Thursday, July 31, 2014

ISIL advances in Deir Ezzor

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Gaza and Israel

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

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

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

Thursday, July 10, 2014

ISIL in Syria and Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

'The End of Iraq' (revisited)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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