What is happening in Iraq?

Indian Council of World Affairs

The escalating crisis of recent weeks in Iraq has brought the country under new spotlight. A militant group widely described in the media as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has captured a number of cities and towns from government forces in northern and central Iraq. More territory is contested. ISIS successes include Mosul close to Iraqi Kurdistan, areas around Baghdad in the central Anbar province, Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra and Tikrit. Some places have fallen to ISIS after fighting. Others have been lost because Iraqi government troops, depleted by low morale and mass desertions, have simply withdrawn. The Iraqi map, already fragmented, looks more divided than before as a result of the latest rise in militancy.

A decade after the United States invaded Iraq to overthrew President Saddam Hussein and created a new political structure, these events pose a stubborn challenge to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government. Reports in the international media put the blame squarely on ISIS. The organisation is described as an offshoot of, and more brutal than, al-Qaeda, which has actually disowned the group. Last February, a message posted on Islamist websites said the leadership of al-Qaeda had announced that ISIS was “not a branch of al-Qaeda, nor does it have an organisational relationship with al-Qaeda network.” Some have also claimed that ISIS grew out of a previous militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq, whose leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike north of Baghdad in June 2006.

The names of al-Qaeda and those supposedly associated with it have a particular resonance in the American psyche. Think tanks within the Washington Beltway and the Obama administration have described the unfolding scenario in Iraq as a threat to the region and America’s interest. President Obama, cautious and calculative, has ordered the despatch of special forces as “military advisors” to Iraq, but seems reluctant to go much further. He has himself quashed speculation that he may order air attacks against militants unless, he says, there is an accord on Sunni inclusion in Iraq. The experience after the 2003 invasion still haunts America. Usually reliable sources say Obama wants Prime Minister Maliki out as a price for bailing out the Iraqi government. Will Maliki step down easily? Or if he is forced out, what will be the repercussions?

A complex picture
The situation in Iraq is a lot more complex than reports in the media convey, and the local reality does not get the attention it deserves. That fighters from outside, including Syria, are infiltrating Iraq’s porous borders is not in doubt, but Iraqi Sunnis, too, are part of the rebellion. ISIS is known to be well entrenched in Syria, fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, as well as more moderate anti-government groups. From northern and central Syria, militants can move to Ramadi, Fallujah and areas around Baghdad along the Euphrates with relative ease. Mosul, north of the Iraqi capital, is within reach.

ISIS has made some effort to win the hearts and minds of local residents where the group dominates, but its strict application of Sharia law has also alienated communities. The conduct of ISIS brings mixed results for the group. ISIS tends to harness discontent in areas of Sunni population that has become alienated because of the central government’s discriminatory policies. However, the sentiment is different in secular Sunni and Shia communities.

Maliki’s sectarian policy
In many ways, the crisis for Prime Minister Maliki is of his own making. For the rebels could not have achieved such military successes in a wide area of Iraq without local support. Sunni communities in many parts of the country, once dominant in Saddam Hussein’s power structure, have found themselves increasingly side-lined under Maliki’s rule. Within days of America’s military withdrawal in December 2011, ending eight years of occupation, Iraq’s Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashemi was accused of organising murder squads and terrorism and fled to Turkey. Hashemi was later sentenced to death in absentia.
Maliki’s increasingly sectarian approach since America’s withdrawal has caused deep alienation in the Sunni minority.

To say that the challenge to Iraq’s Shia-dominated government is from ISIS alone is a partial truth. The reality is that not only does ISIS enjoy local support, there are rebellions by Iraqi Sunnis across the country. This explains why Mosul fell without much fighting. The Iraqi army withdrew after a period of tension and uncertainty. Mosul’s Sunni residents, who resent Maliki’s rule, were left behind. There was hardly any resistance from the Sunni population of Mosul.

No plain-sailing for rebels
The Iraqi government’s authority was already weak because the country is a much reduced entity. The alienation of Sunnis caused by Maliki’s policy has further eroded his control to the extent that questions are being asked about his future. Nonetheless, predictions in the western press that Baghdad could soon fall to Sunni rebel forces are exaggerated.

ISIS has no doubt made dramatic gains in a short time, but its victories have been limited to Sunni areas. Baghdad today is overwhelmingly Shia except a few neighbourhoods. Shia militias operate with Shia-dominated security forces. Baghdad is hit by suicide bombings from time to time, but a physical takeover of the capital by Sunni rebels seems a far-fetched idea for now. A more likely scenario is continuous weakening of central government control over large parts of the country, thereby making the Iraqi government even more vulnerable and prone to foreign pressure.

America’s return to Iraqi theatre
Events have come full circle in Iraq for the United States. When American forces invaded the country in 2003, they supported the Shia population and pulverised Sunni areas in Baghdad and elsewhere. When the American military subsequently encountered fierce Shia resistance, the Bush administration switched sides. With American help, Sunni tribal militias were created under the umbrella of Sahwa (Sons of Iraq) in 2005 to counter Shia opposition.

Prime Minister Maliki has persistently refused to integrate Sunni tribal militias into the state security forces while packing the Iraqi military and police with Shia loyalists across all ranks. By the end of 2013, the Sahwa militias had become non-existence. Most militiamen were unemployed or had joined ISIS, contributing to the deep Sunni resentment against Maliki’s government and causing the problems he faces today. Now, the United States is again supporting the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, by despatching special forces to begin with, to quell the Sunni rebellion spreading across northern and central Iraq. These alliances are little more than marriages of convenience between disgruntled Sunni communities of Iraq and some foreign fighters on one hand, and the beleaguered Iraqi government and President Obama on the other.

Will these marriages last and Iraq be stabilised? There must be serious doubts. Assassinations of suspected militants with special forces’ help, or high altitude bombing, do not have a good record of success. Maliki, or his successor, will need to adopt an inclusive policy. Even then, there will remain competing interests of Saudi Arabia, other Arab countries and Turkey on one hand, and Iran and Syria on the other. Major powers, the United States and Russia, will continue to vie for influence in the Middle East. Iraq is likely to remain unstable.

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From Strange to Bizarre: The Mutations of Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

CounterPunch

President Barack Obama and his officials are saying some very strange things about events in the Middle East and Ukraine. The White House was loud in its support for factions who were united only in opposition to President Viktor Yanukovych. The Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s leaked telephone conversation with the American ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, revealed much more about how the State Department was secretly plotting for regime change in Kiev before Yanukovych was abruptly removed from power in a political coup in February.

In a speech at the National Press Club in Washington in December 2013, Nuland admitted that the United States had spent five billion dollars since Ukraine became independent following the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991 in “developing democratic institutions and skills in promoting civil society” and what she described as “a good form of government.” Nuland claimed that all of it was necessary to “achieve the objectives of Ukraine’s European.”

After the opposition takeover in Kiev, the referendum in Crimea where people voted in overwhelming numbers to join the Russian Federation, and the wishes of Russian minorities in the east, brought a very different response from Washington. The Crimean referendum was denounced as illegal and a sham. Ukraine remains in turmoil. Russia on one hand, and the United States and the European Union on the other, are locked in a struggle for influence in Ukraine. It is a struggle whose final outcome is far from certain.

In Syria, devastated by three-years of civil war, with external powers pouring oil in the conflict, President Bashar al-Assad has also won an overwhelming victory. Fears of the Crimean and Russian minorities in the new Ukraine are understandable. For Ukraine is a broken and vulnerable state, with armed far-right and left groups dominating parts of the country where anarchy rules. Western governments seem obsessed about freedom and democracy, but we hardly hear about security and welfare of Ukraine’s minorities. In Syria, the civil war has extracted a very high toll. If the western narrative was to be believed, then all Syrians are united against Assad, so any election leading to his victory must be fraudulent.

The Assad dynasty has ruled Syria with the iron fist for decades. The dynasty might well have been overthrown in the uprising which began in 2011 if a better alternative was present. The truth is that many of Syria’s minorities, Christians, Jews, Druze, Kurds and Assad’s own Alawites, are terrified by the cruelty of, and conflict within, Assad’s opponents, foreign Salafists in particular. Three years since the uprising began, Western governments, US, British and French, are in a strange situation of their own making. They have lent moral and material support to the enemies of Assad, but are weary and worried of them, for anti-Assad fighters are no lovers of the Western governments and values they preach. What has happened in Libya is a lesson.

History shows that great powers, instead of learning from mistakes, keep repeating the same follies. Ceaseless ideological propaganda, whatever its origin and nature, makes a feeble cover for real motives.

Assad’s victory was by a whopping margin – he secured nearly 89 percent of the vote. It was a win like any other dictator’s, but there is little doubt that many Syrians were scared of the other side, and preferred Assad. The American Secretary of State John Kerry, smarting from his debacle in the Israel-Palestinian talks which were sunk by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, quickly moved on. Syria provided an escape route. Kerry described Assad’s victory as “meaningless” and “a great big zero.”

It gets more and more bizarre. Nearly a year after Egypt’s army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi overthrew the country’s elected President Mohammed Morsi and abolished the fragile political order which had evolved after Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow, there was another presidential election at the end of May. Thousands were killed and even more thrown into jail in the months before. Sisi took 97 percent of the vote, virtually the whole country, while Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters languish in jail. If Assad’s election was “meaningless” and a “great big zero” for the Obama administration, then think of Sisi’s victory margin?

When a ruthless dictator and America’s proxy is in trouble, Washington is slow to respond to events, hoping that the dictator will eventually overcome opposition and it will be all right in the end. South Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Egypt and beyond, examples are aplenty. More than three decades after the fall of the Shah of Iran and President Jimmy Carter’s bungled handling of the crisis in what was America’s policeman in the Persian Gulf, Barack Obama faced a similar crisis in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak was in trouble. Obama dithered.

Mubarak’s rule collapsed under relentless popular pressure, but while the military had disintegrated with the fall of the shah in Iran, the Egyptian armed forces remained intact. Egypt’s 2011 revolution was incomplete in comparison with the Iranian revolution of 1979. The military-led counterrevolution in 2013 has taken Egypt back to the Mubarak era.

For a country born out of a revolution, the United States is remarkably counterrevolutionary. Now that Egypt is again ruled by a former army chief, the White House has said that President Obama is looking forward to working with Sisi “to advance our strategic partnership and the many interests shared by the United States and Egypt.” The White House claimed that “elections [there] were held in accordance with Egyptian law.”

That Egyptian law, which Obama has so readily accepted as the basis of a closer relationship with Sisi’s government, originates from a constitution which has been heavily criticized for granting the military sweeping powers. The 2014 constitution was introduced after a coup which overthrew Egypt’s freely elected president, abolished parliament and abrogated the 2012 constitution, approved by the Egyptian electorate in a far more relaxed political environment. In cozying up with Sisi, Obama denies that there was ever a coup.

Never mind Obama’s idealism and soaring rhetoric – that was a long time ago, five years ago in fact. Now it is time to build a legacy, so he will do anything. Obama’s foreign policy is a charade.

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No end to the revolution?

AL JAZEERA

History has the answer to the turbulent Middle East today. 

The approaching centenary of the outbreak of World War I is a suitable time to consider violent conflicts between nations and ideologies, and their consequences, which have transformed the international system, particularly in the Middle East.

The most decisive of these conflicts were part of three critical periods of the 20th century: World War I, 1914-1918, and the 1917 communist revolution in Russia; World War II ending in 1945 with the division of Europe and the Cold War thereafter; and the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. These fateful chapters of history left a lasting impact on the global map, and transformed the Middle East into the turbulent region which it is today.

Despite the central powers’ defeat in World War I, Germany and Austria-Hungary lived to fight another war two decades later. But the most consequential events of the World War I period were the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the rise of communists to power in Russia.

Creation of mandates 

The demise of the Ottoman Empire meant the release of its provinces in the Middle East. The region was divided into British and French spheres of influence, using the instrument of “mandate” and readily approved by the League of Nations. The Russian Revolution of 1917 led to the birth of the Soviet Union five years after. Communism became an ideological reality that promised liberation forces in colonies as an alternative to imperial subjugation.

The age of empires was not over, but there was a new worldview in action, embracing the idea of class struggle and becoming a serious rival of Western imperialism. The events in Russia in 1917, emboldened revolutionary forces across Asia, Africa and South America. Communists seized power after long, savage wars in China in 1949, and Cuba in 1959. Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara became heroes for left-wing armed revolutionaries in their own countries and elsewhere.

The Soviet Union’s emergence as a superpower rival of the United States in the wake of World War II, gave it a formidable status, and the means to support revolutionary movements across the world. However, there was an obvious paradox in the manner of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, and how the Kremlin controlled its satellite-states with an iron fist for more than four decades.

The Soviet Union had enlarged its empire from Central Asia to Eastern Europe while proclaiming to be the liberator of oppressed peoples from Western imperialism. The Soviets were also involved with the US in a global race for influence called the Cold War, in which the energy-rich Middle East was the main battleground. Even as the colonial system collapsed, the Cold War intensified. It was a race between two empires in all but name.

The Dictionary of Human Geography defines imperialism as “an unequal human and territorial relationship”. The association takes the form of an empire, based on “ideas of superiority and practices of dominance”. Imperialism involves the extension of authority and control of one state or people over another. While capitalism has solely commercial motives, an imperial relationship also requires a political centre and ideological allegiance which ties the periphery to the centre.

Legacy of Cold War 

Rival ideologies pulled Middle Eastern countries towards Washington and Moscow during the Cold War, and fuelled conflicts that had remained unsettled. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 was to have been the end of history, with the US the final victor standing, to dominate the vast energy resources, and much more. However, that triumphant vision failed to realise that Islam, together with nationalism, was going to be the next formidable opposition, replacing Soviet communism. A lot of blood has been spilled at the extremes of that conflict, while even moderates are critical or ambivalent about Western policy.

Much of the Middle East is in a state of agitation and turmoil. The legacy of old unresolved feuds has been revived. Two of the main causes are the imperial powers’ arbitrary partition of the region into smaller, vulnerable entities, thereby dividing their peoples; and the Palestinians’ loss of land and livelihood under Israeli occupation. The people’s desire to liberate themselves from dictatorship has been rekindled, but the scope for opportunistic machinations from outside remains.

Islamic, secular and democratic, all forces fight, sometimes together, at other times separately, in this chaotic struggle. Their vision of the future may differ, but their spirit is revolutionary in that they seek radical change. Still, fundamental questions about what type of change, and the way to bring it, remain. Hope, fear, and uncertainty, coalesce together.

The risk of tyranny of some over many is always great in a region of diverse religious and ethnic groups, with a history of conflict. From Afghanistan and Iraq to Syria, Egypt and Libya, violence against vulnerable citizens, minorities in particular, heightens fears in those countries and outside.

The peoples of the Middle East have lived through autocratic nationalist rule, and dictatorship acting as proxy of one external power or another. Their painful experiences have made the Middle East of today. Where are events heading? Well, as French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville said, “In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.”

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