If historical ingratitude were a crime, most of the people writing year-end pieces this month would be in jail.
This year was not like 1919, when 3 percent of the world’s population died of influenza, or 1943, when the Second World War was killing a million people each month, or 1983, when we came very close to World War Three (though the public didn’t realise it at the time). For most people, in most places, 2015 has been a pretty good year.
Yes, of course, the war in Syria, and millions of refugees, and the downturn in China dragging the world economy down with it, and terrorism here, there and everywhere. And of course, climate change waiting around the corner to drag us all down. But if you are waiting for a year with nothing to worry about, you’ll be waiting a long time.
The war in Syria is four years old and still going strong. In late summer it looked for a time as if the Islamist rebels were going to destroy the Syrian army and take over the whole country, but the Russian intervention restored the stalemate. There is even talk of a ceasefire now, so that everybody else can concentrate on fighting Islamic State.
That may not happen, because Turkey and Saudi Arabia are both determined to destroy the Assad regime at any cost. The Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham (clones of Islamic State who make up the bulk of what American propaganda portrays as “the moderates”) may not agree to a ceasefire either. The war could go on for years yet. But unless Islamic State and the other jihadis actually win, the war will not spread beyond Syria’s borders
There are other wars in the Middle East too, in Iraq (where Islamic State also holds much territory), in Afghanistan (where the Taliban are winning), and in Yemen (where the conservative Arab states have mistaken a tribal quarrel for an Iranian plot and launched a bombing campaign to thwart it). Libya’s internal wars are getting worse, and there is even talk of renewed Western military intervention there.
Oh, and Turkey has relaunched its war against the Kurds. The Middle East is a full-spectrum mess, and the particular brand of Islamist extremism that has taken root there has expanded out of the region to produce terrorist attacks from India to Kenya to France, and even the United States. But the terrorism is not as big as it seems, and neither is the Middle East.
The Middle East only contains 10 percent of the world’s people, and the Arab world (where most of the bloodshed happens) is only half of the Middle East. Its only major export is oil, and its main import is food. What happens there is not as important as what happens in the other 90 percent of the world, which is by and large at peace and doing quite well.
There are no wars at all in Asia, which is home to half the human race, and no wars in the Americas either. There is one war in Europe, in eastern Ukraine with heavy Russian involvement, but a ceasefire has greatly reduced (but not entirely stopped) the shooting in the past four months.
The only real war in Africa this year was in South Sudan, now suspended at least temporarily, although there are half-a dozen other countries where there is a significant level of civil or terrorist violence (Nigeria, Somalia, Mali, Sudan, Kenya, etc.). Forty of the fifty African countries are entirely at peace, and most of them are at least partly democratic.
This is not a picture of world where violence is out of control. The violence is approaching catastrophic levels in parts of the Middle East, but the scattered incidents of Islamist terrorism against non-Muslims elsewhere are relatively small and few in number. Neverheless, they have encouraged the Western media (and several Western leaders) to talk about terrorism as an “existential threat”.
That is absurd, but Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican party’s nomination for US president, has proposed that the the United States should deal with this “threat” by stopping all Muslims from entering the country. The number of non-Middle Eastern people who actually died in terrorist attacks in 2015, including the two Paris attacks, the Los Angeles attack, and attacks on tourists in Muslim countries (mostly British in Tunisia and Russians in Egypt) was just over 400.
The total population of Russia, the United States, Britain and France is about 600 million, so the risk of being killed by an Islamist terrorist, if you are a citizen of one of those countries, is one in one-and-a-half million. It is not a crisis. It is just a problem, and fairly far down the list of problems these countries face.
The refugees coming out of the Middle East, mainly from Syria, are a much bigger issue, but the main burden of caring for them has fallen on neighbouring Muslim countries, principally Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. About one million refugees have reached Europe this year, sparking a political panic in the European Union (population 500 million), but the extraordinary generosity of Germany, which has taken in four-fifths of those refugees, more than compensates for the meaner behaviour of other Western countries.
Enough on the Middle East – except for the quote of the year, from Edward Luttwak, the celebrated freelance “defence intellectual” and self-styled “grand strategist” who sells his advice to presidents and generals. “You know, I never gave George W. Bush enough credit for what he’s done in the Middle East….He ignited a religious war between Shiites and Sunnis that will occupy the region for the next thousand years. It was a pure stroke of brilliance.” Unwitting brilliance, of course, and it won’t be a thousand years or even a hundred, but there is an element of truth in that.
In Asia, the Burmese election in November was probably the final step in ending half a century of military rule in that unfortunate country. The long-predicted drop in the Chinese economy’s growth rate seems to be arriving at last (though the regime still denies it), and the question of whether the Communist dictatorship can survive a prolonged period of slow growth is slowly working its way back onto the agenda.
The Indian economy continues to power ahead, although it remains far smaller than China’s. There were the usual typhoons and earthquakes, and a long-term confrontation may be building over China’s series of new military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea, but on the whole Asia had a fairly good year.
So did Africa, despite renewed terrorist attacks in Mali, President Zuma’s boundless corruption in South Africa, and the tail-end of the ebola epidemic in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – and at least that epidemic spurred the high-speed development of a vaccine that will help to contain future outbreaks.
Nigeria, with a new president, Muhammadu Buhari, brought the Boko Haram insurgency more or less under control, and even Kenya, the main victim of Islamist terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa, had some good news.
The year began badly for Kenya when Al-Shabaab terrorists from Somalia stormed Garissa University College in April and killed 148 people, mostly Christians who were separated from their Muslim fellow-students and shot or hacked to death in front of them.
But when another group of Islamist terrorists stopped a bus on a road in northern Kenya in December and ordered the Muslim passengers to identify the Christians amongst them, they refused: “We even gave some non-Muslims our religious attire to wear in the bus so that they would not be identified easily,” said Abdi Mohamud Abdi. Unwilling to murder Muslims, the terrorists left.
Europe has had a relatively quiet time, apart from the refugees. The British election returned the Conservatives to power with a wafer-thin majority, but the Spanish election destroyed the two-party system and left everything up in the air. Silvio Berlusconi finally withdrew from Italian politics, pursued by numerous legal proceedings and leaving the scene less exciting but considerably cleaner.
There was near-panic in the spring about Greece defaulting on its debts and leaving the euro. The anti-austerity, left-wing Syriza government won two elections and a referendum in the course of the year, but eventually submitted to the disciplines of the European Union rather than being cast into the outer darkness.
In Latin America, the high-profile event was the re-opening, after 54 years, of the US embassy in Havana, although ending the trade embargo against Cuba is still subject to a Congressional vote. Left-wing governments lost elections in Argentina and Venezuela (although President Nicolas Maduro still controls the executive branch in Caracas), and even President Dilma Rousseff is in trouble in Brazil, but this is just the usual ebb-and-flow of politics. Latin America is no longer a place apart; it is just part of the West.
And what are we to make of North America? Canada finally showed Stephen Harper the door after almost ten years and elected his Liberal antithesis, Justin Trudeau, to the vast relief of practically everybody beyond its borders and a majority within them. Yet in the same year the Jurassic candidate, Donald Trump, emerges as the Republican front-runner for next year’s presidential election in the United States.
However, there is a strong argument for saying that Trump’s main appeal to potential voters is that he is not boring. This could be a problem for Hillary Clinton, who for all her sterling virtues is deeply, deeply boring.
They have been holding a mock election at Western Illinois University one year before the national election ever since 1975. They have chosen the correct party and even the right candidate every time, including people who were still very dark horses at the time like Jimmy Carter (for the 1976 election) and Barack Obama (for the 2008 election).
They held their mock election for next year last month – and the Democrats won. But Hillary Clinton didn’t. The next president, according to the mock election, will be Bernie Sanders. At least he isn’t boring.
To shorten to 1250 words, omit paras 5, 10, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23.(“That…borders”; “The only…democratic”; “Enough…that”; and “Nigeria…darkness”) You may shorten the article further as you wish by removing paragraphs of less interest to your particular audience.
Abu Muhammad al-Golani is an Islamist fanatic, a head-chopper (although only in moderation), and the leader of the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate that is classified by the United States as “terrorist”. He spent almost a decade killing American occupation troops and Shia civilians in Iraq as a loyal member of the Sunni extremist organisation that is now called Islamic State before going home to Syria in 2011.
He was sent home to create a Syrian clone of what was then called ‘Islamic State in Iraq’, on the orders of Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State and now the self-proclaimed “Caliph” of all the Muslims. Golani named the Syrian branch the Nusra Front, and it did so well that he broke with Islamic State and went out on his own in 2013.
There was a three-month turf war between Islamic State and the Nusra Front in Syria in early 2014 that killed an estimated 3,000 jihadis. Islamic State won it and now controls most of eastern Syria (and all of western Iraq). Golani managed to hang on to northwestern Syria, where the Nusra Front and another extreme Islamist organisation, Ahrar al-Sham, now completely dominate a rebel alliance that also includes several smaller “moderate” outfits.
So you would not expect Golani to favour a peace deal that left the brutal Assad regime, secular in form but Shia-dominated, in power in Damascus. And indeed he does not: in a rare interview recently, he condemned the peace deal being cooked up by the US and Russia as “unacceptable”. It was, he said, a plot to merge more moderate rebel fighters with Assad’s forces in order to fight extremist groups like his own and Islamic State.
Golani was right to be suspicious, and yet he may go along with the deal in the end, because it isn’t really a permanent peace settlement that is being discussed. It’s actually just a ceasefire that will leave all the players in Syria in control of the territory they now hold – except for Islamic State, which they can then all concentrate on destroying.
This is the sort of Machiavellian thinking that caused Russian President Vladimir Putin to accuse Washington recently of “dividing terrorists into good and bad ones,” but it’s just as much a part of Russian thinking. When Moscow started bombing the rebels in Syria in September to save the Assad regime from collapse, it bombed them all indiscriminately: the Nusra Front, Islamic State, even the “moderates”, if it could find them.
But it quickly became clear that what Russia had in mind, after stabilising the battlefronts, was precisely what Golani was condemning: a ceasefire that would effectively partition Syria between the Assad regime and the various rebel groups, and enable them all to turn on Islamic State.
You can’t admit that that’s what you are doing, of course, so you talk in terms of a peace settlement. That’s what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Foreign Secretary John Kerry were doing in Moscow on Tuesday, and the result is that a United Nations Security Council resolution endorsing the Syrian peace process will probably be passed on Friday.
The current round of “peace talks” began in Vienna on 23 October, with no Syrians present, just Russia, the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It subsequently expanded to include about twenty countries, and the organisers are now deciding which Syrians can attend the next round of talks, probably early in the new year.
On one side, obviously, will be the the representatives of the Assad regime. On the other side will be some of the leaders of the armed opposition, but not all of them. Islamic State won’t be there, of course, and at the moment the Nusra Front says it won’t be either. Since those are the two most powerful groups fighting the Assad regime, what’s the point of talks?
But the Nusra Front’s close ally, Ahrar al-Sham, did show up at last week’s meeting in Riyadh where decisions were being made on which groups could attend the peace talks. At one point it walked out – and then, after some further thought, it added its signature to the joint declaration.
The Islamists of the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham are clearly in two minds about a ceasefire (disguised as a peace agreement). On one hand, it would leave the Assad regime in power. On the other, it would give them time to consolidate their control over the territory they now hold, and maybe to eliminate their most dangerous rival, Islamic State. So in the end, they may go along with the idea.
It wouldn’t be perfect, and it wouldn’t necessarily be permanent either. But it would stop most of the killing, it would at least contain if not eliminate Islamic State, and it might even let some of the refugees go home. It’s basically a Russian initiative, but Moscow is wisely letting the US take the lead now. If anybody has a better idea, please let us all know.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“This is…State”)
As always after a major terrorist attack on the West, the right question to ask after the slaughter in Paris is: what were the strategic aims behind the attack? This requires getting your head around the concept that terrorists have rational strategies, but once you have done that the motives behind the attacks are easy to figure out. It also becomes clear that the motives have changed.
The 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001 followed the classical terrorist strategy of trying to trick the target government into over-reacting in ways that ultimately serve the terrorists’ interests. Al-Qaeda’s goal was to sucker the United States into invading Muslim countries.
Al Qaeda was a revolutionary organisation whose purpose was to overthrow existing Arab governments and take power in the Arab countries, which it would then reshape in accord with its extreme Islamist ideology. The trouble was that Islamist movements were not doing very well in building mass support in the Arab world, and you need mass support if you want to make a revolution.
Osama bin Laden’s innovation was to switch the terrorist attacks from Arab governments to Western ones, in the hope of luring them into invasions that would radicalise large number of Arabs and drive them into the arms of the Islamists. His hopes were fulfilled by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Once the Western troops went in, there was a steep decline in terrorist attacks on Western countries. Al-Qaeda wanted Western troops to stay in the Middle East and radicalise the local populations, so it made no sense to wage a terrorist campaign that might make Western countries pull their troops out again.
The resistance in Iraq grew quickly and and attracted Islamist fighters from many other Arab countries. The organisation originally known as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” underwent several name changes, to “Islamic State in Iraq” in 2006; then to “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” – ISIS for short – in 2013, and finally to simply “Islamic State” in 2014. But the key personnel
and the long-term goals remained the same throughout.
The man who now calls himself the “Caliph” of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Bahdadi, first joined “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” and started fighting the US occupation forces in Iraq in 2004. But along the way the strategy changed, for ISIS eventually grew so strong that it conquered the extensive territories in Syria and Iraq that now make up Islamic State. Popular revolutions were no longer needed. The core strategy now is simply conquest.
In that case, why are Islamic State and Al-Qaeda still attacking Western targets? One reason is because the jihadi world is now split between two rival jihadi franchises that are competing for supporters.
The split happened in 2013, when ISIS, having launched a very successful branch operation in Syria known as the Nusra Front, tried to bring it back under the control of the parent organisation.
The Syrian branch resisted, and appealed to Al-Qaeda, the franchise manager of both jihadi groups, for support. Al-Qaeda backed the Syrians, whereupon ISIS broke its links with Al-Qaeda and set up as a direct competitor.
ISIS and the Nusra Front then fought a three-month war in early 2014 that killed several thousand militants and left the former in control of most of eastern Syria. Soon afterwards ISIS overran most of western Iraq and renamed itself Islamic State.
Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s local franchise, the Nusra Front, are currently observing a ceasefire in Syria, but the two brands are still in a bitter struggle for the loyalty of jihadi groups elsewhere in the Muslim world.
Spectacular terrorist operations against Western targets appeal to both franchises because they are a powerful recruiting tool in jihadi circles. But Islamic State has a further motive: it actually wants Western attacks on it to cease.
It’s a real state now, with borders and an army and a more or less functional economy. It doesn’t want Western forces interfering with its efforts to consolidate and expand that state, and it hopes that terrorist attacks on the West may force them to pull out.
France is a prime target because French aircraft are part of the Western-led coalition bombing Islamic State, and because it’s relatively easy to recruit terrorists from France’s large, impoverished and alienated Muslim minority. Russia has also become a priority target since its aircraft started bombing jihadi troops in Syria, and the recent crash of a Russian airliner in Sinai may be due to a bomb planted by Islamic State.
So the outlook is for more terrorist attacks wherever Islamic State (and, to a lesser extent, Al-Qaeda) can find willing volunteers. Western countries with smaller and better integrated Muslim communities are less vulnerable than France, but they are targets too.
Putting foreign ground troops into Syria would only make matters worse, so the least bad option for all the countries concerned is to ride the terrorist campaign out. Horrendous though the attacks are, they pose a very small risk to the average citizen of these countries. Statistically speaking, it’s still more dangerous to cross the street, let alone climb a ladder.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10, 11 and 12. (“The split…world”)
P.S. Who takes their passport along on a sucide mission? There is a strong possibility that the Syrian refugee’s passport found at the scene of the Paris attacks was taken there to cause a huge backlash against Syrian refugees entering Europe, and thus further alienate European Muslims from their own governments.
It all happened very fast, in the end. On Monday Russian President Vladimir Putin was at the United Nations in New York saying that the United States was making “an enormous mistake” in not backing Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in his war against Islamist rebels, notably including “Islamic State” (or ISIS, as it used to be known).
On Tuesday the upper chamber of the Russian parliament unanimously voted to let President Putin use military force in Syria to fight “terrorism”, in response to a request from the Syrian government.
And on Wednesday morning the Russian warplanes started bombing rebel targets in Syria. Moscow gave the US embassy on Iraq one hour’s notice, requesting that US and “coalition” warplanes (which are also bombing Islamic State targets in Syria) to avoid the airspace where the Russian bombers were in action.
And Donald Trump, bless his heart, said “You know, Russia wants to get ISIS, right? We want to get ISIS. Russia is in Syria — maybe we should let them do it? Let them do it.”
And for once, Trump is right. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
If you want to stop ISIS, you have to do it with troops, and the only ground troops fighting ISIS in Syria are the Syrian army and the Kurds along the northern border with Turkey. But the US has been duped by Turkey into betraying the Kurds, and it will not use its airpower to help the Syrian army, which is now on the ropes.
That’s why Palmyra fell to Islamic State forces in May. Despite all the other American airstrikes against ISIS forces in Syria, it made not one to help the Syrian forces when they were desperately defending the historic city, and so they eventually had to retreat. It was more important to Washington not to be seen helping Assad than to save the city.
This is a fine moral position, as Assad’s regime is a deeply unattractive dictatorship. Indeed, the great majority of the 4 million Syrians who have fled the country were fleeing the regime’s violence, not that of ISIS. But if you don’t want the Islamist extremists to take over the country (and maybe Lebanon and Jordan as well), and you’re not willing to put troops on the ground yourself, who else would you help?
Washington’s fantasy solution to this problem has been to create a ‘third force’ of rebels who will somehow defeat Islamic State while diplomacy somehow removes Assad. But the other big rebel organisations in Syria, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, are also Islamists, little different from ISIS in their ideology and goals. In fact al-Nusra is a breakaway faction of ISIS, now affiliated with al-Qaeda. (Remember al-Qaeda? Chaps who did the 9/11 attacks?)
If Assad goes down, it is Islamic State, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham who will take over Syria, not the pathetic little band of fighters being trained by the United States in Turkey. In fact the first group of them to cross back into Syria were immediately annihilated by ISIS, who had probably been tipped off by America’s not very loyal ally, the Turkish government.
If the Russians believed that the United States was willing to do the heavy lifting needed to defeat the Islamists and save the Assad regime, they would probably be more than happy to stand back and let America do it. It was the American invasion of Iraq, after all, that created ISIS, and almost all of Islamic State’s leaders are veterans of the resistance in Iraq.
But Putin hears only high-minded rhetoric utterly detached from reality when he listens to Barack Obama. Russia has a large Muslim minority at home, and it is very much closer to the Middle East than the United States is. So if the Americans won’t do what is necessary, he will.
Putin does not make the same meaningless distinctions between Islamic State and the other Islamist groups that the United States insists on. The first Russian air strikes were on territory held by al-Nusra, not Islamic State. But the Russians will hit ISIS too. In fact, the first big operation will probably be an attack by a re-equipped Syrian army to retake Palmyra, heavily backed by Russian air power.
Putin has said that he will not commit Russian ground forces to combat in Syria, for the Russian public doesn’t want to see its soldiers involved in another war against Islamists after their miserable experience in Afghanistan in 1979-89. But the resolution in the Duma didn’t make any promises about that, and we may yet see Russian ground troops fighting in Syria too.
Whether Putin’s intervention will be enough to save Assad remains to be seen. The carping commments in the Western media about how he wants to distract attention from Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian civil war and restore Russia’s position as a great power are true enough – indeed, he is probably shutting down the fighting in Ukraine mainly to clear the decks for Syria – but that is not his primary motive.
He is just doing what needs to be done.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 13. (“If…will”; and “Putin has…too”)