West Asia

Misadventure again

Print edition : October 17, 2014

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq, in a video posted on a militant website in July. Photo: AP

Iraqi soldiers and Sunni fighters holding positions on the front line during clashes with I.S. fighters on September 17 outside Dhuluiya, some 75 km north of Baghdad. Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP

The image posted on a militant website on January 14 shows I.S. fighters marching in Raqqa, Syria. Photo: AP

Barack Obama announces his grandiose plan of “degrading and ultimately destroying” the Islamic State but does not spell out how the motley rebel groups in Syria will be united and made into a force that can take on both the Syrian Army and the entrenched I.S. forces.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA’S decision to unleash the dogs of war once again in West Asia following the military advances of the Islamic State (I.S.) forces and the beheading of three Western nationals could lead to another full-scale war in the region. In the third week of September, the United States’ House of Representatives and Senate, without even a semblance of a debate, voted to give Obama their approval for the plan to train and arm the “moderate” rebel forces in Syria. The U.S. will provide $500 million for the training of 5,700 Syrian rebel fighters on Saudi Arabian soil every year for waging war against both the I.S. and the Syrian state. The Obama administration has not bothered to spell out how the motley rebel groups are going to be united and made into a fighting force capable of facing the Syrian Army and the entrenched I.S. forces in cities such as Raqqa in Syria.

Many Congressmen have, however, expressed their disapproval of the U.S.’ latest military misadventure in the region. It is well known that the only rebel groups seriously battling the secular Syrian government are jehadi forces of various hues, ranging from the I.S. to Saudi- and Qatari-supported groups such as the Ahrar al Sham and the Islamic Front. U.S. officials have admitted that they are turning a blind eye to the close cooperation on the ground between the moderate groups and the Al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front in Syria. A report in The New York Times talked about al-Nusra fighters undertaking suicide-bombing missions on behalf of groups directly funded by the U.S. The leader of one such group called the Furhan-al-Huq Brigade acknowledged that his fighters depended on the expertise of al-Nusra fighters.

The leaders of many of the “moderate” groups the U.S. is seeking to support actually came into prominence fighting the occupation forces in Iraq. Many of the fighters from the Western-sponsored Free Syrian Army and al-Nusra have defected to the I.S. The I.S is also attracting radicalised Muslim youth from all over the world, including India. According to informed diplomatic sources, there are around 20 Indians in the I.S. This information has been gathered, according to the source, from captured I.S. fighters in northern Iraq. One Indian is reported to have died after a suicide mission on behalf of the I.S. in Hama province in Syria. According to a diplomat from the region, most of the foreign fighters are from Tunisia and Chechnya. The third largest group comes from other parts of Europe, notably France.

The I.S., most observers of the region believe, is a creation of the U.S. and its regional allies. Most Iraqis and Syrians definitely think so. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Bahaa al-Araji has pointed the finger of suspicion at the U.S. The firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was more forthright. In a speech in the third week of September, he publicly blamed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the creation of the I.S. Arms and money have been funnelled in from Turkey and to a lesser extent from Jordan since 2011 in the continuing attempt to overthrow the government in Syria. The covert and overt help provided by Syria’s and Iraq’s neighbours played a key role in the growth of the I.S., which now seeks to establish a caliphate spreading from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. The Iraqi government arrested 40 Qatari nationals last year on charges of aiding and abetting extremist groups. It did not publicise the news at the time. In the third week of September, Turkey secured the release of 49 of its hostages who were in I.S. captivity for three months. The Turkish authorities have not been forthcoming about the details surrounding the release of the hostages at a time when the I.S. has been killing hostages from other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) member-countries.

Senior diplomats from the region said the I.S. fighters, during their attack and capture of Mosul in Iraq, came from across the Syrian border in brand new four-wheel vehicles. The diplomat suggested that the vehicles, most probably bought with funds provided by sponsors in the Gulf region, first came into Syria through Turkey. According to Iraqi officials, the fighters carried the latest weaponry, including arms manufactured in Turkey. The diplomat said the attacking force consisted of only around 800 I.S. fighters, many of them foreigners.

According to Iraqi sources, this small but highly motivated force easily routed the 60,000-strong Iraqi force stationed in Mosul. Thirty-nine Indians, almost all of them contract factory workers, are said to be in I.S. captivity. The I.S. has not made any statement about their fate. Cities such as Mosul and Tikrit, both Sunni dominated, have been hotbeds of anti-Americanism ever since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Iraqi forces were not trusted as they are predominantly Shia. The composition of the Iraqi Army divisions reflects the sectarian divide. The two Kurdish divisions take their orders from the government in northern Iraq.

Despite the lofty rhetoric of I.S. leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the primary goal of the I.S. and its allies is to carve out a Sunni-dominated state comprising sizable chunks of Syria and Iraq. The Islamic emirate they seek to create would subsume the colonial boundaries imposed on the Arab nation by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. The I.S. already controls a territory bigger than Jordan. It has rendered the border between Syria and Iraq completely porous and is able to move supplies and men with impunity. The kidnapped Turks were moved from Mosul to Raqqa and then to the Turkish border.

Targets in Iraq

The U.S. military action is already ongoing in Iraq, with its air force attacking I.S. targets in central and northern Iraq in a small way. The Iraqi government has said that it will not allow the use of air power to target populated areas. This will make the task of defeating the I.S. tougher as its forces are embedded in cities that have a high population density. The U.S.’ priority now is to help the Kurds in northern Iraq fend off the I.S. The Kurds in Iraq have been long-standing allies of the West in the region. In the second week of September, the U.S. started bombing I.S. positions in the central part of the country under I.S. control.

Targets in Tikrit and Fallujah have been hit. Shia militias, which were quick to replace the depleted Iraqi Army, have been effective in stopping the onward march of the I.S. in Iraq and have also reconquered some areas. Shia militia leaders have opposed the return of U.S. soldiers to Iraq. They have, however, not objected to the bombing of I.S. targets.

The limited U.S. military action against I.S. targets in Iraq began in the third week of September. On September 23, U.S. planes and cruise missiles targeted the main I.S. stronghold of Raqqa in Syria. State Department officials said that Syria’s Ambassador to the United Nations had been informed about the aerial attack on Raqqa. Saudi, UAE and Jordanian planes also joined in the attack. Meanwhile, another U.S. ally, Israel, shot down a Syrian fighter jet as it was targeting al-Nusra positions near the Golan Heights. Syria has accused Israel of being hand in glove with the terrorists whom the U.S. is currently targeting.

The Syrian government has warned that bombing I.S. targets on its territory without its permission will be considered an act of aggression. Senior Obama administration officials have responded by saying that Syrian Army positions will be targeted if U.S. planes carrying out missions against the I.S. are fired upon. The U.S. has not sought a Security Council mandate to target I.S. positions. A few Arab states, almost all of them Gulf monarchies, are participating in Obama’s grandiose plan of “degrading and ultimately destroying” the I.S. solely through the means of targeted air strikes. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has sarcastically described the new coalition assembled by the Obama administration as the “coalition of repenters”. He was alluding to the fact that the countries that have agreed to participate in the action are the same that helped to make the I.S. what it is today. The Foreign Minister, during a recent visit to the U.S., said America had enabled the formation of the I.S. by invading Iraq, and Sunni Arab states had allowed the group to grow by sending in money, arms and foreign fighters. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, has said that the U.S. is “planning a war to dominate the region”.

Turkey has refused to join the coalition hastily sewn up by the U.S. to fight the I.S. Despite being a founding member of NATO, Turkey has denied the U.S. Air Force permission to use the Incirlik airbase for attacks against the I.S. The only commitment Turkey has given is to tighten controls along the border with Syria and stop fighters from streaming in to join the I.S. Ankara sees the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as the first priority. With this goal in mind, it is not averse to tacitly continuing support to radical groups, including the al-Nusra Front. Interestingly, all the governments in the region, which until last year were up-front about their support of jehadi groups, are now claiming that their hands are clean. They include the governments of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Qatari Emir, during his recent trip to France, was forced to state publicly that his oil-rich kingdom had nothing to do with the creation, arming and financing of the I.S. Even today, many of these countries help the I.S. by buying oil produced in the refineries under its control. It is estimated that the I.S. earns around $3 million every day from the sale of oil.

Even U.S. commentators have said that if the Obama administration is really serious about eradicating the I.S. menace, it must cooperate with the Syrian government, which has been battling the extremist groups on its territory for the past four years. But Washington has stressed that it will under no circumstances cooperate with Damascus in fighting the I.S. Senior Syrian officials said their government was ready to share intelligence and cooperate in the fight against extremism, along with countries such as Russia and China.

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney warned that Obama’s blueprint for action against the I.S. would lead “to war on three fronts: fighting the I.S. in Iraq, fighting the I.S. in Syria and potentially the Assad government in Syria”. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillbrand pointed out that Obama’s plan would mean U.S. military support for rebel groups in Syria, which had no compunction about using chemical weapons against the Syrian government forces. Those designated as “moderate force” by the U.S. hold less than 5 per cent of Syrian territory. And in much of this territory, it is the al-Nusra Front that calls the shots. Most of the populated and productive parts of Syria are firmly under the control of the central government.

Obama has been insisting that there will be no U.S. troops on the ground even as his top generals are saying the opposite. General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers that he would recommend deployment of ground troops in case air strikes did not succeed in defeating the I.S. Another senior U.S. officer, the Army Chief of Staff, General Raymond Odierno, said ground troops would be needed to root out the I.S. There have been reports that U.S. military boots are already on the ground in Iraq. “We already have ground forces introduced and they are performing combat missions,” a retired U.S. army general, Paul. D. Eaton, told the media.

After the formal withdrawal of the U.S. occupation forces from Iraq in 2012, thousands of U.S. Army men and military contractors were left behind in the “green zone” in Baghdad, which houses the biggest American embassy building in the world. The U.S. has always had a strong military and security presence in northern Iraq, which is controlled by the pro-American Kurdish political parties.

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