Monday, September 29, 2014

Wither art thou, Saddam?

Ali ibn Abi Talib (circa 697 - 661 AD).
Hyderabad, circa 1800.
The current situation in the Middle East, specifically Iraq and Syria, is giving new meaning to the term quagmire.

The United States is once again getting sucked into a war that it can not ultimately win, an intractable conflict that has its roots in the area at least as far back as 661 c.e.

In 661, Mohammed's cousin and son in law, Ali, was knifed in the back with a poisoned sword while praying in Kufa.

Ali, Mohammed's appointed successor (he was ten years old when he was the first person to recognize the voice of the prophet),  a member of the Quraysh tribe, was in line to be the fourth Caliph after Mohammed.

The killing raised a lot of understandable enmity and the neighborhood has never been quite the same since. And so the rift between the Shia (the followers of Ali) and Sunni was born. This struggle is a huge never ending fight currently being played out as a war between the proxies of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

It is tough to get a bead on all of the factions in the area. There are groups whose identity is primarily tribal and ethnic like the kurds, who are mainly Sunni but include other ethnic and religious subsets. There are other groups who identify more by creed, like Islamic State and Hezbollah.

It is also important to note that post Ottoman Empire, all of these Arab and Islamic countries were sort of created out of thin air, borders and nations were loosely drawn by the British, and sometimes inhabited by a host of different tribes that oftentimes hated each other.

Iraq was demarcated in 1920 by the League of Nations when the Ottoman Empire was divided by the Treaty of Sèvres. The region was placed under the authority of the United Kingdom as the British Mandate of Mesopotamia. A monarchy was established in 1921 and the Kingdom of Iraq gained independence from Britain in 1932. In 1958, the monarchy was overthrown and the Republic of Iraq was created.

The country was controlled by the Ba'ath party from 1968 to 2003. Although the country is majority Shia, an estimated 65%, the Ba'athists were Sunni. Sunnis are estimated to comprise about 30% of the country with an estimated 5% of the population being Chaldean Christian.

When Saddam Hussein was in power there did not seem to be a lot of religious enmity between the people. Women were allowed to wear western dress and be educated. It was not a theological realm, more a rank dictatorship. Saddam was no choirboy, he led an awful arabization campaign in the northern Kurdish areas but pretty much kept a grip on things. And sadly, like Tito in the Balkans, he may have been the last and only man that could.

After the fall of Saddam, the United States refused to incorporate Ba'athists into the new government, what may have been a fatal mistake on the part of our country. We were worried about Saddamists infiltrating the nascent state. The power and pendulum swung over to the Shiite Dawa party of Maliki, a party that had some serious scores to settle. Now the minority Sunni, accustomed to power,  were the aggrieved party.

We currently have a situation where there is a full scale religious civil war taking place, the last thing we want or need to get in the middle of. There is a good reason why cops hate getting involved in domestic disturbances. Real volatile and a quite easy way to get killed.

We spent ten years in Iraq and billions of dollars equipping an ineffectual Iraqi Army that cut and run at the first sign of trouble. Now we seek to repeat those mistakes in Syria, under the delusion that there is some neutral moderate party that will fight the Islamic Front, a Sunni group.

The President of Syria, Assad is an Alawite Ba'athist who has aligned with the Iranian Shiite axis and invited his Hezbollah allies in Lebanon to help him kill his enemies. Not a very nice guy, has used chemical weapons on his own population.

The Nusra Front (Sunni), an Al Qaeda group is in Syria trying to take Assad down. There are scores of others as well, some getting quickly folded into ISIS's cloak. These groups are concentrating on the Syrian Kurdish areas, seemingly the only good guys in the whole movie.

By the way, the Syrian regime wants to be our new bff and gang up on the ISIS from two directions, further fortifying the Assad regime.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend and just watch us hold our nose and make nice with Hezbollah and the Iranians. We might have to cut the Israelis off but hey, everybody knows Obama can't stand them anyway and sometimes you have to break a few eggs.

In Iraq there is now talk of finding Sunnis willing to fight the incoming Sunni Islamic Front. Good luck with that.

I could go on and on but will spare you this Monday morning. We all have things to do. I will try to wrap this up. At the risk of sounding like an islamophobe. There are no good actors in the region, with the exception maybe of the kurds. Many of the groups that we are fighting are already using our own weapons against us. The internecine hatreds that now exist are unsolvable. The people are at least culturally, barbarians.

Who else kills and beheads aid workers, health workers, peacekeepers, journalists, people whose real and ostensible purpose is only to help them and their countrymen?

In Indonesia, the middle east, now in our own country, Africa with Boko Haram, everywhere there is this type of senseless violence against innocents, the answer is, while not politically correct, only too clear. There is a creed and people that never learned how to get along with others in a civilized way.

You can only hear about such and such being a religion of peace so many times before you begin to wonder why so many adherents never got the message?

If ever a region was crying out for a nuke and a reboot it is the current middle east. The idea that we will find a bunch of good guys some place that will serve as boots on the ground is ludicrous.

Massive air power to protect the kurds and let everybody else do each other in.

I was sitting at a black jack table with an Iraqi and tried to talk regional politics a while back and can still feel the glower when I brought up the Kurdish problem.

"Fuck the kurds," he spat. I decided to forego the rest of our conversation.

I have read some very sad accounts of what is happening in the villages that the Kurds and Yazidis so recently shared with their fellow iraqis. Here, here and here.
They knew him as Abdul Qadir, the handyman who repaired air conditioners, refrigerators, TV sets and any other busted appliances in their northern Iraqi town.
But after Islamic State forces took over the predominantly Kurdish town of Birdiya, residents learned that their pleasant, reliable Mr. Fix-It had another nickname, Haji, and was playing a senior role supervising checkpoints for the Sunni Arab extremists. He was killed Aug. 22 in a U.S. airstrike near the Mosul dam along with two other Islamic State fighters, according to Kurdish military officials.
"He used to come to my house. He knows my family," said Yusuf Ibrahim, who fled his home in Birdiya as the militants advanced. "And now we find out he wanted to kill us."
Sunni neighbors that had lived peacefully side by side with their fellow villagers for ever, or at least since Saddam's arabization campaign, were now fingering them and turning them in to ISIS.
ZAKHO, Iraq — The afternoon before his family fled the onslaught of Sunni militants, Dakhil Habash was visited by three of his Arab neighbors. Over tea, his trusted friend Matlul Mare told him not to worry about the advancing fighters and that no harm would come to him or his Yazidi people.
The men had helped one another over the years: Mr. Mare brought supplies to Mr. Habash’s community in the years after the American invasion, when travel outside their northern enclave was too dangerous for Yazidis. Mr. Mare bought tomatoes and watermelon from Mr. Habash’s farm and sometimes borrowed money.
But his friend’s assurances did not sit right with Mr. Habash. That night, he gathered his family and fled. Soon afterward, he said, he found out that Mr. Mare had joined the militants and was helping them hunt down Yazidi families.
“Our Arab neighbors turned on all of us,” said Mr. Habash, who recounted his story from a makeshift refugee camp on the banks of a fetid stream near the city of Zakho, in Iraqi Kurdistan. “We feel betrayed. They were our friends.”“I called my closest friend after we fled, an Arab man who owned a shop in our village,” said a Yazidi man who identified himself only as Haso, declining to give his first name out of fear of reprisal. “
When I asked him what he was doing, he told me he was looking for Yazidis to kill.
Sunnis try to downplay the betrayal.
By the time IS was expelled from around Amerli, many Sunni civilians had fled, fearing for their lives. They have few places to go and are too frightened to return.
"If a regular army were holding the area we could return, but as long as the militias are there we cannot,” said a 30-year-old displaced Sunni resident of one village near Amerli, who asked to remain unnamed. "They would slaughter us on the spot."
He admitted some villagers had supported IS, but said it was only one or two for every 70 to 80 households, and that the rest were innocent civilians who were too scared to stand against the militants or had nowhere else to go.
The new Iraqi Prime Minister, Abadi, hopes to reunite his country against the ISIS threat and not to repeat the sectarian mistakes of his predecessor. It may be impossible to put the genie back in the bottle, too much hatred, too much blood spilled. 

Wishing that things were different and hoping that there is someone you can count on is not a sound foreign policy. We would be quite foolish to bet on such a strategy. What is not needed is for United States ground troops to be involved in a permanent battle without any end in sight. 

Kurdistan in Iraq is a legal entity, the only one in all the nineteen provinces. Recognize them and give them independence.  Too bad if the Turks don't like it. They should be more active themselves in confronting Isis. 

Split the rest of the region up into small homogenous blocks that hopefully have less desire to do each other in. Pluralism is not a concept that seems to have a lot of hope for success in the region, might take another century or two.

Or find another Saddam Hussein.


Anonymous said...

We are starting to look like the gently civilized Romans with these unruly barbarians nipping at the edges of our "empire". I fear that we are taking the bait and will respond by enhancing the security state at the bidding of our military industrial complex and thus slowly bleeding ourselves. We need a good military and we need to kick some asses for sure but I don't think anyone has a smart enough strategy (including the very intelligent Israelis). Oh well, f**k it, "praise the lord and pass the ammunition!"

Anonymous said...

Vegas over/under on Beheadings this week is eleven and -half......


Sanoguy said...

Great summary article.... Hits the nail on the head... You too, Jon!