Assad Not Finished Yet

Jerusalem Post, 1/5

A number of reports have been published in recent days suggesting the tide of the war in Syria may finally have turned decisively against the Assad regime.

The reports cite a series of successes the Syrian rebels have achieved in recent weeks, and suggest the dictator and his allies will have difficulty reversing these setbacks. So is the game really finally up for the bloodstained regime of the Assads? A close examination of the evidence suggests that President Bashar Assad’s eulogizers have once again spoken too soon.

To understand why, let’s first of all look at the nature of the undoubted successes the various rebel coalitions have achieved.

The Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) rebel coalition has conquered significant ground in northern Syria from regime forces in recent weeks. Idlib City, the second provincial capital to be prised from Assad’s grasp, fell on March 29. The alliance has since scored additional victories, taking the pivotal town of Jisr al-Shughour close to the Syrian-Turkish border, and in its latest advance, capturing a regime base at Qarmid.

Jaish al-Fatah, whose two main component groups are Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahral al-Sham, now appears ready to begin attacks on the regime stronghold of Latakia Province and on the Hama area.

Further south, it has been a similarly poor few weeks for the regime. The much-trumpeted February offensive of the Syrian army, together with Hezbollah and Iranian fighters, intended to drive the rebels from the area south of Damascus, rapidly ran aground in the winter snow. The Southern Front rebel coalition and Jabhat al-Nusra went on to score a series of achievements in subsequent weeks. The town of Bosra al-Sham, a historic site close to the border with Jordan, fell on March 25; then the last regime-controlled border crossing between Syria and Jordan, at Naseeb, also fell to the rebels and Sunni jihadists.

This is the list of rebel successes to date; it is certainly considerable. Just a few months ago, many analysts were pronouncing the side of the rebels to be in its death throes. Their inability to unite, or to stem the influence of Sunni jihadists and corrupt warlords in their ranks, seemed to presage their failure.

The regime’s woes have been compounded by the appearance of fissure in its ranks. The firing of two security chiefs – Rafiq Shehadeh of Military Intelligence, and Rustom Ghazaleh of Political Security (who has since died) – adds to its travails.

So what has changed? The rebels have gone through a kind of process of natural selection in which larger units have devoured smaller ones, leading to greater cohesion. The rapprochement of Saudi Arabia with Turkey appears to have enabled more coherent organization, support and supply to the rebels in the north.

In the south, meanwhile, a similar process is occurring with regard to Western and Sunni support for the Southern Front. The latter, unlike Jaish al-Fatah, is not dominated by Salafi Islamists.

Nevertheless, it would be premature to pronounce the regime’s imminent demise.

The regime’s main and oft-noted problem throughout the war has been lack of manpower. The Assad regime has throughout been able to depend on the more or less firm support of only a very small section of the Syrian population – namely the Alawite minority, at 12 percent of the populace. In recent months, there have been signs that even the support of Assad’s own sectarian community is growing frayed.

This core defect in Assad’s position has been apparent throughout, but the regime has been able to deal with it in a number of ways.

Firstly, unlike the rebellion, the regime possesses strong and committed allies. Most importantly, Iran has been willing to mobilize its regional proxies and its own assets in order to offset Assad’s shortage of manpower. Hence, the prominent place of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters on the Syrian battlefield – along with Iraqi Shi’ite militiamen, local Alawite irregulars and Shi’ite volunteers from as far afield as Afghanistan.

There is no reason to believe that the well of potential volunteers from outside Syria has dried up.

As fewer Syrians enlist, it is likely that as in the past, their places will be filled by foreigners. To be sure, this means that the Assad side is today a mixed bag of mainly Shi’ite volunteers assembled by Tehran, rather than the army of a coherent state regime. But this does not make its defeat more likely.

Indeed, given the greater determination and cohesion the Iranians have shown throughout the region, when compared with the confused and flailing Sunnis and the largely absent West, the opposite might well be the case.

Secondly, since mid-2012, the Assad regime has sought to offset its shortage in numbers by reducing the area of territory it seeks to hold. This was the logic behind its abandonment of much of northern Syria in July 2012. Assad understands that he must continue to hold Damascus and its environs, the western coastal area and the area linking the two in order to survive.

In addition, it is a cardinal interest for him to hold Homs and Hama provinces; none of these are as yet under threat.

Until this point, the despot has suffered setbacks in areas whose loss poses no threat to his control of the area of Syria over which he rules. Iran, which is as much the protagonist of the regime’s war as is Bashar himself, does not require the totality of Syria to preserve its vital interests in the country. It needs a contiguous area of land linking pro-Iranian Iraq with pro-Iranian (Hezbollah-dominated) Lebanon.

If and when this interest comes under threat, we will discover just how much fight the regime has left in it.

Lastly, if the nuclear negotiations currently under way produce a deal to Iran’s liking on June 30, this is likely to improve the fortunes of the Assads. That is because the Islamic Republic will demand immediate sanctions relief. This will free up vast sums to flow into Iranian coffers – as much as $50 billion, according to one estimate.

It may be assumed that these funds will be made available for a friend in need. Given the fecklessness of the Western approach to the negotiations and the desire to avoid conflict with Iran, it is quite possible that such a deal will emerge.

In closing, the Assad/Iran/Hezbollah side in the Syrian civil war has not yet begun to be tested in the areas where it must prevail to survive. Thus far, it has suffered only a number of limited setbacks; it has certainly morphed from a centralized regime war effort into the kind of proxy militia arrangement in which the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps specializes.

But this is not an argument for its vulnerability. Reports of its (imminent) demise have been much exaggerated.

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The Islamic State Comes to Damascus

 Jerusalem Post, 18/4
The latest reports suggest that Islamic State fighters have largely withdrawn from the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk, on the outskirts of Damascus.

The jihadis have returned to the district of Hajar al-Aswad, from where they launched their assault into the camp on April 1; the strongest element in the camp now is Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian franchise of al-Qaida.

Islamic State does not seem to have suffered a major defeat in Yarmuk.

Rather, their intention was to strike a blow against the Hamas-affiliated Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis – and this appears to have been achieved.

But the broader significance of the week’s events far transcend the boundaries of the Yarmuk refugee camp. Most important, the Yarmuk fighting marks the definitive arrival of Islamic State into the arena of the Damascus battlefield.

This battlefield is itself heating up amid growing difficulties for the Assad regime; Iranian, Hezbollah and regime forces have suffered setbacks in recent days to the combined forces of Nusra and the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army. The rebels are seeking to establish a secure line south of Damascus from where they can launch strikes directly into the city.

Islamic State has lost some of the areas of Iraq it conquered last summer.

The general direction of the fighting there points toward a slow retreat by the jihadis (though not exclusively – the town of Ramadi close to Baghdad is now threatened by the movement).

But while locked in a largely defensive posture in Iraq (and while continuing to lose ground in northern Syria to Kurdish forces backed by US air power), Islamic State is proving it is able to push forward in areas where it needn’t concern itself with attacks from Western planes.

The regime-controlled areas of the southwest are in this regard a natural choice for Islamic State. Yarmuk is the first evidence of this commitment.

The Yarmuk events also point to the ambiguous role being played by Jabhat al-Nusra regarding its relationship with Islamic State. Nusra has a longstanding rivalry with Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis in Yarmuk, relating to issues of turf and control as much as ideology. The Islamic State attack on Yarmuk began from areas close to those controlled by Nusra; other Palestinian factions accused Nusra of colluding with Islamic State.

Certainly, Nusra did not join in the fighting against Islamic State. Moreover, the movement’s withdrawal from Yarmuk leaves Nusra the strongest faction in the area. PLO envoy Anwar Abd-al Hadi told Reuters that “they [Islamic State and Nusra] are one. They are changing positions.”

Nusra, for its part, denies claims of collusion and says it remains committed to the defense of the people of the Palestinian refugee camps from “extremists.” Yet the facts of the situation suggest at least an agnostic attitude toward Islamic State from the powerful Nusra, and perhaps something more.

So what lies ahead? It is not clear whether the fighting in the camp has completely ceased. But even if it has, Islamic State has not been defeated, having merely withdrawn back to its stronghold in the Hajjar Aswad neighborhood adjoining the camp.

The emergence of Islamic State close to the Syrian capital may have become suddenly apparent with the attack on April 1. But in a way now familiar from the group’s practice, first in Raqqa and then in its assault on Iraq last June, the movement is adept at quietly building its presence through clandestine networks of supporters, before suddenly and abruptly announcing its arrival.

If this is taking place in the Yarmuk area, it may be assumed it is happening elsewhere, too – in a way that is likely to become apparent in the period ahead.

In parallel, the regime is getting weaker in southern Syria, and the relationship between the potent forces of Nusra and the other Western-backed rebel formations is declining.

Yarmuk is not the only evidence of this. Rebels affiliated with the Western-backed Southern Front this week released a statement condemning Nusra’s ideology and rejecting cooperation with it.

Bashar al-Zoubi, one of the leaders of the Southern Front, told Reuters that “neither Nusra nor anything else with this ideology represents us… We can’t go from the rule of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad to [al-Qaida chief Ayman al-] Zawahiri and Nusra.”

Tensions are growing between Nusra and the Southern Front elsewhere in the south. On April 1, the rebels took the Nasib border crossing from regime forces; it was the last regime-controlled crossing between Jordan and Syria. Nusra and Western-backed rebel elements have been competing over credit for the capture of this area.

This raises the possibility of further tactical cooperation between Islamic State and Nusra in the south, of the type seen in the Qalamoun area, and also apparently in Yarmuk.

And finally, last Saturday fighters declaring loyalty to Islamic State launched an unsuccessful assault on the Khalkhalah military airport in Sweida Province, south of Damascus. This is a further indication of the emergent Islamic State presence on the southern battlefield.

What all this means is that the period in which Islamic State could be assumed to be at a safe distance from the part of Syria closest to Israel appears to be drawing to a close.

And as the regime weakens, the prospect is opening up for a three-way fight between the Assad regime/Iran/Hezbollah, the jihadists of Nusra and Islamic State, and the weaker Western-backed rebels.

The strange events in the blighted Yarmuk refugee camp this week may well represent the opening salvo in a new phase of the Syrian war.

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The Middle East Battle Lines are Drawn

Jerusalem Report, 16/4.

In the last decade, the Middle East has been living through a political convulsion of historic proportions.  Regimes that once appeared immovable have been destroyed or have receded.  New forces have risen up and are making war over the ruins.

The result of the effective eclipse in recent years of the states of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon has been the emergence of a large and chaotic conflict in the contiguous area once covered by those states.  The failure to develop coherent state-loyal national identities in the areas in question has meant that once central authority disappears, a political-military competition based on forces assembled according to ethnic and sectarian identity emerges.  A  sectarian conflict is as a result now raging between the Iraq-Iran border and the Mediterranean.  This dynamic of conflict has now extended to Yemen.

In this maelstrom, the Iranians and their clients have emerged as the single most formidable alliance.  Why is this? What are the particular advantages enjoyed by the Iranians and their proxies in this contest?  What explains the belated but determined Saudi-led Sunni reaction to the Iranians’ advances in recent days?  And what are the implications of the apparent moves towards a nuclear deal and lifting of sanctions on Iran toward Iranian actions in the region?

Iran’s partially successful advance across the region

Iran has, in the Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Qods force, an instrument perfectly suited for the moment that the region is currently passing through.  The IRGC is an organization specifically created for the prosecution of proxy war, and the mobilization and sponsorship of paramilitary clients.

The Sunni Arabs (or indeed any other regional actor) do not possess a comparable force.  The result of the centralized commitment of Teheran and the skills of the IRGC is that the Iranians have been winning in a number of conflict arenas in the Middle East,  and the Saudis and other Gulf countries have been becoming increasingly alarmed.

In Lebanon, the effective parallel state maintained by Hizballah remains the strongest player in the country.  Hizballah is the prototype and still the strongest of Iran’s proxies in the Arab world.  Its strength, the absence of a military tradition among Lebanese Sunnis and Lebanon’s small size have enabled the movement to maintain its dominance in spite of the sectarian ferment to its east.

Hizballah has played a vital role in the Syrian civil war and in the Iranian effort to keep its client in Damascus in power.   The movement has lost around 1000 fighters in Syria, including a number of prominent veteran commanders.  It is thought to have around 5000 men committed in Syria at any given time.  Hizballah’s Syria commitment is testimony to the extent that the movement can ignore the wishes of any other Lebanese factor when answering to the call of its Iranian patrons.  It is also, equally importantly, testimony to the ability of Iran to martial all its regional assets to work together in a coordinated fashion for the interests of any one of them.  This centralization is one of the greatest advantages possessed by Iran in its drive for the domination of the region.

In Syria, Iranian commitment to the Assad regime has preserved it.  Assad has not been doing well in recent days.  In the south, rebels and Sunni Islamist fighters have captured the historic town of Bosra al-Sham.  More importantly, in the north, a force led by Jabhat al-Nusra, the Qatar and Turkey-supported franchise of al-Qaeda in Syria, in late March captured Idleb City, the second provincial capital to be wrested from government control.  The Islamic State, ominously, is now gaining ground close to Damascus.

Despite this, the regime, a long term client of the Iranians, remains the single most powerful element in Syria. It controls around 40% of the area of the country and around 60% of the population.  The continued provision of Iranian funds – reputedly at a rate of around $1 billion per month , and of Iranian manpower and of Iranian military expertise is the single most significant factor in ensuring the Assad regime’s survival.

The key problem for Assad throughout has been the shortage of reliable manpower willing to engage on his behalf.  The commitment by Iran of its own personnel and that of its Lebanese and Iraqi proxies, and the creation by the Iranians of sectarian proxy militias for the regime (the National Defense Forces and others) have to a considerable degree addressed this problem.  Assad is not close to reconquering the entirety of Syria’s territory.  But he is also not in danger of falling.  This is an Iranian achievement, not a Syrian one.

In Iraq,  the Iranians are taking a key role in the fight against the Islamic State.  Some observers only half-jokingly  now refer to Qods Force commander General Qassem Suleimani as the true ruler of that country.

Suleimani has been intermittently present in Iraq, directing the mobilization of Shia militias before the IS threat, since August of last year.  The three most powerful such militias, the Badr brigade, Asaib Ahl al Haq and the Ktaeb Hizballah, answer to his command rather than that of the Iraqi government.  The government, meanwhile, is itself dominated by the Shia Islamist and pro-Iranian Dawa party.

The Shia militias have been playing the key role in the fight against the Islamic State.  They were responsible for the first setbacks suffered by IS, in the town of Amerli in Salah al-Din province. Ethnic cleansing of local Sunnis followed the ‘liberation’ of the town. They have been crucial in subsequent engagements. The militias also played a key role in the recent victory against IS in Tikrit.

Among the Palestinians, Iran has been the sponsor of the Islamic Jihad movement since its emergence.  Since the mid 1990s, Teheran was also engaged in constructing a strategic relationship with Hamas.  Hamas bet on the wrong horse in the 2011-2013 period. It assumed, as did many others, that a Muslim Brotherhood-led new regional alliance was coming into being, centered on Morsi’s Egypt and bankrolled by the Emirate of Qatar.  Hamas saw itself as a natural member of this alliance.  As part of its move toward it, the movement closed down its headquarters in Damascus.  Its activists relocated to Doha, Turkey or Cairo.

But of course the Muslim Brotherhood led alliance proved a fleeting episode. The military coup in Egypt in July 2013 put paid to it.  Since then, Hamas has been engaged in trying to rebuild its bridges to the Iranians.

Teheran has a natural interest in the sponsoring of Palestinian opposition to Israel.  As non-Arabs and non-Sunnis, the Iranians are outsiders twice-over in the largely Sunni, Arabic-speaking Middle East.  Sponsorship of Palestinian ‘resistance’ organizations is designed to contribute toward rectifying this outsider status – the Palestinian cause being still the great cause celebre of the Sunni Arab world.

The latest evidence suggests that Iranian-Hamas rapprochement is proceeding apace.  Tens of millions of dollars have been transferred to the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip, to help the movement re-arm and rebuild its damaged infrastructure.  A new network of tunnels is under construction.  Hamas really has no choice but to return to the Iranians if it wishes to continue its war against Israel.

Lastly, in Yemen, Iranian support for the Houthis is of long standing.  But the toppling of the then dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 has paved the way for the growing strength of both Sunni and Shia militias in the country.  Iranian support for the Houthis has been constant, but has become far more overt since the movement took Sana’a in January, 2015.

The Houthis in February signed a civil aviation agreement with Teheran for direct flights between Sana’a and the Iranian capital.  This will make the process of supplying Iran’s allies in Yemen exponentially easier.  In addition, an Iranian ship unloaded 180 tons of weapons for the Houthis at the port of al-Saleef earlier this month.

So across the region, where state authority has effectively broken down, it has been the Iranians who have been gaining the upper hand.

Nevertheless it would be simplistic to conclude that the Iranians have simply swept all before them, and that they dominate Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen without serious competition.  The Iranians are providing effective support to one side in a civil war in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.  But in none of these countries have they destroyed all opposition to their clients.  In both Iraq and Syria, Sunni Arab and Kurdish elements remain in control of significant sections of the country, and in no imminent danger of losing these to the clients of the Iranians.

Similarly, among the Palestinians, Iran appears to be rebuilding its links to Hamas and therefore to the Islamist half of the Palestinian national movement.  But the Ramallah Palestinian Authority is backed by the government of Egypt, by the west, by Jordan and by the Gulf Arabs.  Its security forces are trained in Jordan, under western professional supervision.  It is in no danger of ceding ground to Hamas at any time in the future.  In Gaza, the Sisi government’s closing of the tunnels for north Sinai to southern Gaza is leaving the Hamas enclave impoverished, forlorn and  isolated.  So while the Iranians have an entrée to the Palestinian national movement, their clients are not within sight of defeating their enemies and are at the moment in a somewhat beleaguered position.

Even in Lebanon, where Hizballah is without doubt the single dominant actor in a military sense, the movement does not exercise open, exclusive rule. And were it to attempt to do so, the likely result would be to plunge the country into civil war.  Rather, Hizballah maintains a parallel state structure created and financed by the Iranians.  This structure acts without consulting the organs of the ‘official’ state, sometimes in cooperation with them and sometimes in defiance of their wishes.  But it does not seek to openly and entirely supplant the state.

So the Iranians are embarked on an attempt at regional hegemony.  The effective creation and mobilization of local proxy political-military organizations constitutes a central part of this project.

Iran’s ability to mobilize its proxies toward unified goals, and its skill in creating and training proxy political-military groups has brought it considerable achievements in a variety of conflict arenas – but not yet total victory in any of them.

Sunni mobilization to resist the Iranians

A Sunni coalition which seeks to mobilize to challenge the Iranian advance toward regional domination is now in the process of being established.  Saudi Arabia stands at the head of this effort.

The current Saudi-led Sunni mobilization against an attempt by an Iranian proxy to conquer southern Yemen has been the precipitating factor in galvanizing this Sunni response.  It has an importance far beyond the narrow reaches of Yemen.  It represents the next stage in a process which began with the military coup in Egypt on July 3rd, 2013.  That process is the emergence of  a Riyadh-Cairo axis as the central element in current Sunni Arab diplomacy, in opposition to the mainly Shia alliance led by Iran.

Three factors contributed to the emergence of this axis.  The first is the apparent abdication of the United States from its role as the guarantor of regional security and the leader of the most powerful group of states in the Middle East.  The second is the advance across the Middle East of Iran and its allies.  The third is the challenge to status quo Sunni powers posed by Sunni political Islam, in both its Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafi forms.

The successful brokering by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud of a united Sunni response follows the push by the Iran-supported Ansar Allah militia (popularly known as the Houthis) towards the city of Aden and the strategically crucial Bab al-Mandeb straits.  This move to unite Yemen under their control is the natural next move for the Houthis and their Iranian backers following their capture of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a.

For the Saudis and their allies, it is a step too far.  Yemen shares a 1500 km poorly-guarded border with Saudi Arabia.  Control by an Iranian proxy of this border would afford Teheran an additional means of direct pressure on the Saudis.  Nine other Sunni states (Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Pakistan, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirates) joined the Kingdom in committing to prevent the further advance of the Houthis.

So what explains this sudden apparent success of Saudi diplomacy, after a long period in which Sunni attempts to hold back the Iranians and their allies appeared piecemeal and unco-ordinated?  Is the new united Sunni response likely to hold?  What results is it likely to achieve? And what might all this mean for Israel?

It is strongly felt in Riyadh and other Sunni Arab capitals that the United States is determined to withdraw from active involvement in the region and in pursuit of this goal is currently pursuing a dangerous path of appeasement of Iran.  This is most notable, of course, in the nuclear negotiations, where Washington now appears to be willing to countenance Iran becoming a ‘threshold’ nuclear power.

But this impression also derives from the US response to Iran’s activities across the region. In Iraq, the US appears to be acting in tandem with Iranian goals, with no apparent awareness of the problems in this regard.  In Lebanon, similarly, the west is supporting and equipping the Lebanese Armed Forces, without understanding that the Lebanese state is largely a shell, within which Hizballah is the living and directing force.  In Syria, the US is pursuing a half-hearted campaign against the Islamic State, while leaving the rest of the country to its internal dynamics.

From the perspective of the Saudis, Iranian ruthlessness, clarity and advance combined with the flailing, retreating US policy spells potential disaster.

As a result, a fully fledged Sunni alliance against the Iranians is emerging for the first time, independently of the United States.  The resulting prospect is for a long Sunni-Shia conflict in the region to come.

What will be the implications of the current nuclear diplomacy between the west and Iran for the emergent Sunni-Shia conflict?

Even under the impact of sanctions imposed because of its nuclear activities,  Iran nevertheless managed to support its clients and allies.  It has continued to support Hizballah, its clients in Iraq, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad among the Palestinians.  In a pattern familiar to the experience of totalitarian regimes under sanctions in the past, Iran has preferred to safeguard monies for use in service of its regional ambitions, while allowing its non-regime connected population to suffer the consequent shortages.

Nevertheless, with increased commitments in recent months deriving from the collapse of regimes in the Middle East, many observers have had a sense of looming Iranian ‘overstretch.’  Iran is now committed to supporting its allies and/or engaging directly in active wars in three Middle East countries – Syria, Iraq and Yemen.  It is also heavily committed to supporting its clients in two other fraught arenas – Lebanon and Israel/the Palestinian territories.

In recent weeks, Hizballah in Lebanon has closed down a number of projects, such as the English language website of the al-Akhbar newspaper. It has, according to a recent article in the Now Lebanon website, also reduced salaries to employees, stipends to political allies and wage payments to relatives of wounded fighters.

All these are indications of financial distress, as its patron Iran seeks to support an ever widening list of regional commitments.

However, should sanctions be substantially lifted in the months ahead, this would allow the freeing up of billions of dollars.  It may be assumed that a considerable part of the funds freed will be put into the service of Iranian regional ambitions.

The ‘New Middle East’

The emerging strategic picture in the Middle East is defined by the coming together of a number of factors.

The collapse of authoritarian regimes, resulting in the opening up of chaotic political spaces as would be successors do battle over the ruins.  These successor entities, in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon and Gaza are usually based on local ethnic, tribal and sectarian identities.  In the absence of a firm and crystallized national identity in these areas, these more primordial identifications have come to the fore.

The Iranian ambition for hegemony in the Middle East, underlying Teheran’s attempt to benefit from the burgeoning regional chaos.  Iran controls a tight, centralized alliance of client organizations.  Its clients control Lebanon, and play a dominant role in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Gaza.

The Sunni reaction, deriving precisely from the fear of a rampant Iran inheriting the regional order.  The Sunni interest is preventing overall Iranian victory in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, but is not sufficiently strong to entirely defeat or push back the clients of Iran.

Lastly, the absence of the United States from this picture.  Washington is working according to an erroneous reading of the regional map.  It imagines that Teheran is amenable to ‘engagement’. The result of this is to encourage Iranian expansionism, and also to encourage the independent Sunni organization to resist Iran which is now under way.

So the direction of events in the Middle East is toward an ongoing conflict on several fronts between a bloc of mainly Shia forces led by Iran, and a looser, more disparate gathering of Sunni forces in which Saudi Arabia, (and probably also Turkey and Qatar) are set to play central roles.

This conflict is set to define the next chapter of the troubled history of our region.

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ISIS Pushes West

PJMedia, 10/4

The conquest by the Islamic State of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus confirms the resilience of the jihadis and is an indicator of their current strategy.  Islamic State has lost considerable ground in Iraq, with the recapture of Tikrit constituting its latest setback.  IS has no real response to coalition air power, when it is combined with a competent and determined ground force.  This was first demonstrated in the organization’s defeat at Kobani in January, and it is now becoming apparent in Iraq.

However, Islamic State is responding to this reality in a shrewd and calculated way.

Just prior to its eruption into Iraq last June, ISIS carried out a strategic retreat in north west Syria.  In retrospect, this was clearly a preparation for the push into Iraq.  In so doing, the movement demonstrated its ability to concentrate its forces and to plan beyond the merely local and tactical.

When I interviewed two ISIS fighters in the border town of Kielis in spring, 2014, I asked them about the reasons for this retreat.  “If there are powers against me, I have to retreat and protect my back,” one of them told me.  “And perhaps in the future I will return again.”

It now appears that that moment has arrived.

As Islamic State contracts along its easternmost borders in Iraq, it is seeking to expand to its south and west, in Syria.   This week witnessed the movement battling against Palestinian militants near Damascus, and handily defeating them to take control of around 90% of the Yarmouk refugee camp. Despite its name, Yarmouk is in fact to all intents and purposes a functioning suburb of the Syrian capital.

Further north, the Islamic State hit at rebel positions near the town of Marea in northern Aleppo province this week.  Two car bombs detonated by the movement killed several rebels and injured many more.  Heavy clashes followed between IS forces and members of Jabhat al-Nusra, the official franchise of al-Qaeda in the country.  Nusra is thought to be supported by Turkey and Qatar.

The battles in Yarmouk and Marea show that the Islamic State remains far from defeat and is still able to go on the offensive.

More specifically, what this shows is that IS has understood the limits of the US and western commitment to the war against them, and is planning accordingly.  If the Islamic State were to attempt an assault in an eastward or northern direction, local ground forces plus US airpower would soon stop them.  But south and west, because of the different political situation, there will be no western help from above.

To the west, IS is challenging other Islamist and jihadi forces, who are no less anti-western than the Islamic State.  Indeed, Nusra is quietly building a parallel de facto jihadi sovereign entity across Idleb and Aleppo provinces.  The al-Qaeda franchise recently conquered Idleb City, giving it control over a provincial capital, as IS controls Raqqa city.  Nusra has already begun to introduce its own brutal brand of Sharia law into Idleb, including the practice of public executions for a variety of crimes

In the Damascus area, meanwhile, the Islamic State is battling against a coalition of Palestinian forces supported by the Assad regime.   The most significant element among the Palestinians seeking to challenge IS in Yarmouk is Hamas.   The Hamas fighters in Yarmouk go under the name of ‘Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis.’  They are cooperating with the rebel  Jaysh al_Islam  and pro-regime forces and of course there will be no western help in that battle either.

What all this means is that while it is suffering real setbacks in Iraq, the Islamic State is at the present time not being seriously degraded, nor it is anywhere close to being destroyed (the two goals of the west with regard to the jihadis).

Rather, it is continuing to push forward in areas where western air power will not be brought to bear.  It is not clear what, if any, will be the western response to this.  But it shows the extent to which the western campaign in Iraq remains poorly defined and lacking in clear goals.

The various other protagonists in the single war now raging in Iraq and Syria all have clear objectives.

The Iranians want to preserve their clients in Baghdad and Damascus, and if possible to reunite these countries under their rule.  Islamic State and al-Qaeda want to preserve and expand their domains.  The Kurds want to hold what they have and maintain their de facto autonomous enclaves in both countries.

All of these are judiciously using the forces available to them to achieve these objectives.  Only the western coalition, in a microcosm of more general western Mid-East policy, appears to be flailing, lacking clear goals and beset by confusion.  The Islamic State is far from destroyed.   And as it is degraded in one area, it is expanding in others.

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In the Shadow of the Gunmen

PJmedia, 5/4

In a process of profound importance, five Arab states in the Middle East have effectively ceased to exist over the last decade.  The five states in question are Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Libya.  It is possible that more will follow.

The causes of their disappearance are not all the same. In two cases (Iraq, Libya) it was western military intervention which began the process of collapse. In another case (Lebanon) it is intervention from a Middle Eastern state (Iran) which is at the root of the definitive hollowing out of the state.

But in all these cases, the result has been remarkably similar — it is the ceding of power from strong central authorities to a variety of political-military organizations, usually but not always organized around a shared sectarian or ethnic origin. The Middle East today is overshadowed by this process. We are living in the time of the militias.

Observe: in Syria, the clearest-cut case, the country is now effectively separated into separated ethnic and sectarian enclaves — an area dominated by Bashar Assad in the south and west, an area dominated by the Sunni jihadi Islamic State group in the east, three non-contiguous Kurdish enclaves across the north, an area under the domination of al-Qaeda and its allies in the northwest and a small area in the southwest held jointly by al-Qaeda and a variety of other Sunni Arab militias supported by the west.

The important point to note here is that the area controlled by Assad (around 40% of the total area of Syria) does not essentially differ in its militia-nature from the other areas.

On the contrary, Assad has been able to survive because he is aligned with the force best designed to successfully exploit the fragmentation of Arab states and the emergence of militias seeking to impose their authority on the ruins of the state.

This force is Iran, and more specifically the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Qods Force.

This force is a unique body. It exists for the precise purpose of building proxy paramilitary organizations to serve the Iranian regional interest. At a time like the present, the possession of such a force is an enormous advantage.

Assad’s large, mainly Sunni Arab conventional army became largely useless to him in 2011/12. The IRGC stepped in and created for him one of its own preferred force types. Today, this militia (the National Defense Forces) along with other Iranian-created or -sponsored militia forces from neighboring Iraq and Lebanon are largely responsible for Assad’s survival. But he survives as a warlord and militia chief, not as a “president” or the head of a state.

In Iraq, the country is today separated into three areas, a Kurdish north, an area in the center controlled by Sunni jihadis and a Shia area in the south. Again, the Shia south, which is still seen in the west as the “legitimate” government of Iraq, is in fact an area in which Shia militias are the key element, operating freely and acting according to their own will. Often, this will is the product of the desires of the Qods Force, and its commander General Qassem Suleimani.

In Lebanon, in a notably different process, an Iran-created militia, Hizballah, acquired the dominant role in the area once ruled by the state, because the state was a hollow construct long competed over by rival sectarian militias, and because Iranian and Syrian support enabled Hizballah to acquire a level of strength which no other homegrown political-military force could match. It may well be that this is now changing, as al-Qaeda associated Sunni militias enter the arena.

In Yemen, where the state and central government was also weak, the Iranian supported militia Ansar Allah (the “Houthis”) seized the capital in January. Sunni elements in the south, including one of the strongest franchises of al-Qaeda, are fighting against them. A mobilization of Arab air and sea power is underway to prevent Iran’s proxies from seizing the Bab-el-Mandeb strait. Control of this vital waterway, between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, would tilt the regional balance yet further in Iran’s favor.

Finally, in Libya, the western destruction of the Gadaffi regime has led to the splitting of the country between two rival governments — one supported by the Egyptians in Tobruk, another backed by Islamist militias in Tripoli.

Five Arab states, effectively no longer in existence. In all, militia power has replaced ordered government.

What does all this mean for the region? It means that a huge chunk of the long misgoverned Middle East has exchanged an age of despotic torpor for an age of chaos. The Iranians, because of their matchless IRGC, are best equipped to make gains from this.

But nowhere (with the partial exception of tiny Lebanon) have the Iranians yet succeeded in keeping a country united under the control of their local proxy. This is not a story of an unstoppable Iranian advance, like a juggernaut, across the region. Their successes are notable, but partial in each area of operation. Sunni and Kurdish forces prevent their complete victory and are likely to continue to do so.

Where will all this end — what will the landscape look like when the storm passes? Impossible to say.

But it may be said with certainty that the shadow of the gunmen is today hanging over the Middle East, all the way from the Iraq–Iran border to the Mediterranean coast and from the Gulf of Aden to Libya.

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A new chapter in the Sunni-Shi’ite war

Jerusalem Post, 3/4

The assembling of a Sunni coalition to challenge the advance of an Iranian proxy in Yemen, and the subsequent announcement in Sharm al-Sheikh of the formation of a 40,000 strong  Arab rapid reaction force are the latest moves in a war which has already been under way in the Middle East for some time.

This is a war between Sunni and Shia forces over the ruins of the regional order. It is a war which is unlikely to end in the wholesale victory of one or another of the sides.  Rather, it will end when the two forces exhaust themselves.  What the region will look like when this storm passes is anyone’s guess.

The two sides in this war differ in significant ways.  The Saudi and Arab League announcements constitute an attempt by the Sunnis to narrow the gaps in unity and effectiveness between themselves and their Shia opponents.

The Shia side is a united bloc, gathered around the structures of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The Iranians are an overtly anti-western and anti status-quo force, seeking a new Middle East order with themselves at its head.  In their propaganda, they characterize themselves as an alliance of authentic Muslim forces, arranged against the west and its hirelings.

In reality, they are a gathering of almost exclusively Shia groupings, but a cohesive and united one.  It is possible that the traditions of clandestinity and cross-border communication of a long subaltern regional minority assist in the Shia advantage in this regard.

In the Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Qods Force, the Iranians possess an instrument perfectly designed for the current moment in the region.  This force is a gathering  of professional revolutionaries whose specific trade is the mobilizing and direction of proxy political-military organizations.

The context of the current war is one in which states have collapsed and separated into their separate sectarian components.

In Yemen, Iraq, Syria and in a less kinetic way Lebanon, would be ‘successors’ to the state organized on a sectarian or ethnic basis are fighting one another.

In such a context, the existence of a state agency whose specific field of expertise is the creation and maintenance of sectarian political-military organizations is an enormous advantage.  The Sunnis have no equivalent of the IRGC and the Qods Force.

Its existence and its skills are behind the domination of Lebanon by Hizballah, the survival of the Assad regime in Syria, the current Shia militia mobilization against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Ansar Allah (Houthi) offensive in Yemen.

The Sunni side in this war has been since its inception a far more disparate, confused and cumbersome affair.

There are a number of reasons for this. There is no Sunni equivalent of Iran, no single powerful state which gathers and directs all other forces under its wing.

For the last forty years, the most powerful Sunni Arab states formed the key components of the regional alliance headed by the United States.   If Iran was the ‘guiding’ hand behind the Shia challenge to the regional status quo, then the organizing force behind the pro-status quo Sunni states was the US.

But in the last half decade of emergent  sectarian war in the region, the United States has been absent, entirely unaware of the dynamic of events.  So the Sunnis have been adrift.

The US has sought to appease both the Iranians, and the radical, anti-western element among the Sunnis – the Muslim Brotherhood.  All this apparently as part of an effort to withdraw from the region and leave the keys with whoever seemed most inclined to grab them.

What the events of the last week confirm, however, is that the ‘status quo’ Sunni powers, the once-allies of the United States, are now determined to organize themselves independently, given the absence of a US guiding hand.

The commitment of nine Sunni-majority  countries to the Saudi-organized alliance is the fruit of an ambitious attempt by Riyadh to create a new, regionally-led counter bloc to the Iranians.

Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Pakistan, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirates are on board.  The drive to halt the advance of the Iran-supported Houthis movement in Yemen is the first test of this new and unfamiliar gathering.

Success remains uncertain.  Egyptian ships have been despatched to the area.  Air strikes have begun.  But the wars of the present time in the Middle East are not primarily high-tech affairs.  Air power certainly plays an important role. But in the end, these are grinding militia contests, fought out on the ground.

In such a war, the Shia Islamist and tribal guerrillas of the Houthis and their IRGC guides are likely to enjoy a certain advantage.  The difficult terrain of Yemen is likely to exacerbate this.

This raises a further difficulty for the Sunnis.

So far, the experience of Iraq and Syria indicates that the only Sunni forces that have gone toe to toe with the Iran-backed element and held their ground are Islamists.  Note the recent conquest by a force led by al-Qaeda affiliate (and Qatar client) Jabhat al Nusra of Idleb city in north west Syria.

Idleb is the second provincial capital to fall to the anti-Assad forces in four years of civil war.  The first was Raqqa, further east.  Its now controlled by the Islamic State.

What this means is that the pushback against the Iranians as led by the Sunni Arabs is likely to involve Sunni jihadis, and Muslim Brothers (Hamas last week also declared its support for the Saudi initiative).

Nor has the Saudi initiative ended divisions among the Sunnis.  The split between pro and anti Muslim Brotherhood elements has been only papered over.  Earlier this month, Qatar and Turkey, the main MB-supporting Sunni states, signed a separate military accord.

This mobilization contains nothing in it of regional reform.  It is a sectarian  gathering par excellence.

But for all the cautions and caveats, the emergence of the Saudi-organized coalition for Yemen and the announcement of the new Arab force to deploy in the region are developments of high, perhaps historical significance.  They represent the Sunni picking up of the gauntlet thrown down a while back by the Iranians.

This war was a long time coming.  It emerged in stages.  It has been here for a while.  This week, with the announcement of the Saudi-led alliance in Yemen, its  full dimensions have become plainly visible.  A new chapter is beginning in the region.

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The Kobani Precedent

Jerusalem Report, 23/3

Recently,  I attempted to undertake a reporting trip into the Kurdish Kobani enclave in northern Syria.  It would not have been my first visit, neither to Syria nor to Kobani.  For the first time, however, I found myself unable to enter.  Instead, I spent a frustrating but, as it turns out, instructive four days waiting in the border town of Suruc in south-east Turkey before running out of time and going home.

The episode was instructive because of what it indicated regarding the extent to which Kurdish control in the enclaves established in mid 2012 is now a fact acknowledged by all neighboring players, including the enemies of the Kurds.  This in itself has larger lessons regarding US and western policy in Syria and Iraq.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  First, let me complete the account of the episode on the border.    My intention had been to enter Kobani ‘illegally’ with the help of the Kurdish YPG and local smugglers.  This sounds more exciting than it is.    I have entered Syria in a similar way half a dozen times over the last two years, to the extent that it has become a not very pleasant but mundane procedure. This time, however, something was different.  I was placed in a local center with a number of other westerners waiting to make the trip. Then, it seemed, we were forgotten.

The westerners themselves were  an interesting bunch, whose varied presence was an indication of the curious pattern by which the Syrian Kurdish cause has entered public awareness in the west.

There was a group of European radical leftists, mainly Italians, who had come after being inspired by stories of the ‘Rojava revolution.’  A little noted element of the control by the Syrian franchise of the PKK of de facto sovereign areas of Syria has been the interest that this has generated in the circles of the western radical left.  These circles are ever on the lookout for something which allows their politics to encounter reality, in a way that does not bring immediate and obvious disaster.  As of now, ‘Rojava,’ given the leftist credentials of the PKK, is playing this role.  So the Europeans in question  wanted to ‘contribute’ to what they called the ‘revolution.’

Unfortunately, their preferred mode of support was leading to a situation of complete mutual bewilderment between themselves and the local Kurds.   Offered military training by their hosts, the radical leftists demurred.  They would not hold a gun for Rojava before they had seen it and been persuaded that it did indeed represent the peoples’ revolution that they hoped for.

Instead, they had a plan for the rebuilding of Kobani along sustainable and environmentally friendly lines, using natural materials  In addition, the health crisis and shortage of medicines in the devastated enclave led the radicals to believe that this might offer an appropriate context for popularizing various items of alternative and naturopathic medicine about which they themselves were enthusiastic.  (I’m not making any of this up).

All this had elicited the predictable reaction from the Kurds, who were trying to manage a humanitarian disaster and a determined attempt by murderous jihadis to destroy  them.  ‘Perhaps you could do the military training first and then we could talk about the other stuff?’ suggested Fawzia, the nice and helpful representative of the PYD who was responsible for us.  This led to further impassioned and theatrical responses from the Italians.

Apart from this crowd, there was a seasoned Chilean war reporter who looked on the leftists with impatience.  He was looking to get down to the frontlines south of Kobani, where the YPG was trying to cut the road from Raqqa to Aleppo at an important point close to the Euphrates.

Also, there was a polite and friendly lone American, a Baptist Christian, who had come to volunteer his services to the YPG.  That was us.

But as the days passed, it became clear that none of us appeared to be getting anywhere near Kobani any time soon.

The reasons given for the delay were plentiful, and unconvincing.  ‘It is the weather,’ Fawzia would say vaguely, ‘too much mud.’  But the presence of mud on the border in February was hardly a new development, so this couldn’t be the reason.

Finally, frustrated at the lack of information, I called a PKK friend based in Europe and asked for his help in finding out why we weren’t  moving.  He got back to me a little later.  ‘It seems the Turkish army is all over the border, more than usual. That’s the reason,’ he told me.

This was more plausible, if disappointing.  After four days on the border, I was out of time and set off back for Gaziantep and then home.  The Italians went to Diyarbakir to take part in a demonstration.  The Chilean and the American volunteer stayed and waited.

When I got back to Jerusalem, all rapidly became clear.  News reports were coming in about a large operation conducted by the Turkish army through Kobani and into Syria.  The operation involved the evacuation of the Turkish garrison at the tomb of Suleiman Shah, south of the enclave.  The American volunteer sent me a picture of the Turkish tanks on tank transporters driving though Suruc at the conclusion of the operation.

This operation was astonishing on a number of levels.

Despite stern Turkish denials, it could only have been carried out on the basis of full cooperation between the Turkish armed forces and the Kurdish fighters of the YPG in Kobani.  Obviously, any unauthorized entry of Turkish troops into the Kurdish canton would have meant an armed battle.

During the fight for Kobani last year, the Turkish government was very clearly quite content for the enclave to fall.  The Turkish army waited on the border, as the prospect of a generalized slaughter of the Kurds in Kobani came close to realization.

But of course, the slaughter didn’t happen.  In the end, the partnering of US air power with the competent and determined forces of the YPG on the ground delivered the first real defeat to the forces of the Islamic State in Syria.

This effective partnering has continued, and has now become the main military element in northern Syria in the battle against IS.

The combination of the YPG and the USAF is now nudging up to a second strategic achievement against the jihadis – namely, the cutting of the road from Tel Hamis to the town of al-Houl on the Iraqi border.   This road forms one of the main transport arteries linking the Islamic State’s conquests in Iraq to its heartland in the Syrian province of Raqqa.  If the links are cut, the prospect opens for the splitting of the Islamic State into a series of dis-connected enclaves.

The YPG-US partnership is particularly noteworthy, given that the YPG is neither more nor less than the Syrian representative of the PKK.  The latter, meanwhile, is a veteran presence on the US and EU lists of terror organizations.  Despite a faltering peace process, the PKK remains in conflict with Turkey, a member of NATO.

But the reality of the Kurdish-US alliance in northern Syria has clearly now been accepted by the Turks as an unarguable fait accompli, to the extent that they are now evidently willing to work together with the armed Syrian Kurds, where their interests require it.

It is an astonishing turnabout in the fortunes of the Kurds of Syria, who before 2011 constituted one of the region’s most brutally oppressed, and most forgotten minority populations.

This raises the question as to why this reversal of fortune has taken place.

Why is the YPG the chosen partner of the Americans in northern Syria, just as the Kurdish Pesh Merga further east is one of the preferred partners on the ground in Iraq?

The answer to this is clear, but not encouraging.  It is because in both countries, the only reliable, pro-western and militarily effective element on the ground is that of the Kurds.

Consider:  in northern Syria, other than the forces of the Islamic State, there are three other elements of real military and political import.  These are the forces of the Assad regime, the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and the YPG.

In addition, there are a bewildering variety of disparate rebel battalions, with loyalties ranging from Salafi Islamism to Muslim Brotherhood style Islamism, to non-political opposition to the Assad regime.  Some of these groups operate independently.  Others are gathered in local alliances such as the Aleppo based Jabhat al-Shamiya (Levant Front), or the Syria-wide Islamic Front, which unites Salafi factions.

Despite the reported existence of a US staffed military operations room in Turkey, the latter two movements are either too weak, or too politically suspect (because of their Islamist nature), to form a potential partner for the US in northern Syria.

Nusra is for obvious reasons not a potential partner for the US in the fight against the Islamic State.  And the US continues to hold to its stated  goal that Bashar Assad should step down.  So the prospect of an overt alliance between the regime and the US against the Islamic State is not on the cards (despite the de facto American alliance with Assad’s  Iran-supported Shia Islamist allies in Iraq).

This leaves the Kurds, and only the Kurds, to work with.  And the un-stated alliance is sufficiently tight for it to begin to have effects also on Turkish-Kurdish relations in Syria, as seen in the Suleiman Shah operation.

But what are the broader implications of this absence of any other coherent partner on the ground?

The stark clarity of the northern Syria situation is replicated in all essentials in Iraq, though a more determined attempt by the US to deny this reality is under way in that country.

In Iraq, there is a clear and stated enemy of the US (the Islamic State), a clear and stated Kurdish ally of the west (the Kurdish Regional Government and its Pesh Merga) and an Iran-supported government which controls the capital and part of the territory of the country.

Unlike in Syria, however, in Iraq the US relates to the official government, mistakenly, as an ally.  This is leading to a potentially disastrous situation  whereby US air power is currently partnering with Iran-supported Shia militias against the Islamic State.

The most powerful of these militias have a presence in the government of Iraq. But they do not act under the orders of the elected Baghdad government, but rather in coordination with their sponsors in the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps

.

It is possible that the current partnering with Shia Islamist forces in Iraq is the result of a general US attempt now under way to achieve a historic rapprochement with Iran, as suggested by Michael Doran in a recent essay.  Or it may be that this reality has emerged as a result of poor analysis of the realities of the Levant and Iraq, resulting in a confused and flailing policy.  But either way, the result is an astonishing mess.

In northern Syria, the obvious absence of any partners other than the Kurds has produced a momentary tactical clarity.  But as the larger example of Iraq shows, this clarity is buried in a much larger strategic confusion.

This confusion, at root, derives from a failure to grasp what is taking place in Syria and in Iraq.

In both countries, the removal or weakening of powerful dictatorships has resulted in the emergence of conflict based on older, sub-state ethnic and sectarian identities.  The strength and persistence of these identities is testimony to the profound failure of the states of Syria and Iraq to develop anything resembling a sustainable national identity.  In both Syria and Iraq, the resultant conflict is essentially three-sided.  Sunni Arabs, Shia/Alawi Arabs and Kurds are fighting over the ruins of the state.

Because of the lamentable nature of Arab politics at the present time, the form that both Arab sides are taking is that of political Islam.   On the Shia side, the powerful Iranian structures dedicated to the creation and sponsorship of proxy movements are closely engaged with the clients in both countries (and in neighboring Lebanon.)

On the Sunni Arab side, a bewildering tangle of support from different regional and western states to various militias has emerged.  But two main formations may be discerned. These are the Islamic State, which has no overt state sponsor, and Jabhat al-Nusra, which has close links to Qatar.

In southern Syria, a western attempt to maintain armed forces linked to conservative and western-aligned Arab states (Jordan, Saudi Arabia) has proved somewhat more successful because of the close physical proximity of Jordan and the differing tribal and clan structures in this area when compared with the north.  Even here, however, Nusra is a powerful presence, and Islamic State itself recently appeared in the south Damascus area.

The Kurds, because of the existence among them of a secular, pro-western nationalist politics with real popular appeal, have unsurprisingly emerged as the only reliable partner.    On both the Shia and the Sunni sides, the strongest and prevailing forces are anti-western.

This reality is denied  both by advocates for rapprochement with Iran, and by wishful-thinking supporters of the Syrian rebellion.  But it remains so.  What are its implications for western policy?

Firstly, if the goal is to degrade the Islamic State, reduce it, split it, impoverish it, this can probably be achieved through the alliance of US air power and Kurdish ground forces.  But if the desire, genuinely, is to destroy the Islamic State, this can only be achieved through the employment of western boots on the ground.  This is the choice which is presented by reality.

Secondly, the desire to avoid this choice is leading to the disastrous partnering with Iraqi Shia forces loyal to Iran.  The winner from all this will be, unsurprisingly,  Iran. Neither Teheran nor its Shia militias are the moral superiors to Islamic State. The partnering with them is absurd both from a political and an ethical point of view.

Thirdly, the determination to maintain the territorial integrity of ‘Syria’ and ‘Iraq’ is one of the midwives of the current confusion.  Were it to be acknowledged that Humpty cannot be put back together again, it would then be possible to accurately ascertain which local players the west can partner with, and which it can not.

As of now, the determination to consider these areas as coherent states is leading to absurdities including the failure by the US to directly arm the pro-US Pesh Merga because the pro-Iranians in Baghdad object to this, the failure to revive relations with and directly supply Iraqi Sunni tribal elements in IS controlled areas for the same reason,  and the insistence on relating to all forces ostensibly acting on behalf of Baghdad as legitimate.

Ultimately, the mess in the former Syria and Iraq derives from a very western form of wishful thinking that is common to various sides of the debate in the west.  This is the refusal to accept that political Islam, of both Shia and Sunni varieties, has an unparalleled power of political mobilization among Arab populations in the Middle East at the present time, and that political Islam is a genuinely anti-western force, with genuinely murderous intentions.

For as long as that stark reality is denied, western policy will resemble our Italian leftist friends on the border, baffled and bewildered as they go about proposing ideas and notions utterly alien to and irrelevant to the local situation.

The reality of this situation means that the available partners for the west are minority nationalist projects  such as that of the Kurds (or the Jews,) and traditional, non-ideological conservative elites – such as the Egyptian military, the Hashemite monarchs, and in a more partial and problematic way, the Gulf monarchs.  Attempts to move beyond this limited but considerable array of potential allies will result in the strengthening of destructive, anti-western Islamist forces in the region, of either Sunni or Shia coloration.

As for the Syrian Kurds, they deserve their partnership with US air power, and the greater security it is bringing them.

The American Baptist volunteer, to conclude the story, made it across the border and is now training with the YPG.  He, at least, has a clear sense of who is who in the Middle East.  Hopefully, this sense will eventually percolate up to the policymaking community too.

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