IS and the dawn of a ‘Long War’
The Hindu, 18 November, 2015
Paris and global response
In the wake of the Paris attacks, and in a rare show of unity, the mightiest militaries across all divides are training their finest weapons on their common enemy — no more than a motley crowd of fighters, and with no air force or navy. The best weapons that IS has are American M16 rifles and M79 anti-tank rockets. Its most sophisticated war platforms are probably surveillance drones. It is believed to have captured Russian origin fighters or parts of the Syrian air force, but there is no evidence of it using them. A number of former military officers from Iraq and at least one sergeant from the Netherlands air force are a part of its ranks.
On the contrary, the United States has already deployed its advanced F-22 Raptor stealth jets, F-16s, F-15s and A-10s. Russia is believed to be deploying the advanced Sukhoi-34, other fighters, attack helicopters and tanks. The French have their Rafale fighter, a jet India now wants to acquire. Almost every intelligence agency is hunting for information on IS, both within Iraq-Syria as well across the world.
However, a concentration of modern militaryware and collective global intelligence may not easily win the war against IS, because it is not just any other terrorist organisation but a movement that is not really understood.
Hunched across a table on the sidelines of the G20 summit at Antalya, Turkey, on Sunday, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to “a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition”. It was historic on many counts. Leaving behind the bitterness of recent times and the historic legacy of their deep mistrust, the two countries, along with other major North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations such as France, are now deploying the deadliest war arsenal in history to take on the enemy.
The better understanding now between Russia and the U.S. could help reduce the potential of an accidental flare-up between the countries that are aligned on various sides of the Syrian battlefield — Iran and Russia empathise with the Bashar al-Assad regime that also has support from the Hezbollah, while other Gulf countries, the U.S. and NATO allies are pitted against President Assad. All of them, separately, are fighting the common enemy.
A different battle
Despite the emerging broader coalition, the war against IS may not be an easy one to fight, or a short-lived act. It could turn out to be far longer and bloodier than the struggle against al-Qaeda, from which IS has its origins but differs from dramatically.
Al-Qaeda was a terrorist network that worked towards carrying out spectacular attacks on western targets, especially the U.S., as part of its strategy towards establishing a caliphate. However, IS is a caliphate that has a geographical presence, and with an organised military and civil bureaucracy.
It follows an ideology that is, in a twisted way, a very early version of Islam from the time of the Prophet. It believes in the savagery of killing everyone who it suspects are apostates. Thus, the mass murders of Shias and Yazidis, as well as the bombings in Paris are all justifiable under its ideology.
The world has always seen movements that have misinterpreted religious scriptures and ideologies to carry out violent expansion. What marks IS as an unusually savage group is the fact that it has found global appeal in a way that very few violent ideologies have found in recent memory.
The result is that on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, there are thousands of fighters from various countries — over 1,300 from France, half this number from Germany, over 3,000 from Tunisia, and about 100 to 150 from Australia, according to a study done by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College, London, and released early this year.
If so many have flocked to the IS caliphate, what about its sympathisers and secret followers in foreign countries? Has it already created hundreds, if not thousands, of admirers who could wreck long-term havoc? What will happen if thousands of fighters in Iraq-Syria are dispersed by the global fightback? Where would they go and what would they end up doing?
Al-Qaeda now looks more like a sepia-tone group run by a derilict group of old men. In contrast, IS looks like a modern organisation with a very effective communication strategy. This is a demon that the world has probably not encountered ever in the past and one that could haunt it for a long time to come.
Battling for Islamic space, imagination
The Hindu, 11 July, 2014
ISIS is not a monolithic jihadi entity. Not surprisingly, its dramatic proclamation of a ‘Caliphate’ in the territories of Iraq and Syria has hardly evoked much enthusiasm outside ISIS’ immediate jihadi circle.
On June 29, the night before the commencement of Ramadan, the spokesman of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced the establishment of the “Caliphate” in the territories of Iraq and Syria occupied by it. This, he said, was “a dream that lives in the depths of every Muslim believer.” He declared that the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, would be the caliph and called upon all Muslims to pledge their allegiance to him. The territory controlled by ISIS would now simply be called the “Islamic State.” This event marks the high point of endeavours by jihadists to capture the Islamic space and imagination that began in modern times with the global jihad in Afghanistan and reached its apogee with the assault on American targets on September 11, 2001.
The predecessor of ISIS is the ferocious jihadi zealot, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1999. Following 9/11, Zarqawi moved to Iraq and, after the United States occupation in 2003, gained notoriety for his violence — including beheadings, kidnappings and suicide bombings — against U.S. forces but more often against Shia targets and even Sunni civilians. In October 2004, he pledged his formal allegiance to bin Laden and named his group Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Zarqawi was killed by the Americans in June 2006. Soon after, in October 2006, AQI renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), emphasising its links to Iraq and its focus on setting up an Islamic state.
The jihadi outlook and violence of the ISI alienated large sections of the Sunni population in Iraq’s Anbar province, including tribal chiefs, professionals and Baathists, who then organised themselves into militia to fight the jihadis. In major confrontations in 2006-09, this movement, known as Sahwa (Awakening), succeeded in defeating the ISI and forcing it to go underground.
The civil conflict in Syria from 2011 provided the opportunity for the ISI to revive itself by sending fighters into Syria who set up a new jihadi organisation, Jabhat Nusra, which formally came into being in January 2012 under the leadership of Abu Mohammed al-Jolani. By the end of 2012, Jabhat Nusra had become the most effective fighting force in Syria. This success encouraged the ISI leader in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had taken over in 2010, to extend ISI’s role into Syria by renaming his organisation the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and announcing the merger of ISIS with Jabhat Nusra. This was rejected by Jolani, who had the support of Ayman Zawahiri, now head of Al-Qaeda.
This caused fierce infighting among the anti-Assad militia, leading to several hundred deaths in 2013. The situation was resolved when the anti-Assad militia coalesced around Jabhat Nusra as the Islamic Front and, at the end of 2013, evicted ISIS from most of its positions in Syria. In February 2014, al-Qaeda formally disavowed any links with ISIS.
The most fascinating aspect of the scenario that will play out in coming months will be the rivalry between ISIS and al-Qaeda as the fountainhead of global jihad
ISIS now consolidated itself once again in Anbar province, taking the town of Fallujah in January 2014. On June 5, it captured Samarra and on June 10 took Mosul, without a fight. Over the next few days, ISIS captured most other towns in north and west Iraq, outside the Kurdish areas, as also posts on the Iraq-Syria border, finally announcing the “Islamic State” on June 29.
The caliphate announced by ISIS is redolent with historic and emotive content. It recalls the era of early Islam after Prophet Mohammed’s death, when the Muslim ummah was headed by the four “Rightly Guided” caliphs. They were the temporal and spiritual heads of the community and also its supreme military commanders, leading the new community to extraordinary victories and the spread of their faith. As Muslim monarchies were set up later, the caliphate became hereditary but continued to be significant up to the destruction of the Abbasid caliphate by the Mongols led by Hulagu Khan in 1258. With the emergence of several Muslim kingdoms, the caliphate ceased to have any significance.
However, throughout the period of colonialism, there were sentimental references to the caliphate as an office that would free the Muslims from western domination and give them the possibility of rejuvenation and victory, as it had done in Islam’s early history. Radical Arab intellectuals in the last century had an added reason to seek the revival of the caliphate: for them it stood for the unity of the Arab lands that had been arbitrarily divided into independent states after the First World War, resulting from the Sykes-Picot Agreement secretly worked out between Britain and France during the war itself. Last week, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi recalled this painful division when he announced his rejection of the borders set by “western infidels and their agents,” and asserted that the borders of the Islamic state would be determined by “the blood of the martyrs.” The blurring of the Syria-Iraq border by the nascent “Islamic State” is the first step in restoring the unity of the Arab and ultimately all Muslim people. ISIS is not a monolithic jihadi entity. While two jihadi groups are at its core, numbering about 5,000, it consists of other Sunni groups which are not jihadi but have come together in a coalition of convenience in opposition to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s avowedly sectarian policies. The principal constituents are: first, Salafi groups that wish to confine their movement to Iraq and seek an independent Sunni state; second, a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated group (Iraqi Hamas) that seeks separate Sunni and Kurdish areas in an Iraqi confederation; third, a large group of tribal chiefs, soldiers from Saddam Hussein’s army and a Naqshabadi force, who support a united Iraq; finally, these are elements linked to the former Baath order that have no Islamist agenda but simply wish to restore Baathist rule in the country.
Challenges before ISIS
Not surprisingly, while the proclamation of the caliphate is quite dramatic, it has hardly evoked much enthusiasm outside ISIS’ immediate jihadi circle. The Baathists and the Naqshbandis have rejected it as alien to their ideological orientation. The extremist doctrines and harsh conduct of the hard core jihadis have put off even those groups that are Islamic, including the Salafi militia in Syria who believe that al-Baghdadi and his cohorts are in a “fantasy world” for attempting to set up an Islamic state through “looting, sabotage and bombing.” Prominent Sunnis in Iraq fear that ISIS will only foment chaos and aggravate divisiveness, while the Shia leaders stigmatise ISIS as terrorists.
Given the small numbers that constitute ISIS’ core jihadi membership, estimated at about 10,000 in both Iraq and Syria, and the large number of groups with different agendas that are part of its coalition, in coming weeks and months ISIS should have considerable difficulty in holding on to the territory it has captured, providing some modicum of governance and maintaining the cohesion of its coalition. The Sunni groups are divided among themselves, with many of them favouring a national government that is non-sectarian and giving Iraq’s different communities a sense of acceptance and participation.
The most fascinating aspect of the scenario that will play out in coming months will be the rivalry between ISIS and al-Qaeda as the fountainhead of global jihad. As of now, ISIS enjoys several advantages over al-Qaeda: while the al-Qaeda leadership is located in the remote inaccessible areas of Afghanistan, ISIS has placed itself at the heart of the Arab world. Again, while al-Qaeda has been paying lip service to the caliphate, ISIS has actually achieved it with dramatic military successes.
Above all, ISIS is flush with funds and weaponry seized in Mosul and other towns, and has boosted its strength with those released from Iraqi prisons. However, these achievements could be short-lived in the face of a powerful external coalition mobilised against it or from its own internal contradictions.
But, that is for the future: as of now, the spirit and forces of jihad, at once relentless and unforgiving, reverberate through the deserts and river valleys of Iraq and parts of Syria. ISIS has proclaimed: “Triumph looms on the horizon. The signs of victory have appeared.” However, as an Arab commentator has noted, the successors of Hulagu Khan now stand before the gates of Baghdad not to restore a caliphate but to wreak destruction on Muslim lands, just as their ancestors had done.
(Talmiz Ahmad was India’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.)
The geopolitics of the Islamic state
The Hindu, 3 July 2014
Both the West and the Gulf Arabs suggest that the terrorism that they dislike against themselves is acceptable to others.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi welcomed this Ramadan by declaring the formation of the Caliphate, with him as the Caliph — namely the successor of the Prophet Mohammed. It is the first return of a Caliphate since Kemal Atatürk’s Turkish National Assembly abolished it in 1924. Al-Baghdadi, the nom de guerre for the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has now announced that borders inside the dar al-Islam, the world of Islam, are no longer applicable. He has been able to make this announcement because his fighters have now taken large swathes of territory in northern Syria and in north-central Iraq, breathing down on Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258).
Al-Baghdadi’s declaration comes after ISIS threatened to make its presence felt outside the territory it now controls. Bomb blasts in Beirut, Lebanon, hinted at ISIS’ reach. Jordanian authorities hastened to crack down on “sleeper cells” for ISIS as soon as chatter on social media suggested that there would be a push into Zarqa and Ma’an. Private Kuwaiti funding had helped ISIS in its early stages, but now Kuwait hinted that it too is worried that ISIS cells might strike the oil-rich emirate. When ISIS took the Jordan-Syria border posts, Saudi Arabia went into high alert. There is no substantive evidence that ISIS is in touch with al-Qaeda in Yemen, but if such coordination exists (now that al-Baghdadi has fashioned himself as the Caliph) it would mean Saudi Arabia has at least two fronts of concern. “All necessary measures,” says the Kingdom, are being taken to thwart the ISIS advance.
Several months ago, two intelligence agencies in the Arab region had confirmed that ISIS is a genuine threat, not a manufactured distraction from the war in Syria. Many of those associated with the rebellion in Syria had suggested that ISIS was egged on by the government of Bashar al-Assad to allow his preferred framing of the Syrian war — that his is a war against terrorism and not against a civic rebellion. While it is true that Assad’s government released a number of jihadis in 2011, there is no evidence to suggest that he created ISIS. ISIS is a product of the U.S. war on Iraq, having been formed first as al-Qaeda in Iraq by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Deeply sectarian politics, namely an anti-Shia agenda, characterised al-Qaeda in this region. Funded by private Gulf Arab money, ISIS entered the Syrian war in 2012 as Jabhat al-Nusra (the Support Front). It certainly turned a civic rebellion into a terrorist war. Political support from the West and logistical support from Turkey and the Gulf Arab states allowed it to thrive in Syria. It became a hub for international jihad, with veterans from Afghanistan and Chechnya now flocking to al-Baghdadi’s band of fellows. By the start of 2014, ISIS held two major Iraqi cities (Ramadi and Fallujah) and two Syrian cities (Raqqa and Deir Ezzor). Their push to Mosul, then Baghdad was on the cards for at least a year.
The West has been consistently naive in its public assessment of events in West Asia. U.S. policy over Syria was befuddled by the belief that the Arab Spring could be understood simply as a fight between freedom and tyranny — concepts adopted from the Cold War. There was a refusal to accept that the civic rebellion of 2011 had morphed quite decisively by late 2012 into a much more dangerous conflict, with the radical jihadis in the ascendancy. It is of course true, as I saw first-hand, that the actual fighters in the jihad groups are a ragtag bunch with no special commitment to this or that ideology. They are anti-Assad, and they joined Jabhat al-Nusra or Ahra¯r ash-Sha¯m because that was the group at hand with arms and logistical means. Nevertheless, the fighters did fight for these groups, giving them the upper hand against the West’s preferred, but anaemic, Free Syrian Army. The Islamic State’s breakthrough in Iraq has inspired some of these men to its formations in Syria. They want to be a part of the excitement.
The West’s backing of the rebellion provided cover for Turkey’s more enthusiastic approach to it. Intoxicated by the possibility of what Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutog˘lu favoured as “neo-Ottomanism,” the Turkish government called for the removal of Assad and the emergence of a pro-Istanbul government in Damascus. Turkey opened its borders to the “rat-line” of international jihad, with planeloads of fighters from Libya and Chechnya flying into Turkey to cross into Syria to fight for ISIS and its offshoots. ISIS spat in Turkey’s salt. ISIS struck Turkey in 2013 with car bombs and abductions, suggesting to Ankara that its policy has endangered its citizens. In March, the Governor of Hatay province, Mehmet Celalettin Lekesiz, called upon the government to create a new policy to “prevent the illegal crossing of militants to Syria.” His report was met with silence.
An ISIS billboard in Mosul depicts the flags of the states in the region. All are crossed out as being traitorous regimes. Only the ISIS black flag stands as a sentinel for justice. Among the regimes to be overthrown is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has used its vast wealth to influence the region, and to outsource its own problems with extremism. In 1962, the Kingdom created the Muslim World League as an instrument against secular Arab nationalism and Communism. Twenty years later, the war in Afghanistan provided the opportunity for the Kingdom to export its own disaffected youth (including Osama bin Laden) to fight the Afghan Communists rather than their own royal family. The 1979 takeover of the Mecca mosque by jihadists was an indication of the threat of such youth. Saudi policy, however, did not save the Kingdom. Al-Qaeda, the product of this policy, threatened and attacked the Kingdom. But little was learned.
Saudi policy vis-à-vis Syria and Iraq repeats the Afghan story. Funds and political support for jihadis in the region came from the Kingdom and its Gulf allies. Saudi Arabia tried to stop its youth from going to the jihad — a perilous mistake that it had made with Afghanistan. On February 3, the King issued a decree forbidding such transit. But there is no pressure on Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to stop their tacit support of ISIS and its cohort. Nor is there pressure on it to stop its financing of the harsh repression in Egypt, sure to fuel more conflict in the near future. The Arab world, flush with hope in 2011, is now drowning in a counter-revolution financed by petrodollars. Saudi Arabia’s response to the rise of ISIS misleads — no intervention to help the Iraqi state. “We are asked what can be done,” wrote its Ambassador to the U.K., Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz. “At the moment, we wait, we watch and we pray.”
No age-old conflict
The fact is that both the West and the Gulf Arabs are doing more. They continue to finance the jihadi rebels in Syria (all promises of vetting by the U.S. are comical), and they continue to see the Assad government as an obstacle to peace in the region. Both the West and the Gulf Arabs suggest that the terrorism that they dislike against themselves is acceptable to others. The history of their policies also suggests that Western and Gulf Arab intervention leads inexorably to the creation of police states (as in Egypt) and terrorist emirates. A lack of basic commitment to people’s movements — anchored in unions and in civic groups — will always lead to such diabolical outcomes.
Meanwhile, sectarian lines are being hardened in the region. The battle now does not revisit the ancient fight at Karbala. This is not an age-old conflict. It is a modern one, over ideas of republicanism and monarchy, Iranian influence and Saudi influence. Shadows of sectarianism do shroud the battle of ordinary people who are frustrated by the lack of opportunities for them and by the lack of a future for their children. What motivates these fights is less the petty prejudices of sect and more the grander ambitions of regional control. Al-Baghdadi has announced that his vision is much greater than that of the Saudi King or the government in Tehran. He wants to command a religion, not just a region. Of such delusions are great societies and cultures destroyed.
(Vijay Prashad is the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon.)
Coalition of the unwilling
Obama’s strategy on the IS is flawed, shows no lesson has been learned.
Indian Express, 22 September 2014
At last week’s Paris conference on Iraq — attended by Russia, China, Japan, the European Union and the Arab League, among others — the US managed to cobble together diplomatic support for its plan for military (read aerial) action against the Islamic State (IS). But no mention was made of such action in IS havens in Syria, which US President Barack Obama’s strategy emphasises.
Even the coalition it has built is dodgy. Iran and Syria were kept out at the behest of the US. But Russia has made it clear that it considers military action without Iran’s cooperation and coordination with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria to be illegal and dangerous. The British House of Commons opposes military action. Further, Turkey, a Nato member, has refused to close its borders, allowing money and supplies to reach Syrian opposition groups. Turkish border towns like Antakya, Kisil and Antalya have become hubs for foreign fighters. The largely Sunni Arab potentates prevaricate, believing that military action will weaken their IS tafkiri proxies and inevitably strengthen Syria.
The military action against the IS in Iraq is the latest of the US’s flawed strategies since the Iraq invasion in 2003. The advent of a democratic leadership there has seemingly made no difference. After the crises in Afghanistan and Libya, we now have Syria and the IS. After dithering on military action, Obama will authorise air strikes against the IS in its safe havens in Syria. That is a major change from keeping the IS in play to build pressure on the then Iraq prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to quit, a delay that ended up strengthening the IS with major field victories in Iraq and Syria.
By any metric of credibility and effectiveness, the US strategy looks as though it will exacerbate the dangerous situation in the Middle East rather than provide a resolution to the crisis. It is flawed in its goal, manner of execution, choice of partners, targets and outcome. At its root, the IS represents a fanatical and violent dimension of a major religion. It is not possible to “degrade and ultimately destroy” a stream of thought by military means; indeed, it might be granted a fresh lease of life. The persistence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was ruthlessly hunted by Arab autocrats three decades ago, is a case in point.
The IS, one of the richest and most ruthless terrorist organisations, brings together nearly 35 Salafist groups. Its jihadi network is valued at $2 billion and rising on stolen oil revenues, looted treasuries and plunder from the sale of lifted antiquities in Iraq and Syria. It controls 35 per cent of Syrian territory, while other similar groups control another 20 per cent. The moderate groups, which the US and the West want to back, control under five per cent of the territory. All these groups — 1,500 at last count — are also Islamists, sectarian and anti-democratic. It hardly serves the US to be enmeshed in an intra-Islamic struggle that Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, says will continue for a decade.
The strategy is also flawed on two significant counts in not seeking to coordinate with the Syrian government and totally bypassing the UN and the Security Council. Under these circumstances, any action by the US and the Western powers will be an illegal invasion of a sovereign country. Predictably, the Assad regime has made this assertion, which it will reverse, of course, if the US makes common cause with it. But the US desists because it does not wish to strengthen Assad and adversely impact Israel’s security.
For the US, cooperation with Syrian intelligence is necessary to destroy the IS. Even though both target the same enemy for the same reason, the US does not accept that the Assad regime is the lesser of two evils. This position amounts to saying it is fine for the US to go after the IS in Syria but not for the Syrian government, whose citizens it includes.
The US’s deliberate bypassing of the UNSC in building the international coalition — of mostly the “unwilling” — says enough about the status of that body. Important Nato members like the UK are not on board, while others, like Germany, are evaluating the blowback of fighting the IS. The US has emasculated the UNSC by not seeking a UN mandate even if only for form’s sake, given the inevitability of a Russian or a Chinese veto. The US action has opened the way for Russia to act in a similar manner in Crimea and Ukraine. It gives China, which has a number of theatres of overt tension on its periphery, the freedom to follow suit.
At the Paris meeting, the Arab League backed the move to expand airstrikes to Syria. The Saudis appeared to have little choice and agreed to provide training bases and funds. It was the best way to deflect attention from the Saudi Wahhabism that spawned the IS. But there is no guarantee that this will play out as the US desires because these are, after all, the same Saudis who allegedly funded the same IS to fight Shias in Iraq and Syria and bring down the Assad regime.
Finally, the US’s public image continues to suffer. The speculation that the IS and its self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were created by the West to fight Shias has taken root. It is no surprise then that even the coalition of the unwilling on Syria finds no traction, as it seems that each country is looking out only for itself.
The IS does need to be combatted. But we need is international action with wide consultations among countries with composite and diverse populations that are most at risk from the group’s ideology. That will ensure strategies are not put in place based on the narrow divisions in play in West Asia.
The writer was a former Indian ambassador to Syria and Turkey.
A new compact against IS
Hardeep Singh Puri
Indian Express, 26 September 2014
The international community is trying to evolve a global counter-terror strategy. It’s important to get the strategic diagnosis right.
The determination of the United States to lead the war against global terror was signalled on September 24. Addressing the 69th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, President Barack Obama said that the threat posed by the “cancer of violent extremism” has “perverted one of the world’s great religions”. The US, along with a coalition of 40 nations, would militarily degrade and destroy the Islamic State (IS). The time has come, he said, for the world to explicitly and forcefully reject the ideology on which this violent extremism is based and “forge a new compact”. He hit out at those who make money from the global economy and then funnel it back to these groups.
The sectarian conflicts within Islam needed to be urgently addressed, and he called upon the Islamic world, particularly the Arab nations, to concentrate on developing the potential of its youth. This, and the fact that he personally presided over the UN Security Council meet, also on September 24, where it adopted Resolution 2178, dealing with foreign terrorist fighters (FTF), suggests the alarm bells are ringing.
Resolution 2178 will be counted along with Resolution 1267, dealing with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and Resolution 1373, adopted after 9/11, as one of the milestones in the development of the counter-terrorism framework under the aegis of the UNSC. The IS calls into question the effectiveness of the global counter-terrorism strategy. Resolution 2178 seeks to get a grip on
the growing threat posed by FTFs through action by individual countries, regionally and globally. Obama said that he looked forward to countries reporting to the UN next year the specific actions they had taken, in pursuance of this resolution, to curb the financing and movement of FTFs.
The international community’s concerted efforts to evolve a global counter-terrorism strategy notwithstanding, the global terror network is becoming more threatening and menacing. The enemy is no longer unseen or hidden. Al-Qaeda began to physically control territory in Yemen some years ago. Al-Shabab has registered spectacular successes in Somalia. Boko Haram is taking over towns in northern Nigeria, and the IS is holding territory in Iraq and Syria that is equivalent in size to the land area of the United Kingdom. This represents a paradigm shift. Terrorists continue to receive funding and are able to mount ever more complex operations. The fusion of ultra-extremist ideology, continued public support and funding in parts of West Asia explain, to some extent, the rise of the IS. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 17, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, confirmed that some of the closest allies of the US in the Arab world fund the IS. “They fund them because the Free Syrian Army could not fight Assad. They were trying to beat Assad. I think they realised the ‘folly of their ways’ ”.
Terrorism and violent extremism find breeding grounds either in weak and fragile states or in societies where freedom of expression is suppressed and civil liberties are seriously circumscribed. Chronic underdevelopment, deprivation of basic human rights and restrictions on freedom of speech make terrorism and violence particularly attractive for the young unemployed. Terrorism has also received a major boost from policy-induced and ill-conceived decisions by the international community. Military action in Iraq in 2003, the arming of rebels in Libya and Syria by the West and some of the Gulf states stand out.
It is widely accepted that the use of force, whether authorised and legitimate or without legality, has unintended consequences. Equally, arming rebels is a bad idea. There are no “good” or “bad” rebels. All rebels are not only capable of turning, but in fact do turn, “rogue”.
How effective will the combination of military and political means be to “degrade” and defeat the IS? A meeting convened by France on September 15 brought together 30 countries and another 20 are expected to have signaled their readiness to join the “coalition of the willing”. It is important, however, to get the strategic diagnosis right. Arab states collaborating with the US in military operations provide the bulk of the IS cadres. If they continue with their repressive domestic policies, the very policies that incubated al-Qaeda in the 1980s, the problems will only be exacerbated.
An editorial in Le Monde captured the enormity of the challenge aptly: “bombing bases scattered over a vast area, often in the city, will not be easy. Even more difficult is the necessary political effort. We must force Baghdad to make peace with its minorities, we must seek to put an end to the Syrian tragedy. This implies a massive political and diplomatic investment. At least as much as a military intervention.” Iraq President Fuad Masum told the gathering “the detestable ideology of the IS” went back to “the obscurantist, bloodthirsty thinking that has its source in the darkest of history”.
Unlike al-Qaeda, which demonstrated its capacity by carrying out terrorist actions on different continents but displayed reluctance to physically hold territory, the IS quickly undertook territorial conquest and laid claim to the physical territory of the “Caliphate”. It has been able to rally battle-hardened former Saddam Hussein loyalists and commands conventional ground armies backed by tanks and artillery as well as a modern and sophisticated propaganda machine, which has managed to alter the political geography. It has clear aspirations to run a state.
There is no sign yet of UNSC authorisation being requested for military strikes in Syria. Such authorisation is unlikely from a deeply divided council. Aerial bombardment without boots on the ground, and without addressing the policy-induced alienation that produced the jihadist philosophy in the first place, will be a major challenge. The IS could also provide a most unfortunate precedent for similar caliphates in Libya and northern Nigeria.
The writer, a retired diplomat, chaired the UN Security Council Counter Terrorism Committee in 2011 and 2012.
The pendulum of the Islamic State
The Hindu, 6 September, 2014
Only if the social conditions that produced the IS — the inequality and the despair — are altered could it be truly vanquished
Discomfort is palpable in the regional capitals. U.S. air strikes cannot destroy IS. The canny IS prefers to swing across the vast territory that it threatens. A proper ground assault against IS cannot come because of the contradictions of U.S. policy in the region. In Iraq, U.S. air power did not only deliver the advantage to the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, but also to the Turkish and Syrian Kurdish fighters (the YPG and the PKK). Turkey and the U.S. see the PKK as a terrorist organisation, although it and its Syrian ally the YPG have been fierce in their defence of what they called Western Kurdistan (Rojava or north-eastern Syria). The Shiite militias of Iraq (Badr and Salaam Brigades as well as the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq) and the Shiite militia of Lebanon (Hezbollah) have also been unyielding against the IS — again the U.S. and the Europeans claim Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation and they hold the Badr Brigades, trained by Iran, at arm’s length.
Syrian armed power, degraded by its long civil war and by defections to the Free Syrian Army, is still strong enough to seriously damage the long-term prospects of the IS. But Syria’s regime has restricted its Army to defend its main corridor between Damascus and the coastline. It will not direct its armies to the north. To do so would leave it vulnerable to the rebels’ Southern Front, which continues to be egged on by the West to seize Damascus. The U.S. trains Syrian rebels in the deserts of eastern Jordan. Full Syrian participation against the IS will not happen if the threat to Damascus remains intact. Major U.S. allies in the region, such as Turkey and Jordan also seem in two minds. Jordan has indicated to the U.S. that it will defend its borders, but it does not want to enter the conflict. The King’s advisers fear that al-Nusra and the IS have cells amongst the close to a million Syrian refugees in the country, and amongst Jordan’s home-grown radicals. Turkey’s economy has taken a hit from the emergence of IS – markets in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria are no longer easily accessible. Legitimate trade has been eclipsed by smugglers, including those who traffic jihadis and journalists as well as IS- delivered oil from Syria’s Omar oilfields. Despite threats to Turkey, its new Prime Minister Ahmet Davutog˘lu can only bring himself to describe the IS as “a radical organisation with a terrorist-like structure.” Options for Jordan and Turkey remain limited, mainly by their commitments to the overthrow of Assad.
Responsibility for the emergence of the IS vests with a number of key actors. The United States’ reckless war on Iraq created the reservoir for jihadis, as money from the Gulf Arabs came to sustain them in an emerging sectarian clash against an ascendant Iran. The narrow and suffocating Assad and al-Maliki regimes – which alienated large sections of Sunnis – propelled the disenfranchised to reckless rebellion. In 2007, the cartoonist Ali Ferzat said of the process called the Damascus Spring (2005), “either reform or le deluge [the flood].” It was the flood. Alienated people who measure their alienation in sectarian terms (Sunni) cannot be only defeated in the battlefield. Political reforms need to be on the cards. So too must an alternative to the economic agenda pursued in both Iraq and Syria since the mid-2000s. Under U.S. pressure, the Assad and al-Maliki governments pursued neo-liberal policies that increased inequality and despair. Absent a politics of class, the platforms against neo-liberal corruption took on a harsh sectarian cast. The IS fed on that alienation for its own diabolical agenda. It can be halted by air strikes and degraded by ground warfare. But only if the social conditions that produced the IS — the inequality and the despair — are altered could it be truly vanquished.
Metastasis of the Islamic State
The Hindu, 11 August, 2014
Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the anti-Assad powers, refuse to join a united front with Iran, Iraq and Syria to tackle the IS threat. With absent coordination, the Islamic State will continue to thrive.
Syrian chaos as catalyst
The Islamic State’s continued gains come as Syria remains in chaos. It is the Great Syrian Desert that allowed the IS to widen its ambitions from Iraq’s Anbar province, to imagine itself as a regional or even world leader. The Syrian war allowed the IS fighters great battlefield experience, and helped them draw in jihadis from around the world (including India, according to a July 23 report to the U.N. Security Council). IS slipped through the cracks of regional disunity. Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey (the anti-Assad powers) refuse to join a united front with Iran, Iraq and Syria to tackle the IS threat. With absent coordination, IS will continue to thrive. None of the anti-Assad powers have come to terms with the reality that the Syrian civil war is now a cesspool of instability that will not end with any good outcome.
United Nations paralysis is clear. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on countries “with the influence and resources” to act — but to do what? Humanitarian aid today is not going to solve the humanitarian crisis tomorrow when the Islamic State changes direction back toward Lebanon or Jordan. U.N. Resolution 2161 already has an arms embargo and financial sanctions against the Islamic State — but neither of these are germane since IS now draws its money and arms from the territory it conquers. There is no stomach among the western powers to allow for a regional solution — for that would force them, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to retreat from their hostile position against Syria.
Saudi Arabia’s influential Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud told CNN last month that the problem is more than the Islamic State. He referred to Iran. The Saudis are not convinced that the Islamic State poses a threat to the region —- although under immense pressure the King said that he was unhappy that “a handful of terrorists” took it upon themselves to “terrify Muslims.” One would have thought that when the IS’ al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself the Caliph, he had declared war directly against the Saudi King, who is the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. That should have forced Saudi Arabia to rethink its regional strategy. But there was no policy direction, no demand that Gulf Arabs cease their private support for the group, and no recognition that a regional solution (that includes Syria) is needed to stem the tide of the IS. The Saudi Kingdom shares with IS its antipathy to Iran and to Shiism, and the Kingdom seems willing to allow IS to run riot through Iraq’s diversity to suit Saudi Arabia’s regional ambitions.
Flight is the current strategy for minorities in the flight path of the Islamic State. They have no other choice.