FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Parallel Disintegrations

by PATRICK COCKBURN

The civil war in Syria is reigniting the sectarian civil war in Iraq. A vast area of eastern Syrian and  western Iraq is turning into a zone of war. Well-armed and well-organised al-Qa’ida-linked movements are launching attacks with  suicide bombers from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Tigris River. They may also be over-playing their hand and risk  provoking a counter-reaction by all those with a reason to fear al-Qa’ida and its fanatical  Sunni fundamentalism.

No doubt groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) are growing stronger by the day. Its advance in Syria has been well publicised and has done enough to frighten the US and its allies into doubting how far they want to see President Bashar al-Assad replaced by Sunni fanatics. Less well publicised is the tightening grip of Isis over great areas of western Iraq where it has not been a power since the confrontation with the Americans and the Sunni tribes six or seven years ago.

This is not a well-reported part of the world because of the growing dangers facing foreign and local journalists. Some 16 foreign  reporters have been kidnapped in northern Syria this year, so even the most intrepid are no longer going there. Syrian rebel  commanders who protected journalists can no longer defend themselves against Isis, the al-Nusra Front or or Ahrar al-Sham. Iraq, which once had hotels filled with foreign journalists, has long fallen off the media map.

Unsurprisingly, important developments such as the weakening government grip on Anbar – the vast Sunni province west of Baghdad centred on the towns and cities of  the Euphrates – have not been properly  reported. Al-Qa’ida is once again making ground attacks on cities like Fallujah from which they were driven by US Marines in 2004. The same is true of the city of Mosul in  northern Iraq, where Isis is reported to levy  protection money on everybody from the  local green grocer to satellite phone and  construction companies – bringing in monthly revenue of $8m.

This is happening because al-Qa’ida reinvigorated itself by its gains in Syria, and the Sunni community in Iraq – heavily defeated after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 – could see the regional balance of power changing in its favour.

Dysfunctional and crudely sectarian at the best of times, the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad has progressively alienated the Iraqi-Sunni by discrimination and repression. The result is that al-Qa’ida has gained popular support and has been able to launch a wave of bombings that has been killing up to 1,000 people, mostly Shia civilians, every month.

But the last time al-Qa’ida did this, in 2006, it provoked a savage sectarian counter-attack by the Shia, who make up 60 per cent of the Iraqi population. The outside world never really took on board that an outcome of the Iraqi civil war was that Baghdad moved from being a mixed Shia-Sunni city to one dominated  by the Shia with only a few Sunni enclaves left, mostly in the west of the capital. If al-Qa’ida’s bombings go on, these areas will be at risk  of further sectarian cleansing. There are  detailed reports, denied by the government in Baghdad, that the few remaining Sunni in and around Basra in southern Iraq are being killed or forced to flee.

In a different way in Syria, al-Qa’ida’s ferocity may make it formidable on the battlefield but it creates a counter-reaction among Sunni as well as Alwaites, Christians and the other minorities. Damascus is full of people who do not much  like Assad, but still think Isis or the al-Nusra Front are worse. Much the same thing  happened in Sunni neighbourhoods in Baghdad in 2006 when al-Qa’ida terrified people by  shooting barbers who gave un-Islamic haircuts or were rumoured to be chopping two  fingers off the right hand of people caught  smoking a cigarette. In the last few weeks there have been signs of the way in which Isis has weakened the loose coalition against Assad, by starting a war in north east Syria with the Kurds, about 10 per cent of the Syrian population.

A motive for the fighting is control of the oil wells that are concentrated in this area. Some 50,000 Kurdish refugees have already fled  but others have been forced to rely on the  disciplined fighters of the Kurdistan Workers Party which has been fighting the Turkish  army for years.

The outcome of these struggles is likely to be a divided Iraq and a divided Syria. Where  there are Sunni minorities in Iraq they will be killed or forced to flee. This might well  include Baghdad. In the Sunni heartlands  al-Qa’ida will grow stronger, though in Syria the movement is vulnerable to a backlash. The  governments in Baghdad and Damascus will  be strengthened not because they are well  liked but because people dread the alternative to them.

Is there any way this bloodbath could be ended? The chances of the so-called Geneva 11 peace meeting getting off the ground do not look good with the deeply divided opposition leadership refusing to attend if Assad plays a role. But there is no reason for him to depart since he is militarily and politically stronger than a year ago.

Perhaps, the only way to exercise influence on al-Qa’ida and the 1,200 other rebel groups is to threaten them with closure of the  500-mile long Turkish border which they need to keep open if they are to continue to fight.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of  Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
December 02, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro
Paul Street
The Iron Heel at Home: Force Matters
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Timberg’s Tale: Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites
Andrew Levine
Must We Now Rethink the Hillary Question? Absolutely, Not
Joshua Frank
CounterPunch as Russian Propagandists: the Washington Post’s Shallow Smear
David Rosen
The Return of HUAC?
Rob Urie
Race and Class in Trump’s America
Patrick Cockburn
Why Everything You’ve Read About Syria and Iraq Could be Wrong
Caroline Hurley
Anatomy of a Nationalist
Michael Hudson – Steve Keen
Rebel Economists on the Historical Path to a Global Recovery
Ayesha Khan
A Muslim Woman’s Reflections on Trump’s Misogyny
Russell Mokhiber
Sanders Single Payer and Death by Democrat
Roger Harris
The Triumph of Trump and the Specter of Fascism
Steve Horn
Donald Trump’s Swamp: Meet Ten Potential Energy and Climate Cabinet Picks and the Pickers
Louis Proyect
Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers
Ralph Nader
Trump and His Betraying Makeover
Stephen Kimber
The Media’s Abysmal Coverage of Castro’s Death
Dan Bacher
WSPA: The West’s Most Powerful Corporate Lobbying Group
Nile Bowie
Will Trump backpedal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Ron Ridenour
Fidel’s Death Brings Forth Great and Sad Memories
Missy Comley Beattie
By Invitation Only
Fred Gardner
Sword of Damocles: Pot Partisans Fear Trump’s DOJ
Renee Parsons
Obama and Propornot
Dean Baker
Cash and Carrier: Trump and Pence Put on a Show
Jack Rasmus
Taming Trump: From Faux Left to Faux Right Populism
Ron Jacobs
Selling Racism—A Lesson From Pretoria
Julian Vigo
The Hijos of Buenos Aires:  When Identity is Political
Matthew Vernon Whalan
Obama’s Legacy
Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano
By Way of Prologue: On How We Arrived at the Watchtower and What We Saw from There
Aidan O'Brien
Fidel and Spain: A Tale of Right and Wrong
Carol Dansereau
Stop Groveling! How to Thwart Trump and Save the World
Kim Nicolini
Moonlight, The Movie
Evan Jones
Behind GE’s Takeover of Alstom Energy
James A Haught
White Evangelicals are Fading, Powerful, Baffling
Barbara Moroncini
Protests and Their Others
Christopher Brauchli
Parallel Lives: Trump and Temer
Joseph Natoli
The Winds at Their Backs
Cesar Chelala
Poverty is Not Only an Ignored Word
David Swanson
75 Years of Pearl Harbor Lies
Alex Jensen
The Great Deceleration
Nyla Ali Khan
When Faith is the Legacy of One’s Upbringing
Gilbert Mercier
Trump Win: Paradigm Shift or Status Quo?
Stephen Martin
From ‘Too Big to Fail’ to ‘Too Big to Lie’: the End Game of Corporatist Globalization.
Charles R. Larson
Review: Emma Jane Kirby’s “The Optician of Lampedusa”
David Yearsley
Haydn Seek With Hsu
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail