained ground, holding Muamar Ghadaffi’s hometown of Sirt, fighting in Benghazi and a half dozen other places. ISIS-aligned groups also fight in Yemen, the Egyptian Sinai and all those other countries on the sprawling map of historically Muslim lands.

It’s not columns of horsemen galloping across the desert wastes, but that’s not how conquest works anymore. On the social media sites where ISIS has such a formidable presence, the frontiers on the online maps are once again pushing outward, and would-be followers are voting with their feet. New recruits arrive from around the world at the rate of 1,000 a month, according to intelligence officials. The Pentagon says its airstrikes are killing ISIS fighters at the same rate. If both numbers are accurate, they describe a balance that ISIS—apparently largely commanded by former military officers from Saddam Hussein’s army—has found ways to work to its advantage on the ground.

And the longer it maintains momentum, the more of a threat it becomes. Up to now, the group’s primary focus appears to remain on the Middle East, and on building the caliphate. But should its leaders decide to shift to a serious terror campaign in the United States and other Western countries, as some seasoned intelligence analysts say it surely will, just how ISIS and its caliphate are viewed by usually moderate Muslims will matter a great deal. It may, for instance, make the difference between a sleeper cell being reported to the authorities, or allowed to proceed unmolested. As former State Department counterterror official Daniel Benjamin has put it, “small opinion changes at the margins of a population of 1.2 billion people can have enormous effects.” And small changes of opinions—or more than small—tend to occur during months like the one ISIS just had.

TIME Middle East

Israel-Palestinian Peace Deal Could Bring $173 Billion Windfall, Study Says

ISRAEL-GAZA-CONFLICT-ARMY
MENAHEM KAHANA—AFP/Getty Images Israeli soldiers drive an armored personal carriers during a training exercise near the Israel-Gaza Border, on June 7, 2015.

"There is money on the table,” says a RAND Corporation researcher

The economic reward for settling the Israel-Palestinian conflict with a two-state solution? $173 billion.

That’s according to a new analysis by the RAND Corporation, which calculates that a two-state solution would result in a $123-billion economic gain for the Israeli economy and a $50 billion boon for Palestinians. That’s an average per capita income increase of $2,200 (5%) for every Israeli and $1,000 (36%) for every Palestinian in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

But if a two-state resolution is not reached in the next 10 years, says the study, the economic hit would be greater than the gains: gross domestic product in the West Bank and Gaza would shrink by 46%, and in Israel by 10%.

“The point is to demonstrate that there is money on the table,” Charles P. Ries, a RAND vice president told the New York Times. “There are big gains, and people don’t realize how big they are.”

RAND measured the impact of factors like trade and tourism, as well as Palestinians’ renewed ability to travel more freely and exploit mineral resources in the region.

TIME energy

OPEC Set to Play the Waiting Game in Oil Market

An OPEC flag blows in the wind in Oran, Algeria.
Adam Berry—Bloomberg via Getty Images An OPEC flag blows in the wind in Oran, Algeria.

Continuing low oil prices is the only way for OPEC to increase its market share

Following OPEC’s decision not to cut production at its June 5, 2015 meeting in Vienna, oil prices should likely continue their descent that began in early May (Figure 1). Prices may fall into the $50+ per barrel range since there is no tangible reason for their rise from January’s $46 low.

EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc./Oilprice.comFigure 1. Brent crude oil spot price May 1- June 1, 2015

Saudi Arabia’s longer view of demand and market share dominated the decision not to cut.

World oil production has undergone a structural shift from supply dominated by relatively inexpensive conventional production to increasingly more supply coming from expensive deep-water and unconventional production. Most conventional oil is located in the Arabian, Siberian and North Caspian basins (Figure 2) while deep-water and unconventional production is focused along the margins of the Atlantic Ocean and in North America.

UCGS/Oilprice.comFigure 2. Location map showing Arabian, Siberian and North Caspian sedimentary basins

This shift is at the root of the current price conflict between OPEC and North American oil producers. Since 2008, OPEC liquids production has been fairly flat until mid-2014 (Figure 3). Non-OPEC production outside of North America has been flat. Most production growth has occurred in the U.S. and Canada but it is not only from tight oil.

EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc./Oilprice.comFigure 3. World liquids production since 2008 showing OPEC, non-OPEC minus the U.S. and Canada, and the U.S. and Canada

The competition for OPEC market share is from Canadian oil sands, Gulf of Mexico deep-water and tight oil production. U.S. plus Canadian production has increased 6.2 million barrels per day (mmbpd) since January 2008. OPEC production has increased 2 mmbpd over that period with 1.3 mmbpd (65%) of that increase since June 2014.

Lower oil prices over the past year (Figure 4) have not yet resulted in any observable decrease in North American production. Higher prices over the last few months further complicate the situation for OPEC. The global production surplus has gotten worse, not better, in recent months but prices rose based on sentiment.

EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc./Oilprice.comFigure 4. Crude oil prices since June 2014

It is true that U.S. production may be falling but a 3-month lag in reporting prevents us from seeing this. It is also true that OPEC may have limited capacity to increase their production further although Middle East rig counts have never been higher.

The only way for OPEC to significantly increase its market share is to undermine North American expensive oil production with low oil prices for at least another 6 months. This is why a production cut at this time made little sense to them.

This article originally appeared on Oilprice.com.

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