Thursday, December 25, 2014

Iraq, the Gift of the Magi and the Islamic State

The Christmas celebration calls to mind the Gift of the Magi - the visit of the Three Kings ("We Three Kings of Orient Are"), or Wise Men, who came to Bethlehem bearing gifts for the newborn Christ child.

While the Three Kings brought precious offerings - gold, frankincense and myrrh - the reason for their trip was spiritual, not material.  For them, the birth of Jesus offered the possibility of a better world, one in which love, tolerance and respect for cultural diversity would become humankind's dominant values.

IS crucifixion in Raqqa, Syria
Like the Three Kings, the Islamic State (IS) has also come bearing three gifts.  However, the gifts it has given Iraq are not those that will lead to the betterment of mankind.  Instead, the IS has been responsible for indescribable violence and destruction, the displacement of thousands of law-abiding and peace loving people solely on the basis of their confession or ethnicity, and the enslavement of hundreds of women for the sexual satisfaction of its male members.   The three gifts of the Magi - juxtaposed to the three gifts IS has given to Iraq - could not be more stark.  What relevance does the parable of the Magi have for the contemporary Iraq?
IS crucifixions near Aleppo, Syria
Despite their hopes for a better future, the Three Kings lived in a violent world and had to use caution during their visit.  When Herod, the puppet Roman King of Judea, learned that the baby who had been born was purportedly the "king of the Jews," he became frightened and ordered all male children in Bethlehem and the surrounding area to be killed, a brutal act known in the Bible as the "Massacre of the Innocents."

Having killed his wife and two sons, as well as many of his subjects, Herod was viewed by many as an unstable and violence-prone psychopath.  It is said that the Three Kings had a dream in which they saw themselves threatened by Herod and, fearing for their safety, quickly and surreptitiously left Judea to return to their home countries.

The tension between the hopes of mankind for a better world, and nefarious political elites who seek to crush these aspirations to enhance their personal gain of power and wealth, existed at the birth of Christ and has continued down through the centuries.

In Iraq, this tension exists among the estimated 400,00 Christians still remaining in Iraq who yearn for a past when Muslims helped Christians celebrate Christmas, setting off fireworks and visiting their homes to partake of celebratory feasts.  Instead, due to the actions of terrorist organizations, over a million Christians have been forced to leave Iraq and, among those who remain, many have been displaced from their homes. (The New York Times, Dec. 25, 2014)

This depressing situation would not seem to augur well for Iraq's ability to establish a tolerant, stable and ultimately prosperous and democratic society.  Nevertheless, tyrannical despots such as Hitler, Saddam Husayn, Pol Pot and many others - the list is all too long - invariably meet an end that they did not plan for themselves or the people that they rule.   Either these despots die a violent death or the tyrannies they establish collapse after they die or are forced from office.  This will be the fate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - the so-called "Caliph Ibrahim" - who rules the "Islamic State."

Tyrannical rule is inherently unstable and, in the modern era, has always played a central role in its own destruction.  So too the IS - which originally possessed the aura of an unstoppable juggernaut - is already beginning to decay, not so much as a result of the actions of its enemies, but by the unintended consequences of its own self-defeating policies.  What, then, are IS's gifts to Iraq?

Gift Number One  The IS' first gift to Iraq is the gift of leadership.  No one would disagree with the argument that, had it not been for the IS seizure of Mosul and large areas of northern Iraq in June 2014, Nuri al-Maliki would still be Iraq's prime minister today. He would thus be in a position to continue his political and economic policies that, during his 8 years in power, were leading to the destruction of Iraq.

Maliki promoted sectarian tensions, massively increased government corruption, curtailed the personal freedoms of Iraq's citizenry, laid the foundations for a new "security state" along the same lines as the former Ba'thist regime, and undermined the Iraqi military through appointing his cronies and relatives, who possessed little or no military qualifications, to high positions in the armed forces.

Not only did the IS give the Iraqi political elite the rationale and the backbone - with strong backing from the US and the international community (including even Iran) - to force Maliki from office, but it led to the election of a prime minister who represents the first truly democratic leader in the long history of modern Iraqi politics that began with the founding of the state in 1921.

Haydar al-Abadi is the first leader to take democracy seriously in Iraq.  A Ph.D. in economics from Manchester University, he spent many years in the financial sector in the United Kingdom where he learned the "ins and outs" of a modern advanced industrialized economy.  Unlike Maliki, who spent much of his youth and adult life engrossed in political intrigue, Abadi has been a problem-solver for many years as required by his career in the private sector.

Abadi and Maliki's personal qualities and style of rule could not be more different.  Whereas Maliki is brusque and authoritarian, and saw a conspiracy and threat to his power in every political act, Abadi has reached out to his potential opponents in an effort to  avoid Maliki's "zero-sum" game approach to politics that alienated so many members of the Iraq's political elite, including many within his own Islamic Call Party (Hizb al-Da'wa al-Islamiya). 

When Maliki was asked while in office why he didn't pursue national reconciliation (al-musaliha al-wataniya; asht boonawiy nishtimani), Maliki always dismissed such questions. Iraq needed the "rule of law," he replied, not national reconciliation.

Haydar al-Abadi disagrees.  He is actively pursuing national reconciliation - the key prerequisite for transcending the authoritarian legacy of Ba'thist (and Maliki) rule. Recently he gave the portfolio for this task to a former (and secular) prime  minister, Ayad Allawi, another example of reaching out to the political opposition.

Whereas Maliki promoted corruption by placing loyalists in positions in the Iraqi cabinet, and throughout  the bureaucracy, military and security services, Abadi has removed over 40 incompetent officers - many of who were responsible for the ignominious defeat of the Iraqi army in Mosul and northern Iraq last June.  He has fired 50,000 "ghost soldiers" who received salaries but did not serve in the Iraqi army. He has reduced his own salary and those of his cabinet ministers, sending an important symbolic message to Iraq's citizenry that the government serves the people, not the other way around.

Prime Minister Abadi's statement that he will continue to fight corruption even if it results in his assassination would have been unheard of coming from the mouth of Nuri al-Maliki.  The very fact that Abadi makes such statements sends a new and different message to Iraq's citizens, one that has  begun to create a very different and more positive view of the central government.

Unlike Maliki who continually insulted the Kurdish leadership while pursuing spurious criminal charges against Sunni Arab political leaders who he saw as threatening his goal of building a new dictatorial regime, Abadi has reached out to the Kurdish and Sunni Arab communities.  One of his first acts was to order the Iraqi army to cease indiscriminate shelling of Sunni Arab towns and villages that were suspected of harboring IS forces and to suggest the creation of provincial national guard units that would give local communities a "buy-in" to insuring their own security.

Gift Number Two  IS's second gift to Iraq was to promote reconciliation between the Arab political elite in Baghdad and the Kurdish political elite in Arbil.  The most concrete manifestation of this reconciliation has been the conclusion of an interim oil agreement between Baghdad and Arbil, a dispute that has been ongoing since the fall of Saddam Husayn in 2003.

The oil deal has opened the way for the Kurds to address a major fiscal crisis.  The crisis' origins stem from the Kurdish Regional Government's inability to sell its oil on the world market (due to potential buyers' fears of being sued in international courts by the Iraqi government), and Maliki's retaliation for the attempt to sell oil by terminating funds used to pay the KRG's employees' salaries.  It was exacerbated after last June by the IS having disrupted the KRG's ability to export its oil through Turkey.

Inadvertently, the IS has strengthened Iraqi federalism. While the Kurds were threatening to declare independence when it appeared that Maliki would win a third term after the March 2014 parliamentary elections, those declarations have now disappeared as relations between the central government in Baghdad and the KRG have taken on a completely new quality. (al-Monitor - Iraq Pulse, December 2014)

Difficult to quantify, but perhaps most significant of all, is the symbolism of an Arab government in Baghdad beginning to respect Iraq's Kurdish population, listen to its demands, and work to reconcile Arab and Kurdish interests.  If Abadi continues moving in this positive direction, a lasting federalism could develop in Iraq that would, as it has in Canada through reconciling the Quebecois with the English speaking populace, place the country on a sound political footing.

Gift Number Three  The IS' third gift to Iraq is to have demonstrated the complete bankruptcy of its rule and to have destroyed any pretense that its so-called "Caliphate" has anything to do with Islam.  Its unparalleled brutality is so extreme as to even been criticized by other terrorist organizations including al-Qa'ida Central and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) in Syria.

The IS's brutality is on par with its gender politics which reduces women to slaves and sexual objects used for the pleasure of the organization's male members.  The IS executed 150 women alone in al-Anbar Province, some of whom were pregnant, for refusing to marry IS fighters (The Daily Mail, Dec 18, 2014).  The IS has sold hundreds of Christian and Yazidi women and girls into sexual slavery at "slave markets," underscoring its brutal policies yet again.

As foreign fighters have come to join the IS, many have discovered that, far from fighting to overthrow the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Asad, they are fighting other terrorist organizations.  Coalition air strikes, which have killed over a 1000 IS members alone in the fight for the Kurdish majority town of Kobani along the Turkish-Syrian border, have further undermined morale, leading many foreign fighters to try and desert their posts.

In response, the IS has established a military police and begun executing fighters caught trying to flee the battlefield. (Financial Times, December 19, 2014).  With conditions worsening by the day in Mosul, large numbers of IS fighters have left the city, especially after the recent defeat of the IS on Mount Sinjar by Kurdish peshmerga forces. (Niqash , Dec 24, 2014)

Whereas the Wise Men brought the Christ child three gifts in the hope that his birth signaled a new world based on love, caring and mutual respect among all peoples, so too has the IS come bearing three gifts.  However, in the latter instance, the gifts it has given Iraq are the unintended consequences of its brutal and destructive policies.

No one would ever wish the IS on Iraq, Syria on any other country.  Still, if the IS attack against Iraq leads to a stronger political system, one based on a true federalism and a more rational administrative system in which corruption is seriously tackled and the government begins delivering badly needed social services to the Iraqi populace, then the events of the past 6 months may ultimately have a positive outcome.

Leadership, a strengthened federalism, and the delegitimization of its rule and claims to Islam are the three gifts that the IS has bestowed on Iraq.  One day the IS will be nothing more than a horrible memory, much like that of the so-called Third Reich that was supposed to last for a 1000 years.  Iraq, however, will persevere and be all the stronger for its defeat of the Islamic State.

(For my views on the future of Iraq's political unity, see the post, 24 Views on the Unity of Iraq, on the excellent blog, Musings on Iraq).


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Is a political paradigm shift possible in Pakistan? Think again!

Guest contributor, Farah Jan, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA, specializes in South Asian security affairs.

The massacre of almost 145 people, out of which 132 were children, at Army Public School Peshawar has plunged the Pakistan into a state of mourning. The attack that initiated at the start of the school day lasted for many hours and left scores of school children all under the age of 16 dead. The barbaric attack by the Pakistani Taliban was in retaliation to the army’s operation in the tribal areas.

The date is indeed ironic, on December 16th 1971, 43 years ago Pakistan lost its eastern half that later became Bangladesh. The question is, did Pakistan learn any lesson from losing its eastern wing years ago? For one, the decision makers in Pakistan fall behind on learning by past mistakes. The atrocities that took place four decades ago were forgotten and never realized. 

There was neither a national dialogue to try to understand what went wrong nor how to prevent another catastrophe. Instead, a religious-oriented policy was adopted as the best option for national cohesion and the state continued focusing on external security rather than looking within for a comprehensive assessment. 

Currently, Pakistan is experiencing the boomerang effect of the jihadist policies that were adopted then, which in turn has further propelled it to the verge of another tragedy. Once again, the decision depends on the guardians of Pakistan to either continue with business as usual by strengthening their own myopic interests or acknowledging the problem and getting rid of this decomposing appendage conclusively.
Funeral of a student killed during the Dec 16th attack
I am not very optimistic that anything will change. Most probably, the politicians and military will make grand (albeit useless) proclamations of bravery and unity in fighting this war against the terrorists for another week/  However, by the end of the month they would have forgotten and it would be business as usual, until another soft target is hit.

If the guardians of Pakistan truly want to shift gears, then the following prescription would address the ailment that Pakistan is afflicted with for many years. This is similar to a person being diagnosed with cancer and the oncologist recommends surgical removal of the tumor followed by an aggressive dose of chemotherapy. Similarly, in Pakistan’s case a total Talibanectomy, along with other Islamic-militant-ectomy is a critically needed. 

With further combination of Rx: education + professional training + fixing the judicial system, and if affordable improving the economy and curtailing corruption, Pakistan could begin the process of serious political and social reform.  For the patient (in this case Pakistan) to pull through, the first steps must to be taken, while the latter would increase the chances of survival and decrease recurrence of the disease.

The Greek word ektomē stands for ‘excision,’ further breaking the term ek meaning ‘out’ + temnein ‘to cut. This is precisely what Pakistan needs to do with ALL the proxy elements, those that are kept for its India policy like the LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba); JeM (Jaish-e-Mohammed); HuA (Harkat-ul-Ansar); the ones for Afghanistan like the Afghan Taliban, and of course the groups like the LeJ (Lashkar-e-Jhangvi); SSP (Sipah-e-Sahaba-Pakistan) that target the domestic minorities. A war on these groups is imperative and a shift in policy is indispensible for Pakistan’s guardians. 

The question of the hour is will the ruling elite change course? Is it going to wake up before the political crisis reaches the point of no return? As mentioned earlier, the chance of any major policy shift is very slim. This pessimistic assumption is grounded in the fact that a Pakistan court on Thursday (the two days after the Peshawar massacre) granted bail to Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, a militant commander of LeT accused of the 2008 Mumbai attacks that resulted in over 160 deaths.  Not unexpectedly, India has sharply condemned the court's decision.

Furthermore, the Pakistan political elite's "good and bad militant" line needs to be rejected once and for all. For the last few years we have heard the claptrap of the good and bad Taliban.  However, it is time to call a spade a spade. History has proven there never were good or bad Nazi soldiers, neither have there been good or bad Al Qaeda militants. 

How can this distinction be made for the Taliban or militants groups in Pakistan? The crux of the matter is that what makes them bad is when the attacks are on Pakistani cities, but these militant groups are considered good when the same incidents take place in Afghan or Indian cities. It’s high time the realization kicks in that these groups are like Hydra, the serpent with multiple heads each capable of a poisonous bite, and who was only defeated when all the heads were decapitated and cauterized.

Pakistan has entered a period where all efforts of salvaging domestic security have failed and war against the Taliban/Islamic militants is unavoidable. The civilian government and the people of Pakistan should pay attention to George Orwell’s advice, "he that is not with me is against me." And in this case the adversary is obvious - the TTP, LeT, JeM (a list much too long) militants, their supporters, their defenders and, of course, their apologists. 

For once, let us not draw the line of distinction between the good Afghan and the bad Pakistani Taliban. Let us not defend one group because they promote our national interest in our neighboring country, Afghanistan, and scorn the other because they attack our school kids and innocent civilians in Pakistan. 

More importantly, let us not support and provide sanctuaries to militant groups to fight an unavailing war against India. For Pakistan, the best course of action is to take steps of handing over terrorists to its neighbors. This would send a signal both to the militants and the international community that the Pakistani authorities are finally learning from past mistakes and are resolute in the war on terrorist movements.

Only through this policy can Pakistan prevent tragedies of the sort that were witnessed in Peshawar this week. Unfortunately, a paradigm shift is an unlikely scenario and one that does not suit the strategic interests of Pakistan's Guardians.  It is sad to say, but this tragedy will wither like the previous ones. I agree with Christine Fair that "tens of thousands of Pakistanis will die before the army gives up its jihad habits."

Friday, December 5, 2014

Israeli academics call upon members of the Knesset: Oppose the Jewish Nation Law

Israelis protest against the Jewish Nation Law
Guest contributor, Dr. Yoav Peled, of Tel Aviv University's Department of Political Science, is one of the world's leading experts on democracy in ethnically divided nation-states, a topic on which he has published extensively.  Dr. Peled is part of a large group of Israeli academics who oppose the proposed Jewish Nation Law as undermining equal rights for all of Israel's citizens.  Following his contribution, I enclose a Nov. 25, 2014, editorial from Haaretz, Israel's most prominent newspaper, that calls from the proposed law to be rejected by the Israeli Knesset (parliament)

Basic Law: Israel – the Nation-State of the Jewish People (the "Jewish Nation Law"), if legislated, will seriously violate the principle of equality, a fundamental constitutional principle in any democratic state, and will contradict Israel's Declaration of Independence.

The bills currently on the agenda (including those described as "moderate") seek to ground in a basic law the discrimination and inequality that currently afflict national and religious minorities in Israel and will legitimate further discriminatory legislation. Such a law does not exist in any democratic country in the world.

We, faculty members in Israel's universities and colleges, support the President of the State of Israel in opposing this proposed basic law and call on the citizens of Israel and on our representatives in the Knesset not to lend their hand to turning inequality into a fundamental value and a basic law in Israel.

Organizing Committee:
Prof. Dani Filc, Ben-Gurion University
Dr. Snait Gissis, Tel Aviv University
Prof. Aeyal Gross, Tel Aviv University
Prof. Yoav Peled, Tel Aviv University

Signed by more than 700 faculty members in Israeli universities and colleges (15% of the total number), including 9 Israel Prize laureates.

The Jewish nation-state bill only weakens Israel's democratic foundations

The State of Israel’s identity is liable to be held hostage to the desire of ministers and their parties to favor their political ambitions over democratic principles.
Haaretz Editorial, November 25, 2014 

After heavy political pressure exerted by coalition leaders, it was decided on Monday to postpone by a week a vote on the proposed basic law on the Jewish nation-state. But despite this delay, one cannot avoid stating that if these proposals in their current wording pass into law, they will remove the State of Israel from the community of democratic nations, and give it a place of honor instead beside those dark regimes in which minorities are persecuted.

The bill stipulates, among other things, that Arabic – the language of 20 percent of the country’s population – will lose its historic status as an official language; that the equal rights of minorities to live anywhere in the country will be compromised; that Jewish law, which is assimilated into Israeli law, will be given preferred status; and, most of all, that Israel’s definition as a Jewish state will prevail over its definition as a democracy.

The explanatory notes accompanying the bill state that it is required, “At a time when there are those who seek to do away with the right of the Jewish people to a national home in its land, and with the recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.” But this bill will not strengthen recognition of Israel as the Jewish people’s nation-state. It will only weaken its democratic foundations.

Beyond the dispute over whether such a law is necessary – let alone how it should be worded – it appears that Israel’s future identity has become part of a political game, in which settling personal accounts between the prime minister and some of his ministers is much more important than the threat to the status of Israel, its citizens and, particularly, its minorities.

The much-needed debate on the dangerous ramifications of this law has been replaced by speculation on whether the government can survive after it is voted on. The question of whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu means to use the law as a way of catapulting his partners/rivals out of the ring so he can establish a new coalition, or to force a new election, is overshadowing any discussion of its foolish clauses.

Thus, the State of Israel’s identity – which was never subject to dispute since its founding – is liable to be held hostage to the desire of ministers and their parties to favor their political ambitions over the principles on which a democracy should rest.

In this context, the positions of Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni are particularly important, because their votes will determine the future of this bill and this government. Lapid and Livni made clear that they do not plan to support any versions of the bill drawn up by Zeev Elkin and Ayelet Shaked. They must be encouraged to stick to this position, even if it means dissolving the government, going to an election, and losing their places in the next cabinet. [Since this editorial was published, both Finance Minster Lapid and Justice Minster Livni were dismissed by PM Netanyahu from his government - ED]

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Tale of Two States: Iraq and the IS

Still photo from IS propaganda video
Oil map of Iraq
On December 9th, it will be six months since the Islamic State
(formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria or ISIS) stormed into northern Iraq and seized a large swath of land including Iraq's third largest city, Mosul.  A small force of 800-1000 IS fighters routed two divisions of the Iraqi army and captured much of their sophisticated weaponry supplied b y the United States.

Although this rampage caught the Obama administration and Western  media by surprise, it should not have.  Earlier this year, ISIS seized large areas of Iraq's largest province, al-Anbar Province, including the main city of Falluja.Further, there was much intelligence suggesting that IS was planning a major offensive in the north.  However, the government of former prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki ignored repeated warnings that IS presented a serious threat.  The Obama administration "hands off" Iraq policy facilitated Maliki's brazen sectarian and cavalier policies for which it is now paying the price.

Much has happened since last June.  IS still controls Mosul, and much of northwestern Iraq as well as northeast Syria. It is also firmly ensconced in much of al-Anbar Province. Iraq's sectarian and would-be authoritarian leader, Nuri al-Maliki, was replaced as prime minister by Dr. Haydar al-Abadi, but only after intense internal and external political pressure.  Meanwhile, US and its coalition allies regularly bomb IS targets in Iraq and Syria while Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga troops seek to regain territory lost to the terrorist organization.

In Syria, a heroic battle pits outmatched Syria Kurdish YPG and (female) YPJ forces against a ferocious IS attack against the town of Kobani along the Turkish-Syrian border.  Fearful of a restive and growing Kurdish population in the eastern portion of the country, the Turkish government of President Rajib Tayyep Erdogan has largely prevented reinforcements from reaching the beleaguered Kurdish forces.  Indeed, Turkish forces gaze at the battle from their positions several hundred yards across the border from Kobani.

What do these events tell us about the viability of the Iraqi state and the long-term durability of the "caliphate" proclaimed  by the Islamic state?  Will Iraq fracture along sectarian lines and become, as some have already claimed, a "failed state"?  Will the Kurds form their own state?  If so, what territory would it encompass?  Finally, can IS continue to absorb daily bombings by the US and coalition forces that continue to grow as more nations commit to this effort?

To answer these questions, we need first to step back from the ideological focus that has dominated the vast majority of Western analysis of IS.  It is true that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared himself "Caliph Ibrahim," and that IS claims to have imposed "true Shari'a" law. Nevertheless, IS' power does not derive from its "Islamic" quality, but from its extensive illicit and illegal economic activity.  Ransoms derived from kidnappings, extortion, bank robberies, taxation and oil smuggling have provided IS with a lucrative flow of income.  Oil smuggling alone is said to yield profits of $1-2 million per day.

IS'  power also derives from the military skills of  numerous officers who formerly served in Iraq's elite Republican and Special Republican Guard units under Saddam Husayn.  Drawn from tribes in Iraq's so-called  Sunni Arab triangle, many of these officers fought in the Iran-Iraq and 1991 Gulf Wars and possess sophisticated military skills.  Resentful of losing their military positions, and angered by what they see as Shi'i marginalization of Iraq's Sunni Arab populace, many have been drawn to radical groups.  In the case of IS, they also receive lucrative economic benefits.

A third sources of power resides in the tribal network that IS has recruited to distribute the oil it extracts from wells that it seized in Syria.  This oil is sold to Turkish smugglers at discounted prices. It also refines oil into gasoline through small mobile refineries which it then it sells in areas udner its control, again at discounted prices.  The tribes that are allied with IS are not drawn to its ideology but to the revenues that they make from oil sales.

Beyond former Ba'thists and tribes, IS also recruits large numbers of Muslims from the greater Middle East, Europe, and even North America and Australia. It is estimated that more than a 1000 recruits cross the porous Turkish-Syrian border to join IS each month. Many youth who join the movement are economically and socially marginalized and see joining IS as providing them with a sense of community and economic stability.

How has IS progressed since it proclaimed its "caliphate"?  By any objective measure, it has performed quite well.  While air attacks have destroyed much of its its oil extracting and refining capacity, its strategy of dispersing troops into small units and hiding weapons in houses and mosques has limited the effectiveness of such attacks.  Indeed, only 35% of coalition airstrikes hit their intended targets in Syria and only 5% in Iraq, as coalition forces pay special attention to limiting civilian casualties, thereby increasing support for IS.

Reports from Raqqa, the unofficial IS capital, and from Mosul and other areas under IS control indicate considerable discontent at its rule.  Offsetting this is the positive reaction of many Syrians (much less so Iraqis) that IS has at least brought stability to their region and administers these areas in a non-corrupt manner, e.g., its rules, governing taxation are seen as consistent and fair .

Thus far, the Iraqi army and Kuridsh Regional Government (KRG) forces have been unable to dislodge the IS.  Reports indicate that IS has even made progress in seizing more territory around the city of Ramadi in al-Anbar.  US and coalition airstrikes have blunted such progress, especially around Kobani, although there the prowess of outnumbered YPG/YPJ forces has been critical in preventing IS from overrunning the town and massacring its inhabitants.

Dr. Haydar al-Abadi has initiated important changes in the short time he has occupied the post of Prime Minister.  For example, he fired 36 officers who were Nuri al-Maliki loyalists and who were implicated in the disastrous defeat of the Iraqi army in Mosul in June 2014.  However, al-Abadi is fighting an entrenched and highly corrupt political system and it is unrealistic to expect him to be able to implement any dramatic changes anytime soon.  He will need to focus on a steady, incremental process of rooting out Maliki loyalists and seeking to change the behavior of powerful political actors in the Shi'i political elite who he must continue to depend upon as he moves forward with political and economic  reforms.

The Iraqi army is rife with corruption.  Many officers lack the necessary military skills associated with their rank, having been appointed for political reasons.  In light of a largely incompetent and uninspiring officer corps, conscripted troops have little incentive to develop loyalty to their units. Compared to the highly motivated IS forces, the lack of an esprit de corps among ISF troops constitutes a major impediment to its ability to retake areas seized by the Islamic State.

This need not be the case.  ISF Special Forces, known as the Golden Division, were in the forefront of units that retook the Mosul Dam on August 18, 2014.  Trained by US Special Forces, theses troops surpassed accompany Peshmerga units who followed them into battle.  In other words, the problem is not the fighting capability of Arab Iraqi troops but the officer corps and the political elite that is complicit in degrading the army through appointing officers according to political rather than military criteria.  Conversely, many competent  officers, especially Sunni Arabs and Kurds, were relieved of their posts by al-Maliki.

The only way that IS will be defeated is through major reforms of the Iraqi political system.  When visiting Iraq this past February and May, many Iraqis complained about the lack of government services, extensive corruption and nepotism and the poverty rate.  Officially put at 20%, many educated Iraqis indicated that it is closer to 30%.  While this may be an exaggeration, one Iraqi social scientists claim that 80% of the state budget is consumed by corruption, particularly through the clientalism that pervades the state bureaucracy.

The only reason any political change has come to Iraq, especially in its Arab areas, is due to the IS threat.  Most observers agree that, were it not for the massive defeat of Iraqi forces in Mosul and the north last June, al-Maliki would still  be prime minister today.  However, the IS threat was only the first wave to hit Iraq.  A much larger threat is now looming that will make IS control of Iraqi territory even more dangerous. This latter threat is the precipitous drop in the global price of oil.

Political economy has taken a backseat to ideology when analyzing the threat posed by IS.  Militarily, Iraq can probably survive IS in its present state given US air power and US military advisers helping to train the Iraqi army to fight more effectively.  Iraq cannot tolerate a substantial drop in the price of oil that provide over 95% of its foreign revenues.

Not only will Baghdad suffer immeasurable  but the KRG as well which has been already hurt by al-Maliki's decision to no longer pay KRG employee salaries as long as the Kurds seek to export oil without Baghdad's permission.  Given the IS threat to the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, and the KRG's position, like that of Baghdad becomes even more economically precarious.  Talk of an independent Iraqi Kurdish state has all but disappeared.

The combined thrat that the IS poses to Iraq, both Arab Iraq and the KRG, and the drop in oil prices which the IMF forecasts will lead to a 2.75% shrinkage in Iraq's GDP in 2015, the first decrease since 2003, will squeeze corruption and nepotism - the clientalist system - in both Baghdad and Arbil.  The system cannot be sustained once substantial oil revenues are removed.  As government services become even less accessible as a result of declining revenues, discontent - already very high due to poor government performance - will only increase.

Now is the time that Prime Minister al-Abadi and reformist elements in the KRG, such as the Gorran (Change) Party, should bring pressure to bear to enact structural change in the political system.  However, reformers are politically weak and face an uphill battle to enact such change.  They need support from outside the political system.

Here the Obama administration, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations through its Special Representative to Iraq, Nicholay Mladenov, should take this opportunity place strong pressure on those who represent rearguard support for ex-prime minister al-Maliki and other corrupt political forces within the state apparatus to agree to structural change.  The argument that Iraq - both in its Arab and Kurdish regions - faces an existential threat should be hammered home to the Arab and Kurdish political class.

The price of not paying attention to this warning could mean the financial and political collapse of the country that would benefit no one, not even the practitioners of corruption within the Iraqi state.  If Iraq fails to redirect its declining resources from the sale of oil away from state corruption and towards real economic and social development and engage in political reforms, the only beneficiaries will be the Islamic State and other armed sectarian forces.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Kurdish Women Beat ISIS

Members of the YPJ women's units
The following article from The Daily Kos, on Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014 .( highlights the heroic efforts of Syrian Kurdish YPG and YPJ (women) fighters to hold off ISIS terrorists.  ISIS terrorist are suing heavy weaponry including tanks and MRAPs captured form the Iraqi army in Mosul which they overran on June 9th and 10th, 2014.  That YPG/YPJ forces have been able to endure a siege for almost a month with only small arms and rocket launcers.

The role of Kurdish women fighters in the battle against ISIS terrorists  is particularly impressive.  Not only do they represent the active involvement of 50% of Kurdish society, but their role points to the progressive gender relations that exists along the Kurds.  As we know, one of the three autonomous regions established by the Syrian Kurds in northwest Syria after the withdrawal of Syrian army forces is administered by a women prime minister,

As this article points out, Turkish tanks are overseeing the battle but are doing nothing to prevent a massacre of Kurdish forces.  The Erdogan regime's behavior should ropivide a strong warning to Turkey's Kurds not to trust hsi words but look at his deeds.

Erdogan's behavior shows the complete disregard for ISIS' brutal, genocidal killings, and the norms and principles of the NATO Alliance and the United Nations that it has pledged to uphold but does not. Turkish inaction to save the Kurds from a brutal massacre should be condemned as strongly as possible by the United Nations and by all democratic and peace loving countries.

The article:

On Monday the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said that the isolated Kurdish enclave of Kobani was "about to fall" to a massive, sustained assault from ISIS.

Also on Monday, Rooz Bahjat, a Kurdish intelligence officer stationed in Kobani said the city would fall within "the next 24 hours."

By now ISIS was expecting to be slaughtering civilians by the score.
 Instead, something totally unexpected happened - ISIS has been forced to pull back.
A local Kobani official, Idris Nahsen, told AFP that fighters from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) had managed to push ISIS fighters outside several key areas after "helpful" airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.
 "The situation has changed since yesterday. YPG forces have pushed back ISIS forces," he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, confirmed that ISIS fighters had withdrawn overnight from several areas and were no longer inside the western part of Kobani.

They remained in eastern parts of the town and its southern edges, said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman, whose group relies on a network of sources inside Syria.  The number of dead in the overnight fighting was not clear, but Mustafa Ebdi, a Kurdish journalist and activist from Kobani, wrote on his Facebook page that the streets of one southeastern neighborhood were "full of the bodies" of ISIS fighters.
Kobani has been under attack by 9,000 ISIS jihadists, armed with tanks and heavy artillery for nearly a month. This is the largest manned assualt by ISIS in its short existance.They are being opposed by just 2,000 Kurdish fighters with the YPG, the armed wing of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), without access to any heavy weaponry and short on ammunition.

To put this into perspective, 800 ISIS fighters routed 2 divisions of the Iraqi Army, totaling 30,000 heavily armed soldiers, in June.  In other words, the Syrian Kurds of Kobani weren't supposed to stand a snowball's chance in Hell.

My father used to say, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight that matters. It's the size of the fight in the dog that does."  And now, here we are. Two days after Kobani was supposed to have become just the latest victims of ISIS terror. The difference is obviously the motivation of who is fighting.
 "We either die or win. No fighter is leaving," Esmat al-Sheikh, leader of the Kobani Defence Authority, told Reuters. "The world is watching, just watching and leaving these monsters to kill everyone, even children...but we will fight to the end with what weapons we have."
Some people have more motivation than others. Those people include women. A very large percentage of the YPG fighters that have been so good at killing ISIS jihadists are women.

I asked her about YPG’s women’s wing, the YPJ (Women's Protection Units), and the women fighters coming from Turkey. She said Kurdish women were as equally involved in defense affairs as in social services.

“We have set up training camps for women in all three cantons. Women are active in all fronts,” she said. “Of the first 20 martyrs we had when IS attacked Kobani, 10 were women. Last year, of our 700 YPG martyrs, 200 were women.

I reminded Nimet of the legends we hear of IS militants fearing to encounter women fighters. She replied, “This is not a myth but reality. I personally met IS fighters face-to-face. Women fighters infringe on their psyche. They believe they won’t go to paradise if they are killed by women. That is why they flee when they see women. I saw that personally at the Celaga front. We monitor their radio calls. When they hear a woman's voice on the air, they become hysterical.”

Kurdish women have traditionally been part of the resistance forces. At Kobani, one woman in particular, Arin Mirkan, showed just how far they are prepared to go to defeat ISIS.  The woman, who is reportedly a commander in the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, known as the YPG, broke into an Isis (also known as Islamic State) bastion on the eastern outskirts of Kobani and clashed with militants before detonating herself with a grenade, a monitoring group said on Sunday. Mirkan, a mother of two, is rumored (but not proven) to have killed 23 ISIS fighters.
Another female YPG fighter,  Ceylan Ozalp, killed herself with her last bullet rather than be captured by ISIS.  
It's still far to early to determine how this will turn out. The Kobani defenders are running short on ammo, while Turkish tanks sit just a few meters across the border doing nothing. Instead, the Turkish military is arresting Kurds fleeing the fighting in Kobani.  18 ethnic Kurds have been killed in violent protests in Turkey, demanding that the Turkish army help the brave defenders in Kobani.

The Pentagon still expects Kobani to fall, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is more concerned with ISIS marching on Baghdad.  Speaking specifically about cities in western Iraq, he said, “There are places where [the Islamic State] continues to make gains in Iraq. We talked about Hit. We talked about Ramadi. We talked about Fallujah, which is still in contention right now. That’s worrisome, because it’s close to Baghdad.”

Kurds insist that Turkey should allow Kurdish fighters, supplies and weapons to enter the encircled town through its territory. Turkey refuses to do so unless the Kurds meet certain demands, including distancing themselves from their allies in an outlawed Kurdish separatist party in Turkey.

As an indication of the complex political currents, however, she made it clear the Kurds would not welcome military assistance from Turkey, asking instead for free passage of Kurdish fighters from Turkey to reinforce those in Kobani, “We would view Turkey sending its troops without an international decision as an occupation," she said.

Anwar Muslim, a lawyer and the head of the Kobani district, echoed those sentiments, saying it was illogical to ask the Kurds to denounce Mr. Assad and join Syrian insurgent groups fighting against him.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Need for a Coalition Government in Syria is Now

Guest contributor, Dr. Ghaidaa Hetou, is founder of I-Strategic, a political consulting firm that  provides specialized guidance on Middle East and North Africa affairs, to governments and businesses, in the United States and around the

It is time for the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government to negotiate a settlement and unite in their efforts to ease the unimaginable suffering of millions of Syrian refugees, the sick, and the orphaned.  A Syrian coalition government could still save state institutions and establish a united front to fight ISIS and other al-Qa’ida linked groups that enjoy safe haven in Syria. 

These groups not only pose an existential threat to Syria but they also threaten to destabilize Lebanon’s delicate confessional balance  as well as overwhelm Jordan that is already having difficulty coping with the massive numbers of refuges that have poured across its borders.  

It is time for both sides to accept certain political realities.  First, collapse of state institutions in Syria – in effect the development of a failed state - is in no one’s interest, except for ISIS and al-Qaida affiliated groups. Second, an inclusive government is a necessary and an inevitable step towards a solution of the Syrian crisis.

A UN camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan
Accepting facts, in other words facing reality, might not be a priority for those who seek an “all-or-nothing” outcome.   In the early days of the Syrian uprising, the opposition’s idea of eradicating the regime and rebuilding political institutions was a dangerous mirage that only prolonged the suffering. The unrealistic expectation of Bashar al-Asad’s regime of eradicating dissent and rehabilitating the pre-2011 Syrian polity is another mirage, that also causes prolonged suffering.

It is time to bring both utopian discourses to an end, and confront the facts and realities that behold Middle Eastern states and their societies.   Most observers agree by now that the so-called “Arab Spring” long ago shed the pretense of civility.

The uprisings, that began in late 2010, did prompt some modest reforms, such as in Tunisia, for example.  Yet the most notable and disturbing realization is that the mythology of radical Islamists, such as ISIS, can benefit from political disruptions. It can flourish, take control of youth aspirations for change, and eventually impose its ideological mission of domination over the “other,” mostly minorities.  This is a far cry from the original promise of the “Arab Spring.”

Devastation in Aleppo
Not that change, reform and democratization, historically speaking, would have necessitated a peaceful path.   But the collapse of authority, in a fragile Middle East state system, where ethnic and sectarian loyalties trump citizenship, has created a dreaded security vacuum in a number of states.  Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Syria – even Egypt and Tunisia - are suffering from terrorist operations on their respective territory, in varying degrees.    

My aim is not to discuss the origins of terrorism and their evolution to a state-like entity (ISIS), that controls territory and resources in Iraq and Syria. The aim here is to propose intermediary steps to garner a wider state level, and regional consensus, to foster manageable reforms and combat terrorism in the Middle East.

Protecting Institutions
This proposal is symbolized by one of the most meaningful and telling conversations in recent days. Mohamed Muncif Marzouki, president of Tunisia, was asked in a Council of Foreign Relations session, why Tunisian security forces have not been prosecuted for human rights violations committed during the uprising in 2010/2011. 

His response set an example of critical application of practical wisdom in a certain context. He responded by pointing out Tunisia’s need for an intact military and security apparatus. These two institutions protect and defend Tunisia from internal as well as external threats.  The decision not to prosecute was a political decision, he explained. (

Iraq has yet to recover from the collapse of its army in 2003. Just when Iraq was most in need of a strong intact military and security apparatus, with a clear command structure, strategic Iraqi territory, including its second largest city, Mosul, fell and was occupied by ISIS fighters who attacked  on trucks in June, 2014. The same scenario has been unfolding in Libya since 2011.  There Islamist militias have been gaining ground against a collapsed Libyan military and security institutions.

Military Component
A critical component of why a coalition government in Syria is essential at this time is that the US-lead coalition airstrikes in Syria against al-Qa’ida and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) require a “boots-on-the-ground” component.  In this sense, the Syrian army, paramilitary, and future trained counter-terrorism force would fill the gap in coordination with US and coalition partners’ airpower.

The political cover for this united military effort would be the coalition government. Since we are in the habit of mentioning facts, Iran’s influence in Syria, exercised  through Hezbollah, needs to be part of the negotiation process, whereby Iran’s influence is geared towards counter-terrorism efforts.  Iran can be a stabilizing factor in the region.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, once in sync with the ISIS-on-our-doorsteps reality, can contribute, in addition to their military capabilities, to providing humanitarian aid and funding rebuilding efforts in Syria.  While both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have clearly made efforts to curb funding for terrorist organizations, it is harder to control individual funding  by no-state groups and individuals, which is still a problem. Turkey is advocating a security zone at its borders on the Syrian side, with little success thus far.

No one should minimize the suffering experienced by millions of Syrians.  Chemical attacks, barrel bombs, missile attacks, beheadings, rape and sectarian revenge massacres have created a humanitarian crisis that is unprecedented since WWII. Syrians have endured unimaginable hardship.  Thousands of children are orphaned and lost without family, education and permanent shelter.

The Syrian crisis has witnessed the epitome of human apathy, not just from the international community, but seen also in  a strongly held perception by Syrians themselves.  This sad and destructive apathy is flourishing among Syrian populace and threatens to leave a negative legacy for the Middle East for decades to come.

It behooves both sides, the al-Asad regime and the moderate opposition, to prioritize easing the suffering of Syrians, support inclusive reforms, join in the rebuilding of the country, and unite efforts to combat an existential regional threat.