October 26, 2014

US Prepares for Gulf War III

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE decision by President Barack Obama to order the American military back into action in West Asia following the military advances of the Islamic State (IS) forces and the beheading of three western nationals in the region, could lead to another full scale war in the region. In the third week of September, the US House of Representatives and the Senate voted to give the American president its approval for the plan to train and arm the so-called “moderate” rebel forces in Syria, without even a semblance of a debate. The US will provide $500 million for the training of the 5700 Syrian rebel fighters on Saudi Arabian soil, every year for combat against both the IS and the Syrian state simultaneously. The Obama administration has not bothered to spell out how exactly the motley rebel groups are going to be united, then made into a fighting force capable of facing the Syrian army and the entrenched IS forces in cities like Raqqa. Many US Congressmen and Senators had however voiced their disapproval on the latest military misadventure the US is charting out in the region. It is well known that the only rebel groups seriously battling the secular Syrian government are jihadist forces of various hues, ranging from the IS to Saudi and Qatari supported groups like the Ahrar al Sham and the Islamic Front. US officials have admitted that they are turning a blind eye to the close cooperation on the ground between the so-called moderate groups and Qaeda affiliated al Nusra Front in Syria. A report in the NYT talked about Nusra fighters doing suicide bombing missions on behalf of groups getting direct funding from Washington. The leader of one such group, the Furhan al Huq Brigade, acknowledged that his fighters have to depend on the expertise of the Nusra Front fighters. The current leaders of many of the so-called “moderate” groups Washington seeks to support, first came to prominence fighting the American occupation forces in Iraq. Many of the fighters from the western sponsored Free Syrian Army and Qaeda affiliates al Nusra have defected to the IS. The IS is also attracting radicalised Muslim youth from all over the world, including India. According to diplomatic sources in the know, at present there are around 20 Indians who have joined the IS. This information has been gathered, according to the source, from captured IS fighters in northern Iraq. One Indian has already died after a suicide mission on behalf of the IS in Hama province, Syria, as has been reported in the media. According to a diplomat from the region, most of the foreign fighters are from Tunisia and Chechnya. The third largest group comes from other parts of Europe, notably France. IS, A CREATION OF THE US The IS itself, most observers of the region believe, is a creation of the US and its regional allies. Most Iraqis and Syrians definitely think so. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, Bahaa al Araji openly pointed the finger of suspicion at Washington. The firebrand cleric, Moqtada al Sadr, was more forthright. In a speech in the third week of September, he publicly blamed the CIA for the creation of the IS. Arms and money were funneled in from Turkey and to a lesser extent from Jordan, since 2011 in the continuing attempt to overthrow the government in Damascus. The covert and overt help provided by Syria’s and Iraq’s neighbours, played a key role in the growth of the IS, which now seeks to establish a Caliphate spreading form the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. 40 Qatari nationals were arrested last year by the Iraqi government some time back on charges of aiding and abetting the extremist groups. The Iraqi government had not publicised the news at the time. In the third week of September, Turkey secured the release of 49 of its hostages who were in IS captivity for three months. The Turkish authorities have not been very forthcoming about the details surrounding the release of the hostages at a time when the IS has been on a killing spree, killing hostages from other NATO countries. Senior diplomats from the region said that the IS during its attack and capture of Mosul, came from across the Syrian border in brand new four wheel vehicles. The diplomat suggested that the vehicles most probably bought with the funds provided by rich sponsors in the Gulf region, first came into Syria through Turkey. They also had the latest weaponry with them, including arms manufactured in Turkey, according to Iraqi officials. He said that the attacking force consisted of only around 800 highly motivated IS fighters, many of them foreigners. According to Iraqi sources, this small but highly motivated force, easily routed the 60,000 Iraqi forces stationed in Mosul. 39 Indians are said to be in IS captivity; almost all of them contract factory workers. The IS has not made any statement about their fate. Cities like Mosul and Tikrit, both Sunni dominated, were hotbeds of anti-Americanism ever since the occupation of Iraq in 2003. The Iraqi forces were not trusted as they were predominantly Shiite. The composition of the Iraqi army divisions reflects the sectarian divide. The two Kurdish divisions take their order from the government in Northern Iraq. Despite the lofty rhetoric of al Baghdadi, the primary goal of the IS and its allies was to carve out a Sunni dominated state comprising of sizeable chunks of Syria and Iraq and give the artificial boundary created by the Anglo-French machinations. The Islamic Emirate they seek to create would subsume the colonial boundaries imposed on the Arab nation by the Sykes-Picot agreement. The IS already controls a territory bigger than Jordan. They have rendered the border between Syria and Iraq completely porous and are able to move supplies and men with virtual impunity. The kidnapped Turks were moved form Mosul in Iraq to Raqqa in Syria and then to the Turkish border. The US military action is already ongoing in Iraq with the American air force attacking IS targets in central and northern Iraq in a small way. The Iraqi government has said that it would not allow the use of air power to target populated areas. This will make the task of defeating the IS even tougher as their forces are embedded in cities that have a high population density. The American priority now is on helping the Kurds in northern Iraq fend off the IS. The Kurds in Iraq have been long standing allies of the West in the region. In the second week of September, the US started bombing IS position in the central part of the country under the IS control. Targets in Tikrit and Fallujah have been hit. Shia militias which were quick to replace the depleted Iraqi army have been effective in stopping the onward march of the IS in Iraq and have also re-conquered some areas. The Shia milita leaders have strongly opposed the return of American soldiers to Iraq. They have however not objected to the bombing of IS targets in Iraq. The Syrian government has warned that bombing IS targets in its territory without its permission would be considered an act of aggression. Senior Obama administration officials have responded by saying that Syrian army positions will be targeted if American planes carrying out missions against the IS are fired on. The US has not sought a UN Security Council mandate to target IS positions inside Syria. A few Arab states, almost all of them Gulf monarchies, have agreed to participate in President Obama’s grandiose plan of “degrading and ultimately destroying” the IS solely through the means of targeted air strikes. The foreign minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif has sarcastically described the new coalition assembled by the Obama administration as the “coalition of repenters”. He was alluding to the fact that the countries which have agreed to join are the same countries which helped to make the IS what it is today. The foreign minister during a recent visit to the US said that America had enabled the group by invading Iraq and Sunni Arab states allowed the IS to grow by sending in money, arms and foreign fighters. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, has said that the US is “planning a war – to dominate the region”. Turkey has refused to join the coalition hastily sewn up by Washington to fight the IS. Despite being a founding member of NATO, Turkey has also denied permission to the US air force to use the Incirlik air base for attacks against the IS. The only commitment, Turkey has given is on tightening controls along the border with Syria and stop fighters from streaming in to join the IS. Ankara still sees the ouster of Bashar Assad as the first priority. With this goal in mind, it is not averse to tacitly continue supporting radical groups, including the al Qaeda affiliated al Nusra Front. Interestingly, all the governments in the region which till last year were upfront in the support of jihadi groups are now claiming that their hands are clean. They include the governments of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Qatari Emir, during his recent trip to France, had to publicly state that his oil rich kingdom had nothing to do with the creation, arming and financing of the IS. Even today, many of these countries help the IS by buying oil produced in the refineries under their control. It is estimated that the IS earns around $3 million every day from the sale of oil. NEED FOR COOPERATION WITH THE SYRIAN GOVT Even many American commentators have said that if the Obama administration is really serious about eradicating the IS menace, it has to cooperate with the Syrian government which has been battling the extremist groups on its territory for the last four years. Washington has stressed that it would under no circumstances cooperate with the Syrian government in fighting the IS. Senior Syrian officials had said that their government was ready to share intelligence and cooperate in the fight against extremism, along with other countries like Russia and China. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney warned that Obama’s blueprint for action against the IS would lead “to war on three fronts; fighting the IS in Iraq, fighting the IS in Syria and potentially the Assad government in Syria”. The Democratic Senator, Kirsten Gillbrand pointed out that Obama’s plan would mean US military support for rebel groups in Syria which had no compunctions against using chemical weapons against Syrian government forces. Those designated as “moderate force” by Washington hold less than 5 percent of Syrian territory. And in much of this territory, it is the Nusra Front that calls the shots. Most of the populated and productive parts of Syria are firmly under the control of the central government. Obama has been repeatedly insisting that there will be no American troops on the ground even as his top generals are saying the opposite. Gen Martin E Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff told American lawmakers that he would recommend deployment of ground troops in case airstrikes did not succeed in defeating the IS. Another senior US officer, the Army Chief of Staff, Gen Raymond Odierno, said that ground troops would be needed to completely root out the IS. There have been reports that American military boots are already on the ground in Iraq. “We already have ground forces introduced and they are performing combat missions”, a retired US army general Paul D Eaton told the media. After the formal withdrawal of the US occupation forces from Iraq in 2012, there were thousands of US army men and military contractors left behind in “green zone” in Baghdad, which houses the biggest American embassy building in the world. The Americans always had a strong military and security presence in northern Iraq, controlled by the pro-American Kurdish political parties.