Thriving on Chaos

Patrick Cockburn on the prospects for Islamic State

America’s first act in the war on Iraq was an attempt to kill Saddam Hussein. In the early hours of the morning of 20 March 2003, forty cruise missiles were launched and bunker-buster bombs dropped on a compound on the outskirts of Baghdad where US intelligence wrongly believed him to be staying. Three years later a US airstrike succeeded in killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaida in Iraq, the organisation that would become Islamic State. Neither Saddam’s survival nor al-Zarqawi’s death had much impact on the course of events, but the White House remained convinced that eliminating leaders and other high-value targets was a war-winning strategy. There is little evidence to support this theory; but still, the assassination of demonic opponents is clearly good politics, allowing American presidents to impress voters with decisive action amid what have been messy, inconclusive wars.

The death last month of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had led IS since 2010, in a US raid in north-west Syria was celebrated in a self-glorifying speech by Donald Trump as proof that IS had been definitively destroyed. The claim had some substance: al-Baghdadi, who five years earlier had declared himself caliph in the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul, was the most important surviving symbol of IS as a territorial state. The possession of an actual state – at its height it stretched across Syria and Iraq, from west of the Euphrates to east of the Tigris – distinguished IS from other militarised Islamic cults, like Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida. For a brief, astonishing period, this reborn caliphate governed, in brutal but well-organised fashion, a population of ten million, claiming divine inspiration in its pursuit of true Islamic principles. Its rise was spectacular, but so was its fall: it lost its final piece of territory, a village in the desert on the Syrian side of the border, six months before al-Baghdadi’s death. He was reduced to moving from hideout to hideout in Idlib province, near the Turkish border, far from the IS heartlands, with little control over IS strategy or tactics – though it was always unclear whether he actually exercised full command.

The process of IS decision-making over the last ten years – and al-Baghdadi’s role in it – is a mystery. If he was in total control of operations between 2011 and 2014, he can take credit for rebuilding IS: he took advantage of the opportunities offered by the disintegration of Syria, and of Sunni resistance to a sectarian Shia government in Iraq. But after IS captured Mosul in June 2014, almost every decision taken or endorsed by al-Baghdadi was disastrous. The caliphate in any case posed too much of a threat to other powers to last for long, but al-Baghdadi accelerated its demise by effectively declaring war against the entire world. Not everyone thought it in their interests to fight the new theocratic quasi-state: Kurds in both Syria and Iraq at first stayed neutral, opportunistically expanding their own territories as IS battled the central governments in Baghdad and Damascus. But at the peak of IS success, its fighters attacked the Kurds in both countries without provocation, making enemies of them – and, fatally, guaranteeing US involvement on the Kurdish side. In al-Baghdadi’s vision, to be outside IS was to be an infidel by definition. Inevitably, the list of his opponents was all-encompassing: both the Americans and the Russians; both the Syrian government and the non-IS armed opposition to that government. Countries which had once tolerated IS – Turkey allowed forty thousand IS fighters to cross the border into IS territory – found that such covert co-operation was no guarantee that they themselves wouldn’t become a target.

IS systematically publicised its atrocities on the internet in order to terrorise its opponents, a tactic which at first worked well but ended up mobilising those it threatened – such as the Shia in Iraq, who outnumber the Sunni population three to one. Outnumbered and outgunned, IS would inevitably be ground down and crushed, with the Sunni community as a whole in the northern tier of the Middle East between the Iranian border and the Mediterranean suffering by association in the wake of their defeat.

The terror inflicted by IS attacks around the world is not easily forgotten: 142 killed in Yemen when two Shia mosques were bombed; 103 peace protesters killed by a suicide bomber in Ankara; 224 blown up on a Metrojet flight to St Petersburg; 131 shot or bombed in the Paris attacks of 2015; 86 run down by a truck in Nice the following year; 593 killed in an operation in the Philippines the year after that; 311 killed when attackers opened fire during Friday prayers at a mosque in Sinai; 149 killed by a suicide bomber at an election rally in Pakistan – not to mention the eight killed in the UK in 2017 after a van drove into pedestrians on London Bridge.

So the prospect that IS may still fight on remains a live concern around the world. Americans and Europeans may not care what happens to the Kurds, or who rules in Damascus and Baghdad, but they do worry about IS – because IS is a threat to themselves. In the coming presidential election campaign Trump will try to capitalise on the assassination of al-Baghdadi, as Hillary Clinton tried to capitalise on the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, however little she had to do with it. It’s a dangerous strategy: it takes only one spectacular attack, like the co-ordinated series of suicide bombings at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka in April this year, for IS yet again to contradict claims of its demise. Its defeats on the battlefield – especially the loss of Mosul and Raqqa after the sieges of 2017 – have destroyed it as a territorial entity. But al-Baghdadi’s death makes its resurrection in new forms no less likely – perhaps more. Al-Qaida franchises had greater success after the killing of bin Laden than they did during the years of his holdout in Abbottabad. Al-Baghdadi was a symbol of IS in victory, but also of IS in defeat. If it is to be revived, it will have to be with new methods and modified ideology: no longer seeking self-isolation above all, no longer punishing anyone not wholeheartedly in its own camp. Al-Baghdadi’s removal may make such a transformation easier to carry out.

That said, the obstacles are formidable. Until its apotheosis in 2014 opponents of IS were wilfully blind to its growing power, or thought they could turn it to their own advantage. They did not find it ominous that IS had seized Fallujah, thirty miles west of Baghdad, and that the Iraqi army could not get them out. Earlier that month Barack Obama had told David Remnick of the New Yorker that, compared to al-Qaida, IS was a junior varsity basketball team playing out of its league; a few months later its fighters emerged from the desert to defeat six Iraqi army divisions and capture Mosul.

Wary of making the same mistake again, the US and its allies have remained on the alert for any sign that IS may be back in business. But it is easy also to overestimate the threat it poses. If it is to do more than launch sporadic guerrilla attacks in isolated rural areas and stage periodic massacres of civilians abroad – if it is to re-emerge as a serious force in the region – IS would have to persuade shattered Sunni communities and tribes in its former centres of power in Syria and Iraq that armed resistance is once again both feasible and necessary. Over the last decade, millions of them have had to flee their homes as cities from Aleppo and Homs to Mosul and Ramadi have been pounded into rubble by airstrikes and artillery fire. US Central Command reports that between 2014 and 2019 it carried out a total of 34,573 airstrikes on targets in Syria and Iraq, almost all of them in Sunni areas. Ferocious resistance by IS fighters in Mosul and Raqqa resulted in unthinkable numbers of civilian dead. During the last months of the siege I spoke to many people trapped in the Old City of Mosul. By the time the siege was over everyone I had been in contact with was dead: killed by coalition airstrikes if they stayed in their houses, or by IS snipers if they tried to escape.

Until recently, then, the chances of an IS revival looked slim. Friends and enemies had both suffered the murderous violence of its rule and had no wish to repeat the experience. An organisation as ruthless as IS isn’t going to seek popular approval before it acts but it can’t rely wholly on intimidation to gather recruits for a new campaign: it needs to retain some sympathy among the Sunni community at large. More important, it has always thrived on chaos: with its rivals at one another’s throats, it could exploit the vacuum of political and military power. For much of this year, chaos seemed to be on the way out, as normal life gradually returned to former battle zones in both Syria and Iraq – unpropitious conditions for IS. But in October the situation changed.

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I was in Baghdad on the evening of 1 October, staying at the Baghdad Hotel near Tahrir Square in the city centre. I was planning to visit Diyala governorate, north of Baghdad, the following day. The area had once been an IS stronghold, and I wanted to see whether it was making a comeback. From my hotel I heard the distant sound of shots. They could have been in celebration of a wedding, or victory in a football match, but the gunfire went on too long for those things to make sense, so I went down to the lobby to find out what was happening. As I reached the front door a man came in from the street to say that the security services were shooting at protesters; ten of them had been killed. Later in the evening, I got in touch with a doctor at Medical City, a hospital complex not far from Tahrir Square, who said that ten dead was an underestimate and that he himself had seen four bodies. Meanwhile, the government was claiming a death toll of one.

Nobody had been expecting violence. By Baghdad standards it was a small protest – some three thousand people on the streets – and it was motivated by social and economic issues: unemployment, government corruption and inadequate electricity and water supply. I had been told about it the previous day by a group of young men demonstrating opposite the foreign ministry, where they were demanding jobs appropriate to their status as university graduates. They said they had been camped out there for 43 days and were intending to go to the rally in Tahrir Square, but they didn’t seem to be expecting trouble. Street protests have become a familiar part of Iraqi politics over the last few years. In 2016, demonstrators broke into the Green Zone and ransacked parliament and the prime minister’s office. Last year in Basra, protests over water and electricity shortages led to the setting ablaze of government and party offices, though only 12 people were reported killed.

Last month in Baghdad, the response of the security forces was very different. And, as it turned out, not only of the security forces: also patrolling the streets were the pro-Iranian factions of the predominantly Shia paramilitary Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Units. When the protesters tried to cross the al-Jumhuriya bridge leading from Tahrir Square towards the Green Zone, they were met with live fire.

The next day I drove through Tahrir Square, where protesters and soldiers were eyeing each other nervously during a lull in the demonstrations. A man was lying on the pavement on a slip road leading up the square, but I couldn’t see whether he was injured or dead. Shortly afterwards the government declared a 24-hour curfew in Baghdad, a city of seven million people, as well as in towns and cities in the overwhelmingly Shia southern part of Iraq. It cut off access to the internet in the hope of making it impossible to organise protests – but the effect was that smaller rallies began popping up all over Baghdad. My contact in Medical City reported that his hospital had been invaded by pro-Iranian Shia paramilitaries – members of either Kataib Hizbullah or Asaib Ahl al-Haq – who were beating injured protesters as they lay in their beds. He complained to one of the paramilitary commanders, who hit him with a baton and told him to mind his own business.

News of the protests was being broadcast by local media. In an attempt to put an end to the publicity, members of a group called Saraya Talia al-Khurusani invaded TV stations, wrecking studios and smashing equipment. In the streets, riot police fired heavy-duty tear gas grenades directly at protesters, inflicting serious and in some cases fatal injuries. According to surgeons who treated the wounded, paramilitary snipers were aiming for the head or chest. The government announced that these tactics were prohibited and would not be repeated – but it was clearly no longer in control of the way the protests were being policed. The use of maximum force proved counterproductive, since over the next few days the demonstrations gathered in size, but whoever was issuing the orders was apparently determined that this was the only way to deal with them.

That person was reportedly the Iranian general Qassim Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite al-Quds Brigade. Soleimani had flown into Baghdad airport on 2 October, taken a helicopter to the Green Zone and chaired a security meeting – taking the place of the usual chair, Iraq’s prime minister. There could be no plainer demonstration of Iranian power over Iraqi policy, or of the arrogance with which it has been exercised. Soleimani is the architect of Iran’s regional security policy, determined to maintain Iranian influence by every means available as the US struggles to realise Trump’s declared ambition of containing it. In recent confrontations Soleimani, who has a reputation for being a skilled commander, has repeatedly outmanoeuvred the US and its Gulf allies. But success appears to have gone to his head. At the meeting in the Green Zone he made clear his belief that there was only one way to respond to the protests. ‘This happened in Iran and we got it under control,’ he is reported as having said. He was presumably referring to Iran’s successful repression of the Green Movement that sprang up there in 2009 – but then there had been no indiscriminate shooting into crowds, or singling out of movement leaders by snipers. By the end of October, the strategy as implemented in Iraq had resulted in the deaths of at least 250 protesters – the actual figure is probably much higher – with no sign of the demonstrations slowing. What’s more, they have taken an increasingly anti-Iranian turn: on 3 November protesters set fire to the Iranian consulate in the Shia holy city of Karbala.

Like so many security chiefs down the centuries, Soleimani has helped fuel the revolutionary situation he was trying to prevent. As an Iraqi friend told me, ‘shooting people isn’t going to work because too many of them have nothing left to lose.’ Repression on this scale was unexpected as well as unwise. In the days before the rally that led to the first shootings I spoke to the commanders of several of the pro-Iranian paramilitary groups, none of whom seemed to be anticipating a crisis. I asked them how they thought the US-Iran face-off would affect Iraq. Qais al-Khazali, the leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, was confident that in Iraq as elsewhere, Iran knew how to handle tensions in a way that would stop short of full-scale military confrontation. There would be no war, he said, ‘because Trump does not want one’. Abu Ala al-Walai, the leader of Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, was more apprehensive: a recent drone attack, which he blamed on Israel, had destroyed fifty tonnes of arms at al-Saqr, a base under his command on the outskirts of Baghdad. I went to see it; evidently, a giant blast had torn the place apart. ‘The big new development,’ Abu Ala said, ‘is that Israel has come to Iraq.’ But the reaction – the overreaction – of the Iranians and their paramilitary allies to the protests in Baghdad may be a sign that they interpret events on the ground in the light of their struggle with the US. At the end of October Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared that ‘the US and Western intelligence agencies, with the help of money from regional countries, are instigating unrest in the region. I advise Lebanon and Iraq to make it a priority to stabilise these security threats.’

Mass protests erupted in Lebanon on 17 October after the government tried to introduce a tax on the use of voice messaging systems like WhatsApp and FaceTime. As in Iraq, economic and social grievances have gradually escalated into generalised opposition towards a corrupt and dysfunctional political system. As in Iraq, pro-Iranian militias – in this case supporters of Hizbullah – have used force against demonstrators, attacking protest camps in central Beirut. In both Iraq and Lebanon, Iran and its Shia allies feel that the political status quo they have fought for is at risk. Paranoid that the US may be playing its part in encouraging dissent, they have opted for repression. If sustained for long enough this strategy may succeed, not because force will necessarily win out but because in neither Iraq nor Lebanon have protesters given much indication that they have any concrete ideas about how to replace the present discredited system – or with what.

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As these events were unfolding in Lebanon and Iraq, there was similar unrest in Syria – but for entirely different reasons. Trump had long declared his intention to bring home American troops, or at least to extract them from the Syrian ‘mess’, and the withdrawal of the two-thousand-strong US military force in the north-east of the country began on 6 October. The time had come: the troops were there to fight IS and IS had been defeated. The idea – pushed by Washington’s foreign policy establishment – that this small force could simultaneously protect the Kurds, defend against Iranian influence, weaken Bashar al-Assad and deter Russia had always been unrealistic. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara and Assad in Damascus, much though they dislike each other, were united in their determination to eliminate Rojava, the Syrian Kurdish mini-state which – with the assistance of American airpower and a limited number of US troops on the ground – had been established after the Syrian army withdrew from the area in 2012.

A US withdrawal may have been inevitable but its shambolic on/off nature was not. Unlike the White House, the Pentagon wanted to keep a presence in Syria – however unclear its purpose in a region now under the sway of Russia, Iran and Assad – and had not prepared contingency plans for withdrawal. In the ensuing shambles, the US military bombed its former headquarters in a cement factory near the city of Manbij and abandoned other bases to the Russians and the Syrian army. Trump’s tweet greenlighting a Turkish invasion of Rojava was – understandably – portrayed in the US media as gross treachery towards America’s brave allies, but it was no surprise to anyone in the region. In early 2018 Turkey invaded the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, north of Aleppo, and engaged in ethnic cleansing – no objection was raised in the US or elsewhere. Erdoğan made it clear then that Rojava would be next. I was in Rojava at the time of Afrin’s fall and spoke to Kurdish leaders, who knew that fending off both Erdoğan and Assad would be next to impossible. The area they controlled was flat and indefensible so they had no real military option. Much of the population lived close to the Turkish border and even a small-scale Turkish incursion would turn them into refugees. These fears have now been realised, with some 132,000 Kurds displaced from the border region.

There was clearly a degree of complicity between the main players in Syria after Trump’s withdrawal of US protection from the Kurds, though all sides publicly expressed shock at what was happening. The Turkish invasion was limited to the area between the towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad, involving only about six thousand regular Turkish troops alongside a much larger force of irregular troops nominally belonging to the opposition Syrian National Army but operating under the authority of the Turkish army. In the event, the carve-up went smoothly from the point of view of its beneficiaries: the Turks took a couple of border towns; Russian and Syrian forces raced into cities like Manbij, Raqqa and Kobani. Erdoğan achieved his main aim: the break-up of Rojava and an end to the US-Kurdish military alliance. Both events have also benefited Iran, which faces problems with the Kurds within its own borders, while Russia has reinforced its position as the most important player in the Syrian conflict. The Kurds are the losers they always feared they would be. They are now trying to rescue whatever they can from the wreckage and to limit the ethnic cleansing of their communities by Turkey.

How much does IS stand to gain from the collapse of the US-Kurdish coalition it has been fighting for the last five years? The turmoil will be all the greater because of Trump’s bizarre decision to reverse course and increase the number of US troops in the oilfields of eastern Syria. All this adds up to the sort of confusion that IS has traditionally taken advantage of. Will it similarly be able to benefit from the situation in Iraq, as a disintegrating government grapples with an incipient uprising among its own Shia supporters? It may be that IS no longer has the strength to exploit the division among its enemies. Movements that combine ideological fanaticism with military expertise can be lethally effective in warfare, but they need victories to validate the justness of their cause. Such victories now seem far off, but the removal of al-Baghdadi may make it easier for IS to adapt to circumstances that are moving in its favour.