My Weekly Reader 30 May 2017.

Ali Soufan was born in Lebanon in 1971, but ended up living in the United States and became an American citizen.[1]  “Education’s the thing, don’t you know.”[2]  In 1995 he got a BA in Political Science from Mansfield University.[3]  Later on he got an MA in International Relations from Vanillanova.  Then he went into the EffaBeeEye.

No chasing bank-robbers or goombas for him.  The harps had those jobs sewn up.[4]  He spoke Arabic and the Bureau only had eight Arabic speakers, so he went into counter-terrorism.  In 1999 he went to Jordan to liase with the Jordanian intelligence service, which had uncovered leads to what would be called the “Millennium bomb plot.”  Here began another theme in his career.  He found a box of files in the CIA station, allegedly ignored by the over-worked agents, containing maps of the targets.  The CIA seemed more vexed than grateful.  In 2000 he went to Yemen as part of the team investigating the bombing of the USS “Cole.”  Here he made important discoveries.  He went back to Yemen after 9/11 to pursue leads.  Here he figured out that the CIA had held back information from the FBI that might have allowed him to connect the “Cole” attack with the 9/11 plot.[5]  The CIA seemed more vexed than grateful.  Then he interrogated captured Al Qaeda terrorists.  Subsequently, some of his subjects were transferred to CIA control and were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.[6]

By 2005 Soufan had become fed-up or burned-out.  He resigned from the Bureau to start a consultancy.  In 2011 he published The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda.[7]  Here he tracked the campaign against Al Qaeda from 9/11 to the killing of Osama bin Laden.  Now Soufan has published Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State (2017).[8]  The American invasion of Iraq (2003) triggered a disaster.  Partisan observer—Soufan included–put too much emphasis on the botched occupation.  Iraq was a social IED waiting to be tripped.  The invasion itself lit the fuse.

Even before OBL died, Al Qaeda had transformed into something else, something worse.  It had become Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.  The remnants of that group fell back to Syria and became the Islamic State (ISIS).  More importantly (unless you’re stuck inside the Caliphate), ISIS called for the “lone wolf” attacks that have wreaked havoc in Europe and the United States.  Boko Haram (Nigeria), Al Shabab (Somalia), Jumatul Mujahedeen (Bangladesh), and Abu Sayaf (Philippines) all align themselves with the ideology of Al Qaeda.  We live with the results.

[1] I conjecture that his parents fled the awful Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990.  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebanese_Civil_War  So, that’s one anecdotal argument against President Trump’s “Muslim ban.”  The recent suicide bombing in Manchester, England, offers an equally compelling anecdotal argument on the other side.  So, we probably shouldn’t rely upon anecdotal evidence.  “Well, d’uh,”–my sons.

[2] I think that’s from one volume of the trilogy U.S.A. by John Dos Passos, but I can’t find the exact reference.

[3] Mansfield is a former teachers college in the middle of nowhere in north-central Pennsylvania.   He got his BA when he was 24, so he lost some time somewhere doing something.

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitey_Bulger

[5][5] Before people start jumping all over the CIA, read the Report of the 9/11 Commission.  Not just the executive summary, but the whole thing.  Then look at the list of Commission members and run down their career tracks.

[6] Soufan subsequently made public comments on the results obtained by the different approaches.  The CIA seemed more vexed than grateful.

[7] In Western culture, black flags usually denote pirates.  Until the 18th Century, captured pirates rarely got a trial.  You just hanged them at the yard-arm or threw them overboard if there were some sharks handy.  This is a plea for cultural sensitivity on the part of radical Islamists.  Falls under the heading of “enlightened self-interest.”

[8] At least he didn’t call it Al Qaeda: Covenant or Al Qaeda: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

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Talking Turkey.

To rehash the well-known, the Islamic State (ISIS) seized a lot of territory in eastern Syria, then broke out into western Iraq several years ago.  This encumbered the fair hopes of the Obama administration to beat a dignified retreat from the Iraq mess.  Destroying ISIS at minimal costs in American lives became the policy choice of the Obama and Trump Administrations.  That grinding effort, which has involved a lot of work by both the Kurds and the Iranians, looks about ready to pay-off with the Iraqi capture of Mosul and the Syrian Kurds’ capture of Raqqa (the capital of the ISIS caliphate).

To rehash more of the well-known, the Kurds are a Muslim ethnic group divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and—fatally—Turkey.  Kurdish nationalism threatens to disrupt these countries.  The Turks, in particular, see their own Kurdish political party (PKK) linked to the Syrian Kurdish political party (PDK) and to its American-armed militia (YPG).[1]  They’re probably right.[2]  Iraq’s wing of the PKK has attacked Turkey in support of its Turkish partners.  Hoping to earn American patronage for their ambitions, the Kurds of Iraq and Syria have done much of the heavy lifting in the fight against the Islamic State.  So, it is important to keep the Kurds happy.

To rehash still more of the well-known, the president of Turkey—Recep Tayyip Erdogan—is a moderate Islamist head-case who is bent on turning the country into a Sunni version of Iran.  He barely scratched out a majority in a referendum on super-charged presidential powers in April 2017, yet he sees the vote as an endorsement of his ambitions.

This puts the United States in a bit of a quandary.[3]  Over the short-run, who cares what the Turks want?  The militia of the Syrian Kurds, the YPG, is seen by American military leaders as the best bet to capture Raqqa.  American military leaders also see Turkey as having no real alternative strategy.  So when Turkey bombed several YPG positions and threatened land forces incursions, the US military began running convoys of American military vehicles flying large American flags through the target area as a warning to Turkey.

Over the long-run, many people should care what the Turks want.  On the one hand, Erdogan is an anti-Western Islamist.  He is aiming at a dictatorship.  His victory in the referendum on expanded presidential powers fell far short of the expected majority and is dogged by charges of fraud.  Political turmoil seems the likely future for Turkey.[4]

On the other hand, Turkey is a member of NATO (brought in to the alliance, in part, because Greeks won’t fight).  Turkey has the second largest army in NATO; it is an industrializing country; it has sought membership in the European Union (EU), and the Turks have been extending their cultural influence through the southern tier of states liberated by the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Erdogan has battered Europe with an engineered refugee crisis.  The European Union is never going to admit Turkey to its ranks, even if it has to soak up huge numbers of outsiders without Emma Lazarus to provide a moral justification.[5]  He has both barked at and cowered before Vladimir Putin.  He is afraid that the U.S. has struck a bargain with the Kurds.  And he will visit Washington in May 2017.  The regional implications of Turkey’s course matter far more than do the headlines about ISIS.

[1] If the Kurds get Russian military assistance, maybe they could be re-branded as the RPG?

[2] The Americans engage in a lot of hair-splitting over this issue.  The U.S. government insists that Turkey’s PKK is a terrorist organization, while Syria’s PYD and—even more—the YPG are not terrorists.  Instead, they are “partner forces.”  Which people can read as “allies” or “hired guns” as is their wont.

[3] Yarolslav Trofimov, “In Syria, U.S. Is Caught Between Ally Turkey and Kurds,” WSJ, 5 May 2017.

[4] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Erdogan’s Narrow Win Could End Up Undermining Him,” WSJ, 17 April 2017.

[5] A “wall” is more likely.

My Weekly Reader 1 April 2017.

Since 9/11 the imperatives of the war against radical Islamism have imposed an un-true interpretation of the enemy.  The radicals (Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, ISIS) form a minority within Islam, their most common targets are fellow Muslims, and the assistance of Muslim states is essential to victory over the Islamists.  Hence, it has become commonplace to describe the radicals as not truly Muslim, as heretics at best.

To argue differently is to open oneself to charges of Islamophobia.[1]  Nevertheless, radical Islamism diverges from contemporary Islam much more than it diverges from foundational Islam.  Originally, the Prophet Muhammad preached a single community of Believers (the “umma”), led by puritanical religious figures (a theocracy), and living in permanent hostility to Unbelievers (the conflict between the dar al-Islam/House of Peace/Islam and the dar al-Harb/House of War/Unbelievers).  Jews and Christians, the “Peoples of the Book,” were tolerated in return for payment of a tax, bit barred from proselytizing.  Slavery remained a hall-mark of Muslim societies from the time of the Prophet through the 19th Century.  Subsequently, mainstream Islam moved toward what Western observers think of today: fractured into nation states too weak to pull a hobo of their sister; economically stagnant in the face of swiftly rising populations; ruled by tyrannical soldiers and monarchs, and struggling to reconcile “modernization” in all its forms with core cultural values.

Gilles Kepel and others have argued that dissatisfaction with these governments sent people streaming toward a renewed religious commitment in the last decades of the 20th Century.  Some of those people turned back to a fundamentalist version of Islam.  The fruit of this commitment has been harvested in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, France, Germany, Spain, and Britain.

It’s not difficult to narrate the rise and fall of the Islamic State.  It’s just difficult to explain—comprehend really—why people are willing to give their lives in support of it.  Graeme Wood argues that the “foot soldiers [of ISIS] view their mission in religious terms and spend great energy on piety and devotion.”[2]  They are filled with religious passion.  Dexter Filkins isn’t sure this is actually the case.  His own experience as a war correspondent in Afghanistan and Iraq for the New York Times leads him to believe that “the motives for joining a militant organization were varied and complex.”[3]  Psychopaths and sociopaths found a justification, not a motivation, in religion.  Possibly Wood’s response would be to point again to the identity between the theology of ISIS and the theology of early Islam.  In the 7th and 8th Centuries the Arabs over-run vast tracts of the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires.  Historians conventionally describe these armies as fired by a passionate religious enthusiasm.  Would Filkins argue that they actually were madmen and criminals?

The two different strands of interpretation can be reconciled if one understands that religious faith is intended to redeem those who feel themselves to be ruined by sin.[4]  Religion may become a tired and stifling bourgeois convention that upholds the established order.  It doesn’t normally start out that way.  So, perhaps ISSIS recruits a wide range of troubled people who are self-aware enough to embrace beliefs that may heal or channel their flaws.

[1] It isn’t immediately apparent why mouthing ignorance-based platitudes favorable to Islam is less Islamophobic than is mouthing ignorance-based platitudes hostile to Islam.  Both approaches seem to be based on an indifference to learning about Islam.

[2] Graeme Wood, The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State (2017).

[3] Dexter Filkins, “On the Fringes of ISIS,” NYT Book Review, 22 January 2017.

[4] See, for one example: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/02/24/the-islamic-brigades-1/

Operation Iraqi Future.

Between 2011 and 2014, unanticipated events in the Middle East created problems that are now moving toward critical phases.  In 2011 a long, complicated civil war broke out in Syria.  By and large, the Obama administration evaded involvement.  Also in 2011, the Obama administration believed that it had escaped the Iraq quagmire.  The United States and Iraq could not agree on terms for the continued American presence in that troubled country.[1]  American troops pulled-out.  Various forms of Hell marched in.  In 2014, the troops of Islamic State (ISIS) drove east out of civil war-torn Syria.  They soon over-ran the Western (largely Sunni) areas of Iraq.  Iraq’s Shi’ites toughened-up; Iran sent arms and men; and the United States supplied air-power.  In 2014, Russia seized the chance created by a political crisis in Ukraine to re-take the Crimea and to sponsor rebel groups in two districts of eastern Ukraine.  International economic sanctions on Russia followed.

In 2016, Russia forged an alliance with Iran to defend the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war.  The joint intervention of the two powers now seems to have confirmed that the regime will remain in control of western Syria at least.  The 2016 Obama/Kerry agreement with Iraq[2] fended-off a war between the United States and Iran while facilitating an American-Iranian war against ISIS.  Victory over ISIS appears[3] to be at hand.

President Trump ran on a platform of opposing Iran.  Doubtless, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has done his best to rein-in the President until the CrISIS is over.  Still, the day will come when ISIS has been beaten and the Americans and Iranians can think anew about their relationship.  Iraq will find itself a pawn in that relationship.

What happens next in Iraq and Syria?  Iraqis are divided over which “friend” to support.[4]  Do they favor the United States or Iran?  Iran has real advantages: Iran is Shi’ite and the majority of Iraqis are Shi’ite; Iraq’s Iranian-armed militias have played a large role in the defeat of ISIS.  The government of Iraq is full of pro-Iranian Shi’ites.  The argument for keeping America engaged in Iraq after the defeat of ISIS springs from this same Iranian domination.  Keeping the Americans involved offers the best guarantee that Iran won’t just turn Iraq into a puppet.  Also, there will have to be some kind of reconciliation between Sunnis and Shi’ites of post-ISIS Iraq.  An American presence might limit Shi’ite oppression of their none-too-loyal Sunni countrymen.

Russia and Iran disagree on the final outcome in Syria.  Russia chose sides in the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war inside Islam, but wants to limit its involvement in the struggle.  To avoid becoming mired in the larger conflict, Russia favors a compromise in Syria that would meet the demands of some Sunnis (although not the Westernized young people beloved of Westerners).  Iran hopes to see Bashar al-Assad turn Syria (or his portion of it) into a Shi’ite bastion.[5]

Iran and Russia will stick together; America and Iran—and Russia—may fall out.  Still, room exists for pragmatic diplomacy.  People just have to seize the chance.  But what chance?

[1] Iraq’s Shi’ites wanted the Americans out so that they could go about the business of misgovernment unimpeded.  Iraq’s Sunnis wanted the Americans to stay as a check on the Shi’ites, rather than out of love for the country that had destroyed their country and their own place at the peak of that country.  The Americans were—and are—weary of war in the Middle East.  President Obama sought to meet this desire of the voters.

[2] Until the memoirs come out, when it may be renamed the Clinton-Kerry or Clinton-Obama deal with Iran.

[3] Count no man happy until he is dead.

[4] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Iraq Faces Balancing Act Between the U.S. and Iran,” WSJ, 17 March 2017; Yaroslav Trofimov, “Russia, Iran Need Each Other, Despite Differences,” WSJ, 17 February 2017.  .

[5] Over the long-run an Iranian client-state in Syria on the frontiers of Israel—a sort of super-Hezbollah—would challenge the security of Israel in a profound way.

The Next Step in Syria.

The two current centers of resistance by the Islamic State’s caliphate are in the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa.[1]  Both cities have been heavily fortified by ISIS.  Coalitions of opposition forces are advancing on both cities.  Iraqi Kurds are important for the siege of Mosul and Syrian Kurds are important for the siege of Raqqa.

Of the two coalitions, the Syrian one is the more problematic.  Raqqa holds particular importance as the capital city of the caliphate.  President Obama has committed substantial military resources to the struggle: American planes are bombing; 400 Special Forces troops have been sent to Syria to serve as spotters for air strikes and to train local fighters; and Apache helicopter gunships have been used against Mosul’s defenses.  However, in both countries, the brunt of the fighting has and will fall on local forces.

As an American military problem, this is simple enough.  The Americans hope that the final attack on Raqqa can begin in February 2017.  The core of the anti-ISIS force laying siege to Raqqa is Syrian Kurds.  Around this core have been arrayed (or cajoled) loose groups of Syrian Arabs.  The Syrian Arabs have much less experience with war than do the Kurds.  This means that the Kurds will have to do most of the heavy lifting in the assault on Raqqa.  The Defense Department believes that the Syrian Kurds need to be supplied with better weapons for an urban assault than those that have served them on open battlefields.  These weapons would include rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, and armored vehicles.  Furthermore, the Defense Department has recommended that Apache gunships be used against Raqqa.

As an American diplomatic problem, this is less simple.  Neighboring Turkey regards the Syrian Kurd political group (the Y.P.G.) as terrorists.  If the Syrian Kurds succeed in carving out an autonomous Kurdish enclave in Syria they will have expanded the proto-state that is being created in neighboring Iraq.  From this proto-state, at some point, the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds can begin to work to liberate the Turkish Kurds.  Arming up the Syrian Kurds poses a future danger to Turkey.  Turkey is a member of NATO and the United States is bound by treaty to defend it against outside attack.

The Turkish government has begun delaying approval of American air attacks launched from Incirlik air base and hampering the flow of supplies into the base.  American diplomats suspect that Erdogan might respond to an increased armament for the Syrian Kurds by attacking Kurdish enclaved along the Syrian-Turkish border.  This might compel the Kurds to divert forces from the attack on Raqqa.  Worse still, Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has begun to lean toward Russia.  Already prone to blame the United States for many untoward events within Turkey and the region, Erdogan might contemplate disrupting the NATO alliance in the same fashion as did France’s Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s.  A pessimist might see one possible outcome of arming the Kurds to be the weakening of NATO’s southeastern flank at a time when Vladimir Putin is on the watch for opportunities to extend Russian influence.

Grasping at straws, the Americans have contemplated promising the Turks that close monitoring of any weapons will prevent their use against Turkey.  This is hardly credible given the failures to control weapons supplied to Syrian “moderate” forces.  This leaves President Obama with no easy choices.  Perhaps he’ll leave the decision to President Trump.  The new president would be torn between the devil of improving relations with Russia and the deep blue sea of destroying ISIS.

[1] Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Obama’s Syrian Options: Arm Kurds or Let Trump Decide,” NYT, 18 January 2017.

Sequence.

Can Bashar al-Assad win the Syrian Civil War?  The answer depends on definitions.  What does “win” mean?  What does “Syria” mean?

Aleppo and Palmyra are two ancient cities in Syria.[1]  One of them is today a major population center and the other is a mere tourist trap.  If Syria were at peace, the distinction wouldn’t matter.  Both would be income-streams.  However, Syria is at war and the distinction does matter.   The Syrian government of dictator Bashar  al-Assad has concentrated its military forces and received important foreign assistance —Russian air-power and Iranian fighters—to capture the rebel-held eastern sections of Aleppo, the population center.  In the meantime, he has yielded territory to ISIS forces around Palmyra, the tourist trap.  Probably to be able to claim that the regime was fighting ISIS, the Syrian army recaptured Palmyra in March 2016.  However, they didn’t put in the resources to hold it.  In mid-December 2016, while the Syrians and their allies concentrated on the capture of Eastern Aleppo, ISIS forces managed to retake the city.

How should we interpret this mixed outcome?  The main point to take away is that Aleppo matters to the Assad regime, but Palmyra—and most other ISIS-held territory–doesn’t matter to the Assad regime.  The regime has been most threatened by the rebellion in the much more heavily-populated western parts of the country.  Rebels there have received support from Sunni Arab countries.  In contrast, ISIS holds vast swathes of the less densely populated—and less important –eastern parts of the country.   Moreover, ever since its invasion of western Iraq, ISIS has been targeted by the Americans, the Kurds, and the Iraqis.  The Syrian Army has been at war for a very long time.  Both its current manpower and its ability to recruit new soldiers are close to exhaustion.  Russian aircraft and Iranian troops abruptly have dragged the regime out of a dire situation.  Why would the hard-pressed Assad regime devote scarce resources to the lesser enemy when other countries are willing to do the work?

Now Eastern Aleppo has fallen to the regime.  What further action will the regime take after this costly victory?  Wishful thinking abounds.  One conspiracy theory holds that the Assad regime sand-bagged the defense of Palmyra so that ISIS jihadis would appear in the news to distract the ADHD-prone Western media from the brutal final assault on Aleppo.  One Egyptian diplomat speculated that “unless the regime opens up negotiations with the opposition in finding a proper reconciliation, the guerrilla warfare will spread all over the place.”  The U.S. government urged the Syrians and Russians to divert their energies from pursuing final victory over the rebels in Aleppo to resisting ISIS in an inconsequential place.

More practically, the Assad regime may concentrate on consolidating its victory in western Syria.  It seems wise to anticipate a further flood of refugees into Turkey and—soon thereafter—into Greece.  Then, the regime, and the Russians and Iranians, will contemplate what further action to take.  Will they really want to embark on a costly new offensive to retake desert wastelands?  Will they want to imperial their existing substantial gains in order to fight ISIS?  Will they leave ISIS to the Americans and their allies?  Will they decide to wipe out the remnants of resistance in western Syria, then turn to dealing with the Syrian Kurds?  Given the alliance between the Russians and the Shi’ites of Iran and Iraq, all parties may be willing to sit and wait for a time before deciding the fate of ISIS.

So, “Syria” may mean western Syria and “win” may mean a localized victory followed by a period of watchful waiting.  Then, a new round in the unraveling of Sykes-Picot Agreement.  First one thing, then another thing.  Sequence.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Assad’s Choice: Fight Rebels but Cede to Islamic State,” WSJ, 16 December 2016.

Peace Negotiations.

Except for a lot of killing, the civil war in western Syria is over.[1]  Backed by Russia, the Assad regime has defeated the rebel forces in the western part of the country.[2]  The siege of the eastern third of the city of Aleppo will grind on.  Horror stories will continue to turn the stomachs of readers of the New York Times.  Still, the die is cast.  Some of the states which have used Syria as a battlefield in larger struggles have now turned to settling the peace terms in this conflict while preparing for the next conflict.

Religion-based alliances have been the common basis of coalitions in the Middle East for a long time now.  During the Syrian civil war, Iran, the majority Shi’a government of Iraq, the minority Alawite government of Syria, and Shi’ite Hezbollah in Lebanon all joined forces to fight the Sunni insurgency.  Conversely, Sunni Turkey and Sunni Saudi Arabia long co-operated against the Assad regime.  Russia gained influence in the region by choosing the Shi’ite side.  The United States may have lost some influence by its unwillingness to choose sides.

However, it appears that identities other than religion offer the basis for alignment.  The Saudis seem to have taken Turkish support as a given in the continuing struggle against Iran.  Iran and Turkey have been backing opposing sides in the civil war, so they should be at daggers drawn for years to come.  In practice, this is not so.  Iran and Turkey both are non-Arab states.  During the 20th Century, both did a better job at fending off direct Western domination than did any of the Arab states.  Beyond this “usable past” (if they care to invoke it for practical reasons of state) the two countries have a problem with the Kurds.

Iran and Turkey (and the soon-to-be-victorious Assad regime) all fear the next problem on the horizon, Kurdish nationalism.   First came the protected zone for Iraqi Kurds created by the US after the First Gulf War.  Then came the near-autonomous region created after the 2003 invasion which gave birth to a proto-Kurdistan in northern Iraq.  Over the last several years, Kurdish militias from Iraq and Syria have done much of the heavy lifting in the fight against ISIS.  Along the way, Syrian Kurds have carved out an enclave along Syria’s border with Turkey.  Kurdish nationalism is burning in Turkey.

Saudi Arabia fears its neighbor across the Persian Gulf, but Turkey feels no real danger from Iran.  Erdogan’s allegations of U.S. involvement in the recent attempt to overthrow him might be taken as window-dressing meant to justify his shift toward reconciliation with Iran.

All this is speculation, not prophecy.  Yet one speculation leads to other speculations.  If the Syrian civil war is winding down and the Kurdish issue is winding up, will all the major players take a moment to concentrate on destroying ISIS?  If the Assad regime and its patrons have won the civil war, then will Turkey close the border to both the inflow of aid to the rebels and any flight by anti-Assad refugees?  If Turkey, Syria, and Iran are about to turn on the Kurds, will Saudi Arabia shift its support to the Kurds as a way of pressuring Iraq, Iran, and Turkey?  If the Kurds see the coalition gathering against them, will they shorten their reach in an effort to hold onto the core of what they have already obtained?  Having been so continually frustrated of late by developments in the Middle East, will American diplomacy profit from the experience and seek new means to achieve American goals?

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Turkey, Iran Get Friendly, Despite War,” WSJ, 7 October 2016.

[2] Whether it will now turn to defeating the Islamic State in the eastern part of the country remains an open question.