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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Bomb ISIS or we’ll ask Iran to do it, top Iraqi politician warns U.S.

Mehdi Hasan reports: One of Iraq’s most senior politicians has warned that the country could ask Iran to carry out air strikes against the jihadist group, Isis – if the United States continues to refuse to do so.

Speaking exclusively to The Huffington Post UK, Dr Haider Al-Abadi, a member of the Iraqi parliament and a spokesman for Prime Minister Noori Al-Maliki’s Dawah Party, said the Iraqi authorities feel so threatened by Isis “that we will take any assistance, even from Iran”.

It is believed to be the first time such a senior Iraqi politician has publicly raised the spectre of full-scale Iranian military involvement inside Iraq – in the absence of US military action.

“We are waiting for the Americans to give us support,” he said. “If US air strikes [happen], we don’t need Iranian air strikes. If they don’t, then we may need Iranian strikes.” Turkish air support could also be considered, he added. [Continue reading...]

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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 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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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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Rouhani defends right of young Iranians to express joy and happiness

Azadeh Moaveni reports: Iran may have lost to Argentina thanks to a Lionel Messi strike in the dying seconds of their World Cup match on Saturday, but that didn’t stop the Tehran street party that rattled the authorities. Large numbers of Iranians converged on the streets, dancing on overpasses, overrunning major thoroughfares, chanting and blaring music out of cars, in an outpouring of popular celebration that prompted the authorities to send plainclothes security agents on motorbikes through the crowds to disperse them. Riot police had locked down thoroughfares like Tehran’s busy Parkway intersection, but young people flooded into side streets to carry on their festivities, buoyed by the Iranian national soccer team’s strong showing against top-ranked Argentina.

Most neutral commentators concurred that the Iranian team had mounted a superb effort and had been unlucky to be denied at least a draw against the two-time World Cup champions. “This dignified loss means more to us than any win,” said one young man dancing with his friends on the street.

Despite the heavy police presence across the city, the unexpected outpouring for Team Melli — as the national soccer team is known — stayed strictly in the spirit of fun. Young peopled flew the Iranian flag from their motorbikes and chanted their thanks to individual players, but their commotion carried none of the political overtones of past public celebrations around the World Cup. Instead, most seemed content to have Team Melli project a new image of Iran to the world, that of a moderate, soccer-loving nation, progressive enough to have an endangered species, the Asian cheetah, on its team uniform. “The national team and their fans can both improve Iran’s reputation, and if the government cooperates and doesn’t crack down, that will boost people’s sense of hope,” said Ali, a 28-year-old event manager. “Iranians are more depressed today than any other time, so a little bit of happiness can make it better.”

It’s precisely that prospect of hopefulness, though, that some say led the Iranian regime to deliberately stanch public excitement in advance of the World Cup. Security authorities took the unprecedented step of banning the broadcast of matches in public cinemas and cafés, effectively barring Iranians from experiencing the matches as collective events. [Continue reading...]

As CNN reports, that ban was not effectively enforced:

As the Associated Press reports, the popularity of a World Cup video led to arrests in Iran.

Iranian police have arrested three people who appeared in an online video of young men and women singing and dancing in support of the country’s World Cup football team, the official IRNA news agency reported Monday.

Provincial police chief Col. Rahmatollah Taheri was quoted as saying the video clip, produced by the London-based Ajam Band, features scenes from outside and inside Iran, including the city of Shahroud, where two 23-year-olds appearing in the film and a 26-year-old photographer were arrested.

The video shows young people, including women not wearing the mandatory headscarf, singing and dancing in support of Iran’s national team, interspersed with footage from matches. They are shown waving Iranian flags and dancing in cars, streets, homes and public parks.

Taheri called the video “vulgar” and urged the youth not to take part in such activities. The official said those arrested have been referred for possible prosecution.

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U.S. and Iran each operating surveillance drones over Iraq

The New York Times reports: The United States has increased its manned and unmanned surveillance flights over Iraq since ISIS swept across the north of the country, and is now flying about 30 to 35 missions a day. The American flights include F-18s and P-3 surveillance planes, as well as drones.

Iran has mounted a parallel effort, according to American officials. It has set up a special control center at Al Rashid airfield in Baghdad, and is flying its own small fleet of Ababil surveillance drones over Iraq, said one American official.

An Iranian signals intelligence unit has been deployed at the same airfield to intercept electronic communications between ISIS fighters and commanders, said a second American official, who also declined to be named because he was discussing classified information.

While Iran has not sent large numbers of troops into Iraq, as many as 10 divisions of Iranian military and Quds Force troops are massed on the border, ready to come to Mr. Maliki’s aid if the Iraqi capital is imperiled or Shiite shrines in cities like Samarra are seriously threatened, American officials say.

“Iran is likely to be playing somewhat of an overarching command role within the central Iraqi military apparatus, with an emphasis on maintaining cohesiveness in Baghdad and the Shia south and managing the reconstitution of Shia militias,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

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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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Iraq must remain a unified cosmopolitan country, as must all its neighbours

Hamid Dabashi writes: 200 years and more into the aftermath of the post/colonial history, countries like Iraq are blessed (yes blessed not cursed) by multifaceted cultures that includes their various constituents but is not reducible to them. From the Code of Hammurabi to the artwork of Rafa Nasiri, Iraqis are – all of them (Sunni, Shia, Kurds, etc.) – the proud inheritors of the very cradle of world civilisation, the very alphabet of our history. That dictators like Saddam Hussein abused that heritage for an empty and vacuous pomposity, or that the imperial buffooneries of Bush and Blair had not an iota of respect for them, does not discredit that heritage as the bedrock of a proud and confident Iraq.

That pride of place and political dignity is not in the direction of any separatist movement form Iraq or any other country. Iraqi borders may have been decided by colonial designs but Iraqi people are not a colonial product. They are the proud descendants of a magnificent civilisation that belongs to all of them. If they are Sunni, Shia or Kurd, this is a source of inspiration, diversity and pluralism for their future.

Iraqi and Lebanese Shia are blessed that they must determine their political future in conversation with other religious and ethnic groupings. They can and they will provide a model of democratic pluralism for the entire region, including and in particular for Iran where the seemingly unified 95 percent plus majority Shia hides a deeply divided and multifaceted society. Iran should not export its pathological “Islamic Republic” to Iraq or Lebanon or Syria. Iraqis, Lebanese and Syrians must offer their future democratic pluralism to Iranians. [Continue reading...]

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Assad and Hezbollah’s land bridge from Iran has been severed by ISIS

Juan Cole writes: With the alleged fall to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria of Qa’im on Saturday, and of Talafar a few days ago, the border between Iraq and Syria has now been effectively erased. A new country exists, stretching from the outskirts of Baghdad all the way to Aleppo. In history, it uncannily resembles the state ruled by Imad ad-Din Zangi (AD 1085 – 1146), a Turkish notable who came to power in 1128 after a Shiite Assassin killed his father. His realms lay between the Abbasid Caliphate on the one hand and the Atabegs of Damascus on the other. Like ISIS, he was not able to take and keep Homs. He also was not able to take Palestine away from the Crusaders, despite a brief alliance for that purpose with Buri of Damascus. ISIS also so far lacks Baghdad or Damascus but like Zangi does have much in between.

The first thing that occurred to me on the fall of Qa’im is that Iran no longer has its land bridge to Lebanon. I suppose it could get much of the way there through Kurdish territory, but ISIS could ambush the convoys when they came into Arab Syria. Since Iran has expended a good deal of treasure and blood to keep Bashar al-Assad in power so as to maintain that land bridge, it surely will not easily accept being blocked by ISIS. Without Iranian shipments of rockets and other munitions, Lebanon’s Hizbullah would rapidly decline in importance, and south Lebanon would be open again to potential Israeli occupation. I’d say, we can expect a Shiite counter-strike to maintain the truck routes to Damascus. [Continue reading...]

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Iran’s Khamenei ‘strongly opposed to U.S. interference’ in Iraq

The Washington Post reports: Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made remarks Sunday that lessened any remaining possibility of military cooperation between the Islamic republic and the United States in securing Iraq against an onslaught from al-Qaeda-inspired militants.

“We don’t support any foreign interference in Iraq and we’re strongly opposed to U.S. interference there,” Khamenei said at an event with members of Iran’s judiciary, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.

While officials in Washington and Tehran had earlier signaled a willingness to work together to rid the presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the comments from Khamenei show a growing divide between the interests of the long-opposed governments.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said last Saturday that once he knows what the U.S.’s plans are for intervening, his government would “think about cooperation with them in Iraq.” [Continue reading...]

The New York Times reports: The long lines of Shiite fighters began marching through the capital early Saturday morning. Some wore masks. One group had yellow and green suicide explosives, which they said were live, strapped to their chests.

As their numbers grew, they swelled into a seemingly unending procession of volunteers with rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, backed by mortar crews and gun and rocket trucks.

The Mahdi Army, the paramilitary force that once led a Shiite rebellion against American troops here, was making its largest show of force since it suspended fighting in 2008. This time, its fighters were raising arms against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the Qaeda splinter group that has driven Iraq’s security forces from parts of the country’s north and west.

Chanting “One, two, three, Mahdi!” they implored their leader, the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, to send them to battle.

“ISIS is not as strong as a finger against us,“ said one fighter, Said Mustafa, who commanded a truck carrying four workshop-grade rockets — each, he said, packed with C4 explosive. “If Moktada gives us the order, we will finish ISIS in two days.” [Continue reading...]

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How Iran and America can beat ISIS together

Ben Van Heuvelen writes: If Obama continues to engage with Iraq at arm’s length — mainly through bilateral diplomacy, weapons sales, and a slightly larger training mission — then Iraq’s Shia leaders will learn once and for all that only Iran really has their back. Already, thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops have reportedly entered the country through at least two border crossings, and the shadowy Quds Force controls homegrown Shia militias throughout Iraq. In contrast to the feckless Iraqi commanders who fled Mosul, these Iranian forces are disciplined, motivated, and ruthless. They are also likely to stoke the kind of sectarian mistrust from which ISIS draws its strength.

During last decade’s Iraqi civil war, for example, Iran’s proxy militias weren’t just attacking U.S. troops and Sunni militants; they were also conducting systematic campaigns of sectarian revenge killing against Sunni non-combatants. Sunni families in historically heterogeneous areas picked up and fled, eager to avoid a power drill to the forehead.

There is every indication that this pattern has begun to repeat itself now. In the months before the fall of Mosul, scores of Sunnis turned up dead in Baghdad, victims of mass executions. Hundreds of families moved out of their homes in Diyala province due to intimidation. The government has been complicit: Iran-backed militias are now reporting to a special division of Maliki’s office, and in some cases, they are conducting joint operations with government forces. The abuses have apparently escalated recently. For example, on Tuesday in Baquba, the capital of Diyala, 44 Sunni prisoners were found dead in a government-controlled prison with bullet holes in their heads.

Quds Force leaders might not be ordering these atrocities directly, but they do appear to take a “boys will be boys” attitude toward horrific violence. As long as they do, it’s difficult to imagine that any Sunni leader will be eager to collaborate with a government that also partners with sectarian killers.

There’s no guarantee the U.S. can wield enough leverage to affect Iran’s behavior, or that Iran exerts enough control over the militias to calm the sectarian frenzy. For this reason, Obama appears disinclined to order air strikes unless the conditions exist for political progress. The nightmare scenario is that the U.S. could find itself bombing Sunni-majority cities while Shia militias run rampant through Baghdad. The war would become increasingly sectarian, with America taking sides. Any military victory would be fleeting. ISIS would no longer need to produce propaganda videos, because the atrocities reported on CNN would be enough to radicalize the next generation of jihadis. [Continue reading...]

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British embassy reopens in Tehran as Iraq crisis helps thaw Iran relations

The Guardian reports: William Hague has announced that the British embassy in Iran will be reopened as jihadist gains in northern Iraq have forced the west to reassess its relations with Tehran.

The foreign secretary said the circumstances were right to restore the diplomatic mission after a significant thawing in relations in recent months.

“Our two primary concerns when considering whether to reopen our embassy in Tehran have been assurance that our staff would be safe and secure, and confidence that they would be able to carry out their functions without hindrance,” Hague told MPs in a written statement. [Continue reading...]

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The culture war between Khamenei and Rouhani

Akbar Ganji writes: Senior clerics, such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Khamenei, believe in a moral mission for the state. They do not, however, believe in moral pluralism and people’s right to choose their own way of life. They also try to impose the Islamic teachings on the people using the state power, believing that it is their duty to send people to paradise. Critics, on the other hand, say that it is not the government’s mission to do so, and that one cannot create hell on Earth for the people, so that they can go to paradise after they die.

Responding to the critics May 13, in a speech to a group of people visiting with him, Khamenei said:

Sometimes, when there is a debate about teaching the people about religion, we hear some people saying here and there, ‘your Excellency, is it our mission to send the people to paradise?’ Yes, it is. That is the difference between an Islamic ruler and a non-Islamic one. An Islamic ruler wishes to rule in a way that people go to paradise [after they die]. Thus, he has to pave the way. We are not talking about using force and imposition, but about helping [the people]. People’s nature tends to want to go to paradise and we should open the way [for them]. This is our duty, the duty that Imam Ali [Shiites’ first Imam, and the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin] considered his own also.

Responding to Khamenei, in a speech at a conference on public health on May 24 Rouhani said:

We should not futilely worry the people and make them concerned [about their divine fate]. Do not intervene so much in people’s [private] lives, even if it is with good intentions. We should let the people choose their own path [in life]. They cannot be sent to paradise through use of force and lashing. The Prophet did not have a lash in hand; he was a teacher and kind; we should emulate him.

Rouhani’s response angered the hardline and conservative clerics. Ahmad Alamolhoda, a leading conservative cleric and Friday-prayer Imam of Mashhad, the religious city in northeast Iran, angrily declared, “Not only will we use lashes, but also all of our power to stand up against those who block people from going to paradise.” Reactionary cleric Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi asked sarcastically, “Where did you [Rouhani] learn about your religion? In Feyzieh [seminary in Qom] or in Britain?” Another leading conservative cleric, Ahmad Khatami, said, “You [Rouhani] should not pave the path to hell by your speeches.” Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi reacted by saying, “We should not open the hell’s gates to the people.” The country’s prosecutor, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejehei, who has played a leading role in cracking down on the dissidents for years, said, “They say do not bother with people going to hell or paradise. Such statements are mocking the great work of senior clerics.”

Most recently, on June 12, the judiciary chief, conservative cleric Sadegh Larijani, said, “The root of the claim by those who say that we cannot force the people into paradise is in liberalism and [Western] modernity. Rouhani responded to Larijani almost immediately, “What have we said that has disturbed some people? We only said that culture belongs to the people and it is them that should [choose the] best path for their lives. Are we supposed to make pills of culture, write prescription for the people, and ask them to buy the pill at a pharmacy? It is as if some people are still living in the medieval age.” [Continue reading...]

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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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