Khedery: Iraq in Pieces

Excellent analysis by Ali Khedery in Foreign Affairs on conflicting ethno-sectarian agendas and Iraq’s descend into chaos since 2003:

“Shortly after the invasion, Machiavellian politicians pressed U.S. officials to disband the Iraqi army as they hijacked the U.S.-instituted De-Baathification Commission and used it to extort or purge their secular political opponents, Sunni and Shiite alike. Hundreds of thousands were left permanently unemployed, embittered, and primed to seek violent retribution against the new order.

In the mountainous north, Kurdish leaders sought to consolidate the considerable gains they had achieved through self-governance following the introduction of a no-fly zone in 1991. After a vicious civil war in the mid-1990s, they established the semiautonomous Kurdistan Region, securing peace and attracting foreign investment. Once Saddam was gone, they maintained control of key positions in Baghdad under a new ethno-sectarian quota system as a hedge against further repression.

In the south, the Shiite Islamist parties that had battled Saddam’s secular Baath Party for decades, often with Iran’s covert support, emerged victorious and sought to compensate for past repression. They asserted their will as the majority by defying the Baath’s taboos and establishing numerous official religious holidays, cementing their brand of religious values in the national school curriculum, and placing members of the armed wings of their religious political parties on government payrolls. In the halls of power in Baghdad, the word of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest authority in Shiite Islam, reigned supreme.

Iraq’s minority Sunnis, the nation’s ruling elite for centuries, found themselves in disarray. To correct perceived injustices, they eventually settled on a strategy of boycotting democracy in favor of insurgency and terrorism. Hopelessly divided and lacking leadership and vision, Sunni Arabs often fell into the trap of battling the U.S. military occupation and the surging influence of their historical arch-nemesis, Shiite Persian Iran, by striking a deal with the devil: al Qaeda.

So began an endless cycle of killing among militant radicals of all stripes, from remnants of the Baath Party to al Qaeda in Iraq to the Iranian-backed Shiite militias. With each religiously charged atrocity, the Iraqi national identity grew weaker, and the millennia-old senses of self—tribal, ethnic, and religious—grew stronger.”

ICG: Fighting for Libya’s Energy Wealth

Senior Libya Analyst with the International Crisis Group, Claudia Gazzini, introduces “The Prize: Fighting for Libya’s Energy Wealth”, a new ICG report on the struggle for control with Libya’s energy ressources in the post-Gaddafi era:

“Libya is a petro-state. The management and control of hydrocarbon resources, the infrastructure to exploit them and the revenues derived from their sale are a central driver of the conflict that has divided it since July 2014. Muammar Qadhafi held power for 42 years in good part because he redistributed petrodollars to buttress his regime. Today, even as many state attributes – most importantly, a monopoly on use of force – have eroded, the institutions that manage production, export and sale of oil and gas and the wealth they generate are at serious risk but remain the bedrock of what is left of the state and a key to its control. Understanding and resolving the divide between two rival governments and parliaments and their associated armed groups requires understanding that the conflict is in part one over hydrocarbon revenue.”

News, Notes & Links | 01.12.15


The United Arab Emirates has deployed 450 Colombian mercenaries to fight in Yemen.

Are there 70.000 moderate opposition fighters in Syria?

More than 21 million in Yemen need basic humanitarian aid, U.N. says.

The Pentagon is expanding its special operations forces in Iraq to combat ISIS, U.S. Defense Secretary says.

“Any such American force will become a primary target for our group”, Shia militia in Iraq says.


Recommended Reads:

Along the Divide | By Nathan Thrall, London Review of Books

Israel is now confronted by the greatest unrest it has faced since the second intifada ended more than ten years ago. Palestinian protests and clashes with Israeli forces have spread from East Jerusalem to the rest of the West Bank, as well as to Gaza and Palestinian towns inside Israel. In the first three weeks of October, ten Israelis were killed and more than a hundred injured in stabbings and shootings, and by drivers ramming cars into pedestrians. Over the same period, Israeli forces killed 53 Palestinians and injured around two thousand. Compared to the second intifada, the protests this month have been smaller, the influence of Palestinian political factions weaker, and the attacks far less lethal. But they have been coming more frequently, with several of them, unco-ordinated, on most days.

The Rubble-Strewn Road to Damascus | By Robin Wright, The New Yorker

A Biblical land and its people are being wiped out by weapons of the twenty-first century. Syria, after almost five years of war, is strewn with the rubble of a shattered state, a fractured society, and a demolished landscape. To the north, the grand city of Aleppo—the formerly bustling heart of commerce, often likened to New York but dating back at least five millennia—is now compared to Stalingrad, because of its devastation. To the east, the Roman ruins in Palmyra, including the majestic Temple of Bel, from the first century, and the towering Arch of Triumph, from the second, have been pulverized.

ISIS Grip on Libyan Coastal City Gives It a Fallback Option | By David D. Kirkpatrick, Ben Hubbard & Eric Schmitt, The New York Times

Iraqi commanders have been arriving from Syria, and the first public beheadings have started. The local radio stations no longer play music but instead extol the greatness of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

When the Libyan arm of the Islamic State first raised the group’s black flag over the coastal city of Surt almost one year ago, it was just a bunch of local militants trying to look tough.

Today Surt is an actively managed colony of the central Islamic State, crowded with foreign fighters from around the region, according to residents, local militia leaders and hostages recently released from the city’s main prison.


Rami Khoury: Perspectives from Inside a Tumultuous Middle East

Audio recording of a brillant interview with Rami Khouri on how the combination of bad governance and the terrible consequences of foreign military intervention – American, Russian, European, Iranian, Israeli and inter-Arab – is tearing the region to pieces:

“Unlike the previous five generations since the 1920s, when all the people in the Arab world, even if they were poor, even if they were living in autocratic countries, which mostly all of them were, they felt that the future was going to be better. By education, by working hard, by being creative, by interacting with people, they felt that their world and their children’s world was going to be better than theirs. That sense has pretty much vanished from so many people’s lives, which we saw with the Arab uprisings five years ago, which was a phenomenal process across the region, and we saw it with the birth of ISIS as one deviant expression of this.

So what has happened is that a century of development has stalled and started to go back. Corruption, mismanagement, abuse of power and autocracy, and incompetence have come to define a large section of governance in the Arab world. Not every Arab government is like that, but many of them are, and ordinary people’s lives have hit a wall. You have a terrible, terrible sentiment of vulnerability, of real fear for the future and total helplessness and hopelessness by millions and millions of people.”

Guéhenno: The Dangers of a European War on Terror

President of the International Crisis Group, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, on “a defining moment for Europe”, and how it should respond to violent extremism after the Paris attacks:

European political elites, already buffeted by the failure to foresee and manage the refugee crisis, understandably feel they are losing control. The vocabulary of war that French President François Hollande and others use is meant to establish a sense of unity, prepare citizens for suffering and herald the long effort ahead. But it also foretells a new global war on terrorism that may be just as unsuccessful as the first one.

Military action needs to be taken to break the momentum of the Islamic State and the aura of invincibility that is a part of its attraction. It is important to deny terrorists safe havens in which they can train and prepare new attacks. But an air campaign will not suffice to destroy ISIL or end violent extremism.

For Western countries and for Russia, who know that another invasion is neither advisable nor politically feasible, the temptation is great to conclude tactical alliances with local allies: the Kurds of northern Iraq or of Syria, the Shi’ite militias of Iraq, or even the Assad regime. They can fight the ground war that foreign powers want to stay away from.

The problem with such alliances is that they contribute to the sectarian and tribal divisions that ISIL feeds on. In the Middle East, the group has used civil wars to prosper. It now wants to export division and communal polarization to Europe — this time between Muslims and non-Muslims — to gain a foothold and weaken the resolve of countries engaged in bombing campaigns against it.

ISIL’s strategy is the best signpost to what a counter-strategy for all forms of violent extremism should be.

In Arab countries, the goal must be to stop the polarization and the wars that are critical to the violent Islamists’ success. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, governments that represent only part of the country are unlikely to achieve a lasting military victory against ISIL. That is why we need to prioritize broad peace agreements, and, where appropriate, convince outside powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia to support more inclusive regimes.

Results are unlikely to come quickly, and zones of conflict are more likely to expand than contract in the immediate future. That is why the domestic dimension of an anti-ISIL strategy in European countries threatened by terrorism is so important. This is a long war that will test the resilience of democratic societies.

News, Notes & Links | 23.11.15


Close to 2000 casualties in Iraq in October from conflict and terrorism, U.N. says.

The fate of Bashar al-Assad atop the agenda as Putin travels to Tehran.

The U.N. Security Council calls for eradicating IS safe havens in Iraq and Syria.

Bahraini security forces are torturing detainees, new Human Rights Watch report says.

Use of chemical weapons is ‘routine’ in Syria, U.S. official says.

32.000 wounded, 5700 killed in conflict in Yemen.


Recommended Reads:

On The Road in Syria, Struggle All Around | By Ben Hubbard, The New York Times

The police are gone, and militias have flourished, snarling traffic with checkpoints.

Contain ISIS | By Barry Posen, The Atlantic

The Paris attacks have naturally prompted calls for a stronger response. But restraint is the better course of action.

Does ISIS Really Have Nothing To Do With Islam? | By Shadi Hamid, The Washington Post

The impulse to separate Islam from the sins and crimes of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is understandable, and it often includes statements such as ISIS has “nothing to do with Islam” or that ISIS is merely “using Islam” as a pretext. The sentiment is usually well-intentioned. We live in an age of growing anti-Muslim bigotry, where mainstream politicians now feel license to say things that might have once been unimaginable.

To protect Islam – and, by extension, Muslims – from any association with extremists and extremism is a worthy cause.

But saying something for the right reasons doesn’t necessarily make it right. An overwhelming majority of Muslims oppose ISIS and its ideology. But that’s not quite the same as saying that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, when it very clearly has something to do with it.

NYT: Egypt’s Brazen Crackdown on Critics

Strong editorial in The New York Times on the crackdown on dissent in Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi:

On Sunday, Hossam Bahgat, a soft-spoken human rights activist and journalist, was summoned to an Egyptian military intelligence office in Cairo. These meetings have long terrified government critics in Egypt because they often lead to a descent into the country’s perverse justice system.

Mr. Bahgat spent the night in custody. Prosecutors told his lawyers on Monday that he would remain locked up for at least four more days while officials decide whether he will be tried for publishing information that supposedly threatened national security.

The arbitrary detention of civilians in Egypt, and their prosecution in military courts, have become appallingly routine in recent years as the government has cracked down on all forms of dissent under the guise of fighting terrorism. Yet there is something particularly disturbing about Mr. Bahgat’s detention and the prospect that he could be prosecuted in a military tribunal. By taking on an important and well-known figure in the international human rights community, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government signals a formidable appetite for repression and none for criticism.

In another ominous development on Sunday, the authorities arrested Salah Diab, the founder and owner of Al Masry Al Youm, a newspaper that has published critical reports about the government. State media reported that Mr. Diab is being investigated for possible corruption.

Viewing its alliance with Egypt as too crucial to fail, the Obama administration has done too little to confront the Sisi government’s expanding authoritarianism. Congress has continued to award Egypt $1.3 billion in military aid each year, despite ample evidence that its armed forces commit human rights abuses with impunity. The Obama administration and other Western governments have sought to nudge the Egyptian government to protect civil liberties with gentle public admonishments.

That approach is clearly not working. Egypt desperately needs international investment and deeply values its military relationship with the United States. Trade and military aid should be conditioned on clear signs that the government will respect freedom of expression and what’s left of the country’s civil society.

In 2002, Mr. Bahgat founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a pioneering human rights organization that documented the twists and turns of a tumultuous era that began with the popular uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. Mr. Bahgat’s organization has conducted reporting in a country where human rights activists operate in a legal vacuum. It asked tough questions and all too often found unpleasant truths. Last month, Mr. Bahgat published a story in the independent news organization Mada Masr about the semi-secret prosecution of 26 military officers for supposedly plotting to overthrow Mr. Sisi’s government.

Mr. Bahgat has always been cleareyed about the risks of his line of work. But that has never stopped him. A jail cell probably could, for a while, if world leaders continue to respond to Egypt’s abuses with a shrug.

McCants and Riedel on ISIS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Nayef

Will McCants and Bruce Riedel discuss their latest Brookings Essays, “The Believer” and “The Prince of Counter-Terrorism”, profiling ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Interior and Crown Prince Muhammed bin Nayef:


News, Notes & Links | 05.11.15


Russia’s military forces in Syria now numbers 4,000, U.S. officials say.

Ahmed Chalabi, a key lobbyist for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, dies.

Mustard gas used by Islamic State fighters in Syria, according to OPCW report.

Plane crash in Egypt “more likely than not” caused by bomb, Cameron says.

Iran recruits Afghan refugees to fight in Syria.

Amnesty International: Tens of thousands of “enforced dissappearences” in Syria.


Recommended Reads:

Power Failure in Iraq as Militias Outgun State | By Ned Parker, Reuters Investigates

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi came to office a year ago promising to rebuild his country. But the Iraqi state has grown weaker as power has leaked to Shi’ite militia leaders.

New U.S.-Backed Coalition to Counter ISIS in Syria Falters | By Ben Hubbard, New York Times

Weeks after the Obama administration canceled a failed Pentagon program to train and arm Syrian rebels to combat the Islamic State, American officials announced a new effort to equip ground forces in Syria to fight the jihadists.

But 10 days of interviews and front-line visits across northern Syria with many of the forces in the alliance, called the Syrian Democratic Forces, made clear that so far it exists in name only, and that the political and logistical challenges it faces are daunting.

Trouble on Holy Ground | By Robert Blecher, Foreign Policy

The Holy Esplanade — known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount — stands at the center of the current protest and violence in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. But despite U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest visit, meant to de-escalate the tension, the claims and counterclaims made about the Esplanade’s status remain as murky as ever.

The Palestinian leadership and Jordan accuse Israel of kicking off the unrest by violating the informal agreement that has prevailed at the holy site, more or less, since Israel seized Jerusalem’s Old City from Jordan in 1967. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denies the charge. Why are Palestinians so furious, Jordanians so indignant, and Israeli Jews so incredulous?

Khaddour: Assad’s Officer Ghetto

Why has the core of the Syrian military not defected? Brilliant piece by Kheder Khaddour on how military housing not only provides opportunities for social advancement but also segregates military personnel from the rest of Syrian society:

The Syrian army’s officer corps has remained intact despite the immense pressure of nearly four years of civil and military conflict, a fact that has prevented the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The military housing system is a crucial aspect of this cohesion: it reveals the world Syrian officers inhabit, their relations with the regime and wider Syrian society, and the reasons why so few have defected so far.

While there have been defections in the infantry, no major fighting unit has broken away en masse, as defection on this scale would have required the participation of middle- to high-ranking officers. Indeed, the core of the officer corps continues to stand by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The fact that a majority of officers are drawn from Syria’s Alawite community has often been noted as the primary, even singular, factor in the army’s cohesion since 2011. But this explanation overstates the role of sectarian affiliation.

Army officers have access to a benefits system that links nearly every aspect of their professional and personal lives to the regime, and this places them in an antagonistic relationship with the rest of society. Dahiet al-Assad, or “the suburb of Assad” northeast of Damascus and the site of the country’s largest military housing complex, reveals how this system works. Known colloquially as Dahia, the housing complex provides officers with the opportunity of owning property in Damascus. As many army officers come from impoverished rural backgrounds, home ownership in the capital would have been beyond their financial reach. Military housing has offered them an opportunity for social advancement, but the community that officers and their families inhabit within Dahia also fosters a distinct identity that segregates them from the rest of Syrian society, leaving them dependent on the regime.

The benefits Dahia provides come at a steep cost. With the move into military housing, officers effectively complete their buy-in, linking their personal and familial fortunes to the survival of the regime. All the trappings of an officer’s life, and the social respectability it provides, are thus granted by and dependent on the regime. In 2000, when then president Hafez al-Assad died, many officers in Dahiet al-Assad sent their families back to their home villages to wait out the succession outcome. The families only returned once Hafez’s son Bashar was confirmed as the new president. Officers had understood that their life in Damascus was contingent on the Assad regime’s survival, rather than on their status as state employees or military personnel.