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Editorial: A new nation?

As the world’s attention is turned to Gaza and the bloody battles between Israel and Hamas, a chilling series of events is developing just a few hundred miles to the northeast.

Islamic radicals known as ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, have spread from Syria to Iraq and now to Lebanon. Flowing across the porous borders in the area and taking advantage of sectarian battles and weak central governments, this collection of die-hard Sunni guerrillas has begun to impose its vision of an Islamic state on the hapless inhabitants of the region.

And it’s not a pretty picture.

In Iraq’s Mosul, for example, they have been systematically destroying centuries-old landmarks and shrines — many revered by other Sunni Muslims but in the radicals’ eyes, abominations that encourage worship of others besides God.

They blew up the Mosque of the Prophet Younis — or Jonah — the prophet who in both the Bible and Quran was swallowed by a whale. They destroyed Mosque of Sheeth, or Seth, said to be the burial site of the third son of Adam and Eve and then reduced the Mosque of the Prophet Jirjis to rubble.

They removed the crosses on the domes and brick walls of the 1,800-year-old Mar Behnam monastery, then stormed it, forcing the monks and priest to flee or face death. They have proclaimed that all Christians in Mosul must convert to Islam, pay a tax or die. Women must wear loose clothing and cover their faces. No bright colors, no patterns are allowed. Earlier this month, they stoned to death two women accused of adultery.

In Syria, after an army division was defeated by ISIS, the group beheaded commanders and displayed their heads in the city’s public square.

ISIS is financing its operations by selling oil from the oilfields of eastern Syria, which it commandeered in late 2012, and is smuggling raw materials pillaged from the crumbling state, as well as priceless antiquities from archaeological digs. It has seized military equipment from defeated Syrian and Iraqi forces and is bolstering its armaments by purchasing weapons from a wide variety of international sources.

This group, which surprised western intelligence agencies with its sudden military successes, is rapidly changing from a “non-state entity” to what is in effect a new nation — bankrolled by oil money and driven by merciless religious fervor.

It’s changing the balance of power in the Middle East — and nobody seems to be paying attention.

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