Last night, Steve Warren, the American colonel who is the spokesman for the international campaign against the Islamic State (IS), the U.S.-led Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, announced that between December 7 and December 27, ten IS “leaders” had been killed. Col. Warren adumbrated the positions of the IS leaders, allowing the conclusion that five had been part of IS’s external operations wing, which conducts international terrorism, and five were part of IS’s internal operations, i.e. part of the military operations and security infrastructure that helps IS maintain and expand its statelet in Syria and Iraq. Col. Warren presented this as an important blow to IS that had assisted in inflicting the recent territorial losses on IS. There is reason for scepticism on these points. Continue reading
In the last month, the Islamic State (IS) has been waging a concerted campaign to shut down all independent sources of information emanating from its statelet. IS’s focus has been on Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), an activist group that began in April 2014 in IS’s de facto capital in northern Syria. RBSS has published information—including pictures and videos, much of it via Twitter—on the crimes of the “caliphate”. IS has now murdered at least five RBSS journalists and activists, two of them on foreign soil in Turkey, plus the father of one of RBSS’s founders. (The sixth case, also in Turkey, is more murky.) The suppression of independent media by IS is necessary to allow the group to maintain social control of the areas it rules and to sustain the narrative that it is building utopia on earth, which attracts in the foreign fighters that help IS maintain and expand its territory.
Published in The New York Times.
Whom should we blame for the Islamic State? In the debate about its origins, many have concluded that it arose from the American-led coalition’s errors after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In fact, the groundwork for the emergence of the militant jihadist group was laid many years earlier by the government of Saddam Hussein.
The Arab nationalist Baath Party, which seized power in 1968 in a coup in which Mr. Hussein played a key role, had a firmly secular outlook. This held through the 1970s, even as religiosity rose among the Iraqi people. But soon after Mr. Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, it began to change.
Turkey concluded its biggest investigation to date into Islamic State (IS) operatives on its territory on Friday, and blacklisted sixty-seven people. This provides a good moment to review what Turkey’s role has been in the rise of IS, especially amid the escalating accusations from Russia that Turkey is significantly responsible for financing IS. The reality is that while Turkish policy has, by commission and omission, made IS stronger than it would otherwise have been, so has Russia’s policy—and Russia’s policy was far more cynical than Turkey’s, deliberately intended empower extremists to discredit the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad. Turkey’s focus on bringing down Assad and Ankara’s fear of Kurdish autonomy led it into these policies and now—having seemingly found the will to act to uproot IS’s infrastructure on Turkish territory—there is the problem of actually doing so, when IS can (and has) struck inside Turkey. The concerns about these external funding mechanisms for IS, while doubtless important, obscure the larger problem: IS’s revenue is overwhelmingly drawn from the areas it controls and only removing those areas of control can deny IS its funds. Continue reading
Published at The Independent.
From the outset of the Syrian uprising, the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the ISIS have been united on their strategic goal: eliminate the moderate opposition and make Syria a binary choice between themselves. This is why on the battlefield Assad and ISIS largely leave one-another alone and the Assad regime’s propaganda—that the whole rebellion is composed of Islamist terrorists—reinforces ISIS’s propaganda claim that it is the only effective protection for Sunnis against the regime. Both ISIS and the Assad regime are led by military and intelligence officers trained in the KGB and both rely on propaganda as a means of internal control, not only of controlling their international image, which is why both so virulently repress independent media that contradicts their officially sanctioned version. Last night, ISIS again struck down a member of an activist group that has tried to bring the truth about life under its rule to the outside world. Continue reading
Published at NOW Lebanon.
So the Syrian opposition can unite. Foreign powers have been the major cause of rebel discord. Previous rebel unity initiatives like the Joint Command were pulled apart by the competition between the insurgency’s sponsors—Saudi Arabia and Qatar primarily—and the last rebel umbrella group, the Supreme Military Council, which was identified with Western power, collapsed after President Barack Obama decided not to punish Bashar al-Assad for the massive chemical weapons attack on the population of Ghouta. But under Saudi auspices, an opposition “team” was announced on December 10 after a three-day conference in Riyadh, which includes the political and military opposition and groups with varying ideologies and patrons. This is an achievement. Unfortunately, this team’s task is an impossible one: intended to partake in the Vienna process begun in October, ostensibly to negotiate an end to the war, Syria is not, at present, in a condition where a political agreement can be made and implemented, not least because the Assad regime and its supporters in Iran and Russia have doubled down, and the opposition continues to receive insufficient support to pressure the regime enough to force an agreement. Continue reading
Yesterday, Reuters had an article by Isabel Coles and Ned Parker entitled, “How Saddam’s men help Islamic State rule“. The article had a number of interesting points, but in its presentation of the movement of former (Saddam) regime elements (FREs) into the leadership structure of the Islamic State (IS) as a phenomenon of the last few years, it was a step backward: the press had seemed to be recognizing that the Salafization of the FREs within IS dates back to the Islamization of Saddam Hussein’s regime in its last fifteen years, notably in the 1990s after the onset of the Faith Campaign. Continue reading