Category Archives: Middle East conflict

Iraq in chaos – Islamists on the march

Over the last few days the Middle East has been rocked by the news that Iraq’s second biggest city, the northern city of Mosul, has been taken over by Islamic militants. The takeover by ISIS, one of the most extremist groups in the Middle East, has caused an immense flood of refugees to immediately flee the city. 500 000 people have left Mosul, which is the equivalent of the entire population of the Hague leaving the city within 3 days. And today ISIS attacked the city of Tikrit, just 150 km north of Baghdad. So who are ISIS? How could they take over such a big city? And does this spell the end for the nation-state of Iraq?

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For a look at previous ISIS attacks in Iraq, and an explanation of the religious divide, see my previous post “Civil War in Iraq? – The Third Battle of Fallujah

It says a lot about ISIS that they are considered almost too extremist by the official al-Qaeda branch fighting in Syria. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (al-Sham) originally started out as al-Qaeda in Iraq, where they gained notoriety for beheading foreign hostages. Since the Syrian Civil War started, they have become a powerful rebel force in the country. However, Syrians living under their rule live in terror. ISIS imposes strict sharia law, and persecutes non Sunni Muslims. They are hated by other rebels for focussing more on controlling their own territory rather than helping to fight the Syrian government. They’ve clashed with other rebel groups numerous times, even Islamist groups like the al-Nusra front who are loyal to al-Qaeda. In other words, they are just about the most extreme and violent Islamist group in the Middle East – and they are now spreading through Iraq.

On Monday night around a thousand ISIS militants launched an attack on Mosul, targeting government buildings. Just a few days later, the entire city of 1.8 million people was in their hands. In a humiliating defeat the Iraqi government forces, who outnumbered ISIS 15 to 1, lost the will to fight and fled the city. ISIS now control the entire province of Nineveh, and seem to be moving out to take more territory. The flood of refugees is bound to create a humanitarian crisis in the Kurdish areas of Northern Iraq, whose Kurdish militias will provide some security.

Despite all these refugees, ISIS does actually have some support in the city. Mosul is a mainly Sunni city, and during the US occupation of Iraq it provided a great deal of resistance from former Iraqi soldiers and supporters of Saddam Hussein. Many of ISIS’s current supporters will have similar attitudes. They may not be extremist Islamists, but they are deeply opposed to the Shia government who seem to shut Sunnis out of power.

The loss of Mosul is a terrible blow to the Iraqi government. It shows just serious the Islamist insurgency is, and the collapse of the army shows how little they can do to fight it. The towns of Fallujah and Ramadi were captured months ago, and the Iraqi government has done nothing. With the army spread thinly across the country, the only other real forces in the north are Kurdish militias. But they have their own disagreements with Baghdad, and the conditions they demand for helping the government may be too much.

The conflict in Iraq has consequences for the wider Middle East as well. ISIS brings together an unholy alliance of opponents – the Syrian government and Iran, the United States and Israel, and other moderate Sunni governments like Jordan. None of these countries want to see Iraq fall apart into anarchy or under the control of a group everyone in the Middle East sees as terrorists. But with no outside powers yet showing a real desire to join the battle, and ISIS gaining more and more territory, Iraq is in serious trouble.


Two prisoners set free – a US soldier and a new mother

On Saturday the news broke that Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier held prisoner for 5 years in Afghanistan had been released. The same day a Sudanese official announced they would likely soon free Meriam Ibrahim, a Christian woman who had been sentenced to hanging for allegedly leaving Islam. With no end in sight to the turmoil in places like Ukraine and Thailand, and the far-right making gains in the European elections, a bit of good news might be welcome.

Bowe Bergdahl was the longest held prisoner of America’s two 21st century wars. He was captured by the Taliban back in 2009, in circumstances that are still unclear. Some sources say he fell behind on a patrol, others that he was captured after leaving his base in the night. Days before he was captured he sent an email to his parents describing how disillusioned he was with the army and the war, which makes the second scenario more plausible. Whatever the case, he was held for five years in Pakistan and only seen in five videos made by his captors, in which he compared the war in Afghanistan to the Vietnam War.

His release came after months of negotiations between the Taliban and the US in Qatar. Special Forces helicopters descended to a remote Afghan location, where they were met by 18 Taliban fighters who handed Bergdahl over. Reports suggest he is in a good condition, but is having trouble speaking English after five years in the mountains of Pakistan.

Despite the joy in the US at his return, this is a costly victory. Bergdahl was only handed over after the US set five Taliban leaders free from Guantanamo Bay. They had been held there for over ten years, as the US considered them a high risk to their security. While under the terms of the deal they aren’t allowed to leave Qatar for at least a year, it will be painful to see such high up leaders eventually return to Afghanistan. With the US planning to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in the next few years, the Americans may simply be hoping the ‘Taliban Five’ become someone else’s problem

The case of Meriam Ibrahim has not yet had the same happy ending for her family. The two charges against her, leaving Islam (apostasy) and committing adultery, have not yet actually been dropped. Last month she was sentenced for the crime of apostasy, which is Sudan is punishable by death. However, Meriam was never actually a Muslim, but was brought up Orthodox Christian by her mother. The court decided however that since her father was a Muslim, and Meriam refused to give up her Christianity, this meant she had left her Islam. As she had married her husband in a Christian marriage, the court also decided that this was not legitimate. She had therefore committed adultery as well, and was sentenced to an extra 100 lashes. Throughout this ordeal Meriam was pregnant, and gave birth in prison a few days ago. She was still in shackles at the time.

The case had led to a huge international outcry. Christian and human rights groups across the world have been campaigning for her release, and Western government have pressured the Sudanese government to release her. Yesterday a Sudanese official said that this would take place, as Sudan “guaranteed religious freedom”. However today her husband said that he hasn’t heard anything from the government yet, and that matters are still unclear.

Meriam Ibrahim’s story has highlighted the debate in Islam over whether apostasy is acceptable. Islamic scholars have been debating this since the early days of Islam, with some saying it is allowed and others saying it must be punishable by death. Incredibly though, the majority of Middle Eastern countries still officially carry the death penalty for anyone who leaves Islam. While no executions have been carried out in recent years, many have been charged in countries like Afghanistan, Iran and now Sudan. The biggest threat to converts to Christianity or atheism however comes from their own countrymen and women. Apostates are often attacked and threatened with death, and a survey in 2011 showed that many people in these countries supported the death penalty for apostasy. If Meriam is soon released, she and her family will most likely have to flee the country. While the laws and attitudes towards alleged apostates remain as they are, the stories of people like Meriam won’t have the happy ending Bowe Bergdahl’s does.

Israel-Palestine peace talks – Yet another collapse

This week the latest peace talks because Israel and the Palestinian Authority collapsed after the PA announced a surprise deal with Hamas, the Palestinian organisation governing the Gaza Strip. The two have been fighting since 2006 when Hamas won Palestinian elections. A deal between Hamas and Fatah (governing through the PA) would be excellent for Palestinian unity, but Israel has responded by suspending the talks. So what’s the history here? What do all the players want? And where to from here?

The dark green areas in the West Bank are controlled by the PA, light green by Israel

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US drone strikes – Surgical warfare?

Over the last weekend 55 people were killed by US drone strikes in Yemen. As the fact that this got barely any news coverage shows, these strikes aren’t exactly uncommon. For years now, in Yemen and Pakistan, American drones (unmanned aircraft) have been firing missiles at suspected al-Qaeda targets on the ground. It seems like a surgical form of conflict, but this secret war is a lot murkier than it first appears. So who’s being targeted? What happens when things go wrong? And is this all actually legal?

Source: US Air Force Continue reading

The Yemeni Revolution – Interview with an eyewitness

Recently I had the opportunity to interview an American woman who has lived in Yemen since 2009. She stayed in the country through the Arab Spring and the Yemen Revolution in 2011, and has great insight into the politics and culture of the country. For her own safety I haven’t used her name or any personal details.

Below are some of the highlights of the interview, which covered the Yemeni Revolution, democracy in Yemen and the Middle East and al-Qaeda. However, if you want to read the whole interview with this fascinating woman, here is a PDF link to the entire interview

Arab Spring – Full interview

How the revolution started…

When they saw the power of the people in Egypt, obviously dealing with many of the same issues, I think people got swept up in it. The square [in Sana’a] filled up. I think before Egypt they wouldn’t have though it was possible, that they would have made a difference. But when Mubarak stepped down in Egypt they thought “If we commit to this we can create change”.

There was also an aspect of “we don’t care about the consequences anymore”. I think that’s what the guy [Mohamed Bouazizi] in Tunisia thought…I mean he sets himself on fire! In the Islamic world if you commit suicide you go to hell. But when there’s that level of desperation, when people are so controlled by religion and politics, you get to the point where people say “you know what, you can shoot me but with my life the way it is right now I’m ready to sacrifice myself”.

From the beginning there were skirmishes, but the government couldn’t really attack protesters. At least they try not to, because they know how that will be portrayed in the Western media. But they will pay citizens who support the government to go and attack peaceful protesters, then in the media it gets reported as clashes between citizens. On the ground though everyone knows these people are paid by the government to go and attack protesters. But as the protests got bigger and bigger, the government tried more and more to stop them. They would fire live ammunition, use teargas, things like that. March 18th [2011] was the first day when somewhere around 58 protesters were killed. All through this time though there was talk of brokering a deal that would get the president to step down. In late May he refused to sign it. With that the clashes really started.

The situation in her city…

We had a lot of street fighting. It’s hard to remember when it was worst. It would kind of come in waves. I remember October being really bad. The thing was though, throughout the revolution, whether you were a foreigner or a Yemeni, if you were involved it was obviously very dangerous. But as a civilian, unless your house was in the wrong place, you weren’t in as much danger. And most Yemenis have a house in a village, so they could go there if their home was in danger. The fighting was also localised to certain areas. My house was on the other side of town from the fighting, which meant it never got close to my house. You could hear it though, when it was happening. I was teaching at the time, so on days when the street fighting was heavy they would call off classes and we’d stay indoors. So there was danger, but it was manageable.

On the risk of kidnapping…

When I first came in 2009, which was before the revolution, I knew that the more harmless versions of kidnapping were an issue. When I would get dressed in the morning I would always think “Is this something that I would be ok wearing for a really long time”. So that was always in the back of my mind. But now that the threat is actually higher, I don’t think about that at all. It’s not something that I fear. I recognise it as a risk, but I try to live in a way that minimises that risk.

And I feel like you can minimise the risk, even if you can’t bring it to zero, but that does cost you something. Like I don’t walk through the streets, which is something I enjoyed doing before. I also wear the lithma [veil] now, which I never did before. Just to cover my face, so I don’t look like a foreigner.

Extremism in Yemen

There’s definitely a small percentage of extremists that would hate me for being an American, but the general population is different. They hate the America that’s far away, but the moment that you’re in their country they take care of you and are honoured that you’re there.

Extremism also comes in waves. When I first arrived in 2009 there was a conflict going on between Israel and Palestine (Operation Cast Lead/Gaza War). At a time like that, or a time when US troops hit the ground in the Middle-East, people would start to sympathise more with terrorist groups.

So in 2009 I would walk down the street and there would be an Israeli flag painted on the street, and it would have “Death to Israel” written on one side and “Death to America” written on the other. And it was written in English, so I could read it! So I’m walking over it, as an American, and at the same time people on the street are yelling to me “I love you” and “Welcome to my country!”

Al-Qaeda in Yemen

The structure of al-Qaeda is kind of…they have a lot of independent guys that will claim the name of al-Qaeda, but they’re not submitted to the core leadership in a way they did before. That’s kind of a problem for the leadership, because they do have principles actually! For example, some men recently attacked a military hospital. They were killing patients in the hospital and doctors. That was a terrible PR move for them, and the al-Qaeda leadership came out later and apologised for it.

Q: That’s a very different view than what we have in the West, of a scary, united al-Qaeda group.

Yeah, to me it’s scarier now. If they were submitted to this kind of leadership…it sounds funny to say, but I have a little more trust in these guys who are going to keep the others in check a little bit. But now you have these guys who are going rogue, and are just a little bit more violent without the set of principles.

Though it’s still important to note that terrorist organisations such as AQAP have killed far more Yemenis than foreigners. They regularly target Yemenis political security officers, they attacked a military parade, and like I said they recently attacked a military hospital. So there’s a significant portion of the Yemeni population that hate AQAP because they’re suffering.

The chances for Yemeni democracy

Like Egypt, in Yemen there are two parties that have enough strength and support to put someone in office. One is the Islamist party, and one is the party of the former president (the Mutamar). The problem is that if the Mutamar wins the next election people feel there hasn’t been a transfer of power, and there’ll still be this festering sense of frustration that we’re back where we started. If the Islamists win the election…they’re a strong party but at the end of the day it’s going to be hard for them to hold power because the majority of Yemenis don’t want an Islamist government. They’re not going to want the reality of what that means, and we saw what happened in Egypt. Even if they’re elected, there’s not going to be satisfaction in that. So it’s hard for me to see an outcome to an election that people are going to feel satisfied with.

Once again, if you enjoyed reading these please click this link for a PDF of the whole interview.

Arab Spring – Full interview

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Syrian Peace Talks – Doomed to Failure?

Today the first peace talks of the Syrian Civil War began in Geneva. These talks look pretty good on paper. The Syrian government will be talking with a number of Western governments, the UN, Russia, China, Arab League countries, Iran and most importantly, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the ‘official’ rebel group. In reality however, there are a huge number of problems. There are divisions between the UN, the West and Russia, arguments over the role of Iran and the issue of the myriad other rebel groups in Syria, not to mention the huge gap between the Syrian government and the SNC.  So what issues will these problems cause? And why is this actually “Geneva II”?

Geneva I was held 18 months ago, and wasn’t really peace talks. Instead it was a conference between the US, UK, Russia, China and the UN over what peace in Syria should look like. The “Geneva Communique” that was released was vague and filled with diplomatic language, but the two key points were the establishment of a transitional government to lead the country until free and democratic elections. After agreement on this, the consensus immediately broke down, with the US saying President Assad could not remain in power through the transitional government, and Russia saying this was entirely possible. This is the first of the problems with Geneva II.

The three main outside parties to the Syrian crisis, the US, Russia and the UN can’t really agree on what they want to see in Syria. The US and UN both want Assad out, but Russia would prefer him to stay, as he is their biggest ally in the Middle-East. The UN and Russia both want Iran to take part in the talks, as they are supporting the Syrian government and heavily involved in the conflict, whereas the US would prefer to deny one of their biggest enemies a place at the table. On Monday the UN invited Syria to the first round of talks taking place on Wednesday, taking the US by surprise. However a day later the UN withdrew the invitation, saying that Iran had not accepted the conditions for talks. If the outside parties not fighting and dying in the conflict can’t agree, how can the Syrians?

Another huge obstacle for Geneva II is that the fact that not only is the Syrian National Coalition not the only rebel group, but it is not even the strongest. Firstly, the SNC is only political, mainly made up of exiled politicians. While they support the Free Syrian Army, they aren’t the same organisation, and the FSA decided not to take part in peace talks. Secondly, the most effective rebel forces in Syria are Islamic. The most ‘moderate’ of the Islamist groups, the Islamic Front, called the talks “treason”. That doesn’t even take in to account groups like the al-Nusra Front and ISIS, two powerful rebel groups who carry out suicide bombings, are part of al-Qaeda, and are also the most effective groups on the ground. Finally, there are the Kurdish rebels, who aren’t represented at Geneva II, and won’t accept any peace without some autonomy for themselves. Even in the unlikely event of an agreement between the SNC and Assad, what will be done about these groups?

Lastly, this is the main problem of Geneva II: that it will be almost impossible to get Assad and the SNC to agree on anything. The three year civil war has created enormous hatred, and made compromise almost impossible. After so much blood it is understandable that rebel groups can’t stand the thought of compromising with the dictator causing much of it. And the further the conflict goes on, the closer some rebel groups move to being the ‘terrorists’ Assad called them at the start of the conflict. Al-Nusra and ISIS are already acknowledged by everyone to be terrorist groups. The most that can be hoped for in terms of agreement between the two sides is for a compromise over the delivery of humanitarian aid.

So what would be needed for future peace talks to succeed? The main thing would be for the rebels to unite into a single group that could negotiate with Assad. This would increase their military strength, which would in turn benefit their bargaining position. At the moment Assad holds all the cards, and as long as he is backed by Russia and Iran, it’s hard to see him losing. This is the second thing that needs to happen, the US and UN need to negotiate behind the scenes with Iran but especially Russia. Any pressure Russia puts on Syria will be taken extremely seriously, and the US needs to attempt to find some common ground with the Russians. Finally, the government and rebels need to accept that total victory on their terms is impossible. Without any of these things taking place, it looks like these peace talks are doomed to failure before they’ve even begun.

Pro-Assad Syrians protesting at the talks

The legacy of Ariel Sharon

The Middle-East is probably the only place where the death of one man leads to queues to pay respect in one country, and people handing out lollies to celebrate in another. Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minster of Israel, died on Saturday the 11th, after being in a coma for 8 years. For most people in Israel and its neighbours, there is no middle ground on his legacy. Ariel Sharon was:

“a man of peace”

“one of the great, original figures who fought for Israel”

“one of a kind, a real leader”

“a criminal”

“a butcher”

“directly responsible for the massacre at Sabra and Chatila”

So who was Ariel Sharon? In a region so divided as the Middle-East, this is a hard question to answer. Perhaps a good way to start is by looking at who he was to his own people and to his enemies.

Israel – A leader through the worst of times

In Israel, he was the man who was there from the start. He either fought or commanded in every war Israel fought. He fought as a platoon commander in the 1948 War of Independence, led a paratrooper unit in the 1956 Suez War, commanded an armoured division in the 1967 Six-Day War and encircled the Egyptian Third Army in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. After retiring from the military he was Defence Minister in the 1982 Lebanon War and eventually became Prime Minister in 2001. This was just in time to lead the country through the violent conflict with the Palestinians lasting until 2005. All in all, a military history possibly unparalleled in the 20th century.

Israel is a country defined by its struggle for existence, and Sharon was there for every moment of the fight. Throughout his career there were debates in Israel itself about his excesses. In 1953 his commando unit killed dozens of Palestinian civilians in the town of Qibya. Sharon claimed he didn’t know that the civilians were still in their homes when they were blown up. During the Suez War he disobeyed orders and captured the Mitla pass, leading to him being blamed for “unauthorised aggression” and wasting lives. Finally, even an Israeli Commission found him responsible for failing to prevent the Sabra and Chatila massacre in Lebanon (see below). However, in the case of the ’48, ’67 and ’73 wars, defeat could have meant the end of Israel. To this day he is seen as a military hero.

Despite these excesses, Sharon was also seen as a leader, a man who got things done. In his last years in office he ordered a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Thousands of Jewish settlers were forced to leave, and their homes demolished. This was hugely controversial in Israel, but Sharon was seen as the only man with the authority to get it done, and to at least start negotiations with the Palestinians. This action also gave him the reputation of a peacemaker in the West; a reputation that must infuriate Palestinians. So for Israel, Ariel Sharon was one of their greatest leaders, a man who kept the nation safe through the worst of times.


Palestinians and Arabs – “The Butcher of Beirut”

To the Palestinians and other Arabs, especially the Lebanese, Ariel Sharon’s record is soaked in blood. This is of course to be expected of a man who fought against Arabs in six conflicts; conflicts where atrocities were committed on both sides. To Palestinians Israel is a state which took their land, keeps them in poverty, and denies them their rights. However, the main reason that lollies were handed out in Gaza after Sharon’s death is the killing of over a thousand Palestinians in the massacre at Sabra and Chatila.

In 1982 Israel (with Ariel Sharon as Defence Minister) invaded Lebanon, hoping to eradicate the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) which was active there at the time. According to the journalist Robert Fisk, this invasion was accompanied by numerous killings of civilians. During the siege of Beirut Sharon’s powers were limited by the Prime Minster after the deaths of hundreds of civilians. Eventually a deal was reached where the PLO fighters and leaders left the country. However, this left behind thousands of Palestinian refugees living in camps in Beirut.

The Israelis were allied with a Christian militia in Beirut, the Phalangists, who were bitter enemies of the PLO. On the 14th of September 1982, the Phalangist leader was assassinated in a car bomb. In the aftermath Sharon made the decision to allow the Phalangists to enter the camps of Sabra and Chatila, full of Palestinian refugees, so that they could search for ‘terrorists’. The Phalangists proceeded to rape, mutilate and execute over a thousand men, women and children. The Israeli army, who were surrounding the camp, knew what was going on but were ordered not to intervene.  Instead they stopped refugees from leaving the camp, despite having seen what was happening.

In the huge outcry after the massacre, the Israeli government itself formed an investigation. The investigators found that Ariel Sharon was personally responsible for ignoring the danger of allowing the Phalangists to enter the camp, and for not intervening to stop the killing. Despite this Sharon refused to resign, and was eventually demoted from his post as Defence Minister. 20 years later he was elected Prime Minister. To Palestinians, Ariel Sharon is a murderer, simple as that.

So who is Ariel Sharon?

In my opinion, it is impossible to separate these two sides of Ariel Sharon. He was a man who grew up in conflict. He first joined a Jewish military organisation at the age of 14, and was only 20 when he first fought against Arab states aiming to completely destroy his country. That provides context for his actions in Lebanon. However, he is still guilty of appalling apathy towards the Palestinians in Sabra and Chatila. Coming after the assassination of their leader, it would take a fool not to see what the consequences of letting the Phalangists loose would be, and Sharon was no fool. He knew what was happening in the camps, and failed to take any action, or ever admit responsibility. It’s a tragedy that his years of service to his country blinded him to the humanity of those he fought.

Palestinians murdered in Sabra and Chatila

For those wanting to know more about Sabra and Chatila, and the Israeli role, Robert Fisk’s book “Pity the Nation” contains a graphic account of what he saw in the camps, and his excellent investigation into the events.