Sunday, September 7, 2014

ISIS: Take a deep breath

House of Wisdom in Baghdad, the world's first university, founded by Caliph Harun al-Rashid toward the end of the 8th century. Can't find a credit or even a date (13th century?) for this beautiful piece.
What I think were the most important ISIS stories of the past week were not the terrifying or exciting ones, and they have not been getting the press attention they deserve. Both were at Juan Cole's place, and both examined points of view with which we are not so familiar in America, from the higher realms of the Iranian political establishment, and from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

The first, on Friday, was Professor Cole's piecing together of evidence that Iran and the US are now allies in the battle against the self-described Caliphate—I mean, not just having a common enemy but actively working together; the US providing "extremely close" air support to the Iran-backed Shi'ite militias in Amerli, the US and Iranian air forces apparently informing each other of their strike plans so they don't accidentally bomb each other, and Ayatollah Khamenei having officially put his imprimatur on US-Iran military cooperation (Slate has picked up on this too), among other things.

The US is denying it, of course, as conveniently reported on Fox News, and mummy war criminal Henry Kissinger crept out of his tomb to warn us that Iran is our biggest foreign policy problem, but the physical evidence means more than pro forma protestations, and suggests to me that Obama is really learning to "lead from behind", helping a pluralist coalition to assemble itself instead of pushing a monolithic coalition together. If so, we really have advanced beyond what Rami Khouri in the Lebanese Daily Star has worried about:
A “coalition of the willing” that mainly comprises Anglo-American militaries that shatter Arab lands, along with Arab and Asian autocrats in whose jails the seeds of Al-Qaeda were incubated in the 1980s, is not a serious venture to fight Islamist military and extremism. Such a combination of states is the very force that has given birth and sustenance to them.
Obama has learned to avoid relying on such alliances and apparently, very quietly, to treat Iran as a partner.

The other story, filed on Wednesday from ISIS-occupied Mosul by Khales Joumah for, was about banking, actually:
Up until now, locals in Mosul, the northern city under the control of Sunni Muslim extremists, have not been able to withdraw their money from their bank accounts. That changed last week. However every withdrawal comes with conditions, including a three-person committee that asks where the money came from and a compulsory tax for funding the Islamist’s Caliphate.
Yes, although the organization is supposedly "flush with cash", it apparently doesn't have "enough to fund their many military and social activities currently", and it is shaking everybody down, and looking for excuses to confiscate people's entire accounts. That's not going to be sustainable, especially in wartime in a religiously policed social reorganization where nobody is going to be able to make any money.

Everybody hates ISIS. Not just Americans and Europeans, Persians, Shi'ites, Arab Christians, Yazidis, and Turkmen. Al-Qa'eda hates them, as has often been pointed out, and if the Sunni Baathists from Iraq who joined forces with them in Syria don't hate them yet they soon will. (I believe they thought they were the senior partners, about to restore Saddamism, and that hasn't been the case.) And the populations under their brutal, corrupt, and incompetent control in places like Mosul hate them the most of all. Yes, they're horrible and capable of doing a lot of harm, but they can't survive.

BooMan wrote today, in reaction against the Rami Khouri essay cited above,
that it's unrealistic to think that the West and other global powers are going to stand by and watch the Middle East turn into a Sunni Caliphate that eradicates anyone who doesn't subscribe to their fucked up version of their religion.
But let's just take a deep breath. That "we're not going to stand by and watch" is exactly the kind of thinking that has gotten us into so much dreadful trouble over the past 60-odd years.

The Middle East is not going to turn into a Caliphate of any kind no matter what, in the first place; the only question is how bloody the process is going to be. And in the second place if the West "and other global powers" want to see the Caliphate's death managed properly, Khouri is right: it can't be a hegemonic Western project, that really is what gave birth and sustenance to the Muslim extremist forces starting in Afghanistan, but must be led by local (and often mutually hostile) powers allowed full agency (thanks for putting the word in my head, Davis), especially Turkey and Iran.

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