Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The US Response to ISIS is a Recipe for Disaster

ISIS Released footage of their treatment of captured Iraqis
The US is nickle and diming its way into a military catastrophe.  Buoyed on a wave of non-substantive tough talk and Pollyanna analysis the US has embarked on a half-assed military misadventure that is calculated to last until it can be punted on to the next administration to blow up in all of our faces.  Obama has decided to double down on the strategy of propping up proxies which has served us so well over the last four decades.  That strategy has produced such stunning successes as the Afghan civil war, the rise of the Taliban, the development and funding of al Qaeda, and most recently has produced the Islamic State.  America's strategy going forward is to do more of what created this mess in the first place.  The difference this time is that Islamic State is not like the Taliban or al Qaeda.  Islamic State is a far greater threat to global stability than any of its predecessors, and the current strategy could empower them in ways that ignoring them never could.

To my way of seeing things, the biggest problem with Obama's approach to this conflict is viewing it as an extension of the US led War on Terror.  Obama is on record as considering Islamic State to be nothing more than terrorists, plain and simple.  I think that this is colossally wrong-headed and the source of what I consider to be the failings in most of the analysis of the current situation.  I believe that the Islamic State should be viewed more as an anti-colonialist indigenous movement to understand what is going on.  As I see it the roots of Islamic State's success can be found in the aftermath of WWI.

European Colonialism and the Pan Arab Movement

I think that most people are familiar with the ways that the onerous conditions placed on Germany after WWI led to WWII and the rise of Nazism.  What fewer people seem aware of is the way that France and England's handling of the Middle East after the fall of the Ottomans have contributed to many of the current problems in the Middle East.

As WWI drew to a close the allied victors decided how they were going to chop up the Ottoman Empire.  The Middle East was divided up primarily between France and England.  This is also the same era that much of the current national borders in Africa were invented by European powers.  There seems to be little rhyme or reason to the shape of the areas of influence and the various territorial mandates that were established by France and England.  The divisions certainly were not made with an eye to the populations of the various areas, or even recent historical divisions.

It seems to me as though France and England just got together over a map and argued over how to divide things.  Ecological regions, ethnic divisions, and recent political divisions were ignored.  The Kurds were split among several different territorial areas.  Arabs and Bedouins, Shia and Sunni.  All the various major and minor ethnic and religious divisions were simply ignored for a more visually harmonious map.

(An interesting side note is the British Mandate of Palestine.  Palestine had not been a distinct political area since the fall of the Crusader Kingdom.  When the Ottoman Territories were divided up Britain claimed the area where the Crusader Kingdom had been and gave it the name the Mandate of Palestine.  The section to the West of the Jordan River was termed Palestine, and the Eastern Section was termed Transjordan.  Today we know the British Mandate of Palestine as Israel/Palestine and the Kingdom of Jordan.  This partition is from whence the identity of the Arab Palestinians and the modern geographical idea of Palestine derives.)

I think some maps might be in order.  So to start with I offer the tremendously confusing ethnic map of the Middle East:

This map is just a mind boggling mess.  And it doesn't even include religious divisions, which are very important to understanding the current conflict.  But it should make it clear that France and England didn't try to put the international boundaries in positions that would make sense ethnically.  In fact, it almost seems more like gerrymandering designed to cut across the territories of various ethnic groups.  For the Kurds this put them in the position of being a regional minority four countries.  It is noteworthy that the most complicated ethnic picture in Iraq is found in the predominantly Kurdish areas where there is a truly multicultural hodgepodge.  This broader view map fails to adequately capture the complexity, believe it or not.

Next I offer the Shia Sunni divide map:

Once again the map is confusing and utterly fails to conform to national boundaries, but at least there is only two groups to think about.  I would like to point out that if you compare the two maps you may note the large Sunni area in western Iran that coincides with the Kurdish area.

Two major points I want to make about these maps:  One; There is a very large area of the middle east that is dominated by ethnic Arabs, but that ethnicity is divided into a very large number of countries.  Two; The Shia Sunni divide creates isolated pockets of Shia in the ethnically Arab areas.

If one was prone to putting credence into conspiracy theories one might suspect that the British and the French had deliberately created a map designed to create a dynamic paralysis.  The territorial divisions ensure sectarian divides and ethnic divides within countries.  Further, splitting the major ethnic groups (Kurds and Arabs for the purposes of this article) into multiple countries discourages the development of a central power.  Almost as though the victorious powers in WWI had sought to prevent any new loci of power developing in the vacuum left by the Ottoman Empire.  Of course that idea presupposes a great deal of cunning and forethought when insensitivity could do the job just as well.

Now for a few more maps starting with a closeup on Syria and Lebanon:

Haha jk lol
 Just kidding, I'm not even going to try to unpack that one.  Here's a massively simplified version:
This article is dealing with broad strokes, and this is good enough.  We can see the major divisions.  Assad is Alawite, ISIS is a Sunni Pan-Arab group, and the Kurds are up in their corner.

Next We turn to Iraq:
This is also a bit busy, but it provides the image of a Multi-ethnic Kurdish north, with a multi-ethnic finger drawing down to Baghdad.  I'll provide a simplified version of this map:
These two maps work well together.  The lower map conveniently shows the population breakdown in a pie chart, and it clearly shows the major overlap zones.  The upper map helps explain the population breakdown by showing the large sparsely populated areas in white, whereas the lower map shows a huge area being dominated by Sunni Arabs.  Even though Sunni Arabs dominate the largest area of the map, within Iraq Sunnis are a minority.  Globally among Muslims Shia are the minority, but within Iraq (like Iran) Shia are the majority.

So now we have a picture of the fractured ethnically and religiously confusing mess that currently obtains in the Middle-East, particularly in the areas of Iraq and Syria.  The mess is made more confusing by the Sunni-Shia divide and the way that divide interacts with ethnicity.  The Kurds are mostly Sunni, and ISIS is also Sunni.  But ISIS is fighting the Kurds and the Shia.  ISIS is claiming to be fighting for a new Muslim Caliphate.  If this were really just about Sunni Islam then one would expect ISIS to be trying to ally with the Kurds,  Or if this was just about Arab ethnicity then one would expect ISIS to at the very least not be massacring Shias.  But as we know ISIS is slaughtering Shias and their Kurdish coreligionists.  So what's going on?

Now we return to WWI and the Pan-Arab movement.  In WWI the Allies found an ally in Prince Feisal (Feisal I).  Feisal helped mobilize the Arabs against the Turks.  Feisal was a Hashemite.  The Hashemites had traditionally been rulers of Mecca...  You know what, this is a whole different article.  The history of the Hashemites is wildly confusing to me.  The Sunni-Shia divide began with dispute over the succession of the original Caliphate with the Shia supporting the Hashemites, but the Hashemite kings are Sunni now.  Plus the Kingdom of Saud now controls Mecca.  There is too much to cover, and it confuses the hell out of me.  To sum up, Feisal I was an Arab leader and a pro-Arab nationalism figure who was also instrumental in defeating the Ottomans.

Feisal I

Following WWI Feisal was proclaimed king of Syria.  The French fought Feisal and kicked him out of Syria.  The British needed a leader for the country of Iraq that they had set up, so they tapped Feisal.  Feisal came in and set up the Sunni domination of Iraq.  Some time later the Hashemites were done away with in Iraq and the Ba'athists came to power.  Saddam was a Ba'athist leader.  The Ba'athists continued the Sunni domination of Iraq.

Throughout this period the Saudis supported a radical conservative strain of Sunni Islam typically referred to as Salafism of Wahhabism.  This strain of Sunni Islam is behind the Mujahadeen who were the Islamist fighters in the Afghan civil war that the US propped up to combat the USSR.  Al Qaeda and the Taliban grew out of this movement.  ISIS also grew out of this movement.

Confusingly the parallel Muslim Revivalist movement typified by the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoot Hamas are not connected to Salafism.  Don't ask me to explain.  But even though these are movements that are similarly Pan-Islamic in aims they are not the same.  The Muslim Brotherhood is more pro-woman and tolerant of religious minorities than Salafism.  Keep that in mind when talk turns to "moderate" Islamist groups in Syria.  Hamas is moderate compared to ISIS.

For the last century there have been multiple threads growing and moving in the Middle East.  A pan-Arab movement, a pan-Islam movement, and Muslim revival movements.  Against those movements there have been the realities of nations and existing power structures.  The West has sought to manipulate those power structures to keep allies in power while discouraging any major shakeups that could have jeopardized the balance of power.  For much of the 20th Century the USA and the USSR competed through Middle East proxies.

Why is Islamic State Different?

So what does all of this mean?  Why is it important that one understands European Colonialism in a Middle east context?  What does Feisal I have to do with ISIS?  Who cares whether the Muslim Brotherhood is theologically related to ISIS?

Let us start with Feisal.  Feisal symbolizes a rise of modern pan-Arabism.  A movement to unite Arabs.  His movement obviously didn't succeed.  But the current conflict is centered in the places where he sought to start his movement.  His movement was stymied by Western influence.

The Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood have both been pushing an agenda of strict Islamism in government.  Iran has been pushing its own Shia Islamist movement.  Throughout the Middle East, regardless of country, sect, or region there has been a growing wave of Islamic fundamentalism.  The Muslim Brotherhood, though influential has had to spread its message without support from any national governments.  In contrast, the Salafist movement has enjoyed the patronage of the Saudis, who the US has backed.

While the West and the governments of the Middle East have all sought to restrict the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafism has been given relative free reign.  The US armed and supported Salafist militants as proxies against the Russians.  This wasn't really seen as a big problem until those seeds we sowed in Afghanistan were reaped in the form of airplanes flying into buildings 13 years ago.

ISIS, not nice people

And now we have ISIS.  ISIS grew out of the same movement, and like the earlier groups moved into areas of relative power vacuum and chaos.  ISIS might have grown out of al Qaeda, but unlike al Qaeda it is not content to make terrorist strikes.  ISIS wants to be a country.  ISIS is conquering territory.  ISIS is imposing its rule.  And ISIS is sticking its thumb in the eye of the West.

In Iraq ISIS has a fertile ground for making territorial gains.  For decades the Sunni Arabs in Iraq imposed their will.  This built resentment among the Shia and the Kurds.  When the US decided to invade Iraq and prop up a quasi-democracy, the power structure was upended.  The Kurds mostly just wanted to do their own thing, but the majority Shia who had been oppressed for decades decided that they wanted to do some oppressing of their own.  The shoe was on the other foot.  The oppressors were now the oppressed.  And nothing the US did seemed to convince the Shia led government that bringing the heel down on the Sunni was a bad idea.

ISIS had gained experience in the Syrian civil war.  While the outside world dithered over whether to support the clearly awful Assad or the potentially even worse Islamist Militants, ISIS grew.  Then ISIS exploded across the border and swiftly dominated the Sunni Triangle.  ISIS rule means that Sunni Arabs in Iraq will not be dominated by the Shia.  ISIS offers a return to power, brutal and unjust as that power might be.

And yet we are still just grazing the surface of what makes ISIS different.  ISIS is standing at a confluence of historical currents.  ISIS represents a homegrown threat to European Colonial power structures.  ISIS is a pan-Arabic, pan-Islamic movement that it right now rewriting the map.  A de-facto fracturing of Syria and Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines is occurring.  ISIS is attracting militants from the US, the UK, France, and defectors from al Qaeda.  Their ranks are growing.  ISIS is overrunning the Iraqi army.  For a century Middle-East peoples have been seeking self-determination free of the constraints of foreign powers.  Now ISIS is succeeding.

So What Should We Do?

Let us be clear here.  Islamic State is awful and terrifying.  They are committing mass atrocities.  They are literally executing children.  There are unconfirmed reports of them using chemical weapons.  Rape, child-rape, and forced marriages are parts of their arsenal.  That anyone could support this movement defies decency and sanity.

Yes, this is what ISIS is doing
What will happen if we do nothing?  It is hard to believe that the powers that be in the Middle East would not act against ISIS.  This movement grew out of the movement Saudi Arabia fostered.  If the movement has too much success it would threaten the House of Saud.  The movement is a threat to Jordan.  The movement is a threat to everyone.  If we do nothing, then the powers in the Middle East would be forced to act in their own interests.  They could fail.  ISIS could emerge victorious, a new Islamic Caliphate spanning the Muslim World could emerge, a new global locus of power.  But I think that ISIS would fail.  Horrors would be perpetrated.  The fallout would be unpredictable.  But ISIS would fail.

What would happen if we came down like the hammer of God with the full force of the US military brought to bear against ISIS in an act of pure naked aggression?  ISIS would be crushed in a matter of days.  Unfortunately the power vacuum and chaos that allowed ISIS to rise would remain.  The cultural currents that foster groups like ISIS would remain.  Short of bald faced imperialistic annexation of Syria and Iraq I fail to see a military solution to this problem.

What might happen if we continue on our current course?  Well we are already seeing that our air-strikes are not dislodging ISIS.  Our use of air-power is very expensive.  It is also politically expedient for our US leaders.  Raining fire and brimstone on ragheads from a safe position of invulnerable power gets relatively little push back from the US public.  For our politicians, US Air Power is a safe way to impose our will on the world.  US soldiers aren't at risk, and it's only money.  The military industrial complex grows stronger, and the American people are insulated from the ethical atrocities that our government commits in our name.  But while air-strikes burn through the US treasury and our moral position as a nation they don't really seem to be accomplishing much.  Remember, between the first Iraq war and the invasion in 2003 we were frequently engaging in air-strikes against Iraq.  12 years of air-strikes accomplished very little, and certainly did not result in any useful progress for our interests.  There is no real reason to believe that we are going to see a major change in the efficacy of air-strikes.

What our current strategy will do is allow our politicians to act like they are doing something.  The use of US forces on the ground as advisers will probably work just as well as it is working in Afghanistan.  In any case the current strategy will probably keep things simmering until the next presidential election then it will be someone else's problem.

Meanwhile ISIS will be able to show that it is strong enough to stand up to the US.  ISIS will be able to show the world that there is a Muslim Arab force that can take on the world.  ISIS will be empowered by US and allied actions.  Meanwhile Middle East powers will be put in the position of helping foreign powers step on the necks of Muslims, or resisting the West and further empowering ISIS.

The current strategy could result in a destabilization of the Middle East power structure.  What would happen if ISIS did end up gaining power over a major percentage of Middle East oil reserves?  A new Islamic Caliphate could legitimately pose an existential threat to the US.  That would force a major clash.  A "Clash of Civilizations."  I am honestly concerned that our current strategy against ISIS could trigger WWIII.

Hopefully I am just paranoid.  I really hope that I am blowing things wildly out of proportion and all the analysis that I've read that assumes that ISIS will just fizzle is actually correct.  I do not want to be right.  But I strongly believe that our current strategy is extraordinarily dangerous.

I would support decisive action or no action, but half-assing it is the wrong move.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's clear that we are compelled to do something. As you said, Islamic State are some seriously nefarious fucks. Executions of POWs and hostages and sieges and massacres of Yazidis and Kurds. No one else had been willing to step up until we took the lead.
    You're discounting the fact that the Kurds are a capable and reliable force, and can follow on the heels of US bombings to recapture towns in Iraq. The FSA and similar moderates within Syria are more mercurial, but they're necessary partners for any attacks against IS, as they would be the successors of captured territory. We've already committed to a policy of regime change in Syria - this is doubling as our follow through. In the past, the US gave money to whatever poor sods had an itching to fight the enemy. A good chunk of them, not surprisingly, had violent ambitions beyond to the ones we shared. The moderate forces in Syria are, to my knowledge, average citizens like you or I - university students, bakers, construction workers. They're not the disenfranchised that make up many of the radicals, and only seem to want their country back.
    This is a different conflict from Afghanistan. It's an easy air campaign. No one likes IS. We should be able to squeeze them out. When else has the US got almost the whole Middle East on board for military campaign?