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Iraq

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Hopeless in Iraq

Four months of mass protests in the streets of Hong Kong, and thousands of injuries and arrests – but only two gunshot wounds, both very recent and neither life-threatening.

Five days of mass protests in the streets of Baghdad, and there are already a hundred dead, most by gunfire from the various ‘security’ forces that work for the government. It’s all the more deplorable because Iraq, unlike the vast majority of Arab states, is not actually ruled by military or royal tyrants.

There are free elections in Iraq, and a democratically elected civilian government. The lengthy military occupation after the US invasion in 2003 spawned brutal terrorist movements like Islamic State, but it did give Iraq a full suite of democratic institutions. The trouble is that it also empowered one of the most corrupt political systems in the world.

That’s what the young Iraqi protesters are out in the streets about: not democracy, but corruption. They are very young – most are under 20 – and there are simply no jobs for them. They are condemned to pass their lives in idleness and poverty because they lack the political contacts that might lead to employment.

There have been intermittent anti-corruption demonstrations in Baghdad and Iraq’s big southern cities since mid-2018, and Tahrir Square in the centre of the capital has been occupied by a few thousand protesters for the past three months. But it was only when they decided to march on the Green Zone on 1 October that the killing started.

The heavily fortified Green Zone was American headquarters during the occupation, and it is now home to most government offices. The protesters were unarmed and non-violent, so the safest thing for the authorities to do would have been to shut the gates until they went home for the evening.

Instead, the military and police fools in charge decided to blockade a bridge leading to the Green Zone. When the protesters tried to cross, they were met with tear gas and rubber bullets, and then with live bullets.

Only half a dozen young men were killed that day, but they were back in the streets in far larger numbers the next day and the slaughter began in earnest. This is not a revolution. It’s more like a cry of pain and despair by young Iraqis who see no future for themselves, and unfortunately they are right.

Almost every country that depends on a single natural resource (usually oil) for most of its income experiences massive corruption: politics becomes mainly a struggle for control of the money flowing from that resource. But the situation is much worse in Iraq because corruption has become embedded in the structure of all the main political parties.

Each party controls one or more government ministries, but instead of spending that ministry’s share of the national budget on education or infrastructure or whatever its particular responsibility may be, the party creates as many jobs as possible to reward its members and retain their support.

So almost half the adult males in Iraq who have jobs of any sort have government jobs – jobs that often require no work at all, but are much better paid than private-sector jobs.

Iraqi public services are in a desperate state, because the ministries’ money is being spent on salaries for those party members rather than on maintaining the school system or electricity generation or even the water supply.

And of course there are no jobs whatever left for young people now coming into the work-force.

Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has no idea what to do about the situation, because corruption in Iraq is not a blight on the system. It IS the system, and he will never persuade the political parties to relinquish their control over the state’s revenues. And he can’t really negotiate with the protesters either, because they have no leaders.

It gets worse. The bitter fact is that there’s not enough oil money to give everybody a decent life even if the Iraqi government were to spend it on public services and jobs for all.

Iraq’s current oil production (4.6 million barrels/day) is not dramatically higher than its previous peak in 1979 (3.5 million b/d), before production collapsed during the era of wars with Iran and the United States.

Back then, there were only around 13 million Iraqis, so it was genuinely an oil-rich country. Before Saddam Hussein gained absolute power in 1979 and plunged the country into a generation of war, the Baath Party had even managed to build a pretty good welfare state in Iraq, with a decent education and free medical care for all.

But there are now three times as many Iraqis – 40 million – and the population will double again in the next 30 years. The country still depends on oil for its income, but it is no longer ‘oil-rich’. There is little prospect for a radical improvement in the lives of those angry young men in the streets of Baghdad (and their equally despairing sisters at home).
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 12. (“The heavily…bullets”; and “Iraqi…supply”)

War in the Gulf?

Donald Trump is well known for his desire to cut American military commitments overseas. Indeed, it is one of his most attractive characteristics. But his attention span is short, he plays a lot of golf, and he does not have the knack of choosing good advisers.

His main domestic advisers on the Middle East are Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Adviser John Bolton, all hawks on Iran. His closest allies in the region itself are Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, both of whom can wrap him around their little fingers. And they both want the United States to attack Iran for them.

Donald Trump doesn’t want a war with Iran. He has an extra-strength version of the usual Washington obsession with Iran, as irrational and ineradicable as the parallel obsession with Cuba – the United States will forgive and forget anything except humiliation – but he imagines Iran can be bullied and bluffed into submission. His ‘advisers’ are not that naive.

This is not to say that Pence, Pompeo or even Bolton prefers war to any other outcome of the current confrontation. They would rather see the sanctions they have imposed on Iran, which are strangling the economy and causing great hardship, lead to a popular uprising and regime change. Fat chance.

It’s the ever-popular moral mistake. WE would never yield to such blackmail, because our cause is just and our will is strong. THEY will crumble before the same threats because they are weak and they must secretly know they are in the wrong.

But if the Iranians perversely refuse to overthrow their government, then PP&B would accept war as the next-best outcome. Bolton might actually welcome it, and may already be involved in manipulating the intelligence to justify such a war in the same way he did in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. (He called a rather peculiar early-morning meeting at CIA headquarters last week.)

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, some players in Iran now appear to be pushing back against the American pressure. They are probably hard-liners associated with the not-so-loyal opposition to President Hassan Rouhani’s ‘moderate’ government (moderate in the sense that he doesn’t want nukes and does want trade with the West), and they may just have given the American warhawks something to work with.

If push came to shove, Iran’s one available counter-weight to overwhelming US military strength would be to threaten the tanker traffic that carries 20 percent of the world’s crude oil and LNG out of the Gulf. The ‘choke point’ is the Strait of Hormuz, between Iran’s south coast and the United Arab Emirates, where the navigation channels narrow to three nautical miles wide in each direction.

On Sunday, there was a ‘sabotage attack’ on four merchant ships at anchor off the UAE port of Fujairah, just outside the Strait of Hormuz, where tankers often wait to be refuelled. Two at least were Saudi tankers.

Something holed all four ships at the waterline, and the instant suspicion was that some Iranian group is reminding everybody that Iran can close down the Strait if it is attacked. Or at least that it could do enough damage to drive insurance rates on cargoes transiting the Strait into the stratosphere.

But it might not be an Iranian group at all. It could be an American or Israeli or Saudi intelligence operation seeking to create a pretext for a US attack on Iran (like the ‘Gulf of Tonkin incident’ created a pretext for the US to start bombing North Vietnam in 1964). You have to keep an open mind on these things, unless you believe that intelligence agencies never lie.

At any rate, an actual war against Iran now seems much closer than it did last week. The long-planned transfer of another American aircraft carrier into the Gulf is now being re-framed as an emergency response to a new (but unspecified) Iranian threat. B-52 bombers that could easily reach Iran from their current bases are being ostentatiously flown into the Gulf. Mike Pompeo makes an unscheduled four-hour visit to Iraq.

If the United States does attack, nobody will help Iran, even though every other signatory to the no-nukes treaty that Trump trashed knows (and says) that Iran has complied with its terms. And the US would only bomb Iran, not invade it on the ground, so the only people who got hurt in the initial round would be Iranians.

But then it would spread: mines in the Strait of Hormuz, missile attacks on Israel by Hezbollah, maybe an uprising by the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia. Lots of death and destruction, and no possibility of a happy outcome.

I really don’t think this is what Donald Trump wants. Maybe somebody should tell him.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“It’s…wrong”; and “But…lie”)

The End of Isis

Last Wednesday Donald Trump said: “It should be announced, probably some time next week, that we will have 100% of the (ISIS) caliphate.” Well, it is next week now, and by the weekend Trump will probably have made exactly that announcement. He will be right, too: ISIS as a major threat has been defeated for good.

A number of other claims will then be made in short order. Trump, of course, will claim that it is his victory and only his, although he was actually only carrying through with the strategy laid down by Barack Obama. On the other hand, give him credit for having the wit to stick to that strategy, even though he missed no opportunity to trash Obama’s achievements.

Various other people, mostly in Washington, will hasten to point out that ISIS is far from defunct as an organisation. It is losing the last of the territory it once held, but it carried out lots of terrorist attacks before it controlled any territory. It will continue to do so after it has lost it all again. You can’t ‘defeat’ terrorism; you can only contain it.

ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) was a group that broke away from Osama bin Laden’s original fundamentalist jihadi organisation, al-Qaeda, and the main reason for the rupture was that some members thought the time was ripe to create an actual Islamic caliphate. Bin Laden disagreed, so they defied him and created ‘Islamic State’ anyway.

At its peak, in mid-2015, Islamic State controlled around half the territory of both Syria and Iraq and ruled over more than seven million people. It looked impressive, but it was only possible because the Syrian government was fighting (and, at that point, losing) a civil war, while Iraq was greatly weakened after the withdrawal of American troops.

Later in 2015, Russia intervened on the side of the Syrian regime, which has now won its civil war, and the return of American troops to Iraq enabled that government to recover all its territory by mid-2017. The last villages in Syria that were once part of Islamic State will be recaptured this week, whereupon Trump will bring the US troops in Syria home – and the surviving ISIS fighters will revert to simple terrorism.

Bin Laden was right: ISIS’s great mistake was to create a target, an actual state, that could be successfully attacked by an army. Various armies duly did just that, and now Islamic State is gone – while al-Qaeda, the parent organisation, carries on. But it no longer uses that name in Syria, as it attracts unwelcome Western attention.

For years al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch called itself al-Nusra, and now it trades as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Organisation for the Liberation of the Levant), but it is still al-Qaeda in all but name. And there is one place in Syria where al-Qaeda does control territory despite the late bin Laden’s views: Idlib province in the north-west, hard up against the Turkish border.

The Idlib enclave came into being more or less by default, because that was where Syrian rebel groups were sent when they surrendered to Assad’s government elsewhere in Syria. As a result the province’s population has doubled to 3 million people, and over the past year al-Qaeda has fought a series of small wars that brought all the other rebel groups there under its control.

So Al-Qaeda in Idlib now controls a border, has significant resources, and commands around 50,000 fighting men. It is a state for all practical purposes, although for doctrinal reasons al-Qaeda avoids using the term – and as a state it is an appropriate target for an army to destroy. When will that happen?

It depends on when Russia and Turkey decide to do something about it. The Turkish government used to support various rebel Islamist militias against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but all its local allies have now been subjugated by al-Qaeda, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is much less enthusiastic about.

Russia has never supported any Islamist forces and would happily help Assad to take back all of Idlib tomorrow. However, Moscow currently hopes to detach Turkey from NATO and turn it into an ally, and therefore probably won’t move against al-Qaeda until Erdogan gives it a green light. That may take some time.

There is also the question of what happens to the Syrian Kurds, who allied themselves to the United States and carried the main military burden of destroying Islamic State in Syria. They hoped to get independence from Syria, or at least autonomy within Syria, as a reward for their efforts, but Turkey will not allow that and in the end the US will betray them. Again, however, this may take some time.

So it could be a year yet before the wars that have ravaged the greater Middle East since the American invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 finally die down, but it will come. And as the flood-waters recede the political landscape will re-emerge almost unchanged, apart from a little more democracy in Iraq and quite a lot less in Turkey.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 13. (“A number…achievements”; and “There…time”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Islamic State: Is It Over?

Late last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin met the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Syria, allegedly to discuss a final peace settlement in the Syrian civil war. On Monday he was in Syria to announce a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from the country because they had inflicted a “total rout” on the jihadist militants of Islamic State. Is the war really over?

Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, no longer exists as an actual, physical state in either Iraq or Syria. Last summer it lost Mosul, Iraq’s second city, to Iraqi troops backed by US air power. Over the past four months it has lost all of eastern Syria, including its capital Raqqa, to a variety of forces including Kurdish, Syrian, and Iranian troops and American and Russian bombers.

Just one year ago, Islamic State controlled a territory the size of Belgium and the Netherlands, with 7 or 8 million people. Now it is homeless, and even its propaganda output has dropped by 90 percent as its video production facilities were overrun one after the other. Its credibility among the faithful has taken an even bigger hit.

When the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the re-founding of the traditional Islamic Caliphate in the territory controlled by ISIS in mid-2014, he was claiming quite specifically that the enterprise had God’s blessing. So it’s deeply embarrassing when it loses all that territory again within 30 months to the local ‘enemies of God’ and their infidel foreign allies.

The standard tactic of prophets, when their prophecies don’t come true, is to say that God is just testing people’s faith. We are already seeing some of this in ISIS propaganda, but the people who watch it are not complete fools. If they are fanatics interested in waging jihad, they will not abandon the idea, but they will look for some other organisation that has a better claim to divine support.

That alternative organisation, at least in Syria, is al-Qaeda. It still has credibility because it planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks, and its Syrian branch still controls most of the province of Idlib in northwestern Syria. It was never as interested as Islamic State in attracting foreign volunteers, but if you’re a Syrian jihadi, it’s now the destination of choice.

The Syria branch of al-Qaeda was known as al-Nusra for a long time, but in the past two years it has changed its name approximately every second weekend in a bid to disguise its origins. It wasn’t trying to hide its loyalties from potential recruits. It was pretending to be a ‘moderate’ rebel group so that it wouldn’t get hit by American bombers.

This didn’t actually fool the Americans, of course, but it did allow them to denounce the Russians – who WERE bombing al-Nusra/al-Qaeda – as evil allies of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad who were killing ‘good’ rebels. Oh, and killing innocent civilians, too, as if American bombs never hit civilians.

Al-Nusra was the Russians’ main target because it was a bigger threat to the survival of the Syrian government than Islamic State. It was al-Nusra, for example, that controlled the eastern half of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, until Assad’s forces took it back a year ago with the help of Russian bombers and artillery.

Remember how the Western media covered the end of that siege? They never mentioned al-Qaeda or al-Nusra, and you never saw a fighter in the video clips coming out of east Aleppo. They just ran the footage of suffering civilians without any further comment or context.

It was hard to tell whether Barack Obama’s State Department was being delusional or merely hypocritical, but it insisted that there was a ‘third force’ of non-jihadi Syrians that was also trying to overthrow Assad. The US was supporting them, and the wicked Russians were trying to kill them. But the ‘third force’ didn’t exist: it had been swallowed up by al-Nusra years ago.

So the US bombed Islamic State and nobody else, while the Russians only did that occasionally. Instead, they concentrated on bombing al-Nusra, which held territory much closer to Syria’s big cities. And Washington scored propaganda points by claiming that the Russians were bombing innocent civilians and ‘good’ rebels.

Now, with Islamic State defeated, the US forces will probably leave eastern Syria. (They have no legal status there, since they were never invited in by the Syrian government or authorised to intevene by the United Nations.) But most of the Russian forces will stay, because it will probably take another year to destroy al-Nusra in Idlib province.

So why was Putin in Syria to announce a Russian troop withdrawal? Because there’s a presidential election coming up in Russia, and he wanted to declare a victory and bring some troops home now. But the war goes on.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“al-Nusra…context”)