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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From the Mosul Frontlines

The Australian, 10/2

The neighbourhood of Hay al-Arabi in eastern Mosul city has the appearance of a place recently visited by apocalypse.  This was one of the last areas east of the Tigris River vacated by the Islamic State organization, before the advance of the Iraqi armed forces in late January.  The river now forms the line separating the various forces of the Iraqi government from the fighters of the Islamic State.

The signs of recent battle are everywhere in the neighborhoods along the river. Testimony to the nature of the fight which took place here.  One must traverse enormous craters, now filled with water from the February rains.  These are the product of the United States Air Force, whose B-52s played a vital role in ‘softening up’ the jihadis and destroying emplacements and arms supplies before the Iraqis moved in.

In the side streets, the metallic and scorched skeletons of cars are strewn everywhere. Evidence of the employment by IS of suicide car bombers, who have emerged as one of the most notable and dangerous tactical aspects of the jihadi way of war in Iraq and Syria.

In the courtyard of one ruined house, the mangled and mis-shapen remains of a black-clad IS suicide bomber are among the rubble.  The IS fighters have turned self-annihilation into a tactical instrument.   For them, homicide by suicide is no longer a practice especially designed to produce terror in the opponent.  It is merely a tactical option.  Jihadi fighters in Mosul routinely wear suicide belts.  If cornered, or facing capture, they detonate them, with the arithmetical intention of taking as many of their enemy with them as they can.  These black clad clumps and the soot and rubble around them are the result.

And for all this, life is coming back to Hay al-Arabi.  Even among the ruins, civilians may be seen, their belongings on wooden carts, making their way back to what remains of their homes.  Men, women and children.

The evidence of trauma is very clear.  It may be seen in the hard, sidelong stares with which strangers are acknowledged here.  Strange, piercing, direct eye contact which seems to contain within it an element of entreaty, along with a certainty that some of the things experienced in Mosul in recent weeks defy communication.  This is Iraq’s second city, with a remaining population of around 650,000.  It no longer resembles an urban center.

There is still small arms fire coming from close by, from neighboring Rashidia.  But the civilians in Hay al-Arabi largely ignore it. The army have cordoned off this neighbourhood, though officially it is described as ‘liberated.’ The official explanation is that the jihadis are shooting from the other side of the river.    Noise, confusion and rumors proliferate. Welcome to the battle for Mosul.

Slow progress

So how is the fight against IS in Iraq’s second city going?  Slower than expected, but in the right direction, is the verdict of Captain Ra’ad Karim Qassem, of the Golden Division.  The Inquirer catches up with Qassem and the men of the Iraqi Special Operations Force’s  Najaf Batalion in the al-Beker neighbourhood of the city, south of Hay al-Arabi. They are preparing to withdraw from the city, down to Bartala to its immediate south. There, they will wait for the order to begin the final part of the assault on the Islamic State in the city.

The 1st  Iraqi Special Forces Division is taking the key role in the fight for Mosul.  Its 10,000 fighters form part of an independent command structure, answering directly to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

The ISOF men we meet are clearly exhausted. But morale is high.  This US-trained force has borne the brunt of the fight against Islamic State throughout Iraq.   Established by the Americans after the 2003 invasion, they are a separate structure from the Iraqi Army. ISOF was the first force to enter the city, on November 1st.  They have pushed on, slowly and steadily, deeper into the city in the subsequent months.  Accurate casualty figures are impossible to come by in Iraq.  But all accounts suggest that many, many ISOF men have died in Mosul.

‘At the beginning of the operation, we came in mainly with vehicles, and we met with suicide cars and IEDs in the street, so we had to change our tactics,’ Captain Qassem told Inquirer.  ‘So we moved at that point to fighting on foot.  We’d enter the IS-controlled neighborhoods by night.  We’d come in divided into seven man sections.  IS tried to use the suicide cars against them.  But on foot we were able to use subterfuge, conceal ourselves, enter houses, and so on.’

Speaking from his headquarters in a large private house in the Beker neighbourhood, Qassem painted a picture of a chaotic, terrifying combat zone, one in which IS resistance is slowly and remorselessly being ground down.

‘Sometimes as many as five suicide cars would attack us at a given time.  But as the battle progressed, the number was reduced.  They began to use civilian cars instead of the improvised armored cars they’d had at the beginning.  Suicide bombers on motorcycles too.’

IS had continued to produce surprises, even as it retreated.  A particularly notable aspect of the fight for Mosul city has been the employment by the jihadis of commercial drones as weapons of war for the first time.

The drones are used for reconnaissance missions, with cameras attached to them, and as weapons of war, able to drop grenades onto the Iraqi forces.  They are able to target vehicles, as well as groups of fighters, and are obviously intended to produce fear and disorientation.  It is easy to imagine the effect the sudden appearance of one of these buzzing customized commercial toys, carrying an explosive payload, might produce.

‘We try to shoot down the drones using sniper rifles,’ said Captain Qassem. ‘But sometimes they’re too high, so we just have to hide ourselves.’

ISOF General Abdul Wahab al Saadi, speaking at his headquarters in the village of Basakhra outside Mosul,  explained the relatively slow and grinding progress of the special forces into the city as deriving not from the particular prowess of the jihadis’ tactics.  Rather,  he told Inquirer, ‘we’re moving slowly out of concern for civilians.  We’ve told civilians to stay in their homes.  If we told them to leave, IS would begin to slaughter them.  But because of the presence of the civilians, we have to limit the use of planes and heavy weapons.’  This, in turn, increases the casualty rates for the men of the special forces.

Divisions among the attacking forces

ISOF are the main attacking force used by the Iraqi government in the fight against IS in Mosul. It is their task to spearhead the attacks in the most difficult areas and to conquer ground.   Once the ground is taken, it is handed over to the Iraqi Army or the Federal Police – the paramilitary units of the Interior Ministry.  Irregular fighters attached to the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) are also present in the city.

The differing quality of the forces available to the Iraqi government necessitates this process.  Neither the Army nor the Federal Police have the training or the abilities of the ISOF.  The result is that the special forces are suffering very heavy casualties – as high as 50% in some formations, according to a recent report in Politico.

The Iraqi Army, which collapsed before the advance of Islamic State in the summer of 2014, still lags far behind the ISOF in its capabilities and motivation.  A visit to the 16th Infantry Division in the north of Mosul confirms this.  The troops are older and very obviously less physically fit.  The equipment less well-maintained, even the security surrounding the position is more lax.  US policy appears to have been to invest in the ISOF as a center of excellence.  But if the hope was that this would then serve as an example for the larger army, this does not yet appear to have taken place.

The Interior Ministry’s Federal Police were largely responsible for the conquest of southern Mosul in early January, 2017.  The forces there are currently engaged in the task of dealing with IEDs left by the retreating jihadis, and ensuring supervising the provision of food supplies and the reconnecting of electricity in the areas conquered.

Members of the force freely acknowledged the gap in capabilities between themselves and ISOF.  They noted the more complex training made available to the special forces by the US as the obvious explanation for this.  It looks likely that heavy losses or no, it will be ISOF which will lead the way into densely populated western Mosul in the next phase of the operation, when it comes.

Civilian life under IS rule

For civilians in the newly recaptured areas, the departure of IS does not represent anything as simple as the return of legitimate government and the departure of an occupying force.  Mosul is an overwhelmingly Sunni Arab city.  It was a stronghold of support for the old regime of Saddam Hussein.  Many of its inhabitants welcomed IS when it arrived in the summer of 2014.  They saw it as a force directed against the Shia-dominated Baghdad government which they viewed as the main source of their troubles.

As Mohammed Fadel Khdeir, from the Tel el Romana neighbourhood in western Mosul told the Inquirer, ‘the (government) army had mistreated us before.  Too many checkpoints, too much harassment.  So  its our fault, what happened to us.  We welcomed ISIS when they came.  And in the beginning – there were no checkpoints, no id cards, as they’d told us.  But then they became much harder on the people. ISIS promised freedom, but they are doing the same thing.  So now we are tired of them too.’

Ahmed Ali Obeid, from the same neighbourhood and now living in the Khazer refugee camp just outside the city, told Inquirer that ‘There is no food now in western Mosul, and no gas to make food.   So people began to use wood to make fires. Then ISIS stopped people from cutting wood – they wanted it just for themselves.’

‘You can get 15 to 20 lashes for not going to prayers, or for smoking. And of course the punishment for giving information to the army is death.  They’ll hang you, and leave your body hanging up for three days, then cut it down and let the dogs eat it.’

The stories told by the many refuges interviewed by the Inquirer depicted an IS regime combining religious obscurantism and pedantry, an extreme capacity for cruelty, and a certain brutal incompetence.

We were told of IS mortars fired at the army which fell short and resulted in the deaths of civilians in IS controlled areas, of bizarre punishments for women who failed to wear veils or cover their hands, of long mandatory hours spent in the mosques listening to endless sermons from IS ‘amirs’ (commanders).  Of strange edicts against  the placing of gravestones (regarded by IS as a form of idolatry) and of the teaching of methods of execution and slaughter to young children in the education system created by IS.

There is a chronic shortage of medicines for the population under IS control. Punishments for the possession of unauthorized Sim cards are fierce. Loudspeaker vans trundling through the streets issue exhortations to the residents to abandon and denounce non-Sunni Muslim spouses or relatives.

Yet for all the bizarre cruelty of the details gleaned in hours of conversation with refugees, it’s clear that Sunni Arabs willing to obey the rules and remain silent could maintain a semblance of normal life under IS rule.

This reporter was among the first to interview the Yezidi refugees fleeing the advance of IS in Syria in the summer of 2014.  They gave details not of stringent and bizarre punishments, but of mass slaughter, rape and enslavement.  The difference between that population and the people of Mosul is their religion.  For all the cruelties of IS rule in Mosul, they were holding authority there over a Sunni population they regarded and regard as their own.

War without end?

These stark sectarian dynamics of Iraq mean that many Sunni residents are now mainly afraid not of the departing IS forces, but of the government troops coming in, and the with them the possibility of revenge attacks.

The Iraqi government forces make little or no attempt to hide their own, Shia sectarian allegiances.  On many of the Humvees of both the army and the special forces, one sees large flags  bearing the visage of a serene, bearded figure.  These are banners of Hussein Ibn Ali, grandson of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam and a key figure of veneration for Shia Muslims.  The flags contain the accompanying exhortation ‘labayek ya Hussein!’ (At your service, o Hussein).  They are markers of Shia identity and loyalty. And for Sunni residents of Mosul, they are an ominous sign of what may be to come.

‘There will be sectarian war again,’ predicts Mahmoud al Yunis, a Sunni refugee from the city, from his tent in the Khazer camp.  ‘The situation will remain the same after IS goes.  The army will do the same as they did before.  They will come to take revenge.  Everyone thinks this.’

‘The army wants revenge for the Speicher massacre,’ he says, ‘but they’ll take it on the innocent.’  (The Speicher massacre was the systematic slaughter of 1,566 Shia Iraqi Air Force cadets  by ISIS during its lightning advance across western Iraq in June, 2014.)

So what of the future? ‘People are afraid to talk,’  says Ahmed Ali Obeid,  ‘They keep it in their heart.  But if people had a chance to leave, they would all leave.’

‘Iran has its hands all over Iraq,’ concludes al-Yunis, ‘Iran is taking revenge on Iraq. Revenge on the Sunnis.’

The ISOF, army and police commanders interviewed for this article indignantly reject any accusations of sectarianism among their force.  The picture is not simple.  The fighters of ISOF in particular, appear to have a genuine ethos of non-sectarianism and Iraqi identity.  Captain Qassem proudly pointed out to me that among his officers were Kurds and Sunni Arabs.

But this notwithstanding, it is unlikely that Iraq will break the sectarian spiral, even after the defeat of IS.  The Hussein flags may be seen also even on the vehicles of the special Forces. And in the empty land west of the city, the openly sectarian Shia militiamen of the Popular Mobilization Units are assembled.  The powerful militias from the Shia south that make up this gathering are political forces as well as military ones.

The most potent of them, the Ktaeb Hizballah group led by Abu Mahdi al Muhandis and the Badr Organization of Hadi al-Ameri, are supported and financed by Iran, and pursue a frank agenda of Shia ascendancy.  These, and not the US-trained ISOF, are in tune with the stark realities of inter-communal war which underly the dynamic of events in Iraq.

One is reminded irresistibly of WH Auden’s lines from September 1, 1939:  ‘I and the public know, what all schoolchildren learn – those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.’

The fight for Mosul is of course not yet over, or close to over.  The west of the city remains to be conquered.  It is more densely populated than the east.  The roads are narrower.  Use of air power will be restricted by the need to preserve civilian life.  IS follows a practice of burning tyres in areas it controls so as to obscure the vision of aircraft and make the differentiation between civilians and combatants yet harder.  So the special forces will need to go in on foot again, and to face the suicide car bombs and drones and snipers and IEDs of the Sunni jihadis.

The Najaf Battalion has withdrawn south now, to Bartala and preparations for the next phase are proceeding apace.  It is not possible, of course, to know from which direction the assault on western Mosul will begin.  But the deployment of forces seems to indicate that it will not be a frontal attack across the river.  Rather, the government forces may well begin their advance from the south,  from the area of Hammam Alil, across the open ground.

For the remaining IS fighters in the west of the city, the choice will be to fight or die.  There is no exit for them.  To the west, after all, wait the Shia militias.  These forces are not interested in taking IS prisoners.  So the jihadis, thought to number now only around 3-4,000 men, will seek to defend the warrens and alleyways of western Mosul using the tactics which by now have become familiar.

The broader questions regarding Iraq’s future, meanwhile, will not be settled by the outcome of the Mosul battle.  The fight in the west of the city looks set to continue for some months.  IS will, inevitably, eventually, be defeated.  But the Islamic State was able to sink deep roots into the Sunni Arab population of central Iraq not because of the special appeal of its particular brand of Islamic practice, but because of the sectarian dynamics that govern Iraqi political life.  These will not disappear with the last of the jihadi fighters.  The Hussein banners on the Humvees, and the stark fears and smoldering resentments of the refugees all attest to that.

In the meantime,  the civilians are heading back to Hay al Arabi and the corpses and the rubble are slowly being cleared away.  The fighters of the Special Operations Forces are resting, and waiting for the order to move forward to the west of Mosul.  The jihadis of the Islamic State, somewhere among the warrens and alleys of western Mosul, are themselves also preparing for the battle to come.   There remains much killing and destruction to come. The present, grinding round of fighting, meanwhile, looks likely to serve merely as a prelude to the next round.  This country, which has not known peace for thirty years, looks still far from that knowledge any time soon.  Mosul frontlines, winter, 2017.

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Book Review: The Weapon Wizards by Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot

Jerusalem Post, 10/2

Israel’s success over many decades  in the field of military endeavor has long fascinated observers.  The focus on this area was imposed on Israel and the early Zionist movement out of necessity.  But defense industries have today become one of the key drivers  of Israeli economic activity.  In many of the developmental areas constituting the cutting edge of the modern battlefield, the Israeli presence and influence is in vast disproportion to the country’s small size and population.

In ‘The Weapon Wizards,’ Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot, two of Israel’s veteran defense reporters set out both to trace and investigate key elements and episodes of this success, and to discover the reasons for it.

The authors begin their account at the moment of birth of the modern State of Israel.  They describe the innovative tactics adopted by the Jewish paramilitary organizations in creating facilities for weapons and ammunition production under the noses of the British Mandate authorities.  The book then looks at the efforts and the sometimes ingenious methods used by the young state to acquire the hardware  needed on the ground and in the air to prevent the early extinguishing of the Jewish state.

The book makes its case early on regarding the key factor underlying Israel’s success in this field: ‘What makes Israel unique is the complete lack of structure.,’ the authors contend.  ‘While this seems strange to cite as an advantage, it is exactly this breakdown in social hierarchy that helps spur innovation.’  (p.11).

The central thesis of ‘The Weapon Wizards’ is that Israel has been able and continues to ‘punch above its weight’ in the field of military innovation because of a societally encouraged norm of challenging authority and  not deferring to hierarchies.  Later, the authors note an additional, related factor – namely, the willingness to ‘accept failure.’  This is meant not in the sense of fatalism or resignation.  Rather, the contention is that an excessive dread of failure is likely to reduce the willingness to take risks, which in turn will reduce the likelihood of innovation.

The authors then go on to show how this norm is reflected in a system designed to reward originality and out of the box thinking, and how these factors have served Israel well in a number of key sectors and pivotal moments in the country’s history.

The second key contention of the authors is that Israel’s unique circumstances have led to a reality in which many of the most notable examples of Israeli success are in specific areas of particular centrality to the developing and transformed battlefield of the 21st century.

In this regard, ‘The Weapon Wizards’ focuses on the development of drone/UAV technology, Israel’s continued focus on the future role of main battle tanks,  satellite technology, cyber warfare, the development of anti rocket and anti missile systems, tunnel warfare, and the role of targeted killings in counter-insurgency.

In each area, the case is concisely and effectively made.  Regarding drones, the authors note that Israel is currently the largest exporter of drones in the world, and was the first country to note the enormous tactical potential of UAVs.

In the current battlescape, in which hybrid, semi-regular forces are of particular importance, UAVs are growing in relevance.  Similarly with regard to heavy armor, even in a time when high speed clashes between regular armies remain unlikely, the emergence of hybrid forces have returned ground maneuver to relevance (see the current wars in Syria and Iraq, and Lebanon 2006 for example). Israel’s pioneering investment in the Trophy system for tank protection is thus an example of significant foresight.

Regarding the success of the Iron Dome system, and the development of the related Arrow and David’s Sling systems, the authors are on ground familiar to observers of Israeli defense matters, but their account manages to be both concise and thorough.

The book contains interesting insights and data on the enormous Israeli contribution to the development of cyber-warfare.  The focus on Stuxnet, Operation ‘Olympic Games’ and the significance of this area in current and future conflicts is well-placed.

The authors also note the need for effective diplomacy to frame Israel’s military operations, and they include interesting accounts of both successes and failures in this regard: the decision to attack the Syrian nuclear reactor at al-Kibar in September 2007 is an example of the former.  The decision to act when it became clear that the US would not do so, but also the determination to avoid publicity so as to give the Syrian regime the option of not retaliating – along with the effective performance of the actual operation itself – were all key ingredients.

The costly failure re the Phalcon sales to China demonstrates, as the authors show, what happens when the diplomatic context is not taken into account.

I would like to have seen perhaps a little more discussion of the ways that Israel can or should seek to use the centers of excellence described here to raise the general level of the broader structures of defense.  Perhaps the authors could have addressed the possibility that the culture of improvisation and non-hierarchy might also at times play a detrimental, as well as a beneficial role – when it comes, for example, to the effective management of large units and structures.

I also noted a minor factual error in the text – the authors describe Israel and Iran as the only two ‘non Arab states in the Middle East.’ (They are not. Turkey is also in the Middle East).

But none of this is to detract from the overall value of this book.  Katz and Bohbot have succeeded in presenting a picture of the way in which the particular culture of Israel has produced, and continues to produce responses to security problems and challenges of a uniquely innovative, creative and (generally) effective form.  The challenges show no signs of disappearing any time soon.  ‘The Weapon Wizards’ provides much evidence for confidence that Israel will continue to meet them.

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The Mirage of the Mid-East ‘Moderate Alliance’

Jerusalem Post, 3/2

 

In recent years, it has become customary in much analysis of the Middle East emerging from Israel to divide Middle Eastern countries into a series of alliances or ‘camps.’  These camps are identified in a variety of ways.  But the most usual depiction notes a tight, hierarchical bloc of states and movements dominated by the Islamic Republic of Iran.  An alliance of ‘moderate’ states opposed to Iran and including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, United Arab Emirates and Israel itself is seen as the principal adversary and barrier to the hegemonic ambitions of the Iran-led bloc.  Some depictions also posit the existence of a smaller alliance of states and entities associated with Muslim Brotherhood-style Sunni political Islam (Qatar, Turkey, the Hamas enclave in Gaza).  The picture is then completed with the addition of the rival Salafi Islamist regional networks of al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

This picture is pleasing to the eye both in its coherence and elegant simplicity. It posits a powerful regional alliance of which Israel is seen as a member.  It is much more questionable, however, whether it conforms to reality.

Specifically, while the bloc led by Iran and the transnational networks of the Salafi jihadis are certainly observable, it is far more doubtful if anything resembling an alliance of ‘moderate’ states really exists at all.

Iran stands at the head of an alliance, which has made significant gains across the region over the last half decade.  Its Lebanese client Hizballah is increasingly absorbing the institutions of the Lebanese state.  Its clients in Yemen (the Ansar Allah movement or ‘Houthis’) control the capital and a large swathe of the country.  Bashar Assad of Syria is no longer in danger of being overthrown and now dominates the main cities and coastline of his country, as well as the majority of its population.  In Iraq, the Shia militias of the Hashd al-Shaabi are emerging as a key political and military player.

The Iranian alliance is characterized by a pyramid-type structure, with Iran itself at the top.  In the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Teheran has an agency perfectly suited for the management of this bloc.  As the Syrian war has shown, Teheran is able to muster proxies and clients from across the region and as far afield as Afghanistan and Pakistan, in order to deploy them in support of a beleaguered member of its team.  This is what an alliance looks like.

By contrast, the so-called moderate bloc in fact consists of countries who disagree bitterly on important issues, while agreeing on some others.

Observe:  Saudi Arabia was the first country to express support for the military coup in Egypt on July 3, 2013.  The friendship between Cairo and Riyadh looked set to form a new Sunni Arab bulwark against both the Iranian advance and the ambitions of Sunni radical political Islam.  That is not the way it has turned out.     On a number of key regional files, the two are now on opposite sides.

In Syria, Saudi Arabia was and remains among the key supporters of the rebellion. The Assad regime, as a client of Iran, was a natural enemy for the Saudis.  The Egyptians, however, saw and see the Syrian war entirely differently –  as a battle between a strong, military regime and a rebellion based on Sunni political Islam. In November, 2016, President Sisi said that Assad’s forces were Syrian government forces were “best positioned to combat terrorism and restore stability” in the country.  Sisi identified this stance as part of a broader strategy according to which ‘“Our priority is to support national armies…and deal with extremist elements. The same with Syria and Iraq.’

This places Egypt and Saudi Arabia, supposedly the twin anchors of the ‘moderate’ bloc at loggerheads in two key areas.  In Libya, in line with this orientation, too, Egypt fully supports General Khalifa Haftar and his forces.  Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is largely indifferent to events in that area.

In Yemen, meanwhile, the Egyptians have offered only half hearted support to Saudi Arabia’s war effort against the Houthis.

This, in turn, relates to a further key difference between the two – regarding relations with Iran.

While the Saudis see the Iran-led regional bloc as the key regional threat to their interests, the Egyptians are drawing closer to Teheran.  The two countries have not had full diplomatic relations since 1980.  But the Iranians acknowledged their common stance on Syria, when Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif specifically requested of John Kerry to invite Egypt to send a delegation to talks on Syria in the Swiss city of Lausanne on October 15, 2016.  In the same month, to the Saudis’ fury, Cairo voted for a Russian backed UN Security Council resolution allowing the continuation of the bombing of rebel held eastern Aleppo.

In turn, when Saudi oil giant Aramco announced the cessation of fuel transfers to Egypt, Sisi declared that ‘“Egypt would not bow to anyone but God,’ and the government of Iraq agreed to step in to make good the shortfall, at the request of Iran and Russia.

So the core Egyptian-Saudi alliance is fraying.

Israel views its chief concerns as Iranian expansionism and Sunni political Islam, Egypt is concerned only with the latter of these.  Saudi Arabia meanwhile, is increasingly concerned only with the former.  Representatives of King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz met late last year with officials of the Muslim Brotherhood in Istanbul, London and Riyadh.  On the agenda was the possible removal of the Brotherhood – Egypt’s key enemy – from Saudi Arabia’s list of terror organizations.  King Salman has taken a far more forgiving view of Sunni political Islam than his predecessor, King Abdullah.  This in turn has led to Saudi rapprochement with Turkey.

Thus, the three main corners of the ‘moderate’ alliance are drifting in different directions – Riyadh appears headed toward rapprochement with political Islam while maintaining opposition to Iran, Egypt toward Russia, Syria, Iraq and a stance of support for strong states.  Israel will seek to maintain good relations with each (and with smaller players in the ‘alliance’ such as Jordan and the UAE), on the basis of undoubted areas of shared interest and concern.  But any notion of a united bloc of western aligned countries standing as a wall against Iranian and Sunni Islamist advancement is today little more than a mirage.

What might change this would be the return of the superpower that was once the patron of all three countries – the United States.  Alliances work when they have leaders.  Only Washington could-re-fashion the disparate enemies of Iran and Sunni political Islam once more into a coherent unit.  It remains to be seen if the Trump Administration is interested in playing this role.

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