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Links 1 through 10 of 58 by Shaun Green tagged iraq

The war in Syria and Iraq has produced two new de facto states in the last five years and enabled a third quasi-state greatly to expand its territory and power. The two new states, though unrecognised internationally, are stronger militarily and politically than most members of the UN. One is the Islamic State, which established its caliphate in eastern Syria and western Iraq in the summer of 2014 after capturing Mosul and defeating the Iraqi army. The second is Rojava, as the Syrian Kurds call the area they gained control of when the Syrian army largely withdrew in 2012, and which now, thanks to a series of victories over IS, stretches across northern Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates. In Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), already highly autonomous, took advantage of IS’s destruction of Baghdad’s authority in northern Iraq to expand its territory by 40 per cent, taking over areas long disputed between itself and Baghdad, including the Kirkuk oilfields and some mixed Kurdish-Arab districts.

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Predicting what will start a war, and when, is an unrewarding business. Long-term trends (‘causes’) are often clear enough, but not the proximate causes, or triggers. We can assess the comparative significance of competition for resources, hunger for power, the nature of political systems, the psychology of leaders. What precipitates a conflict, though, may be a sudden, unforeseen event: an accident, misreading or miscalculation, or a temperamental leader’s flash of hubris. Often, of course, it is a combination of such things. Yet there is nothing inevitable about the outbreak of conflict. (Bear in mind when I say this that I work for an NGO that operates on the premise that conflicts can be prevented.)

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It’s true that if it weren’t for the dismantling of the Iraqi state, and its replacement by a Shia-dominated sectarian system, IS would probably not exist. And in its war against the Sykes-Picot frontiers, IS has paid a peculiar homage to the neoconservatives who have always viewed the post-Ottoman borders as artificial constructs, a map to be redrawn in blood, with multi-confessional states replaced by ethnically exclusive, weak statelets: Christian Lebanese, Kurdish and Shia. But the problem of IS can’t be laid exclusively at the door of Bush, Blair et al. The war in Libya, and Obama’s accommodation with the Sisi regime in Egypt, have encouraged the spread of IS well beyond Iraq. It is, however, the US’s dangerously incoherent Syria policy that has perhaps done the greatest damage. When Obama called for Assad to step down, apparently confident that his days were numbered because an American president had said so, he raised the expectations of the opposition that the US had their backs, in the event that Assad began firing on them. But Obama had no intention of sending troops, or imposing a no-fly zone.

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The military balance of power in Syria and Iraq is changing. The Russian air strikes that have been taking place since the end of September are strengthening and raising the morale of the Syrian army, which earlier in the year looked fought out and was on the retreat. With the support of Russian airpower, the army is now on the offensive in and around Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, and is seeking to regain lost territory in Idlib province. Syrian commanders on the ground are reportedly relaying the co-ordinates of between 400 and 800 targets to the Russian air force every day, though only a small proportion of them come under immediate attack. The chances of Bashar al-Assad’s government falling – though always more remote than many suggested – are disappearing. Not that this means he is going to win.

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The intelligence about the ‘possible military dimensions’ of Iran’s nuclear programme is of questionable provenance and most of it is more than a dozen years old. The consequences of failure to reach a nuclear accord with Iran today are too serious for the world to embrace a process that has been so controversial while having so little impact on legitimate disarmament. This is especially true when the inspected party, as is the case with Iran, has agreed to implement stringent verification measures and has a proven track record of abiding by them. Iran has been put in the impossible position of having to prove a negative. If it accepts inspections based on allegations it knows to be baseless, then it’s opening itself up to an endless cycle of foreign intrusion into its military and security infrastructure, and the inability of inspectors to discover something of relevance will only reinforce the belief that something is being hidden. We saw this happen before in Iraq, and the end result was a war based on flawed intelligence and baseless accusations that left many thousands dead and a region in turmoil.

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The capture of Tal Abyad by the Kurds may well lead to a fresh wave of speculation that Islamic State is going into decline. But, like most of the other participants in the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, the self-declared caliphate is too well rooted to disappear. Its quasi-guerrilla style of warfare makes the loss or gain of a single town or city less significant than it may appear. Its slogan, ‘the Islamic State remains, the Islamic State expands,’ is still true.

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Along Syria's borders with Turkey and Northern Iraq, lies a mainly Kurdish area with a population of 4.6 million where a huge social experiment is taking place at the centre of a crossfire between Syria's dictatorship, ISIS's collective insanity and Turkey's ongoing hostility towards the idea of Kurdish autonomy, with the US and NATO looming large in the background. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Kurdish National Council (KNC) established in the region of Rojava a society that mixes fierce libertarianism (guns are everywhere and there are no taxes – none) and Occupy-friendly anarchist thought with a healthy dose of feminism. While most Kurdish groups, especially those the US is friendly with, would some day like to establish a Kurdish state, in Rojava they have leap-frogged over the idea of the nation state into a more advanced system that they call Democratic Confederalism.

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Have you heard the screams of a prisoner who is being tortured in America’s war on terror? I can’t forget them. They pierced the walls of a detention center I visited in Samarra during an offensive by American and Iraqi forces in 2005. In a small room, I was interviewing a frightened detainee whose head was bandaged from an injury he unconvincingly attributed to a car accident during his capture. Bloodstains dripped down the side of a desk, and there was an American military adviser with us, as well as a portly officer of Iraq’s special police commandos. Suddenly there was a chilling scream.

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The British army is back in Warminster and its other bases around the country. Its eight-year venture in southern Afghanistan is over. The extent of the military and political catastrophe it represents is hard to overstate. It was doomed to fail before it began, and fail it did, at a terrible cost in lives and money. How bad was it? In a way it was worse than a defeat, because to be defeated, an army and its masters must understand the nature of the conflict they are fighting. Britain never did understand, and now we would rather not think about it. The troops are home from a campaign that lasted 13 years, including Iraq in the middle. They are coming home from their bases in Germany, too. The many car parks’ worth of mine-proof vehicles you can see from Battlesbury Hill, ordered tardily for Afghanistan at a million pounds apiece, will be painted European green and dispersed to other barracks.

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But there is more to Isis than cruelty, violence and religious fanaticism: since it wants the state to endure, it has to satisfy the basic needs of the population. In Mosul it terrifies people but it also controls the price of food and accommodation, so that fruit and vegetables are cheaper than in the nearby Kurdish cities of Irbil and Duhok. Surprisingly, pensions are still being paid by the Baghdad government, as are doctors’ salaries. Bread makes up about half the diet of poor Syrians and Iraqis, so Isis, which took a million tonnes of grain from government silos in Iraq, has made sure that bakeries have kept on working and the price of bread stays low. These efforts may seem paltry: there are severe shortages of mains electricity, fresh tap water and petrol of usable quality. But for many Sunnis in Mosul the Islamic State’s actions compare favourably with the sectarianism and criminality displayed by the Iraqi army and federal police during the ten years they held the city.

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