Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Charlie Hebdo (2): more double standards

Joe Sacco, in a full-page cartoon strip in The Guardian (10.1),  I think just about got the balance right.  He notes,  as does Tariq Ramadan, that Charlie Hebdo once sacked Maurice Siné (or Sinet) for an allegedly anti-semitic cartoon.

One aspect of the intellectual mood in France,  before the attacks,  was captured in Michel Houellebecq's latest novel,  which is due to be published in English later this year:  it envisages a future in which the "Islamic party" wins the 2022 presidential election.  This seems to me somewhat hysterical,  though some disagree.

As both Nabila Ramdani on BBC WS, Weekend 10.1,  and Abdullah al Andalusi on Channel 4 News, 12.1,  point out,  France is not consistent in allowing freedom of expression,  since muslims have restrictions imposed on their dress,  on schoolgirls wearing the hijab (headscarf) and more recently on the wearing of the burqa and niqab in public.

In a way that we anglo-saxones find difficult to understand,  many in France,  including "liberals" and those on the left,  worship secularism (or laïcité) as an end in itself,  making of it a kind of fourth pillar of the Republic along with liberty,  equality and fraternity. (1)

At the press conference for the first issue of Charlie Hebdo after the attack,  one of the editorial board said,  'If you say "I am Charlie, you should also say "I am secularism" ' (BBC WS, 13.1, 22:09).

You do not have to push this  much further to arrive at the position of the Front national. Marine Le Pen:  "we have to oppose all demands that aim to shatter secularism [..] Demands that create special rules that would allow Muslims to behave differently."  (interview on AJE, 13.1). (2)

(1) There is a small but articulate minority that opposes the dominant trend.  Here's Christine Delphy: "nous assistons depuis les massacres des 7, 8 et 9 janvier au retour en force d’un néo-laïcisme autoritaire".  And Pierre Tevanian: "« Laïcité sacrée » : cet invraisemblable slogan, figurant sur des autocollants arborés lors d’une manifestation commémorant le centenaire de la loi de 1905, indique à quel point la laïcité a été, au sens propre, sacralisée". He reminds us of Jacques Chirac's « on ne doit pas toucher aux piliers du temple ».

(2)  Ms Le Pen is leading in opinion polls since the attack,  but she would lose in the second round of the presidentielle (The Times, 31.1).

For more about how muslims feel about the "secular" state in France,  listen to or download Assignment from the BBC WS, broadcast last Sunday (2.2, also 29.1).

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Charlie Hebdo (1): double standards

Tariq Ramadan on Al Jazeera English, 8.1.2015, says: we must value Arab lives equally  - Syria, Iraq, Gaza ... Quite right. He continues in the same vein in The Guardian (The Paris attackers hijacked Islam but there is no war between Islam and the west, 10.1):
We are reacting emotionally because 12 people were killed in Paris,  but there are hundreds being killed day in,  day out in Syria and Iraq,  and still we send more bombs.
Oh dear,  that last phrase.  Most of the people killed in Syria are by bombs sent by the Assad government , while in Iraq and Syria,  ISIL are carrying out massacres and cold-blooded executions and it is against them that we are sending  bombs.

.Jonathan Freedland writes (Charlie Hebdo: first they came for the cartoonists, then they came for the Jews):
So far there have been mercifully few attempts to make the usual, kneejerk move, insisting that the animating grievance must be western foreign policy. It is hard to draw that conclusion when the targets have been a satirical magazine and a shop selling salt beef and pickles.
It did not take long for that to be done, by none other, perhaps unsurprisingly, than former French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin. His views were echoed (again unsurprisingly) by Alain Gresh of Le Monde Diplomatique. This is de Villepin:
The West has created Islamic terrorism and ISIL is the nasty child of the arrogance of the West's policies.
The Western intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Mali has led to an increase in the number of the jihadists  (Inside Story, AJE, 11.1)
De Villepin's views on the 2003 intervention in Iraq are of course well known and often repeated.  There is a strong argument that the action was not justified,  was even counter-productive in terms of the fight against terrorism (or jihadists or violent islamism).  It is a well-worn refrain that "there was no al Qaeda in Iraq before 2003" (though there was some, near the Iranian border,  but probably not with the collusion of the regime).  But it should also not be forgotten that there was no al Qaeda in Syria before,  without any intervention from the West, its people carried out an uprising against a dictator,  which was brutally suppressed.

It is strange, though, that de Villepin lumps in Afghanistan and Mali.  In Afghanistan,  the US intervention in 2001  removed an AQ safe haven.  In Mali,  separatist rebels,  then islamists, took control of the North when government forces collapsed following a military coup.  Most people in towns like Gao and Timbuktu,  mainly non-Tuareg, were unhappy with being under the control of the rebels.  The French intervention (in January 2013) was again entirely justified,  as the rebels were moving into the centre and south of the country.

As for Libya,  no-one could deny that it now does not have an effective government.  But what would de Villepin have preferred?  That we stood by while Gaddafi suppressed the uprising?  That seems to me to be a counsel of despair:  al Qaeda was at a low ebb when the "Arab Spring" seemed to be going well.  There is an argument that is at least equally as strong that it was Western non-intervention in Syria that created the conditions for Al Qaeda in Iraq to come back as ISIL (or "Islamic State") and that tolerance of a military coup in Egypt facilitated the resurgence of jihadis generally.

Cherif Kouachi,  who is said to have been originally radicalised by the US abuses in Abu Ghraib,  interviewed by French TV, after the Charlie Hebdo attack: 
I,  Cherif Kouachi, was sent by al Qaeda in Yemen. ... Did we kill civilians during the two days you've been looking for us.
Interviewer: you killed journalists.
Kouachi:  But did we kill civilians?  Civilians or people during the two days that you looked for us?
Interviewer: Wait,  wait,  Cherif, Cherif,  did you kill this morning? Kouachi:  We are not killers. .. We don't kill women.  We kill no one. .. We are not like you. You are the ones killing [ inaudible] muslims [ or women and children, according to the English subtitles] in Syria,  Iraq and Afghanistan. [..]
Interviewer: But you took revenge there nonetheless,  you killed 12 people. 
Kouachi: Yes,  to take revenge , as you said.  That's it,  because we took revenge.
Amedy Coulibaly did kill a trainee policewoman in Montrouge in the South of Paris,  before killing 4 Jewish people at a kosher supermarket in porte de Vincennes in the east of the city (Coulibaly's partner and Chérif Kouachi's wife had exchanged more than 500 'phone calls the previous year,  French authorities revealed). Elsa Cayat ("Charlie Divan") was among those killed at Charlie Hebdo.  The Kouachis did spare Corinne Rey ("Coco"),  who was about to leave to pick up her daughter from kindergarten,  but threatened her with their guns,  forcing her to enter the security code giving them access to the magazine's offices.

(1) Incidentally,  in case you wondered who the man was on Francois Hollande's right at the rally in Paris on 11.1,  The Guardian provided this useful guide: it's Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (elected democratically following that French intervention);  Benjamin Netanyahu is on IBK's right,  Mahmoud Abbas is 3rd from Hollande's left.
And something I've just come across: Coulibaly's family was of Malian origin and there was some speculation that his body might go to Mali for burial.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The CIA: torture and the US

The US senate committee report was attacked by most Republicans as being politically motivated in the dying days of the Democrat controlled Senate.  An honourable exception was John McCain (again), almost unreported,  but I happened to catch him speaking (live on Al Jazeera English, 9.12, 17:30).

Leaving aside the debate over whether the methods used constituted torture or could be described as "extended interrogation techniques",  or EITs (they were torture - Geoff Dyer in the FT provides a useful summary (limited access)), the key question is whether the techniques were efficacious.  This matters because polls show that a majority in the US would support the use of these techniques,  provided they help prevent terrorist attacks.

John Brennan,  CIA director,  says it is "unknown and unknowable" whether the techniques can be shown to have provided useful and valuable information.  On the BBC WS, (Weekend, 13.12.2014, 08:06 +2:30) Philippe Sands says Brennan "confirms that he is unable to state categorically that the techniques produced information useful in the [..] war against terrorism", which Sands says supports the conclusion of the report (that the techniques were ineffective).  But it doesn't:  Brennan says that we cannot know whether the useful information given by detainees was as a result of the techniques being used on them.  Which is not the same thing.

Sands goes on to call for what amounts to a witch-hunt on any lawyer who gave advice that would have justified the techniques.

However,  the point that even if the techniques could be shown to work in the short term,  in preventing attacks,  this is outweighed by the immense damage to the US's reputation in the long term.

Also unanswerable is the point,  made by both Moazzam Begg and Clive Stafford Smith (*),  that the torture techniques provided incorrect information linking Saddam Hussein's Iraq with al Qaeda.

* AJE, 9.12 13:06; C4 News, 15.12 19:18.

Posted 29.12.2014

Update 29.12.2014.
Needless to say,  some of the reaction around the world has been of breathtaking hypocrisy

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Converting for ISIL ...

ISIL certainly seems to be attracting all sorts of nutcases and psychopaths to associate themselves with the group. That's a success of a sort, I suppose.  Most media (BBC, AJE) had extensive reports of the case of Man Haron Monis,  who killed 2 Australians in Sydney on Monday (early hours of Tuesday local time),  and mentioned that he was Iranian, but not what I was most interested in.

This from The Guardian:
As recently as last week on a website he used both to defend and promote himself, he announced that he had converted from Shia to Sunni Islam and pledged his allegiance to the caliphate declared by the militant group Islamic State [ISIL]. That website was shut down as Monday’s siege developed, and police asked media outlets to refrain from giving him a platform as he held 17 hostages in the Lindt cafe in Martin Place.
Sydney Shia leaders had apparently urged federal police to probe his claim to be a leading cleric, while he was ignored by the Sunni community. He had no links to the Islamic State terrorist group, and despite his criminal past was not seen as a likely exponent of the group’s ideology.
See also Jonathan Rugman's report on C4N (15/12).  According to C4N, Monis posted on his website:
 "I used to be a Rafidi, but not anymore. Now I am a Muslim, Alhamdu Lillah”
...

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tweeting for ISIL?

It was quite a shock to see Channel 4 News on Thursday (11/12),   with ‏@ShamiWitness emblazoned across the  background.  I'd come across this userid myself on Twitter.  A look through the archive shows the odd retweet, but mainly tweets he was mentioned in.

Aymenn J. Al-Tamimi, writing on Joshua Landis's Syria Comment blog, has a detailed analysis:

he emerged on the Twitter scene around the beginning of 2013. At that time, he would often try to engage certain, more prominent Twitter users on issues related to the Islamic world, myself among them. For instance, one of his first tweets to me was to criticise a rather inane tweet I had written on a ‘Bangladesh Spring’ victory over Islamists.
His perspective was clearly that of an Islamist but- undoubtedly through prior tracking of social media- he seemed to have a broad knowledge of Syria’s Sunni insurgency with a particular focus on Salafi and jihadi groups, something that extended to Libya in particular and the wider Muslim world [..]. Other indications of his Islamist leanings in those earlier times were his support for the Ikhwan-led government in Egypt [i.e. the Morsi / Muslim Brotherhood government ] - his main line of defence being that none of the Ikhwan’s opponents could necessarily do a better job at governance (not an unreasonable argument)- and his cheering on of Erdogan during the Gezi Park protests that erupted in May 2013. It was of course during this same period (i.e. April 2013 onwards) that IS’ predecessor the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) emerged: at that early stage of ISIS’ existence it would not necessarily be fair to characterize him as an ISIS partisan. On the contrary he was more keen on the notion of ‘Islamic rebel/jihadi unity’, so to speak: something that could include ISIS. In short, his worldview was of an Islamist who at least had hope in the gradualist non-violent Islamisation projects of Erdogan and the Ikhwan in Egypt while showing sympathy for jihadis more generally. [..]
Two events mark key points in Shami’s transformation from an apparently rather standard Islamist to the IS fanboy as so many have come to know him. [..] The first event was the coup against the Ikhwan-led government, which enraged him considerably. Yet even after this point, he had not yet become a full-blown ISIS partisan, but rather was still willing to give credence to forces like Jabhat al-Nusra (Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate) and the Islamic Front coalition, which contrasts him with other prominent hardline ISIS fans at the time  [..]. Thus, the second main turning point was the outbreak of infighting between ISIS and rebel groups at the start of 2014. This completes his definite public transformation into the ISIS/IS fanboy. It is also this stage, it should be noted, where many of the other pro-jihadi Twitter users take more definite sides in contrast to a previous attempt at jihadi brotherology.
This is worth reading in full.

The Times,   on Saturday, described ShamiWitness as an "Isis spokesman" and got the timing slightly wrong: it says the unmasking was "last night";  in fact, the original story was run on C4N, Thursday (19:00),  with a followup on Friday (19:07).

Posted 16.12.2014

Update: 16.12.
Simon Israel's latest piece for C4N,  Sunday (14/12), can be found here

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Israeli shifts on Gaza?

An interesting piece from AJE (8/8):
the ceasefire has temporarily silenced critics on the right. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who last month called for a resumption of the occupation of the strip, now wants to hand it over to the United Nations - an organisation he has long demonised.
...
Hamas was pushed into inking a "unity deal" with Fatah, and a national consensus government was born. Netanyahu spent weeks trying to kill the deal, and was furious when the US and other nations endorsed the new government. He walked away from negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas precisely because of the agreement.
Netanyahu now wants to implement some of the terms of the deal in a permanent ceasefire with Hamas:  negotiators want the agreement to give the Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces control of Rafah crossing. "We have cooperated, and are cooperating, with the PA on [these] matters," Netanyahu said on Wednesday. "We’re prepared to see a role for them."
(Dalia Hatuqa reporting from Ramallah and Gregg Carlstrom from Tel Aviv.)
...

Monday, August 11, 2014

Gaza / Israel vs the Rest of the World

On 17 July, late afternoon, Al Jazeera English already had one big story, the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine. By the end of the day, however, this was replaced by another story which required round the clock coverage (involving much repetition and conjecture). After several days of exchange of rockets into Israel and airstrikes into Gaza, Israel launched a full-scale ground offensive on the strip. By 6 August, more than 1850 Palestinians had been killed, together with over 50 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

For days, the BBC's coverage took up 10 minutes (of a 30 minute bulletin), Channel 4 News' 20 minutes (of a 55 minute bulletin). On 29 July, AJE spent all of one of its Newshour programmes on Gaza.

In Libya there were dramatic developments that were largely unremarked ('Dozens of bodies' at captured base in Benghazi). Some places that had their moment in the spotlight, such as the CAR, now receive less attention. Others have never had much attention: Eritrea is only mentioned when refugees from there are drowned or, sometimes, rescued, trying to reach Italy.

And then there's Syria: in one week at the end of July, it is believed that more than 1700 were killed. True, while the barrel-bombs no doubt continue to fall on Aleppo and elsewhere, many of the "extra" deaths seem to be due to greater intensity of fighting, between ISIL and other rebel groups, between ISIL and the regime.

To some extent, this is due to resources: where they are scarce, they are focused on "the big story" of the moment. But mainly it is a question of access. As C4News made clear on a couple of occasions, journalists are able to get into the Gaza strip via Israel ("eventually"). Hamas, after the 2007 kidnapping of the BBC's correspondent, Alan Johnston, also now sees its interest in allowing the story to be reported. 

In contrast, as one BBC man put it, western journalists who go into ISIL-controlled areas will be kidnapped and held for ransom. This is one reason, amongst others, that, pace Benjamin Netanyahu and various Israeli spokesmen, Hamas is not ISIL.

Eventually, the spotlight moved on: while violence resumed after the end of the first 72-hour ceasefire, it was at a lower level (more than 1,900 Palestinians now killed);  on 3 Aug, ISIL ("the Islamic State") captured Sinjar in Northern Iraq and the Yazidi population, faced with a choice of convert to Islam or die, fled to the mountain, where many died of thirst (Yazidis 'buried alive').

Few could argue that Israel matched this barbarity.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Gaza and Israel (2)

From the handbook for Israeli spokespersons, 2009 (via 
There is an immediate and clear distinction between the empathy Americans feel for the Palestinians and the scorn they direct at Palestinian leadership. Hamas is a terrorist organization – Americans get that already. But if it sounds like you are attacking the Palestinian people (even though they elected Hamas) rather than their leadership, you will lose public support.
...

Thursday, July 31, 2014

ISIL advances in Deir Ezzor

(15/7) 'Islamic State' expels rivals from Syria city: "Islamic State killed the Deir Ezzor chief of [Jabhat] al-Nusra and raised their flag in the city," according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The group calling itself the Islamic State, previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant [ISIL], has taken control of the rebel-held portion of the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor,  buoyed by advances in neighbouring Iraq  has said.  Rival rebel groups fighting against forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad either changed sides or fled from the strategic Euphrates valley city.
According to the [SOHR], which relies on a network of activists and medics on the ground, fighters from the Islamic State group were now in control of "95 to 98 percent of Deir Ezzor province". The regime-controls half of Deir Ezzor city, a handful of villages as well as the military airport.
The Observatory said that rivals of the Islamic State group,  including fighters of al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, lost control after negotiations failed with the Islamic State group whose leadership last month declared a "caliphate" straddling Syria and Iraq. "Fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra and the [Islamist] rebel movement Ahrar al-Sham withdrew from their bases in the city, while others pledged their loyalty to [the] Islamic State," the Observatory said.
The rebel spokesman for Deir Ezzor confirmed the reports, blaming international backers of the anti-Assad opposition for a lack of support. Speaking to the AFP news agency via the Internet, Omar Abu Leyla said: "The withdrawal is a result of the lack of any formal financial backing [for the rebels] either from the [exiled] opposition or from the international community." [..]
[ISIL's] gains in Iraq have tipped the balance in the struggle for power in rebel-held areas of eastern and northern Syria where it has been fighting armed groups allied with al-Nusra since January. The Islamic State group already controls the city of Raqqa upstream from Deir Ezzor where it has enforced its hardline form of Islam,  with public executions,  including crucifixions. Abu Leyla added: "Islamic State has no shortage of weapons,  ammunition or fighters,  and the battle became totally asymmetrical, especially after its advance on Mosul and its capture of heavy weapons." (see also NGO: Jihadists expel rivals from Syria’s Deir Ezzor.)
It seems to me that, largely unnoticed, there is a tragedy unfolding for the Syrian people and the broad alliance of groups that are fighting the regime. 

In an earlier report, Omar Abu Leyla was described as a Free Syrian Army spokesman: "But in four months of fighting (in Deir Ezzor), the rebels who were fighting IS did not receive a single bullet" from countries that back the revolt, he complained. (Islamic State 'seizes key Syria oil field', 3/7)

Only 3 weeks previously, Syria Deeply published, "As ISIS Looks Deeper into Deir Ezzor, Nusra Remains Formidable Opponent" (27/6):
even before its Iraqi surge, ISIS was steadily gaining ground in Deir Ezzor, because that is where it has focused its main combat resources in Syria. ISIS pulled back months ago from the main fronts with the regime in the north, and it has focused on seizing control of Deir Ezzor rather than seeking to gain significant ground elsewhere in the country. In contrast,  al-Nusra and leading rebel factions fight ISIS in Deir while continuing to bear the burden of battles with the regime in Aleppo and throughout the north.
President Obama has asked the US Congress to approve $500m
 to train and equip what he described as "moderate" Syrian opposition forces.  The funds would help Syrians defend against forces aligned with President Bashar al-Assad, the White House said. The aid would also counter Islamist militants such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis), it added.  [..] it is unclear whether and when Congress would act on his request. (26/6)
Update (2 Aug.)
Jeff Weintraub links to my post, with some comments:
what all this means is that the less extremist, non-jihadist groups in that area had already been forced into an alliance with the Al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, in a last-ditch effort to resist ISIS,
I don't think they were forced into an alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra because of the threat from ISIL: they have been fighting alongside JN against the regime for a while; when the US State Department designated JN as a terrorist organization in late 2012 / early 2013, the Syrian Opposition Coalition spoke out against the decision.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Gaza and Israel

From the ICG:
The U.S., by agreeing to work with the new Palestinian government, has set a positive precedent. Along with the EU and its regional allies, it should encourage the [Palestinian Authority (PA)] to return to Gaza, per the reconciliation agreement, and discourage Israel from getting in the way. None of these parties need publicly to reverse its policy of trying to isolate and topple Hamas – though all would be well advised to, because that policy is misguided and has been counterproductive since it was adopted in 2007 – but each should give the reconciliation deal a chance to work.
Update (31/7)
Jeff Weintraub, 12 Jul:  Is Hamas Trying to Get Gazans Killed? (Jeffrey Goldberg)
I’ve been struck, over the last few days, by the world’s indifference to Gaza’s fate. Perhaps this conflict has been demoted to the status of a Middle East sideshow by the cataclysms in Iraq and Syria.
The Gaza conflict has been featured quite prominently by the BBC, for example. By contrast, Syria is pretty under-reported. I tend to find out from Al Jazeera English that ISIL (IS) continues to make advances in Deir Az Zor province (at the expense of other opposition fighter groups).

On the Gaza situation, what needs to be mentioned is that from the beginning Netanyahu sought to undermine and destroy the Palestinian unity government agreement, reached with Hamas in April. But, as Palestinian spokesmen point out, the agreement sought to bring about elections and a representative government, both in Gaza and the West Bank.

Some useful background from the BBC
In the past it had the backing of Iran and Syria. But Hamas is an offshoot of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and when it sided with Sunni-led rebels opposed to the Alawite Bashar al-Assad and his Shia backers in Tehran, Iran responded by turning off the financial taps. Iran used to donate as much as $20m a month - enough to run the government in Gaza.
That didn't matter as long as Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was running Egypt. He strongly identified with Hamas and while he closed some tunnels which ran under the Gaza-Egypt border during his time in the presidential palace, others remained open. Those tunnels brought in weapons of course, but they were used to smuggle in consumer goods too, which Hamas was able to tax.
The new Egyptian government of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi considers the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation and sees Hamas as being cut from the same cloth. Many more smuggling tunnels have been closed down, and with them another source of revenue.
In desperation Hamas came to a sort of political reconciliation with its bitter rival Fatah which in its guise as the Palestinian Authority runs the West Bank under Israeli occupation.
---
Owen Jones, writing in the Guardian, demonstrates how to pretend you care about a war crime when you don't really give a damn
If you're interested, here is Owen Jones on Channel 4 News, talking about Iraq. I found his arguments there very glib, too.
---
Bradley Burston's historical sketch of how rockets explain the rise & fall of the Israel peace camp
Then, sit back and watch demographics and despair work their magic. No wonder Hamas officials who are seen as moderates urge a 50-year truce. By that time, Israeli Arabs will be able to simply vote the Jewish state off the map.
So that's the argument for Israeli settlements on Palestinian land? What arguments do the peace movement have against that?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

ISIL in Syria and Iraq

In The Times, 23/6, Melanie Phillips, former columnist for the Daily Mail, writes in support of the position of the paper's leader, that now is not the time to make "an ally" of Iran. The Times piece is behind its pay wall, but similar arguments could be found in The Jerusalem Post, another newspaper in the Murdoch stable (With Iran, my enemy’s enemy is still my enemy, Jun 20, 2014):
the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a savage terrorist army previously known as al-Qaida in Iraq, has routed the Iraqi army and now controls territory from the outskirts of Aleppo in Syria to Fallujah and Mosul in Iraq, even threatening Baghdad.
Leaving aside the fact the whole of the Iraqi army has not collapsed, only 2 divisions, this is somewhat misleading as to the amount of control ISIL (ISIS) has (or had) in Syria and ignores the extent to which they had been pushed back by other rebel groups. Charles Lister, in a paper from May:
By late January 2014, ISIS had lost control of 28 separate municipalities across Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, al-Raqqa and Deir Ezzor governorates. Rather than suffering total defeats in these positions, however, ISIS strategically redeployed its forces into better-defended and more valuable positions, presumably preparing for its next move. This came on February 2 when a large ISIS force unexpectedly attacked and captured the financially valuable Conoco gas field (said to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per week) from Jabhat al-Nusra and allied tribal forces in Deir Ezzor. This surprise attack [..] prompted a major counter-attack by Islamist militants (including Jabhat al-Nusra), FSA-branded fighters, and local tribesmen, resulting in ISIS’s near-total expulsion from the governorate by February 11. Meanwhile, continued pressure against ISIS in northern Syria saw the group withdraw from its positions in northern Aleppo on February 27 and redeploy eastwards, while by March 13 it had completely withdrawn from the northwestern governorates of Latakia and Idlib. This left ISIS in control of parts of eastern Aleppo and, crucially, the key transport routes leading to the jewel in ISIS’ crown: the city of al-Raqqa. There, the true face of the organization has since become clear with harsh punishments now being meted out, including the March 22 crucifixion of a man accused of murder.
Even where it lost control of territory, though, ISIL continued to play a destructive role against forces fighting the Assad regime. It "has been blamed for several car bombings at rival group headquarters, checkpoints, and at the Bab al-Salameh and Bab al-Hawa border crossings with Turkey" and for the assassination of leaders from rival groups Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Jeremy Bowen reports from Aleppo (16 Jun), "Islamist fighters of different levels of radicalism dominate the rebel side in Aleppo. In rural Aleppo, east towards Iraq, Isis territory begins."

From a later piece by Charles Lister for the BBC (27 Jun): "[Isis] controls large swathes of territory - stretching from al-Bab in eastern Aleppo province in Syria to as far as Suleiman Bek 415 miles [..] away in Iraq's Salahuddin province." The map, as used on many other BBC web pages, shows 3 towns in northern Syria under complete ISIL control, without naming them. According to a map shown on CNN, they are, leading North-East from Aleppo, al-Bab, Manbij and Jarabulus, near the Turkish border (*).

On 28 Jun, Al Jazeera English (AJE) reported that there had been clashes around Deir Az Zor between ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra and that 2 JN commanders had deserted to ISIL.

Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) is al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, Yemenis from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula may be in northern Syria, collaborating with JN, passing on bomb-making skills (**). According to a report by Paul Wood from Idlib (3 June 2014), the black flag of the Islamic Front is almost indistinguishable from that of ISIL, though IF's ideology is considerably more moderate.  

So, the West may have legitimate concerns that are not limited to ISIL. But purely from a Syrian point of view, ISIL must be distinguished from all the other groups. For the Syrian people, who in the overwhelming majority still want to be rid of Assad,  ISIL is not on their side. Objectively, it is an element that is against the revolutionary (anti-Assad) forces. When people talk about "infighting among the Syrian rebels" (***), let us be clear: fighting between the other groups is minimal; nearly all the "infighting" is between ISIL against the rest.

AJE, Listening Post, 5 Jul, +07:00; see also the map from @deSyracuse.

** Richard Barrett, formerly of MI6, C4 News, 3 Jul; Chris Yates, BBC WS, Weekend, 5 Jul; Frank Gardner, BBC.
*** See, for example, this discussion on C4 News, 1 Jul (2nd video).

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

'The End of Iraq' (revisited)

Jeff Weintraub writes on signs of a shift in Turkey's position towards accepting the creation of a Kurdish state out of northern Iraq.

The Kurds and their advisors have long advocated the partition of  Iraq, as here in 2006,  where it is described as "self-serving ... Kurdo-centric", involving the creation of "two entirely artificial and highly unstable “Sunni” and “Shiite” regions".

There are many now who seem to welcome,  or accept as inevitable,  the division of Iraq into 3 states,  but few who see its drawbacks or who are prepared to discuss in detail what it would mean.

One of the main problems, it always seems to me, is Baghdad,  with its mix of Shi'a and Sunni Arabs (and others).  We are told that after years of "ethnic cleansing" Baghdad now has a strong majority of Shi'a,  but there are still large areas in and around the city that are heavily Sunni and any break-up of Iraq would require,  if not the partition of Baghdad,  then further huge removal of people from minority groups.

US policy seems to be to try to persuade the Kurds to stay onboard as the 3rd leg of the stool in Iraq,  as Secretary of  State John Kerry,  as well as British Foreign Secretary William Hague,  doubtless argued in recent visits to Irbil.  However, they face the defection of key allies, Turkey, as discussed above, and Israel,  from this position.  And now the president of Iraq's Kurdistan Region has said he is planning to hold a referendum on independence,  the result of which would appear to be a foregone conclusion.

Incidentally,  nobody now seems to remember that Kurdish forces were deployed to Baghdad in early 2007 along with the US surge,  which helped to rescue Iraq from chaos (*).

* See New York Times, 16 Jan 2007 "Top U.S. General in Iraq Says New Plan to Pacify Baghdad May Take Months to Show Results"

Update (3 Jul):
From Jeff Weintraub's post:  
The Turkish spokesman being quoted here expresses anger at the US for having, in his view, "created a Shia bloc to the south of our country."
Of course the US is always to blame, "100% or more",  as one AJE interviewee put it  (Ayad al-Qazzaz of California State University, 28/6).

I subsequently came across this opinion piece from Leslie Gelb in the NYT:  Iraq Must Not Come Apart.  While his suggestion that we should abandon the Syrian opposition and ally with Assad to fight against ISIL I find extraordinary,  what he says about federalism is certainly worth considering.
In 2006, [Joe] Biden and I [..] proposed instead that Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions “each be responsible for their own domestic laws, administration and internal security.” Baghdad would be declared a federal zone, and the central government there would be tasked with controlling defense, foreign affairs and the equitable distribution of oil revenues.
[..]
Let me offer a strategy that prioritizes fighting the jihadis now and pushes for federalism later. [..] If the jihadis can be halted, then smashed [..] the Iraqis must turn back to politics and the principle of powersharing that they spurned not so long ago. [..] if the Iraqi Humpty Dumpty is to be made whole again, it can be only through a federal power-sharing formula.
Jeff Weintraub (via e-mail): 
Back during the negotiations that led to the 2005 constitutional settlement, the major party representing Shiite Arabs, SCIRI, favored comprehensive regionalized federalism.  The representatives of Sunni Arab political forces were strongly committed to a centralized and unitary political structure--which united the Kurdish and Shiite representatives against them.  But some other Shiite political forces also favored centralization and opposed decentralized federal structures--including the Sadrists and Maliki's Dawa Party.)
Another thing you hear now is that "the Americans imposed a sectarian system on Iraq" (blame the US again).  Jeff's recollection of the period is clearly much more detailed than mine,  but what I recall in broad brush terms is that while it is undoubtedly true that the US imposed various things during the period when Paul Bremer was "viceroy",  in the 2004-5 process of creating a constitution and getting an elected government,  with Ayatollah Sistani (who has recently re-emerged from the shadows) playing an important role,  Iraqis,  as a majority,  got what they wanted.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Syria: the fight against ISIL

The rise and fall of ISIL in Syria, Robin Yassin-Kassab (19/1):
ISIL should not be considered part of the revolutionary opposition. It has fought Free Syrian Army (FSA) divisions as well as Kurdish groups; it has assassinated FSA and more moderate Islamist commanders and abducted revolutionary activists. It serves the regime's agenda by terrifying minority groups, deterring journalists, and influencing the calculations of men like the former US ambassador to Syria Ryan Crocker who wrote (from a deficit of both information and principle, and with stunning short-sightedness): "We need to come to terms with a future that includes Assad - and consider that as bad as he is, there is something worse."
Indeed, many Syrians are convinced that ISIL is an Assad creation, or even a collaborative work of Assad and the great powers. Why else, they ask, does Turkey, a NATO member, make it so easy for foreign militants to cross the border? Why has the regime bombed the schools and marketplaces of Raqqa (a city held by ISIL for half a year), but not the well-known ISIL headquarters?
[..]
This alliance of seven leading Islamist factions [the Islamist (or Islamic) Front, fighting against ISIL] was cobbled together last fall, and so far seems much more disciplined, certainly better armed, than the FSA ever was. Its eclipsing of the secular FSA happened not despite Western policy (as many journalists insist on misleadingly describing them as "Western-backed") but because of it. The vanishing of Obama's "red line" and his handing the Syria file over to Putin after the mass Sarin gas attacks of August 2[1], catalysed the Islamist realignment, and probably a burst of Saudi largesse. 
I think I agree with most of this. I should point out though that the anti-ISIL forces do not seem to be doing very well lately (this map is a useful summary) and, as Charles Lister points out, ISIL could be a big nuisance for some time to come, as they are in Iraq

As an update to what I posted, regarding the Latakia massacres last August:
Ahrar al-Sham, the largest organisation in the [Islamist] Front, was implicated by Human Rights Watch in the slaughter in Lattakia province in August 2013 - so far the only documented large-scale massacre of Alawi civilians. The organisation denies involvement. 
That ISIL carries out horrific abuses, that are as bad as the regime's, is well-documented. One of the most-detailed accounts, in a recent article by Isabel Hunter about events in Jarabulus, illustrates both this and the fightback by ISIL:
[..] scenes of medieval violence in Syria's northern border-town [..] Fighting came to a head on January 17, between rebel groups Liwa al-Tawhid Brigade and [ISIL] in the town, when reinforcements arrived from Raqqa and reclaimed the city in a brutal four-hour battle. By nightfall, at least 10 men had been beheaded, their heads mounted on spikes, and more than 1,000 refugees fled the 3kms across the border to Turkey.
It's a shocking turn of events for residents and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters alike, who just a week ago believed they were hours away from expelling the al-Qaeda group from their city altogether after surrounding the last 40 fighters in the city's cultural centre.

[..]
Al-Qaeda's [ISIL's] extreme tactics goes a long way to explain how they have reclaimed much of the territory in northern Syria. Despite being fewer in number than the opposing rebel factions, their use of terror and increasing use of attacks on civilians is winning out. (Al-Qaeda slaughters on Syria's killing fields, 21/1)
The brutality of ISIL in regaining control in some towns in the North seems to exceed even that with which they established control in September (see, for example, events in Azaz).

Update: more (gruesome) details here - La ville syrienne de Jarablus, de la révolution à l’horreur, Cedric Labrousse (21/1).  

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Turkey, Erdogan and the Kurds

Some reflections on the crisis in Turkey.

Turkey is one of the few friends Morsi and the MB have left in the region. Here we might be seeing the collapse or implosion of another Islamist government, but before we cheer too loudly, remember that the alternative could be the return of the "deep state", i.e. the army, which might be some way off in Turkey, but is certainly back with a vengeance in Egypt.

Secondly, Okan Altiparmak and Claire Berlinski (via Jeff Weintraub), on the views of the U.S. Ambassador in January 2004, as revealed by Wikileaks: 
These observations [such as the influence of Islamic brotherhoods and groups (including the followers of Fethullah Gulen)] would, logically, give a rational observer pause, but instead lead Edelman to assert [..] that the AKP is therefore the only party capable of “advancing the U.S. vision of a successful, democratic Turkey integrated into Europe.”
According to this analysis from Yavuz Baydar
the friction started to develop between the two men in 2010. And it has always had to do with two clashing views within the sphere of Islam stemming from the old traditions of Turkey. The first element had to with Erdogan's deviation away from Turkey's European Union membership aspiration. When Gulen, who has been vocal in supporting a civilian constitution, saw delays in the process, his patience grew thin.
Thirdly, the Kurds. In Syria - this is a largely unreported dimension of the war - it seems Turkey will support the most extreme jihadist elements of the opposition fighters, just as long as they fight the Kurds. But it appears that it does this for "Turkish", not "Islamist" reasons. With regard to the Kurds in Turkey itself, Yavuz Baydar argues that this lies at the heart of rift between the AKP and the Gulenists:
 a deep division emerged on Erdogan's choice to conduct the so-called "Kurdish Peace Process". Erdogan's methodology was to negotiate directly with the PKK, both with its leader Abdullah Ocalan, and its "military command" in Iraq's Qandil Mountains.

But, Gulenists, who see the PKK as the main adversary in the mainly Kurdish regions - as the PKK considers them - were discreetly dismayed. They argued reasonably, that Erdogan could and should focus on broader political reform, push for a civilian constitution and grant all the rights the Kurds of Turkey demand, such as recognition of ethnic identity, education in their mother tongue, and endorsement of local governments - without talking to the PKK. This approach, Hizmet's supporters argued, would weaken the PKK, because it would "disarm" the armed movement from all the reasons it continued to wage guerrilla warfare.
Also  Erdogan Agonistes – Is this what a panicked Erdogan looks like? (Michael Koplow)

Update: 2 Jan 2014
I had a quick skim of another opinion piece from Al Jazeera, by Yüksel Sezgin, Erdogan-Gulen-Gul rivalry: All the Sultan's men. From this, it appears purely as a struggle for power (without any great ideological issues).

Jeff Weintraub, in another post, has some comments about the previous piece from Al Jazeera, including
I couldn't help noticing a curious little detail about the photo at the head of Baydar's article [..]  Someone on the Al Jazeera staff (who probably didn't know Turkish and wasn't paying close attention) decided to illustrate this article with a photo of demonstrators from Turkey's Communist Party, carrying posters with pictures of both Erdogan and Gulen and condemning them en bloc.  Some people who do know Turkish were kind enough to help me out with a translation of the slogan on the poster. What it says (roughly) is:  "We will destroy the reign of thieves."
...