Monday, June 16, 2014

DEXTER FILKINS - Iraq: Fear of a Wider war // Rebels’ Fast Strike in Iraq Was Years in the Making

(Maliki) has alienated—even, in some cases, arrested—the most reasonable Sunni leaders and embarked on mass arrests of young Sunni men. In the process, Maliki has to a great extent driven the Sunnis back into the arms of the extremists.

The day after Islamic militants swept into Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and several other enclaves along the Tigris River, the conquering army, called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, posted a photograph on Twitter. It showed one of its fighters—a Chechen volunteer, the group said—opening the door of an American-made Humvee that it had seized from the Iraqi Army. The Humvee and the militant, the group said, had just arrived at an isis base in Syria, where, presumably, they were ready to be dispatched in the war there.
The border between Iraq and Syria may have effectively disappeared, but the dynamics driving the civil wars in those nations are not identical. In Syria, an oppressed majority is rising up; in Iraq, an oppressed minority. (The opposition fighters in both wars are mostly members of the Sunni sect.) Both countries just held elections: in Syria, the dictator, Bashar al-Assad, won in a display of empty theatre; in Iraq, where Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is expected to form a government for a third term, the elections were for the most part free. In Iraq, the dynamics driving the strife are largely Iraqi, and in Syria they are largely Syrian.
Even so, the events unfolding in Iraq point toward a much wider war, reaching from the Iranian frontier to the Mediterranean coast. The long open border between Iraq and Syria, and the big stretches of ungoverned space, has allowed extremists on each side to grow and to support one another. isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, two of the strongest groups fighting in Syria, were created by militant leaders from Iraq, many of whom had fought with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia against the United States. The vast swath of territory between the Euphrates and the Tigris—from Aleppo, in Syria, to Mosul, in Iraq—threatens to become a sanctuary for the most virulent Islamist pathologies, not unlike what flourished in Afghanistan in the years before 9/11. Among those fighting with isis and Al Nusra are hundreds of Westerners, from Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. At some point, the survivors will want to go home; they will be well trained and battle-hardened.
The extremist groups dominating the fighting are beginning to take their war beyond the two countries that they now freely traverse. In January, isis carried out a car-bomb attack in Beirut near the offices of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group that has been fighting on behalf of Assad. The Nusra front has also carried out attacks in Lebanon. Meanwhile, the number of Syrian refugees who have fled to that nation exceeds twenty per cent of its population, which is not something that a state as weak and as fractious as Lebanon can be expected to sustain. In Jordan, the presence of half a million Syrian refugees is putting an enormous strain on the fragile monarchy.
The revolutionary government of Iran looms ominously over it all. Iran has been decisive in supporting Assad, and its influence over Maliki, never small, has increased enormously since the departure of the last American forces in Iraq, in December of 2011. During the war, Iranian agents trained, armed, and directed a network of Shiite militias, which killed hundreds of American and British soldiers. Those same militias are evidently being readied to confront the Sunni onslaught in Iraq; thousands of their members have already been fighting for Assad in Syria. Iran’s intervention in Syria has also alarmed Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which have poured in guns and money to help the rebels. It is not difficult to imagine a multinational war, fought along a five-hundred-mile front, and along sectarian lines, waged ultimately for regional supremacy.
What can the United States do? It has already done quite a bit, of course. The invasion of Iraq, in 2003, by destroying the Iraqi state, empowered the Shiite majority—Maliki in particular. As long as American troops remained in Iraq, they could restrain Maliki and his Shiite brethren from their worst sectarian impulses. By the time the last troops departed, the civil war, which began in 2006, had been brought under control. But, in the two and a half years since the troops’ departure, Maliki has been free to pursue a stridently sectarian project, which has cut the Sunnis off from political power. He has alienated—even, in some cases, arrested—the most reasonable Sunni leaders and embarked on mass arrests of young Sunni men. In the process, Maliki has to a great extent driven the Sunnis back into the arms of the extremists. Indeed, in the sectarian calculus that now dominates Iraqi politics, Sunni unrest has worked largely in his favor, as it has allowed him to portray himself as the Shiites’ protector. The Iraqi state, built mainly by the Americans, is too feeble to resist the Sunnis’ efforts to break away... read more: