Friday, August 30, 2019

The Return of the Da'ish and What Must Be Done to Stop It

The liberation of Mosul from the Dacish, July 2017

The world rejoiced when Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Services defeated Dacish forces in Mosul and subsequently forced them from their last holdout, al-Baghuz Fawqani, along the Euphrates River in March 2019.  Donald Trump was quick to declare that the Islamic State had been “totally destroyed.”  Vice President Mike Pence and other administration figures repeated the mantra that the “Caliphate has been defeated.
Military and political analysts on the ground knew these statements were premature.  All reacted with concern when Trump declared that the 2,000 US troops stationed in north eastern Syria could now be withdrawn and brought home because they were no longer needed to fight the Dacish.  Thinking about the struggle against the Islamic State in conventional military terms, and trying to score political points domestically, Trump, Pence and Pompeo have set the stage for yet another American foreign policy disaster in the Middle East.
The battle of al-Baghuz Fawqani, March 2019
What threat does the Dacish pose to Iraq, Syria and other parts of the MENA region?  What can and should be done to meet that threat? What role should Iraq, the US and the international community play in this process? 

A US Department of Defense Inspector General’s report in April 2019 noted that the Islamic State was far from defeated. With its sleeper cells, and financial assets estimated to reach as much as $400 million, it still poses a serious threat to Iraq and eastern Syria, and other parts of the MENA region such as Libya and the Sinai Peninsula Inspector General Department of Defense Operation Inherent Resolve - Quarterly Report April-June, 2019

The Report notes that IS has between 11,000 and 14,000 fighters and continues to carry out targeted assassinations, kidnappings, destruction of infrastructure and the burning of crops.  It has established safe houses in rural Sunni majority populated areas in western and north eastern Iraq and continues its recruitment efforts.
Paradise Square, Raqq, where beheadings occurred on a daily basis
A recent visit by Voice of America journalists to Raqqa, the former capital of Dacish so-called Caliphate, demonstrates the threat which western Syria and north central Iraq still face from the terrorist organization. Few Raqqans were willing to discuss their experiences under Dacish rule. In his fortified municipal The mayor of Raqqa indicated that many Raqqan residents still sympathize with the Dacish and that his offices have been subject to multiple attacks.  Syria's Raqqa Struggles to Recover, 2 Years After ISIS' ouster

Equally disturbing are conditions at the al-Hawl prisoner camp in north eastern Syria at the Iraqi border where thousands of Dacish fighters and their families are being held.  Guarded by members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which was instrumental in defeating the terrorist organization in Syria, the camp has become a huge incubator for a new generation of terrorists as children in the camp are indoctrinated with  Dacish ideology. though Raqqa is no longer under control of the terrorists, the constraints fear has imposed on the city has effectively prevented rebuilding the city and the local economy.  What the Trump administration refuses to acknowledge is that the drivers of support for terrorist organizations like the IS must be addressed.  Otherwise the notion of “defeat” is meaningless.

The United States and most other Western countries have refused to help the SDF and the Democratic Federation of North Syria autonomous region find a solution for the terrorists held in the al-Hawl prison camp.  They have neither accepted to bring the terrorists to their countries or help facilitate the return of prisoners to their home countries.  SDF guard are overwhelmed and won't even venture in certain parts of the camp. To date, one guard has been killed and several others wounded by prisoners. Inside al-Hawl Camp: the Incubator for Islamic State's Resurgence
Growth of al-Hawl prison camp from 2018-2019
How can the Dacish's resurgence be stopped? Three conditions - military, political and material - must be met if the terrorist threat facing eastern Syria and Iraq is to be seriously addressed.  First, the Iraqi Army must be reconstituted to be able to eliminate the Dacish's military capacity. Second, the local populaces who still support the Dacish must be weaned away from that support. Finally, reconstruction must take place so that the residents of the areas formerly controlled by the Dacish can feel that there is hope for the future.

The importance of the military is evident from the defeat of the Dacish in Mosul by Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Services (CTS) and in eastern Syria by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).  In both cases, US troops were critical in training both military forces. 

The ignominious defeat of the Iraq Army in Mosul in June 2014 stands in sharp contrast to the victory of the CTS in Mosul in in November 2017.  Prior to the fall of Mosul in 2014, former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had converted the army units in the city and its environs into sectarian force which focused on extracting rents from the local populace rather than acting as national defense force.  

Ostensibly consisting of 30,00 troops, at least on paper, and possessing some of the latest US military hardware, including  MRAPs, the Iraq Army was routed by a lightly armed Dacish force of 800-1000 fighters on Toyota pickup trucks armed with machine guns. (For a description of Mosul's seizure by the Dacish, see my A Tale of Two States: Iraq and the IS)

In 2017, CTS forces attacked Mosul and, after intense combat, were able to defeat the  Dacish. One key difference between the Iraqi Army units in Mosul in 2014 was the training of the new CTS units by US forces and the appointment of an Iraqi commander, Lt. General Abd al-Wahhab al-Sacdi, who make it clear that his policy was “zero tolerance” for sectarianism among his troops.

Indeed, Iraqi students at Rutgers who had relatives in Mosul at the time of the assault indicated that their families were terrified at the prospect of the city being attacked by the Iraqi Army, not because they sympathized with the Dacish, but because they feared a sectarian blood bath.  Since most of the Iraqi forces were Shica, they feared the army would see Moslawis as collaborators with the Dacish, remembering the brutal killing of 1500 Iraqi troops in June 2014 who were selected to be shot simply based on their religious sect as Shica.

CTS tent city near Mosul 2017
To these Moslawi families' great surprise, the CTS not only acted in a professional manner but fought methodically, street to street, to minimize civilian casualties, taking very high casualties of their own. Residents of liberated areas were given food and medicine, treated with respect and offered the option to move to a new tent city outside Mosul while the battle continued.  Understandably, the attitudes of Mosul’s resident turned from fear of the invading forces to great joy that they had been liberated from the hated Dacish and had not experienced any sectarian backlash in the process.

The political dimension in defeating terrorism is just as important as military proficiency. This is evident by comparing the defeat of the Dacish in Mosul to its defeat in eastern Syria.  The lion’s share of that effort was borne by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).  Although the SDG, like the CTS, benefited from US training, but despite including Arab fighters, the SDF was controlled by the Rojava Kurds in the autonomous region they created in north eastern Syria, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

The residents of Raqqa don't identify with the Rojava Kurds who have been politically and socially marginalized by the al-Asad regime, deprived of Syrian citizenship and had their lands seized by the state.  Thus, it has been much harder for the SDF to develop ties to Arabs liberated from the Dacish  in Syria than it has for the Iraqi Army to develop good relations with the residents of Mosul. It is noticeable that there have few examples of the resurgence of the Dacish in Mosul compared to Raqqa.

Nevertheless, the Rojava Kurds, unlike the Iraqi government which has not offered captured IS fighters meaningful due process, has refused to execute captured IS fighters and instead has handed down short 2-3 year jail sentences to those convicted of crimes. Subsequently they have attempted to create an environment of reconciliation with the former terrorists.  This process stands in sharp contrast to the Iraqi court system where trials, often lasting only a few minutes and with defendants not having met with their attorneys prior to appearing in court, have resulted in numerous execution verdicts. Captured ISIS fighters get short sentences and art therapy in Syria

The United Nations, with the support of the US and EU, needs to encourage the Iraqi government to convene behind the scenes meetings involving Sunni and Shica clerics and tribal leaders.  Using a “bottom up” approach, which involves listening to and valorizing the concerns of residents living in areas which have experienced extensive destruction, such meetings could be used to establish informal working groups to confront the needs of displaced persons and to give residents of former Dacish controlled areas, who are predominantly Sunni, from feeling that they have no role to play in Iraq's political system.

Meanwhile, rather than contributing to solving the problem, the Trump administration is only increasing the power of Iraq’s sectarian entrepreneurs, especially those who have political and financial ties to the Iranian government.  Allowing Israel to bomb ammunition dumps of Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in Iraq was extremely foolish because it has provided fuel for those members of Iraq’s political class who have been pushing for the removal of US troops and a reduction of American influence in the country. The Popular Mobilization Units: A Threat to the Development of Political Stability and Democracy in Iraq?

Finally, material resources will be critical to the final elimination of the Dacish. Iraq has estimated that it needs between $88-$100 billion to rebuild Mosul and those sections of north central Iraq which were destroyed during the war with the Dacish. A conference in Kuwait in February 2019 failed to raise anywhere near the funds needed for post-Dacish reconstruction.

With the estimated number of displaced persons by the war with the Dacish in excess of 4.5 million Iraqis, many of whom have no permanent residences, much less access to education, health care and other social services, the situation for these Iraqis is dire. The Trump administration which, with a minimal amount of effort, could jawbone the Arab Gulf states to contribute $40 billion to the reconstruction fund.

Saudi Arabia has a sovereign wealth fund of $320 billion (ARAMCO's 2018 profit alone was $49 billion, the largest of any company in the world), the UAE's fund is $792 billion, Kuwait's fund is $592 billion, and Qatar's fund is $320 billion. None of theses states want to see a revived Dacish arise from the ashes of defeat.

Other sources of funds could include Norway, which has the world's largest sovereign wealth fund, valued in excess of $1 trillion. Singapore's fund is $390 billion. If the European Union were to contribute $10 billion, together with an matching amount from the United States, and small amounts from Bahrain and the Sultanate of Brunei, the fund would reach close to the $88 billion minimum required for Iraq's reconstruction.

Unfortunately, in this area of confronting the multiple needs caused by the Dacish's defeat, the Trump administration has been severely wanting. There has been little if no public discussion of Iraq’s reconstruction needs. Unless the US and the international community steps up to assist Iraq in the reconstruction process, the displaced Iraqis in the north central provinces will provide fertile soil not just for the Dacish, but the growth of myriad criminal and extremist organizations, especially those who appeal to displaced Iraqi and Syrian youth.