Doha Descending

Jerusalem Post, 11/1

Amid rumors of Mashaal’s expulsion, Doha trying to regain alliance with Egypt, Saudi Arabia

It is still not clear whether reports in Turkish newspaper Aydinlik concerning the expulsion by Qatar of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal are accurate. Hamas officials have indignantly denied that their leader is shortly set to quit his Doha home.

But certainly, Mashaal’s expulsion would fit with the broader pattern of recent events.

Recent months have witnessed a number of acts by Qatar suggesting it is seeking to repair relations with its fellow Gulf monarchies, and with Egypt. Hamas, the enemy of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Saudis, can have no part in this.

The expulsion of Mashaal, if it takes place, will be the latest concession by Doha to the wishes of Cairo and Riyadh.

Qatar’s latest moves are the fruit of partial defeat for Doha in its regional agenda; Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the winners. Lets take a look.

Qatar, in the first two years of the regional upheaval that began in 2011, appeared to be riding high. The tiny emirate backed the Muslim Brotherhood movement; its enormously influential Al Jazeera channel pumped out propaganda on behalf of the movement and against its enemies. In late 2012, at what was evidently its high-water mark, the Qatar-Brotherhood alliance appeared to be forming a new power bloc in the Middle East.

The Brotherhood had achieved power in the most populous Arab state – Egypt. It Tunisian iteration, al-Nahda, won elections there.

Militias associated with a Brotherhood-type outlook and financed by Qatar, such as the Tawhid Brigade of Aleppo, were playing a key role in the Syrian war – and victory looked within reach. Turkey, under the rule of the Brotherhood-influenced AK Party, had drawn close to Qatar and saw itself playing a key role in the emergent Sunni Islamist alliance.

Two years on, nearly all of this is in ruins.

Most importantly, the army is back in power in Egypt and is engaged in an attempt to crush the Brotherhood. In Tunisia, Nahda lost elections in 2014 and has ceded power to its non-Islamist rivals. In Syria, a regionwide mobilization by Iran of its allies and proxies, and the determined support of Russia as well as rebel confusion and disunity, have saved Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

This has left both Qatar and Hamas somewhat beached. Doha had antagonized its fellow Gulf monarchies to distraction, in the service of a new power bloc that apparently is not going to come into existence after all.

Hamas, meanwhile, had also placed its bets on this emergent Sunni Islamist bloc.

The Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood had removed itself from Damascus, rejected the Iranian attempt to exhort it to declare its support for Assad, and suffered a major loss in Iranian funding as a result.

RECENT MONTHS have seen both Qatar and Hamas seeking to adjust themselves to this new reality, but in different directions.

In mid-September, Doha ordered several prominent members of the Egyptian Brotherhood to leave the emirate. They had been offered asylum after fleeing their country following the military coup in July 2013.

The first indication of improved relations with other Gulf states came after a surprise summit of Gulf Cooperation Council countries on November 16, 2014. As a result of this meeting, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates agreed to return their ambassadors to Qatar after an absence of eight months. In the days after, Saudi King Abdullah II received a phone call from Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

The GCC summit in Bahrain in early December saw further Qatari concessions on Libya and Egypt, where Doha’s position had run in direct contradiction to that of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Doha gave its full support to Sisi and his “road map” for Egypt at the summit; afterward, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Bin Mohammed al-Attiya pledged Doha’s support for Sisi, and spoke of the importance of Egypt’s regional role.

Then, on December 20, Sisi met with an envoy of the Qatari emir, in a meeting brokered by Riyadh.

Thus, the Mashaal departure, if indeed it takes place, will be the latest in a string of concessions offered by Doha to the Cairo-Riyadh alliance – which is emerging as the key power arrangement among the Sunnis at present.

Qatar is of course enormously wealthy, but it is also a flimsy state, lacking hard power of any kind. For its economic and business activities to continue to flourish, it cannot afford to stray too far from existing power alliances, which will inevitably be dominated by states other than itself.

For a while, the Qataris thought they were set to be the financiers and cheerleaders of a new, Egypt-centered bloc – yet that bloc was stillborn. The Qataris are now accommodating themselves to this reality.

Hamas, too, must make its own new arrangements, and indications are that the movement is leaning in the direction of renewed rapprochement with Iran. The year 2014 saw a gradual thaw in relations between Hamas and Tehran, though all suspicion is unlikely to have dispelled.

Hamas’s needs are different from those of Qatar. And of course, Hamas has no way to align with the Cairo-Riyadh alliance – which regards it as an element of the Brotherhood they are seeking to defeat.

This leaves Tehran or Ankara as possible backers – or more likely, a hedging and a combination of the two.

Of course, one should not assume that Qatar will entirely end its support for Islamist movements. Doha has not fallen in love with Riyadh; it is repositioning out of necessity and through clenched teeth. The more extravagant Egyptian demands – such as that Doha expel prominent Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi – are unlikely to be fulfilled; Qaradawi has lived in the emirate since 1961.

Ultimately, what the Qatari concessions indicate is the burgeoning strength of the Cairo-Riyadh alliance, which has forced a Qatari realignment while appearing to offer no, or hardly any, gestures in return.

This new alliance (which has good, if largely silent, relations with Israel), is perhaps the most important diplomatic development in the region since 2011.

As of now, with the US seeking rapprochement with Iran, the main blocs facing one another in the region are the Iranians and their allies against the Saudis and their own.

The Brotherhood and the Salafists are a factor, to be sure, but for the moment a weaker one.

In sum, the travails and maneuvering of Qatar and Hamas reflect the disarray of the Sunni Islamist camp.

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How are Things in Kobani?

PJmedia, 9/1
The battle for the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani just entered its fourth month. It is now a fight for a heap of ruins. Four months of intense ground combat, involving tanks, mortars and RPGs as well as small arms, has reduced the city to rubble.

Nevertheless, Kobani matters. It is where the Syrian Kurds showed that with the right support, local fighters are capable of turning back the forces of the Islamic State.

Kobani also matters because as a result of the stand of the Kurdish YPG organization in the city, a potential reliable ally of the west in northern Syria has been identified. In the fight between rival successor entities over the ruins of Syria and Iraq, this is a relationship which deserves to be nurtured and developed.

I visited Kobani before the IS assault of the autumn. In March of last year, the enclave was under siege from four directions – the jihadis from south, east and west, and the Turkish authorities from the north. The Turks had a strange and ambiguous relationship with the ISIS jihadis. Sometimes the border gates would be opened to let them exit and enter. Wounded jihadis were treated in hospitals in Ceylanpinar across the border, with no questions asked.

Still, the Kurds were holding out. The positions near Tal Abyad to the east, and Jarabulus to the west, were well defended. In a place called Haj Ismail, I observed as the YPG responded swiftly and efficiently to the first signs of an ISIS attack.

Within the enclave, life was close to normal. There wasn’t a great deal of food. But the schools were operating, the hospitals were open. The Kurdish enclave had become a place of refuge for Syrian Arabs, too, seeking to flee the chaos of the fighting further west in Aleppo.

But the uneasy half-cold siege ended in September. The Islamic State, flush with new weaponry from the garrison in faraway Mosul, descended on the peaceful enclave. Their intention was to destroy it, so as to clear the way for their forces to move more easily between Raqqa province and Aleppo and Idleb.

They nearly succeeded. Despite the dogged defense of the YPG, the villages surrounding Kobani city began to fall. The civilian population was evacuated across the border. The YPG fighters prepared for a last stand within the city. What reversed the situation was the commencement of U.S. and coalition air attacks on the IS positions after October 6th. The air campaign evened out the YPG’s inferior weaponry, and the Kurds began to claw back control of the city.

Earlier this week, I spoke to Perwer Mohammed Ali, one of the Kurdish activists with whom I had worked back in March. Arrested by the Turks on leaving Kobani, Perwer made his way back to the enclave. I asked him about the current situation in the city.

“Right now its calm,” he told me. “The YPG control about 80% of the city. Daesh is still holding two neighborhoods – Kaniya Kurdan and Mikteleh. A couple of days ago, they tried to launch a counter attack. They had a tank with them, but they didn’t succeed.”

And are the coalition airstrikes helping?

“The coalition is good but we’d like them to target the tanks. IS has a bunch of them in Mikteleh.”

The liberation of Kobani seems near. The real task, says Perwer, will come afterwards. “Kobani is destroyed,” he told me, “so the big problem will be after the liberation.”

The liberation, nevertheless, seems imminent. When it comes, it will be testimony to the potency of U.S. air power, of course, but it will also be the result of the courage and determination of the fighters of the YPG.

The Middle East is the most dysfunctional political space on the planet. As has been amply demonstrated in recent days, ideas emanating from it and the bloody actions they inspire represent one of the most potent dangers to free societies anywhere.

The west cannot ignore the Middle East without abandoning it to anti-western forces. Engaging with the region, supporting allies, facing down dangers are all essential.

In the darkest days before the commencement of coalition bombing in Kobani, I sat in London with two leaders of the Kurdish PYD, the party that controls the Kurdish cantons in Syria. “Our situation,” they told me at that time, “is desperate.” The absence of even RPGs to deal with the IS armor seemed to presage doom.

Belatedly, Kobani was saved. The joint action of the U.S. Air Force and the YPG fighters who protected the town ought to be the start of a political relationship between the west and the Syrian Kurds. Dialogue with the PYD has begun. It should lead to a recognition of Kurdish national rights in both Syria and Iraq. In the ruins of these fragmented countries, there aren’t many reliable friends. There are some. The Kurds — in Syria as in Iraq — are chief among them. Their courage and their moderation deserve to be recognized and this recognition needs to be reflected in policy.

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A Crossing of the Lines (an excerpt from a book I want to write)

On the night I was due to leave I sat in the media center talking to a very thin, very tall and soft spoken Kurdish man in his mid-30s, who everyone treated with a sort of quiet deference.  This was Nuri Mahmoud, a ,local man who had lost a leg fighting the Turks with the PKK in the Qandil mountains, between Northern Iraq and South East Turkey.

Nuri spoke very quietly, and at length, and was never interrupted.  He had come down from Qandil to oversee the building of political institutions in the enclave.  He was one of the senior PKK cadres that one came across everywhere in the Kurdish parts of Syria.  He was keen also to ask me about Israel, and how Israelis and Jews viewed the Kurds. And as was usual in Kurdish circles, he said some kind words about the Jews, their history, their sufferings and their aspirations.

After our interview, an impromptu concert began in the media center.  A man with a Saz, the Kurdish stringed instrument began to play and sing and some of the young activists joined in.  I am fond of this instrument, with its wild, jangling tones and I stayed and listened to the singing too.  The light was falling and it would soon be time for us to leave for the border area.  I remember the feeling of quiet sanity around the center. There was a small lawn outside and some young activists were diggjng in a vegetable garden.  The atmosphere was one of idealism, good humor, and quiet devotion.

They played YPG songs in the van as we drove out of the city westwards for the rendezvous with the smugglers.  There was one of the anthems that I particularly liked.  It had a kind of defiant swagger to it.  The chorus was ‘Biji, biji, YPG!’ (long live the YPG).  It came out of the radio as the darkness descended and we drove west in the direction of Jarabulus.  I remembered a line from Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’ about a moment in the Spanish war where he was attested by the nagging doubt that perhaps war was indeed glorious after all.  This was how it felt in Kobani in the spring of 2014.

The exit proved a challenge on a level I had not experienced before.  The Turkish security measures were tight.  I was placed with some smugglers in a remote and tiny hamlet close to the border fence.  On the first night, a Turkish armored vehicle with a camera was patrolling along the fence and the smugglers decided not to risk trying a run.

A man called Adnan with his two small and well-dressed children had attempted to make it across earlier. He had been caught by the patrol and beaten.  Brown-haired Adnan, who must have been about forty, was stoic and quiet as he described the events.  They had shouted at him to stop and he had done so. Then the officer and the soldiers had kicked and punched him and sent him back in the direction of Syria, and he had returned to the smugglers’ village from where he had started out.  His children were silent.  A girl of about ten and a boy slightly younger, with pale, set, serious faces.  They huddled together very quietly under the covers of one of the makeshift beds in the hut.

‘Tomorrow I’ll try and head back for Damascus, and look for work there.  And you – make sure you don’t end up in a Turkish jail,’ Adnan told me as we sat on the floor and ate a meager meal of raw vegetables.

The night passed slowly, and in the morning the smugglers informed me that we would hopefully be trying again the following night, but much depended on the presence of the mysterious camera vehicle.  ‘Its from Israel,’ they said with a sort of fearful wonder regarding the device, ‘the Turks bought it from them.  It can see in the darkness.’

The smugglers lived in astonishing squalor and poverty.  An outside squat toilet overflowing with human excrement was in the yard. Chickens and a goat came and went freely inside.  An ageing matriarch with blue tattoos on her face was in charge, with her five sons and their wives together inhabiting the small house and the adjoining hut.

They were friendly enough, though. The youngest, a musclebound man of about 25 called Samir was permanently connected to the internet through his cellphone.  ‘Are you on Facebook?’ he asked me, and began to search for my profile, with a rusty old rifle placed by his side as he scrolled down,looking for me.  A scene that in most of its details could have been unchanged for 150 years, armed Kurdish smugglers on a remote border –  and then the smartphone.

We got across that night. Samir and I made the final run towards the fence.  He pulled it up and I crawled under.  It felt like a real border, not a forgotten one.  Searchlights and a gendarmerie base close by. The wire was tough and young and Samir used all his strength to pull it up as I crawled under.  I had to sprint about 100 meters towards a house where the smugglers’ associates were waiting for me.  I made it.  The strange vehicle, it seemed, had deployed elsewhere that night.

The second group of smugglers were a number of very young boys, the youngest about 14, the oldest no more than 18, living semi-ferally in a shack close to the border fence.  They began to demand additional payment from me a few minutes after I arrived.  I refused, knowing that if I paid up, there would be more demands all the way through to Urfa. Instead, I told them I’d give them something the next day once they’d got me off the mountain and down to Urfa. For a moment, I feared that things were about to get strange, but the moment passed. The next day, they drove me down from the mountain in an ancient car which we had to push to get it to start.   I was in Sanliurfa by morning and back in my hotel in Gaziantep by lunchtime.

I savored moments such as these:  entering the hotel, covered in earth and dust and sweat.  Everything was worth it for that brief euphoria, and then the peace and silence for a while afterwards.   The ice cold beer, and the hot showers, and the trashy American comedy shows that I loved to watch for hours, with the air conditioning on, and the Syrian war just a few miles and a long, long way away. ‘Two Broke Girls’ and ‘Veep’ and ‘Family Guy’ in all their wondrous inanity coming out of the screen.  And privacy. And solitude.

I had three days til I was due to leave Gaziantep.  But my job wasn’t quite over.  The town, and neighboring Cielis were, I knew, a hub for the fighters of ISIS.  I wanted, if possible, to make contact with members of the organization, and to interview them on the Turkish side.

This was not as difficult, nor as dangerous, as it sounds.  Of course, ISIS were already reknowned for their cruelty and violence.  But they were seen quite differently among the circles of the Syrian rebels  – even those who did not support them.

ISIS were not bogeymen or monsters for the rebels.  The rebellion as a whole was Arab, Sunni and Islamic.  So they were not seen as some strange creatures who had emerged from outside – but rather as a particular manifestation of the rebellion, albeit one with its own problems and peculiarities.

I tried to reactivate some of my old contacts among the Arab opposition to see if they could connect me to the jihadis.  First, I called Zaher Said, my fixer from Aleppo.  Zaher came to my hotel late in the evening and it was joyful to see him.  He hadn’t changed, still the same lustrous sheen of black hair and the same tech-savvy, cool demeanor.  I asked about Meysoun and was told that he was ok too.  But Zaher wasnt sure if he could help me about ISIS.  ‘They don’t usually talk to journalists, you know.  They have to ask their Amir for permission, anyway.’

I thought of the frontlines near Jarabulus and the dead ISIS fighters lying there like strange mounds of earth.  And how they had sent an armored vehicle to collect the fresh corpse of one of these Amirs.  I remembered them in the distance blasting away across the flat ground, and the Kurdish fighters racing to their positions.  Zaher said he would get in touch with some friends of his from the organization and would let me know if anything else came up.

I tried someone else, another contact with the Arab rebels. This was Mahmoud Mousa, who I had met in Antakya, and who I regarded as among the most impressive of the rebels that I knew.

Mahmoud was from Jisr a Shughur, a former head teacher.  An early supporter of the rebellion, he had fled with his family across the border when the fighting reached his hometown in late 2011.  Re-settled temporarily in the Cielis refugee camp, Mahmoud had set about finding himself a new profession.  With fluent, clipped English and a fine analytical mind, he had started as a fixer for the foreign media and had progressed to working as a kind of unofficial political analyst and educator for the more serious among the journalists.  His knowledge and his insights into the balance of forces in northern Syria and the more general situation were invaluable.

Ginger, bearded Mahmoud was a born teacher, with a natural air of quiet authority about him.  And he told me he’d make some enquiries among his friends and family and would give me a call if anything came up.

Part of me, a large part, actually, hoped that he wouldn’t get back in contact.  My conscience wouldnt have let me rest if I hadn’t tried to contact the jihadis.  But once the effort was made, I was perfectly happy spending a few relaxed days around Gaziantep.

It wasn’t til I was out of Kobani that I realized how very little I’d eaten in the week inside.  No meat, just lots of mashed potatoes with hot paprika sprinkled on them (the YPG were fond of that, for some reason) and coarse pita bread and a few raw vegetables.

So I wolfed down helpings of ‘Iskander’ (a Turkish lamb and yogurt dish) at the restaurants by the hotel, and I drank the small, exquisite cups of sweet coffee available in the old cafes and smoked and felt my limbs relaxing from the strains of the running in the dust and falling.  And I drank ice cold Efes Pilsen beer in the evenings at the hotel, quite alone and happy.  Modern cities, even modest ones like Gaziantep, become things of wonder after a few days in a place like besieged Kobani.  And all was good and might have stayed that way. But then Mahmoud called and said that he had an ISIS fighter who was willing to speak to me in Cielis.

The man, he said, was a distant relative.  He was a former, or resting fighter of the organization, but he had asked his Amir if he could speak with me, and the man had apparently agreed.  I’d need to get to Cielis the next morning.  The meeting would take place in a private apartment belonging to an older man close to the circles of the jihadis.

The prospect filled me with some trepidation.  I didn’t quite like the thought of being alone and enclosed in an apartment with the ISIS guys.  Also, Mahmoud said that another man would be accompanying his relative.  This man, it appeared, was still involved with the jihadis.  The organization had already kidnapped journalists and this arrangement raised some alarm bells.  On the other hand, I wasn’t sure that I was quite important enough for an operation like this to be raised in my honor. There had been no previous indications of similar actions on Turkish soil, and I imagined that the organization’s complex relationship with the Turks would be something it would wish to preserve.

Anyway, whatever the advisability or otherwise of the meeting, I wasn’t going to turn down the chance.  The opportunity was too fascinating, and too good for the stories I wanted to write.  So I had a quiet and subdued evening in the hotel and I set off in a service taxi for Cielis in the morning.

I had passed through Cielis before, but by evening and when I was very tired, on the way out of Syria.  This was the first time I had seen it by daylight and at a time when I was able to pay attention.  It was fascinating the extent to which it had effectively become a Syrian town.  One heard Arabic everywhere, and Turkish hardly at all.  The streets were teeming with Syrian refugees.  The Cielis refugee camp was clearly not the main place of residence anymore.  Rather, the Syrians had taken up residence in the town, where they sought any available employment.

I waited for Mahmoud at the bus station.  He was late and I began to think he wasn’t coming at all. But finally he was there, unshaven, ginger and smiling.  I remembered his slow, quiet way of talking and his modesty and dignity and working on instinct I felt that things would be ok.

We walked to the flat.  The owner of the apartment would receive us, Mahmoud explained, but he wasn’t connected to ISIS. Rather, he was a member of the Hizb al Tahrir party, and from the general camp of the Sunni Islamists.

The apartment was on a dusty side street about ten minutes walk from the bus station.  Up some stairs to the second floor.  The owner answered it, and ushered us in, sending me a side glance and a smile which was supposed to indicate that he found me an amusing character and was looking forward to playing cat and mouse with me.

We drank coffee and sat on cushions in the small reception room of the apartment.  One of the nice things about being back on the Arab side was the chance to drink coffee, instead of the tea that the Kurds preferred.  And we waited for the two ISIS men to arrive.  The older man asked me questions about why the western media were writing lies about ISIS and expressed the hope that I would be honest in my own writing.  I assured him that I would. This went on for some time.

Finally the ISIS men entered the room.  Two of them.  They came in with a kind of young masculine speed and swagger, clearly enjoying the fearsome reputation of the group of which they were a part. They knew I was a westerner and probably assumed I was somewhat nervous.  I wasn’t, exactly, but seeing their faces fascinated me.  It was nothing to do with the specific context of ISIS and the YPG.  It was to do with the sheer cellular strangeness of being in the same room as these men just two days after the skirmish at Haj Ismail, when their organization had been trying to shoot me.

They called themselves Abu Mohammed and Abu Nur.   Abu Nur was Mahmoud’s relative.  Abu Mohammed was a current ISIS member.  The former was the one I had been scheduled to see, but as it turned out, it was the latter who did most of the talking.

Abu Nur, the relative, had a small beard, and was relaxed and smiling and monosyllabic.

Abu Mohammed, by contrast, was engaged, full of words.  Clad in a black and white tracksuit,   clean shaven, muscular, with a sort of pointed, marionette-like face and black curly hair,  he offered justifications, delivered in rapid Arabic, and even had a sense of the absurd.

I had not expected ISIS men to be keen to show the ludicrous absurdity of their opponents’ positions.  This was not how I had imagined them.  This says nothing regarding the murderous nature of the organization.  It appears that no-one , or hardly anyone, is ever the ‘bad guy’ in his own eyes.  Rather, the default stance of almost everyone, apparently even the representatives of murderous jihadi groups, is that they have been misrepresented, came with goodwill, want only the best and have been baffled by the unreasonableness of others.

‘The media have exaggerated this,’ Abu Mohammed  said in response to a question I asked about ISIS executions and amputations.  So what did this mean, I persisted.  Were such punishments carried out, or weren’t they?  ‘ In certain areas they cut hands off, in others not,’ he pronounced.

I evidently looked unconvinced by this response, and he added, ‘Look, we are trying our our best to apply sharia law. Of course there have been some mistakes.”

On one level, the protestations of Abu Mohammed were merely ridiculous.  The organization of which he was a member was engaged in creating something close to hell on earth for the millions forced to live under it.  But there was something else going on.

I asked Abu Nur what it was that had made him decide to join ISIS.  He had begun his career in the rebellion with the Northern Storm Brigade.  I had come across this group before, when crossing the border at Bab al Salameh in 2012.  They were a non-jihadi operation, adhering to something resembling a Muslim Brotherhood type Islamism.  They had also acquired a reputation for corruption and incompetence.

ISIS had fought a fierce battle against Northern Storm in the town of Azaz in October, 2013.  At that time, Abu Nur had chosen to side with the jihadis.  His reason? As he related it to me, it was the visit of Senator John McCain to the Syria Turkey border area, as the guest of Northern Storm, in the spring of 2013.  He was suspicious of what he referred to as the attempts by foreign governments to ‘use Syrians for their own ends.’  ISIS, he felt, was not available for purchase in this way. And so he had joined it.  The organization, he told me, ‘“imposes sharia, acts against criminals and robbers, and has no contact with any foreign government.’

What might be learned from this?  I think what such accounts show is that for the Syrian rebellion, ISIS was one option among many.  That is, it was emphatically not some outlandish or foreign implant.  Mahmoud Mousa, who opposed ISIS, nevertheless noted that he, like many others, had regarded it positively when it first emerged on the scene in early 2013, turning against it only when it began to make war against other rebel groups.  ‘The Arabs are nothing without Islam,’  Mahmoud had said to me, with the quiet and sincere and sad tone that was always in his voice.

The rebellion was a project of Sunni Arabs.  ISIS spoke a variation of a language common to all.  This was the crucial point.

As for the movement’s goal – Abu Mohammed spoke about it with reverence.

‘We want the caliphate, something old and new, from the time of Mohammed. The Europeans created false borders. We want to break these borders.”

ISIS, in other words, was emerging directly from the reality of the Levant in 2014.  It was utterly brutal, dysfunctional and sectarian. But it was speaking a language that was able to mobilize the Sunni Arabs of the country in a way that nothing else apparently could.  These would be energies that would need, one way or another, to be played out.

So we talked that way for a couple of hours.  Abu Mohammed and I made a certain connection when I began to respond directly to his statements in Arabic, anticipating Mahmoud’s translation.  Perhaps my local appearance also helped in this.  I think there is something basic and before words in this visual assessing of people.  It has no political significance, of course, and wouldn’t have withstood the announcement of my actual identity.  Yet it plays a role.  Abu Mohammed seemed to think I was all right.

I think war and strife appear to be natural presences among human beings, and I am not upset by them.  What makes it all strange tho are the momentary connections of a pre-verbal and pre-intellectual type, which are as liable to happen as much or as little among ‘opponents’ as among allies.  This can be learned only by being up close to the enemy, and hence probably by wearing some form of disguise.  The disguise doesn’t affect this deeper level.  The strange parallel story of human chemistry.  So yes, I quite liked Abu Mohammed, on some curious level, while also of course considering him an enemy.

Sunni Islamists, in my experience, often seem to display a lack of guile. There is something ludicrous and engaging about their genuine bafflement that not everyone rushes to embrace what seems to them to be the self-evidently superior system which they are proposing.  This comes, perhaps, from the fact that Sunni Islam among the Arabs is a majority creed, a creed of historic victory and governance.  This aspect perhaps also explains the lax-ness and lack of security awareness which is a notable aspect of many Sunni Islamist outfits.  The Shia, who are a minority sect with the clandestine and watchful traditions appropriate to this, are entirely different in this regard.

The older man remained amused and skeptical of me and after a while began to take over the discussion, asking me if I practiced the Christian religion and whether I had ever considered becoming a Muslim.  I answered diplomatically, already thinking about getting back to Gaziantep.

After a while, we wrapped things up and said our goodbyes.  Mahmoud accompanied me to the bus station and I thanked him and took the service taxi out.  It was early afternoon.

ISIS already controlled parts of Anbar and Nineweh province in Iraq at that time.  But it was still a few months before the push east and north that would take them to the gates of Erbil and Baghdad, and through Mosul.  They had carried out in January a strategic retreat from a number of villages in north west Syria. As it turned out, this was part of the preparation for the coming offensive.

Abu Mohammed had answered diplomatically when I queried him regarding this retreat, stating cryptically that “If there are powers against me, I have to retreat and protect my back. And perhaps in the future I will return again.”  Contrary to rebel claims at the time, there had been very little fighting between ISIS and the other rebels for these areas.  The jihadis had basically left of their own accord.

So in the spring of 2014, the jihadis were getting ready for their biggest move of all – namely, the extending of the sectarian war in Syria across the border into Iraq, effectively nullifying the border between the two countries.

I was aware of none of that, of course, as I chatted with the two jihadis in Cielis.  The Kurds in Kobani were unaware of it, too.  But it would cause an earthquake in their own situation and in the future of their enclave.

In the meantime, the service taxi back to Gaziantep was stopped by plainclothes Turkish police.  I had to show them the Israeli passport in my pocket, as that was the way I’d entered Turkey.  In a taxi full of Syrian refugees, I wasn’t sure how this would go down.  But luckily, the gold menorah emblem on the cover of the passport had rubbed off when I’d had to shove the thing down my trousers while worrying about a possible search on the Turkish-Syrian border in 2012.  So it appeared only as an anonymous blue document and did not arouse attention from my fellow passengers.  The Turkish plainclothes man looked at me with bemusement but decided not to say anything.  I left Cielis and Kobani behind and flew out that night.

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Interview with Eric Stackelbeck.

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Battlelines Emerge in Israel’s Election Campaign

PJmedia, 26/12

With the date of the elections set for March 17th, the campaigning season has begun in Israel.

There was little public enthusiasm for the new polls. It is only 20 months since the last time Israelis turned out to vote. The 2015 contest will be the fifth general election in Israel since 2003. This means the average life expectancy of an Israeli government is less than two and a half years. It isn’t a recipe for political stability, or for the pursuing by governments of clear and consistent policy objectives.

The too-frequent polls are the product of the Israeli electoral system, which produces the need for complex and inevitably fragile governing coalitions.

Still, the present campaign is shaping up to be an interesting one. For the first time since the collapse of the “peace process” into war in 2000, Israel’s center and left parties scent the chance of victory.

The optimism of the left derives from a shrewd move by Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog. Previously regarded as the latest in a long line of no-hopers at the Labor helm, Herzog has united his Labor Party list with that of Tzipi Livni’s “Hatnua” party. Livni drove a hard bargain. If the united list forms the next government, the prime ministership will be shared — two years for Herzog, two for Livni.

Current opinion polls have this list neck and neck with Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling center-right Likud. A poll taken by the respected Geocartographia Institute on Sunday had the Likud on 27 seats, with Labor-Hatnua on 25. The right-of-Likud Jewish Home list was third with 11 seats.

Previous polls had put Likud and Labor-Hatnua each on 21 seats, with Jewish Home close behind.

The lines of debate are also emerging as the campaign gets into gear.

All the signs are that this election will be fought largely over national and diplomatic issues, rather than bread-and-butter social questions.

Despite the urgency and importance of many social questions in Israel, this is natural and appropriate.

Because the ground around Israel is burning. A sectarian war between Sunni and Shia Arabs is raging in the large land area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Iraq-Iran border. To Israel’s south, an Islamic State-affiliated movement (Ansar Beit al-Maqdis) is engaged in an insurgency against the government of Egypt. The Islamist Hamas movement remains firmly in control of Gaza, from where rockets continue to be launched against Israel. The Islamic State has begun to make its ominous appearance in Gaza too.

Meanwhile, the government of Israel’s main ally appears to be oblivious to the danger posed by the onward nuclear march of Iran.

On the diplomatic front, the Ramallah Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas abandoned negotiations in April, and is now embarked on a path of seeking to build a campaign of international pressure on Israel, in order to force it into a retreat on the West Bank and in Jerusalem, in return for nothing. The resolution presented by Jordan to the UN Security Council on behalf of the PA exemplifies this stance.

The PA’s campaign has been encouraged from the growing hostility to Israel in some western European countries, particularly emerging from the growing political strength of Muslim communities in those countries and in turn from the sympathy for political Islam among those communities. It is possible that societal exhaustion and strong native traditions of anti-Semitism are also playing a role in this emergent stance.

In the face of all this, the center left in Israel needs to explain why it is the government of Israel which is the cause of the country’s difficulties. It needs to outline why its own more accommodating approach is more in tune with the underlying realities.

The form that this will take is already becoming clear. The center left will argue that Israel’s problems are to a great extent of its own making, and that if there is a danger of extremism it is to be found largely among Israeli Jews, rather than among their neighbors.

Thus, in her most memorable statement so far, Livni recently told reporters that “(Israeli) extremists…are turning our country into an isolated, boxed-in country, and an alienating one — even for its own citizens.”

She later claimed that she was responsible for the U.S. decision to delay the vote on the Palestinian state resolution at the UNSC. According to a diplomatic source quoted by Foreign Policy magazine, Kerry himself has confirmed this.

Beyond all the inevitable posturing at election time, there is a kernel of dead seriousness here.

The belief underlying the Israeli center-left’s campaign is evidently that if Israel is “boxed in” it is because of its own “extremists” and that the solution to this is greater accommodation to the U.S. administration.

The U.S. administration, however, has opposed or prevaricated over the key measures that Israel has found necessary to take against the threats gathering around it.

Thus, Israel has been infuriated by the administration’s decisions to leak information on Israeli targeting of regime and Hizballah positions in Syria — moves Israel found necessary to prevent the arrival of game-changing weaponry to the Shia Islamist group.

Similarly, during Operation Protective Edge, Secretary Kerry sought to involve the Muslim Brotherhood bloc of Qatar and Turkey in efforts to mediate a ceasefire, and was critical of Israel’s tactics during the war.

An Israeli government which believes that Israeli “isolation” is mainly Israel’s fault and which thinks that the solution to this is greater accommodation to the Obama administration is an Israeli government which will be less likely to act in Israel’s vital interests, at the right time and with sufficient determination.

This, in turn, is likely to increase the threat to Israelis — see the 2000-2 period, when a reluctance to abandon the internationally sanctified illusions of the “peace process” led to a failure to act against the Palestinian terror campaign in a determined fashion.

But if this is indeed to be the thrust of the center-left’s campaign in the elections, success is likely to continue to elude it.

Israelis are deeply aware both of the threats that surround them, and of the cold attitude of the current U.S. administration toward their country. A campaign which seeks to blur or obscure these or to claim that they are largely of Israel’s own making is likely to win its proponents a further term in the opposition.

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Islamic State forces Approach Israel-Syria Border

Jerusalem Post, 26/12

Islamic State has suffered severe losses as a result of coalition air strikes in the last months. Over 1,000 of its fighters have been killed, and Kurdish peshmerga forces have driven the jihadists back on a wide front between the cities of Erbil and Mosul.

The terror movement has also failed to conquer the symbolic town of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) close to the Syrian-Turkish border (further south, Islamic State losses have been more modest and at least partially reversed).

Yet despite these setbacks, there are no indications that Islamic State is anywhere close to collapse. And while American bombers and Kurdish fighters are preventing its advance further east, there are many indications the jihadists are continuing to advance their presence in a south and westerly direction – from the borders of their entity towards Damascus and Lebanon, and incidentally, in the direction of Israel.

A largely hidden contest is under way in Deraa province in southern Syria, between Islamic State and the rival jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra.

Deraa, where the Syrian rebellion was born in March 2011, has been the site of major losses for the Assad regime over the last year. Nusra established itself as a major force in the area after its fighters were defeated by Islamic State further east.

But now it appears that Islamic State is seeking to establish a foothold in this area, too.

In recent weeks, reports have emerged that three rebel militias in Deraa have pledged bay’ah (allegiance) to Islamic State. The largest of these is the Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade; the others are Saraya al-Jihad and Tawheed al-Junub. While the Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade has since denied pledging formal allegiance to Islamic State, the reports have Nusra and the Western- supported rebel groups in the south nervous.

They are acutely aware that in locales further east, such as al-Bukamal on the Syria-Iraq border, in the course of 2014 Islamic State came in not through conquest, but by recruiting the non-Islamic State groups that held the area to its flag. Nusra now fears that Islamic State wishes to repeat this process further south.

This fear is compounded by the appearance of Islamic State-linked fighters in the Damascus area in recent weeks. In the town of Bir al-Qasab, fighters affiliated with the terror movement have been battling other rebels since early December; Islamic State has engaged in resupplying these fighters from its own territory further east. Nusra and other rebel groups have begun to speculate about the possibility of a push by the jihadists either toward Deraa or Eastern Goutha, adjoining Damascus.

Finally, further west, in the Qalamoun Mountains, Islamic State and Nusra fighters have clashed in recent weeks. Reports have surfaced that Islamic State has begun to demand that other rebel groups in the area, including Nusra, pledge bay’ah to it.

This is despite the notable fact that the Qalamoun area had been the scene in recent months of rare cooperation between Islamic State and Nusra, out of shared interest in extending the conflict into Lebanon.

The events there come amid Lebanese media speculation as to the possibility of an imminent Islamic State push from Qalamoun toward the Sunni town of Arsal across the border (or even, in some versions, toward the Shi’ite towns of Baalbek and Hermel).

Such an offensive would form part of the larger campaign against the regime and Hezbollah in this area.

SO, WHAT does this all amount to? First, it should be noted that Nusra’s presence in Quneitra Province, immediately adjoining the Golan Heights, is the point at which Syrian jihadists currently come closest to Israel.

And while Nusra has not yet been the subject of hostile Western attention, it is no less anti-Western and anti-Jewish than its Islamic State rivals. The fact that it cooperates fully with groups supported by the Military Operations Command in Amman should in itself be a matter of concern for the West.

But Nusra, unlike Islamic State, appears genuinely committed to the fight against Syria’s Assad regime. And at times, at least, it is prepared to set aside its own ambitions to pursue this general goal.

This means, from Israel’s point of view, that while its presence close to the border is a matter of long-term concern, in the immediate future the al-Qaida franchise’s attentions are largely turned elsewhere.

Such calculations could not be safely made regarding Islamic State, which by contrast works only for its own benefit.

Its sudden push into Iraq in June and then August show the extent to which it is able to abruptly change direction, catching its opponents by surprise. The record of Islamic State against other rebel groups thus far has been one of near uninterrupted success.

Conversely, it is now being halted in its eastern advances by the US and its allies. But neither the US Air Force nor the Kurdish ground fighters are present further south and west, so there is a clear strategic logic to the current direction of Islamic State activity.

As Islamic State loses ground further east, it seeks to recoup its losses elsewhere; this trend is bringing jihadists closer, toward the borders of both Israel and Jordan. It may be presumed this fact is not lost on Israeli defense planners – hence the reports of increased activity by Military Intelligence collection units and reinforcement of the military presence on the Golan Heights.

The single war now raging in Syria, Iraq and increasingly Lebanon, is moving closer – toward Israel.

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Iran and the Shia militias advance in Iraq

Tower Magazine, December, 2014.

(Co-authored with Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi)

The United States and its Western allies have recently undertaken airstrikes and other military measures against the Islamic State (I.S., also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq. Contrary to the spirit of most statements coming out of Washington, however, this military action cannot be properly viewed as simply an effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State—mainly because the Western actions are limited only to air strikes, which would be ineffective on their own in achieving that end. Rather, this campaign is quite obviously meant to help the main ground forces currently fighting the I.S.—namely, the Iraqi government and Shia militias in Iraq—in the hopes that the Islamic State may be defeated through their combined efforts.

What has been very little discussed in the West, however, is that it is the Shia militias who are quickly eclipsing the Iraqi government forces in importance in Iraq; and that these militias are largely dominated by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Indeed, many are Iranian proxies.

In other words, the U.S. and its allies have launched an air campaign whose most important effect, if successful, would be to advance Iran’s agenda of dominating Iraq and eventually becoming the hegemonic power in the region.

How did this happen, and what might its consequences be?

The fall of Mosul in June to a Sunni insurgent offensive spearheaded by the I.S.—which quickly asserted decisive authority in the city at the expense of its allies—revealed the incompetence of Iraq’s conventional armed forces, which are plagued by the same rampant corruption and nepotism that are pervasive in Iraq’s post-Saddam political order.

Iranian aircraft have carried out strikes against the Islamic State. Photo: TomoNews US / YouTube

The Shia militias, backed and coordinated by Iran, are now filling the vacuum left behind by the regular army. This phenomenon was rapidly if unintentionally bolstered by a fatwa from Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, on the obligation to defend the country in the face of the I.S. threat. While Sistani had intended to encourage people to enlist in the official security forces, in practice his fatwa midwifed the broad umbrella of Shia militias conventionally dubbed al-hashad al-sha’abi (“the popular mobilization”) in the Iraqi press. The militias themselves, however, like to call themselves, somewhat ominously, al-muqawama al-islamiya (“the Islamic resistance”).

Due to the wave of enlistment set off by Sistani and the weakness of the official security forces, there is scarcely a single area in which at least some of the Shia militias are not operating. In many cases, such as the recent successful offensive to clear the I.S. out of Jurf al-Sakhr—a predominantly Sunni area of Babil province, south of Baghdad—and the ongoing fighting to dislodge the I.S. from al-Muqdadiya in Diyala province, it is clear that the fighting has been or is being led by Shia militias.

The growing importance of the Shia militias’ resistance to the I.S. in Iraq is not simply the result of their own combat skills. It is very much a product of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Iranian regime’s elite paramilitary force, whose role in regional conflicts—and, it should be noted, terrorism—is large and expanding. The Shia’s success in Iraq reflects the effectiveness of IRGC doctrine regarding the construction, support, and use of sectarian political and military proxies as a central tool—sometimes the central tool—of Iranian policy in the region.

Iran has displayed a peerless ability to harness and utilize forces of this kind in the Middle East. It is a major factor in Iran’s ongoing success in building political influence in surrounding countries.

The prototype for this approach was the establishment and sponsorship of the Shia terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon. Following the end of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon in 2005, Hezbollah rapidly emerged as the dominant political actor in the country, able to conduct its own military policy of aggression against Israel without any need to consult with other Lebanese factions.

For a considerable period, Iran’s success in Lebanon appeared to be unique. Its clients elsewhere were far less powerful and influential. However, the current unrest in the Middle East, characterized by the contraction or collapse of state authority in a variety of countries, has created an environment in which Iran’s skills have become extremely effective.

As a result of the weakening of the central government in Yemen, for example, the Iran-supported Houthi militia is now the decisive force in the capital, Sana’a, and looks set to determine the makeup of the next government.

Most importantly, however, and most relevant to Iraq, the Iranian ability to utilize sectarian paramilitary formations was perhaps the crucial factor in turning the tide of the Syrian civil war and preserving the Iran-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The darkest days of the Assad regime were the closing months of 2012. At that time, with the rebels having succeeded in entering the city of Aleppo and the eastern suburbs of Damascus, it looked as though the regime’s days were numbered.

The use of sectarian political and military proxies is the central tool of Iranian policy in the region.

The problem for the Assad regime—similar to the current government of Iraq—was that, while the Syrian dictator possessed a large army on paper, the loyalty or reliability of many units was suspect. Hence, only a certain percentage of the armed forces could be reliably deployed. Assad’s power base is Syria’s Alawi minority, which is relatively small in numbers. Because of this, many analysts thought that the defeat of the Assad regime in Syria was simply a matter of time, because the narrow sectarian base of the regime meant that Assad would simply run out of men willing to take a bullet on his behalf.

The Iranians, however, spotted something different: On both sides, the number of men actually engaged in the fighting was relatively small. The Syrian civil war was one of small militias, not massive conventional armies. This meant that the establishment or insertion of a relatively modest number of committed men could make a major difference. In early 2013, under Iranian supervision, the number of Hezbollah fighters operating in Syria was increased. In tandem with this, the Iranians and Hezbollah began to train members of the Alawi paramilitary groups known as the Shabiha, which were reformed into a group called the National Defense Forces (NDF).

The NDF was a light infantry force of about 40,000 men that was deployed in the spring of 2013 alongside Hezbollah and reliable elements of the Assad-controlled Syrian Army, as well as some Iraqi Shia paramilitary forces. This closed the Syrian regime’s gap in manpower, and played a key role in pulling it back from the precipice.

In the summer of 2014, the army of another Iranian ally—the Iraqi government—faced a similar situation in regard to the Islamic State. At that time, a number of analysts predicted that the Iranians were likely to follow a similar strategy to that of Syria. It is now clear that Iran has pursued precisely such a policy, and with considerable success.

Almost immediately, Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the IRGC—the agency tasked with the creation and use of proxy political and military forces—was sent to Baghdad. Very clearly, his task was to coordinate the Iraqi response.

Soldiers from the 3rd Brigade of the 14th Iraqi Army Division graduate from basic training in Besmaya. Photo: Erica R. Gardner / U.S. Navy / Wikimedia

His influence appears to have been decisive in shaping the Iraqi response. Predictably, it involves the use of militias and Shia sectarianism along the lines pioneered in other countries. As an Iraqi official quoted byThe Guardian put it, “Who do you think is running the war? Those three senior generals who ran away? Qassem Suleimani is in charge. And reporting directly to him are the militias.” Since then, Suleimani has guided much of the fighting against the I.S., and has even been physically present at a number of key engagements.

Alongside the Quds Force leaders, there are reliable reports of dozens of IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah advisers on the ground in Iraq. In addition, Iraqi paramilitaries deployed in Syria have been returned to Iraq in order to join the fight.

So, what is happening in Iraq today is directly analogous to what happened in Syria. The Iran-aligned, Shia-dominated government in Baghdad is being protected from Sunni insurgents through the efforts and methods of the IRGC’s Quds Force, the most effective instrument of Iran’s regional policy. This, of course, has major implications for Western policy, which at the current time is acting as the air wing for this campaign.

Precisely who are these militias, and how is Iran aiding them?

There are, at the very least, dozens of Shia militias in Iraq. The oldest date back to the days of the U.S. occupation prior to 2011 and are clearly proxies of Iran. They receive training and weapons from the IRGC, and are dedicated to implementing Iran’s ideological system of governance in Iraq.

Iran, however, does not want any of these groups to become powerful enough to break off and follow its own agenda. To prevent this, it maintains multiple proxy militias competing against each other. Among the main proxies in question are Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), which developed particularly close relations with ex-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; Kata’ib Hezbollah (with its front group Saraya al-Difa’ ash-Sha’abi); and the Badr Organization. All three of these organizations have deployed fighters to Syria to assist the Assad regime, and have also been participating in the Iraqi government’s military efforts in Anbar since the beginning of this year, when Fallujah and parts of Ramadi first fell out of government control.

Besides these three important actors, other Iranian proxies exist, including Saraya al-Khorasani, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, and Harakat al-Nujaba’, all of which have also deployed in Syria. These groups make no attempt to hide their ideological affinities with Iran, featuring portraits of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei on their social media sites and “martyrdom” funeral banners for slain fighters.

Besides the direct Iranian proxies, a number of other Shia militias exist, the vast majority of which can be tied to one Shia political figure or another. The most well-known of these is undoubtedly Saraya al-Salam [“The Peace Brigades”], the reconstituted Mahdi Army of Islamist political leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Another interesting case is a militia known as Liwa al-Shabab al-Risali, which claims legitimacy through the Najaf-based cleric Ayatollah Muhammad al-Yaqoubi and ties itself to the legacy of Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr. Also of interest are Sadrist-leaning militia brands that first emerged in Syria but have since withdrawn to Iraq, such as Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar.

A graphic from the “Official Press Outlet” of Saraya al-Khorasani, an Iranian proxy militia fighting in Iraq. Photo: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Elsewhere on the mainstream Shia political spectrum, there are militias linked to figures from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), a Shia Islamic political party. These include Saraya Ansar al-Aqeeda, led by Sheikh Jalal ad-Din al-Saghir, and Saraya Ashura’, led by Ammar al-Hakim. These militias appear to be an attempt by ISCI figures to create their own military forces to rival the Badr Organization, which originated as a break-off from ISCI.

Other militias exist that can be tied to figures known for strong pro-Iranian tendencies, for example Kata’ib al-Ghadab, which is tied to the pro-Iranian Da’wah Party (Tanẓim al-Dakhil). Still other groups can be readily identified as clear attempts to emulate Iranian proxies or other Shia militias, such as “Kata’ib Hezbollah – the Mujahideen in Iraq” led by Abbas al-Muhammadawi of the Abna’ al-Iraq al-Ghayyara political bloc, and the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces, based on the famous Syrian Shia militia, Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas.

Naturally, the Shia militias are by no means a monolithic ideological bloc. The most obvious tension is between the Iranian proxies and those who follow the movement of Muqtada al-Sadr. This is the case even though their rhetoric often overlaps. They both emphasize the “defense of the homeland and the holy sites,” and attempt to claim they are unified behind the common cause of “resistance” and Shia sectarian pride. Nonetheless, the groups that are not explicitly aligned with Iran are by no means outside Iranian influence or control. Their relationship with the Islamic Republic is simply more complex and ambiguous than others.

An Iraqi T-72 tank fires during a live fire training exercise at the Besmaya Gunnery Range near Baghdad. Photo: Jacob H. Smith / U.S. Army / Wikimedia

It is clear, however, that the overall leading role in the militia movement is played by the Iranian proxies, something that is most apparent in the appointment of Muhammad al-Ghaban of the Badr Organization as Iraqi Interior Minister under the new Abadi government. Under Badr’s leadership, Operation Ashura was launched to expel the I.S. from Jurf al-Sakhr. As a source in the Interior Ministry put it to the pro-government outlet al-Masalah, “The factions of the Islamic Resistance – Kata’ib Hezbollah, Badr, AAH, recruits and the popular mobilization, along with Saraya al-Salam, participated in Operation Ashura which was launched today under the leadership of the Interior Minister Muhammad Salim al-Ghaban to cleanse the Jurf al-Sakhr district in north Babil from the Da’esh [I.S.] gangs.” [emphasis ours]

In an interview with Aws al-Khafaji after the capture of Jurf al-Sakhr, the Shia militias that participated are listed as “The heroic brothers of Badr, Saraya al-Salam, Asa’ib [Ahl al-Haq], [Harakat] al-Nujaba, the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces … and some of the other Islamic factions.” That Badr was mentioned first seems to confirm the group’s leading role in the operation.

Needless to say, the proliferation of Shia militias in Iraq, with Iranian proxies as the strongest players, has important implications.

Due to the security situation in Iraq, the Shia militias will be necessary for the foreseeable future in the fight against the Islamic State. It is also highly unlikely that these militias will simply disband even if told to do so. Thus, it is worth assessing the implications of their rise to prominence and power.

First, it demonstrates the extent to which Iran considers the government of Iraq a client or proxy regime; one that Tehran will not allow to develop its own powerful, independent institutions and military. The government in Baghdad, like the regime in Damascus, is to be saved from those who would destroy it, but only in such a way that its future is to be an instrument of Iran’s will. The Iranians’ innovative use of sectarian militia power and the cultivation of a variety of paramilitary clients ensures that, if they get their way, no Iraqi government will be in a position to disobey them.

Moreover, Iran’s role in Iraq is clearly part of its desire—tracing back to the regime’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini—to spread its ideology throughout the Shia population of the Middle East. What this means is that, while the new sectarian military formation being developed by the Iranians in Iraq is likely to prove sufficient to stem the advance of the overstretched I.S. forces, they are also part of Tehran’s larger regional strategy to produce a contiguous line of pro-Iran states between the Iran-Iraq border and the Mediterranean Sea.

The fragmentation of Iraq and Syria may well thwart that ambition. But Iran has shown that its practice of creating and utilizing proxy political and military forces as a key instrument of policy is sufficient to defend its own interests—if not always to entirely defeat or destroy its Sunni enemies. The Quds Force is now proving this once again in Iraq.

For the U.S. and its allies, this may represent a short-term advantage, but it is a long-term threat. The Iranian proxy militias, quite naturally, also embrace Iran’s ideology, which is intensely anti-American, anti-Western, and indeed, anti-Semitic. They parrot, for example, Iran’s official propaganda line, according to which the I.S. is supposedly a creation of “the Great Satan” (i.e., the United States) and/or the Jews.

Nor does the eventual creation, or attempt to create, an Iranian sphere of influence across the Middle East bode well for American or Western interests. However effective they may be in fighting the I.S., Iran’s proxy militias in Iraq are part of this agenda and are helping Iran pursue it.

Thanks to current Western policy, this time they are doing it with Western air support.

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