Saturday, August 13, 2016

Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart

Told in a series of personal interviews jumping back and forth between six different people, Scott Anderson's magazine-length article, "Fractured Lands," is the stuff of nightmares, but it's important we don't look away. This is the story of the last several decades in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Egypt.

Here's what I took away from it: not the specifics of the individuals he spoke with, but the general feeling of the history of these events from the perspective of individuals who lived it. I'm interested to see what brighter minds (like Hedges or Chomsky) make of it all. I don't have the background to easily discern any bias in the reporting. Most of the names I learned as a kid from SNL "Weekend Update" skits!

Colonization made a mess of a lot of countries.  

At the end of WWI, Britain and France, and later Italy, determined new borders within the old Ottoman Empire. The new borders created some of the problems we're seeing now. Iraq is made of three provinces forced together (Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds - see this for further details), as is Libya. Greater Syria was carved up into Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan (Israel and Jordan). Like the situation in Rwanda, colonists dominated areas from afar by empowering the local minority groups to be administrators because they'd be less likely to rebel against the colonists for fear of a majority uprising. Then colonists pitted groups against one another to distract them from the control maintained in Europe.

This is similar to what we did with Indigenous tribes here except in the US, Canada, and Australia, the European settlers stayed to see through the destruction of the tribal groups (until we developed a modicum of sympathy for their plight and guilt for our actions). In the Middle East, European colonists stared the fights and then left.

Anderson cautions us to remember three historical factors crucial to understanding the crises: the instability of artificial states, the precarious position US-allied Arab governments are put in when forced to pursue policies opposed by their people, and the US involvement in the partitioning of Iraq in 1991.

PART 1 - 1972-2003

In Egypt, beginning in the 1940s, Gamal Abdel Nasser helped Egypt be the birthplace of revolutionary movements. In 1945, he found oil fields; in 1952 he overthrew the Western-pliant king; in 1956 he bested Britain, France, and Israel in the Suez crisis and was seen as a hero. He advocated for Pan-Arab unity to end the domination by Westerners. By 1968, military officers were pro-Pan-Arab, and the ideology took over Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Western monarchs were tossed. Egypt has a strong national identity, but it's split into various political factions. Nasser was able to bridge them all through antipathy for the West.

In 1972, President Anwar Sadat wanted to recover the Sinai Peninsula seized by Israel in 1967. Nasser and Sadat could bring everyone together against an external foe, America. But then in 1978, Sadat signed the Camp David accords, the US peace treaty with Israel, and it was seen as a huge betrayal to his people. He was murdered in 1981. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, increased security and "inherited the taint of capitulation" from Sadat. People were now being tortured for any negative comments about the government.

In Libya, in 1969, Muammar al-Qaddafi overthrew the king. He emulated Nasser at first, then became more similar to Hussein in Iraq and al-Assad in Syria. In all three countries, they develop personality cults, putting their faces on posters everywhere. They all were aligned with anti-imperialists and deepened ties with the Soviet Union, built ambitious public works project, hospitals and schools, through money from oil or from the Soviet Union, and they created huge state payrolls hiring numerous extended family members. They made alliances with various tribes and forged ties across divides.

Libya is mainly Sunni, but sub-divided into Misuratans and Benghazians. Iraq, under Hussein, was run by a Sunni minority but ensured significant token Shiite and Kurds in government. Syria, under al-Assad was a Sunni majority, but ruled by an Alawite minority aligned with Christians.

In the Kurdish region of Iraq, in 1975, fighters known as the pesh merga fought the Iraqi Army. Kurds got weapons through the CIA and Iranian advisers, but they were cut off when Iran and Iraq signed a peace treaty. In 1985, a US ally in Iran was overthrown and replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The US partnered with Hussein to wage war against Khomeini, and gave Hussein weapons. Hussein was integral to the US at the time, so they looked away when they poison-gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988, going so far as to suggest that Iran did it.

In 1991, Iraq under Hussein invaded Kuwait, which upset the US. Bush implemented Operation Desert Storm, and encouraged Iraqi citizen to revolt with the American forces. The Shiites and Kurds did, but then the US stood down. The Iraqi Army counterattacked. The US established a buffer zone in Kurdistan to protect Kurds form Hussein, but they let the Shiites suffer. This move helped the Kurds develop a regional government (KRG) as a union of all Kurdish provinces in Iraq. It was the first dismantling of colonial borders, and many Kurds who had fled began to return to the area.

Syria is a religiously diverse country with 70% Sunni Arabs, 12% Alawites, 12% Sunni Kurds, and some Christians and smaller groups, but most were secular or loosely religious. President Hafez al-Assad was part of a religious minority, the Alawite, so he encourage secularism. This policy was carried on by his son, Bashar al-Assad, an ophthalmologist who ended up in power by default. He wanted to recover Golan Heights, an area taken by Israel in 1967. He loosened his hold on Lebanon to be seen favourably by the West.

Meanwhile in the US, in 2002, Bush laid the groundwork for an invasion by accusing Hussein of pursuing WMDs. He linked Hussein to September 11th in the mind of Americans. Qaddafi was clear that an Iraq invasion by the US would benefit Bin Laden:
"Iraq could end up becoming the staging ground for Al Qaeda, because if the Saddam government collapses, it will be anarchy in Iraq. If that happens, actions against Americans will be considered jihad." 
In 2003, when the US Army pulled down a statue of Hussein it started the process of disintegration in the Middle East as they saw that a figure of that magnitude could be easily cast aside. It served to reawaken tribal ties.

PART 2 - 2003-2011

In Iraq, people's lives were interrupted by the invasion. Women were not allowed out of their homes. At first, to some, the US was seen as liberators in the area. But in other areas people were taken off the streets and tortured at Abu Ghraib. The invasion caused economic turmoil. Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi military, and dismissed any Baath Party members from government positions. Many in the party were from the same families and compelled to join the party by Hussein years before. Over 85,000 people were fired causing instant impoverishment. Hussein was found and later executed.

In 2004, a new constitution was signed. It guaranteed 25% of seats in parliament to women because of the work of Fern Holland, who was then murdered by the transitional Iraqi government (CPA). A radical Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, demanded the withdrawal of coalition forces and unleashed a militia, the Mahdi Army, to fight CPA installations. Sunni and Shia groups attacked the CPA coalition forces, but the CPA went ahead and ceded control to a new government. Christians left the area.

In Egypt, people opposed the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship. His strategy allowed political dissent among small educated groups, but crushed influences from Islamists. This changed after the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000. Most people thought Egypt sold out the Palestinians in 1979, and Mubarak couldn't stop all the pro-Palestinian demonstrations. People could suddenly organize openly. There were huge anti-American invasion demonstrations in Cairo.

In Libya, in 2005, Qaddafi started taking down posters of himself to appear to appease the West. He thought he might be next, so he made amends with the US. offered a settlement for a 1988 bombing of a Pan Am Flight 103, and shared dossiers with the US on suspected Al Qaeda operatives. In 2006, the US restored diplomatic relations with Libya, and Qaddafi abandoned his reform drive.

In Syria, Assad wasn't afraid of the US, and his spying apparatus made citizens fearful. Nobody dared to speak about the government.

PART 3 - The Arab Spring - 2011-2014

The US invasion of Iraq laid the groundwork for the Arab Spring revolts. It all officially started in Tunisia when Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, protested constant government harassment through self-immolation on January 4, 2011. People called for the resignation of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali who had been president for 23 years. Once it was possible in one country, it seemed plausible elsewhere. By the end of January, there were protests in Algeria, Egypt, Oman, and Jordan. By November, four dictatorships had been toppled, and six others promised reforms.

In Iraq protests lasted for days, until soldiers dispersed them with tear gas, but they stayed and kept fighting. Soldier traded tear gas for ammunition. On February 1, 2003, Mubarak said he'd never leave, and, as protest increased, he resigned on February 11. The military served as an interim government, which worried citizens.

In Libya, cadets were called to arms in February due to protests. Qaddafi blamed the unrest on foreigners, and he vowed to purify Libya person by person. In March, people were told that criminal groups of foreigners were fighting Qaddafi, to persuade more militance in the citizenry. In October, there was a fierce firefight, and Qaddafi's men surrendered. The Transitional National Council paid a stipend to anyone who fought against Qaddafi, and the number of revolutionaries grew tenfold. The cash created an incentive for armed groups to remain independent of central command. By December 2012, Libyan militias had carved the country into rival fiefs unwittingly bankrolled by the transitional government.

In Syria, in March, people were protesting over the torture of a group of high-school students. Secret police were everywhere. Assad accused protesters of helping Israel, and people became fearful to protest. Then in April, 40 demonstrators took to the streets, and the police shot 25 of them at point-blank range. Then thousands came out to demonstrate, and police took to the roofs to shoot them. Funerals became rallying point. By May, the Syrian Army had shut down the cities. Everyone liked the soldiers as they stopped the killings by police, but the regime withdrew, and there was more bloodshed. By November of 2011, people were being taken and murdered for no clear reason. By the fall of 2012, a popular militia arose, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). They were taken over by an Islamic group. People who joined liked to carry guns and scare people, but were easily frightened off by other groups. In May 2013, the Free Syrian Army moved into neighbourhoods, and people began to flee the country. Poverty was rampant and some were surviving on leaves and weeds. New militias were competing with existing ones, and ISIS stood out for its daring and cruelty.
"Amid the chaos, the remnants of Osama bin Laden's old outfit, Al Qaeda, gained a new lease on life, resurrected the war in Iraq and then spawned an even more severe and murderous offshoot: the Islamic State." 
In Egypt, in May 2012, it was announced that only two of the 13 possible candidates for election were actually eligible, but they were the two worst choices: Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (who had a hand in killing Fern Holland), or Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak's Prime Minister. Morsi won by a hair. The military junta that ruled Egypt since the overthrow transferred all the powers to the military and dissolved the sitting parliament. Morsi ordered parliament reinstated and dismissed the senior military. He promoting his own Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to run the military. The state blocked Morsi's actions and fed the public fears about him, which was easy because the Muslim Brotherhood did have some ties to terrorist. In July 2013, al-Sisi, now the Defence Minister, told Morsi to meet people's demands or the army will step in. Morsi ignored him, and Sisi overthrew him. Sisi was much more brutal with dissenters, particularly working-class Muslim Brotherhood followers who were ruthlessly hunted down.

PART 4 - 2014-2015

Iraq citizens saw ISIS recruitment videos on social media. They were presented as warriors and knights in smart uniforms. In June 2014, ISIS entered Iraq, and a small group of 1,500 fighters scared away thousands of Iraqi Army forces. The army fled leaving the locals defenceless. Under the Prime Minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, Iraq's Shiite majority dominated the government. The Sunnis developed contempt for the government and army, and the army distrusted the Sunnis, so they left when a few vowed vengeance. ISIS had money from control of the oil fields in Syria, and it offered cash for new recruits. When they came across Cadets in Iraq, they separated them in to Sunni and Shia, then murdered hundreds of young Shiite men.

In some villages, people were saved by painting "Arab family" on the outside of their homes. In Kurdish areas, some Kurds would destroy these homes for fear that Arabs would come back to live in them in years to come.

The KRG wanted to create a true Kurdish nation, which meant not just defeating ISIS, but getting rid of all Arabs in the area. Some Kurds trusted Daesh more than Arabs because they were more honest about their intentions. Some Kurds naively felt safe from ISIS because they shared a common enemy, but ISIS wanted to attack all groups outside of Sunni Muslims. By August they were killing thousands of Kurds and rounding up girls for sex slaves. Kurds took up arms to fight them back and were successful. The KRG was good at fighting them back, but only in Kurdish areas. They didn't risk their men in Arab villages.

But, the KRG had some infighting between the tribal groups within, the Barzani and the Talabani. They blamed fighting issues on the Iraqi Army, but a big factor was the two rival groups within. ISIS took advantage of that. They used sexual slavery as a weapon of war. When women returned, they didn't speak of what happened, but the fortunate were able to claim ill and get reconstruction surgery on the sly to come back to town as virgins. It's the only way they could be accepted or ever married. They can never speak about what was done to them.

PART 5 - 2015-2016

Almost a million Syrians and Iraqis flooded into Europe to escape. After the terrorists attacks in European cities, anti-immigration sentiments were the norm with mass demonstrations against them. Some hope to return to Syria, but expect at least ten years before there will be peace as "blood brings blood." Once ISIS is defeated, there will be further revenge against Sunnis.

Some walked for weeks to leave. Others paid for travel on a raft meant for 8, but overfilled with 30. Some turned to the government for help, but found help wanting and dangerous.


Anderson suggests a "trifurcated nation" in Iraq might be the answer, which might work for Libya as well, except everywhere there are schisms inside of schisms. Things look worse today. Sisi's repression of Egypt has deepened, the war in Syria has taken more lives, and Libya is becoming insolvent. The only bright spot is the international coalition working towards destroying ISIS, but "ISIS isn't just an organization, it's an idea." The conditions that created ISIS continue: disaffected and futureless young men who only find purpose and prosperity through holding a gun. Solutions are complicated:
"This journey has served to remind me again of how terribly delicate is the fabric of civilization, of the vigilance required to protect it and of the slow and painstaking work of mending it once it has been torn. This is hardly an original thought; it is a lesson we were supposed to have learned after Nazi Germany, after Bosnia and Rwanda. Perhaps it is a lesson we need to constantly relearn.
So it goes.

1 comment:

The Mound of Sound said...

It's a lesson learned easily enough. What's always lacking is the commitment to see it through. An example. Canada chose to take on the combat role in Kandahar province. Counter-insurgency doctrine prescribes a combat (not support) force of between 15-20,000 troops for a territory and populace of that size. We went in with a total (combat and support) force of just 2,500 out of which we might muster 1,000 combat troops max. That left us spread too thin to maintain a presence throughout the province and forced us to resort to the garrison model that failed so disastrously in Algeria and Vietnam (French and American). At night the towns and villages were left defenceless allowing the Taliban to dominate. We might show up in a village now and then but the elders knew who they would have to answer to when we inevitably left.

I obtained a copy of the US Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual, FM3-24. In it are distilled the lessons of asymmetrical warfare going back to Julius Caesar on to T.E. Lawrence and General Giap. Petraeus led the team of civilian and military experts who wrote it. It's all there. Then we went to Afghanistan and threw the book away. And so we wasted a decade babysitting an unresolved civil war that is heating up again today.

The allies defeated Germany, Japan, Italy and their puppet states in total war in the span of six years. Yet, despite having all the firepower in the world, we couldn't best a greatly inferior number of illiterate Afghan farmboys armed with Korean War vintage small arms. When we left the field they remained which is the very definition of defeat.

It's not that we need to constantly relearn some lesson. It's that we have to be honest enough with ourselves before we decide to go in to realize whether we have the means and the will to prevail. So far we have tested and proven the very finite limits of our commitment. That's the lesson we need to relearn so that, when that essential commitment is in doubt, we don't go in in the first place. Don't get into wars you're not prepared to win. You're not going to help anybody by losing.