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Sunni Arabs

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Syrian Peace Talks

A new round of UN-sponsored peace talks to end the ghastly civil war in Syria is scheduled to open in Paris on Friday, but even now it is not clear who will be attending. Islamic State will certainly not be invited, and the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has not yet revealed whether he has invited the other main Islamist groups, the Nusra Front and its ideological twin and ally, Ahrar al-Sham.

Together these extreme Islamist groups account for up to 90 percent of the rebel forces fighting Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime, and even if invited they probably wouldn’t come. The remainder, a ragbag of small groups sometimes called the Free Syrian Army, might show up (under American pressure), or maybe not.

Assad’s representatives, by contrast, would certainly go to Paris, because he knows that there is no risk that he would be forced into a deal that removes him from power. His strategy for survival has worked well enough that he can now afford to negotiate with some of the rebels.

When peaceful mass protests demanding democracy spread to Syria in early 2011 as part of the “Arab Spring”, Assad’s forces responded at first with cautious violence. Snipers killed people in the unarmed crowds of protesters, but the army didn’t machine-gun the lot. Maybe he was just afraid the army wouldn’t obey his orders, but he may also have hoped that that level of intimidation would be enough to end the demonstrations.

However, Assad called all the protesters “terrorists” from the start – and he released hundreds of extreme Islamists from prison. This has been widely interpreted as an attempt to create a real armed Islamist rebellion. Then he could claim to be fighting foreign-backed “terrorism”, thus winning support from abroad and from Syria’s own frightened minorities.

Whether he intended from the start to push the country into full-scale civil war is impossible to know. At the very least, he quickly realised that the non-violent, non-sectarian protest movement was a greater threat to his survival than an armed uprising that would only be backed by Sunni Muslim Arabs (only 60 percent of the population).

Assad got some inadvertent help from Turkey and the Arab Gulf states, whose leaders wanted to see a Sunni sectarian victory in Syria, not an inclusive and non-sectarian democracy. So they lavished money and weapons on Sunni Arabs who were willing to fight the regime, thus undermining and discrediting the non-violent movement.

The slide from non-violent protest to armed uprising gave Assad an excuse to use far more violence. By October of 2011 his forces were bombing and shelling rebel-held areas of Syrian cities – and jihadi extremists, including many released from his jails, were taking over the rebel forces with the help of Saudi Arabian and Turkish money and guns.

So the rebellion fell largely into the hands of Sunni Arabs of the extremist Salafi persuasion. The country’s large non-Arab, non-Muslim and Shia Muslim minorities, together with much of its Sunni Arab population, reluctantly decided that Assad’s regime was the least bad option – and the result is the Syria we see today.

The exodus of refugees has reduced the population to 16 million, of whom 10 million, including almost all the minorities, live under government control. There are about two million Arabs in the Syrian part of Islamic State, another two million under the control of other rebel forces (also dominated by Sunni Arab Islamists), and two million Kurds who now have their own proto-state. It’s a calamity for Syria, but it means that the regime will survive.

There was a brief wobble last summer, when Islamist rebels enjoying increased support from Turkey and Saudi Arabia started driving the very tired Syrian army back on several fronts, but the Russian military intervention on Assad’s side in September stabilised the situation.

It’s now clear that nobody can win the war – but nobody can lose it either. Broadly speaking, Syria has been partitioned into four more or less sovereign territories. The government rules only one-fifth of Syria, but it includes most of the cities, industry and agriculture, and almost two-thirds of the population.

The Kurds control a band across the north of the country along the Turkish border. Islamic State runs a large swathe of sparsely populated territory in the east of the country. And the Islamist extremists of the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, dominate the north-west behind the non-Islamist facade of the Jaysh al-Islam.

The “peace talks” that Russia has been promoting since it intervened are not really about creating a reunified post-Assad Syria. All Moscow is looking for (and increasingly Washington too) is a ceasefire between all the other players that leaves them in control of their own territory and isolates Islamic State.

Even that is probably too much to hope for. At Turkey’s insistence, the Kurds have not been invited to the talks. The Nusra Front will not show up either, and even the smaller non-Islamist rebel groups are threatening to boycott the talks – which would leave Assad’s regime looking like the only party interested in “peace”.

The war will continue for some time yet.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 11. (“Whether…movement”; and “There…situation”)

Iraq: Good-Bye and Good Luck

5 July 2010

Iraq: Good-Bye and Good Luck

By Gwynne Dyer

As the American withdrawal gains speed, there are fewer American troops in Iraq than in Afghanistan for the first time since 2003. By the end of August there will be no US combat troops left in Iraq, though some tens of thousands of support troops will remain until next year. And still there is no new Iraqi government, although it is now four months since the election on 7 March.

US Vice-President Joe Biden was in Baghdad at the week-end urging Iraqi politicians to end the political deadlock, but America’s influence over events in Iraq has been falling as fast as its troop numbers. In the end, the same broad coalition of Shia Arabs and Kurds that ran the country before will probably rule again, excluding the Sunni Arabs, but it’s unclear who will lead the new coalition.

The last election made Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic rivalries even sharper, if that is possible. The corruption is universal and shameless. Dozens of people are still being killed by suicide bombers every week. But the country cannot really fail, because there is just so much oil.

After three decades of foreign wars, UN sanctions and American occupation, Iraq’s oil exports bottomed out at 1.8 million barrels per day in 2008, but they are already back up to 2.5 million b/d – and Baghdad plans to be producing 9.9 million b/d only ten years from now. That would make it the world’s first, second or third-largest exporter (depending on what happens to Saudi Arabian and Russian production), and drown it in a tidal wave of cash.

The target is plausible, because this is not speculation about production from new oilfields; it is just enhanced production from existing fields. Contracts to build the infrastructure to pump that extra oil have already been signed with two dozen foreign oil companies. Since the foreigners are only paid a fee per barrel, Iraq gets most of the profits.

On the reasonable assumption that the price of oil will not drop below $50 per barrel in the next decade, that means that the Iraqi government will have an oil income of at least $150 billion a year by 2020. Two-thirds of the current government’s income is stolen by the political elite and there is no reason to think that this will change, but that would still allow some $50 billion a year to trickle through and serve the needs of ordinary Iraqis.

That is probably enough to buy the grudging loyalty of most Shia Arabs to the Iraqi state. The Kurds are a different case, but the hostility of all their neighbours to full Kurdish independence will probably persuade them to maintain their current semi-detached relationship with Baghdad. And the Sunni Arab minority can be either bought off or repressed.

In the old days, there might have been a popular revolution to sweep away the emigre elite that came back from the US, Europe and Iran to feed off the long-suffering Iraqi people, but those days are gone. After Abdulkarim Qasim, the Baathists, Saddam Hussein, and the Americans – fifty years of disappointment – the Iraqis don’t believe in saviours any more. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” could be the national anthem.

All the Iraqis can reasonably hope for, in the aftermath of the US occupation, is corrupt governments riven by sectarian and ethnic divisions, but that is probably a stable outcome provided there is enough money. And to be fair to the Americans, no other post-Saddam, post-occupation outcome was ever likely.

So what happens in the next few months? The union last month between outgoing prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s secular but overwhelmingly Shia State of Law Party and the two religious Shia parties in the Iraqi National Alliance creates a bloc that is within striking distance of a parliamentary majority. Recreate the alliance with the Kurds that Maliki had in the last coalition, and the deal is done.

That coalition has not yet happened because Maliki would almost certainly not be the prime minister in it: one of the Shia religious parties, led by Moqtada al-Sadr, hates him too much. The coalition talks may continue at a stately pace down to September as Maliki seeks to stay in power, but he will probably fail.

His only hope is to make a deal instead with Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiyya party, which got most Sunni Arabs’ votes across the west and north of the country, but also significant support from secular Shias in and around Baghdad. But the Kurds would probably not join such a coalition, because Iraqiyyah ran on an anti-Kurdish platform across northern Iraq – and besides, Allawi and Maliki cannot stand each other.

Some sort of deal will be done in the end, because the spoils of power are just too tempting – and meanwhile, the Americans are leaving as quietly as possible. As quietly, that is, as you can move 1,900 heavy tanks and fighting vehicles, 43,000 trucks, 600 helicopters, and 34,000 tonnes of ammunition.

Some of this stuff will go straight back to the United States, but quite a lot of it will be repaired in Kuwait and then sent on to Afghanistan. The “dumb war”, as President Obama called it, is over. The almost-as-dumb war continues.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“In the old…anthem”; and “His only…other”)

Iraq 1918-2006 R.I.P.

11 December 2005

Iraq 1918-2006 R.I.P.

By Gwynne Dyer

After so many fake “turning points” in Iraq, at last a genuine one: the election on 15 December really will settle something. Unfortunately, what it will do is confirm that the unitary Iraqi state that has existed since 1918 is nearing its end, to be replaced by God knows what.

The Kurdish-speaking north of Iraq is already a separate state for all practical purposes, with its own army and budget. The Kurdish authorities only cooperate with the Shia Arab majority of the south in order to keep the Americans happy and the Sunni Arab minority down, but they are already signing contracts with foreign oil companies whose revenues, if they find oil, will go only to the Kurdish government. Kurdistan may not declare formal independence in this decade because Turkey might overreact, but in reality it is already gone.

The Shia Arabs, who outnumber the Sunni Arabs about three-to-one but were always dominated by them politically until the US invasion, are determined to consolidate their new supremacy, and if that alienates the Sunnis, well, so be it. The office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, immensely influential among Shias, issued a statement last week that effectively ordered the faithful to vote for the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of 17 Shia religious parties that seeks a Shia-run Islamic state. Most Shias will obey the order.

Most of the Sunni Arabs will also vote in this election, unlike the one they boycotted last January, because they do not want to be locked out of the debate over Iraq’s future. But if most people continue to vote on a communal basis — and they will — then sheer numbers guarantee that the Kurdish-Shia coalition will win again. That will probably be fatal for Iraq.

The Sunni Arabs, now only 20 percent of the population, have monopolised and abused power in Iraq not just under Saddam Hussein or the Baath Party or the British empire, but continuously since the centuries-long rule of the Ottoman regime, which raised Sunnis above Shias because of its own sectarian loyalties. It is possible to imagine a different kind of democratic transition in Iraq that did not turn Sunni

Arabs into a besieged and embittered minority, but the American invasion made it inevitable.

The Kurds were always unhappy within Iraq (as they are within Turkey and Iran and Syria) since they were cheated out of their promised national state by the British and French empires in the aftermath of the First World War. The Sunni-Shia rupture within Arab Iraq, however, was far from inevitable. Even ten or twenty years ago, despite the long rule of the Sunni-dominated Baath Party, the 80 percent of Iraqis who speak Arabic did not define themselves mainly in sectarian terms.

The sort of non-violent democratic revolution that transformed Czechoslovakia in 1989, South Africa in 1994 and Ukraine in 2004, all of them potentially fragile multi-ethnic states, could also have transformed Iraq in the fullness of time, if time had been available. The Kurds might have left anyway, as the Slovaks left Czechoslovakia after democratisation, but the Arab core of the country need not have splintered.

Such a non-violent revolution could have come in Iraq sooner or later: Arabs are not fundamentally different from other human beings. But the violent overthrow of Baath Party rule by a foreign invasion was bound to produce a violent resistance movement among the Sunni Arab minority who had been driven from power, and that resistance movement has led to the current sectarian polarisation in Arab Iraq.

The US occupation authorities in Iraq are now desperately trying to engineer the return to power of Iyad Allawi, the man whom they appointed as prime minister in the first “transitional” government in 2003. For Washington, he is ideal: Shia but secular (to attract the majority of Shia Arabs who don’t want to live in a theocracy), an ex-Baathist (to reassure Sunni Arabs of his Arab nationalist credentials), and a CIA employee of

long standing (to reassure Washington). But it’s hopeless: one widespread election poster shows a face that is half Allawi’s, half Saddam Hussein’s, asking “What is the difference between the two?”

Out of 115 battalions in the new “Iraqi” army, only one mixes Shia and Sunni Arabs and Kurds. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shia religious party, controls the Interior Ministry and its 110,000 police, and has decreed that no non-Iraqi Arabs may enter Iraq until the election is over — although Iranians, Turks and other foreigners may continue to come and go freely. And the voting will be largely along ethnic and sectarian lines.

Allawi will be lucky to get 25 seats in the new National Assembly. The Shia religious parties will probably take 110-115 of the 275 seats and form another coalition with the Kurds, who will get around 50 seats. The Sunni Arab list will get 50-55 seats and be frozen out of power once more.

So Iraq will probably break up over the next year or two, with Kurds and Shia Arabs in the oil-rich north and south abandoning the recalcitrant Sunni Arabs of the centre for the Americans to deal with. And when the United States pulls out, as it inevitably will sooner or later, where does the “Sunni Triangle” that extends from Baghdad west to the Syria border go? That is the million-dinar question, and the wrong answer could bring the whole house of cards tumbling down..

Most people know that Africa’s colonial borders, however senseless they might be in ethnic or economic terms, were made sacrosanct by the old Organisation of African Unity because to allow the possibility of changing frontiers would open the road to a hundred years of border wars. Fewer people realise that the borders in the Arab world are equally arbitrary and equally vulnerable.

If the frontiers that define the countries of the eastern Arab world, all drawn between 1918 and 1932 by European empires and Saudi conquests, are called into question, then the world’s premier oil-producing region faces a generation of border wars. Iraq never made much sense as a country, but its destruction could have very large consequences.


This is a longer article of 1000 words. To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6, 9 and 11. (“TheSunni…sectarian terms”; “The US…the two”; and “Allawi…once more”)

More Milestones in Iraq

27 October 2005

More Milestones in Iraq

 By Gwynne Dyer

There’s not much industry in Iraq any more, but one industry is thriving: historical milestones. It came up with two new ones just last week: a brand new constitution, and the 2,000th American soldier to die in Iraq. But just as with the country’s other main product, turning points, Iraqi milestones are not quite as solid as they seem.

Take the constitution. It took an astonishingly long time to count and recount the votes until the results finally came out right, but ten days after the referendum on 15 October, the Iraqi authorities announced the glad news. Only two of the country’s eighteen provinces, Anbar and Salaheddin, had voted against the constitution by more than a two-thirds majority, so it had passed. If a third province had done the same, it would have failed — but miraculously, the third province that seemed certain to do so, didn’t.

Like the other two, the third province, Nineveh, has a Sunni Arab majority. Sunni Arabs are almost all hostile to the new, American-backed federal constitution, which they see as the gateway to civil war and artition. In Anbar, where practically everybody is Sunni Arab, 97 percent of the voters said no to the constitution. But in Nineveh, where 68 percent are Sunni Arabs, the vote-counters finally declared that only 55 percent of the voters had said no, which fell short of the two-thirds threshold to reject the constitution. How odd.

It is particularly odd because most of the other people in Nineveh province are Assyrian Christians, Shabaks, Yezidis and Turkmens who also strongly opposed the constitution, mainly because of its strong Islamic flavour. Only the Kurds in Nineveh, a mere 8 percent minority, supported it.

But in the end it hardly matters that the constitution probably had some unofficial help in getting ratified, because there is no longer an Iraqi state to be ruled by it. There are government ministers in Iraq, and even an army of sorts (though up to half its personnel are fictional, invented solely to justify their pay-cheques), but there is not a state.

In Iraq in 2005, each ministry is the private fief of the party that controls it, not an obedient branch of a central government. Most officials and soldiers are stealing all they can, for they know that their present jobs will not exist in a few years’ time. The kidnapping-for-ransom phenomenon has got so bad that the Iraqi middle class is emigrating en masse to Jordan. And through it all slip the fighters and bombers of the resistance, killing almost at will.

Which brings us to last week’s other milestone, the 2,000th American soldier to die in Iraq. For months this moment has been built up in the Western media as the time when the American public might at last mobilise against this lost war fought for the wrong reasons. But I listened carefully all day and I didn’t hear a single tectonic plate move.

There are three reasons for the silence. One is that most of the Americans who are dying in Iraq are poor people’s kids, and most poor people don’t know how to organise and network politically. If there is no draft (conscription) to threaten the lives of middle-class kids, there won’t be a big anti-war movement.

Two is that two thousand dead soldiers (and 15,000 injured soldiers, half of whom have lost a limb or their sight or their mind) is not really all that many in a country whose population is nearing 300 million. More than two thousand Americans will die on the roads this month. More than two thousand Americans will die of gunshot wounds this month without ever leaving the United States.

Three is that the so-called troubles of the Bush administration — indictments, investigations, and nasty rumours about various senior Republicans in the Congress or the White House — actually distract attention from the real disaster, which is not happening in Washington at all. The administration’s spin-doctors don’t mind. By all means, let us talk about the alleged but arcane iniquities of Karl Rove, and not about the brutal realities of Iraq.

Let’s talk about the reality anyway. The British Ministry of Defence paid some local academics to survey Iraqi public opinion some months ago without telling them who their client actually was. So the pollsters delivered a truthful report — which said that 45 percent of Iraqis support attacks against “coalition troops” (mostly Americans and British), and that fewer than one percent believed that foreign military involvement was helping to improve security in Iraq.

About 20 percent of Iraq’s population are Kurds who want independence and see the US occupation as their best chance of getting it. They will back almost anything America wants in Iraq. So to understand Arab opinion in Iraq, you have to subtract Kurdish opinion — and then you see that practically all Arabs in Iraq, both Shia and Sunni, and not just 82 percent of “Iraqis”, are “strongly opposed” to the presence of foreign troops. Almost two-thirds of Arab Iraqis, not just 45 percent of “Iraqis”, believe that attacks on occupation troops are justified.

The game is over. It’s time to go home. But you know they won’t.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 nd 4. (“Like…supported it”)