Tag Archives: Iraq violence ISIS

The Cost of Going Back to Iraq

Photo courtesy U.S. Navy

Photo courtesy U.S. Navy

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Though not outwardly acknowledging that the current U.S.-led coalition using heavy air power to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria has proven inadequate for the task, President Obama and Pentagon officials raised the stakes this past week by authorizing the U.S. military to send 1500 additional personnel to Iraq. The new 1500 troops would roughly double the number of American military personnel now in Iraq.

Their mission: to quickly train additional brigades of Iraqi troops and Peshmerga units for what may be a long and difficult fight against ISIS, also called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. According to the Pentagon, U.S. troops will train an additional 12 brigades—instructing those units in the use of mostly-American-made equipment, instilling discipline, and preparing the newly minted fighters for direct combat on the ground.

The White House and the Pentagon were consistent in their position that the new troop deployments would be placed neither in combat roles, nor in forward positions that might put them in harm’s way. As a parallel task the new American units would be establishing several training facilities for the preparation of new Iraqi recruits.

The President said he would ask Congress to authorize $5.6 billion in additional military funds to pay for the new deployments, and to fund the cost of the air campaign against ISIS. The White House and the Pentagon made the announcements on Friday, a few hours after the President met with Congressional leaders over lunch. Of the requested money, at least $1.6 billion will be set aside for the “Iraq Train and Equip Fun,” according to the White House.

The current air campaign has included the heavy use of targeted strikes by bombers and jet fighters, as well as cruise missiles and drones. Though the air campaign has helped to stall much of the rapid advance of ISIS, the radical militants have proven more difficult to dislodge from many areas than the previous estimates of the Pentagon and the White House.

ISIS formed in the chaotic environment of the long, bloody Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year. Merging fighters and units once loyal to Saddam Hussein with a variety of al Qaeda groups, along with some anti-Assad rebels, ISIS organized itself into a working army. In spring of this year, ISIS swept through northern Syria and across northern Iraq, moving quickly and bringing terror with it.

In front of the advance of ISIS, the Iraqi army collapsed—abandoning equipment and weapons. ISIS was able to quickly advance to within 35 miles of Baghdad, and it was also able to capture scores of cities and towns once the scenes of intense, costly battles where Americans lost their lives. ISIS also captured oil facilities, seized banks and public offices, imposed laws which reflected a radical interpretation of Islamic law, and murdered thousands of civilians. ISIS’s advance gave the militants control of areas as far north as the Syrian and Iraqi borders with Turkey, and as far west as the border checkpoints at Jordan.

ISIS has said it seeks the establishment of a caliphate, and it does not recognize internationally agreed upon political borders.

Intense fighting has raged along parts of northern Syria at the Turkish border for many weeks, as ISIS seeks to consolidate control of areas once left under the auspices of Kurds and other ethnic minorities. The fight for control of the border town of Kobani has been particularly violent, as Kurdish fighters attempt to resist a continuing onslaught of heavily-armed ISIS militants. On some occasions the fighting between Kurdish forces and ISIS units has come to within a few hundred yards of the border fence which separates Syria from Turkey. The U.S. was reluctant to use air power in the fight for Kobani, but eventually did use some targeted air strikes starting about ten days ago. The air strikes were credited with helping to stall ISIS’ advance, but ISIS still controls many sections of Kobani.

Many military analysts, including ex-military commanders and officers, question whether the Iraqi army can be adequately-trained for the task of confronting ISIS, even after months or years of training by U.S. forces. Others are concerned over what they see as mission-creep: a few hundred Americans are sent in to a combat situation, followed inevitably by a few hundred more, until eventually the U.S. and its allies are committed to a full-scale war. Military analysts and some in Washington point to two clear examples: the long American involvement in Vietnam, which began in an “advisory” capacity but which ultimately took the lives of 58,000 U.S. forces; and the current plan to train the Iraqi army, an almost exact replay of the scenario the U.S. faced as it began its withdrawal from the last Iraq war in 2011. The question is whether the U.S.-led training this time around would be sufficient for what is now a Herculean task.

The air campaign has succeeded in destroying more than 200 armed vehicles once part of ISIS ground operations, and some targeted air strikes have also taken out tanks, artillery positions, weapons caches, and even some suspected key militant commanders. Some air strikes on the first night of the Syrian phase of the operation were targeted at members of the Korasan Group—largely unknown in the West but known to some in the intelligence community as perhaps more dangerous than ISIS. And just this past week more strikes were focused on Korason members, in particular a highly-skilled French bomb-maker who intelligence officials in the U.S. believe had developed and tested a powerful explosive which could be embedded in a working laptop computer. That same bomb-maker was also believed to have developed type of explosive which could be used by soaking clothing in flammable materials. Communications between some Korasan members seem to have indicated that the group was preparing to use the laptop device to blow-up a civilian airliner or other high-profile target.

As of last week, the U.S. and its coalition partners had carried out more than 400 airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, and 325 air strikes against ISIS and Korasan positions in Syria.

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U.S. Military Strikes Inside Syria

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

The United States and its closest Arab allies began attacking ISIS targets inside war-torn Syria on Monday. Using a mixed campaign of fighter jets, stealth bombers, and cruise missiles launched from battleships, the coalition pounded specific ISIS positions in northern Syria—a country torn by civil war for more than three years.

U.S. and French fighters had already been bombing ISIS positions in Iraq for weeks, but the dilemma faced by the United States had always been whether or not to extend that air campaign into neighboring Syria, a country which serves as the home for the militant army which sprang into action earlier this year. Critics of President Barack Obama have said for weeks that the air strikes in Iraq would be insufficient to degrade or defang ISIS since so much of the terrorist group’s activities are based in northern Syria.

All told, the U.S. had completed about 190 air strikes inside Iraq when the Syrian air campaign began late Monday night. Other air missions had been carried out by French fighters over the weekend.

U.S. military officials stressed that the air campaign in Syria and northern Iraq would be the work of a coalition of forces, and the new U.S. attacks in Syria have been joined by air power from at least five other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Internationally, there has been a slow but generally positive consensus that direct action would need to be taken against ISIS, even inside Syria. Russia has complained, however, that airstrikes inside Syria would be a violation of international law.

U.S. officials also said that about eight of the air attacks were targeted at the so-called “Khorasan Group,” a militant faction with closer ties to al Qaeda, and made up of al Qaeda operatives not specifically aligned with ISIS. Intelligence experts believe that these militant groups were in the advanced stages of developing terror attack plans against the United States and its allies. The Pentagon described the threat of a terror attack by Khorasan as “imminent,” though the U.S. military’s top press liaison, Rear Admiral John Kirby, declined to give specifics on the nature or the location of the terror attacks.

Members of the Khorasan Group, numbering between 50 and 60, have been thought by intelligence experts to have been based in Aleppo. The Pentagon says it can confirm only that key targets were hit, but it cannot confirm the total number of militants killed in those heavy attacks. Intelligence experts think that the Khorasan Group may be one of several terror groups developing and experimenting with new bomb-making techniques—explosives which may require no metal or other easily-detectable components. This type of non-metal bomb was first developed by al Qaeda groups in Yemen, and the design for such devices may have been exported to Syria.

The Khorasan Group was obscure until last week when its existence was confirmed by intelligence and military spokesmen in the U.S. and the U.K. The group consists of seasoned remnants of al Qaeda fighters and operatives from places as far away as Paksitan, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Other air strikes were carried out to destroy munitions depots and weapons caches near Aleppo under ISIS control, stockpiles being currently used with great effect by ISIS fighters engaging Kurdish troops along the fringes of northern Syria near the Turkish border. There, in and around the city of Kobani, ISIS militants and Kurdish fighters are engaged in a desperate battle for control of one the last safe havens for Kurds, Armenians, Christians, and other ethnic and religious minorities. ISIS units are attempting to consolidate control over their territorial gains.

Over the last five days at least 135,000 civilians have crossed the border into Turkey. Hundreds more, mostly Kurdish men—answering the call by their fellow Kurds fighting along the front—are attempting to cross the border from Turkey into Syria to join the fight against ISIS. Turkish police used water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas in a massive, coordinated attempt to push the Kurdish volunteers away from the border fences and border checkpoints. The vast majority of those fleeing from northern Syria are women, children and elderly, and U.N. workers and aid groups report that thousands are arriving each day.

Meanwhile, ISIS spokesmen have made a worldwide call for Islamic men to take up arms against the U.S.-led coalition in the Middle East. Abu Mohammed al-Adnani broadcast an audio-video statement via social media and several networks in which he also called for Muslims to kill non-Muslim civilians anywhere in the world. “If you can kill a disbelieving American,” the message said, “or European—especially the spiteful and filthy French—or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever, then rely upon Allah and kill him in any manner or way however it may be.”

This past weekend, Algerian radicals kidnapped a French civilian and threatened to behead him if the French government did not withdraw its military support for the coalition. The French man’s name is Herve Gourdel, aged 55 and a native of Nice. French authorities were aware of Gourdel’s disappearance last week, but have not been able to confirm that he was abducted by individuals claiming an allegiance to ISIS.

But many Islamic spokespersons, and many scholars even in Arab countries, say that ISIS’s worldwide call is not likely to have a great effect except on those already radicalized—as was the case in last week’s plot by a group of Australians who had planned to capture and behead one civilian each week. U.S. law enforcement experts say that they intend to crack down on the information and travel pipelines which may lead more Americans to attempt to link-up with ISIS in the Middle East. The FBI is looking specifically at three U.S. cities which have already produced radicalized fighters now working alongside ISIS: Minneapolis, Boston, and Los Angeles.

The enlarged campaign of air strikes began around 8:30 p.m. (EDT) on Monday, which would have been before sunrise in the Middle East. Most of the airstrikes took place in and around the city of Raqqa, on the Euphrates River, and near the towns of Al Tabqah and Deir ez-Zur. Some of the airstrikes employed the use of American F-22 “Raptors,” high-tech stealth fighters capable of speeds of more than 1000 miles per hour and mostly undetectable to radar. This was the first battlefield deployment of the Raptor, which has met with controversy for its high price tag. But some military analysts say that the plane nevertheless proved its mettle during its debut combat operation.

U.S. and allied Arab fighter attacks were supplemented by at least 45 cruise missile launches from the USS Arleigh Burke and the USS Philippine Sea, positioned in the Red Sea and in the North Arbian Gulf, respectively. The Pentagon said that a variety of drones—armed and unarmed—were also involved in the operations.

Monday’s round of firepower was the most intensive operations since the aerial campaign began in early August after the death of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

Although the government of Syria has not officially endorsed or approved the airstrikes within its borders, most analysts agree that neither Bashir al Assad nor anyone in Damascus will openly confront the allied air attacks which are taking place since Assad has as much to gain from the destruction of ISIS as the other participants. Still, U.S. military planners are taking great care to use only that airpower which has the best chance of avoiding or evading Syrian air defense systems in those areas under the command of the Syrian army, and those areas within the reach of Syrian radar. The U.S. government spokespersons say that there is no official line of communication open between Washington and Damascus on the current military campaign.

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Turkey’s Growing Humanitarian Crisis


Image courtesy of Reuters/ABC News

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Aside from the obvious and high-profile actions of the terrorist army known as ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, sometimes referred to as ISIL), such as its horrific acts of violence against civilians, its proclamations of a radical interpretation of Islamic Law, and its widely-publicized beheadings of journalists and aid workers from the United States and Britain, the militant group has now triggered what may be the largest humanitarian crisis in decades.

Millions of people in Syria and Iraq and on the move in a desperate attempt to flee both the fighting—ISIS militants at war with Kurds or other moderate groups—and the terror wrought by ISIS itself. The number of refugees moving en masse from villages, towns and cities now under ISIS control now exceeds 1.5 million, according to several international aid organizations and United Nations’ estimates. Some towns along the extensive border between Turkey and Syria have seen such an influx over the last ten days that the migration has spurred logistical problems on a vast scale.

Just within the past four days more than 130,000 Syrian Kurds, along with civilians of other ethnic and religious identities, have crossed the border from northern Syria into southeastern Turkey. Even some towns inside Syria have come under intense siege as the ISIS militants—using artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, and heavy weapons—seek to overrun areas previously regarded as safe havens for Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, Armenians, and other minorities. In the Syrian city of Kobani (in Arabic, Ayn al-Arab), a city in the Aleppo province previously spared from the worst of the war, tens of thousands have fled the shelling and the intense fighting. Kurdish fighters have called upon the world to come to its defense as it faces one of the heaviest counterattacks by ISIS forces in the region.

The heavy attacks on these towns in northern Syria are forcing many men to take sides, and driving almost all others to flee north with what few items they can carry. Many arrive to the Turkish border on foot, without food or even water. Thousands more are crossing from northern Iraq, fleeing skirmishes and fighting taking place north of Lake Mosul, across the small Syrian panhandle, and into Turkey near Al Qamishli.

All told, the refugee population may now exceed 1.5 million, and the Turkish government, numerous aid organizations, and a variety of non-profit humanitarian groups are straining to keep up with the thousands arriving each day.

Complicating matters has been the recent onslaught of Kurds (and other minorities), mostly men, attempting to cross from Turkey into Syria. Answering the call for help now internationally spread through social media, they have been arriving by the hundreds, hoping to come to the aid of the moderate forces fighting ISIS along all fronts. Many of the Kurds seeking to join the fight against ISIS are coming from Kurdish villages and communities inside Turkey, or from neighboring enclaves in Armenia or Turkey has been discouraging the migration of more people into the war zone, the lines of which may in fact, ironically, moving rapidly closer to Turkey.

Then, there is the troubling reality of small groups of radicalized Europeans, many of them from the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Netherlands—now moving on foot or by small vehicle in an attempt to link up with ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey, which just last week changed its mind on its previous agreement to allow to the United States and other countries to establish forward air bases inside Turkish territory, has pledged nevertheless to establish some form of control over its long, often porous border with Syria. Law enforcement and intelligence experts in several countries are concerned that radicalized individuals may join with ISIS, fight alongside it in the Middle East, then return to the home country with plans to bring deadly militant activity with them.

But it is the vast humanitarian problem now facing Turkey which is causing the most urgent crisis in the area north of the fighting. The number of people fleeing the violence of ISIS has reached a critical mass similar to what the world saw last month as tens of thousands of Yazidis fled violent attacks and retribution by ISIS fighters. United Nations personnel say that the influx is worse than anything they have seen in recent years.

“I don’t think in the last three and a half years [of the Syrian civil war] we have seen one hundred thousand cross in two days,” said Carol Batchelor, a UN representative working near the border inside Turkey. “This is a measure of how this situation is unfolding, and the very deep fear people have about the circumstances inside Syria, and, for that matter, Iraq.”

Turkish officials say that many of the refugees report seeing ISIS militants beheading villagers, shooting entire groups of people, and stealing stockpiles of food and water from markets, shops and houses. Other refugees say that ISIS radicals would put the severed heads on display for villagers and passersby to see, and to use as a warning to those unwilling to submit to their imposition of radical interpretations of Islam—including crucifixions and beheadings of civilians. Aid workers say that hundreds of refugees have reported seeing people stoned to death in public spaces, and hundreds of homes and businesses have been burned by ISIS fighters.

ISIS has been fighting with increased intensity, abetted in some cases by recently-arrived recruits from other areas, and boosted by their acquisition of additional heavy weaponry—much of it confiscated or captured in the wake of retreating Iraqi or Syrian army units. In many cases, the use of the new heavier firepower has tilted the battlefield balance in favor of ISIS in its nine-month-old struggle with Kurdish fighters. ISIS has apparently battled to within about eight miles of Kobani, a town once considered a safe-haven for refugees and protected by Kurd fighters.

Kobani is very near the border with Turkey, and just east of the Euphrates River, along a long stretch of border protected by a tall fence, coils of barbed wire, and a gravel and sand clearing roughly 200 feet wide, flanked by service roads. But other parts of the vast frontier are more lightly protected—marked only by cattle wire and wooden posts—and many intelligence experts fear that individuals and small groups may be crossing that border each day into Syria to join forces with ISIS.

By some estimates, the more-than-three-year-old Syrian civil war—triggered during the Arab Spring—has displaced many millions within their own country. At least 2.8 million have fled Syria entirely—some into Lebanon, some into Jordan, and some into northern Iraq (before Iraq began its more recent meltdown). But in northern Syria, where the fighting has been the worst since fighting broke out between the forces loyal to Bashir al Assad and a variety of opposition groups, most civilians have had little choice but to find refuge by moving north toward Turkey. Kobani’s population grew by an additional 200,000 during the last two years of the war. But now, with ISIS only a few miles away and advancing each day, many of those are fleeing the wrath of ISIS by crossing into Turkey.

Seeking to control the border areas and hoping to stave off chaos, Turkish authorities are using tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons in an attempt to discourage more Kurds from crossing into the war zone, even if their intentions are to rush to the assistance of fellow Kurds fighting ISIS units. There is panic and chaos on both sides of the border checkpoints and thousands of desperate civilians—among them many women and children—seek to enter Turkey as quickly as possible to stay ahead of the violence.

Some European observers and U.S. officials worry that if Kobani falls into the hands of ISIS, militants will then gain control of another key border checkpoint, and Turkish soldiers will be eye-to-eye with heavily armed ISIS units. Turkey does not wish for the war to spill into its territory, and some within the Turkish government fear that if too many Kurds are massed along the physical border, it could spur violence which could easily spiral out of control.

The United Nations has said that the majority of those crossing the border from Syria into Turkey have been women, children, and elderly men unable to fight. A British non-profit agency called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said that it estimates that ISIS has taken control of at least 60 towns and villages in northern Syria just within the last four days. Many of these towns are within a one to three day walk from the border with Turkey.

ISIS units have launched major offensives within the last week in an attempt to consolidate territorial gains made during their campaign which started last spring. ISIS formed out of remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq, and after melding with some Syrian rebels fighting against the government of Assad, sprang across the Middle East, taking wide swaths of territory and spurring a general retreat by Iraqi military and security forces. After ISIS murdered several American journalists and a British aid worker, U.S. forces and other forces have begun targeted airstrikes on ISIS positions in Iraq. French airpower was used last week, and the British have also pledged support.

At least 1.4 million refugees have found their way into neighboring Jordan. King Abdullah of Jordan told CBS News that the region’s leaders should welcome the participation of western powers in the fight against ISIS. King Abdullah told Scott Pelley that ISIS does not represent true Islam.

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Reader Reaction: “You’re Gonna’ Need a Bigger Foreign Policy”


Compiled by Thursday Review editors

Not since Earl Perkins’ long form retrospective look at Lynyrd Skynyrd has an article or review generated as much comment, reaction and backlash as Alan Clanton’s recent You’re Gonna’ Need a Bigger Foreign Policy. Scores of readers forwarded the article to friends and associates, and we registered a much higher-than-average rate of clicks as a result. We also received lots of comments via email, Facebook, Twitter and Linked-In.

Among those who wrote us were liberals, conservatives, neocons, peace activists, defenders and detractors of President Barack Obama, and even a few who complained about the contraction gonna’ which we used in the headline (an indication, perhaps, that they didn’t bother to read even the first paragraph of the article).

Some of the comments were pro-Obama. The core of those complaints were that we failed to fully attribute blame to the long-term Middle Eastern environment to Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, who—along with the neocons of his administration (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, et al)—took the United State inadvisably into two simultaneous wars for which there was no clear or coherent exit strategy, and one of which may have been based on faulty information or manufactured evidence (Iraq). Fair criticisms. And fairer still is the evidence that in the haste to purge Baghdad of all Baathist after the fall of Saddam Hussein, American policy-makers in-country set in motion the Sunni versus Shia sectarian divide once predicted by Colin Powell, a dissenter among Bush’s inner circle.

Other Thursday Review readers suggested that we went too easy on Obama—in essence giving him a pass on his failure to act more proactively during the early days of the Arab Spring, absolving him of responsibility for the chaos and disorder which inevitably followed in Libya, Egypt and Syria, and mollycoddling the President on his profound reluctance to enforce his “red line” in Syria and his reticence to take decisive action on Iraq’s Nouri al Maliki. Others pointed to the President’s unwillingness to quickly address the problem of refugee children entering the U.S. by the thousands during the spring.

In the meantime, President Obama and a score of other NATO leaders met in Wales this week to discuss the rapidly-evolving events in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Ukraine, Somalia, and other world hotspots. Though no specifics have yet to emerge from the NATO summit, there was, at least, agreement on the talking points, especially sanctions against Russia and a long-term commitment to confront and destroy ISIS.

Either way, our article sparked discussion and debate. Here is a sample of some of those comments, sent to us via Facebook, Google +, Linked-In, Twitter, or in dozens of emails:

John Herndon, Fort Collins, CO: Any objective assessment of the foreign policy of the years 2009-2017 will review how progressive weakness, driven by ideological presumptions and an unwillingness to learn from reality, brought the United States to a position of really unparalleled ineptitude and invited chaos to reign, emboldening the forces that have nothing less than the destruction of Western culture as their goal. When reviewing the foreign policy disasters of Britain and her allies in the middle-late 1930s which came to the disaster of 1939, Churchill wrote that “no war was more preventable” than the one which raged for six years, bringing civilization to the brink by 1945. We can only hope that a serious change in our course occurs soon, lest some contemporary of ours say much the same thing of the current age. [Mr. Herndon wrote a longer piece on this subject, an article which we plan to publish this week].

Mike Lanning, Minneapolis, MN: My father, a Korean War veteran and a liberal, blames this [the current spate of crises] on George W. Bush. But arguments which rehash the same old “it’s the last guy’s fault” line miss the point: the United States should have acted with precision and care at the outset of the Arab Spring. Instead, the White House under Obama’s watch chose to adopt a wavering “wait-and-see” approach, so fearful of war that it could not fathom any direct action other than harsh words, fake outrage and imaginary red lines.

Deborah with Gmail: Putin and ISIS are clearly part of the same larger template. They do not fear us [the U.S.], and they don’t respect our allies, for that matter. And [they] have less regard for human life. After Benghazi Hillary [Secretary of State Clinton] got mad, spewing out “what difference does it make?” Now we see the answer to her question.

Roger with Gmail, Melbourne, Australia: As long as the developed nations of the world (and those countries in various stages of economic expansion) depend on oil, these struggles will remain with us, violently. Russia wants to bargain with oil and gas, using it as leverage to make the EU compliant. ISIS, aside from its apparent goal of murdering anyone it encounters, actually seeks control of oil wells and refineries so it can generate its own economy and currency. The U.S. and the U.K. suddenly realize ISIS is within striking distance of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—another potential disruptor of oil. Iran decides to become well-behaved…why?…they don’t want ISIS commanding their oil fields. Flare-ups in the South China Sea [could be said to] be about oil and energy. Spend a fraction of the money used to make war and use it instead to develop other energy sources. Then, watch this stuff fade away.

Cynthia, Phoenix, Arizona: It’s easy to blame President Obama for all of this, but that blame game fails to address the short-sighted policies of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Don’t blame the clean-up crew for the condition of the house the morning after the big party. Iraq was a time bomb set to explode a decade earlier.

Mel Garrett, Atlanta, GA: Well-written and thoughtful piece, and helps to explain some of the more confusing aspects of what I see in the news each day. These things seem so far away, but clearly this stuff could very easily appear on our doorstep very soon.

Elias V., Port Charlotte, FL: The neo-cons have been somewhat vindicated by the events of the last three years, and this was all a predictable outcome in Libya, Syria and Iraq. Obama’s conciliatory approach works nicely when it involves photo ops with the leaders of trading partners and economic allies, but it’s “a day late and a dollar short” when it comes to facing threats. The pendulum swung too far, from too much war to too little backbone.

Mauricio (with Yahoo), San Antonio, TX: I didn’t support going into Iraq in the first place, but once we were in, we should have understood the consequences for the whole region. We broke this, now we own it. Some of those ISIS maniacs are just part of Saddam’s old guard, party members we banished to the hinterlands. In 2004 they were just secular political hacks, now they got religion (or so they claim) and half of the weapons we left behind.

Angela (with AOL), Auburn, AL: Benghazi was a warning of things to come. What happened to having a proactive strategy in place, and why is that no one is accountable in the White House? Candid or not, the correct response of a U.S. President should never be “we just don’t have a strategy in place.”

Rick with Yahoo: ISIS murdered thousands in their race across Syria and Iraq, but it took the killing of an American journalist (at the hands of a British terrorist) to spur Washington into some kind of action. And when did Joe Biden become the White House hawk?

Ann in Richmond, VA: I’m old enough to remember when Presidents like Johnson, Nixon and Ford wanted to take decisive action, but then ran afoul of lazy bureaucrats and government lard. Now it’s the other way around—inaction and hesitation inside a White House that never meets a problem head-on, unless it is bypassing Congress.

Cory (with Gmail) in Boulder, CO: Never considered all of these troubles being connected somehow, but your story makes it clear [world events] are a part of a pattern, one conflict feeding off the other. The Butterfly Effect. Not sure I agree Obama is at fault for all of it, but clearly the rest of the world is looking for a leader.

David (with WOW!) in Naperville, IL: Found this article on Facebook. Two points. Unfair to blame Obama for the actions of bullies in other places, for there will always be bullies and aggressors. But I agree that this is the moment for the President to roll up sleeves and get tough, as long as we [the United States] have some partners on this. Putin, ISIS, Israel versus Hamas, Somalia…can’t go alone on these things, and we can’t afford all-out war.

Brett (with Hotmail): Dead dinosaurs. Why do we keep fighting over dead dinosaurs? Think it’s coincidental that ISIS went straight for the oil wells and refineries, even a hydro-electric dam? Think it is coincidence that Russia’s first move was not tanks but the threat of cutting off oil to Europe? Think the Saudi kings and princes want ISIS in their backyard?

Joan in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL: ISIS is exactly the sort of butcher army the world should expect when U.S. non-policy leads to chaos and mayhem in some parts of the world, and when the President’s weak responses in Europe and Asia invite a return to the Cold War. Vladimir Putin got what he wanted in the Ukraine, and his next moves will be calculated with Obama’s weakness in mind. As for Syria and Iraq, the White House has waited for three years and tens of thousands of dead to finally act.
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Will James Foley’s Death Raise the Stakes in Iraq?

Photo courtesy of Free James Foley.org

Photo courtesy of Free James Foley.org

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

According to almost everyone who knew him, the American photojournalist James Foley was one of those people that you instantly liked. He wouldn’t know how to make an enemy if he tried. Nevertheless, Foley was regarded as an enemy of ISIS, or, perhaps more troubling—as a pawn to be used as leverage.

Unblinking but empathetic to the subjects he photographed—and an honest broker among the subjects he covered when gathering news—Foley’s horrifying death at the hands of ISIS extremists is reason enough to fear not merely the message being spread by the militants but also their twisted world view.

Foley was an unlikely enemy of ISIS in that sense—neither a spy nor someone easily misunderstood as a spy. But Foley had the misfortune of being captured at gunpoint along the border between Syria and Turkey two years ago. He had been freelancing for several media outlets, including The Global Post (Boston) and Agence France-Presse. Witnesses say that he was abducted by militants who took him from one car and tossed him into another.

Foley was never seen or heard from again until his image appeared in a video, shot and edited by ISIS fighters, which appears to show the photographer being beheaded by an ISIS militant.

Over the last 20 months, his parents had pleaded with the militants (it was not entirely clear who had abducted him in November 2012) to show mercy and release him. Some analysts suggested that Foley would eventually be used in a prisoner trade with extremist groups—Foley in exchange for captured al Qaeda or ISIS militants.

But the dynamics have shifted wildly since the spring, when the de-evolution of conditions in northern Syria gave rise to a more extreme version of anti-Assad militancy. Lawlessness and chaos enabled ISIS to gather momentum, and in June the militant army sprang across northern Syria and into Iraq. Ahead of its advance, Iraqi soldiers retreated, in many cases abandoning their weapons and the vehicles, and in the process allowing ISIS to become even more heavily armed. ISIS has since spread fear and terror across a wide swath of the Middle East, sweeping into towns and cities, forcing the immediate conversion to strict Islamic law (as it is interpreted by ISIS), and summarily executing anyone who did not comply. Beheading became the punishment of choice in some cases, though ISIS has also released many videos which show people being executed at gunpoint, their bodies pushed into hastily dug ditches and mass graves.

Yezidis, an ethnic and religious minority concentrated heavily in the area around Mount Sinjar, in northwestern Iraq near the border with Syria, became the target of ISIS’s most recent assaults. Yezidis in a dozen towns and villages were forced to evacuate as ISIS fighters approached, and tens of thousands of civilians fled into the hills and onto Mount Sinjar. Many told horror stories of watching as men were shot, women were raped or tortured, or small groups of Yezidis were executed by gunfire or beheadings.

As a humanitarian crisis unfolded for the thousands trapped on Mount Sinjar, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered targeted air strikes on ISIS positions. More than 100 strikes have taken place since the air campaign began 9 days ago, and a combination of Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters have begun to make a considerable pushback against ISIS positions on the ground. Just days ago, Kurdish and Iraqi troops waged a hard-fought battle to regain control of the dam at Mosul, and other ground detachments have been moving to retake other key locations, including oil fields and oil refineries captured by ISIS last month.

The U.S. air strikes have dealt a serious blow to ISIS, disrupting their movements, destroying vehicles and weapons stockpiles, and killing more than 30 militants. The killing of James Foley was intended as a very public form of revenge against the U.S. for its policy of attacking ISIS. In the video of Foley’s death, an ISIS militant threatens more beheadings of captured Americans if the U.S. military continues its campaign against ISIS forces on the ground. Now believed to be at grave risk is American journalist Steven Sotloff, who was freelancing for Time and The National Interest when he was kidnapped one year ago.

Foley, who turned 40 this year, was widely liked by other journalists, videographers and photographers. He was admired not only for his self-deprecating humor, his skills as a photojournalist, but also for his sharing, giving nature and his empathetic approach to his subjects. Foley had been in Syria covering that country’s brutal civil war when he was abducted. Foley often said that he felt it was his calling to be a front-line journalist—that is, a reporter and a videographer willing to put his safety and life at risk if that was what it took to bring the human story of war to a world audience.

Foley had been captured by insurgents before, in Libya in 2011, and was held for 44 days. Despite the experience, Foley insisted on continuing to report from troubled places, including Syria’s brutal civil war.

“I still want to be a conflicts journalist,” he told the Boston Globe after his release in Libya, “but I realize this is life and death.” When Foley was abducted in Libya, he was one of several journalists who witnessed South African photographer Anton Hammerl being shot dead right in front of them.

Foley was working in Syria when he was captured in November 2012. Secretly, the U.S. military had attempted a rescue mission earlier this year to free Foley and other journalists, but the top-secret mission apparently failed because the hostages were not in the location which Pentagon intelligence had led them to regard as the key target.

A video released by ISIS a few days ago shows Foley dressed in an orange jumpsuit, his hands apparently tied behind his back as he kneels in a featureless dessert landscape. Next to him is an ISIS militant dressed entirely in black, his face hooded. After a few minutes in which Foley is allowed to speak, the militant issued threats—interestingly in a British accent tinged with a hint of either Liverpool or Scotland. The militant then produces a large knife and begins to cut Foley’s throat, though the video fades quickly to black.

The U.S. National Security Council verified the video, and in a statement said that “we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist, and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned Foley’s beheading, calling ISIS’s actions barbaric.

Foley’s killing may have also had the effect of drawing other nations into the fray against ISIS. So outrageous were the circumstances of his death that Italy and Germany announced their intention to begin supplying weapons to Kurdish fighters (and other minority groups within Iraq and Syria) to aid in their battle with ISIS.

President Obama angrily compared ISIS to a cancer, and promised that the U.S. air campaign would continue unabated despite ISIS’s threat of more beheadings and killings. More air strikes were conducted by U.S. forces today in the area near the Mosul dam and in areas south and southeast of Mount Sinjar.

Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of the Associated Press called the murder of a journalist during wartime an international crime.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Iraq Airstrikes Continue; Maliki Steps Aside; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 15, 2014.
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Iraq’s Collapse & The Consequences for Saudi Arabia


By R. Alan Clanton | published June 16, 2014 |
Thursday Review editor

The ongoing rivalries between radical Islamists groups have sometimes worked to the advantage of the United States and its allies, sometimes not. Those grudges and rivalries have insulated the kings and princes of the oil-rich nations from internal disruption, just as they have prevented any one Middle Eastern strongman from exerting disproportional influence over the region, or any one part of the region. Plus, those rivalries have often kept any one terrorist or militant group from gaining the upper hand militarily.

But that was then, and this is now. The Arab Spring set in motion a sequence of events which is altering the landscape and the political boundaries, literally. Borders drawn by the British and the French a century ago may soon become meaningless. And terrorist groups, once regarded as ragtag for their poor equipment, internal rivalries and fragile funding, are systematically re-energizing an al Qaeda network once thought by American presidents to be on the ropes.

Syria’s long and bloody civil war, followed by lawlessness, created an opportunity in its northern and northeastern territories for al Qaeda breakaway groups to exert control. This group, now calling itself ISIS or ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), has become a functioning army, complete with centralized command-and-control, impressive ground speed and strength, and the discipline of a functioning army.

In a period of only one week, ISIS moved quickly across northern Iraq, capturing several large cities, declaring the imposition of strict Islamic law, and vowing to press on toward Baghdad. Iraqi soldiers and security forces—trained and supplied by the United States—turned and ran. Many of the soldiers dropped their weapons, abandoned their heavy equipment and their vehicles, and even stripped away their army uniforms. In the brief battle for Mosul, roughly 850 ISIS fighters were able to cause the retreat of more than 32,000 Iraqi soldiers, police and security forces. ISIS militants met so little resistance that they not only collected millions of dollars worth of modern weaponry, they were also able to clean out local and regional banks. By some estimates, ISIS now has $500 million in its coffers.

The militants now control a vast swath of territory stretching from the Syrian border with Turkey in the northwest, to the threshold of Kurdish lands in northeastern Iraq, to within 80 miles of Baghdad in central Iraq. Despite a surge by Iraqi forces days ago, ISIS says it still controls all areas it took in its lightning sweep across northern Iraq, and it says it still intends to capture Baghdad soon. Just within the last few days, militants have seized control of Mosul, Tikrit, Kirkuk and Tal Afar. Today, reports from the battle lines say that militants shot down at least one Iraqi helicopter gunship. ISIS has made available dozens of videos showing grisly, gruesome images of Iraqi soldiers being executed, and analysts say the videos are designed with one purpose in mind—the spread of fear among anyone who intends to fight ISIS forces.

Flush with cash, ISIS has moved into social media and the internet in its recruitment drives worldwide. Unlike al Qaeda, which posted a new video every few months or used the internet only sparingly, ISIS has established a broad retail presence on the web, using Twitter, You Tube, and a variety of other social media applications to spread its message to young men in other countries. ISIS seeks territorial control in its goal of the creation of a caliphate, just as it seeks to spread terror and fear.

Intelligence experts and military analysts say that this combination of factors makes ISIS, an offshoot of al Qaeda, one of the most dangerous moving armies on earth.

But ISIS poses unforeseen threats in other parts of the region as well. The militant group has been unabashed in its desire to recruit soldiers from other Arab countries, and according to a variety of recent reports, ISIS is targeting disaffected men in Saudi Arabia. If these intelligence reports and news reports prove to be accurate, ISIS may be on the verge of beginning an attempt to topple the Al Saud royal family in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi’s are the world’s largest oil producer, and the world’s largest oil exporter. Ninety-five percent of the Saudi economy is driven by oil production, and its government rakes in almost three-quarters of its wealth from oil. The number of countries dependent on this oil is too long to list here, but suffice it to say that any disruption in the oil output of Saudi Arabia would have ripple effects worldwide. Saudi Arabia produces between five million and nine million barrels of oil per day, depending on data found on various energy websites. A sudden shutdown of oil production could have catastrophic repercussions for the world’s economy.

This is why some analysts say that ISIS’s recent overt interest in recruitment on the Arabian Peninsula—the first major move by jihadist groups since the Saudi’s beat back an earlier attempt by al Qaeda in the previous decade—should sound alarm bells among the world leaders.  Iraq shares a long, largely unprotected border with Saudi Arabia, and ISIS forces have shown their ability to move quickly and effectively across the landscape.

Although ISIS came to the attention of most people in the world in June, the militant organization has been openly recruiting in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States for more than a month. The news that ISIS has been aggressively seeking to form a movement in the largest of the oil states has many economists worried. Iraq is a major oil producer as well, and an Iraq in the hands of a jihadist entity could spell higher oil prices worldwide. Even if the worst case scenario is a segmented Iraq, with the ISIS forces controlling the north, and those loyal to Nouri al Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government controlling the south, Iraqi oil production will be surely be disrupted in areas where oil wells and pipelines fall under the control of militants. Likewise, a disruption to the political stability in Saudi Arabia could have massive consequences for oil-consuming nations worldwide.

For many in the jihadist world, Saudi Arabia is the antithesis of true Islam, despite the vast country being host to two of the most sacred sites in all of the Islamic world: Al-Masjid al-Haram (Grand Mosque, Mecca) and the Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (Medina). For many terrorist groups, the Saudi royal family—and its moderate stance of generally friendly relationships with western powers—has been an unacceptable arrangement, and jihadists have long called for the overthrow of the Saudi family. In 1979, terrorists briefly seized control of the holy site in Mecca, and called for a general uprising. After about a week, the militants were dislodged from the mosque and the Saudi government added additional security, then, cracked down on religious opposition. Those involved in the seizure were executed.

Shortly afterwards, the Saud family extended some gestures toward traditional Islamic law by insisting on the closure of some businesses (movie theaters, for example), and by strengthening certain codes of appearance. But on the whole the jihadists were still dissatisfied with the Saudi government. Militants have threatened to disrupt and overthrow the Saudi government for decades, and Osama bin Laden, himself Saudi by birth, called for a general uprising and the application of terror. Later, in 2008 and 2009, the Saudi army fought a campaign against Shiite insurgents in several areas.

The Saudis may fear the religious extremism of ISIS, but the ruling family in Saudi Arabia is sometimes authoritarian to a fault. Women are not allowed to drive cars, nor have women been allowed to vote, though King Abdullah decreed recently that beginning next year women can vote and participate as full members in political advisory councils. And though women will get to vote soon, there are no elections in the traditional sense in Saudi Arabia. Most political issues are debated and resolved within the royal family, and many Middle East analysts liken the process to a large family-owned corporation, complete with factions and rivalries, backroom intrigue, and shifting alliances. Those who do “vote” are those few allowed to participate in tribal councils, advisory panels, and the Ulema, a mostly religious body which includes clerics, teachers and scholars.

The majority of Saudis are Sunni Muslims, which worries some Middle East analysts who say that Saudi Arabia may be ripe for political turmoil despite its vast wealth. But there is also a significant minority of Shiites in Saudi Arabia. The ruling family members are Wahhabis, and there has been tension, in some cases promoted by outside forces (as in Iran’s attempts to influence the Shiite population of Saudi Arabia toward uprising) applied on both sides of the Sunni-Shiite divide on the Arabian Peninsula.

The old borders drawn by the European powers continue to complicate things. Saudi Arabia was generally supportive of Saddam Hussein when he consolidated power in neighboring Iraq in the 1970s and early 1980s. Like the United States, Saudi Arabia backed Iraq in its long war with Iran. But later, when Saddam invaded Kuwait, the Saudis were so fearful of Saddam that they asked the United States to intervene militarily, even allowing the U.S., the U.K. and other allied troops access to construct bases on the Saudi Peninsula. This decision further infuriated militant groups and jihadists.

Disruption to oil production is seen by some terrorists as the shortest possible path to dislodge and overthrow the Saud family, whose rule dates back to the early part of the 20th century.

Many jihadists see the Saud family and its governing classes in Riyadh as phony Muslims, cloaked only in the trappings of Islam but obsessed with their wealth and their business relationships with those scores of trading partners who purchase Saudi oil.

But the Middle East can produce strange bedfellows. Saudi Arabia has long been rumored to have been supporting—through backchannels—the mostly Sunni fighters at war in Syria’s northern regions. Saudi Arabia must now contend with the possibility of that same radical movement seeking to spark jihad in its own backyard. Further complicating the messy dynamic: Iran is on the verge of openly supporting the government in Baghdad where it shares a kinship with Maliki and the Shiite’s in the Iraqi capital. Iran and Iraq have been bitter enemies for decades, and in the 1980s fought a long, brutal war in which hundreds of thousands may have died.  Today, Secretary of State John Kerry said he would be open to working with Iran if it helps to bring stability to Iraq.

The majority of those living in southern Iraq are Shiites, as is Prime Miniter Maliki, and the majority of those in the north are Sunni. The ISIS militants, now a formally organized army, are Sunni, and have in part tapped into the deep resentment that Iraq Sunnis feel toward the government in Baghdad.

This sectarian split was never fully resolved during the long U.S. military occupation which followed the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

After a week of silence, the Saudi government has responded to the crisis in Iraq through a cabinet-level press release. In that statement, it says the escalating crisis in Iraq is the direct result of “sectarian” policies in Baghdad, and the Saudis urge the people of Iraq to settle their differences peacefully and without foreign intervention—which presumably means Iran.

Meanwhile, the White House struggles daily to digest reports on the rapidly-evolving situation. Though President Barack Obama has said that he does not intend to put U.S. troops back on the ground in Iraq, he has said that he will consider other uses of force. Among those things being considered by the White House: air strikes, drone strikes, air support and air cover for Iraqi troops, intelligence support from drones and satellite imagery, and offshore U.S. Navy support. The President has sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf in anticipation of possible air cover or air strikes, and just today said he was strongly considering inserting a contingent of U.S. Special Forces into Iraq to help train and coordinate the Iraqi army’s response to the threat of ISIS.

But back in Riyadh, the Saudi powers-that-be are worried. If ISIS forces are able, by whatever means, to eventually take Baghdad, there would be little stopping those militants—now heavily armed, well-organized and well-funded—from storming south across the desert, and across the frontier that separates Iraq from Saudi Arabia.

And in that scenario, the jihadists could threaten much of the world’s economic and market stability simply by driving en masse toward those oil-rich sands.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Back to the Future: Iraq’s Descent Into Chaos; Thursday Review commentary; June 15, 2014.

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