Lowy Institute

The question of defining a 'moderate' rebel in Syria's civil war bedevils the US as it works to fulfill its plan, announced by President Obama on 10 September, to arm and train anti-ISIS groups in Syria.

The term 'moderate' is thrown around with gay abandon without anyone defining exactly what they mean by it.  And with good reason. It is first and foremost a relative and not an absolute term. Notice how often we write 'moderate' in inverted commas when using the term? Someone Riyadh considers a moderate could well be a raging Salafist to a Western audience, while someone considered a moderate by the West would likely be not sufficiently Islamic to placate many in the Gulf. This interview from April is a good example of the complexity of the Syrian battlespace and why the term 'moderate' should be considered extremely subjective.

But Western politicians of all persuasions would have you believe that a moderate rebel is 'someone that we can do business with', which is a rather vacuous idea, since you can only ever measure how moderate a person is when they are actually in a position to wield power. On the path to success, people and groups (particularly in the Middle East) are likely to say whatever it takes to get external support.

The proposition that Washington can find (or create) a group of 'moderate' rebels to back as part of its plan to degrade and defeat ISIS while not sowing the seeds of a future disaster is full of holes. A couple of issues spring to mind:

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First, the countries that have been mooted as possible training locations for the 'moderates' have their own agendas regarding Syria and are hardly liberal democracies, so it is reasonable to assume that they will seek to advance their own interests  and agendas (including the place of religion in society) while saying the right things about the need for an inclusive, moderate armed opposition. That paragon of moderation, Saudi Arabia, has agreed to host training for the neo-secular moderate opposition, and discussions appear to be ongoing regarding Turkey's role. President Erdogan's AKP is a modern Islamist party, and the President himself has been complicit (either by commission or omission) in the mess that is Syria by concentrating simply on felling Assad without giving any consideration to what to do when he didn't fall. 

Second, the US will have no effective control over the actions and equipment of these 'moderate' forces once they cross the border back into Syria. Why would any right thinking moderate commander do Washington's bidding when he knows that today's US liaison team will be rotated out long before the war is ever concluded? You can try to sub-contract the oversight to 'friendly' regional nations but the problem remains. You can't insulate the weapons, training and logistics support in such a manner that they only provide an advantage to the moderates and not the Islamists, who inhabit the battlefield in greater numbers. As this piece argues, so-called vetted groups' weapons and operations are already directly supporting al Qaeda-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra as well as Salafist groups under the Islamic front umbrella.

Even after the ISIS threat is addressed, there is still the question of what to do about Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Front and myriad other Islamist groups inhabiting the Syrian battlefield. None of them have fixed personnel rosters, and individuals can and do travel between them depending on battlefield success, resource availability, leadership disagreement or doctrinal differences. Some will undoubtedly find their way into the 'moderate' groups currently being 'vetted' for training in 'liberal' regional countries.

Trying to find enough 'moderates' to form a critical mass and then training them in countries whose governments have contributed to creating the Islamist morass in Syria in the first place will be near impossible, and will ultimately create the conditions for further instability. Only this time the West will have contributed directly to it.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Freedom House.

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Questions abound over what to do about ISIS and whether it should be pursued into Syria (the US has now started hitting ISIS targets in Syria). Concentrating simply on ISIS though, risks misunderstanding the regional nature of the problem and the fact that ISIS is just the strongest of numerous Islamist groups threatening to upset the regional balance and trying to establish its own version of Islamic rule. Others might not be as publicly aspirational (or provocatively foolhardy) as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's ISIS and his claim to have established a caliphate, but liberal democrats they ain't.

To concentrate solely on ISIS as the media (and hence the public) tends to do can lead us into thinking that if we degrade ISIS then we have fixed the problem.

But take this week as a snapshot of how complex a problem we are really facing. On Israel's long-dormant border with Syria, the UN and Syrian military have now left the field of battle to the control of Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that continues to pledge loyalty to al Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. And in Lebanon, Jabhat al-Nusra has just executed the second Lebanese police officer of 22 soldiers and police officers they hold. Islamic State supporters have beheaded two of the soldiers. These are just the latest deaths of Lebanese security personnel in an ongoing battle with Islamists that saw Jabhat al-Nusra and affiliates briefly take over the Lebanese town of Arsal in early August.

In Syria, Islamist groups wanting to implement their version of Islamic government also battle away, for the most part cooperating with, but not part of, Jabhat al-Nusra. The umbrella group Islamic Front, however, suffered a setback recently with the death of the leader of Ahrar al-Sham and other senior figures in a mysterious attack in northern Syria. The transnational nature of the Islamist problem was illustrated by the fact that even the Dagestani branch of the Islamic Caucasus Emirate sent its very public condolences. The US sees a group of vetted rebels as a possible solution but as this and this show, while the idea of vetted secular Syrian rebels sounds attractive, the devil is in the detail.

None of this is to say we are wrong to focus on ISIS in Iraq. ISIS threatens a government that is internationally recognised and which owes its existence ultimately to the 2003 invasion, of which Australia was a part. The Iraqi Government should be encouraged to take the ground fight to ISIS while supported by air strikes, and while regional governments help to degrade ISIS through squeezing its revenue base, sealing off its borders (in the case of Turkey) and persuading ISIS's non-Islamist allies to leave it to its own devices or even take up arms against it.

When leaders are asked about airstrikes in Syria though, the question that needs to be asked is not simply whether we are going to target ISIS but what we are going to do about other Islamist groups in Syria, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, both of which threaten Lebanon. None of these groups fundamentally differ about their desired societal endstate; its simply who should lead that is their point of difference.

The problem with this regional Gordian knot is that it cannot be cut simply by a sword, as Alexander did. It is a problem of breathtaking complexity, of which the military solution is a small but necessary part. While Australia's contribution is small, Australians should be alerted to the complexity of the environment so that they don't expect a neat solution or 'victory'. The problem of course, is how to make such a complex issue simple enough for the public to digest.

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The Prime Minister's unsurprising announcement of an Australian military commitment to the US-led anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition answered a few questions and raised others. I think the justification for military intervention in Iraq is relatively straightforward, but the environment within which our forces will operate is anything but.

The mission Tony Abbott described was to 'disrupt, degrade and if possible destroy this movement', a better, more nuanced formulation than Obama's simple 'degrade and destroy'. These are specific military task verbs, and 'destroying' something that is not a static target is very difficult. A movement such as IS can be rendered operationally ineffective to the point that it no longer practically exists but this will take time. Don't expect a neat surrender.

More importantly, the Australian public needs to understand that this mission is simply about targeting IS; it's not about making a better Iraqi nation. I would argue that the multiple identities (to coin a Bernard Lewis term) of Iraqis make it virtually impossible to do this in the short- to medium term, if ever. That doesn't mean we shouldn't contribute to defeating IS, but it does mean we should be mature enough to understand that this is not a binary battlefield — in other words, it's not the Iraqi government vs Islamic State.

Rather, it is IS against Iraqi Government forces, Kurdish fighters, experienced Shi'a militias (who may or may not wear Iraqi military uniforms) who see political advantage in military success and who will leverage this to advance their political aims, Iranian interests providing support to said militias (including their own advisers), and Sunni militias designed to obviate the need for Shi'a-dominated security forces in Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq.

If this appears confusing that's because it is. But it doesn't lessen the threat IS poses, nor does it invalidate our decision to provide aircraft and military advisers to the region.

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What it does mean is that the Government should not hide behind bland assurances that we are supporting the legitimate government of Iraq. We will likely be part of a coalition that is supporting forces acting in sympathy with the Iraqi Government — only in some cases we will be supporting actual Iraqi government forces. This is the Middle East, and in many ways this is the best that can be expected. That's why it the Australian public should be brought into the tent regarding the complexity of the societal landscape into which our forces will be deployed.

While the international coalition is being assembled, don't expect it to be anything other than a collection of states acting together for a limited period of time on a specific issue. Tony Abbott was keen to mention the fact that some Middle Eastern states had indicated that they would contribute to military operations, and included Bahrain while keeping a straight face. This is not to belittle tiny Bahrain's contribution, but rather to highlight the irony: this is a state whose minority Sunni monarchy actively discriminates against its Shi'a majority and refuses to undertake meaningful domestic reform which is now taking the fight to a Sunni jihadist group in support of Iraq's Shi'a-majority government. The UAE is also stumping up. This is a country which just a few years ago helped quell Shi'a protests against Bahrain's Sunni Government. On top of that, there is still concern over whether Iran, the regional state which (other than Syria) faces the most direct threat from IS, will be invited to a Paris meeting to discuss the issue. Regional rivalries infect so many aspects of security policy.

This is the environment into which Australian forces are being deployed. None of this is to say that the deployment is unwarranted. What should be articulated by the Government is the fact that we are simply providing a short-term military assistance mission to a deeply flawed nation in a deeply flawed region as part of a coalition, not all of whose members share our liberal democratic traditions. This is going to be the ultimate pragmatist's intervention, and the public should not be left under any false illusions that is anything else.

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It's fair to say that President Obama is a reluctant commander-in-chief and sees the Middle East as a place where the limitations of US military force are most apparent. So his speech  tonight on America's strategy against Islamic State (IS) was from someone who wishes he didn't have to deal with what he has to. But that is what being president is about.

In such a short speech, it is difficult to capture the intricacies of a strategy to deal with as complex a problem as IS in Iraq and Syria, but I thought Obama laid out as clear a plan for public consumption as was feasible at this stage. Some early thoughts:

  1. A clear and ambitious mission: It doesn't get much clearer than 'degrade and destroy', but the second part is harder than the first. The first part is already occurring, with over 150 airstrikes ordered. 'Destroying' is harder, but given that IS is a coalition, stripping away its less ideological elements and then scattering its core may render it as ineffective as al Qaeda currently is. Whether IS will be completely destroyed or just morph into something smaller will be for people to judge in the future. The effect may well be the same.
  2. Play to your strengths: As has been the case throughout his time in office, Obama was keen to emphasise that the ground combat would not be carried out by US forces, and that Washington would provide the technologically advanced enabling support such as airstrikes to support local ground efforts. The US will also provide training and organisational support that allows Iraqi forces to engage IS. This effort still involves an additional 475 US military personnel, but gives Obama and his military the flexibility to disengage relatively quickly or to withdraw support if the Iraqi political class ceases to play along.
  3. Watching the language: Coalition building in the Middle East is a fraught process and despite Obama's very public mentioning of the fact that 'we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region', it is likely that many of those same partners will provide limited support. As an aside, the use of the term 'Arab' as opposed to 'Sunni Arab' was deliberate and a desire to downplay the religious issue that permeates much of the regional hand-wringing over the issue.
  4. This is going to take a long time: Coalition building takes a long time, force generation and deployment takes a long time, training and mentoring takes a long time, degrading and destroying takes a long time. Be prepared for the long haul.
  5. Authorising Sunni militias: Shi'a militias are part of the Iraqi landscape and in some instances they have been resurrected for the fight against IS. The Sunni National Guard units that will now be stood up sound awfully like a Sunni militia, no matter how much they may be dressed up as being part of the Iraqi military.
  6. The Syria issue: Not mentioned a lot but where it was, Obama raised more questions than he answered. Although Obama said the US was ramping up its military assistance to the Syrian opposition, it wasn't spelt out exactly which opposition he was talking about, how they would be deployed or sustained, or who they would fight (just IS, Jabhat al-Nusra also, the Assad forces, or the Islamic front?). Syria is not a binary issue.

 

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The complexity of the task facing the Obama Administration in putting together a coalition to target radical Islamists in Iraq should not be underestimated. There are so many competing jealousies, so many personal, political and religious agendas, that the seemingly straightforward task of putting together a coalition of states against a murderous band of religious fanatics who recognise no international norms is anything but simple.

The actual plan for addressing the Islamic State (IS) threat will be outlined by President Obama soon, however it appears likely that the coalition will be in three parts:

1. The 'core' coalition: US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has already coined the term 'core' coalition (which in Australia at least brings back memories of 'core' and 'non-core' promises). Not all of these nations will necessarily take part in air strikes but the intimation is that they will be there for the long haul. The list is depressingly familiar: North America, the UK, Australia and some European states as well as Turkey as the only Muslim NATO member. Ankara has done too little to police its border with Syria, thus partly enabling the growth of IS and other noxious Islamist groups.

2. The 'non-core' coalition: Regional states for the most part who, while recognising the threat posed by Islamists, would rather not be seen to be too keen to bomb fellow Muslims, or to bomb them at all. This is partly due to their ingrained desire to buy their way out of trouble, and for some it is the fear that such action will be unpopular domestically and create internal instability. The Arab League has recently issued a strongly worded statement backing action against IS but the gap between the League's rhetoric and action is normally significant.

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Saudi Arabia has already used its financial clout to provide US$3 billion worth of French weapons for the Lebanese Army, ostensibly in support of its increasingly bloody conflict with IS and Jabhat al-Nusra elements, but also to bolster it against pro-Iranian Hizbullah forces in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia will also be crucial in trying to convince Iraqi Sunnis to distance themselves from IS and cooperate with a reformed Baghdad government.

3. The 'unmentionable' coalition: For all the talk of the threat to the West from IS, the one country (besides Iraq) which has been actively involved on the ground and which sees IS as a realistic existential threat is Iran. Iran is very much part of the international coalition, but nobody can afford to mention the fact in polite company.

This is a messy coalition and one in which there will be plenty of free-riders and others doing more than their fair share. Yet in some ways this coalition is simpler than those of the past. Obama has largely abandoned America's ideological obsession with democratising the region. As long as IS is dealt with, whether it is done with the help of theocrats, autocrats or democrats matters little in the short term. The challenge for the US is going to be whether the 'non-core' and 'unmentionable' parts of the coalition can reach a modus vivendi, or whether they will revert to type and view everything through a narrow and short-term lens.

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In this fast-paced world of media grabs, it is easy for selective quoting to misrepresent what leaders say. In his 28 August press conference for instance, when President Obama was asked whether he needed Congressional approval to go into Syria and attack Islamic State, he said 'I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet.' President Obama was excoriated for not having a Syria strategy years after the crisis began, when he was actually commenting on the military approach to IS in Syria.  Clumsy language perhaps, but he wasn't evincing a complete absence of US strategy towards Syria.

More disturbing was a comment a little further into his press conference. In talking about the future of President Bashar al Assad in light of the IS threat, Obama said 'I don't see any scenario in which Assad somehow is able to bring peace and stability to a region that is majority Sunni and has not so far, you know, shown any willingness to share power with them or in any kind of significant way deal with the longstanding grievances that they have there.'

With this simple sentence Obama virtually sidelined religious minorities in the region, appeared to indicate that Sunni Islam was the region's political as well as religious orthodoxy, and suggested that only 'they' could rule and guarantee stability at the same time. Rather than simply state that Assad's illegitimacy rested on his flouting of international norms and lack of popular consensus, Obama bought into the religious argument.

Now, one could be kind and say Obama has to talk this way because Washington is trying desperately to build a coalition of apparently reluctant regional Sunni states to take military action against Sunni jihadists operating in a Shi'a Arab majority country. But part of the problem with the region is the way in which Sunni-majority states (and some Shi'a majority states, it must be said) see religious identity is a precondition for political leadership, thereby marginalising the rest.

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Obama's use of religious identity in discussing the region's politics also exposes him to accusations of double standards. What about Bahrain, for instance, where the Sunni minority actively discriminate against the Shi'a majority with no effort being made to work towards a substantive power-sharing arrangement? But the Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain, and if Obama's rather strange words are to be taken at face value, political discrimination is only practiced against Sunnis.

I'll write more in the future about the strange bedfellows that a regional and Western anti-IS coalition is going to throw up, and the double standards that are likely to abound when they take military action. But a president trying to put such a group together would do well to steer clear of any reference to religion. Religious identity is part of the problem in the region, and including it in his speeches and statements will just leave Obama open to the religious intolerance practiced by both Sunni and Shia.

Photo by Flickr user James Gordon.

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As a former Army officer, my service bias has always made me a believer that only events on the ground matter. The air force is a great enabler but rarely the decisive factor. But my experience of the Middle East has also taught me the value that many governments place in air power.

In the Gulf in particular, technically advanced aircraft symbolise modernity and make up for the limited manpower available to staff their militaries. And it is a service that can be both a path to, or symbol of, political authority. Both Syria's Hafiz al Assad and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak were air force pilots (and later commanders), while King Abdullah of Jordan (like his late father King Hussein) and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi are both qualified military pilots.

But as the region reels from multiple security crises, it is interesting to note the degree to which air power is being used by regional forces for a multiplicity of purposes. A student of air power would do well to focus closely on the Middle East at the moment for the rich field of research it is proving to be.

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Libya

Days of unverified reports of an aerial bombing by Egyptian and Emirati aircraft on a Libyan weapons storage area and Tripoli's international airport have now been verified by American officials (the officials claim they were not informed of the strikes beforehand, which is not to say they did not know about them beforehand). If true, the strike says much about UAE and Egyptian concerns regarding the need to contain the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, as well as to stymie Qatari efforts in Libya to do the opposite. It is also further evidence that the UAE is adopting a more muscular and independent approach to regional security issues.

Gaza

Up until two weeks ago, the Israeli air force had already conducted 4900 sorties against Gaza since the most recent conflict began. And yet, just as was the case in the 2006 Lebanon war, even the Israeli air force admits it cannot completely extinguish the threat of indirect-fire weapons from Gaza. 

Iraq

As politicians mull the possibility of air strikes against Islamic State, and the US increases surveillance of possible targets in preparation for future strikes, it is interesting to note that America has already flown 1500 sorties since 8 August (about 600 of these were combat sorties, which included 96 attacks against Islamic State targets). This shows again just how resource-intensive even a 'low intensity' air campaign can be, and why regional states will need plenty of enabling support if they are to take on Islamic State.

Iran

In the east, Iran triumphantly announced the destruction of an Israeli drone spying on its Natanz nuclear facility. The truth is that the drone was more likely flown from Azerbaijan, as this detailed report outlines. Secular Shi'a Azerbaijan and religiously Shi'a Iran have a rather testy relationship and Baku's cosiness with Israel has been an irritant to Tehran for years. Whether the drone was actually shot down near the nuclear facility or somewhere much closer to the Azeri border is perhaps something we'll never know, but it reinforces the type of surveillance technology available to a wide range of states.  

Syria

To all of this we could also add the fall of Tabqa airbase, the last military base held by the Syrian Government in Raqqa province, now under the complete control of Islamic State. Syrian Government efforts at targeting the militants from the air ultimately proved futile, again showing that effective aerial campaigns against ground forces require a concentration of effort and duration that few states can manage. 

Over the next few weeks it is increasingly likely that air power will be on display in the region in a significant way. For students of air power, the Middle East is certainly the place to watch. 

Photo by Flickr user Garry Wilmore.

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The horrific images surrounding the gruesome execution of the US journalist Jim Foley are dominating the headlines. The Islamist group had several reasons for doing what they did, and when they did it.

It reinforces the Islamic State's reputation as the baddest Islamists of them all, a useful tool when you're looking to knock off your Islamist competitors in Syria. It also shows the US that there are costs associated with its air campaign, and the warning that there is another hostage at their mercy reinforces that warning; the English language audio track was designed for the target audience.

I don't however necessarily agree that one of the aims is to goad the West into becoming more deeply involved in Iraq. The Islamic State is as aware as anyone that neither the President nor the American people are inclined to do it, and there are many more ways to skin the Islamist cat than simply put combat troops into Iraq.

But these are relatively minor aims given the shock value that the vision was intended to produce.

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People already know that the Islamic State is cruel and heartless, and they know the US isn't going to stop their air attacks just because Islamic State kills a hostage. Rather, I think the main point of the exercise was to do with the timing of the release. Islamic State had just suffered a couple of battleground reverses, having been rebuffed from Mount Sinjar and more importantly losing control over Mosul Dam, an important infrastructure prize for a putative caliphate. If you want people to stay with you, join you or submit to you, it's necessary to project an image of control and martial success. Images of destroyed Islamic State vehicles and equipment and triumphant Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers celebrating over ground you've just lost isn't good for business. In the space of a few hours though, this negative imagery was swept away by an execution video; people may have heard about Mosul Dam but they aren't reminded of it because those images are no longer displayed.

The Islamic State is very good at manipulating the social and news media space. And if it takes the beheading of someone to counter images of battlefield setbacks, then so be it. Such is the calculus of Islamic State's media department.  

Image courtesy of REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski.

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As events unfold in Baghdad, President Obama's decision to unilaterally withdraw US troops from Iraq in the absence of a Status of Forces Agreement appears vindicated. Prime Minister Maliki has exacerbated the sectarian nature of Iraq's politics, bringing the current crisis to a head. The White House must be thanking its lucky stars that it doesn't have troops working for a prime minister who is refusing all entreaties to leave.

Some commentators have opined that ISIS would not have had its successes in Iraq had there been a residual US troop presence. The reality is that ISIS has assiduously courted the Sunni tribes disenfranchised by Maliki's government, and the Iraqi military has become hollow and corrupt. A small residual US force would have been at best spectators to, and at worst complicit in, Maliki's mismanagement of the situation. Greg Sheridan's view in The Australian that 'a residual (US) force would have helped stabilise Iraqi politics and bolster the Iraqi military' is typical of the 'if only' brigade – it ignores the complex reality of Iraq's secular, religious and tribal dynamics.

That is why in some ways ISIS's decision to launch attacks against religious minorities and the Kurdish region has presented President Obama with a strategic gift which he has been quick to act upon. Iraq clearly needed military assistance but the US needed to offer it in such a way that it wouldn't be seen to profit Maliki politically. What better way to introduce US firepower than in support of a humanitarian cause and in defence of Kurdish-controlled areas? It came with the imprimatur of the Iraqi Government but is not directly in support of it. It is a difficult act to juggle but it gives the US some leverage: if Maliki tries to cling to power, expect a narrow range of US military support. If he leaves and is replaced by a more inclusive government, then air support could be more widely employed.

For its part, ISIS is beginning to learn the difficulty of trying to fight a conventional military campaign using captured equipment when your enemy has air supremacy. As far as we know, US airstrikes have only destroyed an artillery piece, a mortar baseplate, some armoured vehicles and a vehicle convoy, but even the rabid ideologues of ISIS will start to sense that trying to manoeuvre in the open plains of northern Iraq is fraught with danger when US strike aircraft lurk overhead. Nor will the demonstration effect of a few 500lb bombs and Hellfire missiles have been lost on the other protagonists. Iraqi and Kurdish forces are likely to fight more vigorously if they know air support is at hand. Moreover, should US air support be broadened in support of a more inclusive Iraqi government, Iraqi tribes now aligned with ISIS may decide that their interests are better served by opting out of the Islamist coalition.

These are all big ifs, and the situation in Baghdad is unfolding hour by hour. But it may well be that ISIS's decision to press ahead with attacks against minorities and the Kurds is a strategic, rather than just tactical, error.

Photo from Flickr user United States Forces Iraq.

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The limited use of military force announced by President Obama earlier today was likely prompted by concern at the success of ISIS's latest offensives across Syria and Iraq. The jihadist group has recently redoubled its efforts in Raqqa, Syria, in an effort to take the remaining pockets of Syrian Government-held territory in the province. At the same time, ISIS's performance against Kurdish forces would have raised concern in Washington and Baghdad, and led to a re-assessment of  some overly optimistic judgments about Kurdish capabilities.

The situation facing the Yazidis and the Christians is of grave humanitarian concern. The fact that the refugees are geographically concentrated would have made air support an attractive option for the president. Add to this the fact that the sovereign Iraqi Government invited the intervention, and the stage was set for a dual humanitarian/limited direct military intervention operation to which Obama could agree.

There will of course be accusations that Obama is a hypocrite for intervening in Iraq but not Syria. That argument is simplistic and wrong. If the US is obliged to intervene militarily everywhere there is a humanitarian need, it would never stop intervening. Obama said as much in his speech. He is one of the few US leaders to understand the limits of American power. 

Moreover, the situation in Syria is far more complex. To have assisted one side would have meant breaching a nation's sovereignty (no big deal) and potentially assisting the very Islamist forces that pose a security threat to the region and the West (a very big deal). The intervention in Iraq requires Obama to do neither of those things, so the calculus is completely different.

In his speech, Obama was careful to emphasise the need for an Iraqi political solution to the crisis engulfing the country. As long as Maliki remains prime minister, there will be little appetite for substantive US air support. The intriguing question is whether a more politically inclusive Iraqi prime minister might prompt a more robust US response in terms of air support and stand-off weapons.

Photo by Flickr user Marines.

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ISIS has released video of its leader Abu Baqr al Baghdadi appearing at a Mosul mosque (pictured) during Friday prayers last week, claiming to be the caliph, or leader, of the Muslim faithful and calling himself Caliph Ibrahim.

Carrying the supposed moniker of 'the invisible sheikh' is great for one's mystique but putative caliphs need to actually be seen. The staged video was designed to not only make sure that Baghdadi remains in the news, but that he is seen as being religiously qualified as well as a military commander. Given the wide media coverage of the appearance, the ISIS marketing team has to be congratulated for the way it is positioning the brand.

But the first rule of marketing is that people need to be attracted enough to the product to buy it. And one of the intriguing things about Abu Baqr al Baghdadi's proclamation of a caliphate and his re-branding as Caliph Ibrahim is the degree to which anybody outside ISIS buys it. On that measure, his claim to leadership of the Islamic world is off to a slow start.

High profile clerics have failed to embrace his vision and, while they may have their own political (rather than purely scholarly) reasons for doing this, their opinions do carry weight.

For instance, the influential Jordanian Salafist ideologue Sheikh Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, recently released from jail, praises ISIS's military victories but voices concerns about Baghdadi's ideological grab for power and has referred to ISIS as 'deviant'. Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, while welcoming the coming of the caliphate in the future, dismissed Baghdadi's claim to lead it, saying that only the entire Muslim nation could confer the title of caliph and that Baghdadi's claim was voided by shari'a law. The pro-caliphate Hizb ut Tahrir also repudiated Baghdadi's claim.

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Baghdadi probably understands that, as a relative outsider, he will never win the loyalty of the professional clerical class. But another key performance indicator is whether other militant groups are pledging loyalty to ISIS. In the opaque and shifting world of jihadist groups it is hard to determine exactly who owes loyalty to whom, as oaths of allegiance are always be made publicly and groups are liable to splinter for a variety of reasons. But even here the results are relatively disappointing for ISIS. Outside of ISIS itself, the supporters of Caliph Ibrahim at present include a small group of Pakistani Taliban, perhaps an element of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (or perhaps not), a branch of Ansar al Sharia in Yemen (and, if Twitter is to be believed, another branch in Tunisia as well), and allegedly the Egyptian group Ansar Bayt al Maqdisi. Some ISIS wannabes such as the unknown Free Sunnis of Baalbek also claim to have thrown in their lot with the new caliph. Indonesian groups have supposedly done the same.  

ISIS has not drawn away key al Qaeda franchisees or complete elements of the armed Syrian opposition, so Baghdadi's caliphate remains aspirational.

ISIS has certainly gained kudos and headlines through its military success but its dominance in parts of Iraq is aided by political gridlock in Baghdad and Iraqi military ineffectiveness. Neither of these will last forever and Baghdadi's forces will at some stage be engaged in decisive fighting in Iraq, at which point his tactical alliance with the tribes will come under enormous pressure. He needs to maintain military momentum, and he has been attempting to do this in eastern Syria. How long he can maintain his cross-border empire remains to be seen, but it will in all likelihood remain an ephemeral construct.

Baghdadi's caliphate claim has shown how diffuse, splintered and broadly-based the regional Islamist threat has become and how easily groups can be swayed by martial success. Even though ISIS's success, and its caliphate, will not last forever, in the idealised worldview of radical islamists it will serve as a model of what can be done by committed and observant Muslims.

The Afghan Arabs under bin Laden had to shelter in non-Arab lands and were constantly under threat. Baghdadi by contrast has achieved what nobody among contemporary jihadists has before him: he has carved out a piece of the historical Arab world, defeated the 'kafir', done away with the Western-imposed borders and placed his territory under Islamic rule. Even if few people physically join his caliphate and it lasts only weeks or months, the damage may have been done.

Image courtesy of REUTERS/Social Media website via Reuters TV.

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ISIS fighters in Fallujah, Iraq (REUTERS/Stringer)

Al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist and insurgent groups have cultivated an advanced social media presence. It serves a much more important purpose than do traditional information operations campaigns that Western militaries have been developing for the last few decades. For Islamist groups, their social media platforms are part recruiting tool, part fundraising tool and part branding tool. Video of victorious Islamic warriors parading captured Western equipment and hundreds of kaffir prisoners does wonders for the the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) brand, which in turn attracts volunteers to its ranks and money into its coffers.

The latest offensive in Iraq by ISIS shows exactly how professional the 'electronic jihadis' really are, and this excellent article in The Atlantic shows how sophisticated its social media strategy is and how ISIS uses it to create a social media reality. Even if the claim that ISIS massacred 1700 Shi'a following their victory in Mosul may not be true, when the intent is to exacerbate intra-religious tensions and create an environment in which reconciliation or even national unity is impossible, unverified images are good enough. 

One of the reasons why so many non-Arab Muslims have gone to Syria to fight is because social media has created a narrative for them in which their national and ethnic identity has been superseded by their religious one. That isn't an easy thing to do if a person critically examines arguments offered on the internet, or engages in dialogue, or is deeply embedded within the society in which they live. But those aren't the people that this type of social media targets. And if Syria has proven to be such a good destination for fighters recruited over the internet, then the longer Iraq drags on and provides vision of a successful ISIS, the more chance that non-Iraqis will be attracted to their cause.

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One of the more unusual byproducts of the advance of ISIS has been the realisation that Iran and the US share an interest in blocking ISIS advances and re-asserting government control over areas seized by the group. It is a classic Middle Eastern 'enemy of my enemy' scenario, which makes for strange bedfellows.

Publicly, President Rouhani seemed to open the door to cooperating with the US in Iraq, but this appeared to be shut again by the Iranian Foreign Ministry's spokesman.

While Tehran and Washington's security interests may converge on this issue, we should not fall into the trap of thinking that this may presage any broader degree of cooperation. The differences between the two countries on Syria and on Iran's broader regional aspirations, as well as the nuclear issue, remain significant.

Even in Iraq, the commonality of their interests are circumscribed. Iran seeks a much greater degree of continued influence in Iraq than does the US. Not only does Tehran have to factor in the possibility of a potential threat from ISIS on its border if Iraqi government control collapses, it also has to contemplate the potential loss of its influence in Syria, even if that prospect looks less likely than it did a year ago.

For that reason, Iran sees itself as Iraq's ultimate security guarantor, either directly through advisory and enabling support or indirectly through proxy militia forces. Iran traditionally likes to work through proxies and advisers in order to minimise its public footprint outside the country. As a Persian Shi'a country, Iran has always understood its 'otherness' in the Arab world (it is much better at this than the US), and acted accordingly.

Iran's actual activities in the country are difficult to verify. Some unsourced media reports talk of 2000 basiji already in Iraq, while others talk of 150 advisors from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, and yet others say that two battalions of Quds Force are in Iraq. Another report claimed that the Quds Force commander Qassim Suleimani and dozens of advisers visited Iraq last week to discuss the crisis and how to stabilise the situation.

Regardless of the support Tehran is providing to Iraq, or that which Washington might offer, we should not conflate their shared interests in defeating the immediate ISIS threat with any broader realignment of interests.

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One would have thought that a country which invades another for what it considered altruistic reasons would continue to have an interest in events there long after the troops have been withdrawn. When that country is Iraq, however, there appears to be a case of collective amnesia among Australia's political leadership.

Many would be unaware that elections were held in Iraq in April. Certainly there were no congratulatory messages from Australia, one of the members of the 2003 'Coalition of the Willing', at the fact that an election was held. A bit curious, when the current prime minister saw the invasion of Iraq as a justified attempt to create a pluralistic democratic state. Curious also, given that the foreign minister did take the time to condemn the sham election held in neighbouring Syria.

When the word 'Iraq' is mentioned, countries like Australia tend to cough, look downward and shuffle their feet uncomfortably while hoping the conversation moves on. That's because deep down we know what we did was ill-informed and without any understanding of the likely consequences of our actions. We just can't quite admit it.

If the result of the invasion was simply the replacement of one autocratic ruler with another, then perhaps we could move on. But when the government we helped usher in loses control of the country's second-largest city to radical Islamists, following a concerted week-long regional offensive by a force entrenched in neighbouring Syria, then it demands at least some comment from Canberra.

The Iraq-Syria border is in danger of disappearing and the Syrian civil war becoming a contiguous battlefront from the Lebanese border to the outskirts of Baghdad, if it hasn't already. But among the supporters of the invasion of Iraq, there will likely be studied silence or slightly embarrassed coughing. Altruism counts for nought in the face of these grim realities.

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Last week's surrender by opposition forces of their remaining foothold in the old city of Homs once again focused attention on the devastation wrought by three years of conflict on Syria. Pictures of the damage inflicted on the old city are reminiscent of World War II, and with each passing day it becomes more difficult to divine an end point for the stalemated conflict.

We should not read too much into what the opposition withdrawal from Homs means for the wider Syrian conflict. In a protracted conflict such as this, each side attempts to maximise the significance of its tactical victories and to downplay the successes of the other. The opposition lost control of Homs a long time ago so the evacuation was simply the coup de grace and allowed the evacuation of several hundred fighters back into rebel ranks. Still, Homs was considered by some as the cradle of the revolution and its loss by the opposition has handed a significant symbolic victory to the regime ahead of the 3 June elections. The Syrian Government was quick  to allow residents back into the devastated old city as a sign that the government was back in control. 

The opposition attempted to take the gloss off the regime's reassertion of control over Homs by staging a spectacular demolition of a government controlled hotel in Aleppo; the film of the explosion was quickly distributed to compete with the images of its fighters leaving Homs on buses. Given that the hotel had allegedly been heavily damaged in a similar attack in February this year, the tactical significance of last week's attack is minimal. Initial opposition claims that it was a Syrian military headquarters have been downgraded to claims that it was sleeping quarters for soldiers or a base for snipers as the days passed. This attack was for the cameras more than for tactical advantage. The narrative vs counter-narrative battle is in many ways just as important as the battlefield operations, particularly when the Syrian Opposition Coalition is in Washington trying to convince the US to trust it with advanced weaponry.

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Perhaps the most interesting outcome of the Homs evacuation was the role played by Iran and Russia in securing the deal, something acknowledged by the UN. Iran had a vested interest, given reports that part of the agreement allowed for the release of Iranian (and Hizbullah) fighters held by the opposition forces. Claims of Russian involvement once again show how deft Moscow has been in dealing with the Syrian issue compared to the West. Mind you, its task is relatively easy compared to that of the West: Moscow has a single client to deal with and a domestic population that appears supportive of Russia's increasingly bearish foreign policy.

There has been some talk of Homs simply being the latest in a series of localised ceasefires that may build some kind of momentum for more and allow a breathing space for meaningful negotiations. On the face of it, this makes sense as a way of stopping the fighting without either side having to concede defeat. But such an arrangement only ever favours the regime and normally comes after the government has battered the local residents and fighters into submission. The opposition realises this, and is aware of the risk that they could be 'defeated in detail' if localised truces were to become more widespread. It would allow the Syrian Government to concentrate its forces in far fewer areas. Once again, the opposition only has itself to blame for this predicament. The Assad regime has maintained a unity that has eluded the opposition, and without centralised control of truce arrangements, government forces are able to exploit local conditions to establish agreements that suit their purposes.

Homs is unlikely to presage a broader move towards negotiated ceasefires. It has however provided the Assad regime with a symbolic victory, and will undoubtedly be featured heavily in Syrian media during the 3 June election as an example of a return to normalcy. In reality, however, normalcy is very much a distant memory.

Image courtesy of Reuters/Yazan Homsy.

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