August 2014

Iraqi Strife Years in the Making

Dave Matsuda, Ph D

I served as senior cultural advisor in charge of United States Central Command’s Digital Engagement Team (DET) — a section of the Public Affairs Office responsible for social media communication with the Middle East — during the first of the Arab Spring’s 2010 milyuniyya (mass protests).  As popular uprisings spread across the region, DET desk officers cheered, cried, and shared the moment via the Internet with their fellow countrymen and women.

The Syrian desk officers were, in sharp contrast, deeply disturbed when the Arab Spring reached their country.  Exiles who were out of touch with the “Syrian Street” led anti-Assad regime political movements, in much the same way DET Iraqi desk officers insisted that former exile-to-Iran Nouri al Maliki was out of touch with Iraqi ethno-sectarian aspirations.  Intolerant Salafists, who claim to be the sole practitioners of “the Prophet’s Foundational Islam,” and Takfiris, who kill Muslims that don’t subscribe to their narrow interpretation of Islam, protested en mass across Syria.  

From the perspective of Jihadi foreign fighters and angry al Qae’da-inspired Sunni Iraqis exiled to Syria, the U.S. entered Iraq as kafir (infidel) occupiers who ousted the, however flawed, Sunni Ba’ath party from government and security forces.  To add insult to injury, the U.S went to great lengths to ensure that irtada (apostate) Iranian-backed Shi’a politicians held the dictatorial decision-making majority in both transitional and elected Iraqi governments.  

While there are plenty of constitutional checks and balances on paper in Iraq, Americans consistently bypassed the Tri-Presidency Council — comprised of one Sunni, one Shi’a and one Kurd — and the Council of Representatives, or COR — the legislative branch — and dealt directly with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.  He was America’s go-to-guy, who soon became dictatorial.   The COR could challenge Maliki’s decisions, but only if he called them into session to do so.  

As cultural advisor I was part of the commanding general’s primary staff who, on occasion, met with Maliki in his office to discuss operations.  After we left, cell phone eavesdroppers detected Maliki’s calls to Qasem Soleimani, a senior “Quds Force” — a section of the Iranian Army charged with spreading the 1979 Revolution — officer and the acknowledged “King-maker of Baghdad” to tell him what we’d discussed, take suggestions and, all too frequently, receive orders.   

Before the U.S. pulled out of Iraq troops were confined to base by the Iraqi government.  But my position allowed me to travel off base throughout the country.   During my frequent missions I interviewed Sunnis from all walks of life who said that Maliki, during his long exile in Iran, had become a Persian Shi’ite, or Iranian, and that, after a failed assassination attempt against him, was paranoid, and believed that all Sunni were Ba’athist and al Qae’dabaltagiyya” (thugs).  Also, they said, Maliki had weakened the military’s morale to prevent coup de tat. Sunni informants told me that the Maliki government didn’t keep its promise to the Sahwa — Awakened Sunni, who turned against al Qae’da Core to fight alongside Shi’a, Kurds and the U.S. — and had disenfranchised them.  And Sunni were being disappeared, a prelude they believed — correctly — to mass round-ups and executions.  

News pundits and commentators mistakenly claim that current ethno-sectarian troubles in Iraq were caused by the U.S. drawdown and pull out. In fact, the hostilities now occurring between Sunni and Shi’a, and for that matter Kurds, began months before, when U.S. military was confined to base by the Iranian-backed Iraqi government.

After America occupied Iraq calls went out to military-aged Sunni across the world to wage “little Jihad” — righteous struggle in war — to expel the infidels. Operating under the long-held tradition of the “enemy of my enemy is my friend,” a pipeline of foreign fighters, supplies and training camps was established between  normally sworn enemies in Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Sunni-Shi’a Lebanon, Iran, and Alawite Syria. While Syria’s rulers are predominantly Alawite — a sect of Islam devoted to Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in law of the Prophet Mohammad — they’ve integrated a loyal and wealthy Sunni Iraqi and Sunni — 75 percent of the population — Syrian merchant class into politics and the military.

Bashar al Assad’s Ba’ath party — the same political party in Syrian Alawite form as Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Sunni Ba’ath party — and the Syrian military knew that the Sunni foreign fighters they let transit through their country and into Iraq would someday turn on them.  They carefully monitored the personalities, groups, and tactics, techniques and procedures of these Jihadis; the same intolerant Sunni Salafists, Takfiris and al Qae’da who so distressed DET Syrian desk officers.

When popular demonstrations became open revolt, the Syrian military dusted off its network analysis playbook and slowly, awkwardly and with the help of Iran, which also hosted and studied al Qae’da foreign fighters, began to wage war.  If the homegrown rebellion fails it’ll be because the majority of Sunni in Syria are loyal to the Assad regime.  

On the other hand, Syrians may accommodate Sunni foreign fighters by paying them for electricity and oil from surrendered power plants and refineries.   This is millennia old oasis logic.   If a water hole is destroyed — blow up the oil and electricity infrastructure — everyone’s weaker, and may even perish. But, if everyone — no matter how distasteful and dangerous it may be — drinks from the same well for a time our side will find a way to prevail.  Under this approach, the enemy of my enemy is, while convenient and until I get the upper hand, my friend.  Also, the Assad regime is adept at playing homegrown insurgents against foreign fighters, selectively helping one against the other to weaken both.

However, Sunni Syrians also know that groups seeking an Islamic State will use the same treachery, ferocity and self-serving interpretation of Shari’a law that they did in Iraq, before Sunni Iraqis turned against them to fight alongside the U.S. and multinational forces.   But Syrians, Iraqis and many across the Arab world are also wary of U.S. sponsored nation-building, which they believe results in dictatorial leaders and failed democratic experiments, as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, Sunni and Fedayeen — Saddam Hussein loyalists — who were marginalized by Maliki’s political-military block, now look the other way as Jihadis send suicide bombers into Baghdad, and have themselves taken up arms against the state, and/or have let Islamic State proponents and other foreign fighters hide amongst them in plain sight.  

Another dynamic in this tangled ethno-sectarian web occurred when the largely Sunni city of Fallujah was attacked.  Arab-Shi’a Iraqi Defense Force soldiers — who felt trapped between Persian-Shi’a Iranians and Sunni extremists, and who, as southerners, have no home field advantage in Northern Iraq — didn’t see the fight as their own, and fled.     

With battle-tested experience, local allies who provide safe haven, and demoralized government forces in retreat, Islamic State armies, numbering an estimated 12,000, were a well-oiled machine by the time they reached the outskirts of Mosul.  A set of dominos have been toppled.  Tribal leaders inform local Iraqi political and defense officials that they can no longer count on popular support.  Shock troops operating with local knowledge neutralize army bases and police stations by bribing Sunni, or assassinating Shi’a security force commanders. Captured members of the security forces are tortured and executed on the Internet.  These gruesome videos encourage the demoralized, leaderless survivors to rip off their army and police uniforms, throw down their weapons, and head south towards Baghdad, or seek asylum in Iraqi Kurdistan. 

Maliki’s anti-coup paranoia gave Islamic State groups a decisive advantage. He severely limited his soldier’s ammunition stores; good enough when you’re intimidating unarmed civilians, or trying to put down a small revolt, but insufficient when you’re up against a well-stocked enemy.

From an anthropological point of view the conflict and violence are culturally scripted.  Part 1 of the Arab script is familiar to those who know Western military history.  Armies meet on the field of honor, one side wins, the other loses, and victorious forces march into conquered foreign lands.  In the Arab world, this is when the real fighting begins.  In Part 2, the winning side enters into unfamiliar territory where the supposedly defeated side has home advantage, and subjects readily identifiable outsiders to particularly brutal and effective guerilla warfare. The lesson to be learned from Part 2, as with so many conflicts in the Arab world that have come before and will come after, is:  taking territory is relatively easy, holding it is exponentially harder. 

Islamic State proponents have proven that, in Iraq, they can fight alongside allies and in friendly territory.  However, their newly declared caliphate will be short-lived unless the Islamic State of the Levant and the Islamic State of al Sham—Syria, pronounced Sue’ria — can rule with their ruthless interpretation of Shari’a law and remain popular, and that as occupiers they can govern by tribal-style consensus.      

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