Sunday, August 3, 2014

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

ISIS Is A Plan Gone Awry
To Americans eager to forget what is happening in Iraq the crisis has been easy to ignore because of other events throughout the world. Sadly things have deteriorated to the point that Americans are using every opportunity to take their eyes off what has become a train wreck, Iraq is rapidly morphing into a failed State. Consider this proof it is often unwise to take your eyes off a problem for long because when you look back you might find that things have gone horribly wrong as is the case in Iraq and Syria. The lyrics from a song "slip sliding away" come to mind as a way to describe the massive investment made in Iraq by America. Recently a group called ISIS shocked much of the world by swiftly capturing Mosul in an offensive that allowed the group to take control of major parts of northern and western Iraq. On June 29, 2014, the Islamist militants declared an Islamic "caliphate" in an area straddling Iraq and Syria and trumpeted the declaration in videos seen around the world.

A jihadist from the Islamic State went on to warn "We will break other borders," signifying more expansion was planned. Iraq and the Levant alternately translated as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed religious authority over all Muslims and aspires to bring much of the Muslim-inhabited regions of the world under its direct political control including the nearby territory in the Levant region, which includes Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Kuwait, Cyprus, and part of southern Turkey. The leader of ISIS is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi says it is the caliph of Muslims everywhere. It also announced that it was changing and shortening its name to Islamic State. Hundreds of supporters were shown celebrating the announcement by firing guns into the air in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa. ISIS is known for its harsh Wahhabist interpretation of Islam, and brutal violence directed at Shia Muslims and Christians. In addition to attacks on government and military targets, ISIS is responsible for attacks that have killed thousands of civilians. Success on the battlefield has bolstered their standing and even talk of taking Baghdad has been battered about.

According to a report published by Reuters, the group known as ISIS may have actually been trained over the last two years by the United States government in Jordan. It would be quite ironic if the United States was actually responsible for the training of those now destabilizing the Iraqi nation, but that seems to be the case. It is not known at the time of this report whether those doing the training were direct members of the US government or if they worked for a private firm we funded, but the main focus of the training was on anti-tank weaponry. The report continues that 200 men were trained at the facility and that over 1200 were to be added in a plan to prepare to free Syria from the rule of President Bashar Al-Assad. French and British advisers were present as well to aid in the training and according to Jordanian intelligence sources, the program was designed to create fighters to be a part of the ISIS group. The plan appears to have been to train 10,000 “moderates” of Islam in the hope that they would reinforce American interests in the region.

Arizona Senator John McCain even paid a visit to the group during training to show his support. McCain was photographed with General Salim Idris, who was later expelled from the group because he was seen as too moderate for them. The new leader of the group is General Ibrahim al-Douri. He was the Vice-President of the Revolutionary Council under former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and was supposed to be the successor to Hussein. Al-Douri has been on the US most wanted list since the second Gulf War began and many inside the United States government thought he was dead. It appears he now has a huge war chest at his disposal, which has come from US allies, including Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. These are all Sunni-based countries which support the ISIS group out of frustration over President Barak Obama’s failure to oust Al-Assad. After Obama failed to take action they have decided to take actions of their own.

Now we have seen the erasure of the Syria-Iraq border by a group that is considered too radical for al-Qaeda, the takeover of Iraq’s second-largest city, the kidnapping of international diplomats, and the declaration their new caliphate each act as a major signal about how grave the situation has become. The problems in the area are not contained by the old border and we must view Iraq and Syria as completely interwoven, they may be two different countries, but one theater in reality. The situation is fluid and creating some rather strange alliances. In a move that muddies the water, even more, the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu voiced support for Kurdish statehood, this position clashes with the US preference to keep sectarian war-torn Iraq united. Pointing to the mayhem in Iraq, Netanyahu called for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan as part of a broader alliance with moderate forces across the region.

Many analysts have dismissed the announcement of a caliphate as hubris, and see it as a gamble for support as the group has surged in size from 3,000 fighters to 20,000 or more, but issues on the ground are clarifying the situation. It seems many soldiers flee rather than fight this cruel hoard that knows no mercy and where surrender means you will be most likely be executed. The group has even beheaded some of its enemies to intimidate those who might resist its advance. Groups like ISIS are unyielding and demand loyalty to their values and cause. The militant message is either convert or be killed. When ISIS moves in the institutions that govern day to day life are destroyed or remade. Reuters reports the group shores up its control over communities with a combination of force and fear. After meeting armed resistance in the town of al-Alam for nearly two weeks they kidnapped 30 local families and sent the town's most influential citizens a simple message about the hostages: Weeks later it appears only a few gunman patrol the town at night so comfortable is the Islamic State in its control through fear." As ISIS sinks its roots into the areas it occupies it will widen its base and dislodging it grows into a far more difficult task.

After ISIS retook control of Raqqa earlier this year, it created the al-Khansaa' Brigade, an all-female unit operating in the city. Its purpose is to apprehend civilian women in Raqqa who do not follow a strict Sharia law that includes a mandate that all women be fully covered in public and that they be accompanied by a male chaperone. Abu Ahmad, an ISIS official says they need a female brigade to "raise awareness among women, and arrest and punish women who do not follow the religion correctly. Jihad is not a man-only duty. Women must do their part as well." The women who join the brigade are either women of Raqqa who wanted to take part in ISIS or often the wives of the men who have come to fight. "ISIS created it to terrorize women," says Abu al-Hamza, a local media activist. The brigade raided the city's Hamida Taher Girls School and arrested 10 students, two teachers, and a secretary on the grounds that some of them were wearing veils that were too thin. Others were accused of wearing hair clips under the veil or showing too much of their faces

It only took the Sunni militant group a little over a month to take over Syria's energy infrastructure and cripple the Assad regime. What's more troubling is that ISIS holdings now include nearly all of Syria’s oil and gas fields. While these are hardly significant on a global scale, they allow ISIS to be self-sustaining and self-funding. A monopoly over fuel in the territory it has captured gives them leverage over other armed Sunni factions who could have threatened its dominance. The militants also seized four small oilfields when they swept through northern Iraq last month and are now selling crude oil and gasoline from them to finance their newly declared caliphate. Near the northern city of Mosul, ISIS has taken over the Najma and Qayara fields, while further south near Tikrit it overran the Himreen and Ajil fields during its two-day sweep through northern Iraq in mid-June. The oilfields in ISIS hands are modest compared to Iraq's giant fields near Kirkuk and Basra, which are under Kurdish and central government control, most of the 80 or so oil wells held by ISIS are sealed and not pumping. More troubling is the news they have just hours ago taken over Iraq's largest dam and now control a great deal of the water in the area.

It seems this Islamic militant group understands the power of the purse and as a revenue earner, it now levies taxes on all vehicles and trucks bringing goods into Mosul. A large truck must pay $400, while small trucks are charged $100 and cars $50. Ahmed Younis, a Baghdad expert on armed groups, said the Islamists were in effect establishing an economic state based on the increasing resources and infrastructure under their command. Considering its grip over oilfields and its growing economic activity, the Islamic State will "transform into an economic giant with assets of billions of dollars," he said. Petrol stations in Mosul are now selling fuel supplied by traders working with ISIS, which charges either $1.0 or $1.5 a liter depending on quality. One petrol station owner in the city said the fuel is brought from Syria and is triple the price before, but drivers have to buy it now that subsidized government fuel is gone. ISIS is now the sole sponsor of the imports from Syria where the group controls oilfields in the Syrian province of Deir al-Zor. They use part of it for their vehicles and sell the rest to their traders in Mosul.

 A spokesman for the Iraqi military claims ISIS is a threat to all countries. Qassim Atta suggested it could change the international community's reluctance to intervene. "I believe all the countries, once they read the declaration will change their attitudes because it orders everybody to be loyal to it," he said. Iraqi state TV broadcast footage of convoys of tanks being driven to Tikrit. Residents in the frontline cities in the fight against Isis, such as Baquba and Samarra, say Shia militias are leading the fight against the militants and wielding inordinate power and that in some cases security forces are deferring to them. This makes for a very ugly picture as things in Iraq continue to escalate with reports that  ISIS has placed IEDs in places such as Mada'in, Yusifiyah, and Mahmudiyah in the southern belts of Baghdad. The deployment of volunteers from southern Iraq to Kirkuk province signifies the spread of their role to protect shrines in areas where ISIS is making advances.

The reallocation of Iraqi security forces from Baghdad signals the fact that the tide of war may be shifting for the worse. Iraq has become increasingly more vocal in demanding U.S. assistance Bloomberg reports the Iraqi Ambassador to U.S. Lukman Faily called for U.S. air strikes warning that Iraqis are skeptical about U.S. intent to support Iraq in its fight against Sunni terrorist groups, saying that "other countries will step in to fill the vacuum if greater American support isn’t forthcoming." Faily calls for U.S. air strikes to stop the influx of terrorists from Syria, to target “terrorist camps,” and precision air strikes even in urban areas. He also said that Iraq has chosen the U.S. as its preferred strategic partner sighting that it has bought huge amounts of  U.S. military equipment and plans "to buy billions more." If Iraqis do not believe meaningful U.S. assistance is forthcoming, they will not have enough incentives to adopt political reforms.

While the U.S. needs to view ISIS as a threat to U.S. and regional interests and this would suggest more military involvement to push back ISIS the crisis is ultimately a political one, not a military one. Changing the politics in the region is key. While the United States continues to debate its next move Syria, Iran, and Russia have been taking action in ways that are often not aligned with US interests. Along with political pressure, more U.S. military assistance to Baghdad and even to the Kurds will give the U.S. political leverage when it comes time to help the Iraqis renegotiate their political compact. Many people feel immediate and urgent action is needed to protect America's interest in the area and say the moment in which the U.S. can make a difference and truly affect the outcome is closing. Sadly, like many Americans, I have no brilliant ideas on how to proceed in what appears to be a war between Sunni and Shia factions.

 Footnote; This post dovetails with many of my recent writings. Other related articles may be found in my blog archive, thanks for reading, your comments are encouraged.


  1. This post is valuable. It is informative and largely cogent. I disagree with parts of it. The blog refers to America's "massive investment" Iraq, "slip sliding away." America never made an investment in Iraq. If one invests $10,000 in a common stock and the shares are worth a total of two cents the instant the trade registers, that is not an investment. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was done without a plan for the aftermath of Saddam's fall. The invasion was worthless when the statue of Saddam was pulled down and it was worthless when he was captured. It was worthless in the context of American interests. Shock and aw.
    Likewise, Obama's threatening boast, that Assad "has to go" was also full of miscalculation. The bombing of Libya was thoughtless. Gaddafi was an angel compared to the gangsters fighting for the control of Libya now.
    It was not in America's interest to provide room and board to Baghdadi was he was introduced to Al Qaeda. The U S has no idea why it put Baghdadi in jail, as there was not a hearing. Al Qaeda was not in Iraq before the U S invasion.
    What is in America's interest? American peace and prosperity. The answer is so simple, I should not have to provide a complete sentence. Look at who controls
    half of "Syria" now. It is controlled by jihadists from "Iraq," Jordan, Lybia and the United States. That is why Syria no longer really exists. They don't operate in the interest of "Syria" or the "Syrian people."
    A two state solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is in the interest of the United States. Yet, U S policy in the Middle East has never been in the interest of the United States. The massacre that has been raging in the summer of 2014 is only the latest costume put on 65 years of injustice.
    The caliphate controls its own thought process and the government of the United States of America does not.

    1. Thank you for your interesting comment. We can agree to disagree concerning how much America invested in Iraq, but in my opinion we will continue paying for years.

    2. A "two- state solution" to the Israeli-"Palestinian" conflict is no solution at all. Not until Hamas agrees to demilitarize and recognize Israel's right to exist in its ancestral homeland.