Tag Archives: Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

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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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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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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The New War in Iraq

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For a more recent update on the situation in Iraq and additional information on ISIL check out this post.

Even before the last US troops left in December 2011, American interest in Iraq was fading sharply. The political turmoil in Egypt, the Syrian Civil War and the wider Arab Spring events have all overshadowed a growing terrorist insurgency within Iraq. It is all too common to see 30 people killed a day by car bombs and targeted shootings, and with a death toll of over 1,000 July 2013 was the deadliest since the tail end of the 2006-2008 civil war according to the UN. The recent surge of violence and the increasingly coordinated nature of such attacks has prompted the Iraqi Interior Ministry to declare the country has entered into an “open war“. Even Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has acknowledged the severity of the situation and he has recently called for security assistance in response to the growing sectarian crisis. Security forces are unable to effectively curb the increasing threat from extremists and recent events have further deepened the conflict.

The siege that freed hundreds of prisoners on July 22nd, including al-Qaida senior leaders, from the infamous Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons has further highlighted the fact that the perpetrators, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has consolidated and redoubled their efforts against the Iraqi State. ISIL is an al-Qaida affiliate which has claimed the lion’s share of responsibility for the coordinated bombings and killings that frequently target security forces and Iraqi Shi’a across the country. ISIL is also active in Syria and together with al-Nusra, another al-Qaida linked Islamist militant group, they have been growing in their fight against Bashar al-Assad. Furthermore, they have been cited as more effective in fighting the army in comparison to more moderate groups of the Free Syrian Army due to their more extensive past military experience in the region.

The effects of the Syrian War coupled with the instability in Iraq have not often been analyzed as a singular problem, but perhaps that perspective should be more seriously considered as such. The Syrian Civil War surpassed the scope of the Libyan Civil War in number of people killed months ago but Iraq is an even larger and arguably more divisive state than even Syria. Additionally, the unique situation in Syria has attracted more international jihadists and militants than perhaps any conflict before, from Iran and Hezbollah to North Africa and the Caucasus.

If the extremists were to be shut out of a future political stake in Syria, then what is to stop them from either carrying out a similar insurgency in Syria or intensifying their campaign against the Shi’a-led government state in Iraq? How many more attacks can the mainstream Iraqi Shi’a community withstand before more militants rise up to take action into their own hands?

At this rate, Iraq is slowly approaching another sectarian war that could be bloodier, more devastating to the region and much more difficult to end than the last.

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