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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Why Iraq is Failing

June 17, 2014

On Sunday, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed to have captured and slaughtered hundreds of Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim soldiers.

Mosul and Tikrit were taken in a matter of days by Islamic insurgents, and those insurgents are now moving toward Baghdad.

Baghdad 22

ISIS looks more like a well-organized army than your typical ragtag insurgent group. ISIS seized at least $500 million in Mosul alone by raiding banks. They’ve also done very well from the oil fields of eastern Syria. The conservative intelligence estimate is that this organization now has cash and resources of around about $1.2 billion.

ISIS is robust, it is organized, and it is very, very disciplined.

ISIS is attempting to press home its agenda, which is to enforce an Islamic caliphate and to oust the Shi’a power base in Iraq. It’s attempting to do this with a two-pronged approach—ruthless military force on one hand and quiet coercion on the other—as it attempts to establish itself among the Sunni communities.

Shi’ite Iran is a key ally of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shi’a dominated government. Iran is deeply worried that ISIS could destabilize and weaken Shi’ite political influence.

That ISIS could so swiftly move on Mosul and Tikrit reveals the depths of Iraq’s sectarian divide. Mosul is a predominantly Sunni city long alienated by the mostly Shi’ite government in Baghdad. ISIS rode that wave of Sunni anger, finding allies among Sunni tribal leaders, ex-military officers under Saddam Hussein, and other Islamist groups in Iraq. The national army didn’t put up a fight.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria spells out its motivations in its name and now controls a state-sized territory that spans from northern Syria to western Iraq. Two conflicts have been merged—the Syrian Civil War and a larger one looming in Iraq—erasing an international border.

Conflict in Iraq is currently being fought between non-state actors: between a Sunni insurgent group who cares very little about Western drawn and artificial nation-state borders, and Shi’a irregulars who were extremely active in the Iraqi sectarian war in 2006 and are now quickly reorganizing.

That Iraq has remained intact as a nation this long is nothing less than a miracle.

Before World War I, the Ottoman Empire controlled the Arab world via a decentralized system of provinces (vilayets) along tribal, religious, and sectarian lines. These vilayets were subdivided into sub-provinces (sanjak) under a mütesarrif, then further divided into jurisdictions (kaza) under a kaimakam, and finally into communes. Constant regional conflicts made the Arab world a continuously volatile and unpredictable place, and the iron fist of Ottoman rule kept only an appearance of order. Any attempt of a more centralized system of government would have made the Ottoman Empire unmanageable.

After World War I, the Ottoman Empire crumbled. The majority of its non-Anatolian territory was divided up among the Allied powers as protectorates. The Western idea of nation building sought to give a modern agglutination to the Arab world by constructing new kingdoms of their own design. The aim was simple: create new royal families who would yield to Western strategic interests.

Under the Ottoman Empire, Iraq was divided into three vilayets: Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra. After World War I, Britain imposed a Hāshimite monarchy over Iraq. Territorial boundaries were drawn without taking into account the tribal, religious, and sectarian politics that plagued the region. The establishment of Sunni domination in Iraq brutally suppressed the majority Shi’a population.

Kingdom of Iraq Arms

Iraq has been a turbulent place ever since. In 1936, the first military coup took place in the Kingdom of Iraq. Multiple coups followed, and Iraq has been characterized by political instability ever since.

The Ba’ath Party took power in 1963 after its leadership assassinated their political rivals. The Ba’ath government stagnated Kurdish insurrection, suppressed Shi’a communities, and disputed territory with Iran and Kuwait. Saddam Hussein, the final and most notorious leader of the Ba’ath Party, maintained power and suppressed Shi’ite and Kurdish rebellions with massive and indiscriminate violence.

The Ba’ath Party was infamous for having a class orientation that marginalized millions in the poorest sections of Iraqi society. Southern Iraq and some areas of Baghdad, populated mostly by Shi’a migrants from southern rural areas, have historically been home to the poorest people.

Iraq’s modern history has seen the most serious sectarian and ethnic tensions following the 2003 US-led occupation. There is plenty of collected anecdotal evidence that suggests that the elites of the Ba’ath Party were targeted by the poor and oppressed before the Ba’athist regime fell to US-led coalition forces. The US-led occupation then exacerbated conditions on the ground by promoting Iraqi organizations that were founded on ethnicity, religion, or sect rather than politics. These policies emphasized differences and divided coexisting communities.

Because the modern nation-state of Iraq is made up of territorial boundaries originally designed and imposed by the British, warring groups over tribal, religious, and sectarian lines have been condensed together. So far, authoritarian regimes have been the only systems of government that have had success at keeping the integrity of these boundaries intact.

Under the Ottoman Empire, territorial borders were changed constantly reflecting the emergence of new conflicts, the changing nature of older conflicts, and the rise of powerful threats. Subdivisional borders were porous and tribes traveled through them constantly giving extreme variability to population figures.

The idea of dividing Iraq into smaller states was floated by the US-led coalition that invaded and occupied the country. If the current success of ISIS in capturing a state-sized territory from northern Syria to western Iraq has shown us anything, it is that the Western idea of nation building is failing in that part of the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire has been gone for less than 100 years, and that is a very short time to expect an entire region of varying peoples and communities to completely change their worldview, overcome their differences, and get along.

Instead, maybe the Western cognitive orientation of the Middle East, based on Western interests and state security, is what needs to be changed. At the very least, it needs to be reexamined. If conflict in Iraq breaks that nation-state back into smaller pieces, is that really such a bad thing? Is it really that important to keep artificial boundaries that were created by Western powers with little to no regard to what the citizens of that country wanted?

Whatever the outcome, the people of Iraq should decide their own fate.

The ISIS offensive has thus far been successful in Iraq, but it will most likely be stalled north of the Shi’a-dominated capital of Baghdad. This will potentially split Iraq along an ethno-religious-sectarian divide. This could lead to a prolonged and bloody standoff that could see the current borders of Iraq crumble.

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.

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.”

The United States has stated that American intervention in Syria is precipitated upon Syria’s use of chemical weapons. This is the ‘red line’ that U.S. President Barack Obama has drawn around the Syrian civil war.

Now there are rumors that last week the Syrian government used chemical weapons on a small scale against some rebel groups. If true, this could be a way for Syria to test this ‘red line’ position. However, I’ve heard from several sources that this alleged use of chemical weapons could be a case of definition mischaracterization.

Most now believe that the Syrian government used tear gas to control a small pocket of insurgents. I find this to be a credible explanation, because no one is alleging that sarin, sulfur mustard, or any other kind of device considered a chemical weapon among Western governments was used. Regardless, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is escalating attacks against his own people, and Assad has shown that he is willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power.

Bashar al-Assad addresses supporters in Damascus

Hezbollah has been an instrument of the Syrian government. Syria has helped to fund and train Hezbollah militants since the group’s inception, and Syria has used Hezbollah as its primary device to attack Israel. The United States is using Israel’s security as a high watermark for further American intervention in the region.

The United States would prefer to put the Middle East behind it. The U.S. has shifted its focus to Asia. China’s growing influence and the increasing regional instability from a nuclear armed North Korea have sapped resources away from the Middle East and North Africa. 

Syria has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world. The prospect of radical Islamist groups getting their hands on some of these weapons is the gravest fear that the U.S. intelligence community has for Mid-East terrorists. But, the shadow of the Iraq war hangs over America’s actions in Syria. The Obama administration’s reluctance to intervene in Syria has been colored by the strategic mistakes of the early Iraq War and the cost the war had to American blood and treasure. The way the Iraq War was launched and the sectarian violence that followed has informed how President Obama approaches the situation in Syria. Mr. Obama really doesn’t want to get involved in the Syrian conflict. But the situation in Syria is not comparable to Iraq before the Iraq War.You can make a much more credible case for intervention now in Syria than you could before in the case of Iraq.

However, more American troops in the region would surely galvanize Islamists not already involved in the Syrian conflict, and I can envision a myriad of scenarios where you could have thousands of Jihadi terrorists flooding into Syria to fight the Americans. This could further destabilize Syria and give even more opportunities for chemical weapons to fall into the wrong hands. So there are strong arguments for why the U.S. should stay out of the Syrian conflict. Nevertheless, if the United States is to remain credible, Mr. Obama will have to stay firm to the ‘red line’ he has drawn around Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is spending the week in Washington D.C. He is meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama as well as other senior administration officials, and the talks are expected to help set the framework for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan after the bulk of American and NATO forces leave at the end of 2014. However, even when the American military pulls the majority of its troops out of Afghanistan, there will still be a huge American presence in the country.

Barack Obama, Hamid Karzai

According to the October 2012 quarterly contractor census report issued by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which includes Afghanistan as well as 19 other countries stretching from Egypt to Kazakhstan, there are approximately 137,000 contractors working for the Pentagon in the Middle East region. There were 113,376 in Afghanistan and 7,336 in Iraq. Of that total, 40,110 were U.S. citizens, 50,560 were local hires, and 46,231 were from neither the U.S. not the country in which they were working.

Candidly, there are currently more contractors than U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The Middle East is overrun with U.S. government contractors, and not all of them work for the American Defense Department. For example, contractors working for the U.S. State Department are prolific. The CENTCOM report says that “of FY 2012, the USG contractor population in Iraq was approximately 13.5K.  Roughly half of these contractors are employed under Department of State contracts.”

While people now understand that contractors perform a lot of missions once done by troops – cleaning toilets, performing security — they may not realize how the size of contractors working in the Middle East has grown, or just how dependent on them the United States government has become.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. government is signing five-year contracts, well beyond the 2014 deadline for all U.S. combat forces to get out of that country. While Karzai is in the U.S. this week to negotiate a timetable for American troop withdrawal, one must assume that his talks won’t have much of an impact on the contractor population within his country. The subject of contractors remains conspicuously absent from Mr. Karzai’s global pulpit, and contractors have remained a strong presence in Iraq since all U.S. troops were withdrawn from that country in December 2011.

With contractors remaining in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, what prospects will their presence have for Afghan peace? Many of the conflicts in Afghanistan are based on local grievances. Karzai has stated that he hopes that militants who were galvanized by local disagreements can be reformed while any factions that fight for a global jihadi movement can be omitted and frozen out of Afghanistan’s political structure.

American officials hope to use any reconciliation talks in Afghanistan as a way to neutralize Taliban regional control. For example, any talks with the Taliban or a Taliban aligned group would be designed to dismantle some parts of the Taliban while excluding the more hostile factions. American strategists are hoping that if the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups become politically impotent, it will lead to a change in their behavior.

Since my recent post about Egypt’s internal turmoil, I’ve had some readers email me asking that I expound on who and what the Muslim Brotherhood are.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a socio-religio-political movement that was founded in Egypt in 1936, and, to me, the Brotherhood’s philosophical framework is best understood through the writings of one of their most prolific members, Sayyid Qutb.

Sayyid Qutb’s interpretation of Islam grew out of the many confrontations that occurred between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian state in the 1950s and 1960s. Increasingly radicalized by Egypt’s suppression of the movement, Qutb espoused a rejectionist ideology that was meant to be a kind of call to arms for the Egyptian people.

Qutb in an Egyptian jail

Qutb in an Egyptian jail

Qutb, who had a modern education, saw the Western world as morally decadent, racist, and devoid of familial responsibility. Worse, the West’s influence was growing in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. Throughout the writings of his forty published books, Qutb divided the world into two antipodal camps, the Muslim world (dar al-Islam) and the world of evil epitomized by the West (dar al-Harb).

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The film that sparked the anti-American violence last week in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen was breathtakingly offensive to most Muslims.

Protests over the film entitled The Innocence of Muslims are now spreading across the Middle East and North Africa. I want to take a moment to talk about what is happening and why.

The now infamous trailer on YouTube was uploaded back in July, but the protests only started in Egypt this past week. There is some chatter that the man who made the film, believed to be Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, specifically targeted the Egyptian news media. It is believed that he alerted the Egyptian press to the YouTube trailer himself for maximum exposure within Egypt. It is possible that Nakoula timed his interaction with the Egyptian press to coincide with 9-11.

First, it is important to understand that the Qur’an and other Islamic teachings are crystal clear: Mohammad is never to be portrayed in a sketch or a painting, much less played by a bad actor in a cheap B movie. For Muslims, Mohammad is the perfect Muslim. He is the living Qur’an.

But this movie shows Mohammad seducing many women, and one actor states that the Prophet was gay. If you are a Christian, imagine if a movie depicted Jesus Christ engaging in oral sex and then claimed that he was a child molester.

The film portrays Mohammad as a sexual predator, a fraud, and possibly insane. It is in the poorest of taste.

The Innocence of Muslims

Sam Becile – which is the pseudonym Nakoula Basseley Nakoula used – claimed to be an Israeli Jew, and said that the film was financed by other Jews back in Israel. That appears to be completely false, though. Nakoula is being identified as an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian who’s alleged to be extremely anti-Muslim.

It is possible that the film was designed to not only denigrate Islam, but also to stir discord between Muslims and the Coptic Christians within Egypt. There’s been a lot of tension in those relations as of late, so such a film would be intended to further strain Egypt’s social fabric.

A series of anti-Christian attacks has heightened tensions since the ouster of Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak. Coptic Christians blame the the Muslim Brotherhood for the increase in violence.

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Part of what is fueling conflict within the Middle East is competing visions of what a Muslim society or culture should be, and conflicting interpretations of what Islam demands. Religiously Inspired conflict over proper etiquette, dress, and entertainment is mounting.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is currently challenging a planned performance by pop star Beyonce at a Red Sea resort. Beyonce’s concert has been announced for November 6th, and the Brotherhood is demanding that the Egyptian Interior Minister explain why she was given permission to perform. Organizing protests and anger against pop concerts headlined by females is a routine Islamist political maneuver.

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The Deobandi Movement

August 31, 2009

In my post on the Taliban last week, I explained that the Taliban’s brand of Islamic radicalism has been significantly influenced by the Deobandi movement. Since that post, I have received several requests asking me to explicate on the history of the Deobandi movement itself. 

The Deobandi movement has evolved out of a Sunni reformist movement. It began in the Indian subcontinent, but it’s political expression and ideology were co-opted by Pakistan’s Jamiyyat-i-Ulama-i-Islam (JUI). The JUI are a religious party with a strict, militant, anti-West, and anti-American culture. The JUI also hate anyone who is a non-Muslim. The JUI trained many members of the Taliban in their madrasas (seminaries). These schools were first set up for Afghan refugees in the Pashtun heavy areas of Pakistan during the Afghan-Soviet war.

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