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Iraq

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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”)

The Middle East: Not Enough Wars Yet

“When all the Arabs and the Israelis agree on one thing, people should pay attention. We should stop this Iranian takeover,” said Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last month. So we’re paying attention now, and we even know where the next war will start: Lebanon.

That seems unfair, as Lebanon’s last civil war lasted fifteen years, killed around 200,000 people (out of a population of only 4 million), and only ended in 1990. Couldn’t they hold this one somewhere else? Unfortunately, no. All the other venues are taken.

Iraq is still fully booked. The fight against ISIS is almost over, but the struggle between the Arabs and the Kurds has only just got started again. It never really stops for long.

Bashar al-Assad’s forces, the Russians, and Shia volunteers from Iran and Lebanon are winning the war in Syria, but it will be at least another year before they suppress all rebel resistance.

Yemen’s airspace is too congested, with Saudi, Emirati, Kuwaiti, Jordanian and Egyptian planes bombing the living daylights out of the Houthi rebels who hold most of the country (and anybody else who happens to be nearby). No real room for another war there.

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel want to take Iran down a peg or two, and their efforts to get the United States to do it for them have not yet succeeded. Trump is not opposed in principle, but his current obsession is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

So the war will have to be in Lebanon, at least at the start. The big Shia militia that controls southern Lebanon, Hezbollah, is closely allied to Shia Iran, and it’s a permanent nuisance along Israel’s northern border, so it’s a suitable place to start rolling back Iran’s influence in the region.

Lebanon is a particularly good choice from Saudi Arabia’s point of view because it’s the Israelis who would have to do the actual fighting there. (Saudi Arabia does not share a border with Lebanon.) But if Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is really serious about curbing Iran’s power, his own troops are eventually going to have to take on the job of cleansing Syria of Iranian influence.

You only have to say that sentence aloud to realise that this project is going to end in tears for the Saudis, the Israelis and (if they get sucked into it) the Americans. There is no way that the inexperienced Saudi army is going to drive battle-hardened Hezbollah and Iranian militia troops out of Syria.

Actually, there is no way that the Israeli army is going to drive Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon either. In Israel’s last war with the organisation in 2006, Hezbollah’s troops fought the Israeli army to a standstill in southern Lebanon. The Israeli air force smashed up Lebanon’s infrastructure, but Israel ended up accepting a ceasefire with Hezbollah and withdrawing its troops in a hurry.

Sunni Arab leaders and Israel’s prime minister have talked themselves into the paranoid delusion that Iran has a grand plan to establish its domination over the whole region and must be stopped by force of arms.

First Iran established close links with the Shia political parties and militias that now dominate Iraq. Then it crossed Iraqi territory to save the Shia ruler of Syria from a revolt by the Sunni majority in that country. Next was distant Yemen, where the Shia tribes of the north, the Houthi, overran most of the country with Iranian help. And now the Shia militia Hezbollah has gained a powerful position in the government of Lebanon.

If the Sunnis don’t stop the Iranians now, they’ll all be enslaved. Or something of that sort.

Nonsense. It was George W. Bush who overthrew the centuries-long rule of the Sunni minority in Iraq on the lying pretext that Saddam Hussein was developing ‘weapons of mass destruction’. The Shias took power in Iraq in a free election, and as the only Shia-majority country in the Arab world they naturally sought a close relationship with Shia Iran.

This made it easy for Iranian volunteers and weapons to move across Iraq and help Bashar al-Assad resist an assault on his rule by Sunni extremists. The Hezbollah militia, which represents the large Shia minority in Lebanon, also went to Assad’s help, but you can hardly portray this as Shia expansionism.

There is absolutely no evidence that the Houthis in Yemen are getting any material assistance from Iran. They are not even Iranian “proxies” in any meaningful sense of the word. They are Yemeni tribes who happen to be Shia, engaged in a typical Yemeni tribal power struggle.

A great many people will die for nothing if the full-scale Sunni-Shia war that Saudi Arabia (and Netanyahu) currently envisage actually gets going. But Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s resignation a week ago, in which he denounced Hezbollah’s presence in the government – delivered not at home but in Saudi Arabia – may have been the starting gun for the war.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 16. (“Both…Jong-un”; and “There is…struggle”)