vrijdag 21 november 2014

Islamic State vs its far enemy



U.S. Sailors launch an F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 213 from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) in the Persian Gulf
Oct. 18, 2014, as the ship supports Inherent Resolve. President Barack Obama authorized humanitarian aid deliveries to Iraq as well as targeted airstrikes to protect U.S. personnel from extremists
known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. U.S. Central Command directed the operations.
Photo: MC3 Joshua Card – Wikimedia Commons
Behind the flux of conflict on the ground in Syria-Iraq, all sides are digging in for a long war.

Much of the recent attention on the war against Islamic State has focused on the intense conflict between the movement and local Kurds in and around Kobane, close to the Syria-Turkey border. Its 60,000 people had been relatively undisturbed by the Syrian war until a few months ago, when thousands of people displaced by the escalating conflict began to swell its population.

Within a short period, as many as 400,000 had arrived. Most fled across the border to Turkey when the town was besieged by Islamic State (IS) militias. Today, control of otherwise deserted and ravaged Kobane is divided between these militias and Kurdish fighters, including some from Kurdish Iraq (see Tim Arango, “In Syria battle, a test for all sides”, New York Times, 20 November 2014)

Kobane is strategically important for IS, not least as seizing it would give the movement command of a long stretch of the border. The repeated targeting of IS positions by US airstrikes has made the battle there even more pivotal. At the same time, it is but one part of a wider war with many other elements. Three of these involve western and Iraqi governments, and three the Islamic State.

In the first category:
  • The Pentagon is deploying a further 1,500 troops to Iraq. This will take the acknowledged total to around 3,000, although this may not include special-force units whose deployment is seldom reported
  • The US chair of the joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, has not ruled out deploying US ground troops to the frontline with Iraq army units
  • Both US and Iraqi sources have strongly discounted talk of an Iraqi army “spring offensive” in Anbar province in 2015, on the basis that rebuilding, retraining and re-equipping Iraq's army will take many months.
In the second category:
  • The Islamic State is reported to have concluded some sort of limited agreement with the al-Nusra Front (the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria) in order to bring inter-militia violence to an end there. In turn this development follows al-Nusra’s success in capturing a number of towns and villages from other Syrian militias with a more secular agenda
Al-Nusra is also reported to have overrun arms dumps containing modern weapons provided by western states for use against Bashar al-Assad's regime. These may include as many as eighty US-made BGM-71 anti-tank missiles (see Columb Strack, “Jihadists make gains in Syria after weapons seizure”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, December 2014).
  • The Islamic State has reputedly secured the allegiance of the most violent of Egypt's militant groups, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (see David D Kirkpatrick, “Militant Group in Egypt Vows Loyalty to ISIS”, New York Times, 10 November 2014). If confirmed this would be its biggest international boost, as the group is fighting Abdel Fattah al-Sisi government in Cairo and challenging the latter's violent suppression of Islamist and other dissent (see Sara Khorshid, “Egypt’s new police state”, New York Times, 17 November 2014).
The narrative

In other aspects of this complex conflict, the Islamic State's ability to make major advances has stalled. The movement is now preparing for a long conflict. A priority will be maintaining and enhancing its transnational support, in terms both of personnel (an estimated 15,000 have already come to join IS from across the Middle East and beyond, but it needs more) and finance (with individuals in western Gulf states playing a key role). These efforts require IS to determinedly promote its core narrative, which may be extreme by western perceptions but does have a sufficient basis to attract support.

This sees the Islamic State as a vanguard movement in the global defence of Islam at a time when Islam is under attack and leaders of Muslim states across the Middle East are either apostate or utterly untrue to the tenets of Islam. The movement has established a renewed caliphate, currently centred on Raqqa (the early capital of the most durable caliphate, the Abbasids of 1,200 years ago) with plans to extend it to Baghdad (the later and much longer-lasting Abbasid capital. In turn it will spread to Saudi Arabia, ousting the House of Saud and claiming guardianship of Mecca and Medina (sites of the "two holy places") - and, ultimately, reclaim the "third holy place" in Jerusalem.

The Islamic State is leading this historic renewal against the "far enemy" of the United States and its allies that have brought chaos to Afghanistan and Iraq, killing over 200,000 Muslims and wounding many more in the process. These enemy forces have also killed Muslims in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Mali and many other states, while propping up corrupt and un-Islamic regimes (al-Sisi’s Egypt being the latest). IS points to the far enemy’s practice of rendition, torture and detention without trial, and it emphasises the role of the Zionists. Indeed, Israel is seen as little more than an extension of the United States, and Israel strike-aircraft and helicopter-gunships as US military hardware with Israeli markings.

The prospect

The reality of the Islamic State is very different from its self-portrait. The progress it has made since mid-2014 has owed much to largely secular Ba'athists and others who hardly buy into its theology or long-term vision are prepared to make common cause against the hated Iraqi government and the United States. The narrative does resonate, though, with a small minority of young Muslims, for whom Islamic State answers a longing even more seductive than did al-Qaida after 9/11. The fact that IS has created a territorial entity, a physical manifestation of the promised caliphate, adds to its aura.

This narrative is not easy for western analysts to comprehend, especially given the brutality of many of the movement’s operations. But it is being worked on and developed relentlessly, then propagated over and over in many different forms (especially through new social media). It is helped greatly by the actions of the Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu, and would dearly like a serious ground war with western troops - which the current "mission-creep" may well provide. If that war comes, there will no doubt be elements in Islamic State that look forward to the capture of American soldiers, their detention, waterboarding, and on camera execution in orange jump-suits.

Perhaps a few western policy-advisers and analysts are thinking such a narrative through, recognising its seductive nature and acting accordingly. There is, though, not too much sign of that, which makes it all the more likely that this will be a lengthy war.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

This article first appeared on openDemocracy November 21, 2014

zaterdag 1 november 2014

Putin points to growing war dangers



By Nick Beams

Russian President Vladimir Putin has bluntly warned that actions by the United States, in disregard of the norms that have governed international relations since the end of World War II, could lead to war.

His declaration came in a major speech on October 24, delivered to the final session of a meeting organised by the Valdai International Discussion Club in the Russian winter resort of Sochi. The theme for the discussions, held over several days and attended by journalists, foreign policy experts and academics from Russia and internationally, was World Order: New Rules or a Game without Rules.

Putin began by saying “this formula accurately describes the historic turning point we have reached today and the choice we all face.” He said the lessons of history should not be forgotten. “[C]hanges in the world order—and what we are seeing today are events on this scale—have usually been accompanied by, if not global war and conflict, then by chains of intensive local-level conflicts.”

Expanding on the meeting’s theme, Putin’s speech comprised a series of indictments of US foreign policy from the end of the Cold War. The US, he said, having declared itself the victor, saw no need to establish “a new balance of power, essential for maintaining order and stability” but instead “took steps that threw the system into sharp and deep imbalance.”

Putin likened the actions of the US to the behaviour of the nouveaux riche “when they suddenly end up with a great fortune, in this case in the shape of world leadership and domination. Instead of managing their wealth wisely, for their own benefit too of course, I think they have committed many follies.”

Over the past period, Putin said, international law had been forced to retreat in the face of “legal nihilism.” Legal norms had been replaced by “arbitrary interpretations and biased assessments.” At the same time, “total control of the global mass media has made it possible, when desired, to portray white as black and black as white.”

The very notion of national sovereignty had been made relative and replaced by the formula “the greater the loyalty to the world’s sole power centre, the greater this or that regime’s legitimacy.”

Referring to the revelations over the operations of US spy agencies, the Russian president said “big brother” was spending “billions of dollars on keeping the whole world, including its closest allies, under surveillance.”

In a direct attack on US actions in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Ukraine, Putin said the imposition of a unilateral diktat, instead of leading to peace and prosperity, was producing the opposite result. “Instead of settling conflicts it leads to their escalation, instead of sovereign and stable states we see the growing spread of chaos, and instead of democracy there is support for a very dubious public, ranging from open neo-fascists to Islamic radicals.”

In Syria, the United States and its allies had armed and financed rebels and allowed them to fill their ranks with mercenaries from various countries. “Let me ask where do these rebels get their money, arms and military specialists? Where does all this come from? How did the notorious ISIL manage to become such a powerful group, essentially an armed force?”

The period of unipolar domination by the United States had demonstrated that having only one power centre did not make global process more manageable. It had opened the way for inflated national pride, the manipulation of public opinion and “letting the strong bully and suppress the weak. Essentially, the unipolar world is simply a means of justifying dictatorship over people and countries.”

Putin warned that unless there was a clear system of agreements and commitments governing international relations, together with mechanisms for managing and resolving crisis situations, “the symptoms of global anarchy will inevitably grow.”

“Today, we already see a sharp increase in the likelihood of a whole set of violent conflicts with either direct or indirect participation by the world’s major powers … I want to point out we did not start this. Once again, we are sliding into times when, instead of the balance of interests and mutual guarantees, it is fear and the balance of mutual destruction that prevent nations from engaging in direct conflict. In the absence of legal and political instruments, arms are once again becoming the focal point of the global agenda.”

In an accurate summation of the US position, Putin said that arms were used without any UN Security Council sanction. If the Security Council failed to support such actions, then “it is immediately declared to be an outdated and ineffective instrument.”

“Many states do not see other ways of ensuring their sovereignty but to obtain their own bombs. This is extremely dangerous.”

Putin’s remarks, which the Financial Times described as “one of his most anti-US speeches in 15 years as Russia’s most powerful politician,” appear to be motivated, at least in part, by fear of the impact of rapidly falling oil prices combined with sanctions, imposed at the insistence of the US, on the Russian economy.

The fall in the oil price, from around $100 to $80 per barrel, could slice as much as 2 percentage points from Russia’s gross domestic product and will have a major effect on the government’s budget, thereby destabilising the Putin regime, which rests on a network of powerful oligarchs.

Whatever immediate the motivations for the speech, the dangers of war to which it pointed are real and growing. The issues raised publicly by Putin over the role of the US are no doubt being discussed behind closed doors in political circles in other major countries.

As the impact of falling oil prices on Russia demonstrates, these geo-political tensions will be fuelled by the deepening economic crisis and the tendencies driving to deflation and stagnation throughout the world economy.

The dangers of war to which Putin alluded were underscored in remarks to the conference by an American expert on Russia, Christopher Gaddy of the Brookings Institution. Two days before Putin’s speech, Gaddy evoked The Sleepwalkers, the recent book on the origins of World War I by historian Christopher Clark, and drew parallels with the present situation.

“I fear very much that ... there is an element of sleepwalking in the policies of key players in the world today,” Gaddy said, indicating that sanctions against Russia had been designed by the United States and drawn up by a small group with unclear aims and questionable results.

This article first appeared on World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) on 1 November 2014, and was republished with permission.

dinsdag 7 oktober 2014

The Islamic State war: Iraq's echo


by Paul Rogers
 

Night launch of F-18s from USS George H.W. Bush in the Arabian Sea to conduct strike missions against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robert Burck – Wikimedia Commons


A major new war has begun in the Middle East. But the Islamic State movement is prepared, and the precedents are bleak.

George W Bush, the United States president, was unequivocal in his response to the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaida was a threat to the world and must be destroyed; the Taliban regime in Afghanistan would be terminated; western states should give strong support to the US in its immediate military assaults.

At the time, a handful of analysts in think-tanks such as Oxford Research Group and Focus on the Global South warned against such instant responses. They argued that al-Qaida sought confrontation and that 9/11 had been a provocation with this aim in mind. After all, one superpower had already been humbled in Afghanistan during the 1980s; here was a chance to repeat the action against another, however long it might take.

The regime in Kabul was indeed terminated in a matter of weeks, and in January 2002 - two months after the Taliban had gone - Bush delivered his first state-of-the-union address as president. He extended the war against al-Qaida to a much broader conflict against an “axis of evil”, the immediate enemy being the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. This received rapturous applause.

As war loomed a year later, the rhetoric escalated. The Baghdad regime was declared a threat to the world, in part on account of its alleged possession of missiles loaded with weapons of mass destruction that could be launched in forty-five minutes. Saddam was overthrown within three weeks in March-April 2003; the following month, Bush made his “mission accomplished” speech to great acclaim.

In the event, the war in Afghanistan was to last thirteen years before the US withdrew most of its troops. There may be much more insecurity yet to come (see "Afghanistan: state of insecurity", 31 July 2014). Iraq developed into a bitter eight-year war that cost well over 100,000 lives and is now leading on to a third major confrontation. Al-Qaida may be a shadow of its former self but as an idea it is gaining more potency and fresh recruits. There are evolving movements fired by the idea in Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Libya and many other countries; a determined and brutal offshoot, Islamic State (IS), controls substantial territory in Syria and Iraq.

George W Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, insists that Islamic State must be degraded and ultimately destroyed. The war started in earnest with major bombardments on 22-23 September 2014. The one big difference between now and 2001 or 2003 may be that senior military in Washington are saying from the start that this will be a long war stretching over years (see "The thirty-year war, continued", 11 September 2014).

Even so, in spite of presumed war weariness, majority opinion in the US is moving in favour of war. In Britain, prime minister David Cameron is seeking and will likely get cross-party support for UK strike aircraft to join in. Most of the public in the UK was recently assessed as being opposed to direct involvement, but that may change in the face of repeated claims of immediate threat.

The Islamic State view

The air-raids earlier this week were much more substantial than reported in established media outlets. Most were undertaken by the United States, using cruise-missiles, drones, the F-22 stealth-aircraft and other systems from the airforce, navy and marines, with five Arab states playing more of a symbolic support role.

The operations, far more intense than the seven weeks of bombing IS targets in Iraq, hit twenty-two sites in three broad areas across northern Syria. One of the best-informed US journals, Military Times, reports:

“Monday night’s attacks involved about 200 munitions, a defense official said, making it far more intense than the air campaign over Iraq that began Aug. 8, which have rarely targeted more than one or two sites at a time.”

The intensity of the assaults may suggest that IS will be rapidly crippled, but this is very far from the truth. The previous column in this series pointed to the limited impact of the US attacks in Iraq so far (see "Into the third Iraq war", 18 September 2014). There are also numerous reports that, days before being attacked, IS paramilitaries in Raqqa and elsewhere had already dispersed from their bases into the city. Thus, the buildings targeted were largely empty.

In a further revealing analysis, Military Times assesses the impact of the raids in Iraq:

“So far, the strikes have not targeted large urban areas such as Mosul, Fallujah and Tikrit, where breaking the extremists’ grip is harder and the risk of civilian casualties is higher. In a sign of their confidence, Islamic State group fighters paraded 30 captured Iraqi soldiers in pickup trucks through the streets of Fallujah on Tuesday, only hours after the coalition strikes across the border in Syria.”

This should not come as a surprise. The core of the Islamic State is formed of determined paramilitaries, many of them combat-trained young men who survived the ugly war fought by US and UK special forces against Iraqi Sunni insurgents during the Iraq war after 2003.

As this new war accelerates, it is wise to assume that Islamic State is not only ready for this but welcomes it. The movement will be particularly pleased that the Pentagon is preparing to deploy an army division headquarters to Iraq, a strong indication that many more troops will be moved there in the coming weeks. The possibility of capturing US military personnel is particularly attractive (see "America and Islamic State: mission creeping?", 21 August 2014).

The longer term

The fact that Washington is in coalition with five Sunni Arab states is not so much irrelevant as to be expected by IS. After all, radical jihadist movements in the Middle East for at least two decades have been opposed to the “near enemy” of autocratic regimes just as much as to the “far enemy” of the United States, these regimes' consistent backer.

For now, Obama will have much domestic support, as will Cameron in the UK, Francois Hollande in France and not forgetting Tony Abbott in Australia. Furthermore, the intensive air assault that will develop in the coming weeks will most certainly give an impression of progress, with the Islamic State reported as being much diminished.

In the short term, though, even the positive spin might not ring true. It is uncertain how IS will react in the next few days, what will happen to the multiple hostages, or whether it will launch diversionary attacks (for example, on the US base that is rapidly building up at Baghdad international airport) or engineer some completely unexpected event.

In any case, it is the longer term that counts. It is all too likely that this war, a couple of years hence, will look every bit as misjudged and futile as the previous two.

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century(Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

This article first appeared on openDemocracy 25 September 2014.