Syria’s Interlocking Conflicts

Jerusalem Post, 11/11

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces last Friday announced the commencement of an operation to conquer the northern Syrian city of Raqqa.  The operation was designated ‘Euphrates Wrath.’

Raqqa is the capital of the ‘Caliphate’ maintained by the Islamic State organization.  In tandem with the effort currently under way to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul from IS, the loss of Raqqa would represent the final eclipse of the Islamic State as a quasi-sovereign entity.  At this point, it would revert back to the guerrilla/insurgent/terrorist force which it constituted prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.

Conquering the city is likely to be a slow business.  However, the final outcome is not in doubt.  The Islamic State, whose main slogan in Arabic is ‘Baqiya watatamadad’ (remaining and expanding) has been in reality contracting since the high point of its advance in the autumn of 2014.  Its eventual demise, at least as a quasi-state entity, is assured.

But Syria is host not only to the war against IS, but to a series of other, interlocking conflicts.  And one of these additional conflicts pits the two main candidates for the leading role in the fight against IS in Raqqa against one another.

Observe: there is in Syria today no less than five identifiable conflicts taking place.

These are: Turkish-backed Sunni Arab rebel and Islamist organizations against the Assad dictatorship, western backed SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by the Kurdish YPG) against IS, Kurdish YPG against the Assad regime, the aforementioned Sunni rebels against IS and, lastly, the Sunni rebels against the SDF.

The problem for those seeking to cobble together a force to take Raqqa city and by so doing destroy the Islamic State, is that the two eligible forces to carry out this action are the mainly Kurdish SDF and the Turkish-backed, mainly Islamist Sunni rebels – but these forces are at war with one another.

After the SDF announced the commencement of the Raqqa campaign this week, Turkish President Recep Tayepp Erdogan expressed his opposition to the decision, repeating his assertion that the Kurdish YPG are merely ‘another terror organization…a side branch’ of the PKK.

Following the SDF’s announcement, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford met with Turkish Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar in Ankara. After the meeting, Dunford said that the US would work together with Turkey to develop a long term plan for ‘seizing, holding and governing’ the city.

Dunford stated that the US considered the largely non-Arab SDF ‘wasn’t the solution’ for ‘holding and governing’ largely Sunni Arab Raqqa.

A judicious reader will notice that Dunford’s statement doesn’t say that the SDF is unsuitable for the job of capturing the city, only for holding it afterwards.

The root of the deep differences between the SDF and the Turkish supported rebels are to be found not only in the soil of northern Syria. Rather, they are inextricably linked to the long insurgency fought by Turkey’s Kurds against a succession of governments in Ankara since 1984.

The fragmenting of Syria formed a historic opportunity for the Syrian Kurds, which they have seized.  The PYD, the Syrian Kurdish franchise of the PKK organization, established three self-governing cantons along the Syrian-Turkish border in 2012.  In 2015, against the background of the fight against IS, they managed to unite two of these  – Jazeera and Kobani.  On March 17, 2016, the ruling coalition in these areas announced the formation of the ‘Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava.’

The US has since October 2015 found the Kurdish YPG to be a formidable and useful ground partner to coalition air power against IS.  But the Kurds themselves, while welcoming the alliance with the US, have long sought another objective – namely to unite the three cantons, connecting Jazira/Kobani with Afrin in the far north west of the country.

From a Turkish point of view, the prospect of a PKK-linked party controlling the entirety of the 800 km border between Syria and Turkey is entirely unacceptable.  Since mid-2015, a Kurdish insurgency is once again under way against the Turkish government.  As part of the general post-coup crackdown, Erdogan this week arrested Turkey’s most prominent Kurdish politician, Salahattin Demirtas of the HDP.

Since 2012, the instruments Turkey chose to use to contain the Syrian Kurds were the mainly Islamist rebel movements of northern Syria, from the more moderate elements across to Jabhat al Nusra and possibly at one time also ISIS.

By mid-2016, supporting ISIS was no longer an option, and the rebels by themselves were too weak for purpose.  So in August, Turkey boldly launched a direct intervention into northern Syria.  ISIS were the ostensible target.  But the clear purpose was to bisect Syria’s north, rendering a sufficient area impassable that the danger of the Kurds linking up their cantons would disappear.

This process is not yet complete.  The Kurds are still west of the Euphrates, in the town of Manbij. And the crucial IS-held town of Al-Bab remains unconquered.  The Turks would like to help their rebel clients take the town and end any further possibility of Kurdish unification.  But here, in the usual labyrinthine way, other players enter the picture.  Al-Bab is close to Aleppo.  It is possible that the Russians have warned Erdogan that the town remains out of bounds.

But the point to bear in mind is that the process of coalition building against IS in Syria is complicated by the fact that two potential members of the coalition – the US-backed SDF and the Turkish army with their Sunni Arab allies, are currently engaged in a direct conflict with one another.

In this regard,  it is worth noting the yawning gap between the military achievements of the Syrian Kurds and their dearth of similar successes in the diplomatic and political fields.  While YPG commanders call in US airstrikes against IS, no country has recognized the Federation of Northern Syria, and it has received little media coverage.

Dunford’s hurried visit to Ankara reflects the diplomatic state of play.  Namely, that the agenda of a Turkish government, even one that openly supports Sunni jihadis, must be indulged. That of a Kurdish ally can be dismissed.  The Kurds may have little choice in the matter. But they should be careful not to find themselves quickly abandoned once Operation ‘Euphrates Wrath’ is done.


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Battle for Power: Iran vs. Turkey in northern Iraq  


Jerusalem Post, 4/11

The Iraqi special forces have now entered the first neighborhoods of the city of Mosul.  Captured by the Islamic State in the summer of 2014, the city constitutes the jewel in the crown of the Sunni jihadis’ Iraqi holdings.  It may be assumed that they will fight with determination to hold it.  The eventual outcome of the battle for Mosul, however, cannot be in doubt.   There are around 5,000 IS fighters inside the city, facing  a combined force of around 100,000. The attackers have complete control of the skies, and vastly superior weaponry.

The most intriguing aspect of the Mosul campaign, however, has been the differing and often opposing agendas of the various components of the attacking force.  These, with surprising rapidity, have now have come to the fore.

Just two weeks into the offensive, two of its most prominent backers – the Baghdad government of Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, and the Turkish government – are engaged in a war of words.

How has this crisis emerged, and what may be the direction of events in the next phase?

The Shia militiamen of the Popular Mobilization Units, (PMU) or ‘Hashd al-Sha’abi’ are currently heading toward the town of Tal Afar,  population 100,000, located 60 kilometers west of Mosul.  Their mission will be to capture the town and prevent IS fighters from escaping westwards towards the Syrian border, on the highway adjoining it.

The PMU consists of around 40 Shia militias. The most significant of these are directly supported by the government of Iran.  The three most important militias in the PMU are the Badr Organization, the Ktaeb Hizballah and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq group.  All three are pro-Iranian and the recipients of direct training and assistance from Teheran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

The militias make little secret of their nature and goals. A Badr officer interviewed by this author in Baghdad in summer, 2015 declared that his hope for the PMU would be that it should play a similar role in a future Iraq to that played by the IRGC in Iran. The two most powerful figures in the PMU, Hadi al-Ameri of Badr and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis of Ktaeb Hizballah are both veteran Shia Islamists and close associates of General Qassem Suleimani, who commands the expeditionary Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guard.

The  Shia militias of the PMU are thus a classic Iranian production – combining political, military and paramilitary/intimidatory roles for the maximization of power and Iranian influence.

They are also deeply hooked into the centers of power in Iraq.  Badr in its political guise is a member of the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.  The militia also holds the governorship of one of Iraq’s provinces, Diyala, where it dominates the official security forces.

In the Mosul offensive, however, the Iranian project for wielding power via proxy is colliding with a rival project of a similar nature, maintained by President Recep Tayep Erdogan of Turkey.

The Turks established  a military base at Bashiqa, east of Mosul, in December, 2015. There, Turkish officers engaged in the training of a Sunni militia. The militia was organized by Osama al-Nujaifi, a former parliament speaker close to the Turks, and by his brother Atheel, former governor of Nineveh Province.

The Nujaifis have come out in favour of an autonomous Nineveh Province once IS has been defeated.  Clearly, the intention is to build Turkish and Sunni influence in northern Iraq.

Abadi, while opposing the Turkish effort, has tried to take a moderate approach. His guarantee that the Shia militias would play no role in the fight against IS in Mosul formed a part of this.

But for the militias themselves and those that back them, the Turkish gambit must  be opposed.  The Iranians and their allies are already engaged against Turkish supported militias in northern Syria.  For them, the battle in Iraq is part of the same fight.

Tal Afar, meanwhile, is of particular importance, not only because of its location but also because of its history and demography.  An old Ottoman garrison town, its majority Turkmen population is a remnant of the days when Iraq constituted a part of an empire ruled from Constantinople.

The population is divided into Shia and Sunni Turkmen.  Its Sunnis were pro-Saddam, and furnished the old regime with many personnel.  Many later also joined IS.  Much of the Shia  population was driven from the town when IS took it in 2014.  The Shia militias may now be seeking revenge.

Turkey has now  deployed tanks and artillery in the Silopi area, close to the border with Iraq. Erdogan warned last week that Turkish forces would intervene if abuses were committed by the Shia militias against the Sunni residents of Tal Afar.

The Iraqi government is taking the threat seriously. Abadi said this week that while Iraq does ‘not want war with Turkey, and we do not want a confrontation with Turkey,’ if Erdogan’s forces invade, however, this will lead to the ‘dismantling of Turkey.’

So how will this game of brinkmanship play out?

Erdogan’s words seem at this stage designed more to exert pressure than to signal an imminent intervention.  As long as the militias avoid a sectarian bloodbath in Tal Afar, the Turkish tanks will probably remain on the border, but not cross it.

But the ongoing tensions between Ankara and Baghdad/Teheran show that even as the fight for Mosul city has not yet reached its expected height, the various players are already competing for supremacy in the aftermath.

As of now, the Iranians have overall the better hand.  Their experience in the use of proxy forces is of longer standing than that of the Turks. They are allied with the central government in Baghdad.  The US and the west perceive little danger in their activities in the post nuclear deal era.

The Turks, however, have demonstrated in northern Syria earlier this year a willingness to employ their own forces in bold but risky gambits on the fragmented territory of their neighbors.  Iranian-Turkish and Shia-Sunni rivalry are at the heart of the struggle for power in Ninevah Province and further afield.

The meaning of all this is that northern Iraq has ceased to function as a sovereign territory. Other forces – Turkish soldiers, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Kurdish guerrillas, Shia militiamen, Sunni jihadis, are now engaged in a battle over its territory and resources.


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Tremor in Yemen

Jerusalem Post, 21/10

Tremor in Yemen

The Yemeni civil war, in which an Iran-supported Shia militia, the Ansar Allah movement (the ‘Houthis’) is clashing with a Saud- led coalition supporting the government of President  Abd Rabbo Mansur al-Hadi,  is largely neglected by western media coverage.

This is unfortunate.  Recent events related to Yemen demonstrate the growing confidence and audacity of the Iran-led regional bloc, and its apparent belief that it can with impunity escalate the ‘rules of the game’ to include not only strikes on US proxies, but now also direct attacks on US assets themselves.

On October 9th, and again on October 12th, the USS Mason, a US Navy destroyer, was operating in the strategically crucial area of the Bab el-Mandeb Straits off the coast of Yemen, when it was targeted by two missiles fired from territory controlled by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. The narrow straits connect the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea.  They are a vital crossing point for ships transporting oil and gas from the Persian Gulf to the Suez Canal and thence to the Mediterranean.

The USS Mason’s mission was to ensure the continued and unimpeded transition of shipping through the Straits.  The ship fired its own missiles to intercept the threats and sustained no damage.  The Mason was then targeted again on October 12th and possibly again on the 15th (this incident is still under investigation).

The USS Mason, along with two other US Navy ships – the USS Nitze and the USS Ponce had been deployed to the straits after an earlier attack on a UAE logistics vessel, the HSV Swift, on October 1st.

The missile fired, according to a report by the US Naval Institute, was a C-802 anti-ship missile. It was a missile of this type which was launched by the Lebanese Hizballah on the Israeli ship INS Hanit, during the Second Lebanon War, on July 14th 2006. This Chinese-produced missile was sold for a time by Beijing to Iran. The Iranians reverse engineered it, and now produce a version of their own.  The Iranians, as noted above, are the main backers of the Houthis.

The attack came a day after a Saudi air strike on the Houthi controlled Yemeni capital of Sana’a, in which around 140 people were killed.

The Ansar Allah organization, better known as the Houthis, denied responsibility for the launching of the missiles. The denials followed, however, a statement by the organization’s leader Abd al Malik al-Houthi, in which he blamed the US for the bombing.  Al-Houthi said that “the first and foremost party responsible for the carnage” was the US and added that  “the Saudis are killing Yemenis by means of U.S. weapons and military aircraft. They strike where Americans pinpoint and allow.”

The missile attack also coincided with a Scud missile attack from Houthi controlled territory on the Saudi city of Taif.

The balance of probabilities, given the timing, location of the tactics and the ordnance used points overwhelmingly towards the Iranian backed Ansar Allah as the organization responsible.  A senior US official quoted by ABC News said that there was ‘no doubt’  that the Houthis carried out the attack.

The attacks were followed by a US response, which targeted three coastal radar sites in Houthi controlled  territory.  It was the first direct US attack against Houthi controlled targets.  The Pentagon then noted that the US would respond ‘as appropriate’ to any further attacks.

The attacks on the USS Mason and its accompanying craft represent a raising of the stakes by the Iranians in the tension surrounding the Yemen war and the Bab el-Mandeb Straits.  The Houthis are not direct proxies of Teheran.  Their relationship is more akin to that of Hamas with Iran rather than that of Hizballah with its masters in Teheran.

That is, Ansar Allah is an organization with its own genuine local roots and agenda, which nevertheless benefits from and relies on Iranian assistance, supplies and training.

The launch of a C-802 anti-ship missile, however, is no simple military exercise of the type generally undertaken by a ragged guerrilla force like the Houthis.  It involves a high level of expertise and the employment of advanced technical means.    The targeting of the USS Mason, therefore, may  well have constituted an instance of direct Iranian involvement at some level in a military attack on a US ship.

Whether or not there were direct Iranian fingerprints on the attack, it is extremely unlikely that the Houthis themselves would have decided unilaterally on a very sharp escalation of this kind.  Iranian approval for the attacks is thus a near certainty.

What this means is that in the current regional reality, the Iranians and their allies feel sufficiently emboldened to engage in proxy or not-so-proxy military assaults not only on US allies in the region (the Saudis in Yemen), but also on US forces themselves.

Such attacks are an indicator of the extent to which US deterrence has declined in the Middle East. There is a strongly-evidenced  sense among both friends and foes that any US response to aggression against it will be judicious, restrained, proportionate and brief.  A response of this kind hands the initiative to any aggressor able to calculate and absorb it.  Renewed deterrence will come only from setting the price higher.

Brigadier-General Massoud Jazayeri, deputy commander of Iran’s Armed Forces General Staff, was quoted this week as saying that “The presence of America in the region is a cancerous malign tumor that can only be treated by removing the filthy tumor and the ejection of America from the region.’

No ambiguity from that side, then.  It is unlikely, these words aside, that Iran seeks confrontation at the present time.  Teheran is busy fighting for control in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and is not yet close to victory in any of these arenas.  But in the meantime, disrupting Red Sea and Persian Gulf commerce and poking a finger in the eye of the supposed custodians of that area’s security is a useful, apparently low cost method of showing which way the regional winds are blowing.




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A House Divided

The Australian, 8/10 (originally published under the title ‘A Malaise that’s Destroying Iraq’)


Mosul in early autumn looks peaceful from the Bashiqa ridge. The first positions of the Iraqi Kurdish army, the Peshmerga, are here, 12km from the city. The occasional mortar shell lands somewhere in the vicinity once in a while. Further off, one can sometimes hear the distant thunder of heavier ordnance. But mostly it’s quiet.

The fighters of General Bahram Yassin spend their time keeping fit, cleaning their weapons and watching the deceptively peaceful ground in front of them, from over the sandbags, for any sign of an ­attempt by their Islamic State enemies to move forward.

The quiet is deceptive. Preparations are advanced for the operation to reconquer the city. Zero hour may be approaching.

Bashiqa is the closest point to Mosul reached by the anti-Islamic State ­coalition. The city is surrounded: by the Iraqi army to the south and by the Kurds to the east, north and west.

Mosul is the jewel in the crown of Islamic State’s holdings in Iraq. The taking of the city in June 2014 was the moment when it became clear that the group was not simply another ragged Sunni jihadi operation challenging the central government in Baghdad.

Rather, for a moment it looked like a history-making phenomenon. That moment now seems distant.

The tide in the war turned long ago. Islamic State has been contracting since early last year, when it reached its furthest points of advance. Refugees who make their way across the desert in the Makhmur area tell tales of florid cruelty as the jihadis seek to repress the population of their crumbling ­domain.

The latest point to fall was the town of Shirqat, 100km south of the city, taken by the Iraqi army in co-operation with US-led coalition airpower after two days of fighting last month. Possession of this area enables the Iraqi army to strengthen supply lines to its main base south of the city, at Qayyarah airfield. Shirqat straddles Route 1, one of the main arteries linking Mosul and Baghdad. But something strange is going on. There are (and have been for some time) enough forces available to defeat Islamic State in Mosul. Yet the assault on the city has not so far been launched.

“Shaping” operations to prepare the final launch points are not quite complete. The Iraqi army needs to take Hawija, in Kirkuk province. The Kurds must capture the last remaining villages between Bashiqa and Mosul.

But the main reasons for the delays are political. The various forces due to take part in the liberation of Mosul have sharply differing agendas regarding what comes after the battle, and for the future of Iraq more generally.

These differences have prevented the emergence of a joint command structure for the assault on Mosul, and delayed commencement of the operation. They will also almost certainly ensure the continuation of strife and internecine violence even after the jihadis have departed Mosul.

Iraq is a broken country. The defeat of Islamic State will not put it back ­together.

There are two related issues severely complicating the commencement of the attack on Mosul. The first is the questionable quality of the Iraqi army. The second is the sectarian issue — the extent to which one can even talk about Iraq as a country any more and the consequent differing ambitions of the armed groups in the Mosul area.

Iraq is divided into three main communities, the Shia Arab ­majority, and large (mainly Sunni) Kurdish and Sunni Arab minorities. All three are represented in the forces gathered around the city.

From the point of view of many Kurds and Sunni Arabs, the Baghdad government represents not a legitimately constituted authority but rather the expression of a Shia domination, which they seek to throw off.

The Western-backed Iraqi security forces of the Baghdad government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will form the main ­element of the attacking force into Mosul. These are the Iraqi state’s legally constituted armed forces.

The army’s commander in Nineveh province, in which Mosul is located, is Major General Najim al-Jubouri. Jubouri, a former general in Saddam Hussein’s army, worked closely with the US throughout the years of its occupation of Iraq. Now a resident of Washington, DC, he was invited back to take command of the forces for the Mosul operation.

“For me there are no Sunnis or Shia, or Kurds or Turkmen — only citizens,” he tells Inquirer as we meet in his office in the Makhmur area.


Maj-Gen Najim Jubouri, Makhmur area, September 2016


Admirable sentiments. And ­Jubouri is by all accounts a man of integrity and skill. But the Iraqi army performed badly against Islamic State in 2014. At that time, it was revealed to be riven with corruption, with the mainly Shia rank and file unwilling to fight the jihadists for Sunni parts of the country, which seemed alien to them.

The US has spent $US1.6 billion on Iraqi defence reform since 2014. Australian personnel, among others, are engaged in helping Iraqi soldiers learn new and valuable skills. Capable figures such as Jubouri have been brought back into the army. But it remains open to question whether fundamental change has taken place.

A great deal of window-dressing has happened at the top, and a few genuinely capable and non-sectarian units, such as the Counter-terrorism Service (or Golden Division”) have emerged.

But the slow pace of the army’s progress over the past 1½ years suggests that below the most senior levels and apart from a few specific units, not much has really changed.

Has the phenomenon of “ghost soldiers”, whereby commanders pay non-existent soldiers in order to pocket their salaries, disappeared? Has the practice of promoting unsuitable officers because of nepotism or financial corruption been overcome? Has the existence of corruption in the provision of equipment to front-line units been addressed?

There is little or no evidence to suggest these deep structural/cultural issues have been dealt with. Until they are, the main part of the Iraqi army is likely to remain substandard.

And the reason not much has changed may not be simple laxity and corruption, though neither is in short supply.

Here, the second, more complex question of sectarianism enters the picture.

In alliance with and co-operating with the Iraqi army are Shia militias. These non-governmental military groups number about 100,000 fighters. Many of the main groups among them — such as the Badr Organisation and Kata’ib Hezbollah — are aligned with Iran and are ­effectively controlled by Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.


A fighter of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia in action east of Ramadi, July 2015.  img_3209

Thus the militias constitute Iran’s main political and military instrument within Iraq. The governing Islamic Dawa Party is pro-Iranian in orientation and the influence, seen and unseen, of Iran runs deep in Iraq today.

Kurds and Sunnis claim that the militias have made deep inroads into the army. They suspect these groups of pursuing a sectarian agenda of their own, which contrasts with the separate agendas that the Kurds and Sunnis are themselves clearly pursuing.

The vexed question of the relations between the Iraqi security forces, led of course by a government dominated by the Dawa Party, and the Shia militias, is important. The notion of widespread co-operation between government forces and the Shia militias is widely shared among Kurdish and Sunni Arab members of the coalition facing Islamic State in Mosul.

There are allegations of militiamen deployed among the government forces wearing Iraqi army uniforms, and of elements of the army who co-operate directly with, and take orders from, the militia leadership. There are also those who claim that powerful elements in the governing party prefer to keep the army weak, while building up the Shia militias as a replacement for it.

The army’s 5th division, which took part in the successful battle for Tikrit last year and is now deployed in Diyala Governorate east of Baghdad, has been among those facing accusations in this regard. The division, critics say, is specifically under the influence of the Badr Organisation, one of the two or three most powerful pro-Iranian political-military groups in the country.

Kurdish commanders make little effort even to pay lip service to the idea of unity of purpose. The autonomous Kurdish area in northern Iraq, with its capital, Erbil, already has many of the elements of an independent state. The Kurds, with the help of US air power, successfully defended it from Islamic State in 2014.

The Kurdistan Regional Government area stretches from the Iraq-Iran border all the way to the Tigris River and the border with Syria. It is contiguous with Rojava, the area of northern Syria controlled by the Kurds of that neighbouring, equally fragmented country.

Unfortunately, and in the way of Kurdish politics, the authorities in each area are at loggerheads with one another and there is little contact between them.

The lack of unity in the anti-­Islamic State coalition was on full display when I travelled in the region last month. Major General Aziz Waisi, commander of the powerful, 56,000-strong Kurdish Zerevani Special Forces, responded dismissively to a statement by Abadi instructing Kurdish forces to move no further towards Mosul.

The author with Maj-Gen Aziz Waisi, Erbil area, September 2016


“Are we together against IS or not?” asked the general. “Are we separate from Iraq, that we can’t advance further?

“Is there some line indicating Kurdistan’s border that we can’t cross? They should answer these questions, and then we can make our choice.”

The choice in question for the Kurds, quite simply, is whether to remain in Iraq at all.

Waisi’s colleague, General Sirwan Barzani, commander of Sector 6 between Makhmur and Gwer, is far more blunt.

“As important as the military side is the political side,” he tells ­Inquirer, “and the only solution is to divide the country. There is no Iraq.”

On the calls from Abadi for the Kurds not to move forward from their current positions, Barzani is also dismissive: “We are not a force under Abadi’s control. He can’t force us not to push Islamic State back. If we decide we want to go, we go. We don’t wait for permission from Abadi.”

From Barzani’s point of view, Islamic State is a symptom of a larger problem. This problem is the continued existence of a unitary state of Iraq.

“Islamic State are weaker now, but even before they came, Mosul was under the control of similar forces. There will never be a stable solution until the country is ­divided.”

Similar sentiments were heard from a variety of senior officers of the Peshmerga and officials of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party. The Peshmerga, which emerged from the irregular Kurdish guerilla groups that fought Saddam and his predecessors and which today constitutes the official armed forces of the autonomous KRG, also performed poorly against Islamic State in the summer of 2014. But they have clearly recovered their step. The talk is of an upcoming independence referendum.

It is this, rather than the prospect of a peaceful, post-Islamic State Iraq, that animates the Kurdish fighters surrounding Mosul from three ­directions.

As Sasan Awny, a senior KDP official, sums it up: “Independence is a need for Kurdistan which must be done sooner, not later.”


A Peshmerga fighter, Bashiqa, September 2016.


It is not only the Kurds who are approaching the Mosul issue with their own agenda.

Sunni Arabs are also mobilising outside the city and their agenda, too, is far from that of Baghdad. In Bashiqa, a Sunni Arab force called the Hashd al-Watani is being trained by the Turkish army, which has its own carefully guarded presence in the area.

Mosul is a largely Sunni Arab city. Its residents did not reject the presence of Islamic State when the group arrived in 2014, as they felt themselves to be severely discriminated against by the Shia-dominated Baghdad government.

It may be presumed that the Sunnis of Mosul and Nineveh province have since recovered from the notion that Islamic State offers them anything other than barbaric repression. But this does not mean they will now welcome back the Baghdad government. As with the Kurds, the under­lying problems remain, and the defeat of Islamic State will not solve them.

Atheel al-Nujaifi, a former governor of Nineveh province, is the initiator of the Hashd al-Watani. Nujaifi fled to Erbil from Mosul when the latter city fell to Islamic State in 2014. He wants a federalised Iraq after the defeat of Islamic State, with power sharply devolved from Baghdad to the regions of the country.

And if Baghdad refuses to grant this?

“If the Kurds split and become independent, then Iraq will split. The Sunnis can’t go back to the situation before 2014. But we hope this can be avoided,” Nujaifi says.

“And if no solution is reached, there will be greater Turkish involvement.”

As if to further complicate matters, the Turks, for their part, have insisted that their army, too, will have a role in the liberation of Mosul. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, presiding over an increasingly Islamist and repressive Turkey, announced on October 1: “We will play a role in the Mosul liberation operation and no one can prevent us from participating.”

The mainly Sunni Turks find natural allies among the Iraqi Sunni Arabs.

But it is also worth noting that the Turks in Iraq have good relations with the KRG and co-operate closely with it. This relates to the labyrinth of Kurdish internal politics. The KDP, the ruling group in Iraqi Kurdistan, is a bitter rival of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has been engaged in a long insurgency against the Turkish state.

Hence the KDP and the government of Turkey have close and cordial relations.

So there are the Shia militias and the Iraqi government, with which they are aligned; the Kurds, who are already eyeing the exit door and who are not shy of making this clear; and the Sunni Arabs, aligned with Turkey, who want a radical devolution of power, or will be thinking about their own exit.

From all this swirl of competing interests, the US administration is seeking to put together a force to take Mosul.

Last Saturday, US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said neither Peshmerga forces nor the Shia militias would enter Mosul during the operation.

It is possible that such agreement has been secured, and that the Mosul operation will, indeed, commence in the coming weeks. But even if the Iraqi army can eventually secure the city, this will not solve the underlying issues facing Iraq.

Islamic State is a barbaric and murderous enterprise, and it is entirely right that it be taken out of existence. But the war against ­Islamic State has become a kind of shadow play behind which other, perhaps more consequential, ­rivalries are being played out.

The US and the West remain committed to the maintenance of a unitary Iraqi state governed by an elected authority based in Baghdad. The reality, however, appears to be that a variety of rival forces are already competing over the ruins of this edifice. The disappearance of one of these forces — Islamic State — will not end the contest.

Meanwhile, the refugees continue to make their way across the desert from Islamic State-controlled areas, with the black smoke of the burning oilfields in Qayyarah behind them. And the fighters, each under a different banner — Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Kurdistan, Islamic State — clean their weapons under the sweltering sun, and wait.

There is a fight coming in Mosul. It will cost many lives. When it is over, the irreconcilable issues that are the underlying cause of conflict in Iraq (as well as in Syria) are likely to emerge largely unchanged as the smoke of battle clears.


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Beyond Mosul

A version of this article appears in the current edition of the Jerusalem Report magazine.


Black smoke was rising from the Qayara oilfelds as the refugees huddled in the shade.  They had arrived that morning – from ISIS controlled territory a little further west.

These  refugees had come from Jahala village.  They were Sunni Arabs.   They had elected earlier that day to risk an escape from IS territory across the desert – a route ending in certain death if caught by the jihadis.  ‘ISIS have set fire to the oil fields,’  one of them told us. ‘The smoke makes it impossible to breathe.  12 or so people every day need the hospital. It’s impossible to stay.’

So they had set out in the early dawn, just after first light.  A convoy of men, women and children.  ‘The best time is before the sun rises, when ISIS are sleeping.  We used that time to come over.’

Now they were exhausted, grimy, but safe.  The Pesh Merga fighters of General Mala Mahdi were quizzing  the men, looking for  any indications that they might be IS members  sent to infiltrate the lines.  It appeared that all was well, however.  After a while trucks arrived and the families began to load their belongings.  Their destination was one of the large refugee camps established by the government of Iraq.  There would be little by way of comfort there. But there would be shelter, food, water – and a chance to breathe air not polluted by the black smoke of burning oil.

The act of firing the Qayara oilfields in an area under their own control exemplified  the florid insanity with which the name of Islamic State is associated.  It provided no substantive benefit to the jihadis themselves, and with a stroke rendered the lives of the civilians in the area unlivable.  The result was that Sunni Arabs, like the refugees from Jahala, were forced to seek sanctuary with the Kurdish Pesh Merga.  The Sunni Arabs, of course, are the very people in whose name IS wages its jihad.  80 miles south of the city of Mosul, witnessing scenes like this, the issues surrounding the current war between the Islamic State and its enemies can seem fairly stark and simple.   But the seeming simplicity is deceptive.

The insanity of Islamic State, and the imperative that it be destroyed, are indeed fairly unambiguous  matters.  The reduction of the area of IS control, meanwhile, is already an advanced process.  The jihadis have lost 50% of their holdings in Iraq, and around 25% in Syria.  The city of Mosul is the next, looming target for the enemies of IS.  It promises to be a fiercely contested fight.  The result, eventually, inevitably, must surely be the defeat of the jihadis.  After which, perhaps, the air around Jahala will clear and its unfortunate residents may return home.

Unambiguity, however, ends when one comes to consider the state of affairs among the various forces seeking to carry out the task of defeating IS.  Here, one finds clashing agendas, different and rival traditions, and the almost certain prospect that the defeat of IS will ultimately constitute only an episode in the wider story of conflict in Iraq.



Iraqi Security Forces


‘I don’t believe in Shia and Sunna, Kurd and Turkmen. We are all citizens,’ said Major-General Najem Jbeiri, as we sat in his office at an army base south of Mosul.  Jubeiri is the commander of Nineveh operations for the Iraqi Army and the officer commanding the Mosul operation for the army.

Jbeiri, slow of speech and with the measured and cool delivery of an experienced commander,  has an interesting and varied past.  Graduating the officer’s school of the old Iraqi army in 1979, he was a brigadier general in Saddam’s air defense units in the war of 2003.  Later, he began to work with the Americans, serving as mayor of Tel Afar west of Mosul in the period 2005-8. Then he made his new home in America.

Now he is back, commanding the army in Mosul, and still declaring his loyalty to the idea of a united Iraq. ‘Politicians use sectarianism to keep their positions. I don’t believe in it,’  he told me.   ‘If we stay locked to the past, we’ll go to hell.  If we forget what happened, we’ll have a chance for the future.’

The army, Jbeiri asserted, has moved on since the disastrous performance of the summer of 2014, when IS took Mosul and was stopped at the gates of Baghdad and Erbil.  Better training, better weapons, increased motivation will produce different results.

Perhaps.  But it has been a long and slow slog to Qayara airfield, the hub of the Iraqi army’s operations south of Mosul.

Jbeiri, when he is not commanding troops for the Mosul offensive, is a research fellow at the Near East and South Asia department of the National Defense University in Washington DC. He has come a long way from Saddam Hussein’s anti-aircraft units.  His paeans to forgetting the past, embracing shared citizenship and rejecting sectarianism are certainly of the stuff that his DC employers would be happy to hear.

They do not, however, reflect the sentiments of other, no less important players in the area of the Mosul battlefield.  They also do not resemble the frankly sectarian nature of the Shia dominated government in which he serves, which relies, in good part, on the efforts of Shia Islamist militias supported by Iran.   Jbeiri will be returning to his home in the US when the Mosul operation is completed.

The anti-IS forces arranged around Ninawah province, of which Mosul is the capital, meanwhile, are a deeply varied gathering .  And the Iraqi Security Forces of Major-General Jbeiri are not the strongest or most consequential of them.  In addition to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), the Kurdish Pesh Merga, the Shia militias of the PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces or Hashd al-Sha’abi, the Sunni militiamen of the Hashd al-Watani (National Mobilization) and even the Kurdish PKK, as well of course as US-led coalition air power and advisers are all set to play an active role in the battle.



The Kurds

The powerful Kurdish Pesh Merga, controlling the entrances to Mosul from the north, east and west,  have a starkly different view to the representatives of the Baghdad government of the nature and meaning of the battle in which they are engaged.  For them, the sweet words of the Major-General about shared citizenship conceal a bitter history, and a state structure in which they have no desire to remain. Though they are at pains to point out that many refugees from IS controlled areas, in particular from minority communities, appear to prefer Kurdish controlled northern Iraq to the areas controlled by the Iraqi Army.

Senior Pesh Merga commander General Bahram Yassin, speaking at his HQ in Bashiqa overlooking Mosul city, told me  that ‘The process of capturing Mosul will be a stage in the achievement of Kurdish independence.  President Barzani has already started the process by announcing a referendum.  Our main goal is getting to independence.’

I reminded the commander  of a recent statement by Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi urging the Kurds to move no further towards Mosul on their own. Abadi had warned of the possibility of resistance to the Pesh Merga from the Sunni Arab inhabitants of the city.

‘The Pesh Merga have been responsible for security around Mosul since 2003,’ Bahram Yassin responded, ‘And regardless of what Abadi says, we are going to move forward…And we will have clear conditions for taking part in the Mosul operation.  There is a need for clarity on who will control the city after the operation is concluded, including taking into account the interests of minority communities.  We will not take part in a process where we lose many men, and are then asked to leave the areas we conquer.’

In the course of a week in northern Iraq, I interviewed a number of Pesh Merga commanders and leading officials of the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party.  Not all of them expressed themselves in such blunt terms as this senior field officer.   But all, without exception, spoke of an imminent independence referendum and the inevitability of a Kurdish state.

Yassin was concerned not only about IS, but also about the presence of the Iran-supported Iraqi Shia militias in the Mosul area, and of their agenda.  ‘The Hashd al-Sha’abi (Shia militias) are a big challenge to the future both of Kurdistan and of Iraq.  Many of them are trained by the Iranians.  They receive support from the government. They are seeking to secure an area in the west of Mosul.  Which will be a channel to Sinjar, and from there to Syria.  They want to complete the ‘Shia circle’ from Iraq, to Syria, and to Lebanon.’

According to a rumor commonly heard in Erbil, Shia militiamen are to be found among the Iraqi army forces, wearing the uniforms of Iraqi troops. That is, of the troops of Major-General Jbeiri, who dislikes sectarianism and wants to forget the past.

As if things were not complicated enough, Yassin and other Pesh Merga officers accuse the rival Kurdish PKK of collaboration with the Iran-aligned Shia militias in this task.  They are deeply suspicious of the presence of a few hundred PKK fighters in the Sinjar area, to Mosul’s west.  Sources close to the PKK, meanwhile, dismiss these charges and issue a counter accusation regarding the KRG’s closeness to Turkey at a time when it is repressing its Kurdish population.  They note the vital role played by the PKK in the defense of this area against IS in 2014.

Kurdish internal rivalries, in short, are also part of the picture around Mosul.

The KRG  has recovered much of its composure since the summer of 2014.  At that time, in a series of events which have yet to be adequately explained, the Pesh Merga failed to adequately defend their borders against the jihadis. The result was that IS reached the outskirts of the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, and launched an attempt at genocide against the Yezidis, a non-Muslim Kurdish speaking minority resident in areas close to the border.

The Pesh Merga have now re-conquered all territory lost in 2014. In recent weeks they have pushed  IS from a series of strategic entry points into Mosul city, and taken a number of villages across the Khazer river, to Mosul’s east.

Nor do they appear to have any intention of ceding any ground taken. As  General Mahdi in the Makhmur area put it, ‘We clean the area, we make the border, we opened the way.  Where we gave our blood, only with blood will we leave.’

It is worth noting that for the Kurdish Regional Government, the Mosul campaign and the chance for military glory comes at a time of considerable domestic discontent.  Low oil prices are wreaking havoc on an economy geared strongly toward energy exports.  There is widespread unemployment.  Salaries of officials have been cut, in some cases by as much as 75%.

In this climate, rivals of the ruling KDP accuse it of seeking to use the military campaign against IS, and the subsequent talk of independence referenda and independence as distractions from more immediate needs.  Whatever the value of such statements, they reflect the extent to which the KRG has moved beyond a sense of danger to its existence, to the extent that the war against IS has become something of an internal political matter rather than an issue of common survival.



Sunni Arabs

Under the protection of the Kurdish Pesh Merga, but separate to it, the Sunni Arab Hashd al-Watani has also emerged, but little noticed by the outside world.

A trip to their training base in the Bashiqa area is an entry into a world generally held to have vanished.  The officers of the Hashd al Watani are all veteran commanders of Saddam’s army.  There, on the plains of Ninevah province, in miniature,  they have created a version of the military culture they know.  To enter their base is to encounter in all its faded glory the once menacing military style of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party. This comes complete with the suspicion and paranoia toward outsiders, the faint but clearly apparent desire to convey menace and intimidate, and the ability to step effortlessly into the language of ringing propaganda.

All rather offset, or rather transferred to a slightly surreal plane, by the fact that these former overlords of Iraq are today able to assemble their little force of 2-3000 men only with the permission and under the tutelage of the Kurdish Pesh Merga. That is to say, they are now under the protection of the very men who as young officers they chased and harried and hunted through the mountains of northern Iraq, when they were the representatives of a mighty and brutal regime, and the Pesh Merga only a ragged guerrilla force.  But if the Hashd al Watani officers were affected by the irony of all of this, they weren’t showing it.

Tthe Hashd al Watani was established in cooperation with Barzani’s Kurdish government. But its training is being provided by none other than the Turkish Army.   Welcome to the changed Middle East.  On the Nineveh plains, a small Sunni Arab militia is being trained by the Turks, officered by former members of Saddam’s army, under the tutelage of a Kurdish government open in its desire for statehood and independence.

And who is this strange arrangement being mobilized against? Islamic State, of course. But then everyone is against the Islamic State.  Their victims are  the bloody shirt that every party in Iraq and Syria waves to establish their own righteousness.  More meaningfully, the enemy of the Hashd al Watani, once again, is the Shia dominated, increasingly Iran-aligned  government in Baghdad.

Indeed, the best way to understand this strange but significant initiative is that it represents a notable if tentative entry by Turkey into the arena that Iran has largely made its own in Iraq – namely, the sponsoring of sectarian political/military organizations in neighboring countries intended to advance the cause of the sponsoring state.

Turkish infantry officers, a lot younger and fitter looking than the superannuated Saddam-era veterans, are overseeing the training of the Hashd al Watani volunteers at the base at Bashiqa.

The Hashd al Watani is the brainchild of Atheel Nujaifi, former governor of Ninawah Province, who is strongly linked to Turkey.

Nujaifi, who I interviewed in Erbil, sees his force as an element in the construction of a federalized, decentralized northern Iraq, divided into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish areas.  There will be ‘greater Turkish involvement,’ he predicted, if no solution is found to the needs of Iraq’s Sunnis.

Nujaifi has been criticized in the past for statements apparently taking a lenient view of the nature of IS rule in Mosul.  He dismissed these criticisms, but it is clear that his main focus is what he sees as the intention of the government in Baghdad to create a sectarian Shia government, and what this would mean for the country’s Sunni Arab minority.

Like Bahram Yassin, Nujaifi  sees the future of Mosul as part of a larger struggle to resist Iranian encroachment in the region. The Iranians, according to Nujaifi, wish to make use of Iraq’s Shia militias to achieve this goal.  ‘Iran wants to use Mosul to build a corridor to Syria,’ he told me, ‘and to dominate the region.’  The Iranian intention, he suggested, is to ‘build a revolutionary army,’ through the Shia militias.  (an identical point was made to me a year ago in Baghdad by an officer of the Badr Organization, one of the main Iran-supported militias in Iraq.)

As for Iraq’s future, if the attempts at federalism fail, and ‘if the Kurds split and become independent, then Iraq itself will split.  The Sunnis cannot go back to the situation before 2014. But we hope this can be avoided,’

So both the commanders of the Pesh Merga, and their junior partners in Hashd al Watani, see the Iraqi government and in particular the Shia militias aligned with it as no less a danger to their respective community’s aspirations as are the now retreating Sunni jihadis of the Islamic State.



Mosul and Beyond

Where is all this heading?  The offensive appears to be approaching.  There are reports of heavy military traffic on the Erbil-Mosul road.  Leaflets have been dropped by coalition aircraft over the city, informing its inhabitants that the liberation of the city is imminent and urging them to leave so as not to be used by IS as human shields during the battle.  The refugees are continuing to stream in from the IS controlled areas.

From the frontline positions of General Bahram Yassin’s Pesh Merga in Bashiqa, the city of Mosul can be clearly seen.  About 12 kilometers only separate the Kurdish forces from Mosul city center, their final objective in any assault.  On most days now, the frontlines are quiet, just the occasional mortar fire or the crump of heavier ordnance from further off.  The fighters spend their days cleaning their weapons, keeping  fit, and waiting for the order to move forward.

Much fighting and dying remains to be done in and around Mosul city before Islamic State is finally destroyed.  The gravity and urgency of this task should not in any way be underestimated.  The refugees from Jahala are of the same flesh and blood as all of us, and this is salient.

But  the eventual defeat of the Islamic State is looking increasingly inevitable.  And even now, before the victory, the various forces in the ‘coalition’ assembled to destroy IS are already looking beyond the city, toward the political, and perhaps also the military struggles which will follow its conquest.    The Kurdish Pesh Merga on the ridges above the city are thinking about independence, the Sunni militiamen under their tutelage also see little future for themselves in a united Iraq, the Shia militiamen are serving the cause of the larger, Iran-led regional alliance of which they are a part.  The PKK are seeking to advance their own, rival Kurdish nationalist project.  The road beyond Mosul promises to be a treacherous, complicated path, strewn with landmines.


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Turkey’s Next Move

Jerusalem Post, 2/9

The Turkish incursion into the north Syrian town of Jarabulus and its environs, which began on August 24, is the latest dramatic re-shuffling of the deck in a long and agonizing conflict. But what is its deeper significance? Does it represent a decisive Turkish entry into the broader effort to destroy the self-proclaimed Islamic State? Or is it, rather, the opening shot in a broader effort by Ankara to destroy the extensive gains made by Syria’s Kurds and the putative federal entity they have established in the country’s north east? And what will it mean for US relations with both the Turks and the Syrian Kurds?

As it currently appears, Turkey’s intervention resembles previous foreign interventions into the Syrian war in the following way: It appears to have been more of an effort to stem an imminent unwanted outcome than an expression of a broader strategic plan.

Much as Turkey might like to, it does not currently have either the diplomatic or military ground prepared to embark on a wholesale campaign of destruction against the Syrian Kurds. It does, however, have the power to prevent further Kurdish expansion. It appears that it has just exercised this power. What will follow will depend on whether Ankara can content itself with this limited achievement.

Observe: The Turkish incursion came following the taking by the Kurdish-led, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) of the strategic town of Manbij. Manbij is of significance in the fight against Islamic State because it was the last exit the jihadists controlled into Turkey. Its loss is therefore an important step in securing the isolation of ISIS territory from the outside world and hence from sources of revenue and supply.

Turkey, however, is less concerned about the pace of the war against ISIS. From Ankara’s point of view, the taking of Manbij represented not a significant step in the war against ISIS, but rather a further advance by the Syrian Kurds, in the direction of uniting their cantons of Cezire, and Afrin along the Syrian-Turkish border, and thus achieving control of the entire long border between the two countries.

Turkey is currently facing a renewed insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the southeast of the country. The Syrian Kurdish YPG is closely associated with the PKK. A further advance by the SDF would mean the entirety of an international border falling into the hands of a hostile insurgent organization from a Turkish point of view.

Turkey had hitherto been deterred from taking any such determined action against the Kurds because of the real possibility of Russian action against a Turkish incursion. Relations between the two countries were at a nadir, following the Turkish downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 bomber on November 24, 2015. Rapprochement of some kind with Moscow was thus a necessary prelude to any incursion. And rapprochement came with the meeting between Presidents Erdogan and Putin on August 9.

The details and dimensions of any agreement reached between Moscow and Ankara remain unclear. The Russian media has been critical of the scale of the Turkish incursion into Jarabulus. But clearly the rebuilding of relations opened up enough diplomatic space for the Turks to dare to attempt the operation.

Nevertheless, any expectation that Turkish-Russian rapprochement must involve a Turkish abandonment of the Sunni Arab rebels of northern Syria appears at least for now to have been incorrect. On the contrary, the rebels formed the main ground component in the Turkish push into Jarabulus.

The US stance toward the Turkish move is perhaps most interesting of all. The Americans were apprised of an upcoming Turkish incursion. But the entry into Syria was earlier and on a larger scale than had been expected. The Americans, having supported the SDF’s difficult fight for Manbij, appeared to change direction – calling for the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters to east of the Euphrates River and conditioning further US support on this action. The US supplied close air support to the Turks in the first two days of the operation. This was withdrawn once the Turks began to capture ground and villages south of Jarabulus.

The subsequent clashes between Turkish supported rebels and the SDF constituted an indisputable case of fighting between two US client groups. The SDF is the main component in the US war against ISIS (it constitutes a “Kurdish-American juggernaut,” in the words of one American analyst of Syria).

The rebels used in the Jarabulus operation, meanwhile, consisted specifically of groups vetted by the CIA and receiving American support via the Military Operations Center in southern Turkey.

Were the fighting to spread, therefore, this would represent a disastrous situation in which two US proxies would be firing US supplied ammunition at one another.

To prevent this, the US appears to have put pressure on both sides. The Kurds, first, were clearly told that they would be left to face Turkish armor and artillery without US support if they continued to push west.

But US Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Monday noted that Washington also called on Turkey to “stay focused on the fight against ISIL and not engage Syrian Defense Forces.”

Carter called on the Turks to keep their forces north and west of Jarabulus.

As of now, a tentative cease fire has been announced by the US between the Turks and the SDF-supported Jarabulus Military Council.  It is not clear if this will hold, or indeed even if it exists. Turkish officials denied that any such truce has been agreed.

Much now depends on Turkish intentions.

The Kurds and their allies expended much blood and effort in taking Manbij from Islamic State. It is beyond doubt that they will fight to defend it should the Turks and their Syrian rebel allies seek to conquer it. At the same time, if the Turkish intention is merely to prevent Kurdish efforts to push further west, toward Jarabulus and al-Bab and thence toward uniting the cantons, it is likely that for now at least a further deterioration can be avoided.

US inconsistency left many Kurds furious. But the SDF is too successful an alliance to be entirely abandoned. Turkey would undoubtedly prefer a situation in which the rebel fighters under its sponsorship were chosen by the US as a replacement in the war against ISIS. This appears unlikely, however. The forces aligned with Turkey consist mainly of Islamist organizations, including hard-line Salafi jihadist groups ideologically close to al-Qaida.

Gen. Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command on Wednesday confirmed continued US support for the SDF.

It is now Turkey’s decision whether to declare Operation Euphrates Shield a success or to continue to seek to destroy the SDF, even in the face of US opposition, and with the presence of 300 US special forces personnel deployed with the SDF. Perhaps the Turks will conclude that the Obama administration’s record in defending its allies so far suggests that its objections can be brushed aside. This would not be an entirely groundless assumption. But if Turkey acts on it, it will open a new and very costly front in its war against the Kurds. As of now, Ankara looks most likely to follow a more cautious path.

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Who Should Rule Syria? Nobody.

The Spectator, 19/8

The long civil war in Syria is still far from conclusion. Any real possibility of rebel victory ended with the entry of Russian forces last autumn — but while the initiative is now with the Assad regime, the government’s forces are also far from a decisive breakthrough. So who, if anyone, should the UK be backing in the Syrian slaughterhouse, and what might constitute progress in this broken and burning land?

It ought to be fairly obvious why a victory for the Assad regime would be a disaster for the West. Assad, an enthusiastic user of chemical weapons against his own people, is aligned with the most powerful anti–western coalition in the Middle East. This is the alliance dominated by the Islamic Republic of Iran. It includes Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shia militias of Iraq, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. If Assad won, the Iranian alliance would consolidate its domination of the entire land area between the Iraq-Iran border and the Mediterranean Sea — a major step towards regional hegemony for Iran. So an Assad victory would be good for Islamism — at least of the Shia variety — and bad for world peace. It should be prevented.

The controversy begins when one starts to look at the alternative to an Assad victory.

In November last year, David Cameron claimed to have identified 70,000 ‘moderate’ rebels ready to challenge Islamic State in the east of Syria. That figure was a myth. Yours truly was among the very first western journalists to spend time in Syria with the rebels. I recently returned from a trip to southern Turkey, where I interviewed fighters and commanders of the main rebel coalitions. With no particular joy but a good deal of confidence, I can report that the Syrian rebellion today is dominated in its entirety by Sunni Islamist forces. And the most powerful of these are the most radical.

The most potent rebel coalition in Syria today is called Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest). It has three main component parts: Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of the Levant), a Salafist jihadi group; Jabhat al-Nusra, until recently the official franchise of al–Qaeda in Syria, now renamed Jabhat Fatah al-Sham; and Faylaq al-Sham (Legion of the Levant), whose ideology derives from the Muslim Brotherhood branch of Sunni political Islam.

Jaish al-Fatah dominates the main rebel-controlled area in Aleppo, Idleb, Latakia and northern Hama. Its various components seek the establishment of a state dominated by Islamic sharia law. There is no reason to suppose that Nusra’s recent renunciation of its al-Qaeda affiliation was anything more than tactical. When one speaks of the Syrian rebellion today, one is speaking of Jaish al-Fatah. The small ‘Free Syrian Army’ groups that still exist do so only with Jaish al-Fatah’s permission, and only for as long as they serve some useful purpose for it. In the now extremely unlikely event of the Islamist rebels defeating the Assad regime and reuniting Syria under their rule, the country would become a Sunni Islamist dictatorship.

So if there is no British or western interest in a victory for either the regime or the rebels, what should be done with regard to Syria?

First of all, it is important to understand that ‘Syria’ as a unitary state no longer exists. A rebel commander whom I interviewed in the border town of Kilis in June told me: ‘Syria today is divided into four projects, none of which is strong enough to defeat all the others. These are the Assad regime, the rebellion, the Kurds and the Islamic State.’ This is accurate.

So the beginning of a coherent Syria policy requires understanding that the country has fragmented into enclaves, and is not going to be reunited in the near future, if at all.

Various external powers have elected to back one or another element in this landscape. The Russians and Iranians are backing the regime. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supporting the Islamist rebels.


The West, too, has established a successful and effective patron-client relationship — with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Dominated by the Kurdish YPG, but including also Arab tribal forces such as the Sanadid militia, this is the force which is reducing the dominions of the Islamic State in eastern Syria, in partnership with western air power and special forces.

In contrast to the sometimes farcical attempts to identify partners among the Syrian Sunni rebels, the partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces works. Weaponry does not get passed on to or taken by radical jihadi groups, because the SDF is at war with such groups. Training and assistance produces a united force with a single chain of command. And this force captures ground and frees Syrians living under the vicious rule of Isis.

On the commonsense principle that success should be built on, it is clear that the alliance with the SDF ought to be strengthened and grown. The West is committed, correctly, to the destruction of the Islamic State. The pace of the war against Isis needs to be stepped up. As witnessed in Nice, Würz-burg, Normandy and elsewhere in recent weeks, Isis is an entity that will make war on the West until it is destroyed.

The destruction of the Islamic State by a strengthened SDF would lead to control of Syria east of the Euphrates by a western client of proven anti-terrorist credentials. Further west, the truncated enclaves of Assad and of the Sunni Arab rebels would remain. It is possible that, over time, the fragmentation of Syria would be formalised. But it’s equally likely that the various component parts would remain in de facto existence for the foreseeable future.

What matters is that three outcomes be avoided: the Assad regime should not be permitted to reunite Syria under its rule, the Islamist rebels should similarly not be allowed to establish a jihadi state in the country, and the Islamic State should not be permitted to remain in existence. By strengthening the alliance with the SDF, utilising it and its allies to take Raqqa and destroy Isis in the east, and then allowing its component parts to establish their rule in eastern and northern Syria, these objectives can be attained. For a change, the US and its allies have found an unambiguously anti-Islamist and anti-jihadi force in the Middle East which has a habit of winning its battles. This is a success which should be reinforced.


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