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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”)

No Peace Yet in Iraq (or Syria)

The shooting was still going on down by the river last week when Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi dropped by and prematurely declared that the battle for Mosul was over. He was misled by the various Iraqi army, police and militia units who were competing with one another to declare victory first, but now it really is over – and there is little left of Mosul.

The siege began on 17 October of last year, so it lasted nine months – longer than the Battle of Stalingrad. It probably killed more civilians, too, because the US-led air forces were used to compensate for the shortage of trained and motivated Iraqi ground forces.

Individual ISIS snipers were regularly taken out by air strikes that levelled entire buildings. Life is returning to some of the east-bank suburbs that were retaken last year, but there is nothing to go back to in the oldest part of the city on the west bank, where ISIS made its last stand. And the level of destruction has been almost as high in a lot of other cities.

The Sunni Arab communities of Iraq and Syria are shattered and scattered. The mixed Sunni-Shia neighbourhoods of Baghdad were mostly “cleansed” of their Sunni residents in the civil war of 2006-08. Even Sunni-majority cities in Iraq that were taken back from ISIS a couple of years ago, like Ramadi and Fallujah, are still largely deserted, with few signs of reconstruction.

Not many of the estimated 900,000 people in refugee camps around Mosul, almost all Sunni Arabs, will be going home soon either. And in Syria, the eastern side of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, fell last December after a four-year siege. It now contains a few tens of thousands of people rattling around in the ruins.

Raqqa, ISIS’s capital in Syria, will be largely destroyed in the next few months, and after that it will be the turn of Deir-es-Zor. The calamity that began in 2003, when the US invasion of Iraq overthrew the centuries-long Sunni rule over a mostly Shia country, has reached its final phase.

There can be no come-back for the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, who only make up one-fifth of the country’s 36 million people. They have been ruined by their long complicity with Sunni minority rule of the country, first under the Turkish empire, latterly under Sunni tyrants like Saddam Hussein, and finally by their reluctant, desperate support for ISIS. Some, maybe most, will remain in the country, but not as equal citizens.

The Sunni Arabs of Syria will not suffer the same fate, for they are fully 60 percent of that country’s population, but their current situation is appalling. They were very unwise to throw their lot in with ISIS and al-Qaeda – which most of the Sunni fighters in Syria did in the end, though it is impolitic to say so in public – and they are now paying a heavy price for that mistake.

In the longer run, however, Syria’s Sunni Arab majority will have to be reintegrated into the general society. It isn’t impossible: millions of urban Sunnis never fought against the regime anyway, regarding their mostly rural fellow Sunnis who fell for the jihadi fantasy as severely misguided.

There’s at least another year’s fighting against ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked forces in Syria before reconciliation can even begin. There may be much more than a year’s fighting before the Kurds are subjugated again in Syria and Turkey.

They are out of the box now, controlling almost all of the Kurdish-majority parts of northern Syria and many rural areas in south-eastern Turkey. Since Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan re-started the war against Turkey’s Kurds two years ago, they have even taken control of some parts of the Kurdish-majority big cities in the south-east – and bits of them look like Syria’s devastated cities.

As for Iraq’s Kurds, it may prove impossible to put them back in the box at all. Thanks to the collapse of the Iraqi army three years ago, when ISIS overran much of the country in a fortnight, the Kurdish Regional Government now rules over all the traditionally Kurdish areas of Iraq. It is effectively an independent country, and it has scheduled a referendum for September to make that official.

Iraq’s government will fight that, of course, but unless the United States is willing to bomb the Kurds the way it bombed ISIS, Baghdad is unlikely to win. The Iraqi army couldn’t even have retaken Mosul without the lavish use of US air power.

Washington is much more likely to betray the Syrian Kurds, but unless it does, they too will probably manage to keep their de facto state within a nominally reunited Syria. (Turkey would be happy to crush them for free, but the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian backers would certainly veto that.)

So there’s lots of fighting left to be done, and lots of opportunities yet for the United States and Russia to stumble into a confrontation. Stay tuned.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 14. (“In the longer…misguided”; and “Washington…that”)

Islamist Terrorism: Who’s to Blame?

It happens after every major terrorist attack by Islamist terrorists in a Western country: the familiar debate about who is really to blame for this phenomenon. One side trots out the weary old trope that the terrorists simply “hate our values”, and other side claims that it’s really the fault of Western governments for sending their troops into Muslim countries.

There’s a national election campaign underway in Britain, so the ghastly Manchester bombing last week has revived this argument. It started when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (who voted against the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the seven-month bombing campaign that overthrew Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011) made a speech in London on Friday.

“Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home,” he said.

In a later clarification, Corbyn added: “A number of people since the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have drawn attention to the links with foreign policy, including (British foreign secretary) Boris Johnson in 2005, two former heads of MI5 (the Security Service), and of course the (parliamentary) Foreign Affairs Select Committee.”

With Labour catching up with the Conservatives in the polls, Prime Minister Teresa May leapt at the chance to twist Corbyn’s words and all but accused him of treason. “Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault….and I want to make something clear to Jeremy Corbyn and to you: there can never be an excuse for terrorism, there can be no excuse for what happened in Manchester.”

Boris Johnson chimed in: “Whatever we do, we can’t follow the logic of the terrorists and start blaming ourselves or our society or our foreign policy. This has been caused not by us – as Jeremy Corbyn would have us believe – it’s been caused by a sick ideology, a perverted version of Islam that hates us and hates our way of life.” It’s the old political trick of deliberately mistaking explanation for justification.

But both sides in this argument are wrong. The“Salafi” extremists who are called “Islamists” in the West (all of them Sunnis, and most of them Arabs) do hate Western values, but that’s not why they go to the trouble of making terrorist attacks on the West. And it’s not because of Western foreign policies either: there were no major Western attacks on the Arab world in the years before the 9/11 atrocity in 2001.

There had been plenty of attacks in the past: the Western conquest of almost all the Arab countries between 1830 and 1918, Western military support for carving a Zionist state out of the Arab world as the European imperial powers were pulling out after 1945, Western military backing for Arab dictators and absolute monarchs ever since.

The West turned against one of those dictators, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, after he invaded Kuwait, but it had the support of most Arab countries when it drove him out of Kuwait in the first Gulf War in 1990-91. And between then and 9/11 the West did nothing much to enrage the Arab world. Indeed, it was even backing the Palestinian-Israeli “peace process”, which looked quite promising at that time.

But there was violence in many Arab countries as Islamist revolutionaries, using terrorist tactics, tried to overthrow the local kings and dictators. Up to 200,000 Arabs were killed in these bloody struggles between 1979 and 2000, but not one of the repressive regimes was overthrown. By the turn of the century it was clear that terrorism against Arab regimes was not working. To win power, the Islamists needed a new strategy.

The man who supplied it was Osama bin Laden. He had missed out on the long terrorist war in the Arab countries because he went to Afghanistan to fight a Soviet invasion in 1979. But in Afghanistan he fought in a war that Islamists actually won: having lost 14,000 dead, the Russians gave up and went home in 1989. The Afghan Islamists (the Taliban) came to power as a result.

Bin Laden realised that this could be a route to power for the Islamists of the Arab world as well: provoke the West to invade Muslim countries, lead the struggle against the Western occupation forces – and when the Western armies finally give up and go home (as they always do in the end) the Islamists will come to power.

That was why he founded al-Qaeda, and 9/11 was intended to sucker the United States into playing the role of infidel invader. Western governments have never recognised this obvious fact because they are too arrogant ever to see themelves as simply the dupes in somebody else’s strategy. Their foreign policy error was to fall for bin Laden’s provocation hook, line and sinker – and they are still falling for it sixteen years later.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs .

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.