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IS fighters, Anbar province, Iraq

IS fighters, Anbar province, Iraq

[update below] [2nd update below]

Politico Magazine has an interesting article (dated April 7th) by Emma Sky, “How Obama abandoned democracy in Iraq,” which is adapted from her new book, The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq. Sky, who’s British and presently a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute, was the representative of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Kirkuk in 2003-04 and political adviser in 2007-10 to US Gen. Ray Odierno, commanding general of the Multi-National Force–Iraq, so knows something about the subject and has much to say on it (and she speaks Arabic, which gives her extra cred). Sky—who says she opposed the 2003 invasion—essentially blames Iraq’s downward spiral from 2010 onward on the Obama administration—and particularly VP Joseph Biden and the US ambassadors in Baghdad (appointed by President Obama)—of their backing the wrong horse after the Iraqi parliamentary elections of 2010, i.e. supporting Nouri al-Maliki over Iyad Allawi. If the Obama administration had backed the right horse (Allawi), things in Iraq may have turned out very differently, Sky strongly implies. Subtext: If Obama had played it otherwise the Islamic State may have never seen the light of day and Iraq would possibly be a stable, democracy-consolidating polity at peace, and with Iranian influence kept to a minimum.

If Sky is right, then Obama botched this one big time, that’s for sure. Her argument is to be given due consideration but I’m not buying it. Ambassadors—even US ones—are simply not major actors in the domestic politics of any given country and at any given moment, and particularly in a country as consequential and complicated as Iraq—where ambassadors, for security reasons, hardly ever leave their embassies—and the utterances of a foreign leader on a lightning visit simply does not alter the course of history. But though I am skeptical of Sky’s argument, I have nonetheless put her book on my to-read list (expressing my best of intentions as to eventually reading it).

On the Islamic State—about which I read daily—the most interesting piece I’ve come across in the past few days is The Washington Post’s enquête (April 4th) by the paper’s Beirut bureau chief Liz Sly, “The hidden hand behind the Islamic State militants? Saddam Hussein’s.” Reporting from Turkey, Sly interviewed a former Syrian IS chieftain going by the name Abu Hamza, who

underscore[d] the pervasive role played by members of Iraq’s former Baathist army in an organization more typically associated with flamboyant foreign jihadists and the gruesome videos in which they star. (…) “All the decision makers are Iraqi, and most of them are former Iraqi officers. The Iraqi officers are in command, and they make the tactics and the battle plans,” he said. “But the Iraqis themselves don’t fight. They put the foreign fighters on the front lines.”

On the extreme cruelty of IS, this has an Iraqi Ba’athist pedigree

The raw cruelty of Hussein’s Baathist regime, the disbandment of the Iraqi army after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the subsequent insurgency and the marginalization of Sunni Iraqis by the Shiite-dominated government all are intertwined with the Islamic State’s ascent, said Hassan Hassan, a Dubai-based analyst and co-author of the book “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.” (…)

At first glance, the secularist dogma of Hussein’s tyrannical Baath Party seems at odds with the Islamic State’s harsh interpretation of the Islamic laws it purports to uphold.

But the two creeds broadly overlap in several regards, especially their reliance on fear to secure the submission of the people under the group’s rule. Two decades ago, the elaborate and cruel forms of torture perpetrated by Hussein dominated the discourse about Iraq, much as the Islamic State’s harsh punishments do today. (…)

In the last two years of Hussein’s rule, a campaign of beheadings, mainly targeting women suspected of prostitution and carried out by his elite Fedayeen unit, killed more than 200 people, human rights groups reported at the time.

The brutality deployed by the Islamic State today recalls the bloodthirstiness of some of those Fedayeen, said Hassan. Promotional videos from the Hussein era include scenes resembling those broadcast today by the Islamic State, showing the Fedayeen training, marching in black masks, practicing the art of decapitation and in one instance eating a live dog. (…)

On the US role in unwittingly facilitating the current situation:

The de-Baathification law promulgated by L.­ Paul Bremer, Iraq’s American ruler in 2003, has long been identified as one of the contributors to the original insurgency. At a stroke, 400,000 members of the defeated Iraqi army were barred from government employment, denied pensions — and also allowed to keep their guns.

The U.S. military failed in the early years to recognize the role the disbanded Baathist officers would eventually come to play in the extremist group, eclipsing the foreign fighters whom American officials preferred to blame, said Col. Joel Rayburn, a senior fellow at the National Defense University who served as an adviser to top generals in Iraq and describes the links between Baathists and the Islamic State in his book, “Iraq After America.” (…)

It was under the watch of the current Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that the recruitment of former Baathist officers became a deliberate strategy, according to analysts and former officers. (…)

The ex-Baathists could be lured away, if they were offered alternatives and hope for the future, [a former general who commanded Iraqi troops during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003] said.

“The Americans bear the biggest responsibility. When they dismantled the army what did they expect those men to do?” he asked. “They were out in the cold with nothing to do and there was only one way out for them to put food on the table.”

When U.S. officials demobilized the Baathist army, “they didn’t de-Baathify people’s minds, they just took away their jobs,” he said.

If one didn’t see it, the NYT’s Tim Arango and Eric Schmitt had a must-read enquête last August 11th on how “U.S. actions in Iraq fueled [the] rise of [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi],” to which may be added The Guardian’s Martin Chulov’s equally must-read December 11th report, “ISIS: The inside story.” The lede: “One of the Islamic State’s senior commanders reveals exclusive details of the terror group’s origins inside an Iraqi prison – right under the noses of their American jailers.”

Also worth the read is J.J. Goldberg’s commentary in the JDF (April 6th) on “How Bibi and Bush made a mess of the Middle East.” The lede: “Misplaced focus on Saddam’s Iraq tore region apart.”

ADDENDUM: Some ten days ago I attended a talk by Pierre-Jean Luizard, France’s leading academic specialist of modern Iraq, who has just published a book on IS, Le piège Daech: L’État islamique ou le retour de l’Histoire. He made a number of points in his dense, learned exposé, of which three may be mentioned: 1. The Americans bear considerable responsibility for the current calamity in Iraq, as they set out to confessionalize the Iraqi political system during the year the Coalition Provisional Authority ruled the country. But—and I’m extrapolating from Luizard’s analysis here—it was a near certainty that the imposition of a Lebanese-style system in Iraq would have deleterious consequences, as it would inexorably lead to a bid for hegemony by the Shi’ites and alienate the Sunnis, who had ruled the lands of Mesopotamia for centuries. If a confessional-type system is going to work, it has to be negotiated by the legitimate, recognized elites of the confessional groups themselves—as was the 1943 Lebanese National Pact—and all the groups have to be minorities.  2. IS is indeed heavily comprised of former Iraqi Ba’athists. The Saddam Hussein legacy is manifest. IS is the present-day political expression of Iraq’s Sunnis. The Shia-dominated Iraqi army will not be able to regain control of Mosul and other cities controlled by IS. If they manage to do so, massacres of Sunnis and/or mass pillaging of Sunni property will inevitably ensue—as witnessed in Tikrit earlier this week—as will permanent insurrection against the Iraqi state. In short, Iraq, as we have known it, is finished.  3. The US and its allies have neither the strategy nor the means to defeat IS. Bombing IS will change nothing, as there is no alternative force to take IS’s place—except, in Iraq, the Iraqi state as presently constituted (see point 2). As for Syria, Luizard stressed that the Ba’athist regime in Damascus will never again control Raqqa (not that it even seeks to). So, in short, the situation in Iraq (and Syria) is extremely bleak. Luizard ended on a very pessimistic note.

UPDATE: The Foreign Policy website has an appalling account (April 9th) by Qusai Zakarya—the nom de plume of Kassem Eid, a youthful Syrian-Palestinian activist—on “The starving of Yarmouk, then the capture.” The lede: “The Islamic State’s attack on the besieged Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus is highly suspicious. It could only have happened with Assad’s complicity.” Having visited Yarmouk five years ago and where I met kind, friendly people (here), what’s happening there has a particular resonance with me.

2nd UPDATE: Orthopedic surgeon Samer Attar, who volunteered in field hospitals with the Syrian-American Medical Society in Aleppo in August 2013 and April 2014, has an “Aleppo Diary” in the WSJ (April 12th) on “The carnage from Syrian barrel bombs.” Barrel bombs: If there’s one single thing that summarizes the evil of the Syrian Ba’athist regime, it’s this.

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eau-argentee-syrie-autoportrait

These photos of Homs, “Assad’s trophy city in Syria,” graced the home page of Le Monde earlier today. Homs: Syria’s third largest city and with a pre-2011 population of some 700,000, large parts of which are now a destroyed ghost town. Last week I saw the 110-minute documentary, ‘Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait’, which premiered at Cannes and is presently playing in four Paris cinemas. Quoting from Jay Weissberg’s review in Variety, it is

A necessary, often unbearable documentary that bears vital witness to the horrors of Syria’s civil war.

It’s said that Syria is the land of assassinated filmmakers, since anyone with a camera or cell phone becomes an instant target for sniper bullets. Director Ossama Mohammed (“Sacrifices”), in exile in Paris since 2011, sifted through thousands of online videos documenting the daily atrocities in his country to make “Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait,” a necessary, often unbearable documentary that bears witness to the horrors of the civil war. To this he adds footage by Wiam Simav Bedirxan, a young Kurdish woman in Homs who contacted Mohammed for advice on what to film around her. The combined results, given a structure by chapter-like intertitle headings, will leave no viewer unshaken…

To read the rest of Weissberg’s review, go here. The film—which is mainly of Homs—did not leave me unshaken, that’s for sure. It’s devastating, the most powerful documentary one is likely to see on the Syrian civil war. The level of violence, mayhem, cruelty, and sheer destruction in Syria as depicted in the documentary defies belief and comprehension. Cela dépasse l’entendement. The film footage, taken by the “1,001 Syrians”—army soldiers included—who shot it on their mobile phones, does show armed jihadist brigades—likely the Jabhat al-Nusra—and who have their share of responsibility in the catastrophe, but there is no question whatever that the main culprit is the Ba’athist regime. But we all know this by now. For more on the film, see the review in THR and Paris prof Karin Badt’s piece in Huff Post. If you have the chance to see it, do so. Trailer is here.

On the general subject, here’s a 20-page enquête (PDF) by journalist David Lepeska in Al Jazeera Magazine (dated November 29th), entitled “Left Behind.” The lede: A generation of Syrian refugees have been forced to leave their childhoods at the border as they take on the responsibility of providing for their families in a strange country [Turkey].

And with this, I wish all a Merry Christmas.

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Banning the niqab

Abu Dhabi, December 1st

Abu Dhabi, December 1st

Christopher Dickey, grand reporter for The Daily Beast, offers an excellent argument here for banning face veils in public space. In a post 3½ years ago I expressed my disapproval of France’s “burqa” ban—which had just entered into force—, though not out of high-minded principle or respect for religious freedom, as face veils are specific to certain cultures, mandated by no religion—not that this matters one way or the other—, and cannot be defended on these particular grounds. But I’ve changed my mind. The French law may have been enacted for the wrong reasons but that doesn’t mean it was wrong tout court. Now this is not to suggest that the police should stop every last niqab-wearing woman they see on the street; discretion can and should be exercised—e.g. to avoid causing a riot—, as the police generally do when witnessing persons in the act of committing misdemeanors. But they should still have the authority to stop and detain those who conceal their faces in public. So on the question of the niqab, I say ban the damn thing!

UPDATE: Omer Aziz, a writer and J.D. candidate at Yale Law School, has an op-ed by the title of “Banning the niqab harms an open society: So does wearing it,” which is one of the best succinct arguments I’ve come across on this question. (March 16, 2015)

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Charlie Hebdo on ISIS

charlie hebdo no1163 011014

Voilà the cover of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo, which will hit the newsstands tomorrow (October 1st). For those whose French is not up to par, it reads:

IF MOHAMMED WERE TO RETURN…

“I’m the Prophet, idiot!”

“STFU, infidel!”

Charlie Hebdo nails it. Totally.

Somehow I think security will be reinforced outside Charlie Hebdo’s office in the 11th arrondissement.

ADDENDUM: For other irreverent CH covers I’ve posted on, go here, here, here, and here.

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article-2655977-1EAB47AC00000578-494_964x496

Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of the Dubai-based satellite channel Al-Arabiya and correspondent for the Beirut daily Al-Nahar, had an excellent, must read essay in Politico last week (September 18th), “The barbarians within our gates,” in which he lucidly asserted in the lede that “Arab civilization has collapsed [and] won’t recover in my lifetime.” Money quote

Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism—the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition—than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed. The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays—all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic forms. With the dubious exception of the antiquated monarchies and emirates of the Gulf—which for the moment are holding out against the tide of chaos—and possibly Tunisia, there is no recognizable legitimacy left in the Arab world.

Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilization should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State? And that there is no one else who can clean up the vast mess we Arabs have made of our world but the Americans and Western countries?

The implosion of practically the entire Arab world east of the Maghreb—and particularly of its core states—over the past three years is breathtaking. It’s stunning. The future of Egypt—a state and nation crushed by its demography and in which there is no positive dynamic whatever (politically, economically, culturally, you name it)—is bleak; Syria, Iraq, and Libya are finished—shattered states and societies that will not be put back together for the foreseeable future, if ever; Lebanon—a fragile, weak state and whose most important social, political, and military actor acts independently of that state and is remote-controlled by a foreign power to boot—could descend into internecine bloodletting (Shia vs. Sunni) at almost any moment; Jordan is on the knife’s edge and likewise Saudi Arabia, which has nothing to offer the world or itself but oil and the holy places… And then there’s Yemen, running out of water and in a state of permanent tribal rebellion. As for the Palestinians, let’s not talk about them…

Melhem does mention Tunisia as a possible exception to all this. Tunisia—a small, confessionally and ethnically homogeneous country—has indeed not been doing badly—so far, at least—in its transition toward something that resembles democracy, but is in economically dire straits and is vulnerable to the chaos on its southeastern border. And if Tunisia is doing okay relatively speaking, this is in part thanks to its sizable French-speaking educated class, which has been influenced by certain French ways of thinking (notably in regard to republicanism and the relationship of religion and the state), and is oriented toward Europe. Which all goes to show that the legacy of French colonialism isn’t all negative (merci, la France). Algeria and Morocco have likewise benefited from this aspect of their French pasts, though all that stands in the way of Algeria becoming another Afghanistan or Somalia is its hydrocarbon wealth. Algeria is about as rentier of a state as one can get (whose state budget depends on hydrocarbon taxes to an even greater extent than in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states). As for Morocco, its archaic monarchical order enjoys legitimacy but if the corruption and inequalities there get any worse, who knows how long that will last?…

Another piece on the catastrophic situation in the Arab world read of late was by Daniel Williams, formerly of Human Rights Watch, in WaPo (September 19th), who informed the reader that “Christianity in Iraq is finished.” Williams, writing from Erbil, says that the West should not delude itself on this, that there will soon be almost no Christians left in Iraq (and probably not in Syria either, he could have added). The exodus of Iraqi Christians is being accelerated by ISIS, of course, but was boosted in a big way by events set in motion by the 2003 US invasion, he correctly asserts. In point of fact, though, Christians have been emigrating from the Near East to Europe and the Americas for much of the 20th century, e.g. the departure of Iraqi Chaldeans and Assyrians to the US (Chicago and Detroit) in the 1920s and ’30. It goes without saying that the end of the indigenous Christian presence in the Middle East would be a tragedy of major proportions (as I’ve posted on, e.g., here and here). An incalculable loss—culturally and economically—to those societies. And for which the sole response is for Europe, the Americas, and countries elsewhere to throw open their doors to the fleeing Christians.

À propos—and while I’m thinking of it—, here’s a question for Palestine one-staters: if the mythic one state were to somehow come into existence, does one honestly believe that Muslims, Christians, and Jews would live together in peace and harmony—or at least en bonne intelligence—, or would the Jews (and remaining Christians) eventually find themselves in the same situation as Christians in Iraq today? Poser la question c’est y répondre, je crois…

Like for Syria  لايك لأجل سوريا

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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)

[update below]

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. Take it from one of France’s leading scholars on radicalism, as quoted by the NYT’s Robert Worth

When I asked Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French scholar and one of the most respected analysts of jihadi groups, whether anyone had really succeeded in capturing the everyday truth of their world in fiction or film, he ran through a number of novels on the subject and dismissed them all: too many were unconvincing or tied up in political agendas. Then, after a long pause, he said: “Seriously, the way most of them operate? I think ‘Four Lions’ said it best.”

Trailer with French subtitles (though English ones would also help) is here, NYT review is here, NPR interview with director Chris Morris is here.

UPDATE: Sophie Gilbert, senior editor of The Atlantic, has a piece (October 18th) entitled “The best film about Islamic terrorists is a comedy.” The lede: Chris Morris’ Four Lions, released four years ago, skewers the pointlessness and confusion of wannabe jihadists.

4lions_poster

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