Erdogan’s Bait and Switch in Northern Syria

Jerusalem Post, 31/7

The latest events in northern Syria constitute a bold move by the Turkish leadership to deal with a most pressing problem, from their point of view.

That problem is not the continued existence of the Assad regime, far to the south. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would certainly like to see the end of this regime. But its continued truncated existence between Damascus and the coast and in isolated spots elsewhere does not constitute an immediate danger for the Turkish leader.

The issue is also not Islamic State. Certainly the killing of a Turkish soldier in a firefight on the border near the town of Kielis with Islamic State terrorists last Thursday will have angered Erdogan. But this alone cannot explain the sudden dramatic series of moves in subsequent days. After all, until now, the Turkish government’s attitude toward Islamic State had been one of tolerance and at times cooperation. Recent revelations indicate a laissez-faire attitude toward Islamic State oil-trading across the border, and to the transport of fighters across the border.

The strikes against Islamic State by the Turkish air force, and the decision to grant the US Air Force permission to use the Incirlik base near Adana constitute a feint.

Ankara’s stated intention of using its air power to create a 90-km. wide area of control between Jarabulus and Marea along the Syrian-Turkish border is directed against the ambitions of the Kurds, not those of Islamic State.

Why, then, has Erdogan decided to move against the Syrian Kurds?

Since January, Kurdish political stock has been steadily rising in the West. In the Kurdish YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units), the US found a reliable, non-Islamist ally that was willing and capable to act as a ground force against Islamic State in northern Syria. The combination of the YPG on the ground, and the USAF in the skies proved sufficient to save the besieged town of Kobani, and then to push the jihadis back to Tel Abyad in the east and to the outskirts of Jarabulus in the west.

These victories, however, were worrying from the Turkish point of view. First, as a result of their eastern advance, the Kurds were able to unite two of the three cantons they have established along the long Syrian-Turkish border. The creation of a corridor linking the Jazira canton, which stretches from the Syria-Iraq border to the town of Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ain), with the reconstituted Kobani enclave gave the Kurds control over a long and contiguous stretch of border.

No less important, the favorable publicity accruing to the Kurds because of their fight against Islamic State, and the presence of women fighters and secular Western volunteers in their ranks, served to turn the Syrian Kurds from a forgotten minority into the recipient of favorable and growing Western attention.

Still worse, from the Turkish point of view, the entirety of the remaining border area not under Kurdish control (with the exception of a tiny enclave around the town of Azaz) was in the hands of Islamic State. The logic of the situation thus appeared to suggest that a Kurdish offensive west of the Euphrates to drive Islamic State from the region, with the help of US air power, might be in the offing.

An offensive of this kind would have driven Islamic State from the border in its entirety. But it would almost certainly have had the additional effect of enabling the YPG to unite the Kobani enclave with the third Kurdish canton in northern Syria, established around the town of Afrin.

This, in turn, would have given de facto control of the entirety of the 800-km. border between Syria and Turkey to a Kurdish autonomous entity ruled over by the PYD (Democratic Union Party). The PYD is the Syrian franchise of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). The PKK is (or was) engaged in a stalled peace process with the government of Turkey. Core issues remain unresolved. Erdogan could not tolerate the emergence of a de facto Kurdish sovereignty stretching along the entirety of this border.

Hence the evident decision to intervene in northern Syria using air power. This is an attempt to mimic the successful pairing of US air power with Kurdish ground force that has driven the Islamic State back to the east and south. Erdogan wants to pair his air force with Sunni Islamist rebels in Aleppo and Idleb provinces, in order to destroy the Islamic State stronghold between Jarabulus and Marea. At the same time, as seen this week in the town of Zor Maghar, force will also be employed to deter the YPG from making any move west of the Euphrates.

The Sunni rebels in question will almost certainly be the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest). This is a Turkish-, Qatari- and Saudi-supported gathering of Sunni Islamist forces, which includes Jabhat al-Nusra (the Syrian franchise of al-Qaida) and Ahrar ash-Sham, a powerful Salafi armed group.

If this venture is successful, the end result will be the removal of Islamic State from the border in its entirety, and its replacement, between Kobani and Afrin, by other Islamist rebel groups supported by Turkey.

This is the mission on which Erdogan is now embarked. It appears to have dimensions beyond northern Syria. The attacks on the PKK in Qandil and the threats to strip HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) parliament members of immunity may point to a broader political logic. Erdogan may be seeking to leverage the crisis with the Kurds for political gain, fanning the fires of Turkish nationalist sentiment to mobilize votes in a renewed general election.

He may be hoping to achieve the sought for parliamentary majority, which eluded him in elections earlier this year, and which he needs to bring about constitutional reform and expanded powers for the presidency.

But most urgently, the Turkish move into Syria is directed against the advances – physical and political – made by Syria’s Kurds in the course of the past year. Just how far Erdogan will go in pursuit of the goal of turning back the clock in Syrian Kurdistan remains to be seen. But contrary to much Western reporting, Turkey’s entry into the war in Syria does not constitute a belated reconciling by Ankara of a Western-led agenda vis-à-vis the war. Rather, Erdogan is carrying out a bait-and-switch move, founded on partnering with Sunni Islamist groups in order to reduce or destroy Kurdish aspirations.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Lecture in Jerusalem, 23/7

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Opening the ‘gates of evil’

Sunni Arabs see deal as facilitating further Iranian regional subversion, confirming US withdrawal from the Middle East

Jerusalem Post, 18/7

The response in the Arabic-speaking world to the conclusion of a deal between the P5+1 countries and the Islamic Republic of Iran over the latter’s nuclear program has divided along familiar lines.

Among pro-Iranian elements, such as President Bashar Assad of Syria and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, the news of the deal has, predictably, been met with jubilation. Assad described the agreement as a “historic achievement” and a “great victory.”

Among Sunni elements opposed to the advance of Iran, concerns have focused less on the nuclear elements of the deal – that is, whether it will effectively halt Iran’s march toward the bomb. Instead, attention has centered on the deal’s implications for Iran’s push for hegemony in the Middle East, and its interference in and subversion of regional states as part of this effort.

An editorial by Salman Aldosary, in the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, summed up these concerns in the following passage:

“Western governments will be under great pressure to make the deal succeed and therefore turn a blind eye to many of Iran’s destabilizing policies as well as Tehran’s blatant interference in the domestic affairs of its neighbors. Moreover, the West will also have to neglect Tehran’s support of extremist militias, such as Iraq’s Popular Mobilization forces, also known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, that have gradually become almost part of Iraq’s military. Iran has established a policy based on the equation of fighting terrorism with terrorism amid deafening silence from the West.

“Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states can only welcome the nuclear deal, which in itself is supposed to close the gates of evil that Iran had opened in the region. However, the real concern is that the deal will open other gates of evil, gates which Iran mastered knocking at for years even while Western sanctions were still in place.”

From this perspective a particularly notable and dismaying aspect of the deal is its removal of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Quds Force commander, Maj.-Gen. Qasem Soleimani, from the list of those subject to sanctions by the West.

The ending of sanctions on the IRGC, and more broadly the likely imminent freeing of up to $150 billion in frozen revenue, will enable Iran to massively increase its aid to its long list of regional clients and proxies. Iran today is heavily engaged in at least five conflict arenas in the region.

The Iranian creation and proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon is the dominant political and military force in that country. The organization depends on Iranian support, training and funding to maintain this position.

In Syria, beleaguered dictator and Iranian client Assad remains in control in the west and south largely because of Iranian support and assistance – up to $1b. per month, according to some estimates. For as long as Assad remains, the war remains, allowing such monstrous entities as Islamic State and al-Qaida to flourish.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are unmatched in clandestine and proxy warfare, having effectively created an alternative armed force for Assad when his own army became unreliable in 2012. This force, the National Defense Forces, has plugged the gap in manpower which is the regime’s greatest vulnerability. But in addition, Iran has channeled others of its proxies, including Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’ite militias and lately increasing numbers of Afghan Hazara Shi’ite “volunteers,” toward the Syrian battlefield.

In Iraq, the Iranian-supported Shi’ite militias of the Hashd al-Shaabi are playing the key role in defending Baghdad from the advance of Islamic State. These militias are trained and financed by the Revolutionary Guards and organized by Soleimani and his Iraqi right-hand man, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, also thought to be an IRGC member.

In Yemen, the Iranians are offering arms and support to the Ansar Allah, or Houthi rebels, who are engaged in a bloody insurgency against the government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Among the Palestinians, Tehran operates Palestinian Islamic Jihad as a client/proxy organization, and is in the process of rebuilding relations with the Izzadin Kassam, the powerful military wing of Hamas.

All this costs money. In a pattern familiar to the experience of totalitarian regimes under sanctions in the past, Iran has preferred to safeguard monies for use in service of its regional ambitions, while allowing its population – other than those connected to the regime – to suffer the consequent shortages.

Still, in recent months, things weren’t going so well. Assad has been losing ground to the Sunni rebels. Hezbollah has been hemorrhaging men in Syria. The Shi’ite militias were holding Islamic State in Iraq but not advancing. Saudi intervention was holding back further advances by the Houthis in Yemen. Hamas was looking poverty-stricken and beleaguered in its Gaza redoubt.

The sanctions, plus these many commitments, were bringing the Iranian regime close to an economic crisis that would have confronted the regime with the hard choice of lessening its regional interference or facing the consequences.

No longer. The deal over the nuclear program is set to enable Tehran to shore up its investments, providing more money and guns to all its friends across the Middle East, who will as a result grow stronger, bolder and more ambitious. This, from the point of view of the main powers in the Sunni Arab world, is the key fallout (so to speak) from the deal concluded in Vienna. IRGC “outreach” to Shi’ite minorities in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and to the Shi’ite majority in Bahrain, is also likely to increase as a result of the windfall.

It has been felt in recent years in Riyadh, Cairo, Amman and other Sunni Arab capitals that the United States is determined to withdraw from active involvement in the region, and in pursuit of this goal is currently pursuing a dangerous path of appeasement of Iran.

This impression is compounded not only by the stance toward the Iranian nuclear program but also by the US response to Iran’s activities across the Middle East. In Iraq, the US appears to be acting in tandem with Iranian goals, with no apparent awareness of the problems in this regard. Similarly, in Lebanon the West is supporting and equipping the Lebanese Armed Forces, without understanding that the Lebanese state is largely a shell, within which Hezbollah is the living and directing force. In Syria, the US is pursuing a half-hearted campaign against Islamic State, while leaving the rest of the country to its internal dynamics.

The nuclear deal compounds and completes the picture. From the perspective of the Saudis and other Sunni Arabs, Iranian ruthlessness, clarity and advance combined with the flailing, retreating US regional policy now so much in evidence spell potential disaster.

The Sunni Arabs, along with Israel and other regional opponents of Iran, will now develop strategies independent of the US to stem this advance and turn it back. The outcome of that struggle will determine the fate of the Middle East.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Coming of age in Sinai

Jerusalem Post, 10/7

The Sinai-based Islamic State affiliate Wilayat al-Sina (Sinai Province) claimed responsibility for the firing of three Grad rockets at Israel on July 3. This attack, which caused no casualties, came closely after a large-scale assault by the group against Egyptian security installations in the Sheikh Zuweid area of northern Sinai.

Both events served notice regarding the growing seriousness of the threat represented by the jihadists in northern Sinai.

The Sheikh Zuweid attacks demonstrated a level of tactical proficiency and sophistication hitherto not seen in Sinai’s Islamic State affiliate. The jihadists used sophisticated weapons systems, reportedly including Russian-made Kornet antitank missiles, and antiaircraft missiles. They also deployed suicide bombers as a weapon of war, rather than as terrorism, to telling effect against Egyptian Army positions.

These events in northern Sinai, in turn, followed on from the killing of Egyptian State Prosecutor Hisham Barakat in a car bomb attack in Cairo on June 29.

All this points to a number of worrying conclusions:

First, the notion that the former Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’s declaration of bay’ah (allegiance) to Islamic State was merely a formality, a proclamation devoid of content, should be abandoned. The tactical proficiency and the tactics utilized by Wilayat al-Sina in the Sheikh Zuweid attacks suggest that Islamic State fighters have been responsible for instructing the Sinai jihadists in their own way of war in the recent period. These methods have been responsible, of course, for Islamic State’s considerable successes in Iraq and Syria over the last two years.

Islamic State has never engaged with an enemy as serious as the US-equipped and US-trained army of Egypt. Still, as unveiled by the Sheik Zuweid events, a force comparable in ability (though not yet in equipment) to Islamic State fighters in Raqqa, Anbar and Hasaka is now deployed in northern Sinai.

Second, the killing of Hisham Barakat indicates that the jihadi insurgency in Egypt is spreading, despite the efforts of the army to quell it. It is no longer confined to Sinai but, rather, appears to be able to strike in the heart of Egypt west of the Suez Canal. Barakat was killed in the upscale and well-defended Heliopolis suburb of Cairo, near a military academy.

The Egyptian government is determined to continue to blame the Muslim Brotherhood for the violence. But Wilayat al-Sina had issued threats against the judiciary on the day prior to the attack, following the execution of a number of jihadists. It is far more likely that it was individuals from this organization who carried out the bombing, which was officially condemned by the Brotherhood.

But should an Islamist insurgency really take hold in Egypt, it is likely to attract the support of a considerable number of the younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The way back to politics for the Muslim Brotherhood has been definitively closed by the Egyptian authorities. Its younger cadres are seeking other means of expression.

Third, the launching of missiles at Israel, though not the first incident of this kind, is a reminder that the jihadists hope to draw the Jewish state into the circle of violence. Israel has largely been successful in keeping Islamic State away from the area east of Quneitra.

The Sinaievents indicate that the jihadists appear set to increase efforts to attain a point of friction with Israel to its south, having failed so far to achieve one in the north.

Wilayat al-Sina first emerged in 2011 (under the name of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis), following the military coup that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. But the presence of jihadists in northern Sinai long precedes this. In Taba in 2004, Sharm e-Sheikh in 2005 and Dahab in 2006, suicide bombers struck, taking a heavy toll on civilian life. The Egyptian authorities then tried to reimpose order on northern Sinai, from where the terrorists emerged. They failed.

Northern Sinai remained a playground for smugglers and formed an important staging post for Hamas as it armed itself via the tunnels into the southern Gaza Strip following its 2007 expulsion of Fatah from the Strip.

It is this latter factor that probably explains Israeli allegations of Hamas support for and cooperation with Islamic State affiliates in this area. If this support is indeed taking place (concrete proof has yet to be offered), it would be with the intention of utilizing the jihadists and their wide base of support among the north Sinai Beduin as part of Hamas’s attempt to rebuild smuggling routes into the Strip.

In the event of the jihadists establishing a de facto autonomous area, this would of course be invaluable to the beleaguered rulers of Gaza.

Ideological differences between the two would not necessarily trump practical cooperation. In any case, there is no clear, hermetic dividing line between Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas adherents and the Salafi trends that spawned Islamic State. Many Izzadin Kassam (Hamas’s military wing) fighters are themselves sympathetic with the Salafi trend. Certainly, Hamas’s crackdown on other, self-proclaimed Islamic State supporting groups in Gaza itself would form no barrier to working together with the officially acknowledged Islamic State franchise to the south.

So the events of the past two weeks mark the arrival of Wilayat al-Sina as an important new player in Islamic State’s ongoing effort to destabilize the region. Israeli-Egyptian security cooperation is already at an all-time high because of this joint threat. Jerusalem will be hoping that Egyptian efforts to root out the jihadists will bear greater fruit in the months ahead. Until they do, Islamic State is in Sinai.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Ghosts of Old Baghdad


Jerusalem Report, 8/7

A few hours in the Shorja open market in Baghdad can teach you a lot – about the Middle East’s past, its present and its apparent future. What’s to be found there is informative. What is absent – equally so.

My fixer Yusuf hadn’t wanted to take me to Shorja. I was in Baghdad for a reporting project on the Shia militias. Between heading for Anbar with Kata’ib Hezbollah and up to Baiji with the Badr Corps, we had a few hours of downtime in Baghdad so I suggested we make for the market area that had once formed the hub of the city’s Jewish community.

I am no expert on the Jews of Iraq.  But a friend’s Iraqi father back in Jerusalem upon hearing that I was heading for Baghdad had mentioned the Taht el Takia neighborhood in the heart of the market where he had grown up and asked me to take some pictures if I had the chance.

“Old Baghdad isn’t really safe anymore. We won’t be able to walk around,” Yusuf told me as we debated the issue. “After the Jews were kicked out in the ’50s, a load of poor Shi’a moved in and they have been running it ever since.”

I tried to ascertain what exactly the danger was. But, like much else in Baghdad, it wasn’t clear – just a general sense of foreboding, and maybe justified paranoia, of a kind that seemed pervasive in  the city.

Baghdad carried with it a tense and febrile atmosphere. Roadblocks everywhere. Muscular, armed men and light armored vehicles outside the hotels. Logos and pictures of armed Shi’a irregulars on every street corner. These latter were the forces defending the city against the Sunni fighters of the Islamic State.

ISIS was just 60 km. away, its black clad fighters waiting behind their positions. Amid the dust and the summer heat and the collapsed buildings.

So I understood Yusuf’s reluctance. His driver, an older man and recent refugee from Anbar, was tired, too, and clearly had no special desire to head out into the 40 degree heat of the afternoon – still less if the destination was a poverty stricken Shi’a section of the city.

All the same, I was paying them and didn’t feel like spending the whole afternoon sitting around drinking tea and smoking, so I persisted and finally Yusuf agreed. “Taht el Takia? Well, we’ll go there and see what’s there. But if I say it isn’t safe, we don’t even get out of the car.”

We set off back into the heat of the afternoon and began the drive to Old Baghdad. After a while, we reached al-Rasheed Street and began the search for the neighborhood. The market and area surrounding it were ramshackle and neglected, looking like they’d last been renovated sometime in the 1970s.

Yusuf began to ask passersby about Taht el Takia. Everyone seemed to have heard of it, but no one quite knew where it was. “The problem is,” Yusuf said, “that most of the people here belong to families that came in from the countryside when Baghdad expanded in the 1960s so they don’t really know all the names of these old neighborhoods.”

Finally, from al-Rasheed Street, we reached a warren of small alleyways and Yusuf declared that this, as far as he could ascertain, was Taht el Takia. The market had closed for the day; it was late afternoon and I made to enter the alley.

This had once been the vibrant heart of Baghdad’s Jewish community though not the slightest memory or indication of that was to be found. We wandered the deserted, silent alleyways filled with garbage from the market.

After a few minutes, a plump security man wearing a tatty army uniform with a maroon airborne-style beret on the back of his head, appeared and began to shout and gesticulate in guttural Baghdadi Arabic. “No pictures,” Yusuf told me.

Having established his authority with this arbitrary order, the guard then became friendly and inquisitive. I told him I had come to look at the area for the father of a friend of mine who had left in 1951 and hadn’t seen it since.

“Oh, a Jew , yes?” he said. I decided to answer in the affirmative, feeling vaguely that to have denied this would have been a sort of betrayal. “From Israel?” the guard persisted. This was going too far, and I replied that I had arrived from England.

The guard was amused by this, and with a show of magnanimity said we could photograph the adjacent mosque and the outside areas, but that he didn’t recommend going too far into the warren of alleyways, since it was getting dark.

“Anyone could see that you’re a foreigner and just produce a weapon and say ‘come with us,” he suggested, grinning broadly. “I don’t even go in there myself after dark.”

He brought us some bottled water by way of a consolation prize. “By the way,” he said as we parted, “ask your friend’s dad if he can get me asylum in Israel.”

There has been a market at Shorja since the Abbasid period in the 8th century. But for some time in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Jews dominated trade in the area. It was the hub of a flourishing community.

In 1951-1952, the long story of Iraqi Jewry came to an end with the Arab nationalist agitation; the commencement of anti-Jewish laws from the mid-1930s; growing violence; the Farhud massacres in 1941; and the subsequent persecution and expulsions.

Almost the entire community was airlifted or smuggled out of the country from 1949 to 1951; Operation Ezra and Nehemiah brought around 130,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel  from May 1951 and early 1952.

Some 60 years on, in Baghdad the Jews are a ghostly memory. The poor Sh’ia who moved into their vacated houses and the mass of the population that came later are neither moved by nor curious about their buried stories. There are, it is said, seven Jews remaining in the city.

The old synagogues are long since demolished or boarded up. The mezuzas long prised from the doorways. The Laura Kaddoorie Alliance Girls’ School, the Jewish Institute for the Blind, the shops of Yehezkel Abu al-Anba and Fattal. All gone.

As it turns out, the expulsion of Baghdad’s Jews was a portent of what was to come. The Jews were the first minority to be ripped from the fabric of Iraqi society. For a long, subsequent period, stagnation followed and dictatorships of unfathomable brutality imposed their will on the country. These ensured the dominance of the Sunni Arab minority while other communities lived an uneasy, truncated existence, visited by intermittent catastrophe.

That period ended in 2003 with the overthrow of Saddam  Hussein. Today, in Iraq, similar forces of tribalism and sectarian hatred to those that ended Baghdad Jewry’s long and illustrious history are tearing the whole country to pieces.

Nowadays, these forces no longer seek to cloak and disguise themselves in finery borrowed from the West. There are no claims to secularism, socialism or whatever. They come as they are ‒ sectarian, religious and set on revenge.

And with the irony that history favors, the primary victims of today’s sectarian agitation in Baghdad are the formerly ascendant Sunni Arabs ‒ the same dominant population for whom Arab nationalism was the chosen banner in the 20th century. That is to say, the population that produced those responsible for the expulsion of the Jews in the 1950s is today suffering a similar fate to their former victims.

This justifies nothing, of course. It is merely notable that the inexorable ethnic and sectarian hatreds that made Israel a desperate necessity for Jews and which have formed the basis of Arab opposition to it ever since are now, more and more, openly visible across the region. Few (outside of university departments, at least) bother to claim otherwise anymore. Populations are seeking shelter among their own kind. The splitting of states is the consequence.

“The government doesn’t trust Sunnis,” Hikmat Guwood of the Albu Nimr tribe tells me, “They only trust the Shi’a militias, who are armed by Iran.”

We are meeting with Guwood in a Baghdad hotel. It is our last chance because he is leaving the city.

Guwood is a leader of the Albu Nimr tribe of Anbar, who worked closely with the Americans during the “Anbar Awakening” of 2006-2007. This has made him a marked man for the Shi’a militias of Baghdad, who suspect that he is still operating for the US. A few days before our interview, he was attacked in his home by Shi’a militants. By Kata’ib Hezbollah he tells us, naming one of the most powerful and feared of the militia groups.

So he is going to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Guwood isn’t a Kurd, of course. But in Kurdistan, at least, there is something approaching a government, he says. In Baghdad, by contrast, “The government controls nothing. [Prime Minister] Abadi has no power. The real power in Iraq today is the militias, he says.

What of the future? In an opinion one hears a lot from Iraqi Sunnis, Guwood no longer wants the strong, unitary (Sunni-dominated) state that existed until the 1990s. Rather, he is calling for a “Sunni federation” in the majority Sunni areas to exist alongside the Kurdish area and the Shi’a-dominated south and Baghdad. The latter, he considers, has effectively become the capital of an emergent Shi’a state.

The problem for Iraqi Sunni Arabs, of course, is that the area of their own majority in the center of the country is currently under control of ISIS. As Hamed al-Mutlaq, an MP and former general in Saddam Hussein’s army puts it: “Iraq is now divided. In fact, worse than divided. The Kurds and Shi’a are safe in their areas, but the Sunni component of the society has no existence and is displaced. Those who remain are under the sword either of ISIS or of the Shi’a militias.”

As for the new and future masters of Baghdad, they too have a very clear plan for the direction of events. The Shi’a militias facing ISIS in Anbar Province west of the city, and in Baiji to its north sense the wind of history at their backs.

The men of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia are open in their allegiances and their intentions. “We rely on God and the family of Muhammad,” one bearded, red-eyed fighter declares to me, at a frontline position 10 kilometers from Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, which fell to ISIS in May. Or, more prosaically, as Abu Mahdi al Mohandis puts it at a meeting of commanders near Baiji city, “We rely on capacity and capabilities provided by the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Abu Mahdi is reputed to be the key figure alongside the Quds Force’s Qassem Suleimani in coordinating Iranian aid to and supervision of the militias. So he knows what he’s talking about.

The Shi’a militiamen I interviewed view themselves as the nucleus of a new, Iraqi version of the Revolutionary Guards, guarding the piety and Shi’a nature of their Iraq. As one Badr Corps commander expressed it: “In the future, our militias will form something like the Basij militias in Iran – under the control of the “Marjiya” (Shi’a religious leadership) alongside the army.”

This is what is in the ascendant in Baghdad right now. It is not surprising that Sunni Arab Iraqis find it hard to locate much place for themselves in it.

In the West, there is concern about the Islamic State and expansionist Iran. Rightly so. But what is underway is deeper than the ambitions of this or that player.

It is a fundamental, long awaited shifting in the basic contours of power across a large swathe of the Middle East (the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Iraq-Iran border). A mighty, long suppressed ferment of religious and sectarian fervor.  It was a long time coming and now it’s here.

As for the buried, submerged history of the Jews of Taht el Takia, history will record that their expulsion was the first tug on a complex fabric that later unraveled in its entirety. They and their descendants shall live, nevertheless. But not here. In Baghdad, only the ghosts remain.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

John Le Carre and the Last of Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments