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Turkey Nightclub Blitz Attack – Context And Meaning

Turkey Night Club Attack

For many, the news of the New Year’s Day blitz attack on a Turkish nightclub came as shocking news. I suspect that many people automatically categorised this attack as being a part of a global phenomenon, helped along by the media’s insistence on comparing ‘similar events’. Thus the inevitable false parallels being drawn between this attack, Paris, and the Orlando nightclub shootings. The only things these attacks really have in common, though, are modus operandi and nature of venue. In terms of the real DNA of an incident – context and cause – this attack is much more about Turkey than it is about global jihad.

First, a quick note on sequence of events and reporting. Our primary sources for the attack are eyewitness accounts and Turkish state media and agencies. For various reasons, none of these are exactly famous for accuracy or veracity. Eyewitnesses, especially traumatised ones, are generally confused and inaccurate, and the Turkish state does not so much disseminate information as it selects and fabricates to serve its own agenda. If media reports seem conflicting and confused, this is because the primary sources are tainted, and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. For our purposes, however, just the fact of Turkish state reporting will suffice.

It is axiomatic that a principal aim of terrorism is to cause sufficient destabilisation of state structures to bring about capitulation or collapse. Thus the categorisation of terrorists as ‘enemies of the state’, amongst other things. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, and by immediate I mean in less than forty minutes, no less than three enemies of the state were posited by Turkish authorities as potential perpetrators. The two most prominent were Islamic State (not the specific organisation, but the huge amorphous radical diaspora as it exists in the popular mind), and a miscellaneous grab bag of Kurdish independence and separatist groups. Humming in the background as always, however, was Gulen – Turkey’s very own political bogeyman.

This is telling. At a stage when people on the ground were still unclear as to even the basic sequence of events, Turkish authorities were able to confidently declare multiple suspects. What this tells us is that Turkey is wealthy in credibly dangerous enemies of the state. I’ve spoken elsewhere about Turkey’s parlous internal politics, and about Erdogan’s project of Islamisation and Ottomanisation in a bid for stability through presidential power and regional hegemony. The other important fact is that Turkey is a nation tied to wild horses pulling in different directions. Its economic co-dependence with Russia, a power whose regional interests are diametrically opposed to their own, its bitterly oppositional marriages of convenience with NATO and Europe and its own internal woes are all combining to create a situation where, if Erdogan does not find a solution, Turkey will be torn apart. It would appear that a combination of the special stupidity which comes with populism and, more importantly, limited capacity for state agency, has reduced his viable options to brutal repression combined with transparent propaganda. It’s highly unlikely that in a situation as complex as this, blunt instruments like these are going to prove effective.

This is deeply worrying for any nation with interests in the region. For most of the twentieth century Turkey has been a bulwark against the systemic instability caused in large part by Israeli expansionism and the Sykes-Picot line. It is for this reason that the West has tended to tolerate its brutal suppression of ethnic minorities, strongman governments, aggression and insultingly blatant dishonesty. Turkey is important as a lynchpin for the region. Attacks like the one on New Year’s Day, however, are becoming increasingly frequent. In the last few months, attacks have been occurring on an almost weekly basis, their foci being the capital Ankara and the arguably more significant cultural and symbolic capital Istanbul. Possibly the only absolute truth to emanate from the Turkish authorities is the contention that the aim of this attack was to destabilise the unity of the Turkish state.

If Erdogan’s administration is unable to contain and prevent future attacks, the credibility of his government as an authority capable of protecting its people will evaporate entirely. This process will necessarily be accelerated by a perceived inability to protect foreign nationals, tourism being a major pillar of Turkey’s economy. It doesn’t take much of a prophet to see that when faith in a government’s ability to provide security and prosperity disappears, so too does that government. In the case of Erdogan, his vision for Turkey’s future has alienated his allies, trading partners, security services and military. Too many more of these attacks will see the state of Turkey fragment and disappear. It’s vitally important that we recognise this to be a primary goal of the plethora of internal and external enemies which Turkey has managed to accrue. As much as we may dislike Erdogan’s obtuse brutality and religious fanaticism, a coherent Turkish state is decidedly the lesser of two evils for the region, and it’s incumbent on the international community to recognise and support this, rather than allowing Turkey to crumble as a side effect of the pursuit of narrow national self interest.

 

Turkey, Russia, Murder and Islam

Assassination of Russian Ambassador

Most of us are aware by now that the Russian Ambassador to Turkey has been shot dead by a 22 year old Turkish policeman who the Turkish regime is tentatively linking to Fethullah Gulen, the figure who was also blamed for the abortive military coup earlier in the year and who basically acts as Turkey’s ‘Goldstein’ a la 1984. The screamsheets (my new name for all media, shamelessly stolen from Cyberpunk) have done their usual best to spread despondency and panic, and the conspiracy theorists can’t be far behind. I’d like to get in before them and try to break down what this attack actually means.

Firstly, we need to understand a little bit about what’s happening in Turkey at the moment. A full situational appreciation would take thousands of words, but a brief, somewhat simplistic rendering should be sufficient for our purposes here. In very crude terms, Turkey is conflicted between secular nationhood and Islamist regional hegemony. Erdogan, authoritarian, populist and Islamist, is attempting to undo, prick by prick, the grand experiment in secular nationhood kicked off by Ataturk. His consistent tendency has been to expand the powers of the presidency, nudge state law closer to Sharia, and to position Turkey as a regional hegemon at the very least. Many suspect that he seeks imperial power, with his detractors comparing his regime to the Ottoman Empire.

These are big changes which strike at the core of Turkey’s revivified vision of itself in the wake of its humiliation at the end of WWI. This has led to a nation which is sharply divided. There are many splinters and factions, but two broad schools of thought can be identified – populist, interventionist, Islamist and expansionist on the one hand; middle class, secular, republican and non-interventionist on the other. Erdogan’s straw man opponent, one time ally Fethullah Gulen, is almost exactly analogous to Trotsky – hounded out of the USSR and subsequently blamed for every riot, production shortfall or particularly nasty winter. Gulen believes in interfaith dialogue, secular government and science – basically, Ataturk’s westernising, secularising vision. He’s also vehemently opposed to Turkey’s support of elements seeking to overthrow Bashar al Assad. It’s this last belief, loudly proclaimed from Gulen’s exile in the USA, which conveniently allows the Erdogan regime to pin this assassination on his influence. This is not to say that the Gulenists are necessarily innocent, but rather that Turkey’s attribution should be taken with a rather large grain of salt.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that this socio-political ferment could produce someone like Mevlut Mert Altintas, the police officer who shot the Russian Ambassador. This is not an isolated attack – Turkey has been wracked with violence for some time now, with car bombs, suicide bombings and shootings having become so routine that western media outlets have largely given up reporting on them. What is unique is the targeting of a Russian dignitary. The motives behind this have to be seen as fairly transparent. There are many groups who wish to see Turkey fall out with its old enemy, Russia, for a whole confusing spectrum of reasons. And groups aside, there’s also the simple fact that many Turks despise Russia, vehemently support the rebellion in Syria and are broadly sympathetic to the aims and worldview of extremist Islamist militia. It should be noted that I’ve made no attempt to attribute responsibility for this attack. The investigation, such as it is, is in a very early stage, and it’s highly probable that we may never know the truth of it as very few of the investigating bodies are of the kind whose conclusions can readily be believed at the best of times.

Taken in context, the most probable deep motivation would either be to unseat Erdogan, highlight Russia’s pro-regime actions in Syria, or both. Erdogan is tap dancing on thumb tacks when it comes to Russia. They’re one of Turkey’s most important economic partners, but their interests in the region are diametrically opposed. So long as Erdogan pursues an anti-Assad policy while maintaining his hegemonic ambitions, the possibility of an irreconcilable conflict with Russia looms large. Mismanagement of this relationship could very well see him ousted through loss of popular support, such support being the only limiting factor on the Turkish military’s capacity to remove him from power. So we can see that the focus here is largely inward when it comes to Turkey, and the measured restraint of Russia’s response is an indication that they understand this.

Implications for the end game, however, are slightly more worrying. Erdogan, secure in his popular support for now, is still somewhat beleaguered  on the international front. The price he has paid for his policies has been to devolve his role into that of ‘strongman’. What’s key, in this position, is the perception of the degree of control he has over his country. Turkey’s relationship with Russia and, somewhat more worryingly, its status as a NATO member, now rest largely on this perception. While it’s very unlikely that anything Turkey can do will lead to all out war, too much more of this nonsense will see Erdogan isolated, possibly removed from power, and Turkey on the brink of becoming yet another domino in the failed state effect which is sweeping its immediate region.

Wargaming A Trump Doomsday Part 1 – An Unlikely Coup

Trump Doomsday Scenario

Image Courtesy DeviantArt via SiberanBearOk

Media of all stripes have shown a refreshing unity in screaming about all kinds of potential Trump catastrophes. Trump and the nuclear codes, Trump and China, Trump and the end of the world as we know it. The reality is, however, that the USA is much more a bureaucracy than it is a democracy, and the systems and framework into which Trump will be plugged are robust and difficult to break. Having said that, there are a few ways Trump could bring about utter catastrophe in spite of the US Constitution and the international order. Every POTUS since WWII has potentially had the power to wheel the world to hell in a handcart, each in their own unique way, and Trump is no exception. Given a perfect storm of ill-fortune, Trump foot in mouth syndrome and the encouragement of powers who’d like to see the US crumble, doomsday scenarios are possible, if somewhat unlikely. Here’s the first of the handful of possible scenarios.

THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE

Trump Doomsday

Okay, so this is Occupy, but protests can sometimes actually be effective

Left wing media has been noisy in its call for the US Electoral College to ‘dump Trump’. In a kind of desperate sour grapes death throe, many outlets are bruiting the idea that ‘faithless electors‘ are our one last hope against a Trump administration. This is a complex and fairly unlikely proposition, and I won’t go into detail about it here. You can find an explanationsof the idea here, but I strongly suspect that in the wake of Trump’s election we’ve all become experts anyway. Suffice it to say that in this scenario, an improbable 36 electors would refuse to ratify the result of the election and leave it up to the House to pick a compromise candidate for the presidency.

This strikes me as being the worst idea in the history of bad ideas. I honestly believe that such a move would have the potential to bring down the government. Not the administration, or one party or another, but the actual US Federal Government. The great citizens of the USA have never been huge fans of the federal branch in any case, and such a move by the electoral college could set the seal, once and for all, on any notion that the citizenry have any say in their government at all. It’s not difficult to see a situation in which the deep elements of Trump’s support base, with whom it’s fairly clear he’s never really agreed and over whom he’s never demonstrated much control, suddenly see it as their democratic duty to violently protest such an outcome. It would be the ultimate proof that ‘the system is rigged’ – that ridiculous truism which Trump manipulated to such great effect.

Given more or less open encouragement from Russian and other propaganda machines, it’s easy to see such a situation escalating to the point where military power is required to support the civil – a situation which the USA, uniquely for a Western democracy, is only ever a couple of procedural steps away from. And given just how politicised the US military is (another unusual feature for a Western democracy), the US is counter-intuitively vulnerable to coup. Even if this does happen I don’t, of course, have visions of some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland – I’m confident order would quickly be restored and maintained – but such a situation would leave the USA a lame duck internationally, declare open season amongst the ‘rising powers’, and therefore spell the end of the international order as we know it. And while there is a lamentable habit amongst conservatives and libertarians to sneer at this order, I honestly don’t believe they’d like to live in a world where it didn’t exist. The world with the USA as a strategic cypher would be one in which the UN would have lost the lynchpin of its program to limit war, and nobody could effectively predict what would happen in such a situation.

The sheer number of states which depend to a greater or lesser degree on the Pax Americana would suddenly become prey to aggressive neighbours, internal paranoia, or just plain panicky foolishness. The lid would come decidedly off a whole collection of conflicts, most worryingly the entire pick’n’mix of hideous violence which makes up the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And someone, or several someones, would step into the vacuum. And who could that be? Russia? China? Germany? Not one of these powers is ready, able, or even particularly willing to act as global hegemon, and the resulting situation would be fluid and dangerous.

It’s important to point out, though, that this is a very extreme projection. Like the other two situations which I’ll outline in future posts, the likelihood of it actually occurring is very, very low. But in the times in which we live, wargaming the massively improbable would seem to have become a necessity.

Next post, we’ll have a look at the possibility of Trump annoying China to the point of open conflict, how it might be done, and therefore how likely or unlikely it might be.

Remember When Syria Was About Assad?

Residents look for survivors at a damaged site after what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail - RTX242XG

Residents look for survivors at a damaged site after what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the Al-Shaar neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria September 17, 2015. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail – RTX242XG

You could probably be forgiven for being unable to remember the origins of the Syrian conflict. It was all a long time ago, involving factions which have long since been overshadowed, over issues which seem irrelevant in the face of the current situation. Many of the details have probably become quite hazy over time – blotted out by the insanity of Islamic State atrocities, major power involvement and the rapid and increasing fragmentation of the factional make-up of the region. Now that Mosul is probably due to fall in the next few months, and the encirclement of Raqqa, due to start any second now, is likely to follow a similar trajectory, the imminent destruction of Islamic State in its current form and, more importantly, the means by which this fall is being engineered, is almost certainly going to bring the seed of the conflict rushing back to the forefront. All this being the case, it’s probably worth examining the state of play a new POTUS is likely to be confronted with.

If we cast our minds back a few years, we will remember that this all really started out as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) against the Assad regime. The FSA were (and possibly still are) pro-democracy secularist military defectors from Assad’s own forces, who largely concentrated their operations around Aleppo. While the world was fixated on this conflict and wondering why we weren’t intervening, an organisation based on the surviving rump of Al Qaeda in Iraq was completing their integration of an influx of Baathist military officers who had been seriously disaffected by some frankly disastrous US decisions in the aftermath of the second Iraq war. Many people also believe that around this time, Islamist insurgents being rather co-operatively held by Assad’s regime were quietly released into the wild in a dramatically high risk ploy to fragment the opposition. When I first heard about this possible tactic, I called it insane. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I call it insane and somewhat effective. In any case, with a perfection of timing which seems deeply suspicious to paranoid types like me, the organisation which we now know by several equally inaccurate names and acronyms formed into a sort of flying light armoured column (strongly reminiscent of Baathist tactical columns) and took swathes of territory, materiel and cash from the ineffectual Iraqi authorities, as well as the (possibly deliberately?) absent Syrian ones. Rather embarrassingly for the US led coalition members who had invaded and then attempted to stabilise Iraq, they also took some major cities and a whole bunch of NATO gear.

We mostly know, or think we know, the rest of this story, largely because of its direct effect on us. The Paris attacks, as well as the wave of lone wolf incidents all over the world, refugees, pictures of injured or dead children, and then Russia’s blustery, propaganda-heavy intervention which made louder and louder claims to be anti-IS the more apparent it became that they’d barely hit a single target which wasn’t FSA. But now that the end of this phase is in sight, various factors which haven’t so far seemed to catch our interest are likely to become all-important. The fact that the real achievers in the fight against Islamic State have been Kurdish militia will prove to be a major sticking point in any future settlement. The US, always ready to back a winner, has cleverly and quietly folded these groups together into something called the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF), presumably as a workaround to avoid being seen to be arming and training members of proscribed terrorist organisations. The major problem here is that these organisations are in direct opposition to Turkey, a NATO member, and Iraq, one of the USA’s newest proxies. On top of this, Russia’s actions to defend its strongest ally in the Middle East have put them in a position where it’s very hard to see them acceding to the toppling of the current regime, especially if the replacement is US backed. There’s also the problem of what is to be done with organisations like Jabaht el Fatr al Sham, openly linked to Al Qaeda but also instrumental in reclaiming territory from IS. How can any lasting settlement exclude them? And if they are included, how to avoid the problem of negotiating with terrorists? And as if this wasn’t enough, there’s the fact that Turkey is backing and arming the FSA and operating openly on Syrian soil, in near-direct opposition to the major thrust of US policy. How to deal with the fact of their insulting and provocative exclusion from the final push against the last of Islamic State’s strongholds? And how much longer can everyone go on ignoring the added complication of Iranian militia operating on Syrian and Iraqi soil?

As we can see, the whole situation is a kind of horrible Gordian knot. Neutralising Islamic State as a force is not so much the end of the campaign, as it is the ending of a bloody and horrific sideshow which, once over, will put us firmly back on a heavily compromised square one. When the dust has settled on Raqqa and Mosul, it’s going to take very careful management to prevent a kind of backdraft effect from re-igniting and re-escalating the original conflicts. While the tortuous network of factions and alliances might be as clear as mud, what is very clear is that the destruction of IS in its current form is merely the end of a phase of this conflict. There’s a great deal more work yet to be done if the great powers are to fulfil their commitment to help the region return to stability.

Russia, Turkey And An Enormous Grain Of Salt

The big news today (or yesterday, if you get news alerts) is that Turkish F16 fighters have shot down a Russian Su24. Despite the fact that something like this has been brewing ever since the great powers, and also Russia and Turkey, decided to play kingmaker in Syria, the usual panic-merchants, spin doctors and instant military experts are expressing shock, outrage and surprise. Yet again, we have been chilled by warnings of WWIII and bombarded with both Russian and Turkish claims of innocence and injury.

Russia claims that a pair of Su24 warplanes were innocently bombing ‘terrorists’ on the Syrian side of the border when, without warning or provocation, Turkish terror sympathisers shot down one of their planes. The Turks are claiming that two aggressive, apparently unidentifiable Russian warplanes violated Turkish airspace, were warned ‘ten times in five minutes’ and, when one of them wouldn’t leave, they were regrettably forced to shoot it down. It is possible that one of these versions of events is completely correct, but it is far more probable that neither bears more than a passing acquaintance with the truth.

Russian credibility has become something of an oxymoron of late and their statements on Syria are no exception to this tendency. Russian operations have been almost exclusively in areas where there is little or no ISIS activity, and yet the Russian propaganda machine continually spews out article after article claiming ISIS routs and casualties. Latakia, where the Russian Su24’s were bombing, is known to be primarily in the hands of factions backing the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Only the wilfully blind could fail to see that all that Russia has planned or achieved is to create a ring of fire around the Assad regime’s heartland, regardless of who they have to blow up to do it. And they have lied, brazenly, continuously and demonstrably, about their actions, their intentions and their priorities.

As for Turkey, the country is going through some very interesting times. Kemal’s grand secular experiment seems to be coming to an end, with Erdogan doing his level best to Islamise as much of Turkey’s government and history as possible. His key ally in this process is rampant nationalism, with constant references to Ottoman and Hittite* glories and their essential repeatability. The fact that a key rival both for regional hegemony and Western favour is currently burning to the ground has presented Turkey with challenges, certainly, but also with exciting opportunities. The problem, however, is that Turkey is currently a smoking hot mess, riven with internal turmoil, rolling border disputes, a disaffected middle class and, to top it all off, a refugee crisis that makes Europe’s look tiddling by comparison. If Turkey’s actions seem schizophrenic and unpredictable, this is partly because they are trying to juggle a myriad of factors and interests in the midst of a fluid and dangerous situation. And also because they lie pretty much as often and as whoppingly as Russia.

Anyone who knows anything about modern warplanes knows that five minutes is practically an eternity, and that it is impossible to put one in the air with an idiot in the cockpit. Incompetence or stupidity are not probable factors in this situation. What we have here is an incident that was at least partially deliberately engineered. Russian tactics in this conflict, and for most of modern history, are well known to be ‘probing’, which is diplomatic jargon for ‘invasive’ and ‘insolent’. It is not just conceivable, it is probable, that the Russian warplanes were deliberately probing Turkish airspace for both political and military reasons. As always, the situation is not particularly clear cut. Latakia borders Hayat, which is one of the places where the Sykes-Picot line gets a little bit confusing. And if we are to believe accounts that the plane came down in Hayat, then they were cutting it extremely fine at the very least. Little wonder then, that both Turkey and Russia have been able to broadcast absolute ‘proof’ that the warplanes either were or weren’t inside Turkish airspace.

Turkey’s Rules of Engagement (RoE) are very clear, and so is their position on violations of their airspace, but here’s the thing: supersonic jets operating in the vicinity of an invisible and, in this case, somewhat blurry line, present sovereign powers not with a threat but with a choice. They are probably going to violate what they perceive to be their airspace, especially if they’re Russian, but not necessarily deliberately or with hostile intent. Knowing this, a decision has to be made as to just how rigidly RoE will be applied. Considering how long Russia has been operating in border provinces like Latakia and Idlib (another ISIS free zone), and knowing how Russian forces tend to operate, it is difficult to understand why it’s taken this long for an incident to occur. Until we consider the fact that the latest rebel group to come under Russian fire have been the Turkmen factions fighting for the FSA against Assad.

And then it all suddenly clicks into place. Russian forces have been bombing ethnic Turks and Turkey wants them to stop. Russian forces just being themselves, in combination with stringent RoE, has provided a pretext for Turkey to make a very emphatic point about this. Turkey is well aware that, by itself, not many countries have very compelling reasons to listen to them. Shoot down a Russian jet, however, and people stop talking about Turkey and start talking about NATO. And pretty much everyone listens to NATO, even if, like Russia, they pretend very loudly not to.

So who’s telling the truth about this situation? Neither of them, and it couldn’t matter less. This is just another facet of a confused, confusing and morally toxic conflict, where human lives are used as gaming tokens and atrocities as diplomatic currency. While it is not impossible that a major war could accidentally snowball out of this incident, there is no indication that either Russia or Turkey want a deeper conflict. This is apparent in the unusually measured rhetoric of Vladimir Putin and the immediate way in which Turkey has fled under NATO’s skirts. If we can all remain calm, we will all have forgotten about this in a fortnight.

Apart, that is, from the pilots, their families and the poor bastards who were and are being bombed.

 

*It is worth noting that for a good portion of the history that Erdogan is glorifying, the biggest single enemy of the Turks was the Russian empire. I’m not counting the Hittites because viewing them with reference to modern Turkey is just bizarre. 

 

The Paris Attacks, ISIS, And Its Al Qaeda Roots

Much hay has been made of the fact that the core leadership of what is now called ISIS, ISIL, IS or Daesh was once booted out of Al Qaeda. Various propagandists and even analysts have made the argument that if an organisation as evil as Al Qaeda was unable to tolerate ISIS, then the rest of the world certainly shouldn’t. I certainly don’t disagree with the conclusion, but the argument is false.

Yes, Al Qaeda’s leadership was largely made up of a kind of intellectual elite who thought of ISIS (then AQI) as a barbaric and ignorant embarrassment. Yes, Osama bin Laden was famously horrified by the methods and even the existence of the thuggish, practically apostate Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. But no, it is simply not true to say that the two organisations fell out due to delicacy of feeling on bin Laden’s part.

When Osama bin Laden was killed, a large document cache was recovered. Amongst these was a wealth of correspondence between bin Laden and other militants in which the 9/11 mastermind made pronouncements on a range of different issues. Mujahideen operating in the Levant needed to know if they could accept funds and logistical support from Shiite jihadists. Osama told them they could – the just could be sorted from the wicked at a later date. Various affiliates expressed discomfort at the use of infidel technology to spread their message. The Al Qaeda leader advised them to shut the hell up because wars cannot be won without propaganda. The Shabaab in Africa were told in no uncertain terms that they were too grubby, insecure and haphazard to be officially accepted under the AQ banner. But Allah bless them anyway, and if they should win a major victory, Al Qaeda would smile on their efforts and, presumably, share in the credit.

Most notable in the light of current events, however, was a collection of letters apparently begging the leaders of the Iraqi insurgency to stop killing fellow Muslims and to focus their attacks on Westerners. It is understandable that these have repeatedly been misinterpreted, especially by the media, as showing a merciful side to the world’s most notorious terrorist. The letters were written in the archaic, classical Arabic favoured by Al Qaeda and which formed such a significant part of their revanchist appeal. The translations tried to catch the sense of this language, leaving us with English that smacked vaguely of the King James bible. On a casual reading, language like this can make things sound quite a lot more reasonable than they really are.

The truth of the matter was that the use of mediaeval language is simply a part of their Salafist image. A closer reading of the letters between AQ and AQI reveals that the heart of their disagreement was not about mercy, it was about military doctrine. Osama bin Laden was pushing the core point of difference that AQ had over every other Islamist terror organisation, which was their strategy of focussing their attacks on foreign soil. This approach had been the key to their success and had the added advantage of leaving local Muslim populations unharmed, significantly improving propaganda and recruitment efforts.

What bin Laden was trying to persuade Baghdadi and his insurgents to do was to take a leaf out of his own book. He worried that the Iraqi insurgency was diluting the overall strategic thrust of groups under the Al Qaeda banner. AQI’s leadership basically told him to bugger off. They saw themselves as a grassroots insurgency, a breed that couldn’t be more different from elitist Al Qaeda. And with their numbers being swollen by disaffected, well trained Iraqi military and security personnel, and coalition forces harried and bleeding casualties daily, they didn’t need advice from some fancy-talking throwback who couldn’t even go outside, thank you very much. The Al Qaeda leadership responded by taking away the right to use their brand name.

Their disdain for bin Laden’s advice would seem to have been vindicated early on. The newly minted IS rushed into the gap created by the Syrian rebellion and the Iraqi failure like a biblical plague, helped along by Western lassitude and Assad’s frankly insane tactic of releasing known militants in order to fragment the secular rebellion against his regime. IS broke every rule in the insurgent handbook and ended up in control of two major cities. They were stepping high and wide all over the Middle East and nobody seemed able to stop them. Until they did.

History will possibly remember this, if it does at all, as a victory of democratic leaders over democratic process. Despite the immense unwillingness of practically everyone, Obama and Co. embarked on an incremental escalation of force, salted judiciously with atrocity propaganda (made easier by the fact of real atrocities), and helped to create a situation where the ISIS advance was halted by force, practically against the will of the people. A key victory was won just before the Paris attacks, when the supply line between Raqqa and Mosul was cut by Peshmerga forces with coalition air and SF support. ISIS, which had basically morphed into a kind of flying mechanised cavalry column, was ‘contained’. It was the beginning of the end.

It is at this stage, presumably, that those ISIS leaders who had their roots in Al Qaeda must have had a bit of a brainwave. As the major assault geared up and they saw that they simply would not be able to hold the line, it must have occurred to them that there might be something in what old bin Laden had to say after all. Faced with a situation where they were unable to win a victory on their own territory, they decided to activate multiple cells overseas. One of those cells, apparently reinforced and advised by jihadis blooded in Syria, was behind the attacks in Paris. And it worked. US backed forces had won one of the most significant victories of the campaign so far, but this news was simply swallowed up by events in Paris. If the goal of such attacks is to sow disruption and erode fighting will amongst the general populace, Paris was a near total success.

In a way, this would seem to be a posthumous validation of bin Laden’s military doctrine. Beleaguered at home? Then attack abroad. This is why, amongst the outpourings of grief and outrage, several quiet academic voices could be heard saying that we had no right, really, to be surprised. This kind of attack exists deep in the doctrinal DNA of ISIS and, even though they initially rejected it, ISIS reversals in the Middle East are likely to cause a return to this strategy. As coalition forces and their proxy militia consolidate their gains in Iraq and Syria, we in the West should brace ourselves for more attempts to attack us at home.

Russia, Syria, Iran and World War III

From the air ... A video grab from footage made available on the Russian Defence Ministry

It has been apparent for months that Russia was planning a serious move in Syria. Russia, bless them, rarely varies its tactics when it comes to making moves on the QT, possibly because most Russian leaders have always been far more worried what their own people think of them than the opinion of the rest of the world. So, the same tired old ‘subterfuges’ of aid shipments which were really arms and troop shipments, and materiel sales that were really incremental mobilisation have been taking place right under our noses. And most of us guessed what was happening, to our credit.

Judging by the news cycle, however, a whole lot of people seem to be very surprised and, in this state of shock, have begun to scream hysterically about World War III. The argument is that Russia is more or less openly striking targets other than ISIS, and that these targets include rebel groups that are being backed by the USA and a raft of other countries. So, if Russia is killing American allies, then what’s to stop the USA from declaring war on Russia? And also, Iran’s announced its intention of sending ground troops in to fight ISIS and every time anyone says ‘Iran’, heads the world over begin immediately to explode.

I, however, would recommend remaining calm. As I pointed out in a previous post, fears about the advent of WWIII are basically academic. To all and intents and purposes, that gig’s already on, so the worry is not when will it start, but when and to what extent will the West join in. At this stage, it is abundantly clear that aside from limited deployment of air and SF assets, most of the Western powers don’t want a bar of it – not now or any time in the future. The scale of crime against humanity being perpetrated here is more than enough to justify all kinds of force, but we’re simply not willing. In the case of our recent historical experience with warfare, the West has a case of “once horrifically mauled, forever shy”.

The Russia/Syria relationship is a close and long-lived one, and it is widely known that Syria provides the Russian navy’s holy grail – a warm water port – as well as access to lucrative energy markets. Everybody knows this, so it’s not as if anybody is surprised or confused as to why Russia is conducting airstrikes in support of the Syrian regime. And nobody who’s been paying any attention at all (and one would hope this group includes the US government) is in any way surprised. This makes the chance of some state actor reacting rashly from shock or anger a fairly remote one.

Russian airstrikes have followed a pattern that makes it blindingly obvious that they are not targeting ISIS [Institute for the Study of War]

Sure, the people being targeted are, in fact, largely made up of groups that have more or less official US backing, but to call them allies would be ludicrous. In the first place, they’re not countries and in the second, they’re clearly proxy fighters in the same way that the Mujahideen and the Peshmerga have been in the past. And one thing we know for certain about the USA is that they do not make a habit of going to war in defence of their proxies. For evidence, we just have to look at the spectacular non-reaction of the US when Turkey used its UNSC authorisation to begin systematically murdering Kurdish forces. You know, the Peshmerga who we all apparently loved and supported so much. Nobody goes to war in defence of their proxy fighters. If they did, what would be the point of having them in the first place?

And the ‘entry’ of Iran into the war in support of their Shi’ite style brothers in faith, the Alawite Assad regime, is not so much a worrying recent development as it is a worryingly late public recognition of something that’s been going on for a very long time. Iranian militia (and their army is almost entirely organised on a militia structure) and special forces have been on the ground for at least 6 months and probably a great deal longer. I wrote an article about it, predicting that greater rapprochement with Iran would very soon become necessary as a result. But that’s beside the point. The point is, Iran isn’t just arriving – they’re reinforcing. And their entry all that time ago was so far from being a flash factor that it was quietly encouraged by the major Western powers.

Russia Syria

Remember the Kurds?

What we’re looking at with the situation between Russia, Syria, Iran and the USA is a situation that is indistinguishable from most of the cold war. A region is imploding, richer, bigger powers line up on either side according to their national interests and provide varying degrees of support to players who are already on the ground. Sound familiar? That’s right. When thinking specifically about the involvement of Russia and the West in the Syrian conflict, probably the most accurate way to frame it is not as a new confrontation, but as a continuation of the cold war. The last two decades appear to have been half-time, and now that the oranges have been handed out and eaten, we’re unfortunately back to business as usual.

Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory

ISIS

In about a month’s time, it will be the 156th anniversary of John Brown’s fateful raid on Harper’s Ferry. Now, for most Australians, John Brown is a  vague figure chiefly known for getting a two year jump start on the American Civil War and featuring in a morbid army song. Americans, however, have a much sharper and clearer view of the man, either as a lunatic terrorist, an heroic abolitionist, or both.

Brown and his band of 21 men took over the government arsenal and armoury at Harper’s Ferry in the early hours of the morning of the 17th of October, 1859. His plan was as breathtaking in its scope as it was implausible. His idea was to empty the arsenal and armoury, wait for slaves in the area to rise up and rally to him, and then literally take to the mountains fighting a guerilla war against slavery in the state of Virginia and beyond.

His plans, always more visionary than practical, involved the building of a network of forts in the surrounding mountain ranges, connected by communications tunnels which would presumably be dug by hand by the hundreds or thousands of slaves that he mistakenly believed would rally to his cause. As it was, he didn’t liberate a single slave. He also refused to surrender, in the face of repeated and desperate entreaties for him to save his own life and the lives of his band. On October the 18th, US Marines stormed the engine house that Brown had taken refuge in, killed most of his band and captured Brown.

Immediately after his capture, Brown, who had been bayoneted through the kidneys and severely cut about the head with a cavalry sword, gave an hours long press conference in which he stated in clear, rational terms the reasoning behind his suicidal act of treason. He repeated the performance soon afterwards at his trial and then six weeks later at his execution. It is these clear, ringing phrases, many of which were foreshadowed in his earlier writings and conversations, that have come down to us today.

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

“I have only a short time to live, only one death to die, and I will die fighting for this cause. There will be no peace in this land until slavery is done for.”

“If it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments – I submit: so let it be done.”

The first thing we notice about this rhetoric is its purity. There’s no maundering self pity in these lines despite the aspirations to martyrhood; no manufactured outrage, no writing to the SEO – they’re just pure and clean statements of a position that is simple and powerful in a way that only absolutism can be. And therein lies their very dangerous appeal. In the modern West, rhetoric of this kind has largely disappeared from the mouths of the sane or the intelligent. Most things are qualified, nuanced, considered. We don’t see this kind of rhetoric applied to many topics these days – poverty, maybe, or feminism or domestic violence, but even in these cases, nobody is advocating killing anyone or dying as a solution.

Which means that a young person in the West, looking for a pure and noble cause full of blood and thunder to get behind (as young people frequently do), has our mealy-mouthed, prevaricating slacktivism on the one hand… and on the other? They have the blood and thunder of the Islamists.

“We fear not the swarms of planes, nor ballistic missiles, nor drones, nor satellites, nor battleships, nor weapons of mass destruction. How could we fear them, while Allah the Exalted has said, “If Allah should aid you, no one can overcome you.”

“The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.”

“…kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they follow the same false ruling.”

We see a surprising amount of commentary from people who claim to be mystified as to the appeal of ISIS. Serious, thoughtful people who simply cannot understand what possible appeal there might be in travelling thousands of miles to be raped or used as cannon fodder or propaganda material. This confuses me. Surely, it can’t be that hard to see that these people are not joining jihadi groups with any real conception of what they’re about? Surely, it doesn’t take too much of a leap of the imagination to understand the impulse, especially the adolescent impulse, to throw oneself wholeheartedly into a cause that claims to be pure and powerful enough to warrant death, fire and glorious struggle?

I wonder if perhaps our general inefficacy in counter and de-radicalisation stems from this inability to understand the siren call of radicalisation in the first place? Sure, it’s about poverty and disenfranchisement, but only to a certain extent. Poverty, disadvantage and divisiveness open the door, but what steps through it is the kind of zealotry that resembles, in form if not in spirit or intention, the same power that invests some of our culture’s greatest figures. Perhaps, then, as well as tea, biscuits and welfare after the fact of radicalisation, we should also be looking at tapping that same spirit in our counter-radicalisation efforts.

One does not counter fanaticism with reason, nor passion with equivocation. Perhaps what we need is to create a counter-narrative that is just as appealing as the Islamist one. And why should we not be as vehement, or as absolute in the defence of our freedoms, and our hard-won, liberated way of life? Have not people just like John Brown and thousands – no, millions – of others shed oceans of blood to get it for us? Why shouldn’t we be at least as excited about our civilisation, and as ready to defend it, as a bunch of grubby sex criminals tearing around the Middle East in technicals? Well, there is the risk of sounding rather like the idiots of the United Patriots Front, or Tony Abbott, but surely this can be avoided. Surely, we can point to the monumental achievements of our own shared culture and be at least as inspired and excited about it as anyone else.

 

Why We Can’t Beat ISIS, And Other Imponderables

Last night a plane flew over my home. It didn’t drop any bombs, so I guess I’m safe from Cory Bernardi’s criticism for a while, but what I did notice  was that it had headlights. I’m sure there are excellent reasons for this, but just at that moment I couldn’t think of any. I therefore decided to not think about it any more. Except, of course, at dinner parties, when I fully intend to bring it up as a sardonic comment on the irrationality of the world.

ME: “You know planes have headlights? What the hell for? Isn’t everyone but us so completely stupid!” polite laughter

It occurs to me that this kind of thinking, if you can call it that, is very similar to the way we think about ISIS. What we as the general public really know about ISIS is next to nothing. We have a vague idea that there’s a pretty complex situation on the ground, what with tribes and different kinds of Moslems and a whole bunch of rape and beheading going on. We’re aware that ISIS holds some towns, and may even know the names of those towns, but there is where it usually stops. We accept commentary from the media and from various defence and government officials that say that it’s all just too complicated and all we can do is to make desultory stabs at ISIS cells and leaders with drones and FGA.

But this just isn’t true. When we talk about what can be done, we’re generally not talking about what’s possible, but about what is politically acceptable. The fact of the matter is that ISIS’ territory is loosely held at best. Their military tactics are shambolic, being made up of equal parts of social media based psy-ops campaigns and a focus on keeping recruitment at a higher level than attrition. 130,000 troops, an armoured division and the air assets already on station could probably take the entire territory in question in a matter of months. If we were so minded, we could structure the invasion in such a way that it would drive the enemy through Syria, into the waiting arms of neighbouring allies, thus putting paid to the Assad regime in the process. It should be remembered that a much better defended, similar sized territory was taken with breathtaking speed in the second Gulf War. It’s possible – it’s eminently possible, but what’s unthinkable right now is once again committing to the long, grinding process of military-driven nation-building that has taken so much in time, treasure and lives over the past decade and a half.

The problem is not that we can’t do this, it’s that we don’t want to. This speaks to a shift in public thinking that many see as the end true end of Imperialist thinking in the West. Over the past century we’ve rejected hard, territorial based empires in favour of de facto empires based on influence and hegemony and, now, we seem to be rejecting them in favour of something called ‘soft power’. We think that this represents some kind of advancement or moral improvement in the way that the West deals with the rest of the world, but it really doesn’t. This is apparent through the fact that almost all Western commentary on the current situation still rests on the assumption that the Middle East is a region in which we can and should intervene, which points to the idea that we still feel that we have some kind of ownership over the region. Compare, for example, our deafening silence on the conflict between the two Sudans, or the civil war raging in the Yemen. No, the fact is that deep in the Western mind lie the very same attitudes that informed the British and the Americans back in the immediate post war years. We still see it as our very own territory, we’re just unwilling to go back. It’s a case of forty times bitten, just now becoming shy.

And now is the worst possible moment to become shy. An evil conglomerate of extremists is carving out a new shape for the Middle East that cannot possibly mean anything but bad news for all our interests in the region. In the process of so doing, they are causing one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the last hundred years, one which is threatening to destabilise the EU and playing havoc with the balance of power in the Middle East and North Africa. We could not have picked a worse time to suddenly go ‘hands off’ on the land between the two rivers. And the greater tragedy is yet to come. No sane or informed analysis of the situation can possibly see this situation sorting itself out in a way that is acceptable to us. There are three alternatives, really.

  1. ISIS fizzles itself out, leaving a huge and chaotic power vacuum in the region, ripe for someone even crazier to fulfil. Again.
  2. ISIS firms up its territory, acquires heavier military capabilities and becomes a nation that we have to deal with as a player in the region.
  3. ISIS continues as is and, after an indeterminate period of time, hits the threshold of the amount of human displacement and atrocity that the West is willing to tolerate, and we once again invade the territory.

My big fear is that option three is by far the most likely. Given another decade, as our military commitment is incrementally increased on the back of continuing atrocities and immigration pressures, we are going to reach a tipping point where the public will eventually see that full-scale invasion is the only possible solution. The problem is that, by then, it may very well be exponentially more difficult to effect what could probably be done quite easily today.

Waiting for ‘the people’ to realise what’s at stake and what should be done could be fatal. Our governments need to act decisively now. The opinion of the public, while important, is predicated mainly on ignorance and, most importantly, ignorance of what is actually at stake if the current order in the Middle East is allowed to implode. It’s not just morality that’s at stake here – we in the West are all heavily invested in the fate of the region surrounding the ISIS anomaly – we always have been and always will be. We can’t just give up on the idea of ‘going back in’ just because it’s too difficult to explain why we should. The results of losing out to these lunatics are potentially catastrophic to us.

Sure, it’d be nice to pat ourselves on the back for creating a true post-imperial world, but the reality is that, whether we like it or not, this is going to have to wait. The replacement for the West’s soft, hard or any other kind of power in the Middle East cannot be allowed to be an Islamic State of this kind. The only real choice here is whether we intervene decisively now, or wait until thousands more lives and billions more in treasure have been spent pretending that a limited air campaign and proxy fighters are ever going to be enough to resolve the situation.

Why are defence officials predicting a 20 year conflict? It’s because they know that this covers them for failing to present a real solution in the face of governments that don’t want to hear about the only effective one.

 

When Will World War III Start? Let’s Just Say ‘Tomorrow’.

Ever since the end of WWII, the possibility of a third world war has been a preoccupation of world leaders, conflict watchers and breakfast table analysts the world over. We’ve had some scares in the past, what with the red menace, konfrontasi, the Malay emergency, the Middle East in general and Israel in particular and repeatedly. And that’s not to mention Vietnam, Korea, Iran/Iraq, India/Pakistan and  pretty well everything China says or does. The spectre of another global conflict has loomed on the horizon with a certain grim constancy that speaks volumes about humanity’s general mental outlook. And it’s this that is telling.

I’m often asked, mostly by taxi drivers and people in the pub, when I think the next world war will be. Amateur historians and hysterical commentators like to point out the geopolitical, economic and historical similarities between our times and the fateful years 1913 and 1938. Like campfire ghost-story tellers, they ghoulishly revel in chilling our blood with tales of the ‘eerie’ parallels between the world back then and the world today. But it’s nothing more than cheap thrills. The answer to the question, “When will the next war be?” is, in fact another question: When was the peace?

There has not been a single year since the end of WWII when major military conflict was absent worldwide. And a great many of these conflicts have been direct extensions of the loose ends that the major Western powers started or escalated as part of WWII, but then couldn’t be bothered with when it came to settling accounts and divvying up the post war world. Since our rather Eurocentric declaration of “world peace”, whole swathes of the world have been more or less continuously on fire, from SE Asia to the Middle East and the godawful mess that has been Northern, Central and Western Africa. Basically, we decided that peace had arrived simply because we ourselves had stopped playing.

Repeated emergencies over the years demonstrated to us the short-sightedness of such a view, with multiple interventions having to be authorised by the UN Security Council, as well as a few that weren’t but were pursued anyway. Taken in aggregate, then, the world is still very much at war. We can, if we choose, see this as the same game continued elsewhere, with different players. Or, if we choose to continue thinking of the world primarily in terms of the West, we can say that WWIII has been building up slowly over the past 70 years without us. And now that we’re thinking about joining in again, the same old questions are coming up, tinged excitingly with overtones of Armageddon. People haven’t had this much fun with existential dread since the Cold War.

The fact of the matter is that WWIII has been well underway for some time. The world hasn’t seen this level of mobilisation and conflict since the early forties. We simply haven’t labelled this very similar level of conflict a ‘world war’ because it’s not happening where we live. So let’s stop wasting time and brain power, please. The world is already on fire and we’re all still here. Let’s start thinking instead about how we can help to put it out.