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ISIS

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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”)

Libya: The Hesitation Two-Step

When “Prime Minister” Fayez al-Sarraj of the “Government of National Accord” GNA) arrived in Libya a month ago, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that it was “not the time for obstructionists to hold back progress.” A noble sentiment, but it does make you want to ask Kerry: When would be the right time for obstructionists to hold back progress? Next Tuesday?

It was just one more slice of the meaningless waffle that passes for policy statements when Western statesmen discuss what to do about the Libya mess. The country has collapsed into violence and chaos since NATO bombers (with sporadic help from local militias) drove long-ruling dictator Muammar Gaddafi from power in 2011, and Kerry has no good plan for dealing with it.

Sarraj’s GNA merely adds a third contender to the two rival governments that already claim to rule the country, and not one of them actually controls much territory. It is the hundreds of militias that really control Libya’s territory, and the fortunes of the contending governments rise and fall depending on how many militias will agree to back them (in return for various favours and subsidies, of course).

Western governments are finally paying attention to Libya mainly because ISIS (Islamic State) fighters are active there, and because refugees are flowing into Europe from Libya again now that the route through Turkey and Greece has been blocked.

The Italian, British and French governments have been talking about sending 6,000 troops into Libya to train a Libyan army that could take on ISIS and defeat it. There are already American, British, French and Italian special forces teams in the country, and there have been at least four American air strikes against ISIS camps in Libya since December.

It all sounds like a full-scale Western military intervention in Libya is imminent – except that it has been sounding like that for the past six months, and the intervention still hasn’t happened. There is a curious reluctance to take the final step.

The Western interventionists are right to hesitate. The fear that ISIS will take over most of Libya if they don’t put troops in is grossly exaggerated: lately ISIS has been losing ground in Libya, not gaining it. More importantly, ISIS can never be eliminated entirely unless there is a single, legitimate Libyan government backed by a disciplined army.

So the first priority for the Western powers is to create a government that has the legal authority to invite Western troops in to help. “The GNA [Government of National Accord] is the only entity that can unify the country,” Kerry explained. “It is the only way to generate the cohesion necessary to defeat Daesh [IS].”

So the Western great powers have just created such a government, using the United Nations as their vehicle. The GNA is not a Libyan initiative; its members were picked by foreigners, and and that is how Fayez Sarraj found himself the prime minister of the Government of National Accord.

Farraj is a respected non-partisan figure, the kind of person who gets appointed to head up a National Commission for this or that. If either of the existing claimants to be the Libyan government were inclined to hand over power to the GNA, Farraj would be just the sort of reassuring chap to win them over.

But neither contender – the General National Congress in the capital, Tripoli, or the elected House of Representatives in Tobruk, a thousand kilometres to the east – is inclined to do anything of the sort. Indeed, Farraj was unable to fly into Tripoli with his retinue because the General National Congress closed the airport. He only finally arrived by sea, thanks to the US Navy.

Ordinary Libyans might support the GNA, if only out of despair. They are heartily sick of the inter-militia fighting, the financial chaos, and the lack of any government services, and they might well accept a foreign-backed “government” with lots of money and troops at its disposal. But it’s not ordinary Libyans who have to be convinced to hand over power. It’s the local politicians and the militias who control them, and they won’t do it.

Maybe foreign firepower could compel them to accept the GNA’s authority, but the Western powers are not willing to commit their troops to that sort of open-ended military operation. They just want to go after ISIS and the people-smugglers, and if the GNA can give them the legal cover to do that, it will have served its purpose.

And even then they may decide in the end not to commit Western troops on the ground, because ISIS is not really such a big deal in Libya. Amongst the several hundred thousand members of the innumerable Libyan militia groups, ISIS has at most 5,000 fighters.

It does some spectacularly nasty things, like murdering 22 Egyptian Christian foreign workers on a beach last January, but it only controls one smallish city (Sirte) and an adjacent stretch of coastline. The hesitation two-step may continue.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Farraj…Navy”)

Turkey: Next Stop Civil War?

“You may deceive all the people part of the time, and part of the people all the time…”, begins Abraham Lincoln’s famous aphorism about democracy – but in a multi-party democratic system, that is usually enough. In a parliamentary system like Turkey’s, 49 percent of the popular vote gives you a comfortable majority of seats, and so Recep Tayyib Erdogan will rule Turkey for another four years. If it lasts that long.

There will still be a Turkey of some sort in four years’ time, of course, but it may no longer be a democracy, and it may not even have its present borders. In last Sunday’s vote Erdogan won back the majority he lost in the June election, but the tactics he employed have totally alienated an important section of the population.

Kurds make up a fifth of Turkey’s 78 million people. Most Kurds are pious, socially conservative Sunni Muslims, so they usually voted for Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party – which consequently won three successive elections (2003, 2007, 2011) with increasing majorities.

Then the Kurds stopped voting for Erdogan, which is why he lost last June’s election. In this month’s election he managed to replace those lost votes with nationalist voters who are frightened of a Kurdish secession and simple souls who just want stability and peace – but he had to start a war to win them over.

Erdogan threw Turkey’s support firmly behind the rebels when the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, mainly because as a devout Sunni Muslim he detested Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime. He kept Turkey’s border with Syria open to facilitate the flow of volunteers, weapons and money to the Islamist groups fighting Assad, including the Nusra Front and ISIS (which eventually became Islamic State).

He even backed Islamic State when it attacked the territory that had been liberated by the Kurds of northern Syria. That territory extends along the whole eastern half of Turkey’s border with Syria, and in the end, despite Erdogan’s best efforts, the Syrian Kurds managed to repel ISIS’s attacks. But this was the issue that cost Erdogan the support of Turkish Kurds.

His solution was to restart the war against the PKK, the armed separatist movement that is based in the Kurdish-speaking northern provinces of Iraq. A ceasefire had stopped the fighting between the Turkish government and the PKK for the past four years, but Erdogan now needed a patriotic war against wicked Kurdish separatists in order to lure the nationalists and the naive into backing his party.

He duped the United States into supporting this war by allowing US bombers to use Turkish airbases and promising that Turkish planes would start bombing Islamic State too.
(In fact, Turkey has dropped only a few token bombs on IS; the vast majority of its bombs are falling on Kurds.)

The pay-off came on Sunday, when the votes of Turks who fear Kurdish separatism replaced the Kurdish votes that the AK Party lost last June. The problem is that the election is now over but the war will continue.

Indeed it will get worse. The Turkish army is already shelling the Syrian Kurds, and warning that it may invade if the Syrian Kurdish proto-state (known as Rojava) tries to push further west and shut down the last border-crossing point that links Turkey to Islamic State.

At home, the independent institutions of a normal democratic state have been subverted one after another: the media, the police, and the judiciary now generally serve Erdogan. State television, for example, gave 59 hours of coverage to Erdogan’s campaign in the past month. All the other parties combined got 6 hours and 28 minutes.

So Erdogan’s AK won the election, but Turkey is no longer a real democracy. And since the half of the population that didn’t vote for Erdogan utterly loathes him, it won’t be a very stable authoritarian state either. In fact, it is probably teetering on the brink of civil war.

The people who loathe Erdogan because he is destroying Turkey’s free media, perverting its criminal justice system and robbing the state blind – he and his AK colleagues have been enthusiastically feathering their nests – will not turn to violence. The poor will not turn to violence either, even though the economic boom is over and jobs are disappearing.

But some of the Turkish Kurds will fight, and they will have the support of the Syrian Kurds just across the border. That will probably draw the Turkish army into invading northern Syria to crush the Kurds there – and once Turkey is fully involved in the Syrian civil war, all of southeastern Turkey (where Kurds are the majority) also becomes part of the combat zone.

When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk rescued a Turkish republic from the wreckage of the Ottoman empire after the First World War, he was determined to make it a European state. It was a fairly oppressive state at first, but over the decades it gradually turned into a democracy that operated under the rule of law.

That’s over now. It took Erdogan a dozen years in power to demolish that European-style democracy, but the job is done. As one despairing Turk put it recently, Turkey is becoming a Middle Eastern country.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 11 and 12. (“He duped…Kurds”; and “At home…civil war”)