Diplomacy, to pervert Carl von Clausewitz’s most famous epigram, is the continuation of war by other means. Its practitioners can use diplomacy to support allies or publicly rebuke adversaries. In the post-Cold War era, the severing of diplomatic relations has often served as a substitute for conflict. Continue reading
The Islamic State (ISIS) is on the back foot after its defeat in the Iraqi city of Mosul and smaller losses in Syria, but questions remain over eradicating the group’s leadership.
There have been persistent rumours that ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been killed. These, however, have not been confirmed and should be treated sceptically.
What is certain is that ISIS’s leadership structure has been declining following the death of leading figures who have not been replaced due to a sustained campaign of US-led air strikes.
The anti-ISIS military campaign has led to the decline in ISIS propaganda, which can be measured qualitatively. Charlie Winter, an academic who follows ISIS’s output, tweeted that ‘[ISIS] media noticeably dropped off in early June’. He attributed the fall to international coalition and Iraqi government operations ‘having [a] serious impact on its ability to get propaganda from A to B.’
Nevertheless, ISIS has demonstrated that it is resourceful and has a history of coping with military defeats. The line of succession of Baghdadi is unclear and although his death may mean the end of the self-proclaimed caliphate, it does not spell the end of ISIS in operational terms.
As al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS survived long periods of mounting insurgent campaigns in the very territory to which it is soon expected to be reduced. Its leaders have been killed before and it has endured.
Analysts said that ISIS militants have retreated to what the group calls Wilayat al-Furat (Euphrates province), which covers several Iraqi and Syrian towns. Hassan Hassan, an analyst with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said Baghdadi was there.
Kyle Orton, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society’s Centre for the Response to Radicalisation and Terrorism, said: ‘Wilayat al-Furat is and will be the final redoubt of the Islamic State, a base in difficult terrain that it will be difficult for any outside force to clear [ISIS fighters] from’.
He explained that ‘It was in this zone, on the Iraqi side of the border, that [their predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq] rode out defeat and from which they spread back across Iraq in 2008’.
Orton said that, in addition to Iraqi territory, ISIS has ‘the Syrian side of the border, too, and a much more hospitable political and military environment’. The survival of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, a cause of great instability and internecine hatred, is a boon to ISIS, both now and in the future, argued Orton.
As well as these ungoverned spaces, ISIS can count on favourable conditions in other parts of Iraq and Syria. ISIS appears to have planned for its defeat in Mosul for months. Defending those cities was merely one stage of a multiphase plan.
Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer and fellow at the Hudson Institute, said that in Iraq ‘ISIS cells will continue to operate in cities where Iraqi Shia militias and Iraqi Security Forces have relaxed their security postures’.
In the same way, forces fighting ISIS must be prepared to operate a similarly staged strategy. ‘Phase I: Take away territory. Phase II: Fight ISIS as it moves to the al-Qaeda model’, Pregent said. The third phase, he said, may include a ‘security backslide in liberated areas’.
Pregent noted that the future of ISIS rested on Sunni communities, many of which were distrustful of what they perceived to be Shia domination of Iraq’s government.
There was a real fear that, among government circles and worldwide, ‘there is no interest in protecting the population, let alone empowering the Sunni population to fight back against the next iteration of ISIS’, said Pregent.
Iraqi Sunnis are both the basis of ISIS’s support and the most important opponents of its worldview. They have fought back against its predecessor organisations but need support – moral and military – to do so.
Pregent said the manner in which cities have been captured from ISIS would provide propaganda material for a wide range of rejectionist groups in opposition to the Iraqi government.
Conditions exist in both Iraq and Syria for the survival ISIS, which can be expected to exploit political weakness and sectarian division and make use of ungoverned space in the region. This presents numerous options for the group, even after the certain loss of major urban areas. Some form of ISIS will exist for years.
Sustaining ISIS’s defeat and altering the conditions that would allow it to grow once more remain a challenge that faces policymakers and leaders, in Iraq, Syria and across the world.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.
Once again, Tony Blair is in the news. A merry-go-round of stories swirls around the former British prime minister. Many of them are luridly drawn, some nonsensical. A new story concerns the perpetual question of Blair being prosecuted for the Iraq war. Continue reading
America’s allies in Syria cannot count on their friends. That’s the message sent by the White House.
It emerged last week that the United States will shutter a CIA programme to equip vetted rebel groups. These groups were America’s allies and assets on the ground in Syria.
Some rebel groups, after extensive vetting, have been given a small number of American weapons. They have been given American small arms, as well as TOW missile systems, with which they have ceremonially destroyed some enemy vehicles.
But this flow of arms, never strong, is to be shut off, meaning that all support, stated or tacit, from the United States cannot be counted on. This rift is serious and it looks to be final.
Donald Trump’s Syria policy remains deeply confused, and this latest development can only exacerbate this confusion, which breeds dysfunction, and threatens to render ridiculous America’s entire Syria policy. This is a failure of action but also of messaging.
One message is imparted with real force. America abandons its allies. It ditches its friends. It sells those who are no longer immediately valuable down the river.
In a way, this is of a piece with previous US policy in Syria. This move was always coming. And yet it is still a shocking betrayal, a fact which cannot and must not be overlooked.
Syria’s rebels – and the broader opposition to Assad – share stated American goals. They are fighting for their freedom and for the future of their country. This ought to be something with which the United States, at the helm of the free world, can make common cause.
But this argument seems not to have been received. Or if it was, it can only have been rejected out of hand, disregarded deliberately by successive administrations.
Trump’s break with Syria’s rebels is not all that new, despite his claims to political novelty.
After all, starving rebels of resources is a continuation of President Obama’s policy of half-supporting the Syrian opposition, a policy which never genuinely approached regime change and which essentially confirmed the Assad regime in power.
Far from supporting democrats in the Middle East and elsewhere, the Obama administration was obsessed, eerily echoing Trumpian rhetoric, with deals.
Obama himself joked about wanting ‘a few smart autocrats’ to run the region. And in Iran’s theocracy, he must have thought he’d found a solution of sorts.
Iran gave succour and support to the criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad. It backed up the latter’s slaughter of civilians and crushing of protesting crowds. Iranian officers and officials organised the regime’s lines of defence and supply, creating and animating sectarian militias which now make up the bulk of the pro-Assad coalition.
Obama, nominally opposed to Assad and apparently horrified by his crimes, knew this all along. And yet, in pursuit of a deal with the Iranian state over nuclear weapons, the Americans did not act to present a serious challenge to Assad, Iran’s client in Damascus.
Assad was allowed to get away with massacres and war crimes and mass executions. He was allowed to turn state prisons into death camps complete with crematoria for disposing the bodies of those executed en masse.
Compared to this, perhaps, Trump’s policy contains less moral hypocrisy, but it is still incoherent and chaotic in the extreme.
Trump claims to care about Iranian influence in Syria; and he has shown that he is prepared to act to prevent Iranian-supported militias from attacking a base manned by American special forces and Syrian rebels in al-Tanf. Trump’s April strike of the al-Shayrat airbase punished regime war crimes and possibly deterred more uses of sarin gas.
But Trump, at heart an inconsistent man, is incapable of following the logic of an isolated good deed such as this. He is governed by his unstable temperament and worried by changeable, mob-like public sentiment at home.
He conjures great avatars for him to fight. IS, though it is now on the back foot in Syria and Iraq, serves this purpose. Accordingly, Trump says he wants to defeat IS quickly and comprehensively.
This objective and arresting Iranian influence are both incompatible with withdrawing support for Syria’s rebels. They are fighting the regime, which is increasingly becoming an Iranian-controlled operation, incapable of recapturing the rest of the country.
To weaken this bulwark against an Iranian client state would give a shot in the arm to Qassem Soleimani and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – Quds Force, which conducts external operations for the Iranian state.
Soleimani and the IRGC–QF have played a key role in running things in Syria for years. They will be empowered and strengthened by any collapse in support for Syria’s rebels.
At the same time, the remnants of the Assad regime will be emboldened by this move. And every time Assad feels emboldened, he launches attacks on rebel areas and commits more war crimes, often using chemical means.
Trump publicly deplored the murder of ‘beautiful babies’ by sarin gas. This policy, however it is phrased, can only assist their murderer.
Finally, the rebels Trump wishes to weaken have fought and will continue to fight IS. They have done so with some success. Without them, IS will take longer to defeat, and may be replaced by a successor organisation which will feed on the sense of betrayal felt by Syria’s Sunnis.
That sense of betrayal will not be entirely illegitimate.
Two American presidents have undermined Syria’s revolution. The first by starving it of resources and secretly dealing with a state essential to the survival of the Assad regime; the second by rendering such cloak and dagger stuff public for the first time and using it as a basis for official policy.
If Trump has any sense, he will rethink this move before it has disastrous consequences. But sadly, this seems one Obama-era policy he is more than happy to follow unthinkingly, even into the moral abyss.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.
Review – Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is one of the most imaginative works of twentieth century fiction. The book is a dream, a vision, literally so. It depicts, as a framing narrative, a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, the great figure at the head of the Mongol Empire. The two of them exist in a dream state, caught in a suspended moment. They discuss wonders and marvels, the result of Polo’s travelling. These are the cities of the title. Continue reading
The Iranian state is often portrayed as a potential partner – the sort of country with which the West could work, if only its worldview and ambitions did not clash so obviously with the wishes of the American-underwritten world order. Continue reading
Last October, the Iraqi government and the international coalition fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) declared confidently that the battle to recapture Mosul would soon be over but it wasn’t until July that they managed to defeat the militants in the city. Continue reading