What Islamic State will do in 2017

In retreat across Syria and Iraq, will the newer terror group emulate the strategy honed by al-Qaeda?

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Any predictions of Islamic State’s demise are premature. During the surge towards Mosul at the end of last year, commentators repeatedly suggested this marked the beginning of the end for the extremist group. Yet, it still has the ability to launch attacks against its enemies both within Iraq and Syria, but also further afield. These trends are likely to continue, although security forces are increasingly learning how to mitigate the threat the group poses. The risk, however, is that the threat will continue to mutate.

The prospect of IS finding a way to regroup on the ground in Syria and Iraq can’t be ruled out. While Iraqi forces are pursuing a systematic approach to retaking Mosul, it is possible the group will melt into the countryside and wait for attention to shift before surging back. How the Iraqi forces take back the city and whether they provide those in Sunni areas with reassurance over their political future will determine whether IS is able to find a supportive base from which it can rebuild. In Syria, while confusion continues to reign, it will continue to find a way to embed somewhere.

But there is no doubt that the group has lost some of its lustre and power. While there are still some individuals choosing to go and fight alongside the group, the numbers have fallen dramatically. A report in September last year from US intelligence indicated that from a peak of 2,000 a month, only about 50 individuals were assessed as crossing the border each month to go and fight alongside a range of groups including IS in Syria and Iraq.

In fact, the biggest concern is the flow of people back. Foreign fighters disenfranchised by losses on the ground or tired after years of conflict are heading home. Some are no doubt eager to seek a conflict-free life, but others are being sent back to build networks or launch attacks. German authorities believe they disrupted at least two such cells in June and September of last year, linking them to the Paris bombers and unclear whether they were sent back to launch attacks or prepare ground for others. Similarly, Italian intelligence has raised concerns about the return of Balkan jihadists as a threat to Europe, pointing to the believed return to the region of Kosovan IS leader Lavdrim Muhaxheri with somewhere between 300-400 ISIS fighters. They have already been linked to one specific plot against a football game, and suspected of potentially again laying ground for others.

These individuals will join the continuing ranks of “lone wolf” or “failed traveller” attackers that we have seen in Europe and around the world in the past year. In Anis Amri’s attack in Berlin, or the murder of the priest in Rouen, we see individuals who apparently aspired to travel to Syria, failed to do so, and instead perpetrated attacks in Europe. We also see individuals latching on to the group’s violent ideology to launch attacks. This includes Omar Mateen, who butchered 50 in a shooting at an Orlando nightclub which he claimed to be doing on behalf of the group – although no clear link was uncovered. Given the basic methods used and the broad range of targets, it is highly likely that more of these loners (either instigated or self-starting) will emerge to wreak havoc in the coming year.

Finally, it is important to not forget IS affiliates around the world like Boko Haram in Nigeria, IS in Khorasan (Afghanistan), Sinai, Libya, or Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. There has always been some element of scepticism around the legitimacy of the links these groups have to the core operation, with speculation that some of their pledges of allegiance are more an expression of anger at al Qaeda or some other local group. Yet there is usually some evidence to support the association – most prominently with IS core in the Levant acknowledging them in their material. As we see the group’s core shrink in strength, these regional affiliates could rise up to take greater prominence or to take on a greater leadership mantle.

It is also possible that the core group in Syria/Iraq will use these affiliates to launch attacks or re-establish themselves. We have already seen how individuals linked to the Paris attacks were reportedly killed in Libya, and there is growing evidence that IS in Khorasan, the Afghan affiliate, has seen some back and forth of fighters. In future, it is possible that we may see these groups rise up in a more pronounced way. More acute problems might start to emerge from Libya, Afghanistan and Sinai where substantial affiliates appear to operate, or Nigeria, Pakistan or Southeast Asia where there is a more confusing aspect to the ISIS affiliates. There, the degree of strong connection with the core organisation is unclear, with it sometimes seeming that the adoption of the IS banner is rather an expression of local divisions between militant groups. If the pressure on the group in the Levant intensifies over the next year, these groups might look like tempting ways of distracting western security agencies through attacks that cause governments to re-allocate resources away from the Levant and thereby take some pressure off the group’s leadership in Syria and Iraq.

This would emulate al-Qaeda’s strategy. There have been moments historically when the core organisation pushed its affiliates to launch attacks to try to take pressure off the core group. This happened between al-Qaeda core in Pakistan and its Yemeni affiliate between 2003-2009. Similarly, al-Qaeda has realised that sometimes not declaring loud Caliphates and committing public atrocities such as televised beheadings, but instead committing targeted acts of terror and endearing itself to local populations to build support from the ground up, is a more productive way forwards.

How the outside world will react is a further unknown element. Donald Trump has stated he will eliminate the group, but he has not outlined a strategy for how he will achieve this. There is little evidence that the US could do much more than deploy greater force on the ground (whose ultimate goal and success would be unclear). The announced Saudi alliance to counter the group has not so far done a huge amount, and European powers remain secondary players. It is unclear that any country is preparing a Russian-style push with the potential human and political risks attached, meaning we are unlikely to see a dramatic change.

For IS, the conflict they are fighting is a millennial one for God’s greater glory and temporal timelines like our calendar are largely irrelevant. Dramatic events like the loss of cities or leadership figures may change its dynamic, and in some cases significantly degrade its capacity, but are unlikely to eradicate the group. Rather, it will continue to evolve and grow regionally primarily, but also internationally, with attacks against western targets a continuing interest.

Once the war in Syria settles down, and Iraq becomes unified, discussions may be possible about how to eradicate the group, but this is unlikely to take place in the next 12 months given the continuing fighting on the ground in the face of a ceasefire which in any case includes neither IS or al-Qaeda affiliates, meaning another year of the world remaining in state of high alert is likely. Were peace to break out, IS would find itself in a complicated situation, but this would require a very substantial change of situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq. That, unfortunately, looks some way off.

 

 

 

 

 

newstatesman.com

 

 

 

 

 

Why no one remembers the Arab Spring of 2010

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The sixth anniversary of The Arab Spring (aka Arab Awakening) has come and gone, but not many people noticed.  One of the main reasons underlying this was its utter failure to create either a stable, democratic, or secular Arab world.  However, that was not the intent of that movement.  In fact, no one really knew what the young Arab protestors wanted when they overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, and President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, except that they wanted to replace those autocratic rulers.  So, it is hard to pinpoint why the Arab Spring failed.  However, because it generally failed to change the quality of at least two countries—Egypt and Libya—an informed discussion about its failure may help us get ready for such future turbulent developments in the Arab world.

In the West, the Arab Awakening was expected to spawn an era of liberal democracy (something that was alien to the Arab world).  However, there were no established political parties in the Arab world to shape the modalities of future change.  There were a few Islamist parties; even they were banned or had an underground existence.  Thus, about the only known political group (if it were to be loosely labelled that) were the Islamists.  Even they were shocked by the intensity of demands for political change in those three countries, but they had no plan to establish an alternative government.  The Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and the Ennahda Party of Tunisia were two Islamist parties; yet, each produced starkly different results.

Democracy did come to Egypt; however, it was headed by the Muslim Brotherhood, a party that had only known how to act as an underground protest movement, but had no experience in the realm of governance.  President Mohammad Morsi acted like an elected autocrat.  But even during the short period of his time in office, he appeared to have threatened the privileged status of the Egyptian army.  The Egyptian military, aside from being a long-time ruler of that country, had also created an economic empire; and those interests were too precious to be sacrificed on the altar of democracy, especially an Islamic version of it.  The army acted with intense brutality in July 2013, ousting democracy and arresting the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, including its democratically elected president.

No tears were shed in Washington over the death of Egyptian democracy, and only lukewarm protests were made toward the military.  The most noticeable aspect of the US response was the spineless decision not to call the Egyptian army’s ouster of democracy a “coup,” because, by US law, such a declaration would have resulted in the termination of all military assistance to the brutal regime of the new dictator, General Fattah el-Sisi.  Besides, the Obama administration also was confused about what conclusions to draw regarding the Arab Awakening in general.  So, the safe bet was not to indulge in legalism and let the realpolitik become the overriding force.  Keeping Egypt as a friend of the United States and a major Arab player in the implementation of the Camp David Agreement was deemed the best option.

Libya was a country where the US, along with France and the United Kingdom, took military  action to oust Muammar Qaddafi, only to find out that there would be nothing but the proverbial deluge (chaos) after the death of the Libyan tyrant.

Tunisia was the rare and yet the most precious exception—a successful outcome of the Arab Spring—because its democratic government has prevailed there.  The chief responsibility for that outcome rests with the remarkably rare willingness of the Ennahda Party (an Islamist party) to politically compromise with the Nidaa Tounes (a secular party).  Despite its sustenance, democracy in Tunisia has remained fragile.  The chief reason for this fragility is that North Africa is a region where political instability and cataclysmic change are expected to happen within a matter of a few years or even less because of ISIS’ presence in Libya and in neighboring Egypt.

Even though the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, with the establishment of a so-called Caliphate in both countries, was not a direct outcome of the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war itself was.  However, the widening of that war in Iraq and Syria transformed the entire Levant into a highly volatile region.

The United States was expected to respond to these developments by taking military action.  However, since President Barack Obama came to power by decrying George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, he was not about to repeat the mistake of attempting to stabilize Iraq or Syria with another massive US military deployment.  He did respond in the form of using America’s air power and its Special Forces to back up the Kurdish forces in both of those countries.  But Russia decided to respond to Obama’s palpably reluctant vision of fixing the unfixable Middle East by taking decisive military action in Syria, thereby transforming that country into a part of Russia’s sphere of influence in that region.

One can indefinitely debate the wisdom underlying President Obama’s decision not to initiate a large-scale military response in the Levant; however, the Arab states have learned a bitter lesson about not taking the US military invasion of another Arab country for granted, even though the brutal and highly destabilizing nature of ISIS in Iraq and Syria warranted such a response.

In the context of the long-range implications of the Arab Spring, the entire Arab world became extremely volatile and unstable, especially in the Levant and in West Asia.  Iran emerged as the most significant beneficiary of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.  Since then, it has maintained a high-profile presence and influence there.  When the regime of Bashara Assad was threatened by its escalating civil war, Iran decided to come to the rescue.  Iran concluded that America’s bitter experience related to its Iraqi invasion made it an exceedingly reluctant about entering future quagmires of the Middle East.  However, Iran would take full advantage of it.

It so happened that the circumstances leading to Russia’s military involvement in Syria also worked in Iran’s favor.  The Islamic Republic was fully determined to remain the sole supporter of Assad, knowing that, if the United States sat on the fence, there was not going to be an “Arab military response.”

The post-Arab Spring Arab world remained perplexed about how to respond to Iran’s daring foreign policy maneuvers in West Asia, which were put in place as a countermeasure to Saudi Arabia’s hapless war in Yemen, and have become a blackhole for the Saudi economy with no hope of victory.  Regarding Syria, in the absence of American leadership, the Sunni Arab states were flummoxed about how to defeat ISIS.  They were hoping that the so-called “moderate” Islamist group would get strong American backing in the form of state-of-the-art military weapons so that they at least could seriously weaken the Assad regime.  But that did not happen.  Then, they watched helplessly from the sidelines as Russia and Iran (along with its proxy, Hezbollah fighters, and other Shia militias) pounded the moderate Islamists into a paltry fighting entity.

The Arab states know that the incoming Trump administration will rely on Russia to destroy ISIS.  But Russia will only do what is best for Russia.  In all likelihood, Putin is done with his nefarious bombing campaign in Syria.  As long as the Assad regime is not threatened, Russia’s military operations may also be over.  However, the Sunni Arab desire to oust the murderous Assad regime has remained unfulfilled.

But that is not the end of the Arab discontent.  The most significant Arab challenge in the coming years stems from its steadily rising population of unemployed, disgruntled youth, which are already embittered by the failure of the Arab Spring to materialize a qualitative change in Arab politics.  The Arab Human Development Report of 2016 grimly makes the following observations, which are noteworthy:

The report warns that increasing levels of armed conflict are destroying the social fabric of the Arab region, causing massive loss of life not only among combatants, but also among civilians. Conflicts also are also reversing hard-won economic de­velopment gains by destroying productive resources, capital and labour, within a larger territory neighbouring countries where they are fought. Between 2000–2003 and 2010–2015, the number of armed conflicts and violent crises in the region have risen from 4 to 11, and many of them are becoming protracted in nature.

Home to only 5 percent of the world’s population, the Arab region has witnessed 17 percent of the world’s conflicts between 1948 and 2014, and 45 percent of the world’s terrorist attacks in 2014. In that same year, the region was home to 47 percent of the world’s internally displaced people and 57.5 percent of all world refugees including Palestinian refugees displaced by one of the longest lasting territorial occupations in modern his­tory.

However, since the Arab youth don’t really know the specifics of qualitative change (democracy, Islamic democracy, or secular democracy) that they want to see in their respective countries, they will continue (misguidedly) to respond to the call for jihadi violence from the remnants of ISIS as a  viable one.

In the West, one dominant mindset is that some sort of a highly effective de-radicalization program for the Arab youth or young Western youngsters should be developed to counter ISIS’ reckless jihadi call.  What very few of us understand and promote is that no such de-radicalization program “silver bullet” to eradicate and/or defeat ISIS will ever be developed.

If there is a silver bullet, it should be about developing systematic programs of good governance and institution building throughout the entire Arab world to create rational policies of economic development, modernization of education, and eradication of institutionalized discrimination against the female population in Arab societies.  These steps would eventually result in the evolution of modern polities, which would be better equipped (as opposed to the current obscurantist autocratic governance) to bring an end to terrorism.

But, largely because of the mundane nature of such suggestions, no one is paying attention to it.  Thus, another major wave of violence and political unrest is likely to emerge in the Arab world/Middle East in the not-too-distant future; and it is likely to be bloodier than the Arab Spring that started in December 2010.  However, if stable regimes do not develop in the aftermath of violent protests, then that part of the world will continue its watch-and-wait process for yet another wave of turbulence.  The Arab Spring of 2010 had a promising start, but it quickly degenerated into a failed revolution.  And it is part of human nature to treat all human failures as orphans.

 

 

 

 

 

smallwarsjournal.com/

Israel’s war on Hezbollah’s accurate missiles

The strike attributed to the IAF in the Damascus area early Friday was aimed at destroying a shipment of accurate Iranian surface-to-surface missiles, which threaten most essential facilities in Israel, like reported by ynetnews.com

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This is part of the war between wars, in which the IDF is supposedly trying to minimize casualties and damage in the next battle with Hezbollah.

This can be concluded from the claim that the attacked targets were near the airport and from the knowledge that Iran transfers the missiles it supplies to Hezbollah through cargo planes that land in the Damascus area, and mainly in the military airport which is located not far from the Lebanon border.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and senior commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards announced recently that the Lebanese organization was receiving missiles, and even accurate missiles, from Iran—likely satellite-guided missiles (GPS) that could reach central and even southern Israel and threaten most of the essential facilities and civilian and military airports in the State of Israel.

They were likely referring to improved Fateh-111 or Fateh-110 missiles, and maybe even Zelzal missiles that are produced in Iran, which have a range of 200-300 kilometers (125-186 miles). Their warhead weighs about 400 kilograms (880 pounds). Hezbollah has already declared that it plans to use these missiles to attack the General Staff at the Kirya Base in Tel Aviv and other essential targets across Israel.

The accuracy of these missiles can hit targets within a radius of only several meters, instead of hundreds of meters with unguided missiles. For this reason, Israel is interested in reducing the number of such missiles in Hezbollah’s possession. The higher the number of accurate missiles in the hands of Nasrallah’s people, the greater Hezbollah’s ability to target more and more essential facilities in a conflict with Israel and deal more losses on Israeli territory

According to reports from oppositional sources in Syria, early Friday’s strike also included military facilities in the Jabal Qasiun area, the mountain range overlooking Damascus where many military camps and facilities are located. If facilities were indeed attacked on Mount Qasiun, they were likely, at least according to Syrian opposition sources, missile depots and antiaircraft systems intended to serve Hezbollah’s aerial defense system.

An interesting fact is that the Syrian general staff noted in its official statement that the strike was carried out by Israel Air Force planes which circled the Sea of Galilee area, but did not enter Syrian airspace. According to the Syrians, these planes launched accurate guided missiles at the targets near the airport in the Damascus area. The images from the area of the strike indicate that the attack was indeed carried out using accurate means, as there were many additional bombings in the area and maybe even casualties.

The Syrians are interested in emphasizing the fact that Israel did not enter their airspace, so that they will not have to explain why the strike attributed to Israel was carried out successfully without the Syrians targeting the planes or disrupting their activity. On the other hand, if the strike was indeed carried out by the IAF, Israel has no interest and no need to enter Syrian territory in order to attack targets in the Damascus area, so as to avoid friction with the antiaircraft systems and the planes operated by Russia on Syrian territory.

It’s a known fact that very accurate air-to-surface missiles can be launched from distances of dozens and even hundreds of kilometers and hit the target at an accuracy of 1 or 2 meters. There are of course additional reports from the Syrian opposition about F-35 IAF planes which attacked for the first time, but it’s safe to assume that even if the IAF did use planes, the Syrian opposition sources had no way of detecting and knowing that.

Damaging Hezbollah’s abilities

Israel, presumably, has no interest in clarifying the uncertainty, and so the IDF is keeping quiet. Apart from keeping operational information confidential, Israel is not interested in challenging the Syrians in a way which will call for a response on their part. While the Syrians specifically announced that the strike was carried out by Israel, as they have been doing recently, if Israel refrains from claiming responsibility – the possibility of an escalation is reduced.

The Syrian general staff already announced in the past, in the assassination of murderer Samir Kuntar in a Damascus suburb, that Israeli planes had attacked Syria while circling the Sea of Galilee. It was. In that incident too, the Syrians claimed that the strike was carried out by missiles.

The victory in Aleppo has instilled confidence in the Damascus regime and in its security forces, with Russian and Iranian backing. Today, they appear less sensitive and less afraid of an Israeli response, which is why Israel must take the Syrian general staff’s promise to respond seriously.

These may be empty words like in the past, but in light of the recent successes in the war against the rebels, it’s quite possible that the Syrian army will try to implement some sort of retaliation, whether in the Golan Heights or in northern Israel. The IDF is aware of that and is preparing for such a possibility. One thing is clear: The damage caused by the attack early Friday near the Mezzeh Airport appears to be big and will significantly harm Hezbollah’s ability to target Israeli territory.

Experts say this is part of the war between wars, in which the IDF is supposedly trying to minimize casualties among the civilian population and damage the essential facilities in Israel, in case a war breaks out. It’s a Sisyphean battle which has to be waged constantly, as the other side is also finding ways and means to smuggle improved, high-quality weapons to Hezbollah. That is exactly what Israel is trying to thwart – both vis-à-vis Hezbollah and vis-à-vis Hamas.

The State of Syria after Aleppo

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The Syrian Arab Army now controls Aleppo, which means that the Syrian government once more is in charge of the main population centres in the country. Opposition armed forces are hemmed in around Damascus and in Idlib, while the Islamic State (IS) still holds the northern city of Raqqa. These forces, including IS, are on the back foot, disorganised, weakened logistically and disoriented. Largely abandoned by their benefactors — the West, the Gulf Arabs and Turkey — these fighters have either moved to great desperation in their violence or to near surrender. A ceasefire brokered on December 30, 2016 holds in most parts of the country. Peace talks are to begin on January 23 in Astana (Kazakhstan). Iran, Russia, the Syrian government, sections of the Syrian opposition, Turkey and the United Nations will have seats at the table. The United States and the Europeans will not be there.

The war will not end in Astana. Extremist groups such as the IS and the al-Qaeda-backed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham continue to hold territory. Frustrated extremists who are unwilling to accede to the new situation have already begun to trek to the IS and the al-Qaeda proxy. For them, there is little to be gained from surrender or reconciliation.

Western miscalculations

For the past five years, the main slogan from the Syrian opposition and its Gulf Arab, Turkish and Western allies was ‘Assad Must Go’. It now turns out that the government of Bashar al-Assad will remain. It appeared, even in 2011, that the fall of Mr. Assad without major Western military intervention was unlikely. The Syrian military was far more disciplined than the Libyan military, which had begun to crumble before the NATO bombing on Libya. There was also far less daylight between the Syrian government and its military than there was between the Egyptian government and its military. Absent massive military force, there was going to be no regime change in Syria.

Direct Western military intervention was curtailed — thanks to the fiasco in Iraq — by the lack of domestic appetite in the West for the use of sufficient numbers of troops to fight in Syria. Regime change in Libya and its disastrous aftermath closed the door for a UN authorisation for war on Syria. By 2012, this meant that the Assad government could not be easily defeated. The policy shifted from direct overthrow to a much more cynical use of power. Covert shipments of arms went to rebels of various stripes to help delegitimise the government. Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups came across the Turkish border and from Iraq as well as from the prisons of the Syrian government. Casualty rates edged upwards, with over half a million dead. The impossible promise of Western bombardment kept the war going in the hope that this would force Mr. Assad to negotiate.

The West miscalculated. On September 22, 2016, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made some off-the-cuff remarks at the Dutch Mission to the United Nations. The tape from that meeting, released by WikiLeaks, reveals the general Western consensus on the Syrian conflict. Mr. Kerry indicated that the U.S. had watched the growth of IS, and had hoped to use it as a bargaining chip against the Assad government. As it turned out, Mr. Assad turned to Iran and Russia for help, which is when the Russians intervened directly in September 2015 — ending any possibility of regime change in Damascus and of an IS capture of Damascus. With Mr. Assad now safe, the Russians have begun to draw down their forces, largely to build confidence towards the Astana meeting.

By 2015, it had become clear to the Turkish government that neither would Mr. Assad’s government fall nor could Turkey protect itself from the detritus of its own making — attacks by the IS inside Turkey and a reopened war with the Kurdish resistance movement. Turkey’s government lashed out at its critics — who had much to be critical about — and sought a rapprochement with Russia for economic and political reasons. This new alignment for Turkey meant that its border — long used to resupply the rebels in northern Syria — had to close, substantially reducing the ability of the extremists in Aleppo. The Syrian government, which had waited four years, then moved with great force. It was the Turkish shift that allowed Mr. Assad to take Aleppo.

On January 5, Iraq’s National Security Adviser met Mr. Assad in Damascus to discuss their mutual fight against the IS, just as Iraqi forces cleared the road from Haditha to al-Qa’im, which is on the Iraq-Syria border. These public meetings, a senior Egyptian military officer informs me, mirror the more private interactions between the militaries of Egypt, Iraq, Algeria and Syria. In November, Egyptian army officers went to Syria to re-establish connections that have frayed over the past few years. Now Egypt is ready to send ‘peacekeepers’ to help manage the ceasefire. Meanwhile, the Syrian and Turkish governments have met secretly in Algeria over the past five months to begin a conversation about the status of the Syrian Kurdish enclave on the Turkish border. Algeria is now openly talking about the restoration of legitimacy to the Assad government.

The end is far

The frustration of the extremists will not produce an easy end to this conflict. Harsh violence is the more expected outlet. Attacks in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — all accused, rightly, of abandoning the uprising — will continue to be a serious problem. Iraq, already accustomed to violence since the illegal U.S. invasion in 2003, saw over 6,000 civilians killed last year alone. It is often strategically targeted against Shia neighbourhoods and religious places in order to deepen the trough of sectarianism. After a spate of attacks in Baghdad, Sunni leader Sheikh Mahdi al-Sumaidaie, the Grand Mufti of Iraq, made a plea on January 5 that echoes across the Arab world: “I confirm that Shias and Sunnis will meet and hold accountable all who betrayed, deceived and burned Iraq.” It was a statement of patriotism out of desperation. This seam of patriotism will be hard for the extremists to rip apart.

North-west of Damascus is Souq Wadi Barada. The al-Fija spring there is a crucial source of water for the capital. Extremist groups have held this source for the past several years and on at least six previous occasions cut off the water supply to Damascus. The fall of Aleppo has led to new fighting in the area, with water now firmly cut off from all but one tank, which the military controls. Damascus faces great hardship. Negotiations are on to let the water flow again. When it does, it will show that reconciliation is possible in these societies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

counterpunch.org

Haftar, the hard man that could be the answer to Libya’s catastrophe

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The Arab Spring of 2011 seems like a distant memory. At the time there were great hopes, particularly among young people across Arab capitals such as Cairo, Damascus and Tripoli. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote Wordsworth of the French revolution, “but to be young was very heaven!”

Six years later the hopes of youth have been dashed. President Assad has all but won the Syrian civil war, with 500,000 Syrians losing their lives. Out of a country of 25 million, 11 million have been displaced, and nearly  five million have left the country. Yet the fate of Libya is probably even more responsible for the migration crisis in Europe than the Syrian civil war.

We can debate the rights and wrongs of our intervention in Libya in 2011. But what is clear today is that a country which had a stable government under Colonel Gaddafi is now a breeding ground for militias controlled by various warlords.

Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) reminds one of Voltaire’s definition of the Holy Roman Empire, which he memorably said was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”. The GNA in Libya cannot be described as a “national” government, neither does the existence of more than 1,500 militias suggest much accord.

In the midst of all this chaos one figure is often referred to as a potential saviour. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar is a 73-year-old former associate of Gaddafi. He enjoys support from Russia, Egypt and the UAE. He has control over the oil fields and much of the eastern part of Libya. The West remains committed to support the GNA.

Haftar, as one senior diplomat told me, is “a divisive figure”. But it would be difficult to think of a senior military figure in all human history who has not been “divisive”. Haftar may, however, be a source of stability in that beleaguered country.

Libya’s chaos is a human tragedy. Every week thousands of people land in Italy from the continent of Africa.  Many of them will have come through Libya at some point. The country has more than 4,000 km of borders, which is the same as the distance from London to Moscow. These are currently wide open. Stories have surfaced of militias detaining would-be migrants and starving them to make them thinner so that more can fit onto ships. Each migrant is reported to pay up to $1,000 to undertake the perilous journey across the sea. There is every incentive for Libya’s militiamen to engage in this human traffic.

The situation in Libya has direct consequences for Europe and the wider world, yet very little progress has been made. It is embarrassing to say that Syria is more likely to reach some kind of political stability in the short term than Libya.

Some people are hopeful that President Trump will seize the initiative and come up with a plan to back Field Marshal Haftar. Such a move would not strictly conform to the ideals of “democratic state building” but it might provide a stable government to give Libya some control of its borders. The alternative seems to be endless discussions, debates and procrastination. None of this has yielded much fruit in the five-and-a-half years since the unlamented death of Muammar Gaddafi.

 

 

 

 

 

standard.co.uk

Islamic State praised the use of trucks to carry out attacks

Israeli police investigates the scene of an attack in Jerusalem Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017. A Palestinian rammed his truck into a group of Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem on Sunday, killing four people and wounding 15 others, Israeli police and rescue services said, in one of the deadliest attacks of a more than yearlong campaign of violence. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

After a lull of several weeks, four soldiers were killed and 17 others wounded, when a truck rammed into a group on an educational trip to Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv promenade, a location with a stunning panorama of the capital.

Since a wave of violence broke out in September 2015, Palestinian attackers have killed more than 40 Israelis and two Americans.

At least 230 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, the majority while carrying out attacks. The rest died in clashes with IDF soldiers.

Palestinians have used cars, trucks, buses and even tractors to carry out attacks against Israelis in the past, but with trucks now routinely used by groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida for deadly terrorist attacks, this attack in Jerusalem becomes reminiscent of the deadly ISIS-inspired ones that hit Europe this year.

In July, Tunisian-born French resident Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove a 19-ton truck down Nice’s Promenade des Anglais into a crowd of people who had gathered for a Bastille Day firework display, killing 86 people and injuring hundreds of others. In December, 12 people were killed and at least 56 others injured when Tunisian- born Anis Amri drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin’s Breitscheidplatz, one of Berlin’s busiest shopping areas.

At the scene of the attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the attacker was “by all indications” an Islamic State supporter, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman called it an “attack inspired by ISIS,” adding, “We saw it in France, we saw it in Berlin and unfortunately we saw it today in Jerusalem.”

According to Orit Perlov, social media analyst and research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Palestinian support for ISIS is declining. “The peak was in 2014-2015 when they had 14% support, it declined to 8% in 2016,” she told The Jerusalem Post that “There are a lot of ISIS sympathizers, but it does not mean that there is a direct connection to the group. We need to remember that ISIS is like the McDonald’s of [terrorism], it’s the brand that you want to be connected to when you carry out a terror attack today.”

Perlov said: “It’s a good brand to be connected to today,” and added that the popularity of Hamas is on the decline. “Today it’s not good to be a Hamas sympathizer if you want to carry out a terror attack.

Today, when Hamas is no longer popular, you need to be a part of something else.”

While Hamas did not claim responsibility for the attack, the group called it “heroic” and posted on Twitter that “the truck operation in Jerusalem affirms that all attempts to encircle the [Palestinian] intifada will fail.”

Hamas spokesman Abdul-Latif Qanou encouraged other Palestinians to do the same to “escalate the resistance” as that proves that the wave of violence has not ended. The resistance Qanou said, “may be quiet, it may linger, but it will never end.”

However, Perlov noted that “every terror organization would want to claim responsibility” for this type of attack to stay relevant.

And while it is hard to track down potential lone wolves, ISIS and al-Qaida have made it easy for their supporters to carry out attacks.

In the third edition of Islamic State’s English-language Rumiyah magazine, the group praised the use of trucks to carry out attacks because while “being an essential part of modern life, very few actually comprehend the deadly and destructive capability of the motor vehicle and its capacity of reaping large numbers of casualties if used in a premeditated manner.”

In the same article, the group urged ISIS members and sympathizers anywhere in the world to use vehicles – stealing them if needed – to attack outdoor targets, specifying a “load-bearing truck, large in size, with reasonably fast speed or rate of acceleration.”

The group urged supporters to use a truck that is “heavy in weight” and “doubled-wheeled” to “assure the destruction of whatever it hits and give victims less of a chance to escape. The method of such an attack is that a vehicle is plunged at a high speed into a large congregation of kuffar [non-believer], smashing their bodies with the vehicle’s strong outer frame, while advancing forward – crushing their heads, torsos, and limbs under the vehicle’s wheels and chassis – and leaving behind a trail of carnage.”

According to Perlov, Israel will likely see more attacks carried out by IS sympathizers, at least “once or twice a year.

In the end, there is no such thing as 100% [prevention rate]. No matter how many blockades you put, or how many raids are carried out, one will succeed in carrying out his mission.

 

 

 

 

jpost.com

 

Islamic State finally ends its “separate peace” with his Turkish ally

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Ever since New Year’s Day, when a gunman killed at least 39 partiers at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul, watchers of the Islamic State have engaged in a familiar, morbid countdown. How long until the Islamic State issues a statement taking credit for the attack? This morning, the wait ended with a press release from the group avowing its authorship of the carnage. Turkish newspapers report that many of the victims died from head shots, point-blank. First they were wounded or cornered, then executed. The killer remains at large.

It is proper to resist the temptation to assess the gravity of this attack by noting that its body count is less than that of Omar Mateen’s Islamic State-inspired attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando (50 dead), or the coordinated attacks in Paris in November 2015 (130 dead). Allocating column inches according to these benchmarks is the very definition of normalization. (If this attack had taken place five years ago, it would have prompted smothering coverage for days, not a quickly expiring moment of media attention, and a return to regularly scheduled coverage.)

Moreover, in this case especially, the politics of the attack and its avowal make the Reina massacre much more pivotal than many others with higher tallies of casualties. The Islamic State has now formally ended its separate peace with Turkey. Since the group’s sack of Mosul in mid-2014, when it took captive 46 Turks, including diplomats, from the consulate there, the Turkish posture toward the Islamic State has been inconsistent at best. Turkey negotiated the hostages’ freedom (at what price is unclear), and its border remained permeable to anyone who wished to cross it—rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also jihadists bound for the Islamic State—for well over a year. At the same time, Turkey allowed U.S. anti-Islamic State operations out of Incirlik Air Base. The Islamic State, for its part, fulminated against the Turkish “secular” government (never mind that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is himself an Islamist) in its propaganda and even mounted a few attacks.

But it never claimed an attack outright. Few doubted that the Istanbul Airport raid was the Islamic State’s handiwork, and many smaller attacks have likewise been attributed but not avowed. (A car bombing in Diyarbakir in November was claimed for the Islamic State by its Amaq News Agency. But the attribution for that attack is still murky, as it was claimed by a Kurdish terror group as well.) Turkey has, up till now, been unique among victims in never having its victimhood acknowledged by its assailant. Whatever value this fiction held, it has now ended.

This time is different. The press release states that the attack was “ordered by the prince of the believers,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and not merely addressed to him by an adoring fan. The Islamic State chooses its words carefully, and these ones imply responsibility at the highest level. Moreover, the new aggression comes after Turkey’s own tilt against ISIS, through military campaigns along the western edge of the Islamic State’s territory, and Baghdadi’s personal call in November for attacks against Turkey’s “apostate” government. Last week, Turkey participated in a Russian-backed ceasefire involving a slate of rebel groups, including several jihadist ones but not the Islamic State. That agreement demonstrates overt, unforced alignment with Assad and his non-Muslim allies. And it is accompanied by further Turkish military gains against the Islamic State in al-Bab, the group’s former stronghold in western Syria. Just weeks ago, the Islamic State chained two captured Turkish soldiers by the neck, doused them with gasoline, and burned them alive on camera. Hostilities are open, and the game is on.

The countdown I mentioned earlier—the social-media vigil kept by Islamic State analysts, for the moment the attack was claimed through the group’s official channels—is rarely undertaken with such certainty of the outcome. The target of the attack, a gathering of mostly Muslim merrymakers celebrating the end of a year as marked on the Christian calendar, was pure Islamic State bait. The commando-style raid likewise bears the group’s hallmarks. But we knew, too, that Turkey was by now an overripe target, and another, longer countdown, for its inclusion on the list of countries targeted aggressively and openly, had reached its conclusion as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

theatlantic.com

The Gulf Arabs’ military expansion in the Horn of Africa

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At the start of the Saudi-led Yemen intervention in March 2015, the UAE and Djibouti fell out after an Emirati aircraft landed at Ambouli International Airport. Officials in Djibouti claimed that the aircraft landed without authorisation, which then led to them evicting Saudi and Emirati troops, allies in the Yemeni conflict, from a facility in Haramous.

The UAE subsequently closed its consulate in Djibouti and the two countries severed ties by the end of April. Subsequently, the UAE moved its plans to cement a military base in East Africa to Eritrea. While the states of the Arabian Gulf have always recognised their interests in the Red Sea, there has been a significant increase in their activities in the region over the past two years.

Why the Horn of Africa?

Having a military presence in the Horn of Africa is proving to show an increasing amount of importance for the economic and military security of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states. Since the Saudi-led operation began in Yemen, securing the Red Sea has become a priority to cut the possibility of Houthis engaging in arms smuggling with neighbouring countries.

The Houthis engaging in illegal trafficking has been a wide-spread concern that has spanned many years. In 2013, UN monitors reported that Al-Shabab in Somalia received weapons from Iran via proxies in Yemen. They found that the majority of the weapons deliveries to the terrorist group were received from the autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland, which were then smuggled further south of the country into Al-Shabab strongholds.

While Iran almost immediately denied these claims and branded them as “absurd”, arms smugglers in Yemen have been caught arming Al-Shabab in the Horn of Africa. One smuggler, in particular, is famous for this. Fares Mohammed Mana’a, a Yemeni arms smuggler who is from Sa’ada and affiliated with the Houthis, was mentioned in a UN Security Council list of people who have conducted arms trafficking with Al-Shabab.

These bases will not only help deter terrorism and Iranian arms smuggling in the region, but would also give the GCC countries easier access to the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, along with giving them an alternative route to the Strait of Hormuz in the Arabian Gulf (at risk of Iranian closure) via the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Oman.

Where?

There are currently three main countries that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have their eyes on; Djibouti, Somaliland and Eritrea. After the diplomatic strife with Djibouti at the start of the Yemen war, Eritrea was quick to welcome Abu Dhabi to establish a military base in the port of Assab. Since its establishment, the port has been used by the UAE as a naval base, airbase, logistics hub and as a training hub.

The UAE is also looking to establish a base in the Port of Berbera in Somaliland. In September, the UAE announced that state-owned company Dubai Ports won a 30-year concession, with an automatic 10-year extension, for the management and development of the multi-purpose deep seaport. There are also plans to expand Berbera to include an Emirati naval and airbase.

Earlier this month, Djibouti’s foreign minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf announced that a Saudi base in Djibouti is set to open “very soon.” He took Saudi military leaders to areas to show them potential locations to establish the base. Despite the fact that Djibouti has had diplomatic fall outs with some GCC states, both Djibouti and Riyadh have mutual security interests in the matter. It would also open a door to Saudi investment in the country.

What next?

Further cooperation between East Africa and the GCC states should be expected. Saudi Arabia commonly uses soft-power tactics to lobby their interests with state and non-state actors in foreign countries. It is highly likely that Riyadh would want to ensure its security in the Red Sea through the expansion of military bases, and also find political alliances with the countries in the Horn of Africa.

In Djibouti, Saudi Arabia is known for being a large foreign sponsor and has helped construct houses, schools and mosques in various parts of the country. One of the means it uses is by utilising state-backed organisation World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY). The organisation says it has provided relief to over 370,000 people across the country. WAMY is also known for assisting Yemeni refugees in Djibouti, who began to migrate to the republic from the start of the 2015 war.

Judging by the trend of the UAE’s military ambitions since the start of the millennium, Abu Dhabi would most likely be the most ambitious GCC state in terms of military investments in the region. The Gulf countries would also have to compete with other nations such as China, Iran and even possibly Turkey who also seeks a greater presence in Africa.

 

 

 

 

 

middleeastmonitor.com

War in Syria and Iraq likely to continue for decades and the Middle East is moving towards dissolution

The conflicts will continue for decades in Syria and Iraq and the Middle East is moving towards dissolution, said the UN expert Wilfried Buchta like reported by basnews.com 

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Wilfried Buchta, an Islamogist and UN expert said in an interview with ZEIT ONLINE that the Middle East is moving towards dissolution; it is socially and politically decomposing which it is also affecting Europe due to waves of refugees.

“The conflicts in Syria and Iraq will continue, probably for the coming years and decades,” he said.

Regarding the Syrian turmoil as Assad currently controls most of the Syrian territories, Buchta believes that the war in Syria will not end; it will only turn into a new stage of civil war.

The UN researcher stated that Assad does not have a “constructive concept” for a functioning national state, that is, for a state whose citizens share a common national identity, noting that despite the fact that the Sunni Muslims make up 70 percent of the Syrian population, the Shi’ite Alawite minority under Assad’s leadership is controlling the power.

“We always had a false picture of the overall situation in the Middle East, the state of these countries, the character of these regimes, and the character of the Islamic societies. For a long time, the maxim was that one could stabilize these states through economic cooperation and, in return, demand political reforms. These illusions are now beginning to break. This will make us more humble and realistic.”

Buchta argued that military interventions only exacerbate the existing mayhem in the Middle East.

The offensive against the Islamic State (IS) in Mosul has stalled due to the hard resistance of the militants, he said.

Regarding the post-IS administration of Mosul, the US expert noted it is not clear who will have the political legislation and ordinance in the city. Therefore, the Shi’ite militia could once again commit violent acts against the Sunni population, which may lead to the re-emergence of IS “from the ashes like a phoenix again or elsewhere, and could again become the hope-bearer for the Sunnis,” he said.

A more dangerous long-term threat’: Al-Qaida grows as Isis retreats

Group has been seeking to build support across Islamic world – from south Asia to Africa – through outreach instead of fear

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When three al-Qaida veterans were killed in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan in October, it barely created a ripple. So dominant has Isis become in the realm of jihadist lore, that you could be forgiven for thinking that its precursor has been relegated to a mere footnote.

You’d be wrong. Those three deaths, all in US airstrikes, paradoxically hint at a resurgence of al-Qaida, at a time when Isis is in retreat in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Quietly, and more through soft power rather than harsh atrocity, al-Qaida is trying to mount a revival.

The Pentagon said that at least one of the three leaders killed, Haydar Kirkan, a 20-year veteran of the group, had been actively planning attacks against the west at the time of his death. This is a controversial claim as al-Qaida, founded in 1988, has in recent years foresworn such long-range operations in favour of a strategy privileging a slow and steady building of influence and capability at a local level within the Islamic world.

In part, this decision – taken by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida, shortly after he succeeded the late Osama bin Laden in 2011 – was forced on the group by its weakness after years of being targeted by the US and allies in the wake of the attacks of 11 September 2001.

But more recently it has been a deliberate attempt to distance it from Isis, which has been responsible for directly organised strikes in France, Belgium, Germany and Tunisia, among others, and – through so-called “lone wolves” – in the US.

Al-Qaida and its affiliates have deliberately shunned the savagery of Isis, seeking to build support across the Islamic world through outreach to tribal leaders, power brokers and sometimes the broader community, rather than outright fear and coercion.

The group does not seek publicity. “Al-Qaida’s strategic experience is that if it makes a big deal of seizing territory, it attracts CT [counter-terrorism] resources, so it is simply not being as loud about it,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, a US thinktank.

The three locations of the US strikes two months ago are significant. Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria are all key strategic zones where Isis has either failed to make significant advances or, in the latter case, is on the retreat.

In January 2015, Isis formally announced the establishment of what it called Khorasan province in Afghanistan and western Pakistan. The move, coupled with an attempt to expand in Bangladesh, signified a push to branch out into south Asia and win recruits among the more than 400 million Muslims in the region. But the militants have had little success.

“Despite its best efforts … the Islamic State controls little territory in south Asia, [has] conducted only a handful of attacks, failed to secure the support of most locals, and struggled with poor leadership,” wrote Seth Jones, a former adviser to US forces in Afghanistan, this month.

A major obstacle to the expansion of Isis in the region has been the opposition of most local militant groups, notably the Taliban.

Al-Qaida, which has preserved a close relationship with the Taliban and some other militant groups, is still present in Afghanistan. In October 2015, US and Afghan forces attacked a huge training compound in the south of the country, killing more than 200 militants. The camp was used by al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), an affiliate established in 2014. South Asian officials point out that AQIS has so far failed to carry out any significant attacks or attract large numbers of recruits. However, that al-Qaida had survived at all in the region was “impressive”, one said.

“There’s been constant pressure on the group, and particularly its leadership element, for 15 years, and they’re still there. The death of al-Qahtani is a blow, but they’ve suffered worse and still come back,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Another key battlefield has been Yemen, where, in perhaps the most striking unintended consequence of the Saudi-led military intervention in the country, al-Qaida was able to run a mini-state on Yemen’s coast for many months.

The substantial and strategically situated port city of Mukalla provided the group with a revenue of an estimated $2m a day. A 2015 US government report estimated that al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based affiliate, could muster at least 4,000 fighters, four times the total a year previously. The group has also built ties with southern Yemenis, who have felt marginalised by the country’s northern elite for years.

“We may be facing a more complicated al-Qaida, not just a terrorist organisation, but a movement controlling territory with happy people inside it,” said a regional diplomat who follows Yemen.

Al-Qaida has also successfully expanded its presence in Africa. The violence and brutality associated with the Nigerian-based Boko Haram group, which has now split over its nominal allegiance to Isis, and the Isis expansion into Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, have overshadowed the less spectacular but arguably more effective efforts made by al-Qaida affiliates on the continent.

In Somalia, commanders of the al-Shabaab movement ruthlessly eliminated pro-Isis factions that wanted to repudiate the group’s five-year-old allegiance to al-Qaida. A last dissident group is currently under siege from Somali forces in the far north of Somalia, in semi-autonomous Puntland, and facing annihilation.

In the Sahel, although one new faction has emerged to launch attacks in the name of Isis, it is the coalition of factions that form al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM) that is dominant.

AQIM has exploited deep ties – some through marriage – with local communities and levered ethnic disputes to gain support and capabilities in Mali, a key state that French and other international forces have been unable to rid of extremists. “Al-Qaida is on a trajectory to become by far the most powerful jihadist movement in Africa,” said Gartenstein-Ross.

The most significant theatre may well turn out to be the Levant. Though most analysts believe Isis will remain a powerful – even if fragmented – force in the region for years to come, al-Qaida may be the biggest winner.

The key to its strategy has been the Syria-based group now called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS). Formerly known as al-Nusra Front, the powerful faction was rebranded in late July as a force without links to the global jihadi struggle but dedicated only to fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its allies.

In recent years, al-Qaida has repeatedly attempted to downplay its links to local groups to avoid alienating communities which do not want to be part of a “global jihad” but which hope Islamic hardliners might impose order and honest, if rigorous, administration in areas they control.

Western officials fear JFS will not only dominate the jihadi landscape in the Levant following the defeat of Isis, but may also provide a springboard for al-Qaida to launch strikes into Europe, should the group change its current strategy. Zawahiri has made it clear that although the group may have prioritised local campaigns for the moment, it still remains committed to attacks on the west in the long term.

“As the Islamic State continues to lose territory and as the international coalition continues targeted airstrikes, we are likely to see another name in the headlines more often: Jabhat Fateh al-Sham,” said Matthew Henman, of Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.

Hoffman described JFS as “even more capable than the Islamic State and a more dangerous long-term threat”.

 

 

 

 

theguardian.com