CrISIS 9.

For all those angry with President Obama’s policy, the Islamic State is in retreat.  Iraq’s militias under the guidance of Iranian advisors, various Kurdish militias, and the Russian- supported Assad regime have rolled back ISIS gains.  At the same time, American efforts to focus narrowly on the danger of ISIS cut across the more powerful enmities and affinities in the region.  The Sunni-Shi’ite civil war in the Muslim world frames many local conflicts.  Russia has chosen alignment with the Shi’ites (Iran, the majority in Iraq, the Alawites of Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon).  The United States is having a harder time making a choice.

After the final American withdrawal from Iraq, the Shi’ite government of Nouri al-Maliki reverted to persecuting Sunni Iraqis.  Alienated, many Sunnis withdrew their support from the government.  Currently, on the principle of “once burned, twice shy,” the Sunnis of Iraq have been sitting-out the Reconquista by the so-called government of so-called Iraq.[1]  However, the occupation of the “liberated” areas by either Shi’ite militias or by Kurds merely shifted the locus of repression for the Sunnis.  The government has resisted pressure from Washington to arm Sunnis willing to fight ISIS because those same arms might later be used to resist the Shi’ites.[2]

Neither Russia nor its client Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad cared to focus on ISIS when they saw the other Sunni rebel groups as a target more dangerous and more near at hand.  Nor did the Sunni rebels against the Assad government see ISIS as the most pressing danger.  They often co-operate with Islamist groups in the fight against Assad.[3]  In the recent fighting around Aleppo, the Syrian Conquest Front (formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front—the Syrian off-shoot of Al Qaeda) has done much of the heavy lifting.  Will Islamist fighters in flight from the embattled ISIS caliphate head West to join the ranks of the Syrian Conquest Front?

If the Syrian Conquest Front, which the US still regards as a version of its old enemy Al Qaeda, becomes the dominant force in the war against the Assad government, Washington will face an ugly choice.  Which does it see as the greater threat?  With which will it align itself?  Will it support the increasingly Islamist-led rebels against the Assad government, even if that means a tacit alliance with the survivors of ISIS and a re-branded Al Qaeda?  Will it support the Assad government, even if that means following the Russian lead into a tacit alliance with the Shi’ites?

Where will future historians locate the root of this disaster?  The most obvious cause lies in the American decision to attack Iraq in 2003.[4]  Anyone who voted for that war has much to answer for.  Even before the occupation had been botched, the Turks had refused to cooperate because they foresaw the effect on Kurdish nationalism.  Then the occupation was botched.  Then came the Obama administration’s too-ready embrace of the “Arab Spring,” its overthrow of the Libyan dictator, and its un-deft handling of the Russians.

Looking farther back, though, can some of the origins be located in the refusal of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to write-off the loans made to Iraq in order for it to fight the long war in the 1980s against the revolutionary Shi’ite regime in Iran, or to support higher oil prices so that Iraq could earn the money to rebuild?  Everything turns out to be complicated, rather than simple.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Islamic State Slips, But Sunnis Are On the Sidelines,” WSJ, 10 June 2016.

[2] For its part, Washington has limited the flow of aid to the Kurds because the weapons supplied to fight ISIS might well be used against the Turks.  Given the recent hostility of Turkish president Erdogan to the West generally and to the United States in particular, Washington may decide to re-think this position.

[3] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Syria’s Alliance Hang on Outcome in Aleppo,” WSJ, 12 August 2016.

[4] In my view on specious grounds.

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CrISIS 8.

A certain amount seems to be agreed about the history of Islamic fundamentalist ideology: Saudi Arabia sought to fend off criticism of the monarchy by pouring money into the proselytizing of Wahhabism throughout the Muslim world; this intellectual milieu opened the road from one form of commitment to other, more extreme, forms of commitment; both al Qaeda and Hamas benefitted from this in the past in the sense that there existed a broad tolerance for Islamist terrorism.  However, now ISIS has emerged as the champion of conservative Sunni Islam.  The “end-of-days” thread in the thought of ISIS has alienated many (perhaps most) Muslims.  That still leaves people (the policy-makers, the politicians who front for them, and the scholars and intelligence officers who advise them) with dilemmas.

For one thing, ISIS might best be thought of as a coalition, rather than a coherent movement.  On the one hand, it is essentially an Iraqi Sunni movement.  Yes, it flourished in a Syria torn apart by civil war, but it has at its core Iraqi Sunnis who had participated in the insurgency that followed the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, then fled to Syria.  On the other hand, it is an international “brand” that inspires malcontents elsewhere to act against both “Unbelievers” and “Misbelievers.”  Will any one strategy succeed against ISIS or is it just an umbrella term for several separate wars?

For another thing, will mowing the lawn on a regular basis (i.e. drone strikes on Islamist leaders) accomplish anything?[1]  The answer probably depends on whether one is attacking a tightly circumscribed transnational terrorist network (like Al Qaeda) or a broadly-based insurgency (like the Taliban).  Killing the leadership of a network will disorganize it and disrupt its communications.  Killing the leader of a local insurgency may just lead to the movement coughing up another leader, one possibly more radical than his predecessor.   The U.S. has faced this dilemma since 9/11.  Starkly: hunt Osama bin Laden or invade Iraq?

For a third thing, “is the main threat the radicalization of Islam or the Islamization of radicalism?”[2]  That is, do some elements (individuals or groups) of Muslim communities move toward a conflict-oriented fundamentalism?  If that’s the case, then the solution may be more effective policing to discern people headed down a pathway to violence.  Alternatively, do some madmen just seek a “cause” with which to identify, and ISIS is the flavor of the month?  If that is the case, then perhaps the defeat of ISIS will reduce the appeal of “jihad.”  (NB: Probably both.  So, where are the physical and psychological spaces where the two groups meet?)

The Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov reports that about a quarter of the ISIS recruits in Europe are actually converts from some other faith or from no faith, while many of the Muslims come from families that were non-observant.  One way to read this is that secularization has left some people intellectually and emotionally adrift.  Another way to read it is that troubled people search for some rock to cling to so they aren’t washed away in their inner storms.  The two are not incompatible.  Moreover, Trofimov is understandably pre-occupied by the danger of attacks in the West.  What about the many more dissidents in the countries of the Muslim world?

Can ISIS be defeated?  In one sense, yes, obviously. Bomb them back to the Stone Age.  But can it “die”?  Are Bozo Haram and Bangladeshi terrorists and “lone wolves” in California and Florida actually in touch with the Islamic State in any meaningful way?  Or are they just inspired by the example?  If ISIS is defeated in Syraqia, will it be discredited or will people continue to evoke it as an ideal?  There are no easy answers to any of these questions.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “U.S. Killings of Militant Leaders Deliver Mixed Results,” WSJ, 27 May 2016.

[2] Yaroslav Trofimov, “For Some New Militants, Islam is a Flag of Convenience,” WSJ, 17 June 2016.

CrISIS 7.

The war against ISIS has been small-scale, rather than a grand effort.[1]  The total American force in Iraq has slowly risen from 275 troops sent as trainers and advisers after the Iraqi Army collapsed in Summer 2014 to about 4,000 today.  American Special Forces spotters are directing American air-strikes in support of both Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters (in both Iraq and Syria).  Others have been raiding ISIS targets and a number of ISIS leaders have been killed: notably the war minister and the finance minister.  An earlier effort at intelligence gathering (either human intelligence or signals intelligence) has led to targeted air attacks on the oil fields that provide much of the funds for ISIS and other sites.  Now, more Special Forces troops are being sent to Syria to bolster the efforts of those Sunnis who are willing to fight ISIS.  The Iraqi government forces don’t look too effective, but they are in the field and moving forward in fits and starts.

The results of this patched together strategy have been more impressive than one might think from the daily news: 26,000 ISIS fighters killed; 40 percent of the territory it once held recaptured; 3 million of the 9 million people inside the caliphate liberated; 30 percent of its revenue lost.[2]  Next on the agenda is a strike at Mosul.

That’s the good news.  What’s the bad news?  First, a large part of the explanation for the sudden expansion of ISIS in Summer 2014 lay in the political divisions, incompetence, and corruption of Iraq’s government at that time.  The US engineered the eviction of the then prime minister Maliki and his replacement by Haider al-Abadi.  However, things have not improved very much.  Corruption and division continue to plague the government.  Recently, Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful Shiite cleric (and an old opponent of the Americans) forced al-Abadi to fire many of the government officials most deeply implicated in corruption.  In addition, the Sunni minority—whose “Awakening” greatly contributed to the defeat of the original insurgency—continue to be persecuted by the Shiite government.  All of this can impede the drive on Mosul.

Along the same lines, the Kurds have played a valuable role in the fight against ISIS, but now that success has become a problem.  The 250 additional Special Forces troops bound for Syria are intended to recruit, train, and coordinate Sunni Arabs because it is feared that the intrusion of Kurds into the area will set off ethnic conflicts that could derail the war effort.

Second, radical Islamism of the al-Qaeda-ISIS type has a widespread following in the Muslim world.  At the moment, the most troubling bastion of ISIS adherents outside the caliphate itself is in Libya.  Adherents of ISIS have been bolstered by ISIS fighters sent from Syria.  They have seized the oil port of Sirte.  They appear to be attempting the conquest of the Sirte oil region.

Third, the recent terrorist bombings in Brussels have led to reports that ISIS has sent a sizable group of terrorists to conduct operations in Western Europe.

It is natural to ask if, in the waning days of the Obama administration, victory or something like it will be in sight by the time his successor is inaugurated.  That would surely add to his legacy.  However, the continuing governmental disaster in Baghdad and the refusal of the Shiites to make a just peace with the Sunnis is a problem that is not going to go away.  The same is true of violent radical Islam.  Frustrating, infuriating, and humiliating as has been the Obama administrations course in the fight against ISIS, it is only a campaign in a larger, longer-running war.  Many of the dilemmas of engagement in this fight will plague the next administration.

[1] “The war against ISIS,” The Week, 6 May 2016, p. 11.

[2] Apparently, there is a military solution to the problem of ISIS.  The same may be true of the Syrian civil war.

The Count 2.

Nowruz (aka Newroz, Nevroz) is the first day of Spring in the Iranian calendar.  Lots of other cultures in the region took up the celebration in the many days ago.  Among them were the Kurds, who see Nevroz as the most important holiday of the year.[1]  The holiday has assumed a nationalist form as cultural associations and veiled political parties sponsor events at which “young men wave flags of green, yellow and red, the colors of the Kurdish people.”

            Far away from Kurdistan, both in distance and in culture, is Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue.  The street is in “Pera” or “Beyoğlu,” across the “Golden Horn” from the main part of the old city.  You pass the cheery chaos of the ferry dock; you walk across the Galata bridge; you wander through little streets that mount the hillside; and you arrive at the Galata tower.  It is the “European” part of the city with cafes, restaurants, art galleries, and many Westerners living in apartments with a bad plumbing and an excellent view of the Bosphorus.  Nearby is Taksim Square.

            Turkey might be described as having played a “bad boy” role in the recent migration crisis.  However, it has other pressing concerns as well.  On the one hand, the government is assaulting its restive Kurdish minority.  In July 2015 a truce broke down and the government turned loose its forces in southern Turkey.  On the other hand, it has belatedly engaged ISIS in neighboring Syria.  Under heavy pressure from the United States, Turkey has finally clamped down in the flow of foreign fighters through Turkey to Syria.  As a result, Turkey has been under attack by suicide bombers in recent months. ISIS has been blamed for bombings in Ankara (October 2015, 103 dead) and Istanbul (10 dead, January 2016).  For their part, Kurds have been blamed for a suicide bombing in Ankara (March 2015, 37 dead).

            On 19 March 2016, a suicide bomber blew himself up on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul, killing three Israeli tourists[2] and an Iranian,[3] and wounding thirty-six.  Five of the wounded were Palestinians.  (There may have been an interesting conversation in whatever group they belonged to, or perhaps just a studied silence.)  The Israelis were, it seems, a bunch of “foodies” sampling the fare of Istanbul.[4]

This bombing, too, is attributed to ISIS.  The bomber has been identified as Mehmet Ozturk, but little about him has appeared in print.  He was born in 1992 in Gaziantep (which is both a city and a province).  Gaziantep, in turn, is a part of Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolian Region, which runs along much of the border with Syria.  Gaziantep is a very old city (by American standards anyway).  It has a thriving machine carpet-weaving industry and is surrounded by groves of olives, pistachios, and grapes.  It also is home to a number of high schools and universities.  However, it is also on the main route from Turkey to Syria for foreign fighters trying to join ISIS.  According to one report, his parents reported him as missing after he went to Istanbul in 2013.  Pretty quickly after the attack the Interior Ministry identified him as the bomber and confirmed it through DNA.  His father had provided the DNA for the comparison.

ISIS is now targeting tourists in Istanbul; and it has a bomb-maker there.  The hunt is on.

Turkish officials now have banned Nevroz celebrations this year.

[1] Apparently, Kurds don’t believe in Santa.  Them being Muslims and all.

[2] Two of whom held dual Israeli-American citizenship.

[3] Tim Arango and Ceylan Yeginsu, “Istanbul Suicide Bomber  Linked to Islamic State,” NYT, 21 March 2015.

[4] The NYT reports that one was from Dimona (the site of Israel’s “secret” nuclear weapons program); another was from Herzliya (a generally wealthy beach town near Tel Aviv, named for the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl).

The Count 1.

As best I understand it, before ISIS launched its Summer 2014 attack into western Iraq, it engaged in a long campaign of bombings in the heartland of Iraq. These spread terror and distrust of the government. As best I understand it, the defeat of Boko Haram on the battlefield led to a campaign of bombings in Nigeria and Cameroon. These spurred mass flight and a economic paralysis. So, bombings can be harbingers of victory or of defeat. It’s too bad that they aren’t more clear in their meanings. Still, I thought that I would watch this “variable”—as social scientist call it. See if anything becomes clear to me.

Hilla, Iraq is about 60 miles south of Baghdad on the Tigris River. It’s near the site of ancient Babylon, a vital center of Mesopotamian civilization that is unfamiliar to generations of American college students. From about 1000 AD on it was a sleepy farm town and administrative center. In the early 20th Century, an interesting episode in environmental history led to the construction of a dam to insure the proper irrigation of local farmlands.[1]

Saddam Hussein was hard on both the ancient and modern faces of Hilla. He had workmen knock down a bunch of the Babylonian ruins in order to build one of his palaces. After the war in Kuwait in 1991, a rebellion broke out around Hilla. Government troops killed several thousand people and buried them in a mass grave.

On 1 April 2003, there was a good-sized fight at Hilla between American armored forces and an infantry battalion of the Republican Guard. Then the insurgency began. One feature of that insurgency appeared in the efforts by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to foment a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. Hilla is a predominantly Shi’ite city, so it came in for its share of trouble. In February 2005, a suicide bombing killed 125 people waiting for treatment outside a medical clinic; in May 2005, two suicide bombers killed 31 and wounded 108 Shia police; in September 2005, a car bomb killed 10 and wounded 30; in January 2007, suicide bombers killed 73 and wounded 160; in February 2007, a pair of suicide bombers killed 45 and wounded 150; in March 2007, two car bombs killed 114 and wounded 147; in May 2010, a multiple car bomb attacks killed 45 and wounded 145. Then things calmed down as the “Sunni Awakening” and the “Surge:” took hold.

At a security check-point near Hilla, on 6 March 2016, a gasoline tanker waited for approval to move ahead in the middle of a crowd of vehicles and pedestrians.[2] When guards waved at the driver to halt, the truck lurched ahead and then exploded. At least 33 people were killed outright and 115 were wounded. (Almost 30 of the wounded subsequently died.) A witness said that the explosion 350 feet away from the blast felt like “an earthquake.” The witness is 54 years old. That means that he was born in 1962. He has lived through the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988); the American air campaign associated with the 1991 war over Kuwait; the American invasion (2003) and all that followed from it (2003-2007).

The key point here is that there are a lot of people outside “the West” who have heard explosions before and know what to do. “I immediately lay on the ground and saw flames all over the checkpoint.” After a while he got up to go check on friends in shops closer to the check-point. “One of them was beheaded and others were killed.” A 32 year-old school teacher who had been waiting to pass the checkpoint to get to work described it as “a very hard scene.”

What is it like to know what a suicide bombing sounds like? What about knowing that the bombings come in pairs, usually the second happening after people rush from cover to help the victims of the first bombing?

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindiya_Barrage

[2] Omar al-Jawoshy, “Truck Bomb Kills at Least 33 At Checkpoint in Central Iraq,” NYT, 7 March 2016.

The end of Sykes-Picot 1.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a secret agreement made between France and Britain during the First World War. It laid the foundation for the states of the modern Middle East.[1] The Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire were carved up into British and French spheres of influence. Soon thereafter, these spheres were re-labeled League of Nations “Mandates” out of deference to the self-righteous scold, Woodrow Wilson. Later, the British area got independence as Jordan, Iraq, and Israel; while the French area got independence as Syria and Lebanon. Events triggered by the American invasion of Iraq (2003) have now called into question the survival of some of these states.

First in line for the chopping block is Syria.[2] The Russians intervened to save their client Assad from defeat at the hands of his American-associated enemies. President Obama warned that the Russians were headed into another quagmire like Afghanistan. It doesn’t seem to have worked out that way so far. War in eastern Syria might be just such a quagmire. Vladimir Putin might just decide that half a loaf is better than none and also better than trying to get the whole loaf. That half a loaf is likely to include Aleppo. An Assadist state in western Syria seems an increasingly likely outcome.

There doesn’t seem to be any plan yet to settle the fighting in Western Syria so that everyone can turn their guns on ISIS. Also, it’s pretty hard to imagine the former foes in the civil war just deciding to let bygones be bygones. How would they co-operate with one another? It isn’t clear that the Russians have any interest in a longer war in eastern Syria. In any joint struggle against ISIS the Assad government would have the upper hand over the non-ISIS forces provided that the Russians continued to provide air support. Government territorial gains and the accumulation of captured arms would further shift the balance in favor of the government. All sides must be pretty war-weary at this point. Again, half a loaf is better than none.

The Syrian Kurds represent another problem. Fighting ISIS when lots of Sunni Arabs would not has won them the favor and military assistance of the United States. However, Kurdish nationalism, rather than a principled opposition to ISIS, has motivated the Kurdish fight. Both the Sunni Arabs and the Turks recognize this reality. An autonomous or independent Kurdistan poses a serious threat to Turkey. The Turks—rightly—do not accept a distinction between Kurdish groups fighting in Syria or Iraq and Kurdish groups fighting inside Turkey. The recent suicide bombing of a military convoy in Ankara just turned up the heat in this conflict.[3] The United States has been trying to square this circle (just as it tried to reconcile Saudi Arabian and Iranian conflicts in the Iranian nuclear deal). The Russians have no such problem. The Turks shot down a Russian jet on a thin excuse. Putin will be happy to encourage the Kurds. The Syrian Kurds objectively allied themselves with the Russians and the Assad regime in recent attacks on Sunni Arab rebel forces. This may reduce American leverage on the Kurds.

For the moment, this part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement seems headed toward an Assad state in western Syria, a Kurdish state in northern Syria, and the ISIS Caliphate in eastern Syria. That’s unlikely to be the final word on the issue.

Then there is Iraq and Lebanon.

[1] To the extent that a place where ISIS can flourish can be called “modern.” This isn’t a permanent condition. Any culture can go through a bad patch. Mark Mazower called his history of 20th Century Europe The Dark Continent.

[2] Jaroslav Trofimov, “Prospect of Syria’s Partition Looms Despite Cease-Fire,” WSJ, 4 March 2016.

[3] “How they see us: Fighting against Turkey’s interests,”, The Week, 4 March 2016, p. 17.

The Great Game–latest round.

“What do Russians want?”—Sigmund Freud.

One theory holds that the pursuit of foreign policy gains is driven by domestic concerns.[1] Russian actions in Syria and Ukraine are intended to distract Russians from their current economic hard times by reviving Russian parity with the United States. However, even though Russia remains burdened by economic sanctions imposed over the Ukraine and constantly assailed by Western leaders, Putin has called for new parliamentary elections in April 2016. That doesn’t look like a worried man. More likely, Putin’s chief concerns are international rather than domestic.

Vladimir Putin habitually gloms together a range of international events as evidence of the malign effects of American interventionism: Iraq (2003), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Libya (2013). Georgia and Ukraine may seem like a bad case of emotional sunburn, but it’s hard to argue with the examples of Iraq and Libya. As Putin made clear to New York Times reporter Peter Baker some years ago, he wants the Americans to stop it.[2] Apparently, Syria is the place where he intends to make his point.

Russia is trying to show that it is a better ally and worse foe than is the United States. In essence, the Russians want Assad to stay in place until they agree that he should go and that he be replaced by a regime friendly to Russia. At the moment, the Russians are willing to fight and the Americans are not, so Putin is likely to get his way.

The Russian intervention in Syria has been modest: 50 aircraft; 6,000 troops to service and protect the planes; and about $3 million a day. With that backing, however, Assad’s forces have expanded their territory at the expense of their foes. The anti-Assad forces approved of by the West often fight cheek-by-jowl with the anti-Assad forces disapproved of by the West (the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front). The Russians don’t seem much inclined to fine distinctions and the most-recent cease-fire agreement allows for attacks on both ISIS and the Nusra Front. The current fear in Washington seems to be that the Russians will continue their attacks on a broad swathe of anti-Assad forces after the cease-fire nominally goes into effect. If past performance is any guide, the US will not do anything more than protest as its nominal clients are killed.

However, now Assad’s troops are close to encircling the rebel city of Aleppo. If they can cut the main supply routes into the city before the cease-fire begins, then the cease-fire will allow a siege to run forward undisturbed. Any attempt by Assad’s opponents to break out of or break in to Aleppo would constitute a violation of the cease fire. Seen in that light, Putin’s insistence that he will honor the cease-fire may be “sincere.” The fall of Aleppo might put the last nail in the coffin of the non-ISIS part of the insurgency.

That still would leave ISIS. Would the Russians back a Syrian effort to reconquer the eastern part of the country from the Caliphate? If they did, what sorts of questions might that raise for other countries? The United States would have to decide if it would co-operate with such an attack. After having complained that the Russians have not been attacking ISIS, it might be embarrassing to refuse to join an attack on ISIS. If the Syrians did attack eastward, would they navigate around the Syrian territories held by Kurds? Leaving the Kurds in place would pose a problem for Turkey’s President Erdogan, who has been after Assad’s head for years. “Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision!”[3]

[1] Neil MacFarquhar, “Russia Wins Policy Points. Now What?” NYT, 24 February 2016.

[2] See: “Obama versus Putin.” https://waroftheworldblog.com/2014/09/28/obama-versus-putin/

[3] Joel, 3: 14.