Waltz With Bashar?

Josh Rogin reports on the internal debate within the Obama administration over whether we ought to reconsider our support for removing Assad:

In effect, the American government has been in a limited partnership with the Assad regime for almost a year. The U.S., Russian, and Syrian governments made a deal last September to destroy Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons—and relied on Damascus to account for and transport those weapons, in effect legitimizing his claim to continued power. As far back as last December, top White House officials, including Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, have suggested that the rising threat of extremism was creating a “convergence of interests” between the U.S., Russia, and its allies in the Iranian and the Syrian governments to come to a political deal before the Islamists became too powerful. …

But the view that Assad can somehow be a partner of any kind is vigorously disputed by other senior U.S. officials, especially those who work or have worked on Syria policy. They say the problem of extremism in the region can only be solved by removing Assad from power. Not only is the Assad regime a magnet for terrorism, they argue, but Assad and the extremists inside Syria are working together.

Morrissey is aghast at the prospect that we might end up on the same side as a tyrant responsible for atrocities the State Department has compared to Nazi crimes:

This is what comes from having no foreign policy strategy, other than to get out of Iraq.

Obama does not want to return there even to fight ISIS, which is an offshoot of al-Qaeda, even where we have a straight-up fight militarily — and there are good reasons for that, because we probably can’t arrive in time with enough forces to do the job, thanks to the total withdrawal of 2011. He won’t commit air power to it without forcing the Iraqis to dump Maliki either, which again is not altogether unjustified. However, it leaves us with no strategic or tactical way to stop ISIS, no strategic partner in Baghdad, and no other strategic partners from NATO willing to step in and help. Assad is nothing more than a life preserver tossed into an ocean of bad circumstances, and the rationalizations already arising make it look like an even more ridiculous choice. If we want to fight ISIS, we’d be better off fighting ISIS ourselves. Propping up Assad through Iran is a complete reversal of American foreign policy of the last 35 years, in service to nothing except desperation.

If Morrissey believes that we should have stayed on in serious numbers in Iraq in order to fight yet another Sunni insurgency, he truly has learned nothing from the last decade. As for maintaining the foreign policy of the last 35 years – surely the situation in the Middle East after the Arab Spring requires some major adjustment. If our goal is to stymie ISIS, then I see no problems with tacitly relying on regional powers to do that work if necessary, and the Assad regime is one of those regional powers.

Zooming out, Jack Goldsmith asserts that the situation in Iraq and Syria upends the logic behind Obama’s foreign policy doctrine:

The “training” blueprint is not the only blueprint left in tatters by the insurgency in Iraq and Syria.  So too is the broader blueprint of declaring the “war” against jihadists over.  For a while now the administration has sent signals that core al Qaeda is near defeat and that the AUMF-“war” is nearly over. …

The rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the failure of U.S. trained forces in Iraq to maintain ISIS, the continuing and growing threats to the homeland from AQAP in Yemen (see this scary Ken Dilanian story), not to mention rising jihadist forces in many other places, call this hopeful picture into serious question.  Set aside the legal question whether Article II suffices as a basis for needed U.S. counterterrorism operations to meet these threats after the AUMF is declared otiose (an issue I have discussed many times, most recently here.)  The politics of declaring the war to be over seem fraught as well.  Even if core al Qaeda is entirely defeated, AQ-associated forces like AQAP remain robust, and ISIS is now a huge problem, not just in Iraq, but also potentially in the homeland because (see here and here) thousands of westerners have joined the jihadist fight in Syria and Iraq and can return to the West, including the United States, with relative ease.  Declaring the war to be “over,” even declaring the AUMF-war to be over (which I think is hard to do), will now only highlight how little has been accomplished overall in defeating the jihadist threat.

It seems to me that the issue of returning Jihadists is the most potent one. And there must be ways in which those combatants can be monitored closely in the US or barred re-entry. But the belief that all these Jihadists are focused on attacking the United States and that the fight against Islamist extremism is now back at Square One seems a huge reach. ISIS’ main agenda, as the former MI6 chief has pointed out, is the war within Islam – not the war against the West. And, in fact, the most potent way to make this fight about us is precisely to adopt the rubric of post-9/11 policies, with all the collateral damage they did to us and to the struggle against Islamist violence. I favor roughly what Obama appears to be doing – a few gestures here but essentially nada directly. Nudge the regional powers to tackle ISIS, persuade the Saudis to cut off any funding still going there, insist on a broadly-based government in Baghdad as the sine qua non of any military aid, and steer clear of the entire clusterfuck. We have no bone in the Sunni-Shi’a fight. And the last thing we should do is inject ourselves into it.

Previous Dish on Obama’s Syria plan here and here, and on Assad’s machinations in Iraq here.

ISIS’s “Mission Accomplished” Moment

That’s how Jennifer Keister characterizes the declaration of the so-called Islamic State. Good luck, she says, finding skilled technocrats to govern the “caliphate”:

As the BBC’s Jim Muir notes, “if the caliphate project is to take root, it will need administrators and experts in many fields, whom Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is clearly hoping will flood to heed his call.”  ISIS has demonstrated some capacity to do this in Syrian cities like Raqqa, where observers note its extensive and coercive reach into residents’ lives.  But as any administrator will tell you, competent technocrats are not necessarily easy to come by.  For ISIS, much may depend on how its declaration of the caliphate is taken among well-qualified individuals elsewhere, and the group’s willingness to engage in the compromise and politicking to build alliances.  It is possible well-qualified personnel may find ISIS’s announcement attractive (augmented by the group’s ability to pay them, at least for now).  But such individuals often bring with them their own political and religious preferences.  If ISIS refuses to compromise, it will be fishing for administrators in a doubly shallow pool of those with sufficient competence and affinity for its particular ideological brand.  Moreover, if ISIS does attract quality personnel, using them for administrative demands means the group cannot simultaneously use their skills in leading or planning attacks to expand or defend ISIS territory.

Thomas Hegghammer analyzes the Islamic State’s long-term position:

Judged by the standards of transnational jihadi groups, ISIS is doing exceptionally well. Never before has an Islamist group this radical had so much territory, so much money, and so many Western recruits. Even if ISIS was literally decimated—that is, reduced to a tenth of its current size—it would still be one of the largest jihadi groups in the world. However, by the standards of national insurgencies, ISIS is in some trouble.

Further expansion—to Baghdad, Saudi Arabia, or Jordan—is highly unlikely given the obstacles in their way. They may preserve much of their territorial gains in Iraq in the next few months, but within a year the Iraqi government should, with U.S. assistance, be able to push them back to where they were in early 2014. In the longer term, ISIS may face governance strain in its remaining areas as locals tire of strict moral policing and economic stagnation. In addition, they face a broad alliance of intelligence services that knows more and more about them. Three years from now, ISIS will probably be substantially weaker than it is today, but for reasons other than the caliphate declaration.

The jihadis’ targeting of shrines, Juan Cole adds, is threatening to undermine its popular support:

Although the so-called “Islamic State” has destroyed several Sunni, Sufi and Shiite shrines and places of worship in the past month, probably the most significant is the tomb of medieval saint Ahmad al-Rifa`i (d. 1183 AD). The Rifa`i Sufi order claims him as its founder. Sufis practice meditation and chanting and they seek mystical union with God. There are plenty of Rifa`is in Syria and the order is popular in Egypt, and still has adherents throughout the Muslim world,from Bosnia to Gujarat. IS is not making a good reputation for itself in most of the Sunni world, where there is still respect for mystics like Rifa`i. One of its allies of convenience is the Naqshbandi Sufi order in Mosul, members of which won’t be happy about all this shrine-bashing.

No, ISIS Is Not Al-Qaeda, Ctd

In fact, Aaron Zelin argues, the rise of the Islamic State is pretty bad news for the leading jihadist brand:

The Islamic State hopes to put al Qaeda and its branches in the unenviable position of having to reconcile with the reality of the new caliphate, or oppose it and therefore be viewed by global jihadis as hindering the caliphate project and showing its true nature as a sectarian organization that is not working for the best interests of Muslims. That strategy, however, is a gamble: It could open the Islamic State up for an even bigger fall if it does not follow through on its promise to fight enemies on all fronts, and if it fails in governing newly captured areas. There is already insurgent and noncombatant resistance to the Islamic State’s gains in both Syria and Iraq, so the group therefore has a thin needle to thread.

Jihadists’ reactions to the Islamic State’s re-establishment of the caliphate have so far been mixed.

There are signs that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula foot soldiers are excited about the alleged caliphate coming to fruition, while many within the Nusra Front are condemning it and sarcastically making fun of it, calling it a Twitter Caliphate. Maldivian jihadists in Syria under the banner of Bilad al-Sham Media have released a rebuke, arguing that the announcement strays from the true Islamic way of establishing a caliphate, and noting that it needs to have broader support. Most importantly, a number of top jihadist sheikhs, such as Hamid bin Ali and Hani al-Siba’i, have rebuked the announcement. The key Syrian Islamist rebel groups and Islamic bodies also rejected the Islamic State’s reestablishment of the caliphate.

Dettmer relays the fears of Western security agencies that al-Qaeda may try to reassert itself in the Jihadi rivalry by staging a big attack:

U.S. officials say the Obama administration is preparing to ramp up airport security and has requested Western allies do the same as concerns mount that suicide bombers are in the late stages of planning attacks on American- and European-bound commercial flights. A senior European security official told The Daily Beast there are fears as well that jihadists recently returned from fighting in Syria with al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra are conspiring to detonate bombs on railways and buses in major European capitals such as London and Paris.

It looks like it will be a long, difficult summer for travelers as, at a minimum, the rivalry between terror groups for top-dog status will be felt in the form of longer security lines at airports and a further proliferation of inconvenient rules about what you can carry on a plane.

And another victory for fear. Let’s just hope NSA is listening in all the right places. Previous Dish on the fraught relationship between ISIS/IS and al-Qaeda here.

But Can ISIS Harm Us?

Arguing against intervention in Iraq, Aaron David Miller downplays the threat posed to Americans:

[I]t is unlikely that it will come to rule Syria or Iraq in full, let alone fulfill its fantasy of creating an Islamic caliphate. … Instead, it is likely that ISIS will become a major counterterrorism problem for the region, and perhaps for Europe. As for striking America, that’s a more complicated issue. It didn’t work out so well for al Qaeda’s central operations, as recent history shows. And as my Foreign Policy colleague Micah Zenko reminds us, in 2013 there were 17,800 global fatalities due to terrorism, but only 16 of those were Americans. Although preventing attacks is the most important foreign policy priority, bar none, terrorism — including from ISIS – just isn’t a strategic threat to the homeland right now.

Ambinder thinks Obama is responding to the threat, such as it is, pretty astutely:

ISIS’ anti-American bluster is worth noting, as are its direct ties to lethal insurgents elsewhere. But surely the way to expedite the fermentation of the next wave of Sunni terrorism is for the U.S. to start fighting Sunnis.

Interestingly enough, the central tenet of President Obama’s counter-terrorism policy is NOT to deny terrorists safe havens. Our counter-terrorism policy is mocked by critics as little more than a game of whack-a-mole. And they’re right. A terrorist pops up here; so here is where you send the drone. Mole whacked. …

If all the terrorists in the world found themselves attracted to a caliphate between Syria, Kurdistan and Iraq, they would make the country a ripe target for later, purposeful intervention by the United States. Right now, the threats to the U.S. are bluster. Keeping a response to an intelligence and special operations force surge to Iraq is a good way to make sure that, whatever happens — and really, there is no way of knowing what ISIS will look like in a month, or two — the U.S. will have its eyes and ears on a potential threat.

But Aki Peritz is worried about “bleedout”, especially in Europe, as Western jihadis come home from the fight:

There are troubling signs that bleedout from the Syria conflict might already be occurring. Just this year, an attack on a Jewish center in Brussels that left four people dead was reportedly the handiwork of a Syrian returnee. In Kosovo last November, local authorities arrested several individuals, including two Syria vets, who were plotting an unspecified terrorist attack. More ominously, French authorities busted another Syrian returnee in Cannes for building a one-kilogram bomb filled with the high explosive TATPright out of the al Qaeda playbook.

Multiple investigations remain ongoing to determine whether Syrian extremist groups specifically greenlighted any of these operations. But for a jihadist organization to spare 100 or 200 foreign fighters to return to their home countries to carry out operations, however, doesn’t require a stretch of the imagination.

The Ever-Expanding ISIS, Ctd

As far as Joel Wing can tell, the jihadists and their allies have effectively conquered Anbar province:

Radio Free Iraq, which has been keeping track of the security situation in Anbar estimated that up to 85% of the province is now under insurgent control. It is important to note that while the Islamic State has done plenty of fighting in Anbar there are several other major groups involved as well, such as the Baathist Naqshibandi and its Military Councils, Jaysh al-Mujahadeen, many tribes, and others. Together they have made the security forces chase them across Anbar, while seizing town after town.

Just as the Iraqi forces collapsed in Ninewa and parts of Kirkuk and Salahaddin in June, it has done the same in much of Anbar. The border crossings with Syria and Jordan are now under insurgent control, along with much of the area around Fallujah. The militants are now attempting to seize the remaining towns and cities between those two points such as Ramadi, Haditha, and Hit. The security forces, allied tribes, and the militias were already doing a bad job in holding the province before the June offensive started. They have repeatedly gone into the same towns again and again, but then leave allowing the insurgents to move right back in. Now they are fleeing like they have in the rest of the country.

Jordan claims that its border with Iraq is secure, but Jamie Dettmer fears that a third front is about to open up … in Lebanon:

Iraqi Shia militiamen who were in Syria assisting Bashar Assad’s forces mostly in the Damascus suburbs reportedly are returning home to try to battle the Sunni advance against the Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  One fighter told AP: “We took part in the fighting in Syria. But now the priority is Iraq.”

The Shia militiamen’s exodus from the fight in Syria – some estimates put their number as high as 30,000 – will leave a gap in the Assad war machine. Firas Abi Ali, an analyst with the risk assessment consultancy IHS, says Hezbollah will likely fill the gap left by Shia militiamen returning to Iraq. But he believes the withdrawal won’t be accomplished quickly, since ISIS controls the land routes, and the departure as it unfolds probably will “reduce the ability of the Syrian government to mount new offensives and place it on the strategic defensive.”

So, for ISIS and Sunni militants there is now every reason to increase the pressure in Lebanon on Iran-backed Hezbollah. And the signs are that they are.

Meanwhile, Lake and Rogin report that ISIS is trying to take over the Balad airbase, Iraq’s largest:

Of course, even if ISIS were to gain control of Balad, there is no guarantee its fighters would know how to operate or maintain the aircraft that are stored there. But an ISIS takeover of Balad would be significant nonetheless. As NBC News reported Tuesday, Iraqi officers say without air support they are on an equal footing with ISIS fighters.

Jessica Lewis—the research director for the Institute for the Study of War and a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who served in Iraq—told The Daily Beast, “It would mean that ISIS can beat the best that the Iraqi Army can muster, not just the northern units that have been ignored. It would mean strategic defeat for the Iraqi Army.”

ISIS’s Frenemies

In a lengthy and penetrating look into the Syrian roots of the current conflict in Iraq, Rania Abouzeid discusses ISIS’s fraught relations with other militant groups:

ISIL couldn’t work with others in Syria, so how long before it turns on, or aggravates, its new Iraqi allies? ISIL’s code of conduct for Mosul’s Nineveh province, posted just two days after insurgents seized the area, provides one indication. Its repressive rules are the SYRIA-CONFLICT-NUSRAsame as those it has enforced in Raqqa: obligatory prayers five times a day in mosques; women must dress modestly (i.e., in a balloon-like black cloak and face-covering veil) and should only leave their homes in emergencies; and all shrines should be destroyed, among other edicts. Unlike Nusra, it hasn’t learned to prioritize the importance of gaining popular support.

But the fate of ISIL is far from the only question. Will Nusra and other Syrian rebel groups try to make some sort of large-scale move against ISIL positions in Syria now that the group is preoccupied in Iraq? Will Nusra lose members to a group whose Islamic state is increasingly taking shape? How will Zawahiri react? He is unlikely to capitulate to ISIL, but nor can he much criticize a group that is implementing the ultimate goals of his own organization. Could al Qaeda try to prove its relevance through new attacks? Does it still have the capability?

Will Saletan breaks down how ISIS violates all of Osama Bin Laden’s rules for Jihad:

Bin Laden was a theocratic fundamentalist, but he cautioned his allies to avoid the “alienation from harshness” that was “taking over the public opinion.” The worst offender was Somalia’s al-Shabab. In a 2011 letter, Bin Laden urged Atiyah to “send advice to the brothers in Somalia about the benefit of doubt when it comes to dealing with crimes and applying Shari’a, similar to what the prophet (PBUH) said, to use doubts to fend off the punishments.”

When ISIS captures a city, it follows this rule at first. But soon, the nice-guy act disappears. The group seizes property and humanitarian aid. It executes Christian and Muslim “apostates.” Two days after taking Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, ISIS banned booze and cigarettes, instructed women to stay home, and announced that government employees who failed to repent would be put to death. This behavior antagonizes Sunni fighters who have collaborated with ISIS. “In some areas that ISIS has taken they are killing our people, they are imposing their Islamic laws on us,” one tribal leader told the New York Times. “We do not want that.”

(Photo: A Turkish fighter of the jihadist group Al-Nusra Front, bearing the flag of Al-Qaeda on his jacket (C-back), holds position with fellow comrades on April 4, 2013 in the Syrian village of Aziza, on the southern outskirts of Aleppo. By Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images.)

Did McCain Unwittingly Help Fund ISIS?

Steve Clemons nails the compulsive interventionist for his enthusiastic support of various Sunni powers backing the insurgency against Assad in Syria:

“Thank God for the Saudis and Prince Bandar,” John McCain told CNN’s Candy Crowley in January 2014. “Thank God for the Saudis and Prince Bandar, and for our Qatari friends,” the senator said once again a month later, at the Munich Security Conference. McCain was praising Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services and a former ambassador to the United States, for supporting forces fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham had previously met with Bandar to encourage the Saudis to arm Syrian rebel forces.

And where did that support end up? Clemons fingers former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan for funding ISIS, which he suspects was the reason Bandar resigned that post in February:

As one senior Qatari official stated, “ISIS has been a Saudi project.” ISIS, in fact, may have been a major part of Bandar’s covert-ops strategy in Syria. The Saudi government, for its part, has denied allegations, including claims made by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, that it has directly supported ISIS. But there are also signs that the kingdom recently shifted its assistance—whether direct or indirect—away from extremist factions in Syria and toward more moderate opposition groups. …

Like elements of the mujahideen, which benefited from U.S. financial and military support during the Soviet war in Afghanistan and then later turned on the West in the form of al-Qaeda, ISIS achieved scale and consequence through Saudi support, only to now pose a grave threat to the kingdom and the region.

Drum believes the moral of this story holds regardless of whether Clemons’ suspicions are correct:

Clemons’ piece is vaguely sourced, and Saudi Arabia has strongly denied accusations that it has supported ISIS. Nonetheless, it’s a fairly commonly held view, and it certainly demonstrates the dangers of trying to pick sides in Middle East conflicts. The US may have been doing its best to support the FSA, but that doesn’t mean our allies are doing the same. Unfortunately, there are inherent limits to just how precisely you can pinpoint aid in conflicts like this, and that means the possibility of blowback is never far away. That sure seems to have been the case here.

If the Saudis are backing ISIS, which he is quite sure they are, Peter Lee spitballs about what their endgame might be:

Anbar sheiks and local Ba’athists have, I would expect, a pretty clear-eyed understanding that ISIS will treat them well only as long as it is in ISIS’ interests to do so.  Al Qaeda in Iraq, after all, became an onerous and resented burden in Anbar, which the sheiks were able to shed through the “Anbar Awakening” i.e. death squads a go go a.k.a a JSOC/Sons of Iraq joint operation.

So I speculate that the cooperation of local non-jihadist anti-Maliki Sunnis with ISIS is predicated on the understanding that Saudi Arabia is condoning and endorsing the ISIS campaign, with the idea that once a “government of national unity” i.e. government with a Sunni veto is installed in Baghdad, or the whole country just fragments into de facto and increasingly de jure Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurdish zones, the Gulf states will step up in financial and security matters to avoid ISIS completely filling the resultant political and economic vacuum.

And in some ways, it seems to me, the only people who can truly defeat ISIS are Sunni Iraqis, just as they were the only ones, with help from JSOC, who could have defeated al Qaeda in Iraq, after the US invited them in. If we leave well alone, these various forces could fight to a new and more stable equilibrium – after intensifying the conflict even more.

The Ever-Expanding ISIS

Adam Chandler tracks their gains this weekend:

As the Associated Press reports, by wresting control of Rutba, ISIS now runs a strip of a major highway, “a key artery for passengers and goods” heading to and from neighboring Jordan. The capture of al-Qaim, as we noted earlier, has already given ISIS control of a vital border crossing post between Iraq and Syria. ISIS also took the towns of Rawah and Anah, which some fear will lead to the capture of Haditha, home to an important dam that, if destroyed, could cause massive flooding and damage the country’s electrical grid.

Juan Cole sees the fall of Qaim as a potentially explosive development:

The first thing that occurred to me on the fall of Qa’im is that Iran no longer has its land bridge to Lebanon. I suppose it could get much of the way there through Kurdish territory, but ISIS could ambush the convoys when they came into Arab Syria. Since Iran has expended a good deal of treasure and blood to keep Bashar al-Assad in power so as to maintain that land bridge, it surely will not easily accept being blocked by ISIS. Without Iranian shipments of rockets and other munitions, Lebanon’s Hizbullah would rapidly decline in importance, and south Lebanon would be open again to potential Israeli occupation. I’d say, we can expect a Shiite counter-strike to maintain the truck routes to Damascus.

Mona Mahmood relays an account of life in Mosul under ISIS rule:

People are scared an air strike might be launched by Maliki’s forces against Mosul at any moment.

Most of the people who have enough money are heading towards Kurdistan. The situation is secure and calm inside Mosul. The rebels – some of them are masked, others are not – are guarding all the official buildings, including hospitals and banks. You can see the flag of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) flying on most of the buildings in Mosul. There is no Iraqi flag at all.

Ba’athists are in charge now of running the city facilities and official institutions like hospitals, directorates and banks. The new mayor, Hafidh al-Jamas, a former military commander in the time of Saddam Hussein, was installed by the Ba’athists and he is doing his best to make life easy for the people in Mosul by providing fuel, food and by keeping prices low as much as possible. A commander was also installed for Mosul who was a former navy commander in the time of Saddam. His name is Khalid al-Jabin. He was in Syria for many years.

People in the city are circulating rumours that we should be careful of smoking in public, wearing jeans or letting women get out without a veil. But the reality is totally different. You can do and wear whatever you want, the rebels are busy now with their liberation of Iraq, and they do not care what people are doing or wearing.

Another dispatch from the occupied city finds the people happy to have Baghdad off their backs, but leery of what their Jihadist rulers have in store for them:

Mosul’s people still seem reluctant to live as they normally do. Everyone is cautious. A group of people I know arranged to meet in the same café they normally do; it was the first time they had all met up since the city was taken over by the extremists. Although everyone likes football, nobody was talking about the World Cup in Brazil. It was clear that everyone had the same thing on their minds: The city, its unpredictable future and how they would find safe places for their families. They all know things cannot remain the same in Mosul after what has happened here and their conversation was carried on in whispers.

“Let’s smoke a shisha [water pipe] because this may be the last time we can,” one of the friends said. He had heard that ISIS would ban shisha smoking and cigarettes as well as many other things.

Reading similar reports, Max Fisher sees a popular support base forming around ISIS:

Mosul residents told the Financial Times that ISIS sacked alcohol shops and tore down a church that was under construction, but that otherwise personal freedoms have been unchanged. Their one complaint was the lack of electricity, which they blamed on the central Iraqi government, and said they were cheering on ISIS to seize a nearby refinery to fix the issue.

The trick that ISIS has pulled off here is seizing Mosul but not ruling it directly. The group appears to have handed authority for the large city over to local, tribal, Sunni armed groups. Those groups share ISIS’s hatred of the Iraqi national government, so they’re happy to help oust the Iraqi army, but unlike ISIS they are not as fixated on imposing extremist Islamism. “There is no ISIS in Mosul,” a 58-year-old Mosul resident told the Financial Times. “The ones controlling city are now the clans. The power is with the tribes.”

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, support for Maliki weakens:

Mr Maliki seems to want to fight Isis without help from the Sunnis, tarring all of them with the same brush of complicity. That there has been some complicity is clear. Some rump Ba’athists and some tribal leaders joined Isis, or at least stepped aside. Sunnis have been provoked but they also have a lot of explaining to do. But this is still a deeply counter-productive approach. The Iraqi prime minister should be seeking to get more Sunni Arabs and Kurds on the government side on the battlefield.

Yet the frigid line up earlier this week when Shia and Sunni political leaders gathered to make a joint call for Iraqi unity told another story. After the photocall, the prime minister and the Sunnis drifted off without a word to each other.

To make matters worse for Maliki, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s leading Shia authority, is calling for a new government:

Although he avoided directly criticising the Iraqi prime minister, Sistani’s call is far short of the resounding support Maliki needs to overcome rising unease at home over his leadership as well as rapidly shrinking international support.

Sistani also renewed a demand he made last week for his followers, who comprise the majority of Iraq’s dominant Shia sect, to fight the jihadist group Isis and its insurgency that continues to ravage north and central Iraq. “They must be fought and expelled from Iraq, [or] everyone will regret it tomorrow, when regret has no meaning,” Sistani’s spokesman announced during Friday prayers in Najaf.

With ISIS bearing down on Baghdad, Martin Chulov observes the rearming of the city and the re-emergence of the notorious Mahdi army:

Up to 20,000 men, many of whom quit jobs last week to join the militia, responded to the call to arms from al-Sadr and [Sistani]. … On Baghdad’s streets, battered pickups shuttled weapons from depots to mosques where the rapid rearming has transformed the already militarised capital into a war zone in waiting. With the mobilisation complete, the now battle-ready militia presented itself to Iraqis once more on Saturday, staging a series of parades in Baghdad and the south that made an emphatic statement of its readiness and intentions.

One of the most feared names in Iraq was back in business, even if it was fighting under a different banner. This time around, the Mahdi army will be called the Peace Brigades, after its leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, decided that a rebranding might shake it free from its infamous past.

But military marches are hardly peace offerings. And the rally through the Sadrist heartland of Sadr City was no different. Columns of fighters carrying rifles, trucks laden with rockets and men in white wearing mock suicide vests were on the move through the former slum-turned-battlefield soon after sunrise in a futile attempt to beat the blazing midsummer heat.

This Fight Is About More Than ISIS

Marc Lynch explores how Arab supporters of Syria’s rebels see the conflict in Iraq:

The popular Al Jazeera personality Faisal al-Qasim recently observed to his 1.5 million Twitter followers that the Syrian and Iraqi revolutions were examples of “dressing up a popular revolution in terrorist clothes, demonizing it and opening fire on it.” Former Kuwaiti member of parliament Walid al-Tabtabaie, for instance, supports the “Iraqi revolution” while warning that ISIS “has some good people but is penetrated by Iran” and that “the corrupt in Syria can’t be in the interest of Iraq… they will stab you in the back.”

ISIS is a real threat, without question, a savvy and experienced fighting organization with a clear ideology, significant financial resources and a proven ability to attract foreign fighters to its cause. But this Arab counter-narrative shouldn’t be ignored.

The sharp divide between an American debate that focuses exclusively on ISIS and an Arab debate that focuses on a broad Sunni rebellion starkly evokes the similarly skewed discourse in the first few years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. From 2003 to 2006, U.S. officials and media often reduced the Iraqi insurgency to “al-Qaeda” and regime dead-enders, thus vastly exaggerating the importance of al-Qaeda in Iraq, delegitimating the political grievances of the Sunni community and missing opportunities to divide the insurgency. Heavy-handed, indiscriminate military responses informed by these views helped to fuel the insurgency.

Another major reason this matters:

These Arab narratives about what’s happening in Iraq shouldn’t be taken at face value, but listening carefully to them might help to avoid a counterproductive American foray back into Iraq. Inside Iraq, a broadly based Sunni insurgency, which commands the support of non-ISIS tribes and armed factions, would reinforce the case for why pushing Maliki for serious political accommodation before providing military aid is the right policy (Petraeus, for what it’s worth, agrees).

True, getting rid of him might not solve Iraq’s problems, but the crisis won’t be overcome without significant changes, which he seems highly unlikely to make (and nobody would trust his promises to do so after the crisis has passed). The point is not to appease ISIS, which could care less about such things, but to break the alliance between ISIS and some of its current Iraqi Sunni allies by giving them a reason to opt back into a political system in which they have largely lost faith. On their own, airstrikes and military support of Maliki without the prior delivery of real political change are likely to only push the various strands of the insurgency closer to ISIS. Political reform isn’t a luxury item that can be postponed until the real business of military action has been conducted – it is the key to once again dividing ISIS from those larger and more powerful Sunni forces.

Ali Kheder’s list of “the players actively fighting across Iraq today” further illustrates the folly of viewing the recent bloodshed as merely a fight between the Iraqi government and ISIS.


As regular readers have surely noticed by now, the English-speaking world can’t settle on an acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/al-Sham/the Levant. Ishaan Tharoor comments on the distinction:

[I]f we are to interpret “greater Syria” as the equivalent of “the Levant” — which it essentially is — then both designations are basically correct. Neither are as accurate as “DAIISH,” the Arabic shorthand for the group that no one in the English-language press seems to use. ISIS has become part of the English-language media’s common parlance and has something of a ring to it — it’s like the ancient Near Eastern goddess. So switching to ISIL is, if nothing else, a bit jarring.

Most of the time, we deploy acronyms that preserve the wording of non-English languages. Many English-language readers following South Asian politics will know the upstart Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party as the PTI, not the Movement for Justice (which is what Washington Post style dictates). The main ruling party in Algeria is almost always referred to as the FLN — for Front de Libération Nationale – and not by what would be its English equivalent, the NLF. And there are myriad more examples.

The Dish has settled on ISIS primarily because of how it rolls off the tongue, but also, as Hassan Hassan points out, “Bilad al-Sham” is the proper term for the Levant as a whole, whereas “al-Sham” is commonly used to mean Syria alone. In any case, a look at the region’s history leads Nick Danforth to conclude that the group’s dream of uniting “Iraq and al-Sham”, by any definition, is a little quixotic:

Both Iraq and al-Sham are place names with their own historical and political cachet, but it’s telling that ISIS’s leadership couldn’t come up with a single geographical term to describe its current area of operations. Al-Sham — which has sometimes been translated as Syria, though perhaps “Greater Syria” or “the Levant” gives a clearer sense of the geography — was most recently the name of an Ottoman province based in Damascus. Iraq, by contrast, was a geographical term that came into its own with the arrival of the British in the 1920s.

Operating on the sound logic of opportunism, ISIS is claiming to unite two regions that even the first opponents of the European mandate system were content to treat as separate. In the immediate aftermath of World War I, some of the earliest Arab nationalists came together in defense of a state covering the entire Levant. When Faisal, champion of the Arab revolt and later king of Iraq, proclaimed in 1920 a short-lived Arab Kingdom based in Damascus, he imagined its territory stretching from the Taurus Mountains in southern Turkey to the Sinai Peninsula, but not east into Iraq.