5 Things to Know Today about the Fight Against ISIL

By Juan Cole

1. On Sunday evening, BBC reports that Iraqi fighter jets bombed the villages of al-Riyadh and al-Nirab in the vicinity of Hawija, north Iraq, leaving 14 dead and 10 wounded. Hawija is a largely Sunni Arab town near the city of Kirkuk (Kirkuk is controlled now by the Kurdistan Peshmerga paramilitary). The Baghdad government, which is dominated by Shiite Arabs, has a substantial advantage over extremist ISIL fighters in having fighter jets and helicopter gunships, but has not successfully deployed them against the violent gang since it took over northern and western Iraq in June. Presumably the ability of Baghdad to scramble jets and hit these villages, putting pressure on ISIL to withdraw further from the Kurdish front, has to do with the hundreds of US special forces troops that President Obama has sent to Baghdad, since some must be trainers trying to get Iraqi pilots up to speed. Assuming that the jets actually bombed ISIL positions and did not just manage to kill civilians, this bombing raid represents an upping of the Baghdad military’s game.

2. The US carried out air strikes on ISIL positions near Haditha in the vicinity of the Mosul Dam. Keeping the dam out of ISIL hands is a key objective of the current campaign, since it could be used to blackmail Iraqis. Sheikh Ahmed Abu-Risha, who claims to be the leader of the Sunni Arab, pro-Baghdad “Awakening,” said that tribal forces confirmed that two ISIL units had been targeting the dam, and that the US air strikes destroyed them. This report suggests that ISIL is sometimes attempting to act like a conventional military, marching on targets in platoons that then become vulnerable to air attack because they are in the open and bunched up. The group’s guerrilla experience would not be useful, however, in taking a dam– it is better deployed in a big population center like Mosul.

3. On the Syrian side of the border, the Bashar al-Assad regime asserted that it bombed ISIL positions at al-Raqqa, including a bakery. Syrian human rights workers said that the air strikes killed 53 persons, of whom 15 were ISIL fighters.

4. The mufti or chief legal adviser of Saudi Arabia on Islamic law (Sheikh Abd al-Aziz Al Sheikh) gave a fatwa or ruling on Sunday that ISIL is just a band of rebels and murderers who have blood in their hands. Those Western pundits demanding evidence that Muslims have condemned ISIL should take note. The mufti of a Wahhabi country has done so, showing that the Saudi elite has had a scare thrown into it, even if some Saudis secretly support ISIL.

5. The Arab League declared its enmity with the so-called “Islamic State.” All the governments are afraid of ISIL. Although Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Alaraby met with US Secretary of State John Kerry, however, it is not clear what exactly the body can do in any practical way for the war effort. The state best poised to intervene against ISIL, Jordan (which borders Iraq and has a good little military and intelligence capabilities) is at least in public begging off, for fear of ISIL reprisals in Amman.


Related video:

VOA: “Obama to Outline Campaign against Islamic State Militants”

17 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole


    On the Syrian side of the border, the Bashar al-Assad regime

    On the Syrian side of the border, the Governement of Syria or The Syrian Arab Army

    ISIS are the result of a mistaken and mismanaged Saudi/ US attempt to overthrow the Government of Syria.

    • Correction

      ISIS success is the result of the butcher Assad’s campaign to put down a largely peaceful Sunni movement for greater democratic inclusion in the affairs of state. Now we have total war. This is not the fault of the US.

  2. Are not Iran and Syria also well poised to intervene against ISIL? The US DOS spokesperson, Marie Harf, on Friday said *: Well, we’re not going to coordinate military action or share intelligence with Iran. We have no plans to do so. In the same briefing she also said: We don’t work with the Assad regime. These were offered in response to questioners who clearly thought it would be sensible to do so. It seems to me the seriousness of this situation demands putting these holier-than-thou attitudes aside, even if only for the duration. Persisting in refusing to do so suggests either the US has its own priorities which transcend the urgency or it just doesn’t think the IS as threatening to global security as Obama insists it is. This is essentially still a ME issue and the response should surely be led by a ME consortium calling on US, NATO or other support and aid as they may need it. Heavens above, they are all but drowning in weapons way beyond anything the IS can even dream of.

    * link to state.gov

    • You propose going to war with the Shiites against the Sunni. Specifically, ally with Syria and Iran. Syria uses nerve gas to kill their opponents. Assad and his regime are butchers and have killed 200,000 of their citizens.

      It only seems last week, that the US needed to go to war with Iran. Bibi said it had to happen! The worlds most dangerous nation with the worlds most destructive weapons. Bomb now!

  3. One thing to know about American foreign policy, as the Establishment “pivots” to the ISthreat thing:

    Obama’s dilemma is America’s appetite for power but aversion to political risk…

    In 1964, then-former US secretary of state and foreign policy adviser Dean Acheson elaborated a plan for the partition of Cyprus which proved unpalatable to all concerned parties. During a visit to Washington, the Greek prime minister and president Lyndon Johnson locked horns over the issue. Shortly afterwards, when the Greek ambassador explained the plan’s shortcomings, Johnson exploded:

    Fuck your parliament and your constitution … We pay a lot of good American dollars to the Greeks, Mr Ambassador. If your prime minister gives me talk about democracy, parliament and constitution, he, his parliament and his constitution may not last long …

    By 1967, Greece was under a brutal military junta backed by the US from which it did not emerge for seven years.

    With a few notable exceptions, the performance of US foreign policy, both in public and private, has long been an unsubtle blend of carrots, sticks and presidential swagger. Impulse and ultimatum are privileged over reflection and negotiation. In Berlin in 1987, Ronald Reagan called on Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall”. Almost 20 years later George W Bush was caught on an open mic, laying out his plan to halt to the strife in Lebanon: “See the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s over.” It was high time, he thought, for UN secretary general Kofi Annan to get onto the phone with Syrian president Bashar Assad and “make something happen”. link to theguardian.com

    Too bad, e.g., Obama can’t put something of the same sort into Bibi’s sneering arrogant face…

    The sub-head of the Guardian article is “Americans want him to ‘do something’ about catastrophes abroad while withdrawing from the role of world policeman.” Given the Global Battlespace and all the rest of the stuff “we” are doing to maintain some kind of hegemony and economic primacy,
    “we” have and will continue to arrogate to ourselves the role of “world’s policeman,” the kind of cops that used to run the Summerdale district in Chicago, link to articles.chicagotribune.com, and the ones who kick down the wrong doors and shoot unarmed innocent people and steal their stuff and cash and load up on military gear and to what end, again? General welfare? Domestic tranquility?

    • The international political and economic elites have long understoo what you write above and either play along with it or try to ignore it. What is changing is their electorate’s eyes opening, particularly in Europe, remember the UK parliament vote against intervening in Syria. It’s one thing for the US president to browbeat an ambassador or even a leader, but he can’t browbeat an electorate. There is increasing support for right wing parties in Europe and while that is mainly fuelled by a host of socio economic factors it tends to be isolationist in terms of remote foreign affairs, particularly those that cost money and lives. Also, significant right wing leaders have shed their more racist origins, and can appear extremely commonsensical, certainy less hypocritical. 2http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/interview-with-french-front-national-leader-marine-le-pen-a-972925-2.html A wide range of recent events begin to suggest that US authority may be like the Emperor’s wardrobe; Netanyahu’s behaviour is probably the most strident but there are many others, nations like Bahrain, the DPRK, China, Russia, Venezuela, etc. who seem not to do what the US demands while receiving little more than mild diplomatic rebukes or sanctions which, as with Russia now, can be a double edged sword. Then there are those like the citizens of Noga in Okinawa link to rt.com who have no qualms about seriously discommoding important US strategic purposes. Some might also think the erstwhile unassailable petrodollar is not perhaps quite what was. Wherever all this is leading or whatever it means it does appear to be evolving and despite local authoritarian efforts may not be stoppable, I doubt it will lead to a better world but surely a different one.

  4. Professor Cole,

    As I understand it, the Saudi royal house is Salafi/Wahhabi, but it does not want the Caliphate revivied. ISIL/ISIS/IS and Al Qaeda are Salafi/Wahhabi, but it do want the Caliphate revived. Is there a name or group of names to distinguish between these two groups of Salafi/Wahhabi followers?

      • Yet destroying tombs (like that of the prophet Jonas), is a distinctively Wahhabi enterprise (El-Wahab started his career by destroying the prophets companions tombes in the 18th century), as is the practice of crucifixion, seen only in wahhabi Saudi Arabia, or the complete facial veil imposed in ISIL controlled cities. They seem to me a radical wahhabi movement to whom Saudi Wahabism is too moderate.

  5. Tempest in a teapot…Isis is a sure loser..with Iran and Hezbollah on one side and the US supported Kurds and Iraqi Shiites on the other…they can not stand….

    • Iraqi Baathists were secularists and now they are a part of IS. This is not tempest in a teapot, this is deep. Human evolution took us to our cultural evolution which is the fast track to evolution. Culture is in our genes and a virulent component of it is ownership. Ownership is what partitions wealth and forces some to starve and hence makes the extra speed in the fast track cultural evolution. Religion is a source of entitlement and hence viewed as a possession. Iran, a Shiite and a non-Arab, claiming the ownership of Islam and dominating Syria is the real long term reason for Sunni extremism. Nothing will be solved until Iran gives up on Islamism and let’s its own people free.

    • Will the Kurds, Iraqi Shiites and the U.S. be able to defeat ISIS in northern and western Iraq without help from Sunni tribes? Why would those Sunnis ally themselves with the Shiite dominated Iraq government and fight against fellow Sunnis? Without their help, ISIS can not be defeated.

      In Syria, the Obama administration will not work with Assad, but everything they do to defeat ISIS makes him stronger, not to mention helping Hezbollah as well as Iran. U.S. bombs alone won’t defeat ISIS in Syria.

      Obama is about to enter a very tricky situation. Not only will we be at war in northern Iraq, but Syria too with only a vague endgame years in the future.


  6. I see Darth Cheney just added his $0.02 talking to all those war-luvin’ House Republicans. After the pep talk, John Boehner declined to comment about the possibility of sending ground troops back to Iraq.

    This could work out so perfect for Cheney, the Republicans, the defense industry AND everything else military. Troops are sent back to Iraq and in order to Degrade, Decimate and Destroy ISIS, we also invade Syria Then, after ISIS is no more, we don’t leave so we can keep a close watch on Hezbollah, Iran and Assad—the Shia BAD GUYS.

    The defense budget goes up to a trillion dollars and stays there.

    It’s the Cheney ISIS now–Iran later plan.

  7. One more thing to know:

    “Iraq’s Shi’ite militia, Kurds use U.S. air strikes to further own agendas”

    The unlikely coalition of Kurdish peshmerga fighters, Shi’ite militias and the U.S. air force won a major victory when it broke a siege of the Shi’ite Turkman town of Amerli last week and drove Islamic State from 25 nearby Sunni towns and villages.

    But the aftermath is far from what the Americans envisioned. Smoke now rises from those Sunni villages, where some houses have been torched by Shi’ite militia. Others are abandoned, the walls daubed with sectarian slogans.

    “There is no way back for them: we will raze their homes to the ground,” said Abu Abdullah, a commander of the Shi’ite Kataib Hizbollah militia in Amerli. link to theglobeandmail.com

    Mass graves, revenge, more revenge, and no matter how “serious” the think-wankers’ pronouncements about coalitions filling in around Baghdad, no amount of hopeful personification will nation-build a pacified and obedient and convenient Iraq thingie. If that is even really among the goals of Our Policy…

  8. Technically, Sheikh Abd al-Aziz Al Sheikh said that Muslims should fight IS *if* they are killing other Muslims. I think that is a big caveat.

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