‘Islamic State’ Advances in Syria

Jerusalem Post, 1/8

In recent weeks, far from the attention of the world’s media, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (IS, formerly ISIS) has been fighting its enemies and expanding its borders.

There is mounting evidence that IS has obtained a chemical weapons capacity of some kind, and has utilized it on at least one occasion during intense combat against the Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria. The organization has achieved signal successes against regime forces in Raqqa and Hasakeh provinces that culminated in the capture of the Division 17 base, and the subsequent gruesome execution of over 200 members of the garrison.

There is also clear evidence of Palestinians, specifically Gazans, fighting in Syria in an organized unit under the IS banner, and of at least one clearly IS-linked group operating in northern Sinai and in Gaza itself.

The overall picture is one of a vigorous, capable and savagely brutal Islamist entity, but one which nevertheless has clear limitations on its capabilities.

Lets take a look: Following its lighting capture of Mosul on June 10, many observers expected the jihadi group to continue to push on into Iraq, and perhaps make a bid for the capital city, Baghdad.

This has not happened. IS has set about implementing its brutal version of Shari’a in the city, but has made no serious effort to push further east.

Instead, the movement has integrated the weapons taken in Mosul into its structures in Syria, and is concentrating its attention on expanding in a westward and northern direction.

The first IS assault using the new weapons systems was launched against the Kurdish enclave of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) adjoining the Syrian-Turkish border. This area of Kurdish autonomy juts into the IS area of control; it prevents the movement from using the direct road from Raqqa city, which it controls, to Jarabulus and Menbij, on the Syrian-Turkish border.

IS has long sought to destroy this enclave. On July 2, it launched renewed offensives against Kobani from the west and the east. The offensives included the use of US-made Humvees, captured in Mosul.

It also, according to Kobani Health Minister Nisan Ahmed, used a chemical agent which killed three Kurdish fighters while leaving their bodies unmarked. According to Ahmed, a medical team assembled by the Kurdish authorities found that “burns and white spots on the bodies of the dead indicated the use of chemicals, which led to death without any visible wounds or external bleeding.” Perwer Janfrosh, a local Kurdish activist, said the attack took place on July 12, in the village of Avdiko in eastern Kobani.

These claims have yet to be examined by international medical bodies. But an article on the Lebanese Almodon news website (in Arabic) quotes a resident of Raqqa city who alleges that IS has transported chemical weapons materials from the Muthanna complex, northwest of Baghdad, which has fallen into its hands. The source notes that among the materials transported was cyanogen chloride, an agent whose use might be consistent with the claims made by the Kurdish officials (which require further investigation).

Despite the introduction of the captured weaponry, however, the IS offensive on Kobani ran aground following a Kurdish mobilization; the Kobani enclave remains intact.

IS then turned its attention to the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. On July 24, the movement launched attacks on regime positions in the Raqqa and Hasakeh provinces, adjoining the western borders of the “Islamic State,” and near Aleppo city.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the attacks gained ground and took a heavy toll on regime soldiers. The Division 17 base fell on July 25.

Most of the garrison managed to escape to the nearby Brigade 23 base, but around 200 remained behind. The Observatory reported that at least 50 of these men were subsequently decapitated by IS forces. Footage has become available on the Internet showing severed heads placed on a fence in Raqqa city; according to the voiceover, the heads belong to soldiers from the Division 17 garrison.

The IS gains against regime forces reflect the movement’s desire to clear Assad’s men out of the Euphrates Valley, and incrementally expand their area of control.

The IS presence is now nudging up against the main Kurdish enclave in Hasakeh province. But the failure of the regime to make a major effort to defend the areas in question also likely reflects its priorities.

Assad can afford to cede isolated positions in the remote north and east of Syria, without these constituting any threat to his survival. His stronghold in the south and west of Syria is not currently threatened by IS.

As far as IS links to Gaza: An identifiable Gaza contingent named the Sheikh Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi Brigade is active with IS forces in northern Syria, and photographic evidence has emerged of this group’s activities. This group is named after a well-known Salafi sheikh from southern Gaza, killed in an abortive revolt against the Hamas authorities in 2009.

IS also has an identifiable franchise within Gaza and northern Sinai itself, according to a prominent researcher of the IS phenomenon, UK-based Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi; the name of the group in question is Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis.

At the moment, these are relatively minor phenomena. Yet Tamimi suggests that the presence of the Gazan contingent in northern Syria indicates that genuine contacts with IS exist, and these are not merely enthusiasts seeking to borrow the symbolism of jihadi success that IS represents.

So IS remains on the advance, and continues to shock with its astonishing brutality. At present, it has focused its energies back on Syria. Its forces have suffered setbacks against the determined and well-trained fighters of the YPG – defending an enclave that the Kurds consider vital for their “Rojava” project.

IS has enjoyed greater successes against regime forces – in the process raising a big question mark about recent claims by non-IS rebel spokesmen and supporters that the movement is a puppet of Assad or the Iranians.

IS may also have used chemical weapons. Lastly, the first signs of its appearance on the front against Israel may be discerned.

The recent global media focus on the fighting in Gaza should not be allowed to obscure potentially far more significant developments in the broader region. The Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria is on the march.

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Desperately Seeking Relevance

Jerusalem Post, 25/7

The conflict between Hamas-controlled Gaza and Israel became inevitable after a series of decisions and actions made clear that the movement was not interested in defusing tensions and returning to the cease-fire that had shakily pertained since 2012.

These actions included the attempt to infiltrate a terrorist team into Zikim on July 8, the continued firing of rockets after the rejection of the Egyptian cease-fire proposal, the failure to respect the humanitarian cease-fire initiated by the UN and the attempted attack though a tunnel on July 14.

It is doubtful that Hamas planned the entire campaign from the start. The trigger to the crisis – the kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers, may well have been carried out by elements not taking orders from the movement’s official leadership.

But as the momentum of events gathered pace, it is clear that Hamas at a certain point reached a decision to escalate, to initiate a head on collision with Israel.

What were the tactical and strategic considerations underlying this decision?

Regarding immediate and tactical considerations – Hamas is not an isolated player. It is part of a Muslim Brotherhood regional alliance bankrolled by the Emirate of Qatar.

The last year has not been good for this alliance. In 2011-12, they were riding high. They had come to power in Egypt and in Tunisia and seemed fairly placed to triumph in Syria too. Hamas elected to back what looked like an emergent Muslim Brotherhood power bloc – and drew away from its alliance with Iran.

Not much is left of all that. Egypt and Tunisia are gone. In Syria, only the regime, Islamic State and the Kurds remain as serious players. The Muslim Brotherhood’s moment in the sun was exceedingly brief.

This left their Palestinian iteration, Hamas, looking somewhat beached in 2014. The Iranian funding declined. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi decimated the tunnel system through which the rulers of Gaza brought in goods and money. Fuel shortages and power outages became part of daily life. There was no money to pay state employees.

The Hamas decision to relaunch its military campaign, its refusal to accept Israel’s offer of “calm for calm,” and its rejection of an Egyptian cease-fire proposal that Israel accepted represent an attempt to bring about a “reset” in the position of Hamas and its backers in the region.

In precisely the same way that Iran created and developed Hezbollah in order to use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a generator of legitimacy among the Arabs for the Shia Persians, so Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood want a bloody war in Gaza, so as to reinsert themselves into popular legitimacy, relevance and diplomatic influence in the Arab world.

Hamas, previously isolated and increasingly irrelevant, is starring in a drama of its own making. Its spokesmen are crying crocodile tears for the deaths of civilians that it knew was inevitable. Its banners are being carried once more by baying crowds in European cities.

Qatar, meanwhile, the main bankroller of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, is inserting itself back into regional diplomacy, following Hamas’s flat rejection of Egyptian mediation. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas were in Doha to hear Hamas’s demands for a cease-fire. The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad al-Thani is acting as the “channel of communication” for Hamas.

Yet for all this, the success has been only partial. The rival, anti-Muslim Brotherhood alliance of Sisi’s Egypt and Saudi Arabia is operating in more or less direct opposition, seeking to prevent any tangible gains for Hamas from its campaign, and to force it back to acceptance of the status quo ante bellum. Given the suffering of Gazans, any such acceptance would constitute a huge blow to Hamas. So Cairo is effectively allied with Israel and against Qatar/Hamas/MB in this conflict. The obvious explanation for this is Cairo’s ongoing war against the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

The “Arab street” has failed to rally to the Qatar/Hamas banner. There are larger demonstrations in European cities for Hamas than in any Arab capital. The Arab world is engulfed by issues of far greater historic magnitude than the question of Gaza. And in any case, from the regional perspective this conflict appears as an Israel vs Hamas war, not an all out clash between Israelis and Palestinians.

Regarding strategic considerations – Hamas remains committed to the muqawama (“resistance”) doctrine, according to which it is engaged, together with other Islamist political-military organizations in a long war that will end in Israel’s destruction.

According to this view, most famously articulated by Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s general-secretary, Israel is physically and technologically strong, but suffers from a spiritual and ideological weakness.

This weakness is variously attributed either to the supposedly inherent cowardly and craven nature of Jews, or to the “artificiality” of the Jewish state and identity or to a not quite logically tenable mixture of the two.

This weakness, the muqawama doctrine considers, can be brought out through a long war of attrition, in which the inability of the Jews to absorb casualties, and their gradual recognition of the impossibility of normal life in their state will result in its slow and steady erosion, and eventual demise.

From the point of view of this doctrine, the Hamas decision to escalate makes sense – even if to an outsider the idea of a tiny statelet willingly seeking conflict with a vastly more powerful neighbor seems counter-intuitive. The civilians whom Hamas leaders knew would die in any conceivable Israeli response were presumably factored in as collateral damage. From a certain point of view, they even represented an asset, since their example could be held out as proof of the supposedly greater willingness of the Arab/Muslim side for self-sacrifice, when compared with the Israeli/Jewish enemy.

So the war derives from the desire of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar to return to relevance and centrality in the region, and from the persistent misreading of the nature of Israel and the true balance of forces between the Jewish state and its enemies, by the Islamist rulers of Gaza.

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Qatar/ Hamas’s collateral damage

PJMedia, 22/7

The fight between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is presented in the global media as a local conflict featuring a well organized state with its army, against a small Islamist organization. This picture is misleading. Hamas is not an isolated or even an entirely independent player. Rather, it is a member of a broader regional alliance, which is seeking to benefit from the current situation.

This is the alliance of Muslim Brotherhood forces in the Middle East. Qatar is the main financier and cheerleader for this group. Erdogan’s Turkey is also linked to it.

The Gaza war is best understood as this alliance’s war on Israel. How so? Lets take a look.

The Muslim Brotherhood/Qatar alliance has not been doing very well of late. It was the main winners of the first year of the ‘Arab Spring.’

Aided by Qatari money, and by the enthusiastic support of Qatar’s tame al-Jazeera channel, the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power in Egypt and in Tunisia. MB associated groups formed a strong presence for a time in the Syrian rebellion, too. Turkey, ruled by the MB-associated AKP, was a strong supporter of this process. Ankara forged close links with the Morsy government in Egypt. Turkey also offered support to MB type militias in Syria.

Hamas chose to place its bets on this emergent Muslim Brotherhood/Qatar power bloc. Formerly closely aligned with Iran, the movement’s leadership departed from Iran-allied Syria, and supported the rebellion against the Assad regime. Iranian funding slowed (though it didn’t entirely stop, and Iranian weapons have similarly been much in evidence in Hamas’s attacks). But Qatari money, and most importantly the support of the Morsy regime in Cairo seemed set to handily replace this.

Not much of all this remains. Hamas made a bad bet. 2013 was a terrible year for the Muslim Brothers. Morsy was ousted in Egypt. The Brotherhood associated Nahda party left office in Tunisia. The Syrian rebels were turned back by Assad and his allies and began to fight among themselves.

So Hamas entered 2014 in a much chastened state. While some elements within it were seeking to rebuild the connection to Iran, the levels of support were clearly nowhere close to the pre-2011 period.

Things got worse after the new Egyptian regime of General Abd al Fattah al-Sisi destroyed the system of tunnels that provided Gazans with readily available goods and the rulers of the Strip with a major source of income. Power cuts and shortages followed.

So the camp of which Hamas was a part, and the movement itself, were on the ropes in mid-2014.

The decision to escalate the tensions with Israel to an all out conflict clearly derive from this situation. Hamas unexpectedly proved unamenable to an Egyptian proposal that in essence would have restored the status quo ante.

Instead, the movement rejected the proposal, began to launch terror raids against Israel’s civilian population from July 8th, ignored a UN temporary ‘humanitarian ceasefire’ and then launched a failed raid from a tunnel carefully laid into Israeli territory.

These actions made a large scale Israeli response inevitable. Clearly, Hamas had made a decision to invite this.

As of now, the movement and its backers are probably quite satisfied at the results of their endeavor. Qatar is once more at the center of regional diplomacy. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas were there last week, to hear Hamas’s latest demands for a ceasefire. The Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani is acting as the “channel of communication” to the ‘international community.”

The UN chief chose the Qatari capital as the place from which to castigate Israel’s ‘atrocious’ actions in Gaza.

Hamas, by all accounts, is improving its standing in the ‘Palestinian street’, according to the latter’s gauge whereby anyone engaging in attempts to kill Israelis automatically acquires both moral and political authority.

This was notable, for example, in the waves of celebration that hit Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem and the West Bank last Sunday when TV reports began to carry a Hamas claim to have kidnapped an IDF soldier.

The kidnapping claim appears to have been fraudulent. But this didn’t prevent the initial jubilation in Palestinian areas far from Gaza at the news of his supposed misfortune. It also didn’t prevent the Qatari propaganda channel al-Jazeera from broadcasting the claims rapidly and with prominence.

Hamas, which began to be seen as a kind of semi collaborationist group in recent months because of its preventing of other groups from firing rockets, is now once more able to don the mantle of ‘resistance.’ Qatar, which looked outflanked by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and reduced by them to its appropriate dimensions, is now back at the center of regional diplomacy.

So mission accomplished, after a fashion. The dead Palestinians and the dead Israelis, presumably, are seen by the Hamas leaders Mashaal and Haniyeh, both of whom own mansions in Doha, and by the rich-as-Croesus Qatari Emir, as acceptable collateral damage in return for their improved diplomatic and strategic position.

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The Fire This Time

New York Daily News, 14/7

In recent years, even as the constant threat of terrorism from Hamas and Hezbollah loomed, Israelis would note the political conflagrations burning up the region all around them and would contrast these with the relative tranquility and normality in their own immediate neighborhood.

These observations were made nervously, not with arrogance. Behind them was the assumption that it couldn’t last. Sooner or later, the wave of political fury sweeping the region would erupt in Israel’s immediate vicinity too.

Now it has happened. The local version of the militant Islamist political orientation which is driving the instability in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt has now once more awakened in Israel and is spreading chaos in its wake.

Whichever particular wing or structure or iteration of the Hamas movement precisely was responsible for the recent kidnapping and murder of Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shayer and Eyal Yifrach, there is no serious doubt remaining as to the movement’s responsibility for this atrocity.

It was this act which proved the trigger for all that has followed: the rounding up of Hamas suspects as Israel scoured the West Bank in search of the boys; a rain of missiles and rockets from the Hamas sovereign enclave in Gaza, and now, the real possibility of a renewed IDF ground operation into Gaza.

There is a tendency to see the Israeli-Palestinian arena as somehow set apart from the rest of the Mid-East neighborhood. But this is an illusion.

Firstly, in the most tangible way, the most potent elements of the Hamas assault on Israeli cities of recent days is made possible only by the movement’s link with Iran.

The M-302 missile which was fired on Hadera on Tuesday is a product of Syria, and was almost certainly supplied to Hamas by Iran. Similar materiel was discovered by the IDF on the Klos-C arms ship, apprehended by the IDF on its way from Iran to Sudan in March.

Similarly, the Islamic Jihad movement, which has been rapidly gaining strength at Hamas’s expense in Gaza in recent months, is a full proxy of Iran.

But in a deeper sense, both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are local manifestations of the particular, pathological Islamist political-religious-paramilitary style and ideology which has challenged order and made life a misery all across the region in recent decades, and with added strength in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring of 2011.

Take a look around the neighborhood. In Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, rival, equally implacable versions of political Islam are at each others’ throats. In Syria, upwards of 160,000 people have died over the course of the last four years. In Lebanon, a Shia Islamist terror group, Hizballah, enjoys unrivalled dominance. In Iraq, a Sunni Islamist killing machine has conquered the west of the country and is poised to assault Baghdad.

So why then have Israel and its environs nevertheless managed to avoid the general collapse of these other countries? The reason is deterrence.

There is a single, dominant military element west of the Jordan River. This element is the Israel Defense Forces.

But deterrence, alas, is a perishable substance, which must be periodically replenished. Hamas, facing difficult economic straits, with its tunnels sealed by Sisi’s armed forces, with newer and yet more radical Islamist elements inspired by ISIS emerging from within, evidently decided that it was time for another round.

As of now, Israel is engaging in a far reaching operation designed to hit at Hamas’ capabilities. But more profoundly, in the simple and brutal logic of the neighborhood, Israel is trying to remind Hamas of the cost of tangling with the Jewish state.

The objective of this is not to re-conquer Gaza, nor to impact on local politics, still less to impose suffering on the Palestinians for its own sake.

When one’s neighbors are Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the modest objective of quiet can only be bought at the cost of periodic military actions intended to remind the enemy of the cost of aggression and thus reinforce deterrence.

Because of the strength of Israeli arms, the conflict between Israel and the PA territories don’t resemble those roiling Iraq or Syria. The relative balance of forces, however, is a lesson which those who wish to turn the country into something resembling those hell-holes must periodically re-learn – through bitter experience.

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Fractured States

Jerusalem Post, 4/7

In the latest evidence of ongoing fragmentation in what was once Iraq and Syria, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, this week announced his intention to hold a referendum in the coming months to decide the question of Kurdish independence.

“I have said many times that independence is the natural right of the people of Kurdistan,” Barzani told the BBC in an interview. “All these developments [in Iraq] reaffirm that, and from now on we will not hide that the goal of Kurdistan is independence… I cannot fix a date now, but it’s a question of months.”

Barzani’s words reflect the increased self-confidence of the Kurds, following their recent acquisition of the oil-rich Kirkuk area and the effective performance of their armed forces against the jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – in sharp contrast to the army of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The US was quick to make its opposition to this move, and its continued support for Iraqi unity clear. US State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told a press conference, “As we’ve said many times over the past few weeks, we believe that a unified Iraq is a stronger Iraq,” Meanwhile, the de facto disunification of Iraq continued.

The opening session of the new Iraqi parliament, elected after the April general elections, lasted only as long as it took for the Kurdish and Sunni MPs to walk out, following the failure to find an agreed-upon candidate to replace Maliki as prime minister.

The fighting, too, is going on. Iraqi troops this week claimed to have halted the advance of ISIS fighters and retaken the city of Tikrit. The Kurds clashed with ISIS forces in the town of Jalawla in Diyala province, preventing the Sunni Islamists from widening their hold in the town.

What does all this portend? As in Syria, so in Iraq: Politics and diplomacy lag sharply behind the de facto situation on the ground.

Both local politicians and the “international community” have evidently not yet grasped the reality of what is now taking place in the land area formerly known as Iraq and Syria.

US Secretary of State John Kerry in recent days held meeting after meeting in Iraq, Europe and the Middle East to cobble together a government of “national salvation” in Baghdad.

Much analysis remains focused on whether “partition” of Iraq and Syria is feasible or advisable. But the reality is that both countries are already partitioned. A single war is now taking place in the land area that was once divided between them.

Three coherent blocs are engaged in this war. The three blocs are ISIS, the Kurds (KRG in north Iraq, PYD in north Syria) and the pro-Iran, largely Shi’ite, Russia-supported element of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Maliki, et al.

All three of these blocs hold coherent and solid territorial areas. In the case of ISIS, which has in many ways become the pivotal player in this war, a single-state authority is in the process of being established to hold power over the area stretching from the Turkish Syrian border all the way to Mosul.

ISIS is already conducting its military planning on a statewide basis. The state in question is not Syria or Iraq; it is the as-yet- unnamed successor entity that the movement has created.

The massive haul of arms acquired from the Iraqi Army’s 2nd and 3rd Divisions in Mosul and from other units in the Kirkuk and Diyala areas deep in Iraq is now finding its way back to the Syrian battlefield.

Kurds in the embattled Kobani enclave close to the Syrian-Turkish border reported a renewed ISIS offensive from the west this week. Syrian Sunni rebels have noted the appearance of American Humvee jeeps as far west as the vicinity of Aleppo city – about 400 kilometers from the Iraqi border.

Against this emergent reality, international diplomacy appears helpless and flailing.

The US, as we have seen, along with Turkey, remains opposed to any declaration of Kurdish statehood. So Barzani is likely to tread carefully regarding any such announcement.

The ISIS entity, for obvious reasons, will not be receiving formal recognition from anyone any time soon.

The Assad regime can survive only with the continued injection of Iranian money and know-how, and Russian arms. The West remains formally committed to a transition of power in Damascus.

But all this is largely beside the point. All these entities will continue to exist unless and until someone is willing to destroy them.

They are not strong enough to conquer each other (in the Kurdish case, there is no desire for such conquest).

There are no signs of any external force on the horizon that is willing or able to carry out the conventional military campaign which alone could force these successor entities back into the neat state boxes which the West would like to see reestablished.

Thus, on the ground, partition has already happened.

Absent a game-changing development (such as a major commitment of US ground forces), it is difficult to see how Iraq and Syria can be put together again.

In the period ahead, as Barzani’s statement this week seemed to indicate, we may have to get used to referring to “the former” Syria, and “the former” Iraq – in the same way it is now customary to refer to “the former” Yugoslavia.

The problem for the people of these areas is that the wars between the successor entities appear as if they have a long time yet to run.

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Kurdish Advances

Jerusalem Post, 21/6

The stunning collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul, and the rapid advance of the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) through Tikrit and toward Baghdad has created a new reality in Iraq.

ISIS advances have continued this week; the organization has now taken the town of Tel Afar, with its 200,000 inhabitants, located west of Mosul.

Iraq is now divided on a de facto basis into a Shi’ite south and center, including Baghdad, a Sunni, ISIS-dominated west and a Kurdish-ruled north.

The biggest winners from this situation, apart perhaps from ISIS itself, are the Iraqi Kurds. The conflict between the Sunni jihadis and the Iran-supported Baghdad authorities has enabled the Kurds to add a number of key building blocks to the nearly completed edifice of Kurdish independence in the area once known as northern Iraq.

Largely ignored by the Western media, the Kurds have been quietly building their autonomy in the three northern provinces of Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk, granted to them by the Iraqi Constitution of 2005.

A stable political system protected by a powerful armed force of around 100,000 men (the Peshmerga) has been out in place.

In the weeks prior to the current crisis in Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) began to independently export crude oil, via Turkey, without seeking the approval of Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad. Maliki struck back by cutting funding to the KRG in Erbil.

The dispute remained unresolved in the days prior to the sudden eruption of the ISIS offensive in early June. The disagreement over oil exports formed part of a larger standoff between the Baghdad government and the KRG over control of oil-rich, majority Kurdish areas in Kirkuk, Ninawa, Salahaddin and Diyala provinces. The Maliki government threatened to exclude any oil company that began to drill under KRG auspices from access to the giant oil fields in Shi’ite southern Iraq.

The complex standoff now appears to have been resolved – entirely in the KRG’s favor. As Iraqi forces fled from the ISIS advance, the Kurdish Peshmerga swiftly moved in to the long-disputed town of Kirkuk. The Kurds refer to Kirkuk as their “Jerusalem,” and their population was largely ethnically cleansed from the city in the 1980s by Saddam Hussein’s regime. They have long sought its reincorporation into their area of control.

This is not a matter only of sentiment: Kirkuk sits on an area of vast oil wealth, considered to contain nearly 9 billion barrels of oil reserves. By comparison, according to the International Energy Agency, the entire KRG area without Kirkuk contains around 4 billion barrels of proven oil reserves.

The taking of Kirkuk, along with the recent opening of the pipeline to Turkey and thence to international markets, means the emergence of a Kurdish regional oil power is now a reality. The Kurds have already built a link that connects Kirkuk to their pipeline to Turkey.

The political confusion, meanwhile, and the push east by ISIS and associated Sunni forces has demonstrated that the Peshmerga are the most powerful military force in Iraq. They are now deployed along the newly expanded borders of the KRG, and are directly facing the fighters of ISIS. Some clashes have already taken place.

But, for the most part, ISIS and its allies appear to prefer to advance against Iraqi government forces and in the direction of Baghdad, while leaving the more formidable Kurdish fighters alone. Certainly, unlike the Iraqi government-controlled towns still falling to the advance of the Sunni fighters, the Kurdish-controlled areas do not appear vulnerable.

Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has also made clear that the Peshmerga will not assist the Iraqi army in the effort to retake Mosul. The Kurds, rather, will focus on securing their own borders.

Barzani this week expressed support for an autonomous zone for Sunnis in Iraq, and laid the blame for the current situation largely at the feet of Maliki. Barzani told the BBC, “We have to leave it to Sunni areas to decide, but I think this is the best model for them as well. First, they have to take a decision: what they want exactly. And in our view… the best way is to have a Sunni region, like we have in Kurdistan.”

What all this means is that there exists today an economically powerful, politically stable, well-defended Kurdish entity, with a population of 5 million people, in what was once northern Iraq.

The effective collapse of any authority on the part of Baghdad over this entity means that the latter is now a Kurdish state in all but name.

So will the KRG soon declare independence, turning the de facto state that the Kurds have quietly built up into a de jure sovereign area? The answer is that while it is now clear that statehood is the goal, an early, open declaration of independence by the Kurds remains unlikely.

A source in the KRG told this reporter that Turkish opposition to any declaration of Kurdish statehood had been the main obstacle to any such move. Turkish lobbying in Washington and in the capitals of Europe meant that Western countries remained opposed to Kurdish independence.

The US has also, for its own reasons, remained throughout staunchly in favor of the “territorial integrity” of Iraq. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated this stance in a statement this week. The Turkish position in this regard appears to be softening, according to a number of reports.

But for as long as the clear US and Western position remains (somewhat bafflingly) opposed to the aspirations of the powerful and openly pro-Western Kurdish de facto sovereign entity in northern Iraq, its independence is likely to remain undeclared.

The collapse of Iraq into renewed sectarian war, and the powerful assertion of Kurdish self-government in the north are the latest evidence that the region – and specifically the area known formally as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – is in the midst of a historic convulsion whose end is not near.

Whatever the final outcome of all this, Kurdish sovereignty in practice is today a reality in the former northern Iraq. And if the KRG can successfully navigate the difficult diplomacy of the months and years ahead, at a certain point it is likely that the world will have little option but to adjust – and formally recognize this reality.

 

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Second Front opens in the Sunni-Shia War

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) organization swept into the city of Mosul in western Iraq last week.  No one has any right to be surprised. ‬

ISIL has held a large swath of western Iraq since January – including the city of Fallujah.  The organization was clearly planning a larger scale offensive action into Iraq. ‬

In January it had carried out a strategic withdrawal from large swaths of Idleb and Aleppo provinces in Syria. This was intended to consolidate its lines in northern Syria, so as to move fighters out toward Iraq.  ISIL controls a contiguous bloc of territory stretching from western Iraq up through eastern and northern Syria to the Turkish border. ‬

Its “Islamic State” is already an existing, if precarious fact, no longer a mere aspiration.  So, like a state at war, it moves its forces to the front where they are most needed‬.

The rapid collapse of Nouri al-Maliki’s garrison in Mosul in the face of the ISIL assault should also come as no surprise.  These forces are hollow. ‬

Saddam Hussein maintained a huge army by coercion. Shirkers and deserters could expect to be executed. But Maliki’s army consists of poorly paid conscripts and often corrupt officers.  The Shia among them in Mosul saw no reason to fight and die for what seemed to them to be Sunni, alien territory.  Sunni officers among the garrison, meanwhile, may well have been working with ISIL itself or with one of the other Sunni Islamist or nationalist formations fighting alongside them. ‬

So what will happen now?  The pattern of developing events is already clear, and much may be learned from the experience of Syria. ‬

Bashar Assad, when rebellion broke out against him in March 2011, sought to use his huge conscript army to crush it.  But the Syrian dictator rapidly found out that his supposedly 295,000-strong army was largely a fiction.  Sunni conscripts refused to engage against the rebels, and Bashar was able to make use only of certain units composed largely of members of his own Alawi sect — units such as the Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division. ‬

How did Assad address this problem? The answer is that he didn’t — Iran did. ‬

Realizing that their Syrian ally was facing defeat because of an absence of reliable manpower, the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps stepped in to effectively create a new, sectarian military for the Assads.  In addition, Iran introduced its various regional paramilitary proxies into the Syrian battlefield. ‬

By mid-2013, the new, sectarian infantry force trained by the Quds Force and Hizballah – named the National Defense Force – was beginning to be deployed against the Syrian rebellion.  In addition, Hizballah, and Iraqi Shia volunteers of Sadrist and other loyalties began to fill the gaps in manpower for Assad. ‬

These units turned the tide of the Syrian war.  But they have brought Assad survival, not victory.  The dictator rules over only about 40% of the territory of what was once Syria.  The rest is under the control of ISIL, the Kurds, and the Sunni Arab rebels. ‬

It is likely that a similar pattern will now emerge in Iraq.  Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani has been in Baghdad since Friday.  He is in the process of organizing Iraqi Shia volunteers, who in the months to come are likely to be transformed into a sectarian military force resembling the Syrian National Defense Force. ‬

In addition to the new volunteers, Iraqi Shia militiamen in Shia southern Iraq and in Syria are flocking toward the battlefront, eager to do battle with ISIL on their home soil. ‬

These hastily assembled forces, along with the reliable elements of Maliki’s military, are likely to prove sufficient to defend the capital and perhaps to prevent further gains by ISIL, which may have over-reached itself.  But the new, openly sectarian Shia forces behind Maliki are unlikely to succeed in re-taking the entirety of ISIL’s territorial gains in Anbar and Ninewah provinces. ‬

Iran is a leading world expert in the creation of proxy sectarian military forces.  But given the demographic balance in present day Iraq, and in Syria, Iran’s assistance is likely to ensure the survival of the non-Sunni population only in a part of the country in question.  That is – ISIL and Iran’s intervention into Iraq may well portend the de facto partition of that country, and its plunging into a prolonged conflict, along the lines of what is currently taking place in Syria. ‬

Indeed, given the players engaging in Iraq, it is more sensible to see the Syrian civil war and the renewed Iraq conflict as different battlefronts in a single, sectarian war — in which Sunni and Shia/Alawi forces are clashing.  The latter are backed crucially by Iran. The former receive far less systematic and determined backing from a variety of sources, including private elements in the Gulf and perhaps the intelligence services of a number of Gulf states.

Only in Lebanon, which lacks a native Sunni military tradition, have the Iranian proxy forces managed to secure near complete military domination of the country.  In the very different and far more consequential contexts of Iraq and Syria, Sunni rebellion and Iranian reaction are likely to produce the fracturing of the countries in question along sectarian lines. ‬

The Kurds, possessors of a strong, largely secular nationalist tradition and identity, may emerge as major winners from this process of fragmentation, in the context both of Syria and Iraq (as witnessed by the rapid gains made by the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces in recent days). ‬

As for the warring Arab Islamic sects, they are set to continue to battle one another, with ready foreign help, over the ruins of the countries once known as Iraq and Syria. This war is just beginning.  Any attempts to portray either of the warring sides as “anti-terrorist” or “pro-western” should be stubbornly resisted.  Acceptance of such definitions is the entry hall to new policy failures and wasted lives.  ISIL and the Quds Force differ in organizational structure, but are similarly anti-western — and similarly vile. They should be left to bleed one another white.‬

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