THE MIDDLE EAST: You Can’t Tell the Players without a Program

With Syria and Gaza undergoing ongoing hell and ISIS viciousness spreading from Syria, romping about northwest Iraq and knocking on Baghdad’s door, it is all too much to grasp, which is why I have delayed posting.   I could not figure out what to talk about in a short space.

Map of predominantly Sunni or Shi'a regions in...

Map of predominantly Sunni or Shi’a regions in the world .  Click to enlarge.   (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I want to rough out an admittedly simplistic picture and then discriminate more in future posts.

There are numerous cross cutting currents creating shifting schisms, but seeing events there as an age old struggle between Sunni and Shia Muslims helps explain much.

We are talking about an area of the world that has festered for centuries through animosities between these two dominant Muslim sects.  As indicated in the map to the right, worldwide there are far more Sunnis, but the balance in number is closer in the Middle East, with the strongest Muslim state there being Shia controlled Iran.

What had prevented all out conflict over the past century between the two sects were brutal strongmen who kept the lid on these nations (often just a collection of tribes cobbled together as such by European imperialist force early last century).   A  number of these dictators have fallen in recent years, including Saddam Hussein toppled by us, and more recently others deposed through what was called the Arab spring, but now seems more like the Arab wildfire.

Now that the lid is off in the region all hell is breaking loose.  If you look at the fighting  in the Middle East, you can see the battle lines drawn largely between Sunni and Shia, including terrorist organizations each supports.   Iraq was Sunni dominated under Saddam even though there are a greater number of Shia there.   Once he was deposed, the Shia became dominant with our help.  Since we left they have become increasingly supported (and dominated)  by their fellow Shia in Iran.

The invasion of  radical Sunni ISIS from Syria is a challenge to that dominance, supported so far by many Sunni there, though that could change in response to the ruthless way the ISIS zealots deal with any opposition to their inflexible beliefs.

Moving over to what seems a never ending civil war in Syria, you will see dictator Assad, a member of a Shia offshoot called Alawites, battling predominantly Sunni revolutionary groups, the most famous being ISIS, which has made its name by expanding to Iraq after fortifying its position in Syria.    ISIS has been bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two Sunni nations counterbalancing the aid Shia Iran sends to the Assad regime.   Also, Hezbollah, an Iranian backed  terrorist organization based in Lebanon now seems to be more involved in the  Syrian fray as well.

While the traditional split between Sunni-Shia Muslims sheds light on what is going on in the region, it leaves many cross currents in the dark.   For example, while  Saudi Arabia has supported ISIS in the past, that was because they were fighting for the  Sunni cause in Syria.   However, ISIS has exceeded everyone’s expectations and now has troops on the Saudi border and a vision of restoring a Caliphate (Muslim empire) in the region.

My guess is that the rich and powerful in Saudi Arabia have no desire to become subservient to this vision.  While they were happy to back Sunni radicals against Shia governments, they do not welcome them approaching their own backyard.

Because of the stability issue, there are also conflicts among Sunnis regarding the Israel/Gaza situation, a topic I will address in my next post.

IRAQ: Who is Nouri al-Malaki?

Yes, Prime Minister of Iraq.  But who is he as a man, a man our government did much to promote to his present position and continued to back through the G. W. Bush and Obama administrations, but now is commonly seen as the biggest stumbling block to any real effort to unify the country.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraqi...

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after a joint press event on Camp Victory, Iraq, April 7, 2009. Obama spoke to hundreds of U.S. troops during his surprise visit to Iraq to thank them for their service. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I read that the Iraqi Parliament,  scheduled to meet tomorrow, Tuesday, has put off meeting until August 12.   Basically it seems they have not found a way to move forward and select a Prime Minister.  More deals and arm twisting seem in order.

Al-Malaki has asserted that they first must deal with the ISIS threat and then deal with national unity issues, but there is much opposition to his remaining PM, even within the Shia community.

While the ISIS campaign to conquer the country has stalled somewhat, much of that seems to be a matter of their just not having enough warriors – usually estimated at around 10,000 – to continue to expand their authority.  Of course, they receive some military support from various Sunni tribes, and what seems tacit support from many more (all of which is impossible to sort out), but the government forces are holding their own better right now.  Even taking back some territory.

However, none of that really addresses the basic issue of Iraq unity, which the Kurds are quite willing to do without, as both them and the Sunnis are fed up with unity meaning a centralized al-Malaki government marginalizing them into second class citizens, especially the Sunnis.

Given the centrality of al-Malaki’s role in what’s next and to help clarify how we got to this point, I recommend reading this editorial by Ali Khedery:  Why we stuck with Malaki and lost Iraq in the Washington Post.  From 2003 to 2009, Khedery ” was the longest continuously serving American official in Iraq, acting as a special assistant to five U.S. ambassadors and as a senior adviser to three heads of U.S. Central Command.”

In short, he’s been a veritable fly on the wall over years of key American diplomatic discussions on Iraq.  Also, he knows al-Malaki well, even considering him a friend whom he backed early to become Prime Minister.  By 2010, though, he came to see him as the biggest stumbling block when it comes to Iraqi unification.   Khedery was part of the Bush administration that basically plucked al-Malaki from obscurity and boosted him to his present position, but then argued in 2010 with the Obama administration, albeit in vain,  that they must find someone other than Malaki to back.

In short, Khedery, unlike so many other commentators, seems most interested in telling what happened rather than trying to score political points.   He blames himself for helping the Bush administration promote al-Malaki to power and blames the Obama administration for continuing to back that unwise choice:  “By looking the other way and unconditionally supporting and arming Maliki, President Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that President Bush unwisely initiated.”

The editorial is quite long, so you might want to skim some of it, but it offers numerous interesting insights, such as the dominant role Iran has attained in shaping the politics of Iraq.  The piece is an antidote to the spin from both parties blaming each other for the failed state that Iraq has become.

IRAQ: Parliament Procastinates on Selection of Prime Minister

Today I thought we might have a new prime minister in Iraq, but the parliament wound up not having a quorum and putting off meeting for another week.   Parliament had a quorum when they began to meet, but after a 30 minute break, they lost it as 90 members did not return.   According to CNN the speaker of the parliament said:  ‘”We are going to postpone because of an urgent matter,’…..  (but) he did not say what the urgent matter was, and it was not immediately clear what happened.”

Map of Iraq, where Yahya ibn Umar conducted hi...

Map of Iraq   (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Clear as mud, right?  But clearly not a  good sign, with the possibility of a decision as to prime minister dragging on and on.   How can a united front be developed to oppose ISIS when they can’t even form a government?

Government sources report successes of the military against ISIS, but these reports have often conflicted with reports of individuals on the ground, so the actual success of al-Malaki’s forces is open to question.

They did receive about a dozen fighter jets from Russia recently and expect them to join the fight over these next few days.   But while the ISIS tide might be stemmed for now, a likely lame duck al-Malaki is not someone who inspires troops to risk their lives while facing fanatics as their frequent collapse in recent weeks reflect (yes, I know that many of them were soldiers of Sunni ethnicity, the least likely to want to fight, but troops of all stripes fled right along with them).

While Baghdad is shilly shallying an ISIS  spokesman declared themselves the  rightful leader of all Muslims Sunday.  You have to be impressed by their audacity if nothing else, as this puts them squarely at odds with all sorts of other Muslims, including many Sunni’s who might hate al-Malaki but are not ready to submit to this new caliphate, meaning a Muslim empire like in the good old days of Mohammed.  And then there is what once was their parent organization Al-Queda, which disowned them back in February because they would not follow orders.

Imagine this:  Al-Queda and the U. S.  have a common enemy.  It almost seems it has become ISIS, or the Islamic State, what they want to be called now, against the world.    With Russia supplying jets to Baghdad, Syrian jets attacking some of the ISIS strongholds, Iran sending munitions and and I don’t know what else, and also a little help from us, with likely more to come if they could form an inclusive government……  Can you imagine a meeting somewhere between a CIA guy with representatives of all of those entities to establish some sort of communication so at least they don’t trip over each other in their efforts to crush ISIS?   Well probably not including Al-Queda, but we are reaching bizarro world at this point.

On the surface one would think the “Islamic State” has bit off more than it can chew, but while its actions have produced many enemies, they undoubtedly are  attracting many true believers willing to die for the grand vision of a restored caliphate.  With a chaotic government situation in Baghdad and the odd assortment of backers indicated above, much havoc seems likely in Iraq’s near future to say the least.  And where might it spread?

Check out this CNN report for more details on the current situation including links to other sources at the bottom of the article.  One is to a series of maps which help clarify the struggle.  And one of the maps shows where oil is distributed throughout the country, mostly in Shia and Kurd territories, which would be a sticking point if the three major groups could come to the conclusion  of breaking the country apart.


IRAQ: Approaching Tuesday’s Selection of a New Prime Minister

Iraq is still officially without a government since parliamentary elections last April and now Ali-Sistani, the most influential Shia cleric, is  insisting that the top three governmental positions, headed up by the prime minister, should be decided by Tuesday.  That is when the new parliament comes into session.  Though Nouri al-Malaki’s party received the most votes in the recent election, Sistani has made it clear he sees al-Malaki as a key part of the problem, not the solution, which will make it difficult for al-Malaki to stay in power.

English: Ali al-Sistani

English: Ali al-Sistani (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The big question then is:  Who will replace him?  And whoever he is, the bigger question is whether he can garner enough real support from Kurd and Sunni elements to develop a government with some unity, enough to launch a full campaign against ISIS.

The Kurds continue to solidify their status as an independent government, so they do not seem eager to join in, while it is difficult to assess the amount of possible Sunni backing for a unity government, what with their territory largely overrun by ISIS Sunni extremists.

What is happening in Tikrit right now, north of Baghdad, is illustrative.  ISIS militants had taken over the city, but now government sources as well as some local ones, report that the army is pushing ISIS out.   That is hard to completely confirm, like so much else that is happening there.  But there are reports that Sunni tribes, which gave at least tacit report to the take over of the city by ISIS now are siding with government troops because of the brutality shown by the revolutionaries.

A problem in understanding is that there are various Sunni tribes acting independently in various Sunni areas, so who knows what kind of support they might give to a central government led by someone other than al-Malaki?  I can’t imagine it to be great, though.

Tangentially, a curious element is that the U. S. now has loaded drones circling around Baghdad whose stated mission is to protect American personnel.  How will they be used is one of many curiosities waiting to unfold.  Another is the occasional bombing of ISIS targets by Syrian jets with al-Malaki’s approval.   Besides sending arms to Baghdad, I’m unclear what support Iran is giving the government, but I imagine it is quite a bit.

So, here we have a situation in which national buddies Syria and Iran, our antagonists in most ways, support the same goal we have and that is the destruction of ISIS.   Meanwhile allies Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE have to varying extents supported ISIS in Syria and now…………..well, another curious situation waiting to unfold.   Secretary Kerry’s recent meeting with representatives of those countries reflects their roles as “players” in this tricky Iraqi game.

For Iraq not to break into warring segments, the need for a government with somewhat broad support is key, so I suggest you read this article from the BBC detailing the issue .  A map  of developing events there is worth looking at even if you only glance at the article.

Also, to understand the remarkable success of ISIS in Iraq it helps to know they are led by an impressively capable leader named Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi.  David Ignatius has profiled the man in the Washington Post’s:  A terrorist with gang-leader charisma.  Reading it I envisioned Bagdadi as having the same hold on his supporters as Mohammed himself.

Welcome to the The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

Otherwise known as ISIS.   If you haven’t noticed before this is a group that has become a major player in the Syrian conflagration, a sort of offshoot of Al Queda, while at odds with them, because, if you can believe this, they are supposedly even more vicious and religiously extreme.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraqi...

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after a joint press event on Camp Victory, Iraq, April 7, 2009. Obama spoke to hundreds of U.S. troops during his surprise visit to Iraq to thank them for their service. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Their organizational name seemed delusional until they sent Iraqi government troops packing from Mosul a couple of days ago, this despite there being about 30,000 troops and only about 1000 Isis revolutionaries.   Yes, really, 30-to-1 and the government troops had the big equipment.  The ground was littered with Iraqi uniforms, abandoned like the city.

So much for years and billions invested in training.  No matter how well you train troops to fight better, it won’t work if they are not inclined to fight at all.   At least without being bolstered by American soldiers when facing dye hard foes like ISIS.

In the process the government troops left so much equipment behind (that we bought for them of course), that the revolutionaries are now even more formidable, supported even further by some 400 million bucks apparently liberated from a bank (or banks) in the process.

Now what?   Well, of course, for John McCain the first step is to blame President Obama’s team for, first, pulling out all troops from Iraq a few years ago, and recently for not recognizing sooner the dangers posed by ISIS in western Iraq.   As for the first point, while the Obama administration might have done a better job in negotiating an ongoing American presence of 10,000 troops or so, the majority sentiment in Iraq was for we “liberators” to leave and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was not eager for us to stay, especially as the Obama team kept pushing him for a more inclusive government, meaning more Sunnis in particular, something he had no intention of doing as later events have shown.    The reverse has been more the case.

If you want more on al-Malaki’s role, go to this Washington Post editorial by Fareed Zakaria.

And given the way the Iraqi troops folded in Mosul, it is hard to say what a continued American presence might have shored up.  The al-Maliki government seems not one to inspire risking one’s life.   If you want to delve into the negotiations involved in the American troop pull out, go to this New York Times article of September 2012.

McCain’s other point about recognizing the growing danger posed by ISIS, well, yes they were making waves in western Iraq, but I doubt if anyone could have imagined the ease in which the government troops were routed given their overwhelming superiority in numbers.

That is what is so stunning about all of this.   And added to that mind boggling event is the fact that now the Iranians and us have a common interest in shoring up the al-Maliki government, as they have close ties with Iraq as fellow Shia dominated nations and don’t want the Sunni dominated ISIS to thrive any more than we do.

Talk about strange bedfellows.  To say the least, this should get interesting and perhaps more and more unsettling.