IS fighters, Anbar province, Iraq
[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th 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 do 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/consociational-type system is going to work—and this is my point, not Luizard’s—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.
3rd UPDATE: Spiegel Online International has a lengthy, must-read report (April 18th) on the Saddam regime/IS link, “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State.” The lede: “An Iraqi officer planned Islamic State’s takeover in Syria and SPIEGEL has been given exclusive access to his papers. They portray an organization that, while seemingly driven by religious fanaticism, is actually coldly calculating.”
4th UPDATE: The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, who was the NYT’s Baghdad correspondent from 2003 to ’06, has a commentary (May 15th), “Did George W. Bush create ISIS?,” in which he revists decisions made early on in the Iraq war, notably the one to dissolve the Iraqi army, which Filkins calls “probably the single most catastrophic decision of the American venture in Iraq,” and from which the Sunni insurgency was launched. Ergo, Bush was at least partly responsible for the eventual rise of the Islamic State. But Filkins also points a finger in Obama’s direction, opining that “it seems possible that, if Obama had pushed [Nuri al-]Maliki harder, the United States could have retained a small force of soldiers [in Iraq] in noncombat roles.” Sure. As if the mere presence of a few US military personnel would have scared the IS away from seizing Mosul and everything else it has. Allez. And Filkins oddly neglects to mention the refusal of the Iraqi parliament to approve the SOFA, which gave the US no choice but to leave that blessed country to its own devices. So on this particular point, not convinced!
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