Category Archives: Middle East

The Root of All ISIL?

There is a lot of soul-searching nowadays regarding the origins of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  Historians and political scientists of all sorts have logged a lot of air time and print space answering the questions:  “How could ISIL have happened and where did these savages come from?”  Their answer is almost always a history lesson of the Iraq war with the occasional biopic on the Assad family thrown in for balance. Very rarely do they explore ISIL’s roots beyond that so there is something missing in the coverage.  While the post-2011 situation in Iraq undoubtedly led to the conception and birth of ISIL, let us remember that the group grew up in Syria.  For those of us paying attention then, our thoughts on the genesis of ISIL must inevitably turn to the Arab Spring and its mishandling by the Obama Administration and others.

Are the White House's failures at the roots of ISIL? Tahrir Square protesters communicate the scope of the problem.
Are the White House’s failures at the roots of ISIL?  Tahrir Square protesters communicate the scope of the movement in 2011.

Leading from Behind

We all know the mixed history of the Arab Spring.  On one hand it promised to liberate political thought in the Middle East from its despotic modern history but on the other led to the jarring realization that Islamism may indeed come to US allies like Egypt through the ballot box.  The Obama Administration should have learned a lesson from the electoral victory of Hamas but instead meekly transmitted mixed messages of support for America’s distasteful but stable ally Mubarak.  On 11 February 2011, Egypt announced Mubarak’s resignation while other regional allies watched in horror as America abandoned the second-largest recipient of US military aid.  Four days later, as if on cue, violence erupted at Arab Spring protests in Benghazi, Libya, igniting the civil war that ultimately led to the ignominious downfall of Muammar Ghaddafi and the slow descent of the country into perpetual balkanized dysfunction.  Less than three weeks after the first shots were fired in Benghazi, Britain and France were rushing headlong into the fray, enforcing a no fly zone and bombing Ghaddafi’s forces on the ground.  To support this they waved the flag of humanitarian intervention but found themselves critically limited in two ways: by their own inability to sustain a protracted air campaign in Africa, and by the insistence of the Obama Administration to “lead from behind” and achieve victory through airpower.

UntitledIn what must be one of history’s most stunning examples of the costs of alliance politics, the United States very quickly found itself compelled to rescue its allies from spectacular failure in a campaign it was verbally supporting.  Constrained by the President’s refusal to lead from the front, the United States Military took the reins under the guise of a NATO intervention while the French and British happily withdrew to the familiar position of supporting a US-led military endeavor America never wanted and did not benefit from.  In Libya, the rest is history.  Freed from control of the Ghaddafi regime and armed by a flood of loose weaponry, groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) unleashed direct assaults on governments across northern Africa.  As I argue in “The Illusion of Suddenness“, The infectious cocktail of successful rebellion in Egypt and weaponry from Libya transformed another Arab Spring protest, this time in Syria, into a raging insurgency.  The stage was set for ISIL to come of age.

The Birth of ISIL

As the war in Syria intensified, the United States continued to display hesitation in its foreign policy.  With the Assad regime clinging desperately to survival, western governments began to grow concerned about the potential for its use of chemical weapons. At a 20 August 2012 press conference, the President of the United States, who seemed to have recovered from his earlier lack of conviction in regional affairs, delivered a clear and powerful deterrent threat to Damascus by drawing a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in the conflict.   But as a string of mysterious chemical weapons began exploding in rebel-held neighborhoods in October of that year, the “red line” began to bend and eventually broke in August 2013 after the undeniable use of Sarin in the town of Ghouta.  Rather than use authority under the War Powers Resolution to defend the “red line”, the President sought and received a specific resolution from Congress on 6 September which, among other things, required him to use “all appropriate diplomatic and other peaceful means to prevent the deployment and use of weapons of mass destruction by Syria”.  In this he complied with further delay, announcing that air strikes could be averted if Syria were to give up its chemical stockpiles.  Sensing an opportunity, Russia sent its Foreign Minister to negotiate the handover, managing by his success to destroy what little deterrent credibility the United States had left in the region.

The Situation in Iraq on 8 August 2014
The Situation in Iraq on 8 August 2014

The ISIL assault on Iraq began predictably three months later with the fall of al Qaim in December.  By the end of February 2014, Fallujah and Ramadi, taken at such cost by American soldiers ten years earlier, were firmly in Islamist hands.  In June, ISIL attacked the Tigris river valley, taking Mosul on the 10th and Tikrit the next day.  By the end of the month, large formations of the Iraqi Army had been completely destroyed, Tal Afar was in ISIL hands, and both Syria and Iran were actively intervening in Iraq.  Even then, America held off taking action until ISIL’s slaughter of Yezidis in Sinjar and simultaneous advance on the Kurdish capital Irbil.  By this time, ISIL controlled all the major cities in the north and west of Iraq, the Kurds were on the verge of being shattered into four exiled refugee communities, Baghdad was surrounded on two sides, and Iran was intervening openly in the situation.  The specter of state on state sectarian war was becoming very real indeed as the buffer between traditional enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia was collapsing precisely as Washington’s resolve was in serious doubt.

A Silver Lining?

The chronology of this is as disheartening as it is hard to deny.  A series of American half measures, broken promises, and false threats is the real root of all ISIL in the Middle East.  Faced with nothing but bad options, the White House now finds itself fighting shoulder to shoulder in Iraq with its old enemy, the Quds Force. Meanwhile, Riyadh has felt compelled to build an independent coalition (read: without the USA) to wage open war against Iranian proxies on their Yemeni frontier leading to the possibility that once again, the United States will get dragged into a conflict it doesn’t want in order to rescue an ally from failure.  Egypt, Qatar, and the UAE have all conducted offensive military strikes against ISIL and Arab Spring-related forces in the last five years, and large rifts are developing between the United States and critical allies Turkey and Israel.  If there is a silver lining to the quickening foreign policy disaster in the Middle East, it is that the crisis has given Tehran and Washington an opening to start talking about the Iranian nuclear program.  One gets the sense however, that the rapprochement comes amid declining American leverage rather than the reverse.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. 

The Illusion of Suddenness

Watching media coverage of the situation in Libya this week, one gets the sense that suddenly, the revolution that ousted Gaddafi in 2011 is failing to live up to its potential.  Since yesterday, when the Egyptian Air Force opened a new front against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) with a bombing raid in the Libyan town of Derna, European pundits have been competing to send the gravest messages of concern about the deteriorating situation there.  Pronouncements from Sir John Sawers, former head of MI6; the Italian Minister of Defense, Roberta Pinotti; the French President, François Hollande; and a host of others emphasize the need for Europe to consider strong measures to contain the troubles in Libya. While it seems clear the 2011 notion that European air power could serve as a catalyst for future stability in the tribally-stratified north African state has truly gone out of style in 2015; the media hype surrounding the flatly delivered warnings has the feel of a focus group session where carefully nuanced versions of “boots on the ground” are measured for their effectiveness on the audience.  

For those of us paying attention however, the illusion of suddenness is little more than a tired refrain that should have lost its luster after the fall of Saddam demonstrated the need for “post intervention planning”.  Wolfgang Pusztai, a notable expert on the Libyan situation, has been discussing “Plan B” for some time, warning us in September of the “Lebanonization” of the country and suggesting that an intervention force may be the only solution.  Displaying remarkable prescience, he mentioned the possibility that such an intervention may actually come from Egypt…Until now however, Mr. Pusztai has been a rare voice in the wind which is striking given that Europe claimed to know better.  In fact, the mixed performance of massive nation building efforts by the United States in Iraq, criticized so bitterly in Paris, Brussels, and Rome in 2003, led indirectly to the situation in Libya; bringing us to the threads that tie all this together.

Algerian soldiers stand near the Tiguentourine Gas Plant in In Amenas
Algerian soldiers stand near the Tiguentourine Gas Plant in In Amenas

The 2011 fall of the Gaddafi regime unleashed a wave of weaponry and unfettered rebellious enthusiasm across the region.  Armed with Libyan weapons and a sense that something had changed, groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) took it as a sign that the time was right to execute war plans from Timbuktu in Mali, to in-Amenas in Algeria, to Homs in Syria where the war was still just another Arab Spring protest.  It took the French and Chadian Armies 30 days to roll back the situation in Mali, and the Algerians only three to flatten in-Amenas, but years later, the fires continue to grow in Syria where the Assad regime is proving much more resilient than Gaddafi or Mubarak.  Continuous combat in Syria has hardened both sides to a pinnacle of ruthless efficiency and the cancer is spreading.  Constrained by geography and sensing an opportunity across the border in Iraq, ISIL destroyed the better part of three Iraqi Army divisions, nearly exterminated the Yezidi, seized the upper parts of both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and threatened to shatter Iraqi Kurdistan into four exiled communities.  The sum total of the massive American nation-building project there was thus reduced to ashes, setting the stage for ISIL to expand to Libya.  

Oddly, a semantic but resonant point is beginning to move the minds of European (and Egyptian) leaders in the direction of intervention in Libya; specifically that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is now a threat in areas that are neither in Iraq or in the Levant.  Coupled with ISIL-connected terrorism in Paris, Brussels, and Copenhagen, it is increasingly clear that Europe has a problem.  Though we can expect intensifying public debate about Libya’s future, don’t expect that debate to feature the obvious point that the path to the present came from a poorly considered European intervention in Libya’s recent past.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. 

The Achilles Heel of Airpower

As Jordanians come to terms with the loss of one of their favorites sons, Moaz al-Kassasbeh, policy makers in Washington are surely losing sleep over the realization that they have narrowly dodged a bullet (literally and figuratively).  The illustrious al-Kassasbeh, member of the elite flying corps of the Jordanian Air Force and nephew of a Jordanian general, was shot down on 24 December 2014 near Raqqa, Syria while flying a mission against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  Captured uninjured by ISIL fighters, al-Kassasbeh’s case illustrates one of the fundamental weaknesses of using airpower to fight a ground war, specifically that a downed aircraft and a captured pilot carries political implications, particularly when operating as part of a coalition of the willing.

While the horrific scenes of al-Kassasbeh’s capture and subsequent execution affect each stakeholder in different ways, the result is ultimately the same; support for the coalition is eroding at the grass roots level.  The United Arab Emirates has already halted bombing missions over Syrian territory and others are undoubtedly considering similar restrictions on their pilots.  Despite Jordan’s lethal proximity to the problem, some Jordanians argue that a deterrent posture and a raft of political and economic agreements has worked with the likes of ISIL before and will be cheaper and more effective than airpower ever was.  There is some merit in this view as expensive fighter planes and their elite pilots are an extravagant novelty often held up in small countries as a symbol of national status.  In Jordan, al-Kassasbeh’s demise is more than just a material loss, it is a national disaster they can little afford.   

And Jordan is not the only stakeholder here.  From the start, ISIL attempted to connect al-Kassasbeh to Japanese military aid to countries fighting the group.  They held a Japanese adventurer, Haruna Yukawa and his would-be rescuer, Kenji Goto for a ransom of $200 million, a symbolic sum equal to the amount recently pledged by Shinzo Abe.  Not surprisingly, this had little effect on the Japanese and ISIL changed tactics, demanding the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi female suicide bomber in a Jordanian prison since she failed to blow herself up in the Radisson Hotel Amman in 2005.  ISIL’s move was an attempt not only to win support in Iraq, but also to connect their cause directly to the memory of resistance to American occupation which al-Rishawi claimed to represent.  While ISIL’s demands fell on deaf ears in both Amman and Tokyo, the debate sparked a growing political problem for the Jordanians.   

The same pressures will influence American politicians.  Since the US policy seems to have stagnated at “something must be done”, it stands to reason that Washington will keep all options on the table, including declaring victory and leaving the situation to someone else.  The political pressure to do just that will mount during the run up to the 2016 Presidential election because many Americans view the situation in Iraq as a result of a squandering of thousands of American lives and billions of dollars spent to stabilize Iraq after the 2003 invasion.  No matter how Americans felt about the righteousness of that intervention, very few feel responsible for cleaning up the current mess, particularly since the genesis of it was in Syria and not Iraq.  

So the Pentagon has to adjust to a raft of new restrictions on its air power; restrictions that are military but derive from the nervousness of politicians.  Though the Jordanian Air Force will take up some of the slack, it is almost certainly a temporary measure until Amman can declare “revenge complete” and return to base.  After that, it’s almost certain that more American F-16s will be heading to the Middle East until election rhetoric tempts the President to declare their mission complete; a brilliant success against the degraded, but still dangerous ISIL.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.