Walaa Hussein writes: The Middle East is facing a water crisis. As the region experiences conflicts over water and faces the continuous risk of war breaking out, experts on water predict that the Islamic State (IS) aims to exacerbate this water crisis, as evidenced by its efforts to seize rivers and dams in Syria and Iraq, starting in 2013.
The Arab League has worked since 2008 to establish a new Arab convention on water usage, which would establish parameters on how to deal with the water crisis. However, the final draft is still under review because of the reservations of some member states.
PricewaterhouseCoopers, an international consulting organization, has identified numerous regions where the water crisis threatens to transform into a global conflict. Turkey, Syria and Iraq are included on that list, due to the Turkish dams controlling the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Iran and Iraq are also witnessing a competition over the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, known as Shatt al-Arab. Also included is Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, which are witnessing a conflict over the Nile. Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Chad and Niger are also experiencing a crisis in relation to an 800-meter (0.5-mile) deep underground water field and the Nubian sandstone aquifer. Libya wants to invest in this aquifer to extend an artificial river and supply its coastline with freshwater. [Continue reading…]
The Daily Beast: Last summer, in the days after the group now known as ISIS began its assault across Iraq, many feared that Baghdad could soon fall. Car bombs regularly killed dozens inside the capital. Police and soldiers manned checkpoints across the city. They were Baghdad’s defense and symbols of the state’s power in the face of onslaught. To protect the capital, these cops and soldiers were armed with magic wands. They still are now, nearly a year later.
Across Iraq, members of the security forces carry these magic wands—Rube Goldberg gadgets supposedly designed to detect explosives. The walkie talkie-sized instruments, as ubiquitous in Baghdad as radios are on cops in the United States, are useless pieces of plastic and a required piece of equipment. They were purchased by the Iraqi government for millions of dollars and are still in use to this day, waved around cars like divining rods, two years after a British con man was sentenced to prison for selling them.
Iraqi police officer Salim Abdul Zahra, 33, wielded one of the wands while manning a checkpoint in Baghdad last December. “Want the truth?” Zahra asked after some preliminary explanation about how the detector was supposed to be used. “It is worthless and fake,” he said. “The proof is all the explosions that still happen here.”
But though the wand didn’t work, he said he had to wave it around. Ultimately, if he didn’t use the wand, which he and his fellow officers knew was worthless, he would stick out. “What I can do?” he asked. “I follow the orders and use it.”
The Daily Beast reports: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s leader, has been moved from Iraq to the Syrian city of Raqqa, the terror army’s de facto capital, amid tight security two months after sustaining serious shrapnel wounds leaving his spine damaged and his left leg immobile, say jihadist defectors.
He is said to be mentally alert and able to issue orders, but his physical injuries are now prompting the so-called Islamic State’s governing Shura Council to make a final decision on a temporary stand-in leader who can move back and forth between front-lines in Syria and Iraq and is able to handle day-to-day leadership in the self-declared caliphate.
That leader will be, in effect, under al-Baghdadi, a super deputy to the caliph — in Arabic, na’ib al-malik, or viceroy. According to Islamic State defectors debriefed by opposition activists in neighboring Turkey, the election will pit two Iraqis and a Syrian against each other — all well-known figures within the terror army’s top leadership.
These sources say nine doctors to treat the infirm al-Baghdadi were also taken to Raqqa, including a senior physician from Mosul’s general hospital, but the entire al-Baghdadi caravan of attending medics, aides and body guards was split into separate convoys to avoid attracting attention from U.S. satellite surveillance and inviting a coalition airstrike or drone attack. At least one doctor didn’t know who his patient was when he arrived in Raqqa and was ordered brusquely to stop asking questions about the man’s identity. [Continue reading…]
At the Woodrow Wilson Center on March 12, Hassan Hassan, co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, talked about the rise and leadership of ISIS in the Middle East.
The Associated Press: Conflicts and violence worldwide displaced a record 38 million people in 2014, with 2.2 million Iraqis alone forced to flee the Islamic State group, a Norwegian humanitarian group report released Wednesday revealed.
The findings of the study carried out by the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Center are endorsed by the United Nations refugee agency.
In a joint statement, they said 11 million were newly displaced last year — mostly because of conflicts in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. That’s the equivalent of 30,000 people each day.
The Daily Beast reports: An internal military investigation has concluded that two civilians were killed in a U.S.-led coalition airstrike against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, two defense officials confirmed to The Daily Beast, marking the first time the U.S. military has acknowledged killing a civilian since the air campaign began nine months ago.
In that time, the U.S.-led coalition has conducted more than 3,500 strikes and either destroyed or damaged more than 6,000 targets, according to the Defense Department. Previously, the U.S. military had said it had no evidence that a civilian had ever been killed in the air campaign against ISIS, a claim that even military officials privately acknowledged was hard to believe, given the high odds of unintended mistakes.
Indeed, with no U.S. soldiers on the ground to assess the damage inflicted by airstrikes, the coalition’s air campaign is built on U.S. intelligence collected from drones, satellites, and reconnaissance aircraft, as well as information from local troops.
The findings of two civilian deaths come as one human rights group has alleged that coalition airstrikes on April 30 in the Syrian village of Bir Mahli killed as many as 64 civilians. Bir Mahli sits in Aleppo Province, east of the Euphrates River, and about 30 miles south of the northern city of Kobani. The allegation, which the U.S. military said it has no evidence to corroborate, is the highest civilian death toll accusation leveled at the coalition.
The U.S. military’s claim of no civilian casualties in its campaign against ISIS, coupled with the lack of detailed accounting of what effect the strikes are having, has only underscored the opaque nature of the battle, fought largely from the air with uncertain outcomes. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The concrete platform at the river’s edge is festooned with flowers and streaked with blood. Along a back wall are photographs taken from a video of the horror that unfolded here last year: a procession of Shiite men, shot in the head one by one by Islamic State fighters and shoved into the waters of the Tigris.
“It’s just because we are Shia,” said Halil Kareem Garim, 61, standing near the river as he recalled the cousin he lost. “We don’t have any problems with Sunnis — we are praying to the same God. It is their mentality. They hate us.”
The riverbank has become a memorial of the massacre and a site of Shiite pilgrimage, already taking a prominent place in Iraq’s ledger of sectarian atrocities. In all, roughly 1,700 Shiite military personnel from the Camp Speicher base are believed to have been methodically gunned down by the Sunni extremists at Saddam Hussein’s old palace complex in Tikrit last June.
Now, five weeks after pro-government forces retook Tikrit from the militants, 11 mass graves are being unearthed, and the first few dozen sets of remains have been sent to Baghdad for identification and eventual release to the families. [Continue reading…]
Foreign Policy reports: Despite the recent focus by Iraqi and American officials on the importance of defending and holding the Iraqi oil refinery at Baiji, the Defense Department made a sharp reversal on Wednesday, claiming that the site doesn’t actually matter as they used to say.
The refinery is “not strategically any more significant than any other piece of ground” in Iraq, Defense Department spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday.
In recent days, Islamic State fighters have breached the perimeter of the facility and established a foothold inside the refinery, though Warren declined to estimate how much ground they now hold or if the Iraqi forces inside were being reinforced or resupplied in any way.
“At this point it’s impossible to predict how this is going to turn out,” Warren said. “It’s been a tough, fluid fight [and] right now it’s flowing in the wrong direction.”
His comments represent a stark change in attitude over the fate of the facility than had been put forth by top U.S. and Iraqi officials as recently as mid-April, when Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Washington.
Speaking to reporters on April 16, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey called Baiji “a more strategic target” than places like Ramadi because of the centrality of oil to the Iraqi economy. “That’s why the focus right now is in fact on Baiji,” he said. [Continue reading…]
Charles Lister writes: After roughly two years of being on the defensive, Syria’s rebels are making dramatic gains in the north of the country. In the span of six weeks, coalitions of insurgent fighters captured the city of Idlib and won a series of key strategic victories elsewhere in the governorate. In the face of the opposition, the Syrian Army and its supporting militias appear at their weakest point since early 2013.
However, while much of the subsequent commentary proclaimed this as the beginning of the end for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, we are still a long way from that. In fact, the regime reacted to its dramatic losses in the north by carrying out hundreds of air strikes, barrel bombings, and chlorine attacks in rural Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo. Regime ground offensives were launched in eastern Damascus, in areas of Homs, and in the mountains around Zabadani near the Lebanese border. Meanwhile, a major joint regime-Hezbollah offensive in the Qalamoun mountains now also looks imminent.
So what is happening in Syria? Recent events have clearly tipped the psychological scales back into the opposition’s favor: Losses in Idlib and the southern governorate of Deraa have placed great pressure on Assad, whose severe manpower shortages are becoming more evident by the day. Frustration, disaffection and even incidences of protest are rising across Assad’s most ardent areas of support on Syria’s coast — some of which are now under direct attack. Hezbollah is stretched thin and even Iranian forces have begun withdrawing to the areas of Syria deemed to be the most important for regime survival.
The regime is no longer militarily capable of launching definitively successful operations outside of its most valuable territories, while its capacity for defense against concerted attack now appears questionable at best. It also looks diplomatically weaker, as Russia appears no longer wedded to the Assad regime’s long-term survival and is now more open to the idea of a managed transition that would ensure the best chances of post-regime stability. Meanwhile, Iran’s apparent rapprochement with the United States and its expected involvement in talks in Geneva convened by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura may open the door for, at the very least, discussions of a negotiated solution in Syria.
However, diplomacy alone will be unlikely to provide a path out of Syria’s conflict. Even as a broad swathe of the international community talks behind closed doors about launching a major new diplomatic initiative on Syria, it will ultimately be military pressure inside Syria that will determine whether such an initiative has any chance of success. [Continue reading…]
Zaid Al-Ali writes: On June 11, 2014, Mahmoud, a sixty-year-old employee at a school in Tikrit, Iraq, drove home for his afternoon nap. Thirty minutes later, he received a frantic call from a friend in Baghdad who demanded to know if TV reports that ISIS had taken over the city were accurate. Mahmoud dismissed them; after all, he had noticed nothing unusual during his drive home; nor had he heard any gunfire or other commotion from his house, which was near the main road. As he drove back to his school, however, he was shocked to see ISIS fighters driving around unopposed. As he soon learned, a contingent of just thirty militants in seven vehicles had seized control in the time it took him to have his nap. Iraq’s security forces, on which 100 billion dollars of Iraq’s money had been spent between 2006 to 2014, had simply melted away.
Located on the Tigris about one hundred miles northwest of Baghdad, Tikrit was an orderly former Baathist stronghold that had avoided the worst of the country’s recent conflicts. But over the next nine months, ISIS would remake the entire city administration, massacre vast numbers of soldiers and tribesmen, and impose its own harsh strictures on everyone from women and civil servants to smokers and lawyers. By the time Iraqi forces backed by US warplanes finally retook the city on April 3, following nearly a month of fighting, Tikrit was a hollow shell of its former self, and almost all of its population of about 200,000 was displaced. In the weeks since the liberation, many are seeking answers to some vital questions: How did ISIS take over the city so quickly in the first place? And what does Tikrit’s experience reveal about the way ISIS rules?
On June 10, 2014, when ISIS quickly overran Mosul—Iraq’s second largest city, 140 miles further north—Tikritis were confident that their own city would remain under Baghdad’s control. Though it was overwhelmingly Sunni, Tikrit had little tradition of sectarianism and Shia Iraqis who lived in or visited the city did not feel threatened. With a strong police presence and a major army base, Camp Speicher, it was also one of the few places in Iraq where safety was not a major concern. During the civil conflict (2005-2007), when Mosul and Fallujah burned, Tikrit’s shops and government offices were almost always open, and property prices soared. Children went to school; students and faculty filled the university every day. I visited regularly, sometimes with my wife and son, and forged lasting relationships with many of the city’s inhabitants.
Few people realized that ISIS had been preparing for the takeover for several years. As early as 2011 and 2012, when jihadist groups were becoming increasingly active in the Syrian conflict, Tikriti businesses were threatened by Islamist militants who were extorting money for their activities in Syria. During the summer of 2012, Youssef, the owner of a Tikriti IT shop, received a call on his cellphone. “We know that you want to do what is right, so give us what is owed to us,” the caller said. Youssef asked what they wanted. “100,000 dollars, that is our share.” Enraged, Youssef asked, “Who are you?” The answer came without hesitation: “The Islamic State.” The threat to Youssef’s life and business were clear so there was no question that some money would be changing hands. The two parties negotiated over a period of weeks, always over the phone, and finally agreed to lower the amount to 50,000 dollars, which he was told to transfer to someone in Samarra. The blackmailers acted with complete impunity and made no attempt to conceal their activities. I heard similar stories from other businessmen. [Continue reading…]
Reuters: Iraqi forces besieged inside the country’s largest oil refinery are running low on food and pleading for reinforcements to save them from Islamic State militants who have advanced deep into the compound in the past week.
The insurgents now hold large sections of the sprawling Baiji refinery complex in northern Iraq where some 200 policemen, soldiers and elite special forces are holding out.
“We are surrounded by Daesh from all sides,” said a policeman called Mohanad, speaking via telephone from the refinery where his unit has taken up defensive positions in a guest house on the eastern side of the complex. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL in English.
“We can hear Daesh fighters shouting and threatening to behead anyone they catch. We are running short of ammunition, food and drinking water. We eat only one meal a day. We tear our uniforms to bandage other soldiers’ and policemen’s wounds.”
BBC News: Several hundred Yazidi captives have been killed in Iraq by Islamic State (IS) militants west of Mosul, Yazidi and Iraqi officials say.
A statement from the Yazidi Progress Party said 300 captives were killed on Friday in the Tal Afar district near the city.
Iraqi Vice-President Osama al-Nujaifi described the reported deaths as “horrific and barbaric”.
Craig Whiteside writes: Der Spiegel recently published a blockbuster article that chronicles the activities and personal papers of Haji Bakr, a high ranking member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) who led the effort to seize territory in Syria between late 2012, and his death in 2014 at the hands of a rival Syrian faction. Analyzing first hand documents, such as captured organizational charts and battle plans, is a rare opportunity and very helpful in gaining an understanding of the organization — something that policymakers desperately need to develop an effective strategy to defeat ISIL. Unfortunately, the same investigative excellence that unearthed the documents does not reflect in the analysis, as Christoph Reuter makes highly speculative conclusions about the nature of Ba’athist influence on ISIL, Haji Bakr’s role in its success, and the impact Haji Bakr’s Syria operation had on Iraq. Lost in this headline-generating exercise is the real value of the article — its description of ISIL’s tactics in infiltrating new territory and implementing a program of discriminate violence designed to establish control over desired areas.
The Haji Bakr papers detail how ISIL used these techniques in 2013 to successfully reinsert themselves into the Syrian civil war after losing their Nusra affiliate, and eventually establish the Syrian half of the ISIL caliphate. Much like a baseball team uses “small ball” tactics to patiently and quietly produce runs using singles and stolen bases, the article describes how ISIL organized cadres to infiltrate small villages, collect intelligence on key figures, and then slowly seize control over the towns using assassination, intimidation, and extortion. Reuter does not mention how he knows that Haji Bakr’s Syria plan was original or what influenced the doctrinal development over time. In the absence of such an explanation, let me propose one based on my research of over 3000 statements, videos, captured documents, and other available evidence that detail the operations of the Islamic State movement — the current organization and its antecedents — from 2003-2013. To truly understand ISIL as it is today, the group must be understood in a historical sense. There is substantial evidence that the doctrine described in the Haji Bakr papers was developed by a succession of leaders in an evolutionary process as this movement’s fortunes waxed and waned. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: The leader of the Islamic State (Isis), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remains incapacitated due to suspected spinal damage and is being treated by two doctors who travel to his hideout from the group’s stronghold of Mosul, the Guardian has learned.
More than two months after being injured in a US air strike in north-western Iraq, the self-proclaimed caliph is yet to resume command of the terror group that has been rampaging through Iraq and Syria since June last year. Three sources close to Isis have confirmed that Baghdadi’s wounds could mean he will never again lead the organisation.
Isis is now being led by a long-term senior official, Abu Alaa al-Afri, who had been appointed deputy leader when his predecessor was killed by an air strike late last year.
Details of Baghdadi’s condition, and of the physicians treating him, have emerged since the Guardian revealed he had been seriously wounded on 18 March in an air strike that killed three men he was travelling with. The attack took place in al-Baaj, 80 miles (128km) west of Mosul. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Despite stepped-up military assistance to Iraq to fight Islamic State militants, and President Obama’s public commitment to keeping Iraq unified, Iraqis have long suspected a nefarious plot by the Americans to break up their country.
Their suspicions are intensified by a century of painful experience with Western intervention, much of it recent, and are embellished by a cultural fascination with conspiracies of all stripes. So when news came out this week that congressional Republicans were proposing to directly arm Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds without the involvement of the Shiite-led central government, it was immediately and widely taken as proof that the American plot against Iraq had entered a new phase.
The front page of one Iraqi newspaper on Thursday showed a map of the country, wrapped in a chain to symbolize the grip of the United States and divided into three nations: Shiastan, Sunnistan and Kurdistan. A headline in red declared, “Congress proposes to deal with Kurds and Sunnis as two states.”
The firestorm of Iraqi outrage at the proposal, part of the Republican version of a defense authorization bill, has sent American diplomats scrambling to assure Iraqis that the United States is still committed to a unified Iraq under a national government. [Continue reading…]
Hassan Hassan writes: Two recent developments in the region appear to have caused more damage to ISIL’s popularity and relevance than nine months of air strikes and battles in Iraq and Syria.
The first is the Syrian rebels’ recent victories against Al Assad regime in northern, central and southern Syria. In the past four months, the anti-government forces have assumed control of key military bases (Wadi Al Dhaif, Hamidiya, Brick Factory), a provincial capital (Idlib), a strategic town (Jisr Al Shughour) and several villages in Hama. In the perception of many, ISIL is a has-been. In other words, the rebels have stolen ISIL’s thunder.
But make no mistake, ISIL remains capable of holding on to its territory for years. Even so, it’s worth noting reports from the ground that the group is losing some of its appeal among new recruits. The appeal of ISIL is multifaceted and the fight against it should capitalise on any trend, no matter how insignificant, to undermine the group.
Several people inside Syria have told me that ISIL started to lose some of its sympathisers after the rebels swept through significant regime bases in recent months. Jamal Khashoggi, the prominent writer from Saudi Arabia, has spoken of the same trend on Twitter.
The second development that is damaging to ISIL is the campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the way that people across the region are reacting to it. There is a decided drop in positive mentions of the group. Those who once subtly cheered for ISIL have shifted to enthusiastic support for the campaign against what they perceive as Iranian proxies in Yemen. This attitude is discerned in that section of the region’s population that believes in ISIL’s political project. The energy that often favours ISIL has shifted towards something else, at a time when ISIL is losing ground to Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: A surge of rebel gains in Syria is overturning long-held assumptions about the durability of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which now appears in greater peril than at any time in the past three years.
The capture Saturday of the town of Jisr al-Shughour in northern Idlib province was just the latest in a string of battlefield victories by rebel forces, which have made significant advances in both the north and the south of the country.
As was the case in the capital of Idlib province last month, government defenses in Jisr al-Shughour crumbled after just a few days of fighting, pointing as much to the growing weakness of regime forces as the revival of the opposition.
The battlefield shifts come at a time when the Obama administration has set aside the crisis in Syria to focus on its chief priorities: defeating the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and concluding a nuclear deal with Iran.
Yet the pace of events in Syria may force the United States to refocus on the unresolved war, which remains at the heart of the turmoil engulfing the Middle East, analysts say. Iran backs Assad, Saudi Arabia backs the rebels, and a shift in the balance of power in Syria could have profound repercussions for the conflicts in Iraq and Yemen. [Continue reading…]
Reuters adds: A coalition of Islamist rebels seized an army base in northwestern Syria at dawn on Monday after a suicide bomber from al Qaeda’s Nusra Front drove a truck packed with explosives into the compound and blew it up.
The capture, reported by a rebel commander and social media videos showing militants inside the base, brought the coalition closer to seizing most of Idlib province and moving toward Latakia, the ancestral home of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Robert S. Ford writes: The Assad regime still enjoys some military advantages and support from Iran and Russia, which helps to prolong the conflict. Yet some recent developments may in fact be indicators of the beginning of the end.
Inability to defend and to counterattack. Although the armed opposition announced its plan to attack the provincial capital of Idlib weeks in advance, the regime lacked forces to reinforce the city, which it lost on March 28 a week after the battle started. The regime has since tried to assemble forces for a counterattack, but its gains have been minimal. At the other end of the country, near the Jordanian border, the regime lost the regional stronghold of Busra Sham on March 25 and then the important Nasib border crossing on April 2—the last functioning crossing with Jordan. Regime counterattacks in those areas also stalled. In sum, the regime appears broadly on the defensive now, and its hold on western Aleppo appears insecure due to the vulnerability of its supply lines.
Increased dissent within the inner regime. There are four secret police agencies that are the foundation of the regime’s power, and in mid-March the regime publicly announced that the heads of two of them had been fired. The removal of Political Security Director Rustum Ghazaleh and Syrian Military Intelligence Chief Rafiq Shehadeh was unprecedented. There are unconfirmed reports that Ghazaleh and Shehadeh fell out over the regime’s dependence on Iran; there also are unconfirmed reports that in the wake of the argument Ghazaleh had to be hospitalized after he was physically attacked. [Continue reading…]