US Indymedia Global Indymedia Publish About us
Printed from Boston IMC :
IVAW Winter Soldier

Winter Soldier
Brad Presente

Other Local News

Spare Change News
Open Media Boston
Somerville Voices
Cradle of Liberty
The Sword and Shield

Local Radio Shows

WMBR 88.1 FM
What's Left
WEDS at 8:00 pm
Local Edition
FRI (alt) at 5:30 pm

WMFO 91.5 FM
Socialist Alternative
SUN 11:00 am

WZBC 90.3 FM
Sounds of Dissent
SAT at 11:00 am
Truth and Justice Radio
SUN at 6:00 am

Create account Log in
Comment on this article | View comments | Email this article | Printer-friendly version
News :: International
The Battle for Baghdad - 14 July 2014
14 Jul 2014
ISIS on the March
Iraq War.jpg
From "The London Review of Books" by PATRICK COCKBURN

In early June, Abbas Saddam, a private soldier from a Shia district in Baghdad serving in the 11th Division of the Iraqi army, was transferred from Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in western Iraq, to Mosul in the north. The fighting started not long after he got there. But on the morning of 10 June the commanding officer told his men to stop shooting, hand over their rifles to the insurgents, take off their uniforms and get out of the city. Before they could obey, their barracks were invaded by a crowd of civilians. ‘They threw stones at us,’ Abbas recalled, ‘and shouted: “We don’t want you in our city! You are Maliki’s sons! You are the sons of mutta! * You are Safavids! You are the army of Iran!”’

The crowd’s attack on the soldiers shows that the fall of Mosul was the result of a popular uprising as well as a military assault by Isis. The Iraqi army was detested as a foreign occupying force of Shia soldiers, regarded in Mosul – an overwhelmingly Sunni city – as creatures of an Iranian puppet regime led by Nouri al-Maliki. Abbas says there were Isis fighters – always called Daash in Iraq after the Arabic acronym of their name – mixed in with the crowd. They said to the soldiers: ‘You guys are OK: just put up your rifles and go. If you don’t, we’ll kill you.’ Abbas saw women and children with military weapons; local people offered the soldiers dishdashes to replace their uniforms so that they could flee. He made his way back to his family in Baghdad, but he hasn’t told the army he’s here because he’s afraid of being put on trial for desertion, as happened to a friend. He feels this is deeply unjust: after all, he says, it was his officers who ordered him to give up his weapon and uniform. He asks why Generals Ali Ghaidan Majid, commander of ground forces, and Abboud Qanbar, deputy chief of staff, who fled Mosul for Kurdistan in civilian clothes at the same time, haven’t been ‘judged and executed as traitors’.

Shock at the disintegration of the army in Mosul and other Sunni-majority districts of northern Iraq is still determining the mood in Baghdad weeks later. The debacle marks the end of a distinct period in Iraqi history: the period between 2006 and 2014 when the Iraqi Shia under Maliki sought to dominate the country much as the Sunni had done under Saddam Hussein. The Shias’ feeling of disempowerment after the Mosul collapse has been so unexpected that they believe almost any other disaster is possible. In theory, the capital should be secure: it has a population of seven million, most of them Shia, and is defended by the remains of the regular army as well as tens of thousands of Shia militiamen. But then almost the same might have been said of Mosul and Tikrit, where the insurgents may have had popular support but were always outnumbered and outgunned. Before they collapsed – four or five divisions have still not been re-formed – the Iraqi security services counted 350,000 soldiers and 650,000 police. They were opposed by an estimated 6000 Isis fighters, though these were backed up by local tribes and former army officers. Even if Isis is seen only as the shock troops of a revolt by the six or seven million-strong Sunni community in Iraq, it was still an extraordinary military success on one side and an unprecedented failure on the other. ‘Enemies and supporters alike are flabbergasted,’ the Isis spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani declared, while warning Isis fighters not to be over-impressed by all the American-made military equipment they had captured. ‘Do not fall prey to your vanities and egos,’ he told them, but ‘march towards Baghdad’ and give the Shia no time to catch their breath.

The government’s first reaction to defeat was disbelief and panic. Maliki blamed the fall of Mosul on a deep conspiracy, though he never identified the conspirators. He looked both baffled and defiant, but appeared to feel no personal responsibility for defeat despite having personally appointed all 15 of the army’s divisional commanders. A Baghdad newspaper reported that no fewer than seven ministers and 42 MPs had taken refuge in Jordan along with their families. Those politicians who have stayed are apprehensive: Dhia’a al-Assadi, one of the leaders of the movement of the populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said: ‘We expect terrible days to come. They will be crucial in deciding whether Iraq stays united.’ In the first days after the fall of Mosul there was a sense of half-suppressed hysteria in the empty streets: people stayed at home, frightened, to follow the latest news on television. Many had stocked up on food and fuel within hours of hearing about the army’s collapse. Propane gas, with which Baghdadis normally cook, was in short supply: Isis had cut the road to Kirkuk, where the gas cylinders come from. Sweet shops and bakeries make special pasties for breaking the fast at the end of the day during Ramadan, but few people were buying them. Weddings were cancelled. Rumours swept the city that Isis was planning to make a sudden lunge into the centre of Baghdad and storm the Green Zone in spite of its immense fortifications.

The biggest fear was that Isis fighters, only an hour’s drive away in Tikrit and Fallujah, would time their attack to coincide with an uprising in the capital’s Sunni enclaves. The Sunni in Baghdad, though buoyed by the news of the fall of Sunni provinces to the insurgents, were afraid that the Shia would be tempted to carry out a pre-emptive massacre of the Sunni minority in the city as a potential fifth column. Sunni strongholds, like al-Adhamiya on the east bank of the Tigris, appeared to be deserted. I tried to hire a driver recommended by a friend. He told me he needed the money but he was a Sunni and the risk of being stopped at a checkpoint was too great. ‘I am so frightened,’ he said, ‘that I always stay at home after six in the evening.’ It was easy to see what he meant. Sinister-looking men in civilian clothes, who might be from government intelligence or from the Shia militias, had suddenly appeared at police and army checkpoints, picking out suspects: they were clearly in a position to give orders to the policemen and soldiers. Sunni office workers asked to go home early to avoid being arrested; others stopped going to work. Being detained at a checkpoint carries an extra charge of fear in Baghdad because everybody, particularly the Sunni, remembers what it led to during the sectarian civil war of 2006-7: many of the checkpoints were run by death squads and the wrong ID card meant inevitable execution. Press reports claimed the killers were ‘men dressed as policemen’ but everybody in Baghdad knows that policemen and militiamen are often interchangeable.

There is nothing paranoid or irrational about the ever present sense of threat. Iraq’s acting national security adviser, Safa Hussein, told me that ‘many people think’ Isis will ‘synchronise attacks from inside and outside Baghdad’. He believed such an assault was possible though he thought it would lead to defeat for Isis and the Sunni rebels who joined them. The Sunni are in a minority but it wouldn’t take much for an attacking force coming from the Sunni heartlands in Anbar province to link up with districts in the city such as Amariya, Khadra and Dora. Much depends on how far Isis is overextended, surprised by its own victories and lacking the resources to strike at the capital. In Baghdad, unlike Mosul, the Shia mass of the population would oppose them and the militiamen would fight to the death for their families. A fatwa by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential leader for Iraqi Shia, called for a levee en masse of ‘able-bodied Iraqis’ to defend the country, and tens of thousands volunteered to join the army or establish their own militias. Even so, Isis could create mayhem in the capital without a direct assault by sending in its suicide bombers, closing the airport or taking over the Sunni towns just south of Baghdad – the area the Americans used to call the Triangle of Death – and partly encircling the capital.

A rational calculation of the balance of forces in any prospective battle for Baghdad shows that Isis has shot its bolt for the moment and can’t advance out of Sunni-dominated provinces. But Baghdadis are wary of assuming that they’re safe because they know they have to take into account the gross incompetence of the ruling elite around Maliki, which clings to power as if it had not just lost half the country. Even the generals who openly abandoned their troops in Mosul, Ali Ghaidan Majid and Abboud Qanbar, still hold their old jobs, two of the three most important in the army. ‘I still see them turning up to military meetings in Baghdad and they often sit in the front row as if nothing had happened,’ a senior official said despairingly. ‘It is beyond a joke.’

Also comical – and self-defeating – are the government’s attempts to prop up civilian morale in the face of humiliating defeat. Isis keeps putting out professionally made films showing its successes, as well as publicising its atrocities against Shia and government employees. The government’s response is to pretend that its defeats never happened and that only a sorry remnant of Isis fighters are still holding out. Somehow, it imagined it could conceal the extent of the disaster by closing down Twitter, YouTube and Google, as well as many local websites. It demanded that television stations close or focus on government successes, though these couldn’t be filmed since they were almost entirely imaginary. Fed up with these fictions, viewers deserted the main government channel, al-Iraqiya, and switched to others, including the Dubai-based, Saudi-backed channel al-Arabiya, which usually has live pictures to go with its reports. ‘Iraq is a visual culture where people don’t believe things unless they’ve seen pictures of it,’ says Ammar al-Shahbander, head of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Baghdad. The fact that a city or town has been lost is often revealed by an account of a counterattack, though that kind of crass propaganda is scarcely new. Kamran Karadaghi, formerly chief of staff to President Jalal Talabani, says he knew things must be going seriously wrong when he heard a news broadcast six months ago saying that ‘terrorists had been smashed east of Abu Ghraib.’ Since Abu Ghraib is on the western outskirts of Baghdad, this would mean that the ‘terrorists’ were already penetrating the capital. At the end of June a press facility was arranged by the Iraqi army to reassure the media that government forces still held Abu Ghraib, the gateway through which any Isis attack will probably come. Several miles short of Abu Ghraib, the officer in charge of the press party raised up an arm and pointed in its general direction, saying, ‘You see, all perfectly peaceable’; despite pleas from the accompanying journalists, he refused to advance another yard.

Since the days of Saddam, Iraqis have been adept at bypassing official censorship. Attempts after the fall of Mosul to cut them off from the internet worked for a few days, then different means of gaining access were found. ‘My mother was in her home village and she hardly knows how to use a laptop,’ a friend said. ‘But she told me that local boys had shown her how to install a program that would cut through government restrictions.’ The story is typical. Iraqis in the street are often better informed than ministers: thanks to extended families they have relatives or friends scattered across the country. After Isis attacked the Baiji refinery and the town next to it, on the Tigris north of Baghdad, I talked to a man called Abu Nahid, who confirmed that the town had fallen, though there was still fighting at the refinery. The Isis fighters weren’t bothering people on the whole, but they had knocked on his door to ask how many unmarried women there were in the house, explaining that some of their mujahedin wanted to get married. He told them that there were two women in his house, both married, but they insisted on coming in and confirming this by looking at the women’s ID cards. Abu Nahid has a sister living in Tikrit, south of Baiji, who said that a government counterattack had stalled at the entrance to the city. But she was taking her family out of Tikrit because there was no water or electricity and the government had begun random bombing. Back in Baghdad, the senior official told me that ‘Maliki wanted a military success on the day parliament opened on 1 July to boost his chances of holding onto power, which is why he told the army to attack Tikrit.’


In reality, Maliki stands no chance of serving a third term as prime minister, a post he has held since 2006. His political alliance did well in the parliamentary election on 30 April, when, ironically, he successfully positioned himself as the leader who knew about security and would defend the Shia against Sunni counterrevolution. Discredited by military defeat, he has few allies left in the outside world: even the Iranians, under whose influence he was supposed to be, no longer fully support him. During his eight years in power he created what one former minister calls ‘an institutionalised kleptocracy, more corrupt than anything in central Africa’, which will do everything to stay in power or, at least, avoid prosecution if it has to go. Though Baghdad looks tattered and impoverished, oil revenues run at $100 billion a year, and great fortunes can be made by anyone with the right connections to government. In the bird market in Baghdad, which sells all types of pets aside from birds, a shopkeeper offered to sell me a tiger cub last year and took out his phone to show me a picture of it gambolling on the ground at his farm outside the city. I asked him who had the money to buy such expensive pets and he became circumspect, saying his customers were tribal leaders and government people but giving no names.

There is a connection between the buoyant market for tiger cubs and the fall of Mosul. I asked a recently retired four-star general why he thought the army had fallen apart so quickly and why its commanders had fled. ‘Corruption! Corruption! Corruption!’ he replied: pervasive corruption had turned the army into a racket and an investment opportunity in which every officer had to pay for his post. He said the opportunity to make big money in the Iraqi army goes back to the US advisers who set it up ten years ago. The Americans insisted that food and other supplies should be outsourced to private businesses: this meant immense opportunities for graft. A battalion might have a nominal strength of six hundred men and its commanding officer would receive money from the budget to pay for their food, but in fact there were only two hundred men in the barracks so he could pocket the difference. In some cases there were ‘ghost battalions’ that didn’t exist at all but were being paid for just the same. Soldiers would kick back half their salaries to their officers in return for never going near a barracks. Checkpoints on roads acted like private customs posts, charging a fee to every truck passing through. A divisional commander might have to pay $2 million for his job: when one candidate asked where he could get that kind of money, he was told to borrow it and pay back $50,000 a month through various forms of extortion. Safa Hussein at the National Security Council confirmed that prices for military posts had soared in the last five years – a position that cost $20,000 in 2009 would now be worth ten times as much.

The corruption had devastating effects on every level of the Iraqi army. Defeat in Mosul was preceded by defeat in Anbar province in the first six months of the year, with the army suffering 5000 casualties and 12,000 desertions. Even the depleted units that did reach the front were often left without food for days. Men were sent to fight with only four clips of ammunition for their rifles. Fuel was in short supply and shortages of everything grew worse as Isis and its allies swept through the Sunni provinces. Corrupt private companies had no intention of delivering supplies over roads where they risked bombs and ambushes.

‘The army is still dissolving,’ Dhia’a al-Assadi said a month after the disaster at Mosul. ‘It is dysfunctional and so is the police force.’ A brief counteroffensive towards Tikrit to boost Maliki’s political fortunes had petered out. Sistani’s fatwa had produced many volunteers, and officers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are trying to build up a military force parallel to the army, drawing on their experiences in Syria. The government has asked the Americans for drone and air strikes on Isis’s convoys of trucks: the trucks are packed with fighters skilled at waging guerrilla war, suddenly attacking and withdrawing, since experienced fighters are never used to hold captured territory. Isis describes the strategy as ‘moving like a serpent through rocky ground’. Not that they are short of recruits: Safa Hussein told me studies showed that where Isis takes over an area it can recruit five or ten times the number of its original force, so if it starts out with a hundred men it will soon field five hundred or a thousand. These wouldn’t be experienced fighters, and some would simply want to protect their families, but with its large new recruiting grounds Isis is rapidly expanding its forces. A hope in Baghdad is that Isis is simply the fanatical edge of a more moderate Sunni revolt. This comforting argument holds that one day tribal and other leaders, having used their extremist allies to defeat the Baghdad government, will turn on them as they did in 2006-7. On the other hand, the world’s cemeteries are full of people who thought they could use extremists for their own ends and then dispose of them. Isis has taken measures against betrayal, insisting that other armed groups in Mosul lay down their arms and pledge allegiance to its new caliphate, the Islamic State. It isn’t going to implode.

Iraq now has a political crisis and a military crisis, neither of which is likely to be resolved soon. In Baghdad, a failed prime minister and his government cling to power. Sunni representatives who don’t dare visit their own cities and towns vie for posts in the capital. Kurds have an expanded and quasi-independent state. Isis has no plans other than to defeat its enemies on the battlefield. People in the capital wonder apprehensively when the battle for Baghdad will begin. When an American military delegation came to review the capital’s defences, a senior Iraqi official told them ‘to look to see which ministers had put fresh sandbags around their ministries. Those that have done so like myself will stay and fight; where you see old sandbags it means the minister doesn’t care because he is intending to run.’

This work is in the public domain
Add a quick comment
Your name Your email


Text Format
Anti-spam Enter the following number into the box:
To add more detailed comments, or to upload files, see the full comment form.


Re: The Battle for Baghdad - 14 July 2014
15 Jul 2014
The Blunders of Prince Bandar

Saudi Complicity in the Rise of ISIS


How far is Saudi Arabia complicit in the Isis takeover of much of northern Iraq, and is it stoking an escalating Sunni-Shia conflict across the Islamic world?

Some time before 9/11, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, once the powerful Saudi ambassador in Washington and head of Saudi intelligence until a few months ago, had a revealing and ominous conversation with the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove. Prince Bandar told him: “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia’. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.”

The fatal moment predicted by Prince Bandar may now have come for many Shia, with Saudi Arabia playing an important role in bringing it about by supporting the anti-Shia jihad in Iraq and Syria. Since the capture of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) on 10 June, Shia women and children have been killed in villages south of Kirkuk, and Shia air force cadets machine-gunned and buried in mass graves near Tikrit.

In Mosul, Shia shrines and mosques have been blown up, and in the nearby Shia Turkoman city of Tal Afar 4,000 houses have been taken over by Isis fighters as “spoils of war”. Simply to be identified as Shia or a related sect, such as the Alawites, in Sunni rebel-held parts of Iraq and Syria today, has become as dangerous as being a Jew was in Nazi-controlled parts of Europe in 1940.

There is no doubt about the accuracy of the quote by Prince Bandar, secretary-general of the Saudi National Security Council from 2005 and head of General Intelligence between 2012 and 2014, the crucial two years when al-Qa’ida-type jihadis took over the Sunni-armed opposition in Iraq and Syria. Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute last week, Dearlove, who headed MI6 from 1999 to 2004, emphasised the significance of Prince Bandar’s words, saying that they constituted “a chilling comment that I remember very well indeed”.

He does not doubt that substantial and sustained funding from private donors in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to which the authorities may have turned a blind eye, has played a central role in the Isis surge into Sunni areas of Iraq. He said: “Such things simply do not happen spontaneously.” This sounds realistic since the tribal and communal leadership in Sunni majority provinces is much beholden to Saudi and Gulf paymasters, and would be unlikely to cooperate with Isis without their consent.

Dearlove’s explosive revelation about the prediction of a day of reckoning for the Shia by Prince Bandar, and the former head of MI6′s view that Saudi Arabia is involved in the Isis-led Sunni rebellion, has attracted surprisingly little attention. Coverage of Dearlove’s speech focused instead on his main theme that the threat from Isis to the West is being exaggerated because, unlike Bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida, it is absorbed in a new conflict that “is essentially Muslim on Muslim”. Unfortunately, Christians in areas captured by Isis are finding this is not true, as their churches are desecrated and they are forced to flee. A difference between al-Qa’ida and Isis is that the latter is much better organised; if it does attack Western targets the results are likely to be devastating.

The forecast by Prince Bandar, who was at the heart of Saudi security policy for more than three decades, that the 100 million Shia in the Middle East face disaster at the hands of the Sunni majority, will convince many Shia that they are the victims of a Saudi-led campaign to crush them. “The Shia in general are getting very frightened after what happened in northern Iraq,” said an Iraqi commentator, who did not want his name published. Shia see the threat as not only military but stemming from the expanded influence over mainstream Sunni Islam of Wahhabism, the puritanical and intolerant version of Islam espoused by Saudi Arabia that condemns Shia and other Islamic sects as non-Muslim apostates and polytheists.

Dearlove says that he has no inside knowledge obtained since he retired as head of MI6 10 years ago to become Master of Pembroke College in Cambridge. But, drawing on past experience, he sees Saudi strategic thinking as being shaped by two deep-seated beliefs or attitudes.

• First, they are convinced that there “can be no legitimate or admissible challenge to the Islamic purity of their Wahhabi credentials as guardians of Islam’s holiest shrines”.

• But, perhaps more significantly given the deepening Sunni-Shia confrontation, the Saudi belief that they possess a monopoly of Islamic truth leads them to be “deeply attracted towards any militancy which can effectively challenge Shia-dom”.

Western governments traditionally play down the connection between Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabist faith, on the one hand, and jihadism, whether of the variety espoused by Osama bin Laden and al-Qa’ida or by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Isis. There is nothing conspiratorial or secret about these links: 15 out of 19 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, as was Bin Laden and most of the private donors who funded the operation.

The difference between al-Qa’ida and Isis can be overstated: when Bin Laden was killed by United States forces in 2011, al-Baghdadi released a statement eulogising him, and Isis pledged to launch 100 attacks in revenge for his death.

But there has always been a second theme to Saudi policy towards al-Qa’ida type jihadis, contradicting Prince Bandar’s approach and seeing jihadis as a mortal threat to the Kingdom. Dearlove illustrates this attitude by relating how, soon after 9/11, he visited the Saudi capital Riyadh with Tony Blair.

He remembers the then head of Saudi General Intelligence “literally shouting at me across his office: ’9/11 is a mere pinprick on the West. In the medium term, it is nothing more than a series of personal tragedies. What these terrorists want is to destroy the House of Saud and remake the Middle East.’” In the event, Saudi Arabia adopted both policies, encouraging the jihadis as a useful tool of Saudi anti-Shia influence abroad but suppressing them at home as a threat to the status quo. It is this dual policy that has fallen apart over the last year.

Saudi sympathy for anti-Shia “militancy” is identified in leaked US official documents. The then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in December 2009 in a cable released by Wikileaks that “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan] and other terrorist groups.” She said that, in so far as Saudi Arabia did act against al-Qa’ida, it was as a domestic threat and not because of its activities abroad. This policy may now be changing with the dismissal of Prince Bandar as head of intelligence this year. But the change is very recent, still ambivalent and may be too late: it was only last week that a Saudi prince said he would no longer fund a satellite television station notorious for its anti-Shia bias based in Egypt.

The problem for the Saudis is that their attempts since Bandar lost his job to create an anti-Maliki and anti-Assad Sunni constituency which is simultaneously against al-Qa’ida and its clones have failed.

By seeking to weaken Maliki and Assad in the interest of a more moderate Sunni faction, Saudi Arabia and its allies are in practice playing into the hands of Isis which is swiftly gaining full control of the Sunni opposition in Syria and Iraq. In Mosul, as happened previously in its Syrian capital Raqqa, potential critics and opponents are disarmed, forced to swear allegiance to the new caliphate and killed if they resist.

The West may have to pay a price for its alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, which have always found Sunni jihadism more attractive than democracy. A striking example of double standards by the western powers was the Saudi-backed suppression of peaceful democratic protests by the Shia majority in Bahrain in March 2011. Some 1,500 Saudi troops were sent across the causeway to the island kingdom as the demonstrations were ended with great brutality and Shia mosques and shrines were destroyed.

An alibi used by the US and Britain is that the Sunni al-Khalifa royal family in Bahrain is pursuing dialogue and reform. But this excuse looked thin last week as Bahrain expelled a top US diplomat, the assistant secretary of state for human rights Tom Malinowksi, for meeting leaders of the main Shia opposition party al-Wifaq. Mr Malinowski tweeted that the Bahrain government’s action was “not about me but about undermining dialogue”.

Western powers and their regional allies have largely escaped criticism for their role in reigniting the war in Iraq.

Publicly and privately, they have blamed the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for persecuting and marginalising the Sunni minority, so provoking them into supporting the Isis-led revolt. There is much truth in this, but it is by no means the whole story. Maliki did enough to enrage the Sunni, partly because he wanted to frighten Shia voters into supporting him in the 30 April election by claiming to be the Shia community’s protector against Sunni counter-revolution.

But for all his gargantuan mistakes, Maliki’s failings are not the reason why the Iraqi state is disintegrating. What destabilised Iraq from 2011 on was the revolt of the Sunni in Syria and the takeover of that revolt by jihadis, who were often sponsored by donors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates. Again and again Iraqi politicians warned that by not seeking to close down the civil war in Syria, Western leaders were making it inevitable that the conflict in Iraq would restart. “I guess they just didn’t believe us and were fixated on getting rid of [President Bashar al-] Assad,” said an Iraqi leader in Baghdad last week.

Of course, US and British politicians and diplomats would argue that they were in no position to bring an end to the Syrian conflict. But this is misleading. By insisting that peace negotiations must be about the departure of Assad from power, something that was never going to happen since Assad held most of the cities in the country and his troops were advancing, the US and Britain made sure the war would continue.

The chief beneficiary is Isis which over the last two weeks has been mopping up the last opposition to its rule in eastern Syria. The Kurds in the north and the official al-Qa’ida representative, Jabhat al-Nusra, are faltering under the impact of Isis forces high in morale and using tanks and artillery captured from the Iraqi army. It is also, without the rest of the world taking notice, taking over many of the Syrian oil wells that it did not already control.

Saudi Arabia has created a Frankenstein’s monster over which it is rapidly losing control.

The same is true of its allies such as Turkey which has been a vital back-base for Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra by keeping the 510-mile-long Turkish-Syrian border open. As Kurdish-held border crossings fall to Isis, Turkey will find it has a new neighbour of extraordinary violence, and one deeply ungrateful for past favours from the Turkish intelligence service.

As for Saudi Arabia, it may come to regret its support for the Sunni revolts in Syria and Iraq as jihadi social media begins to speak of the House of Saud as its next target. It is the unnamed head of Saudi General Intelligence quoted by Dearlove after 9/11 who is turning out to have analysed the potential threat to Saudi Arabia correctly and not Prince Bandar, which may explain why the latter was sacked earlier this year.

Nor is this the only point on which Prince Bandar was dangerously mistaken. The rise of Isis is bad news for the Shia of Iraq but it is worse news for the Sunni whose leadership has been ceded to a pathologically bloodthirsty and intolerant movement, a sort of Islamic Khmer Rouge, which has no aim but war without end.

The Sunni caliphate rules a large, impoverished and isolated area from which people are fleeing. Several million Sunni in and around Baghdad are vulnerable to attack and 255 Sunni prisoners have already been massacred. In the long term, Isis cannot win, but its mix of fanaticism and good organisation makes it difficult to dislodge.

“God help the Shia,” said Prince Bandar, but, partly thanks to him, the shattered Sunni communities of Iraq and Syria may need divine help even more than the Shia.
A Civil War Within a Civil War - ISIS in Syria
16 Jul 2014
Obama Iraq.jpg
Isis fighters have captured much of eastern Syria in the past few days while international attention has been focused on the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Using tanks and artillery seized in Iraq, it has taken almost all of oil-rich Deir Ezzor province and is battling to crush the resistance of the Syrian Kurds.

Isis is establishing dominance over the opposition to Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, as other rebel groups flee or pledge allegiance to the caliphate declared by the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, after the capture of Mosul on 10 June. On Monday, the jihadists took over the rebel held half of Deir Ezzor on the Euphrates river, raising their black flag over the city and executing the rebel commander from Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qa’ida affiliate that was previously in control.

The recent Isis advances in Syria, following victories in Iraq last month, are altering the balance of power in the whole region. The opposition military forces not aligned with the Syrian government or Isis are being squeezed out of existence, making obsolete the US, British, Saudi and Turkish policy of backing groups hostile to both Assad and Isis.

Isis is seeking to capture the Syrian Kurdish enclave at Kobani, or Ayn al-Arab, where some 500,000 Kurds are concentrated, many of them refugees from other parts of northern Syria. “Isis have about 5,000 fighters which have been attacking us for the past 13 days using tanks and rockets and American Humvees captured in Iraq,” Idris Naasan, a political activist in Kobani, told The Independent by telephone. “The fighting is very heavy and we have lost three villages we are trying to regain.”

He said the normal population of Kobani region was 200,000 but this number is swollen by refugees from the border area and from Aleppo. Causing particular concern is the fate of 400 Kurdish hostages taken by Isis, including 133 schoolchildren aged between 13 and 14. Mr Idris said negotiations with Isis to exchange them for Isis prisoners “took place three days ago but fell through because Isis tried to take more hostages”.

Maria Calivis, the Unicef regional director for Middle East and Northern Africa, said in a statement at the start of the month that all of the children, with the exception of four who escaped, were still captive. “It has been over four weeks since the children were abducted as they returned to their home town of Ayn al-Arab [Kobani], after taking their junior high school final exams in Aleppo,” she said.

There is no eyewitness information about the children but a report in the al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper said some of those abducted by Isis may have been tortured. It added that they were being held in two schools and that families living nearby said they could not sleep because of the sound of children crying and screaming as they were tortured. They said they heard three shots from the direction of one of the schools, leading them to fear that children may have been killed.

The Kurdish enclave under attack at Kobani is one of several regions which are home to Syria’s 2.5 million-strong Kurdish minority, most of whom live in the north and north-east of the country. The fate of Kobani has become a national cause for Kurds, particularly in Turkey just across the border. A statement from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, whose “people’s protection units” are doing most of the fighting to defend the enclave, says “all the Kurds should head towards Kobani and participate in the resistance”. Mr Idris accuses the Turkish government of giving “logistical aid intelligence information to Isis”. Other Kurdish sources say this is unlikely, though they concede that Turkey has helped Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra in the past.

The other main thrust of the Isis offensive in eastern Syria has been towards Deir Ezzor, where it has defeated the Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham groups. They say they are out-gunned and outnumbered by Isis, which by one estimate has 10,000 fighters in Syria. Its morale is high, it is well financed through plundering banks and through the capture of oil wells in north-east Syria. Isis has been successful in winning the allegiance of tribes, which are strong in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa provinces, by allocating to them oil production from different wells that can be sold on the black market.

Isis has been engaged in a “civil war within the civil war” since the start of the year in which it battled the rest of the Syrian armed opposition, jihadi and non-jihadi. Up to 7,000 fighters may have been killed in this fighting. Isis, which has always been well-led militarily, withdrew from Idlib province, Aleppo city and northern Aleppo province earlier in the year, a retreat misinterpreted as a sign of weakness by other rebel groups, but apparently a tactically astute manoeuvre to concentrate its forces.

Fresh from success in Iraq, Isis is now counter-attacking strongly and, having taken Deir Ezzor, may seek to move back into Aleppo city from its base at al-Bab in east Aleppo province. Meanwhile, government forces in Aleppo city have been advancing against weakening rebel resistance and may soon have isolated the rebel-held districts. The Syrian army and Isis may then confront each other as the only important players left in the civil war.

The Syrian opposition has always claimed that Isis and Syrian government forces have had a sort of de facto ceasefire and hinted at undercover links. This was mostly propaganda, though regurgitated in Washington, London and Paris, but it is true that since Isis helped to take Minnigh air base north of Aleppo last summer, it has mainly fought other rebel groups. When President Assad and al-Baghdadi do confront each other, the West and its allies will have to decide if they will go on trying to weaken the Syrian government.