The Splintering of Iraq

June 18, 2014

Shi’ite militias have mobilized in Iraq to battle the Sunni insurgent group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Shi’ite gunmen have marched through Baghdad and taken control of a town northeast of the capital to stage a battleground to stop the advance of the fundamentalist group.

ISIS has taken a full province, Nineveh province, including Mosul (the second-largest city in Iraq) and parts of three others.

The Iraqi army is falling apart, but it’s being bolstered by Shi’a militias responding to a call to arms by the most influential Iraqi Shi’a cleric in the world (Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani) who said that people should take up arms to defend against this group. He said, “He who sacrifices for the cause of defending his country and his family and his honor will be a martyr.”

ISIS in Iraq

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said the government would arm and equip citizens who volunteer to fight. Al Maliki has declared a state of emergency and claims he’s been given all powers to fight this threat. According to his critics, however, al Maliki is the reason that ISIS has been so successful in winning Sunni allies in Iraq, because al Maliki has ruled in a very sectarian and corrupt way. He’s a politically embattled figure.

Al Maliki has pushed out a lot of influential Sunni leaders, and that’s why ISIS is getting the support that it has right now, because a lot of the Sunni community in Iraq feels marginalized and afraid of the al Maliki government.

As I said in a post yesterday, ISIS has taken advantage of a wave of Sunni anger in Iraq, and ISIS has gained allies among Sunni tribal leaders, ex-military officers under Saddam Hussein, and other Islamist groups in Iraq. The authority ISIS wields in Iraq is not yet part of a larger monolithic whole; rather, ISIS relies on divergent Sunni tribes, organizations, and groups that can be antagonistic and even violent towards one another.

Most of the ISIS fighters in Iraq have poured over the border from Syria, and many come from al Qaeda and affiliated groups such as Jabhat al Nusra. These groups promote a jihadist vision that is fanatically anti-Shi’a. One of al Qaeda’s main reasons for getting involved in the war in Syria has been its grievance that the Syrian regime is run by Alawites, people who belong to a branch of Shi’a Islam. 

ISIS must retain popular Sunni support in Iraq to ensure that other Sunni groups are willing to work with them if ISIS hopes to maintain its hold on Iraqi territory. However, it is unclear if that support will last.

Some Sunni clerics in Mosul and Tikrit, which are under the control of ISIS, have been executed by ISIS insurgents for not showing allegiance to the organization. ISIS militants are said to have executed around 12 leading clerics in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. According to Al Alam News, an imam in Mosul’s Central Mosque was executed for refusing to join ISIS insurgents in their cause. Executions have also been reported in Tikrit.

Meanwhile, refugees are flowing into the Kurdish north from Mosul and surrounding areas. The Kurds are taking disputed territory abandoned by the Iraqi Army, including a border point with Syria.

Kurdistan is a semiautonomous region.  It has its own system of laws and governance, and it has long wanted its own independent country. The Kurds are also fighting ISIS, but they are taking advantage of the collapse of the Iraqi military at the same time. The Kurds are taking the territories they feel should be part of their future state, including Kirkuk and this border point.

Last week, ISIS used the social media device Twitter to announce that it had executed 1,700 Shi’a soldiers, and it has tweeted graphic pictures of the executed to support its claims.

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I apologize for taking such a long break from posting on this blog. Between my work on the Hill, trying to write a book, and keeping some semblance of a social life, things kind of got away from me. I’ll try to do better.

Much has been made of the United State’s military downsizing due to budget constraints, and the ripple effects of less U.S. spending are being felt in far off places. An example is Israel’s specialized Army corps.

Israel 22

Corps-specific agendas for Israel’s Defense Forces have been scuttled in recent months in favor of more traditional support roles. This reassessment in priorities has kept Israel’s Artillery and Armored Corps (to name only two) from mission creep.

Israel is determined to protect RDT&E (research, development, test, and evaluation) spending with a push for bigger risk-taking.

In order to protect technology, Israel will invest in a few big bets. Look for Israel to modernize some existing weapons and equipment. However, the real goal will be to move beyond marginal improvements – to replace existing programs with new technologies and strategies. Due to the continued deterioration in Syria, Iran’s quest for the bomb, and Hamas trying to grow its influence, Israel has to take this moment as an opportunity to skip a whole generation of technology.

Israel’s government has come to the conclusion that their current structure of military spending is not sustainable.

These budget constraints come three years into an age of austerity in Western military spending. Some analysts expect these spending cuts to result in a new wave of mergers and acquisitions in the defense industry like the one that followed the end of the Cold War.

Western defense industries emerging from the Cold War experienced a reset in customer’s expectations. In the United States, the industry quickly consolidated into a half dozen premier contractors. While in Europe, consolidation was slower, but it produced a dozen or so premier transnational firms. These consolidations were a direct result of defense ministries being concerned about the costs of overcapacity in the wake of shrinking budgets.

Today, the focus is on the shrinking technological advances of the West.

Western governments are now investing in advanced computing, robotics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology. This change in focus will allow Western defense companies to maintain financial strength which will result in more strategic choices. We are already seeing evidence for some of these choices through advancements in cloud computing, big data analytics, and robotics.

Israel has a small population and an exceptional level of threats. Over the years, its ratio of RDT&E spending and procurement has risen and fallen, reflecting the relative priorities of immediate needs and investment for the future.

Israel’s future military spending will continue to be dictated by its threats. Hamas, the militant Muslim authority in Gaza that rejects Israel’s right to exist, has been maneuvering for control over the largely secular Fatah organization administering the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Hamas is currently restrained in Gaza, but it is trying to translate its vision into a plan to dominate Palestinian society in the West Bank.

According to the latest U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimates, there are nearly 2.7 million Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The Israeli government can no longer count on the convenience of ambiguity to stave off critics and competing constituencies. Israel will have to chose a path for preserving its character as a Jewish and democratic state while opening the door for a two-state plan.

If Palestinian hopes and expectations continue to go unrealized, the frustration will only strengthen Hamas’ hand.

In Syria, rebels fighting the Assad regime keep attempting to change the military balance of power. The Syrian government has been bolstered by its foreign supporters, and to combat this, the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, is using porous borders to smuggle arms, supplies, and fighters into and out of the country. This continued spilling over of conflict into Syria’s neighbors in real-time has been a destabilizing force in Israel and a distraction.

Despite Western claims of progress in slowing Iran’s nuclear ambition, there are few signs the Iranian government is conditioning its citizens for any major limitations on nuclear work. Thousands of scientists and engineers are employed at a growing number of nuclear facilities in cities including Isfahan, Natanz, and Qom. Iranian President Hasan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have advanced their careers by championing Iran’s nuclear rights as diplomats on the international stage. More importantly, Iran’s nuclear-fuel infrastructure has grown too vast in recent years, and the international community’s willingness to maintain expensive sanctions on Iran appears limited. Iran’s nuclear quest has Israel planning for military contingencies that carry big risk-taking, and they will no doubt require the new technologies and strategies that Israel is developing.

Jihadi Cool

July 24, 2013

Al Qaeda’s dissemination of jihad ideology has become more sophisticated over the last decade. Al Qaeda invested large amounts of capital into creating books, magazines, and music videos that are designed to appeal to Muslims under 30 years of age. Language and graphics are designed with a specific local audience in mind so that al Qaeda can properly target young Muslims in a desired region. Al Qaeda is paying close attention to what material their targeted demographics respond to and connect with.

Al Qaeda has expanded into cyberspace

Al Qaeda has expanded into cyberspace

Al Qaeda’s reach in Cyberspace is multifaceted. The network has a variety of different messages available on the internet that are designed to resonate with different groups. Al Qaeda’s franchises and affiliates, like the one in Iraq that I posted about yesterday, tend to focus on local issues that affect a particular local population. However, the traditional centralized body of al Qaeda tends to disseminate messages that are more global in scope.

Jihadi Cool is a term that was originally coined by Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist and former CIA operations officer, to encapsulate the phenomenon of al Qaeda’s influence within Cyberspace. Jihadi Cool describes rogue vigilantism by politically disenfranchised Muslim youths. Jihadi Cool appeals to those radicalized youths who are often described as “wannabe thugs.”

Has the new front for the War on Terror become the internet? Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and all electronic social networking media have become problematic, because al Qaeda operatives can operate behind electronic aliases and disseminate Jihadi propaganda. This propaganda then plays on Muslim youth’s politics of despair, in that these youths have a worldview where they perceive the Muslim world’s (Dar al-Islam) hegemonic power as being stripped away. Then there are the wars in Syria and Afghanistan, the political strife in Egypt, and the constant battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia over who will be the voice of the Middle East. Western popular culture and secular political forces are no longer the only targets of al Qaeda. The Sunni organization is increasingly getting into sectarian conflicts with Shi’ites. 

Al Qaeda essentially uses electronic social networking media to encourage random disgruntled youths into acts of violence against the West, Shi’a institutions, and the governments of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. By hiding their propaganda in forms of popular media, such as rap videos available in various languages, al Qaeda can provide a cultural counterweight to Shi’a popular influences which both excites and provokes impressionable youth into becoming soldiers for al Qaeda’s distinctive version of discord which often includes suicide bombers and large body counts. 

Decentralized Terrorism

July 23, 2013

Is the rise of Islamic extremism the great issue of our age?

The effects of Islamic terrorism are not just felt in the Middle East but around the world. A Pew Research survey about religious extremism published in late April found high levels of concern among Americans, Russians, and Central Asian Countries. And other national public opinion surveys find most Americans remain concerned in general about terrorism. In Europe, the newspaper Austria Today reported an upswing of concern regarding “Salafist extremist teenagers” among the Austrian population, and Germany has recently banned three ultra-conservative Islamic sects including Salafism.

Salafi Woman

Al Qaeda has become more decentralized with most terrorist activity being currently conducted by local franchises. The U.S. State Department’s latest annual country report on terrorism has acknowledged that local al Qaeda affiliates “seem more inclined to focus on smaller scale attacks closer to their home base.” However, al Qaeda is not the only problem.

Iran is sending its own terrorist operatives in Hezbollah to demoralize and intimidate Western countries.

The U.S. State Department now concedes that Hezbollah, with Iran as its state sponsor, is considered the most technically capable terrorist group in the world.

In March a criminal court in Cyprus found a Hezbollah member guilty of helping to plan attacks on Israelis on the Mediterranean island, and  Hezbollah has been implicated in terrorist attack in Bulgaria’s Black Sea resort of Burgas last year that killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian. 

The Iranian-backed organization plays a pivotal role in Lebanese politics, dominating the government since 2011. It has since sent its members to bolster Syria’s President Bashar Assad’s forces in their assault on rebel-held areas.

As Hezbollah’s hand in the Syrian conflict has become public, Lebanon has seen a spike in Sunni-Shi’ite tensions that has sparked gun battles in several cities around the country. Many Lebanese Sunnis support the overwhelmingly Sunni uprising against Assad in Syria, while Shi’ites generally back Hezbollah and the regime in Damascus.

Many more international extremists are connected to Pakistan, a state rocked on a daily basis by attacks from the Taliban and other jihadist extremists on schools, government officials, and others. Yet the United States government has given Pakistan $23 billion in aid since 2002, because the American government relies on Pakistan for its prosecution of the war in Afghanistan.

The U.S. funded $34 million to build a new headquarters at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. However, the new Marine Corps building may never be used, because, even under the best of circumstances, only 450 people would be available to use the building today while it was built to accommodate a staff of between 1,200 to 1,500 people. The headquarters includes a war room, briefing theater, and offices for senior military officials, including a three-star general.

The building was completed in November, but has remained empty. As the footprint of Camp Leatherneck decreases, the new building could soon be outside the security parimeter, thereby making it unsafe for the U.S. military to occupy. This leaves the American military with two options, demolish the building or hand it over to the Afghans.

Camp Leatherneck

The colossal, two-story, 64,000-square-foot headquarters has expensive heating and air conditioning systems that the Afghans may be unable to afford if turned over. The building also runs a different electrical system, requiring 120 volts rather than the 220 volt-system common in Afghanistan.

John Sopko, the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, asked  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a July 10 letter to address why the Pentagon constructed the building when officials knew it would not be used for the intended purposes. He also asked for defense officials to pinpoint who made the decision to continue the project, and what the justification was at the time.  

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has been slowed due to a customs dispute between the two countries.

Afghanistan Drawdown

Drawdown costs have been “dramatically raised” since the Afghan government has insisted that the United States owes it millions of dollars in customs fines as the American military extracts its equipment, according to Agence France-Presse.

American trucks carrying military hardware have been blocked at Afghan border crossings due to the dispute; therefore, the U.S. military has resorted to flying out the majority of its equipment by air at exorbitant cost. Defense officials have estimated that the cost is five to seven times more by aircraft than over land.

The Afghan government is insisting that the U.S. military pay $1,000 for each shipping container leaving the country that lacks what Afghan authorities call a valid customs form. Afghanistan claims that the United States currently owes $70 million in fines.

As the drawdown continues, U.S. forces in Afghanistan are projected to drop between 10,000 and 20,000 troops next year consisting of counter-terrorism forces, special forces, and military training personnel. They will be deployed to a small number of bases around the country.

United State’s President Barack Obama’s administration has assessed that Syria has likely used chemical weapons twice in its civil war. This has intensified calls where I work on Capitol Hill for a more aggressive U.S. intervention in Syria. However, American lawmakers are far from agreeing on what a greater American role would look like.

The U.S. intelligence community has determined that Syria has crossed the red line set out by Mr. Obama, who has said the use or transfer of chemical weapons would constitute a “game changer” to his policy of providing only humanitarian and nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition.

Hagel Middle East Syria

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the news yesterday during a trip through the Middle East. “It violates every convention of warfare,” Hagel told reporters in Abu Dhabi.

Several U.S. Senators have since renewed their calls for stronger U.S. intervention in Syria without United Nations involvement.

New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says that he supports working with regional partners, establishing a no-fly zone with international support, and potentially arming vetted rebels in some sort of controlled process.

“It is clear that we must act to assure the fall of Assad, the defeat of extremist groups, and the rise of democracy,” Menendez said in a written statement.

However, calls for intervention in the Syrian civil war are being met in the U.S. and elsewhere with trepidation.

The Syrian military’s defense mechanisms are sophisticated and located within major population centers. Removing those devices could cause mass civilian casualties. This will make instituting and maintaining a no-fly zone very difficult. Furthermore, potential ethnic divisions within the country are severe.

There is also a lot of concern within the Western intelligence communities about who some of these various groups are aligned with. Some groups have ties with al-Qaeda and other groups have ties to other jihadi organizations. Another particular concern is the role that Hezbollah may be playing in the war.

Hezbollah is a Shi’a militant group. It has a paramilitary wing that is one of the stronger militant movements within the Middle East. Hezbollah has been a recipient of financial assistance from Syria for years, and what actions it is taking during the civil war remains unclear. Hezbollah would be one actor that could stand in opposition to al-Qaeda (a Sunni organization).

Indeed, there are reports coming out of Syria that sectarian conflict, between Shi’a and Sunni groups as well as between tribes within those denominations, is erupting in the wake of conflict between rebel forces and the military.

The Syrian civil war is a very complicated contest. The breakdown along ethnic lines will be every bit as problematic as it was in Iraq – only Syria has chemical weapons.

There are many ways to analyze the ongoing conflict in Syria. It can be seen as a revolution against an authoritarian regime, or as a proxy war between Sunnis and Shi’a, or as means for al-Qaeda and similar organizations to find new relevance. All of these approaches are helpful in understanding the nuances of varying actors and their motivations in the war.

Further debate on a U.S. response to Syria is expected later today after lawmakers receive a classified briefing on the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons.

The White House said that the administration will wait to announce its next moves until a United Nations investigation into the two suspected cases of chemical weapons produces “credible corroboration” of the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “If it is verified, then obviously it is a crossing of the red line and would greatly change our posture there.”

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