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.

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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.

The Middle East: Fighting for more dirt since 11,000 BC

Taking a break from what’s going on in the South of the country, I was on the hunt for interesting articles unrelated to war… and came across this article, from Haaretz, relating to archaeology. And also war.

The article describes an archaeological site along the Nile River in Sudan, originally discovered in 1964, that is thought to contain the oldest historical remains of human conflict and illustrates – unsurprisingly – a race war.  The article goes into some detail about how there are two different types of people at the site, with different physical characteristics and indications of having died immediately from arrow wounds.  There was also indication of damage to bone from flint weapons.

I don’t know if the thought of our early ancestors killing each other 13,000 years ago is comforting or distressing.

Also found this related article, in case you hit the paywall at haaretz.

Gaza Tunnels and Israel’s Exit Route

I had originally suggested that Israel’s ground assault was brought on by the lack of options after over a week of rocket fire and aerial assaults: Israel couldn’t bring about an end to the rocket fire coming from Gaza, nor could Hamas hope to do anything other than keep firing rockets and hope that it could drag Israel into committing troops on the ground and inflicting more casualties.

By continuing to fire rockets, Hamas provided Israel with the context it needed to enter Gaza and step the conflict up a notch.  But given Hamas’ role as the greatest ‘resistance’ group acting against the Israelis, calling off their rocket fire and just playing victim has hardly ever an option.

In reality, Hamas had two shitty options: stop firing and maybe gain international support, or continue firing and maybe gain international support – and maybe draw Israel into a conflict long and bloody enough to wrestle concessions in the advent of a ceasefire.

But by the time the ground assault began, Hamas was desperate for a victory and had opted to make several attempts into Israel via their tunnel network.  So while Iron Dome was the star of the early part of the conflict, providing a protective blanket to amaze and reassure Israelis, the focus of the second part of the conflict was (and remains) the tunnels, their extent and how Israel must neutralize their threat.

Prior to the infiltration attempts in the second and third week of the month (I’ll take the time to nail down the dates if someone ever pays me for my analysis), there was hardly any mention of tunnels at all.  Netanyahu stated in the early part of the month that the reason for the escalation was in fact to stop rocket fire coming in to Israel – a Quixotic goal if it was to be taken seriously (I don’t).

But with the increased attempts – initially thwarted but eventually successful – to use the tunnels to inflict IDF casualties, the focus of the conflict shifted towards the significant threat they pose. Suddenly, and rightfully so, the tunnels were the focus of the media and the IDF’s PR push. But unlike the innumerable rockets, the tunnels could be counted by the dozens, and more easily tracked down and neutralized. All of a sudden, the IDF had an achievable goal and a potential route towards an exit strategy – the only route that would leave Hamas with less than what it started.  Let me explain:

Being utterly unable to stop rocket fire without heavy Israeli casualties and a complete re-occupation of Gaza, the IDF instead focused on the achievable goal of making selective incursions into Gaza to locate and destroy the tunnel network.  Once this objective is declared achieved – supposedly within the week at current IDF estimates – Israel can withdraw from the Strip while claiming the clean victory of having neutralized the security threat to the Gaza periphery (and the country), setback Hamas, and restored deterrence.

Given this framework, its easy to see why Israel has no reason to accept a ceasefire or negotiate for an end to the conflict.  Hamas entered this war with very little and could only gain from a negotiated truce that would see at least some of its demands met (principally an end to the closed borders and fishing limits).  For Israel’s part, in the advent of a ceasefire they would need to demand a demilitarization and the dearming of the strip – something that Hamas would never agree to.

With the tunnels more-or-less destroyed, Israel has a secure exit route: they can unilaterally withdraw and claim their victory, while offering Hamas no concessions and little as possible to show for what will have been a month of conflict, aside from death and destruction.  Israel will have set the stage for returning to ‘quiet for quiet’ and Hamas will be left without an end to the siege, without the tunnel network into Israel, and depleted arms stocks to boot.  It’s only option would be to miserably maintain rocket fire, or crawl back to Abu Mazen and the PA with cap in hand, seeking to carry on the unity agreement as a means to end Gazan suffering – which Hamas certainly cares for, if only because they depend on Gazan sympathy to remain relevant.

So you see the irony – the tunnels provide an exit plan from Gaza for Israel.

tl;dr: Odds are for a unilateral disengagement from Israel at this point.