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Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

Obama & ISIS

barack-obama-isis-speech-1

A faithful reader—my mother—asked me in an email the day before yesterday why I hadn’t commented on Obama’s speech on ISIS. I replied that I hadn’t paid much attention to it, being occupied as I was with getting my daughter set up in Istanbul, where she’s spending an Erasmus year. Now that I’m back in Paris, I’ve been able to take a few minutes to read into the matter. This commentary by CFR Fellow Steven A. Cook, “ISIS and us: No way to go to war,” gets it right IMO. The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch also had a worthwhile comment on “What Obama didn’t say.” And I will take the liberty of cutting-and-pasting journalist Craig Pyes‘s pertinent Facebook status update of two days ago

It’s appalling how so much of the press and pundit corps are so wrong in their criticism of Obama’s actions on ISIS (although there will be plenty of mistakes, little he can do, and a real danger of a prolonged war). Most journalists hunt in packs, and they follow each other rather than discern their own truths. This is true on the ground and in their thoughts. It’s why each newspaper reads like the others. Obama’s reaction has little to do with terrorism, and to draw up arguments of why it won’t be an effective CT tool, totally misses the point. Secondly, this is not Iraq in 2003, and marshaling the arguments against being overly credulous then — which you all were (Strobel and Landay exempted) — you’re, as they say, fighting the last war. Now is not then. Not only do these reporters think they’re right because their colleagues are writing the same critique, but it conforms to a pool of common sources, most of whom are no longer in the government. Very, very few of these reporters actually know anything about underlying realities of the Middle East, and so are captive to their sources.

The Middle East is unraveling — there are serious bad scenarios that can emerge — and for the US to do nothing about ISIS will insure that the political climate turns even more poisonous there than it is now, with thousands of innocents being butchered. The political reality is not good now, there is a huge possibility that the US will not be able to influence what it is becoming, but those aren’t arguments for sitting back and doing nothing. Nor are they arguments to put boots on the ground.

Affaire à suivre, évidemment.

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Islam for Dummies

Riz Ahmed and Kayvan Novak in 'Four Lions' (credit: Magnolia Pictures)

Riz Ahmed and Kayvan Novak in ‘Four Lions’ (credit: Magnolia Pictures)

Huffington Post UK political director Medhi Hasan has a delicious piece (August 21st) on two 22-year-old British jihadists, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, who were convicted on terrorism charges in Birmingham last month—after Yusuf’s mum alerted the police about her son’s activities. As was revealed during the trial, they had purchased copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies (en français: L’Islam et le Coran pour les nuls) on Amazon before setting off to Syria to wage jihad. Sans blague.

In his post Hasan mentions the 2010 comedy satire ‘Four Lions‘, which spoofs a gang of low IQ jihadist wannabes from the English Midlands. The film, which I saw when it came out, is very funny and also spot on. There are certainly many dangerous, violent jihadists from immigrant communities in the West—recent ones including Mohamed Merah, Mehdi Nemmouche, and the psychopath who murdered James Foley—who are out there, but for all of these there are no doubt as many, if not more, of the whack job losers depicted in ‘Four Lions’—and the two just convicted in Birmingham. If one is interested in the jihadist phenomenon and has not seen the movie, one should do so. Trailer with French subtitles (though English ones would also help) is here, NYT review is here, NPR interview with director Chris Morris is here.

4lions_poster

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ISIS fighters (image: Vice News)

ISIS fighters (image: Vice News)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

Vice News has an incredible, absolute must watch 42-minute reportage, “The Islamic state,” on ISIS’s rule in the parts of Syria and Iraq under its control. Vice’s very brave reporter Medyan Dairieh managed to embed himself for three weeks with the ISIS fighter fanatics, mainly in their Syrian stronghold Raqqa, accompanying and interviewing them as they went about their business. ISIS is the Taliban times ten, totally inculte and fanaticized, and which will not be dislodged, if they are to be so, from the areas they control except by a stronger local force—Iraqis and Syrians—backed by serious outside, i.e. American, support. Bon courage.

As for where the responsibility lies for the ISIS disaster—and this is me talking, not the Vice News reporter—, culprit nº1 is the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its allies (and we know who they are), period, followed by the regional actors who poured weapons into the country and that fell into ISIS’s hands (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey et al). And, of course, the Nouri al-Maliki regime in Iraq. What a calamity.

On the question of the Americans and whether or not they should have materially aided the Syrian opposition when such aid could have maybe made a difference, political science MENA specialist Marc Lynch settled the question IMO in a must read WaPo Monkey Cage blog post dated August 11st, “Would arming Syria’s rebels have stopped the Islamic State?” Answer: Nope, no doubt not.

In the interest of fairness and balance, political science MENA specialist Steven Heydemann of USIP—who knows Syrian politics and history better than anyone I know personally—had an op-ed in US News & World Report, dated August 14th, arguing the opposite, that “Supporting Syria’s rebels is no fantasy.” I have not been in agreement with Steve on this issue over the past two years but if there’s anyone out there who has made a compelling argument for a more active US involvement in Syria, it is he.

Patrick Cockburn has a new book out, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, and of which The Independent published an extract a week ago.

On the ISIS fanatics, Iraqi journalist Shukur Khilkhal has a piece in Al-Monitor, dated August 12th, on how the organization “emerges from radical Islamic jurisprudence.” The culprit: Sheikh Taqi ibn Taymiyyah. Of course.

UPDATE: Sadik Al-Azm has an essay in the Boston Review (August 18th), “Syria in Revolt: Understanding the Unthinkable War.”

2nd UPDATE: New America Foundation fellow Brian Fishman, in a smart analysis on the War on the Rocks blog (August 20th), says “Don’t BS the American people about Iraq, Syria, and ISIL.”

3rd UPDATE: Gen. John R. Allen, USMC (Ret.), who led the Marines in Anbar Province and commanded the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, says, in a piece in the Defense Now blog (August 20th), that we must “Destroy the Islamic State Now.”

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The Iraq catastrophe – III

Yazidis in the Sinjar mountains (photo: Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Yazidis in the Sinjar mountains (photo: Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Iraq is such a catastrophe—with the destruction of its Christian heritage, massacres of Yazidis, et on en passe—that I can hardly bear to read about it. But read about it I do. One essential article read recently—on August 10th, to be precise—was in the NY Times, by reporters Tim Arango and Eric Schmitt, on how “U.S. actions in Iraq fueled rise of a rebel.” The rebel in question is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed “caliph” of ISIS. As one learns in the NYT enquête, Al-Baghdadi was a nobody before the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and would have no doubt remained a nobody had it not been for that invasion and occupation. Iraqis—and Syrians, and everyone else—do have agency, of course, and are responsible for their actions, but what is currently happening in Iraq really is a consequence of US policy. What the US did in Iraq in 2003 was the original sin. There is simply no denying this.

A few other essential articles and papers read of late (all of which appeared before the destitution of PM Nouri al-Maliki):

The International Crisis Group published a 9-page briefing on June 20th—just after my last Iraq posting—, “Iraq’s jihadi jack-in-the-box.” The lede: The jihadi surge is the tragic, violent outcome of steadily deteriorating political dynamics. Instead of a rash military intervention and unconditional support for the Iraqi government, pressure is needed to reverse sectarian polarisation and a disastrous record of governance.

Peter Harling, the ICG’s senior MENA adviser—and no doubt the principal author of the above report—, had a piece in the July issue of Le Monde Diplomatique entitled “Taking Iraq apart.” The lede: Nouri al-Maliki’s incompetence and sectarianism have led to the disintegration of the Iraqi state—and now, unsurprisingly, the ISIL insurgents have declared an Islamic caliphate in the territories they control in Iraq and Syria.

Yezid Sayigh, the very smart senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, had an essay dated July 24th—that originally appeared in Arabic in Al-Hayat—, entitled “ISIS: Global Islamic caliphate or Islamic mini-state in Iraq?” The summary: Unless Baghdad offers meaningful political reconciliation and reintegration, ISIS will tighten and deepen its rule of its mini-Islamic state in Iraq.

Stathis Kalyvas, the Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science at Yale University—and also very smart—, had an analysis, dated July 7th, on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog of “The logic of violence in the Islamic State’s war.” Stathis is one of the leading specialists in world social science of the subject of civil wars—and of war-related violence more generally—, so anything he has to say on it is worth reading.

And Patrick Cockburn, who knows Iraq comme sa poche, has a rather discouraging piece, dated August 1st, in the current LRB on how “ISIS [is] consolidat[ing].”

ISIS is, of course, as fanatical, indeed evil, as one can get, and with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi & Co making Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri et al looking like quasi liberals, but there has nonetheless been some nonsense recounted about them in this regard, e.g. the report late last month, and that went viral, of ISIS having ordered the cliterodectomy of all the women in Mosul. The report, emanating from a not-too-competent UN official, turned out not to be true, though which should have been apparent from the outset. I was immediately skeptical of the story and was surprised to see, via social media, that numerous persons who should have known better gave it credence. My reaction was that nothing should be put past the madmen of ISIS but that this one was particularly outlandish even for them. But even if it were true—even if ISIS had indeed ordered the excision of the one million-plus women in Mosul—, there is no way they could have carried it out. It wouldn’t be possible. In cultures where female genital mutilation is practiced, it’s women who perform the act, usually older ones with specialized cutting skills, as it were. Men have nothing to do with the operation. So who in Mosul would do such a thing, particularly as all the women there would be horrified, to put it mildly, by the very idea? And their menfolk too. So would the ISIS crazies enter homes to inspect vaginas? If so, the men of Mosul—every last one—would rise up and kill them, or try to. If ISIS were to seek quick, violent defeat, this would be the fastest way to do it.

So when one reads of some particularly lurid story of ISIS or other jihadist violence or gratuitous cruelty—one that stretches credulity—, make sure that it’s verified before taking it at face value and/or spreading it on social media.

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shatz-silverman-video-2014-05

Adam Shatz, contributing editor at the London Review of Books and visiting professor at the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University—and dear personal friend—, has a must read essay/personal reflection in the latest issue of The Nation (dated August 4th) inspired by his fifteen-odd years of reporting on the Middle East and North Africa. The essay is a revised version of the Hilda B. Silverman Memorial Lecture, at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, that Adam gave this past May, and which he fraternally sent me for comments beforehand. It’s typically excellent. As for watching the lecture—as the above image indicates one may do—this will apparently be possible sometime this fall.

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isis-militants-wave-a-flag-in-iraq-data

[update below]

In my post of three days ago on the Iraq catastrophe, I made two simple comments/assertions. I want to make a third: ISIS won’t attack Baghdad, let alone take the city, and certainly not Najaf or Karbala. They may be crazy but they’re not that crazy. A fourth comment/assertion tant que j’y suis: In the hypothetical event that ISIS does pose a serious threat to Baghdad or to Iraq’s oil sector, the US will intervene—with bombers, drones, even some troops. The pressure on Obama to do so will be overwhelming—and there is no way that he will sit by while all of Iraq becomes a mega-terrorist state. Point barre.

Here are some worthy articles I’ve read over the past few days:

On a website called PandoDaily, the self-styled “war nerd” Gary Brecher—which may or may not be a nom de plume—has an interesting and original analysis (June 16th) telling you “everything you need to know about ‘too extreme for Al Qaeda’ I.S.I.S.” (h/t Dwayne W.).

Iraqi sociologist Sami Ramadani, who lectures at London Metropolitan University—and was a refugee from the Saddam Hussein regime—, has a fine and salutary tribune (June 16th) in The Guardian on “The sectarian myth of Iraq.” The lede: We coexisted peacefully for centuries, and need neither brutal dictators nor western intervention.

Scott Long, who has worked on human rights in MENA for many years—and notably on LGBT issues for Human Rights Watch—has a post (June 16th) on his blog on “ISIS in Iraq: Real atrocities and easy fantasies” (h/t Adam S.).

Posting on The New Yorker website (June 17th), Lawrence Wright examines “ISIS’s savage strategy in Iraq.”

Writing in Foreign Policy, Aaron David Miller has a spot on analysis (June 16th) in which he asks “Who lost Iraq?” The lede: That depends on whether you ever thought it could be won.

Also writing in Foreign Policy (June 17th), Georgetown University doctoral student Nick Danforth correctly informs the reader that “There is no al-Sham.” The lede: Militants in Iraq and Syria are trying to re-create a nation that never existed.

In his piece Danforth links to an article he wrote for The Atlantic last September, in which he very correctly tells people to “Stop blaming colonial borders for the Middle East’s problems.” The lede for that one: Plenty of other countries have “artificially drawn” borders and aren’t fighting. Here’s the real problem with Europe’s legacy in the region.

À suivre.

UPDATE: Aaron Y. Zelin of WINEP has a piece (June 17th) in Politico on “The Massacre Strategy: Why ISIS brags about its brutal sectarian murders.”

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isis

A total disaster. I don’t even know how to think about it. The core states of the Arab world—Iraq, Syria, Egypt—are swirling down the drain. Imploding. And there’s not much outside powers can do about it. Just two comments. First, however the wars in Iraq and Syria play out there will not be a redrawing of borders or a formal breakup of those states. It won’t happen. Sykes-Picot is not dead. On this, I entirely agree with Gregory Gause’s post last month on the Monkey Cage blog. Second, I have zero tolerance for bloviators in the US who are using the Iraq catastrophe as a club to bash the Obama administration and its policy toward the region. Let it be clear: Obama’s Middle East policy can in no way be held responsible for what’s happening in Iraq. Or in Syria. If one wants to play the blame game, one needs to go back to those who committed the original sin in Iraq in 2003. On this, The New Yorker’s John Cassidy got it exactly right in a post on Friday, “The Iraq mess: Place blame where it is deserved.” Money quote

If Prime Minister Maliki, whom the United States eventually settled on as its favored Iraqi leader, had made a serious effort to reach out to the Sunnis and the Kurds, rather than acting like a sectarian ward heeler, the departure of U.S. forces might not have created the political stalemate and institutional power vacuum that the jihadis, first in Anbar Province and now in Nineveh and Saladin, have exploited.

None of these things happened, but the greatest mistake was the initial one. In invading Iraq and toppling Saddam, the Bush Administration opened Pandora’s Box. Given what has happened since 2003, it is almost comical to read the prewar prognostications of the neocons and paleocons for what would happen after Saddam was gone. There was talk of turning Iraq into a democratic model for other Middle Eastern countries—making it another Turkey, or even a Jordan, with a Hashemite restoration. Today it is faced with the prospect of a bloody dismemberment into three sectarian mini-states: the Sunnis in the west and northwest; the Kurds in the northeast; and the Shiites in the center and the oil-rich south. (It’s unclear where Baghdad, a city divided along religious lines, fits into this picture.)

The irony is painfully acute. Eleven years ago, in response to a terrorist attack by a group of anti-American religious fanatics, the United States invaded an Arab country with hardly any jihadis, or very few of them, to overthrow a secular dictator. Today, with much blood and money having been spent, northern and western Iraq is full of jihadis, and the U.S. government is figuring out how to prevent them from overrunning the rest of the country.

Also in The New Yorker are commentaries by Dexter Filkins, “In extremists’ Iraq rise, America’s Legacy” (June 11th) and “Wider war” (June 23rd issue). See also Filkins’ April 28th Letter from Iraq: “What we left behind.” The lede: An increasingly authoritarian leader [Nuri al-Maliki], a return of sectarian violence, and a nation worried for its future.

Now Filkins does pin some responsibility on the Obama administration for the failure to conclude a status of forces agreement with the Iraqis in 2011. But in a piece in Politico (June 15th), Colin H. Kahl, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East during the first three years of the Obama administration, asserts that “No, Obama didn’t lose Iraq: What the president’s critics get wrong,” and in which he explains why a SOFA could not be negotiated with the Iraqis.

Other worthy pieces I’ve come across over the past few days:

Marc Lynch, writing in Monkey Cage, “How can the U.S. help Maliki when Maliki’s the problem?” (June 12th)

The FT’s David Gardner, “Iraq’s implosion reflects Syria’s lost national narrative” (June 13th). The lede: Maliki’s sectarianism and corruption has enabled itinerant gangs to claw their way back.

LSE professor Toby Dodge, writing in The Guardian (June 13th), “Iraq doesn’t have to fall apart: It can be reformed.” The lede: The advance of Isis is the result of terrible decisions made since 2003. Iraqis themselves must chart a new course if the state is to survive.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan, “After Mosul: If jihadists control Iraq, blame Nouri al-Maliki, not the United States” (June 11th).

À suivre. Évidemment.

MoS2 Template Master

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