Iraq falls apart as Iran-backed forces keep Islamic State at bay

The Australian, 4/7
Baghdad in the early summer has the atmosphere of a city under siege. Armoured vehicles carrying heavy machineguns are patrolling the area surrounding the international airport. The nearest positions of Islamic State are just 65km away. The atmosphere is fervid. The 40C summer heat adds to the effect.

The Islamic State threat pervades everything here. It is there in the muscular armed men deployed outside the luxury hotels. In the barbed-wire fences and heavy iron gates protecting the residences of the remaining foreigners. In the quick and suspicious glances passing between strangers.

Islamic State is surely already organising in the city, unseen. As it did in Ramadi and in Mosul, in Fallujah and all the way to Raqqa far to the west long before that. The mysterious explosions have already begun. Car bombings hit the parking lots of the Cristal and Babil hotels on May 28: 15 killed, 42 injured. No one thinks these will be the last.

The form that the defence against the Sunni jihadists is taking is also plain. At every intersection, on every wall, on every corner, the banners of Iraq’s Shia militias blare out their allegiance. The slogan “At your service, O Hussein” — referring to the greatest martyr of the Shi’ites, killed by the Sunni Ummayads at the battle of Karbala in AD680 — is everywhere. It is there next to the countless banners and posters of Hussein’s serene, bearded visage that one sees all around. It is there, too, amid the ubiquitous militia billboards, alongside pictures of ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini, Ali Khamenei, Mohammed al-Sadr and Ali al-Sistani.

The same Shia sectarian slogan can be glimpsed on the wall of the Iraqi Army checkpoint on the road from the airport. At your service, o Hussein. That is to say, the defence of Baghdad against Islamic State is not taking place in the name of Iraq. The men doing the fighting and dying are there as Shi’ites. This applies even to many or most of those wearing the uniforms of the official Iraqi Security Forces.

But it applies a hundred-fold more clearly to the organisations that are bearing the brunt of the actual fight against the Sunni jihadists — in Baiji, in Anbar province and elsewhere. These are the Shia militias.

The militias are irregular political-military formations, organised on openly sectarian lines and flying openly sectarian banners. The most significant of them are supported by Iran. Their field commander is a man who may very well be a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. And it is they, under the collective banner of what is called the Popular Mobilisation in Iraq, who today form the key armed force in the government-controlled areas of central and southern Iraq, including the capital Baghdad.

So the sectarian balance in Iraq has shifted decisively in favour of the Shia Arab majority. The representatives of this population are wasting no time in asserting their ascendancy. Yet the meaning of all this may well be the permanent fragmentation of the country into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish enclaves, rather than Shia domination of the entire territory still formally called Iraq. That is, rather than acquiring a new ruling caste, the country may well be ceasing to exist, replaced by a chaotic territory ruled by and divided between rival political-military organisations.

How did this situation come about? And what does it mean for the future?

The story begins in June last year. The forces of Islamic State were erupting across the border from Syria. Mosul had fallen. Salahuddin, Anbar, Diyala and Kirkuk had gone the same way. Irbil and Baghdad looked like being next. The US-trained Iraqi armed forces melted away under the hammer blows of the Sunni jihadist fighters.

On June 13, Ayatollah Sistani, the most venerated Shia cleric in Iraq, issued a fatwa declaring a limited jihad to turn back the advancing Islamic State forces. Thousands of young Iraqi Shia men began to enlist in existing Shia militias or to form new such groups. Sistani himself did not seek to play any further active role in organising the mobilisation he had called for. Instead, on June 15 the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior announced the formation of a Popular Mobilisation Committee, to be headed by Falih al-Fayyadh, who also serves as national security adviser to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

From the outset this committee has played a liaison role between the various militias, rather than one of direction and leadership. The militias have their own leadership structures. They are not taking orders from Abadi.

From whom, then, are they taking orders? The answer is clear, and it is not encouraging.

The leadership of three of the four most powerful militia bodies is linked to Iran. The militias in question — the Badr Organisation, the Kata’ib Hizballah group and the Asaib ahl al-Haq — receive direct assistance from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The fourth, the Saraya al-Salam militia of Moqtada al-Sadr, is also pro-Iranian and aided by Iran but maintains a greater degree of independence.

The field commander of the Popular Mobilisation forces is a grey-bearded man in his 60s from the southern Iraqi city of Basra. His name is Abu Mahdi al-­Muhandis and he is a close adviser to Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. Muhandis is also a former member of the Shia Islamist Dawa Party and a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, in which he fought on the Iranian side.

The central role of the Revolutionary Guards in training, equipping and advising the militias is not a closely guarded secret. It is openly acknowledged by senior members and opponents of the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

The militias are political as well as military organisations. Their power in Iraq goes beyond the possession of guns.

The Interior Ministry, of which the Popular Mobilisation Committee is a part, is controlled by a representative of the Badr Organisation, a pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia movement. Badr’s leader, Hadi al-Ameri, is universally acknowledged to be the real decision-maker at the ministry.

This means the federal police, an additional significant element of the Iraqi Security Forces, is also under the de facto control of a representative of the militias.

It is this militia conglomerate, sectarian in nature, backed and trained by Iran, not answerable to any elected authority, that is the main force facing Islamic State on the key fronts to the north of Baghdad and to its west.

At a small facility in the town of Mizra’a, just south of the frontline in Baiji city, Inquirer catches up with Muhandis minutes after he has briefed a group of senior commanders from the militias and the army.

The scene is an instructive one. A room full of uniforms. Some with the insignia and emblems of the Iraqi Army. Some in the blue of the federal police, some in the drab camouflage and mix-and-match of the militias. These are not junior personnel. They include, for example, Major-General Juma Anad al-Jubouri, commander of the Iraqi Security Forces in the whole of embattled Salahuddin province.

But all the men present defer to Muhandis, ostensibly a civilian, who is the only speaker at the meeting.

Muhandis is quite open about the leading role of the Shia militias as we talk in the dusty courtyard after the briefing, with militia fighters and commanders all around us eating a hastily prepared lunch.

“The Hashed (Popular Mobilisation) is playing the main role currently,” he says, “and it is now planning and leading large operations — in full co-operation with the army.

“The army has weapons and capabilities we don’t have. The federal police are also playing a role. But we have planning and management, and we have the enthusiastic fighters.”

He is openly contemptuous of the efforts of the US and its allies in Iraq. “US support has not led to the retaking of Mosul. It didn’t prevent Baiji. It couldn’t regain Anbar. Instead, Ramadi has fallen,” Muhandis says.

The militias, meanwhile, “rely on capacity and capabilities provided by the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

All the same, the militias and their allies have not yet defeated Islamic State in Baiji. Earlier news reports had suggested the city was fully in the hands of the government. But Muhandis admits that the Sunni ­jihadists are still in control of half of it. Our entry into even the liberated half has had to be aborted because of heavy gunfire ahead. Evidently, Baiji is still contested.

The city matters because it is the next landmark on the road leading north from Baghdad, via Tikrit (recaptured in April) and eventually to Mosul, the jewel in the crown for Islamic State in Iraq.

But the most crucial front for the militias atpresent is Anbar province, west of the capital. The focal point of the Anbar front right now is Ramadi city, the provincial capital.

It is close to Baghdad, situated on the Euphrates river and adjacent to highways connecting Baghdad to the Jordanian and Syrian borders. Its fall in May made a nonsense of Iraqi government claims that the tide had turned in the war against Islamic State.

Inquirer has travelled to the frontline 10km east of Ramadi, accompanying fighters of the Kata’ib Hizballah group. This is a smaller, more disciplined and ideological force than Badr. It regards itself — and is widely regarded by others — as the spearhead of the Popular Mobilisation forces, carrying out the most complex and dangerous missions.

It is also (unlike Badr) on the list of US-designated terrorist groups.

The anti-American and anti-Western sentiments of the young Kata’ib fighters manning the frontline positions at Husaybah al-Sharqiya east of Ramadi are vivid and unambiguous.

One young man, his face reconstructed after a terrible wound received in an improvised explosive device blast but back on active service, says: “ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is a terrorist organisation. It has no religion” — sentiments any Western leader could agree with and probably echo. But then he continues: “It is supported by the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel and others. We are trying to fight them, but the Americans come and bomb us and that allows ISIS to run away.”

What is the proof, I ask, that the Americans are aiding Islamic State?

A chorus of fighters begins to offer what they maintainare their experiences of this phenomenon. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” says the burned man. “They parachute aid, weapons and clothing and they drop it to ISIS.”

These claims are later echoed by the regional commander of Kata’ib Hizballah in Khaldiyeh, of which Husaybah is a part.

Declining to give his name, he says: “America is not fighting ISIS. America is helping ISIS. In Tikrit, we had ISIS surrounded. But the US air intervention prevented us from advancing. The US put pressure on the Iraqi government to slow the advance. They put a spoke in the wheels.”

The commander adds: “If it weren’t for Iran’s intervention, ISIS would have made it to the east and the south. Iran is the only one that was faithful.”

What about Kata’ib’s relations with other groups supported by Iran? With the Lebanese Hezbollah? With Hamas?

“All the Islamic resistance movements come from one womb. So yes, without entering into details, we have a relationship with all these movements.”

The commander had joined Kata’ib back when the US was still in Iraq — “to resist the (American) occupation”, he says.

The frontline east of Ramadi is static for the time being. Husaybah is a built-up area and the two sides are facing each other at a distance of about 100m.

“There is sniping during the day and mortar fire at night,” says one of the young Kata’ib fighters manning the positions furthest forward. From a hole cut in the wall of one of the houses, the Islamic State fighters could clearly be seen: tiny, black-clad figures moving rapidly across an exposed point.

The Kata’ib fighters are clearly highly motivated, and well trained in the tactics of light infantry and guerilla warfare. They are all young, their equipment is clearly well-maintained, and they are ready for action at a moment’s notice. Kata’ib, according to several accounts, was the factor that stabilised the anti-Islamic State forces in Husaybah, beginning the process whereby the advance of the Sunni jihadists stalled as they sought to push east from newly conquered Ramadi.

The source of their motivation is not in question. “We have religious enthusiasm and we love our country,” as the commander in Khaldiyeh puts it. A bearded, red-eyed fighter in Husaybah expresses it in rawer terms: “We don’t rely on America. We rely on God and the family of Mohammed. And Kata’ib Hizballah. We rely on ourselves. And if anyone tries to break in here we’ll cut off his hands.“

For Iraq’s Sunnis, the rise of the militias is deeply worrying. Documentary evidence has already emerged of widespread sectarian violence directed against Sunni communities in the wake of the militias’ advances.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have issued reports detailing looting of homes and abuse of Sunni civilians by the militias in Baghdad, Samarra, and Kirkuk. An Amnesty investigation is under way into similar allegations regarding militia actions in Tikrit.

The militias, for their part, predictably reject all such allegations. But it is clear that for many Iraqi Sunnis, the rise of the Shia armed groups is a key element in the emergence of an Iraq in which the long dominant Sunni Arabs are set to constitute a vulnerable minority.

Hamed al-Mutlaq, an MP for the Iraqi List grouping and a Sunni from Anbar, sums up the situation: “De facto, Iraq is now divided,” he says. “In fact, worse than divided. The Kurds and the Shi’ites are safe in their areas. But the Sunni component has no existence and is displaced. Those who remain are under the sword either of ISIS or of the Shia militias.

“The militias are no different from ISIS,” he continues. “The Iranian intervention is no different from ISIS.”

The Iranian intervention, as Mutlaq calls it, is the key element in all this. As things stand, Tehran stands to dominate the oil-rich south of Iraq and the capital, even if the Kurdish north and parts of the Sunni centre remain out of reach. This already constitutes a major achievement for the Iranians. As to whether their forces can defeat the Sunni jihadists or merely contain them, this remains to be seen. Tehran may even prefer to leave Islamic Statein place while Iran consolidates its hold over the parts of Iraq with which it is mainly concerned.

Meanwhile, the militias of the Popular Mobilisation remain the key element preventing a push by the Islamic State towards the Iraqi capital. The fighters of Kata’ib Hizballah and Islamic State, rival Islamist forces, continue to face off against each other with only a narrow stretch of parched ground and ruined buildings separating them in Anbar province.

The militiamen travel easily through the roadblocks of the army and the federal police outside Baghdad. Back in the city, their banners and billboards are everywhere, giving this ancient city the look of a Shia capital under siege.

As for the future, none of the Shia fighters Inquirer speaks to mentions the possibility of disbanding the Popular Mobilisation if and when Islamic State is defeated (which anyway is not imminent.) It looks as if Kata’ib Hizballah, Badr and the rest of them are set to play a key role in the area that was once Iraq. Welcome to militialand.

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John Le Carre and the Last of Empire

The British novelist  David Cornwell  (John Le Carre) is best known for his fictional depictions of the British intelligence services during the period of the Cold War.  That this constitutes the main focus of Le Carre’s considerable prominence is probably justified, from an aesthetic point of view.  His early novels set against this background (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) have the distinction of creating and depicting a recognizable fictional world, at once uniquely the author’s and yet seeming to possess some deep and general insight beyond  the actions and words of the characters themselves.

They also transcend the narrow and stock clichés of the ‘spy’genre. They possess within them an obvious romanticization of their subject matter, but it is not of the simplistically escapist kind. The way in which the Cold War is remembered, at least in Britain, has a large amount to do with Le Carre.

But while Le Carre’s later novels have justifiably received less praise from the artistic point of view, they are in a certain way no less, or more significant than the earlier books.  Le Carre has managed to avoid being frozen within the period in which he produced his earlier work.  He has, in the post Cold War period, produced a series of novels of great interest.  In particular, he has made the ‘war on terror’ or the ‘9-11 wars’ a particular focus.

In his works on this period, Le Carre’s style is one of furious polemic, rather than cool and disenchanted description.   As a result, the books are as novels inferior to the earlier work.  But in terms of the worldview that very visibly lies behind these later works, Le Carre succeeds in presenting in near perfect and detailed form a particular view of global politics and the dynamics behind it which in my view is significant.

This is a particularly British sensibility,  and it is Janus-faced, seemingly contradictory in a number of ways.  It is nostalgic for empire yet radical in a number of its assumptions regarding the current dynamics of international affairs.   It is apparently sympathetic to the ambitions of subjects from the developing world, but Le Carre finds it nearly impossible to draw credible and non-caricatured characters outside of the British upper middle classes.

Perhaps most importantly, Le Carre’s work is deeply anti-American.  This anti-Americanism is at a pre-political level.  America, in Le Carre’s world, represents all that is un-rooted, amoral, graceless and aesthetically disgusting.

His novels dealing with the 9-11 Wars are filled with American characters of a peculiarly repulsive kind.  These Americans are sometimes aged but heavily made up women, such as Miss Maisie in ‘A Delicate Truth’. Miss Maisie is a Republican evangelist funder for covert actions undertaken by private defense contractors.  Sometimes they are young zealots, like Newton, the CIA officer in ‘A Most Wanted Man.’

But always these characters are entirely lacking in any redeeming features whatsoever. They are also lacking in any history, or back-story.  These are the two dimensional, cartoon like figures familiar from a different type of espionage movie aesthetic.  But with Le Carre, their presence is notable precisely because by contrast, when dealing with characters from the British upper middle classes, he is capable of painting with a complex and subtle brush.

These later novels of Le Carre are more important as specimens representative of a particular worldview than they are as artistic creations. As mentioned, in aesthetic terms they are vastly inferior to the earlier work.  But they matter because the worldview which they exemplify matters.   Le Carre’s depictions of Americans seem to me also to be in some way related to his strange and troubled relationship with Israel.

Outside of ‘The Little Drummer Girl’  Le Carre tends to avoid direct reference to Israel in his fiction.  But when he doesn’t avoid it, the view that comes across is very clear.  It is summed up in the following sentence uttered by one of the sympathetic characters in ‘Absolute Friends’:  ‘Tell the new zealots of Washington that in the making of Israel a monstrous human crime was committed and they will call you an anti-Semite.”

In other words, Israel, which is usually an offstage presence, is itself the product of a monstrous crime, and is also the beneficiary of the one-sided defense and concern of the very worst people in the world, as depicted by Le Carre.

The point about Le Carre’s view is that one encounters it again and again in the class of upper middle class British people engaged in work on foreign affairs.  This is a loose, fluid group of people, to be found in British embassies, among the British Army’s officer corps, among foreign correspondents and among British people working for mainstream NGOs and aid organizations (not the organizations associated with the radical left or Sunni Islamism, importantly.  The Le Carre view of international affairs is a radical conservative one, not classically far leftist or Islamist, though in some ways sympathetic and similar to both.)

Britain is still quite a stratified society, and the make up of people engaged in these professions has changed less in the last 50 years than one might expect, given the very great changes in the broader society.   They are the last remnant of the British serving elite which once administered the empire.

At root, what is going on here it seems to me is a particular, romantic view of ‘authenticity.’  The American ‘neo-cons’ and their Israeli friends represent plasticity, superficiality, hypocrisy and venality.

Against them are the sane, rooted, three dimensional, usually British servants of the older ways, and their often beautiful, often female (and in Le Carre’s world usually doomed) representatives of the non-white Third World.

There is at the root of this an anti-modernism which is familiar and which has been present in both European anti-Americanism and modern European secular anti-semitism throughout.

An odd, aspect, of course, is that unlike western Jews, and also unlike Americans, for the most part, Israelis do not tend to self-consciously regard themselves as agents of modernity.  Rather, their self-understanding is that they are an ancient people, living in their ancestral land.  Perhaps this is why the encounter between educated Israelis and representatives of the Le Carre view of international affairs tend to be so strained and problematic.

In any case, the Le Carre view and its proponents should be taken into account when searching for the roots and reasons for the peculiar virulence and fury that one finds directed against Israel from among its native British (usually middle class) opponents.  This is a viewpoint with deep roots in British culture. Combined with the growing political strength of Islamist and Islamist-influenced politics in the modern UK, it will continue to have its impact, though probably (for reasons beyond the scope of this article) on the level of cultural and intellectual life rather than in the making of high policy.

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Turkey’s Syrian Kurdish problem

Jerusalem Post, 3/7

Syrian Kurdish forces this week succeeded in turning back a murderous and determined attempt by the forces of Islamic State to claw back control of areas of northern Syria recently liberated by the Kurds. The cost was high, nevertheless.

Recent Kurdish successes, meanwhile, have raised the specter of a Turkish armed intervention in northern Syria to crush the growing Kurdish autonomous zones along the border.

So where do things stand in the bloody war between the Kurds and the Sunni jihadists over Syria’s north? And is there a realistic possibility that Erdogan might intervene?

First of all, it should be noted that the Islamic State offensives this week carried all the hallmarks of barbaric brutality with which this organization has become associated. This needs emphasizing because the slaughter of 223 civilians in Kobani last week failed to gain the global media attention it deserved. It was overshadowed by the attack in Tunisia against Western tourists, and the bombing of the Shi’ite mosque in Kuwait.

But more broadly, the Islamic State offensive was a further indication of the relative decline in the fortunes of the Islamic State in northern Syria since the beginning of this year.

The failure to destroy the Kurdish Kobani enclave, acknowledged in January, was the first stage in the slow rollback of Islamic State in Syria’s north. Since then, the Kurds, supported by US air power, have pushed the jihadists further back in the direction of the east and south.

This culminated last week in the taking of the strategically important border town of Tel Abyad and the linking of two of the three Kurdish cantons along the Syrian-Turkish border – Kobani and Jazeera.

The Kurds then pushed eastward to Ain Issa, bringing them to 50 km. from the capital of Islamic State in Raqqa.

It was at this point that Islamic State launched its counterattacks against Kobani, then against Tel Abyad, and also against the regime army in Hasaka. These attacks have all now been repulsed, which means the situation, in spite of the Kurdish losses, remains substantively unchanged.

The Islamic State retreat spells reversal but not yet disaster for the jihadists. It is unlikely that the Kurdish YPG and its rebel allies will wish to push further south and east. The Kurdish interest is in securing the cantons and areas of Kurdish majority population, not in launching a general war for the destruction of Islamic State.

Unsubstantiated claims of Kurdish expulsion of Arab and Turkmen populations following the conquest of Tel Abyad show the complications inevitably encountered by the Kurdish YPG when operating outside of areas of Kurdish majority population.

But it is precisely the YPG’s determination to secure Kurdish majority areas that has the Turks worried. With the Jazeera and Kobani cantons now united, the Kurds control a long contiguous stretch of the Syria-Turkey border. The Turks fear that the Kurds could seek to unite the canton of Kobani/Jazeera with the third autonomous zone, further west, around the city of Afrin.

This prospect is what has led to the jitters in the senior reaches of Turkey’s leadership. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a series of statements in recent days saying that Turkey would never allow the formation of another state in northern Syria. This is an allusion to the possibility of a Kurdish state. The presence of the Islamic State clearly exercises the Turkish leader less.

Since then, official Turkish media have begun to discuss the creation of a 112 km. by 48 km. buffer zone west of the Kobani enclave, taking in the town of Jarabulus and its environs. Evidently, the Turks are keen to establish Jarabulus, west of the Euphrates, as a redline beyond which the Kurds dare not advance without risking Turkish retribution.

The Kurds responded swiftly to the Turkish threat. Murat Karayilan, a senior official and former leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), made clear that should the Turkish Army enter Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), this would trigger Kurdish military action north of the border in Turkey itself.

Interestingly, if such a buffer zone were to be established by Turkey, this would in effect constitute an intervention in Syria by Turkey not only directed against the Kurds but also de facto in defense of Islamic State. It is the Sunni jihadists who control the area immediately west of the Kobani enclave.

Such an intervention would be in direct contradiction to US and Western policy in northern Syria. It would also be contrary to the will of the leading parties of the opposition; and if it resulted in the deaths of Turkish soldiers, it would likely be unpopular domestically, at a time when Erdogan’s AKP has just suffered an electoral setback. The Turkish military is also known to be unenthusiastic about the idea.

Syria as a whole and northwest Syria in particular are a confusing mass of rival political and military groups. The potential for a Turkish force to become sucked into bloody local conflicts with no clear objective and no clear exit strategy would be immense.

A Kurdish push to unite Kobani with Afrin and move decisively west of the Euphrates is probably also unlikely for the moment, precisely because of the risk of Turkish intervention and also of clashes with other strong rebel formations in the area.

For all these reasons, a unilateral Turkish intervention in northern Syria is probably not imminent. Rather, Turkey most likely wishes to serve notice to the West of the seriousness of its concerns regarding Kurdish advances.

Still, the events in northern Syria demonstrate just how strange regional diplomacy and strategy have become. The United States appears to have found an effective and courageous ground partner in northern Syria (the Kurdish YPG). That partner, however, is a franchise of an organization (the PKK) that is on the EU and US list of terrorist organizations – for now, at least.

This partnership is proving effective at driving back the Islamic State. But Turkey, a NATO ally in good standing, maintains deeply ambiguous relations with Islamic State, while openly backing an equally murderous franchise of al-Qaida further west (Jabhat al-Nusra).

The Islamist agenda of the current Turkish government is notable at a region-wide level – for example, in its domiciling and support for Hamas cells engaged in violence against Israelis, and in its support for deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. This pattern of preferences is reflected in its stances in northern Syria.

As of now, the battle in northern Syria between two very different quasi-state entities – the Kurdish cantons and the Islamic State – looks set to continue. The Kurds currently have the advantage. The recent, furious response of the jihadists in Tel Abyad and Kobani reflects this. But the war appears far from conclusion.

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RIP Keith Broomfield, Killed in a Firefight with ISIS

PJmedia, 19/6

Keith Broomfield, of Westminster, Massachusetts, was born in 1979 and buried this week. He was 36. Keith was killed in a firefight on June 3rd with the Islamic State organization near the town of Kobani in northern Syria. He had been serving as a volunteer with the Kurdish YPG militia since February.

Keith was a brave man, and a good friend. And his death wasn’t for nothing. The Syrian Kurds, with the help of the U.S. Air Force, are pushing the jihadis back across north east Syria now. Their successes are paving the way for a coordinated assault on the heartland of the Islamic State in Raqqa Province. Keith died helping to make that happen. He would have regarded it as an exchange worth making.

I met Keith Broomfield in Suruc, on the Turkish side of the border, in late February. I was trying to get across to do some reporting in the Kobani enclave. Keith was trying to cross the border too — to join up with the YPG. We were stuck for five days in a Kurdish community center in that border town. The Turkish army had deployed in unusual numbers along the line, making unauthorized crossings temporarily impossible.

The center was filled up with European supporters of the Kurds. I initially assumed that Keith was another of their number. It rapidly became clear that he was not. I listened in silent astonishment as he laconically described an unsuccessful solo attempt to cross the border into Syria a few days earlier.

The area north of Kobani is heavily guarded by the Turkish army and paramilitary police. It is also mined. I had made it across that border myself in the summer of 2014, but only with assistance from Kurdish fighters and smugglers and only with some effort. Keith had tried to cross it alone. Luckily for him, he had been turned back by the army before reaching the frontier. So he had wandered into Suruc instead. I liked him immediately.

Over the following days, with little else to do, we sat around, drinking the strong black tea that the Kurds make in gallons, and talking.

I learned that Keith was a devout Christian, of the Baptist denomination. Also that he’d been in all kinds of trouble as a youth, and had been close to motorcycle gangs, but had straightened himself out. We shared competitive stories of our wild younger days and laughed a lot.

He had come to fight with the Kurds because of what he had seen of what ISIS was doing. The slaughter of prisoners, the enslavement of women, the deaths of children as their families fled the murderous onslaught of the jihadis. All these seemed to him to be wrong. So he had come to help put an end to them. As simple as that.

It was the height of winter, and there was snow in Suruc. One evening, Keith and I and our friend Mizgin Acet, a young Kurdish woman who was volunteering in the town, went down to the refugee camp and spent the evening in the company of one of the refugee families, the Dabans from Kobani. Keith liked being with the kids. The old man, hearing that he was on his way to join the YPG, treated him with great honor. It was a happy time. We were all close. As people are on borders, in tents, in wartime.

After five days, we were still stuck in Suruc, and I was out of time. I had to head back to Gaziantep, then Istanbul, then back to Jerusalem. The weather had brightened up. The sun was shining but it was still cold when we shook hands, said farewell, and wished each other luck.

War is full of these brief, intense friendships. Like a strong current, it throws people together, and allows for rapid recognition. Then it pulls them apart again, equally rapidly.

I was in Baghdad when I heard about his death. In the middle of an intense reporting trip. Killed in a battle outside Kobani, the wires said. I didn’t have time to think about it and put the news to the back of my mind, until I got home to Jerusalem. Where I’m writing this.

We are living through history in the Middle East right now. Great events afoot, borders shifting, movements rising and falling.

Some, or many of the forces that have arisen in the ferment are malignant, savage, as close to pure evil as the human condition can produce. The Islamic State is one of those. I remember the Yezidi refugees in the Newroz camp in northern Syria. In the parched summer of 2014. Their stories of the marauding jihadis, slaughtering all before them. The haunted eyes of the children.

Keith Broomfield travelled all the way from Massachussets to Kobani, with one intention alone. To put a stop to that. By force, if necessary. At the cost of his own life, if necessary.

Islamic State are retreating across northern Syria now. The Kurds have taken Tel Abyad. The jihadis’ claw-hold on the border is broken. The Kurdish media is showing the fighters, beneath the summer sun, moving forward, all the time forward. Good work. But Broomfield from Westminster, Massachusetts, my friend, isn’t here to see it. The last, full measure of devotion. How very high the cost.

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Fall of Eagles: the Eclipse of the Arab Nationalist State

Tower Magazine, June 2015.
The most significant dynamic in the Middle East over the last decade has been the collapse of strong, centralized regimes in a series of Arab states and their replacement by chaos, civil war, and the proliferation of non-state militias. This collapse has taken place in five states: Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and—in a very different way—Lebanon. The Palestinian national movement has also fragmented.

This phenomenon is particularly relevant given that the chaos resulting from the collapse of these regimes is providing an opportunity for predatory regional powers to extend their influence. They are doing so by sponsoring one or another of the successor entities that are fighting to control the areas once ruled by Arab nationalist regimes. The most important of these powers is Iran, which seeks regional hegemony. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are also deeply involved in the labyrinthine military and political chaos that is emerging in each of the collapsed states.

What may be understood from this process of collapse? Is there some element common to all cases? What does it mean for the future of the region, and what are the implications for Western and U.S. Middle East policy?

In order to answer these questions, let’s take a closer look at the events themselves.

The chronology is an interesting one. The “official” timetable for change in the Arab world begins in 2011, with the self-immolation of Tunisian merchant Muhammad Bouazizi. The riots and protests that followed his death led to the fall of the ruling regime. This is seen as the beginning of the “Arab Spring,” which then spread to Egypt, Syria, and other countries.

But almost five years later, this timetable looks forced and simplistic. Perhaps a better way to understand the sequence of events is to take note of two milestones that preceded the Tunisian uprising: The sectarian civil war in Iraq, which reached its height in 2006, and Hamas’ seizure of power in Gaza, which took place in July 2007.

The emergence of sectarian civil war in Iraq and the fragmentation of that country were in many ways the blueprint for much of what followed. The time prior to the outbreak of the war was marked by a long period of repression and socioeconomic failure in the states ruled by leaders who proclaimed their loyalty to Arab nationalism. But this stifling repression and failure was also marked by a kind of stagnant stability. In effect, the regimes sucked the air out of the possibility of protest. Their willingness to crush the slightest whisper of dissent using the most brutal means meant that opposition movements simply had no space in which they could begin to organize. Opponents of the regime found themselves in jail or exile, where they were often used as tools by other regimes in their quest for power.

The first cracks in this seemingly impenetrable wall came in the middle of the last decade; not in the form of democratic movements, but rather through political Islam, sectarian organizations, and minority nationalism. This process has now repeated itself throughout the region. Whether the dictatorship was destroyed through external intervention (Iraq and Libya) or destabilized by internal processes (Yemen, Syria, and the Palestinian Authority) does not appear to have greatly influenced subsequent events.

Anti-Qaddafi rebels enter the Libyan city of Bani Walid, October 17, 2011. Photo: Magharebia / Wikimedia

In Iraq, the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein was destroyed by U.S. armed intervention. The removal of the dictator revealed that the underlying sectarian realities that characterized Iraq since its emergence as a modern state had not diminished during the repression of anything resembling genuine political life during the years of Ba’athist dictatorship.

As a result, the politics of post-Saddam Iraq have taken on a largely sectarian dynamic. This is not to say that there were not many Iraqis who had deep “national” feelings and for whom the existence of Iraq was of great meaning. But the main currents of post-Saddam political loyalty are very clearly sectarian in nature. The victory of the Shia Islamist Dawa party in the 2009 elections, for example, and the subsequent brokering of a coalition under Iranian auspices, clearly shows that events were being driven by sectarian fragmentation.

After the final U.S. departure from Iraq in 2011, events moved quickly. Sunni unrest and agitation, the Shia-led government’s attempt to suppress it, and the subsequent rise of ISIS have resulted in a new civil war. This war pits the Sunni Islamists of ISIS against both the Shia-dominated central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in the north. The latter, however, has its eye on the door. As of now, this has led to the fragmentation of Iraq into three sectarian enclaves—Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish. The edifice of authoritarian rule, once removed, was rapidly followed by the effective collapse of the Iraqi state.

In the Palestinian case, fragmentation followed the death of the Palestinian national movement’s charismatic leader Yasser Arafat in 2004, and then Hamas’ victory in elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council in early 2006. The mini-civil war between Palestinian factions in Gaza during the summer of 2007 resulted in the expulsion of the secular Fatah party from the Gaza Strip, and the de facto emergence of two rival Palestinian entities: The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, dominated by Fatah, and a Hamas-ruled entity in Gaza.

An anti-Assad demonstration in the Syrian city of Baniyas, April 29, 2011. Photo: Syria Frames of Freedom / Wikimedia

In Syria, the Assad regime’s gradual realization that it lacked sufficient manpower to maintain control of the entire country led to a strategic retreat from outlying territories in the summer of 2012. This brought into being three separate areas of control: A regime-controlled area in Damascus and its environs, a rebel-controlled zone in the north and east, and three non-contiguous Kurdish cantons in the north. The rebel-controlled area has since subdivided into an area controlled by ISIS and areas held by other rebel factions, primarily Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.

In Libya, the destruction of the Qaddafi regime has led to the emergence of two rival successor authorities: The Western-supported government in Tobruk, and an Islamist-dominated administration in Tripoli. Al-Qaeda is also active in the latter.

In Yemen, the actions of the Iran-supported Houthi militia have led to a situation of renewed civil war in the country. The Houthis now control the capital of Sana’a, and Saudi Arabia has intervened to prevent their conquest of the entire country. As a result, the reemergence of North- and South-Yemeni republics is now possible.

We should add Lebanon to this list, in that while it has not physically fragmented, the state has effectively been rendered subordinate to a shadow-state controlled by a sectarian militia—Hezbollah. Hezbollah is itself armed, financed, and to a great extent controlled by Iran.

In all these cases, then, a repressive centralized authority has been replaced by sectarian and ethnic fragmentation and civil war.

Yet three Arab states (and one regional non-Arab state) that have faced serious internal unrest over the last decade have avoided internal schism—Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, and Iran. In the case of Bahrain, a mobilization of fellow Sunni Gulf monarchies crushed an Iran-supported rebellion by the Shia majority. In both Tunisia and Egypt, the fall of a dictator resulted in the rise to power of elected Muslim Brotherhood-aligned governments, which no longer hold power; in the case of Egypt, military rule has been restored, while in Tunisia, the Islamists were defeated electorally. In Iran, anti-regime protests were quelled in 2009. In all these cases, serious unrest did not result in the fragmentation or collapse of the state.

The key question, then, is whether we can isolate certain common factors in those countries and/or sub-state entities that have effectively collapsed and ceased to exist as unified bodies, compared to those that, despite instability, have held together.

One of the factors that seems to be immediately apparent is that all the entities mentioned above are or were ruled by movements or individuals emerging from the pan-Arab nationalist ferment of the 1950s. This ideology had long since ceased to have any appeal by the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, however. Instead, it survived as a thin justification for a brutally repressive police state.

Only in the Palestinian case does pan-Arabism retain a certain amount of popular support; but this may be related to the Palestinians’ status as a population living under occupation in the West Bank and conflict in Gaza. Nonetheless, the structures created by the Palestinians’ local version of Arab nationalism have not succeeded in creating a working civil and open society. Instead, a corrupt and repressive police state in embryo was established, in line with similar societies elsewhere. And as elsewhere, the opposition to this structure took the form of an Islamist political/military organization.

The Houthi "constitutional declaration" from the Republican Palace on  February 6, 2015, dissolving parliament and declaring the Houthis' Revolutionary Committee in charge of the Yemeni government. Photo: Kudzu1 / Wikimedia

In all the cases noted above, in addition to the dominance of regimes or movements claiming legitimacy in the name of Arab nationalism, a second common factor was the absence of deep historical roots for the entity in question. That is, while Islamic loyalty and local tribal identity were powerful forces, “Iraqi-ness,” “Syrian-ness,” and so on were recent constructs. They were fostered by states whose borders were newly bequeathed by European colonialism, rather than deep sentiments or loyalties deriving from a long, consistent, and uninterrupted history. The only exception is Yemen, where a deep historical perception of Yemeni identity exists; but historically, this has not gone hand in hand with the existence of a single Yemeni state with strong institutions.

So the two notable factors of commonality in all the cases where state collapse and fragmentation have taken place are the long domination of repressive movements professing loyalty to Arab nationalism, and the relatively recent vintage of the local “national identities” in question.

In two countries—Egypt and Tunisia—revolutions took place against regimes that professed Arab nationalism, but these states did not collapse as a result. In both cases, strong state institutions existed alongside a settled national identity. Tunisia has been an effectively autonomous entity since the beginning of the 18th century, but the phenomenon is far stronger and more pronounced in the Egyptian case. Egypt has an uninterrupted national history dating back to antiquity. In modern Egypt, a longstanding tension between a specifically Egyptian nationalism and broader pan-Arab and pan-Islamic currents has long been apparent. But even in the heyday of pan-Arabism, this ideology was an instrument of the Egyptian state, and never supplanted a specifically Egyptian national consciousness. Since the early 1970s, this specifically Egyptian orientation has been clearly dominant, with the possible exception of the period of Muslim Brotherhood rule in 2012-2013. But this short and disastrous period, followed by the rapid eclipse of the Brotherhood, seems to be a clear exception that proves the rule.

So the states that have collapsed are those that lacked any firm grounding either in institutional or national identity. Those that have held together despite internal unrest possessed both of these, albeit to varying degrees. The question is what will happen in those states that did not, and have now collapsed.

Since the eruption of civil war in Syria and Iraq, some analysts have speculated that the likely outcome will be the emergence of new entities with “deeper” sources of loyalty, almost certainly arranged on ethnic/sectarian grounds. Such an outcome is not impossible, but neither is it inevitable. As of now, the partition of these areas remains embryonic, with both Western and regional powers opposed to it. The areas that most closely resemble “successor states” in both countries are those controlled by the Kurds. In particular, the KRG in northern Iraq has most of the attributes of a state, including its own armed forces, internal administration, and border controls. However, there are serious external constraints on an early Kurdish declaration of independence—most importantly, concerns regarding the Turkish response to such a declaration, as well as U.S. objections to the breakup of Iraq.

The Syrian Kurdish autonomous zones, meanwhile, are more fragile, non-contiguous, and controlled by a local branch of the PKK, which remains on the EU and U.S. lists of terror organizations. As a result, they have far less international legitimacy than the KRG in north Iraq. Outside of the Kurdish zones, the participants in the Syrian civil war remain ostensibly committed to the unity or reunification of the areas in question.

Thus, while it might be an intellectually attractive idea to imagine new “nation-states” emerging from the ruins of Iraq and Syria, it remains just as likely that the dysfunctionality caused by the “artificial” nature of these states will remain. In such a scenario, the states would still be officially united, while, in practice, successor entities will divide up the territory between them.

A third possibility, more likely in Syria than Iraq though by no means inevitable, would be the forcible reunification of the country by one or another of the sides following a military victory. In such a scenario, the dysfunctional nature of the state would again be buried beneath the strength of an authoritarian regime. This new repressive state would almost certainly rule in the name of Sunni Islam. In effect, this would be a return to the pre-war status quo, but with religion, rather than nationalism, as the unifying factor.

At the present time, however, there is no country in which such a reunification by force looks imminent.

In both Syria and Iraq, the forces fighting to preserve the unity of the state and regard themselves as the legitimate central government of the area in question are anti-Western elements. As a result of this, the U.S. and Western continued commitment to the “unity” of the areas in question has the result of preventing alliance with other, potentially more positive players. This is particularly notable in the case of Iraq, where Western commitment to the increasingly pro-Iranian Baghdad government prevents the direct supplying of the overtly pro-Western (and far more militarily effective) Kurdish Peshmerga.

Thus, Western recognition of the fragmented nature of these countries, of the deep structural reasons for and probably irreversible nature of this,  needs to happen for coherent policy to be made. Allies who can effectively be assisted in the battle both against Iran and against the Islamic State are available. But a conceptual “leap” toward recognition of the fragmented nature of the polities in question needs to take place before these potential alliances can be effectively exploited.

Whatever the eventual outcome of the struggle raging across large parts of the Arab world, it may be concluded that the cause of the collapse of Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen is the prior failure to develop strong national identities and workable institutions in the areas in question.

Despite this failure, pan-Arab nationalism and the brutal police states it spawned managed to achieve stability for a long, stagnant period. That period is now over. Ethnic, tribal, and sectarian war is the result. What will follow these wars cannot be stated with any certainty. What can be asserted with confidence, however, is that those regional states that are based on a strongly-held national identity—Egypt, Israel, Iran, and Turkey—are likely to remain intact despite these pressures, though they may face revolts from within by national minorities and other marginalized groups.

The failure of the populous Arab states of the Levant and Mesopotamia to build strong national identities and institutions is one of the most remarkable and comprehensive of modern times. Unfortunately, this failure has now cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. What “ought” to happen is that these failed states should give way to successor entities based on more stable foundations. Strategic realities, however, make such an outcome uncertain. It seems, unfortunately, that the bloodletting is far from over.

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Born in Lebanon, dying in Syria?  

Jerusalem Post, 29/5

Hizballah shoulders new responsibilities in the Syrian war

The latest reports from the Qalamun mountain range in western Syria suggest that Hizballah is pushing back the jihadis of Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.  The movement claims to have taken 300 square kilometers from the Sunni rebels.

The broader picture for the Shia Islamists that dominate Lebanon, however,  is less rosy.

The Iran-led alliance of which Hizballah is a part is better-organized and more effectively commanded than are its Sunni rivals.  Its ability to marshal its resources in a centralized and effective way is what has enabled it to preserve the Assad regime in Syria until now.

When Assad was in trouble in late 2012, an increased Hizballah mobilization into Syria, and the creation by Iran of new, paramilitary formations for the regime recruited from minority communities was enough to turn the tide of war back against the rebels by mid-2013.

Now, however, the numerical advantage of the Sunnis in Syria  is once more reversing the direction of the war.  With the minority communities that formed the core of Assad’s support no longer willing or able to supply him with the required manpower, the burden looks set to fall yet further on the shoulders of Assad’s Lebanese friends.

What this is likely to mean for Hizballah is that it will be called on to deploy further and deeper into Syria than has previously been the case.

In the past, its involvement was largely confined to areas of particular importance to the movement itself.  Hizballah fought to keep the rebels away from the Lebanese border, and to secure the highways between the western coastal areas and Damascus.

The movement’s conquest of the border town of Qusayr in June, 2013, for example, formed a pivotal moment in the recovery of the regime’s fortunes at that time.

But now, Hizballah cannot assume that other pro-regime elements will hold back the rebels in areas beyond the Syria-Lebanese frontier.  This means that the limited achievement in Qalamoun will prove Pyyrhic, unless the regime’s interest can be protected further afield.

Hizballah looks set to be drawn further and deeper into the Syrian quagmire.

Movement Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged this prospect in his speech last Sunday, marking 15 years since Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

In the speech, Nasrallah broadened the definition of Hizballah’s engagement in Syria.

Once, the involvement was expressed in limited sectarian terms (the need to protect the tomb of Sayida Zeinab in Damascus from desecration.)  This justification then gave way to the claimed need to cross the border precisely so as to seal war-torn Syria off from Lebanon and keep the Sunni ‘takfiris’ at bay.  On Sunday, Nasrallah struck an altogether more ambitious tone.

Hizballah, he said, was fighting  alongside its ‘Syrian brothers, alongside the army and the people and the popular resistance in Damascus and Aleppo and Deir Ezzor and Qusayr and Hasakeh and Idlib. We are present today in many places and we will be present in all the places in Syria that this battle requires.”

The list of locations includes areas in Syria’s remote north and east, many hundreds of kilometers from Lebanon (Hasakeh, Deir Ezzor), alongside regions previously seen as locations for the group’s involvement.

Nasrallah painted the threat of the Islamic State in apocalyptic terms.  He described the danger represented by the group as one ‘unprecedented in history, which targets humanity itself.”

This language sounds fairly clearly like a preparing of the ground for a larger and deeper deployment of Hizballah fighters into Syria.  Such a deployment will inevitably come at a cost to the movement.  Only the starkest and most urgent threats of the kind Nasrallah is now invoking could be used to justify it to Hizballah’s own public.

The problem from Hizballah’s point of view is that it too does not have inexhaustible sources of manpower.  The movement has lost, according to regional media reports, around 1000 fighters in Syria since the beginning of its deployment there.  At any given time, around 5,000 Hizballah men are inside the country, with a fairly rapid rotation of manpower.

Hizballah’s entire force is thought to number around 20,000 fighters.

Faced with a task of strategic magnitude and ever growing dimensions in Syria, there are indications that the movement is being forced to cast its net wider in its search for manpower.

A recent report by Myra Abdullah on the Now Lebanon website (associated with anti-Hizballah elements in Lebanon) depicted the party offering financial inducements to youths from impoverished areas in the Lebanese Bekaa, in return for their signing up to fight for Hizballah in Syria.

Now Lebanon quoted sums ranging from $500 to $2000 as being offered to these young men in return for their enlistment.

Earlier this month,  Hizballah media eulogized a 15 year old boy, Mashhur Shams al-Din, who was reported as having died while performing his ‘jihadi duties’ (the term usually used when the movement’s men are killed in Syria).

All this suggests that Hizballah understands that a formidable task lies before it, and that it is preparing its resources and its public opinion for the performance of this task.

As this takes place, Hizballah seems keen to remind its supporters and the Lebanese public of the laurels it once wore in the days when it fought Israel.

The pro-Hizballah newspaper al-Safir recently gained exclusive access to elements of the extensive infrastructure Hizballah has constructed south of the Litani River since 2006.  The movement’s al-Manar TV station ran an (apparently doctored) piece of footage this week purporting to show Hizballah supporters filming a Merkava tank at Har Dov.  Nasrallah in his speech also sought to invoke the Israeli enemy, declaring that ISIS was ‘as evil’ as Israel.

The Israeli assessment is that with its hands full in Syria, Hizballah will be unlikely to seek renewed confrontation with Israel.

It is worth noting, nevertheless, that a series of public statements in recent weeks from former and serving Israeli security officials have delivered a similar message regarding the scope and depth of the Israeli response should a new war between Hizballah and Israel erupt.   IAF commander Amir Eshel, former IAF and Military Intelligence Head Amos Yadlin, Major-General Giora Eiland and other officials speaking off the record expressed themselves similarly in this regard.

Hizballah, clearly, has little choice regarding its deepening involvement in Syria, Nasrallah’s exhortations notwithstanding.  The organization is part of a formidable, if now somewhat overstretched regional alliance, led by the Islamic Republic of Iran. This alliance regards the preservation of the Assad regime’s rule over at least part of Syria as a matter of primary strategic importance.

Hizballah and the Shi’ites it is now recruiting are tools in this task.  It would be quite mistaken to underestimate the efficacy of  the movement. It is gearing up for a mighty task which it intends to achieve. Certainly, many more Hizballah men will lose their lives before the fighting in Syria ends, however it eventually does end.  Given the stated ambitions of that movement regarding Israel and the Jews, it is fair to say that this fact will be causing few cries of anguish south of the border.

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The March of Folly in Iraq

PJmedia, 19/5 (published under the title ‘Did US Policy Allow Ramadi to Fall?’)

The fall of Ramadi to the fighters of the Islamic State is a disaster for the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The taking of the city brings IS to just over 60 miles from Baghdad.

In addition to showcasing the low caliber of the Iraqi security forces, the events surrounding the fall of the city lay bare the contradictions at the heart of Western policy in Iraq.

Prime Minister Abadi had ordered the garrison in Ramadi to stand firm. He hoped to see a successful stand in the city as a prelude to a government retaking of Anbar province, over half of which is still in IS hands. But in a manner reminiscent of the fall of Mosul in June 2014, Iraqi security forces ignored orders to defend Ramadi, and fled eastwards to the neighboring town of Khalidiyeh.

This left Ramadi to the tender mercies of the fighters of the Islamic State, who have reportedly since slaughtered at least 500 people.

It is important to note that even U.S. airstrikes were not sufficient to prevent the debacle.

As of now, Shia militias are heading for the city’s outskirts. A militia-led counterattack is expected in the coming days. A further advance eastwards by the Sunni jihadis, at least in the immediate future, is unlikely.

So what is behind the failure of the Iraqi security forces and the continued advance of the jihadis?

On the simplest level, the greater motivation and determination of the IS fighters explains their continued successes against the Iraqis. The jihadis are all volunteers. Not all of them are highly skilled fighters, but their level of motivation is correspondingly very high. By contrast, Iraqi soldiers are often serving far from home, defending communities for whom they have little concern. Most joined the army for the salary. Their unwillingness to engage against the murderous jihadis of the Islamic State is not hard to understand or explain.

However, this problem has now been apparent for nearly a year, ever since the Sunni jihadis first crashed across the border from Syria last June. So why has it not been addressed? The blame for this cannot be placed at the feet of low ranking Iraqi soldiers.

The blame lies at the policymaking level.

The United States is committed to the territorial unity of Iraq. It therefore is determined to relate to the government of Haider al-Abadi as the sole authority in the country.

The problem with this stance is two-fold.

Firstly, it precludes providing arms directly to the elements who are most willing to use them against the Islamic State (namely, the Kurdish Peshmerga and further south, the elements among the Sunni tribes whom the U.S. aided during the “surge” in the 2006-2007 period).

In the north, this has not prevented the Kurds from successfully defending the area west of Erbil (with the vital assistance of coalition air power). But it has served to keep the Kurds militarily dependent on the coalition, thus reducing the possibility of their making a bid for independence from Baghdad in the immediate future.

Secondly, and more importantly, the U.S. commitment to the territorial unity of Iraq is leading to a willful blindness regarding the actual nature of the government in Baghdad and its true sources of strength and support.

The supposedly legitimate armed forces of Baghdad are, as has been witnessed again in Ramadi, not fit for the purpose. The true defenders of Baghdad and of the government are right now heading toward Ramadi. They are the forces of the “Hashd al-Shaabi” (popular mobilization). They are the Shia militias, supported by Iran. These militias are the wall behind which the Amadi government shelters.

The West insists on maintaining the illusion that the government in Baghdad is something other than a Shia sectarian-dominated entity in the process of entering a de facto military alliance with the Iranians. This stubbornness is producing the current absurd situation in which Western air power is being used in support of Shia Islamism.

It is important to understand that this is not taking place because there is no other option for stopping the advance of the Islamic State. There is another, more effective option:  direct aid to the Kurds, and to the Sunni tribes further south.

This support of Shia Islamism is taking place because of the conviction in Western capitals — most importantly, of course, Washington, D.C. — that the advance of Iran and the building of Iranian strength in Lebanon and in the collapsed states of Iraq and Syria is not a phenomenon to be prevented.

Rather, Western capitals believe that growing Iranian influence can be accommodated and perhaps even allied with.

This conviction combined with the desire to maintain the fictions of “Iraq” and “Syria” are the foundations of current policy. For these reasons, in the coming days we will witness U.S. and Western air power, astonishingly, supporting Shia Islamist militants as they battle with Sunni Islamist militants. Meanwhile, overtly pro-Western forces further north lack arms.

The Islamic State just took Ramadi. In Western capitals where Middle East policy is made, folly is engaged on a similarly triumphant march.

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