Lines in the Sand

Jerusalem Post, 9/6

An alliance of pro-US Sunni Arab states is emerging

The decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen  to cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar is the latest step in the re-emergence of a clearly defined US-led Sunni Arab bloc of states.  The task of this alliance is to roll back Iranian influence and advancement in the region, and to battle against the forces of Sunni political Islam.

Little noticed by western media,  this conservative Sunni alliance against Iran and Sunni Islamism has been under construction for some time.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the first to recognize the new regime of General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi following the military coup on July 3, 2013.  Financial support from both countries has been crucial in ensuring the avoidance of economic disaster in Egypt.

The Saudis and Emiratis were the moving force behind the interventions into Bahrain in 2011 and Yemen in 2015. In both cases, the intention was to prevent the advance of Iranian interests.

Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates maintained high levels of military spending over the last half decade, in spite of low oil prices.  The two countries have sagely invested in air power and special operations forces – the areas most relevant to the type of wars being fought at present in the Middle East.

The results have been visible over the last two years.

The intervention to prevent  the advance of the Iran-supported Ansar Allah militia toward the strategically crucial Bab el-Mandeb Strait was the first real ‘outing’ for Gulf Arab non-proxy military power (Operation Peninsula Shield into Bahrain in 2011 was a police action against popular unrest).

The results in Yemen have been mixed, but by no means constitute the debacle that the intervention has been presented as in some quarters.  The Houthis remain in control of Tsana’a, the Yemeni  capital.    But the nightmare scenario in which an Iran-supported force acquired control of the narrow Bab El-Mandeb strait, through which all shipping between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea must pass, was avoided.  Emirati and Saudi special operations forces played a key role in the fighting.

In Libya, Emirati air power, employed in support of  General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, has played an important part in Haftar’s fight against Islamist militants.  The Emiratis built a forward air base, al-Khadim, in Marj province 100 km from Benghazi.   AT-802 light attack aircraft and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters operate from the base, according to satellite imagery published by IHS Jane’s.

However, the election of Donald Trump appears to have sharply increased the scope and ambitions of the pro-US Gulf Arab states.  It is clear that they  identify  a similar regional outlook to their own in Trump and  key figures around him.  This raises the possibility of a more assertive and clearly defined strategy regarding both the Iranian and Sunni Islamist adversaries.

At the Riyadh meeting on May 21st,  55 Muslim majority countries signed a declaration pledging to establish a ‘a reserve force of 34,000 troops to support operations against terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria when needed.”

According to the final communique from the summit, the leaders present ‘confirmed their absolute rejection of the practices of the Iranian regime designed to destabilize the security and stability of the region and the world at large and for its continuing support for terrorism and extremism,” and accused Teheran of  maintaining a  “dangerous ballistic missiles program” and of “continuing interference in the domestic affairs of other countries.” A third of the document was devoted to criticism of Iranian regional activities.

The signing of the ‘Riyadh Declaration’ took place following the visit of Donald Trump to Riyadh. Trump, in his speech at the summit, accused Iran of ‘“spreading destruction and chaos across the region.”

Declarations by Gulf states have not always been followed by concerted action on the ground, of course.  But with the current emergent stand-off between pro-western and pro-Iranian forces in eastern Syria, and the incremental loss of territory by the Islamic State in that area, it is not hard to think of the type of roles which a standing Gulf Arab ‘counter-terror’ force would play, for example, in holding and administering Sunni Arab areas in cooperation with local forces.

An additional, un-stated assumption behind the emergence of this bloc is that the energies of the Arab uprisings that began in late 2010 are largely spent.   A bloc led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Sisi’s Egypt will not seek to mobilize the revolutionary energies of populations. Rather, as with that of the Iranians, this alliance will be a top-down affair, featuring regular and semi-regular military forces carefully commanded and controlled from above.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that the main ‘casualty’ of the emergence of this alliance is Qatar, the country which above all others sought to fan the flames of the uprisings.  Qatar, through its support for Muslim Brotherhood associated movements and via its enormously influential al-Jazeera satellite channel, tried to turn the energies of the Sunni Arab masses in Syria, Egypt and the Palestinian territories into political power and influence for itself (while, of course, harshly suppressing any attempts by its own largely non-citizen population to claim rights).   This project has failed.

For a moment, a large Sunni Islamist bloc based on Qatari money and Muslim Brotherhood power seemed to be emerging.  MB-associated parties controlled Cairo, Ankara, Tunis and Gaza.  Similar movements seemed plausibly within reach of Damascus.  But this bloc proved stillborn and little of it now remains.

The hour of the revenge of Doha’s Gulf neighbors has thus arrived.  The shunting aside of little Qatar, however, is ultimately only a detail in the larger picture.  What is more significant is the re-emergence of an overt alliance of Sunni Arab states under US leadership,  following the development of military capabilities in relevant areas, and with the stated intention of challenging the Iranian regional advance and Sunni political Islam.  It remains to be seen what this bloc will be able to achieve re its stated aims.  But the lines of confrontation between the two central power blocs in the region are now more clearly drawn than at any time in recent years.

 

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The Race for the Ruins

Jerusalem Post, 26/5

Events taking place in a remote stretch of south east Syrian desert in recent days reveal the current direction of US Middle East strategy.

 

An observable ratcheting up of US and allied air and special forces activity in eastern Syria is currently under way. This in turn appears to derive from a new, hard-nosed understanding of the nature of the strategic game in the large, strife-ridden area covering what was once Syria and Iraq.

On Thursday, May 18th, US aircraft launched strikes on a column of Assad regime vehicles including tanks and earth-movers, 18 miles from the town of al-Tanf, on the Syrian-Iraqi border.     The strikes took place after the vehicles entered an agreed deconfliction zone around the town.  US and British special forces are currently training ‘vetted partner forces’, ie Syrian Sunni Arab rebels in the town.

This was the second occasion in recent weeks that US aircraft have directly engaged against Assad’s forces.  On the first occasion,  the target was the al-Shayrat airbase.  That raid took place on April 6.  It was a clear retaliation for the regime’s use of sarin gas at Khan Sheikhoun on April 4.  The Shayrat raid was generally interpreted as a belated attempt to enforce the American ‘red line’ against further regime use of chemical weapons.  As such, it was not widely seen as indicating a more general change of policy.

The attack on the column near al-Tanf, by contrast, was not preceded by any unusual regime activity, apart from the approach of the column itself, and its too close vicinity to western forces.  On Monday, the pro-opposition website Syria Direct quoted an un-named US military spokesman as saying that ‘if pro-regime forces move further south or east from their current positions, this will be considered a threat.’ The website also reported that regime forces are preparing to move toward the Badia area, a stretch of desert to the north east of al-Tanf.

What is the significance of this butting of heads?

The battle against the territorial holdings of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is reaching its final phase.  The re-conquest of Mosul is almost done.  The assault on Raqqa city, the capital city of the Caliphate is about to begin.  It is set to be a hard and bloody fight.  But its eventual outcome is not in question.  Islamic State as an entity controlling ground will be destroyed. At which point the movement will revert back to its former status as a clandestine terror network.  As the eclipse of the Caliphate draws near, the race is opening up to inherit its former domains.

The competitors in this contest are  Iran and its various allies and proxies, and forces associated with the west and the Sunni Arab states.

The Iranians and their allies want to penetrate IS territory from west to east – with the Iraqi Shia militias pushing westwards from Tel Afar and Assad regime forces and pro-Assad militias (including Hizballah) probing east.

The regime forces nosing around in al Tanf are in the process of seeking to seize border areas with both Jordan and Iraq.  The US is determined to prevent that.  The town of Deir al-Zour and the surrounding oil rich areas will form an important part of the prize.

Pro-western forces, meanwhile are pushing north from Jordan and south from the Kurdish-controlled area north of the IS enclave.  The forces engaged on this side are the Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by the Kurdish YPG, and the Maghawir a-Thawra (Commandos of the Revolution, formerly the New Syrian Army) rebels, supported by the US, UK and Jordan, from the south.

The outcome of this contest is of strategic significance, despite the remote and arid nature of much of the territory concerned.  The Iranians want to create a contiguous line of territory controlled by themselves and their allies stretching from Iraq into Syria, and thence to the Mediterranean Sea and the border with Israel.

Islamic State has formed a buffer against the achievement of this goal.  But Islamic State, in the usual manner of Sunni Salafi organizations when they control territory, declined to be satisfied with the stewardship of a small domain.  Instead, the Sunni jihadis elected to declare war on the west, using the territory as a base to hold and execute captured western prisoners, to prepare attacks against western civilian targets, to administer a regional network of franchise groups, and to attempt genocide against a non-Muslim population, the Yezidis.  As a result, the west, unsurprisingly,  made it a goal to destroy the Islamic State.

The question now is who will inherit.  The Americans, it appears, have understood that to stand a chance of  re-establishing influence and standing in the region, and beginning the process of turning back the Iranian advance, it is necessary to have skin in the game, ie to develop reliable proxies and have them control ground, in this pivotal area.

Only thus can a contiguous line of Iranian control from the Iraq-Iran border to the Mediterranean and Israel be prevented.  Only thus will the US be able to prevent an eventual outcome in Syria and in Iraq entirely favorable to the Iranians.  Hence the development by the US Department of Defense of the relationships with the YPG and elements among the Jordan-supported Sunni Arab rebels in the south.

It is worth also noting that the outcome in eastern Syria is not of primary interest to the Russians.  Russia wants to preserve the regime in existence and to keep its naval investments in Latakia Province. Neither of these interests is threatened by events further east.  Controlling the east is an Iranian and Assad regime goal only.

The outcome of this emergent contest will be of deep interest also to Israeli strategic planners.  While some recent analysis has suggested that Israel favors or should favor allowing IS to continue in existence as a quasi-state, it is obvious that this is no longer an option.  Syria as a state has largely ceased to exist.  The question now, as it is parceled out into zones of influence, is who will gain and who will lose.

Alongside the military jockeying on the ground, the diplomatic processes in Astana and Geneva will sputter on. Their eventual outcome, though, will depend on the balance of forces on the ground.  Iran wants its contiguous line not least in order to move weaponry and fighters both in preparation for and no less importantly in the course of a future war with Israel.  Preventing this is an Israeli national security interest par excellence.

This emergent US strategy has not yet been officially confirmed.  Indeed, Defense Secretary James Mattis was quoted by Agence France Presse after the al-Tanf strike as denying that the raid heralded any ‘increased role’ for the US in the Syrian war.

The pattern on the ground suggests otherwise.  The United States Administration has defined the Iranians and the Sunni jihadis of IS as its main adversaries in the region.   Eastern Syria is an area where the defeat of the latter by pro-western forces will constitute also a setback also for the former.  This is a game which is now afoot.  Much depends on its outcome.

 

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Al-Arabiya write about my recent visit to Syria

 

http://www.alarabiya.net/ar/mob/arab-and-world/syria/2017/05/18/%D8%B5%D8%AD%D8%A7%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B3%D9%8A-%D9%8A%D8%B4%D9%87%D8%B1-%D8%B3%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AD%D9%87-%D8%A8%D9%88%D8%AC%D9%87-%D8%B9%D8%B6%D9%88-%D9%88%D9%81%D8%AF-%D8%B2%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A7.html

English translation of the article:

The British researcher Jonathan Spyer  managed to obtain an entry visa to the areas under the control of the Assad regime last April. This was within the framework of  a delegation of foreign supporters of Assad, as Spyer described in  a detailed report on his website jonathanspyer.com on the 9th of May. He wrote a report upon his coming back from Syria and posted also on his Facebook page on the same date.

The British researcher conveyed a surprising incident in his report when he revealed an incident with a Russian journalist (whose name he didn’t mention) who threatened a member of the delegation with a pistol. Spyer said the authorities could do nothing with this “drunken” Russian journalist who was threatening with his weapon a member of the foreign delegation that was visiting the country. Spyer wrote that this is because the man was Russian and because “the Assad regime’s servants do not enjoy unquestioned sovereignty even in their own capital.” In the final paragraph of the report, Spyer contended that “today the regime is a hollow structure.”

Spyer ridiculed the slogan “Aleppo is in our eyes,” which he put as the background of his Facebook account and which is used by the Assad regime. He explained that it is intended to mean that Aleppo is under the observation of the Syrian regime and its tight surveillance and monitoring.  The journalist  had already entered Syria beforehand but to the areas under control of the Syrian opposition as mentioned in his report.

The report that the British journalist has produced does not agree with the whims of the regime’s propagandists. He surprised them, discarding Assad’s image that they are constantly trying to wave contrary to the reality. After the official reception, he was given facilities that could tempt any investigative journalist who strives to see the real situation closely. Afterwards he surprised them with an article about his visit titled, “Assad’s Hollow Crown.” In the article, Spyer disclosed the control of Iran and its affiliated militias and Russian forces over all circumstances of life [mafasil al-hayat, joints or details of the life]. [He showed] the Assad regime’s existence has become to an extent a facade, and summed this up in a memorable way by referring to Assad’s “hollow crown”–that is, a nominal power hollow and empty of content.

One of the amenities [facilities, ighra’at means literally “bait” to seduce] that the Syrian regime gave him was the permission to meet officers of the Assad army and cite their declarations as well as those of the Minister of Information Muhammad Ramez Tarjuman. The latter is now under fire from Assad’s propagandists. The British journalist  mentioned that the preparations for his trip to Syria were carried out in coordination with the Ministry of Information of the Regime. The latter appointed a representative to the delegation who accompanied it on its every step.

Spyer met with the regime minister for reconciliation Ali Haydar and published a picture of the encounter in which one can see also other members of the delegation that visited Syria in areas under Assad’s control. It is worth mentioning that the media affiliated with Hizballah militia depict Jonathan Spyer as an “Israeli journalist,” whereas some Arabic sources insist on calling him “a British journalist.” Spyer lives in Israel, and he is a researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs [Center] known as GLORIA.

Journalists of the Syrian regime channel demanded an immediate investigation with regard to “Jonathan Spyer’s entry and the interview that the state minister for national reconciliation gave him.” All this after the researcher had published an expanded report about his visit to the areas in Syria that are under the regime control and with its official accord.

TV repórter Reza al-Basha was suspended from the work on Syrian territories on the order of the Ministry of Information after he had revealed that the  Assad army and its affiliated militias stole from deserted dwellings of Allepo residents.  Reza al-Basha posted on his Facebook page that the Assad regime let “a Zionist” enter in the name of journalism, whereas it forbids entry to those who love Syria.

Doctor Akram Umran who runs a Facebook page, “Syria: corruption at the era of reform” (Surya: fasad fi zaman al-islah) has done the same: He threatened to investigate on his private Facebook page everyone who has contributed to the visit of the aforementioned journalist to Syria.

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Syria Has Effectively Ceased to Exist

Foreign Policy, 20/5.

Syria Has Effectively Ceased to Exist

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Assad’s Hollow Crown

Jerusalem Report, 9/5.

The mortar shells came early in the morning.  At about 5.  At regular intervals. Solemn and sinister. They were a reminder of how close it all was. We were in the Damascus Old City. There was still fighting in Jobar, about two kilometers away.  The rebels had also counter-attacked from the east, from the suburbs in eastern Ghouta, in the previous week.   A shell had landed in the precinct of the Umayyad Mosque.  This was not in accordance with the line being promoted by the regime, according to which the rebellion was on the verge of defeat.  But there it was.

The old city was tense, behind a veneer of strained normality.  There were checkpoints every hundred meters or so.  These were maintained not by the army, but by the National Defense Force (NDF), an Iranian-sponsored paramilitary force created to fill the gap presented by the Assad regime’s lack of loyal manpower. Young men mostly, with a sprinkling of older types and a very few girls.  Supervised by Mukhabarat officers with pistols in their belts.  They were suspicious of foreigners.  There had already been a number of suicide attacks by members of the jihadi organizations in regime-controlled areas.

 

A military checkpoint, Damascus, Old City. IMG_1471

For the most part, though, the atmosphere of strained normality held.  Undoubtedly, fear of the regime played its part in the exaggerated professions of loyalty and love for Bashar that one would hear.  But there was also justified fear of the Islamist rebels, and what their advance would mean. And, of course, there was mainly fatigue, and the desire of people to live in their own private circle, and willingness to cope with any governing authority which appeared able to provide for that.  The Syrian pound had plummeted in value since the start of the war – from 48 pounds to the US dollar in March 2011 to 625 to the dollar now.  There were long queues each morning to buy subsidized bread at the state bakeries.  The traffic was on the roads, the shops were open, pictures of the dictator and his family were everywhere. But all was far flimsier and more brittle than it initially appeared.

I should explain first of all how I came to be in Damascus.   I have been writing about Syria now for over a decade.  I have visited the country numerous times since the outbreak of its civil war in mid-2011.  My visits, though, were always to the areas controlled by the Sunni Arab rebels or the Kurdish separatist forces.  This was a notable gap in my coverage.  I wanted to remedy it.

The Assad regime makes it hard for journalists to acquire visas.  The authorities are keen consumers of media, and keep track of the names of reporters who have spent time among their enemies.  The number of journalists who have managed to report from both the government and rebel sides is very small.  I  had tried on a number of occasions to acquire a visa, but made little progress.

Finally, a colleague suggested the idea of joining a delegation of foreign supporters of the regime.  With the war going its way since late 2015, the Syrian government has begun to cautiously open up to visitors. But like other authoritarian regimes, it prefers to welcome these in groups, and under careful supervision.

I made contact with the organizers of one of these delegations. The process was surprisingly straightforward.

We met in Beirut and then crossed the border.  The tour was organized in cooperation with the Syrian Ministry of Information, so a representative of the ministry would be with us at all times.  The participants were a varied bunch.  Some pro-Assad true believers, some younger travelers. Mainly from the west, but a couple also from Jordan.

The Assad supporters represented that strange axis in contemporary western politics where far left meets radical right.   A British man on the delegation was fulsome with praise for Assad’s social welfare system.  The west, he declared, was fearful of Arab socialist regimes such as Assad’s Syria and Gaddafi’s Libya coming to form an example for western publics.  And later ‘The Rothschilds control the banking system in all the world.  There’s five countries where the banking system is not controlled by them.  Iran, Syria, China, Russia and North Korea.’

‘Syria refused to make peace with Israel,’  another of the participants, a young woman from Jordan, told me: ‘so they decided to start the war and bring down the Syrian government.  They will only allow puppet Arab governments who do what they say – like Jordan and Saudi Arabia.’

‘There was the Iraq war, of course.  And then there was the war of 2006, which was supposed to defeat the resistance. Then when this failed, they decided to try the ‘Arab Spring’ instead. ‘

This message – that the war in Syria is the result of an Israel-inspired conspiracy intended to foment internal unrest and split the country into enfeebled cantons – is the central talking point of regime spokesmen.  I would hear it again and again in Syria. Ironically,  I had heard a precise mirror image of this theory from Syrian rebel commanders on the Turkish-Syrian border a few months earlier.  In their telling, the conspiracy involved a nefarious alliance between the Iranians, the Assad regime and Israel.

In the case of the rebels, such claims come in Islamic garb, giving them a more contemporary feel. With the regime supporters, the justifications are wrapped in the antique tones of the old secular Arab nationalism of the 1960s and ‘70s. Ironically, of course, behind the nationalist rhetoric of Syria being the last defiant fortress of pan-Arab resistance and so on,  the Assad regime is today entirely dependent for its survival on non-Arab forces – namely Russia and Iran.

Indeed, perhaps the most striking and immediately apparent element in regime-controlled Syria is the yawning gap between the rhetoric of the regime, the impression it wants to give, and the underlying reality.  I’m not referring to the gulf between the gaudy ideological proclamations and the reality of a brutal police state. This should be obvious.  What I mean is the gap precisely between the attempt to convey the impression of a powerful, consequential Arab nationalist regime and the fragmented, enfeebled reality of a regime dependent on other forces both above and below it, and controlling only a part of the territory over which it claims sovereignty.

Syria today remains effectively divided into six enclaves.  The government controls Damascus, the three major cities to its north – Homs, Hama and Aleppo, and the western coastal area. There are two rebel held enclaves –  Idleb province in the north west, and parts of Dera’a and Quneitra in the south west.  The Kurds control a large area in the north east and an isolated canton further west (Afrin).  The Islamic State organization, meanwhile, holds a diminishing area in the east and south.   There is an additional Turkish-supported rebel enclave between the towns of Azaz and Jarabulus on the Syria-Turkey border.

The regime has been advancing since the intervention of Russian air power on its behalf in September, 2015.  But the advance is slow, and it remains doubtful if Assad will ever have sufficient strength to reunite the entire country under his rule.

By itself, the regime is very weak.  The Russian contribution is decisive in the air. Iran and its proxies are the key element on the ground.  The Assad regime from the outset has rested on a narrow base of available support. The Iranians have trained the auxiliary forces that make up the numbers, like the NDF that guards the Damascus old city. Teheran’s proxies – Lebanese Hizballah, the Iraqi Shia militias, the Afghan Fatemiyun and others – play a vital role on the ground.

Without Russian and Iranian assistance, a total regime victory is impossible.  The unanswered question at present is what the Russians want.  They, above any other force, control the direction of the war between Assad and the rebellion against him.  In the meantime,  Russian paratroopers in uniform stroll cheerfully through Damascus and Aleppo, and the regime-controlled part of Syria has effectively become a proxy, or puppet of Moscow and Teheran’s interests.

Controlled from above, the Assad regime is also subject to fragmentation from below.  There are over a hundred pro-regime militias active in the Syrian war.  They constitute around half of the available troop strength available to the regime.  These militias are not mere servants of Assad. Rather, they are centers of power and resources for the men that control them.  Some are small local groups, numbering just a few dozen fighters.  Others are countrywide and make use of heavy weapons including armor and artillery.

So the ‘regime’ side in Syria today isn’t really a single entity at all.  It is a coalition of interests, of which Assad and the power structure around him constitute only a single part.  But it is in the interests of all these elements that the Assad regime present itself as a single, united and sovereign force.  The regime’s antique Pan-Arab nationalist rhetoric, and the echoes it finds among some elements in the west and the Middle East are a part of this.

Aleppo

We entered Aleppo via the Sheikh Najjar industrial district in the east of the city.  The destruction wrought by Russian air power on formerly rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo is chilling, awe-inspiring in its proportions.  Whole neighborhoods reduced to rubble and rendered uninhabitable.  Moscow employed the means of total war on the city. What remains is mostly silence.  Just a few families have returned and are living among the ruins.

 

A house destroyed by aerial bombing, Aleppo.  IMG_1093

I have been in Sheikh Najjar once before.  That was in the summer of 2012, when the rebellion had just broken into the city.  I remembered it as we walked among the desolation.

It had been before the rebellion had taken on its definitively Sunni Islamist character – though the signs had already been prominently there.  I remembered the constant noise, the government planes overhead, the commanders of the long defunct Tawhid and Afhad al-Rasoul brigades in the Shaar and Saif al-Dawli neighborhoods, the terrified civilians in the basement of the Dar al-Shifa hospital, as the regime aircraft dropped their bombs outside.

Dar Al-Shifa is long since destroyed, of course. The civilians have gone too. Replaced by silence, and ruins.  A massive poster of Bashar Assad and his brother Maher is mounted at the entrance to the Aleppo Citadel.  ‘Congratulations on your victory, O Aleppo.’ it reads.  Another, seen all over the western part of the city, depicts a stern, helmeted member of the security forces and reads ‘Aleppo is in our eyes.’  This has a double meaning in Arabic –  ‘we are watching Aleppo’, but also  ‘Aleppo is precious to us’.  This is the way the Assad regime speaks to its subjects. A threat, lightly coated in a sickly sweet rhetoric.

Western Aleppo, nevertheless, appears superficially untouched by the war.  The rebels, entirely lacking in air power and with only primitive, improvised artillery, were never able to make a serious impression on it.  But the regime’s hold is narrower than it appears.  Even now, the rebels are not far from the city. They are located just north west of Aleppo in Kafr Hamrah and Huraytan.  The strained normality of the street scene in the west of the city is punctuated every so often by deep, ominous booms of artillery fire from somewhere not very far off. The war is not over. Nor has it gone away.

 

Bustan al-Qasr Neighborhood, AleppoIMG_1001

Homs

A single highway snakes its way south of Aleppo through regime-controlled territory, with the rebels to the west and Islamic State to the east.  At its narrowest point, near the town of al-Sa’an, the government controlled area is just a few kilometres wide.  You must take this road to get from Aleppo to Homs.

The devastation in Homs is, as in Aleppo, breathtaking.  Whole neighborhoods turned into wasteland, rendered uninhabitable.  Homs was one of the nerve-centers, the heartlands of the revolt against Assad.  Destroying the rebellion there meant destroying much of the city itself. This the Russians have undertaken and largely achieved.

Our guide in Homs was an ebullient Alawi Syrian lady called Hayat Awad.  Hayat was brimming with vim and confidence and contempt for the ‘terrorists’, as she called the rebels. But she wore a pendant around her neck, showing the face of one of her sons who had died fighting the rebellion while serving in Assad’s army.

Hayat trudged with us through the endless dead streets where the rebellion had lived and been destroyed, dispensing the official regime version of the conflict as she did so.  ‘They destroyed everything at the behest of the Jews,’ she declared, ‘because the Zionists want to claim that they have the oldest culture, but they were not able to do this because Syria has a history 7000 years old.’  We were in a Christian church damaged in fighting between the rebels and regime in the Homs old city at the time.

Casual anti-Semitism of this kind is common and entirely mainstream in the Arab world. No logic is required for it.  Consider the claim:  Sunni Arab jihadi fighters in Homs had deliberately set about destroying the Christian heritage in the area because the jihadis are in alliance with a broader Jewish and Zionist plan to destroy non-Jewish cultural heritage in the Middle East. This is part of a Jewish plan to pretend that theirs is the oldest culture in the area, or the world.  Such an idea is obviously insane.  It is also to be found among the mainstream of discussion in regime-controlled Syria.

Hayat Awad declared this in front of a small audience consisting for the most part of people who would declare themselves progressives, leftists and liberals in their own western homes. Not a word of protest.

While we were in Homs, a ‘reconciliation’ deal was under way.  The rebels were set to leave the last neighborhood of the city under their control, al-Waer.  These agreements are part of the regime strategy to reduce the area of the country under the control of the rebellion.  They involve laying siege to the area in question and then offering the rebels and their supporters the option of leaving for Idleb, which is under the control of rebel organizations.   In the case of al-Waer, the rebels and their supporters were being permitted to leave in exchange for the lifting of the rebels’ own siege on two isolated Shia villages in Idleb province – Fu’a and Kafriya.  The deal was delayed after a rebel group attacked a convoy of civilians coming from these villages in Rashidin, at the entrance to Aleppo, but has since been implemented.

Some observers of the Syrian war consider that these deals amount to a form of ethnic cleansing or depopulation, whereby Sunni Arab populations are being systematically induced to leave the government-controlled area.  No evidence of a clear and consistent plan on the part of the regime or its backers has yet emerged in this regard.  Indeed, the regime continues to accept refugees seeking to enter its zones of control from rebel areas, so claims of a general strategy of sectarian expulsion are unproven.  In Daraya, Moadamiya, Zabadani, and Aleppo City, the evidence shows that residents were given the choice of evacuation to Idleb or residence in nearby regime controlled areas. But in Homs city, specifically, it is clear that only very small numbers of civilians have been permitted to return.  Some accounts suggest that only people who actively sought to reach regime territory have been allowed to return to their neighborhoods.  Hence the acres of ruined and empty houses stand as a warning of the strength available to the regime and its backers and the tactics they are prepared to employ.

In one of the ruined houses we found remnants left by the retreating rebel fighters.  Some shell casings, and a Saudi-produced theological book about Ramadan, entitled ‘Spirit of the Fast.’  A sort of testimony or warning to those who might celebrate the destruction as a victory – that this other, Sunni Arab, Islamist Syria, despite it all, is not yet destroyed.

 

Destruction in Homs CityIMG_1271

Damascus

In a meeting with a serving general of the Syrian Arab Army, I asked what the regime’s strategy was for re-uniting the country.  The general, seated behind a picture of his younger self with Rifaat Assad, and puffing on an enormous cigar, responded that  ‘No conclusion of the war can come without the decision of ‘official Syria.’’  This vague reply was revealing of the large gap between the regime’s proud rhetoric, and the diminished extent of its power.

I received similar replies to the same question from ministers in Bashar Assad’s government with whom we met in the course of our time in Damascus.  Mohammed Tourjman, information minister, said that the ‘reconciliation’ process and the ‘liberation’ of occupied areas would continue. Only ‘ISIS and Nusra’, in his telling, refuse to be part of the reconciliation, and these are regarded internationally as terrorist organizations (with the implication that they could be dealt with by purely military means).  And with regard to the de facto division of Syria.  ‘We have absolute faith that this is a temporary situation.’  All this after an introduction in which the minister  too spoke of ‘a plan to divide Syria into cantons, and keep us weak, to the benefit of the Zionist entity.’  Again, this is a clear declaration of intent, but the reconciliation process at least as of now is mainly trimming the edges of the regime controlled zone, not fundamentally altering the balance of forces between the sides.

Ali Haidar, Minister of Reconciliation Affairs, who handles much of the practical aspect covering the transport of rebels from ‘reconciled’ towns was equally vague in response to this question.  Reunification will only come, he suggested, when ‘foreign powers stop supporting the Syrian organizations.’  No plan for how to achieve this. Haidar, incidentally, is not a Ba’athist. He is the leader of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. This party, founded in 1932, is a fascist style group, even down to its swastika-style emblem, which he was wearing in his lapel during our meeting.  The party’s literature refers to Syrian rebels as ‘internal Jews.’

 

A poster commemorating the death of SSNP member Naim Salim Hadad, killed fighting the Syrian rebels, Homs.  IMG_1349

It is tempting but probably superfluous to dwell on these grotesque aspects of the Syrian government.   The  regime in its self-presentation openly resembles the European totalitarian governments of mid-20th century Europe.  This holds an ugly fascination for some Europeans and other westerners.  But the posturing and the rhetoric is mostly without weight, like a cheap tin pendant that only from a distance resembles solid metal.  Holding up this fragile structure are a variety of other forces more deserving of attention.

On our last night in the city, a member of the delegation was threatened at gunpoint by a drunken Russian journalist.  The  authorities in the area said they could do nothing, because the man was Russian. This small episode says more about the true state of affairs in government-controlled Syria than all the regime’s verbiage.  The Assad regime’s servants do not enjoy unquestioned sovereignty even in their own capital.  The regime is today largely a hollow structure.  The vigorous regional ambitions of Iran and Russia, and the smaller but no less notable intentions of a vast variety of pro-regime militia commanders must be factored into any assessment of regime capabilities and intentions.

The closeness of the Sunni Arab rebels to the regime’s urban centers, and the absence of Assad’s power from almost the entirety of the country’s east are further testimony to the erosion of the regime.  It is a very long way from the days when Hafez Assad ran Syria as his ‘private farm’, as a Syrian Kurdish friend of mine once put it.  The Assad regime cannot be destroyed for as long as Moscow and Teheran find a reason to underwrite its existence.  But the mortar shells landing in Damascus in close succession are an unmistakable testimony to its reduced and truncated state. The anachronistic rhetoric of its officials and its supporters does not succeed in disguising this reality.   Assad is wearing a hollow crown.

 

The author, Hamidiyeh Market, DamascusIMG_1486

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After ISIS

Jerusalem Post, 10/3

Who will dominate the post-Islamic State landscape in Iraq and Syria?

On the surface, the wars in Syria and Iraq are continuing at full intensity.  The fight between Iraqi government forces and the Islamic State in western Mosul is proving a slow, hard slog.  This week, government forces captured the police directorate and the courts complex in the city, moving toward the denser warren of the old city.  The jihadis are fighting for every inch of ground.  Further west, the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces succeeded in cutting the last road from the IS capital of Raqqa to its stronghold in Deir al-Zur.

In the fight between the Assad regime and the Sunni Arab rebellion against it, a rebel attempt at a counter-attack in the city of Deraa has led to renewed bloodshed.  The regime is continuing its attacks on rebel-held Eastern Ghouta east of Damascus, despite a new Russian-brokered ceasefire.

But while the tactical contests are continuing, the general direction of events in both the war against IS and the fight between Assad and the rebels is now clear.

The Islamic State is on its way to ceasing to exist as an entity controlling significant territory.  This process is set to continue many months.  But IS, having lost tens of thousands of fighters and with the flow of new recruits drying up, facing enemies with complete control of the skies and vast superiority in numbers and equipment, has no means of reversing the trend.

In Assad’s war further west, meanwhile, the rebellion is in retreat and its eventual eclipse seems a near certainty.  The regime, with its Iranian, Russian and Hizballah allies, is currently seeking to reduce and destroy isolated rebel held enclaves in the midst of regime-held territory in western Syria.  Hence the attacks on  eastern Ghouta, and on Wa’er in the Homs area.  Once this is done, the pro-regime forces may well turn their attention to south west Syria, and eventually also to rebel-held Idleb province in the north.

The regime is also now engaging in the war against Islamic State.  Government forces  reached the Euphrates River this week, after sweeping through IS-held territory in the east Aleppo countryside.

As the direction of events becomes clear, so the possibility emerges of the Iran-led alliance achieving an overall victory in the Syria and Iraq wars.

Such a victory would on the face of it constitute an achievement for Assad.  But the Syrian dictator’s own forces are entirely dependent for advances on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hizballah, Iraqi Shia militia forces and paramilitary formations created by the Iranians to address the regime’s manpower shortages over the last five years. That is, the real power behind such a victory would be Iran-arranged forces on the ground. These, in turn, are only capable of moving forward in cooperation with Russian air power, as events in Aleppo and the north west have shown.

Such an outcome is still distant, and is by no means certain.  But it is no longer an impossibility, and Israeli and US planners will be noting its feasibility, and seeking ways to prevent it or reduce its impact.

What would such a victory look like?

It would include the following elements: firstly, the Assad regime would succeed in terminating or severely reducing the remaining areas held by the Sunni Arab rebels and Islamists in the western part of the country.  Secondly, following the destruction of IS-held areas in eastern Syria, regime forces supported by Russian air power would succeed in heading eastwards, challenging or co-opting Kurdish and remaining rebel forces in the area, and reaching the Syrian-Iraqi border.

Thirdly, following the reduction or destruction of IS in Ninawah Province, the Iraqi Shia militias organized in the framework of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) would remain under arms, becoming a permanent feature of the Iraqi political and military landscape.

The Iraqi parliament in late November passed a law making the PMU a permanent part of the Iraqi security forces.  The 100,000 fighters of the PMU do not consist solely of pro-Iranian elements.  But the main militias and de facto command structures are in the hands of pro-Iranian forces. Most significantly, the Badr Corps of Hadi al-Ameri and the Ktaeb Hizballah group of Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis are directly linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

The militias are now located west of Mosul city, close to the town of Tel Afar.  If regime forces push eastwards, they will link at the border with their comrades of the PMU, creating a massive contiguous area of de facto Iran-controlled territory all the way from deep inside Iraq across Syria and into Lebanon.

That is what victory for the Iran-allied side in the wars in Syria and Iraq would look like.  How might it be prevented?

Advances for the Iranian side are only possible with the support of Russian air power.  And Russian goals in Syria (Iraq is less significant for Moscow) do not necessarily dovetail with Teheran’s.  Iran wants total victory, the reunification of Syria under Assad’s nominal control, and the emergence of the Iran-led Shia militias as the key power-holders in Iraq.

Moscow had and has far more limited goals.  The Russians in Syria wanted to prevent Assad’s defeat, secure their naval assets on the Mediterranean and make themselves the main broker in the subsequent frozen or semi frozen conflict.

There is a large gap between these two agendas, and working on and widening it should be foremost in the minds of both western and Israeli policymakers.

 

The Russians need to understand that while their own perceived vital interests in Syria can be accomodated, the far more ambitious Iranian agenda in the area crosses western and Israeli red lines, and therefore will not be allowed to achieve its goals.  Without the Russians, western and Israeli efforts to contain and turn back the Iranians can proceed apace.

This can be achieved through a combination of diplomatic efforts and facts on the ground. Regarding the former, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his visit to Russia will presumably be making clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin that  Israel’s security red lines regarding Iranian and Hizballah creation of a new conflict line east of Quneitra Crossing, and regarding the need to prevent permanent Iranian bases in western Syria are serious, will be pursued, and can be achieved with no threat to Russian vital interests.

Regarding the latter, as of now the key force in Syria fighting Islamic State is the US-aligned SDF.  The latest reports indicate that elements of the US 75th Ranger regiment, and of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit are deploying in eastern Syria, to support the fight against IS in this area.

Ownership by the US and its allies of eastern Syria in the post IS-period is the best way to prevent the possibility of the realization of Iran’s aims, while presenting Russia with a fait accompli.  The indications are that the US Administration is thinking in these terms. If so, Iranian victory emerging from the ruins of Syria and Iraq can be prevented.

The post-IS landscape in Iraq and Syria is emerging.  The contest for primacy within it is set to begin.

 

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Dispatch from Mosul

Jerusalem Report, 23/2

‘So I’m a sniper, right, and I see four IS guys approaching.  I’m on a roof.  I take down two of them.  Then the rifle jams. And they’re coming forward.  So I make it down the stairs, and I throw a grenade as theyre in the courtyard of the house.  One of them’s killed outright. The other’s badly wounded.  So he’s lying there, in a bad way, can hardly move, so I disarm him, he has a rifle and also a pistol.  He’s calling to his friend, it seems.  In Russian. He was a Russian.  But the friend isn’t answering because he’s dead.  So he looks over at me and he can see I’m making the pistol ready.  I don’t speak Russian and I guess he realized the friend wasn’t answering.  So he looks at me and he says to me in Arabic ‘Don’t you fear God?’  So I tell him ‘no’ and put two bullets in his brain.’  Zeidan, a wounded fighter of the Hashd al Watani militia, badly hurt in the fight against IS in the Hay al-Arabi section of eastern Mosul city, finishes his story with a delighted laugh.

He shows me a picture of the man he killed on his phone.  There is a bushy black beard beneath the shattered skull.  Then a picture of a damaged Russian passport found on the body. ‘He was probably Chechen,’ I say.  ‘Most of the Russian citizens you’ll find with IS aren’t Russians. They’re from the Caucasus.’  ‘He’s Russian,’ Zeidan replies, ‘He was speaking Russian.’  I begin to say something else, and then decide not to bother.

We are on the way to the Hay al Arabi neighborhood, captured from the Islamic State a few days before.  Zeidan is on crutches and with one of his arms bandaged.  He was wounded in the ferocious fight for the area that took place a few days previously.  The neighborhood adjoins the Tigris River, which for now is the line dividing the various forces engaged on behalf of the Iraqi government from the jihadis of IS.  We are a curious crew, one British-Israeli journalist (myself), one wounded fighter of the Hashd al Watani, and a Syrian-Kurdish fixer doing the driving.  I have come to check the progress of the campaign to recapture Iraq’s second largest city from the Islamic State.

The offensive has proceeded slowly.  Commencing on October 17th, Iraqi forces reached the outskirts of the city by November 1st.  Then the going got tougher.  The 8000 ISIS men in Mosul, facing an attacking force of about ten times that size, proved a ruthless and imaginative enemy.  The vehicle convoys of the attacking forces found themselves harried relentlessly by suicide car bombs, careening out of the side streets, halting convoys which would then be strafed with small arms fire, mortars and grenades.

Islamic State used drones in large number for the first time. Quadcopters, commercially available toys – but fitted to carry grenades, or cameras for reconnaissance.  The jihadis succeeded in creating a terrifying urban battlespace.  The death toll was high, in particular among the black-clad special forces of the Counter Terror Service who were bearing the brunt of the fighting.

On December 13th, the Iraqis paused to consider their strategy.  The attack resumed on December 29th, beefed up by 4000 troops from the Interior Ministry forces known in Iraq as the Federal Police.  The tactics had changed.  No longer in convoy, the Special Forces now comprised sections of seven men – on foot, and preceded by heavy air activity and artillery fire.   The Americans had knocked out the five bridges separating east and west Mosul. The jihadis began to run short on supplies east of the river.  The car bombs grew more primitive.  Just regular cars filled with explosives now, no longer the armor plated behemoths of the first days.  Harder to spot, but a lot easier to destroy when you did.

And so the government forces started to roll up the neighborhoods of east Mosul.  And the jihadis fell back to plan their last stand in the narrow alleys and warrens of the western city.  That was where it was up to.

Hay al Arabi was a mess.  The huge craters left by the aerial bombing were filled with rainwater.  The results of bombing from the air have a way of reminding a person of their own tiny dimensions.  The sheer huge destructive power available, and the sense and the fact of the impossibility of escape if your number is written on the bomb.

The fight in Hay al-Arabi had been conducted street by street, and house by house.  There were still skeletons of suicide car bombs littering the roads.  The people too seemed half dazed.  They had a way of staring at you, directly, unflinching for a long time. Neither hostile nor friendly.  As though they wanted to ask you a question but could not quite find the words.

In one street a very young man, of about 20, approached us.  He was bearded, with a scarf wrapped around his neck and with the usual glazed Mosul look.  ‘Come and see that suicide car over there,’ he began in Arabic. ‘There’s something interesting there.’  He was leaning very close to me and I had a sudden fear that this might be one of the ‘sleepers’ that IS had left in the neighborhood, zeroing in on me as a foreigner with a camea.  No one else reacted, though, so I followed him over to the remains of the car and looked at where he was pointing, with a nervous smile on his face.  ‘Rijal, rijal (leg)’ he said.

And yes, there it was, plainly visible.  A black, toasted looking human foot.  It had presumably belonged to the suicide bomber who had died while detonating this car.  No one had got round to clearing it up yet.  ‘do you have Facebook?’ the young man demanded as we walked away.  ‘I do,’ he continued. ‘Look me up. My name there is ‘loveyoursmile.’

We left loveyoursmile to his cars and remains and kept moving. Hay al Arabi was full of similar macabre items of human destruction.    Bombed out houses, and rocks strewn across the streets. Black soot from explosions.  In the courtyard of one house, more remains from a suicide bombing.  Here, the bomber’s body had not been completely destroyed and one could make out a sort of shape in the lump of red flesh, wrapped in what had once been a black uniform.

There was huge damage to a number of civilian houses too.  IS used the primitive tactic of burning tyres and oil to create a cloud of black smoke above the skies of the areas they controlled.  The intention was to blur visibility for coalition aircraft, making effective targeting more difficult.  The result was greater damage to civilian life and property.  Of course, the jihadis could turn such losses into propaganda, so from their point of view, such methods were without a negative side.  Their own targeting was on the primitive side, too.  As a result, there had been damage to civilian houses in eastern Mosul from IS mortar shells falling short.

Eastern Mosul is now divided into areas of control of three forces – the Iraqi Army, the Special Operations Forces, (ISOF) and the Federal Police.  The black-clad troops of ISOF have taken on the heavy lifting, and have suffered heavy losses.

The three forces are a study in contrasts.  ISOF are the most impressive, the Iraqi Army the least.  We caught up with the Najaf Battalion of the Special Forces in the Beker neighborhood of the city, which they had captured from IS a week earlier.  Captain Ra’ad Qarim Kasem took us through the  mechanics of the battle from his unit’s point of view.

He stressed the crucial role played by coalition air power in destroying the five bridges between west and east Mosul, preventing IS from supplying their fighters east of the river.  The jihadis had tried to move across the river by boat in the hours of night.  But the destruction of the bridges had led to the gradual depletion of their resources.

The men of the Najaf Battalion were clearly exhausted. They were set to move from Beker south to the village of Bartella over the coming days. There they would prepare for the next phase of the operation – the conquest of western Mosul.  ISOF is a force created and trained by the Americans. Its senior officers train with the US Army Rangers.  Because of its higher quality, it is paying a very heavy price in casualties.  The Iraqi government does not release casualty figures, but some reports have suggested as high as 50% casualties in some special forces units in the course of the recapture of eastern Mosul.

A visit to the 16th infantry Division of the Iraqi army, in northern Mosul, creates a very different impression.  Here were the familiar strutting, overweight commanders and amused, bored and indifferent soldiers that have characterized every contact I’ve had with the Iraqi Army. The positions poorly guarded, armored vehicles left outside with no guards placed on them and civilians standing around nearby.  If the US hoped that the creation of ISOF might lead by a sort of rippling out process to improvements in the broader army, I saw no evidence of this in Mosul.

The Federal Police in the Intissar Neighborhood in the south of the city were more impressive, their vehicles well maintained , their position properly secured.  To refer to these forces as ‘police’ is a misnomer.  They are a paramilitary force, comparable to similar interior ministry troops in other Arab states.  However, Major General Ali Lami, commander of the 5th Division of the Federal Police, who I interviewed in al-Intissar, freely acknowledged that his forces lacked the training of ISOF. The Federal Police possess an elite force, called the Emergency Response Division, which took part in offensive operations against IS in eastern Mosul, but the main force is used only for holding areas once IS has been expelled from them.

There are other forces present in the city.  And this is where the simple story of IS vs. the legitimate armed forces of the elected government of Iraq begins to get complicated.  Alongside the three branches of the Iraqi ground forces already mentioned, there is an additional force.  This is the Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Units or PMU).  Here may be found the Shia militias mobilized in the desperate summer of 2014, when IS looked to be headed toward Baghdad.

The PMU is dominated by a number of large, Iran-supported Shia militias.  Most media reports note that they have been kept out of Mosul City for the offensive, partly because of concerns at possible sectarian retribution against the Sunni inhabitants of the city, and at the request of the US-led coalition.  The big Shia militias are indeed now located to the west of the city. There, they form a kind of blocking force, preventing IS fighters in Mosul from retreating in the direction of Syria.

However, we witnessed the presence of elements of the PMU in the city itself.  The fighters in question did not come from the big, Iran supported militias.  Their presence is nevertheless significant.  The first group we witnessed were members of the  Shebek minority, a mainly Shia ethnic group native to Ninawah province, in which Mosul is situated. They belonged to the Quwat Sahl Ninawa (Ninawah Plains Forces) and were mustered 13 kilometers east of the city, in the Bartella area.  Their base, flying the PMU flag,   is located just a few hundred meters from a facility used by the US Special Forces.

The second group from the PMU witnessed inside Mosul is the ‘Hashd Ashari’  (Tribal Mobilization).  This is a gathering of members of Sunni tribes opposed to IS, and willing for their own pragmatic reasons to work with the Baghdad government against them.  Their presence is a reminder that one should avoid simplistic over-use of the Sunni vs. Shia paradigm when considering Iraq.  The Beduin are interested in resources, power and security arrangements, and see no reason necessarily to work alongside disruptive and anarchic Sunni formations such as IS.  The US exploited the same pragmatic and power oriented approach when they turned the tribes of Anbar against the Sunni insurgency during the ‘surge.’

It is interesting to see that the government of Iraq, its Shia militias and the Iranians behind them are now engaged in the same business.  They are probably aware of the lesson the Americans learned at that time.  Namely, that the loyalty of these tribes costs money and resources, and is likely to continue for just as long as such support is provided.  Or as one Israeli former official familiar with these dynamics put it; ‘The Beduin tribes are not for sale. Not at all. They are, however, available for hire.’

From the PMU’s point of view, it is a smart move to put their Sunni clients into Mosul. It avoids raising the fears of the people of the city, and probably also the attentions of the US-led coalition, who distrust the Shia militias.  It is, nevertheless, a demonstration of power and relevance.

There are unconfirmed reports of  Badr Brigade checkpoints very close to the city.  But whether or not these are accurate, what should be understood is that the PMU are a major part of the fight to clear the Islamic State from Ninawah Province, of which the Mosul operation is a part.  This has implications on the political level for Iraq.  The PMU, in the Iranian style, are gradually building up that mixture of political and independent military power which characterizes the Iranian approach.  It has so far brought Teheran to effective dominance of Lebanon and a good part of Syria.  This strategy is now under way in Iraq, forged by capable cadres such as Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis and Badr’s Hader Al-Ameri, with Qassem Suleimani of the IRGC above them.  This is taking place under the noses of the US and its allies, who broke and remade Iraq in 2003, but who have yet to understand these dynamics.

On the way out of the city one evening, we came across a convoy of US armored vehicles and artillery pieces, trying to find its way to the road to Erbil.  The convoy was organized by one of the US Army’s most storied and historic units, the name of which is not relevant here.  We went to try to speak to the officers at the head of the halted convoy, expecting to be told to make ourselves scarce.  Instead, to our astonishment, the officers greeted us effusively, asking ‘Do you know Arabic? Great. Can you help us?’

It turned out that these officers had planned a route down to Erbil and then on to Qayarra on their map, without checking with the local Kurdish commanders in the areas through which they wanted to travel.  And as it turned out, one of the bridges they wanted to cross couldn’t carry 88mm cannons.  But they had also set out without a translator, and were hence when we met them helplessly trying to explain the situation to drivers who knew not a word of English, while trying to work out how to plot another route, even as the darkness was coming down.

Of course we helped them and set them on their way.  And of course it would be wrong and simplistic to draw strategic lessons from tactical difficulties.  All the same, watching these young men, members of the mightiest military on the planet, trying helplessly to make themselves understood and to make sense of their map, it was impossible not to be reminded of the larger confusion of western policy vis a vis Iraq and indeed the surrounding countries.

And when this confusion is contrasted with the smart, slow assembling of military and political strength by the Iranians, often quiet and unseen, just next door to the western created forces, one might be concerned.  Perhaps this will change in the near future.  But at least for now, as the Islamic State gets ready for its last stand in western Mosul, it is plain to see that the real winners of what is to come are the independent structures of power that the Iranians are building inside Iraq, most visibly manifest in the Popular Mobilization Units.  ‘Iran has its hands all over Iraq,’ as one Mosul refugee at the Khazer camp outside Mosul told us.

The old order in the Middle East is smashed and gone.  One sees odd remnants and reminders of it.  In eastern Mosul, an oddly beautiful if grandiose shell of a mosque that Saddam began building in the 1980s to bear his name is still there. Islamic State, no respecter of icons, used it as a factory to make IEDs and car bombs.

The war of succession to the old order is taking place, amid the ruins of the old structures.  Mosul is currently one of its epicenters.  There is much bloodshed to come.  Islamic State will be forced out of western Mosul.  As for what is coming next, much will depend on whether the west can finally learn to map-read in the Middle East.  In the meantime, at the root level, war in all its suffering and grandiosity and strangeness is the ruler of Mosul, and of Iraq.  Its subjects are the civilians with the glazed eyes, wandering the ruins of their neighborhoods, and the fighters, taking their rest and preparing for the fires ahead. This is a dominion which appears to be in no danger of being eclipsed any time soon, regardless of which of its protagonists gains the advantage in the next phase.

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