Archives for June 2014

ISIS becomes ‘The Islamic State’ as it declares: Mission accomplished

If George Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech came to epitomize the hubris of the neoconservatives as they foolishly celebrated victory in Iraq, the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seems to have out-Bushed Bush in his arrogance this weekend as he anointed himself the new global leader of Muslims and head of “The Islamic State” (which has dropped the parochial limitations of “Iraq” and “Syria”).

ISIS becomes IS or TIS?

In the media, the struggle for acronym domination might continue between ISIS and ISIL, in large part because the White House remains an ISIL holdout (remember how long U.S. government agencies stubbornly insisted on inserting u-s-a into “Usama bin Laden”?) but I expect that “ISIS” will continue as the most widely used label.

The success of the ISIS marketing campaign can be credited in large part to the willingness of the media and many governments to overstate the strength of the jihadist organization, but the susceptibility of ISIS to be seduced by its own hype is evident in the speed with which it has declared the creation of its caliphate.

The Associated Press reports Abdel-Rahman al-Shami, a spokesman for the Army of Islam in Syria, pouring scorn on ISIS’s announcement.

“The gangs of al-Baghdadi are living in a fantasy world. They’re delusional. They want to establish a state but they don’t have the elements for it. You cannot establish a state through looting, sabotage and bombing.”

While most analysts are inclined to look at ISIS’s recent successes through an ill-defined prism of “jihadism,” what might be increasingly applicable is an understanding of the dynamics of cult psychology.

Cults derive their cohesive strength by maintaining rigid boundaries between insiders and outsiders, through the contempt with which they view the unenlightened, and by the unswerving obedience which each cult member displays towards the cult’s strict hierarchy and the absolute authority of the cult leader.

In the short term, these mechanisms of group cohesion solidify the power of the leader, but the exceptional level of solidarity found inside cults eventually becomes their undoing. They purge themselves of the homeostatic mechanisms which provide reality checks inside ordinary social groupings. An absolute intolerance for any form of dissent means that the cult leader becomes increasingly susceptible to miscalculations.

When al-Baghdadi declared himself the “caliph,” who could question his authority, his timing, or his judgement without risking their own life?

He might now relish the power he experiences in the doubt-free environment of his followers, but the throne upon which Baghdadi now thinks he sits, is, as the Army of Islam’s spokesman says, a product of fantasy.

The willingness of ISIS to trade in fantasies may explain some of its appeal to children.

A correspondent for Niqash reports:

The customers standing in Haj Hamdoun’s store in central Mosul watched as a masked child came into the shop, buy what he wanted without saying a word and then leave again, carrying a bag containing candies and milk in one hand and a heavy machine gun, that was just about as big as him, in the other.

This was Abdullah, who is apparently the city’s youngest volunteer with the Sunni extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS, that took control of Mosul over two weeks ago.

Abdullah is not yet 11 years old. But his older brother and his father, who was a senior member of ISIS, were killed in fighting between the extremist group and Iraqi security forces in 2013. That’s why Abdullah joined ISIS.

The storeowner, Hamdoun, says he has actually become used to seeing Abdullah wandering around, carrying his big gun with both pride and difficulty. He has also seen the boy on guard duty together with other ISIS fighters in front of the new ISIS headquarters in Mosul, originally the home of a government official.

A curious bystander wanted to start a conversation with Abdullah. “I have a son your age but he’s not eager to carry arms,” the man said. “He spends most of his time on the computer.”

A tall, overweight gunman, who seemed to be responsible for the child, answered on Abdullah’s behalf. “Our children don’t waste time on electronic games or on watching cartoons,” he said. “They have a dream and their dream is to establish an Islamic state.”

The gunman patted Abdullah’s shoulder. “We have a lot of hope for Abdullah and other children his age,” the gunman continued. “We believe they will conquer all of Iraq and Persia and that they will liberate Jerusalem.”

While ISIS might be poised at the brink of self-destruction, imploding as a result of its own hubris, the United States could unwittingly save Baghdadi through an ill-judged intervention.

As J.M. Berger notes:

The prospect of a U.S. military intervention, most likely in the form of air strikes, was already problematic. While there are many who understandably favor hitting ISIS in order to deny it control of territory in Iraq, such a strike would bestow on ISIS the one thing it has until now been unable to definitively claim—legitimacy. A potential new line of jihadist argument then emerges: The caliphate was restored, but it was directly destroyed by the United States.

While President Obama has often been trigger-happy when it comes to the use of drone warfare, he is also a man who generally follows the path of least resistance.

At this juncture, with the mood across America being overwhelmingly opposed to intervention in Iraq, the risk of political gifts to ISIS coming in the form of Hellfire missiles is not as great as might otherwise be.

At the same time, to hear Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, deputy joint chief of staff of the armed forces and a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officer, say that Iran is ready to provide Iraq with “the same winning strategy used in Syria” offers reason to fear that ISIS’s enemies risk turning a crisis into a catastrophe.

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Blackwater manager threatened to murder State Department investigator in Iraq

The New York Times reports: Just weeks before Blackwater guards fatally shot 17 civilians at Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007, the State Department began investigating the security contractor’s operations in Iraq. But the inquiry was abandoned after Blackwater’s top manager there issued a threat: “that he could kill” the government’s chief investigator and “no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,” according to department reports.

American Embassy officials in Baghdad sided with Blackwater rather than the State Department investigators as a dispute over the probe escalated in August 2007, the previously undisclosed documents show. The officials told the investigators that they had disrupted the embassy’s relationship with the security contractor and ordered them to leave the country, according to the reports.

After returning to Washington, the chief investigator wrote a scathing report to State Department officials documenting misconduct by Blackwater employees and warning that lax oversight of the company, which had a contract worth more than $1 billion to protect American diplomats, had created “an environment full of liability and negligence.” [Continue reading…]

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The shady Syrian oligarchs who keep the regime afloat

Le Monde (translated by Worldcrunch) reports: In Syria, it’s business as usual.

Despite the desolate landscape of destruction that loyalist troops leave behind and the sanctions imposed by Western countries, a few entrepreneurs in the power’s sphere of influence are still amassing profits, say experts of the Syrian regime. They are lifting the veil on part of this occult and predatory system that allows President Bashar al-Assad to keep the allegiance of his followers and to finance his war against the opposition.

Just as the government-controlled parts of the country took part in a pseudo-presidential election that have given al-Assad his third term in office, the systematic bleed of the country and Damascus’ dependency on its allies, particularly Iran, have never been so severe.

“There’s almost not a single dollar legally going into the state’s coffers,” says a former close friend of the al-Assad clan. “The oil wells are now under the control of the rebels or of the Kurds. People don’t pay their taxes anymore, nor their water or electricity bills. All the regime has left to pay the civil servants’ wages are its schemes and direct aid from Iran and Iraq.” [Continue reading…]

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Oceans likened to world’s biggest failed state

Scientific American: Overfishing and pollution have pushed life in the high seas to the brink of collapse, according to a new report from the Global Ocean Commission. “The oceans are a failed state,” David Miliband, co-chair of the commission, told Reuters. The commission has implored governments to set a five-year deadline to deal with threats to the health of the high seas, which are marine waters outside national coastal zones; these seas cover almost half the globe.

Fishermen catch around ten million tons of fish from the high seas every year, with a value of $16 billion dollars. It’s a vast ocean of resources only recently made accessible by advances in fishing technology. The report warns that a combination of technology and big fuel subsidies have enabled industrial fishing fleets to heavily exploit 87% of the fish species there. Eighteen countries hand out billions of dollars in subsidies; the United States bestows fleets with $137 million for a catch worth $368 million.

Pollution, largely from plastics, also endangers ocean health. The abundance of plastics in the marine environment has risen tenfold every decade in some locations, and poses a hazard to sea life when they eat it or get entangled in it. Habitat destruction, climate change, ocean acidification, and biodiversity loss also pose a danger to ocean ecosystems. [Continue reading…]

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When we were fish

Nautilus: Neil Shubin has been going backward his whole life. “I teach anatomy but I want to understand why things look the way they do,” says the paleontologist and professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago. “And to understand the fundamental questions you have to go ever deeper into history. So I have gone backward from humans to fish to planets.”

Shubin, 53, is referring to his two books, Your Inner Fish and The Universe Within, which detail the atoms and molecules, genes and cells, sculpted by evolution into the common bonds of life. In 2004, on Ellesmere Island in the Arctic, Shubin discovered one of the key links in animal evolution, the fish known as Tiktaalik, that, he writes, “was specialized for a rather extraordinary function: it was capable of doing push-ups.”

Shubin and his team learned from Tiktaalik fossils that the big fish with the flat head had a shoulder, elbow, and wrist composed of the same bones in a human’s upper arm, forearm, and wrist. Tiktaalik used those bones to navigate shallow streams and ponds “and even to flop around on the mudflats along the banks.” Here was the creature from the lagoon that revealed how animals evolved from fish to us. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Anouar Brahem — ‘Leila Au Pays Du Carrousel’

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Juan Cole: Waiting for the Arab Summer

When it comes to pure ineptness, it’s been quite a performance — and I’m sure you’ve already guessed that I’m referring to our secretary of state’s recent jaunt to the Middle East.  You remember the old quip about jokes and timing.  (It’s all in the…)  In this case, John Kerry turned the first stop on his Middle Eastern tour into a farce, thanks to impeccably poor timing.  He landed in President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt to put the Obama stamp of approval on the former general’s new government and what he called “a historic election.”  This was a reference to the way Sisi became president, with a mind-boggling 97% of the votes (or so the official story went).  Kerry also promised to release $575 million in military aid frozen by Congress and threw in 10 Apache attack helicopters in what can only be seen as a pathetic attempt to bribe the Egyptian military.  Having delivered the goods, he evidently went into negotiations with Sisi without the leverage they might have offered him.

And then there was the timing.  The day after Kerry’s visit, verdicts were to come down in an already infamous case of media persecution.  Three Al Jazeera reporters were to hear their fate.  Charged with “aiding” the Muslim Brotherhood, they were clearly going to get severe sentences (as indeed they did) in a court system that had already given “hanging judge” a new meaning.  (While Kerry was in Cairo, death sentences were confirmed against 183 members of the Muslim Brotherhood.)  He reportedly discussed the case with Sisi — there wasn’t a shred of evidence against the reporters — and was assumedly convinced that he had wielded American power in an effective way.  Hence, when the verdicts were announced the next day and, as the Guardian put it, “delivered a humiliating, public slap in the face to Kerry,” he reportedly “appeared stunned.”  He must have been even more stunned a day later when Sisi assured the world that he would never think of “interfering” with Egyptian justice.

The strangeness of all this is hard to take in, though Kerry has a record of not delivering big time.  At the moment, allies and client states around the region — from Afghanistan (where President Hamid Karzai still refuses to sign a security pact with the U.S.) to Israel (where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government regularly announces new building plans in the occupied territories) — seem to ignore Washington’s will.  This is by now both fascinating and predictable.  If, having provided an embarrassingly full-throated defense of the Bush administration project in Iraq at a Cairo news conference, the secretary of state promptly flew into Baghdad to put an American stamp on the Iraqi government, he failed.  His mission: to get the country’s politicians to form a “unity government,” essentially deposing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  Even with his military in a state of near collapse and his own position desperately weakened, however, Maliki swept Kerry’s proposals aside.  If the secretary of state then flew on to Irbil to “implore” the president of the Kurdish autonomous region, Masoud Barzani, not to move toward an independent Kurdistan… well, do I even have to finish that sentence for you?

Here, then, is a mystery highlighted by the crisis in disintegrating Iraq and Syria: What kind of world are we in when the most powerful nation on the planet is incapable of convincing anyone, even allies significantly dependent on it, of anything?

Into this increasingly grim situation steps a TomDispatch favorite, Juan Cole, the man who runs the invaluable Informed Comment website.  Unlike the secretary of state, who, while in Cairo, definitively turned his back on the Arab Spring and the young protesters who made it happen, Cole embraces it and them.  In doing so, he offers us a ray of sunshine, hope amid the gloom.  Today, he considers the fate of the Arab Spring, suggesting that those, Kerry included, who have already consigned it to the trash heap of history don’t understand history at all.  His piece catches the spirit of a remarkable new book he’s written that is just about to come out: The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East.  It’s a must-read from an expert who has a perspective Washington sadly lacks. Tom Engelhardt

The Arab millennials will be back
Three ways the youth rebellions are still shaping the Middle East
By Juan Cole

Three and a half years ago, the world was riveted by the massive crowds of youths mobilizing in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand an end to Egypt’s dreary police state.  We stared in horror as, at one point, the Interior Ministry mobilized camel drivers to attack the demonstrators.  We watched transfixed as the protests spread from one part of Egypt to another and then from country to country across the region.  Before it was over, four presidents-for-life would be toppled and others besieged in their palaces.

Some 42 months later, in most of the Middle East and North Africa, the bright hopes for more personal liberties and an end to political and economic stagnation championed by those young people have been dashed.  Instead, a number of Arab countries have seen counter-revolutions, while others are engulfed in internecine conflicts and civil wars, creating Mad Max-like scenes of post-apocalyptic horror.  But keep one thing in mind: the rebellions of the past three years were led by Arab millennials, twentysomethings who have decades left to come into their own.  Don’t count them out yet.  They have only begun the work of transforming the region.

[Read more…]

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Iraq’s Sunni leader vows to fight ISIS, after Maliki is gone

Mark MacKinnon reports: The head of Iraq’s largest Sunni tribe says the uprising that has seen militants conquer much of the west and north of the country will not end until Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is gone from office.

Sheikh Ali Hatem al-Suleimani, the head of the powerful Dulaimi tribe that has been in open revolt against Mr. al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government since last year, said the West needs to see the Sunni offensive as a broad rebellion by an “oppressed” people, rather than focusing only on the extremists from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that have been the spearhead of the lightning advance towards Baghdad.

He said ISIL – whom he scornfully referred to as “terrorists” – made up just 7 to 10 per cent of the total number of Sunni fighters, and that their role in the uprising had been exaggerated by “social media, Facebook and Twitter.” ISIL has used YouTube and social media accounts to spread often-grisly videos of its advance through the cities of Mosul, Tikrit and Samarra, apparently seeking to both gain new followers and intimidate its opponents.

Sheikh al-Suleimani said that while ISIL and the tribes – along with remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party regime – shared common cause in wanting to oust Mr. al-Maliki, there was no formal alliance between them. He promised that once Mr. al-Maliki was gone, and the Sunni uprising had achieved its other aims – including a new constitution that would see Iraq made into a federal state, with Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish regions that would have wide autonomy – the tribal fighters would turn their guns on ISIL and defeat them. [Continue reading…]

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The war between ISIS and Al Qaeda

Aaron Y. Zelin writes: Al-Qaeda is having a difficult time, given ISIS battlefield gains in both Syria and Iraq. Continued success for ISIS, of course, is by no means guaranteed, especially given the group’s tendency to overplay its hand with locals. But unlike in Iraq a decade ago, there is no force like the United States on the ground to consolidate insurgent gains against ISIS. As seen in Syria since January, many nationalists, mainstream Islamists, and even JN [Jabhat al-Nusra] have been unable to strategically defeat ISIS. And now that ISIS has gained new resources in the recent Iraq battles, it is pouring them into new offenses and regaining lost territory. Further, the reality of a proto-state and ISIS’s willingness to try to govern — this khilafa project, as many within the group call it — is quite appealing to jihadists. ISIS is not only talking the talk about establishing an Islamic state, it is walking the walk. This has attracted many foreign fighters to its side.

In becoming the beacon for foreign fighters over the past year, ISIS now controls many recruitment and facilitation/logistics networks. Further, those who have fought with ISIS have made connections with one another and will likely keep in touch when they return to their places of origin. The solidarity and brotherhood established through fighting on the front lines and enduring the same hardships cements these relationships, which will be important for the future of the jihadist movement. Additionally, individuals like winners and, unlike al-Qaeda, which has not had a clear victory in a decade, ISIS continues to build its prestige and legitimacy within the overall movement.

The composition of foreign fighter flows to Syria (and now to Iraq again) indicates that the movement’s future is being decided by Saudis, Libyans, Tunisians, and Jordanians. In terms of the Saudis, one question to be answered is whether returnees to AQAP can flip or execute a coup against AQAP’s leadership. AQAP remains loyal to Zawahiri given its emir Nasir al-Wihayshi’s relations with bin Laden, which go back to Afghanistan. That said, if Wihayshi is killed in an American drone strike, anything could happen. AQAP, still viewed as al-Qaeda’s strongest branch, is a bellwether and if it leans toward ISIS in the near to medium future, ISIS will have won the war against al-Qaeda. Similarly, with ISIS’s victories next door in Iraq, members of JN may have more cause to defect back to ISIS, which could be a fatal blow to al-Qaeda as well.

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Syrian rebels can play role in Iraq, says Kerry

AFP reports: The top US diplomat, who landed in the Red Sea city of Jeddah in the afternoon, also met Saudi King Abdullah a day after hosting urgent talks in Paris with the Saudi, Jordanian and UAE foreign ministers on the widening crisis in Iraq and Syria.

King Abdullah has consistently called for greater US military support for the Syrian rebels, whom the Sunni Gulf kingdom has long backed.

Following several signals in recent weeks by US President Barack Obama’s administration, the White House said Thursday it intends to “ramp up US support to the moderate Syrian opposition”.

The request is part of a $1.5-billion Regional Stabilisation Initiative to bolster stability in Syrian neighbours Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and to support communities hosting refugees.

Ahmad Jarba, leader of the Syrian National Coalition, welcomed the huge US boost to his forces, battling to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“The situation is very grave and there are sectarian leaders ruling the country so we have to have greater efforts on the part of the US and regional powers to address the situation in Iraq,” Jarba said.

Kerry said “the moderate opposition in Syria… has the ability to be a very important player in pushing back against (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) ISIL’s presence… not just in Syria, but also in Iraq”.

“Jarba represents a tribe that reaches right into Iraq. He knows people there, and his point of view and that of the Syrian opposition will be very important going forward.” [Continue reading…]

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Amnesty: Testimonies point to dozens of revenge killings of Sunni detainees

Amnesty International has gathered evidence pointing to a pattern of extrajudicial executions of detainees by government forces and Shi’a militias in the Iraqi cities of Tal ‘Afar, Mosul and Ba’quba.

Surviving detainees and relatives of those killed gave graphic accounts that suggest Iraqi forces had carried out a series of vengeful attacks against Sunni detainees before withdrawing from Tal ‘Afar and Mosulf in northern Iraq. Both are now controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). In Ba’quba, central Iraq, government forces and Shi’a militias have been fending off attempts by ISIS to capture the city.

“Reports of multiple incidents where Sunni detainees have been killed in cold blood while in the custody of Iraqi forces are deeply alarming. The killings suggest a worrying pattern of reprisal attacks against Sunnis in retaliation for ISIS gains,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser, who is currently in northern Iraq.

“Even in the midst of war there are rules that must never be transgressed. Killing prisoners is a war crime. The government must immediately order an impartial and independent investigation into the killings, and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.” [Continue reading…]

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HRW: ISIS kidnaps Shia Turkmen, destroys shrines

Human Rights Watch: Forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) kidnapped at least 40 Shia Turkmen, dynamited four Shia places of worship, and ransacked homes and farms in two Shia villages bordering the Iraqi city of Mosul, Human Rights Watch said today. The assaults took place during a violent three-day spree that began on June 23, 2014.

ISIS ordered all 950 Shia Turkmen families to leave the two adjacent farming villages of Guba and Shireekhan, according to nine displaced residents, two local activists, and local journalists. The displaced residents told Human Rights Watch they heard from the few remaining villagers, all Sunni, that ISIS had killed at least some of the kidnapped men, but none had seen bodies or could provide other confirmation. ISIS, an armed extremist Sunni group, remains in control of the two villages.

“This ISIS rampage is part of a long pattern of attacks by armed Sunni extremists on Turkmen and other minorities,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The killing, bombing, and pillaging threatens to displace entire communities, possibly forever.” [Continue reading…]

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Climate: Will we lose the endgame?

Bill McKibben writes: We may be entering the high-stakes endgame on climate change. The pieces — technological and perhaps political –are finally in place for rapid, powerful action to shift us off of fossil fuel. Unfortunately, the players may well decide instead to simply move pawns back and forth for another couple of decades, which would be fatal. Even more unfortunately, the natural world is daily making it more clear that the clock ticks down faster than we feared. The whole game is very nearly in check.

Let us begin in Antarctica, the least-populated continent, and the one most nearly unchanged by humans. In her book about the region, Gabrielle Walker describes very well current activities on the vast ice sheet, from the constant discovery of new undersea life to the ongoing hunt for meteorites, which are relatively easy to track down on the white ice. For anyone who has ever wondered what it’s like to winter at 70 degrees below zero, her account will be telling. She quotes Sarah Krall, who worked in the air control center for the continent, coordinating flights and serving as “the voice of Antarctica.” From her first view of the landscape, Krall says, she was captivated:

I felt like I had no place to put it…. It was so big, so beautiful. I thought it might seem bare, but that b word didn’t occur to me. Antarctica was just too full of itself.

Describing her walk around the rim of Mount Erebus, the most southerly active volcano on the planet, Krall adds: “It’s visceral. This land makes me feel small. Not diminished, but small. I like that.”

In another sense, though, Antarctica is where we really learned how big we are, if not as individuals then as a species. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Anouar Brahem — ‘Le Pas Du Chat Noir’

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Many Iranians want military to intervene against ISIS

The Guardian reports: Merila, 30, has no love for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, but she is so alarmed by the Sunni Muslim militants battling to control neighbouring Iraq that she wants her country’s military to bring the fight to them or risk war at home.

Merila teaches English to young children in a day-care centre in Saadatabad, west Tehran, but her usual peace of mind has deserted her. “Isis is really frightening, and I’m scared,” she said. “I feel like they could pose a serious threat to us.”

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, follows a virulent form of Sunni Islam that is deeply hostile to Shi’ism, the majority sect in both Iraq and Iran. Isis has publicised its execution of Shia Muslims after its capture of cities in northern Iraq including Mosul, the country’s second largest.

In pressing on towards Baghdad, Isis has threatened the Iraqi government, which is led by Shia Muslim parties and which has turned to its ally Iran, as well as the United States, for help.

For many Iranians, events have brought back memories of the “imposed war” of 1980-88 when Saddam Hussein unleashed Iraq’s powerful army against Iran. Even those not old enough to remember air-raids and mass casualties at the front have grown up in a society scarred by that conflict. [Continue reading…]

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Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS, Assad, and the Syrian revolution

Rania Abouzeid writes: The eight men, beards trimmed, explosive belts fastened, pistols and grenades concealed in their clothing, waited until nightfall before stealing across the flat, porous Iraqi border. They navigated the berms and trenches along the frontier, traversing two-way smuggling routes used to ferry cigarettes, livestock, weapons — and jihadis to enter the northeastern Syrian province of Hasaka. It was August 2011, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and Syria was five months into a still largely peaceful uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Their leader was a Syrian emissary from the al Qaeda affiliate forged in the bloody conflict next door. He called himself Abu Mohammad al-Golani, and the young fighter, about whom little is known for sure except that he is a veteran of that war against the Americans in Iraq, had been authorized by his boss, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and al Qaeda’s central command to set up a Syrian offshoot of the notorious group. His mission, made clear in subsequent public statements, was nothing less than to bring down the Assad regime and establish an Islamic state in its place. No one knew it at the time, but that trip across the border would turn out to be a crucial turning point in the Syrian civil war, a key factor in the metastasizing of an internal conflict into a regional conflagration that now threatens the regime in Iraq as well as Syria.

Before Golani’s nighttime trek from Iraq into Syria, al Qaeda was looking increasingly like a spent force. Osama bin Laden had been killed a few months earlier. His successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had bin Laden’s passion but little of his charisma, and the Middle East was still in the throes of the so-called Arab Spring, experimenting with peaceful protests rather than violence as a means to bring about change.

But over the next few years, at times even aided by the cynical Assad regime, Golani would rejuvenate the al Qaeda brand and establish a firm base in Syria. His group, called Jabhat al-Nusra l’Ahl as-Sham (meaning Support Front for the People of the Sham, an Arabic term encompassing Damascus, Syria and the Levant), would create a whole new generation of jihadists from around the Islamic world, fighters who have become a crucial force in a Syrian civil war that has claimed well over 140,000 lives and displaced nine million Syrians, both internally and into neighboring countries.

Just as dangerously, Nusra’s very success would create a massive rift with its jihadist parent organization, the al Qaeda affiliate known as the Islamic State of Iraq. By April of 2013, that group would rebrand itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, a new name that indicated its transnational ambitions. By this June, ISIL (also known as ISIS) had become so powerful that it would brazenly undertake a blitzkrieg-like advance across northern and western Iraq, rapidly capturing the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit and underscoring the seeming irrelevance of Zawahiri and the old al Qaeda leadership, somewhere in hiding off in South Asia, far from the newest jihadi battlefields.

Now, as a result of ISIL’s victories, U.S. President Barack Obama, a man who campaigned on extricating the United States from “dumb” wars in the Middle East, finds himself potentially embroiled in another one. He is sending a small contingent of special forces to work with the Iraqi military, but many in Washington are urging him to take more decisive action against the ISIL militants sweeping across Iraq, seizing territory and oil facilities and threatening to sow chaos in Baghdad and beyond.

This was not inevitable. The Syrian revolution—and the hesitant, confused international reaction to it—paved the way for the resurrection of a militant Islam that would turn vast regions of Iraq and Syria into borderless jihadi strongholds and inch closer to redrawing the map of the Middle East—in practical terms if not on paper. This is the story, pieced together over several trips into Syria and rare interviews with highly placed jihadi commanders on the front lines, of how it happened. [Continue reading…]

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Sistani wants deal on Iraq PM before Tuesday

The Associated Press reports: Iraq’s top Shiite religious authority Friday called on political blocs to agree on the next prime minister before the newly elected parliament sits next week, stepping up pressure on political leaders to set aside their differences and form an inclusive government in the face of Sunni militants who have seized large swaths of territory.

The Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani also said that he wanted the political blocs to agree on the next parliament speaker and president by the time the new legislature meets Tuesday.

A sheikh representing Sistani, Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie, told worshippers in a Friday sermon at the holy city of Karbala that selecting the three before parliament meets would be a “prelude to the political solution that everyone seeks at the present.” [Continue reading…]

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The fractures in Iraq’s Sunni revolt

Reuters reports: According to a high-level Iraqi security official, who specializes in Sunni militant groups, ISIL has about 2,300 fighters, including foreigners, who have led the speedy assault from Mosul through other northern towns, including Hawija, west of oil-rich Kirkuk; Baiji, home of Iraq’s biggest refinery; and Saddam Hussein’s birthplace Tikrit.

The high-level official told Reuters that as ISIL has raced on from Mosul, the north’s biggest city which they dominate, other Iraqi Sunni groups have seized much of the newly-gained rural territory because ISIL is short on manpower.

The different groups appear to be following ISIL’s lead in the bigger communities it has captured like Tikrit and Baiji.

But as the new order settles in Iraq’s Sunni north, the high-level security officer predicted: “They will soon be fighting each other.”

Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security expert with good contacts in Gulf Arab governments, also expects friction to grow.

“How long can this honeymoon last?” he said. “ISIL is not acceptable among the people, either socially or politically.”

If the rebel alliance does fracture, battles could drag Sunni regions of Iraq into a state of permanent internecine war. [Continue reading…]

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