West Asia

War without end

Print edition : September 19, 2014

An Islamic State militant holds a knife next to the man purported to be U.S. journalist James Foley at an unknown location in this image from an undated video posted on a social media website. Photo: Reuters

A file photograph of Foley. Photo: Ken McGagh/AP

Bombing the Islamic State fighters, who have made the sectarian divide in Iraq permanent, may not solve the problem as the U.S. and its allies in West Asia had allowed the I.S. a free run in Syria to fight the Bashar al-Assad government.

THE BEHEADING OF AMERICAN JOURNALIST Jacob Foley by the Islamic State (I.S.), previously known as ISIL and ISIS, has revived calls by right-wing voices in the United States for a full-scale military intervention in Iraq and Syria. Incidentally, Foley, had expressed serious reservations about U.S. intervention in the region.

In the videotape released by the I.S., a masked man speaking with a pronounced British accent decapitates Foley. The British authorities claim that they are on the verge of revealing the identity of the Briton responsible for the atrocity. Thousands of Westerners are known to have joined the jehadi forces fighting in Syria and Iraq. It is only now that the governments in the West have started taking serious note of this.

The lightning military advances made by the I.S. in northern and central Iraq and its control of strategic assets such as dams and oil wells had initially prompted a lukewarm response from the Barack Obama administration.

In fact, initially there seemed to have been some coordination between the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq and the I.S. The I.S. forces had taken over Mosul while the Kurdish forces ousted the Iraqi government forces from the disputed oil city of Kirkuk. But what many observers in the region had viewed as a tacit opportunistic alliance was short-lived. The I.S. soon turned its attention to the Kurd-controlled areas of northern Iraq and Irbil, another oil city, prompting the U.S. to insist that the I.S. had violated redlines.

Irbil is the capital of Kurdish-administered northern Iraq, and American oil companies such as Exxon Mobil have their regional offices there. The threat posed by the I.S. to northern Iraq prompted the White House to order large-scale deployment of the U.S. Air Force. The U.S. has a consulate and hundreds of military advisers and security operatives in Irbil. Obama told Thomas Friedman of The New York Times that American lives would be endangered if the I.S. captured Irbil. Northern Iraq is, for all practical purposes, run like an independent state. The Kurds are planning to hold a referendum later this year to formally chart out an independent course.

The Kurdish leadership has been a long-standing ally of the West. An independent Kurdistan could become an all-weather friend of the U.S. like Israel . The U.S. was left with no option but to intervene militarily to prevent the collapse of its only political ally in Iraq, which would have hurt its “special interests” in northern Iraq. U.S. Vice-President Joseph Biden has been talking about the need for “soft partitioning” Iraq. The U.S. has been sending sophisticated arms and military advisers to bolster the Kurds’ strength. The Kurdish army, known as Peshmarga, is reputed to be an effective fighting force unlike the Iraqi Army. But in the face of the I.S. assault, it retreated much faster than the Iraqi Army. The U.S. is now supplying sophisticated arms directly to the Kurdish government without keeping the central government in Baghdad in the loop.

Another reason for the U.S. military intervention is to free the Mosul dam from the control of the I.S. The dam, which generates electricity and supplies water to a large section of the Iraqi population, has since been retaken by the Peshmarga and the Iraqi forces after U.S. planes used massive firepower to disperse the I.S. forces. The U.S. Air Force was engaged to drop food for thousands of Yazidis who had fled to a desolate mountaintop to escape the depredations of the I.S. fighters. All non-Sunni residents in the vast swathe of territory under the I.S. control have been victimised. Yazidis, who are not Muslims and reside in Mosul and the surrounding areas, were given an ultimatum to renounce their faith, which is a mix of Old Testament Christian, Zoroastrian and Islamic beliefs. The Islamic militants have derided them as “devil worshippers”.

The plight of the few thousand Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar and the efforts of the U.S. to provide them relief was front-page news at a time when Israelis were bombing Gaza. Another minority group, Turkmen, who are Shias, were also targeted by the I.S., but their plight was not similarly highlighted in the West.

The I.S. launched its military offensive at a time when the West’s focus was on the crisis that was unfolding in Ukraine and the Israeli offensive against the 1.8 million people trapped in the Gaza Strip. While Washington threatened Moscow for the Ukrainian crisis, it did not lift a finger to stop Israel when it continued to massacre Palestinians. The death toll in Gaza has touched 2,000.

Deserting al-Maliki

The Obama administration has not been forthcoming with military help for the beleaguered Iraqi Army, which has lost the key cities of Fallujah, Tikrit, Kirkuk and Mosul in quick succession. The I.S. has declared Fallujah the capital of the “Islamic Emirate” it has proclaimed. The U.S., instead, chose to make Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki the scapegoat for the military and political quagmire the country finds itself in. The fall of Mosul sealed al-Maliki’s political fate and he was forced to admit defeat.

The deepening sectarian divide in Iraq is the result of the U.S. occupation of the country since its invasion in 2003. Washington encouraged a divide-and-rule policy in the country to prolong its occupation.

Al-Maliki, after two terms in office, was forced to forsake his claim for a third term after he lost the backing of many allies, including the leading Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The new Prime Minister, Haydar al-Abadi, has the support of both Washington and Tehran. He was the surprise choice of Fuad Masum, the Kurdish politician who became the country’s new President on July 25. The U.S. played a key role in his election. Al-Abadi was living in exile in London. He, like the former Prime Minister, is a senior member of the Islamic Dawa Party, which has once again emerged as the largest bloc in the Iraqi Parliament. The U.S. viewed al-Maliki as being too close to Iran. The U.S. hoped that the Western-educated al-Abadi would be more open to its demands. Al-Abadi, however, faces an uphill task with the Kurds demanding more concessions and the Sunni leadership refusing to acknowledge the new political realities in Iraq, where the Shias constitute the overwhelming majority of the population. Iran has not criticised the use of U.S. air power against the I.S. The I.S. had captured Jalawla, a town located less than 50 kilometres from the Iranian border. The I.S. considers Shias heretics, worthy of beheading.

The leadership in Iran is no doubt bemused by the latest talk in the U.S. about targeting the I.S. positions inside Syria. The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said on August 21 that the I.S. could be defeated by “addressing that part of the organisation that resides in Syria”. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said the U.S. was looking at “all options” against the I.S., including the redeployment of U.S. troops in Iraq. Washington has now classified the I.S. as a “long-term threat” to U.S. interests. U.S. officials have admitted that I.S. fighters are using U.S. equipment and military vehicles, including personnel carriers and Humvees. Hagel said the I.S. was “tremendously well-funded” and that the group posed an “imminent threat” to U.S. interests globally.

A lot of money has entered its coffers through covert and overt funding from the U.S.’ allies in the region, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The U.S. stood aside for more than two years as the I.S. grew into a potent force fighting the Syrian government. The Qatari government was forced to issue a statement in late August denying that it had funded or supported the I.S. The statement was followed by the release of Peter Theo Curtis, a U.S. national who was abducted two years ago in Syria. Curtis’ family has publicly thanked the Qatari government for facilitating his release from the custody of Al Nusra, an al Qaeda-affiliated group. The release of Curtis is an illustration of the influence some of the conservative monarchies continue to have with “jehadist” groups such as al Nusra and the I.S.

Now, the chickens have seemingly come to roost. In the last week of August, the I.S. carried out simultaneous bombings in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Irbil, killing more than a hundred people. In Diyala province, more than 70 worshippers were killed in a mosque. The I.S. is going all out to make the sectarian divide permanent.

The Iraqi Army is a shadow of the force it once was. The first thing the U.S. did after its invasion in 2003 was to disband the Iraqi Army, which had been weakened by the first Gulf War and the draconian United Nations sanctions. The Iraqi Air Force, once a potent force in the region, was scrapped altogether.

The new Iraqi Army, set up under the overall supervision of the occupying forces, turned out to be under-equipped, undisciplined and supervised by corrupt officers. Recent events have shown that the army is incapable of putting up a fight. The fight against the I.S. is now spearheaded by various militias, many of them trained by Iran and the Hizbullah.

On the other hand, the I.S. consists of experienced fighters who had earned their spurs in Afghanistan, Chechnya and other terrorist hotspots or those trained by Western intelligence agencies in Turkey, Jordan and other countries. They had defected from the moderate groups fighting in Syria, which had the support of the West, Turkey and the Gulf monarchies. “The U.S. and its regional allies armed and trained ‘moderate’ Sunni rebels to oust President Bashar al-Assad in order to weaken Iranian/Russian influence in West Asia. Then those ‘moderate’ rebels became more radical and joined the I.S., which has emerged as the largest, wealthiest and most radical terrorist organisation in the region,” the French intellectual Thierry Meysan wrote recently on the Voltaire website.

The I.S. maintained that the execution of Foley was directly connected with the targeting of its forces by the U.S. Air Force. The group had been allowed a free run in Syria where the West and its regional allies viewed the secular government led by Assad as the bigger enemy. “In Syria, ancient Christian churches were destroyed, nuns and bishops were kidnapped and priests were killed. This was widely ignored in large part because many in the region and in the West were so focussed on attacking the Assad government,” Edmund Ghareeb, an academic from the American University, observed. More than 190,000 people have been killed in Syria since the Western-backed insurrection started four years ago.

Most of the sophisticated arms supplied by the West to the jehadi forces fighting in Syria are now in the hands of the I.S. Many of the I.S. leaders were in fact toasted as freedom fighters by U.S. dignitaries like Senator John McCain during their visits to the region.

In May last year, the warmongering Senator illegally entered Syria and met the leaders of the armed opposition in Idlib. Among those present at the meeting, as illustrated in released photographs, were known al Qaeda activists. McCain, on his return, pronounced that the armed opposition to Assad comprised “moderates, who can be trusted”.

The Obama administration was aware that for the past two years, the I.S. and other al Qaeda-affiliated groups had been fighting in Syria. Obama said his goal was to prevent the I.S. from creating “some sort of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria”. The Syrian province of Raqqa and a large swathe of Iraq are already under the control of the I.S. The I.S. leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has proclaimed himself as the leader of the new Islamic caliphate. Bombing the I.S. may no longer solve the problem as the genie created by the West and its allies is now out of the bottle. There are credible reports that former Baath Party members and soldiers belonging to the hanged Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s army have aligned themselves with the I.S. and have lent their military expertise to the force.

When this correspondent visited Baghdad on the eve of the U.S. invasion of the country, senior Baath Party officials had said they would be willing to join hands with the devil to have their revenge on the occupying forces and their collaborators. But there are reports that this opportunistic alliance was showing signs of breaking up mainly because of the violent sectarian rampage being spearheaded by the I.S.

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