Hamas has shattered the Israeli illusion that the status quo is sustainable

Noam Sheizaf writes: I’ve exchanged emails with people in Gaza in the past few days. These are people who don’t care much for Hamas in their everyday lives, whether due to its fundamentalist ideology, political oppression or other aspects of its rule. But they do support Hamas in its war against Israel; for them, fighting the siege is their war of independence. Or at least one part of it.

The demand that the people of Gaza protest against Hamas, often heard in Israel today, is absurd. Even if we disregard the fact that Israelis themselves hate protests in times of war, they still expect the Palestinians to conduct a civil uprising under fire. The people of Gaza support Hamas in its war against Israel because they perceive it to be part of their war of independence. A Hamas warrior who swears by the Quran is no different from a Vietcong reciting The Internationale before leaving for battle. These kind of rituals leave a strong impression, but they are not the real story.

Israelis, both left and right, are wrong to assume that Hamas is a dictatorship fighting Israel against its people’s will. Hamas is indeed a dictatorship, and there are many Palestinians who would gladly see it fall, but not at this moment in time. Right now I have no doubt that most Palestinians support the attacks on IDF soldiers entering Gaza; they support kidnapping as means to release their prisoners (whom they see as prisoners of war) and the unpleasant fact is that most of them, I believe, support firing rockets at Israel.

“If we had planes and tanks to fight the IDF, we wouldn’t need to fire rockets,” is a sentence I have heard more than once. As an Israeli, it is unpleasant for me to hear, but one needs to at least try and understand what lies behind such a position. What is certain is that bombing Gaza will not change their minds. On the contrary.

“But if they didn’t fire rockets or launch terror attacks there would be no siege. So what do they want?” the Israeli public asks. After all, we already left Gaza. [Continue reading...]

When Israelis say “we left Gaza,” it’s as though the territory was granted independence and political autonomy. Of course withdrawal meant no such thing.

“The disengagement [from Gaza] is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians,” said Dov Weisglass, adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Indeed, by removing a few thousand vulnerable Jewish settlers and Israeli troops, one of the most tangible effects of this so-called withdrawal was to make Gaza easier to bomb.

As soon as Israel puts troops back on the ground in battle, the clock starts ticking. Sooner or later, the price — in terms of Israeli casualties — risks becoming unsustainable. The alternative — occasional air strikes — is as easy as mowing the lawn.

All that Hamas can do is try and make the cost of the latest operation as high as possible and by this measure, in the eye of some observers, Hamas can already declare victory.

Ariel Ilan Roth, Executive Director at Israel Institute, who has served in the Israeli navy, writes:

War is not an exercise in fairness, but in the attainment of strategic objectives.

And, on that score, Hamas has already won. It has shattered the necessary illusion for Israelis that a political stalemate with the Palestinians is cost-free for Israel. It has shown Israelis that, even if the Palestinians cannot kill them, they can extract a heavy psychological price. It has also raised the profile of the Palestinian cause and reinforced the perception that the Palestinians are weak victims standing against a powerful aggressor. Down the road, that feeling is sure to be translated into pressure on Israel, perhaps by politicians and certainly by social movements whose objective is to isolate Israel politically and damage it through economic boycotts.

As multiple airline now cancel flights to Israel because of safety concerns, they might not be joining the boycott movement (BDS), but the effect could to some degree be the same.

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‘Israeli Defense Forces should be given the Nobel Peace Prize’

Granted, when Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, addressed the Christians United for Israel Summit in Washington on Tuesday, he would have been warmly received whatever he said. Indeed, had he gone on stage and simply let out one long mellifluous fart, he would surely have won extended applause from such an uncritical audience.

Nevertheless, when claiming that the Israeli army should be given the Nobel Peace Prize for its “unimaginable restraint” in Gaza, Dermer was not just speaking to his evangelical friends — he was addressing and insulting all Americans.

Sure, ever since Barack Obama was prematurely awarded the prize it has been a tarnished honor, but this refrain that Israel exercising restraint as it kills hundreds of civilians, including more than a hundred children, is an effort to make people doubt what they are through news reports and social media being shown many times a day.

The Israelis like Dermer, with unimaginable conceit, are saying: don’t believe your own eyes; listen to our message of peace because really, unless you’re an Israeli, you couldn’t possibly understand what’s happening in our neighborhood.

What this conceit amounts to is self-deification and a conviction in the god-like authority of ones own beliefs.

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Gaza, the mainstream media, 2009 and 2014

A reader comments:

Remarkably, coverage by the AP, NYT, and Washington Post make it hard to escape the conclusion that the Israelis are remorseless thugs. Does this reflect a shift in mainstream attitudes?

I think the shift has less to do with changing attitudes than with a change in location.

In 2009 during Operation Cast Lead, the Israelis prevented the international media from entering Gaza. The only on-the-ground reports in English were coming from Al Jazeera’s Ayman Mohyeldin and Sherine Tadros. Even though they did an incredible job in reporting the war, the Western media was virtually all camped on the Israeli side of the border.

In 2014, there are now dozens of American and other Western reporters inside Gaza.

As much as many observers are in the habit of maligning the mainstream media for its bias and its subservience to government officials, generally speaking, journalists are inclined to report what they see.

In Gaza what they see is the carnage and destruction wrought by Israel. What else can they report?

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U.S. media execs prefer biased reporting on Gaza

Michael Calderone reports: CNN has removed correspondent Diana Magnay from covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after she tweeted that Israelis who were cheering the bombing of Gaza, and who had allegedly threatened her, were “scum.”

“After being threatened and harassed before and during a liveshot, Diana reacted angrily on Twitter,” a CNN spokeswoman said in a statement to The Huffington Post.

“She deeply regrets the language used, which was aimed directly at those who had been targeting our crew,” the spokeswoman continued. “She certainly meant no offense to anyone beyond that group, and she and CNN apologize for any offense that may have been taken.”

The spokeswoman said Magnay has been assigned to Moscow.

Magnay appeared on CNN Thursday from a hill overlooking the Israel-Gaza border. While she reported, Israelis could be heard near her cheering as missiles were fired at Gaza.

After the liveshot, Magnay tweeted: “Israelis on hill above Sderot cheer as bombs land on #gaza; threaten to ‘destroy our car if I say a word wrong’. Scum.” The tweet was quickly removed, but not before it had been retweeted more than 200 times.

If Magnay’s use of the word “scum” was so regrettable, what would have been a more appropriate way of describing this group of Israelis?

Bloodthirsty. Savage. Callous. Inhumane. Hateful. Vengeful. Sadistic.

Any of those terms could have been accurately used by Magnay and yet there’s no doubt that CNN would have been just as apologetic.

The only way she could have reported what she was witnessing right next to her and avoided criticism, would have been to say nothing at all.

This is what American media too often now demands from its reporters who cover Israel: silence or unabashed bias in favor of the Jewish state.

Might Magnay’s removal — preceded by NBC removing Ayman Mohyeldin from Gaza — prompt a rebellion among mainstream American journalists?

If only… Unfortunately, having been duly warned, it’s much more likely that nearly everyone will decide it’s not worth taking the risk of stepping out of line.

The exceptions will remain a few curmudgeons like AP’s Matt Lee who is afforded some latitude precisely because he is an exception. (Unfortunately, Lee’s acts of rebellion are confined to briefing rooms in Washington where they get less attention than they deserve.)

But having said that, what are we to make of the vile behavior of Israelis who celebrate carnage?

Do they reveal something about the nature of Israel and the meaning of Zionism?

To some extent, yes.

Palestinians, the enemy, the other, have been reduced to a sub-human status. Their lives are viewed as worthless.

Is this not an inevitable consequence of founding a state on the idea that the rights of one group of people, of one religious identity, have the exclusive authority to run that state?

And yet, should we not also acknowledge that there are base instincts that make people everywhere capable of acting with the same callousness displayed by the “scum” in Sderot?

If you think it couldn’t happen here — wherever that might be — you’re probably wrong.

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Human microbes. Who is the host?

Imagine New York City with the lights all on, but nobody home — indeed, nobody anywhere. A city fully intact and yet uninhabited. Would it still be a city, or would we refer to it as the place formerly known as New York City?

The image I’m conjuring up is not meant to represent the aftermath of some catastrophe, but rather, if we were to think of NYC as representing a human body, what that body would be like if it was stripped of its microbial life.

When the human body is described as being a host to a multitude of microbial organisms, by implication those organisms are viewed as guests. We might have some sense that we need these guests — even that we cannot survive without them — but they belong to us rather than us to them.

Why?

The “I” that stands at the center, possessed — or so it imagines — with some kind of regal authority over this domain called a person, is really a fiction.

Life in the city which is the body, continues just the same whether the monarch is awake or unconscious.

Jane Brody writes: We may think of ourselves as just human, but we’re really a mass of microorganisms housed in a human shell. Every person alive is host to about 100 trillion bacterial cells. They outnumber human cells 10 to one and account for 99.9 percent of the unique genes in the body.

Katrina Ray, a senior editor of Nature Reviews, recently suggested that the vast number of microbes in the gut could be considered a “human microbial ‘organ’” and asked, “Are we more microbe than man?

Our collection of microbiota, known as the microbiome, is the human equivalent of an environmental ecosystem. Although the bacteria together weigh a mere three pounds, their composition determines much about how the body functions and, alas, sometimes malfunctions.

Like ecosystems the world over, the human microbiome is losing its diversity, to the potential detriment of the health of those it inhabits.

Dr. Martin J. Blaser, a specialist in infectious diseases at the New York University School of Medicine and the director of the Human Microbiome Program, has studied the role of bacteria in disease for more than three decades. His research extends well beyond infectious diseases to autoimmune conditions and other ailments that have been increasing sharply worldwide.

In his new book, “Missing Microbes,” Dr. Blaser links the declining variety within the microbiome to our increased susceptibility to serious, often chronic conditions, from allergies and celiac disease to Type 1 diabetes and obesity. He and others primarily blame antibiotics for the connection. [Continue reading...]

Want to diversify your own ecosystem?

It’s easier than you might imagine. Just start making your own kefir — a fermented milk drink. There’s very little skill required.

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Israelis take pride in ‘how few’ Palestinians they kill

Israel takes greater care to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza than the United States did in Iraq and Afghanistan, Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel said today.

True.

And so what?

Is Israel facing a barrage of criticism from the Pentagon? If it was, Harel might have a point. But it is not. Indeed, many of those who currently criticize Israel for abusing its own power, have been equally critical of America’s military excesses.

Uriel Heilman, managing editor for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, attempts to explain the disparity in casualties between Palestinians and Israelis — currently 213:1 — by saying:

[T]he most important element in interpreting the death toll: While Hamas measures its success by how many Israelis it is able to kill, Israel measures its success in part by how few Palestinian civilians it kills.

By this measure, Israel could achieve the greatest success by not bombing Gaza in the first place.

The effectiveness of Iron Dome is well established. Israel, in its position of unassailable dominance, is perfectly capable of de-escalating by refraining from acts of provocation or retaliation.

The current assault on Gaza, like previous ones, has little to do with destroying Hamas or establishing “quietness,” as Benjamin Netanyahu puts it. It is a ritual beating whose purpose is to re-assert the authority of the Palestinians’ military overlord.

In spite of this, or in fact, because of this, many Israelis want to be seen and to see themselves not as brutes crushing their weak opponents. Instead, they prefer the image of restrained and compassionate human beings who only use violence when they “have no choice.”

Thus the ongoing effort to mask the evidence and paint a picture in which one side, Hamas, is lashing out with the use of indiscriminate violence, while the other, Israel, keeps count of the number of missiles it hasn’t fired because it takes so much care to protect innocent life.

Contrary to Heilman’s claim, Hamas measures its success by retaining the ability to mount some form of defense. If they possessed guided weapons systems and had the surveillance capabilities to identify targets, there is little reason to doubt that Hamas would act differently than any other actor in a similar situation: it would maximize the strategic and political value of striking military targets.

On the other side, in spite of Israel’s assertions that it exercises restraint, every day we witness new examples of senseless violence — today with the deaths of Ahed Bakr, aged 10; Zakaria, 10; and two other boys from the Bakr family, both named Mohammad, aged 11 and nine. These children were struck down by an Israeli missile while playing on a beach.

How can Israel which kills “so few” Palestinians, explain why so many are children and babies?

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Israel and Gaza — a failure of imagination

In an interview with Fox News presenter Mike Huckabee, Naftali Bennett, a right-wing extremist who is currently Israel’s Minister of the Economy, held up the tail of a Palestinian rocket and said:

I’d like everyone of your viewers to imagine this missile — this rocket, it’s about eight feet long filled with explosives and shrapnel — and imagine how they’d feel if one of these rockets fell in their neighborhood, in their children’s kindergarten, or school, or God forbid on their own home. That’s what Israel is facing today. And we’re not really seeing the world act against that, so we understand that we are on our own. And Mike, we will defend ourselves and we will win.

Bennett is not alone in feeling that Israelis are failing to receive the global sympathy they deserve.

In its effort to try and raise international awareness of Israel’s plight, the Israel Defense Forces has been putting videos on YouTube such as this:

“Hamas Rockets Disrupt Summer Vacation in Southern Israel”:

In Gaza there are no air-raid warning sirens. There is no air defense system that would alert the population to incoming strikes, but even if there was, sirens wouldn’t be any use blaring without interruption when there is nowhere to run.

In what should be regarded as Israel’s latest PR stunt, some air strikes are now being preceded by so-called “warning missiles” — missiles that have a greater destructive impact that the typical Palestinian rocket.

If the occupants of a building don’t get killed or maimed by the “warning,” the idea, supposedly, is that they have been afforded the opportunity to take cover. If it’s difficult to imagine how this works, imagine what you would do if you happened to be inside this house:

This is what Gaza is facing today.

And this is what Israel faces:

And as Gaza rockets interrupt a wedding in Ashdod, this is how daily life is being interrupted in Gaza:

Back in Ashdod, Israelis run for cover:

While so far not a single Israeli has been killed in a rocket attack, one of the latest strikes on Gaza killed eighteen people in one building:

In one of the most destructive attacks on Israel, a gas station in Ashdod was hit:

Meanwhile, in Gaza, as first responders attempted to rescue the victims of an Israeli air strike, more missiles fell:

An Israeli mother in Sderot tells a CNN reporter about her fears for her children:

This is how Abeer Ayyoub describes what it’s like to face direct threats from the IDF:

Enjoying the relatively calm hours in the early morning following a noisy sleepless night, everyone in the house was sleeping when my brother, who lives in the same building, came to wake us. He told us that our neighbor got a phone call from the IDF asking him to evacuate his house, which was about to be bombed. Our neighbor’s house is only couple of meters away; getting ready for the closest bombardment yet was so traumatizing.

My mother opened all the windows so the strike wouldn’t break them; broken glass is usually the main cause of injuries in such cases. The 20 members of my extended family gathered in the living room waiting for the awful event. Taking care of the children who didn’t know what was going on was the hardest challenge. As I write this, a couple of hours have passed since the call, and we are still, surprisingly, waiting for the strike so we can get rid of the massive panic everyone at home is suffering.

Last night wasn’t like any other night. The extremely noisy drones haven’t stopped circling the sky of Gaza for a second, F16s haven’t stopped targeting for a single hour, and the gunboats continued to shell the area near the beach for the whole night.

I could not sleep for a second as the explosions were surrounding us; in the besieged coastal enclave, the furthest point in Gaza is still close by, as the territory is so small. I was following the news on social media, TV and radio channels. For the whole night, the rockets were targeting buildings with tens of people sleeping inside. Nothing changed from one area to another, except for the family names.

Curiously, I was looking for Israeli spokesperson interviews online to see how they connected the announced goals of Operation Protective Edge, stopping the rockets from Gaza and damaging the infrastructure of Hamas, and killing dozens of children and other innocent civilians while sleeping. I watched an interview with IDF spokesman Avichay Adrey on one of the Arabic channels, and I was totally surprised by him talking about the success of the operation so far.

I don’t know what success Israel is talking about when most of the 86 people killed (through early Thursday) were children and women. What was more surprising, and even more rude, was that Adrey justified the IDF shelling on civilian homes by saying that the army usually hit the house with a warning shot before it starts damaging the house. I don’t know how an army that warns people by shooting them can respect itself.

Through social media, I could know that most of the Israelis are totally misled about what’s going on in Gaza. My Israeli followers on Twitter keep telling me that I should move away from Hamas if I want to stay alive, as Hamas is a monster that lives somewhere here. In contrast, I could always understand how it feels for an Israeli child to be killed. I never excluded humanity from how I look at the Israeli-Palestinian scene.

After dozens of houses were demolished, I started to feel real danger; my siblings did, too. Israel always claimed that civilians are only hurt when they are near areas where Palestinian fighters fire rockets, yet this narrative is not acceptable anymore. I think that Israel is trying to place more pressure on Hamas to seek a cease-fire by killing more civilians.

Visiting the main hospital in the central Gaza Strip, I could zoom in on the Israeli craziness more and more. Injured babies, burnt flesh and children who still don’t know they lost their parents and siblings are everywhere in the hospital. Much worse, I am told that the hospital has run through over 35 percent of its medicine and 55 percent of its medical supplies. Surprisingly, yet maybe not, none of the Arab or international countries around seem to be paying attention to what’s happening to the 1.8 million-plus human beings living in Gaza.

Being left under crazy rockets, the lack of regional and international support and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ disappointing attitude is leaving people here hopeless and desperate. I now know why Israel is violating international human rights laws, because no one in the world dares to cast a veto on its actions.

Human beings have an innate capacity to recognize the suffering of others. Lack of empathy has to be learned.

Having become lost in their own sense of victimization, what Naftali Bennett and those who think like him perceive as a global disregard for the welfare of Israelis, is in fact a projection of their own callousness.

Were he and those who sanction Israel’s current military actions to fully imagine their effects, they could not do so without recognizing their own brutality.

They prefer instead to hide behind self-serving delusions — we have no choice; we are exercising great restraint; we issue warnings; we attack with great precision.

The world is not failing to see what is happening in Israel. On the contrary, it is Israel that refuses to truly see what it is doing in Gaza.

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Israel’s assault on Gaza: None of our business?

The Palestinian politician, Mustafa Barghouti, made an appeal to the world this week:

The international community should intervene to restrain Israel’s army, which has called up 40,000 reserve soldiers. World leaders must stop the escalation to protect the Palestinian people and prevent further slaughter, the like of which we have witnessed this week.

Surely Barghouti is fully aware that when it comes to pro-Israeli Western governments (along with their autocratic Arab allies), his appeal will mostly fall on deaf ears.

But if he expects to be ignored by those governments, he is also speaking in solidarity with his people and with those across the world who are right now protesting against Israel’s brutal use of military force in Gaza.

Even if these hopes and appeals might be in vain, who would now argue against some form of international intervention to halt the Israeli assault?

And yet, with much of the Middle East now in turmoil, there is a broad sentiment in the United States which views these interlocking conflicts as conflicts we can only make worse — that the best way of doing least harm is to do nothing at all.

This sentiment was recently articulated thus:

The United States and other liberal states would do a much better job of promoting their most cherished political values if they concentrated on perfecting these practices at home instead of trying to export them abroad. If Western societies are prosperous, just, and competent, and live up to their professed ideals, people in other societies will want to emulate some or all of these practices, suitably adapted to local conditions.

In some countries, this process may occur rapidly, in others only after difficult struggles, and in a few places not for many decades. This fact may be regrettable, but is also realistic. Trying to speed up a process that took centuries in the West, as the United States has been trying to do since 1992, is more likely to retard the advance of liberal values than it is to advance them.

These words could come from the Left or the Right, from Dennis Kucinich or Rand Paul — a call for a humbler America that resonates with every self-reliant, mind-your-own-business American — but they actually come from political scientist Stephen Walt.

Who can fault this do-no-harm and lead-by-example approach to foreign affairs?

It sounds good, but it seems to rest on a fictional representation of the world — a world in which people’s political aspirations are supposedly being driven by false hopes inspired by Western liberals.

Walt says:

because most liberals are convinced that their cherished beliefs are beyond debate, they fail to recognize that non-liberal societies may not welcome these wonderful gifts from abroad.

It’s easy enough to identify non-liberal rule — where there is little or no tolerance for political dissent — but what is a non-liberal society? A society in which there is a collective lack of interest in human rights? A society in which most people have little interest in being able to vote?

To characterize democracy as a “gift from abroad” has a decidedly colonial flavor — as though the natives couldn’t possibly develop these “Western” political aspirations without foreign guidance or inspiration.

Are we to imagine that Libyans would now still be living peacefully under the paternal care of Muammar Gaddafi were it not for the meddlesome interference of NATO and its misguided liberalism?

Why, I would ask, even if we had we minded our own business would Libyans also have ignored what was happening in Tunisia and Egypt?

The image that the anti-interventionists so often conjure up is one of docile native populations who apparently lack the capacity to rise up themselves without the misguided meddlesome hand of Western neoliberals.

Absent Western interference, people across the Middle East might still be enjoying civil tranquility, while their rulers used just enough discreet torture and well-established corruption to allow for government to operate smoothly.

It strikes me that many of the Western anti-interventionists are no less conceited and self-absorbed than the neoconservatives in seeing a world, powerless to shape itself, forever being molded or messed up by an all-powerful West.

If Walt really believes in this mind-your-own-business foreign policy he articulates, I’m curious how this translates to an issue in which he has shown great interest: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In an interview with the Harvard Gazette this week, Walt was asked: “What can and should the international community be doing right now to diffuse tensions?” He responded:

Unfortunately, the international community has rarely been willing to take bold action to end the seemingly endless cycle of violence. The United States and European Union have considerable leverage over both sides, but neither group has been willing to use its influence constructively. Halting the present violence will save lives in the short-term and would therefore be desirable, but only a genuine peace agreement will prevent it from breaking out again at a later date.

He acknowledges that the U.S. and EU do possess considerable leverage and would presumably support the application of that pressure as a form of intervention at the current time — he simply has no expectation that this is about to happen.

No doubt there are many Israelis who believe that democracy “suitably adapted to local conditions” requires the continuing occupation of Palestinian land. They regard the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank as “unready” for self-rule. They’d probably tell the Harvard professor to go mind his own business and if he was true to his anti-interventionist principles he probably should.

But frankly, the debate for or against intervention seems like a vacuous endeavor — it’s like arguing about whether you support or oppose the use of medicine.

But which medicine prescribed for what and taken for how long?

If the medicine turns out to be toxic because the diagnosis was faulty, that doesn’t make it bad medicine — it simply means it was used in the wrong way.

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ISIS declares: ‘there will be no World Cup in Qatar’

jihadist-football

A profile of the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is now the self-declared Caliph Ibrahim, included these details about his past:

His friends remember him as polite and rather quiet. In fact, few took notice of the bespectacled student who would sit at the back of the classroom.

The only time he shone was on the football field, playing for the team from the local mosque where he would also occasionally, though not very impressively, lead the congregation in prayer.

“He was the Messi of our team,” said Abu Ali, a fellow player and worshipper at the mosque, making comparison with the Lional Messi, the Argentinian striker. “He was our best player.”

If Baghdadi’s zealotry was fueled in part by his own unfulfilled ambitions — a form of psychological corruption that could be described as the metastasization of talent — maybe he traded in fantasies about playing in the World Cup in exchange for the higher goal of becoming Caliph.

Whatever the motive, he now is apparently intent on making sure his followers won’t get distracted by the 2018 World Cup.

At The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, James M. Dorsey reports:

A purported letter by the Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls chunks of Syria and Iraq, has warned world soccer body FIFA not to hold the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, reviving concerns first raised in a FIFA security assessment warning two weeks before it was awarded the tournament that there could be a high risk of terrorist attacks.

The letter, first published on Alplatformmedia.com, a jihadist website, and reprinted in an Egyptian newspaper, suggested that soccer would be banned in areas controlled by the group because it constituted “a deviation from Islam.” The letter further indicated that conservative, energy-rich Gulf states were on the target list of the Islamic State, which has conquered parts of northern Iraq with lightning speed and declared a caliphate in territories it controls.

The letter, if genuine, comes amid heated Islamist debate about whether soccer is a legitimate sport according to Islamic precepts; the targeting by some Islamist groups, including the Islamic State, Somalia’s Al Shabab and Nigeria’s Boko Haram of soccer fans; and mounted controversy about the integrity of the Qatari bid to host the World Cup.

Anyone who happens to have watched the current World Cup on the BBC might — like me — have been perplexed by a detail in the iconography they have used for promoting Brazil 2014: toy footballers including one with no head. Another threat from ISIS?

bbc-world-cup

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Holder pushes for witch-hunt against potential terrorists

For several decades, thousands of Americans — some of them religious extremists, some ethnic supremacists and most believing that they have God on their side — have been traveling to the Middle East to fight in a foreign army notorious for committing war crimes and abusing human rights.

Americans are free to join the Israel Defense Forces so long as Israel does not declare war on the United States. There is no law that stands in the way of this kind of foreign military enrollment, even though some radicalized Americans who have followed this path went on to become terrorists.

Never is an American who moves to Israel, even one who illegally constructs a home on Palestinian land in the West Bank, referred to as a “potential terrorist” — that potentiality supposedly can only be found in Muslims.

The New York Times now reports:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Tuesday implored more European countries to adopt American-style counterterrorism laws and tactics, including undercover stings to prevent potential terrorists from traveling to Syria.

Mr. Holder’s speech in Oslo amounted to a full-throated endorsement of America’s pre-emptive counterterrorism strategy, which began in earnest under President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks. The F.B.I. has created elaborate ruses to ensnare people who express interest in joining terrorist groups or attacking America. That has led to a number of high-profile cases but has also attracted criticism that the United States is manufacturing terrorism cases and entrapping Muslims.

Prosecutors have also arrested people before they boarded international flights, charging them with providing support to terrorist groups. Such laws do not exist in every country.

“In the face of a threat so grave, we cannot afford to be passive,” Mr. Holder said in prepared remarks. “Rather, we need the benefit of investigative and prosecutorial tools that allow us to be pre-emptive in our approach to confronting this problem. If we wait for our nations’ citizens to travel to Syria or Iraq, to become radicalized, and to return home, it may be too late to adequately protect our national security.”

Try and unpack the meaning of the phrase become radicalized and some mangled reasoning quickly surfaces.

If the process of radicalization had not begun before an individual decided to abandon their home and travel to Syria or Iraq, does that mean that the U.S. or any other Western government should view, for instance, anyone who wants to go and work in a refugee camp in Syria as a potential terrorist?

On the other hand, if it is conceded that this mysterious psychological transformation called radicalization is determined not so much by where an individual is physically located as much as what they are influenced by and how they perceive those people they identify with as being under threat, then the premise of the geographically located terrorist breeding ground starts to fall apart.

In those cases where individuals have had the opportunity to explain their motives for turning towards extremism, the most common explanations are that it has been a response to witnessing the impunity with which Israel uses violence to subjugate the Palestinian people, or because they believe that the United States used 9/11 to launch a war on Islam. In other words, they became radicalized by watching the news — not by traveling to Syria or by participating in online jihadist forums.

Even during the era of McCarthyism when conservatives were whipping up anti-communist hysteria in America, the question posed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, was: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?”

If Eric Holder had been on that committee maybe they would have been asking: “Are you now, have you ever been, or might you ever become a member of the Communist Party of the United States?”

In truth, the U.S. government has no business nor skill in predicting the future and hunting for potential terrorists.

The growth of ISIS has been driven by its success on the battleground — not the failure of foreign governments to monitor their own citizens.

And the challenge ISIS presents will not be met by hoping it destroys itself.

More than anything else, Americans are victims of simplistic narratives — analysis all too often gets reduced to kindergarten language about “good guys” and “bad guys,” while reference to “moderates” and “extremists” passes for nuanced interpretation.

In large part this results from the fact that the actors on the ground are so rarely included in the discussion.

As a recent conversation on Britain’s Channel 4 News illustrates, however, it is possible to talk about what is happening in Syria and Iraq while acknowledging that despite the gruesome headlines, the participants in this conflict are by-and-large self-motivated, autonomous adults.

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A new window for diplomacy in Syria?

As the advance of ISIS continues to alarm governments across the Middle East and outside the region, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is probably viewing events with a certain amount of satisfaction. His counterterrorism narrative, long echoed by his closest allies, Iran and Russia, now resonates more widely.

So long as ISIS does not acquire aircraft and start dropping barrel bombs (in which event Assad would have the awkward task of differentiating his own use of random violence from that being used by “the terrorists”), in relationship to the most dangerous terrorist group in history it becomes increasingly easy to anticipate the reinvention of Assad as some kind of “moderate.”

No doubt he was never among the highest echelon of dictators. His fluent English and well-tailored suits suggested that if he held onto power for long enough, he might eventually be allowed back into the international club of moderates.

After all, Assad is more moderate than Pol Pot — though as the Cambodian leader illustrated, appearances can be deceptive.

David W. Lesch recently met with top Syrian officials in Beirut. He writes: Ever since it became clear that Assad was not going to fall anytime soon, the central question for any political settlement has been this: Can the Syrian regime give up enough power to satisfy at least the minimum requirements of a critical mass of the opposition? In the end, it may prove impossible to find a satisfactory formula, but it is certainly something worthy of careful exploration. War weariness has softened what had been a litany of hard-line positions by each side, creating a potential bargaining situation where the government’s political power can be traded between the provinces and Damascus. Much work remains on both sides, however, in terms of generating ideas that can potentially form the basis for compromise.

There is certainly reason to doubt the sincerity of the regime’s feelers to Western contacts, as Damascus often pursues several options at once, in an effort to have its cake and eat it, too. And the regime will bargain hard in an excruciatingly tedious process wherein it will try to seem as if it is giving up power without actually doing so in a meaningful way. There is also still the question of finding — and meticulously developing — viable negotiating partners on the opposition side amid increasing opposition polarization. And a “new” Syria cannot just replicate sectarian authoritarianism in another form, as happened in Iraq. But what other realistic option is there for ending a conflict in a way that contributes to the Middle East’s stability, rather than simply watching the war add to the regional conflagration?

If a negotiation can eventually be organized, the devil will be in the details. The problem is that neither side has really been compelled to think about the substance of its preferred form of governance in a systematic, coordinated fashion. This will take time and perseverance, as international mediators shuttle between the sides, away from the Geneva-type grand-bargain spotlight. The initial steps are quite basic: Learn about the real interests of the stakeholders, especially those on the ground, and then work with both sides to develop options that hopefully begin to reconcile competing political interests and engender further discussion — perhaps within each side first before moving on to the bilateral level.

Assad is a key. Only he can convince regime hard-liners to realize this is the only way forward. Recent history suggests the Syrian president may not be willing or able to do this if it means him giving up power. According to a senior official in Ankara, a top Turkish official met with Assad early in the uprising in 2011 to encourage him to enact political reform. He told Assad that a Syrian president would have more legitimacy by winning 40 percent of the vote in a true pluralist democracy than the usual 98 percent of the vote in Syria’s typical single-candidate referendums. Assad reportedly reacted to this by saying, “Well, what happens if I lose?” The Turkish official responded, “Then you retire.”

To date, Assad has found the option of “retiring” at some point unacceptable. [Continue reading...]

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The ISIS threat: How great is it, who should respond, and how?

The crisis in Iraq can be resolved quite easily. All we have to do is master time-travel.

There are differences of opinion on whether or not history has to be reversed back to 2003 or 1914, but either way, the ability to go back into the past is key.

If time-travel can be accomplished through an act of will, we can remain hopeful that this great challenge will soon be surmounted. After all, there is a growing movement of people who clearly want to re-live the past, so maybe we can all soon get back there, reverse the mistakes which were made and reset history on a more reliable course.

Meanwhile, just in case the time-travel solution happens not to bear fruit, it might be worth considering some kind of Plan B.

Among young Americans — those whose interest in the future can be assumed to be far greater than their interest in the past — the World Cup is apparently almost twice as interesting as events in Iraq. Maybe the 2018 World Cup in Russia will be a game-changer on the geopolitical landscape.

Maybe the assessment that the danger posed to America by ISIS is now greater than that posed by Al Qaeda in the summer of 2001 is an overstatement. After all, while Al Qaeda’s focus was on provoking and challenging American power, ISIS is much more intent on establishing and expanding its caliphate than in seeking military engagement with the U.S..

The fact that ISIS has already drawn the support of hundreds of Westerners flooding initially to Syria, does not necessarily mean many of these individuals will be returning to their countries of origin to engage in terrorism. After all, one of their favorite ways of declaring their commitment to their Islamic state is to destroy their passports. With a measure of realism, they seem to be showing that they have already arrived in the place where they expect to fight and die.

Among critics of the war in Iraq there seems to be far greater concern about the danger of the U.S. once again becoming militarily engaged in Iraq, than there is concern about ISIS. Indeed, few seem to want to say much about the group other than assert that it wouldn’t have come into existence had it not been for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. True. But the invasion did happen and ISIS does now exist and is growing in strength — and the clock cannot be turned back.

Claims that ISIS poses a threat to the world may be viewed with some justified skepticism, but when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says that the group now threatens every state in the region, that sounds to me like an accurate assessment.

Iraq is a state on the brink of collapse. The Kurds are already constructing their own borders and there are no indications that a unifying government can be formed in Baghdad.

Military intervention by Russia and Iran might save Maliki yet destroy Iraq.

That an Iranian general has already promised to use “the same winning strategy used in Syria” sends a chilling message to Iraq’s Sunni population as a whole.

Americans who imagine that so long as our borders are secure, we can ignore what happens elsewhere in the world are living in denial about the interconnected planet on which we live.

Anti-interventionists who imagine that the only issue that matters in relation to Iraq is that the U.S. not get sucked in, are unwilling to confront the fact that ISIS will have to be confronted.

If you want to place your confidence in Russia and Iran, then remember Grozny and Aleppo and picture what might become of Mosul.

ISIS could not have advanced this far without the support of a wider Sunni insurgency and rather than the Russians, Iranians, Maliki’s security forces, Shia militias, or the U.S., it is the Sunnis who need expose the fact that this newly constructed Islamic state has no real foundations. But this isn’t going to happen without Iraq’s Sunni population receiving a tangible reward. The longer that takes to materialize, the less chance there is that it’s going to happen.

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U.S. reluctance to intervene in Iraq may have unintended consequences for Israel

A week ago Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to like the idea of a conflict between ISIS and Iran — a conflict in which the United States should refrain from becoming aligned with Tehran.

“Don’t strengthen either of them. Weaken both,” Netanyahu said.

He may have imagined his anti-interventionism would resonate with several constituencies in the U.S.. But he couldn’t have imagined what might happen next.

With the U.S. reluctant to intervene on behalf of Maliki, he has turned to both Iran and Russia both of which have stepped up to provide military support. Iran may have already conducted air strikes in Iraq.

Now comes a twist which — if the reporting is accurate — will shock the Israelis: a significant boost to Iran’s air force.

David Cenciotti, a highly respected aviation blogger, reports:

On Jul. 1, all the seven operational Su-25 Frogfoot attack planes operated by the Pasdaran (informal name of the IRGC – the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution) have completed their deployment to Imam Ali Airbase where they will join the ex-Russian Air Force Su-25s already delivered to Iraq in the air war against ISIS (Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

The aircraft (three Su-25UBKM and four Su-25KM jets, according to ACIG.org sources) will be operated by four Iraqi pilots and 10 Iranian pilots.

The aircraft and support to fly them would be part of a military contract (backed by the U.S.) according to which Iran’s IRGC Air Force will receive six Su-30K multirole jets destined to Iraq.

The Su-30K is one of the best Russian combat jets available and would present a significant extra layer of defense for Iran in the event that Israel ever considers attacking Iran’s nuclear installations.

Meanwhile, a Bloomberg report on Obama’s lack of options in Iraq alongside Russia and Iran’s growing involvement, notes:

The swift action by two of America’s adversaries has prompted Obama’s critics in Washington — and even some members of his administration — to argue that the U.S. must act quickly to avert an extremist takeover of a country it invaded and occupied for more than eight years.

Obama’s ability to influence events in Iraq is limited, though, according to a U.S. intelligence official.

Two U.S. administrations have inspired distrust among both Shiites and Sunnis by invading in 2003, then failing to stabilize the country or compel Maliki to stop his revenge campaign against Sunnis, and finally withdrawing and leaving a polarized state at the end of 2011, the official said.

Now, the administration is exploring a three-pronged strategy, according to U.S. officials involved in the effort. It consists of providing Maliki’s government with limited military aid, pressing him to step down or agree to a more inclusive government and trying with Saudi Arabian assistance to pry Sunni tribesmen away from their de facto alliance with the Islamic State.

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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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Iraq’s cities ‘under ISIS control’

As the news networks display maps showing the extent of ISIS’s gains across Iraq, I keep on wondering what it actually means to describe a city as having come under ISIS’s control.

Obviously the central government no longer maintains security forces in these locations, but what kind of a footprint can ISIS actually impose?

Who knows whether the number is accurate, but the most frequently cited estimate is that ISIS has a total of about 10,000 fighters. An intelligence official speaking to CBS News says that these forces are distributed with about 7,000 in Syria and 3,000 in Iraq.

The most recent map from the Institute for the Study of War, shows ISIS in control of Ar Rutbah, Al-Qa’im, Rawa, Sharqat, Anah, Fallujah, Sulaiman Bek, Tikrit, Hawijah, Mosul, and Tal Afar.

A conservative estimate of the combined populations of these cities is 2,878,000 residents.

This would mean that there are approximately 1,000 Iraqi civilians per ISIS fighter. But that number is low, since significant numbers of fighters have been engaged in securing strategic locations — such as the oil refinery at Baiji — as well as manning checkpoints between cities. So maybe there is no more than one ISIS member per 1,500 or even 2,000 people in most of these cities.

For comparison, in New York City there is one police officer per 239 residents, and during the US-led occupation of Iraq, the ratio averaged about one foreign soldier per 200 Iraqis.

I dare say that in much of ISIS-controlled Iraq there are a lot of Iraqis who have yet to even set eyes on any of these infamous fighters.

That isn’t to minimize the threat that ISIS poses, yet its media visibility surely vastly exceeds its visibility on the ground.

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ISIS, Israel and a nuclear threat

​While no one knows yet how far ISIS’s dominion will extend or the true magnitude of the threat it poses across the Middle East, one of the wildest recent reports comes from a former Bush administration official and current staff writer for WorldNetDaily, Michael Maloof.

The former defense department employee who has a history of promoting bogus intelligence, has an “exclusive” headlined: “Iraq invaders threaten nuke attack on Israel.”

The well-organized army of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, claims it has access to nuclear weapons and a will to use them to “liberate” Palestine from Israel as part of its “Islamic Spring,” according to a WND source in the region.

Wow! One minute we see ISIS proudly driving around in American-made Humvees and the next they are threatening a nuclear strike on Israel?

Who is Maloof’s “source in the region” making this extraordinary claim?

It turns out it’s Franklin Lamb, an American political activist and retired law professor based in Beirut whose reporting/commentary appears regularly at Counterpunch and PressTV, among other places.

The WND source said ISIS appears “eager” to fight Israeli armed forces “in the near future despite expectation that the regime will use nuclear weapons.”

“Do you think that we do not have access to nuclear devices?” Lamb quoted the ISIS member as saying. “The Zionists know that we do, and if we ever believe they are about to use theirs, we will not hesitate. After the Zionists are gone, Palestine will have to be decontaminated and rebuilt just like areas where there has been radiation released.”

Neither Lamb, his ISIS source, nor Maloof address the fact that in this nuclear scenario, the Palestinians could hardly avoiding meeting the same fate as the Israelis. Neither does Maloof report the fact that Lamb was talking to his source inside a Palestinian refugee camp. Go figure.

Although Maloof’s report, which was posted on the WND website on June 23 is billed as an “exclusive,” every single quote from Lamb can be found in a report Lamb himself posted at Counterpunch on June 20. Indeed every single quote appears in the original in the same order as Maloof used them as he presumably pasted together his “exclusive.”

Having gleaned the raw material for his piece from Lamb — who knows whether the two men have ever been in direct communication — Maloof then goes on to embellish the story with his own unsourced claims, such as that the Saudis have “provided billions of dollars to ISIS” along with speculation that Saudi Arabia already possesses Pakistani-made nuclear weapons. (Anyone who like Maloof believes that ISIS depends on Saudi funding or any other major source of foreign financing should read yesterday’s McClatchy report on the group’s self-funded business structure.)

Alarm bells must be ringing in Israel in the face of this new existential threat — but apparently not.

On the contrary, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is quite content to see the region go up in flames.

Echoing calls from many quarters in the United States, the Israeli leader wants the U.S. to remain on the sidelines.

Threatening a borderless conflict between “extremist Shi’ites,” funded by leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and equally extreme Sunnis — a soft “alliance” between ISIS and al Qaeda — the Israeli prime minister suggested the United States should largely stay out of the fight, and instead allow the parties to weaken one another.

“Don’t strengthen either of them. Weaken both,” Netanyahu said.

This argument is a reprise of a similar view in Washington that was being applied to Syria a year ago by some of those who then opposed military intervention after the August chemical attacks. At that time, the military strategist, Edward Luttwak, wrote:

There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.

The risk Israel faces of being destroyed in a nuclear strike from ISIS might be minimal, but what should concern everyone at this moment are the repercussions from a propaganda war that ISIS is already winning.

Eight years ago after surviving the extensive bombing of Southern Beirut, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah was being celebrated across the Arab world by Shia and Sunnis alike as the great champion of Resistance.

A war that left hundreds of Lebanese civilians dead and many thousands homeless was nevertheless hailed (at least by Hezbollah’s leadership) as a “divine victory.”

The success of ISIS has gone far beyond that kind of symbolic victory and there must be many young radicals across the region who view old guard resistance movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas as spent forces — organizations whose principal accomplishment across the decades has been self-preservation.

In Lamb’s article, which is based on interviews with ISIS members and sympathizers in Ain al-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon (where ISIS is referred to by the acronym derived from its Arabic name, DAASH) he writes:

Several reasons were given as to why Palestinians should hold out hope for ISIS succeeding in their cause when all other Arab, Muslim, and Western claimed Resistance supporters have been abject failures and invariably end up benefiting the Zionist occupation regime terrorizing Palestine. “All countries in this region are playing the sectarian card just as they have long played the Palestinian card but the difference with ISIS is that we are serious about Palestine and they are not. Tel Aviv will fall as fast as Mosul when the time is right”, a DAASH ally explained.

When asked about Hezbollah’s 22 day war with the Zionists in South Lebanon in July of 2006 and its sacrifices in terms of lives which is to this day widely believed to be a victory for the “Resistance” and a blow to the Zionist occupation. An angry middle aged Iraqi Baathist, now a ISIS heavy weapons trainer, interrupted, “The difference between DAASH and Hezbollah is that we would have fought our way to Al Quds [Jerusalem] in 2006 and established a permanent organization. Hezbollah quit too soon and they will only fight if and when Iran tells them to.” He added, “What has the Hezbollah Resistance ever done for the Palestinians in Lebanon except resist their civil rights in Lebanon. Should Palestinians believe them?” Another gentleman insisted, “DAASH will fight where no one else is willing.”

A report in the Assad/Hezbollah-friendly Al-Akhbar from the north Lebanon city of Tripoli attempts to downplay the level of local support for ISIS, yet those who might not choose to fight in its ranks may at some point nevertheless form a significant welcoming party.

Upon sitting with vendors selling vegetables near the Abu Ali Roundabout in Tripoli, one comes out with the impression that ISIS is participating in the World Cup. In between every few cars covered with the Brazilian and German flags, one will spot a car displaying ISIS’ black banner. And just like many like to emulate their favorite football players in their hairstyles, tattoos, and so on, some youths in the city like to emulate ISIS fighters, in their hairstyle, loose beards, and miserly look.

News of ISIS’ victories overshadow the news about its fatwas, the consequences of its excommunication of its opponents, and the nebulous nature of its religious authority. Vendors asking their customers, “Who are you with?” – referring to the World Cup – often hear back, “with ISIS.”

As ISIS advances on the ground wiping away the boundary between Syria and Iraq, it is simultaneously crossing more distant borders, gaining a foothold in the imagination of those who dream of a caliphate and of capturing Jerusalem.

While opposition to U.S. intervention in a crisis that was itself in part triggered by an earlier American intervention comes frequently through expressions of opposition to war, paradoxically, those who insist we started this are also now saying, it’s not our problem.

Providing further evidence that this has indeed become a borderless conflict, there are reports today that Syria has conducted air strikes against ISIS positions in Iraq.

Bashar al-Assad, Hassan Nasrallah, Nouri al-Maliki, Muqtada al-Sadr, Ali Khamenei, Qasem Soleimani — are these the men who are going to bring stability to the Middle East and pacify the threat from ISIS? I think not.

Francesca Borri, an independent journalist covering the war in Syria, recently spoke on Skype to M., an ISIS fighter in Al-Bab, north east of Allepo:

I asked M. if his movement was bent on redrawing the map of the Middle East, to which he replied, “There is no map. … Where you see borders, we see only your interests.”

M., embodying the ISIS ideology, railed against the aspirations for democracy in the Arab world.

“Look at Egypt. Look at the way it ended for Muslims who cast their vote for [deposed President] Mohammed Morsi and believed in your democracy, in your lies. Democracy doesn’t exist. Do you think you are free? The West is ruled by banks, not by parliaments, and you know that. You know that you’re just a pawn, except you have no courage. You think of yourself, your job, your house … because you know you have no power. But fortunately, the jihad has started. Islam will get to you and bring you freedom.”

It is to be expected that an ISIS fighter would pour scorn on democracy, yet these days democracy’s genuine defenders seem increasingly hard to find.

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To intervene, or not intervene? That is not the question

Anne-Marie Slaughter writes: For the last two years, many people in the foreign policy community, myself included, have argued repeatedly for the use of force in Syria — to no avail. We have been pilloried as warmongers and targeted, by none other than President Obama, as people who do not understand that force is not the solution to every question. A wiser course, he argued at West Point, is to use force only in defense of America’s vital interests.

Suddenly, however, in the space of a week, the administration has begun considering the use of force in Iraq, including drones, against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which has been occupying city after city and moving ever closer to Baghdad.

The sudden turn of events leaves people like me scratching our heads. Why is the threat of ISIS in Iraq a sufficiently vital interest, but not the rise of ISIS in Syria — and a hideous civil war that has dismembered Syria itself and destabilized Lebanon, Jordan and now Iraq?

I suspect White House officials would advance three reasons.

First, they would say, the fighters in Iraq include members of Al Qaeda. But that ignores recent history. Experts have predicted for over a year that unless we acted in Syria, ISIS would establish an Islamic state in eastern Syria and western Iraq, exactly what we are watching. So why not take them on directly in Syria, where their demise would strengthen the moderate opposition?

Because, the White House might say, of the second reason, the Iraqi government is asking for help. That makes the use of force legitimate under international law, whereas in Syria the same government that started the killing, deliberately fanned the flames of civil war, and will not allow humanitarian aid to starving and mortally ill civilians, objects to the use of force against it.

But here the law sets the interests of the Iraqi government against those of its people. It allows us to help a government that has repeatedly violated power-sharing agreements in ways that have driven Sunni support for ISIS. And from a strategic point of view, it is a government that is deeply in Iran’s pocket — to the extent, as Fareed Zakaria reported in his Washington Post column last week, that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki would not agree to a residual American force because the Iranians forbade it.

The third reason the White House would give is that America fought a decade-long war in Iraq, at a terrible cost. We overturned a stable, strong but brutal government, although far less brutal than President Bashar al-Assad’s has proved to be, and left a weak and unstable government. We cannot allow our soldiers to have fought in vain, the argument goes, so we should now prop up the government we left in place.

This is where the White House is most blind. It sees the world on two planes: the humanitarian world of individual suffering, where no matter how heart-rending the pictures and how horrific the crimes, American vital interests are not engaged because it is just people; and the strategic world of government interests, where what matters is the chess game of one leader against another, and stopping both state and nonstate actors who are able to harm the United States.

In fact, the two planes are inextricably linked. When a government begins to massacre its own citizens, with chemical weapons, barrel bombs and starvation, as Syria’s continues to do, it must be stopped. If it is not stopped, violence, displacement and fanaticism will flourish.

Deciding that the Syrian government, as bad as it is, was still better than the alternative of ISIS profoundly missed the point. As long as we allow the Syrian government to continue perpetrating the worst campaign of crimes against humanity since Rwanda, support for ISIS will continue. As long as we choose Prime Minister Maliki over the interests of his citizens, all his citizens, his government can never be safe.

President Obama should be asking the same question in Iraq and Syria. What course of action will be best, in the short and the long term, for the Iraqi and Syrian people?

And in response to that question, many will pose another: what’s best for the American people?

“We can no longer be the world’s policeman” — there’s probably no more widely held view among Americans right now. The world, perpetually inclined to misbehave, can’t expect us to come along and clean up its latest mess.

The conceit and condescension embedded in this view is breathtaking.

William Saletan puts it in slightly more refined terms: “We’ll help you, but only if you clean up your act. Our help is limited, and your initiative is required.”

The world is being told to stop taking advantage of American generosity.

But the mess in Iraq is very much of America’s making. The U.S. government broke up the Baathist state with very little thought about what was going to take its place, so for American commentators to be telling Iraqis to clean up their act, shows that American hubris is still alive and well even among those who concluded the war in Iraq was a mistake.

Anne-Marie Slaughter correctly asks: “What course of action will be best, in the short and the long term, for the Iraqi and Syrian people?”

She advocates the immediate and limited use of military force: “Enough force to remind all parties that we can, from the air, see and retaliate against not only Al Qaeda members, whom our drones track for months, but also any individuals guilty of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity.”

But even if it wants to, can the U.S. retaliate against any individuals guilty of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity? That sounds much easier said than done.

Fred Kaplan who like most American progressives these days believes U.S. foreign policy should be defined in terms of national interest, writes:

It is not in U.S. interests for a well-armed, well-funded jihadist group like the Islamist State of Iraq and Syria to fulfill its self-proclaimed destiny, i.e., to create an Islamist state that spans Iraq and Syria. The question is how to stop this from happening and what role, if any, the United States should play in the stopping.

The New York Times’ Roger Cohen, in an opinion piece headlined “Take Mosul Back,” concludes, “President Obama should use targeted military force to drive back the fanatics of ISIS,” but he doesn’t elaborate. “Targeted military force” — I assume that’s a finessing euphemism for smart bombs and drones. But it’s fantasy to believe that air power alone will “drive back” the ISIS fighters.

That’s right, because the U.S. can’t very well launch so-called surgical strikes against a largely invisible enemy.

The U.S. intelligence Panopticon is stumbling right now. Its ability to see everywhere isn’t matched by its ability to see one place in particular. White House officials are trying to figure out “how to gather useful intelligence about the militants.”

Mass collection and storage of largely useless cellphone metadata turns out to be much easier than tracking the most powerful terrorist organization in the world — even though ISIS has helpfully been publishing annual reports and it has not been shy about using the internet to further its aims as its small army carves up national boundaries.

It’s easy to conclude that since the U.S. had a major hand in creating this mess, since it lacks much influence on the ground, and since through ill-conceived military operations could easily make the situation worse, the only way of doing no harm is to do nothing at all.

The problem is that inaction also has effects.

Over the last three years, Bashar al-Assad has carefully tested the United States and through an empirical process and with Iranian support, created a model of effective tyrannical leadership.

In a gruesome way, his experiment has turned out to be surprisingly successful and thus must now be an appealing option for Nouri al-Maliki to follow. For the Iraqi leader, the fact that his country already got ripped apart by American and British forces, will make it all the more easy to try and use military force to solve his political problems.

Yet as the UN now warns, the Middle East is on the brink of a sectarian war that threatens to suck in the whole region. Such a war will have an impact on the whole world.

Sectarianism is a political disease. It reduces all people to immutable identities that become the basis for political affiliations.

If all that counts is whether you are Shia or Sunni it no longer matters what you think.

Political leaders no longer have to work to win arguments; all they have to do is rally their kin. Everyone is then governed by the politics of us and them.

The Middle East may currently be the epicenter of sectarian division, but we are all at risk of moving down the same politically regressive path.

The only alternative to worsening division is dialogue. A sectarian war is a war that no one can win.

The two powers who most urgently need to talk to each other are Saudi Arabia and Iran and yet each is adopting a tougher position.

The most constructive way in which the U.S. might now intervene would be by bringing together the region’s arch enemies.

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Sectarian hatred — the driving force behind ISIS

Those self-obsessed Americans who are convinced that the dream of anyone dubbed a terrorist is that some day they will be able to attack the U.S., are now wondering how soon a new 9/11-like plot might emerge from the territory controlled by ISIS. But the organization that is still being referred to as an al Qaeda affiliate, never regarded as America as its principle enemy.

Back in 2004, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who started Al Qaeda in Iraq (which then became the Islamic State of Iraq and in 2013 the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)) wrote a letter to the al Qaeda leadership in which he said:

The American army has begun to disappear from some cities, and its presence is rare. An Iraqi army has begun to take its place, and this is the real problem that we face, since our combat against the Americans is something easy. The enemy is apparent, his back is exposed, and he does not know the land or the current situation of the mujahidin because his intelligence information is weak. We know for certain that these Crusader forces will disappear tomorrow or the day after. He who looks at the current situation [will] see the enemy’s haste to constitute the army and the police, which have begun to carry out the missions assigned to them. This enemy, made up of the Shi’a filled out with Sunni agents, is the real danger that we face, for it is [made up of] our fellow countrymen, who know us inside and out. They are more cunning than their Crusader masters, and they have begun, as I have said, to try to take control of the security situation in Iraq. They have liquidated many Sunnis and many of their Ba’th Party enemies and others beholden to the Sunnis in an organized, studied way. They began by killing many mujahid brothers, passing to the liquidation of scientists, thinkers, doctors, engineers, and others. I believe, and God knows best, that the worst will not come to pass until most of the American army is in the rear lines and the secret Shi’i army and its military brigades are fighting as its proxy. They are infiltrating like snakes to reign over the army and police apparatus, which is the strike force and iron fist in our Third World, and to take complete control over the economy like their tutors the Jews. As the days pass, their hopes are growing that they will establish a Shi’i state stretching from Iran through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and ending in the Cardboard Kingdom of the Gulf.

Given ISIS’s well-documented roots in Iraq, it’s strange that one currently hears it said that ISIS was created by Turkey.

In a podcast by Aaron Stein, an Associate Fellow at RUSI, he interviews Aaron Zelin from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and they examine the purported links between Turkey and ISIS. I’ve posted the audio below, but the gist of Zelin’s view is that while the growth of ISIS has been supported by Turkey’s open border policy, the Turk’s willingness to allow foreign fighters passage to Syria has always been driven by the desire to topple the Assad regime rather than an interest in supporting ISIS.

ISIS views Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as an “apostate” and with 49 staff members captured in a raid on the Turkish consulate in Mosul last week, the columnist Amberin Zaman says that the raid may serve as “a warning to Turkey of the consequences it is likely to face should it tighten the screws on jihadist groups moving across its borders.”

Reporting from Baghdad, Richard Engel says:

If Maliki starts acting like Assad?

On May 11, Al Jazeera reported on the Iraq army’s use of barrel bombs in Fallujah:

Shelling by the Iraqi army in the city of Fallujah has killed more civilians, hospital sources and witnesses have said, amid allegations that government forces were using barrel bombs in an attempt to drive out anti-government fighters from the area,

The use of barrel bombs in civilian areas is banned under international conventions given their indiscriminate nature.

But Mohammed al-Jumaili, a local journalist, told Al Jazeera that the army has dropped many barrel bombs “targeting mosques, houses and markets” in Fallujah.

Local hospital sources said the situation was getting worse for many people who had been trapped in the city since the army cut off a key bridge.

The Iraqi government has denied the use of barrel bombs and asserted that it was fighting in a “humane way”.

Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from the capital Baghdad, said that despite the government’s denial, there was strong evidence that barrel bombs havd been used in Fallujah.

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