RIP Keith Broomfield, Killed in a Firefight with ISIS

PJmedia, 19/6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fall of Eagles: the Eclipse of the Arab Nationalist State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Born in Lebanon, dying in Syria?  

Jerusalem Post, 29/5

Hizballah shoulders new responsibilities in the Syrian war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The March of Folly in Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The blame lies at the policymaking level.

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

The problem with this stance is two-fold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A tremor in Iranian Kurdistan

Iranian Kurds break their silence

Jerusalem Post, 15/5

The events this week in the Mahabad area of Iran’s Western Azerbaijan province cast light on the difficult situation faced by one of the region’s least-noticed minorities – the Kurds of Iran.

The apparent attempt by an intelligence officer in Mahabad to rape an Iranian-Kurdish hotel worker, 25-year-old Farinaz Khosrawani, and the latter’s subsequent suicide by jumping from a fourth-floor window, led to furious protests by Kurds in both Mahabad and beyond.

The hotel was burned by protesters; authorities responded heavy-handedly, using rubber bullets and tear gas.

There is currently a media and social media blackout from the area, but word-of-mouth reports suggest the situation remains tense.

Soran Khedri, a former official of the Iranian-Kurdish Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) organization, told The Jerusalem Post that at least one demonstrator has died, and that in the last 48 hours, PJAK guerrillas had attacked an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps checkpoint in the area, killing two IRGC personnel.

The Kurds of Iraq and Syria have become highly significant and visible players on the regional stage over the last decade. Turkey’s Kurds, of course, have long been noted internationally – because of the insurgency of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) against a succession of governments in Ankara.

But the Kurds of Iran have been the most silent of Kurdish populations.

Numbering around 8 million in total, they are mainly resident in the Kordestan province of western Iran (adjoining Iraqi Kurdistan), one of the country’s most impoverished regions; Kurdish populations are also to be found in Western Azerbaijan, Ilam and Kermanshah. Unemployment in Kordestan Province stands at 28 percent; there is little local industry.

The Iranian Kurds were not always politically silent. Mahabad was the location of the short-lived Mahabad Republic – the only example of full Kurdish sovereignty in the 20th century. The republic was declared in January 1946, and destroyed by the Iranians in December of that year.

But under the Islamic Republic, the Kurds have faced repression of the most severe kind. A large-scale revolt against the new regime, led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iran (PDKI), was crushed with great severity in the period immediately following the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The IRGC killed over 10,000 Kurds as it fought to destroy the nascent Kurdish independence movement; the insurgency was largely defeated by 1983.

The suppression of any hint of Kurdish separatism has remained in place ever since. Education in Kurdish remains forbidden; any sign of attempts at political organization is ruthlessly suppressed by the Revolutionary Guards.

The hostility of the Iranian regime to the slightest hint of separatism derives not solely or mainly from ethnic tensions between Persians and Kurds. Even the most modest Kurdish demands for greater local autonomy raise the specter for the regime of ethnic separatism. Iran is a divided society ethnically, with only 49 percent of the population consisting of ethnic Persians; the rest are a mixture of Azeris, Baluchis, Kurds and Arabs.

Thus, the brutal and total repression of Kurdish demands is an indication not of the regime’s strength, but of its potential weakness. Tehran fears that were the demands of one minority ethnicity to be accommodated – even partially – this would risk opening the floodgates for other demands.

In 2004, a new Iranian Kurdish insurgency began. This was led by PJAK, PKK’s franchise among the Iranian Kurds. From the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan, PJAK sought to strike at the Iranian authorities while its cadres worked among the population, seeking to build clandestine support.

A shaky, on/off cease-fire has persisted between PJAK and the Iranian authorities since 2011, after a large-scale incursion by the IRGC into Iraqi Kurdistan led to fierce battles. But PJAK remains armed and deployed along the border, able to exploit any breakdown of regime control in the Kurdish areas.

Alongside PJAK, the PDKI remains active, as do a number of parties claiming the mantle of the Komala Movement, a once-influential leftist force among the Iranian Kurds.

Severe repression, divided politics and a long period of apparent quiescence were followed by sudden, unexpected anger precipitated by an unforeseen event. This is what is currently taking place in Iranian Kurdistan; it sounds, in all particulars, a familiar story in the Middle East of the last half-decade.

So, are the events in Mahabad a prelude to some larger movement or unrest among the Iranian Kurds?

An Iranian-Kurdish lawyer with good connections in the Mahabad area told the Post that the current wave of acrimony looked set to “ebb away.” He noted that the protests “in support of Mahabad spread only to a few other cities, like Sardasht and Mariwan.”

Nevertheless, he also asserted that the protests were an indicator of “vast anti-regime sentiments” among Iran’s Kurdish population.

As of now, the Mahabad situation appears to have been contained by the Iranian authorities, yet the events are an indication of the inner fragility of the Iranian regime. Even as Tehran invests in spreading its influence across the region, Mahabad is a reminder that its position at home is by no means secure, or consolidated.

Rather, it rules over large swathes of the Iranian population by force and coercion alone. It is therefore vulnerable to internal subversion – and the more it spreads its assets thinly, by involvement in ever-more regional arenas, the fewer resources it will have available for dealing with internal unrest.

Rodi Hevian, a Kurdish journalist at the online Kurdish Daily News, likened the Mahabad events to the short-lived uprising by Syrian Kurds in the city of al-Qamishli in 2004. Though quickly (and bloodily) repressed by the Assad regime, the Qamishli events were in retrospect a first tremor for what was to come in Syria.

“It could also be a wake-up call for the Iranian regime interfering in Syria, Iraq and Yemen,” Hevian told the Post, “namely, gaining ground in other countries can lead to losing ground at home.”

Of course, for the Iranians to begin paying a price of this kind, it is necessary that the Iranian Kurds and other minorities begin to receive the attention and support of regional enemies of Iran, and of the West.

For this to happen, in turn, there needs to be a recognition of the urgent necessity of containing and turning back Iranian regional ambitions; no such awareness currently exists in Western capitals.

Following June 30 – should a nuclear agreement between Teheran and the P5+1 world powers be concluded – the pressure on the Iranians may be vastly reduced. Abandonment of sanctions would enable the regime to begin to channel greater resources to areas of instability, and to seek to buy off discontent.

Still, in Middle Eastern capitals, both the Iranian threat and the Iranian vulnerability do not go unnoticed. The mullahs and the IRGC are not all-powerful; the tremor in Mahabad indeed reveals just how notably shallow their rule is.

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Assad Not Finished Yet

Jerusalem Post, 1/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Islamic State Comes to Damascus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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