Two great sieges are getting underway in the Middle East, one in Mosul in Iraq and the other in Aleppo in Syria. They have a great deal in common, including the fact that the attackers both depend heavily on foreign air power, but they are treated by most international media as though they were completely different events. How similar they are will become clearer with the passage of time.
Sieges of cities, once a major part of warfare, grew rare in the course of the 20th century, mainly because of the rise of air power. You didn’t need to besiege cities any more, because you could just smash them to smithereens from the air: Guernica, Dresden, Hiroshima. But that’s not so easy in the era of instant global media coverage.
Seventy years without a really major war have allowed us to develop a major dislike for killing civilians from the air. Nobody on either side would have been the least bit reluctant to blast Aleppo or Mosul into oblivion in 1945 if it served their strategic purposes, but moral tastes have changed.
They haven’t changed that much, of course, or we would be seeing a horrified rejection of the entire concept of nuclear deterrence, which is based on the threat to extinguish millions or tens of millions of innocent civilian lives if the other side behaves too badly. But when the destruction from the air is piecemeal, with relatively small numbers of identifiable victims, we can get quite upset about it.
Every civilian death from bombing in Iraq and Syria – but not the thousands of other civilian casualties each month — is therefore publicly catalogued and condemned.
The Russians are taking enormous criticism over their bombing of the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo (although the indiscriminate “barrel bombs” are the work of the Syrian air force, not the Russians).
The US air force has been much more careful about its bombing around Mosul so far, but it too will end up having to choose between bombing the city heavily and seeing the Iraqi government’s attack fail.
Both Mosul and eastern Aleppo are Sunni Muslim cities facing an attempted reconquest by Shia-dominated national governments. In both cases the rebel fighters who control the besieged areas are jihadi extremists: Islamic State in Mosul, and the Nusra Front in eastern Aleppo. (In Aleppo, the jihadis number perhaps a thousand out of ten thousand fighters, but they dominate both the fighting and the decision-making.)
In both cases, too, the troops on the government side are divided by ethnic and sectarian differences, and largely unreliable. Which is why, in the end, government victory in both countries depends on foreign air power.
In Aleppo, the troops leading the attack on the ground are mostly Shia militias recruited from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan and paid for by Iran. Actual Syrian army troops have been decimated and exhausted by five years of war, and those who remain are being carefully husbanded. So they wait for the Russians to bomb the defenders to pieces, and just use the troops to mop up afterwards.
In the case of Mosul, the attacking forces are even more varied. The Iraqi government’s regular troops are mostly Shia, and the pro-government militias are entirely Shia and notorious for treating Sunnis badly. Since almost everybody left in Mosul is Sunni, they are terrified of the government’s troops.
The Iraqi govenment has therefore promised that Shia militias will not enter the city, nor will the Kurdish troops that are assisting in the early part of the offensive. What this means, however, is that very few soldiers will actually be fighting once the attack reaches the edge of the city proper.
There will be perhaps 25,000 Iraqi regular army troops in the final assault, of whom maybe half can be relied on to fight. There will be around 5,000 American troops in the area, but they are not allowed to engage in direct combat. And there are about 1,500 Turkish army troops who have been training a Sunni militia north of Mosul (but the government in Baghdad has ordered them to leave).
Islamic State’s five or six thousand fighters have had years to prepare their defences, and street fighting uses up attacking troops very fast. Even “precision” airstrikes in urban areas always mean lots of dead civilians, but central Mosul will not fall unless the United States uses its air force to dig the defenders out.
Even the current advance across relatively open country south and east of Mosul relies on the massive use of air power to keep the attackers’ casualties down. When the troops reach the city limits, the whole operation will stall unless the US government starts serious bombing in the built-up area.
If it does that, then the civilian casualties will be quite similar to those inflicted by the Russian air force in eastern Aleppo. But the Western media will doubtless still find ways to see a huge difference between the two.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 15 . (“They…it”; and “Even…area”)
“Hillary Clinton’s weakness while she was Secretary of State has emboldened terrorists all over the world to attack the US, even on our own soil,” wrote Donald Trump on Facebook after the bombing in New York on Saturday. “They are hoping and praying that Hillary Clinton becomes president, that they can continue their savagery and murder.”
Mrs. Clinton replied on Monday by branding the Republican presidential candidate a “recruiting sergeant for the terrorists.” Indeed, in an interview on Israeli television this month, Mrs. Clinton said Islamic State was praying for a Trump victory. There’s clearly a lot of praying going on, but whose victory are the jihadi fanatics really praying FOR?
There’s no point in asking them, because they are likely to lie about it . At least half of them are smart enough to realise that if Islamist extremists openly express a preference for one candidate, American voters will tend to back the other. (Tactical voting is a time-honoured practice, but it does encourage tactical lying.)
Besides, it’s really hard for the opinion pollsters to contact a statistically valid sample of the fighters of Islamic State by phone. We’re going to have to figure out their views without their help – but happily, this is not very hard to do. Their weapon is terrorism, and there is a clear, universally acknowledged doctrine on how that weapon works.
Well, it was universally acknowledged in the 1970s and the 1980s, when the world was littered with revolutionary movements using terrorist methods. The leaders themselves wrote about how terrorism served their goals, and a generation of Western military leaders studied how best to combat it. Unsurprisingly, they came to the same conclusions about how terrorism actually worked – and that it didn’t work very well.
So the revolutionary movements either won (occasionally) or else gradually faded away. The generation of Western military leaders who had actually confronted terrorism and learned how to respond to it got old and retired, and the knowledge was lost.
Some truly stupid things were said and done in the first years after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. “They are attacking us because they hate our values!”, for example, or “We’ll invade Iraq and root them out!” (There were no terrorists in Iraq before the invasion.) But a new generation of Western soldiers has finally grasped how terrorism works. The terrorists themselves, of course, knew it all along.
Three basic facts about terrorism. First, it is the weapon of choice for the weak, because it does not require a large army, sophisticated weapons or a lot of money.
Secondly, without those assets, terrorists must not engage in frontal assaults and stand-up battles against powerful opponents (usually governments) who do have them.
Thirdly, it can therefore only succeed by tricking those more powerful forces into doing things that really serve the terrorists’ purposes.
What is the ultimate goal of Islamic State and similar jihadi groups? Obviously, it is to come to power in various parts of the Muslim world. If they ever manage to become a government they may develop further ambitions (for then they would have a large army and lots of money), but taking power is the crucial first step.
Clearly the terrorists do not have mass support in their own countries, or they would already be in power. In order to build that mass support – it doesn’t have to be majority support, but they do need a lot of people behind them – they need a villain that will push people into their arms.
That villain can be either the government that currently rules the country, or a foreign power that invades the country, but in either case it must be provoked into behaving very badly. Only torture chambers and/or cluster bombs will make the mass of the population so desperate that they turn to the revolutionaries for help.
To get the torture and the bombing going, the target government must become so frightened and enraged that it starts using them on a large scale. That’s what the terrorism is actually for: to make governments over-react and behave very badly. Then the terrorists might actually build enough support to win.
Terrorism is not just blind hatred. It is a technique used by ruthless but intelligent leaders with coherent strategies and clear political goals, and the violence is never “senseless”. Bin Laden’s strategy in carrying out the 9/11 attacks, for example, was to provoke the United States into invading Muslim countries.
It worked, and the invasions gave a huge boost to the popularity of the jihadi movement. Indeed, Islamic State and its clones could never have gained power without those invasions.
All terrorism is a kind of political jiu-jitsu, in which a relatively weak group tries to goad a far stronger force into doing something very big and stupid. Terrorism doesn’t just thrive on over-reaction. It cannot succed without it.
So now ask yourself: which of the American presidential candidates is more likely to over-react to a terrorist provocation?
Okay, so now you know whose victory the terrorists are really praying for.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Well…lost”)
“Suppose that…the Iraqis feel ambivalent about being invaded and real Iraqis, not (just) Saddam’s special guard, decide to offer resistance,” wrote British prime minister Tony Blair to US president George W. Bush in December 2001, two years before the US and the UK invaded Iraq. At least Blair had some doubts, but neither man could really imagine that the Iraqis would see them as conquerors, not liberators.
Another 13 years have now passed, and at last we have the Chilcot Report, an impartial official investigation into why Britain joined the United States in that invasion. (There is no equivalent American document.) It’s a 12-volume study that illustrates just how ill-informed and reckless the planners of that illegal war were, but it doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know.
There are some juicy documents about the pre-war connivance between Bush and Blair, like Blair’s promise in 2001 that “We are with you, whatever.” But there is comparatively little on the scale of the disaster that the invasion inflicted on innocent Iraqis: thirteen years of war, up to 600,000 Iraqis killed and a country effectively destroyed. So this is a good time to recall the fate of the city of Fallujah.
Fallujah was a city of a third of a million people, less than an hour’s drive west of Baghdad, that was occupied by US troops in April 2003. It was the first place where American troops fired on Iraqi civilians (they were protesting against the takeover of a local high school by the US 82nd Airborne Division). It had fallen under the control of Iraqi resistance forces by the end of the year. That was the “First Battle of Fallujah”.
Fallujah was recaptured in November 2004 by US forces, at a cost of 95 American dead and 560 wounded. An estimated 1,350 insurgents were killed in this “Second Battle of Fallujah”. A large but uncounted number of civilians also died, as the American offensive involved massive artillery bombardments including white phosphorus shells. 9,000 of the city’s 39,000 homes were destroyed in that battle, and more than half were damaged.
The city was never properly rebuilt, but by 2006 about two-thirds of its residents had returned. Despite constant attacks on the occupation forces by the group that later turned into Islamic State, the United States returned Fallujah to Iraqi government control in 2008 – or perhaps we should say Iraqi government occupation, for by now the American-backed government in Baghdad was almost entirely Shia, and Fallujah is a Sunni city.
Sunni insurgents took back control of Fallujah in January 2014, six months before rest of western Iraq fell to the forces of Islamic State virtually without a fight. The pattern was the same: the new Iraqi army built up by the United States at a cost of $26 billion simply collapsed and ran away.
The “Third Battle of Fallujah” began in May of this year. Iraqi government forces (mosty Shia, of course), supported by Iranian troops and American air strikes, took almost six weeks to recapture the city, which by the end of the fighting contained only a few tens of thousands of civilians. More will return in due course, mainly because they have nowhere else to go, but most of the city is just ruins.
Other cities in Iraq are less comprehensively wrecked, but none of them are safe places to live in. The most recent bomb attack in Baghdad, on Saturday evening, killed at least 250 people. When the current Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, visited the scene of the bombing on Sunday, he was chased away by a crowd hurling stones, shoes and insults. And there is no end in sight.
Thirteen years, half a million excess deaths or more, millions of refugees, general impoverishment and insecurity, and an astoundingly corrupt government that is strongly and successfully resisting Abadi’s attempt to reform it. It is no wonder that even most of those in Iraq who suffered under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule now wish he had never been overthrown.
“Saddam has gone, and we have one thousand Saddams now,” said Kadhim al-Jabbouri in a recent interview with the BBC. Jabbouri, who became famous for taking a sledgehammer to a statue of the dictator as American forces entered Baghdad in 2003, added: “It wasn’t like this under Saddam…We didn’t like him, but he was better than those people…There was no corruption or looting. You could be safe.”
The cautious ruminations of the Chilcot Report underplay the most important fact about the invasion of Iraq, which is that all these appalling consequences were entirely predictable. People who had any real knowledge of the political, ethnic and sectarian politics in the region and especially in Iraq DID predict them, including the relevant experts in the US State Department and the British Foreign Ministry.
Never mind whether or not the decision to invade Iraq was a war crime (though it was, under international law). Never mind whether the invaders’ motives were good or bad (they were the usual mixture of both, actually). What shines through is the sheer arrogance and ignorance of those who brought this calamity down on the Iraqis, who must now live out their lives in misery and terror. Thanks, guys.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“The city…city”; and “Saddam…safe”)
Because most people think of Islamic State, al-Qaeda and their ilk as being crazies motivated solely by hatred, they are not puzzled by recent terrorist attacks on the West like those in Paris, Brussels and Los Angeles. Like the villains in comic books, the terrorists are simply evil, and no further explanation is needed. But in the real world, being violent and fanatical does not make you stupid.
The small group of Arab Islamists who started fighting the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 were by 2014 the rulers of a new country of some five million people that they call Islamic State, which suggests that they are clever people who pursue rational strategies. And yet they go on backing terrorist attacks in the West, which no longer seems like a rational strategy.
It was a perfectly sensible strategy once. By the year 2000 the Islamist revolutionaries of the Arab world were close to despair. They had been trying to overthrow the dictators and kings who ruled the Arab countries for a quarter-century, and there was blood all over the walls – around 300,000 Arabs were killed in the struggles between the Islamists and the regimes in 1975-2000 – but they had not managed to overthrow a single regime.
Their main strategy was always terrorism, simply because they lacked the resources for anything more ambitious. In theory their terrorist attacks should have driven the regimes into extreme repression, which (again in theory) should have alienated the population and driven them into the arms of the revolutionaries. Then the people, led by the Islamists and united in their wrath, would rise up and drive the oppressors from power.
The Islamists had a few early successes – the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981 – but their strategy did not work. The Arab regimes did indeed become more oppressive, but the revolutionaries did not get mass support. Their doctrines were too weird, and their behaviour too extreme. So by the late 1990s the Islamists were looking for a different strategy.
It was Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda, who came up with a new strategy: attack the West. The ultimate goal was still to come to power in the Arab world, but rather than revolution in the streets the Islamists would now win power by leading a successful guerilla resistance movement against an invasion by infidel foreigners.
Bin Laden had hit on this strategy because he had fought in Afghanistan as a volunteer, and that was exactly how the game played out there. The Russians invaded in 1979; Islamist extremists took over the resistance movement; after a long and bloody war the Russians went home in 1989; and the Afghan Islamists (the Taliban) then took power because they were the heroes who had driven the infidel foreigners out.
To relive this triumph required getting some other infidel army to invade a Muslim country, and the obvious choice was the United States. Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington in 2001 gave Americans the necessary motivation, and two US invasions followed in rapid succession, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The mass-casualty terrorist attacks against Western targets continued for a long time (Madrid, Bali, London, etc.), presumably in order to give Western countries a reason to keep their troops in the Middle East. But the attacks gradually diminished as Al-Qaeda’s fighters in Iraq came closer to their goal of creating their own state: that would clearly be easier to do if most of the Western troops had already gone home.
The creation of Islamic State and the proclamation of the “Caliphate” in 2014 was the culmination of this long struggle, and it should have ended Islamist terror attacks on the West. Now they have a real state, they are seeking to expand in Syria and Iraq by military force, and the last thing they need is Western troops around to make matters more difficult. So why didn’t the attacks on Western countries stop?
The only plausible explanation is the great split in the Islamist movement in 2014, when Islamic State broke away from Al-Qaeda. Since then there has been a ferocious competition between them both for recruits, and for the loyalty of Islamist organisations across the Muslim world. (The main Islamist organisations in both Egypt and Nigeria have switched their allegiance from Al-Qaeda to Islamic State in the past two years).
In this competition, the best and cheapest way of showing that your organisation is tougher, more dedicated, more efficient than the other lot is to kill Westerners in spectacular terrorist attacks. So, for example, Al-Qaeda sponsored the “Charlie Hebdo” attack in Paris in February, 2015, and Islamic State replied with the much bigger attack in Paris last November.
There is no strategic cost in these attacks, since Western and Russian forces are already bombing both Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s local franchise in Syria, the Nusra Front. The material cost of the attacks is negligible: neither organisation is devoting even one percent of its resources to them. So they will continue for a while, and the West will just have to deal with them as they occur.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Their main…strategy”)