The Islamic State is here to stay. That is the conclusion of the book “ISIS. Inside the Army of Terror” by journalists Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan. This important book is the first in English that gives an insight in what ISIS is, where it comes from and where it is heading. This unique book should be mandatory reading, as this would put an end to the vast amount of badly informed comments, nonsensical debates and counterproductive political decisions. The most important lesson of the book is that Assad is not part of the solution against ISIS, but a part of the problem from the very beginning until now.
Al-Zarqawi, the father of ISIS
The story of ISIS – and the book – starts with Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian smuggler who became a Salafist in one of Jordan’s mosques. Al-Zarqawi went to Afghanistan in 1989, just in time to see the Red Army defeated. He stayed there a few years while being trained in one of the Al Qaeda training camps where he also made his first Jihadist contacts. Back in Jordan he came in contact with the (this week released) preacher Al-Maqdisi who used Al-Zarqawi to hide weapons. The latter was arrested and sentenced to jail, the place where he radicalized.
There are more than a few important facts about Al-Zarqawi that gives us a better inside in today’s actions and thoughts of ISIS. The first is his hatred to everything that is not Sunni. He is convinced that only by killing Shia and creating a civil war between Sunni and She he could bring back the prestige and the old glory of the Islamic caliphate of Baghdad. His second mission was to get rid of the US occupation in Iraq. With the support of Syria and Iran he carried out the one attack after the other. A third fact is the tension between him and his group Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI) on the one side and the Al Qaeda leadership on the other. Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri didn’t agree with Al-Zarqawi’s concept of civil war and his barbaric way of killing Shia, as he was the one that started the publicized beheadings. Fourthly, AQI became rich by smuggling oil and didn’t need that much of foreign funding. The final crucial fact of AQI was that the main group of fighters were former soldiers of Saddam’s army.
Mistakes were made
It is impossible to understand the rise of AQI and later ISIS without the policies and mistakes of Iraq’s leadership of the last 20 years. First there was Saddam Houssein who was not only Baathist but sectarian too. After the war against Iran and the US invasion in 1991 his army slaughtered Kurds and Shia. In order to make his Sunni army more loyal he started the Faith Campaign exposing his soldiers to Salafi teachings. The result was that many soldiers became more loyal to Salafism than to Saddam.
The second, big mistake was made by the US and more specifically Paul Bremmer, the “governor” of Iraq after the invasion of 2003. By one stroke of a pen Bremmer made tens of thousands members of Saddam’s forces unemployed. The step to join the anti-US war of AQI was very small. No wonder that AQI became a very serious force. They were not only able to do multiple attacks. AQI even conquered Mosul, installing Al-Zarqawi’s regime of terror. It were not the American troops but the tribes that started an uprising, the so-called Anbar Awakening. With American support the tribes succeeded in kicking out AQI from Mosul. The American support was crucial. When the US troops left Iraq in 2011, Mosul became an easy target again.
The third mistake was one made by the dictatorial Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki. With the support of Teheran he continued the sectarian politics of Saddam, but then in the opposite way. By discriminating the Sunni, punishing the tribes of the Anbar Awakening instead of rewarding them, by pushing Sunni officers out of leading positions in the army Al-Maliki embittered the Iraqi Sunni population. This only worsened the moment the US troops left Iraq.
The end of Al-Zarqawi, the start of ISIS
On June 7, 2006 Al-Zarqawi was killed after a US air attack. He was succeeded by Abu Ayyub Al-Masri, an Egyptian national, as leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Masri decided to strengthen the home grown resistance in Iraq and founded the Islamic State if Iraq (ISI). He appointed Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi, a native Iraqi, as its leader. The book quotes Al-Jibouri, a tribal Sunni leader that “ISI represented Al Qaeda’s attempt to hijack the political channel of the Iraqi (Sunni) insurgency”.
The brutality with which ISI and AQI operated was unseen, even in Iraq. But their power play worked in that way that more and more frustrated Baathists joined them. ISI and AQI became that big that they had become uncontrollable in 2007. The Anbar Awakening was for the US in Iraq the start of the crackdown. Many leaders and fighters went to one of the infamous jails, where their hatred for the US even increased. We know now that these jails served as a university for jihadists. In Camp Bucca for example jihadists and Baathists learned to know each other better. They exchanged contact numbers (written in their underwear) and contacted each other once out of prison.
One of the prisoners of Bucca Camp was Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Al-Baghdadi, a doctor in Islamic Studies, was a quiet prisoner who had gained the trust of the guards as he was able to resolve conflicts between prisoner’s groups. He could even travel around in prison. That way he created a vast network of fighters who would become the core of the future ISIS. The same quality he used when released from prison in 2004. Many meetings between AQI leaders and ISI leaders happened at his place. Al-Baghdadi also pretended to be a descendent from Houssein, the grandson of the Prophet. So when Al-Masri and Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi were killed in 2010, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi became the obvious choice.
It was Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi who sent a small team to Syria in August 2011 in order to prepare the foundation of Jabhat Al Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. The leader of the group, Abu Mohammed Al-Jolani was not by accident a former prisoner of Camp Bucca and most probably also from Sednaya prison in Damascus. He was not the only one. On 31 May 2011, two months after the start of the Syrian revolution, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad issued a general amnesty. In reality “it was applied selectively – plenty of protestors and activists were kept in jail, while an untold number of Salafist-Jihadists were let out.” They not only created Jabhat Al Nusra, but also Ahrar Al Sham and the Syrian pillar of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (the Levant).
What does Assad want?
For many it seems not credible that Assad would have a hand in the creation of Jihadist groups that are fighting against his own regime. Nevertheless, it is a fact that he released the most fanatic Jihadists out of prison. It is also a fact that it was Assad’s army that bought the oil from Jabhat Al Nusra and later from ISIS in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and paid them to protect it, helping ISIS to become extremely rich. And it is a fact that there were hardly any clashes between the Syrian Army and ISIS before October/November 2014. Since then, Assad pretends to bomb ISIS strongholds while in reality these bombs kill civilians rather than ISIS fighters.
An intriguing story quoted in the book from the Guardian is about two secret meetings hosted and supervised in Zabadani (near Damascus) by the Syrian regime between Al Qaeda agents and Iraqi Baathists in 2009. Iraq’s PM Al-Maliki blamed Assad for a devastating series of attacks against Iraqi state institutions on August 19, 2009. The book also contains witnesses of Syrian security ratlines into Iraqi Jihadist groups and of the fact that it was easy for Jihadists to cross the Syrian-Iraqi border. In a police state like Syria such things don’t happen by accident.
Ali Mamlouk, Assad’s director of general intelligence, explained in 2010 what Syria wanted to achieve:
“1) Syria must be able to take the lead in any regional actions; 2) politics are an integral part of combating terrorism, and a ‘political umbrella’ of improved US-Syrian bilateral relations should facilitate cooperation against terrorism; and 3) in order to convince the Syrian people that cooperation with the US was benefiting them, progress must be made on issues related to economic sanctions against Syria including spare parts for airplanes and a plane for President (Assad).”
In other words, for many years the strategy of Assad is the help create terrorism in order to use it as a tool to be invited on the table to fight it. In the light of what is happening today with ISIS that makes perfectly sense. In his interview with BBC this week, Assad repeated that most protesters and rebels were terrorists from the beginning and that he had to fight them. As nobody believed his claims back in 2011, he helped to create ISIS and help them grow in order to prove his point. Now he hopes that the international community will invite him on the table in order to fight these terrorists.
The same strategy has been used concerning sectarianism. With the support of the Iranian Quds force and the Lebanese Hezbollah Assad has been trying to baptize the Syrian revolution as a sectarian war of Sunni fighters against the rest. His militias have been killing Sunni, while leaving the Christians unharmed, hoping to provoke a counter-reaction. It is a classic strategy, also used by Serbian President Milosevic in Bosnia. While the Free Syrian Army has always refused to use sectarian speech, it has become the core of the ISIS rhetoric and appeal. Assad is using this discourse to propagate himself as the protector of the minorities in Syria. Again the same strategy: he first creates the problem and then proposes himself as the only solution.
What does ISIS want?
Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi follows very much the ideas and strategies of Al-Zarqawi. He believes that by triggering a civil war between the ‘takfiris’ (Muslims who call other Muslims, Christians or Jews apostates) and the rest he will restore the glory time of the Bagdad Caliphate. It is not by accident that he chose Al-Baghdadi as his nom de guère. “In much of its public discourse, ISIS relies on Islamic eschatology (end of times) for legitimacy and mobilization. A hadith attributed to the Prophet Mohammad about tan end-of-days battle between Muslims and Christians in Dabiq, a town in rural Aleppo, is a frequent reference point – so pervasive that ISIS’ propaganda magazine is named for it. (…) According to (another) famous hadith, Mohammad explained to his followers that after him, a caliphate modelled on prophethood would be established, and that would then be followed by a coercive kingdom and tyrannical rule. Finally, another caliphate modeled on prophethood would be established.”
ISIS, or since June 2014 IS, the Islamic State, isn’t about Assad. It is about this last war of the takfiris against all the rest. It is about the installation of this new Caliphate. It is about abolishing all decisions of the apostate West, not the least the borders of the 1915 agreement of Sykes-Picot (between Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq). Hence the rhetoric against crusades or against the new “Lawrences of Arabia”. It is a discourse they are communicating in the most sophisticated way, attracting a lot of Salafist-Jihadists who are disillusioned in the failing Al Qaeda and the failed Muslim Brotherhood.
That is the reason why they are happy with the international coalition and with the reaction of Iran. It leads to this historic grand war they are looking for. And success breads followers. The difference with Al Qaeda is that ISIS calls on individuals to pledge allegiance to Al-Baghdadi, where-ever they live, and organize attacks on their own initiative. Ahmed Coulibaly, the man who killed 4 Jews and held 15 people hostage in a Parisian kosher shop, was an individual who pledged allegiance to ISIS. He never went to Syria or Iraq but committed a sectarian crime on his own initiative. The authors of the book, Weiss and Hassan, even spoke to a man in Turkey saying that he was part of an ISIS sleeping cell and that there were many outside Syria.
This way of organization of ISIS, it’s richness, the way they govern the cities and villages they occupy, the way they communicate and attract people, the fact that they believe that this is a holy war, the end war and that they will get a martyr’s treatment in heaven when they die, convinces the authors of the fact that ISIS is there to stay, in one way or another.
Airstrikes might move them a bit to the left or to the right, but they will not defeat ISIS. It is also clear that Assad cannot be trusted in any way. Moreover, becoming one of the biggest war criminals of all time, Assad can never be a part of the solution for the problem he by purpose helped to create. The only possible groups that might be able to defeat ISIS are precisely the groups the West refused to support in the first place. By not supporting the FSA and other groups the West weakened and divided them and made them an easy prey for the extremists of ISIS. Also, the non-attack in the summer of 2013 after Assad crossed Obama’s red line by using chemical weapons convinced many Syrians that the West is no ally anymore. In fact, they might be right.
M.Weiss and H. Hassan, “ISIS. Inside the Army of Terror”, Regan Arts – New York, 2014.
On December 6 Thomas L. Friedman published a column with the title How ISIS drives Muslims from Islam in the New York Times. I totally agree with this. It’s only strange that the New York Times refused my piece with exactly the same message two weeks ago. Maybe Friedman was inspired by my (of course much less well written) piece? Anyway, you cannot read it in the New York Times, but here:
Poised opposite Cairo university stands a grand statue of a traditional peasant woman (often used to depict Egypt) lifting her veil while standing next to a couchant Sphinx. The statue known as “Egypt’s Renaissance” was created in the 1920ies by the famous Egyptian sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar and symbolizes hopes of modernity after a long history of colonization.
Today ninety years later again women start to take off their veil. Just like in the early twenties this change is not yet noticeable in the streets of the more popular neighborhoods of Cairo, but in the more affluent parts of the city it already is. In a like manner, a lot of young veiled women are following a new trend: showing some hair. Like their Iranian counterparts, wearing the headscarf this way reflects a protest against the very purpose of the veil: covering a lady’s hair.
This ‘secularizing’ trend seems to contradict with the daily news we get from the Arab world. Today all eyes are focused on the Islamic State. After the horrors of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda worldwide, the world is shocked to see an extreme and barbaric version of Islamist rule through a reign of terror in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State is becoming an Arab World phenomenon as groups in Algeria, Egypt and Yemen pledged allegiance to the new Caliphate. There seem to be no limits to growing extremism in the Muslim World.
Therefore, the question is, are more people becoming extremists or are extremists becoming more extreme? To answer this question we have to refer back to history. With the humiliating defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 War against Israel, most non-Islamist ideologies died. Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism, socialism and secularism died on the battlefield, as well as the liberalism of his predecessors. The Arab world fell into an identity crisis, opening the way for the only remaining ideology: Islamism or conservative political Islam.
Saudi Arabia used this momentum and its newly gained petrodollars after the oil crisis in 1973 to spread Salafism or Islam without modernity. The Muslim Brotherhood too regained ground. It was founded in 1928, four years after Turkey’s Atatürk abolished the Caliphate. Its main goal was (and continues to be) reinstalling this Caliphate. This could only be achieved by getting rid of the Western-backed Arab dictators.
The Arab revolutions of 2011 were a golden opportunity for the Islamists. Knowing that the young revolutionaries were too unorganized and idealistic, Islamists took the power. The entire Arab World looked to Egypt, where for the first time, the Muslim Brotherhood had the leverage to execute their plan and organize an Islamist society. They miserably failed.
The psychological effect on the Arab World cannot be underestimated. With the exception of Ennahda in Tunisia that moderated its course, but still lost the elections, it turned many Islamists in other Arab Awakening countries more extreme. The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt convinced them that democracy and Islamism are not the way forward. The Arab World fell into a new identity crisis.
The Islamic State offered one answer to this crisis by going further, reinstalling the Caliphate and abolishing this other European decision, the national borders of the Middle East. It is an appealing project to disillusioned Islamists and adventurers trying to escape from their own personal identity crisis. But after all, the numbers of foreign fighters and supporters are rather small.
Much more important is what is happening to the silent majority in the Arab World. And here the opposite trend slowly starts becoming clear. Fewer taxi drivers place a copy of the Koran visibly in their car. More women are taking off their veil. The young revolutionary generation is also attending prayers at the mosque less often. Most of them only denounce the political Islam preached at many mosques. Others go further and flirt with atheism. The Egyptian government doesn’t like this trend and in Alexandria even a special police taskforce has been created to arrest atheists.
As there are no credible surveys on these trends and the reasons behind it, we can for the time being, fall back on personal stories that might be representative. One such story is about a conservative family in the city of Port Said, Egypt. Two sisters in their thirties, Marwa (36) and Heba (31), discovered just after the fall of President Mohamed Morsi that the books with which they grew up reading are books printed and distributed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Shocked to learn this, they started to rethink all the ideas that they formed and question the very basis of their religion. “Only after Morsi fell, I discovered that Hassan Al Banna (the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood,) wrote the foreword of the book ‘Living along the Sunni Lines’. I grew up with this book. Now I begin to doubt about everything,” Marwa said. Their veils started to become ‘trendy’, then to disappear last week.
The story of Marwa and Heba is just one of many. It demonstrates what is happening on the ground in the Arab World. The young revolutionary generation feels betrayed by the Islamists and is turning its back on them and often even religion itself. Where power and religion are one and the same, youngsters seem to reject both. This was already the case in Iran and it is happening now in the Arab World. As the current generation consists of fifty percent of the Arab population, this trend is probably the real revolution that is silently transforming the Arab World.
The group of extremists in the Islamic State is small in comparison. More importantly, most Muslim Arabs revolt against their claim to represent the real Islam. As a result, their terror as again shown in the video of the killing of Peter Kassig, it will only have one effect: it will speed up the trend of decline of Islamism in the Arab World.
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The official spokesperson of the Islamic State (ISIS), Abū Muhammad al-‘Adnānī ash-Shāmī, gave a long and disturbing speech. It is an interesting statement as it clarifies the state of mind of the leadership of ISIS. It is of course also an alarming message as it calls its followers all over the world to kill who-ever they can get hold of. But above all, it is a new strategy to avert an American attack. I have made a selection of the most important paragraphs of the speech in order to understand what ISIS is trying to tell us.
State of mind of ISIS
The starting point of the psychology of ISIS is one of humiliation. The West has humiliated Muslim in all their ‘crusades’. Adnani especially mentions Iraq. The psychological goal of the Islamic State is clearly one of revenge for these humiliations, the feeling that the ‘crusaders’ finally fear them (again).
Allah has given you might and honor after your humiliation.
This feeling of humiliation is combined with one of betrayal. Sunnis have been under attack in Iraq and in Syria and nobody came to help them. Adnani concentrates on Syria, where the West didn’t seem to care about what happened there.
Its sentiments were not stirred during the long years of siege and starvation in Shām, and it looked the other way when the deadly and destructive barrel bombs were being dropped. It was not outraged when it saw the horrific scenes of the women and children of the Muslims taking their last breaths with their eyes glazed over due to the chemical weapons of the nusayriyyah – scenes which continue to be repeated everyday, exposing the reality of the farce of having destroyed chemical weapons belonging to its nusayrī (alawite) dogs, the guardians of the jews. America and its allies were not emotionally
moved or outraged by any of this. They closed their ears to the cries of distress from the weak, and turned a blind eye to the massacres carried out against the Muslims in every one of those lands for years and years.
They see the Islamic State as the only real protector of Muslims in Syria and Iraq. And they seem to be surprised by the fact that their barbaric attitude did upset the rest of the world.
But when a state emerged for the Muslims that would defend them, take revenge for them, and carry out retribution, America and the crusaders started shedding crocodile tears for the sake of a few hundred rāfidī (shiite) and nusayrī criminal soldiers that the Islamic State had taken as prisoners of war and then executed. The hearts of America and its allies were broken by the Islamic State when it cut off the rotten heads of some agents, spies, and apostates. It was terrified and its allies were terrified when the Islamic State would flog and stone the fornicator, cut off the hand of the thief, and strike the neck of the sorcerer and the apostate.
You will pay the price
Adnani and thus ISIS give a clear warning to the United States and its allies. He predicts that the coalition will face people who are ready to die and that they will not be broken by air strikes alone. He also predicts that this will be the last crusade and the last campaign. After this campaign, he warns, we will come after you.
O America, O allies of America, and O crusaders, know that the matter is more dangerous than you have imagined and greater than you have envisioned. We have warned you that today we are in a new era, an era where the State, its soldiers, and its sons are leaders not slaves. They are a people who through the ages have not known defeat. The outcome of their battles is concluded before they begin. They have not prepared for a battle since the time of Noah except with absolute conviction of victory. Being killed – according to their account – is a victory.
If he survives, he lives as a victor with freedom,
might, honor, and authority. And if he is killed, he illuminates the path for those after him and goes on to his Lord as a joyful martyr.
And so we promise you by Allah’s permission that this campaign will be your final campaign. It will be broken and defeated, just as all your previous campaigns were broken and defeated, except that this time we will raid you thereafter, and you will never raid us. We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah, the Exalted.
Alarming by all means is of course that Adnani not only sends out warnings that the West will pay the price. He also calls to all those who have pledged alliance to the Caliphate of ISIS to take initiative themselves and kill people in the US and the allied countries. This is a very different strategy than the one of Al Qaeda where attacks were organized and rubberstamped by the central authority. Within ISIS everyone who pledged alliance doesn’t need any approval or organizational support. Everyone can act as he wishes. That makes it much more difficult to trace and to prevent.
You will pay the price when your economies collapse. You will pay the price when your sons are sent to wage war against us and they return to you as disabled amputees, or inside coffins, or mentally ill. You will pay the price as you are afraid of travelling to any land. Rather you will pay the price as you walk on your streets, turning right and left, fearing the Muslims. You will not feel secure even in your bedrooms. You will pay the price when this crusade of yours collapses, and thereafter we will strike you in your homeland, and you will never be able to harm anyone afterwards.
O muwahhidīn in Europe, America, Australia, and Canada… O muwahhidīn in Morocco and Algeria… O muwahhidīn in Khorasan, the Caucasus, and Iran… O muwahhidīn everywhere upon the face of the earth… O brothers in creed… O people of walā’ (allegiance to the Muslims) and barā’ (disavowal of disbelievers)… O patrons of the Islamic State… O you who have given bay’ah (pledge of allegiance) to the Caliph Ibrāhīm everywhere… O you who have loved the Islamic State… O you who support the Caliphate… O you who consider yourselves from amongst its soldiers and patrons…
Rise and defend your Muslim brothers, for their homes, families, and wealth are threatened and deemed lawful by their enemies. They are facing a battle which is of the decisive, critical battles in the history of Islam. If the Muslims are defeated, they will be humiliated in such a manner that no humiliation compares to. And if the Muslims are victorious – and this will be the case by Allah’s permission – they will be honored with all honor by which the Muslims will return to being the masters of the world and kings of the earth.
So O muwahhid, do not let this battle pass you by wherever you may be. You must strike the soldiers, patrons, and troops of the tawāghīt. Strike their police, security, and intelligence members, as well as their treacherous agents. Destroy their beds. Embitter their lives for them and busy them with themselves. If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be.
What is the real message?
Adnani gives essentially three messages to the United States and its allies:
1. We didn’t start a war against you
2. Starting a war is a mistake, it will be more difficult than you think.
3. You will have to face terrorist attacks everywhere
He is of course speaking for his own audience and has to wrap these messages into tough jihadist language.
1. We didn’t start a war against you
O Americans, and O Europeans, the Islamic State did not initiate a war against you, as your governments and media try to make you believe. It is you who started the transgression against us, and thus you deserve blame and you will pay a great price.
2. Starting a war is a mistake, it will be more difficult than you think
(Obama) you claimed today that America would not be drawn to a war on the ground. No, it will be drawn and dragged. It will come down to the ground and it will be led to its death, grave, and destruction. O Obama, you claimed that the hand of America was long and could reach wherever it willed. Then know that our knife is sharp and hard.
3. You will have to face terrorists everywhere
If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be. Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling. Both of them are disbelievers.
In the past weeks ISIS has tried different strategies in trying to convince the US and its allies not to attack. First they made videos of the decapitation of two US and one British journalist. They seemed to hope that the West would buy the hostages out and leave the IS alone. The Western reaction was the exact opposite and the public opinion switched towards a war mood. The next step was a video of another British journalist sitting on a desk, talking with a totally different tone.(1)
It seems this speech of the official spokesperson of ISIS is another strategy in trying to convince the coalition not to attack. It is a dangerous but also a desperate message. However, it might prove to be the worst strategic step they have taken so far. More than anything else the threat of terrorism will convince the US and its allies that they can’t aim for nothing less than the total destruction of ISIS.
For the full translation of the speech see here
(1) See the interesting analysis of Prof. Peter Neumann.
“We don’t have a strategy yet”. These were the shocking words of president Obama yesterday. Today (30 August) Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz responded by warning that the threat of terrorism will reach Europe and America if the world does not unite to confront it.
Sickened by the images coming in daily from the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, citizens from all over the world tend to believe the Saudi King. Differences in origin, conviction or faith vanish in the face of so much barbarism. These extremists much look like the thirteen-century Mongolian incursion in the Middle East and its attempt at wiping out civilisation itself. Much like a new Dzjengis Khan, the self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi instituted a reign of terror sparing nothing and no one.
The Islamic State is indeed not some distant newsworthy event. Extremist jihadists have already threatened violence in the West on multiple occasions. The murderous attack on the Brussels Jewish Museum demonstrated this is within the realm of the possible. There’s the issue of “our boys” joining IS. Moreover IS is rapidly approaching the borders of Turkey, a NATO ally. And these are most probably just a few rain drips compared to the thunderstorm that might follow.
But even regardless of any direct threat to Europe or the US, the question arises whether it is at all acceptable to have an area the size of the UK being terrorised by barbaric inhumanity. So what should be done? First of all, it is clear, there’s no talking to such fanatic warriors. Condemnations from Islamic and Christian origin bring no avail. IS followers are convinced they alone are right and that all others are infidels and must therefore be killed.
So, unfortunately just one option remains. We shall have to speak the only language these extremist fighters understand: armed intervention. For all intents and purposes Europe is already at war with IS. The European Council of Foreign Ministers authorized the UK and France to support the US in airstrikes on IS and to supply weapons to the Peshmerga, the Kurdish troops in Iraq. These attacks were of big importance as the jihadists were closing in on Erbil, Iraq’s Kurdish capital. Moreover, thousands of Yezidis were on the brink of starvation. Psychologically too, these attacks were important because they shattered the image of invincibility of IS warriors.
However, to stop IS madness we will have to go further. And we must avoid the mistakes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As such, it is crucial that neither NATO nor any other western alliance takes the lead in fighting IS. That would be a godsend for these jihadists, claiming the Christian West is again starting a new crusade, for which they could attract new recruits. Therefore it is crucial for a regional coalition to take the lead. Ideally neighbors Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey step up. Iran’s involvement is necessary too, to prevent Shia groups from profiting from IS’ loss as is regretfully often the case around Bagdad today.
Focussing only on Iraq would be another mistake. The US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey said a few days ago that it would be an illusion to think we can defeat IS in Iraq without dealing with them in Syria too. And just as Maliki in Iraq, Syria’s Assad is not the solution but the problem. Syria too needs an inclusive, democratic and therefore anti-sectarian government. During negotiations in Geneva, it became very clear that Bashar Al Assad is not interested whatsoever in such a solution. Meanwhile, more and more evidence of Assad’s complicity in the rise IS is surfacing. Without Bashar Al Assad ISIS would have never been what it is today.
Former US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, concluded we should empower and arm the moderate rebels. For the past nine months, they have been the only ones to systematically fight IS(IS). The fact that the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish troops in Syria now want to join forces to take on IS only increases their credibility as a partner. In the end, Ford claims, only a stronger rebel army will be capable of forcing the Syrian regime to negotiate and to come to an anti-sectarian unity government.
Nobody wants to live under a reign of terror. It would be a mistake to think Syrians or Iraqi live enthusiastically in the Islamic State. The population of the Northern Syrian city Azaaz was the first to oust the occupiers. Today resistance is emerging in Raqqa and Mosul. It is time to act and to come to the rescue of these people. Even more, a well thought through strategy against the barbaric Islamic State could well be the key to peace in Iraq and Syria.
Therefore the world indeed needs to unite against the Islamic State. A coalition must be built to support an alliance of Middle Eastern countries to fight IS, to empower and arm the Peshmerga, to reunite and arm the Free Syrian Army and other moderate rebel groups. The goal of these efforts is clear: to get red of fanatic and sectarian forces in Iraq and Syria and form the only alternative: two democratic and inclusive unity governments that can make a new start.
You can follow @koertdebeuf on Twitter
With thanks to Kristof Debergh
R.I.P. Iraq. The country is no more. Iraq has ceased to exist. That is my conclusion after a short, but intensive visit to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. It is not the declaration of the “Islamic State” on 29 June that marks the turning point. It will rather be the soon-expected declaration of independence by the Iraqi Kurds which will prove irreversible.
Few paid attention two weeks after the parliamentary elections of 30 April 2014 when Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, threatened to boycott a new government led by Iraqi PM Nuri Maliki. Barzani said he had enough of the authoritarian way in which Maliki has governed.
The dispute between Erbil and Baghdad dates back a long time. One elements is that the referendum on disputed areas such as Kirkuk, promised in the constitution of 2005, never came to be. The referendum was to determine if these areas would be part of Kurdish Iraq or not.
Since the end of 2013 the friction between the two capitals has seriously aggravated.
In November 2012, Erbil signed a historic agreement with Ankara to use the Turkish pipeline to the port of Ceyhan. Baghdad claims the Kurds have no right to do it independently. This reaction is comprehensible as one third of Iraq’s oil reserves are located in Kurdistan.
On top of that, new gas resources have been found and might soon be ready for exploitation. The Kurds insist that the constitution gives them the authority to exploit and sell their own hydrocarbons. They already exported crude oil secretly by trucks to Iran and Turkey. But a pipeline is a different matter.
Maliki reacted furiously and to cut the monthly budget transfer to Erbil. The Iraqi constitution stipulates that Baghdad should allocate a share of 17 percent of the budget to the Kurds. Falah Mustafa, the foreign minister of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), told me that Baghdad never allocated more than 11 percent anyway. But in January 2014 Maliki blocked the whole thing.
The consequences have been disastrous. With 70 to 80 percent of Iraqi Kurds working for the regional government in one way or another, all of them stopped getting paid. The KRG had to take loans from Turkey in order to restart paying a part of people’s salaries in March. It only served to deepen the resentment of the Kurds to the central government in Baghdad.
This resentment, together with the sectarian and authoritarian rule of Maliki, prompted Kurdish president Barzani to make his harsh comments in May 2014. “Those who cut the budget of Kurdistan are going to pay the price of that decision,” he said at that time.
Barzani and his fellow Kurds knew there would be no support for their demand for more autonomy, not to speak of independence. But all that changed drastically and suddenly on 10 June 2014, when the exterme jihadists of the Islamiq State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) captured Mosul and a great part of the province of Nineveh.
The Kurds had predicted trouble. They warned Baghdad that Baathists, people linked the former regime of Saddam Hussein, and extremist groups were forming an alliance to organise a Sunni Muslim revolt.
The Shia Muslim Maliki has not only neglected the Kurds, but all the more so the Sunni population of Western Iraq. He also changed the US-trained “inclusive” Iraqi army into a Shia militia loyal to himself. At the time of the ISIS attack, just 5 percent of Iraqi soldiers were Sunni and 2 to 3 percent were Kurdish.
Selected on sectarian grounds instead of merit, these soldiers saw no reason to die to defend a Sunni region against Sunni fighters. Small wonder the Iraqi army let the ISIS-led alliance capture Western Iraq without resistance.
The events have transformed the mood in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces, captured Kirkuk, cheered on by every Kurdish person. Kurds everywhere declared their readiness to join the force and to fight for Kurdish territory and independence.
A Kurdish journalist told me that being a soldier in the Peshmerga is now considered the most prestigious job in Kurdistan. He said that for people who haven’t been paid for months by Baghdad “it is more honourable to be a fighter, than a doctor or an engineer”.
The KRG believes it has a window of opportunity.
Rudaw, a media centre funded by Kurdish PM Barzani, is feeding the independence movement. It recently interviewed constitutional experts from Quebec, a separatist province in Canada, who advised Kurds to break away immediately.
Barzani also formed a new coalition government on 19 June. All the Kurdish parties agreed to put aside their differences to work together for the same goal.
It should have caused little surprise when he told CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour on 23 June that: “The time is here for the people of Kurdistan to determine their future and the decision of the people is what we are going to uphold.”
His biography gives an insight into the developments.
He was born in 1946 in the Republic of Mahabad, or the Republic of Kurdistan. It was the only independent country the Kurds ever had and it lasted one year. Barzani’s father, Mustafa, was its military chief. But when Iran crushed the republic, the Barzanis fled to Erbil. Asked by Amanpour if he felt his “life’s work is about to be accomplished”, he answered: “I really hope that is the case”.
All the Kurds I spoken to on my visit, from artists and journalists, to diplomats and KRG ministers, gave the same message: this is our moment and we will not let it pass.
Everything seems to be in place.
With the oil up and running, they have stable revenue. With Kirkuk, they have their disputed territory back. All the parties are united in one government. The Peshmerga is highly motivated and unchallenged by Iraqi forces.
The one question that remains is what will be Barzani’s strategy?
Government sources told me a decision has not been made yet. One of the main reasons is the question of international support. But now that Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and officials in the Turkey’s ruling AKP party have endorsed Kurdish independence, there is little to stop the Kurds from going ahead.
While the world talks about what to do with the Islamic State, we might well see a Kurdish State emerge sooner than we thought.
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Yesterday, on April 30, we buried our dear friend Bassem Sabry in Cairo. He died in an accident. He was only 31. Since the revolution in 2011 Egyptian activists have buried many friends. But somehow the news of Bassem’s death left many people more devastated than ever before. Me too.
Bassem was the best Egypt had to offer. Talking to him felt like entering an oasis in times of destruction and insanity. When leaving his conversation and his oasis the desert looked greener, more hopeful. For outsiders it’s perhaps hard to grasp how difficult it is in revolutionary times not to be taken by waves of emotion and populism. Bassem always stood firm, keeping the right intellectual and emotional distance. He had this rare capacity of always focussing on what really matters: a free and democratic Egypt where human rights are the main pillar.
I was always amazed on how Bassem succeeded in writing the one brilliant analysis after the other, working full-time in producing movies, organizing his party, advising top politicians, explaining Egypt to ambassadors and international visiters and always taking enough time for his wide circle of friends. I felt privileged to be one of them.
The first time he sat at the dinner table in my apartment we were discussing the presidential elections of 2012. No-one had an idea of who would reach the second round. Suddenly, Bassem said: ‘What if the second round is between Morsi and Shafiq?’ We all looked shocked. That would be the nightmare scenario for Egypt’s revolution. So we pushed the idea away. But the nightmare scenario became reality. Bassem was right. Again.
We not just lost a very dear friend. We lost the most important face of a group of Egyptians that fights for a different Egypt. An open Egypt, where everyone can have his place but where no-one can impose his conviction upon the others. He was the main voice of the real liberal Egypt. Of a progressive Egypt based on ideas and facts instead of slogans and rumours. He had the potential of a future prime minister or even a future Taha Houssein, the main liberal voice of Egypt in the 20th century.
Bassem Sabry was for me the most important representative of a generation that made me never lose hope in a better future for Egypt and the entire Arab world. Luckily he was not alone. On his funeral I saw many people determined and capable of pushing the dream of Bassem and so many Egyptians forward. There is enough reason to be hopeful that one day that dream will become reality. But yes, the liberal dream lost one of its brightest sons.
Our common project to create a think tank in Cairo was almost becoming reality, after three years. I promised you to give you a tour in Belgium. And just one week ago we planned to have dinner, to catch up. I cancelled it and postponed it to next week. Now there is no next week. And even no next month. There is only one promise: your friends will do whatever is in their strength to realize your dream for Egypt. Even though without you it will be a lot harder.
We will miss you dearly, my friend.
On Wednesday 23, Tony Blair gave a speech at Bloomberg articulating his vision on the Arab world. On one point I fully agree: the world must engage itself in the region. We must do more in the Arab world, especially in Libya and Syria. And our commitment should indeed be based on values like open-mindedness and human rights. That’s the easy part. Problematic is the vision on which Tony Blair wants to base this commitment. He divides the Arab world in two groups: close-minded Islamists and open-minded secularists. Declaring the Islamists as the enemies of the world. This is not only a simplistic view of the Arab world, it is above all a dangerous, Manichean way of dividing the world in black and white, good guys and bad guys. It is the kind of vision that made the war in Iraq such a disaster.
After three years living and working in the Arab world I learned things are slightly more complex. Just one example is that Saudi Arabia, the bad guys in the eyes of Blair, are supporting Egypt’s military presidential candidate, who is a good guy for Blair. It is indeed just one example that the battle of ideas in the Arab world is not just one between dangerous Islamists and good secularists. In reality there are many battles going on, with often shifting alliances. Let me single out three of – what I think are – the most important ‘battles’ going on in the Arab world. Each one of the three are complex battles, with a long history and deserve many pages of explanation.
The first one is indeed a battle of ideas between Islamists and ‘secularists’. It dates back to the 9th century, during the Abbasid Caliphate in Bagdad. It came to an end in the 12th century, but revived in the 19th century after the invasion of Napoleon in Egypt in 1798. Many Arabs realized that Europe was far ahead. There were two different reactions to this realization: one was that Arabs had to learn from Europe and implement European modernity in an Arab way. The other analysis was that the Arab world was behind because it deviated from the right Islamic path and so that only by returning to true Islamism, the Arab world would revive. It is in this camp that Salafis, Muslim Brothers, Saudi Arabia, mullah Iran and AKP find themselves and share the same point of view. Of course the actions of Al Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) are despicable and barbarian. But they are only a very small and extremist part of the larger Islamist movement. Calling all Islamists terrorists would be the same as calling all socialists dangerous communists.
The second battle – between Muslim Brothers and nationalists – goes back to 1882 and to the First World War. In 1882 Britain invaded and occupied Egypt while crushing the democratic revolt lead by Colonel Orabi. In 1881 France already invaded Tunisia. Later, after the Arab Revolt (with the British soldier Lawrence of Arabia) pushed back the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France betrayed the Arabs by occupying their land, breaking the promise of independence. The colonial occupation of the Arab countries led to two different reactions. The first one is nationalist. The best-known example is the Wafd movement of Saad Zaghloul in Egypt, combining nationalism with liberalism. The second reaction was pan-Islamism. The most important pan-Islamic movement was and still is the Muslim Brotherhood. The main goal of the Brotherhood was the reinstallation of the abolished Caliphate and kicking the Western colonial powers out of the Arab world. Since the very start in 1928 the nationalists saw this pan-Islamic Brotherhood as a security threat to the very existence of their state. This is why Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and the Emirates fight the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporter Qatar.
The third battle is the one between Iran and Saudi Arabia which started at the very beginning of Islam. This battle is partly religious – between Sunni and Shia – but mainly about power. Persia has always been an important regional power. Iran wants this status back and is dreaming of a greater Persia. That’s why Iran makes surprising alliances. It for example supports the Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship of Al Bashir in Sudan and Hamas in the Gaza strip, both Sunni. It also supports the Shia in Iraq as well as some extreme Sunni fighters in Syria in order to destabilize the more moderate opposition. This battle is also the reason why Saudi Arabia refused its seat in the UN Security Council as it thinks the US is making a major mistake in negotiating with Iran.
Understanding these three battle lines helps to explain why the deeply Wahabi Saudi Arabia is supporting the Salafis in Egypt but also the nationalist Field Marshall Sisi, why it is uniting the Gulf countries against Qatar, why it is at the same time supporting all kinds of rebels in Syria and why there is an intelligence cooperation with Israel when Iranian arms are on their way to Gaza. It also helps to explain why Erdogan is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt against the Saudis, but is cooperating with the Saudis against Assad in Syria. And it clarifies why Egypt under Morsi was working on a rapprochement with Iran, but supporting the Syrian opposition, while Egypt under Sisi is not talking to Iran, but doesn’t want the Arab League to condemn Bashar Al Assad.
This overview of just three of the ‘battles’ going on in the Arab world is way too short and needs much more nuances in order to be correct. It’s only a short introduction to the complexity of the Arab world of today. Again, I fully support the call of Mr Blair for a real commitment in the Arab world. However, a commitment based on wrong and simplistic assumptions will only lead to a new disaster. It’s time to learn from the past and from all the mistakes the West has made in this region. And let us not forget that many of the problems in the Arab world of today are a result of a wrong and perfide policy of the West. Declaring Islamists the enemies of the world is repeating the same appalling mistake as after 9/11. It resulted in the illegal war in Iraq and destabilized the Arab world. But also, back then it created a vicious Islamophobia of which all secular Muslims became victim as well. It also made our Western societies more close-minded, leading to a certain victory for the far-right parties in the European elections on 25 May. Frankly, Mr Blair, I cannot believe you are doing it again.
 For the full text of the speech: http://www.tonyblairoffice.org/news/entry/why-the-middle-east-matters-keynote-speech-by-tony-blair/
Tomorrow, on January 22, 2014, the Geneva II conference will start. After some deplorable miscommunication on the invitation of Iran, all main actors decided to participate. The aim of the conference is to find a way to end the devastating war in Syria. Up untill a few weeks ago the main issue on the table was how to build a transition government towards elections and whether or not Bashar Al Assad could be part of it. Now the paradigm has changed into the question how the world can get rid of the Al Qaeda linked Jihadists of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Shams).
However, the most surprising shift of the last weeks is the fact that Assad is back in the game. More and more people start to wonder if there is any alternative for Assad to fight Jihadism in Syria. Didn’t he always warn the world for the dangers of Al Qaeda if his regime would fall? The Assad regime might be bad, but a Caliphate under the leadership of the emir of ISIS is – no doubt – a far worse nightmare. Aren’t Assad and his forces the only guarantee against a full-fledged sectarian war expanding over the entire region? And didn’t Assad fulfil his promise and fully cooperated in destroying his chemical weapons? That at least seems the conviction of some European intelligence agencies that apparently already started to share information on Jihadist forces with the intelligence services of Damascus.
By bringing Bashar Al Assad back in the game, we tend to make abstraction of what was really happening in Syria since the revolution broke out on March 15, 2011. Even though there were no armed rebels during the first months of the revolt, Assad kept on repeating that the protesters were nothing more than terrorists and extremists. He must have been very happy when in January 2012 finally the first Jihadist group, Jabhat Al Nusra, appeared. He could use them as the reason for bombing Baba Amr (Homs) to the ground in February 2012 and (falsely) blame them for having perpetrated the massacre of Houla (Homs) in May of the same year.
The Assad regime must have been even happier when ISIS appeared as a force in Syria in April 2013. Now he could accuse them of his chemical attack in Ghouta in August 2013. With the help of Moscow many even believed it. It was this doubt that made the US and the UK change their mind on attacking Syria and using Russia’s proposal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons as a scapegoat. Suddenly Assad became someone we can make deals with, while the rebel forces and the political opposition remained divided and inefficient.
But even if we assume that ISIS and Al Qaeda are behind all these crimes against humanity, we should ask ourselves why it is that Assad is not fighting harder against them? Instead of throwing barrel bombs on neighbourhoods in Aleppo, he could attack Raqqa, the stronghold of ISIS. But he doesn’t. Instead of using a large amount of soldiers to starve out twenty thousand Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk, he could use these troops to fight Jihadists in the province of Deir Ezzor. But he doesn’t.
It is not Assad, but a coalition of rebel groups and the Free Syrian Army that decided to fight against ISIS and liberate towns and cities from their reign of terror. It is not Assad but the inhabitants of these towns who started to revolt against the rule of Al Qaeda. So, Syrian citizens and Syrian rebel groups are the ones who are taking a stance against the foreign fighters of ISIS, not Assad. It is equally remarkable that ISIS used much more suicide attacks against the coalition of rebel forces than against the regime.
In the search for a solution it is clear that dismissing everyone connected to the current regime would be a severe mistake. People of the current administration and army are absolutely needed to create the necessary stability and to rebuild the country. But thinking we should keep Bashar Al Assad in place as a partner against Al Qaeda and other affiliated Jihadist groups would be a historical error. This scenario is not only inacceptable for at least half of the Syrians. It would be a signal to all dictators that the more innocent citizens you kill, the more sectarian violence you instigate and the more extremism you accept, the more chances you have the world will forgive you.
There should be no misunderstanding: keeping Bashar Al Assad in place is the best guarantee that the war, the slaughter, the starvation and the torture will continue for many years to come. It will further expand the conflict throughout the region and will increase the amount of refugees worldwide. They will not come back when the reason for their misery stays put. A so-called leader who bombs his own people with SCUD rockets is no leader and never will be.
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Many Europeans were baffled when they saw the recent images from Kiev’s Independence Square, or, as it is now being called, the EuroMaidan: Hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets, defying the cold and the police warnings, to wave EU flags and to chant “Europe!”
How is it possible?
Not one EU citizen would even consider going to stand on a snowy square with a European flag in his hand to ask for more European integration or a bolder European foreign policy. No. The mood in the EU is one of scepticism, cynicism and indifference. The trend is one of scaling down and of being everything but ambitious.
The result is that the European Union is driving with the handbrake on. It does take measures, but they are always too little and often too late in order to solve the problem or meet the challenge. One example is the financial and economic crisis. Another is the Neighbourhood Policy, which is becoming an unprecedented disaster.
Not only Ukraine broke off the negotiations on its Association Agreement with the EU. Armenia did the same thing in September. Instead, it decided to join the Russian Eurasian Economic Community’s “Customs Union.” Ukraine appears to be following the same scenario. The reality is that Russia bought them out.
A similar scenario is unfolding in the Union’s southern neighbourhood. In the Arab world the main player is not Russia but the Gulf countries, however. Since July, Egypt has turned its back towards the EU and the United States, while receiving billions from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Emirates. Jordan has a direct financial lifeline from Saudi Arabia. Qatar is playing a major role in Libya and Morocco is increasingly looking to the Gulf for a solution for its financial problems.
It is hard to overestimate what is happening. Talks about a customs union and a common currency in the Gulf have been going on for a long time without any progress. But this might change very soon. Just as European integration always moves faster when there is an external threat, Gulf integration is now moving faster because of the threat of Iran. This week the Gulf countries already decided to organise a common military command.
The Arab region is fearing that Iran is breaking its free of its isolation. Every Sunni Muslim country is now convinced that Iran, a Shia Muslim power, will do everything it can to further destabilise the region by supporting Shia Muslim protests. The fact that their old allies, the US and the EU, are the engines behind the new deal with Iran, makes them unreliable in the eyes of many Sunni leaders.
But the lack of a serious EU neighbourhood policy is probably the most visible in Libya. It is the only Arab Spring country where the Muslim Brotherhood did not win the elections. The hopes of the ruling government were set on Europe. Libya needs a lot of support to build a proper security apparatus, to deal with demands for autonomy and to organise a genuine national dialogue in which reconciliation is on top of the agenda.
What the EU is currently doing is far too little and the consequence is that Qatar is stepping in. It is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya. It is helping to push militias to threaten the government to adopt legislation like the Political Isolation Law and a law that forbids interest on bank savings. The goal is clear: preparing the ground for its own political puppets and its own Islamic banks. If you have both, you control the economy and the oil.
Many Europeans might not care about these regional struggles and shifting alliances. But many Egyptians, Libyans, Moroccans, Tunisians, Jordanians, Armenians, Georgians, Ukrainians and Azerbaijanis do care. This year I heard from all of them that they had strongly hoped the EU would step up. Even in Baku, everyone is asking for the EU to be more present as they feel squeezed between an increasingly confident Russia and Iran. The people of these countries know very well that the history of the European Union has been one of turning poor dictatorships into prosperous democracies.
Even those Europeans who are less interested in high ideals and the freedoms of other people, should think twice before they shrug their shoulders: A less stable neighbourhood means more illegal immigration. It also means the end of energy supply diversification, making the EU more dependent on the mood swings of Moscow and Riyadh.
These are crucial times for the European Union. In one year it might lose the alliances it has tried to build up for decades. It is time to wake up and to react quickly and firmly. At the same time, EU institutions are preparing for elections and for a change of the guard in almost every top position. But despite this, Europe cannot afford to let those hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians down. The outcome of the Ukrainian dilemma is going to determine how serious the EU is about spreading freedom and democracy. If it loses Ukraine, the EU might also lose its entire eastern and southern neighbourhood. The world is watching.
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“Yesterday the regime killed three of my close family members. They were in prison since one year. Now they were killed on the same day.” Salim Idriss, General Commander of the FSA, looked at me with glazy eyes. We met at the same place where he was holding talks with some of the rebel groups of the so-called Syrian Islamic Army. This new coalition of some fifty rebel groups in Syria was formed on 29 September 2013. A few days before this official announcement they already declared not to recognize the Syrian National Coalition and that the wanted the Islamic law as the basis for legislation.
If they are that strong, why would they decide to talk to the official FSA almost immediately after their foundation, I asked. The answer Idriss gave me was surprisingly obvious: they want more weapons and more money. The main group of the Islamic Army, Liwa al Islam is part of the Supreme Military Council of the FSA (SMC). And they, just like some other groups of this Islamic Army, are represented in the SMC. But most of all it is the timing that explains the formation: two weeks after the US decision not to attack the Syrian army but make a deal with Russia to remove Assad’s chemical weapons instead.
The frustration runs deep in the rebel camp. On the one side they see extremist groups like the Al Qaeda linked Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Al Shams) becoming stronger, better equipped and richer, while on the other side the promised arms and other support to the FSA by the West are nothing more than a joke. A few days before the US attack that never happened, Secretary of State John Kerry called to Salim Idriss to guarantee him an attack would happen. It would have changed so much indeed. The Syrian army was frightened to death while ISIS was moving their headquarters every day, as these Jihadists too were convinced they were to be bombed. It would have triggered a wave of defections. As a matter of fact the wave already started with former Syrian Minister of Defence, Ali Habib as the most symbolic one.
The result of the non-attack was immediately clear. Bashar Al-Assad appeared on Fox news as if he had already won the war. And ISIS started an attack on the strategic important city of Azaaz. Azaaz lies on the border with Turkey, controlling the way from Aleppo to Gaziantep. It is a stronghold of one of the FSA brigades, the Northern Storm. I met with them the first time I went into Syria. It must be said that this group does not consist of the most educated fighters and that they were not managing the liberated city as they should. They were also the ones who kidnapped the nine Lebanese pilgrims who were liberated last week. When ISIS attacked Azaaz it believed it would be welcomed as liberators from the Northern Strom ‘crooks’. Not so. Strong groups as Liwa Al Tawheed and Ahrar Al Shams came to stop ISIS, while the citizens of Azaaz started protesting against the presence of ISIS and the totalitarian rules it was imposing.
Six months earlier, in April 2013, I spent a few days on the headquarters of the FSA. It was just before ISIS was founded. I witnessed how from the early morning until after midnight FSA groups from all over Syria visited Salim Idriss. They all came with the same story: we can make progress but we need the right weapons. But instead of arms, President Obama decided to send hot meals. Again, ISIS did not exist and Jabhat Al Nusra didn’t represent more than five percent of the total of rebel fighters. With proper arms the FSA would not only have saved many lives, it would also have made the growth of these Jihadist groups impossible.
But here we are today, overseeing the mess we allowed to happen and wondering what we should do. Trying to forget our broken promises, we found a new one: Geneva II. Now every Western country repeats that the only way out for Syria is a political solution. The vast majority of the Syrians couldn’t agree more. But how on earth is this going to happen now? The West has been defeated on the Russian diplomatic chessboard. After the chemical weapons deal Assad feels victorious. Most of the world’s attention is now going to the so-called terrorists and is hardly reporting his atrocities anymore. Assad is more than happy that we will try to find a political solution on the same chessboard he and his Russian friends have won the last game.
At the same time there are serious cracks in the anti-Assad coalition. The new Egyptian government pulled out for internal reasons and made a common position of the Arab League as good as impossible. But even more important is the anger of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were not only appalled by the sudden American-Russian deal, the non-attack and the rapprochement to Iran. They are even more angered by the fact that the US failed to inform the Kingdom on these crucial steps.
It is no coincidence that it is Saudi Arabia that is behind the formation of the Islamic army. Even though the new president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) was a Saudi choice, it seems that Saudi Arabia has stopped its support for the SOC and is concentrating its efforts on the fighting groups on the ground. The statement of the Islamic Army of 24 September makes three things clear. First, no more support for the SOC. Second, by asking for sharia, but excluding ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra, the Islamic Army is clearly meant as a counterforce against these two Jihadi groups. Third, as the main brigades are part of the SMC, it is meant as a wake-up call for the FSA.
Last week in Gaziantep I had a coffee with Mansour, an activist who spent one year in one of the worst prisons of the Syrian Air Force. Coming from a secular family he told me how one of his nephews joined Jabhat Al Nusra. Not because he believed in Jihad, but because he needed the money to buy food for his family. The big difference between Al Nusra and ISIS is that while all of the ISIS fighters are extremist Jihadists, a lot of the Al Nusra fighters are not. They join Al Nusra because they need the money. FSA brigades don’t pay as they have no money. I heard this story time and again, inside and outside Syria. This is the reason why Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIS split after a short period of joining forces. Most Al Nusra fighters couldn’t live with the ‘too extremist ISIS’ way of working. Also, ISIS is seen as non-Syrian and most of the foreign fighters are with them.
What should be done? If we put all pieces together, we must conclude that the situation is not that much different as it was six months ago. There is a military stalemate on the ground. The political opposition is divided. The Syrian army is not very strong and avoids fighting on the ground. Instead they are targeting the population by bombing from the air and long distance missiles. Six months ago we were fearing Jabhat Al Nusra, today we fear ISIS. And just like six months ago, Bashar Al Assad is not prepared to move one inch. The one thing that probably has changed is the perception the world has of the Syrian conflict. The propaganda machine of Assad has done a good job.
So, if we are serious about ending this catastrophic conflict, stopping the Jihadists and getting the most brutal dictator of the 21st century out, there are not too many options. A political solution will only be possible if the people around Assad – military or civilian – understand they can’t win anymore. They will be the ones that need to be convinced they will have a better future without Assad. But as long as Assad is in his current winning mood, this will never happen. Therefore there is no other solution than go back to square one: arm the FSA with weapons that can stop airplanes and long distance missiles. Give them money so they can pay their soldiers. Give them training so they stop committing war crimes and punish those who do. Make sure that humanitarian aid is reaching all Syrians, also those in liberated and disputed areas. Because only a stronger FSA will be able to unite forces and negotiate the so much needed political solution for Syria.
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