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Islamic State

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After Aleppo: A Kind of Peace?

Eastern Aleppo, the rebel-held half of what was once Syria’s biggest city, is falling. Once the resistance there collapses, things may move very fast in Syria, and the biggest question will be: do the outside powers that have intervened in the war accept Bashar al-Assad’s victory, or do they keep the war going?

Even one year ago, it seemed completely unrealistic to talk about an Assad victory. The Syrian government’s army was decimated, demoralised and on the verge of collapse: every time the rebels attacked, it retreated.

There was even a serious possibility that Islamic State and the Nusra Front, the extreme Islamist groups that dominated the rebel forces, would sweep to victory in all of Syria. But then, just fourteen months ago, the Russian air force was sent in to save Assad’s army from defeat.

It did more than that. It enabled the Syrian army, with help on the ground from Shia militias recruited from Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq and mostly trained and commanded by Iranian officers, to go onto the offensive. Assad’s forces took back the historic city of Palmyra. They eliminated the last rebel-held foothold in the city of Homs. And last summer they began to cut eastern Aleppo’s remaining links with the outside world.

In July government forces took control of the Castello Road, ending the flow of food and supplies for eastern Aleppo’s ten thousand rebel fighters and its claimed civilian population of 250,000 people. (The real total of civilians left in the east of the city, once home to around a million people, is almost certainly a small fraction of that number.)

A rebel counter-offensive in August briefly opened a new corridor into eastern Aleppo, but government troops retook the lost territory and resumed the siege in September.

For almost two months now almost nothing has moved into or out of the besieged half of the city, and both food and ammunition are running short inside. So the resistance is starting to collapse.

The Hanano district fell on Saturday, and Jabal Badro fell on Sunday. The capture of Sakhour on Monday has cut the rebel-held part of Aleppo in two, and the remaining bits north of the cut will quickly be pinched out by the Syrian government’s troops.

The southeastern part of the city may stay in rebel hands a while longer, but military collapses of this sort are infectious. It is now likely that Bashar al-Assad will control all of Aleppo before the end of the year, and possibly much sooner.

At that point he would control all of Syria’s major cities, at least three-quarters of the population that has not fled abroad, and all of the country’s surviving industry. He would be in a position to offer an amnesty to all the rebels except the extreme Islamists of Islamic State and the Nusra Front, and a lot of the less fanatical Syrian rebels would be tempted to accept it.

For the many foreign powers that are involved in the Syrian civil war, it would then come down to a straight choice: Assad’s cruel but conventional regime or the Islamist crazies.

Even Turkey and Saudi Arabia, however much their leaders may loathe Assad, could not openly put their armies at the service of the Islamists. (They used to send them arms and money, but even that has stopped now.) And for a newly installed President Donald Trump, it would become a lot simpler to “make a deal” with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to finish the job of crushing Islamic State and the Nusra Front together.

Would the Russians and the Americans then hand over all the recaptured territory to Assad’s regime? Many people in Washington would rather hang onto it temporarily in order to blackmail Syria’s ruling Baath Party into replacing Assad with somebody a bit less tainted, but a deal between Putin and Trump would certainly preclude that sort of games-playing.

How could Trump reconcile such a deal with Russia with his declared intention to cancel the agreement the United States signed last March to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions? Iran is Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East, and if Trump broke that agreement he would be reopening a US military confrontation with Iran.

Since this question may not even have crossed Mr Trump’s mind yet, it would be pointless for us to speculate on which way he might jump three months from now.

It’s equally pointless to wonder what kind of deal the Syrian Kurds will end up with. Turkey will want to ensure that they have no autonomous government of their own and are thoroughly subjugated by Assad’s regime. The United States, on the other hand, owes them a debt of honour for carrying the main burden of fighting Islamic State on the ground – but the Kurds are used to being betrayed.

All we can say with some confidence at the moment is that it looks like Assad has won his six-year war to stay in power.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 16. (“In July…September”; and “It’s…betrayed”)

Egypt: Sisi, Morsi and Democracy

Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, has now been in prison more than three times as long as he was in the presidential palace, but his death sentence was quashed last week. On Tuesday the country’s highest appeal court also overturned his life sentence on a separate charge – but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be free any time soon.

The appeal court not only cancelled Morsi’s death and life sentences, but also those of sixteen other senior members of his party, the Muslim Brotherhood. “The verdict was full of legal flaws,” said Morsi’s lawyer, Abdel Moneim Abdel Maksoud. The men will all stay in jail indefinitely, as the military regime can easily get convictions on other charges in the lower courts, but justice is not entirely dead in Egypt.

Democracy IS dead, however. Since General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s coup destroyed Morsi’s elected government in July 2013, at least 1,400 Egyptians have been murdered by the regime. (That includes the thousand people who were killed in the streets in August 2013 while non-violently protesting against the coup – a massacre at least as bloody as the Tienanmen Square slaughter in Beijing in 1989.)

The army was never going to accept the non-violent revolution that overthrew former general Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year-old regime in January of 2011: its officers benefit greatly from its control over at least a quarter of the Egyptian economy. But the military had the wit to bide their time, whereas the young revolutionaries were neither experienced nor united, and they quickly began making mistakes.

Their worst was to fail to unite behind a single candidate in defence of a secular democracy. Instead, the presidential election of July 2012 ended up in a run-off between Air Chief Marshal Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister, and Mohammed Morsi, the representative of the Muslim Brotherhood. Enough secular voters held their noses and backed Morsi to give him a narrow victory in the second round.

The Muslim Brotherhood was a moderate Islamic party that had been tolerated under the Mubarak regime. Its main supporters were conservative rural voters and the pious poor, and it felt obliged to reward them by inserting more Islamic elements into the new constitution. Besides, Islamists really believe that making the country more “Islamic” will solve its problems. That’s why they are Islamists.

It was far from wholesale Islamisation, but it was enough to panic the urban and mostly secular young people who had led the revolution. In a stupid attempt to force the new constitution through, Morsi granted himself total executive power and began ruling by decree in November 2012. After ten days he realised he had made a dreadful mistake and relinquished his special powers, but it was too late.

In an equally foolish reaction, the young revolutionaries concluded that Morsi was a dictator in the making and began agitating for an early election to get rid of him. They simply didn’t understand that the democratic solution was to wait the full four years and then vote Morsi out. By then, given the state of Egypt’s economy, he would be so unpopular that he would be certain to lose.

Some even thought that the army was their friend and would help them to get rid of Morsi. So the anti-Morsi demonstrations grew through the first half of 2013, and on the first anniversary of his election on 30 June millions came out in the streets to demand that he quit. The army moved at last, and in days Sisi was in power and Morsi was in jail.

In due course, many thousands of the young revolutionary generation were also in jail: the latest estimate is 60,000 political prisoners. The Sisi regime is far more brutal and repressive than any of its military predecessors, but its plans to welcome foreign investment, privatise the infrastructure and restrict the right to strike have lots of foreign support.

Last year the regime held a national coming-out party at the Sharm al-Shaikh resort: the Egyptian Economic Development Conference. It invited 1,700 investors, consultants and foreign government officials including the US secretary of state, the British foreign minister, and the head of the International Monetary Fund. They were pleased by what they heard..

Former British prime minister Tony Blair was also there. “Look,” he burbled, “I’m absolutely in favour of democracy, but I also think you’ve got to be realistic sometimes about the path of development, and that sometimes you will have a country with not what we would call 100 percent Western-style democracy, but it is going in a direction of development that is really important.”

Far away from the conference hall, however, tens of thousands of innocent people rotted in jail, and real terrorists affiliated with Islamic State and al-Qaeda ruled over northern Sinai and regularly set off bombs in Cairo.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 12. (“Former…important”)

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”)

A Tale of Two Cities

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.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 15 . (“They…it”; and “Even…area”)