The Islamic State has an Image Problem

Note: This post was published before the vile execution of American journalist James Foley, which made me realize that this post was off the mark – ISIS doesn’t have an image problem, they have a humanity problem. 

How many remember that vile ISIS video from June – the one where they were executing all the soldiers and apostates from Mosul?  I’m sure many of you will – I certainly do, it’s when IS really sprung to the forefront of my consciousness – to the consciousness of many.  That horrific video, showing the execution of hundreds of people in several gruesome ways, from being machine-gunned in a pre-dug mass grave to being shot in the head and pushed into a river, is what catapulted the Islamic State – just before it had re-branded itself as such – onto the national news schedule.

Since then, though, it seems, Islamic State has taken several modest steps to correct it’s image, cemented by that first shocking video.  Insofar as they’ve made the effort it indicates that they’re interested in being seen not as a band of marauding barbarians, but as a nice, respectable Islamic force capable of running it’s own state and dealing fairly with all their constituents (it’s also probable that their command and control capability is pretty weak and their messaging is all over the board… certainly the attack in Lebanon last week, at least, would back that up).

That they’re capable of running their own state is less in question, it seems – several news sources have commented that they differ from Al-Qaeda in being able to set up and maintain the functioning structure of a state – IS’s main center, Raqqa, has been under their control since last year, and seems to be doing just fine, thank you very much.

There has been further attempts, though, to combat the view of Western watchers that IS is anything more than a radical group of crazed Islamist fundamentalists caught in some sort of Islamic rapture – in fact, there’s been a definite push towards showing the *cough* softer, more cuddly side of the Islamic State.

Take, for example, the recent documentary post by VICE News – VICE has created an impressive piece of content that takes a closer look at the group.  It shows the daily patrols that ensure Sharia law is maintained, as well as a visit to the courts, and includes a look at some of the festivities they’ve organized (it’s well worth a look, if you haven’t already).  While the documentary, made by allowing a VICE reporter a guided tour of Raqqa, goes a long way to unmasking the black veils of the Muslim revolutionaries, they also don’t shy away from showing images of decapitated Syrian soldiers and crucified criminals. At the end of the day, while we come away from the documentary with perhaps a more human suggestion as to the makeup of the Islamic State, it’s still a suggestion of a deeply disturbed and off-balance sort.

Also, on more than once occasion, the group has made an attempt to show off their bleeding-heart humanitarian side, most recently in a group of photos showing care at hospitals inside Iraq.  While the pictures show an emotionally evoking selection of patient in a hospital in Iraq, the reality is not that the Islamic State is particular concerned with the well-being of the sick, just that they’d rather use a hospital for a positive marketing message (“See?  We care for the sick also!”) then a negative one (“Yeah… we killed everyone in the hospital. You’re welcome.”).  The people treating the sick in the series of images are the same people that would have been treating them before IS showed up – the only difference is that now they’re being treated under Islamist auspices, instead of Iraqi ones.  They did the same thing two weeks ago.

If the Islamic State could prove itself to be a nation that valued human rights, protected minority groups and dealt fairly with all individuals, then the possibility remains that it might be a fairer regime than the ones that until recently ruled in Syria and Iraq – that would go a long way to securing it’s place in the world, and – more importantly in the short term – attracting further adherents.

The reality, of course, is that so far they’re an intolerant bunch of extremist, fascist thugs with no adult supervision and what seems to be little central command and little cohesive ideology beyond utter adherence to Allah.  Certainly their “judges”, as illustrated by the VICE documentary, seem to have been chosen less by their experience with law (Sharia or otherwise) and more by how long their beards were, if you get my meaning.  As far as tolerance towards minority groups go, we’ve seen acceptance of Christians and Shia heads on pikes and fenceposts.  That’s a pretty wide spectrum.

But as long as some mercurial adherence to Allah remains the yard stick for creating the laws of the land it’s going to take a shitload of images of hospital children to counter the impression that Islamic State is anything more than a bunch of fanatical thieves and thugs.

Air Strikes, Power Vacuums, and Responsible Actors: Why the US launched airstrikes in Iraq and not Syria

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Accompanying the online buzz regarding the US decision to launch air strikes in Iraq against Islamic State (IS) are questions as to why strikes were launched in Iraq but not in Syria. The two nations present vastly different scenarios and several reasons for why it made sense to authorize strikes in one and not the other. Let’s examine them now.

Post-strike, Northern Iraq has a responsible actor to fill the power vacuum. In North-east Iraq the Kurdish Peshmerga have long maintained security and stability and were only challenged by IS after the latter bulked up with looted American heavy armor and guns. Once the heavy equipment is neutralized by airstrikes and the militants are pushed back from their positions, the Peshmerga will immediately re-occupy those positions and provide again what will (likely) be unchallenged security.

This is an easy scenario for western leaders to support: The Kurds have long-eschewed terrorist violence in their own attempts for statehood, are well-organized, bound by a strong sense of national identity, have most of the trappings of a state and – most appealingly – are secular. Air strikes in support of the Peshmerga would go a long way to increasing security and stability for the entire region.

Contrast that with North-east Syria, the region of some of the most intense fighting and likely area of air strikes when President Obama was mulling them in the summer and fall of 2013. The most appealing actor to the west was the Syrian National Coalition and there was little faith that they would be able to occupy and hold any positions gained via American air strikes. There was – and remains – a patchwork of groups operating in Syria, many of them Islamist, and many operating under auspices of the National Coalition. It’s hardly a responsible a group that the Obama administration could enthusiastically get behind, especially considering that even secular rebels have been responsible for atrocities. It was quite likely that air strikes against regime forces would have created a power vacuum to have been filled by more extreme actors. Given the rise of IS, that outcome now seems likely.

Syria is Russian turf, Iraq is American turf. Syria has been a client state of Russia since the Cold War and remains one to this day. The Syrian army is outfit with mostly Russian kit, and the relationship between the two states is close, with ongoing arms deals worth billions of dollars. Russia has ships in Syrian waters, most notably in the port of Tartus, Russia’s most distant military facility. Any action by the US or its allies would risk provoking the ire of the Russians, at a time when US-Russian relations were already heading towards an historic nadir.

Iraq, on the other hand, has no Russian presence and historically little involvement in the country, whereas America… well, we’re all familiar with that part of the story.

(It’s worth noting this dynamic isn’t as straight-forward as it used to be: With the US pivot towards the Asian far east and away from the Middle East, Russian has seen an opportunity to increase its influence in the region. This was brilliantly illustrated earlier this summer when Russia swept in to make a delivery of 25 fighter jets to Iraq while the US stalled on its own delivery of jets, likely due to ongoing displeasure with Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki).

The Syrian Government is still the legitimate and recognized sovereign of the state and has seen frequent Russian military aid since the start of the civil war. Authorizing airstrikes against the Assad regime and Russian-supplied jets and helicopters would have brought the US significantly closer to conflict with Russia in state long considered Russian turf.

Islamic State doesn’t have many friends. In international affairs, it’s really important who your friends are and Islamic State doesn’t really have any good friends. It’s most notable state sponsor seems to be Qatar, which has come under increased criticism from the US for its actions (Qatar is also notably a sponsor of Hamas in the Gaza Strip). Kuwait, another nation seen supporting IS, mostly through lax laws on money transfers, has seen wealthy individuals recently sanctioned by the US for funding terrorist activities, although the government is making a concerted attempt to crack down on it.

Turkey, for its part, still seems to act as a conduit for fighters seeking to join Islamic groups in Syria and Iraq, but less enthusiastically after IS kidnapped 60-odd Turkish nationals in the last two months, including 49 in the Turkish consulate in Mosul in early June. While it may have served Turkey’s interests to act as a conduit for fighters when they were fighting the Syrian Regime, it stopped being such when IS became powerful enough to become a discrete threat on their own (IS considers Turkey to be too western), and the high-water mark of nascent relations between the two have long since passed.

Saudi Arabia is another nation often accused of being a state sponsor for the group, but the nation itself has denied providing financing. Which isn’t to say that money hasn’t flowed to the group from the Kingdom. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been moved via wealthy individuals and Islamic charities. It’s also possible that before IS rose to prominence the Saudis likely supported or encouraged private fundraising efforts focused on funneling money to the mish-mash of Islamist fighters in Syria in an effort to undermine the Assad regime, of which IS was just one.

Notably, Saudi Arabia sent 30,000 troops to the Iraqi border in June, partly out of fear of IS, the creation of which it’s tried to pin on Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki for failing to unite Shias and Sunnis.

Islamic State is America’s mess. This is a minor point that no one seems to bother making anymore, but I’ll be the outlyer: despite Obama referring to IS as requiring an “Iraqi solution”, anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with the region will recall that IS is an offset of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Al-Qaeda franchise that benefited from the disastrous US-led invasion of Iraq. As in other examples, an invading force, rightly or wrongly, has frequently been the trigger for nurturing the growth of a rebel group that eventually grew to become a larger threat than what originally prompted the invasion (see Al Qaeda in response to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and Hezbollah in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon). This calculus was finally employed in the decision against strikes in Syria, and it has its place somewhere in the decision to strike in Iraq.

Add to this overall picture the clear-and-present threat to the civilian Yazidis and non-Muslim minorities, the Obama Administration likely would have welcomed the ease in making the decision to launch air strikes in Iraq, even if it did mean that it was backtracking somewhat on its desire to not have a military presence inside Iraq and they would need to re-evaluate their position towards Iraqi Kurds. Despite sharing a border, Iraq and Syria have very different political situations that make air strikes in Iraq a vastly different prospect from air strikes in Syria.

IS posts pictures of Sinjar advance

A series of pictures from Islamic’s State recent assault on Sinjar Region in Iraq has now appeared on JustPast.it (some graphic images).  The rout of the small Peshmerga force apparently prompted the mass exodus of thousands Yazidis to leave their homes for the relative safety of the nearby mountains.

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The rout of the small Peshmerga force apparently prompted the mass exodus of thousands Yazidis to leave their homes for the relative safety of the nearby mountains. Another 35-50 thousand more are stuck, surrounded on all sides by the Islamic State – extremists who consider the Yazidis to be infidels, according to an Al-Jazeera report.

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Yazidis have already been threatened with summary execution if they don’t convert to Islam on the spot. This was during the same spat of fighting where ISIS captured Mosul Dam, Iraq’s biggest dam. As I write, a force of some 10,000 Peshmerga troops are fighting IS in Shingal in order to push the group out, after an arms shipment arrived from an unnamed country on Sunday.

Channel 2 Poll: “Israel didn’t win, but Netanyahu didn’t lose”

Given that Netanyahu has just managed to stay in power for these last – what? – 4, 5 years, I’m amazed that he’s remained so free of criticism during the conflict.

A recent poll by Israeli Channel 2 shows that 63% of Israelis are satisfied with the way Netanyahu handled the war, while only 42% say that Israeli was victorious.

Now, if you’re taking a citizen’s poll to see whether or not you were victorious in a war, it’s probably safe to say that it was no stunning achievement.  The Six Days War this is not.

Also, an earlier update today from the IDF Southern Command Chief went out on a limb to say that “we dealt Hamas a heavy blow”.  If that’s all we did, then closer inspection is required.  A statement on Twitter from @IDFSpokesperson said:

That’s right: We have destroyed tunnels (not ‘all’ tunnels, or ‘most’ or ‘the majority’) and all of Israel is now safer. No word yet on how much safer we are, and for how long, and at what point we were less safe.

This war has been a dog’s breakfast

As far as wars are an extension of a government’s policy, this one suggests a policy of unfocused aggression.   The Israeli government slipped into it either irrationally or to undermine the previously signed Palestinian unity agreement.  The stated goals seemed to have been tacked on after decisions to launch airstrikes, were unachievable from the get-go, changed mid-way through – and still remain unachievable.   Given that this has been Netanyahu’s big moment to prove himself as a wartime leader, he’s so far surprised me by leading a conflict that lurched from goal to goal and was notable for seeming to be poorly managed.

With the beginning of the most-recent 72 hour cease-fire, it now seems that we’re finally entered the final phase of the conflict. With it’s double-ended approached of unilaterally withdrawing while seeking an agreement, Israel seems to be trying to navigate a thin middle road in the apparent realization that a withdrawal leaves them in the best place vis-à-vis Hamas, while a negotiated settlement is crucial in order to stop rockets and being able to stand on any claim that the month-long operation did indeed deliver a modicum of security and deterrence.

The messy truth is that, as it stands, the Israeli government has delivered neither of these for any more than a short period.  Hamas and other factions still retain the capability and desire to fire rockets (one of the things this conflict has demonstrated is the limits of deterrence), and no one in the military or political establishment will commit to saying they’ve destroyed 100% of the tunnels (and wisely so), leaving residents in the south with the lurking sensation that terror lies just beyond the next bush and beneath their feet.

Then there’s the mess of IDF casualties.  When Israel couldn’t stop the rockets via airstrikes it was left with raising the stakes and initiating a ground assault.  They did so knowing that Hamas would have been waiting for such a move, hoping for such a move and as a result we’ve suffered something in the area of 70 dead soldiers – likely a far greater number than analysts would have estimated prior to the operation.  And for the dead bodies, what do we have to show for it?  Mostly, unconvincing speeches by Netanyahu that they’re heroes.  It’s important that the tunnel infrastructure be destroyed, but it’s ridiculous to think that we had to send IDF soldiers into Gaza to do it.  It’s doubly unconvincing when the stated goal of destroying tunnels only materialized after the ground assault began and at the end of the war we’re left with statements from Netanyahu indicating that “there’s no such thing as a 100% success rate”.

There’s also the mess involving the formerly-kidnapped-then-declared-dead soldier.  The initial reports seemed to confirm what most people probably suspected was inevitable – Hamas had gotten their hands on a living soldier to hostage.  But after a heavy bombardment of the area where he was taken from, his status was changed to confidently dead.  I read two reports in Haaretz that raised the specter of the controversial Hannibal Directive, the military doctrine that (put simply) suggests the rules of war can be stretched in order to ensure that a soldier not be taken captive.  Paired with the bombardment yesterday on Rafah (where the event occurred), and the messy narrative… well, no one else is coming out and stating conspiracy theories and I won’t either, but there are ominous gaps in the official accounts.

Let’s see, what else?  There’s the timing of the withdrawal, with reports stating that Netanayhu would be making a statement on the evening of the kidnapping attempt that there would be a unilateral withdrawal… except that when the time of the presser arrived, it kinda of sounded like the end of something – there was lots of thanks and praise – and then vague statements that the operation would continue until the goals were reached.  Israelis, still under the impression that there was a kidnapped soldier, felt the optics of the situation presented a backing down, which turned out not to be the case, not from the reality of the kidnapping or from Netanyahu’s actual announcement…. I mean, just a confusing mess.

There’s more messiness – Kerry’s first ceasefire attempt that seemed utterly one-sided (I can only assume there was more going on behind the scenes than the public is aware of, otherwise it’s just completely without sense), the parallel ceasefire attempts that are seemingly ongoing right now – one led by Egypt and one led by the US with Qatar.  Israel has a delegation in Egypt, and basically all the main parties are snubbing the Americans (which is worth another blog post in itself), who may or may not still be working with Qatar.

In terms of reaching a mutually beneficial agreement, Israel has been making half-assed noises at promoting a demilitarized Gaza, which I assume are half-assed because it knows that standing on that particular point is a non-starter for Hamas.  Hamas and Fatah seem to have included Islamic Jihad in negotiations, which will provide some legitimacy for that group (and if Israel and the West wanted to avoid lending legitimacy to Hamas, then they can’t be happy about IJ being on the ticket).

Unless the Gazan public somehow comes out against Hamas, Hamas is in a much better position than they were a month ago – and they have Israel to thank for it.  Perhaps having clued in to the fact that Israel wanted to undermine Palestinian unity, Hamas and Fatah are continuing to work together – which again strengthens Hamas’ negotiating position, as well as unity between Palestinian factions.

The overall sensation is a clear lack of clear tangible victory on either side.  It’s just an exhausting sensation that it was a month of stress, fear and death (and for the Gazans, utter, abject terror and misery) that will deliver nothing in the long run.  With the Americans excluded from the process, the only thing pushing for an agreement that will fundamentally re-shape the realpolitik is that failing to show such a change will appear to average Israelis as a failure by Netanyahu.  Barring such a big change (and that can really only refer to a demilitarization of Hamas and the Strip), look for a dissolution of Netayahu’s coalition and new elections.

Actually, given that necessity, there might need to be some compromise that does loosen the militarization of the Strip – Fatah forces returned there, maybe… I don’t know, it’s wild speculation.  Guess we’ll find out in the coming days.

But even if Fatah does return to the Stripe and Hamas sees it’s military hold weakened, the group will still have come out of the conflict somewhat  rehabilitated, having previously been on life support. It’s a sure bet that the border crossings, at least with Egypt, will be opened.  Hamas salaries will be paid.  Fishing groups will be increased.  Rehabilitation money will come in.

Israelis will be left with the knowledge that Hamas rockets can reach nearly the entire country and that tunnels are still likely to exist from the Strip – and from Lebanon in the North.

Israel will hold a commission at some point to exam the mistakes of the war.  At that point in time, blame for this failed campaign must be assigned – and from my perch the lion’s share must go to Netanyahu.

Tunnels as Exit Strategy: Aspects unconsidered

In my previous analysis, I suggested that the government would unilaterally withdrawal, using the destruction of the tunnels as rubric for measuring a success.  In so far that destruction of the tunnel infrastructure remains the government’s stated goal, that analysis remains at least the de facto measurement for while we’re (still) currently at war. 

Du jure, I failed to include a couple considerations, not least of which is the difficulty of actually being sure that all the tunnels have been discovered and destroyed.  While intelligence gathered from Hamas combatants seems to be helping in the hunt, it’s impossible that the IDF will ever conclusively commit to having destroyed all the tunnels.

Given the success that Hamas has had in using the tunnels, even while the IDF has declared an increased buffer zone inside the Strip, the government will be unable to claim destruction of tunnel infrastructure as a framework for a withdrawal.  It would be a significant undermining of Israeli military might if Israel made such an announcement only to have Hamas commit a successful tunnel attack.  This makes a negotiated ceasefire more likely, but only after the government figures they’ve discovered as much as they can via the operation.  At some point in time the amount of dead soldiers will offer diminishing returns when measured against the number of new tunnels being found. 

The assault on civilian infrastructure in recent days also lends credence to the idea that IDF objectives have shifted again, including strikes on the Gaza power plant and UN schools (which may or may not have been IDF fire… but at this point I think it’s safe to assume that at least some of them are deliberate).  This may reflect the assumption that the government has reached (if they hadn’t done so long prior to the conflict) that they cannot provide security along the Gaza periphery through military means alone and are shifting back to deterrence, in the knowledge that the conflict is being watched by Hezbollah to the North.

Given that this current conflict seems to have been a measured escalation put into place by expansionist politicians, it’s not unreasonable to consider that there are some in the Cabinet that are pushing for a long term occupation of Gaza.  Avigdor Lieberman has said as much out loud.  However, I can’t imagine Netanyahu, who’s figuring on staying in power for the foreseeable future, would want to add such a massive unforeseen variable to his governing.  Netanyahu has also given lip service to “in any ceasefire…”, suggesting that he’s preparing for this eventuality.

So, to review:

1)      Israel is unable to stop rocket fire, or declare success in having discovered all the tunnels

2)      The ease at which Hamas can continue to be a thorn in Israel’s side after a unilateral withdrawal, and the diminishing returns in finding new tunnels makes a negotiated ceasefire increasingly likely.

3)      Given the previous considerations, the government will be focusing, in this final stage of the war, towards making sure that the final impression will create a strong deterrence, specifically in reminding Hezbollah of the painful 2006 war.

Hamas will likely gain at least some open borders in the negotiated ceasefire, which would probably be an optimal outcome for the group.  In giving a lifeline to Hamas via a negotiated outcome, Israel will probably succeeded in weakening unity between it and the PA and gaining the quiet along its borders that it wouldn’t get via a unilateral withdrawal.