Militants with the Islamic State, formerly known by the acronym ISIS, launched a complex invasion into Lebanon on Sunday, overwhelming Lebanese troops and securing Arsal, a city predominantly made up of Syrian refugees. The sophistication of the attack came as a surprise to Beirut, whose underfunded army “says it doesn’t have the proper weapons to fight off militants,” according to the Wall Street Journal. The Islamic State, meanwhile, might be making as much as $3 million a day selling crude oil on the black market.
It is too soon to tell where the expansion of the Islamic State will stop, but militants continue to gain ground and infrastructure—taking, for instance, Mosul’s largest dam on Sunday, putting in their hands control of the region’s electrical power and the ability to flood the valleys below.
The new Caliphate is entrenching itself and growing into an existential threat for not only the Shi’ite population of southern Iraq, but for Iran also. Shi’ite paramilitary groups, including divisions of Hezbollah, have been fighting Sunni extremists, including ISIS, on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria, but many of them are rushing back to Iraq to defend the sacred shrines of Shia Islam. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Guards are not merely advising these militants, but dying on the front lines of the battle, too, Reuters reports. Tehran, however, insists that it does not have troops on the ground, despite the support Iran has lent resistance fighters, both officially and unofficially.
The Iraqi government, which is nominal at this point, has proved ineffective in halting the Islamic State’s advance, and many have accused its policies of alienating the country’s Kurds and Sunnis, creating the unrest that the militants exploited.
While Shia see Assad as capable of defending their interests as a minority religion in the every-day tumult of the sectarian Middle East, it’s unclear if they have the same trust in the Iraqi government. Militias opposing the advance of the Islamic State seem concerned far less with preserving the Iraqi state than protecting Shi’ites, their homes, and their holy places. And while the medieval Sharia laws the Islamic State has implemented means death or exile for moderate Sunni, Shia, or Christians (sparking protests around the world), the Caliphate has gained much of the infrastructure that makes a modern state, and appears to be doing more governing—ruling may be more accurate—than the country’s putative leaders.
Foreign policy makers have a conundrum on their hands. It is clear that the Caliphate’s agenda calls for attacks on the United States and the larger west. The question is whether to take action now and risk further destabilizing and radicalizing an already violent and antagonistic region, or whether to hold fast and hope that Shi’ites and Kurds and Assad can somehow destroy the once-and-future terrorists. The odds of a peaceful conclusion for either choice seem long indeed.