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ISIS

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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”)

Is ISIS Really Losing?

The word on the streets is that Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL to its many enemies) is going under. In January it lost control of the city of Ramadi in Iraq after a long siege; in June it also lost Fallujah. In March it lost Palmyra to Syrian government troops, and last month it lost Manbij in northern Syria to the US-backed Syrian Kurds after another long siege.

These are all places that ISIS took in mid-2014 in its initial surge of conquests (which ended with the proclamation of the Islamic State), or in the subsequent year of slower advances that ended with the capture of Ramadi and Palmyra in May 2015. Since then it has been nothing but retreats – and last week Turkey entered the ground war in Syria as well, to fight Islamic State and “other terrorists”.

To cap it all, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the closest associate of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and the man who proclaimed him to be the head of a revived Caliphate (“Islamic State”) only 26 months ago, was killed in a US air strike on 30 August. He was the organisation’s chief propagandist and a senior operational commander, and he will be missed.

But the streets on which “the word” about Islamic State’s impending defeat is being heard are in Washington, not in the Middle East. People on the ground know that things have not been going well for Islamic State recently, but they remember that just one year ago it was Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria that was teetering on the brink of collapse.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria last September saved Assad, and it will probably be the Turkish military intervention in Syria this year that saves Islamic State. Not that President Recep Tayyib Erdogan loves Islamic State – he used to let it use Turkey as a transit route for recruits and supplies, but that largely stopped a year ago – but he doesn’t see it as Turkey’s main enemy.

For Erdogan, the big threat is the secession of the south-east corner of the country where Kurds (20 percent of Turkey’s population) are the local majority. All the countries next to that corner of Turkey (Iran, Iraq and Syria) also have Kurdish majorities living along the border, and the Turkish nightmare is for one of those areas to become an independent Kurdish-ruled state

That is exactly what has been happening in northern Syria. The Syrian Kurds made themselves available to Washington as America’s main ally on the ground, and with huge help from American air strikes their army has driven Islamic State back all along the border. It now controls a deep strip of territory along 80 percent of Syria’s border with Turkey, a proto-state that the Kurds call Rojava.

This is entirely Erdogan’s fault. If he had been loyal to Turkey’s alliance with the United States and closed the border with Syria, neither Islamic State or the rival Islamist movement, the Nusra Front, would have grown to dominate the entire Syrian rebel movement. But he didn’t close it, because he was so keen to overthrow Assad that he backed anybody who was fighting against him.

Faced with the threat of an Islamist-ruled Syria, Washington made a de facto alliance with the Syrian Kurds, and they have served it well in the fight against Islamic State. But that just makes them a bigger threat in Erdogan’s eyes, and so he sent his army into Syria last week.

Not very deep into Syria so far, and of course to justify this intervention to the United States Erdogan has said that it is to fight “Islamic State and other terrorists”. But since Turkey always officially refers to Washington’s Kurdish allies in Syria as “terrorists”, it doesn’t take great geopolitical insight to figure out who Turkey’s main target is.

Islamic State is well aware of this, which is why it evacuated the border town of Jarablus, where the Turkish army crossed into Syria, without a fight. Why not just step aside and let the Turks make contact with their real target, the Syrian Kurdish army, without wasting everybody’s time?

Contact has now been made, and Turkey is busily shelling and bombing Kurdish-led forces in Manbij, the next town south from Jarablus. The coming months will probably see a steady expansion of Turkey’s offensive against the Syrian Kurds, and a corresponding drop in the latters’s military effort against Islamic State.

Naively (or was it just fake naivete?), US Secretary of State Ash Carter called on Turkey to stay focused on the fight against Islamic State and not to engage the Kurds. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim curtly replied that “operations will continue until all terrorist elements have been neutralised, until all threats to our borders, our lands and our citizens are completely over.”

So the Syrian Kurds will be busy fighting the Turks, and Islamic State will survive. It is an iron rule of Middle Eastern politics that everbody always betrays the Kurds eventually – and Washington will too.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 13. (“To cap…missed”; and “Naively…over”)

The Iconoclast of Timbuktu

Nobody got punished for blowing up the giant Buddhist statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley in 2001. Nobody has been sent to jail for blowing up much of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria after ISIS captured it in May 2015. (It was recaptured last March.) But Ahmed al-Mahdi is going to jail for a long time for destroying the religious monuments of Timbuktu, and he even says he’s sorry.

Appearing befor the International Criminal Court in The Hague on Monday, the former junior civil servant in Mali’s department of education said “All the charges brought against me are accurate and correct. I am really sorry, and I regret all the damage that my actions have caused.”

He caused a lot of damage. Timbuktu is a remote desert outpost now, with fewer residents than the 25,000 students who thronged its famous Islamic university in its golden age in the 16th century. Its ancient mosques and monuments are of such historical value that they have earned Timbuktu (like Banmiyan and Palmyra) a UNESCO designation as a World Heritage Site.

Timbuktu’s greatest treasure was its tens of thousands of manuscripts dating from the 12th to the 16th centuries, which dealt with topics as diverse as literature, women’s rights, music, philosophy, and good business practice

When Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) stormed into Timbuktu in 2012, the heroic librarian Abdel Kader Haidara saved 95 percent of the city’s manuscripts by smuggling them out to Bamako, Mali’s capital, by car and boat. But the mosques and the mausoleums could not be moved, and Ahmed al-Mahdi was recruited to head the “morality police”. One of his jobs was smashing the ones that were “idolatrous”.

Al-Mahdi, born near Timbuktu, was already a follower of Wahhabism, an austere Islamic sect of Saudi Arabian origin that condemns ordinary people’s reverence for ancient mausoleums and religious shrines as idolatry. So to protect people from sin, historic buildings, tombs, etc. must be destroyed. (Back home, the Wahhabis have pretty well finished the job in Mecca by now.)

AQIM, like ISIS and the Taliban, is “Salafi” in its beliefs, but Salafism is essentially an offspring of Wahhabism with added extremism. So Ahmed al-Mahdi was an obvious recruit for AQIM, and he threw himself into his new job with enthusiasm. He is charged with destroying nine mausoleums and part of one mosque, but he almost certainly vandalised many more.

Malian and French troops drove AQIM out of Timbuktu in 2013, and al-Mahdi was captured shortly afterwards. As head of the morality police he supervised the whipping of smokers, drinkers and “impure” women, the stoning of adulterers, and the execution of “apostates” – but the charge that the International Criminal Court chose to bring against him was “destroying cultural heritage.”

This is a first for the ICC, the world’s permanent war crimes court. Its previous cases have all involved illegal violence against people. This case is about violence against things.

Even if they are things sacred to many people, some critics worry that expanding the category of war crimes in this way undermines the unique status of torture, murder and genocide as crimes so terrible that they require international action if local courts cannot deal with them. Mali requested that the case against al-Mahdi be transferred to the ICC, but the question still begs an answer.

You won’t get it from al-Mahdi, who just wants to apologise: “I ask forgiveness (from the people of Timbuktu), and I ask them to look at me as a son who lost his way.” Maybe he means it, and maybe it’s just a plea bargain. (The prosecutor is only asking for a prison sentence of 9-11 years, although the maximum penalty is 30 years.) But whether his contrition is genuine is not really the question.

It’s a very old crime. Gangs of Christian monks (the original iconoclasts) hacked the noses off every “pagan” statue they could find in 4th-century Egypt. Catholic missionaries in 16th century Mexico supervised the burning of thousands of illustrated books containing the history and mythology of the pre-Columbian civilisations: fewer than twenty survive.

The Islamist vandals of today belong to a long tradition, and none of their predecessors was punished. So is the ICC of today just picking on Muslims?

No. Genocide was only defined and made illegal by the Nuremburg trials in 1945-46, although history is full of other genocides. But the world was not picking on Germans. We had just reached a point in our history when we could finally agree that genocide was always and everywhere a crime against humanity.

Making the act of deliberately “destroying cultural heritage” a crime is another, lesser step in the same process of building a body of international human rights law that applies to everybody. Al-Mahdi just happened to come along at what was, for him, the wrong time.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 11. (“You…question”)