On Friday, December 4 Germany voted to provide “non-combat” support to a worldwide coalition fighting Islamic State in Syria.
Reconnaissance jets, a tanker plane, a frigate, 1,200 non-combat soldiers would go to aid the campaign against the group.
“It is to fight and contain Islamic State, and destroy their safe havens and their ability to lead worldwide terror,” said German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen.Click here for more stories from the "2015 - The Year That Was" Jpost special
There was a sense of déjà vu. Wasn’t Germany already involved in the coalition against Islamic State? In July, a German- speaking member of Islamic State had threatened German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally before executing two unnamed men in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. In September, Germany had taken the unusual step of sending antitank missiles to Kurdish forces in Iraq.
“We face the decision not to undertake any risk, to deliver nothing and ultimately condone the spread of terrorism, or to support those who are desperately but courageously fighting the hideous Islamic State terrorism with limited resources,” Merkel told parliament.
Germany’s December decision to join a coalition it already supported was prompted by the November 13 Paris attacks that killed 130 people and were carried out by an Islamic State cell in Europe. Since then, European countries have lined up behind an anti-Islamic State coalition. Slightly more than two years after British Prime Minister David Cameron had lost a vote in the House of Commons to bomb the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad, the Commons voted to approve air strikes in Syria against Islamic State on December 2. At the debate, Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn gave a rousing speech against the extremists.
“We are here faced by fascists, not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in the chamber tonight… they hold us in contempt, their hold our values in contempt,” he said.
By the close of December 2015 the most powerful countries in the world will all be at war against Islamic State.
From Qatar to Kuwait, Jordan and Turkey in the Middle East, to Germany, the UK, France, the US, Russia and others, they will be struggling in tandem. All the countries on both sides of World War II have been united by a common scourge.
Not everyone agrees with the war taking shape. US political theorist Prof. Michael Walzer claimed the current war offers no prospect of success and is therefore unjust.
“A just war must aim at a just ending, but this war is being fought without any likely end and without any vision of what a morally just end would look like.
Without those two, I find it hard to defend the current air war, which may well kill more innocent people than Islamic State fighters and produce more Islamic State fighters than it kills.”
The Stop the War Coalition in the UK claimed that fighting Islamic State was akin to the failed policies the West had embarked on in Libya in 2011, Iraq in 2003 and elsewhere.
“Islamic State is far closer to the spirit of internationalism and solidarity that drove the [Spanish] International Brigades than Cameron’s bombing campaign – except that the international jihad takes the form of solidarity with oppressed Muslims, rather than the working class or the socialist revolution.”
THE WAR against Islamic State began in 2014. Between June and August of 2014, Islamic State conquered large swaths of territory in Iraq, coming within striking distance of Baghdad. This organization and its trademark black flag had been operating before in Syria, but the world was distracted by the overall conflict in Syria.
Only in retrospect was it clear the Syrian civil war had been an incubator for a genocidal brand of Islamist extremism, which made even al-Qaida look moderate.
The initial US-led coalition against Islamic State took shape in August 2014 with humanitarian assistance to Yazidi refugees. Islamic State massacred thousands of Yezidis, a religious minority, and horrifically sold more than 4,000 young women into slavery.
Sheikh Nasser Pasha, a Yazidi official, holds up one of the bullets Islamic State used to massacre people before burying them in this mass grave west of Shingal (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN).
At a December meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, some 59 countries signed on to provide aid in the fight against Islamic State.
Islamic State embarked on a fourpronged strategy at first. It conquered swaths of territory by appealing to Sunni sectarian extremism. This was popular in Syria and Iraq, where Sunni Arabs resented the regimes controlled, respectively, by Alawite and Shi’a elites. The second prong was the ethnic cleansing of all minorities.
Beduin tribes that rebelled were massacred, Shi’a air force cadets at Camp Streicher were lined up by the hundred, their throats slit, or bullet-riddled bodies tossed into a river. Besides the massacre of Yazidis, Christian churches were blown up and Christians forced to flee.
After destroying the cultural diversity, the extremists embarked on the cleansing of all non-Sunni history. In March they bulldozed the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in Iraq. In April they destroyed the UNESCO site of Hatra in Iraq.
“The destruction marks a turning point in the appalling strategy of cultural cleansing underway in Iraq,” UNESCO director Irina Bokova responded.
Islamic State went on to capture the beautifully preserved ancient desert city of Palmyra in Syria that same month. It murdered the chief archeologist Khaled al-Asaad in August. After executing 250 people in the ruins, it set about destroying the city’s treasures, blowing up a 2,000-year-old arch in October.
Islamic State has also sought to show off its brutality on social media, frequently publishing videos of executions, which became more extreme over time. It began by beheading American journalist James Foley in August 2014, and several other high-profile killings. In December a Jordanian pilot named Muath al-Kassabeh was captured after his plane crashed near Raqqa. On February 3, the group released a video of him being burned to death, soon after it had killed Japanese journalist Kenji Goto. Since then the videos have become more depraved, drowning men in a cage (June), blowing men up with explosives (August), roasting people over a fire (September), showing a man crushed by a tank (October), having a young child behead a man (December) and, in one of the more recent, tying explosive necklaces to men in Yemen.
Throughout 2015, Islamic State also inspired a series of terrorist attacks, including a plot to kill the pope and a teenager who planned attacks in Australia.
The FBI is still investigating whether the San Bernardino attacks were inspired by the organization. Islamic State cells were found in places as far apart as Israel and Malaysia, and Islamic State extremists began campaigns in Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere, as the organization gained allegiance from other Islamic groups in places like Nigeria and the Sinai Peninsula.
An analysis by the New York Times concluded that the group was responsible for “nearly 1,000 civilian deaths outside of Iraq and Syria.” These included three massive bombings in Turkey in June, July and October targeting Kurds; the bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt in October; a November bombing of a Shi’a area in Beirut; and the Paris attacks in November.
The response of the international community has been criticized for being ineffectual.
Several reports have noted that a civilian employee of the US Defense Intelligence Agency revealed that team leaders were “improperly reworking conclusions of assessments prepared for policymakers.”
The US was accused of exaggerating the progress against the group, with President Barack Obama coming in for criticism in November for having claimed the group was “contained” – even as it carried out Paris attacks. Speaking at a Munich Security Conference in February, Secretary of State John Kerry had told reporters that the US and its allies had “taken out half their senior leadership.”
Part of the confusion stemmed from the fact that despite a massive 60-nation coalition fighting Islamic State, many of the countries were carrying out only limited strikes. In other cases, many were not striking the group in Syria, but only in Iraq, or vice-versa. The agendas of Iran, Turkey and Russia, all of whom were nominally also fighting Islamic State, and the US, the UK and Canada (which withdrew from the air campaign in November) were not the same.
Islamic State benefited from this confusion.
Hugh Naylor at The Washington Post called it the “world’s richest terrorist organization” on December 4, arguing that it was still making $1.5 million a day selling oil products. It still had between six and nine million people under its control. Not until October 2015 did the US and its allies begin targeting Islamic State oil production facilities in a campaign dubbed Tidal Wave II. Observers might wonder how it took a year into the campaign to target the source of Islamic State revenues.
This extremist organization’s long-term effect has also been to remake the map of the Middle East. By dissolving the border between Iraq and Syria, it has also empowered Iran’s allies in Syria and Iraq, and empowered the Kurds to seek deeper independence. With Iraq’s Kurdish areas cut off from Baghdad in 2014, the Kurdistan Regional Government became more autonomous and has become the only stable region of Iraq. By attacking Kurdish areas in Syria, Islamic State also helped catalyzed the YPG, a Kurdish left-wing group that has created a revolution in the Kurdish areas and has pushed back Islamic State. By presenting Kurds with a stark choice, Islamic State helped create Kurdish unity against a common enemy and Kurds have now received more support from the West in their endeavor.
The author with Islamic State graffiti in Shingal, Iraq, which was liberated from the extremists in November 2015 (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN).
This has been in evidence in the recent Kurdish Peshmerga liberation of the Yezidi town of Sinjar, and the YPG’s establishment of an Arab militia called the Syrian Democratic Forces. That means when Islamic State is defeated, it will leave behind a new map of the Middle East, with more powerful Shi’a and Kurdish areas.
The war against Islamic State has also created new enemies in Turkey and Russia. Turkey was the transit point for thousands of foreign fighters, perhaps as many as 30,000, who joined Islamic State. It was also the transit point for Islamic State oil. When Turkey downed a Russian bomber in late November, it began a war of words with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin who said the country would “regret more than once,” its actions. Now there are reports of US special forces operating with the Kurds in Syria, and Turkish troops in the Kurdish regions of Iraq.
Islamic State has helped unify the interests of Iran, Russia and Assad and created a reaction in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish Regional Government, which has sought closer relations with Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Turkey, in turn, has now sought to normalize relations with Israel.
But Islamic State is far from finished. On December 16, the extremists launched attacks along numerous Kurdish Peshmerga front lines. I happened to be in Kurdistan when it happened. They used the fog for cover and killed 13 Kurds. In Kirkuk, the police arrested an Islamic State terrorist cell. On December 22, Iraq’s army, with its Shi’a militias, launched a grueling and bloody assault on the city of Ramadi. It put up pontoon bridges across the Euphrates River and cut the city off from reinforcements.
If the Shi’a militias defeat Islamic State and seek to control Mosul in northern Iraq, they may find themselves on a collision course with the Kurds. According to IHS Jane’s, Islamic State has lost 14 percent of its territory in the last year. That’s thousands of square kilometers, but what it leaves behind is death and destruction and the extermination and cleansing of minorities. In Sinjar city, called Shingal by the Kurds, the local Yazidis say the land is “like a cancer” now, they cannot return home unless they are guaranteed security against the Sunni Arabs who supported Islamic State. Sectarian relations will never be the same.
A group of Kurdish Peshmerga stand at their front line positions west of Shingal, a large town liberated in December by Kurdish forces from Islamic State (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Many pieces of a Middle East puzzle are being jammed together, with Islamic State serving as an appetizer for countries to pursue larger agendas. Never before in history did one organization unite the world in such a singular cause, but as Walzer and others have argued, these competing powers that are all at war with Islamic State do not have the same vision for a post-Islamic State Middle East.