The slaughter of 131 civilians in Paris, one of the world’s most famous and vibrant cities, represents the worst terrorist attack to hit Europe since the Madrid bombings in 2004. It is another blow to a wounded nation in a string of attacks which have struck France in 2015 and an atrocity which dwarfs the horrific assault on Charlie Hebdo magazine’s headquarters by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on 7 January 2015. There is no doubt these events are shocking, the events must be thoroughly analysed, the images are harrowing and the perpetrators of these crimes must be brought to justice. However these attacks must be put into context, policymakers must be scrutinised and our reactions at an individual, community and government level must be cautious as well as fearless in the short-term.
For all the horrors splashed across newspapers and television in recent days ISIS stands badly wounded. The organisation’s territories are shrinking under the combined pressure of a variety of international, regional and local forces. Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Army in-coordination with Russian air-strikes, and supported by Iranian fire-power have retaken key territories and broke year-long jihadist siege of a military air base in the country’s north days before the massacre in Paris. Its forces are encircled by Iraqi Security Forces and its backbone of Shiite militia at Ramadi, whose seizure by ISIS in May, 2015 had policymakers and political commentators alike contemplating that an assault on Baghdad was imminent. Similarly Tikrit, seized by ISIS in 2014 and the home of Saddam Hussein, was recaptured in April 2015. More symbolically, Kurdish forces (supported by Yezidi militia) have recaptured Sinjar cutting the main road which connect ISIS’s Syrian headquarters in Raqqa (which is under sustained bombardment by Russian, U.S, and French aircraft) from its headquarters in Mosul, Iraq. The retaking of Sinjar, whose fall was followed by harrowing mass-executions, the ethnic cleansing of the Yezidi population, and an event which heralded ISIS’s emergence as a major player in the Middle Eastern wars represents a practical and symbolic military breakthrough while Mosul stands isolated should Kurdish and U.S Special Forces consolidate their gains at Sinjar.
ISIS is losing the conventional war. Their perverse idea of a ‘caliphate’, a far-cry from its envisaged utopia, is cracking under sustained military pressure and it should not come as a surprise despite its vast array of fighters, its military and territorial gains in 2014, and its propaganda. ISIS’s twisted blend of revolutionary ultra-violence has united practically every international, regional and local powers against the organisation. At a conventional military level, as a functioning state it could never survive as a long-term political and economic entity.
However as the Paris attacks and the bombing of the Russian airline over the Sinai have illustrated, modern extremism is flexible, diverse, dynamic, fragmented and the equivalent of a modern hydra. Even if counterinsurgency eliminates leaders such as Osama Bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the former leader of ISIS) and its executioners such as Mohammad Emwazi, new leaders and new extremists will fill the void. The death of Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, would not symbolise the death-blow to the organisation. The death of Mohammad Emwazi (also known as Jihadi John) days before the Paris attacks demonstrate this paradox; ISIS have the capability to inflict deep damage on our societies even when Western policyymakers strike symbolic victories. ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and Jahbat al-Nusra and the modern phenomenon of militant Islamic extremism cannot be defeated by conventional warfare. Modern extremism is absent a conventional hierarchical structure. ISIS is presented by politicians as monolithic yet it is the organisation’s very ambiguity which makes it difficult, if not impossible to completely eradicate, despite the bullish rhetoric of politicians such as Hollande, Cameron, and Obama in the wake of the Paris attacks.
While ISIS is part of the legacy of the catastrophic Iraq War, the Syrian Civil War and its ideology was significantly developed by men such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam and Seyed Qutb during the turbulent Cold War era, ISIS is also a brand, it is a system of ideas, it is a digital caliphate and it is a wider part of the upheaval created by the Information Age. ISIS is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. As Jason Burke notes ‘Islamic militants use social media because we use social media; they seek resources…money…hydrocarbons…weapons…in the way that many actors do across the world today…they multi-task as terrorists, insurgents and administrators because all play roles that are increasingly ill-defined; they exploit and are formed by the dramatic disruption…the Internet has brought…financing is crowd-sourced from donors…in a way that would be recognisable to any entrepreneurial start-up anywhere in the world.’ This is what differentiates ISIS from Al-Qaeda; it is a hybrid, a combination of old and new as globalisation and newer forms global interaction of politics, economics, culture, technology and social organisation that dominate our contemporary world have rapidly ‘weakened older forms of authority.’
As ISIS’s conventional military operations and ambitions as a state faltered, it switched back to its most potent strategy; sowing political, communal and societal divisions and altering national politics and military policy for the worst through urban terrorism and asymmetrical warfare. This classic formula of asymmetrical warfare has produced results. Suicide bombings hampered the Americans ill-fated state-building project in Iraq and proved to be a lethal catalyst for tit-for-tat Shiite and Sunni pogroms, the Ankara bombings were scheduled days before highly-charged elections in Turkey, and most devastatingly on September 11th 2001, the destruction of the World Trade Center led to the gross misapplication of American political and military power across the globe, to which the most devastating consequences were seen in the Middle East. These small attacks occuring in cities across the world, by comparison to the bloodshed and large-scale confrontations occurring across the Middle East, are more unnerving because they are difficult to prevent, they require a strong response by the targeted government, and their response, if heavy-handed and driven by ill-advised policies, can increase problems rather than alleviate them. In Paris the attacks were designed precisely to foment religious and racial war and strengthen hard-line right and right-wing parties just three weeks before regional elections in which parties such as Front National (led by Marine Le Pen) are ‘tipped to make historic gains.’ While the terrorist attacks witnessed in Paris were fanatical acts, they were first and foremost political acts dressed in religious rhetoric and designed to cause havoc at a hyper-sensitive moment in French politics.
At face-value Western values continue to be upheld, but in reality, at-least at a state-level, they may become an increasing illusion in the obsessive quest for security. Security is tightened, refugees, opposition and minorities are stereotyped and vilified, military arrests and operations are conducted and often kill more civilians, and the hunt for terrorists, their affiliates, and potential suspects justifies the violation and eradication of human rights. More disturbingly in Europe it empowers hard-right and right-wing politicians, journalists and commentators who seek to exploit the tragedy to advance unnerving political agendas, ideologies, and policies.
While the acts of violence are a consequence of extremism, they are also a product of gang violence, immigration problems, poverty, issues of societal segregation and integration, contextual regional and national politics, and the policies governments’ are using to pursue potential and real threats. These are all factors which are difficult for many governments to address under normal conditions and in an atmosphere of relative stability and now these socio-political and religious issues have been ruthlessly exploited by ISIS and its affiliates in times of grave political and economic crisis in Europe.
Security is an undeniable necessity in this age of crisis and war, we must remain vigilant against those individuals and organisations who seek to violently slaughter our families, our neighbours, our friends and our fellow citizens. Yet we cannot sacrifice our ideals, our principles, and our values for absolute security, a security which is practically impossible to enforce constantly in the face of modern extremism.
We must remain equally wary of individuals and groups within our own society who seek to exploit such pain to advance repugnant and racist forms of politics wrapped in promises of security. If we do not, if we harden our own attitudes, if we lash out wildly at provocation, if we scapegoat minorities and refugees and label them spies, outsiders and infiltrators because of the atrocities of the few, we will empower and give individuals and organisations who seek to advance their cause through force their twisted sense of justice, logic and legitimisation to conduct appalling violence and divide communities across the world. If we pursue this path, we give terrorists, politicians and people who seek to exploit tragedy their victory. How we react to the harrowing events of 13th-14th November, 2015 as a community of nations, as societies from all walks of life, as individuals will define whether these attacks were a resounding success or a spectacular failure.
I see only spectacular failure. The Paris attacks were a potent symbol of a world gripped by crisis, war and one which is dangerously polarised politically, religiously and fractured economically. These are undeniable realities facing us and they must be challenged. Yet the attacks were also a symbol of an unyielding determination of individuals and communities to act and stand courageously in the face of sorrow, extraordinary pain, and uncertainty. Time and again we have seen this across the world whether it be from Beirut to Paris, Tel Aviv to Damascus, Baghdad to New York, Volgograd to London, Sydney to Mumbai and Ankara to Kabul. The shocking brutality and intolerance of the few is met by the same courage, the same raw outpourings of grief and love which are as beautiful as they are heart-wrenching to witness, and every time this ferocity is met with the same response by millions of families, friends, and individuals; they fearlessly say no to extremism, intolerance and violence every year against every attack and atrocity across the globe. So long as this continues, so long as even a single individual, regardless of their religion, political affiliation, culture or society, says no to the extremities of war and says no to violence as the only palpable outcome to disagreement while forsaking hatred and vengeance the principles and values which have seen man through the darkest of times can never be defeated. Liberté, egalité, fraternité.
A new Palestinian revolt against Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, when it arrives (if it has not already began), should not come as a surprise to those who have been keeping a close-eye on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the last year. However there is good reason to be distracted; the Arab revolutions stunned the world in 2011, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq remain consumed by civil war, Egypt has experienced two military coups and two revolutions, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in a regional cold-war, and the international community was rocked by the rise of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ and the resurgence of Al-Qaeda. The Middle Eastern conflict has sparked the worst refugee crisis since World War II and the West and Russia have both directly intervened in or covertly fueled the Middle Eastern wars with the aid of regional allies. Old borders have deteriorated, new states and regimes are emerging, unprecedented demographic changes are occurring, while rebellion and revolt has been met with brutal counter-revolution which has produced volatile and bloody insurgencies.
These revolutionary changes are extraordinary, a blend of unprecedented historical developments and a modern creation that has produced the criss-crossing and seemingly illogical relationships that define the chaotic landscape of Middle Eastern politics. To some extent it is understandable why these new conflicts have cast a shadow, and to some extent, side-lined developments in the occupied territories. However Israel, despite Netanyahu’s best efforts to isolate Israel from the regional socio-political shifts, has not been immune to the changes occurring across the region and be able to ignore the immense contributions made by Israelis and Palestinians alike to the best aspects of the Arab revolutions. As Adam LeBor argues:
However the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s violent dynamic, the brutality of the recent Gaza War (which left 2203 Palestinians (over 10,000 wounded) and 72 Israelis dead), the subsequent ‘Silent Intifada’ in Jerusalem and the uglier aspects of the Israeli elections have illustrated that many events in Israel and the occupied territories have mirrored the darker elements of the Arab revolutions which have generated, ‘as with…previous revolutions, extremism and drift.’ This modern extremism and violence has fused to the century-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict while the deepening contemporary and historical problems surrounding the two-state solution have become a matter of urgency.
The developments currently underway in the occupied territories have been incoming for some time. In the summer of 2014 the disappearance and murder of three Israeli teenagers Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach from Alon Shvut, an Israeli settlement in southwest Jerusalem and the kidnapping and burning of a 13-year old Palestinian teenager sparked the first of many acts of tit-for-tat revenge attacks and were a factor which helped catalyse the 50-day war. Paralleling the bombardment and invasion of the Gaza Strip by Israeli forces, protests and demonstrations condemning the military campaign escalated into violence after an Israeli settler shot dead an 18-year-old and injured three other Palestinians. Similarly the shooting of 21 year old Monir Ahmad Hamdan al-Badarin during clashes with Israeli soldiers in Hebron sparked weeks of violence in the West Bank in which several Palestinians were killed.
After the conclusion of the 50-day war, the tensions continued to bubble beneath the surface as exemplified by the tensions in Jerusalem from October to December 2014. The protests, coined by many as ‘the silent intifada’ originated in the Shu’fat district and were shaped by cruel events which included a Palestinian ramming his car into a group of passengers waiting in the light rail station which killed a 3-months old baby and injuring several others (22nd October, 2014). This was swiftly followed by the shooting of a 14 year old Palestinian-American in protests two days later and killing of a Palestinian man suspected of trying to assassinate far-right Israeli activist Yehuda Glick. Glick, a U.S-born activist who was leading a campaign to dismantle the status quo on the Temple Mount established by Moshe Dayan in the aftermath of the 1967 War which forbade Jewish prayer and worship on Temple Mount to ease tensions between Muslim and Jewish worshipers.
The November 5th attack occurred hours after renewed clashes occurred at the Holy Sites and the resultant shooting of the driver has resulted in more riots across the Old City, Shu’fat and Sheikh Jarrah. These lone wolf attacks climaxed when four Israelis civilians were killed and eight injured as two Palestinians armed with a pistol, knives and axes hacked their way through a West Jerusalem synagogue on 18th November.
Recent incidents have illustrated the settlement crisis has only deepened. In July 2015, settlers murdered a Palestinian mother and her 18-month year old baby in an arson attack in Duma. Meir Ettinger, leader of the settler youths who conducted the attack, whose ideological views and previous arson attacks against churches and mosques were well-known by Shin Bet, remained at large until he conducted the terror attack. While the Israeli government condemned and described Ettinger’s acts as a terror attack, it was once again the actions of the coalition government that catalysed this savage inter-communal violence. On 29th July, days before the attack, Netanyahu had announced that 300 new settlements, following the dispute over territory in Beit El, would be relocated while also advanced plans for about 500 new units in east Jerusalem. This deadly attack was accompanied by the murder of a sixteen year old Shira Banki and the wounding of five others at a Gay Pride Parade by an ultra-Orthodox Jew who had been previously imprisoned for a similar attack in 2005. Religious extremism in Israeli society is as equal a threat to innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians as religious extremism is in Palestinian society.
Nowhere is Israel’s military presence in the occupied territories as marked as in Hebron. The city, whose name in Hebrew literally means ‘friend’, is a divided community plagued by violence, extremism, criminality, conflict over territory and inflammatory rhetoric that has so frequently encapsulated the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The city is no stranger to controversy and has had a tortured history since the beginning of the 20th century. However the results of the 1967 war, the continued Israeli occupation, and the enduring settlement crisis have catalysed the area’s transformation into the equivalent of Berlin during the peak of the Cold War; a fractured city. It is a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wider conflict is in danger of ‘Hebronisation’.
The reelection of Netanyahu and his determination to hold onto political power required forging a coalition government as the Likud party ceded political space to ultra-nationalist groups, advocates of the settler movement, and ultra-religious parties including United Torah Judaism, Shas, and Jewish Home. In the process of creating this fragile alliance, Netanyahu made it clear that there would be no Palestinian state and drew extensive criticism for his last-minute attempt to hustle right-wing supporters by posting an inflammatory warning on Youtube that a high turnout of Israeli Arab voters would threaten the stability of the right-wing government.
Such a statement would have terminated the career of most politicians. However Shaked’s popularity was elevated and she helped the Knesset pass a law that imposes up to 20 years in prison on people convicted of throwing rocks at moving vehicles and labeled the act as an act of terror stating “Tolerance toward terrorists ends today. A stone-thrower is a terrorist and only a fitting punishment can serve as a deterrent and just punishment.” Given the Knesset’s questionable record of prosecuting settlers for similar acts against Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, the widening of what constitutes a ‘terrorist’ to absurd parameters, the length of the prison sentence and the context under which Palestinians choose to throw stones, the law encompasses the intensification of the occupation under Netanyahu’s government and the increasing power of pro-settler movements and ideological hard-liners in Israel.
Is the re-election of the Netanyahu’s government a welcome prospect? Dr. Ahron Bregman, author of Cursed Victory: a History of Israel and the Occupied Territories, believes that Netanyahu’s reelection may be blessing in disguise for a renewed drive towards a two state solution:
The Israeli government has, historically, been dealt with in the peace process with the Arabs under a carrot and stick diplomatic approach. The 1979 Camp David summit led by President Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin and the signing of the peace agreement was the culmination of nearly a decade of negotiations during the closing stages of the Yom Kippur War. This process included three other wars (1948, 1967, 1967-1970) fought between Egypt and Israel which left an estimated 10,000 Israelis and 30,000 Egyptians dead and thousands more wounded; these are numbers that dwarf the casualties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The peace process was also enabled by a relationship between the United States and Israel which became increasingly fractiousness during the 1970s, and a right-wing Israeli government which agreed to withdraw from the occupied territories in the Sinai and dismantle settlements present in these territories.
The initial military campaigns launched by Sadat and Syrian president Hafez al-Assad in the opening stages of the Yom Kippur War shook Israel to its core, despite the former’s ability to reverse the military gains of the Egyptians into a strategic victory. It was a humiliation for Israeli society, the equivalent of the United States’ Pearl Harbor, and a psychological victory for the Egyptians humiliated in the Six Day War (June, 1967); Israel’s military and political establishment had been dealt a bloody nose and its assumptions that their technological and military superiority could act as a deterrent against Arab aggression were discredited. The current state of affairs were no longer a sustainable strategy. In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war attempts to stall the peace initiative of Sadat and the Egyptians and the failure of the Israeli government to adhere to American requirements led to numerous threats from the Ford administration to suspend U.S-Israeli arms deals. In return for their cooperation the Israelis were granted future military support by the United States, effectively a diplomatic bribe.
The Palestinians methods of resistance are currently semi-violent, they have not evolved into the suicide bombings of Hamas during the second intifada or terrorist attacks of the PLO in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The Israelis have injured and detained hundreds of Palestinians and the continued closures of the Al-Aqsa mosque to Muslim worshipers have fueled fears that extremists in Israeli society are attempting to change the religious order in Jerusalem that has endured since 1967. The bottle-neck in Jerusalem prevalent during the ‘silent intifada’ has been broken and Netanyahu’s government faces the prospect of a massive uprising if it is mishandled, an uprising Netanyahu has vowed to greet with a “harsh offensive on Palestinian Islamic terror…adding” that Israel faced an “all-out war against terror.”
These inflammatory statements and the narrative of terrorism, while prevalent among policymakers, holds less sway than it did during the first decade of the 21st century, the second intifada (2000 – 2005) during the Global War on Terror and when George. W. Bush’s administration (which held a substantially stronger pro-Israeli stance than the Obama administration) held power in the United States.
The situation has changed in the United States. The relationship between Netanyahu and Barack Obama has deteriorated dramatically since the 50-day war. The Obama administration has warned that Israel faces isolation by pursuing its inflammatory settlement policies in October. Obama has also threatened to drop the veto at the United Nations Security Council that America uses to block anti-Israel measures, in response to continued rejection of U.S demands regarding the Middle East peace process. This impatience with Netanyahu is unsurprising as the situation deteriorates on ground and abroad for Israel. Josh Earnest stated in early October:
The tensions and harsh rhetoric spilled over into bickering and insults being flung between the Knesset and the White House. An official in the White House was reported to have called Netanyahu chicken s**t, while U.S officials refused to give Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon an audience with Vice President Joe Biden the former previously accusing John Kerry of being “messianic and obsessive” in regard to the latest failed peace-talks. Kerry. the U.S Secretary of State was also forced to apologise for stating behind a closed-door meeting that Israel was actively becoming an“apartheid state”. This is not the first major U.S official who has echoed Kerry’s statement. Jimmy Carter, the very man who managed the historic Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, stated in an interview for Prospect Magazine that “…there is zero chance of a two-state solution…The Netanyahu government decided early on to adopt a one-state solution…but without giving them [the Palestinians] equal rights.” Similarly public opinion is changing, despite the powerful influence and allies Israel have in U.S Congress. As Fawaz Gerges argues ‘polls of young American Jews show that…many of them feel less attached to…Israel.’ Furthermore ‘over 40% of American Jews under thirty-five believe that “Israel occupies land belonging to some else,” and over 30% report sometimes feeling “ashamed” of Israel’s actions.
Obama is now nearing the final year of his presidency and the outbreak of hostilities between the Palestinians and Israelis and a looming third intifada presents an opportunity to place the Israeli-Palestinian dispute firmly in the international spotlight. The Syrian conflict has been a disaster for the Obama administration and leading from behind in Libya has produced violent civil war in an intervention which Obama has openly admitted as being one of his biggest mistakes as president. The peace process will not be completed during Obama’s tenure, however as history has taught us Israel bow to pressure when cornered by the international community and the United States through a delicate combination of condemnation, casualties, tense relations with the United States’ and diplomatic bribes.
Obama struck an important victory over AIPAC by securing the Iranian nuclear deal and refused to be held hostage to local politics and directly challenged Netanyahu’s interference in American politics. Netanyahu’s crude diplomatic approach, the international condemnation of the 50-day war, and Netanyahu’s attempts to undermine the Iranian nuclear deal have isolated Israel diplomatically. Similarly his behavior at the Israeli elections, his repeated dismissal of threats to curb settlement expansion, and the Knesset’s passing of legislation and laws aligned along disturbingly ethno-nationalist and racist lines have created conditions on the ground which are ripe for violent inter-communal conflict.
In-spite of its technological and military superiority over the Palestinians, Israel has never been more vulnerable. The Israeli intelligence cannot stop a solitary and frustrated Palestinian from using a rudimentary weapon such as a kitchen knife, a car, a screw-driver, a hammer, a home-made Molotov, a stone, a sling-shot to make a political statement. Asymmetrical warfare and counterinsurgency against protesters absent a political solution means perpetual warfare. Adopting Yitzhak Rabin’s ‘break their bones’ policy and downgrading to sticks and cudgels to club and silence protestors, as they did during the first intifada, will only increase international pressure on Israel. If the Palestinian uprising breaks out and is met with brute force it is the perfect opportunity for Obama to ‘translate his stated convictions into real policies’ and his ‘proposal must state clearly that rejecting American parameters will have consequences, such as the loss of financial support’ and set in motion transformative events in the occupied territories.
Flaunting these proposals should include boycotts on products and services coming from the occupied territories and settlements, the latter of which represents a form of ethnic cleansing. ‘Ethnic cleansing is a well-defined policy of a particular group of persons to systematically eliminate another group from a given territory on the basis of religious, ethnic or national origin.’ Ethnic cleansing does not have to constitute slaughtering an ethnic group to accomplish its objective. The settlement project, under the rubric of security, is demolishing Palestinian homes and seeks to eject local Palestinian and minority populations from the territories by encouraging or ignoring settler violence, intimidation, segregation, humiliation and imposing impossible living conditions on Palestinians in Gaza by completely dominating the land, sea and air surrounding the narrow strip.
Similarly Israel faces a demographic time-bomb. The Times of Israel showed that ‘statistics indicate there are 6.1 million Jews and nearly 5.8 million Arabs living in the Holy Land, threatening Israel’s Jewish character like never before.’ The refugee problem, a product of the Jewish-Palestinian civil war and the First Arab-Israeli war has remained unresolved. The Palestinians (now Israeli Arabs) who stayed behind, after events in 1947-1948 forced around 750,000 Palestinians to flee, have grown from 150,000 to 1.2 million. In another generation or so there will be demographic parity between Israelis and Palestinians. Bregman argues that once there is a balance between the population of Jews and Arabs, Israel will face two options: ”one to offer them to participate in elections in which case you might have a Palestinian prime minister or to say no we are not going to let you vote in which case you are South Africa.” The latter option is the reality of apartheid.
Nevertheless dismantling the ruthless system established by the Israeli military administration is one part of the problem. Kissinger’s general analysis in World Order raises concerns about the future of the Palestinians if and when they secure independence.
“Order…must be cultivated; it cannot be imposed. This is particularly so in an age of instantaneous communication and revolutionary political flux…any system of…order, must be accepeted as just…It must reflect two truths: order without freedom, even if sustained by momentary exaltation, eventually creates its own counterpoise; yet freedom cannot be sustained without a framework of order to keep the peace. Order and freedom, sometimes described as polar opposites, should…be understood as interdependent.”
Israel stands to gain little from its current predicament. It seeks to impose order but the occupation’s short-term efforts to contain and repress Palestinian nationalism, Islamic extremism, protest and violence is exacerbating the long-term problems it will face in the future. As Mark Fiore argues ‘this fight can’t be a good strategic move for the Israel. What better way to prolong terrorism and hatred than by bombing kids…leveling huge chunks of one of the most densely populated cities on earth…Are they trying to make a little Mogadishu on their doorstep?’ Paralleling this inflexible military and political approach is the settlement crisis which is threatening to undo partition of the contested land, and create a bi-national state. The two rival ethnic groups in a generation or two will live intermixed in the same territory in overlapping homogeneous enclaves– an artificially created Bosnia. In a region experiencing severe ethnic, religious, sectarian and political upheaval, this spells future violence.
However aside from the problems on the Israeli side the international community must have a plan for the Palestinians after peace. A peace deal should reflect ‘practical accommodation to reality, not a unique moral insight’ and should be prepared in investing in a self-sufficient Palestinian state. The symbolic protests and push to overthrow oppressive regimes across the Middle East, while originally a welcome sight in regional politics, has been swiftly followed by counter-revolution, internal violence and civil war between political and religious parties vying for power in the political power in many of these countries. The moderates have largely been caught between the well-organised authoritarian security apparatuses and the radical rebel groups who, while possessing radical political agendas, are also well-organised military and political units. What would make an independent but institutionally and politically fragile Palestine an exception to the rule? Will Hamas behind its rhetoric that refuses to recognise Israel compromise behind the scenes?
‘The reality is not everything can be blamed on Tel Aviv. Political infighting, corruption and lack of civil society has fractured Palestinian society.’ There is a need for leadership in Palestinian society and the frustrations currently on display are as much a product of incompetent leadership as they are a product of the occupation. If the shackles of occupation are discarded can the Palestinians operate as an effective state without support from regional and international partners? After all regional Arab governments currently have their own priorities including democratic change, regime survival, counter-revolution and revolution and dealing with the threat of extremism and terror. The Palestinian dispute, while important, has lost its urgency in the Arab world as much as it has in the Western world. Rallying regional actors is equally important to a successful agreement.
It is the perfect storm for a crisis in the Holy Land. However within this storm lies the seeds for a potential renewal of peace talks and the two-state solution if the international community led by the United States (when combined with internal pressure by the Palestinians) force Israel into the corner of compromise. The Middle Eastern wars continue to escalate in their ferocity and a third intifada presents another potential challenge for policymakers struggling to navigate the overlapping conflicts across the region typified by sweeping change, heightened sectarian tensions and revolutionary politics. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, clearly, has not remained isolated from these regional developments and Netanyahu’s unilateral attempts to maintain the current order have underlined and exacerbated the cost of the occupation for Palestinians and Israelis alike. The two-state solution needs addressing urgently and the Arab-Israeli conflict remains an integral part of the current Middle Eastern wars and current events in the occupied territories emphasise the need to rejuvenate the peace process or usher in an entirely new peace program and address the bitter inter-communal conflict that has now rolled on for a century.
The chilling image of drowned three-year old Aylan Kurdi has encapsulated the humanitarian catastrophe that is engulfing the Middle East and Europe while also demonstrating how Western policy continues to fail in the ongoing Syrian civil war.
Aylan’s tragedy is not a new phenomenon. His premature death in the Aegean confirms what governments have struggled to face, they continue to underestimate the harrowing Syrian conflict and the long-term implications it may have for the Middle East and Europe. The international community has long been desensitised to the pictures of children killed or maimed by ISIS suicide bombers or Assad’s barrel bombs. The people and its society have become abstracts, instruments of policy that have been caught between local, regional and global power struggles.
The response of the international community attempting to unite around Aylan’s tragedy to resolve the refugee crisis is a welcome change to challenging current policies and an apathetic mind-set to the Syrian conflict. However the need for such a grisly image to provoke a belated reaction speaks volumes of the indifference and resignation that has pervaded the Western world in the face of bloodshed in Syria in recent years. The image speaks volumes of our policy failures in Syria, the consequences of those failures for the wider region, and our inability to reshape policy into one that matches the realities on the ground.
There was little uproar when ISIS massacred 164 and injured 200 civilians in Kobani (Aylan’s home town) on 25th June 2015. There was little uproar or public pressure to step up political solutions to the Syrian Civil War when Assad’s bombers indiscriminately slaughtered 112 of its civilians in the town square of Douma on 16th August 2015 in one of the more harrowing attacks of the conflict. There was little uproar when Assad used napalm against his civilians in August 2015 and more horrifically in September 2013 when school children (including a seven month old baby boy) were brutally disfigured, burnt and maimed by the Syrian Air Force. As Patrick Cockburn summarises: ‘people worldwide have become inured to horrible things happening in the wars in Iraq and Syria’ and the fallout of the Syrian war, most notably the Syrian refugee crisis.
A core issue lies in how our foreign policy has jumped from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other. In Iraq, civilians were collateral damage of a catastrophic state-building project, a self-inflicted mess where neo-liberal interventionism has scarred American and British credibility in the region. In Syria and Iraq we now wage a covert and endless war against ISIS, a symptom of the Syrian Civil War. In short the West, and in-particular the United Kingdom, is absent a coherent strategy which is frequently in contradiction to events occurring on the ground.
Civilians trapped between Assad’s ferocity and extremist rebel forces remain unprotected. Civilians remain besieged in city enclaves such as Aleppo, Homs and Damascus and continue to die under the barrage of napalm strikes, barrel bombs and chemical weapons while being targeted by an array of ‘moderate’ forces we support. These illusory moderates forces range from a shattered Free Syrian Army who fight out of necessity with battle-hardened extremist cells, Kurdish ethno-nationalists such as PKK, PYD and YPG that have ethnically cleansed areas of Iraq and Syria following the emergence of Islamic State, and Shiite militia that have slaughtered countless civilians. Equally the international coalition formed to defeat ISIS killed 125 Syrian civilians (January-July 2015) they claim to protect from ISIS. As summarised by Natalie Nougayrede:
The West firstly underestimated the brutal counter-revolution of Assad (unconditionally supported by the Russian Federation and Iran) whose ‘readiness to literally burn down (his) country in order to cling to absolute power’ (Filiu, 2015) has produced grotesque political, extremist, paramilitary and sectarian violence. We expected the Syrian regime to fall ignominiously as Muammar al-Gaddafi’s Libya did, yet politicians did not pay attention to the Assad family’s natural tendency to be exceptionally stubborn both militarily and diplomatically, the latter of which has been firmly illustrated by their negotiations with Israel over returning the Golan Heights to Syria since 1967.
The moderate Syrian insurgents and the Free Syrian Army, under-equipped and inexperienced, turned to these groups and collaborated out of necessity to survive Assad’s onslaught. As a result the Syrian Revolution stalled, fragmented and ultimately failed while deteriorating into a brutal cycle of decentralised violence.
The gamble played by Assad to release hundreds of prisoners associated with terrorist cells like Al-Qaeda and ISIS in the early stages of the revolution to delegitimise the opposition by framing them in a terrorist narrative should not be underestimated. In May, 2015 there were many fears that the regime was buckling under a string of military defeats by Al-Nusra and the ‘Army of the Conquest’ after their seizure of key cities such as Jisr al Shugheur and Idlib in the north and an array of villages and towns in the southern Deraa province. Yarmouk on the outskirts of Damascus (Assad’s centre of power), home to the neutral Palestinian refugee population, has become a battleground between Islamic State affiliates and Assad’s paramilitary forces. The continued threat of these groups to the regime disproves the myth that Damascus has been secured by the Syrian security apparatus gamble.
Nevertheless Assad’s gamble has successfully divided the opposition and made moderates turn to alternatives that are equally as dismal an option as Assad and weakened the capacity for the international community to fashion a viable political settlement. A military intervention against Assad, politically impossible and impractical strategically in current circumstances, will not solve the Syrian conflict. It would result in the death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, more Syrian civilians and produce a new civil war between the splintered Syrian opposition and play into the hands of extremists such as ISIS and Al-Nusra that now spear-head the rebellion against the House of Assad.
Military options are being used, however they are focused on defeating ISIS, a bi-product of Syria’s instability not the root cause of the civil war. The West has strengthened ISIS by funnelling arms into ‘moderate’ such the FSA and Iraqi Security Forces, whose subsequent collapses during the Syrian civil war and ISIS’s Northern Offensive in Iraq (2014) provided the terrorist cell with a surplus of high-tech weaponery. However it cannot be forgotten that the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ (“ISI”), as Filiu argues, was ‘one of main partners of Bashar al-Assad’s regime (and) Damascus was the main entry point’ into Iraq for foreign jihadists from 2003 onwards to undermine the U.S. occupation (2003-2011).
The surge of extremist organisations in the wider Middle East cannot, and should not, be entirely blamed on Western policymakers. It must be placed against the authoritarian regimes like Assad and Nouri al-Maliki which ‘played with jihadi fire to deny…substantial power-sharing.’ (Filiu, 2015) Western policymakers underestimated how secular authoritarians would use anti-terrorism narratives to further entrench their violent security apparatuses.
The international coalition is not designed to protect civilians from Assad, nor does it provide desperately needed financial and humanitarian aid to refugees. These military options of air-strikes and covert counter-terrorism operations are equally absent a diplomatic solution to the conflict which effectively means the coalition simply contributes to a conflict where no particular group can deliver a decisive military blow.
The pressure mounting on the Conservative government has forced David Cameron’s hand to provide resettlement to “thousands” more Syrian refugees in response to the worsening refugee crisis. Cameron has agreed to provide asylum to 20,000 refugees between 2015-2020, yet these are poultry numbers. Global refugee figures now stand at 51.2 million the highest since World War II . This looks set to increase and our admission of refugees remain pitiful numbers in a situation where, as Anton Guterres (UN High Commission for Refugees) states, ‘quantum numbers’ parallel the ‘quantum’ leap in the stakes of this regional crisis, one which has been grossly underestimated by policymakers.
The language describing these people fleeing conflicts has to change. There is nothing wrong with what the majority of these people are doing and we should stop demonising these men, women and children. We should be thinking about a plan to integrate these refugees, the majority of whom aren’t just flooding Europe they are destabilising Lebanon (1.1 million Syrians), Jordan and Turkey which the EU has done little to address. This refugee problem has been dumped on countries throughout the Balkans such as Macedonia, Bulgaria, Bosnia as well as Greece and Italy all of whom are blighted by serious socio-economic problems and lack the capacity to deal with the huge influx of refugees fleeing conflict.
The majority of refugees are not a threat to the West, however they do present a big problem that cannot be ignored. Humanitarian aid can become a substitute for effective and essential political and military solutions to the conflicts that caused the refugee crisis. Politically blind humanitarianism, failing to challenge our unimaginative air-campaign conjoined with ineffectual political solutions and framing the so-called ‘migrant crisis’ as a separate issue will serve to side-line an escalating war in Syria and exacerbate the refugee crisis.
Similarly in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, hundreds of thousands of refugees became a catalyst for the collapse of Zaire (The Democratic Republic of Congo) and Mobutu’s regime eventually producing what Prunier coined ‘Africa’s World War’ as defeated Hutu Power extremists (a minority within a majority of the two million Rwandan refugees) sparked a local conflict in Kivu which, preluding collapse, was a combustible ‘zone of high-density population with demographic, ethnic and tribal contradictions.’ The local conflict, fuelled by Western humanitarian aid, in Kivu swiftly expanded into a bloody regional conflict across Central Africa which left an estimated five million dead. One extremely bloody civil war in a tiny country the size of Wales, and a subsequent refugee crisis in the Great Lakes region which was poorly addressed by regional and Western powers tore apart an entire region and shook the entire African continent.
The conflict in Central Africa in the 1990s and the Second World War are potent examples of when a refugee crisis can have disastrous consequences for a region that lacks the capacity to deal with millions of fleeing people who are moulded by persecution, desperation, and expectations. These examples, while historically different and contextual, still have lessons that can be learnt; we cannot underestimate the crisis facing the Middle East, North Africa and Europe and the long-term impact the Syrian war will have on demographic changes of the two regions nor should we consider the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East as separate issues. One region will invariable effect the other as the original domino effect of the Arab Spring (2010-2011) illustrates.
Closing our borders to refugees will reinforce communal tensions between arriving refugees and local communities, particularly in Greece (which is dangerously unstable) and the Balkans which remains in dire economic straits and continues to struggle to come to terms with the various ethno-nationalist wars of the 1990s.
The countries with less severe social and economic problems in comparison, such as the UK, Germany and France, with (to some extent) more tolerant societies must shoulder the refugees because they have the capacity to do so. In doing so they may lessen the likelihood of civil conflict in both Western and Eastern Europe. The refugees arriving in Europe are a small fraction of those currently in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.
Shutting out refugees and adopting an absolutist anti-refugee/anti-migrant stance in the name of security and an illogical war on terror will contribute to and foment crime, extremism, and terrorism if refugees are stranded in Europe and left to languish in squalid conditions, poverty and are isolated socially and economically. Integrating these people properly is absolutely essential, they must become a political reality that government’s cannot sweep under the carpet. If not they will become a source of instability. However their integration must be done in parallel with searching for political solutions to the civil war otherwise it will further empower right-wing, anti-migrant parties in Europe who reflect the uglier side of Europe’s current political reality.
Taking in refugees fleeing from war zones and persecution should be priority but is the inability to solve the various political deadlocks and to challenge current Middle Eastern policies which remains the critical issue. By absorbing refugees we will be mitigating the symptoms of conflict. However absent a long-term solution to the Syrian conflict and a far-reaching social and economic plan for rebuilding post-conflict Syria, the number of refugees will increase creating underlying tensions between current and potential asylum seekers and local communities in Europe and the cycle of violence will continue.
Protecting civilians in Europe, Syria and Iraq should be our priority, not the war against ISIS which while a dangerous regional threat has become inflated by policymakers as a direct threat to Western security interests. ISIS is not a monolithic organisation and cannot be defeated by military means alone. Like a hydra, cutting off one head will only lead to several more to grow in its place, as the demise of Al-Qaeda and its replacement by ISIS illustrates.
Addressing its violence will require socio-economic solutions to rebel grievances as well as concentrated military pressure by regional and global powers to weaken ISIS. While ISIS should be a major regional concern, it should not become overly centralised in policy-making as it is not the predominant cause of civilian casualties. ISIS and its exhibitionist ultra-violence has served as a distraction from the continued havoc Assad’s state-sponsored violence continues to create which is accompanied by regional and Western military policies that have fueled violence rather than solved it. Marginalised civilians that are targeted by Assad and unprotected by the international community have swelled the ranks of rebels such as ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front as a result.
Granted, it is impossible to remove Assad by force, but it isn’t impossible for measures to be put in place which protect displaced refugees and civilians from both the Syrian military and extremist groups and providing them with safe haven. The refugee crisis brings new dynamics to the conflict as each European country and its populations’ absorbing or rejecting refugees will grapple with the crisis in different ways.
The Syrian conflict and the subsequent regional break-down has produced, as Pankaj Mishra contends, uncoordinated violence and conflict that ‘future historians may regard…as…the third, longest and the strangest of world wars’ which stretches from Iraq to the shores of the Levant, to Libya and Tunisia in North Africa and all the way to the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. These overlapping Middle Eastern wars, with their own specific revolutions, counter-revolutions and causes, have drawn in superpowers such as Russia, the United States, major European powers, and major Middle Eastern powers such as Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia in different shapes and forms. It is an illogical and contradictory Middle Eastern war that may require illogical solutions that has always typified Middle Eastern politics.
It would be foolish to ignore the dangers presented by the Arab Spring and the subsequent carnage which, while difficult to understand, has logic to it. Security, counter-terrorism, surveillance; these are a reflection of the times we live in. However without constructive solutions to resolving the United Kingdom’s enduring polarisation on refugees and terrorism, we will always be reacting to threats, creating new enemies at home and abroad, and empowering those who hold radical attitudes and alternatives to solving the conflict on the political right and left.
At worst, we remain reactive to terrorist attacks (microcosms of wider violence in the Middle East),relatively indifferent to war crimes and atrocities and unperturbed by regional and Western powers tampering with the revolutionary processes underway in the Middle East. These are processes we have yet to fully understand, including the consequences and implications of the West’s current and recent actions in the Middle East.
New approaches are needed by the European powers while conventional policies in Syria (military, humanitarian, diplomatic, as well as our perspective on the war on terror) require serious reform and scrutiny. Such a reform would require a shift in the attitudes of Russia and the United States who, along with their regional affiliates, have fuelled the conflict. Such an escalation in violence, an escalation of the arms race between proxy states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, and an ever worsening refugee crisis can only spell further catastrophe if world powers continue to pave this path.
Direct military intervention is impossible, and should be avoided. Nonetheless there are certainly better avenues to solving the conflict then simply turning a blind-eye to Syria’s plight, bombing ISIS and crossing our fingers that our government will contain a monumental shift in Middle Eastern politics.
The tragedy of Aylan’s doomed voyage, his brother and mother’s death (and atleast nine others) and the tears of his father and a family who have lost everything have poignantly captured the Syrian people’s tragedy, the Middle East’s tragedy, and our policy failures in Syria. If this story and the harrowing images of Aylan, yet alone the countless other tragedies of Syria’s people that preceded it don’t change our attitude it is highly unlikely anything will change in the war. In such a case we will be sure to see more tragedies for the Syrian people such as Ghouta chemical attack, the napalm school bombings, the Douma and Houla massacres and other countless atrocities of a war that has now claimed a quarter of a million lives and displaced over half the Syrian population (21 million before the war).
Authentic refugees require our protection and humanitarian action remains a critical issue, but ultimately it is our policies, the narratives that drive our perception of the war, and our strategies that urgently require change.
On 18th February 2015, I attended a talk led by Sarah Covington and Albert Caramés Boada to discuss the ongoing Central African Republic conflict and understanding the actors behind the violence in the regional crisis. Sarah Covington is the lead analyst on the Central African Republic for the Country Risk Team at HIS which is a specialist intelligence unit that forecasts political and violent risks worldwide. Albert Caramés Boada is an associate researcher at the Groupe de Recherche d’Information sur la Paix (GRIP), working closely with the International Catalan Institute for Peace.
In sum, the speakers argued that it would be an oversimplification in any conflict to assume that sectarian violence is the singular root cause of conflict.
Firstly, Ms. Covington illustrated how there are regional factors which must not be overlooked. The geographical position and size of the Central African Republic emphasises this. It borders numerous unstable and conflict-affected countries including Chad, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and also endures cross-border interference by Ugandan rebel groups seeking to recruit disenfranchised refugees. She argued that the sectarian violence between Christian and Muslim groups in the Central African Republic is therefore not just a domestic conflict, it is a regional problem that should be addressed within a regional context and regional framework.
Next, Mr. Boada went on to highlight that while the focus of the conflict has been predominantly on the ethnic cleansing that took place in 2014, the crisis in CAR is rooted in deep seated economic, social and political issues which remain unaddressed:
“Negligence of development, the population, the lack of democratic traditions (particularly in rural areas), corruption has exacerbated the lack of unity inside the country as early as 2011, if not before then. Basic necessities are lacking and addressing the roots of the conflict means tackling the chronic lack of development in the country as well as solving the current conflict. The lack of political will and intelligence on the ground within the international community and their reaction to the current humanitarian catastrophe has been slow. Whilst the French troops were part of the solution In intervening in December 2013, they are also part of the problem as former colonialists. Preventing all-out war did not solve the underlying issues plaguing the country.”
In these circumstances, the ability to build a civil administration will be undermined in the short-term and long-term. Ms. Covington commented that it is difficult to build an administration if people aren’t being paid. The government’s limited geographical outreach (restricted to the capital Bangui) means that they are unable to restart the economy, especially if rebel groups are fighting each other over the economic resources. Even if a mandated constitution and foreign companies return to kick-start the economy after the elections, hundreds of thousands of Central Africans will still either be disenfranchised or displaced. Simply restarting the economy won’t solve the underlying issues.
At the same time, the U.N is struggling to provide funds to support their own soldiers, let alone to restore order and instigate the development projects which have the potential to provide a sustainable solution to the issues tearing down the Central African Republic. The result is the sectarian violence that we have seen escalating in the past year, which may not be addressed by the international community. If that is the case, the root causes of discontent will not be directly addressed, and as such, the future of the Central African Republic may remain tenuously unstable.
Iraq has fractured, almost beyond repair. The strings that held the county together, namely the U.S-led occupation and Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, have disintegrated and ignited an inferno. While sectarian violence, which is crudely dividing Iraq into homogeneous enclaves, lies near the heart of the Iraqi Civil War, numerous other factors are fueling the war. Facilitating a solution to this complex conflict will be a major challenge to any policymaker.
Iraq is plagued by conflict and will continue to be, particularly if socio-economic grievances are not addressed. Whilst religion is a factor in the conflict, it would be an oversimplification to only assess the civil war along sectarian lines and the role of the Islamic State as mainstream media does. The resumption of severe violence in Iraq (2013 – present), while inextricably linked to the consequential occupation of Iraq, is also connected to the wider crisis engulfing the Middle East and the Islamic State is a symptom of Iraq’s core issue; inclusion.
The Arab Spring is about poverty, resentment, and economic inequalities. Socio-economic inequalities are the main driving forces behind the Arab Spring. They triggered all the original revolutions and it is the core problem of the matter which has made places like Iraq and Syria hot-beds for radicalism, allowed sectarian issues to fester, and sent shock-waves across the Middle East. In order to look for solutions to Middle East current and dismal predicament of perpetual war, pursuit of socio-economic policies must be adopted alongside military solutions for military problems.
Islamic State is a bi-product of the Syrian Civil War and it was in Syria where it was able to considerably hone its military skills and capacity. However it is also a product of protests which began in Iraq in 2012 when ordinary citizens frustrated by marginalisation, poor national security, poor public services, unemployment and naturally abuses of anti-terrorism laws took to the streets.
Under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, elections were plagued by corruption, intimidation and terror as secular and religious candidates were targeted and many were arrested and disqualified from elections under contentious pretexts of being associated with the former regime of Saddam Hussein.
The UN and several other human rights groups, according to Al Jazeera, had heavily criticised al-Maliki’s government for executions and the perpetration of torture.
Prisoners, both men and women, were forced to drink copious amounts of water without being able to urinate, fingernails were torn off by pliers, people were hung upside down while being whipped and beaten with metal pipes and rods, they were punched, starved, raped, incarcerated in darkness, hung by the wrists, waterboarded and humiliated for their protests against what they perceived to be a sectarian driven, Sh’ia dominated government. As Arab journalist Zaki Chehab notes in Iraq Ablaze in his research of the 2005 insurgency ‘there is no underestimating the significance of honor in Arab society’ and al-Maliki’s excesses, particularly those of the militias, reminded protesters (an assortment of tribal, religious (including Sh’ia), political and secular protesters) of their perceived subjugation.
Between December 2012 and April 2013 hundreds of thousands have demonstrated and prayed on the main highway linking Baghdad and Anbar Province. They were frequently met with a violent crackdown by Iraqi Security Forces which, as the American actions did in 2004, ignited a tribal war as tribes of Zoba, Al-Jumeilat, Al-Bu Issa tribal factions joined to the Dulaim tribe in engaging the al-Maliki’s security forces in Fallujah in late 2013. Attempts to pursue peaceful methods of protest had failed.
These major protests occurred across major cities which are now hotly contested arenas of war between Islamic State and Sh’ia militias allied with Iraqi Security Forces such as Mosul, Samarra, Tikrit, and Fallujah. The latter, “the city of tribes”, the epicentre of the uprising against the U.S military in 2004 and thorn in the side of Saddam’s regime, once again kick-started the revolt, this time against Al-Maliki’s government. ISIS took root in this revolt by allying themselves with the many tribal factions opposed to the actions of Iraqi Security Forces.
The local realpolitik (politics or diplomacy based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations), the dynamics of tribal politics in Iraq alongside wider religious, secular and national issues played into the hands of insurgents. Tribal leaders were more than willing to ally themselves with al-Qaeda militants if it meant they could consolidate their local power and autonomy. Al-Qaeda’s support uprooted and ejected government police and security forces from Fallujah during the Anbar Campaign. The Washington Post article by Liz Sly reported on 3rd January, 2014:
While local tribal militia and militants also fought against the rejuvenated Islamic State it was unclear as to whether all the tribal fighters battling the al-Qaeda-affiliated militants were doing so in alliance with the Iraqi government.
The reemergence of spectacular violence was a symptom of political gridlock in Baghdad and the violation by an increasingly authoritarian/national government of the unwritten agreements on the relative authority and autonomy of local factions and fiefdoms in regional provinces.
ISIS broke this rule in 2007 when they were formerly known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Despite ISIS providing protection to Sunni refugees during the sectarian civil war in Baghdad (2005-2007), the deployment of suicide bombs against Iraqi civilians and the execution and assassination of local Sunnis under puritanical Islamic law in their self-proclaimed caliphate in Ammaria led to numerous insurgent and tribal groups to turn against the insurgent group.
U.S forces under General Petraeus was able to exploit this opportunity provided by AQI’s political and military blunders during the Surge and inflicted a strategic defeat on them after he struck effective short-term political bargains with local warlords, tribal leaders, and Sunni insurgents. However if socio-economic inequalities and the issue of inclusion were not provided with a viable long-term solution, extremist groups could return to exploit it as exemplified by the current campaign of the ISIS.
Fast-forward to 2015 and ISIS control large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria in a self-proclaimed ‘caliphate’ which dwarfs the ‘caliphate’ established in the 2000s during the American occupation. The movement had learned their lesson the hard way and edited their strategy as exemplified by the Anbar Campaign in early 2014.
ISIS’s brand of political violence is hardly Islamic, an Islamic caliphate is a secondary goal, the by-product of a good society (the primary objective) and one encompassing tolerance. ISIS have done little to realise their envisioned physical and spiritual ‘paradise’.
As Sageman argues (through Mehdi Hasan’s necessary reading on ISIS How Islamic is the Islamic State?) ‘Religion has a role but it is a role of justification…religion plays a role not as a driver of behavior but as a vehicle for outrage and, crucially, a marker of identity.’ Hasan’s article goes on to quote Lebanese-American former FBI agent Ali H Soufan;
The disorientation can in-part explain why thousands of European and Middle Eastern citizens have decided to rampage and die across Iraq and Syria with Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda and ISIS committing humiliating and brutal acts of violence in the process. The violence while disturbing is neither ‘medieval’ or ‘barbaric’ nor an illustration of so-called ‘Islamic fascism’ as Kevin Mcdonald argues:
Like Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, ISIS are the mutations of a western state/state-sponsored terror. The predominant drivers of violence based on sectarian lines are the Iraqi government and the associated Sh’ia militia and extremists; the backbone of the Iraqi Army. It is undeniable that ISIS have perpetrated ethno-religious violence and ethnic/cultural cleansing against Sh’ia, Sunnis and Kurds as well as minorities such as the Yezidis, the Mandaeans, Assyrian Christians, Turkmens, and Shabaks.
However such is the fluidity of the organisation and the diversity of the recruits within its ranks it is difficult to suggest that ISIS’s objectives can purely be sectarian even if they propose to be an ‘Islamic State’. ISIS is not a monolithic organisation, it is a loose alliance of sub-factions, tribal groups and splinter terrorist cells united in name. Allies and affiliates will have different local and regional objectives and different motives be they secular, national or religious and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his clique have managed to some extent serve the interests of various local actors.
The violence of the Sh’ia militias has been frequently overlooked in our obsession to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. There are always more subtle actors and subtle horrors in war. Is it little wonder that thousands of refugees have fled the violence when the onslaught on Tikrit is being spear-headed by militias responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians in southern Iraq since 2004? The ethnic cleansing perpetrated by death-squads in the 2005-2007 war was not limited to Baghdad either; according to Ledwidge, Basra’s Sunni population had been reduced from 15% at the beginning of the war in 2005 (of a population of a million) to an estimated 4% whilst in Al Zubayr, its Sunni population lost about half of its population by 2007.
The emergence of ISIS as a threat to the Sh’ia dominated government has led to a resumption of pogroms being committed against Sunnis and other minorities in southern Iraq by militias and gangs aligned with Muqtada al-Sadr’s party in government. Al-Maliki’s authoritarian rule contradicted the plan to re-unify the country and meant that the Surge effectively prepared the country for potential de-centralisation and a second round of sectarian civil war. The incorporation of a mere twenty percent of Petraeus’s Sunni allies ‘Sons of Iraq’ into Iraqi Security Forces illustrated the reluctance of al-Maliki’s government to share power with the Sunnis, the prime minister stating: “You could be creating a new militia…We’re talking about 105,000 Sunnis who do not trust the government. They were against Al-Qaeda, but they weren’t pro-government.”
The government’s paranoia, opposed by moderate Sh’ia, has shone through in recent months. Amnesty International published a harrowing report, Absolute Impunity: Militia Rule in Iraq, a twenty-four page documentation of Iraqi Security Forces and affiliated militia’s (Badr Brigades, the Mahdi Army, the League of the Righteous, and Hizbullah Brigades) abduction, torture and executions of hundreds if not thousands of Sunnis.
ISIS’s extreme brutality, its viral videos, and propaganda has drawn of our attention away from the violence of extremist Sh’ia. Cockburn quoted that the mass-execution of Iraqi soldiers cadets near Tikrit by a line of ISIS gunmen as they stood in front of a shallow open grave reminded him of pictures of the SS murdering Jews in Russia and Poland during World War II. The stories of Sh’ia militia executing civilians at road-blocks reminded me of Interahamwe Hutu paramilitary units (instruments of the Rwandan government) checking Tutsi and moderate Hutus’ identity cards at roadblocks before subsequently hacking them to death with machete during the Rwandan genocide.
This is not to emphasise that Iraq is heading towards a genocide; the point is that there are several narratives in the conflict besides that of ISIS and its particular brand of political violence. ISIS is a symptom of conflict, not a causality.
How does the conflict end? It inevitability depends on the situation in Syria which has served as a destabalising factor to it neighbor Iraq. The international community has been left horrified by the Islamic State and Barack Obama has assembled an anti-ISIS coalition to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS’ in response to the Iraqi government’s plea for assistance after the gains of the fluid rebel movement. ISIS, in its brutality has alienated and turned a large swath of the Middle East against it (including the Gulf States and external influences that funded it in Syria in the fight against Bashar al-Assad). Military solutions must inevitably be accompanied by sustainable socio-economic solutions, development programmes and an effective disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme and effective security sector reforms which accommodate local and regional needs of Iraq’s minorities, tribes and political factions.
The international community and the Obama administration cannot provide that directly with boots on the ground.The assumptions of the Bush administration, the waging of an illegal war in 2003 organised by the likes of Dick Cheney, Paul Bremer, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz have left U.S credibility and ideals blood spattered and in the dust . The question as to whether they can even provide effective support indirectly is another matter. American air-strikes cannot win the political war in Iraq and the current process of arming the Iraqi government and it accompanying extremist elements and the Kurds may return to haunt Western policy makers. While the Kurds have a unique opportunity to build future Kurdistan and demand greater autonomy than before the current crisis from the Iraqi government, diplomats and non-governmental organsations alike have labelled PKK and YPG militant groups various actions against Arab populations as war crimes and campaigns of ethnic cleansing.
De-legitimising and defeating ISIS will require non-violent solutions, waiting for its revolution to crumble at local level (as it did in 2007) and accompanying this collapse in credibility with concentrated external pressure by regional actors using military force.
However if the political situation predating the conflict does not change, future troubles whether it is in the next decade or several is guaranteed.
There is no perfect solution to this inherently complex situation. The cost of doing nothing is high and there is no good option in Iraq. A violent Iraqi government? Carving up Iraq into separate states? A so-called ‘Islamic State’? Boots on the ground? Jihadists? The role of Iran? Either way the agonising evolution of the violence in the civil war will leave a deep wound on Iraqi society for generations.
Iraq as a nation may endure yet it has fallen from grace, it has lost something in the blood-bath and it convulsive revolutionary changes catalysed by the American occupation. It has been torn apart by invasive external actors and destroyed by internal actors both of whom fighting in the name of economics, sanctions, politics, and power.
Whether it be the neo-conservative agendas of the Project for the New American Century, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ‘Islamic State’, Saddam’s dictatorship, al-Maliki’s authoritarian mindset, or the Iranian ideal for a client Iraq dominated by the Sh’ia; warped ideals and supposed ‘values’ have torn the societal and cultural fabric of Iraq and its people asunder.
Indigenous cultures, ancient religions, museums, and historical sites, have disappeared beneath the boots of extremists, vandals and looters. Hundreds of thousands of people have vanished, permanent refugees displaced by the ferocity of two decades of constant war, the West’s destabilizing presence, and intolerance perpetuated by Iraq’s new political dialogues.
Hundreds of thousands are maimed, raped and wounded, others slowly die from US fired depleted uranium (DU) weapons or disease brought about by the lack of basic resources and food, and innumerable coalition soldiers, insurgents, jihadists and Iraqi civilians suffer from PTSD. Thousands more families are homeless and their children’s futures’, as their nation’s, have been shattered by the realities of war.
Then there are the dead, the hundreds of thousands more faces of men, women and children that once encompassed a vibrant, multi-cultural, and largely tolerant society. They are gone, never to return. They are ghosts, victims of occupation, suicide bombs, increasing sectarianism, extremism, and war. Iraq endures, yet it is hollowed out and empty. This is the ultimate tragedy for the Cradle of Civilisation.
“I have placed my death-head formation in readiness – for the present only in the East – with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who after all speak nowadays of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
The Armenian genocide was the first in modern history and the 20th century, a century awash with the blood of millions of innocent people. During the First World War the Commitee of Union and Progress utilised technological assets such as railway and telegraph poles and prepared the Turkish military and gendarme for the extermination of a minority. This minority were the Armenian Christians and out of a population of 2,133,190 only 387,800 (18.2% of the pre-war population) survived the massacres, executions, mass starvation, systematic rape and the deportations into the arid and unforgiving territories of Anatolia and Northern Syria . Over 1.5 million people perished.
The origins of the genocidal violence perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire are predominantly rooted in nationalism, class-warfare, imperialism, and war. By the late 19th century the Ottoman Empire, established in 1453, was ravaged, over-stretched and on the verge of extinction. Revolutionary turmoil, western imperialism and ill-fated foreign wars had plunged the empire into chaos with entire regions and peoples in rebellion and/or demanding autonomy. It was in this atmosphere that the seeds for genocide were planted and rationalised.
The world’s oldest Christians, the Armenians by the beginning of 20th century numbered around two million based in eastern Anatolia. In the predominantly Muslim society Christians were permitted a degree of religious freedom in Ottoman society. However they were also required to pay a special tax in exchange for religious worship and to some extent were granted limited autonomy. Despite this they were routinely discriminated against, did not have the same rights as Muslims and were treated as second-class citizens by their imperial governors. Despite the discrimination and limitations imposed on the population, a prosperous middle-class emerged in the Armenian quarters in major cities and towns across the provinces.
As the Ottoman empire began to shrink in the 19th century anti-Christian pogroms were frequently conducted to keep the minorities in their place. These spiked dramatically between 1894 – 1897 where it was estimated that some 200,000 – 250,000 Armenians, Christian Assyrians, and Syrians were indiscriminately slaughtered and starved.
These massacres, conducted by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, were caused by defeat in the Russo-Turkish War conjoined with Armenian demands for improved civil rights, reform, and respect for their human rights. However the protests against the state as well as violent Armenian resistance against heavy taxation and Ottoman persecution culminated in a stand-off with the Turkish army at Sasan. This became the pretext for empire-wide atrocities to be conducted.
The Hamidian massacres bore two-fold significance. Firstly the Armenians and Christian minorities were scapegoats for the Ottoman empires struggles. Secondly it was clear that decades before the 1915 genocide, extreme state-sponsored violence against Christians, particularly the Armenian population had become second nature to the imperial government.
Nevertheless while the 1894-1896 massacres marked a significant deterioration between Armenian and Turk, the 1915 genocide was far from a certainty. Too often genocide is regarded as an inevitable historical process, a unique set of circumstances where unique and unimaginable violence is perpetrated. While the atrocities perpetrated by the Ottoman empire in 1894 and 1915 rightly incurred both contemporary and modern-day revulsion from numerous onlookers, including war-time allies Germany, it is important to remember the context of the late 19th century and early 20th century.
This was the time of empire. Irrespective of the introduction of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, state-sponsored repression and slaughter of imperial subjects, ‘natives’ and ethnic and religious communities frequently occurred.
Between 1895 – 1910 King Leopold II was responsible for the death of eight million Congolese through forced labor, exploitation, torture and massacre in Africa while gathering a huge fortune in the Congo Free State. Between 1880 and 1920 Tsarist and Bolshevik Russia’s persistent persecution of the Jews living in their empire resulted in thousands of deaths and the mass exodus of two million. The reduction of the North American Indian population from an estimated 12 million in 1500 to barely 237,000 in 1900 remains a disputed chapter in North America’s harrowing history. The British Empire have countless atrocities under their belt. For example between 1899 – 1902 they established the infamous term “concentration camps” during the Boer War when they incarcerated and starved 27,927 Boer civilians to death.
The list is endless. Extreme violence and empire walked hand in hand, had done for centuries and imperial violence was peaking in a time of revolution, proto-nationalism, and war. When placed in context Ottoman policy while utterly abhorrent by modern standards was hardly unique when measured against Western/European imperialism. Empire and colonialism was cruelty.
Turkey is one amongst many former imperial powers that have to reconsider and reevaluate its past. The genocide, while horrific, should not be evaluated purely through the narrow scope of Christian/Muslim divide. Hard-line and calculated nationalists played to passions of the greater population to meet their political goals.
It needs to be said very clearly though the CUP’s ideology did not envisage a return to imperialism in its traditional form. It was strongly influenced by western ideological currents and Balkan nationalism which had emerged in the late 19th century. The latter heavily influenced the various rebellions in Macedonia, Albania, and Serbia, tit-for-tat massacres between Muslims and Christians enclaves in the Balkans, and intrigued and influenced Turkish and Tartar intellectual thinking in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
The Balkan Wars (1912-1913) led to a significant deterioration in the position of Armenians within the Ottoman state. These wars eliminated the Ottoman Empire from Europe, except for the eastern corner of Thrace, and disarranged the borders of the Balkan Peninsula. Islamic Slavs and Turks were either butchered or driven from their homes by Balkan and Eastern European nationalists (who were predominantly Christian).
Hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived in Turkey telling tales of slaughter and desperate for revenge. Paranoia and bitterness gripped an empire humbled by defeat and the refugees were resettled in central Turkey where the majority of the Armenian population dwelt. The refugees would come to play a pivotal role in the killings of the Armenians and seizing their property during the genocide became a crucial component part in the ability of Turkish officials to whip up the passions of Ottoman and Turkish Muslims to conduct atrocity during the First World War.
In this poisonous atmosphere, ultra-nationalism began to take root in Turkish society with nationalist groups spouting out increasing violent and racist language against minorities across the empire on the eve of the First World War. Talat Pasa proposed that the country be “cleansed of its treacherous elements.” whilst Kuscubasi Esref, who later play a significant role in the slaughter, stated that anti-Ottomans were to be regarded as the empire’s “internal tumors“. In the name of nationalism the CUP began to construct solutions to the “The Armenian Question” as a national threat and security agenda.
Concurrently the Armenians and affiliated revolutionary organisations continued to make demands for reforms to the disjointed power-structure established by the CUP. Such reforms which were once again done between Armenian officials and European powers from a Turkish perspective envisaged the creation an autonomous Armenian state in Anatolia. This would in effect be a death-blow to the empire and a psychological blow to the Young Turks nationalist ideology. This national security threat, in their minds, came to legitimise genocide.
The Turkish military firstly target the Greeks and cleansed the Aegean region both massacring and deporting hundred of thousands of them. Wide-spread ethnic cleansing. This was done on the eve of war. Plans to remove the Armenians were drawn up, yet they could not be implemented through fear of foreign intervention, as European powers constantly demanded the Ottomans upholded their agreements to respect the rights of minorities.
The outbreak of the First World War lifted all these treaties and pressures on the Ottoman empire. The Ottomans entered the war on the side of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Propaganda took hold across Europe and Turkey was no exception to that. The humilation and slaughter of Muslims by Balkan nationalists remained a fresh wound and it was utilised to ferment fanaticism and hatred against minorities. In an article titled “The Awaited Day“, Huseyin Cahit Yalcin stated that:
“The war had come like a stroke of good fortune upon the Turkish people, who had been sure of their own decline…the day had finally come…to make an historical accounting with those…whom they had been previously unable to do so (and) revenge the horrors of which had not yet been recorded in history.”
Ziya Gokalp wrote a poem calling for Turks to “Run, take the standard and let it be planted once again in Plevna (modern day Bulgaria)…let the waters of the Danube run red with blood…” whilst Galip Soylemezglu (a diplomat) stated: “350,000 Muslims were murdered in 1912-1913….those who committed atrocities were partially subject to feelings of revenge.”
At the same time, Ottoman religious authorities declared jihad (political rhetoric used by the government) against all Christians except their allies who, for the sake of wartime objectives, turned a blind eye to the atrocities. Propaganda demanding religious war and most importantly revenge in an atmosphere of war played into the hands of those wishing to commit genocide. It was no secret that many officials and many amongst the population desired the extermination of the Armenians. The war also presented a chance for the Ottoman Turks to reclaim territories lost in the 19th century from the Western powers.
These hopes were dashed fairly swiftly following a series of damaging military setbacks. These setbacks, particularly the catastrophe at the Battle of Sarikamish (22nd December 1914 – 17th January 1915) in the Allahüekber mountains and the Caucasus campaign, placed the Ottoman empire largely on the defensive throughout the rest of the conflict as exemplified by the Turkish victory over the British offensive in Gallipoli. Armenians volunteer units fought with the Russians against the Ottomans which convinced the latter (shaped by events at the siege of Van) that their annihilation was to be completed to preserve the empire’s internal security and the future of a Turkish nation.
After losing 90,000 soldiers in a single campaign the Turkish government blamed the defeats on a Russian-Armenian conspiracy and that Armenian soldiers fighting for the Ottomans had defected. Thousands of Armenian soldiers were tortured and executed for acts of ‘treason’ against the empire.
24th April 1915 symbolised the official beginning of the Armenian genocide and the radical realisation of the Young Turks ambitious social engineering process which began in 1908. Կարմիր կիրակի (Red Sunday), the day before the British landed at Gallipoli, began with Minister of the Interior Talaat Pasha giving the order for Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) to be placed under arrest.
The Tehcir Law, a temporary law passed by the Ottoman Parliament on May 27, 1915 authorizing the deportation of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population, authorised that the Armenian leadership (an assortment of clergymen, physicians, editors, journalists, lawyers, teachers, politicians, and activists) be deported and executed. By August 1915, 2,345 Armenian notables were detained, deported and eventually most were slaughtered in gorges near Ankara. The Armenians had been tarred with the same brush.
The destruction of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian leadership deprived the wider Armenian population of any effective leadership. The introduction of the Tehcir Law sealed the fate of the Armenians and began the process of an empire-wide program of deportation and extermination.
Telegrams were cycled around the empire to provincial and local governors instructing them to carry out the deportation and ‘resettlement’ of Armenians to Ottoman-controlled Syrian deserts around Deir ez-Zor and the surrounding desert. Those who refused to carry out these instructions were replaced and military and public officials who protested were terrorised by hard-liners.
These death-squads escorted the Armenians to their doom or they were deported by carriages designed for goats and sheep on the railway to Aleppo and Urfa. The Armenians, naturally, had to pay for the tickets. Those who died on the journey without food or water were discarded on the railway to the horror of railway engineers who would discover the decomposing corpses.
From there the Armenians would be forced into the harsh deserts of Syria and steppes of Mesopotamia. The death marches were carried out with utmost brutality according to missionaries, diplomats and other eyewitnesses. Torture and executions (beheading, burning and drowning, death by clubs, swords, and pistol) were frequent.
“Here they died-slain by Kurds, robbed by gendarmes, shot, hanged, poisoned, stabbed, strangled, mowed down by epidemics, drowned, frozen, parched with thirst, starved-their bodies left to putrefy or to be devoured by jackals. Children wept themselves to death, men dashed themselves against the rocks, mothers threw their babies into the brooks, women with child flung themselves, singing into the Euphrates. They died all the deaths on the earth, the deaths of all the ages…”
This is one of innumerable testimonies by witnesses to the Armenians massacres. Elderly, children, wounded, and those unable to continue on the march were executed or abandoned at the roadside. The scourge of rape was perpetrated on a harrowing scale. Young girls drowned themselves to escape the soldiers and bandits who had forced themselves on others, those who escaped faced starvation in the mountains. Grotesque acts of sexual violence were committed as innocent women and children were humiliated by Turkish soldiers and police. The only refuge for the orphans populating the countryside were various orphanages, missions and hospitals dotted across the country.
The few thousand that made it to the desert (largely women and children) who hadn’t yet succumbed to thirst, disease and hunger were then to march into the steppes of Mesopotamia. Walking skeletons (perhaps 60,000) were forced on the final march to the camps in the desert where even Turkish soldiers struggled to fill the mass-graves quickly and efficiently amidst the stench, depravity and horror in the scorching desert.
Skeletons littered the roadsides and deserts, mass-graves were frequently found, and corpses filled the gorges across the dying Ottoman empire. Turkey’s diversion of resources to exterminate the Armenians (like Hutu Power and Nazi Germany) partly cost them the war and invited international condemnation as the Allies entered Constantinople. The deed, nonetheless, had been completed. An empire had fallen, a people had largely been wiped out and Turkey barely survived the harsh post-conflict peace settlement at Sevres.
They are not the only nation in the world struggling to come to terms with the atrocities they inflicted on other people; The Japanese, once an imperial power, have largely failed to compensate the Chinese after cutting a bloody swath through China, Korea and Burma committing horrific atrocities.
When applied to current affairs what can we learn from the Armenian genocide? The Middle East is rapidly changing, the maps that were drawn a century ago by Western imperialists have largely disintegrated amidst a series of overlapping micro-conflicts catalysed by the Arab Spring. It is currently a battlefield between authoritarian regimes, different religious sects and Islamic extremist factions with both belligerent regional and international actors acting from numerous angles.
National identities are at odds with religious, sectarian and tribal differences whilst civil society in the majority of countries at the epicentre of the struggle, most notably Syria and Iraq, have disintegrated. Religious and nationalist fanatics continue to run amok in the Cradle of Civilisation. These are revolutionary times. The hyper-religious divisions, the assortment of warlords, and sectarian division in the Middle East has already culminated in bouts of genocidal violence and ethnic cleansing being perpetrated against variants of both Islam and Christianity (most notably Iraq’s Yazidi population).
These various acts of grotesque violence can often cement long-term animosity and reverberate if grievances are left to fester or are exacerbated by regional powers and parties seeking immediate political advantage. Overt focus on immediate security concerns and current affairs has somewhat distorted any sense of long-term strategy and impact as the crisis engulfing the Middle East continues to unfold.
The Middle East of the 21st century while partly resembling Europe during the Thirty Years War as supposed to the First World War is undergoing a similar transition. The United States’ declining influence in the region combined with the collapse of the traditional borders of Syria and Iraq established by the British and French empires has violently accelerated the process of fragmentation.
We may or may not live long enough to see the long-term impact current events may eventually have on relations between warring religious, nationalist and political groups and whether or not they may develop into a more sinister event in the future. Pessimistic no doubt, but the future is always unpredictable even if some do believe man has thoroughly ‘modernised’. That’s what some thought a century ago. The Balkans tragedy, while certainly not an inevitability, evolved overtime into genocide in the 1990s because socio-political figures failed to address the historic traumas and grievances present in the region at the beginning and end of the 20th century. The imposition of the Communist regime did not alleviate these ills and eventually men exploited these grievances and tragedies of distant past for Machiavellian ends in the present.
The Armenian genocide was the culmination of a variety of extremes plaguing a variety of regions across the Ottoman Empire. The empire’s extinction was inevitable before the First World War. With a rather simplistic interpretation empire is like baking a cake, it is relatively easy to put the ingredients together (if you can bake), however if you attempt to revert it to its original separate ingredients (never recommended) it becomes a prolonged, unpredictable, messy and pain-staking affair.
The Armenian extermination, the ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Greeks and the established ‘exchanges’ of Greek and Turkish populations after the sack of Smyrna illustrated that when a multi-ethnic empire’s key ingredients mutated into an assortment of national and religious communities motivated by identity politics, butchery was the endgame.
Ukrainian Revolution 2014: A priest stands between Viktor Yanukovych police and protesters during a historic regime change in February. The protests were subsequently followed by the annexation of Crimea and a tense standoff between Russia and NATO.
Desolation: The Syrian city of Deir Ezzor lies in ruins as the Syrian Civil War nears its forth year.
18th November 2014: Four Israelis were killed and several injured as two Palestinians armed with a pistol and meat cleavers attacked a West Jerusalem synagogue.
February 2014: Sketches by former prisoners in North Korean gulag camps published.
June-July 2014: Religious and ethnic tensions have reemerged between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma with deadly consequences.
US Marines and British Armed Forces end their thirteen year stay in Afghanistan. Over 20,000 Afghan civilians and 3,479 Coalition troops have been killed since 2001.
Ethnic cleansing and genocidal violence in the Central African Republic: Between November 2013 – March 2014 Christian milita, commonly known as the anti-balaka, fighting the violent Muslim group Séléka ethnically cleanse the Muslim population. Thousands of Muslims are killed by machete and hundred of thousands of Muslims are systematically removed from the country.
August 9, 2014: Shooting of teenager Michael Brown sparks protests and riots across the United States against police brutality, racism and fears of police militarisation.
From Russia with Love: Following the Ukrainian revolution Vladamir Putin and his ‘little green men’, annex Crimea sparking the Crimea crisis (February 23, 2014 – March 19, 2014). This has led to increasingly strained relations between NATO and the Russian Federation.
The Northern Offensive: During the 2014 World Cup, the terrorist organisation known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began a major offensive in northern Iraq against Nouri al-Maliki‘s U.S sponsored government. The latter’s forces melt away in the wake of ISIS’s advance and shocks the world.
Viral Executions: ISIS have indiscriminately committed war crimes against various Muslim communities including Sunnis and perpetrated genocidal violence against Iraq’s Christian minorities (most notably the Yazidi population). The neo-Wahabbist organisation have publicly executed POWs, journalists and humanitarian aid workers.
16th May 2014: Libya’s instability between 2011-2013 reignited civil war which is mainly being fought between Islamist forces and Libyan parliamentary forces.
17th July 2014: A scheduled international passenger flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur is shot down during the Ukrainian civil war/pro-Russian unrest, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board. The Russian Federation is condemned by the international community for supplying pro-Russian rebels.
Jihadi John: A British citizen and a member of ISIS who has come to encapsulate ISIS’s violent rampage. He publicly murdered U.S citizens James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Peter Kassig and British citizens David Haines and Alan Henning and oversaw the beheadings of 18 Syrian soldiers.
September 10th 2014: After a summer of blood, Barack Obama speaks to the American people outlining his plan to fight ISIS.
December 16th 2014: Using suicide bombs and fire-arms militants from the Pakistani Taliban have attacked an army-run school in Peshawar, killing 141 people, 132 of them children. It is the organisation’s worst atrocity.
The world’s youngest nation South Sudan has been embroiled in civil war since December 15th 2013 between government and rebel forces. The ethnic groups (Dinka and Nuer) have been targeting each other and the resulting violence has killed thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. Both sides have committed genocidal violence.
31 March 2014: A major report by the UN states that the impacts of global warming are likely to be “severe, pervasive and irreversible.” On 21st September, protestors across the world stage the Climate march in the face of impending climate change.
March 2014: Pro-Russian protestors occupy governmental building across eastern Ukraine, most notably Donetsk and Sloviansk. Over 5,000 are killed in protests and by the Ukranian Armed Forces, often indiscriminate ‘terrorist’ crackdowns.
March 18th 2014: President Vladimir Putin speech following the official annexation of Crimea.
15th December 2014: A hostage escapes the Sydney Siege. Three people (including gunman and ISIS inspired Man Haron Monis ) are killed in the ensuing struggle at Lindt Cafe in Martin Place.
Epidemic: Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have been afflicted by the worst outbreak of Ebola in recorded human history. The death toll from Ebola in the three worst-affected countries in West Africa has risen to 7,373 among 19,031 cases known to date there.
Drone warfare: The use of drones, particularly in Palestine, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan has been condemned by international onlookers, various journalists and activists as violations of international law.
21st January: The BBC state that there is clear evidence that Syria has systematically tortured and executed about 11,000 detainees. Syria has encapsulated the continued problem of the perpetration of torture by police, military units and governments across the globe.
Nigeria’s insurgency: Boko Haram, the militant Islamic group based in north-east Nigeria, has cut a swathe through the country killing thousands of civilians in a wave of suicide bombings and armed raids. They have also kidnapped hundreds of civilians including young women and children.
December Revelations: While unsurprising to the majority of the world, the Senate Intelligence Committee released the damning executive summary of its five-year review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme initiated by the Bush administration during the Global War on Terror.
The 2nd Gaza War and the Silent Intifada (June – present 2014): The kidnap of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas inspired militants and the incineration of a Palestinian teenager by Israeli settlers helps spark the 2nd Gaza War and the silent/third intifada.
The shadow of Operation Protective Edge looms large over the fading weeks and months of 2014. It has in-part encapsulated the horrors and revolutionary changes sweeping the Middle East which John Simpson has correctly coined as ‘The Summer of Blood’. More importantly it has opened up a new phase in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a new intifada and how it evolves and ripens in both the short-term and long-term should be of important consideration to current policy-makers and the international community who wish to see the seeming impasse between occupier and repressed narrow.
“In terms of the crime of incitement to genocide, the tribunal received evidence ‘demonstrating a vitriolic upswing in racist rhetoric and incitement’ during the summer of 2014. ‘The evidence shows that such incitement manifested across many levels of Israeli society, on both social and traditional media, from football fans, police officers, media commentators, religious leaders, legislators, and government ministers.”
The Gaza campaign in the summer of 2014 was the extreme misapplication of the ‘iron wall’ doctrine which includes indiscriminate targeting policy that affects civilians as well as militants on the ground and the brutal Hannibal Protocol which is initiated should a Israeli soldier be kidnapped.
The campaign has also, courtesy of the Israeli military, refocused the international community’s attention on a subject which had taken a back-seat to the violent shake-up of the geo-political shape of the Middle East in recent years.
Originally the violence appeared to have died down after the withdrawal of the IDF (26th August, 2014). However the settlement expansion as much as anything has provoked continued instability and drawn fresh condemnation as several nations question Israel’s seriousness in applying a successful peace-process (not for the first time). Israel’s policies clearly illustrate they do not want a just peace.
As with the second intifada, the violence continues to grow in the heart of Jerusalem, the protests and riots of which originated in the Shu’fat district. Significant events have already occurred which include a Palestinian ramming his car into a group of passengers waiting in the light rail station which killed a 3-months old baby and injuring several others (22nd October, 2014).
This was swiftly followed by the shooting of a 14 year old Palestinian-American in protests two days later and the counter-terrorism unit killed a Palestinian man suspected of trying the night before to assassinate a leading agitator for increased Jewish access to the site.
The state of crisis the Holy City finds itself in has led to repeated closures of the Holy Sites the latter of which was central (some argue), along side the collapse of Camp David, to sparking the second intifada in the early 2000s and let us not forget that the catalyst for the first intifada was a road accident in the Gaza Strip in the late 1980s.
According to Benjamin Netanyahu, the latest car attack (5th November, 2014) which left many Israelis injured and one policeman dead, is ‘a direct result of incitement’ by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. This was hours after renewed clashed occurred at the Holy Sites and the resultant shooting of the driver has resulted in more riots across the Old City, Shu’fat and Sheikh Jarrah. On 18th November four Israelis were killed and eight injured as two men armed with a pistol, knives and axes attacked a West Jerusalem synagogue.
Thus far the situation remains bottled up in the capital, however it is likely that in the coming weeks and months the chaos will ignite the rest of the region as the spontaneous situation worsens.
The Israeli government by deliberately pursuing a policy of establishing ‘facts on the grounds’ is worsening the situation on the ground as the current semi-violent situation continues to deteriorate. This is inevitably tied with the fact that the Likud’s ‘Greater Israel’ project, its settlement project, its attempts to be rid of ‘the Palestinian question’ are doomed.
The refugee problem, which has remained unsolved since the Jewish-Palestinian civil war in 1947 is hitting home hard as reflected in the increasingly draconian immigration policies and the continued construction of settlements in the West Bank. Even Shlomo Gazit, the military man who oversaw the occupation with Moshe Dayan and helped construct the ‘Operational Principles for the Administered Territories’ (which include direct instructions for ethnic cleansing in Fundamental Guidelines (2) and (3)) in October 1967 is now stating an occupation conducted in its current form cannot work anymore.
The issue will not disappear, Jerusalem and the holy sites as always is an important stumbling block in the peace process, but the crux of the conflict is the refugee problem. It will be the cause of future war. Part of this problem is the state of mind surrounding the refugee problem. Many, including protesters abroad staunchly believe that everything will be returned to the Palestinians.
The reality is simple, and it pains me to say this, traditional Palestine is gone, it is unrealistic to assume everything will be returned and to some extent the PLO accepted that in 1988. The 500 or so towns and villages they once presided in are destroyed or built upon and the Israeli state is not going to vanish into thin air. This mindset has to change, they have to compromise. So as long as the Israelis and Palestinians cannot come to terms on the issue of ‘right of return’ and the ‘claims of return’ the peace process is doomed and future conflict beckons which will benefit neither party.
The Palestinians (now Israeli Arabs one of whom was shot dead during current protests, Kheir Hamdan, 22) who stayed behind, after events in 1947-1948 forced around 750,000 Palestinians to flee, have grown from 150,000 to 1.2 million. This is 22% of the population that suffer horizontal social, economic and political inequalities will increase and with the introduction of separate buses for different ethnic groups, the moves by the Knesset to ban Palestinian political parties, and other inflammatory legislative acts in recent years this equates to one thing (if it hasn’t already); apartheid.
Something invariably has got to give as poverty, hunger, deep horizontal social inequalities that would have Nelson Mandela turning in his grave, racism, and the continued growth of the Palestinian population threaten to construct as Mark Fiore quotes ‘a little Mogadishu’ not just on Israel’s doorstep in the form of the Gaza Strip, but also amongst Israeli civilians. Demographics are not on Israel’s side and they certainly won’t be in the future.
Constant insecurity, revolt, and violence is all that Israel faces unless it compromises. This can only occur under intense pressure from the international community as Israeli politics plunges further and further into right-wing territory.
True, the Palestinians have squandered opportunities for a settlement of which the current generation would only dream of. Israel for all it cruel projects and policies in regard to the ‘occupied territories’ has been willing to compromise in the past. The Palestinians unwillingness to compromise (in some circumstances rejected under very fair pretenses) and the current divisions in Palestinian politics between Hamas (who are unwilling to recognise the state of Israel), Fatah, and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation have played into Netanyahu’s hands and used to justify the unjustifiable policies of occupation.
Accelerating events on the ground are inevitably attached to how the world governments react to them. These illegal settlement expansions, alongside the bloody summer slaughter and ugly racist (and occasional genocidal) incitement, has increasingly isolated Israel from the international community further. Sweden’s historic decision to recognize Palestine and the United Kingdom’s symbolic non-binding vote, supported by 274 MPs with 12 voting against are important. Sweden became first EU member in western Europe to make the move, the new government stating that ‘It is an important step that confirms the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, we hope this will show the way for others’.
The tensions seemed to have also boiled over in celebratory-esque tit for tat insults being flung between the Knesset and the White House. An official in the White House was reported to have called Netanyahu chicken s**t, whilst The White House refused to give Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon an audience with Vice President Joe Biden the former of who had previously accused John Kerry of being “messianic and obsessive” in regard to the latest failed peace-talks. John Kerry. The U.S Secretary of State was also forced to apologize for stating behind a closed-door meeting that Israel actively becoming an “apartheid state”.
This shouldn’t be a surprise though as both the United States, the UK and others frequently supply Israeli Armed Forces with weaponry (the most prominent the Iron Dome missile shield) alongside intelligence. The latter in-particular (according to James Bamford of the New York Times) under the jurisdiction of Unit 8200 was accused by veterans ‘of startling abuses….that…the information collected..’ was being used ‘against Palestinians for “political persecution.”‘ Israel alongside the United States reputation is badly affected by the NSA scandal.
Historically the West has used Israel as a valuable buffer both in the Cold War era against the Soviet Union ideological expansion and post-9-11 era against Islamic extremism/conducting military operations in the Middle East. However it is clear that amidst an ongoing and growing Middle Eastern crisis surrounded by enemies such as Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, jihadist movements such as ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, strategically the long-term conflict with the Palestinians is unfeasible (even if they do possess nuclear weapons).
A rogue Israel is the last thing the Middle East or the West needs right now. Certainly the need for a strong Israel is a necessity in the regional crisis but not a volatile one that acts with relative impunity. Clearly the patience of the international community is waning as it continues to become clearer and clearer that support for Israeli belligerence, war crimes and policies based upon ethnic cleansing is counter-productive in the face of changing public opinion, particularly in the European states.
How should the West react to the current intifada? With other matters consuming the Middle East, it will be one amongst many grave issues plaguing the Middle East, but it must be regarded as equal importance as the war against ISIL.
The Palestinians methods of resistance are currently semi-violent, they have not evolved into conventional modern warfare. The latter is inevitably a battle they will lose, however the images of Israeli police and soldiers repressing and killing largely unarmed protesters and civilians will serve to further add to the horrific pictures that have emerged from the Gaza Strip. These will ruin the country’s already tarnished reputation. How the fragmented Palestinian leadership and Hamas also react to current events is of equal importance if peace talks are to come about in the future.
The Palestinians must break the bottle-neck in Jerusalem and embark on a massive intifada (largely without weapons) and the illegal settlements must be boycotted by the international community as they are direct breach of international law. A local issue must become a regional dispute.
As Ahron Bregman states in his new book Cursed Victory: The Occupied Territories ‘the international community and particularly the U.S will have to be tough with Israel and when necessary bribe it into compromise…that if Israel, Jordan Egypt can come to compromise…something previously unthinkable then so can Israel and the Palestinians.’
The influence of the intifada on world opinion will and has to be nurtured by the increase of both Palestinian resistance and attacks and the repression of Netanyahu’s coalition government which will lead to substantial international pressure. As of now events must be allowed to hold course as trying to establish a cease-fire or call to the peace table would only benefit the Israelis as a stalling tactic to restore control.
The strong party (in this case Israel) must have its arm twisted at the right moment by external and internal influences if the partition plan/two-state solution is to work. Timing is everything.
Iraq has collapsed. The United States and its allies are paying witness to the Republic of Iraq’s downfall and for the first time the international community is truly coming to terms with the catastrophic failure of the ‘Global War on Terror’. Even if the current Iraqi government survives the Islamic State’s onslaught the nation itself will be irrevocably changed as it goes through yet another phase of convulsive violence. How will this invariably effect Iraq, Middle East, and the wider world (particularly the West) is open to interpretation alongside how we tackle the unfortunate present and future circumstances presented to us.
The replacement of al-Maliki, Haider al-Abadi, will face an uphill struggle. The first challenge fighting an tenacious jihadist insurgency cutting a swathe through Iraq and its minorities. The second will be consolidating the disputing Iraqi government as al-Maliki’s supporters claim that ousting al-Maliki was ‘a coup’ claiming it breached the constitution as he had thirty days left at his post. Internal chaos will all but guarantee ISIS an eventual victory over the politically leaderless and already demoralized Iraqi military.
Iraq and the Middle East is Western foreign policymakers new Yugoslavia. However one can only fear the repercussions of what they have helped unleash will make the consequences far more outreaching and costly. The failure of Middle Eastern foreign policy in the last four years is a tough psychological blow to the credibility of various countries within NATO and the EU, particularly the United States and United Kingdom.
The humanitarian operations comprising of airstrikes and aid for the escaping refugees and various minorities such as the Yazidis underway undoubtedly has to be undertaken. The operations however successful will only solve a small fraction of the issue. Northern Syria remains the primary headquarters and base of operations for ISIL. This has been the case since they commenced their campaign in Syria in April 2013. While the Syrian Civil War continues in its current format ISIL will continue possess the perfect environment in which it can continue to recruit local and foreign jihadists surrounded by stockpiles of weaponry from all corners of the Middle East and globe.
There are various choices that can be taken. Intervention on the ground in Syria is unfathomable. The infamous ‘redline’ of Obama following the Ghouta chemical attacks a year ago and the threat to strike Syria and intervene threatened a potential Third World War with China and the Russian Federation (whether rightly or wrongly) reeling in the bullish Obama administration in mid-August 2013. This idea was undermined similarly by American public opinion both in the military and public staunchly against intervention in another Middle Eastern conflict. The Obama administration has been left with the smoldering wreckage of Iraq by the hawkish Bush government.
Instability in Iraq would undoubtedly be worsened by the Syrian revolution. That is what the failure and criminality with which the Iraq war was waged would bring. The Iraq War has effectively blocked us from deploying soldiers into Syria, the memories of Iraq being too painful for many of the public who are angered that they were systematically lied to and brushed aside by the Bush administration in 2003 as they plundered Iraq and killed Iraqi civilians. This stance against intervention in Syria and Iraq for many anti-interventionists is coupled with the tarnished reputation of the United States and the United Kingdom for their military adventurism in the international community.
Without a doubt I agree with many of his views. I want nothing more, like any decent human being, to see the destruction of ISIL even if they were the spawn of the Iraq War and supported by various individuals within the Gulf monarchies, our allies, and in many circumstances ourselves. This is our mess and we owe the Iraqi people. The past cannot be unwritten and the Bush administration and Blair, who were quick to jump to their own defense in the wake of ISIL’s Northern Offensive, must answer some serious questions.
Yet what we need, as Obama suggests, is long-term strategy. Even if we had destroyed Assad in 2013 what then? ISIL and various terrorists cells including Al-Qaeda and Al-Nusra were in existence in August 2013. Capable in guerrilla warfare perfected in the Iraq War, chaos and violence would remain and the civilians and soldiers alike would die as they did during the Iraq insurgency. Jihadists and would-be insurgents could manipulate humanitarian intervention into yet another example of Western adventurism in the Middle East and recruit more extremists. Unseating Assad would result in another post-Gadaffi/post-Saddam scenario where we would have indirectly supported the wrong factions (as seen in Libya) or de-stabalised the region as we witnessed in Iraq in 2003.
This question should be applied to ISIL. If we destroy them what then? Even if the Kurds and Iraqi ground units push back ISIL and by some miracle they are simultaneously destroyed by the Syrian rebels and Assad’s forces what then? The beliefs of ISIL like Al-Qaeda’s are now banners around which jihadists and militants rally and/or create their own organisations. The root problems lie at the heart of various versions of Islam and Western foreign policy.
The United States is protecting its economic and political interests in the Middle East currently whilst trying to save a faltering Iraqi government. Airstrikes, bombs, a ground invasion and humanitarian aid will not solve Syria, Iraq, Libya or the question of extremist Islamic beliefs. Military means (undoubtedly required when concerning terrorists) are short term alleviations and solutions to what is now a generational problem. Short term strategies must coincide with broader vision and much change must come from within Islam itself and how outsiders engage with the faith and political side of the religion.
The Muslim communities are at war with each other as much as the extremists and ‘terrorists’ are at war with Western concepts. The issue within Muslim societies is often what conversations moderates and intellectuals are not having.
This is guided by both fear of violence and repercussions against families and individuals, but is also the result of a neglect to encourage or promote more diverse ways of thinking about the structures of their faith and establish an effective rapport between different communities which will challenge the norms and rules of Muslim society. What is lacking is a sufficient and convincing challenge against elements (previously mentioned) that wholly undermine the more enlightened and peaceful elements of both contemporary and historical Islam. These are problems the outside world can help solve, but ultimately not fix.
The fascistic subversion of Islam into neo-Wahabbist and neo-Salafist cores by factions such as ISIL, Al-Qaeda, and various terrorist factions have to be isolated and destroyed. This can only occur with a substantial reform to many educational systems across the Middle East which promote and staunchly protect radicalized versions of the Islamic faith, in-particular Saudi Arabia which, though an enemy of Al-Qaeda, promotes the 18th century Wahabbi version of Islam to counter what it sees as the threat of Shi’a Muslims spreading their version of Islam. Islamists, Salafists, Wahabbists, Sunnis, Sh’ia Muslims and more are divided and while this remains there is little hope that the issue will be resolved particularly when various segments of the Western population are misinformed on the finer details of how the faith works.
This problem coincides with the continued way in which the West conducts itself in Middle Eastern politics which not only failed dismally in Iraq, but also in the wake of the Arab Spring, the continued and uncompromising support of a violent and militant Israel and our inherent obsession with oil and petro-politics. The problems are vast and the solutions unattainable at present moment. Destroying ISIL would not destroy the ideology of militant Islam. What is required is a combination of carefully planned short-term political plans and military operations with that of long-term educational and intellectual solutions to the problems from within and outside the Middle East. Both sides need to take a good hard look at themselves. We need better ideas and the Middle East isn’t unsolvable as many contend.
“From the beginning men used God to justify the unjustifiable.”
The Middle Eastern conflicts continue to lurch from one calamity to the next and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) stick to the depressing script by committing stark and bloody brutality that seem barely fathomable to the average Westerner. ISIS’s developing caliphate is the spawn of the Syrian Civil War and George Bush’s and Tony Blair’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Yet who are these men, where did they come from, how are they organised and what do they want as they relentlessly wage war on the greater Middle East?
It all started with the Iraq War (19 March 2003 – 15 December 2011). The largely fabricated pretexts for the invasion were that Saddam Hussein allegedly possessed weapons of mass-destruction and harbored affiliates of Al-Qaeda who had recently carried out the world’s most devastating terrorist attack on American soil at the World Trade Centre, September 11th 2001.
Both assumptions concocted by the hawkish Bush administration were lies and costly lies which cost the United States over $4 trillion and left 4,487 U.S soldiers dead, 32,226 wounded and the United Kingdom death toll stood at 179. More importantly the Iraqi dead varied between 150,000 to perhaps 500,000 while thousands were detained and/or tortured. U.S credibility and ideals were blood spattered and in the dust as the result of the illegal war organised by the likes of Dick Cheney, Paul Bremer, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.
Iraq’s infrastructure was de-stabilized by the coalition forces destruction. Alongside this a shambles of a ‘democracy’ was put in place crudely by the Bush administration without competent consideration to the colonial history and the multicultural melting pot that is Iraq.
Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad was originally the organisation from which ISIS evolved. Created in Europe between 1999-2000 by Abu Masab al-Zarqawi the aim of al-Tawhid wal-Jihad was primarily to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy and (like ISIS intends to now) create an Islamic caliphate. Al-Zarqawi was an experienced in insurgency and terrorist activities fighting with mujaheddin in the insurgency against the Soviet Union during their invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. He also ran Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, where he taught recruits to use chemical and biological weapons. From 2001 onward he controlled a chain of regional terrorist groups across Europe, which carried out several terrorist attacks in the UK, France, Russia and the harrowing train bombing in Madrid in 2004.
It was during the ground invasion of Iraq in 2003 that Al-Zarqawi re-named the organisation Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) (which would later become the Islamic State of Iraq)and within a year the faction had pledged itself to Al-Qaeda.
This was where its power began to be nurtured by conflict and bolstered by funding by Al-Qaeda, raids, and individual and foreign support from Syria and Iran. The United States invaded looking for Saddam’s ‘terrorists’ and ironically they had in-part created their very own who were now looking to resist the occupation.
Al-Zarqawi had entered Iraq after NATO’s invasion of Afghanistan before the invasion however intelligence showed that Al-Zarqawi had no connections to the former dictator. ISI was one amongst many nationalists, Shi’a and Sunni armed resistance/terrorist movements that sprung up over large areas of Iraq such as ‘The Strugglers of Iraq’, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (ASI), ‘The Islamic Army of Iraq’, ‘The Army of Muhammad’ and more.
Al-Zarqawi’s organisation effectively became an extension of the Al-Qaeda network From the very beginning came to be associated with extreme violence. Like most Islamist terrorist factions AQI did not distinguish between Western civilians and soldiers. Collaborators were hunted down with ruthless efficiency nor were the Shi’a exempt from targeted terror attacks as the faction declared war on Shi’a Muslims.
AQI/ISI was like the a-typical Islamist terror cell and adopted effective guerrilla tactics to disrupt the coalition forces which made up for their (then) deficiencies in direct combat with American soldiers. Various strategies were adopted such as targeting institutions and personnel associated with the newly installed government, the use of spectacular violence such as car bombs, kidnap, executions and the targeting of minorities (for instance Shia Muslims, Christians. Coalition forces, the new Iraqi Armed Forces and police were obvious targets.
The barbarism we are watching unfold in Iraq, the terror tactics used on Iraqi Armed Forces in June 2014, Iraqi Christians and the Yazidis such as the beheading and execution of prisoners (most famously American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff) were carried out by AQI during the insurgency period 2003-2011. The most notorious during this period were the separate executions of American hostages Nicholas Berg (May 2004) and Eugene Armstrong (September 2004). Their executions was carried out by Al-Zarqawi personally.
AQI managed to master the guerrilla tactics considerably. The physical trauma and psychological stress of urban warfare took its toll on the American military in the likes of Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul and Kirkuk. We cannot underestimate how important this period was in molding ISIS into increasingly independent entity.This autonomy would have been accelerated by the death of Al-Zarqawi who was killed when a American jet dropped two 500-pound guided bombs, a laser-guided GBU-12 and GPS-guided GBU-38 on his safehouse north of Baqubah, June 7th, 2006.
In 2008 Bush made the decision under the Status of Forces agreement with the Iraqi government that US combat troops would depart in 2011. Those who argue that it was Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq are incorrect, he was merely carrying out the policy of his predecessor and also upholding his promise to the American people that troops would return home. However the role of America in creating ISIS will return later in the narrative.
The announcement of the American retreat saw a sharp rise in suicide attacks and AQI in-particular carried out devastating coordinated attacks on October 25th, 2009 and December 8th, 2009 (pictured above) which, combined, killed 282 civilians. The future of Iraq hardly looked promising in the face of such well-planned atrocity and cracks were already appearing in the new state which with all it newly trained armed forces and reformed government looked fragile at the core.
The U.S abandoned Iraq with a system of governance based on ethnicity and sectarianism with the Shi’a majority with Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister rule being characterized by corruption and inaccessibility for the minorities to the political scene which in turn exacerbated violence between Sunni and Shi’a factions. This was hardly aided by the fact that al-Maliki was to be regarded by many as an illegitimate puppet put in place by invading U.S forces.
This double blow was then followed by the black op which resulted in the killing of Osama Bin Laden on May 2nd, 2011 in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda was weakening. The cries of ‘U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A!’ chorused outside the White House and across America into the spring night.
As AQI reeled with its decimated ally the Arab Spring began to gather momentum. In late 2010 revolutionary demonstrations and protests swept Northern Africa and the Middle East rendering it an inviting hot-bed for radicalism as civil wars broke out in Libya andIraq’s neighbor Syria. Syria was to provide an avenue by-which ISI would not only re-group but consolidate its power and become a bigger challenge to local and Western politicians.
The Arab Spring and the alarming growth in terrorist organisations across the Middle East and Africa were to serve Jason Burke’s analysis of Islamic extremism perfectly: “Language of high-tech weaponry, militarism and eradication….the latter may be useful to treat the symptom but does not, and will never, treat the disease.” AQI was about to place itself on the map as ISIS and become more powerful than its affiliate Al-Qaeda. There were several internal and external factors by which ISIS would rise to prominence.
In the wake of the deaths of al-Masri and al-Baghdadi, a Islamist radical stepped out the shadows to assume control of AQI. The man was known as Dr. Abu Dua, Ibrahim bin Awad Al-Samarra’i who would later become known as ISIS’s ruthless and charismatic leader Abu Bakir Al-Baghdadi. It has widely been accepted by Western political leaders, the international media and journalists alike that al-Baghdadi has played a massive role in engineering the rise of ISIS into an independent terrorist organisation.
Like the leaders of Al-Qaeda Zawahiri and Bin Laden who were both wealthy and educated individuals alongside their conservatism (which when combined with a sense of injustice can be potent in the hands of intelligent dissidents) Al-Samarra’i comes from an highly educated background which seems odd given the psychotic and violent nature of his organisation. He undertook Islamic studies and history at the university of Baghdad where alongside his dedication to his studies he became a teacher, an intellectual, and a preacher at mosques across Baghdad. He obtained a doctorate at Islamic University in Baghdad and became known to many as Dr. Ibrahim.
All these factors paint Al-Samarra’i as a deeply conservative individual who grew up during the years of savage dictatorship under Saddam Hussein, the Iraq-Iran War (1980 –1988), the Gulf War (1990-1991) and American meddling in Iraq as far back at the 1960s which only increased during his lifetime. The Gulf War destroyed critical infrastructure such as hospitals, roads, bridges and water treatment plants and Saddam Hussein’s regime was placed under sanctions by the United States which led to starvation of thousands of Iraqi civilians under Clinton’s authorization.
His deep seated hatred of Americans may have begun during this period of instability in Iraq as America propped up Saddam’s Baathist dictatorship despite their knowledge of his use of chemical weapons against the Iranians and Kurds. However what mattered to the United States was that he was a deterrent to communist influence, a check on Iranian power and secured Western oil interests, Al-Samarra’i’s hatred of the United States and Western influences would have been cemented by the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq when the Shi’a government and the Kurds under al-Maliki was to alienate the Sunnis from the halls of power.
Al-Samarra’i became thoroughly radicalized by the insurgency period and war against U.S occupation forces. In 2005, he was captured by American forces and spent the next four years a prisoner in the Bucca Camp in southern Iraq until his release in 2009 although there is some debate as to whether he was held for less than a year in 2004.
Incarceration, likely interrogation and the destruction of many parts of Iraq by coalition combat troops pushed al-Samarra’i further into the neo-Wahabbist terrorist cells in Iraq where he began to gain influence. He would likely in his 30s have been exposed to the more radical subversion of Wahhabist extremist ideologies espoused by Bin Laden, al-Zarqawi, and Zawahiri. During this time he assumed the name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The turning point for al-Baghdadi came in April 2010 when the United States struck at the leadership of AQI/ISI and at its lowest ebb since its creation al-Baghdadi having gained significant influence in the ranks of Al-Qaeda assumed command of ISI from the deceased al-Masri and Abu Abdullah al-Baghdadi.
Over four remarkable years several important changes occurred within the organisation which was influenced by significant geo-political events and al-Baghdadi’s ability to react to these events All this occurred along his harrowing and quite unique strategic vision we are witnessing unfold.
Meanwhile al-Baghdadi had stabilized AQI and was responsible for several bombing and assassinations in Iraq during 2011 as United States military withdrew and AQI aimed at immediately undoing the ‘successes’ of the occupation.
It seemed that the scalp of Bin Laden was a small victory in a disastrous decade for U.S foreign policy. Not content with sitting on his opening flourish of success in 2011, al-Bagdadi expanded his war against almost everything and everyone.
During the U.S occupation AQI had struggled in close quarter fighting with combat troops. Syria provided the jihadists a battleground in which they could hone their fighting skills and make a name for themselves slaughtering rebels and Syrian government troops alike as well as attracting foreign fighters. This would not be so difficult as under al-Zarqawi the group was originally comprised of locals and foreign jihadists.
The Syrian war as al-Baghdadi envisaged would make ISIS a more coherent, well-armed, experienced, uniform organisation, a powerful military force that was able to conduct two major operations under al-Baghdadi. Firstly Iraq was to be rendered inherently unstable and ISI would exploit the discontent of the Sunni minority in the face of Shi’a dominance by continuing its guerrilla war. Secondly they would become an effective military force. Syria had become a massive weapons depot with the United States and Russia supplying each side with the necessary weapons to win the conflict.
The process by which ISIS entered into the war is important. Syria is where ISIS began its Northern Iraq Offensive in June 2014. Many Syrians were part of the AQI/ISI during the occupation period as it was composed of many foreign fighters. Many of these Syrians of ISI crossed the border under the command of Abu Mohammed al-Joulani to establish a foothold in the war-torn country and aid the Free Syrian Army in fighting Assad’s forces at Aleppo in late 2011.
Despite differences in ideology and the secular moderates worry for the theocratic/ fundamentalist nature of Al-Nusra, they fought cohesively together. In-fact Al-Nusra was identified by Syrians as more ‘moderate’ than hard-line ISIS despite being an extension of Al-Qaeda.
During 2012 the Al-Nusra Front gained power through its incursions into Syrian territory. With borders seen on a map virtually non-existent in reality, the Islamic State of Iraq deployed itself in northern Syria in April 2013 and formerly became ISIL or as we know it the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
ISIS’s objectives were ambitious and terrifying as rebels, Syrian soldiers on both sides, and civilians caught in the cross fire were to discover. Al-Baghdadi was determined to create a cleansed Islamic state and impose brutal sharia law with immediate effect on any seized towns and territories, in effect a caliphate which al-Baghdadi would ‘rule’ over all ‘world Muslims’. This caliphate would stretch from Iraq to as far as Israel and Lebanon and be based on neo-Wahabbist/neo-Salfist Islam which regards Shi’a, Sufi, Jews, and Christians as heretics and women as second-class citizens. It was a 18th century fascistic, twisted, and violent off-shoot of Islamic worship.
Idealistic in practice and perhaps unrealistic it was the creation of a brilliant yet psychotic mind molded by first and foremost extremism but also extensive education in Islamic studies, Middle Eastern history and many, many sharia committee meeting in Iraq. Yet the grounds on which it can be formed would constitute ethnic cleansing and genocide as the plight of the Iraqi Christians, Kurds, Shi’a Muslims and the Yazidis illustrates.
This is where the divisions began to appear between Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda and the newly proclaimed ISIS. As Sarah Birke summarises in her article on ISIS:
ISIS were effectively regarded as ‘invaders’ whilst Al-Nusra though the creation of Syrians who had previously been of ISIS were ‘Syrian’.Thus they were deemed a domestic issue rather than a foreign faction despite its capacity for inflicting human suffering. Al-Baghdadi arrived in Syria seeking to absorb the Al-Nusra Front into ISIS the former of which had been officially blessed by Al-Qaeda as a terrorist organisation separated from the control of Al-Baghdadi.
The dispute over how to follow up success, objectives, and the ultra-violent way in which ISIS imposed itself on Syria throughout 2013 led to Al-Qaeda dissociating itself from ISIS in February 2014. Zawahiri stated:
This severing of ties was a combination of Zawahiri’s disdain for the growing power of al-Baghdadi and the latter’s ambition to become a covert and independent organisation. This disdain was coupled with ISIS’s hard-line outlook on how to impose an Islamic state. Al-Qaeda was also now weaker than ISIS and al-Baghdadi calculations were likely to have been formed after Al-Qaeda’s leadership was targeted by the Obama administration.
The statement of Al-Qaeda has had little effect on the logistical capabilities of ISIS. Al-Nusra’s Mohammed al-Joulani followed suit after the killing of one of its members Abu Khaled al-Souri and went further declaring war on ISIS. An intra-jihadist civil war had erupted.
The arrival of ISIS effectively created what was originally a war between various rebel factions glued crudely together against Assad into a two front war where the Free Syrian Army and Al-Nusra would be caught between Assad’s forces and those of ISIS.
“ISIS is the strongest group in Northern Syria – 100% and anyone who tells you anything else is lying.”
I do not need to go into detail on the trail of horror and grotesque brutality they left in their wake (mass executions, beheading, rape, mass murder, crucifixion and more) but what is happening in Iraq was inflicted on Syrian men, women and children and soldiers.
The campaign in northern Syria was relatively successful with key battles and successes won in Aleppo, the city of Raqqa and very recently ISIS were able to launch several incursions into Lebanese territory, 41% of the population of whom are Christians while 27% of the Muslims are Shia. Turkey’s most devastating terrorist attack was carried out by ISIS in May 2013, a month after they entered Syria whilst Fallujah was seized in Iraq by the faction. Now ISIS and Kurdish soldiers are fighting tooth and nail for the border town of Kobane in Northern Syria.
On October 20, 2010, U.S. State Department notified Congress of its intention to make the biggest arms sale in American history – an estimated $60.5 billion purchase by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Specific individuals are a key source of funding according to leaked U.S diplomatic cables in 2009 according to Hilary Clinton:
This comment by Alex Spillius may state that it sponsors Al-Qaeda, yet we must remember that ISIS used to be ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq’ so at some stage they will have received logistical support from the Saudi, Syrian and Qatari governments.
Both ISIS and Al-Nusra ideologies’ are combination of neo-Wahhabist, Salafist and Sunni, so whilst the Iraq invasion may have destroyed the fundamental military, police and security structures the Obama administration has hardly curbed the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Technically many of us are inadvertently funding terrorism not just assisting refugees in the Syrian war. This is a product of of deliberate and poor long term and short-term U.S/Western strategy in regards to the Middle East, seen most obviously in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front flourished and grew more powerful than than their affiliates Ayman al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda thanks to financial and logistical support from the West’s Middle Eastern allies, and the weaponery seized from Assad’s Syrian Army. The violence of both ISIS and Al-Nusra as seen by pictures and Youtube videos (warning contains very graphic content) posted by both organisations are violent.
The Arab Spring had ushered in an online propaganda war between power and people. Twitter in-particular has been utilized to tremendous effect to not only rapidly post tweets in quick 140 word bursts but to trend to gain international attention when specific breaking news or events are occurring.
It is also a useful place to privately or publicly interact with followers and other users and the younger generation have often found ways to use the system even if it blocked by intelligence and government networks as seen by the Turkish riots of this year.
This was to become useful to ISIS in promoting their brand, notoriety, power, objectives, ideology, terror tactics (pictures of mass executions, crucifixions and beheading) and successes through Youtube and Twitter accounts or admirers of the organisation reach and influence. Their current hashtag campaigns are achieving considerable international attention as are the lone wolves who seek to support and promote their cause. Even then ISIS don’t have to do it themselves. We are doing it by #ISIS to spread the terrible stories and as they gain traction they grow richer and more powerful as they attract investment.
They even have (bizarrely) merchandise now selling t-shirts and making cakes and promoting their cause via smartphone! For all its utter barbarity there is a very modern and sophisticated way in which ISIS conducts itself. The deployment of tactics a-typical of protesters in the early stages of the Arab Spring, with the objective to spread terror, despair, and their barbaric ideology have been particularly effective. Their annual report is as impressive as it is chilling.
Interestingly ISIS’s social media propaganda campaign trends the most in Saudi Arabia’s region in the Middle East under the hash tag #itwillremain and #ISIS at 35.1% whilst Qatar and Iraq stands at 7.5%, the U.S.A at 9.1%. This is an attempt to recruit more foreign fighters and wealthy donors of which there are plenty in Saudi Arabia and 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar, the latter of which was no secret as far back as 2008 according to Wikileaks.
Naturally the U.S.A may desire to support the moderates fighting Assad yet an ocean of oil lies beneath the Middle East and Saudi Arabia is the world’s top oil exporter and producer. America’s hunger to consume cheap oil may influence political and moral decisions. Destabilizing Iraq’s oil supplies through civil war and disintegration will increase demand for Saudi Arabian oil exports.This is a recurring theme in past Middle Eastern history; blood oil and petro-politics.
By June 2014 Al-Baghdadi and ISIS now stood ready to take the fight to the Iraqi government installed by the U.S government now deeply unpopular with the Sunni minority. As al-Baghdadi predicted the Iraqi Sunnis would be more than willing to turn to the jihadists and foreign fighters when their political future was non-existent under Nouri al-Maliki. An ample amount of U.S hardware lay in sight to seize and rub further salt in the wounds of America’s new Vietnam.
Independent, the wealthiest terror cell in the world, battle-hardened, uniformed, at-least 15,000 strong and most importantly unified and determined. ISIS’s rise to the full public awareness was nearly complete and as I have analysed with a considerable amount of depth it was through a variety of factors that they came into being.
While Obama seeks to contain the Islamic state by airstrikes (a tactic that did not prevent Khmer Rouge from seizing power in Cambodia in 1975) it cannot avoid the several depressing conclusions: this is the legacy of the Iraq War, this is the legacy of unchecked colonialism, this is the product of America’s Middle Eastern politics, and without doubt this is the bloodiest chapter in the Middle East’s bleak mid-winter. For all the strategic genius and charisma of al-Baghdadi his extremist faction have opened up one of the darker chapters in the history of the Middle East. The Arab Spring if not dying now lies murdered in its cradle. The Middle East’s future for now is ISIS; jet black, a battle ground for authoritarian regimes and Islamic militants.