Unravelling the mystery of ISIS

Reply to the article ’The Mystery of ISIS’ from The New York Review of Books

ISIS has proven more than adept at confounding critics, bamboozling experts and making a fool of those rash enough to write them off after a seemingly catastrophic setback. Their tactics are unconventional to say the least and their ability to recruit, despite offering some fairly solid odds that said recruit will not survive their first six months, remains undimmed. In the article ‘The Mystery of ISIS’ penned by an anonymous author noted to be a former official of a NATO country with wide Middle East experience, published in the New York Review of Books, the rise and continued success of ISIS as an organisation was investigated. The author offered a detailed look at the contradictions of the group that, from the outside, appears almost completely disorganized The article reveals a group who’s success is built on several counter intuitive strategis such as opening front against virtually every possible enemy simultaneously (ISIS currently find themselves aligned against Turkey, the Kurds, Syria’s government, their former Al-Qaeda counterparts in al-Nursa, the Syrian Rebels, Iran and the United States’ alliance which contains much of Europe and the Middle East), alienating potential allies and brashly facing down some of the world’s largest most tactically advanced armies in open warfare.

The article also notes that ISIS has ignored the basic tenants of fighting an insurgency which it records as the avoidance of “holding ground, fighting pitched battles, and alienating the cultural and religious sensibilities of the local population”. A quick look at the redrawn map of the Middle East would quickly assuage any doubt that ISIS is working from their own playbook, controlling vast swathes of land, including several major cities; fighting costly pitched battles in places such as Kobane; and subjecting the local populations to the rigours of their stark perspective of Islam (which includes slavery as the article points out). This movement away from the standard playbook has left planners and experts scrambling to both anticipate the groups moves and find the right course of action to engage them. Thus far the group has been impervious to all attempts aimed at its destruction.

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Is there a solution to the ISIS crisis? pt 1

As the US gingerly pulls together their coalition of the weary in response to the plainly obvious threat posed by the radical Islamic group ISIS, a solution to the problem that led to the emergence of the group appears to be no closer to being reached.

When the first shoots of the Arab Spring emerged from the hot deserts of Tunisia during the closing moments of 2010, many in Washington saw it as the ultimate vindication of a policy of regime change that began in Afghanistan after 9/11 and ultimately appeared to have floundered in the chaotic, wreckage strewn streets of Iraq, a land where American troops were supposed to have been “greeted as liberators” according to Vice-President of the United States at the time, Dick Cheney, in a 2003 interview. The belief among those who held power was that a regime change in Iraq and its transition to a flourishing democracy would see it become a beacon of hope to the rest of the Middle East setting off a domino effect as neighboring peoples, suffering under the claustrophobic effect of authoritarianism would rise up. This wasn’t the first time the domino effect has been used as an excuse to go to war. The justification for entering the Vietnam War was also tied to the theory of falling Dominos, in that case preventing the spread of Communism throughout south-east Asia by reinforcing a friendly government against Communist Insurgents.

By the time the American effort had floundered in Iraq, the country now a hive of sectarian brutality instead of a beacon of democracy, the hope that there would be some systematic collapse of surrounding Authoritarian regimes appeared distant. Iraq’s majority Shiite population, long the victims of Saddam Hussain’s brutal security apparatus, had understandably taken power with both hands and were determined to hold onto it. The Sunni’s suddenly became isolated from the decision making process. Sunni politicians included in the political process were often only there as a token gesture to the American “liberators” who still firmly held the keys to the billions of dollars that was pouring into the country. By 2006 Iraq was in a virtual civil war along sectarian lines.

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‘Friends of Syria’ undermine Geneva II

"Friends of Syria" conference in Tunisia

The ‘friends of Syria’ at a press conference. They are yet to offer a solution for the crisis in Syria that is based on reality.

Despite the trumpeting over the destruction of chemical weapons temporarily distracting the world from the war in Syria, it  inevitably rumbles on. The killing of both soldiers and civilians continues unabated with many terrible war crimes still half hidden behind an all encompassing veil of death. The Syrian government’s willingness to compromise over their chemical weapons stash had led to hopes of further progress at the negotiating table that would lead to an end to the suffering and a solution to the conflict that still threatens to throw the region into another sea of fire. Following the clumsy, arrogant meeting of the so-called ‘friends of Syria‘ however, this hope has been ground like so many lives in this embattled country, into dust. Continue reading

Where to go with Syria

Anyone who has been to the Qal’at Salah al-Din (or Saladin Castle) in the lonely North-West corner of the perennially war torn Syria can only marvel at its remarkable feats of both engineering and  shear, bloody minded determination. After all it is not an simple task to slice a 28m deep, 14 to 20m wide and 156m long tench out of living rock in what is, even today, in the middle of nowhere. Adding to this marvel is a single, lonely freestanding stone needle, once encompassed by a mass of its like, now standing solitary, lonely, reaching up like a hand-less arm to provide support for a draw bridge that is no longer distended. One can stand for hours amongst the ruins of this quiet place, pondering history and war as they gaze out over the gorges that flank the citadel and stretch out into the wild, lush hills that encompass it. Long ago the din of war rang loud in this tranquil place as the rampant armies of Saladin descended on it to drive the bevy of heavily armored foreigners from the safety of its clutches. The battle only lasted three days, two of which consisted of Saladin lobbing massive stones at the citadels crumbling walls before eventually sensing the time was right to storm the gates, ordering thousands of feverish men forward to claim their prize. In the end those who found themselves standing before the great conqueror were able to buy back their freedom, but the fall of the citadel was another step in eventual ousting of the foreign invaders from what was known in the west as Outremer. Today the tranquility that surrounds the Qal’at Salah al-Din belies the devastation that has spread across this historical powder-keg of a country. As the Romans, Persian, Byzantines, Ottomans, Greeks, Mongolians and many others have found before them, Syria is a land built on the embers of its destruction. It is a land saddled with the burden of many conflicting histories that affect not just those countries that occupy the space around this remarkable place, but simmers just as violently in the hearts of those living within its borders. Tribal, personal, historical and religious conflict flows within the very fabric of what the modern country is built upon leaving the tension bubbling away beneath the surface, waiting for the opportunity to once again be unleashed. This time the trigger was not the arrival of a foreign legion intent on conquest, although aspects of this would come in time, it was an internal dispute, long in the making, that forged an opportunity created by a troubled man in Tunisia. Continue reading