Iraq begins assault on ISIS in Fallujah

The Wall Street Journal reports: Iraqi forces have begun their assault on Islamic State in Fallujah, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said late Sunday, an operation that aims to evict the extremists from one of their last major territorial holdings in Iraq.

“The moment of real victory has come, and Daesh has no option but to flee,” Mr. Abadi told state TV, using an Arabic acronym for the Sunni extremist group.

The operation follows months of planning and preparation in coordination with a U.S.-led military coalition that is backing Iraqi forces with airstrikes.

Iraqi forces have long had the city surrounded, but a major buildup of forces became evident in recent days as Shiite militias working alongside the Iraqi army moved military equipment to the area and officials suggested an operation was imminent.

Before the start of operations Sunday, the Iraqi government appealed to residents of Fallujah to prepare to leave, even urging them to raise white flags at their houses if they couldn’t.

The military’s Joint Operations Command said that civilian families would be allowed to leave the city through designated safe passages, though it didn’t specify how departures from the city would be arranged.

The Iraqi army, counterterrorism forces, police, tribal fighters and Shiite militias were taking part in the operation, according to the military.

Eissa al-Issawi, the exiled mayor of Fallujah, said Islamic State militants were retreating from the outskirts to the center of the city Sunday as the operation drew nearer.

Civilians inside were eager for any relief from isolation, 74-year-old resident Mohessen Hossam said. Many people have died of starvation in the city since Iraqi forces imposed a blockade last year, residents have said, although the precise toll is impossible to measure.

“There’s no food, no fuel and no services, so what is left for us to live for?” Mr. Hossam said, adding that he could hear warplanes flying overhead on Sunday. “We want someone to help us — anyone.” [Continue reading…]

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Yazidi escapees of ISIS’s youth training camps tell their harrowing stories

The National reports: In a bustling office in the suburbs of the Kurdish city of Dohuk, 11-year-old Raed quietly begins to recount his ordeal at the hands of ISIL. It does not take long for his eyes to well up.

The diminutive, soft-spoken Yazidi boy had been earmarked as a future jihadist and potential suicide bomber by ISIL, which is grooming the next generation of fighters for its self-proclaimed caliphate in camps set up for this purpose.

Hundreds of Yazidi boys have been forced to undergo the brutal training after being taken from their parents when ISIL attacked Iraq’s northern Sinjar region in August 2014. Raed struggles to hold back his tears as the memories come flooding back.

“I forgot about some things, but other things are more difficult to forget. I can’t get them out of my head,” he says.

Raed spent eight months in a camp called Farouk near Raqqa, ISIL’S main stronghold in Syria, where about a hundred boys were subjected to a gruelling daily routine aimed at forging the model jihadi. He says roughly half of them were fellow Yazidis who had been forced to convert to Islam. The others were children of ISIL members sent there by their parents. [Continue reading…]

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What are Moqtada al-Sadr’s ambitions in Iraq?

After thousands of protesters, most of whom are loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, once again stormed the Green Zone in Baghdad, Michael Weiss reports: Thirteen years of lawlessness, sectarian bloodletting and terrorism following a deeply unpopular military occupation have conspired with successive waves of Iraqi leaders who are increasingly seen as little more than factotums of interfering outside powers, namely the United States or Iran. U.S. policy has been single-mindedly wedded to backing individual actors, be it al-Abadi or the man he replaced, Nouri al-Maliki. The second, who was greeted at the White House by President Obama as a partner in making Iraq “sovereign, secure, and self-reliant,” governed with authoritarian excess, manipulated an election in 2010, and then proceeded to alienate Sunnis by means of legal persecution on trumped-up “terrorism” charges or acts of state violence. The first, while a seeming improvement on his predecessor, is simply too weak and ineffectual to deliver on his promised reforms. That al-Abadi’s office has now been raided twice by an angry mob has underscored that stark reality more persuasively than any State Department talking point.

But is al-Sadr looking to make Iraq great again, or is he just a cynical machiavellian looking to exploit failed statehood for his own outsize political ambitions? “I don’t think he gives a damn about reforms,” a U.S. military official told The Daily Beast. “Sadrists are as corrupt as hell, too. The popular anger is for reform across the country and beyond this movement. The Sadrists will follow what Moqtada says. If he says: ‘We need a dictator who’s very corrupt. They will say, ‘Allahu Akhbar, we need a dictator who is corrupt.’”

Khedery, however, welcomes the protests as a natural corrective on top-down political sclerosis. “I’m very pleased by these events because I believe Iraq needs regime change to end the systemic sectarianism and the endemic corruption that’s baked into the DNA of the post-2003 order. Not the foolish, ill-informed, hubristic foreign-backed regime change of 2003, but regime change from within, which will, one way or another, install leaders of the country that represent the Iraqi people. If they fail in meeting expectations, they’ll likely face the same untimely demise as their predecessors. Revolution is a time-honored tradition in Baghdad.” Most of today’s Iraqi elites, Khedery added, lack the qualifications to “run anything much bigger than a household.” They’re also inveterate crooks presiding over a national economy that can no longer compensate for runaway graft with unusually high global oil prices.

In this context, al-Sadr has positioned himself as one of the few true Iraqi nationalists with enough authentic grassroots support to take on a Western superpower and an interfering regional theocracy. [Continue reading…]

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The Arab revolution of 2011 is being destroyed by a counter-revolution led by dictators and jihadists

The Irish Times reports: In late 1400 and early 1401, the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane left “pyramids of skulls, like those constructed by Islamic State today” across Syria, recalls the French Middle East expert Jean-Pierre Filiu.

Tamerlane had already destroyed Aleppo. The great Arab historian and statesman Ibn Khaldun talked to him for 35 days, in the hope of saving Damascus. “The whole time, Tamerlane knows he’s going to massacre everyone in the city,” Filiu continues. “He uses the negotiation to divide and rule, to massacre more people, faster.”

Filiu wants Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, to read Ibn Khaldun, for it’s impossible not to see a parallel with the behaviour of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Filiu is an Arabist, historian and former diplomat who served as an adviser to a French prime minister, defence minister and interior minister. His “added value”, he says, is history. He will address members of the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin on The Jihadi Challenge to Europe next Monday, May 23rd, and debate The Spectre of Global Jihad with the author Shiraz Maher that evening at the International Literature Festival Dublin.

In his most recent book, From Deep State to Islamic State; The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadi Legacy, (published by Hurst in London) Filiu concludes that the Arab revolution of 2011 – a term he prefers to “Arab spring” – is being destroyed by a counter-revolution led by the remnants of dictatorships in collusion with jihadists.

Over the past century, Filiu writes, the Arabs’ right to self-determination was “denied by colonial intervention, ‘hi- jacked’ at independence by military regimes, trampled on by the double standards of the war for Kuwait and the ‘global war on terror,’ and perverted in the UN, where peoples are represented by the regimes who oppress them”.

No other people have faced “so many obstacles, enemies and horrors in the quest for basic rights”, Filiu says. [Continue reading…]

In January, Filiu spoke about the price being paid because of President Obama’s failure to uphold ethical principles.

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Three killed in protests in Baghdad’s Green Zone

Rudaw reports: Security forces opened fire on protesters storming Baghdad’s Green Zone on Friday, killing three and wounding 20.

Thousands of demonstrators had gathered on Friday in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. A number of them tried to enter the fortified Green Zone, which houses government institutions and foreign consulates.

A Rudaw reporter on the scene reported that security forces opened fire on the protesters, using tear gas and live rounds. “Security forces fired tear gas to disperse demonstrators who stormed the Green Zone.”

Three protesters were killed and another twenty have been wounded, including five journalists, our reporter said.

Supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr tore down Green Zone barriers and took over the Iraqi parliament on April 30, demanding political reform and an end to corruption. [Continue reading…]

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IMF agrees $5.4bn Iraq bailout to tackle ISIS and budget deficit

Financial Times reports: The International Monetary Fund has agreed to give Iraq a three-year $5.4bn bailout to help it manage the economic fallout of its war against Isis and low oil prices that have left a gaping hole in its budget.

The new rescue package, which the IMF said should be accompanied by assistance from other members of the international community, will require the government in Baghdad to implement unpopular cuts in public spending and other reforms at a time when the economy is already reeling.

“Iraq has been hit hard by the conflict with Isis and the precipitous fall in oil prices,” said Christian Josz, IMF mission chief for Iraq.

He added that the conflict with Isis had left more than 4m Iraqis internally displaced and was straining resources, while the steep fall in oil prices was “causing a large external shock to the balance of payments and budget revenue, which depend predominantly on oil export receipts”.

UN diplomats in Baghdad and officials in Washington say Iraq’s foreign backers are determined to get support to Iraq at a time when both the central government and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan administration in the north — both critical in the fight against Isis — look on the verge of economic collapse. With no money for repairs, several cities recaptured from Isis still lie in ruins.

However, Iraqi politicians privately said last week that the government may not be able to meet the terms of the IMF deal — which include fighting corruption and money laundering, as well as cutting subsidies and raising taxes. [Continue reading…]

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Corruption in Iraq: Where did all the money go?

Luay al-Khatteeb writes: Once again, the subject of illicit financial flows from kleptocratic regimes is in the international spotlight, this time in the form of the “Panama Papers.”

What is surprising is the level of shock at something that should have been obvious. For a long time, many financial institutions turned a blind eye to nefarious PEPs (politically exposed persons) and not just in Switzerland, as we see now with big names such as HSBC, once again deflecting allegations.

The industrialized world can’t afford any more surprises like this, otherwise aid and loans will continue to enter weak states, only to be rapidly snuck out.

Encouragingly, there are signs that governments and regulators are being energized by the Panama Papers. The U.S. Treasury will soon announce a requirement that banks disclose the owners of shell companies, and in the UK regulators set a deadline for banks to disclose details of clients’ relations with Mossack Fonseca, the company at the centre of the current storm.

Iraq, with lamentably high corruption, can be a litmus test for revived effort. Iraq also desperately needs to recover stolen assets, because it is running out of money for both fighting ISIS and rebuilding Iraq, in order to prevent ISIS 2.0.

Luckily, the United States is leading the way with the formation of the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative (KARI), but far more global coordination is needed. In Iraq, financial assistance should be put into ministries to train people in spotting and preventing corruption.

There are certainly good young people who want change in the Iraqi government, the challenge is creating a culture where they can speak out. That will take a renewed and internationally coordinated capacity building effort. As an example, the Higher Council of Education Development, an Iraqi organization that has sent four thousand students overseas to help ministerial capacity, had a budget of just over $100 million last year. The international community must urgently help Iraq to resource such work, because so far war expenditures dwarf other efforts. [Continue reading…]

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Iraq’s Shi’ite rivalries risk turning violent, weakening war on ISIS

Reuters reports: A power struggle within Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority has intensified as attempts to form a new government flounder, threatening to turn violent and ruin U.S.-led efforts to defeat Islamic State.

For the first time since the U.S. withdrawal at the end of 2011, Shi’ite factions came close to taking arms against each another last month, when followers of powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed the parliament in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

Rival Shi’ite militiamen took up positions nearby, raising the specter of intra-Shi’ite fighting similar to events in the southern city of Basra in 2008, in which hundreds of people were killed.

Trucks carrying those militiamen, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, patrolled the capital in clear view of the security forces, video published on the website of Iranian-backed group Saraya al-Khorasani showed.

The crisis presents the biggest political challenge yet to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a moderate Shi’ite Islamist who took office in 2014 promising to defeat Islamic State, mend rifts with the minority Sunnis and Kurds, and root out corruption eating away at state income which has already been eroded by a slump in oil prices.

Sadr, the heir of a revered clerical dynasty, says he backs Abadi’s planned political reforms and has accused other Shi’ite leaders of seeking to preserve a system of political patronage that makes the public administration rife for corruption.

His followers stormed the heavily fortified Green Zone on April 30 after rival political groups blocked parliamentary approval of a new cabinet made up of independent technocrats proposed by Abadi to fight graft.

A commander in Saraya al-Khorasani, which deployed near the Green Zone in response, made it clear that they would fight rather than allow Sadr’s followers to occupy the district which houses parliament, government offices and embassies.

“We are here to kill this sedition in its cradle,” the commander, dressed in green camouflage and a black turban told his fighters, the online video shows. [Continue reading…]

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Fallujah could be the next big battle of the ISIS war

The Daily Beast reports: The Iraqi government is putting the ISIS-controlled city of Fallujah as next on its target list.

That’s not because of increasingly dire reports that the citizens of Fallujah are suffering from starvation and torture under ISIS’s cruel grip. Nor do Iraqi officials see the city as key to dislodging ISIS from its Iraqi stronghold, Mosul.

Rather, Iraqi officials have told their American counterparts that they suspect the restive Sunni-dominated city is sending jihadists to attack Baghdad, the Shiite-dominated capital. In the last week, there have been multiple daily bombings in Baghdad that have killed more than 200 people and wounded hundreds more. On Tuesday alone, a combination of suicide attacks and car bombings took the lives of nearly 70 people; ISIS claimed responsibility for some of those bombings.

In other words: While all eyes were on Baghdad and the deadliest spate of bombings to strike the capital in years, the Iraqi government was quietly pointing its finger at Fallujah.

Such accusations toward Fallujah, arguably, is precisely what ISIS wanted its bombings to incite, a return to the kind of sectarianism that has, in the past, threatened to tear the state apart — and was supposed to dissipate under Prime Minister Haider al Abadi. [Continue reading…]

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The map ISIS hates

sykes-picot

In 2014, Malise Ruthven wrote: When the jihadists of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) tweeted pictures of a bulldozer crashing through the earthen barrier that forms part of the frontier between Syria and Iraq, they announced — triumphantly — that they were destroying the “Sykes-Picot” border. The reference to a 1916 Franco-British agreement about the Middle East may seem puzzling, coming from a radical group fighting a brutal ethnic and religious insurgency against Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraq. But jihadist groups have long drawn on a fertile historical imagination, and old grievances about the West in particular.

This symbolic action by ISIS fighters against a century-old imperial carve-up shows the extent to which one of the most radical groups fighting in the Middle East today is nurtured by the myth of precolonial innocence, when the Ottoman Empire and Sunni Islam ruled over an unbroken realm from North Africa to the Persian Gulf and the Shias knew their place. (Indeed, the Arabic name of ISIS — al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa al-Sham — refers to a historic idea of the greater Levant (al-Sham) that transcends the region’s modern, Western-imposed state borders.)

But why is Sykes-Picot so important? One reason is that it stands near the beginning of what many Arabs view as a sequence of Western betrayals spanning from the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in World War I to the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Sykes-Picot agreement — named after the British and French diplomats who signed it — was entered in secret, with Russia’s assent, in May 1916 to divide the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire into British and French “spheres of influence.” It designated each power’s areas of future control in the event of victory by the Triple Entente over Germany, Austria, and their Ottoman ally. Under the agreement Britain was allocated the coastal strip between the Mediterranean and the river Jordan, Transjordan and southern Iraq, with enclaves including the ports of Haifa and Acre, while France was allocated south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, all of Syria and Lebanon. Russia was to get Istanbul, the Dardanelles, and the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian districts.

Under the 1920 San Remo agreement, which built on Sykes-Picot, the Western powers were free to decide on state boundaries within these areas. The international frontiers — with Iraq’s framed by the merging of the three Ottoman vilayets of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra — were consolidated by the separate mandates granted by the League of Nations to France in Lebanon and Syria, and to Britain in Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq. The frontier between French-controlled Syria and British-controlled Iraq included the desert of Anbar province that was bulldozed by ISIS this month.

Kept hidden for more than a year, the Anglo-French pact caused a furor when it was first revealed by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Russian Revolution — with the Syrian Congress, convened in July 1919, demanding “the full freedom and independence that had been promised to us.” Not only did the agreement map out — unbeknownst to the Arab leaders of the time — a new system of Western control of local populations. It also directly contradicted the promise that Britain’s man in Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon, had made to the ruler of Mecca, the Sharif Hussein, that he would have an Arab kingdom in the event of Ottoman defeat. In fact, that promise itself, which had been conveyed in McMahon’s correspondence with the Sharif between July 1915 and January 1916, left ambiguous the borders of the future Arab state, and was later used to deny Arab control of Palestine. McMahon had excluded from the proposed Arab kingdom “portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo [that] cannot be said to be purely Arab.” This clause led to lengthy and bitter debates as to whether Palestine — which Britain meanwhile promised as a homeland for Jews under the terms of the November 1917 Balfour Declaration — could be defined as lying “west” of the vilayet, or district, of Damascus. [Continue reading…]

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Untangling the complicated legacies of colonialism and failed Arab regimes overshadowing today’s conflicts in the Middle East

Rami G Khouri writes: Why have most Middle Eastern lands that Great Britain, Italy, and France managed as mandates or colonies become violent wrecks and sources of large-scale conflict and human despair? It is just as dishonest to blame mainly Western colonialism for our national wreckages and rampant instability as it is to blame only Arab people and culture for those failings. We need a more complete and integrated analysis of the multiple phenomena that shaped our last erratic century.

Initially, we must absolutely acknowledge that Arab states’ inability to achieve sustainable economic growth and pluralistic democracies is the core reason for our problems today. The main reason for this reason, however, is to be found in a more complex set of interlocking relationships among powerful political actors inside our countries and capitals far and near.

This requires going back before 1916, maybe a century or two, to recall how European powers conquered much of the world as colonies or sites of unchecked imperial plunder. The main problem with Sykes-Picot is not only what happened in and after 1916; it is also heavily a consequence of the European colonial mindset that matured in the century before 1916, and continued to exercise its colonial prerogatives for decades to follow — perhaps even in today’s continued use of European, Russian, and American military power across our region.

At the same time, three critical issues after 1916 made it virtually impossible for many Arab countries to transition from Euro-manufactured instant states born on after-dinner napkins in the hands of Cognac-mellowed British and French colonial officers, to stable, democratic, prosperous sovereign states.

These three issues were, in their historical order:

1) British support for Zionism and a Jewish state in Palestine in November 1917, which plunged Palestine into endless Zionism-Arabism warfare since then, and sucked in other Arab states, Iran, and others yet;

2) the discovery of large amounts of oil in the Middle East in the 1930s especially, which the West needed to maintain access to for its own industrial expansion; and,

3) the post-1947 Cold War between the U.S.-led West and the Russian-led Soviet Communist states that was translated into perpetual proxy wars across the Middle East for forty-four years, and maybe is resurfacing today in new guises. [Continue reading…]

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Don’t blame Sykes-Picot for the Middle East’s mess

sykes-picot

Steven A. Cook and Amr T. Leheta write: Sometime in the 100 years since the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed, invoking its “end” became a thing among commentators, journalists, and analysts of the Middle East. Responsibility for the cliché might belong to the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn, who in June 2013 wrote an essay in the London Review of Books arguing that the agreement, which was one of the first attempts to reorder the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire’s demise, was itself in the process of dying. Since then, the meme has spread far and wide: A quick Google search reveals more than 8,600 mentions of the phrase “the end of Sykes-Picot” over the last three years.

The failure of the Sykes-Picot agreement is now part of the received wisdom about the contemporary Middle East. And it is not hard to understand why. Four states in the Middle East are failing — Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. If there is a historic shift in the region, the logic goes, then clearly the diplomatic settlements that produced the boundaries of the Levant must be crumbling. History seems to have taken its revenge on Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, who hammered out the agreement that bears their name.

The “end of Sykes-Picot” argument is almost always followed with an exposition of the artificial nature of the countries in the region. Their borders do not make sense, according to this argument, because there are people of different religions, sects, and ethnicities within them. The current fragmentation of the Middle East is thus the result of hatreds and conflicts — struggles that “date back millennia,” as U.S. President Barack Obama said — that Sykes and Picot unwittingly released by creating these unnatural states. The answer is new borders, which will resolve all the unnecessary damage the two diplomats wrought over the previous century.

Yet this focus on Sykes-Picot is a combination of bad history and shoddy social science. And it is setting up the United States, once again, for failure in the Middle East.

For starters, it is not possible to pronounce that the maelstrom of the present Middle East killed the Sykes-Picot agreement, because the deal itself was stillborn. Sykes and Picot never negotiated state borders per se, but rather zones of influence. And while the idea of these zones lived on in the postwar agreements, the framework the two diplomats hammered out never came into existence.

Unlike the French, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s government actively began to undermine the accord as soon as Sykes signed it — in pencil. The details are complicated, but as Margaret Macmillan makes clear in her illuminating book Paris 1919, the alliance between Britain and France in the fight against the Central Powers did little to temper their colonial competition. Once the Russians dropped out of the war after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the British prime minister came to believe that the French zone that Sykes and Picot had outlined — comprising southeastern Turkey, the western part of Syria, Lebanon, and Mosul — was no longer a necessary bulwark between British positions in the region and the Russians.

Nor are the Middle East’s modern borders completely without precedent. Yes, they are the work of European diplomats and colonial officers — but these boundaries were not whimsical lines drawn on a blank map. They were based, for the most part, on pre-existing political, social, and economic realities of the region, including Ottoman administrative divisions and practices. The actual source of the boundaries of the present Middle East can be traced to the San Remo conference, which produced the Treaty of Sèvres in August 1920. Although Turkish nationalists defeated this agreement, the conference set in motion a process in which the League of Nations established British mandates over Palestine and Iraq, in 1920, and a French mandate for Syria, in 1923. The borders of the region were finalized in 1926, when the vilayet of Mosul — which Arabs and Ottomans had long associated with al-Iraq al-Arabi (Arab Iraq), made up of the provinces of Baghdad and Basra — was attached to what was then called the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq.

On a deeper level, critics of the Middle East’s present borders mistakenly assume that national borders have to be delineated naturally, along rivers and mountains, or around various identities in order to endure. It is a supposition that willfully ignores that most, if not all, of the world’s settled borders are contrived political arrangements, more often than not a result of negotiations between various powers and interests. Moreover, the populations inside these borders are not usually homogenous.

The same holds true for the Middle East, where borders were determined by balancing colonial interests against local resistance. These borders have become institutionalized in the last hundred years. In some cases — such as Egypt, Iran, or even Iraq — they have come to define lands that have long been home to largely coherent cultural identities in a way that makes sense for the modern age. Other, newer entities — Saudi Arabia and Jordan, for instance — have come into their own in the last century. While no one would have talked of a Jordanian identity centuries ago, a nation now exists, and its territorial integrity means a great deal to the Jordanian people.

The conflicts unfolding in the Middle East today, then, are not really about the legitimacy of borders or the validity of places called Syria, Iraq, or Libya. Instead, the origin of the struggles within these countries is over who has the right to rule them. The Syrian conflict, regardless of what it has evolved into today, began as an uprising by all manner of Syrians — men and women, young and old, Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish, and even Alawite — against an unfair and corrupt autocrat, just as Libyans, Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, and Bahrainis did in 2010 and 2011.

The weaknesses and contradictions of authoritarian regimes are at the heart of the Middle East’s ongoing tribulations. Even the rampant ethnic and religious sectarianism is a result of this authoritarianism, which has come to define the Middle East’s state system far more than the Sykes-Picot agreement ever did. [Continue reading…]

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Kurdish tensions undermine the war against ISIS

Hassan Hassan writes: Amnesty International has in seven months issued two major reports highlighting allegations of war crimes by rebel and Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The two reports are related to a secondary conflict brewing between Arabs and Kurds from Hasakah to Qamashli to Aleppo, which could easily spin out of control and add to the many conflicts that already plague the country.

The United States has an unintentional hand in this new conflict, and de-escalation hinges largely on whether Washington is willing to review its strategy in northern Syria, which sometimes privileges the appearance of success in the battle against ISIL over sustainable policies.

On Friday, Amnesty published a damning new report accusing rebel factions in Aleppo, organised under the Army of Conquest, of committing acts that may amount to war crimes. The rights group said it gathered strong evidence of indiscriminate attacks that killed at least 83 civilians, including 30 children, in the Kurdish-dominated Sheikh Maqsoud between February and April.

On October 13 last year, Amnesty issued a report, Forced Displacement and Demolitions in Northern Syria, accusing the Kurdish political party PYD, the Democratic Union Party, of carrying out a wave of forced displacement and home demolitions that it also said may amount to war crimes. The shelling of civilians by rebel forces cannot be justified, and perpetrators must be punished and restrained by their regional backers. The attacks on Sheikh Maqsoud were encouraged by some supporters of the opposition living abroad, after the PYD’s military wing, the YPG, attacked the rebels in February. Worse, such calls continue to be heard and more indiscriminate attacks can be expected. [Continue reading…]

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Belgium to begin air strikes against ISIS in Syria

AFP reports: Belgium will extend its F-16 air strikes against Islamic State jihadists in Iraq into Syria, the government said Friday, as it grapples with the aftermath of deadly IS-claimed bomb attacks in Brussels in March.

“In accordance with UN Resolution 2249, the engagement will be limited to those areas of Syria under the control of IS and other terrorist groups,” a spokesman for Prime Minister Charles Michel told AFP after a cabinet meeting.

“The objective will be to destroy these groups’ refuges,” the spokesman said, adding that the strikes would begin on July 1.

Belgium launched its first attacks against IS in Iraq in late 2014 as part of the US-led coalition, but decided against strikes in Syria amid public fears over getting dragged into a wider conflict. [Continue reading…]

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Behind the carnage in Iraq: ISIS intends to divide and conquer

The Daily Beast reports: Baghdad suffered its deadliest day in months during a series of attacks Wednesday. The carnage not only shocked the capital, but also raised questions about whether Iraqi security forces are capable of reclaiming Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which has been occupied for almost two years by the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

One obvious question is how Iraqi security forces can retake and secure Mosul if they cannot protect Baghdad from three suicide bombings in a matter of hours. But the picture is more complicated, and indeed, more problematic even than that.

The bombings targeted Shia neighborhoods in what appears to be part of the continuing ISIS effort to provoke a frenzy of ethnic cleansing similar to that of a decade ago. As one U.S. official immersed in the anti-ISIS war puts it, “Sunnis see ISIS as their protection — their wall against Shia revenge.”

The estimates of those killed Wednesday are as high as 150, with hundreds more injured. Among those reportedly killed were several women at a hair salon struck by a truck bomb as they prepared for their wedding day. [Continue reading…]

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