Tag Archives: Islamic Extremism

Syrian Ceasefire Dissolved

Syrian man holding child in Aleppo

Syrian man holding child in Aleppo

The national ceasefire brokered between the US and Russia aiming to pause hostilities between major players in Syria lasted only seven days before falling apart. The Syrian Armed Forces General Command formally declared that “the US-Russian ceasefire deal started sin
ce September 12th is over” on September 19th which was followed by government jets bombing targets in and around Aleppo. Fraught with hesitation and both sides throwing blame from the start, the ceasefire crumbling apart throws any possible diplomatic solution into greater obscurity. Most importantly, the relationship between the US and Russia has taken a serious step backwards as both scramble to reassess and posture in the aftermath of the symbolically significant failure.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama

Unfortunately small scale violations that may have been manageable were overshadowed by two major incidents, first the accidental US bombing of Syrian government forces on September 17th in Deir-el-Zour, and the September 19th strike on a UN aid convoy that killed the director of the Syrian Red Crescent. The convoy that was hit was on the very same path that the ceasefire was trying to protect in order to provide much needed assistance to civilians under siege in hard to reach areas in Aleppo province. Russia and Syria denied participating in the strike, though Russia simultaneously claimed that the convoy was “escorted by terrorists.”  Russia’s definition of terrorist groups was a significant concern that remained unchallenged upon the signing of the deal.

If the ceasefire had been successful, the Americans and Russians  had plans to coordinate on a Joint Implementation Center (JIC) to counter extremist groups which would have heralded a great step in resolving the crisis via the two major powers working together against a common foe. Russia’s targeting of what the US designates as ‘moderate rebel groups’ is likely to resume which will further drive a wedge between the two nations. The ceasefire had excluded attacks on ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, which has recently rebranded itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham following its formal split with Al-Qaeda, which means these jihadi groups will gain the most in the fallout of the agreement.

Rebel fighter with a Bashar Al-Assad mask amidst rubble

Rebel fighter with a Bashar Al-Assad mask amidst rubble

Following the breakdown of the ceasefire attacks from Russia and the Syrian government escalated, causing a US intelligence official to remark the bombing campaign was one of the deadliest since the inception of the Syrian Civil War more than five years ago. State Department Spokesperson John Kirby announced that the US is “suspending its participation in bilateral channels with Russia that were established to sustain the cessation of hostilities” while also reiterating blame for the September 19th strike on Russia and the Syrian regime. Earlier that day, President Vladimir Putin stated the US was creating “a threat to strategic stability” in Syria and ended cooperation on a deal with the US on the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium.

Approximately 430,000 people have lost their lives in the Syrian Civil War as of mid-September, according to the watchdog group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The worsening of relations and evaporation of talks between the US and Russia in September stands to be one of the greatest setbacks in the war in 2016. It may be some time until US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Ministry Sergey Lavrov, or their successors, can formally broker another deal with any tangible impact on the situation on the ground. In the meantime, the US and Russia will act independently with at times overlapping and at times conflicting agendas.

At the very least, the US and Russia should aspire to coordinate attacks against their shared enemies in ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham while working towards alternatives in terms of other rebel groups.  ISIS is losing its war in Iraq to the point that the possibility of retaking Mosul, their capital in Iraq, is now more feasible than ever. If the focus on ISIS is decreased within Syria, that will undoubtedly complicate the offensive in northeastern Iraq and push back the day when over a million people may be freed from the oppressive grip of ISIS in Mosul. For both the sake of Iraq and Syria, American-Russian cooperation is pivotal, if not absolutely necessary.

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Mali Debriefing – 2015

Tuareg Nomad outside Timbuktu Mosque

Tuareg Nomad outside a mosque in Timbuktu

Mali is a landlocked country in central west Africa that has a population of over 19 million, about 10% or around 2 million of which live in the capital city Bamako. Due to its history under French colonial rule, French is the official language, but approximately 80% of Malians can communicate in the most prevalent local language of Bambara. Over 60% of the country still lives in rural areas, and 5-10% pursue a traditional nomadic lifestyle. Malians represent many different ethnic groups, the most prominent of which are the Mande (50%), followed by Fula (17%), Voltaic (12%), Tuareg and Moor (10%) and Songhai. Mali is one of the hottest countries in the world, as more than half the country is primarily Sahara desert, though the three regions in the northeast (the states of Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao) hold only 10% of the population. Mali is 90% Muslim, the vast majority of whom are Sunni Muslim, while about 5% identify as Christians and another 5% ascribe to indigenous African religions.

Map showing the regions of Mali including the claimed state of Azawad

Map showing the regions of Mali including the claimed state of Azawad

Mali has a considerable amount of natural resources including gold and uranium, but simultaneously is one of the least developed and poorest nations in the world. Over 80% of Malians are involved in the local agriculture industry, and the country’s biggest trade partner is France. Perhaps the most significant reason why so many Malians are stuck in a cycle of poverty is because of the failures of its education system. Malian primary school enrollment is low at 61% (ages 7-13) but secondary school enrollment (ages 13-18) drops even more to only 15% despite school being compulsory until age 16. The literacy rate is estimated between 27-46% and both enrollment and literacy rates are alarmingly worse for girls and women.

The Malian government is becoming more pro-Western over time, though it has retained an ambivalent relationship with France especially in terms of newer security threats. Since 2012, unrest in the north has persisted between various Islamist groups, Tuareg rebel militants, and the Malian government backed by the French and other international organizations. The November Radisson Blu hotel attack by terrorist group Al-Mourabitoun in conjunction with the region’s Al-Qaeda affiliate underscored the fragility of the west African country in particular.

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Mali’s president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita

Mali celebrated its independence from France in 1960, but did not hold its first democratic elections until 1992. Amadou Toure served as president from 2002 until 2012 and made significant progress in public health initiatives including efforts against Guinea Worm, AIDS, and polio during his tenure. From the mid-late 2000’s, there were numerous brief ceasefires between the government and Tuareg rebels interspersed with periodic clashes and violence. Toure was criticized especially in the later years of his presidency for this failure to stem increasing unrest in the country’s northeast which led to a military coup and his resignation in 2012. After the military coup the country transitioned back to democracy in 2013 which has since led by Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (commonly referred to as IBK). IBK’s party seeks to promote a secular, social democracy, and is a member of the Socialist International organization.

  • 2011: Rebellion reignites after Libyan Civil War due to Tuareg militants returning  to northern Mali
  • March – April 2012 Tuareg rebels effectively control north half of Mali including Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao. Rebels self-declare independent state of Azawad
  • March 2012: African Union suspends Mali’s membership following military coup
  • Late 2012: UN and African Union back West African regional grouping ECOWAS in military expedition against rebels/various Islamists in north
  • January – April 2013: Mali asks for and receives French military help. French rapidly defeat rebels and retake key cities.  
  • 2013-present: Sporadic clashes and incidents
  • April 2015: Upsurge in fighting via clashes with UN peacekeepers
  • November 2015: Islamists storm Bamako’s Radisson Blu hotel, taking 170 hostages and killing 20 civilians

The unrest in the northeast has strengthened calls for a stronger security state while diverting attention to basic economic development and job creation. Security assistance offered by the French military, UN peacekeepers and resources, and the African Union have been critical in rolling back successes from rebels and jihadists, though their involvement has come with its own issues as well. On the ground, many Malians are distrustful of the French in particular, seeing their return to the country as a reminder of European influence and colonial control they have tried to move away from. A balance between counterterrorism and anti-rebel activities must be struck with initiatives to develop the country from the ground up. If development is ignored at the expense of short term gains against extremists, then the region will continue to harbor anti-government sentiments.

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How Tikrit has Changed the War

Iraqi troops and allied militia in preparation for recapturing Tikrit

Iraqi troops and allied militia in preparation for recapturing Tikrit

Tikrit will be remembered as the birthplace of Saddam Hussein and forever associated with the legacy of the Iraq War for many, thanks to nearly a decade of conflict. Nonetheless, the recent US-led airstrikes against ISIS in the city reveal a pivotal shift in the current offensive against the jihadi radical group. This is because for the first time, American forces are bombing a target with the implicit knowledge that it will directly benefit the success of the Iranian-led militias and Iraqi government troops on the ground. In other words, the United States and Iran are indirectly coordinating together against ISIS in Tikrit.

Map of current situation in Iraq, Tikrit is within the blue circle northwest of Baghdad

Map of current situation in Iraq, Tikrit is within the blue circle northwest of Baghdad

The city of Tikrit is located not only at a crossroads between the capital of Iraq, Baghdad, and Mosul, the center of ISIS in Iraq, but it’s also at the crux of the anti-ISIS offensive. An initial American unwillingness to work with forces under Iranian command or their supported Shiite militias, coupled with a rhetoric from those forces on the ground declaring no US air support was needed, has led to an incredibly interesting scenario. Despite those actions, the US and Iran have just found themselves as odd bedfellows in an increasingly complex fight against a common foe. With the Kurds and Shia militias facing a similarly tenuous alliance in fighting the extremists around Kirkuk in the north, it looks as if the “enemy of my enemy” objective has overcome the mistrust between the vying factions to lead the charge against ISIS.

Commanding officer of the US operation Lieutenant General James Terry stated the strikes, “will further enable Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to maneuver and defeat ISIL in the vicinity of Tikrit.” The mention of Iraqi command obscures the well-established fact that especially in Tikrit the ground effort has been directed by senior Iranian military leaders. The US has avoided coordination any military actions, directly or indirectly, with Iran up until this point, but as Iranian support becomes increasingly pivotal the relationship has been impossible to ignore.

Qassem Soleimani, the highest ranking Iranian commander in Iraq

Qassem Soleimani, the highest ranking Iranian commander in Iraq

Iraq, whose military forces have been plagued by ineffectiveness and a lack of direction, have been largely enveloped by the other powers in play. Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force has played a divisive role in leading strategy within Iraq against ISIS. Likewise, the Kurds have been able to consolidate power in the north and have been slowly pushing towards Mosul, the critical city that is firmly entrenched within radical control. What is guaranteed is that Mosul will not fall from the hands of ISIS without a consolidated and comprehensive assault that is not feasible to take place for some time, though when it does, hopefully the lines between the various factions will be more clear.

Retaking Tikrit is one step, albeit a significant one, in the fight against ISIS. What remains to be seen is how Iran, Iraq, the US, the Kurds, and the other elements at play will cooperate or conflict in moving forward against them.

 

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Mission Creeping and the Ideological Battle against ISIS

ISIS, also called Daesh, militants in Iraq

ISIS, also called Daesh, militants in Iraq propaganda video

After President Obama nearly doubled the number of military advisors to Iraq (from 1,600 to 3,100) in early November, White House official Denis McDonough asserted that the move does not amount to “mission creep.” However, this action epitomizes mission creep and has set the standard for further US involvement. Furthermore, it seems the stage has been set for everything short of direct military engagement. The new US forces entering Iraq will be operating beyond the established bases in Baghdad and Erbil to train nine Iraqi brigades and three Peshmerga (Kurdish) brigades. The Government of Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) have requested the additional assistance which will supplemental coalition airstrikes against ISIS. Participating countries in the airstrikes and military training has expanded to include the US, UK, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark the Netherlands and France via air intervention, while Germany, Italy, Norway Spain, and Turkey have committed trainers. Gulf nations intervening only in Syria include Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

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While previously it has been restated time and time again that there will be no boots on the ground, the definition of what constitutes boots on the ground has shifted over time. Furthermore top military commander General Martin Dempsey commented that he would “certainly consider” sending  a modest number of US combat troops for operations such as the retaking of Mosul. It is important to note a series of recent minor victories against ISIS such as the attacks west of Ramadi carried out by Iraqi forces and strikes earlier in the month that injured ISIS leader al Baghdadi. However, justifying ramping up military involvement beyond the scope of assistance would only further exacerbate the long term conflict as the war against ISIS in Iraq cannot be won from the outside.

A consequence of the perpetual direct military commitment in the region is that it will continue to provide fodder for anti-Western rhetoric. This is a prerequisite trade-off of intervention that has garnered little attention, yet it is crucial in influencing the thoughts and attitudes of many sympathetic to ISIS or caught between competing interests. Alarmingly, ISIS is indoctrinating children to glorify terrorism and resent the outside world, which will seed future hatred and perpetuate extremism based on misrepresented principles. Much of the attraction to ISIS comes from impoverished and marginalized young adults abroad, and constructive alternatives have failed to stem the flow of adherents. Both inside and outside the Muslim world, there must be further action taken on an ideological level to counter the ISIS narrative. Accurate information on ISIS,their atrocities, and their effects must be promoted in lieu of ignorance or apathy.

ISIS recruits allegedly as young as 10 in Syria

ISIS recruits allegedly as young as 10 in Syria

On the other hand, the imposition of ISIS-interpreted Sharia has not come without its own problems, as seen by internal rifts within the quasi-state. The ever changing and hypocritical regulations within ISIS on their perverted interpretations of Islam are frequently at odds within their leadership. ISIS has recently decided to relax its policies towards incoming foreign fighters, hoping to continue attracting high numbers of militants despite controversy within the organization on who should and shouldn’t be allowed in. Medical care in ISIS administered areas has brought about numerous conflicts undermining the ability of doctors under their control.These all point to the group’s need to constantly adapt to their shifting circumstances. If these confusions can be exploited, it would do all the more to undermine the radical message of the extremists.

The need to constantly counter ISIS on all levels, through highlighting their religious illegitimacy, to their unequal and arbitrary mistreatment of civilians, to their ideological extremes, will be ever present for the foreseeable future. Mission creeping will deepen the conflict without a surefire endgame, while fighting the ISIS ideology can invoke systematic opposition.

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The New War in Iraq has Begun

ISIS militants marching in seized city of Mosul

ISIS militants marching in captured city of Mosul

The Iraqi government, the United States, and the international community must recognize the situation on the ground in Iraq and label it appropriately for what has become: a new civil war. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (synonymous with ISIS) now control cities and significant territory within the country, has further deepened the fracture between Sunnis and Shias, and it has created a vacuum that the Kurdish Regional Government has capitalized upon.

ISIS captured the second largest city in Iraq, Mosul, on June 10th. While the scale of the attack and the success they achieved was unprecedented, their rapid growth and brutality is nothing new. The Sunni Islamic terror group’s first major attack freed hundreds of militants from the Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons occurred in July 2013, nearly a year ago. Since then they have continued to gain sympathizers, fighters, and land, and they now are fighting towards Baghdad while threatening what little stability is left in the country. In February, ISIS was disavowed from its affiliate status with al-Qaeda, and the radical group has continued to prove its effectiveness on its own in pursuit of creating a new Islamic caliphate under strict Sharia law.

Extent of ISIS influence and control

Extent of ISIS influence and control

In the attack on Mosul, the Iraqi army deserted en masse, leaving behind weapons, military equipment, and even uniforms. ISIS has even added former Saddam loyalists to their cause, stirring old animosities against the current Shia government. Thus far, the Iraqi government has proven to be wholly incapable of mounting a counter campaign to reverse the progress gained by the extremist group. At present, ISIS informally administers a volatile region spanning from eastern Syria to western Iraq. ISIS has enough resources and firepower to attack conventional security forces head on though they additionally utilize suicide bombers with devastating results.

The alliances that have been sought with tribal militias and locals to fight ISIS have fallen far short in creating a united opposition to the intruding extremist group. As a result, the US has signalled that it wishes for a new Iraqi government to be formed without the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, accusing him of failing to curb the festering sectarian divisions plaguing the country. Maliki has had significant troubles appealing to the Sunni community and has marginalized many Sunni leaders in how he has approached the crisis in the western Anbar region. It is clear that without international support the Iraqi government, with or without Maliki, cannot hope to administer their own country.

Iran’s stake in Maliki and a stable neighbor in Iraq, the only other large Shia majority country, has also been brought to the forefront. Iran is already deeply involved in Syria and propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but ISIS is a common enemy for both Iran and the United States. Furthermore, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has jumped in and taken control of Kirkuk and other smaller towns previously contested between the KRG and Iraqi government. The Kurdish Peshmerga security forces have not directly fought with ISIS on a comparable scale to the Iraqi army, but they are a critical element to be reckoned with in terms of both the future of the Iraqi state and ISIS controlled territory on their border.

PM Maliki requested a state of emergency after the capture of Mosul

PM Maliki requested a state of emergency after the capture of Mosul

The nascent war currently raging in Iraq between Islamic extremists and the Iraqi government is not the responsibility of the United States. If an American says, “this is not our fight” then they are correct, the current crisis is not a fight of the United States. However, this war has developed under the current Iraqi government that recent events have suggested may be impossible to truly win. The Iraqi government needs to make further concessions to moderate Sunnis willing to stand up against the terrors of ISIS. The Kurdish factor also cannot be ignored, and as they have their own highly trained security forces (the peshmerga), parlaying with the KRG against ISIS should be an obvious option to pursue.

The wider involvement regarding the US, Iran, and beyond needs to be weighed with the larger security threat as a whole. If ISIS is able to build an autonomous, unrecognized state within the borders of Syria and Iraq that can export terrorism to neighboring countries then the priority should be to disable that threat as quickly as possible. The safety and security of innocent Iraqis, whether they be Shia, Sunni, or one of the myriad of smaller minorities, needs to be addressed as well. The US cannot and will not send a conventional military force back to Iraq in the near future. However, utilizing the resources and relationships in the region to stem the success of ISIS for the benefit of all must be pursued.

Iraq cannot continued to be ignored, and the problems it faces will continue to worsen until there is significant change in how the people of Iraq are empowered to stand up and oppose ISIS.

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Sochi Olympics 2014: Behind the Games

Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony

Scene from the opening ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics

The Olympics are  a unique opportunity for the many nations of the world to come together in competition through sport. Inevitably when different countries come together, political, social and cultural differences are brought to the attention of the public, and the current Winter Olympic Games in Sochi are no exception.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has placed his personal reputation on the line for the Sochi Games, and in many ways the games’ success will be seen as reflective of Russia as a whole. At a budget that has surpassed $50 billion the games are the most expensive Olympics of all time, more than the 2012 London Summer Games but also more expensive than the previous 21 Winter Olympic Games combined dating back to 1924. In addition to the allegations of rampant corruption on an unprecedented scale, Russia has been criticized over the decision to host in Sochi specifically, its stance on LGBT issues, and problems with human rights in general.

The $50+ billion price tag on the games is so notably suspect because of the sub-par conditions of many of the facilities and the lack of accountability for the money spent. A senior International Olympic Committee official stated that it was common knowledge that a third of total spending on the games disappeared due to corruption perpetrated by business associates with connections to Putin. Others place the figure even higher with some alleging that well over half the money allocated to the games were pocketed. A popular Twitter account highlighting many of the hastily and incomplete construction results has garnered more than 300,000 followers, but also glosses over a larger problem. Unfortunately, the total lack of accountability for billions of dollars spent in Sochi is reflective of the status quo in Russia, a deeply ingrained issue that has gone largely unnoticed by the outside world.

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Located on the Black Sea the Sochi area was previously best known as a summer beach getaway for many Russians complete with palm trees. The nearby ski resort of Rosa Khutor in the northern Caucasus mountains is 30 miles away where the alpine events are taking place. Also close by are many smaller regions that have sought autonomy or independence, including Chechnya and South Ossetia, the latter of which Russia and Georgia fought a brief war over in 2008. Perhaps most vocally, the ethnic Circassian people have expressed their disdain for hosting the games specifically at Sochi because of its historical significance as the site of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Russians in the late 19th century. For further context, in addition to the proximity to disenfranchised and separatist groups, Sochi is comparably equidistant from the heart of the Middle East to the capital of Russia, Moscow.

After multiple bombings in Volgograd a city in the north Caucasus in October and December that killed 7 and 34 people respectively, the issue of security has been paramount for Russia. Journalists and experts have accused Russian security of engaging in mass surveillance  of virtually all electronic devices and even spying in bathrooms, but at the end of the day if any and all attacks are prevented, Russian will likely assert it was all worth it. Furthermore, attracting intense criticism and controversy has been Russia’s stance on LGBT issues, specifically the law passed in 2013 by a vote of 436-0 banning ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ among minors. The conservative Russian culture and the government itself have quietly ignored the issue in regards to the games and this is likely to continue in order to avoid a backlash. The law has not been actively enforced in any context at the Olympic Games, but it has simultaneously served as a platform for discussion and advocacy on the issue in the West.

While the Olympics are largely regarded as a tremendous opportunity to gain international prestige and promote a country’s stance on the world stage, the problems and conflicts that exist within and because of the games should not be ignored for the sake of convenience. Russia and Putin  in many ways are using the Olympic games as a tool to further their own means, and the extent to how successful the outcome will be remains to be seen. Hopefully, the attention and pressure to address many of the issues outlined above, from corruption to human rights, may influence Russia to implement positive change in the future.

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Iraq at Year’s End

Iraq Sunni anti-government rally in May

Iraq Sunni anti-government protesters in May

It has become clear that 2013 will be the deadliest year Iraq has experienced since 2008. Looking ahead, 2013 will likely be looked at in retrospect in one of two ways. Optimistically, if violence were to subside after 2013, then this year may be viewed as a late spike in conflict before a return to relatively lower levels of violence. On the other hand, the more likely outcome will show that 2013 is a shift from the relatively lower levels of violence experienced in 2008-2012 that will only continue to worsen in the foreseeable future. We all hope for the former, but should expect the latter.

The most recent developments include the US sending 75 Hellfire missiles and dozens of unarmed reconnaissance drones  to help counter the growing power of al-Qaida affiliate groups. This is the first significant public boost in security aid since Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with President Obama in early November. However, the assistance is expected to have a relatively minor effect in turning the tide against extremists, especially compared to the effects armed drones or the requested Apache attack helicopters could have.

The recon and intelligence support that the US has and will continue to provide to Iraq is critical to both countries’ long term interests in combating terrorism. Providing attack helicopters or more advanced weaponry which have been blocked by Congress is a much thornier issue that has yet to be resolved. Pressuring Maliki and the Iraqi government to act more inclusively towards the Sunni populace in the country is important for the future functionality of the state. The war against extremism cannot be won by the US alone, and it cannot be won by drones alone either.

The sectarian element of the open war in Iraq is perhaps the most significant issue that needs to be addressed moving forward. On Christmas, several attacks targeting Christians that killed dozens proved yet again that a small minority of Sunni extremists wish to deepen the ethnic and religious divides that make up the country. It will be much harder to change the minds of those who are committed to radical ideology in comparison to empowering the populace to stand together against them, though the latter is by no means a straightforward task. The average Iraqi knows of the devastation that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) al-Qaida affiliate can inflict on the country, but in areas where ISIL has a strong presence turning to the government is incredibly risky.

Thus, in looking to the future of Iraq there are two key elements that need to be advanced hand in hand. The government and international community needs to support and assist the Iraqi populace in standing up to and opposing terrorism and sectarian violence of all forms. Secondly, the West and Baghdad need to identify and subvert extremist resources as effectively as possible with the limited resources that are made available to them. Both of these are lofty and generalized goals in response to an incredibly complex crisis, but escalating the conflict via overwhelming military force will produce unintended consequences, and ignoring the problem will only make it worse. The situation in Iraq can improve, but it cannot be done overnight.

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Why You Should Care About the Kurds (Part II of II)

Kurdish Militia Members in Syria

Kurdish Militia Members in Syria

(Part I on the background of the Kurds can be found here)

Why should anyone care about the Kurds? The Kurdish role in the Middle East could drastically change the outcome of the Syrian Civil War, Turkey’s bid to the European Union and the future stability of Iraq. Most importantly for Americans, the Kurds could be a significant force in the long term war against al-Qaeda.

In Turkey, the recent reforms initiated by the government to solidify the peace with the Kurds and address their grievances fell short. Despite all the other obstacles and realities in play concerning Turkey’s accession to the European Union, a revived Kurdish insurgency would spell disaster for Turkey’s PR image. For both the Kurds and Turkey, leaving the negotiating table for the battlefield is a no-win situation.

Just across the border in Syria, Kurds are not getting the attention or credit they deserve for fighting al-Qaeda’s affiliates. The Kurds are not as concerned with who’s in charge of the Syrian government as the Free Syrian Army, so they have less of an incentive to partner with Islamic extremist groups when the going gets tough. Regardless of the outcome of the Syrian Civil War, the Kurds will be in a much more consolidated position to gain significant regional autonomy or seek full independence. With more independent authority, the Kurds would have more of an incentive to drive away violent extremism from the region altogether.

The relationship between the government in Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has continually been tenuous especially concerning oil revenues. Nonetheless, Iraq deteriorating into another sectarian civil war is a scenario that neither wishes to face, and the two may be forced to collaborate against Islamic extremists for the sake of stability.

The Kurds are the only major group in the region that both fought against Saddam Hussein in 2003 and  al-Qaeda in the Syrian Civil War . Although at the surface they seem like the perfect US ally in the region, it’s a very complicated relationship due to American ties with the Baghdad and Ankara. However, the United States may find more incentives in working more closely with the Kurds as Kurdish relations with their host neighbors change.

The Kurds of today are making modest political gains in Turkey, consolidating territory in northern Syria, and making bold moves towards oil autonomy in Iraq. The Kurds of tomorrow could force Turkey to concede further recognition, establish legitimate autonomy or control in parts of Syria and hold more sway in the oil and political affairs of Iraq. US policymakers should seriously consider closer ties with the Kurds while constructively working with both Baghdad and Ankara. The Kurds could definitely use an ally in the US, and the US has a chance to make a new friend in an emerging Kurdistan.

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Alarming Warning Signs in Iraq

Two recent developments in Iraq have further underscored the severity of the security situation that is spiraling out of control: a surprising attack in the previously untouched heart of Kurdistan and a wave of coordinated revenge bombings against Sunnis carried out by Shi’a militants.

Attack in Erbil

While not the site of the attack, the historic city center of Erbil is literally walled off, and the city is widely considered one of Iraq's safest.

While not the site of the attack, the historic center of Erbil is literally walled off, and the city is widely considered one of Iraq’s safest.

Erbil is fourth largest city in Iraq and the most populated city in the Kurdish Autonomous region. It is the capital of Erbil Province in northeastern Iraq, and hasn’t been the site of a major violent incident since 2007. Throughout the entire Iraq War, the US did not lose a single soldier in the Kurdish region.

The Kurds are a distinct ethnic group from Arabs with their own language, customs and culture. Kurds may be either Sunni or Shi’a, but are more likely to self-identify with their region or ethnicity before religious sect.

On September 29th, five coordinated bombs targeting the Kurdish security services killed six members of the Kurdish security forces. One of the bombs was hidden in an ambulance that exploded when responding to the scene. Dozens more were wounded, and six attackers were killed in response. Baghdad has an agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) so it may police its own region, and they have done a very solid job up until this incident.

Side note: KRG President Massoud Barzani previously remarked that he was committed to defending Kurds in the northern areas of Syria with the Kurdish Peshmerga military forces, which has interestingly been encouraged by Assad.

The significance of the attack is that the likely perpetrators, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are bold enough and organized enough to get through to one of the most highly defended areas of the country.  ISIL has been trying to incite groups into fighting in order to destabilize the state to their own benefit. If ISIL has the strength and ability to strike Kurdish forces persistently, it could open up another front in the nascent war.

Sectarian Funeral Bombings

Moqtada al-Sadr rally in Sadr City in 2008

Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi milita, rally in Sadr City in 2008

For four consecutive days deadly funeral bombings struck Iraq, killing over 100 people, many of whom were already mourning those lost in recent violence. What is critical of these attacks is that they reflect the increasingly sectarian nature of the violence that is reaching new levels.

Two bombing attacks in Baghdad and one near Samarra targeting Sunni funerals on September 20th, 21st and 23rd killed dozens. Previously it was relatively unheard of to hear of several consecutive attacks targeting Sunnis, but violence on both groups has increased. Sadr City, a heavily Shi’a district within Baghdad and one-time stronghold of the insurgent Mahdi Army active in the 2006-2007 civil war, was rocked by the largest funeral bombing attack that killed at least 73 on September 22nd. Further attacks since the funeral bombing wave in Shi’a neighborhoods have further underlined this growing division.

The implication of this recent series of attacks is that now it suggests revenge attacks are already are able to be executed in a devastating manner on short notice. The UN condemned the string of bombings, expressing heightened concern and urging against retribution attacks. If the Shi’a have already started responding to Sunni extremism that hasn’t been contained by the government security forces, there may be little UN rhetoric left that could dissuade them from fighting back.

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Syrian Civil War 101

Syria2For more recent articles with updated information on the Syrian Civil War, check out this post or my latest piece on Syria.

Who is fighting?

While it began as a native opposition against its government foreign fighters have come all over the world to fight for both sides in growing numbers and regional and international powers also became involved both directly and indirectly. Today, it is no longer simply one side against the other as within the opposition there are factional battles and internal conflicts.

Bashar al-Assad is a Ba’athist politically and religiously a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’a Islam. Fighting on his side is the regular Syrian Armed Forces and the less formal pro-regime militia Shabiha. Christians, Alawites and other minority groups have primarily sided with the Syrian state over fears they would be targeted by Islamic militants or be marginalized by the opposition.

The Kurds are arguably the largest ethnic group without a state of their own. Kurdish groups officially fight under the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in either Popular Protection Units (YPG) or smaller Kurdish militias. They seek further autonomy and possibly independence within Syria and have strong ties to the Kurdish Autonomous region in northern Iraq.

The opposition groups are under the very wide and very loosely organized banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). There are numerous militias and smaller groups with a wide range of political and religious affiliations but when discussed in the media, the FSA typically refers to moderate anti-Assad Sunni groups who wish to see Assad deposed.

Controversially regarded as the most effective rebel groups are the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, both Islamic militant al-Qaida affiliates. They have successfully recruited foreign fighters from dozens of countries around the region and the world and seek to establish a new Syrian state under Islamic law.

The United States and other Western powers have sought to support the rebels but increasingly found it difficult because of the influx of hard-line extremists. Other Sunni majority countries such as Saudi Arabia have provided funds and support to a wider variety of rebel groups.

Iran and Hezbollah (the Lebanese paramilitary group) have directly and indirectly supported the Assad regime. Hezbollah has sent their own fighters to the battle lines and there is evidence to suggest that Iran has done the same. Russia indirectly supports the Assad regime because of their longstanding alliance and the strategic importance of the only Russian port directly on the Mediterranean Sea, which is located in Latakia.

What about chemical weapons?

A UN report confirmed that the sarin nerve agent (gas) was used in an attack on the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus on August 21 where over a thousand were killed. While the report does not explicitly assign blame, the substantial evidence and analysis in the report all but condemns Assad and the Armed Forces in name. Russia still maintains that they hold evidence pointing to the rebels as the perpetrators, but outside of Assad and his allies few else believe this after the extensive UN report and investigation. President Obama in August of 2012 stated that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line”, but recent diplomatic efforts successfully sidestepped a proposed military intervention.

When did it start?

The commonly accepted start date for the Syrian conflict  is March 15th, 2011 when youth organized “Day of Rage” popular demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive government sparked additional protests similar to other “Arab Spring” countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The Syrian Armed Forces first used deadly force against protesters on March 18th, where five were killed in Daraa.

The conflict escalated to being called a civil war in June/July of 2012, when Herve Ladsous, the first senior UN official declared the conflict a civil war in response to Assad’s use of attack helicopters against opposition forces. The Red Cross declared the conflict as a civil war about a month later in July.

Where is the fighting taking place?

The fighting has split up the country heavily upon sectarian and ethnic lines.

Pro-Assad territory is mainly in the Alawite heavy western coastal provinces centered around Latakia, Tartus and Hama but also in the southwest by Damascus. Regime forces have made up ground recently in the south and in the major cities.

The Kurdish groups near the Turkish border and the northeast have recently been making overtures towards establishing an independent or autonomous Kurdish region in the northern areas of Raqqa and Hassakeh Provinces and pockets in all directions north of Aleppo.

Opposition groups including FSA and ISIL and al-Nusra have a strong presence in Aleppo Province and the eastern areas sans the Kurdish areas to the far north. The majority of the fighting is in the suburbs of Damascus and Homs between rebels and regime forces, though the opposition has been gaining in the north near the Alawite region.

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Major changes in the above photo since August 22 include the rebel takeover of Azaz in the northwest and increased clashes in Hassakeh in the northeast.

Why are they fighting?

Assad and his allies have since the beginning claimed that they were fighting against foreign terrorists and foreign agents seeking to subvert the legitimate authority of the state. While at the onset of the war this was patently false, as the war has continued foreign fighters have played more and more of a crucial role.

ISIL and al-Nusra wish to create an Islamic state governed under Sharia law. Recently al-Nusra and many other groups rejected authority of the newly selected FSA leadership because of their goal of a democratic state.

The Kurdish groups as mentioned earlier seek regional autonomy or their own independent state.

The FSA and associated moderate rebel groups want Assad out of power and a new democratic, secular, civil government to take his place. Having Assad out of power is perhaps the most important factor that the rebels will not let up on while Assad refuses to step down.

Perhaps the most destabilizing force of all is the infighting that has intermittently occurred between opposition groups. ISIL and al-Nusra have fought Kurdish militias, FSA groups and against each other at one point or another. A unified opposition has become less feasible as the fighting has worn on due to the complexity of the groups involved. The result has been a war that at least from the situation on the battle lines seems to have no end in sight.

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