Blowback time

Print edition : July 25, 2014

ISIS fighters crossing the border between Syria and Iraq. Photo: By Special Arrangement

ISIS fighters in their Toyotas parade on the streets of northern Raqqa province in Syria on June 30. Photo: REUTERS

An ISIS fighter in Mosul sitting under a sign that reads, “The Iraqi Army is a Thorn in the Eyes of Terrorism.” Photo: By Special Arrangement

A police station after clashes between ISIS fighters and Iraqi security forces in central Tikrit, on July 1. Photo: AP

Nouri Al-Maliki, Iraqi Prime Minister. He had no agenda to address the root cause of sectarianism. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AP

The tinderbox of regional chaos was opened by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Gulf Arab-Turkey support for Islamist fighters in northern Syria and Iraq.

Iraq’s night is long

Dawn breaks only to the murdered,

Praying half a prayer and never finishing a greeting to anyone.

--Mahmoud Darwish, Athar al-Farasha (tr. Sinan Antoon)



IN January 2014, a line of white Toyota trucks stood in the centre of Ramadi, one of the main cities in Iraq’s Anbar province. Young men stood around, most of them in the uniform of 20th century jehad —bushy beards are common, so are various kinds of cloth to cover their faces during their desert transit. Many are dressed in black, the ninjas of the Great Syrian Desert. These fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS; the latter part of the acronym is also described as “the Levant” and “Iraq and Syria”), shrugging off the January air, were prepared to drive into Syria to carry forward their goal for the unity of the Arab lands under an ISIS caliphate that would run from the borders of Iran to the Mediterranean Sea. The ISIS is Al Qaeda’s Iraqi franchise. Since 2012, the ISIS, along with its Syrian partner Jabhat al-Nusra (The Support Front), has been an active player in the war in Syria. It is what rejuvenated Al Qaeda’s decade-long struggle in the region.

The men are excited. Arabic is the lingua franca, but there are also the tongues of international jehad—Chechen, Serbo-Croatian and English. Among the latter, the accents range from Australian to British. Theirs is an adventure. These men exude little fear. It is hard to imagine that they will be shot at in a few hours as they cross the Syrian border, targeted by the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) along the road towards the northern Syrian town of Raqqa. It is not hard, on the other hand, to picture them shooting back. These are hardened fighters. Guns seem integral to their swagger.

Between January and June, ISIS fighters swept across north-central Iraq and northern Syria. Iraq’s Anbar province fell to their guns early in the year, with the two most important cities (Ramadi and Fallujah) substantially in their hands. United States’ military hardware was rushed to the threadbare Iraqi army to no avail. The ISIS came under threat in Syria, where its allies, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, joined with the Free Syrian Army to expel it from its positions in northern Syria. The war of Al Qaeda against Al Qaeda in Syria moved ISIS fighters back to Iraq. It became the base for its 2014 assault on the cities along the River Tigris in Iraq.

June was the breakthrough month, with the ISIS and its allies seizing Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, much of Nineveh province, the city of Tikrit (home town of Saddam Hussein) and several smaller towns, including Tal Afar, where Al Qaeda in Iraq was born in 2004. The ISIS moved northwards toward Baqubah. By the end of June, Baghdad had been surrounded. Al Qaeda, which had no roots in Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003, seemed poised to take this great Arab city.

Broken Iraq

Operation Shock and Awe, the U.S. assault on Iraq in 2003, broke the back of the already weakened Iraqi army. It gave way before the aerial assault, allowing the U.S. forces to enter Baghdad in record time. They would have been in the city faster had their transport vehicles not been held up by a sandstorm. Iraqi troops shed their uniforms and vanished to their home towns. Their careers had known only war and privation.

Iraq had been egged on to war with Iran in 1980. Before the Iraqis could enjoy the peace that came in 1988, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The first Gulf War (1991) ended with Iraq encircled by U.S. military power and its economy sanctioned to misery. By the 2003 invasion, Iraq’s army had been broken, and its society had been squeezed of resilience. It was a walkover for the U.S.

Saddam Hussein had recruited his crack detachments from the cities of the Tigris such as Mosul and Tikrit. The insurgency campaign against the U.S. invasion began in these cities, led by, U.S. intelligence agencies say, Saddam Hussein’s deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri. In Diyala province, east of Mosul, al-Duri’s detachments formed the Army of the Men of the Order of the Naqshbandi (JRTN), drawing in frustrated Baathists and soldiers ejected by the U.S. occupation (whose de-Baathification policy left many professional bureaucrats and soldiers without a job, and therefore able to turn their skills over to al-Duri). The JRTN are nominally Sufis, although Sufism in Iraq does not share the heterodoxy that one used to see amongst the Sufis of Syria (and, of course, South Asia). This Naqshbandi Army formed part of the Supreme Command for Jehad and Liberation—marked no longer by secular Baathism but by a strange mutation of Islamic Baathism. Al-Duri read the tea leaves well.

U.S. military commanders found themselves on the back foot. Dogged Iraqi fighters along the Tigris, in Anbar province (Ramadi and Fallujah mainly) and in large parts of Baghdad, seemed hell-bent on the liberation of their country. Grotesque human rights violations in Abu Ghraib prison during the early phase of the insurgency show how frustrated U.S. intelligence officials became—they could not learn enough to break the back of what was fated to become a full-scale uprising against the occupation. When Muqtada al-Sadr’s largely Shia Mahdi Army sent supplies to Fallujah and when Sadr City’s Shia population donated blood for the Fallujah fighters in solidarity, this indicated that the uprising might be rooted in a reconstructed Iraqi nationalism. Writing in Time (2006), Tony Karon noted that the insurrection of Fallujah and Sadr combined with the harsh U.S. response “has even had an iconic nation-building effect, as the plight of the besieged city [Fallujah] has become an anti-American rallying point across Iraq’s traditional Sunni-Shia divide”. Portraits of Sadr could be seen in the hands of protesters in the largely Sunni towns of Anbar province.

Such unity posed a serious threat to U.S. war aims. U.S. money sloshed around from one sectarian group to another, seeking fissures between Shias and Sunnis that could easily be exploited. The potential of a reconstructed Iraqi nationalism was smothered in the sectarian war that was harnessed by the occupation in 2006-07.

The U.S. occupation and the emergence of sectarianism oxygenated the growth of Al Qaeda in Iraq. It was unthinkable during the 20th century that the ideology of Wahhâbiyyah would find fertile soil in Iraq. Iraqi society had embraced its complexity during the period of Arab nationalism, adopting secular ideas for its political world at the same time as it incubated deeply held religious traditions in its society. Now with the insurgency under way, Al Qaeda operatives led by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi entered Iraq and set up an organisation in Tal Afar. Brutal anti-Shia violence marked their entry, with Osama Bin Laden cautioning al-Zarqawi to be more moderate. Al-Zarqawi’s brutality set the tone for Al Qaeda, and later for the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006. The ISI, Dawlat al-‘Iraq al-Islamiyah, was formed at the zenith of Iraqi sectarianism, with its new insurgents swearing an oath not only to free Iraq from U.S. occupation but also to crack down on the Shia population.

Since 2007, Iraq’s politics have been mired in sectarianism. Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has spoken expansively since 2006 about Iraqi unity, but the reality is worse. To quell the insurgency, the U.S. financed Sunni tribal leaders in the “Sunni Awakening”, drawing fighters from the ISI to their side in what became a war against al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. These fighters had no investment in al-Maliki’s Iraqi unity or in the U.S. project. The Awakening was an opportunity to get U.S. funds, equipment and training to go after their adversaries.

When U.S. funds dried up, these fighters went back to the ISI and its assorted allies. Sectarian violence reached horrific proportions in 2006-07. Not a month has gone by since then without the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq recording at least a few hundred deaths as a result of this violence. In December 2013, for instance, the violence resulted in 759 deaths and 1,345 injuries. Almost 9,000 people died in 2013 alone. The U.N.’s Special Representative Nickolay Mladenov said then: “The level of indiscriminate violence in Iraq is unacceptable and I call on the Iraqi leaders to take the necessary steps to prevent terrorist groups to fuel the sectarian tensions, which contribute to weaken the social fabric of society.” Al-Maliki had no agenda to address the root cause of sectarianism. He was not its sole author, but his policies certainly contributed to deepen the alienation of sections of the Sunni public.

Bomb blasts and sniper fire became normal in Baghdad. The Iraqi government notes that the number of car bombs in the past few years has increased from an average of 10 to close to 70 a month. The bombs, many of them set by the ISIS and its related outfits, target Shia areas and Sunni politicians who work with the government. The Christmas bombings took place in largely Christian areas, a community that the ISIS has repeatedly threatened not only in Iraq but also in Syria (“Bleeding Iraq”, Frontline, January 24). The T-Walls and Green Zone offer a measure of the dangers. Baghdadis talk of min zaman (once upon a time), the old days before the threats.

During the May 2014 elections, over 60 per cent of the eligible voters cast their votes and gave al-Maliki’s bloc a third of the Parliament’s seats. He was easily elected to his third term as Prime Minister. In Anbar province, meanwhile, his writ did not run. That was already ISIS territory. They had dug themselves into Ramadi and Fallujah, preparing for their thrust into Baghdad. When it came in June, what surprised the population of Iraq was the collapse of their armed forces in Mosul. It was not the attack that shocked people. It was their lack of defences.When the Syrian uprising morphed into a civil war, the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq—Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—set up Jabhat al-Nusra as the Al Qaeda front in that battle. Al-Nusra joined a variety of jehadi groups that had already begun to suffocate the civil rebellion of 2011 and the anaemic Free Syrian Army (made up of defectors from the Syrian armed forces). The jehadis brought a tenacious energy to the fight. They did not need front lines and heavy artillery required by the Soviet training received by the Syrian armed forces and their defectors. These were fighters who knew close combat and relied upon fast-moving Toyota trucks to move swiftly across Syria’s uneven topography. Al-Nusra made some rapid gains, first with orchestrated bombings in Syria’s cities and then with seizure of territory (as in the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor in May 2012). The calling card of Al Qaeda’s outfits was to conduct mass executions and to exert stiff sanctions for anything they deemed to be against their laws (“Road to Raqqa”, Frontline, February 7). The pipeline of funds that is familiar to the world of Al Qaeda—including individual donations from Gulf sheikhs—lubricated al-Nusra and the Islamic State. Hatred for Bashar al-Assad in the world of the Gulf Arabs was refracted through their political fear of Iran’s influence in the region. Islamic State fighters spoke freely of their support from Saudi Arabia, even as they maligned the kingdom for its corruption. On March 8, before the Mosul blitzkrieg, al-Maliki cautioned Saudi Arabia and Qatar to cease their support to the Islamic State. He would repeat these allegations in June. Both times the Saudi government feigned outrage. Both are correct. It is unlikely that official Saudi channels have financed the Islamic States. Private Kuwaiti, Qatari and Saudi funds are a more likely source.

Taxation regimes in Anbar helped the Islamic State, and as they took territory in Syria, this taxation system was expanded. The spluttering oilfields of eastern Syria added to their coffers, as did their sale of stolen antiquities from both Syria and Iraq. Money never seemed to be a problem. The Toyota trucks always seemed to appear, often new models with glistening white paint. Their media team had the best cameras and their social media team was always prepared to get their high-quality propaganda videos online. It was no surprise that the ISIS would produce a glossy annual report that resembled that of any corporation or that it would launch a twitter app.

Al-Nusra and the Islamic State had no problem recruiting fighters. From 2011 onwards, Assad has opened his prison doors to release many who had jehadi backgrounds. Why he did so is not clear, but the implications are simple: these men provided the backbone of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. On July 21, 2013, the Islamic State blew its way into the Abu Ghraib prison and freed 500 of their confederates. These prisoners were joined by jehadis from across the world who heeded al-Baghdadi’s call to come and create an emirate. When the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) became the air force for the jehadis in Libya in 2011, they provided such battle-hardened veterans with a new confidence (and new equipment). The Turkish government looked the other way as these fighters of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and its offshoots took flights from Libya to Turkey’s eastern city of Mardin. They would go across the border to al-Hasakah and join the Islamic State and al-Nusra convoys that drifted in their safe zone between Raqqah and Ramadi. Even when the Islamic State struck inside Turkey (such as in May 2013 in Reyhanli in Hatay), the Turkish government did not close down the “rat-line”. It remains open to this day.

A fraternal struggle opened up in 2013 when al-Baghdadi changed the name of his group to ISIS, including Syria in his dominion and telling his al-Nusra acolyte, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, to work under him. Al-Nusra and the ISIS had slightly different goals, with the latter less interested in the fight against Assad alone and more interested in the creation of an emirate. When Al Qaeda went against Al Qaeda in northern Syria, Assad and his allies moved to clear the road that links Damascus with the coastline. A weakened Free Syrian Army and a disorganised set of Islamist groups were no match for Assad’s surge. Meanwhile, al-Nusra and the ISIS sidelined many of the other Islamist groups in the north. Even as these two Al Qaeda units battled each other in this or that area, they would collaborate in other regions of Syria. The complexity of the politics allowed the ISIS to assert its control along the road from Raqqa to Iraq, maintaining control over the Syrian oilfields. These fights in Syria raised the confidence of the fighters, drew in more fighters and groups to their standard, and pushed them to make serious inroads into the Turkish border. In November 2013, Rami Abdul Rahman of the pro-rebellion Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said, “The ISIS is the strongest group in Northern Syria—100%—and anyone who tells you anything else is lying.”

Towards Baghdad

After its re-election, al-Maliki’s government put up billboards across Baghdad to celebrate Iraqi unity and the strong central government. Evidence for both is lacking. The ISIS had a firm grip on Anbar province and had seriously threatened the border posts to Syria—namely at Rutbah and Qa’im. In Diyala and Ninevah provinces, the ISIS deepened its older ties with deposed Baathists and cashiered Iraqi military officers and soldiers. Al-Baghdadi recognised that this alliance of the ISIS with people like al-Duri of the Naqshbandi Army was crucial. It would allow the ISIS to traffic in the old Baathist anger at the new Iraq. The ISIS targeted the centres of the old “Sunni insurgency”, taking Mosul in June and then in quick succession the cities along the Tigris—from Tikrit to Samarra. By late June, with Anbar and Ninevah provinces in ISIS hands and with Diyala province threatened, the ISIS held the northern entrances towards Baghdad. The billboards in Baghdad are a rebuke to the country—a joke in the summer sun as the sounds of gunfire and heavy artillery creep closer to the city.

The U.N. reports that 2,400 Iraqis lost their lives in June. Over a million Iraqis have fled the zone now held by the ISIS. They left for good reason. The ISIS hastened to put its social agenda in place—no room for minorities of any kind, no pleasures of tobacco and music to be permitted, and harsh rules set in place for the social interactions of men and women. Human Rights Watch ratified that the summary executions of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers took place as the ISIS took Mosul. The smell of blood and fear is part of their modus operandi. Al-Baghdadi’s alliance with al-Duri’s Baathists has not moderated their conduct. ISIS members are not interested in compromise. Victory is before them, either on earth or in heaven.

An old Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) term, blowback, well defines the arrival of the ISIS. It refers to policies conducted today towards a certain end that might have an adverse result—use of jehadis to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, for instance, produced Al Qaeda. The West and their regional allies (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey) have egged on the jehadis in Syria despite every indication of their links to Al Qaeda. As the ISIS threatens Baghdad, the U.S. promises $500 million to “appropriately vetted” armed rebels in Syria. But it was the weakened Syrian state that provided the Islamic State the opportunity to test its mettle there, and then turn back to Iraq. The Gulf Arabs have prohibited their subjects from fighting in Syria. But they cannot stop them. The tinderbox of regional chaos was opened by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Gulf Arab-Turkey support for Islamist fighters in northern Syria and Iraq. ISIS attacks in Lebanon and Turkey threaten these countries as well. U.S. promises of drone use, Special Forces troops and aerial attacks are hardly salutary. They cannot clean up a mess that they are continuing to create.

An ISIS fighter in Mosul sat under a sign that read: “The Iraqi Army is a Thorn in the Eyes of Terrorism.” That army vanished. In its place came various Shia militias, such as the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), a breakaway from al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and given a long leash by al-Maliki. Its leader, Qayis Khazali, was expelled from the Mahdi Army because he is a loose cannon. His group has been active across the region, accused of supplanting the security services and being some of the most ruthless fighters around the shrine of Sayida Zainab in Damascus, Syria. Lebanon’s Hizbollah fighters complain that the AAH fighters in Syria had to be taken in hand and trained to calm down. Iraq’s senior Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a fatwa calling upon “all able-bodied Iraqis” to defend Iraq from the ISIS. He roused up the AAH and its offshoots. Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, shrugged off his clerical uniform and put on military fatigues. This is the character of the fight—deep into the sectarian trough.

In February, al-Sadr warned that Iraq “is ruled by wolves, thirsty for blood, souls that are eager for wealth, leaving their nation in suffering, in fear, in water puddles, in dark night, lightened only by moonlight or a candle, swamped by assassinations based on differences or ridiculous disagreements”. His loyal troops conducted a show of strength across Iraq on June 21. They will stand guard of Baghdad. Sistani echoed al-Sadr’s interest in the revival of Iraqi nationalism; the first step was for a unity government to come to Baghdad. The politics are fraught. These are fractured countries, broken by war. Syrians and Iraqis are prisoners in a burning prison. There are no easy, unbarred exits.

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