IS and the Incoherence of Western Policy

Fathom Journal, October 2014

Western bombing of targets in the area controlled by the Islamic State (IS) organisation has commenced. US and allied planes have struck at both military and infrastructural targets in the area controlled by the IS and have had an impact.

There are two main problems for Western policy-makers; the first tactical, the second strategic. The first problem is that the West has no ground assets in Syria capable of destroying the IS, but the West also hopes to avoid committing its own forces on the ground.

The second is the related, but broader, problem that the West has failed to properly identify the dynamic governing the conflict in Iraq, Syria and increasingly also Lebanon. Swept along by humanitarian sentiment, the West first wanted to target the Assad regime, and has now designated the Islamic State as the ‘bad guy’ of choice. But fury regarding the undoubted atrocities committed by a number of different players in Syria and Iraq does not constitute a coherent and effective policy.

Let’s consider each of these problems in turn.

It is beyond doubt that US air power has the capability to inflict severe damage on the infrastructure of the Sunni Islamist quasi-state established by the ISIS organisation, and that this is being achieved. This is in line with the objective – as outlined by President Obama – of ‘degrading’ the Islamic State.

But the president also said that the US goal was to ‘in time, destroy’ the IS quasi-sovereignty.

It is much harder to see how this can be done from the air. History contains no examples of states which were destroyed solely from the air (though more limited objectives have been achieved through the deployment of air power alone).

The problem is that the heartland of the Islamic State is in Syria, specifically in the province of Raqqa. In the case of Iraq the West possesses ground assets – the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) – who have already begun to make some headway against IS forces. However these forces will not be willing to cross the Iraq-Syria border in order to challenge IS in its Syrian heartland – where, if it is to be destroyed, the destruction must take place.

In Syria the West possesses no clear ally on the ground to perform this task. The moderate Sunni Arab rebels are extremely weak. The Kurdish YPG, while stronger, is also currently on the defensive against IS. The stated policy of the US is to strengthen ‘trusted’ elements among the Syrian rebels; 15,000 selected rebels will be trained by the US in Saudi Arabia, and will then be re-inserted into the Syrian battlefield, to fight IS.

This is an entirely incoherent policy, for the following reasons; 15,000 fighters, even if trained by the US, will not be sufficient to make a real impact on the Syrian battlefield. The CIA estimates that Islamic State has around 30,000 fighters and many analysts think the number is almost certainly much higher.

There is a deeper issue. The response of Syrian rebel organisations to the US bombing of the ‘Khorasan’ group in Idlib province illustrates that the problematic nature of the rebels goes beyond the question of their military effectiveness. Many rebel groups including those like the small Harakat Hazm movement, which have themselves been the recipients of American aid, condemned the US bombing of Khorasan targets. This is because in the view of the rebels, ‘Khorasan’ is simply a branch of the Jabhat al Nusra group. And Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the official franchise of the core al Qaida group in Syria, is regarded by the rebels as a comrade in the struggle against the Assad regime.

These facts raise the serious possibility that support by the west for one faction of the rebels against IS could end up amounting to the employment of Western air power as the air-wing of one group of Syrian Sunni jihadis, against a slightly less savoury variety. This, to put it mildly, would be a negative development.

Finally, given the weakness of the rebels, it is also distinctly possible that a policy of air war alone against the Islamic State would end up benefitting not the rebellion but the rather more potent forces available to Assad, Hezbollah and the Iranians. That is, these elements could use the weakening of IS to reconquer the east of Syria and achieve a victory of their own in the long Syrian civil war. This also would hardly constitute an achievement for the West. Rather, it would resemble the process in Iraq in 2003 whereby the Saddam Hussein dictatorship was removed and the main beneficiary was the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The second, strategic problem is the failure of the West to accurately define the core nature of the conflict. What is taking place in Iraq, Syria and increasingly also in Lebanon is a single, cross-border sectarian war, effectively pitting a Shia alliance led by the Iranians and including Hezbollah, the government of Iraq, Iraqi Shia militias and the Assad regime against a much more confused and disparate Sunni camp, of which IS is a mutated product.

The Kurds are a third player in this conflict. They seek not to take part in this larger war but to insulate themselves from it, and to liberate and defend areas of majority Kurdish population in northern Iraq and northern Syria.

This war has come about because of some fundamental and unresolved problems inherent in the creation of the states of Iraq and Syria. Neither are historic entities. Both were carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire by the British and French. Disparate and incompatible populations were contained within their borders. No genuine sense of common nationality really developed. These states were held together by brutal and powerful police states, which ruled in the name of Arab nationalism.

The regime in Iraq was removed in 2003 and the regime in Syria was weakened by internal unrest in 2011. As a result, a conflict has broken out along the old fault lines of sectarian identity. This conflict is helped along and exacerbated by the regional ambitions of Shia Iran, and by the desire of Saudi Arabia to check Iranian ambitions, also partly on sectarian grounds.

Once the conflict is understood in this way, its cross-border dynamics become clearer and more predictable, and the role of the West also becomes clear. Most importantly – in the core Sunni-Shia war, the West has no ally.

The Shia bloc constitutes the most powerful anti-Western alliance currently in existence in the Middle East. Among the Sunni Arabs, meanwhile, are some of the most floridly brutal organisations ever to have emerged anywhere – such as ISIS – as well as others who rank among the most ineffectual. The victory of either camp would not constitute progress in any form for the people living in the states in question.

Rather, a Western policy which seeks to mobilise allies to contain both forms of political Islam would be prudent. This would involve support for the states and entities surrounding the arena of the war – including Israel, Jordan, the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq and the Kurds of Syria.

Such a policy is unlikely to emerge until policy-makers have a clear picture of the dynamics at work. The Middle East is currently in the midst of a historic process, in which rival versions of political Islam are battling over the ruins of the post-war regional order. The outcome is not yet clear. The task is to reduce and contain the damage.

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The Shia-Sunni war Reaches Lebanon

Jerusalem Post, 17/10

Hezbollah is under pressure as the consequences of its ongoing intervention in Syria have come back to bite the terrorist organization.

There are increasing indications that the sectarian war raging in Iraq and Syria is now moving irrevocably into Lebanon.

The Shi’ite group is currently seeking to shore up its legitimacy by reminding its constituents, and other Lebanese citizens, of the role that gains it the most domestic sympathy – resistance against Israel. It is likely the strike at Mount Dov last week was part of this effort.

It is also, in its propaganda, somewhat oddly trying to assert that Israel and the Sunni jihadis of the Nusra Front and Islamic State are allies.

All this activity comes as the Nusra Front is demonstrating its ability to hit at Hezbollah across the border with increasing impunity.

Attacks by Sunnis in Lebanon are not new, and similar incidents have taken place throughout the Syrian civil war.

The longstanding tension in the Tripoli area between the mainly Alawi, pro-regime inhabitants of the Jebel Mohsen neighborhood and the mainly Sunni, pro-rebel Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood is continuing.

Hezbollah, in cooperation with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), managed to stem a bombing campaign by the Sunnis in the Shi’ites’ heartland of southern Beirut in the middle of 2013.

And tensions between Hezbollah supporters and the local Salafi leader Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir in June 2013 ended in pitched battles and the destruction of Assir’s local power.

The current tension, however, differs from previous episodes.

It does not involve Hezbollah fighting much weaker local Sunni forces. This time, the movement is clashing directly with Syrian Sunnis.

The current phase began with the seizure of the Lebanese border town of Arsal in August by members of both the Nusra Front and Islamic State. They left with a number of captured Lebanese soldiers, some of whom have since been executed.

The LAF then tried to crack down on local support for the jihadis in Arsal, carrying out a large raid on the town in September, arresting hundreds accused of being Nusra Front members or for supporting the movement.

More importantly, most of the individuals in the crackdown were not Lebanese Sunnis but rather members of the 1.5 million Syrian Sunni refugees, now in Lebanon.

The Nusra Front then struck back hard in an operation whose stated goal was to “avenge Syrian refugees whose tents were burned” during the crackdown on Arsal.

Hundreds of fighters of the organization attacked from across the Syrian border, forming a line from Baalbek up to Arsal itself.

The attack wasn’t directed against the LAF, but against Hezbollah’s positions.

The attackers were eventually defeated (or the battle was intended to be a hit-and-run attack, depending on who one chooses to believe). But the jihadis fought a two-hour pitched battle with Hezbollah fighters near the village of Britel.

The Nusra Front overran a Hezbollah position, killing at least 11 of the movement’s fighters.

The Sunnis filmed the attack, as well as its aftermath. The jihadis can be seen moving backwards through the Hezbollah position, removing equipment, nonchalantly ignoring the corpses of dead defenders.

The Britel battle represents an eruption into Lebanon of a wider campaign, in which Hezbollah and other pro-Assad forces have been desperately trying to clear out the Sunni jihadis from the Qalamun mountain range along the border and seal the line between Syria and Lebanon.

The Nusra Front and its allies are trying to establish a connecting route between Arsal and al-Zabadani, west of Damascus, long held by the rebels.

The fight for Qalamun has turned into a grinding affair for Hezbollah, costing the lives of many of its fighters, while it never quite seems to end. The Britel losses indicate the failure of the pro-Iranian bloc’s efforts to finish this fight, and show that the direction of events, for now, at least, are in the Nusra Front’s favor.

But the wider implications and challenges of the intensification of cross-border Sunni activity are political.

As its casualties in the seemingly unending Syrian war continue to mount, Hezbollah needs to redouble efforts to explain to its constituency why this sacrifice makes sense and how it fits into the movement’s more familiar justifications for its existence.

Hence the increase in public statements by top officials, including leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Nasrallah paid a rare visit to Bekaa this week. In his speech, he sought to link the fight with the Sunni jihadis to Hezbollah’s war with Israel.

“Victory will be the ally of the mujahideens in their fight against takfiri [apostate Muslims] and terrorist groups, the same way it was their ally in the confrontation against the Israeli enemy,” Nasrallah said.

Interestingly, the Hezbollah leader didn’t stress the military campaign in Bekaa, but rather boasted of the attack in the Mount Dov area, which he said showed “the resistance, which is always vigilant, will protect any attempt to attack Lebanon or its people.”

Pro-Hezbollah publicists, meanwhile, are seeking to color in this picture with claims that Israel and the Nusra Front have reached an understanding with one another and are cooperating against Hezbollah, as Jean Aziz, a columnist at the pro-Hezbollah al-Akhbar wrote in a recent article.

These statements and claims notwithstanding, the main concern for Hezbollah and its supporters is the effect that the Nusra Front’s offensive into Lebanon is having on the delicate balance between the Sunnis and Shi’ites in the country.

Since the internal political and military conflict in 2008, with the humiliation of the mainly Sunni March 14 Alliance by Hezbollah and its associates, it looked like the Lebanese Sunnis were finished.

The Shi’ites, because of their political and demographic strength, achieved a clear dominance. The underlying concern of recent events is that this balance may be shifting.

There are 1.5 million new Sunnis in the country. For a country with a population of less than five million, this is a major shift.

A number of articles in the Lebanese media this week have reflected the widespread sympathy felt among many Sunnis for the Nusra Front, which is widely felt in both Lebanon and Syria to be less extreme and more local in its orientation than Islamic State.

It is noteworthy that the Nusra Front mentioned the desire to avenge an affront against the refugees as the main goal of its Bekaa offensive.

All these topics point to a possibly emergent, new strategic challenge for Hezbollah – namely the emergence of a new, powerful, Sunni Islamist opponent, one possessing some popular legitimacy, considerable military ability and a capacity to operate across borders.

Hezbollah appears to be aware of this threat and is currently attempting to formulate its response to it. This is a new and emerging front in the sectarian war that has already consumed Syria and Iraq. It remains to be seen if the Shi’ite Islamists of Lebanon will succeed in resisting the challenge from their Sunni opponents.

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MERIA Special Report: Did ISIS Use Chemical Weapons Against the Kurds in Kobani?

*** WARNING:  This post contains images which some readers may disturbing.   Please scroll down to view these images.

The fate of Kobani city now hangs in the balance, as around 9000 fighters of the Islamic State organization close in on the Kurdish held area.  The current IS assault on the Kobani enclave was not the first attempt by the jihadis to destroy the Kurdish-controlled area.
The Kobani enclave, most of which is now in the hands of the IS, at one time extended to Tel Abyad in the east, and Jarabulus in the west.  It constituted a major hindrance to the desire of the jihadis to maintain free passage for their fighters from Raqqa city up to the Turkish border and westwards towards the front lines in Aleppo province.  IS has therefore long sought to destroy it.
Prior to the current campaign, the most serious (but unsuccessful) attempt to conquer Kobani came in July 2014, shortly following the dramatic IS advance into Iraq.
It was during this assault on Kobani that evidence emerged which appeared to point to the use by the Islamic State on at least one occasion of some kind of chemical agent against the Kurdish fighters of the YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units).
The July offensive commenced on July 2nd.  According to Kurdish activists, the use of the chemical agent took place on July 12th, in the village of Avdiko, in the eastern part of the Kobani enclave (now in IS hands.)  [i]
Nisan Ahmed, health minister of the Kurdish authority in Kobani, established a medical team to examine the incident.  According to Ahmed, the bodies of three Kurdish fighters showed no signs of damage from bullets.  Rather  “burns and white spots on the bodies of the dead indicated the use of chemicals, which led to death without any visible wounds or external bleeding.” [ii]
Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA Journal) has acquired exclusive access to photographs of the bodies of the bodies of these  fighters, which appear below for the first time.
According to expert Israeli sources who have seen the pictures, they appear to indicate the use of some form of chemical agent, probably mustard (blister agent), but it is not possible to conclusively confirm this without further investigation.
Where might IS have acquired these agents?  According to a report in the Arabic language Al-Modon website on July 16th, eyewitnesses in Raqqa city assert the existence of a facility close to the city containing chemical agents. [iii]  The reliability of the eyewitness quoted has been indicated to MERIA by third parties.
It is possible that these were transferred to Raqqa from Iraq, following the capture of the Muthanna compound 35 miles north-west of Iraq, by IS in June.
Iraq’s ambassador Mohammed Ali Al-Hakim, speaking after the capture of Muthanna by IS, singled out two bunkers at the facility, 13 and 41, as being of particular concern.
According to a UN report compiled after the departure of UN inspectors and quoted by Associated Press, bunker 41 contained “2,000 empty 155mm artillery shells contaminated with the chemical warfare agent mustard, 605 one-tonne mustard containers with residues, and heavily contaminated construction material.”
At the time, the US State Department’s Jen Psaki played down the importance of the capture of Muthanna. Psaki suggested that the facility contained “degraded chemical remnants” but that it would be “difficult, if not impossible, to safely use this for military purposes or, frankly, to move it.”  [iv]
A CIA report from 2007, however, offers evidence that might challenge Psaki’s apparent absence of concern.
The report notes that “The precursor and agent production area at Al Muthanna was not completely destroyed during Desert Storm. Portions of the mustard (blister agent) production and storage area survived. The VX and Tabun production (nerve agent) facilities were incapacitated.” [v]
The report further observes that “ISG is unable to unambiguously determine the complete fate of old munitions, materials, and chemicals produced and stored there. The matter is further complicated by the looting and razing done by the Iraqis.” [vi]
With regard to the state of al-Muthanna at the time that the report was composed (2007), it observes that
Stockpiles of chemical munitions are still stored there. The most dangerous ones have been declared to the UN and are sealed in bunkers. Although declared, the bunkers contents have yet to be confirmed.
Numerous bunkers, including eleven cruciform shaped bunkers were exploited. Some of the bunkers were empty. Some of the bunkers contained large quantities of unfilled chemical munitions. [vii]
So the CIA report confirms that al-Muthanna was used for the production of chemical weaponry including mustard agent.  The report also confirms that investigations have been unable to ‘unambiguously determine’ the fate of munitions at the site, and that while stockpiles clearly are stored at the site, the precise nature of these stockpiles remains unconfirmed.  There are no indications that this situation has changed in the period since the report.
The evidence appears to support the contention that on at least one occasion, Islamic State forces did employ some form of chemical agent, acquired from somewhere, against the YPG in Kobani.
No further instances have been reported.  The evidence also indicates that it is likely that as a result of the capture of the al-Muthanna compound, stockpiles of chemical munitions have come into the group’s possession.
The incident at Avdiko village on July 12th suggests that IS may well have succeeded in making some of this material available for use in combat.
The probable possession by the Islamic State of a CW capability is for obvious reasons a matter of the gravest concern, and should be the urgent subject of further attention and investigation.
*** Readers may find the following exclusive images, which corroborate the suspicion of ISIS CW capability, disturbing.
10533994_264671567070068_1693396631715008074_n DSC04748 DSC04757 DSC04771 DSC04774 DSC04775 DSC04794 DSC04816 DSC04820 DSC04827 DSC04838 DSC04840 DSC04842 DSC04844 DSC04873 DSC04879 DSC04893 DSC04909 DSC04910

[i] Conversations with Kurdish activists, July, 2014.
[ii] Hadi Salameh, ‘Did ISIS use chemical weapons against the Syrian Kurds,’  July 16th, Al-Modon. (Arabic).
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Associated Press, July 9th, 2014.
[v] Al Muthanna Chemical Weapons Complex, Iraq’s Chemical Warfare Program – Annex B, April 23, 2007.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid.
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Western fear of angering Turkey leaves besieged Kurdish town at mercy of Islamic State

Jerusalem Post, 7/10

The fate of the Kurdish enclave in Kobani appears to be sealed. The greater part of the formerly Kurdish-ruled area has already fallen to the forces of Islamic State. Some 9,000 Islamic State fighters are positioned close to the last remaining redoubt – Kobani city itself. The black flag of the Sunni Islamists is already flying in three neighborhoods of the city.

On Monday, the Kurdish authorities ordered the evacuation of all remaining civilians from the city. Journalists are not being permitted to enter. The forces of the YPG (People’s Protection Units) were preparing to fight the jihadis for every street of the city.

However, not all civilians have been able to leave. If the city falls, a slaughter is likely.

Islamic State has now integrated the heavy armor and artillery that it took from the garrison in Mosul and from Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army in the bases of Division 17 and Tabaqa. The Kurds have only light weapons, some machine guns, and a few rocket-propelled grenades.

The imminent fate of the Kobani enclave offers an object lesson in the limited efficacy of courage and commitment (which the YPG has in abundance), in the face of the indifference of regional and global powers to the fate of the Kurds of Syria.

The Kurdish Regional Government of northern Iraq also received a hammer blow from Islamic State in July and August. In early August, the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil looked set to suffer the same fate that now seems inevitable in Kobani.

What saved the Iraqi Kurds was the swift application of US air power, and a subsequent massive commitment of Western arms to the Peshmerga forces of the KRG.

At present, the Peshmerga, in cooperation with Western special forces and US air power, are seeking to turn back the advances the jihadis made in the summer, with some success.

So what makes Kobani so very different from Erbil? The Syrian Kurdish enclave is dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is closely associated with the Kurdish independence movement PKK. This insurgent force is anathema to Turkey, against which it has fought since 1984. Turkey, ruled by the Islamist AKP, is a NATO member, and is still considered an important and powerful ally of the US and the West.

Turkish hostility to the embryonic Kurdish autonomous zones in northern Syria is the key to understanding Western and regional indifference to the fate of Kobani. Turkish armor is currently waiting on the border, facing Kobani, but no effort is being made to assist the Kurdish fighters. Indeed, the Turks have acted to prevent Kurdish volunteers from reaching the combat zone in recent days.

Some Western air strikes have been carried out in recent days, but with little apparent effect.

The desire to appease Turkey, along with a determination to stay outside of the Syrian conflict arena, explain the abandonment of Kobani.

Its loss, if it occurs, will form a legacy of bitterness for the Kurds, which may lead to the collapse of the Turkish-PKK peace process and will almost certainly lead to a renewed Kurdish militancy. A vivid sense of betrayal will remain.

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Flawed western strategy in Iraq and Syria

The United States and its allies have launched a military campaign whose stated goal is, in the words of President Barack Obama, to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (I.S., also known as ISIS or ISIL) established by Sunni jihadis in a contiguous land area stretching from western Iraq to the Syrian-Turkish border.

As the aerial campaign begins in earnest, many observers are wondering what exactly its tactical and strategic objectives are, and how they will be achieved. A number of issues immediately arise.

Any state—even a provisional, slapdash, and fragile one like the jihadi entity now spreading across Iraq and Syria—cannot be “destroyed” from the air. At a certain point, forces on the ground will have to enter and replace the I.S. power. It is not yet clear who is to play this role—especially in the Islamic State’s heartland of Raqqa province in Syria.

In Iraq, the national military and the Kurdish Pesh Merga are now having some successes at chipping away at the Islamic State’s outer holdings. The role of U.S. air support is crucial here. But the center of the Islamic State is not Iraq, and both the Iraqi forces and the Pesh Merga have made clear that they will not cross the border into Syria. This leaves a major question as to who is to perform this task, if the objectives outlined by President Obama are to be achieved.

The answer we have heard most often of late is that elements among the Syrian rebels will be vetted by the U.S., trained in cooperation with the Saudis, and then deployed as the force to destroy the IS on the ground.

If this is indeed the plan, it is deeply problematic.

The Syrian rebels are characterized by extreme disunity, questionable effectiveness, and the presence of hardline Sunni Islamist elements among their most committed units. There are certainly forces of an anti-jihadist ideology among them—the most well-known being the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, headed by Jamal Ma’arouf from the Jebel Zawiya area in northern Syria, and the smaller Harakat Hazm. Both movements have benefitted from Western aid in recent months.

Footage from an Islamic State promotional video. Photo: War Archives / YouTube

The problem, however, is that these organizations are quite prepared to work with salafi groupings whose worldview is essentially identical to that of the I.S., even if their methods are somewhat different. Thus, if we observe the recent fighting between Assad’s forces and rebels in the Quneitra area along the border with the Israeli Golan Heights, it is clear that the main contribution to rebel achievements came from the Jabhat al-Nusra group, which constitutes the “official franchise” of the core al-Qaeda group in Syria.

Reliable sources confirm that Nusra cooperates with other rebel groups in southern Syria and has even been prepared to minimize its own role, so as to allow other groups to present achievements as their own to Western and Arab patrons and thus secure a continued flow of arms, benefiting all factions.

What this means is that by championing these rebel elements as the ground force which will seek to enter and destroy a weakened I.S. in Raqqa province, the U.S. would be putting itself in the position of supporting one group of Sunni jihadis against another.

In Iraq, while the Kurdish Pesh Merga cooperates de facto with Iran, their alliance is pragmatic and tactical, one that the Kurds would gladly break given the possibility of clear Western sponsorship.

But the fierce condemnations in recent days (even by supposedly “pro-Western” rebel groups such as Hazm) of the U.S. bombing raids into Syria indicate that there is a deeper problem here. The alliance between these Sunni rebel groups and the salafis has a common anti-Western component to it.

It is, in any case, not clear if these Sunni rebels will prove able to defeat the I.S., but even if they were to do so, the presence of radical anti-Western elements among them attests to the danger of a policy of support and sponsorship of them.

Aftermath of an Islamic State car bomb. Taken from an I.S. promotional video. Photo: War Archives / YouTube

Of course, the Sunni jihadis are not the only dangerous players on the ground. Another possible, no less troubling, outcome of the air campaign against the Islamic State could be the return of Bashar al-Assad’s forces to eastern Syria, from which they have been largely expelled over the last year. It is not at all hard to imagine a scenario in which once the I.S. has been weakened by Western air attacks, the Syrian military and its Iranian-backed allies will be able to make gains.

Indeed, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are already present in northern Iraq (and, of course, in Syria as well) and IRGC personnel have taken part in the fighting in Iraq in recent weeks. Qods force teams are reportedly located at Samarra, Baghdad, Karbala, and the former al-Sahra Air Base near Tikrit. Iran has deployed seven SU-25 ground attack aircraft which have played a role in offering air support to the Kurds and Iraqi special forces.

Following intensive Western bombing, the possibility of the Islamic State eventually being sandwiched between pro-Iranian forces on either side before being destroyed would be a real one. This would achieve the desired goal of destroying the jihadi entity, but it could end up handing a major victory to the Assad regime and its Iranian backers—enemies of the West of significantly greater potency and seriousness than the Islamic State itself.

Such a result would be somewhat reminiscent of the Iraq invasion of 2003, in which the destruction of the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein ended up largely helping Iran.

How does the West get out of this mess? The discussion about which ground force should be used to replace the Islamic State is itself confused by a much larger misunderstanding regarding the nature of the war now taking place in Iraq and in Syria (and periodically spilling over into Lebanon).

The I.S. has now been depicted as the main problematic factor emerging from this conflict. But the Islamic State is in fact merely a particularly extreme and brutal manifestation of a broader process taking place in this area, in which political Islam of a Sunni variety is at war with the Shia political Islam of Iran and its proxies (especially Hezbollah and the Assad regime).

The I.S. may promote a particularly lurid and repulsive version of Sunni political Islam, but in its beliefs and in its practices it does not represent some unique presence in the Syrian and Iraqi context. Rather, it is little more than a particularly virulent manifestation of a strain of politics and ideology which is the primary cause of the conflict taking place across the region.

In the two scenarios discussed above, both quite plausible outcomes of a Western air campaign, the I.S. would be defeated and replaced by another version of Islamism—either that of its fellow Sunnis, or that of the rival Shi’ites.

A third possibility, however, is that the White House does not actually intend to pursue a policy intended to physically destroy the Islamic State in its heartland in northern Syria. Certainly, more recent statements emerging from the Administration appear to be preparing to “walk back” the President’s comments.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said in mid-September that success for U.S. policy vis-à-vis the I.S. would come when the group “no longer threatens our friends in the region, no longer threatens the United States.” This sounds like the introduction to a more modest policy of degrading I.S. capabilities, rather than seeking to “destroy” the Islamic State.

Of course, such a modified objective would end the dilemma over which ground forces to ally with. On the other hand, it would also have the effect of a tacit admission that the U.S. did not intend to promote its policy as originally stated by the President in the aftermath of the horrific murder of two U.S. citizens by the Islamic State.

But whether or not the goal of destroying the Islamic State is pursued with vigor, the current failure to see accurately what is happening in the Levant and Mesopotamia looks set to remain. This, in turn, looks set to prevent the emergence of a coherent policy and a coherent allocation of resources.

What is taking place across Syria and Iraq, and across their borders into Lebanon, Turkey, and Iran, is a sectarian war, made possible because of the decline of the police states which for half a century kept the lid on sectarian differences. The regional ambitions of Iran, which has clients and proxies in all three countries, exacerbate this dynamic. The attempts by Saudi Arabia to block Iran’s advance toward the Mediterranean, and by Qatar and Turkey to sponsor various Sunni jihadi elements, have produced a far more confused, and far less effective, Sunni side in this struggle.

The struggle itself, in turn, can be traced back to the failure by these states to develop coherent notions of citizenship or stable national identities in the post-Ottoman period. In other words, this war has been a long time coming, but now it is here.

Because the nature of this struggle is not widely grasped in the West, policy appears somewhat rudderless. This is reflected in the current discussion regarding the response to the Islamic State.

First, Assad was the enemy. This was made clear enough not only by his support for Hezbollah and attempts to nuclearize, but also by his unspeakable brutality and use of chemical weapons against his own citizens.

An F-22A Raptor waits to taxi prior to strike operations in Syria Sept. 23, 2014. These aircraft were part of a large coalition strike package that was the first to strike Islamic State targets in Syria. Photo: Russ Scalf / The National Guard / flickr

Then, when the brutality of some of the rebels became apparent, Western public interest in supporting the rebels receded. Soon the I.S. emerged as the new bogeyman. Declarations for its destruction became de rigueur, though it is far from clear how this is going to be carried out—and a de facto alliance with Iran and its clients, at least in Iraq, has emerged. This was seen in the expulsion of the I.S. from the town of Amerli, a pivotal moment in the major setbacks faced by the organization in recent days. In that town, Shi’ite militias were backed by American air power—to telling effect against the Sunni jihadis.

But is it really coherent policy to be backing murderous Shi’ite sectarians against murderous Sunni ones? It is not. Of course, when the West backs the Sunni rebels in Syria, the precise opposite is happening. Weaponry donated to “moderate” rebels then inevitably turns up in the hands of Sunni jihadis, who do most of the fighting associated with the Syrian “rebellion.” The result is that in Iraq the U.S. is helping one side of the Sunni-Shia war, and in Syria it’s helping the other side.

Only when it is understood that the West cannot partner with either version of political Islam does it become possible to formulate a coherent policy toward the Sunni jihadi forces, on the one hand, and toward the Iran-led bloc, on the other.

Such a policy must rest on the identification and strengthening of non-Islamist forces willing to band together and partner with the West. Not all of them are perfect characters, but they all understand the threat that political Islam poses.

Most obviously, there is a line of pro-American states along the southern side of the arena of the war. These are Israel, Jordan, and in a far more partial and problematic way, Saudi Arabia. Both Israel and Jordan have demonstrated that they are able to successfully contain the spread of the chaos coming out of the north. Both are well-organized states with powerful militaries and intelligence structures. Jordan has clearly benefitted from the deployment of U.S. special forces to prevent incursions by the I.S. Israel has also made clear that its resources will be available to assist the Jordanians should this be required. (Egypt, too, while not in the immediate vicinity of the conflict, can be a silent partner as well—as its campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and tough line against Hamas have shown, it is nothing if not a virulent opponent to political Islam.)

This is what the proper coordination of allied states is supposed to look like. And it works in containing the conflict. To the east of the war’s arena is of course Iran. To its west is the Mediterranean Sea. To its north is a long, contiguous line of Kurdish control, shared between the Kurdish Regional Government of President Massoud Barzani in northern Iraq, as well as the three enclaves created by the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northern Syria. The YPG militia, which is the military force in these enclaves, has fought the I.S. almost since its inception, and has largely prevailed in keeping the jihadis out of the Kurdish areas.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington D.C. Sept. 16, 2014. Daniel Hinton / Department of Defense / flickr

As part of a strategy of containment, the West should increase support for and recognition of both the Kurdish enclaves in the north of Syria and the Kurdish Regional Government itself. Both are elements capable of containing the spread of the jihadis from the north. It has become clear in recent days that the Pesh Merga, despite early setbacks, is a useful instrument in preventing the further advance westward of the Islamic State, and in so doing protecting the investment of international oil companies in the oil-rich parts of Iraq. The YPG militia, though poorly equipped, has also avoided major losses.

Such a principle of alliance will also encourage the West to reconsider the involvement of Turkey. As events of the last few years have shown, Turkey cannot be a reliable ally in the struggle against political Islam, because its ruling party, AKP, is itself an Islamist party. This is not a theoretical formulation. Turkey’s support for Islamist militias in northern Syria and its opening of its border for them has been a major contributing factor in the proliferation of these elements. There is also considerable evidence that Turkey at the very least turned a blind idea to the activities of the I.S. in the border area in 2013, and may well have offered some help to the jihadis in their fight with the YPG.

In order to grasp the rationale for a policy of dual containment, the nature of the war between rival sectarian forces must be grasped. There is also a need for the clear understanding that the effort to preserve at all costs the territorial integrity of “Iraq” and “Syria” is mistaken. Rather, what should take place is support for those forces committed to order, as listed above, and non-support for the forces of political Islam.

In other words: If political Islam (rather than one specific jihadi group, to quickly be replaced by another) is the real problem, then the real solution is to ally, forcefully and over the long haul, with those forces most committed to stopping it: Israel, Jordan, the Saudis, and the Kurds.

So it may be seen that a lack of strategic understanding of the nature of the conflict being waged is preventing the development of a coherent response to the specific problem of the Islamic State, along with the parallel problems of Shia terror groups such as Hezbollah, and the ambitions of the Islamic Republic of Iran. At root is the failure to grasp the implacable nature of political Islam in both its Sunni and Shia variants at the present time.

From this original error, all further errors, and as we can see there are many, inevitably follow.

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The Defense of Kobani

Jerusalem Post, 27/9

This week witnessed the second determined attempt by Islamic State forces to destroy the Kurdish enclave around Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) city in northern Syria. Kobani is one of three autonomous enclaves maintained by the Kurds in Syria.

As of now, it appears that after initial lightning advances, the progress of the jihadis has been halted; they have not moved forward in the last 24 hours. The arrival of Kurdish forces from across the Turkish border is the key element in freezing the advance.

Yet Islamic State has captured around 60 Kurdish villages in this latest assault, and its advanced positions remain perilously close – around 14.5 km. – from Kobani city. Around 100,000 people have fled Kobani for Turkey, from the enclave’s total population of around 400,0000.

Islamic State employed tanks, artillery and Humvees in its assault, according to Kurdish sources. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have no comparable ordnance. However, their fighters were assisted by Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas who crossed in from Turkey, and appear to have played a vital role in halting the advance.

Whether the current situation will hold is not yet clear. But the commencement of US and allied bombing on Islamic State in Syria probably means the jihadi forces will have more pressing issues to attend to for the moment.

The assault on Kobani indicates that Islamic State is turning its attention back to Syria. The Kurdish enclave has long been a thorn in the side of the jihadis; the Kurdish-controlled area interrupts the jihadis’ territorial contiguity, separating Tel Abyad from Jarabulus and making a large detour necessary from Islamic State’s capital in Raqqa city to the important border town of Jarabulus.

For this reason, the jihadis have long sought to conquer the area. Abu Omar al-Shishani, the much feared Chechen Islamic State military commander, is reputed to have made the conquest of Kobani a personal mission. With the weapons systems captured in Mosul now fully integrated, and with further progress in Iraq impeded by the presence of US air power, it appears Islamic State is now making its most serious effort to achieve this goal.

The Kobani enclave has long been an isolated, beleaguered space. This reporter visited there this past May; at the time, Islamic State was trying to block the supply of electricity and water into the city. Skirmishes along the borders were a daily occurrence.

Particularly notable also were the very strict border arrangements kept in place by the Turkish authorities to the north – in stark contrast to the much more lax regime maintained facing the areas of Arab population further west.

As of now, a determined Kurdish mobilization appears to have stemmed the jihadi advance. Unless the picture radically changes again, Kobani looks set to remain a thorn in the side of Islamic State.

Perwer Mohammed, 28, an activist close to the YPG in Kobani, sounded worried but hopeful when speaking from the city on Monday: “They are now on the outskirts of Girê Sipî [Tel Abyad].

But they will have to pass through our flesh to get to Kobani, and they are no longer advancing from the east.”

A variety of forces contributed to the mobilization; 1,500 PKK fighters arrived in Kobani city to reinforce the YPG there, according to Kurdish sources.

In addition, forces loyal to both the Kurdistan Regional Government of Massoud Barzani and to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are set to arrive in Kobani.

The PUK forces, according to the organization’s website, are currently on the Iraq-Syria border, waiting to deploy.

The YPG itself, meanwhile, is trying to push forces through from Ras al-Ain to Tel Abyad on the eastern edge of the enclave. A concerted Kurdish military effort is under way.

Suspicions remain regarding possible collusion between Turkish authorities and Islamic State. The Kurds have long maintained that at least in its initial phase, Islamic State was the beneficiary of Turkish support. Evidence has emerged of Turkish forces permitting Islamic State fighters to cross back and forth across the border during early clashes with the YPG.

The subsequent picture remains shrouded in ambiguity, as Turkey officially denies any relationship with Islamic State. But the release of 49 Turkish hostages by the terror movement this week under unclear circumstances has once more cast a spotlight on the possible complex connection between the two.

If the situation in Kobani holds, this will offer proof of the limitations of Islamic State forces. In Iraq, their advance has been stopped by the coordination of US air power with Iraqi and Kurdish forces. In Kobani, as of now at least, the jihadis appear to have been stalled by determined resistance on the ground alone. Yet the last chapter remains to be written.

Should Kobani fall, large-scale massacres of the type which befell the Yazidi communities in the Mount Sinjar area in August would inevitably follow; this is likely to result in a massive new refugee problem. Moreover, an Islamic State victory would consolidate the borders of the jihadi entity considerably.

The clash between Islamic State and the Kurdish autonomous areas also has broader ramifications than merely tactical military significance – it shows the extent to which “Iraq” and “Syria” have become little more than names.

In Kobani, two successor entities to these states are clashing. The Kurds have organized three autonomous cantons stretching east to west from the Syria-Iraq border to close to the Mediterranean coast. The Sunni jihadis, for their part, have organized their own “state,” going southeast to northwest.

Kobani is the point at which these two projects collide. Hence, the outcome of the current fight will indicate the relative strength of these two very different projects.

Yet the clash itself offers a broader lesson regarding the shape of things to come, in the ethnic/sectarian war now raging across what was once Iraq and Syria.

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The Guns of August

Inside the Kurdish-IS War

Jerusalem Report, 17/9


Erbil has changed a lot since I was there last. In early 2013, on my way into Syrian Kurdistan, I had stopped off in the city for a few days to make preparations. Then, the city had the feel of a boom town – shopping malls springing up across the skyline, brand new SUVs on the road, Exxon Mobil and Total were coming to town. It was the safest part of Iraq, an official of the Kurdish Regional Government had told me proudly over dinner in a garden restaurant.

A new kind of Middle East city.

What a difference a year makes. Now, Erbil is a city under siege. The closest lines of the Islamic State (IS) forces are 45 kilo – meters away. At the distant frontlines, IS (formerly ISIS) is dug in, its vehicles visible, waiting and glowering in the desert heat. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces are a few hundred meters away in positions hastily cut out of the sand to face the advancing jihadi fighters.

The atmosphere in the city remains febrile. It is generally believed that were it not for the rapid intervention of the US Air Force after August 8, IS would have found its way into the city. The American air – strikes stopped the jihadis in their tracks. The land surrounding the city is flat, stark and bare. IS knows that if it seeks to push any further toward Erbil, its forces will be wiped out by American air power.

Still, this is a temporary solution. “There was panic,” Iraqi Kurdish journalist Hiwa Osman tells me, when I ask about the early August days when IS seemed to be coming for the city like a juggernaut across the desert. “I was in Europe and I spoke to my wife. She described to me how cars were backed up trying to get out of the city. There wasn’t enough fuel. We think about 30 percent of the population left.” The exodus was in the direction of Dohuk and Zakho, further north and close to the Syrian border.

The foreigners from the oil companies and consulates left too. The infrastructure of bars and restaurants that sprang up to cater to them, with staff from the Indian subcontinent and cold lager on tap, were all sad and empty. Only those too poor to leave or determined to fight would be there to meet the Islamists when they collided with the Iraqi Kurdish capital.

But, as of now, their arrival has been stalled. Instead, a new population has arrived. These are refugees – Christians from the Mosul area, Yezidis from Sinjar Mountain. The religious minorities and the non-Arab, Kurdish-speaking Yezidis were well aware of what to expect when the Islamic State forces came for their areas, and the lucky ones made it as far as Erbil and sanctuary.

Luck here is, of course, a relative concept. They are destitute. Their houses, goods and property are now in the hands of IS, or those of their Sunni Arab neighbors who chose to cooperate with them. You see them everywhere in Erbil. In the available spaces afforded by half- built apartment blocks, Yezidi refugees from Sinjar have planted their tents and are sheltering from the sweltering heat of August. In the yard of the Chaldean Church in the Ainkawa district, Christians from the Mosul area live in rows of tents, receiving food and consignments of ice from well-wishers and local people.

In the evening when it cools down somewhat the city teems with people. There are other, earlier and less visible refugees. Working in the hotels are young men from Syria – some from government-controlled areas, some from the rebel zones. All crossed into Iraqi Kurdistan believing that here, at least, was a haven, a bastion from the sectarian war raging everywhere from the Iraq-Iran border to the Mediterranean Sea.

The bastion has indeed held. The Peshmerga are still mustered in their positions past the city’s outer suburbs, but the Kurdish Region – al Government (KRG) has proved to be far more vulnerable than anyone suspected.

My destination, however, was not Erbil. I was set to head north to Dohuk, then across the border into Syrian Kurdistan and south – ward as close to Sinjar Mountain as I could get. So, I set off on the highway for Dohuk. It was reputed to be safe, but it was hard to be sure.

The frontline between the Kurds and the Islamic State is a huge and fluctuating affair, stretching all the way from Jalawla on the Iraq-Iran border to Jarabulus on the line between Syria and Turkey. But Peshmerga were deployed in force along the highway, and all was well.

NEWS WAS coming in that the Kurds and Iraqis had recaptured the Mosul Dam, which provides water and electricity for Baghdad. American air support and probably the presence of US special forces on the ground were the decisive factor, once again, in the turning of the tide.

From Dohuk, I travelled to the border crossing at Fishkhabur, or Semalka, as it’s known to the Syrian Kurds. This is a border crossing like no other. It is jointly and efficiently maintained by two rival Kurdish nationalist movements, each with a very different style and orientation, and neither of which is recognized by the world as having any right to police borders at all – a testimony to the de facto fragmentation of Iraq and Syria, with which the Western world has yet to begin to grapple seriously.

In the waiting room on the Iraqi side was one of the very saddest of sights in this broken region – Syrian Kurdish families who had made their way to Iraqi Kurdistan a year earlier to escape the war in their home country were now petitioning to make the return journey. They had made their calculation. IS has so far been kept firmly out of Syrian Kurdistan, defended by the lightly armed but formidable YPG militia. The vaunted Iraqi Peshmerga forces, though, had crumbled at Sinjar and Islamic State forces were just a few kilometers away, so they wanted to go back to Syria.

“We tell them that if they go, they can’t come back again,” a KRG official at the border crossing tells me. “But they want to go anyway.” The borderline is the Tigris River. An old and rusty metal barge makes its way slowly across – from one Kurdish domain to the other.

Syrian Kurdistan is an altogether more provisional and much poorer affair than is its Iraqi counterpart. Iraqi Kurdistan has been around as an autonomous entity since 1992. It possesses vast oil reserves on which it hopes to build its future prosperity. The three cantons carved out of Syrian territory by the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party), meanwhile, are low on natural resources.

But they are high on cohesion. The Kurdish administration that has been assembled on Syrian soil is very clearly the work of the PKK, Kurdistan Workers Party, with which the PYD is associated. PKK sent down cadres and fighters in the summer of 2012 to establish it. Though only lightly armed, the PYD’s YPG militia has successfully held off all attempts by IS to degrade the areas under its control. The result is that the inhabitants of “Rojava,” as it is called by the Syrian Kurds, are afforded a level of security available to few other population groups in Syria.

Still, it is a meager life. Food is scarce, prospects uncertain. The Syrian war has been going on far too long. Fatigue and sadness are etched in the faces of everyone in a way that one does not yet see in Iraqi Kurdistan. In the town of Derik, the single hotel was full. I found myself housed in a YPG facility, in the company of a number of fighters wounded in a battle with IS in the town of Jeza’a further south a few days earlier.

The Islamists were trying to interdict a corridor that YPG fighters had carved from Sinjar Mountain. Tens of thousands of Yezidi refugees stranded on the mountain had been saved by the corridor, which snaked through IS-controlled areas. The refugees were brought from the mountain to Jeza’a, Rumeilan and then the Newroz refugee camp. So the jihadis were trying to cut the road and the Kurds were fighting to prevent this. It had been a 17-hour close-range battle fought mostly with light weapons, with heavy losses on both sides.

At its conclusion, the corridor was still open.

The wounded fighters in Derik were exhausted. Still, they were happy to talk. “There is a British fighter here,” one of them tells me. “He will be here soon. You will talk to him.” I waited with interest in the little court – yard by the house for this British YPG fighter to make his appearance. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Foreign fighters on the Syrian battlefield are a phenomenon more usually associated with the Islamist forces than with the Kurds. Finally, he turned up and, with a smile, introduced himself. He was very obviously Kurdish, 32 years old, stockily built, with his arm in a sling, and speaking in a broad South Wales accent.

He had immigrated to the UK with his family as a child and had grown up in Cardiff, where he now owned a restaurant with his brothers. So what led him from running a Kurdish restaurant in the Welsh capital to the YPG and the fight against the jihadis? “Well, I heard from my family what was happening,” he relates to me in his broad, musical accent. “My family’s from Diyarbakir, see. So I thought I had to do something. So I left my wife and kid, and came here to volunteer. My brothers are running the restaurant now. I trained for a couple of weeks, then straight into it.”

And now, with a dislocated shoulder, he was contemplating his next step and remembering, with a deep and calm sadness in his voice, the details of the Jeza’a fight.

“There must have been about 500 of them, about 90 of us. But they had no tactics, just kept coming forward. You should have seen when the trucks came to take away the bodies. Stacked up, they were. I killed three of them. One was only a kid of 16. They just keep coming forward, and either you shoot them or they shoot you. That’s all.”

He had been injured, not by a bullet but by a fall when he had to leap over a wall after an IS fighter threw a grenade, so the wound wasn’t serious. He was due to see his family, which had come to Diyarbakir from Wales. After that, he would decide on his future steps.

From Drik, my fixer and I traveled to the Newroz refugee camp, temporary home to around 20,000 Yezidi refugees brought from Sinjar Mountain. Conditions at the camp were fairly primitive – rows of tents on an open plain with little protection against the blazing August heat. Still, the Yezidi refugee families we interviewed there were very clearly glad just to be alive. Again and again we heard similar stories – the rumors that the jihadis were approaching and then, usually in the small hours of the morning, their arrival; the rapid departure of the Peshmerga forces (a matter of particular bitterness for many of the refugees); and the attempt by the men of the village to mount a desperate defense of the area at least long enough to allow the women and children to escape.

Then the days on the mountain. Many had died. Families had had to leave some of their most vulnerable members behind in the desperate fight for survival – the elderly, the infirm, many had been abandoned in the village. Their fate was mostly unknown.

The assumption was that any man of an age to fight was dead. Younger women would have been taken to the slave market in Mosul, where women are sold for $25. On the mountain itself, hundreds died because of the lack of water in the blazing August sun. Aid packages dropped by American planes burst on the rocks of Sin – jar and were lost. Finally, after many days, the precarious corridor was opened and the surviving refugees began to leave the mountain.

FEW HAD any desire to return. There was much bitterness against their Sunni neighbors for the many instances of collaboration with the Islamic State fighters. Instead, the general hope seemed to be to get to Iraqi Kurdistan, and from there to Turkey.

I didn’t get all the way to Sinjar. There was heavy fighting still going on at Jeza’a and the YPG decided it was too dangerous to try and get through. But we got to the frontlines at Yarubiya where, in June, the YPG captured the border crossing and now control it from both the Syrian and the Iraqi sides.

The IS are not far away. They control a neighborhood adjoining the border crossing. The civilian population are all long departed. There is a sniper’s war going on here and the YPG fire mortars across regularly when the IS sniper makes his appearance. The forward positions of the Kurds are draped with cloth and blankets to obscure the sniper’s view. The neighborhood mosque, with its high minaret, is one of his favorite spots, I am told.

“He can’t shoot so well, anyway, so don’t worry,” says Zilan, a commander of the female fighters of the YPJ, with a weary smile. Her fighters are deployed at the crossing alongside their male comrades. I tried hard to think about her words as one of her fighters, a tiny girl wearing a maroon Iraqi special forces beret she’d found at the border crossing, and I sprinted across a stretch of open ground to reach the forward position of the YPG, already several hundred meters into Iraqi territory.

Morale among the fighters was high and they were keen to remind us of their record in recent days – the corridor to Sinjar, the capture of Yarubiya (“Tel Kocer” the Kurds call it); the inability of Islamic State to break into the isolated Kobani enclave, despite the weapons they had captured from the garri – son in Mosul. But the cost was very high, too.

A day after Yarubiya, I attended a joint funeral of five YPG fighters from the town of Derik who had been killed in the Jeza’a fighting. The funeral took place on the parched plain outside the town. A long line of cars set out accompanying the vans holding the coffins. There were speeches from officials of the PYD and the YPG and singing. And finally as the sun sank, the YPG fighters took the shovels themselves and filled in the graves of the five very young men. “

We have these funerals nearly every week,” one YPG fighter confided to me as we returned to the town. Behind the determination and the war fervor, one sometimes hears a different tone reflecting sadness and disappointment. The Syrian war is now into its fourth year. Since it started all lives have been on hold. Even those, like the people of Derik, lucky enough to live in an area that has avoided the worst of the war’s ravages have been unable to move forward with their lives – to study, marry, buy a house – everything is frozen. Leyla, 23, visiting her brother who is a YPG fighter, tells me that Syria “used to be beautiful.”

Then she reflects a little and adds “even though we weren’t allowed to speak Kurdish or even give our children Kurdish names. Anyway, it was better than ISIS. We used to be Syrian first and Kurdish second. That’s all changed now. Syria has gone. And we don’t yet know what’s coming to replace it.”

This sense of being in transition is common to both the Iraqi and the Syrian parts of Kurdistan.

In the meantime, however, there is the war. A huge and fluid frontline of 1,500 kilometers – all the way from the Iraq- Iran border to the line between Syria and Turkey.

The Peshmerga, in cooperation with the US Air Force and the Iraqi special forces, are on the offensive now, determined to wipe out the shame of what happened on Sinjar Mountain. Important gains have been made. Still, Islamic State remains deployed close to Erbil at three separate points.

Back in Iraqi Kurdistan, I toured the frontline at the Khazer area. I visited the second line of the Peshmerga forces, in the company of a group of senior officers. “The world still sees the KRG as part of Iraq,” General Maghdid Haraki tells me, as we sit in a tent at one of the Peshmerga positions in Khazer. “But since 2007, Baghdad has sent the Peshmerga nothing. Now we want direct aid.”

They are a different type of force to the YPG. The fire and fervor is absent, more like a regular army. The commanders carry a little more girth. But they are what will defend the Kurdish capital from the jihadis – with a little help from the USAF.

The frontlines near the city are silent for now. Islamic State is waiting a kilometer or so from the first Kurdish line.

So, this is the war between Islamic State and the putative Kurdish sovereign entities to its north. The politics are complex, the military situation no less so.

I left Erbil for Amman in the early hours of the morning. The streets were deserted but the refugees’ tents were still visible at the side of the road. Iraq and Syria, it appears, have become geographical expressions only. Political Islam in its various versions is fighting over much of what remains. The Kurds are standing for a radically different politics along a long line to the north. What is to come, and how all this – which may be just beginning – will end, remains hidden beyond the horizon.

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