Things are changing in the Middle East. Iraq is being torn apart between ISIS forces, Kurdish national aspirations and government forces. Similarly, in Syria, clashes between ISIS and the Syrian Army are complicated by the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra forces. ISIS, a group which prefers to call itself the Islamic State, seems to be gaining traction in other areas of the Middle East, but this may be a façade for the real political and social grievances of repressed populations.
ISIS against Kurdish forces
ISIS has taken hold of much of Sunni Iraq and they are holding strong. The Kurds have had a terrible time defending their territory against ISIS. In January, they learnt a heavy lesson in Kirkuk and Gwer, where far too many of their young men were killed, and they lost important military leaders. ISIS has chosen moments of bad weather for their major attacks against the Kurds to avoid Western air strikes. In the absence of bad weather, they dig immense ditches, fill them with crude oil and set the oil on fire in order to gain respite under cover of the thick black cloud of smoke.
But ISIS fighters are not the only ones digging ditches. The Kurdish strategy on the frontline in northern Kirkuk has been to advance five kilometers into Sunni territory, take a vast swathe of Kirkuk province, and then immediately retreat, creating a no-man’s-land. However, allegedly this technique intentionally damages Sunni villages, preventing the population from returning to these liberated areas. The northern Kirkuk frontline is perforated with bulldozed ditches, creating ramparts with tanks stationed and ready. This no-man’s-land soon becomes a killing zone, where anything that moves is shot. So far, this defensive technique has proved fairly effective, though it is supported by U.S. air power.
Aspirations for Kurdistan
Meanwhile, Kurdish aspirations for independence are being hampered by British diplomats. Neither the UK nor the United States provides the Kurds with proper weapons, and all artillery deliveries must be coordinated through Baghdad. Most Kurds are using outdated weapons that are ineffective and cannot be repaired once broken. Even if the Kurdish forces did have access to modern weapons, they lack basic military training and organization. If the battle were man for man, Kurds against ISIS, ISIS would prevail. Kurdish brigades — often called Peshmerga — have no structure and leaders are appointed on the basis of nepotism rather than merit.
Peshmerga are divided into 70 or 80 forces and are mostly divided along political lines, either affiliating with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) or the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), though there are a number of mixed brigades. The control of the Peshmerga forces therefore lies with political parties, not the Ministry of Peshmerga (the Kurdish equivalent of a Ministry of War). Despite these divisions, the Kurdish Peshmerga is often considered more efficient than the Iraqi Army.
Iraqi Leadership and Politics
In Baghdad, two leaders have the most influence in central and southern Iraq: Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Hadi al-Amiri. Al-Amiri is the commander of one of Iraq’s main fighting forces, the Badr Brigade. While the Badr Brigade is the main fighting force, there is a vast array of militias that make up the Iraqi forces — and it is these militias that are referred to as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), or Hashd Shaabi in Arabic. Al-Amiri is presently overseeing operations outside the critical town of Fallujah, which the PMU wishes to control, due to its proximity to Baghdad and the heavy blow it would be to ISIS for it to fall under PMU authority.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi Army proper is in no fit state to do anything. The U.S. has taken six months to train nine Iraqi Army brigades and three Peshmerga brigades, totaling approximately 9,000 men1. They receive six to nine weeks basic boot-camp training, but little has been done about the leadership and logistical issues that plague the Iraqi military.
ISIS in Iraq
ISIS strategy in recent months has been ruthlessly effective. Many thought they were on the back foot and could be defeated quickly. Only days after losing Tikrit, and while the focus was on Mosul, ISIS forces seized Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province. This alleviated the pressure on Mosul and set back any Iraqi plans to retake that city: this counterattack technique is often used by ISIS to make territorial gains.
Struggle for Tadmur
But what of Syria? We have seen the battle of the ancient city of Tadmur (also known as Palmyra). ISIS took that town but left the ancient ruins largely intact, though “idolatrous” statues were destroyed. According to Syrian Army officers, ISIS is easy to defeat in battle; however, the organization’s tactic is to “melt away” and release territory after they conquer it. The thing about the group we in the West call ISIS (and Arabs call Daesh), according to Syrian Army officers, is that defeating them is easy when they stand and fight. But they don’t. They melt away. In part this is because, even though they are an army some 35,000 strong, they function with the tactics of a guerrilla group and they do not waste their own lives needlessly.
This is in contrast to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has lost popularity with his own troops for the first time because he sacrificed the lives of Alawite and Christian boys by leaving them cut off, defending remote outposts.
The Syrian Army itself remains strong after four years of war. That said, the Army is 80% Sunni. The fighting units of the Syrian Army, and Hezbollah alongside whom they fight, are now battle-hardened. Why, then, did Tadmur fall so easily?
According to our Syrian Army sources, not one Syrian soldier was killed in the defense of Tadmur; instead, they were ordered to retreat and turn over the city to ISIS. An explanation for this battle plan is provided by a Lebanese journalist (and a good friend): She said it was done deliberately to play on Western fears — a tactical retreat for public relations reasons. She said, “If you want a pile of ancient ruins defended, you in the West can do it.”
However, troops have been abandoned by Assad in remote outposts before, and the consequences have been slaughter at the hand of ISIS. The question raised regarding the Syrian Army is: Would you stand and fight a force commanded by seasoned and ruthless generals that was genuinely ready, if not eager, to die?
The truth about the fall of Tadmur lies somewhere between the two narratives: ISIS was approaching, Tadmur wasn’t that strategically important, and the loss of the ancient ruins to ISIS would indeed create Western sympathy. Why not retreat this time?
Looking at the Syrian conflict is like looking at wheels within wheels. This area of apparent chaos may confuse you and me, but there is no chaos. All that happens in Syria is a consequence of the actions of great international players. It is no longer a local conflict.
The Battle for Aleppo
The real battle, however, will be for Aleppo. Aleppo Province is 70% government-controlled and 30% ISIS-controlled, while the city of Aleppo is 50% government-controlled and 50% rebel-controlled. Some 700,000 Sunni refugees from Aleppo have fled to the port city of Latakia. Meanwhile, most of southeast Syria, along the Iraqi border, is controlled by ISIS.
The battle for Aleppo is the next truly major confrontation, and it has just begun. The status quo is unsustainable: a patchwork city with different areas under control of different forces. Someone will have to take it. War-weary Syria needs a victor in Aleppo, but now al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is marching on the city to further complicate the situation.
Grievances of the Syrian People
At the same time, and this is important, ordinary Syrian are grumbling. Here I am not talking about those in the war zones. I am talking about those in areas of comparative stability, like Damascus or Latakia. The grievances of the people in these areas include lack of schooling for children, lack of electricity, lack of regular clean drinking water, lack of milk and the threat of polio.
These are their primary concerns. Alawites see Iran as a friend and an ally but are wary. They find the Iranian presence a bit too much. And their advisors are not discreet and are not perceived positively. This disquiet with Iran is new.
It is hard to convey how hard it is for ordinary Syrians. I spoke to one friend from Derrar in southwest Syria , who explained his grievances to me: “My extended family is one of 300 people, we are Shiites. Thirty-seven of us have died. We have all been made refugees at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra. Refugees in Syria, that is — we have fled to Damascus and to the Alawite areas. The areas of Syria that are safe are Damascus, Tartus, Latakia, Baniyas, Hama and Suweida. Every other city and village is in ruins. The fighting groups are tired. The Saudis are tired. Turkey is tired. There has been a lot of killing within Turkey, too. The [Syrian] regime is safe for the time being. Aleppo is not good. There is no water now in Aleppo. All these gangs are fighting there, supported by Qatar, Saudi [Arabia] and Jordan. But now those countries have come to their senses. Maybe things will get better.”
On the other hand, what if Jabhat al-Nusra does take Aleppo, and the government fails to take back critical cities such as Jisr al-Shugur? Syria may start to really fall, and Iranian troops will move in alongside Hizbullah in large numbers, and then we really will have a miniature Armageddon: Those that have sown the wind will inherit the whirlwind.
ISIS is in Syria and Iraq, but it is also in Palestine, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region. However, this is just a façade: These are actually local people with grievances who have been given an ISIS label. These underlying local tensions are being exploited by violent people, and this is the root cause of the problem.
ISIS in the Sinai
The emergence of ISIS in the Sinai is a case in point. For a generation and more, ever since they got it back from Israel, the Egyptian government has treated the people of the Sinai as second-class citizens, as non-Egyptian, as “Arabs.” Sinai is governed by a governor like any Egyptian province, but it is not treated as a province. It is treated as a territory, like Israel treats the West Bank.
Now, the Muslim Brotherhood is an Egyptian movement — Egyptian in genesis — so the people of Sinai are never going to accept or sympathize with the Muslim Brotherhood. ISIS on the other hand…
ISIS in Gaza
The people of Gaza have suffered years of collective punishment because they have Hamas in their midst. And as an organization, Hamas has failed to deliver. It has failed to deliver peace as much as it has failed to deliver effective war. Pro-peace advocates may give Fateh’s Mohammed Dahlan a chance; pro-war Gazans may give ISIS a chance, because, what have they got to lose?
So you get more polarization and more extremism. It is a trend. The likes of you and me will have a lot on our plate when it comes to changing things. Not easy. But we need to start somewhere. Where shall we start?
The first thing to do is to pick one effective mechanism to defeat ISIS and end the state of continual internecine war in Syria. (For Iraq, different measures would be needed.) This mechanism would be to close the border between Syria and Turkey. It is unlikely that Turkey itself would be willing to close the border, so this would need to come about through the international community. It would cut the main supply lines in terms of foreign fighters, goods, money — and the exports of oil would also be cut. However, there are complications to this method: Merely using the air force to take out vehicles crossing back and forth would not work, and too many civilians would be killed (or so we are told by the British wing commander we consulted) — a curious argument in view of the comparatively high levels of civilian collateral damage involved in the bombing of cities in order to rid them of ISIS. But there you have it: To bomb trucks that may or may not have civilians in them in order to stop people from crossing the border is a war crime. To bomb cities and kill civilians by accident is not. There’s logic there somewhere, though it escapes me.
In reality, closing the Turkey/Syria border would need the assistance of the U.S.: Britain’s aging tornadoes and undersized air force would not be effective. And so we would need troops on the ground. There is no other way. And then there would be mission creep, an undesirable expansion of the mission beyond its original goals, and we would be back where we started.
Not easy at all.
1Latest figures as of May 21, 2015: 8,920 had completed training, while another 4,030 were in training.