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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 Fall of Kirkuk

Two big cities fell within 24 hours of each other last weekend. The fall of Raqqa in Syria, once the capital of all the territory ruled by ISIS, came after a five-month siege and was no surprise at all. The fall of the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk in Iraq took less than a day and came as a complete surprise.

Possession of Kirkuk was critical for the project of Kurdish independence, because it was the source of most of the oil that would have made an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq economically viable.

The Kurds of Iraq came tantalisingly close to realising their dream of independence. Since the first Gulf War of 1990, five Kurdish-majority provinces in northern Iraq have been ruled by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which had American support because it opposed Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime. That American support continued even after the US invasion that finally overthrew Saddam in 2003.

The new government the US created in Baghdad had no control over the KRG, and the would-be Kurdish state almost doubled its territory by taking over the other provinces with Kurdish majorities, including oil-rich Kirkuk, after the Iraqi army fled in panic before a suprise ISIS offensive in 2014. Three weeks ago, the Kurdish government even held a referendum on independence in both its old and its new territories.

It has been clear for some time that the KRG’s Peshmerga fighters would be no match for a rebuilt and combat-tested Iraqi army, which had already recovered all the other territory it lost to ISIS three years ago. Yet the KRG’s president, Masoud Barzani, still went ahead with his referendum on 25 September, and 93 percent of the voters said yes to independence.

But then Iran, which is worried about the loyalty of its own large Kurdish minority just across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan, decided it was time to take the Kurds down a peg or three. As the greatest Shia power, Iran effectively controls a lot of the sectarian militias that make up the new Iraqi army, and the Baghdad government was happy to act as its proxy.

The KRG’s president, Masoud Barzani, probably assumed that American support would shield him from Iraqi retaliation when he called the referendum, but it didn’t. When Baghdad sent its troops in on Sunday, the Trump administration merely muttered some weasel words about not liking to see friends fight, and by Wednesday morning the area controlled by the KRG had shrunk by almost half.

Only months ago the Iraqi Kurds were fighting alongside the Iraqi army in the struggle to free Mosul from ISIS control, and the Syrian Kurds have been the main American ally in the fight to destroy ISIS in Syria. But once ISIS was defeated those alliances were bound to end: betraying the Kurds is a old Middle Eastern tradition. The only surprise is how fast it has happened, and how comprehensively the Kurds have lost.

There are about 30 million Kurds, but they live on territory that belongs to four of the most powerful states in the Middle East: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They have been seeking an independent Kurdish state for a century now, but all the countries that stand to lose large amounts of territory if it ever actually happened are profoundly opposed to that outcome.

Moreover, the Kurds themselves have never really been united, even within the borders of the KRG. In practice, control of the territory has always been split between factions centred on the Barzani or the Talabani clans. Each faction has its own militia, and they even fought a civil war that killed thousands in the mid 1990s.

People talk about the peshmerga as if it were a Kurdish national army, but it is actually a loose association of separate militias that answer to different commanders. In the past three years they cooperated in the war against ISIS, but they split over the question of Barzani’s referendum, which the Talabani faction thought was too dangerous. That turned out to be right.

There was no joint defence of Kirkuk when the Iraqi army finally moved. Indeed, there was hardly any defence at all; first the Talabani forced pulled out, and then Barzani’s troops had no option but to follow. The Kurdish dream of independence is at an end, and the Kurds will be lucky if they manage to keep even the autonomy they have enjoyed in Iraq since 1991.

Indeed, they will be lucky if can avoid another civil war over who is to blame for the catastrophe (from the Kurdish point of view) of the past few days.

On Wednesday, President Barzani gave a speech that said, presumably about the Talabani faction: “They want to drag us into a civil war, but we will in no way be doing this.”
But a lot of Kurds blame him and his referendum for provoking the disaster, and they will be looking for somebody to punish.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“It has…independence”; and “People…right”)

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”)

Turkey Purge

“In Turkey, we are progressively putting behind bars all people who take the liberty of voicing even the slightest criticism of the government,” wrote author Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s first Nobel Prize winner. “Freedom of thought no longer exists. We are distancing ourselves at high speed from a state of law and heading towards a regime of terror” that is driven by “the most ferocious hatred.”

Pamuk wrote those words in Istanbul, but they were not published in Turkey. He sent them to Italy’s leading liberal daily, “Repubblica”, because no Turkish paper would dare to publish them. Indeed, almost the entire senior editorial staff of Turkey’s oldest mainstream daily, “Cumhuriyet”, was arrested last weekend, allegedly for supporting both Kurdish rebels and the Islamic secret society controlled by exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.

This is rather like accusing the Wall Street Journal of supporting al-Qaeda and the Maduro regime in Venezuela. Cumhuriyet always defended Turkey’s secular constitution from those who dreamed of creating an Islamic state (like the “Gulenists”), and it always condemned Kurdish separatists who resorted to violence.

But now its editorial staff is in jail, alongside 37,000 other people who have been arrested, often on equally implausible charges, since the attempted coup last July. (President Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s government has amnestied 38,000 ordinary criminals to make room in the jails for the political prisoners.)

Erdogan’s govenment holds the “Gulenists” responsible for the attempted military coup last July, and they probably were. But he is exploiting the “state of emergency” (which he has just extended for another three months) to suppress all possible centres of opposition to his rule. Whatever their real views, they are all are accused of being either pro-Gulenist or pro-terrorist.

The Gulenist menace has been inflated to preposterous proportions. Erdogan’s deputy prime minister Nurettin Canikli, said in a recent interview with the BBC that members of the group have “practically had their brains removed. They’ve been hypnotised. They’re like robots. Each one of them is a potential threat. They could commit all sorts of attacks, including suicide bombs.”

“For 40 years this terror organisation has infiltrated the furthest corners of the country – ministries, all institutions and the private sector. It’s not just the judiciary, courts, the police, the military. It includes education. In fact, education is the field that they have entered best,” Canikli said. (Half of the 100,000 people who have been fired from government jobs
worked in education.)

Erdogan now even blames the Gulenists for shooting down a Russian combat aircraft on the Syrian-Turkish border one year ago – although at the time he proudly claimed that it was done on his orders. He also forgets to mention that he and Fethullah Gulen were once close allies dedicated to the task of “Islamising” the Turkish public services.

Their shared objective was to ensure that most of the jobs in the government’s grant – military officers, teachers, police, judges, the senior civil service – were held by pious Muslims. This was a huge task, since for almost a century these jobs had largely been the preserve of secular Turks who thought that religion had no business in politics.

The change was accomplished by giving Gulenist candidates the answers to entrance exams, by manipulating military and judicial appointments, or just by the naked exercise of political power, and by 2016 it was an accomplished fact.

But eventually Gulen and Erdogan had a catastrophic falling out – probably over which of them actually controlled these tens of thousands of deeply religious officials – and Erdogan belatedly realised that he had created a hostile force in the heart of his own government apparatus.

He showed as little foresight in his dealings with the Turkish Kurds. In an earlier, more responsible phase of his political career Erdogan actually engineed a ceasefire with the PKK, the main and most violent Kurdish separatist group. But when he lost an election last year and needed to win back the Turkish ultra-nationalist vote, he did it by breaking the ceasefire and re-starting the war against the Kurds.

His clandestine support for the Islamist fanatics of ISIS (now Islamic State) was equally foolish. In the end he came under such pressure from United States, from Russia, and from Saudi Arabia that he was compelled to break the link – and discovered that his erstwhile friends in Islamic State get very cross when they are spurned. Islamic State bombs now go off in Turkey all the time.

So he has alienated a lot of people, his plate is very full, and he urgently needs to thin out the number of his enemies. The failed July coup gave Erdogan an excuse for taking extreme action against them, and even against other domestic opponents who have always played by the democratic rules. He has seized the opportunity with both hands.

It is ugly and sad, for ten years ago Turkey seemed to be entering an era of stable democracy and growing prosperity. This tragedy was not bound to happen: one man’s ruthless ambition has derailed an entire country’s promising future. It’s not clear when, or even if, it will get back on track.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 13. (“For…education”; and “His clandestine…time”)