The latest reports of a massacre of dozens, perhaps 300, ethnic Yazidis by fighters from the self-proclaimed Islamic State has again raised fundamental questions about what can – or should – be done to protect this ethnic minority. The question is all the more pressing as while the Yazidis have been threatened with genocide, the IS has similarly targeted for extermination Iraq’s small Christian community, Shias and any other group that does not immediately submit to its medieval beliefs.
The United States has made some inroads into the IS advances by attacking i from the air. This has, in turn, allowed the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to slow the IS advance. But, having been bloodied for so little reward following the 2003 intervention, the US, like the UK and other allies involved in the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ are deeply reluctant to again deploy ‘boots on the ground’.
The problem with the IS, though, is that while hardened Peshmerga fighters may be able to hold the IS from further northward advances, the IS continues to persecute other minorities and even those of its own Sunni faith in both Iraq and Syria that do not subscribe to its fanatical beliefs. Should the IS manage to consolidate, it has further designs on Jordan, the Palestinian territories and the north of Saudi Arabia.
As UK Prime Minister David Cameron has, among others, noted, the IS represents a threat not just to those fleeing from its immediate terror, but much more widely. The IS could be understood as a more radicalized version of Afghanistan’s Taliban, which supported Al Qaeda.
US air strikes against the IS are, with the blessing of the floundering Iraqi government, necessary. However, the United States is again either casting itself or being cast as the world’s policeman.
The role of the world’s policeman is not one the US is necessarily comfortable with. The country has, since the late 1800s, vacillated between asserting its international authority and retreating to an introspective cocoon.
Having taken its eye off the ball in Afghanistan and manufacturing the 2003 Iraq war, the US under President Obama has been reluctant to again become directly engaged in external conflicts. The US chose not to act in Syria in 2013, which created the opening the IS was looking for there, and it has stayed similarly aloft from Russia’s unsubtle interventions in Ukraine.
It is at such a time, then, that the world appears to require an alternative, legitimate strategy for confronting the IS, and the possible rise of other threats like it.
In 2005, the United Nations voted to endorse the principle of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’. Following the genocides of Rwanda and in former Yugoslavia, the destruction of East Timor, the mass deaths of Darfur and many others, the United Nations endorsed the shared deployment of mechanisms, if necessary including military force, to prevent the possibility of further genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
The conditions of invoking the Responsibility to Protect were onerous, so much that since it was agreed to it has not yet been invoked, despite numerous examples of humanitarian crises it was intended to prevent. The two critical features that have stymied its use have been a fear by some distasteful UN member states that it could be used against them, and that it requires the endorsement of the UN Security Council.
The UNSC’s five permanent members have veto power on any Security Council decision which ensures that there can be no agreement on any issue that one or more permanent members have a strategic interest in. In 2009, China and Russia ensured there was no action on Sri Lanka, leading to the deaths of some 40,000 ethnic Tamils. Last year Russia vetoed any intervention in Syria, allowing that bloodbath to continue unabated.
However, none of the permanent five member of the UNSC has an interest in the progress of the IS. Indeed, Russia would be keen to see the IS disappear, given its own problems with Islamist rebellions on its southern flanks. China, if somewhat disingenuously, is also concerned with the Islamist character of Uighur separatism in its north-west Xinjiang province.
The invocation of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ principle would allow genuine coalition of world powers to address the Islamist mutation that is the Islamic State. It would require boots on the ground, but they would be so universal and so overwhelming that IS would effectively disappear.
The end result in Iraq would, no doubt, be at least some reorganization of the state, which appears critically necessary in any case. It may also end up with the recognition of an independent Kurdistan, not least since neighboring Turkey, with its own militant Kurdish minority, now appears to be coming to terms with that idea.
Ultimately, the application of such a principle would also have to address the difficult issue of the IS in Syria, in which Russia has a vested interest. A resolution, though difficult, may also still be possible there.
Perhaps the US will prefer to continue to act not just as the world’s policeman, but as its ‘Lone Ranger’. But for the US to extricate itself from a deepening enmeshment in another protracted war, and addressing a problem that much of the world finds increasingly alarming, invoking the Responsibility to Protect could well ensure it does not get involved in another wear alone, and would bring a sense of global responsibility to international problems.
There will no doubt be many who see the US sending 300 military advisers to Iraq, along with 275 soldiers to protect its embassy in Baghdad, as the beginning of a US re-intervention in that beleaguered country. Added to the placement of a US aircraft carrier offshore, they would be half correct.
The US is deeply concerned about unfolding events in Iraq and has a bottom line position of not seeing the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant/Syria (ISIL/S) seize control in Iraq. But, having extricated itself from the unholy mess that was the US’ Iraq war, US President Barack Obama and a majority of US people have no desire to go back there. In this, the US is caught in a bind.
The bind that the US now finds itself in is made vastly worse by the incompetent, sectarian government of Nuri al-Malaki, which has openly favoured Iraq’s Shi’ite majority to the exclusion of the country’s Sunni minority. The US has made it a condition for any direct support that the al-Malaki government re-engages with the Sunni minority so as not to create further fertile ground in Iraq for ISIS/L.
Despite increasingly desperate appeals for help, al-Malaki has not yet indicated that he is prepared or able to make any meaningful moves towards a re-accommodation with Iraq’s Sunni population. Any moves made by a-Malaki now might also well be seen as window-dressing – just enough to re-engage the US without any longer term or substantive commitment.
At this stage, the US would, however, probably just settle for a public promise. Should ISIL/S be successful in toppling the al-Malaki government, ISIL/S would probably be halted as it encroached into the southern Shia heartland. Not only would it face Shia militias, it would also face the possibility of direct support from or intervention by neighboring Iran, which would be happy to have southern Iraq as a vassal state.
That would, however, leave the centre of Iraq in ISIL/S hands, providing a base for its future operations in the region and more permanently linking with territory it controls in Syria. With Iraqi forces now being concentrated nearer to Baghdad, Iraq’s border with Jordan is now essentially undefended, and Jordan could well be the insurgent group’s next target.
The other area of instability in the region is in Iraq’s north, in the Kurdish area. The Kurds, already autonomous from the Baghdad government, have taken control of the oil producing town of Kirkuk. In contrast to just a few years ago, the Turkish government has reached a détente with the Kurdish regional government.
In exchange for limiting support for Kurdish separatists in eastern Turkey, Turkey now appears prepared to see the establishment of an independent Kurdish state to its east. The establishment of an independent Kurdistan may now, perhaps, be inevitable. But the break-up of Iraq that it would imply is not something that the US wants to see.
So, the US is left with a disintegrating state led by a dysfunctional, sectarian government on one hand and on the other a redrawing of the map of the Middle-East with the possibility of what amounts to an outlaw state in its middle.
It remains very unlikely that the US will commit to a full-scale ‘boots on the ground’ campaign. But at some point in the near future, it will seek to cripple ISIL/S’s capacity. Substantial US air strikes in Iraq are, thus, now all but inevitable.
As events unfold in Iraq, the US finds itself in the curious position of moving towards effective support for Syria’s President Bashar al Assad. Having first intervened in Iraq and then folding on a threat to take action in Syria, the US faces the alternative of the break-up of the nearly century-long construction of the region as a series of sovereign states.
In this, much depends on the strategic capacity and the next tacticalmoves of the organisation known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or, more correctly, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIS is used by most media because it conflates and hence simplifies two neighboring wars, and perhaps because it has echoes of the ancient Egyptian fertility goddess.
However, the name ISIL better reflects a local and historical understanding of the region, which pre-dates regional states as they currently exist. It also indicates the organisation’s ambitions, which extend well beyond occupation of northern Syria and central Iraq.
Comprised of a number of multi-national groups that coalesced in the latter part of the war against the US-led occupation of Iraq, ISIL split with al Qaeda over a power struggle in late 2013. Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, order for ISIL to disband was rebuffed by ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
This followed an earlier rebuff by al-Baghdadi’s predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by a US air-strike in 2006. A number of jihadi organisations formally claiming allegiance to al Qaeda have since effectively split with the organisation, in part due to al-Zawahiri’s increasing impotence as a leader in hiding and in part due to the differing circumstances in each of the jihadi fields of operation.
Having crossed from Iraq to Syria, ISIL rose by early 2013 to become the most powerful of the country’s anti-Assad factions. It now controls Syria’s north and north-east. With its origins in Iraq, it was unsurprising that ISIL crossed back to challenge the enfeebled government of Iraqi President Nuri al Malaki.
A large part of ISIL’s advantage in Iraq is that it claims to represent Iraq’s minority Sunni Mulsims, who predominate in the centre of the country. Politically dominated by Sunnis, including ousted and executed dictator Saddam Hussein, since its founding, Iraq’s majority Shia Muslims are now in political control and operating to large extent to the exclusion of Sunnis.
ISIL’s intervention has only deepened the Sunni-Shia divide, and in so doing has inadvertently strengthened the strategic position of Iraq’s Kurds. The Kurds run a semi-autonomous state in northern Iraq and have just taken the main northern, oil-rich town of Kirkuk.
ISIL is now facing a more concerted defence by Iraq’s embattled defence force but, as with Syria, may be expected to hold much of the territory it has gained. Having transitioned from being a guerrilla organisation to a state within two states, ISIL’s longer term ambition is to combine the Arab lands divided by English and French colonial planners in the dying days of the Great War.
As ISIL’s name suggests, its origins are in Iraq, but it rejects the division of the Middle-east based on colonial and subsequent administrative convenience. ISIL’s goal, therefore, is to eventually subsume Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, southern Turkey and Cyprus into a greater Islamist caliphate.
As ISIL’s strengthens its regional grip, the US is increasingly motivated to act, if not with ‘boots on the ground’ then with equipment and, more importantly, air strikes. If this action is successful – and it is a big ‘if’ – the US will have broken the back of the main anti-Assad organisation in Syria, tipping that war in favor of a dictator that, only last year, it was considering ousting.
In so doing the US will be reconfirming that, states loosely based on arbitrary conglomerates of old Ottoman administrative districts, the region can only exist as disaggregated squabbling fiefdoms or, as states, under the control of dictatorial leaders. Whatever dream the US had of exporting ‘democracy’ to this part of the world is now, in a functional sense, quite dead.
The 10-year anniversary of the Iraq war serves as a unique opportunity to measure the costs of the intervention, to assess the successes and failures of the goals of the war and to assess Australia’s obligations.
Let’s start with the costs. According to official figures, 4486 US military and 319 other coalition troops died during Operation Iraqi Freedom, which cost US taxpayers $806 billion. No reliable public estimate exists on how much the war cost the Australian taxpayer. In Iraq the cost was much higher. Although estimates vary on the exact figures, approximately 162,000 Iraqis have died and an untold number injured. The war has also resulted in around 1.24 million internally displaced people and 1.6 million refugees, and many people have migrated out of Iraq since 2003.
If you had to guess the number one spot for terrorism worldwide, what would you guess? Afghanistan?
According to a new document from the defence and security intelligence and analysis group IHS Janes, first prize for terrorist attacks belongs to Syria. Putting aside the pedantic untidiness of who the terrorists actually were, Syria certainly suffered a lot of grief over 2012, with 2670 attacks, more than 10 times the number of attacks in 2011. No aspect of the war there is going well.
There would be a reasonable expectation that, putting aside this definitional anomaly, Afghanistan would slot securely in at number two, given the war still rages there. But the number of terrorist attacks in Iraq has increased 10% to 2296 following the conclusion of the war.
As more than a few pundits have observed, if the war in Iraq was a success, you’d hate to see a failure. Coming second in motorcycle racing is referred to as being "first of the losers", which seems particularly apposite in this context.
In a recent conversation with a foreign affairs colleague who was a survivor of one of the Afghanistan attacks, I suggested that Pakistan was really the centre of the anti-Taliban war now, rather than Afghanistan. The terrorist attack figures in Pakistan bear that out, with 2206 attacks, also up around 10% on 2011. Pakistan is a seriously dangerous place, and not one to be visiting any time soon for a holiday.
Try as Afghanistan (or some people there) might, it did not make the podium, in part due to an overall decline in attacks, from 1821 to a much more modest 1313. One might assume that this reflects the success of the International Security Assistance Force strategy there and the ultimate defeat of the Taliban. Or one might be a little more realistic and assume that the Taliban is dropping the tempo of its attacks until after the ISAF withdraws next year, at which time it will return in full force.
India is a surprise inclusion at fifth place, with almost three times as many attacks as Somalia in sixth, just ahead of Israel, which also suffered an increased number of attacks, in seventh place. Israel only just outpaced Thailand, which comes close to averaging an attack a day. Almost all of these attacks are in the troubled Muslim south.
What the HIS Janes figures show is that, if there really is a "war on terrorism", it has not been particularly successful. Overwhelmingly, things got worse, globally, rather than better.
If there is a positive side to any of this, at least very few terrorist attacks occurred in developed Western countries, which is where we live. We are safe, so long as we are careful about where we travel, for the time being.