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The Middle East: New Strategic Realities

After half a century of stasis, there are big new strategic realities in the Middle East, but people are having trouble getting their heads around them. Take the United States, for example. Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State in President Obama’s first administration, is still lamenting her former boss’s failure to send more military help to the “moderate” rebels in Syria.

“The failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton told Atlantic magazine recently. She’s actually claiming that early and lavish military aid to the right people would have overthrown Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, while freezing the al-Qaeda/ISIS jihadis out. If only.

Clinton travels a lot, but she never really leaves the Washington bubble. There are intelligence officials there who would gladly explain to her that almost all the desirable weaponry sent to the “moderates” in Syria ends up in the hands of the jihadis, who either buy it or just take it, but she wouldn’t listen. It falls outside the “consensus”.

Yet that really is how ISIS acquires most of its heavy weapons. The most striking case of that was in early June, when the Iraqi army, having spent $41.6 billion in the past three years on training its troops and equipping them with American heavy weapons, ran away from Mosul and northern Iraq and handed a good quarter of them over to ISIS.

In fact, that’s the weaponry that is now enabling ISIS to conquer further territory in eastern Syria and in Iraqi Kurdistan. Which, in turn, is why Barack Obama has now authorised air strikes in Iraq to stop ISIS troops from overrunning Irbil, the Kurdish capital.

By now, he has also presumably abandoned his proposal of last June to spend $500 million to train and equip “appropriately vetted” Syrian opposition fighters. (They were then supposedly going to overthrow Assad with one hand while crushing the jihadis with the other.)

But Obama has not yet dropped the other shoe. A LOT of people have not dropped their other shoes yet. They all know that the whole strategic environment has changed. They realise that may require new policies and even new allies. Changing horses in midstream is always a tricky business, so the realignments are only slowly getting underway, but you can see where they are going to go.

The proclamation of the “Islamic State” in eastern Syria and northernwestern Iraq has huge implications for every country in the Middle East, but for most of the great powers – Russia, the United States, China, India, Britain, France and Germany – it is almost the ONLY thing they still care about in the region. They all have Muslim minorities of their own, and they all want the Islamic State stopped, or at the very least isolated, contained and quarantined.

That means that both the Syrian and Iraqi governments must survive, and they will probably get enough outside help to do so (although it will take time for the US and the major European powers to switch sides and openly back Assad). The army of the Iraqi Kurds might hold its own against the Islamic State if it had better weapons, so it will get them (although Baghdad will not welcome a more powerful Kurdish army).

Containing the Islamic State to the north will be a simpler task, because Iran and Turkey are very big, well organised states whose populations are relatively invulnerable to the ISIS brand of Sunni fundamentalism. But to the south of the Islamic State is Saudi Arabia, and that is a country that faces some tough decisions.

The Wahhabi strand of Sunni Islam which is Saudi Arabia’s official religion is very close to the beliefs of the jihadis who now rule the Islamic State to their north. Much of their financial support and even their weapons have come from Saudi Arabia. But the rulers of that kingdom would be extremely unwise to assume that the jihadis regard Saudi Arabia’s current political arrangements as legitimate, or that gratitude would restrain them.

Nor will the long-standing US alliance with Saudi Arabia endure if Saudi ties to the jihadis are not broken. Riyadh will have to decide, and it will be aware that its oil is no longer so vital to the United States that it can have it both ways.

The Iranian-US rapprochement will continue, and the issue of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions will be settled amicably despite Israel’s  protests. Indeed, Israel may come under irresistible US pressure to stop whacking the Palestinians or the Lebanese Shias every couple of years, stop the settlement programme, and get on with the two-state deal. Washington would very much like Israel to stop alienating the people it needs as allies.

Further afield, General Sisi’s new regime in Egypt can count on strong American support, and may even be encouraged by Washington to intervene militarily in Libya and shut down the Islamist militias there. Tunisia will be the only remaining flower of the “Arab Spring”, although there has also been a certain amount of progress in Morocco. But in the heartland of the Arab world, war will flourish and democracy will not.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 12 and 13. (“By now…other”; and “Nor…allies”)

The Caliphate Returns

“Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day,” said Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, announcing the rebirth of the Caliphate in the broad territory between Aleppo in northern Syria and Diyala province in eastern Iraq. It hasn’t actually grown much more in the past couple of weeks, but it certainly intends to go on expanding.

The radical Sunni Muslim organisation that conquered almost half of Iraq in a whirlwind week at the beginning of June has changed its name. Before, it was ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (the old Ottoman province that used to include Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel). But now it wishes to be known simply as the “Islamic State” – for there can only be one such state, and it should include everywhere that Muslims have ever ruled.

ISIS propagandists have even produced a map showing the ultimate borders that their Islamic State lays claim to. Spain and Portugal will be part of it, because they were ruled by Muslim conquerors during much of the Middle Ages. Iran, too (although something will have to be done about all those Shia Muslims).

All of India except the southern tip should be under the rule of the Caliph, because Muslim invaders also ruled there as minorities for many centuries – and of course Serbia, Croatia and Hungary will be part of the Islamic State, for the Ottomans conquered all the Balkans up to there. Not to mention half of Africa, and Indonesia, and southwestern Siberia (which was once ruled by the Sibir Khanate for a century or so).

There’s no point in protesting that Muslims were never more than a small minority in many of these places, for the lads of ISIS believe that only Muslims – indeed, only Sunni Muslims – have rights. “The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organisations becomes null by the expansion of the Caliphate’s authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas,” al-Adnani helpfully explained.

So much for the fantasy. What’s the reality? A group of jihadis have seized a big chunk of eastern Syria and western Iraq, erased the border between them, and declared an Islamic State. As little as ten thousand strong only a month ago, they have been rapidly growing in numbers as ISIS’s success attracts new recruits – but they are obviously never going to reconquer India, Spain or Siberia.

They aren’t going to make a dent in the two powerful states to the north of their Islamic State either. Iran, being overwhelmingly Shia, is immune to their charms and far too big to take by force. Turkey, although now governed by an Islamic party, is still a modern, secular state that is much too strong to attack.
To the west and east ISIS is already at war with regimes that are either very tough (Bashar al- Assad’s war-hardened dictatorship in western and central Syria) or very Shia (the south-eastern slice of Iraq, densely populated and with a large Shia majority). The Islamic State’s central position between its two enemies gives it a strategic advantage, but not a decisive one.

To the south are desert frontiers with more promising territory. Jordan’s population is about two-thirds Palestinian, and even among the Bedouin tribes that are the mainstay of King Abdullah’s rule there was some enthusiasm for ISIS’s victory in Iraq. If Jordan fell, the Islamic State would reach right up to Israel’s borders, with incalculable consequences.

Saudi Arabia would be a much tougher nut to crack, but the salafi religious ideology that animates ISIS is very close to the fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam that is the Saudi state religion. That’s why the Saudis gave arms and money to ISIS jihadis in the early days of the Syrian civil war, although they have subsequently recognised the threat that the organisation poses to the Saudi state.

But even if ISIS gets very lucky, it is unlikely to get farther than that. Egypt blocks its expansion to the west, although the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis extremists who are active in the Sinai peninsula undoubtedly have some ties with it. Even its direct rivals in the Refound-The-Caliphate business – the original al-Qaeda, al-Shabab in north-east Africa, Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, and their lesser brethren – are unlikely to accept the ISIS leader as caliph.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who now styles himself Caliph Ibrahim, has clearly been preparing himself for this moment for most of his adult life: he even chose the name of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, as his nom de guerre. His spokesman does not hide his soaring ambition: “We hereby clarify to the Muslims that with this declaration of Khilafah (caliphate), it is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the Khalifah Ibrahim and support him.”

They are not going to do that, and the sheer radicalism and intolerance of ISIS’s members make it unlikely that their project will survive unaltered for more than a year or so even in the territory that now makes up the “Islamic State”. Nevertheless, it is extraordinary that the 7th-century caliphate has reappeared even fleetingly in the modern world. Bush and Blair have a lot to answer for.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 7 and 10. (“There’s…explained”; “They…attack”; and “Saudi…state”)

The Young War Criminal Speaks

Whatever else you may say about the “young war criminal” (as British journalist Alan Watkins used to call former prime minister Tony Blair), he certainly fights his corner with great determination. He is condemned to spend his life defending his part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and last weekend he was at it again.

In a 3,000-word essay on his website, Tony Blair wrote about last week’s conquest of almost half Iraq’s territory by the fanatical fighters of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria): “We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this. We haven’t.” What he really meant by “we”, of course, was “I”. And he would say that, wouldn’t he?

But at least give Blair credit for producing an interesting argument. “As for how these (recent) events reflect on the original decision to remove Saddam,” he wrote, “…(the argument) is that but for the invasion of 2003, Iraq would be a stable country today….”

“Consider the post 2011 Arab uprisings. Put into the equation the counterfactual – that Saddam and his two sons would be running Iraq in 2011 when the uprisings began. Is it seriously being said that the revolution sweeping the Arab world would have hit Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria…but miraculously Iraq, under the most brutal and tyrannical of all the regimes, would have been an oasis of calm?”

“So it is a bizarre reading of the cauldron that is the Middle East today, to claim that but for the removal of Saddam, we would not have a crisis.”

Blair is employing one of his favourite techniques: winning an argument with a straw man. Nobody is actually saying that if the United States, Britain and some hangers-on had not illegally invaded Iraq in 2003, the country would be an “oasis of calm” today. Of course the “Arab Spring” would have come to Iraq too, and of course there would be huge turmoil in the country today.

If Saddam Hussein had managed to hang on to power in the face of a democratic uprising in 2011 that was initially non-violent, Iraq today might be in a civil war somewhat like that in Syria. And if his dictatorship had been overthrown in 2011, whatever new government emerged in Iraq would certainly be contending with acute ethnic and sectarian rivalries today.

But the living standards, infrastructure, and health and educational services of a quite developed country would not have been massively degraded by a decade of invasion, foreign occupation and popular resistance. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who were killed in these events would still be alive (although Saddam’s secret police would have murdered the usual thousand or so each year). And above all there would be no ISIS, nor anything like it.

There were no terrorists in Iraq in 2003. There were people with radical Islamist ideas, but they kept quiet for fear of Saddam’s torturers and there weren’t very many of them. And there were no “weapons of mass destruction” either. It was an exceptionally dumb war, to borrow Barack Obama’s famous phrase, and it began the destruction of Iraq.

It is the deep sectarian divisions in Iraq’s Arabic-speaking population (the Kurds are a separate issue) that are now completing that process of destruction. However, as with the distinctions between Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims in old Yugoslavia before the break-up and the Balkan wars of the 1990s, most Sunnis and Shias in Iraq before 2003 lived side by side with a fairly low degree of friction.

It was the fight against foreign occupation after 2003 that radicalised people in Iraq and drove so many of them back into narrow sectarian identities. “Al-Qaeda in Iraq”, the original name for what now calls itself ISIS, was born in that struggle, and Tony Blair and George W. Bush were its midwives.

It’s striking that Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s main target during the occupation was to kill large numbers of Shias rather than lots of Americans. Its strategy was to provoke a sectarian war in which Iraqi Sunnis would be losing at first – but then their plight would trigger intervention by Sunni states in the region and lead to a general Sunni-Shia war. It was a convoluted, nasty and deeply unrealistic strategy, but it made sense in terms of their radical Islamist ideology.

If there had been no invasion, and Saddam Hussein had been overthrown by a popular revolution only three years ago, there would certainly be great tension in a newly democratic Iraq now. Sunni Arabs would be having trouble coming to terms with their minority status (which most were unaware of under Saddam). Shias would be tempted to exploit their majority status unfairly. Kurds would be pushing for more autonomy.

But they would be doing so in an atmosphere that had not been contaminated by a decade of sectarian hatred and savagery. There would be no organisations like ISIS dedicated to waging a sectarian war. And even if Saddam Hussein had not been overthrown and Iraq was caught up in a civil war like Syria’s, it would have a far less sectarian character. As would Syria’s, for that matter.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. “It is…friction”; and “It’s striking…ideology”)

ISIS rises in Iraq

THE IRAQI ARMY will have to destroy Mosul in order to save it—and it’s not clear whether it can do the job even then. It isn’t so much an army as a vast system of patronage providing employment of a sort for 900,000 people.

When fewer than a thousand ISIS jihadis fought their way into Mosul, Iraq’s second city, over the past few days, most of the government’s soldiers just shed their uniforms and fled.

The government troops never felt comfortable in Mosul anyway, for they are mostly Shia Muslims and the vast majority of Mosul’s 1.8 million residents are Sunni. (Or maybe it’s only 1.3 million people now, for up to 500,000 of the city’s residents are reported to be fleeing the triumphant jihadis: Shias, non-Muslim minorities, and even Kurdish Sunnis have faced execution in other areas that have fallen under the control of ISIS.)

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (an Arabic word that can mean the entire Levant, including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine) began as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” during the American occupation, but it’s the Syrian civil war that turned it into a regional threat.

ISIS actually spent more time fighting other rebel forces in Syria than the Assad regime, but it gained recruits from all the Sunni Arab countries just by being on the right side.

It also got access to the money and arms that were flowing into Syria for the anti-government forces. In the past two years it has established effective control over most of sparsely populated eastern Syria, and it started moving back into western Iraq in force late last year.

In January, it seized the city of Fallujah in Anbar province, only 100 kilometres west of Baghdad, and the Iraqi army was unable to retake the city although it had suffered about 5,000 casualties, including 1,000 killed, by the end of April. But at least it stood and fought in Anbar. In Mosul on Monday, it just ran.

It ran although it outnumbered the ISIS fighters who attacked the city by at least 15-to-one, and it may not be willing to fight very hard to take it back.

The entire Iraqi government is an “institutionalised kleptocracy”, as one of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s own ministers said, and the army is no exception. Soldiers who go unpaid because their officers stole their wages are rarely willing to die for them.

The only real fighting force left in Iraq is the Peshmerga, the army of the Kurdistan Regional Government. It is a tough, well-armed force, but it serves what is a separate state in all but name. It apparently still holds the part of Mosul east of the river Tigris, which has a large Kurdish population, but it may not be willing to take the large number of casualties that would be involved in street-fighting to recover the main part of the city.

At a minimum the KRG would want the Baghdad government to make major concessions on the revenue and oil-exporting disputes that have poisoned its relations with the federal government before it commits its forces to a major offensive against ISIS. Or it may just decide to stand on the defensive in the Kurdish-majority territory it now holds, and use the crisis to move even closer to its ultimate goal of an independent Kurdistan.

ISIS has sent the occasional suicide-bomber into Kurdistan, but it realizes that its main fight is not with the Kurds. Having taken most of Mosul, its forces are advancing not east into Kurdistan, but south through Tikrit (which fell on Juine 11) towards Baghdad. It will not try to take Baghdad itself, most of whose seven million people are Shia, but by the end of this month it could end up in control of most of western and northern Iraq.

At this point the old Iraq-Syria border would disappear and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham would become a reality, extending 400 kilometres from Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq to Deir-es-Zor, Raqqa, and near Aleppo in Syria. It would be mostly desert and it would control only about five million people and almost no oil, but it would be ruled by an Islamist organisation so extreme that it has even been disowned by al-Qaeda.

The remaining bits of the new regional map would be the western half of Syria, still largely under the control of the Assad regime; the semi-independent state of Kurdistan; and the densely populated, Shia-majority core of Iraq between Baghdad and Basra, hard up against the border with Shia Iran. None of this is yet inevitable yet, of course. It’s a war, and wars can take unexpected turns. But it’s certainly a possibility.

It’s also a possibility that the war could get wider, as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey all consider whether they need to intervene militarily to protect their own interests.

But that’s unlikely to happen this month. Later is anybody’s guess.