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Syria

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Franchise Wars

You can’t tell the players without a programme, and it’s no wonder that people feel confused by the plethora of names the terrorist groups use. To make matters worse they keep splitting, and sometimes they change their names just for the hell of it. So here’s a guide you can stick on your wall.

In the beginning there was Al Qaeda, starting in about 1989. There were lots of other terrorist start-ups in the Arab world around the same time, but eventually almost all of them either died out or joined one of the big franchises. Al Qaeda is the one to watch, since the success of its 2001 attacks on the United States on 9/11 put it head and shoulders above all its rivals.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and foreign jihadis flocked into the Sunni Arab parts of the country to help the resistance, their leader, a Jordanian called Abu Musaib al Zarqawi, sought to affiliate his organisation with Al Qaeda to boost its appeal. In 2004 Osama bin Laden agreed to allow them to use the name Al Qaeda in Iraq, although there was little coordination between the two organisations.

It was Al Qaeda in Iraq that got the Sunni-Shia civil war going by persistently bombing Shia mosques and neighbourhoods, even though it knew that the more numerous Shia would win that war. It was profoundly cynical but strategically sound, since terrified Sunnis would then turn to Zarqawi’s organisation for protection.

Al Qaeda in Iraq formally changed its name to Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in 2006, but it didn’t really begin to flourish until a new leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, took over in 2010. Soon afterwards the Syrian civil war broke out, and Baghdadi sent a Syrian member of ISI, Abu Muhammad al Golani, into Syria to organise a branch there. It was called the Nusra Front.

The Nusra Front grew very fast – so fast that by 2013 Baghdadi decided to reunite the two branches of the organisation under the the new name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But this meant that Golani was being demoted to manager of the Syrian branch, so he declared his independence and asked to join al Qaeda, whch leaves its affiliates largely free to make their own decisions.

Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri (by now bin Laden was dead), backed the Nusra Front because he felt that creating an Islamic state, as Baghdadi intended, was premature. Baghdadi thereupon broke relations with Al Qaeda, and in early 2014 the Nusra Front and ISIS went to war.

Thousands of Islamist fighters were killed, and after four months it was clear that ISIS could hold eastern Syria but could not conquer the Nusra Front in the west of the country. The two rival organisations agreed a ceasefire – and two months later, in June 2014, ISIS used its battle-hardened forces to invade Iraq.

The Iraqi army collapsed, and by July ISIS controlled the western third of Iraq. Counting its Syrian territories as well, ISIS now ruled over 10-12 million people, so Baghdadi dropped the “Iraq and Syria” part of the name and declared that henceforward it would just be known as Islamic State. The point of not naming it after a specific territory is that it can be expanded indefinitely with no further name changes.

Soon afterwards Baghdadi declared himself caliph, and therefore commander of all the world’s Muslims. Ths was an extremely bold step, since those Muslims who hear the call of “Caliph Ibrahim” and do not submit to his authority – even fighters in other jihadi organisations like the Nusra Front and Al Qaeda – are technically “apostates” and liable to death in the eyes of those who do accept his claim.

That includes all of IS’s fighters, who now have the legal right, at least in their own eyes, to kill most Sunni Muslims in addition to the Shias, Christians, Jews, and assorted other unbelievers they already had the right to kill. There is a potential genocide in the making if Islamic State expands further in Syria, where easily 75 percent of the population fits into one or another of those categories.

Some jihadis in other countries, most notably Boko Haram in Nigeria, declared their allegiance to “Caliph Ibrahim” and Islamic State at once. Other stayed loyal to Al Qaeda – the Nusra Front, Al Shabaab in Somalia, and the al Qaeda branches in Yemen, Egypt, and the Maghreb – and rejected his claim. But Al Qaeda may declare a rival caliphate once Nusra has finished conquering Idlib province and established a firmer territorial base in Syria.

So there you have it: two rival franchises competing for the loyalty of all the other jihadi organisations. There’s not really much difference between them ideologically or practically, but the franchise wars will continue. I hope that helps.
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To shorten to 725 words, omits paragraphs 4 and 11. (“It was…protection”; and “That includes…categories”)

The Armenian Genocide

It is with great reluctance that I write about the Armenian genocide, as I know from experience that what I say will infuriate both sides. But it is the hundredth anniversary of the catastrophe this month, and Pope Francis has just declared that the mass killing of Armenian citizens of the Ottoman empire in 1915 was indeed a genocide. Turkey, predictably, has responded by withdrawing its ambassador from the Vatican.

Well, surprise! We’ve been listening to this argument for several generations now, and it rarely gets much further than “Yes, you did!” “No, I didn’t!” Unfortunately, I know a lot more about it than that.

Ages ago, when I was a history graduate student doing research about Turkey’s role in the First World War, I got into the Turkish General Staff archives in Ankara and found the actual telegrams (written in the old riqa script) that went back and forth between Istanbul and eastern Anatolia in the spring of 1915.

Later on I saw the British and Russian documents on their plans for joint action with Armenian revolutionaries in the spring of 1915, so I also know the context in which the Turks and Armenians were acting. And I can say with some confidence that both sides are wrong.

There was an Armenian genocide. Of course there was. When up to 800,000 people from a single ethnic and religious community die from violence, hunger or exposure in a short time, and they are under guard by armed men from a different ethnicity and religion at the time, it’s an open-and-shut case. (Today’s Armenians say 1.5 million died in 1915, but that’s too high. It could be as few as half a million, but 800,000 is plausible.)

On the other hand, the Armenians desperately want their tragedy to be seen in the same light as the Nazi attempt to exterminate the European Jews, and won’t settle for anything less. But what happened to the Armenians was not pre-planned by the Turkish government, and there was provocation from the Armenian side. That doesn’t remotely begin to justify what happened, but it does put the Turks in a somewhat different light.

A group of junior officers called the Young Turks seized control of the Ottoman empire in 1908, and their leader, Enver Pasha, foolishly took the empire into the First World War at Germany’s side in November 1914. He then led a Turkish army east to attack Russia, which was allied to Britain and France.

That army was destroyed in the deep snow around Kars – only 10 percent of it got back to base – and the Turks panicked. The Russians didn’t follow right away – poor generalship – but the Turks had almost nothing left to stop them if they did. The Turks scrambled to put some kind of defensive line together, but behind them in eastern Anatolia were Christian Armenians who had been agitating for independence from the empire for decades.

Various revolutionary Armenian groups had been in touch with Moscow, offering to stage uprisings behind the Turkish army when Russian troops arrived in Anatolia. Learning that the Turks had retreated in disarray, some groups assumed the Russians were on their way and jumped the gun.

Similarly the Armenian revolutionary groups further south, near the Mediterranean coast, were in contact with the British command in Egypt, and had promised an uprising to coincide with planned British landings on the Turkish south coast near Adana. Quite late in the day the British switched their planned invasion much further west to Gallipoli, but once again some of the Armenian revolutionaries didn’t get the message in time and rebelled anyway.

Enver Pasha and his colleagues in Istanbul simply panicked. If the Russians broke through in eastern Anatolia, all the Arab parts of the empire would be cut off. So they ordered the deportation of all the Armenians in the east to Syria – over the mountains, in winter, on foot. (There was no railway yet.) And since there were no regular troops to spare, it was mostly Kurdish irregulars who guarded the Armenians on the way south.

The Kurds shared eastern Anatolia with the Armenians, but the neighbours had never been friendly. So many of the Kurdish escorts assumed they had free license to rape, steal and kill, and between that, the lack of food, and the weather, up to half the deportees died. To the extent that the Turkish government knew about it, it did nothing to stop it.

More Armenians died in the sweltering, disease-ridden camps they were confined in once they arrived in Syria. It was genocide through panic, incompetence and deliberate neglect, but it cannot be compared to what happened to the European Jews. Indeed the large Armenian community in Istanbul, far from the military operations in eastern Anatolia, survived the war virtually unharmed.

If the Turks had only had the sense to admit what really happened fifty or seventy-five years ago, there would be no controversy now. The only duty of the current generation is to acknowledge the past, not to fix it (as if they could). Instead there has been a hundred years of blank denial, which is why the issue is still on the international agenda. It will stay there until the Turks finally come to terms with their past.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 4 and 10. (“Well…that”; “Later…wrong”; and “Similarly…anyway”)

Islamic State: The Worst Case Contingency

It’s often a good idea, when faced with a really frightening situation, to model the “worst case” outcome and see how bad it could get. That can be quite bad, but it’s rarely as bad as the half-formed fears that build up if you don’t actually analyse the problem. Like Islamic State, for example.

It began with the conquest of parts of eastern Syria by an Islamist group called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in 2011-13. Its founders were almost all Iraqis who had got their start fighting the American occupation of their country. They were allegedly in Syria to help overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship, but they actually spent their time conquering territory held by other rebel groups.

Once ISIS had a territorial base in eastern Syria, its fighters surged back across the border into Iraq in June, 2014 and captured Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city. First the hopeless Iraqi army and then the supposedly competent Kurdish army crumbled in front of them. In July ISIS declared the border abolished and proclaimed the foundation of the “Islamic State” in the conquered parts of both Syria and Iraq.

A few days later the leader of ISIS, Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi, declared in a sermon in Mosul’s great mosque of al-Nuri that he is the caliph to whom all Muslims owe obedience. It was a bold step – there has been no caliph since 1924 – but it had great resonance among those many Muslims who blamed the collapse of the Islamic world’s power and prosperity on the neglect of its traditional religious institutions and values.

Since then, Islamic State has conquered no more territory. Its one big offensive, against the Kurdish enclave of Kobane along the Turkish border, was defeated after thousands of ISIS fighters died in the attempt to take it. Aircraft from the US, other Western countries, and various conservative Arab countries patrol the skies over Islamic State, bombing anything that looks even vaguely military. Yet it still scares people to death.

One reason is its sheer ferocity and endlessly inventive cruelty. It crucifies people, hacks their heads off, burns them alive and posts videos boasting about it all. It attracts large numbers of recruits from the Sunni Muslims living in the Arab lands now included in Islamic State, but also thousands of eager volunteers from other Muslim countries and from the Muslim diaspora in the West.

Islamic State is now collecting pledges of allegiance from like-minded Islamist fighting groups in other Muslim countries, each of which lends a little more credibility to its claim to be the new caliphate. In November Islamist groups in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia all declared that they acknowledged al-Baghdadi, now calling himself Caliph Ibrahim, as their leader and guide.

Little more has been heard from the Yemeni, Saudi and Algerian groups, but the Egyptian group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, controls parts of the Sinai peninsula, regularly attacks the Egyptian army, and was officially designated a “province” (wilayat) of the Islamic State in November. Libya, where Islamist groups have been gaining ground in the civil war, was carved into three further “provinces” at the same time.

In late January a former commander of the Pakistani Taleban and ten other jihadi leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan also acknowledged al-Baghdadi’s authority , and declared that they constituted the new IS “province” of Khorasan, taking in those two countries and “other nearby lands”.

Then last Saturday Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the militant group Boko Haram, which controls much of northeastern Nigeria, also pledged allegiance to Islamic State: “We announce our allegiance to the caliph… and will hear and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity. We call on Muslims everywhere to pledge allegiance to the caliph.” It’s certainly making progress, but how far can it go?

Probably not much further. All the new “provinces” of Islamic State, like most of the original ones, are in mainly rural areas, often sparsely populated, and with few natural resources (except some oil, in Libya’s case). They are areas that corrupt and autocratic governments, many of them distracted by civil war, can simply abandon for the short term as not vital for their survival.

For Islamic State to seize big metropolitan areas and their resources would require a level of popular support in those areas that is unlikely to emerge. Big cities are full of relatively sophisticated people who have something to lose, and are unlikely to see Islamic State as an attractive solution for their problems.

Without the big cities and their communications facilities – especially airports and harbours – there can be little effective cooperation between the widely dispersed “provinces” of Islamic State. They will have to go on fighting their own wars with little outside help, and some they will lose.

The broader struggle against Islamist extremism will probably continue for at least a decade, and impose heavy costs on the people of the Middle East. But ultra-radical organisations like ISIS and Boko Haram are likely to break up in bitter theological disputes a lot quicker than that.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“One…West”; and “In late…lands”)

With Allies Like These…

Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was in London last week, telling the Western media how helpful Ankara was being in the struggle against the terrorist “Islamic State” that has emerged in northern Syria and Iraq. Turkey is doing everything it can, he said – although, of course, “We cannot put troops everywhere on the border.”

Turkey’s open border has become a sore point with its Western allies, who suspect that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is deliberately allowing a steady flow of recruits and supplies to “Islamic State” because he still wants the Sunni rebels, most of whom are jihadi extremists, to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s Shia ruler. (Erdogan is no jihadi, but he is a devout and militant Sunni Islamist.)

But Erdogan’s motives are irrelevant, because Turkey simply cannot put troops everywhere on its 820-km. border with Syria. Or so says Ahmet Davutoglu, and only an enemy of Turkey (or somebody with a grasp of basic mathematics) would say otherwise.

I am no enemy of Turkey, but I can do basic arithmetic. If you stationed Turkish troops along the entire length of the Syrian border at ten-metre intervals – that’s enough for a machine-gun nest every fifty metres – it would take about 82,000 soldiers to cover the entire 820 km. The strength of the Turkish army (never mind the navy and air force) is 315,000 soldiers.

Maybe Turkey doesn’t have that many machine-guns, but it’s not a poor country, and machine-guns are quite cheap on the international market. Or maybe it would prefer to use some other equipment instead: a good fence and some motion-detectors would help. But the main requirement is manpower, and not very highly skilled manpower at that. The Turkish army has a few other jobs, but not any high-priority ones.

Even if you allow for frequent rotation of the soldiers manning the border, it would take much less than half the strength of the Turkish army to shut the border to foreign fighters. Maybe a few jihadis would still get through, but the vast majority wouldn’t. The only reason Ankara doesn’t shut the border is that it doesn’t really want to.

Cutting off the flow of jihadi volunteers to Syria would not greatly change the local military balance: IS uses them mostly as mere cannon-fodder. The point is that Turkey is not fully committed to the destruction of Islamic State, and indeed will give IS deniable help in order to further the goal of a Sunni victory in Syria, despite being part a “coalition of the willing” that is nominally dedicated to destroying IS.

The same goes for Saudi Arabia, although it has sent some token aircraft to bomb IS. Riyadh tries to prevent any Saudi citizens from going to fight for IS, and it certainly does not want the IS brand of radicalism to come to the kingdom. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has already started building a 900-km. high-tech wall along its border with Iraq to stop IS activists from entering the country.

But it is not a long way from the Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam that is promoted by Saudi Arabia to the “takfiri-salafist” doctrines espoused by the IS militants. Saudi private individuals have been a major source of financing for IS, and until recently Riyadh just turned a blind eye to it. Even now Saudi Arabia doesn’t want Islamic State destroyed if that means Assad gets to stay in power in Syria.

Then there’s Iran. In Iraq, where Islamic State controls half the country’s territory and threatens a Shia-dominated regime, Iran and the United States are fighting almost side-by-side to defend Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s government. (They don’t actually talk to each other, but they each tell the Iraqis where they are planning to bomb so there are no collisions over the target areas.)

But next-door, in Syria, it’s different. Iran has sent troops, weapons and money to defend Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while the United States is still pledged to overthrow it. They both see Islamic State (which controls about a third of Syria’s territory) as an enemy, but Washington still believes that it can create some other, more “moderate” army of Sunni rebels that will eventually take Assad down.

And Russia, of course, still supplies Assad with weapons, money and diplomatic support – but despite its own difficulties with jihadi rebels back home in the North Caucasus, Moscow is not participating in the military campaign against Islamic State. Its quarrel with the United States over Ukraine is too fierce to permit that degree of cooperation elsewhere.

And so on, and so forth. Not one of the major outside powers that is opposed to Islamic State in principle has a clear strategy for fighting it, nor are they willing to cooperate with one another.

So IS will survive, at least for some years to come, despite the horrors it inflicts on the innocent people under its control. It may even expand a bit more, though the end of the siege of Kobane shows that it is far from unstoppable.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 12. (“Maybe…ones”; and “And Russia…elsewhere”)