Friday, August 07, 2015


"After exposing themselves so disastrously to US air power at Kobani, Islamic State commanders have changed their tactics. They are now giving up territory if it can’t easily be held, before launching surprise counterattacks elsewhere. This new approach means not fighting to the last bullet unless conditions are favourable. They make many pinprick assaults up and down the weakly held frontlines; the Iraqi Kurdish front with Islamic State is six hundred miles long (the whole Western Front in 1914 was four hundred miles). These attacks often fail, but they are partly diversionary, intended to keep the enemy guessing about when and where the main assault will come. Foreign volunteers are often used as cannon fodder. Islamic State, for all its exaltation of martyrdom, is more careful now with the lives of its Iraqi and Syrian fighters. The number of local fighters has been growing rapidly because Islamic State has been conscripting all young men over the age of 16 in the area it controls – an area about the size of Great Britain with a population of six million. The recruitment drive has enabled it this year, more easily than last, to fight on multiple fronts, from the outskirts of Baghdad to the suburbs of Damascus.... At this point, Faraj says he met many foreign fighters from Britain, Turkey and France, some of whom had learned Arabic well. He wasn’t impressed by them: ‘I know many fighters from the Gulf states, Europe and Australia who are fighting for arms, fame, women and money.’ When he asked volunteers from Europe why they were in Syria some told him that their lives were miserable at home or that they had simply been bored. Many had found ‘spiritual happiness in Islam’, but Faraj said that they were often recent converts who didn’t seem to know much about Islam or local customs. The foreign fighters, he said, were mostly used for suicide attacks and propaganda, ‘while the locals are used for fighting’. This is the pattern across the territory controlled by Islamic State. It’s often difficult to know how many foreign fighters are present in a battle: Kurdish and Iraqi army commanders like to claim that almost all the fighters facing them are heavily armed foreigners from the Muslim world or Western Europe. This was the official line when the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga was defeated by Islamic State last August. But when I talked to Christian and Yazidi villagers who had seen their attackers before they fled, they said the fighters were all Iraqis, few in number and driving unarmoured vehicles. There are, however, some parts of the front that foreigners do hold. At Mount Abdul Aziz, Kurdish fighters showed me a notebook that had been found in an Islamic State headquarters: in neat handwriting it listed the Arabic equivalent for various common Russian words. On one page there was the plan of a room with arrows pointing to a table, chairs and other items with their Arabic names noted. Presumably, the owner of the notebook had come from a Russian-speaking Muslim country in the Caucasus or Central Asia.... The capture of Tal Abyad by the Kurds may well lead to a fresh wave of speculation that Islamic State is going into decline. But, like most of the other participants in the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, the self-declared caliphate is too well rooted to disappear. Its quasi-guerrilla style of warfare makes the loss or gain of a single town or city less significant than it may appear. Its slogan, ‘the Islamic State remains, the Islamic State expands,’ is still true."
Patrick Cockburn, "Why join Islamic State?" The London Review of Books. 2 July 2015, in
"The clearest evidence that we do not understand this phenomenon is our consistent inability to predict—still less control—these developments. Who predicted that Zarqawi would grow in strength after the US destroyed his training camps in 2001? It seemed unlikely to almost everyone that the movement would regroup so quickly after his death in 2006, or again after the surge in 2007. We now know more and more facts about the movement and its members, but this did not prevent most analysts from believing as recently as two months ago that the defeats in Kobane and Tikrit had tipped the scales against the movement, and that it was unlikely to take Ramadi. We are missing something. Part of the problem may be that commentators still prefer to focus on political, financial, and physical explanations, such as anti-Sunni discrimination, corruption, lack of government services in captured territories, and ISIS’s use of violence. Western audiences are, therefore, rarely forced to focus on ISIS’s bewildering ideological appeal. I was surprised when I saw that even a Syrian opponent of ISIS was deeply moved by a video showing how ISIS destroyed the “Sykes-Picot border” between Iraq and Syria, established since 1916, and how it went on to reunite divided tribes. I was intrigued by the condemnation issued by Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar—one of the most revered Sunni clerics in the world: “This group is Satanic—they should have their limbs amputated or they should be crucified.” I was taken aback by bin Laden’s elegy for Zarqawi: his “story will live forever with the stories of the nobles…. Even if we lost one of our greatest knights and princes, we are happy that we have found a symbol….” But the “ideology” of ISIS is also an insufficient explanation. Al-Qaeda understood better than anyone the peculiar blend of Koranic verses, Arab nationalism, crusader history, poetic reference, sentimentalism, and horror that can animate and sustain such movements. But even its leaders thought that Zarqawi’s particular approach was irrational, culturally inappropriate, and unappealing. In 2005, for example, al-Qaeda leaders sent messages advising Zarqawi to stop publicizing his horrors. They used modern strategy jargon—“more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media”—and told him that the “lesson” of Afghanistan was that the Taliban had lost because they had relied—like Zarqawi—on too narrow a sectarian base. And the al-Qaeda leaders were not the only Salafi jihadists who assumed that their core supporters preferred serious religious teachings to snuff videos (just as al-Tayeb apparently assumed that an Islamist movement would not burn a Sunni Arab pilot alive in a cage).... The thinkers, tacticians, soldiers, and leaders of the movement we know as ISIS are not great strategists; their policies are often haphazard, reckless, even preposterous; regardless of whether their government is, as some argue, skillful, or as others imply, hapless, it is not delivering genuine economic growth or sustainable social justice. The theology, principles, and ethics of the ISIS leaders are neither robust nor defensible. Our analytical spade hits bedrock very fast. I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information. But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise."
Anonymous, "The Mystery of ISIS". The New York Review of Books. 13 August 2015, in
Independently of each other (one presumes) the cousinly publications the New York and London Review of Books, have recently published, important review articles dealing with that hideous phenomenon called 'ISIS', id. est., the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. While both articles are quite revealing and important in their own ways, they share a commonality in highlighting the fact that looking at matters currently, there is no evidence that the American bombing campaign shows any signs of militarily defeating ISIS. And as some recent pieces in the Financial Times show once again, there does not appear to be signs that any indigenous military force in the region, other than the Kurds, give any signs of being able to beat ISIS on the ground 1. And of course the Kurds of Syria & Iraq must also contend with the malevolence of Turkey, as the latter's recent air strikes on Kurdish forces show 2. With the recently American efforts to train Syrian oppositional forces at this point more akin to black farce than demonstrating anything tangible militarily speaking. As Anthony Cordesman who is perhaps the leading military commentator in the United States recently noted:
"The United States has seen the Syrian rebel factions it actually supported with arms driven out of the country, the more moderate Syrian political exiles like the Syrian National Council – and the surviving elements of the Free Syrian Army -- marginalized to near impotence....The United States so far has only recruited 60 volunteers for the Syrian volunteer force that is to be trained in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which has a goal of training 5,000 a year. No meaningful explanation has ever been given of what the United States would accomplish if it did succeed in training 5,000 moderate rebels a year 3.
What then is to be done? I would argue that the following should be the gist of Western policy in dealing with both ISIS and with the larger civil war in Syria: i) send in as many 'special forces' from the USA and other Western nations to assist the Syrian Kurds, the Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi National Army in leading the assault on ISIS in both Iraq and Syria; ii) call-off the campaign by the Gulf Arabs and in particular Saudi Arabia to overthrow the Assad regime. Currently, while not backing ISIS directly, lots of Gulf Arab money and arms are going to equally extremist groupings in Syria. In terms of their overall ideology and in terms of their anti-Western views there is little to differentiate the view of ISIS with say Saudi-backed groups, like Jabhat al-Nusra. While it will still be necessary to defeat the extremists on the ground in Syria, the fact is that only by calling off the flood of Sunni Arab money, arms and recruits from Syrian Sunni extremist elements can there even be the possibility of some type of negotiated settlement of the Syrian Civil War. And while one may not be enamoured, or think highly of Bashir Assad, the fact is that compared to the current alternatives on the ground in Syria, the regime of Assad Fils, is by far the best alternative 4. In short, the overall picture is and will be a grim one unless and until Western policy towards both ISIS and the Syrian Civil War changes. With the potential for disaster always lurking in the near horizon. As Douglas Murray recently noted in the London-based Spectator:
"At some point — perhaps when Isis manage to carry out or inspire a large-scale terror attack in the US or, more likely, Europe — people will look back and say: ‘Why did we let this happen?’ The answer will be, as it is now, that we didn’t need to. The US and some of her allies have the weaponry and expertise to smash Isis. It is only will and ambition that we lack" 5.
1. Erika Solomon and Geoff Dyer, "Uncertainty over US plans frustrates Syrian rebel groups". The Financial Times. 3 August 2015, in
2. David O’Byrne, "Turkey expands air strikes against Isis to include Kurdish separatist bases". The Financial Times. 25 July 2015, in also: Anthony Cordesman, "The Uncertain U.S. “Game Changers” in the ISIS, Iraq, and Syria War". Center for Strategic & International Studies. 28 July 2015, in
3. Cordesman, op. cit.
4. Hugh Roberts, "The Hijackers". The London Review of Books. 16 July 2015, in
5. Douglas Murray, "Smash Isis now – or we’ll all pay later". The Spectator. 30 May 2015, in


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