Tagged: Iraq

Drone Video Over Mosul, Iraq

This footage is not fiction. This footage shows how the effects of war really look like.

Click here to watch the video


Trump Election: Reactions in the Middle East

Many things have already been said about the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. In this piece, I want to focus on the reactions of Middle Eastern leaders to the outcome of the US election.

Although it would not be completely surprising if Trump’s positions on the Middle East will change from the campaign trail to the presidency, they are still worth considering. As summarized by Paul Salem, these positions are:

  1. he favors cooperation with Russia and the Assad regime in Syria against ISIS and has little regard for the Syrian opposition;
  2. he has promised either to tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran or to monitor it very aggressively; either way the tone of détente will be replaced by hostility;
  3. he has spoken fondly of authoritarianism and authoritarian leaders, and argued that human rights and democracy should not be US foreign policy priorities;
  4. he has said he will ratchet up the war on ISIS without revealing how that would happen;
  5. he has vilified Muslims and called for a ban on their entry to the United States;
  6. he has questioned America’s alliances and commitments, and argued instead that US protection should be in exchange for payment.


“President-elect is a true friend of the State of Israel, and I look forward to working with him to advance security, stability and peace in our region.” — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Personally and for my nation, I interpret favorably the American people’s choice and I wish for a future filled with success.” — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“The U.S. elections result will not have any impact on the Islamic Republic’s policies…. Today, the U.S. is definitely not more capable than before…of creating global consensus against Iran.” —Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Egypt President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi called Mr. Trump and expressed hope his election will “inject a new spirit into the trajectory of Egyptian-American relations.”

Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi praised the president-elect for continuing to prioritize the war against the extremists: “We are looking forward to seeing the world and the United States of America standing by Iraq in facing terrorism.”

Saudi King Salman expressed hope that Trump would bring stability to the Middle East. “We wish your excellency success in your mission to achieve security and stability in the Middle East and worldwide,” he said, praising US-Saudi relations, which are “historic and tight between the two friendly countries, that all parties aspire to develop and reinforce”.

A spokesman for the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbassaid: “We will deal with any president elected by the American people on the principle of achieving permanent peace in the Middle East based on the two state solution on June 4 1967 lines with east Jerusalem as its capital.”

Declassified US Documents Shed Light on the Syria/Iraq Crisis

Last May the organization Judicial Watch obtained through a Freedom Of Information Act lawsuit a cache of US government’s declassified documents.

Two documents in particular struck my attention.

One is a document produced by the Pentagon. This document shows that by October 2012 the Obama administration was aware that arms from Libya were being shipped to the opposition in Syria. In particular,

Weapons from the former Libya military stockpiles were shipped from the port of Benghazi, Libya to the Port of Banias and the Port of Borj Islam, Syria. The weapons shipped during late-August 2012 were Sniper rifles, RPG’s, and 125 mm and 155mm howitzers missiles.

During the immediate aftermath of, and following the uncertainty caused by, the downfall of the ((Qaddafi)) regime in October 2011 and up until early September of 2012, weapons from the former Libya military stockpiles located in Benghazi, Libya were shipped from the port of Benghazi, Libya to the ports of Banias and the Port of Borj Islam, Syria. The Syrian ports were chosen due to the small amount of cargo traffic transiting these two ports. The ships used to transport the weapons were medium-sized and able to hold 10 or less shipping containers of cargo.

Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 3.25.13 PM(click on the picture to go to the full document)

The second document is by the Defense Intelligence Agency. It reveals two important facts.

One is that by August 2012 the Obama administration was aware that Al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist groups were leading the Syrian uprising. An uprising publicly supported by the West and its regional allies.

Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 3.37.48 PM(click on the picture to go to the full document)

Another is that the Obama administration (and other foreign backers of the Syrian opposition) foresaw the possibility of the establishment of a Salafist principality astride Syria and Iraq and actually welcomed such a development as a counterweight to President Assad forces in Syria. This was in August 2012, that is two years before the Islamic State came into being!

Screen Shot 2015-08-01 at 3.41.55 PM(click on the picture to go to the full document)

I believe that these declassified documents should make people rethink what they thought they knew about US involvement in the Syria and Iraq crises.

Follow me on Twitter @Eugeniolilli

Reframing The Current Crisis In Iraq

This piece was first published on King’s College London’s Kings Of War blog.

During the past few months, politicians, media outlets, and pundits alike have framed the current crisis in Iraq in a seemingly straightforward fashion.

The popular narrative goes as follows: a barbaric, Islamic extremist group, called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has established control over areas astride the border between Syria and Iraq. Vastly larger, but mostly ineffective, Iraqi armed forces have not been able to stop the ISIS advance whose militants have come close to reaching the outskirts of the capital Baghdad. Iraq, vexed by ineluctable sectarian conflict, now stands on the brink of civil war. However, the ISIS threat goes beyond the area it currently controls. In fact, the ISIS has ostensibly displayed global ambitions: its leadership has announced the creation of an Islamic caliphate and has called on Muslims worldwide to vow allegiance to its self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

There are at least three aspects of this popular narrative that are inaccurate and somewhat misleading.

1) First aspect: the current crisis in Iraq is all about the ISIS.

Although the ISIS has undoubtedly achieved the status of “ the public face” of the Iraqi insurgency, it could hardly be described as the only actor involved in the fighting. Reliable accounts, in fact, provide evidence that the insurgency in Iraq is a complex aggregation of diverse militant Sunni groups. An all but complete list of these groups includes, along with the ISIS, other Islamist extremist factions (such as Ansar al-Islam), the Military Council of the Tribes of Iraq (that comprises as many as eighty tribes), and the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order (a militant group that claims to have Kurdish and Shiite members and surely hosts many Sunni Baathists once loyal to the regime of Saddam Hussein). Notably, antipathies exist among members of this heterogeneous alliance. As an example, some Islamic extremist groups consider former Baathists to be infidels.

2) Second aspect: the root causes of the current crisis in Iraq mostly stem from religion and sectarian tensions.

Although the armed confrontation in Iraq has indeed pitted a Sunni insurgency against Shiite and Kurdish forces, the current conflict is by no means a theological confrontation rooted in the seventh century. The root causes behind the fighting are primarily political. Sunni political grievances include: fair access to government revenue and services, a say in the process of national decision-making, an end to rampant corruption in the Shiite-led government, and a modicum of social justice. These are clearly secular and not religious grievances. Notably, they are not new grievances either. During the last years of the George W. Bush presidency, in fact, the United States already acknowledged the existence of a number of such potentially destabilizing issues. Tellingly, embedded in the eighteen political “benchmarks” identified at the time by the United States to foster political reconciliation in Iraq, there were laws to distribute oil revenue equitably and provisions to reverse the purge of Baathists from government positions.

3) Third aspect: the goal of the ISIS leadership is to create a global caliphate.

It is true that the ISIS has announced the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in the territories the group has seized in Iraq and Syria. It is also true that the ISIS leadership has asked Muslims living beyond the areas under its direct control to swear their allegiance to the new caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. However, there are clear limits to the ISIS capability to achieve global reach. To begin with, the ISIS has scored its major military successes in areas where local populations were mostly friendly to the insurgency. ISIS is going to face a stiffer resistance in Shiite and Kurdish majority areas. Moreover, and this is linked to points 1 and 2, the current Iraqi insurgency is primarily a marriage of convenience. Cooperation among the above mentioned unlikely Sunni allies will probably terminate as soon as the common Shiite enemy is defeated. Ensuing infighting will likely weaken the insurgency and degrade its ability to seize additional territory. Furthermore, the appeal of the ISIS to Sunni communities in the wider Middle East should not be overestimated. Moderate Sunnis might not feel comfortable with ISIS extremist doctrine and tactics. Finally, the international coalition that is presently forming under the aegis of the United States will represent a huge obstacle not only to the ISIS potential expansionist goals but also to the extremist group’s very existence.

What does this tell us about the way the international community should respond to the current crisis in Iraq? I see at least two important implications:

1) The international community would be mistaken in considering the Iraqi insurgency solely, or primarily, as a terrorist threat.

2) Any international military intervention in Iraq must be followed by a serious long-term commitment by the international community to facilitate sectarian reconciliation and to pressure the government in Baghdad to resolve the political grievances that fueled the Sunni insurgency in the first place.

Reflections on President Obama’s IS speech

This piece was first published on King’s College London’s Kings Of War blog.

On September 10, US President Barack Obama delivered a speech on the threat represented by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. A lot has already been said and written about Obama’s four-point strategy to tackle the IS.

In this blog post, I would like to draw your attention on two aspects that have received less coverage but that I believe to be quite important nonetheless.

First, Obama said: “Now let’s make two things clear: IS is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of IS’s victims have been Muslim. And IS is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. IS is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

For President Obama, the Islamic State is “a terrorist organization, pure and simple”. This is a clear oversimplification of a much more complex phenomenon. As we know, the IS includes former Iraqi Baath party members and Iraqi Sunni tribesmen that do not squarely fit Obama’s definition of terrorists and are not simply fighting or supporting the IS for the sake of slaughtering all who stand in their way. My concern is that by narrowly defining the IS threat as a terrorist threat, the US response will be inadequate to solve the crisis in the long term. The United States, in fact, may be tempted to focus too heavily on military means while discounting the importance of addressing the political, economic, and social grievances that enabled the rise of the IS in the first place.

Second, Obama said: “This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out IS wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.

Here, I am skeptical about President Obama’s description of the US counterterrorism strategy in Yemen and Somalia as “successful”. This point is also discussed in an interesting article by Hayes Brown.

As for Yemen, years of US counterterrorism have failed to eradicate the local branch of Al-Qaeda. On the contrary, National Counterterrorism Center Deputy Director Nicholas Rasmussen recently stated that “We [the United States] continue to assess that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [which is based in Yemen] remains the Al-Qaeda affiliate most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United State.”

As for Somalia, the United States has been fighting the US-designated terrorist group al-Shabaab at least since 2008. In his speech, President Obama singled out the killing of Ahmed Godane, the top commander of the group, as evidence of the effectiveness of US counterterrorism strategy in the country. However, as noted by Brown, rather than discouraging the remaining members, the killing of Godane has led al-Shabaab to quickly name a new leader and to renew its allegiance to al Qaeda.

Given the persistent threats represented by AQAP in Yemen and Al-Shabaab in Somalia, it is not straightforward to understand President Obama’s choice of these two countries as successful examples of the US strategy of counterterrorism.

These are my thoughts. Now, I would like to hear from you. What is your take on these two issues?

Getting ready for war, this time don’t forget a plan for peace

This piece was first published on King’s College London’s Kings Of War blog.

At last-week’s NATO summit in Wales, the United States stepped up its diplomatic effort to form an international coalition against Islamic State (IS) forces in Iraq and Syria.
In the wake of the summit, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Poland, and Denmark will be the “core group” of a larger and extended coalition against the IS threat. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry urged NATO members to come up with concrete plans to tackle the IS: “We need to attack them in ways that prevent them from taking over territory, to bolster the Iraqi security forces and others in the region who are prepared to take them on, without committing troops of our own.” In addition, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei reportedly authorized Iranian military cooperation with the United States and the “core group” countries in Iraq. These latest diplomatic developments seems to give credit to the hypothesis that a major international military campaign against IS militants is about to begin.
While planning for war is clearly underway, not much has been said about any planning for peace. Let’s pretend for a moment that this US-led international military campaign is effective in rolling back IS forces from the territories they have seized astride Iraq and Syria. Who is going to secure and govern such territories? The Syrian Opposition Coalition? The Kurds? The Iraqi government? Whatever the case, the United States and its allies should be aware that any involvement in the current crisis in Iraq has to go well beyond the end of major military operations. In order to have a chance to be successful in the long term, any plan should include a clear commitment by the United States and its allies to continued military engagement in the region, as well as efforts to restore governance and delivery of basic services to the populace. In fact, if newly-liberated territories were to be left ungoverned and unprotected, Assad forces or IS militants could easily manage to reoccupy them, sooner rather than later.
The lack of a plan for peace, while preparing for war, is especially worrying because of its potential for blowback. Let’s take a brief look at three relatively recent military campaigns where an ostensibly effective strategy for war was not followed by a clear plan for peace.
In the 1980s, the United States supported an armed insurgency in Afghanistan against the local communist-led government and the Soviet Union. US officials set up a particularly complex but efficient system to provide economic and military assistance to a number of very diverse Afghan militant groups. US strategy was eventually successful insofar as, on 15 February 1989, the last Soviet troops were forced to abandon Afghanistan. However, the United States had no equally effective peace plan for post-conflict Afghanistan. On the contrary, after the Soviet withdrawal, Washington quickly disengaged from the country. Partly because of that, Afghanistan plunged into a protracted bloody civil war that eventually led to the rise of the Taliban regime.

On 19 March 2003, the United Stated began a military campaign against the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. US military operations led to the quick defeat of the Hussein regime by May 1 of the same year. However, many studies of the US invasion of Iraq have provided extensive evidence that the United States had no well-designed peace plan for the country. The lack of such a plan resulted in a costly US military occupation and a decade of continued instability, the negative effects of which are still present in today’s Iraq in the form of Shiite-Sunni sectarian tensions and the rise of the Islamic State.

After exactly eight years, on 19 March 2011, the United States took part in a UN-sanctioned NATO-led military campaign in support of a popular uprising in Libya. Western military superiority was decisive in helping a fledging Libyan opposition to overthrow the regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi. However, the United States and the other members of the coalition were again quick to disengage from the country they had just helped to liberate. Since then, Libya has been plagued by growing violence and unrest that have driven the North-African country toward an all-out civil war and made the possibility of state breakdown very real.

All that considered, the old saying “once you break it, you own it” appears particularly appropriate. In fact, to get involved in the “war phase” of a crisis without being ready, or willing, to commit the same amount of resources to the “peace phase” of it is likely to have extremely negative consequences, not only for the country experiencing the crisis but also for those countries that decided to intervene in support of one or the other warring party.

The latest international diplomatic moves tell us that the likelihood of a major military campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria is very high. Let’s see if this time, while preparing for a difficult war, leaders in Washington will also find the time to work out a much needed plan for peace.

The IS and Strange Middle Eastern Bedfellows

The rise of the Islamic State astride the territories of Iraq and Syria is leading to the creation of an unusual convergence of interests among very “strange bedfellows”.

A number of dynamics occurred during the past week are especially worth to notice.

Gregory Gause III, at the Brookings Institution, correctly identifies some of them:

“The independence of ISIS, at once a great strength of the organization, is also a weakness. It has the unique ability to unite most of the players in the new Middle East cold war against it. Iran and Iran’s allies detest it because of its fiercely anti-Shia ideology. The Saudis fear it as a potential domestic threat, turning Salafism into a revolutionary political ideology rather than the pro-regime bulwark it has usually been in Saudi Arabia. Turkey, the Kurds, the United States, the EU and Russia all stand to lose if ISIS wins. Its recent successes have led a reluctant Obama administration to re-engage militarily in Iraq and the Iranians to push out Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister of Iraq. Washington, Tehran, Baghdad, Irbil, Ankara, Damascus and Riyadh find themselves with parallel, if not identical interests when dealing with ISIS.”

In addition to the countries mentioned by Gause, something seems to be moving also in Syria. Last week, in fact, the Syrian foreign minister said that the Assad regime was ready to “cooperate and coordinate” in the fight against Islamic State militants but warned that any strikes conducted without the consent of the Syrian government would be “considered aggression.” Over the past days, US officials have repeatedly said that they are preparing military options to combat the Islamic State “both in Iraq and Syria.” The United States has also begun manned and unmanned surveillance flights over Syria, a move recently approved by President Barack Obama. The US administration, however, said it did not plan to notify the Syrian government of the flights.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister met with an Iranian deputy foreign minister in the highest-level bilateral talks between the two Mideast powers since moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election last year. The two officials reportedly discussed “a number of regional and international issues of common interest”, including the threat posed by the rise of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria.

It is very likely that this unusual convergence of interests among very strange bedfellows will end as soon as the threat of the IS recedes or is eliminated. However, we cannot completely dismiss the possibility that the dynamics started by the rise of the IS in Iraq and Syria might have future effects on the nature of international relations in the region of the Greater Middle East.