Wednesday, December 2, 2015

West of Eden: Just saying

The last Caliph in Baghdad, al-Musta'sim, in 1258, locked by Hulagu Khan in his treasury without food or water: "Eat of thy treasure as much as thou wilt, since thou art so fond of it." Actually that's just a myth; in reality they wrapped him in a carpet and had horses trample him to death, so as not to spill any royal blood. Via Wikipedia.

In September 2014 I wrote:
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.
Today Ben Hubbard for the New York Times brings forward some evidence from people who have fled the "state" of how they're doing, which is pretty much on schedule, failing to happen, feeling pressure from Kurdish and Shi'ite troops and coalition airstrikes no doubt, which are interfering with the oil and smuggling industries, but most of all wrecking the project themselves. They're losing fighters fed up with pay cuts, they're losing professionals unable to deal with the religious oppression, they're creating the Islamist equivalent of China's Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s,
struggling to find people able to run oil equipment, fix electricity networks and provide medical care, former residents say.
“They don’t have professionals, so they have to pay people to do things,” said a pharmacist from eastern Syria.
Stories abound of the Islamic State putting loyal members in positions they are not qualified for. The head of medical services in one town is a former construction worker, residents said. The boss at an oil field was a date merchant, according to a former employee.
They can't keep schools and hospitals open, and they're increasingly dependent on money they extort from the population in zakat payments and fines for infractions of Salafi behavior codes, enforced by the constant threat of execution at any moment, and they are losing population rapidly, in spite of efforts to make it hard to escape.

This doesn't mean they're in danger of imminent collapse, the Times warns, but I think their identity as a state is really threatened; with the emphasis on activities outside their territory from Paris to Surt, they are reconfiguring themselves from an aspirational country, a Caliphate, into just another terrorist gang, and from a political problem to a police matter.

Which is not to say the West can't fuck the situation up with some of that imperial overstretch, or at least help it to last a lot longer than necessary, making ISIS look like the lesser oppressor and recruiting ever more people into it from outside (who have plenty of reasons for assuming that reports on the Da'esh inside are just anti-Muslim propaganda), as ever. As I said back then,
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, [Rami] 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...
In this connection, I'm not too impressed by news of the long awaited boots, four hundred of them, maybe, on two hundred Special Forces bodies assigned to conduct raids on the Da'esh:
“We’re good at intelligence; we’re good at mobility; we’re good at surprise. We have the long reach that no one else has,” [secretary of defense Ashton] Carter said.
“It puts everybody on notice in Syria that you don’t know at night who is going to be coming in the window. And that’s the sensation that we want all of ISIL’s leadership and followers to have,” he said.
It's not the sensation you want anybody else to have, though. Like wedding parties. I'd like to have more confidence that they're going to know whose window it is, at least before they start shooting. In my admittedly limited experience people who announce, "We're good at intelligence" are often not good at intelligence. Because I doubt that every raid is going to be planned as carefully as the one on the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad.

I'm likewise not excited about the noises from the Cameron government inviting itself into the general air mêlée in Syria, which I think is mostly domestic politics, but likely to make the situation on the ground in Syria even more dangerous for civilians than it already is. (This Crooked Timber report from the UK is enlightening.)

I still hope Obama's main focus is as I have interpreted it, with the military action as ancillary to the political process, as suggested in his remarks at the press conference yesterday:

as part of the Vienna process, you're going to see the opposition groups -- the moderate opposition groups that exist within Syria -- some of which, frankly, we don't have a lot in common with but do represent significant factions inside of Syria -- they’ll be coming together in order for them to form at least a negotiating unit or process that can move Vienna forward....
What can happen is if the political process that John Kerry has so meticulously stitched together -- in concert with Foreign Minister Lavrov of Russia -- if that works in Vienna, then it’s possible, given the existing accord that the parties have already agreed to, that we start seeing at least pockets of ceasefires in and around Syria.  That may mean then that certain opposition groups no longer find themselves subject to either Syrian or Russian bombing; they are then in a conversation about politics. And slowly, we then are able to get everybody’s attention diverted to where it needs to be...
Except then he kind of spoiled it by adding,
and that is going after ISIL in a systematic way. 
Perhaps the feeling of that is that the political cohesion of Syria and Iraq is going to depend for a good while yet on the idea of that common threat, which is real and which is, as we're starting to see, likely to end up defeated anyway by its own internal impossibility. Here's hoping, as usual.

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