The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged militias
Iraq: The Road to Chaos

Ned Parker, in the New York Review of Books, reminds us of the growing violence, corruption and authoritarianism that is unraveling Iraq. The damage that the US invasion of that country -- based on fraud and arrogance -- has done, to them and to us (strategically, morally, financially, and of course in terms of a damaged and blighted generation of Iraqis) can still stagger sometimes. 

Now, as Iraq prepares for its first national election in four years on April 30, it is hard to imagine democracy activists rallying weekly in Iraqi streets. For months, suicide bombers have been dynamiting themselves in crowded Shiite markets, coffee shops, and funeral tents, while Shiite militias and government security forces have terrorized Sunni communities. The Iraqi state is breaking apart again: from the west in Anbar province, where after weeks of anarchic violence more than 380,000 people have fled their homes; to the east in Diyala province, where tit-for-tat sectarian killings are rampant; to the north in Mosul, where al-Qaeda-linked militants control large swathes of territory; to the south in Basra, home to Iraq’s oil riches, where Shiite militias are once more ascendant; to Iraq’s Kurds, who warn that the country is disintegrating and contemplate full independence from Baghdad.


Syria: The unraveling

Here  are some articles to get a handle on the various Islamist militias now operating in Syria. Sarah Birke has an excellent piece in the New York Review of Books explaining the origins of el Nasra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. 

But ISIS’s real power comes from the fear it seeks and manages to inspire. The group has shown zero tolerance for political dissent. Many Syrians I met along the border mentioned with horror ISIS’s execution of two young boys in Aleppo due to alleged heresy. The kidnappings of local activists and journalists has deterred dissent while also whipping up anti-ISIS sentiment. The group has blown up Shiite shrines, but has also shown few qualms about Sunni civilians getting killed in the process. Beheadings have become common. Father Paolo dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who has lived in Syria for thirty years, and who campaigns for inter-religious tolerance, is missing, abducted by ISIS during a visit to the city of Raqqa in late July. As with dozens of others who remain in captivity, ISIS has not demanded ransom or announced his execution; rather it appears to be holding hostages as an insurance against attacks.

This has caused many Syrians to despise ISIS. Since June, there have been anti-ISIS protests in Raqqa—something which requires courage given ISIS’s ruthlessness. More recently, even Islamist activists such as Hadi al-Abdullah, a prominent Syrian from Homs, have criticized the group, describing them as “Dawlet al-Baghdadi,” or Baghdadi’s state, echoing “Suria al-Assad”, Assad’s Syria, the way regime supporters refer to the country. And yet ISIS continues to recruit Syrian fighters. Some say that Syrians joined because the group offers better money and protection than other rebel outfits. In an interview posted to YouTube, Saddam al-Jamal, a former leader of Ahfad al-Rasoul, explains that he defected to ISIS, because moderate fighters are subject to too much foreign interference and are pressured to fight Islamists as well as the regime.

Michael Weiss, in POLITICO, analyzes the rise of the Saudi-backed Islamist front -- an only slightly less extremist Islamist militia than ISIS and al-Nusra. 

According to a newly published anatomy of U.S. policymaking in the Wall Street Journal, which cites Obama administration officials, Washington’s objective in arming and training rebels “wasn’t so much to help [them] win as to assuage allies who thought the U.S. wasn’t engaged.” Yet this limited approach failed on two levels: Not only did it destroy the West’s nominal proxy in Syria, but it also compelled Riyadh to “step outside the umbrella” of U.S. oversight altogether and plot the construction of an overshadowing Islamist counterpart army.

Josh Landis has a detailed account of recent fighting and an analysis of the real difference between the militias (which are more strategic than ideological). 

Aboud [of the Islamic Front] makes clear that he views ISIS as a potential partner. He is careful to pave the way for its return to the fold. He explains that ISIS’s goal of an Islamic state is not substantially different than that of the Islamic Front or the many other militias fighting in Syria. Where it does differ is that it sees itself as the unique heir to the state and has begun setting up mini-states wherever it rules, pushing aside fellow militias and refusing to submit to the common Sharia court system that the Islamic Front militias and Nusra have constructed and administer together. He points out how Nusra has agreed to cooperate and defer questions of permanent state-building and ultimate governance until after Assad is defeated. This is a way of putting aside what may be fairly substantial ideological differences between militias despite their common goal of an Islamic state and perhaps more importantly, it defers any contest over ultimate executive power. The Emir of ISIS, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, hopes to assert himself as the Caliph and force the others to give him bay`a or allegiance.  He has also imposed rather draconian sharia punishments and forbidden smoking, music, and other simple pleasures that many find intolerable. This underlines the great problems that remain for the militias in determining what form and style an eventual Islamic state will take, not to mention who among the militia leaders will ultimately rule.

Islamic Front leaders have been very skilful about finessing questions on governance. The standard answer they give to those who ask what kind of government they intend is that they will call on an assembly of Ulema to decide on the correct form of Islamic government when the time comes.



Al Raqqa: military brigades, the city administration and the revolutions to come

A detailed, fascinating read on the various brigades (their funders, relations to each other, and relations to civilians) operating in the liberated Syrian city of Al Raqqa in July and August. Also, very well written:

Al Raqqa may be liberated but its skies are free to all, at all times. People in Al Raqqa, like all Syrians, often watch their impending deaths pass above them. With their own eyes they watch the planes that kill them coming and going. The helicopters particularly, cause more upset and grievance by their passing than by the death they bring, for everyone can see them. You sense them mocking the glitter of anti-aircraft fire that springs upwards from dilapidated trucks.

The author is Mohammed El Attar, writing for a site that describes itself as a volunteer, non-partisan effort on the part of Syrian researchers and writers to document and analyze the revolution.  


Libya's militia problem revisited

Militia Checkpoint

IHS’ Richard Cochrane reports that despite some success the interim government has had ahead of the planned June 2012 national elections in bringing militias to heel — 8,000 militiamen are now “pledged” to become border guards — several obstacles remain to the NTC’s efforts to establish a secure state. A plan to distribute payments to militiamen and their families — essentially, a plan to secure legitimacy for the NTC in the fighters’ eyes — has been undermined by the NTC’s reliance on militias to manage the payments. The result of which, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, has been an uneven, unaccountable distribution of the money:

Names have been omitted from payment lists and others erroneously added, sparking angry protests, some of which have descended into violence. Local media has reported several incidences of militia groups plundering payment centres located in rival neighbourhoods, or in areas deemed to be insufficiently loyal to the spirit of the revolution.

This is the least of the government’s militia problems, though. Only in March did militia leaders agree to “turn over to the interim govenrment strategic sites, such as airports and border crossings,” to the NTC (the AFP’s correspondent for Libya, Dominique Soguel, hinted that given Libya’s size and limited infrastructure, official control of airports is a much—needed objective for the NTC to accomplish). While separatist stirrings in eastern Libya received substantial attention from the government — and a relatively swift political response that has somewhat dimmed the prospects of federal autonomy — ongoing fighting in southern Libya has reportedly left dozens dead in the past few months. Although the non-Arab minority population in the region supported the NTC, tribal rivalries — and, in the International Crisis Group’s view, a lack of a functioning judicial system or police force — have flared up. To the north, on Libya’s western coast, Berber and Arab militias continue to clash. In both the south and west, the NTC’s armed forces have had a difficult time imposing cease fires. One reason for this is that “even when government security forces are dispatched to resolve crises, there is no guarantee that they will be the strongest force in the area,” an IHS report noted, though the main hindrance is still the NTC’s difficulties in co—opting the new armed groups and the old state machinery.

Outside support to the NTC remains limited. The outcome of a trans—Saharan conference on border security is presumably up in the air following the coup in Mali. And the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) is “not a peacekeeping mission but was there to assist the Libyan authorities to help them create the necessary institutions to govern the country and ensure the respect of fundamental rights for all,” a spokesperson told Xinhua recently, also noting in a press conference that “the main responsibility of disarming and integrating the militias” falls to the NTC.

Of course this is the case: an externally imposed agreement would not be regarded as legitimate. But so far, the NTC has failed to do either on its own, as cannot expect a “third force” in the form of a peacekeeping mission — and it is not clear the NTC even desires such a mission. But it is one thing to subpoena oil majors like Eni SpA and Total SA over their past conduct in Libya, and quite another to do so over all these armed groups, especially those in Misrata who make incursions into refugee camps near Tripoli. Perhaps the trial of of Saif al—Islam Qadhafi, who will probably be tried Libya, instead of going to France or the ICC, will send a message — though the biggest problem now is not holding Qahdafi loyalists accountable, but gaining authority over the NTC’s ostensible followers. That message, though, is not being received well by human rights groups and the UN, which suspect the proceedings may amount to a kangaroo court since, as noted above, the NTC has not yet set up judiciary.

At this point, the NTC has to hope that in keeping its electoral schedule, that the militias do not engage in voter intimidation, though some militias are reportedly already looking to set up political arms to run in the Constituent Assembly elections. “If the leaders of local militias were to decide to intervene to influence the outcome of an election, there is no power or authority that could stop them,” North Africa watcher George Joffe told Agence France Presse. Libya may yet prove to be the exemplar of Obama’s foreign policy, but not in the way that advocates hoped last year when NATO intervened should the ongoing violence affect the electoral process, which is almost certainly going to be happen — the question is not “if?” but “to what extent?”

[Ed. note: an informative addition on what ordinary life is like in Libya these days can be found in this interview with friend of the blog Geoff Porter.]