The Fight For a Border: Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, ISIS and US Covert Ops
For the better part of a year the militant extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has controlled swaths of land in the Euphrates valley, essentially pilfering a de facto jihadist state stretching from the Syrian city of Raqqa to the Anbar province, including the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. Initially dubbed the Islamic State of Iraq in a 2006 manifesto, leader and al-Qaeda affiliate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian responsible for numerous terrorist attacks including the bombing of three hotels in his home country in 2004, set his sights on turning the region into an Islamic state starting with Iraq in the midst of the US occupation. After the US Air Force killed al-Zarqawi in a targeted strike in June of 2006, Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi took the helm. The militant group added al-Sham (the Levant) to its moniker last year after taking control of the countryside west of Deir Ezzor, prompting Asad Bin Nawaf Raghib Al-Bashir, leader of Jazirah and Euphrates Front to Liberate Syria and son of the chief of the Baggara tribe, one of Syria's largest and most powerful tribes, to swear an allegiance. Today, the rapid proliferation of ISIS has left the border between Iraq and Syria nearly indiscernible and poses an overwhelming threat to the secular factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the state of Iraq, as well as other neighboring countries. Such a large region hosting an unchecked hotbed of extremists now so monstrous even al-Qaeda has publicly denounced them, is also poised to be ground zero for future terrorist threats abroad for years to come.
The growing threat of ISIS and the destabilization of the border between Iraq and Syria has prompted Iraqi Prime Minister and US puppet gone rogue, Nouri al-Maliki, to make a public decree of "jihad" leveled at the extremist group. Maliki's so-called jihad comes decisively in the wake of his failure to obtain the parliamentary votes necessary to secure a third term. Maliki has further stated that he will not only end the reign of the extremist group in the Anbar, but will do so by the beginning of Ramadan (end of June). Such a hyperbolic and unattainable claim shines light on two things: Maliki is attempting to buy time in order to construct the facade of a new government, and if Maliki's aims are to have a shred of validity, Iraq must be receiving external military support in light US troops being withdrawn.
In 2006, with considerable western meddling, Maliki ascended to office through a democratic election and a breach of the Iraqi constitution. Since then he has forcefully removed Sunni senior officials such as governor of the Central Bank, Sinan al-Shabibi, and Mohammed Shawani, former director of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service. In their place he has installed an autocratic Shiite regime. Not only have senior officials been removed, according to Dexter Filkins' New Yorker profile, Maliki has purged the INIS of nearly all its 500 Sunni agents and analysts. Maliki's purging of Sunni political power, as well as the reinstitution of a Saddam Hussein dictate making it a crime to criticize the head of government, has further marginalized Iraqi Sunnis. Many now see him as just another autocratic despot.
Maliki has also echoed Bashar Assad's assertion that there has been no moderate opposition in Syria. While the secularized opposition of the Free Syrian Army is a conglomerate of hundreds of militias, which have undoubtedly been weakened over the last year due to fighting multiple fronts against the Syrian regime, Hezbollah, the Iranian Royal Guard, ISIS, and al-Qaeda offshoots, they have yet to be completely wiped out. A majority of internally displaced citizens trapped inside Syria, like those in Yarmouk Camp where, according to Neil Sammonds from Amnesty International, at least 192 have died of starvation, still want to see a Syria transition into a secular democracy after the fall of Assad. While many people left in Syria are either poor, elderly, widowed or are children, therefore not fighting on the front lines the claim that if they oppose the Assad Regime they're not moderates is absurd. Maliki's inability to distinguish between soldiers and citizens, moderates and extremists, reveals a disturbing prejudice against Sunnis that stretches beyond the borders of Iraq.
Iraqi Sunnis are not the only people fed up with Maliki. Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, stated in Paris last week that if Maliki gets a third term the Kurds will present a referendum severing all ties with the Iraqi government. Maliki has also lost the support of some Iraqi Shiites for either being perceived as too aligned with the west, or not moderate enough, depending on the ideologies of those leveling the critique.
Maliki's purported effort to slow the proliferation of Iranian weapons passing through Iraq to the Syrian regime has been ineffective, fostering speculation as to where his loyalties lie. His ability to crackdown on sectarian violence in Iraq has also been relatively nonexistent, with the last year seeing more violence than any other in nearly a decade. Instead of taking a shred of responsibility, Maliki has, in accordance to Iran, firmly placed all blame on Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Maliki has stated that Saudi Arabia is placing agents in Iraq to spark sectarian violence. While it's well-known that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have a history of funding terrorist groups and al-Qaeda affiliates, Maliki has struggled to support the scope of his claims with sufficient evidence, leaving him suspect of contributing to the growing sectarian violence himself.
Nonetheless, the US is on board with Maliki's jihad offering him $1 billion of a $5 billion international effort to arm International allies in the "war on terror." US hellfire missiles, drones and other munitions have already been delivered. More are set to arrive this summer. While troops will not be provided on the ground, US soldiers in the region will continue to train Iraqi Special Forces in neighboring Jordan. Some funds will also be available for Iraq to continue to hire private contractors and mercenaries, who are typically US veterans.
Last year the US defaulted on arming the secular factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), thus leaving many as sitting ducks for the regime or forced to take armament from extremist factions often in exchange for a pledge of loyalty despite their personal ideologies. According to several think tanks as well as Hilary Clinton's retrospective take, the failure to arm the FSA early on is directly related to the rise of ISIS. After last week's faux election in Syria, Susan Rice stated that the US is yet again considering arming vetted factions of the FSA. There has even been talk of surface-to-air missile launchers that can be remotely disabled by the US to keeping them under control if they end up in the wrong hands.
These current ventures into arming foreign fighters, as well as the continuing use of JSOC raids and drone attacks in Yemen and Afghanistan, are a testament that US presence in the Middle East will remain strong. But with two long and unpopular wars in the not too distant past, many American citizens are against any military involvement in the region. What that means is that military actions are simply going to continue to grow evermore covert. What seems to be missing, as has been the case with US operations in the Middle East - is a long-term plan. Backing factions supported by both Saudi Arabia and Iran, all the while waiting to see which side comes out the strongest and then taking that side, is not going to bring about a future in the Middle East that benefits anyone. Instead the US may be setting itself up for failure yet again.