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The War on ISIS: Where in the Middle East is the Islamic State making gains?

Islamic State jihadists made several gains in cities throughout the Middle East over the past week and was met with powerful resistance in others. To try to make sense of what’s occurring on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, former Director of the National Security Council Douglas Ollivant joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And now the second installment of the Weekend NewsHour's series — The War on ISIS: Extended conversations with leading experts to try to make sense of what's occurring on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq.

    Tonight, we are joined from Washington by Douglas Ollivant. He served as a director with the National Security Council under Presidents Bush and Obama. Prior to that, he was a military planner in Iraq and a counter-insurgency advisor in Afghanistan. He's now a partner with Mantid International.

    So, first let's talk Turkey, because of its location and its membership in NATO. It looks like a crucial partner in this war on ISIS. This week, the Turkish parliament said that they will authorize the use of force in Iraq and Syria. Will they send in ground troops? And if so, is that the key to defeating ISIS?

  • DOUGLAS OLLIVANT:

    I doubt they are going to send ground troops, and I doubt that's the key to fighting ISIS. Now they may well fight them on their own borders, but quite frankly what the coalition would really like from the Turks is more action in shutting their borders. Turkey has been a conduit for most of the foreign fighters coming in to fight with the Islamic State, and it would really be helpful were they to shut that border down very effectively.

    There's also been talk that much of the money flow that is coming is coming through Turkey. So more help shutting down these black markets for antiquities, oil, etc, are things that'll probably be asked for the Turks shortly.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So if they don't send ground troops, who does?

  • DOUGLAS OLLIVANT:

    I think in Iraq, we're still looking at the Iraqis, both the Iraqi army, the Iraqi police and the Kurdish peshmerga forces. Those remain the bulk of the forces we are gonna expect to do the heavy lifting.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So then let's talk about Kobani, the town is near the Turkish-Syrian border, the fights have been continuing there for some time now. Why is this battle significant?

  • DOUGLAS OLLIVANT:

    Well, Kobani is an important town on the border. Were it to fall, you would have one, the Kurds pushed out of this area and yet another salient, to use a military term, of non-ISIL control would be taken, but it then gives the Islamic State yet another important crossing with Turkey that it would control.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So is the air campaign there from America and its allies — is that working?

  • DOUGLAS OLLIVANT:

    Well, it's certainly helping. The actual tactical situation there remains very unclear, and getting accurate reporting from that area, despite us having correspondents just over the border, is still very murky. But we do think the air power is having some effect and yet the Islamic State is still pushing very heavily towards this town.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Another area of focus this week is Anbar Province, just west of Baghdad. ISIS continued to make gains there this week. ISIS fighters captured the towns of Hit and Kabaisa. Reports there say these gains are jeopardizing an important military base in the area and control of a nearby dam. Tell us a little bit more.

  • DOUGLAS OLLIVANT:

    These towns are important, and Islamic State does seem to be making some effective moves in Anbar. In short, we're seeing the battlefield kind of influx, Islamic State is being pushed back in some areas. We did see some minor victories on the part of the Iraqi army and the Iraqi Kurds this week, and yet in Anbar, as you point out, they seem to be making gains.

    So I think we have yet to see full campaign going — we're just seeing minor fluctuations in the front lines, so to speak, throughout Iraq.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How significant is the control of the base and the dam?

  • DOUGLAS OLLIVANT:

    The control of any base is significant. Anytime you lose a large piece of infrastructure, that's very, very hard to get back. And frankly, that's when we see things like the Islamic State getting large quantities of trucks, large quantity of other military equipment, missiles. So we definitely do not want the Islamic State to take over the space.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And what's significance of the dam they are nearing control of?

  • DOUGLAS OLLIVANT:

    You can use a dam positively, you can get the power that's coming from it, you can divert the water you want it, or conceivably, you can use it as a weapon of mass destruction.

    Were they to be able to destroy this dam, they can flood the towns that are below it, causing immense damage to human life and of course totally destroy the water and irrigation system that this area relies on.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Are they close to getting control?

  • DOUGLAS OLLIVANT:

    I don't think they're close. They're certainly threatening it, but I think most of us believe that remains fairly certainly under Iraqi control.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK, We've also heard reports in past few days about the Ambush and killing of Iraqi government troops just north of the capital city. Is there any real threat that ISIS could take the capital?

  • DOUGLAS OLLIVANT:

    No, there's no real threat to Baghdad. The number of troops that is in Baghdad is very impressive. And were the Islamic State to get close, the citizens of Baghdad themselves, I think, would rally against the Islamic State. This is not like the north, where there were Sunni co-religionists, at least some of whom gave aid and assistance to the Islamic State.

    As they push into Baghdad with their predominantly Shia population, they would encounter a very, very hostile environment, and would probably be thrown out fairly quickly.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Are ISIS members, or ISIS troops, be able to go freely between Syria and Iraq at this point to get themselves reinforcements and move troops and supplies?

  • DOUGLAS OLLIVANT:

    I don't think they are moving as freely as they were before we started air strikes, and that's the bulk of what we want the air strikes to do on the Syrian side. We are dropping bombs, we are destroying targets, but it's less about destroying things on the Syrian side of the border than making them unable to act freely to be able to reinforce in the manner you've been talking about to just push resupplies, be it material or troops or what have, across the border.

    So the bottom line is I think they're still coming, you can't close that border, but they can't no longer come and convoy of 50 SUVs flying the black flag. That's not happening anymore.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is there any evidence that any of this pressure is applied to their financial infrastructure — how they are actually funding these moves into Iraq?

  • DOUGLAS OLLIVANT:

    It doesn't appear that we've yet found a way to effectively choke this off. Part of the problem is their funding sources are so dispersed. They do get external funds, which we continue work to cut off. But for the most part, they are self-funded. They effectively taxed the villages, the businesses that they have taken over.

    We've had a lot, as I discussed earlier, there are black market oil sales; they've taken a large, almost industrial, antiquities market. They're looting the antiquity size on an industrial scale and moving those onto the black market as well. So cutting off their funding will be hard because it's so dispersed and so disparate.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Douglas Ollivant joining us from Washington. Thanks so much.

  • DOUGLAS OLLIVANT:

    Thanks Hari.

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