History, Profiles, Reviews, Occasional Meanderings
A SIX-DAY SHOCKER AT 50: THE ARAB WORLD AND ISRAEL’S 1967 CAMPAIGN
Few events in modern history have had the impact on both the popular imagination as well as regional politics as Israel’s six-day juggernaut versus three Arab neighbours during the summer of 1967. As that war, which led to conquests from the territories of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and the stifling occupation of millions of Palestinians, reaches its fiftieth anniversary, it’s worth a revisit.
Setting the stage
It is often claimed that the crushing defeat suffered by the leading Arab statesman of the day, Egyptian dictator Gamal Nasser, spelt the end of the lure of the particular brand of pan-Arab socialism that he had marshalled as his ruling philosophy (1). This claim needs a caveat. Nasser, while no doubt the most charismatic and influential Arab leader at the time, had spent most of the past decade overcoming dissidence from a diverse cross-section of actors. Not only did these include the “reactionary”, broadly pro-Western monarchies in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, but many other regimes and non-state actors as well. These included the Baathist regime in Syria, which had feuded fiercely with and overcome Nasser’s Syrian sympathizers over 1963-64 (2); the Syrian “conservative” political class, largely dormant by now but which had helped spoil Nasser’s shortlived United Arab Republic (3); Iraqi dictator Abdul-Karim Qasim, who had studiously tried to avoid joining that same republic; his purportedly sympathetic successors Arif brothers Abdul-Salam and Abdul-Rahman, who in spite of their rhetorical support proved rather more conservative and in fact fought off two coup attempts by Nasser’s Iraqi sympathizers over 1965-66 (4) ; the Iraqi Baathists, against whom Nasser had helped the Arif brothers earlier and who plotted their revenge; the Muslim Brethren movement, which Nasser had banned after seizing power during 1954 (5); the Fateh Palestinian militia, which had worked quite independently of Nasser’s own specially designated Palestinian “government”, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) (6); the newly independent Algerian regime, which in spite of modest Egyptian support during their struggle for independence proved sharply critical of Nasser’s leadership (7); even the republican rebels on whose purported behalf Nasser had invaded Yemen, who turned out to be more conservative and resistant to Egyptian tutelage than he would have wanted (8). 1967, in short, was not 1957, where Nasser’s popularity and appeal had been overwhelming; plenty of faultlines had emerged in the intervening decade.
The divisions in the Arab camp help explain in part why they struggled, yet the year immediately preceding the war (1966-67) had given Israel cause for concern. Egypt still remained the leader in the anti-Zionist camp, and if that camp was divided, its faultlines were at least papered over. During February 1966, one of the many feuds that had beset the Syrian Baathists resulted in the rise of a strongly leftist faction, led in name by Nuraddin Atasi, a Sunni Muslim figurehead in accordance with the constitution, but in fact by a junta of mostly minoritarian officers, chief but by no means undisputed leader among them Salah Jadid, who competed fiercely for influence, partly over assistance to pan-Arab causes. During November 1966, Syria joined a defence pact with Egypt. Moreover, various elements in the junta – notably Ahmad Suwaidani, the leftist Sunni army commander who envisioned Fateh as part of a “people’s war” along newly acquired Maoist ideas, and more recently the right-leaning Alawite army minister Hafez Assad – competed for sponsorship of the major Palestinian guerrilla faction independent of Egypt, Fateh. (9)
Unlike the PLO, whose leader Ahmed Shuqairy was beholden to Cairo, Fateh had emerged largely independently and contained a variety of strands – rightist, leftist, Islamist, Baathist – spread across the Muslim world and Europe, whose common theme was Palestinian nationalism and a general aversion to pan-Arab pressure. Nonetheless, by 1966 the Syrians succeeded through a mixture of coercion and enticement into coopting certain Fateh leaders, such as Yasser Arafat, then a dashing field commander who cared little for the intricacies of regional geopolitics and was willing to work with whoever would have him (10). In order to avert Israeli retaliation strikes, which were frequently brutal and disproportionate, Syria pressed Fateh to raid from across Jordanian borders, thereby putting the pro-Western Jordanian monarch Hussein bin Talal under serious pressure. Though its army was quite efficient, Jordan was in no position to offer a serious challenge to a hypermilitarized Israeli opponent that enjoyed support from both Cold War powers, but especially America (11). Though the Israelis tended to be more permissive towards Jordan than other Arab states, by the end of May 1967 Hussein felt insecure enough to sign a peace treaty with Nasser, prompted in part by an Israeli raid across the border. The arrangement they worked out put Jordan’s army at the command of an Egyptian officer, Abdel-Monem Riad, who was both unfamiliar with the local terrain and handicapped by his subservience to the Egyptian command.
As had become the case with Fateh in Syria, the Palestinian cause was largely subordinate to Egyptian security concerns, thereby depriving the PLO of serious strategy and its leader Ahmed Shuqairy any real influence. By contrast a third Palestinian group, the strongly leftist alliance of Palestinian militias, the Arab Nationalist Movement led by the Marxist ideologue George Habash, was subordinate to Egypt by choice rather than coercion, genuinely believing that Nasser’s leadership would liberate Palestine and unite the Arabs. (12)
Egypt was, of course, the strongest of the Arab states and the major concern for Israel. But it, too, faced serious challenges. Notwithstanding Nasser’s increasingly leftist politics over the decade, the “revolutionary” regime had turned into an aristocracy of its own. The nature of the military junta was such that its army’s top levels had become seriously politicized. In particular, Nasser’s deputy, Abdel-Hakim Amer, a lifelong friend whom he had humoured and indulged, had become a contender for power. Amer’s lavish financial favours and genuine bonhomie covered up his serious deficiencies as a military commander and made him immensely popular in the army, to the extent that Nasser could not dismiss him for fear of inciting a mutiny. At the same time, the army’s performance was distinctly unimpressive, as displayed by the war in Yemen, where modestly armed tribesmen routinely thwarted them. Moreover, in order to oversee the brutal repression of dissident groups, notably Islamists and most famously Sayyid Qutb, Egypt had constructed a sinister security apparatus whose chiefs – the wily spymaster Salah Nasser and the newly appointed army minister Shamseddin Badran – saw themselves as kingmakers. As in Syria, the tussle for power determined Cairo’s stance towards Israel. With nobody seriously believing that Egypt could challenge Israel yet, the dispatch of a massive corps to the Sinai Peninsula was done for purely ceremonial reasons. (13)
Preferring to see, and portray, itself as an island of civilization on a barbaric frontier, Israel was naturally a militarized state, largely surrounded by hostile Arab states from its bloody inception. This facilitated a siege mentality, partly strong among the founding generation of Israeli army officers who had fought in 1948 and acquired enormous influence and military expertise as genuinely skilful, if usually utterly ruthless, soldiers. This group, epitomized by the army minister Moshe Dayan, was only strengthened in their argument that Israel was under threat by the Egyptian mobilization. On 5 June 1967, therefore, they sprang.
The decisive blows of the war, which set the tone for the next week, occurred at the start, when Israeli air marshal Mordechai Hod ordered a mass bombardment of the Egyptian airforce before it had even left the ground. Egypt’s air defences had been sadly neglected, its deficiencies known to both the incompetent air marshal Sidki Mahmoud, occupying that position for over a decade, and Nasser, who refused to upgrade it for fear of antagonizing the United States beyond a limit. Mahmoud, together with fellow military oligarch Abdel-Hakim Amer and the army strategist, Anwar Qady, were actually in mid-flight when the bombardment of Egypt’s air fleet began (14); by the time they landed several hours later, the army had plunged into turmoil. (15)
Worse yet, Egypt’s state-run propaganda, and the outright dishonest reports filed by Amer and other officers, wrought havoc with battlefield coordination and dragged their allies into the morass (16). They reported to Riad, whose Jordanian strategy was based on the assumption that Egypt’s army would advance beyond the Sinai and into the Negev desert to bolster Jordan, that the Egyptian airforce had recovered and pounded the Israelis. Riad therefore decided, against the vocal advice of the Jordanian front commander Muhammad Salim and operations director Atef Majali, to encircle Israeli-held Jerusalem by the south, where Egypt’s army could catch up, rather than the north. (17)
If Egyptian mendacity betrayed the Arab alliance, so too did Syrian bluster. In spite of Syria’s militant rhetoric preceding the war and reassurances of reinforcements, Hafez Assad kept the army firmly away from the battlefield. An Iraqi unit commanded by Hasan Naqib (18) and even a Saudi battalion did make their way towards Jordan, but they were so badly bombarded by Hod’s airforce that they could make no real contribution. With the Syrian front completely safe, the Israeli commander there, Elad Peled, instead turned east, attacking Jinin and Nablus in a three-pronged advance. This meant that Jordan was now confronted not only in Jerusalem, where Riad had unwisely ordered an attack against a larger Israeli contingent, but also the West Bank. The Jordanian forces here were rather thinly spread, and when Peled attacked the Jinin commandant Awad Khalidi, cutting him off from Nablus further south, Riad was forced to change tack. He had earlier dispatched a crack cavalry regiment, captained by Rakan Inad, south to meet the expected Egyptian forces; now he ordered him back north to the West Bank in an urgent, gruelling charge overnight under the Israeli air fleet’s fire.
Simultaneously, Yeshayahu Gavish, commanding the Egyptian front, dispatched a three-pronged attack into the Sinai. Each prong was commanded by a veteran of the 1956 war who knew the Sinai well. Israel Tal, at the northern prong, swept through Rafah and west along the coast, an airlifted commando regiment landing behind Egyptian lines to batter the artillery ensconced there. The southern prong, captained by the brutal but brilliant field commander Ariel Sharon, headed straight for the central Sinai fortress at Abu Ugaila. In between, Avraham Yoffe worked his way through the sand dunes, heading for the southern end of the Egyptian frontline. (10)
Egypt could make no cohesive response. In addition to the bombardment of their forces, their command structure had fatal flaws. On the brink of war, Amer had superceded the Sinai corps commander, Salaheddin Mohsen, with a newly formed “front command” under the leadership of Abdel-Mohsen Murtagy (20), a veteran of the Yemen war completely unfamiliar with the Sinai peninsula and thereby forced to play by ear. It was never clear who was in charge – the completely incompetent Amer made no clarification – and the Egyptian command was flung into confusion.
By the second morning of the war, Tal captured the important garrison town Arrish, whose commander Abdel-Aziz Suleman had lost his life during a series of hard-fought battles along the coast. Himself continuing west towards the Suez Canal, Tal dispatched his vanguard, led by Shmuel Gonen, south to attack the Egyptian forces from behind while Sharon attacked from the front. Yoffe had already arrived here in improbably short time, routing an Egyptian reinforcement sent by Murtagy. Amer had left the strategic fortresses in the central Sinai, Abu Ugaila and Gebel Libny, to the respective command of his close friends Saadi Naguib and Othman Nassar, both of whom were later reported to be absent from the battlefield (21). Both forts were speedily overrun.
Yoffe now continued south, where the Egyptian cavalry, led by Abdel-Qader Hassan and Saadeddin Shazly, had started to fall back westwards towards the Suez Canal. At the eastern end of the Egyptian front, meanwhile, Gavish now attacked the Gaza strip. A fierce hand-to-hand battle ensued overnight – the garrison assisted by PLA units captained by Wajih Madani – but by the next morning the Gaza commandant Abdel-Monem Hosny was forced to cede this heavily populated region, mindful of the massacre that the Israelis had inflicted in 1967 after facing prolonged resistance. (22)
At Jerusalem, meanwhile, the Israeli front commander Uzi Narkiss had effectively surrounded the Jordanian garrison – advancing, as the Jordanian officers had feared, by north. Narkiss, born in Jerusalem, had bitterly resented the failure to capture its eastern portion during the 1948 war, where he had fought in the Israeli militia. Now he had a prime opportunity to fulfil his ambition . With the Israeli airforce bombarding Jordanian reinforcements out of action, Narkiss was able to dispatch a force by both air and ground to the city’s north. The ground force overran Latroun, a strategic fort that the Jordanians had successfully defended in 1948, and which linked East Jerusalem to the West Bank. The airborne regiment assailed the Jordanian garrison, whose commandant Atta Ali had no option but to withdraw into the Old City under siege.
In the West Bank, Peled had captured Jinin from Khalidi and could now look both south and east. To the south, the reinforcements led by Rakan had remarkably managed briefly not only to intercept but even push back the Israeli march on Nablus, but intense aerial bombardment at last wore them down (24). It was the east, the border with Jordan, that was an especial concern. By now, Riad was convinced that not only the West Bank but even Jordan itself was under threat by an enemy, particularly the ambitious army minister Dayan, who had made no secret of their desire to cross the river Jordan and maximize its conquests (25). He therefore ordered an urgent withdrawal back to Jordan, simultaneously appealing, along with the Jordanian monarch Hussein, to Nasser to call an international ceasefire. By the second day of the war, the wind had been totally knocked out of the once-proud Arab alliance’s sails.
With the Jordanian army evacuating the West Bank, Jerusalem commandant Atta realized he could not count on reinforcements. Early on the third morning, he slipped out of the Old City to join the wholescale Jordanian withdrawal. Narkiss’ aim of capturing Jerusalem in its entirety was realized, as the Israeli army took over the vacated garrison. The Palestinian mayor, Anwar Khatib, remained at Jerusalem, recounting the Jordanian side of the Jerusalem battle to his Israeli replacement, Chaim Hertsog, who in turn relied on it to write his history of the war (26). Within days, however, the Israeli garrison accused Khatib of trying to organize rebellious activity and banished him to Safad under a police escort (27). The Palestinian mayor’s experience was a revealing forebear to what his countrymen have escorted in the half-century since, living in what is in effect a brutally controlled police state.
The guns had fallen silent in the Holy Land, but the Sinai campaign was in full swing. In spite of an Egyptian ambush just short of the Suez Canal, the northern Israeli axis, now led by Israel Granit, had reached the Suez. The axis’ commander, Tal, had meanwhile moved south to join Yoffe in surrounding the Matla pass, a strategic path in the mountains of central Sinai that offered the Egyptian cavalry’s only route in and out. Mercilessly harassed by Sharon on the ground and Hod by air, the cavalry commanders Shazly and Hassan had vacated the central Sinai and were headed straight for the Matla pass. There Tal and Yoffe sprang their ambush, resulting in an utter massacre. Hundreds of tanks were constricted and destroyed in the ravine, bombarded from every side on the ground and by air. With Gaza already under Israeli control, it was quite clear that the Egyptian corps in the Sinai was destroyed. In total, at least ten thousand soldiers, and perhaps twice that number, were killed in the short campaign, let down by the bluster and incompetence of their leaders.
The fourth day of the war was the one where Gavish completed the Sinai conquest. From the Matla pass, Yoffe had already moved south, targeting the last Egyptian garrison in the Sinai. This was based at Sharm-el-Sheikh, which Yoffe had already captured during the 1956 war. This time the task was easier, for the garrison, captained by Abdel-Monem Khalil, had run out of supplies. With the command unresponsive to Khalil’s repeated requests for refurbishment, and by now quite unable to do anything about it, the garrison evacuated well before the Israeli arrival.
At the Egyptian “front” command, Murtagy held out against hope. One more cavalry force was dispatched to attack, and in fact it held off Sharon for some six hours, but this was merely an attempt to buy time. The rearguard commander, Sidki Ghoul, tried but failed to organize the withdrawal through Matla (28), and the Sinai cavalry was in wreckage, the Israelis capturing whatever tanks remained. Murtagy, who lacked military brilliance but not courage, was at last persuaded to vacate Ismaelea, lest the Israelis take one more high-profile captive to go with the thousands of captured soldiers. It was clear that Cairo, by now in complete panic, feared that Israel’s momentum would not stop at the Suez Canal.
In fact, the Israelis were quite happy to stop at the Suez Canal; both Egypt and Jordan were out for the count. They now turned to another rival. This was Syria, whose Baathist regime had done so much to instigate the war, but left its allies in the lurch. In any case, Assad’s hope that his abstinence would placate Israel from attack was disappointed. The Israelis had long coveted control of the Houla valley on the Syrian border, while the Golan Heights gave Syria enviable high ground on the border. Dayan, never shy to strike while the iron was hot, commissioned David Elazar to organize the campaign against Syria. Elazar also had available to him forces from the campaign against Jordan, who now moved north towards the southern Golan heights.
The campaign, again, began with an aerial bombardment by air marshal Hod. Thereafter Elazar’s deputy Dan Laner assaulted the northern Golan on several axes; the main cavalry force, captained by Albert Mandler, rolled up the steep Golan Heights in a frontal assault, while a smaller force led by Yona Efrat attacked the foothills of Mount Hermon, further north. The Syrian frontline commander, Ahmad Mir, had plenty of experience in the Baath junta’s internecine politics but not the battlefield; he advised commander Suwaidani that the frontline would collapse. Assad shared this view, as did Izzat Jadid, another veteran Baathist (and brother of strongman Salah) who served as commandant at Qunaitra, the major regional city. Izzat rejected out of turn, probably prudently, a proposition by Jadid’s lieutenant Awad Bagh to launch a nighttime counterattack. Qunaitra governor Abdul-Halim Khaddam began to organize the city’s withdrawal in anticipation of an Israeli takeover (29). This fear materialized the next day.
Pierced on several sides, the Syrian frontline collapsed as Suwaidani ordered a fullscale retreat. The southern end of the Golan Heights was taken without a fight. Further north, Mandler and the cavalry entered Qunaitra, largely vacated by this point yet with equipment abandoned, and looted both the equipment and the town at large; it remains a ghost town to the present day. Over the remainder of the day, Elazar mopped up the Golan Heights’ conquest before the United Nations kickstarted negotiations. These negotiations restored Qunaitra, but not the Heights, to Syrian control; the Baathist regime, for its part, refused to rebuild the town, preferring to systematically leave it ruined as a reminder of the Israeli forces’ rapacity. However true that is, it was equally true that Syria’s regime abandoned both the Heights and the other Arab states; the six-day war reflects badly on every Arab government therein, but perhaps none more so than Syria.
Only days after the Israeli conquest, former Syrian premier Shukri Quwatli – a vocal proponent of pan-Arab nationalism and onetime Nasser ally – passed away. It seemed a metaphor. The traumatic defeat marked a turning point in several ways. These did not necessarily include, as is often claimed, the destruction of pan-Arabism; I have already pointed out that that was in its twilight, though the shattering defeat no doubt crystallized its decay and turned away Arabs to its appeal.
Most potently, the defeat shattered Palestinian reliance on Arab states. There had already been some scepticism, mainly by Fateh, on the Arab states’ usefulness in the war versus Israel; now, however, Palestinian factions across the field saw self-reliant guerrilla activity as their only option. Of course they did not outright cut off ties to the Arab states, but the strong hold that Egypt had on the PLO and ANM, and the similar hold that Syria had attempted to replicate on Fateh, were a thing of the past. The vast refugee community swollen further by the Israeli conquest of the West Bank and Gaza would soon add to their numbers, and from now when Palestinian fidayin militias dealt with the states, it was as brazen near-equals, not clients. Fidayin raids on Israel, rarely translating into a decisive strategy but serving to draw their cause to the world stage, multiplied, and with this increased independence of state largesse came contempt for the states – most notably exemplified in the contest to capture Jordan from its monarchy during 1970. It was in attempting to address this latest inter-Arab dispute that Nasser succumbed to a heart failure. During his last years he had made some progress in correcting the excesses committed earlier, but his death came at another moment of crisis. (30)
Egypt. The Palestinians were not the only people disillusioned with the Arab governments; the 1967 defeat sharply threatened regime security. At Egypt, the officers and the security state that had wielded power for over a decade were now discredited. Nasser had publicly offered, perhaps sincerely, his resignation after the defeat; he did not end up resigning, but his powerful deputy Amer, who had long cultivated a parallel network in the army and security, was under threat. Amer appears to have lost heart entirely, but his allies – most notably army minister Shamseddin Badran and spymaster Salah Nasser, both former bulwarks of the regime (31), anticipated that their positions were threatened. They first forced Nasser to reject Amer’s resignation, and then worked feverishly to organize a coup in Amer’s favour. However, Nasser’s loyalists – most ruthlessly, Mohamed Fauzy, who as army commander had been superseded and frustrated by Amer’s control of the army – sprang first. Fauzy, taking the army minister’s role, both countered the coup attempt and imprisoned Amer – who was discovered to have committed a convenient suicide that September – and then ruthlessly purged the army. Many senior soldiers, including the incompetent air marshal Mahmoud and, less justifiably and even unfairly, the unfortunate rearguard commander Ghoul, were publicly tried and disgraced. (32)
Over the next few years, Egypt launched an extensive reorganization – geopolitically, where the dispute over Yemen with Saudi Arabia ended as Egypt withdrew that autumn – politically – as the aggressive Arab socialism of the preceding five years was toned down, a return to religiosity tolerated and sometimes even encouraged, and security barons, including the feared Badran and Salah, disgraced, though their instititutions left largely intact – and militarily. In this last respect, Egypt most notably upgraded its air defence, largely with Soviet-bought technology, and also, as shown during the 1973 reconquest of the Sinai that blindsided Israel, its discipline, meritocracy, and effectiveness. Along with Fauzy, key officers in this process included Riad – who replaced Fauzy as army commander and earned a reputation for daring innovation before he was killed in battle versus Israel during 1969 – Mohamed Sadek (army spymaster in 1967), who replaced Fauzy in 1970, and the Sinai field commanders from 1967, Abdel-Qader Hassan (Sadek’s deputy until 1972), Abdel-Monem Khalil (a corps commander in 1973), and Saadeddin Shazly Shazly, who served as army commander during the 1973 campaign and deserves a reputation as one of Egypt’s best officers. Egyptian resilience was on display shortly after Nasser’s standoff with Amer, when contrary to expectations the Egyptian army resumed a lower-scale border war, backed by Palestinian fidayin attacks, on Israel that lasted through the late 1960s.
Jordan. Prior to 1967, Jordan’s monarch Hussein was lambasted as the ultimate Western lackey. The failure of his Arab allies to deliver their promises, if anything, hardened Hussein towards them, and by the 1970s he regularly conferred through backchannels with Israel. However, he did during 1967-70 initially support and hoped to coopt the fidayin, partly because of Jordan’s vast Palestinian population. The legendary 1968 battle against Israel – at Karamah, a Jordanian border town, where fidayin led by Yasser Arafat stared down an Israeli attack and propelled a generation of young Palestinians to the fidayin cause – was in fact largely conducted by the Jordanian army, commanded by Hussein’s cousin Zaid bin Shaker, a veteran of the 1967 war. Jordanian assistance, and with it an attempt to control their activity along Amman’s priorities, did not impress the fidayin, who soon openly threatened to topple Hussein. A bloody campaign during September 1970, where fidayin control of several towns was backed up by a Syrian invasion, eventually ended in Jordan’s favour after Syrian army minister Hafez Assad again refused to commit his airforce and let the Jordanian airforce pummel the invasion force. Assad, in turn, would use this Palestinian episode to cement his control in Syria’s ongoing power struggle.
Syria. As with Egypt, Syria’s Baathist regime was left vulnerable – but not to external opposition, which was largely mute by this point under an increasingly penetrative police state, but various Baathist potentates in the army and security forces. First to go in this contest was army commander Suwaidani, the officer closest to the Palestinian fidayin, but also vulnerable on account of his failure on the Golan frontline. During 1968, he blinked first in a staring contest with the other Baathist potentates, attempted an abortive coup, and was imprisoned for the next half-century. The same fate eventually befell the regime’s strongman, Salah Jadid, as well as the figurehead civilians led by Nuraddin Atasi. Their downfall was tied to another Palestinian episode, the 1970 war in Jordan, immediately after which Assad, who had tightened his grip on the army during the late 1960s, seized power (33). In spite of his carefully planned stasis during 1967, Assad as dictator would also lead Syria during the 1973 campaign to recapture the Golan. The strategist for that campaign was Abdul-Razzaq Dardari, who had led the Syrian reserve during 1967 and had at least learned from his colleagues’ frontline collapse. But widespread politicization in the officer corps persisted, and the Syrian performance in the 1973 war failed to live up to expectations. To the present day, the Syrian regime remains more committed to the Palestinian cause in word than action; its rhetorical defiance of Israel has rarely been backed up, but serves a useful propaganda purpose. The memorialized ruins of Qunaitra are, in this regard, something of an unintended metaphor.
Other states. The rival Baath party, based in Iraq, also capitalized on the 1967 disaster to topple the military regime that had ruled Iraq in one way or another for a decade. During July 1968, the Iraqi Baathists, led by Hasan Bakr, bloodlessly toppled the rather reluctant dictator Abdul-Rahman Arif, and then proceeded to brutally purge the regime to avoid a repeat of their 1963 experience, when Arif’s brother had ousted them after they outlived their use. Ironically, the 1968 coup was backed by US intelligence after Arif had nationalized Iraq’s oil, but this did not prevent the nascent Baathists from smearing their increasingly widespread net of victims as agents of the West or Israel. As in Syria, a brutal, pervasive, and unprecedented police state took over; unlike Syria, the army was largely cut out from the outset, for though Bakr was an officer, so were most of his rivals, and the Iraqi Baath party had always been suspicious of the army. Eventually it was Bakr’s cousin Saddam Hussein, a veteran of Baathist skulduggery, who would take over the regime. As in Syria, the Palestinian question, and sponsorship of certain fidayin factions, was a key card in internecine struggles between regime members – so that, for instance, Saddam and Bakr exploited the Iraqi army’s failure to intervene on the fidayin’s behalf at the 1970 Jordan campaign to oust their main rival, Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar. However, it was not Saddam’s qualified support of certain fidayin factions nor his thuggery but his quest to acquire strategic weapons that made him a major target for Israel, which – unlike the United States – remained trenchantly committed to his ouster in his quarter-century of rule.
It may be surprising to find that, in spite of the humiliation he had suffered, Nasser’s precedent was not quite yet lost. In 1969, two self-proclaimed Nasser imitators in Sudan and Libya – respectively Gaafar Numairi and Muammar Qaddhafi – seized power in military coups. But a mixture of circumstance and opportunism meant they never quite matched this rhetoric – Numairi’s regime, indeed, was quietly dealing with Israel by the early 1980s – and instead turned into bitter mutual enemies. The Nasserite example may have been a useful tool in capturing and justifying state power, but it proved rather less so in actual governance and military practice. And so while 1967 may not have precipitated the fall of pan-Arabism, it certainly helped to confirm it.
Israel. In retrospect, Israel’s tour de force has been termed a “cursed victory” (34), for while it expanded Israeli territory (in fact, if not officially) over the West Bank and Gaza, those sites became hotbeds of insurgency and various forms of resistance. From a purely military standpoint, the Israeli army had performed superbly, and yet this gave rise to a wave of triumphalism, contempt, and complacency that would nearly backfire in 1973. Most Israeli (and drawing on them other Western) accounts of the war are keen to contrast their army’s enterprise and panache with the politicization, inefficiency, and incompetence of their Arab opponents. This would be fair enough were it not expanded, as has often been the case, to explain Israel’s contrast with the Arab world at large (35). Israeli historians, to this end, never fail to chastise Hussein for his decision to ally with Egypt during 1967; it is not the incompetence of the alliance that they criticize, but the fact that Hussein would have the temerity to consider the alliance in the first place. This is prevalent to the extent that even “balanced” histories such as Michael Oren’s Six Days of War go to great lengths to unnecessarily exaggerate the indubitable inefficiency of the Arab forces and, by extension, explain every grievance against Israel as a result of Arab regime rhetoric and opportunism (it took years, for instance, simply to accept that “Palestinians” were not an artificial creation of inherently anti-Semitic Arab regimes), and every military action against Israel a doomed result of fanaticism or incitement.
Grievances against Israel, foremost among the occupied Palestinian populations, are real, as real as are grievances against various oppressive Arab regimes that no serious Israeli observer would deny; to be sure, Arab regimes may attempt to exploit anti-Israel sentiment, but they did not invent it from thin air. Indeed, to date the most effective anti-Israeli resistance has been carried out by effectively independent local Palestinian forces, best illustrated in the 1980s and 2000s intifadas. It is often forgotten that 1967 – as 1956 and 1948 – featured the same particularly talented pool of first-generation Israeli soldiers whose successors have never displayed, whether in conventional (as in Lebanon 1982 and 2006) or unconventional (various crackdowns in the West Bank and Gaza), anywhere near that level of skill (36). Yet even as most Israeli accounts dismiss their enemy’s competence, they warn darkly against its fanaticism and the sinister threat it poses. A siege mentality persists; in the post-Cold War world, this is most starkly revealed in the Israeli government’s war on so-called “radical Islam” (37), which has in turn deeply affected the equally farcical US “war on terrorism”.
1. See, e.g., Al-Jazeera, “1967 and the rise of extremism,” 13 July 2009, http://www.aljazeera.com/focus/arabunity/2008/03/200852518359222993.html, accessed 27 June 2017; Michael Sharnoff, “A humiliated Arab world turns to Islamism,” The Jewish Chronicle, 6 June 2017, https://www.thejc.com/news/news-features/a-humiliated-arab-world-turns-to-islamism-1.439907, accessed 27 June 2017; Asher Susser, “The Six-Day War was a Watershed in Middle Eastern Politics,” Fathom Journal, spring 2017, http://fathomjournal.org/the-six-day-war-was-a-watershed-in-middle-eastern-history/, accessed 27 June 2017; Faisal Al-Yafai, “The death of Arab secularism,” The National, 3 November 2012, http://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/the-death-of-arab-secularism, accessed 27 June 2017. In fact, Islamism had been a fairly dominant force in certain Arab countries, including Egypt during the 1940s and 1950s, before it was driven underground by various rulers during Nasser’s heyday; the 1967 defeat did not instigate it, but rather served to confirm Islamist attitudes on the secularist state. I have traced some pre-1960s Islamist history here, https://layyin1137.wordpress.com/2016/09/09/beyond-1979-the-roots-of-islamism-in-the-modern-arab-world/, and William Barnes at Muftah offers a solid rebuttal: William Barnes, “Islamism’s Rise in Egypt wasn’t just because of the 1967 war,” 3 December 2014, https://muftah.org/islamism-egypt-1967-war/#.WVLHz3qK9FU, accessed 27 June 2017.
2. Itamar Rabinovich, Syria under the Baath, 1963-66: The army party symbiosis (New York: Halsted Press, 1972).
3. Elie Podeh, The Decline of Arab Unity: The rise and fall of the United Arab Republic (Sussex Academic Press, 1999).
4. Majid Khadduri, Republican Iraq: A study in Iraqi politics since the revolution of 1958 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969) gives the best account of 1960s Iraq.
5. Hazem Kandil, Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s road to revolt (Verso, 2012).
6. The single best history of the Palestinian militias, which also doubles as an excellent history of the Arab world’s politics at this time: Yezid Sayigh, Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian movement, 1949-1993 (Oxford University Press, 2000).
7. The Algerian regime, further left than Egypt, had initially been quite supportive of the leftist Baath regime in Syria – two major Baathist leaders, Yusuf Zuayyin and Ibrahim Makhous, had fought alongside the Algerian independence movement and established these links- but the 1967 war changed this as Algerian dictator Houari Boumedienne accused both Egypt and Syria of hypocrisy. He would play an important role in the far more respectable 1973 campaign. David and Marina Ottaway, Algeria: the politics of a socialist revolution (London: University of California Press, 1970), 248.
8. Jesse Ferris, Nasser’s Gamble: How intervention in Yemen caused the six-day war (Princeton University Press, 2013).
9. Sayigh, Movement, 125-28, 157. Syrian assistance came with attached strings; indeed as late as August 1966 Damascus had imprisoned fidayin commander Yasser Arafat for allegedly murdering the Baathist Syrian officer who had been intended to supercede him, Yusuf Urabi. Interestingly, early Fateh operations and organization was largely facilitated by those stereotypically reactionary monarchies, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which did not share Jordan’s queasiness towards the Palestinian movement.
11. Samir Mutawi, Jordan in the 1967 war (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). A rather hagiographical account of Hussein personally, and his deliberations, is given by Avi Shlaim, Lion of Jordan: The life of King Hussein in war and peace (London: Allen Lane, 2008).
12. Sayigh, Movement, 75-80, 100-18 provides a detailed account of Egypt’s relations with the ANM and PLO,
13. Kandil focuses especially and provides an excellent account on Egypt’s military-political struggle.
14. The trio were veterans of the 1956 war, where Amer had first shown his incompetence, Mahmoud had done nothing of note, and Qady, by contrast, had put up a somewhat respectable fight as a frontline field commander. Qady was one of the few high-ranked Egyptian officers at the time whose focus was primarily on the battlefield; he also commanded forces in Yemen, where he was wounded in the eye, during 1963.
15.Underscoring the fateful mixture of politics with army operations, the Cairo airport commandant, Mohamed Ayoub, initially assumed from the bombardment that Amer had concocted a plan to topple Nasser, and assailed the group when they landed. Michael Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the making of the modern Middle East (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002), 177 gives an amusing account of this incident.
16. There is unanimous agreement on the dishonesty of state propaganda, battlefield reports, and its crippling effect on the army.
17. Salim and Atef’s arguments with Riad became quite famous among Jordan’s officers; at one point Atef seized his shimagh and made to leave the room in exasperation, while Riad and Salim traded insults. The broad consensus is that the normally capable Riad was undercut by his reliance on Cairo. Mutawi, Jordan, 125.
18. Naqib remained in charge of Iraqi forces in Jordan over the next few years; he notably advised Arafat during the 1968 battle with Israel, and he seems to have built up a solid rapport with the various fidayin, who in turn viewed Iraqi abstinence in the 1970 war as a personal betrayal. Naqib rose to become Iraqi second-in-command until the Baathist regime exiled him during 1978; he became a PLO member, an advisor to Arafat, and remained active in exile opposition. Naqib’s son, Falah, later returned to Iraq after the 2003 as a member of Ayad Allawi’s faction who served as interior minister. I have written on Falah here https://layyin1137.wordpress.com/2015/01/. Sayigh, Movement, 162, 178, 184, 435-36.
19. The Israeli soldier Chaim Hertsog outlines Israeli operations in a comprehensive if slightly biased history. Chaim Hertsog, The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and peace in the Middle East (Vintage Books), 155-62. Hertsog served as the Israeli army spymaster as well as first Israeli governor of East Jerusalem; his brother Yaacov had served as a secret negotiator with Jordanian monarch Hussein bin Talal since 1960. These ties especially developed during the 1970s. Other Arab states’ suspicions of Hussein were hardly baseless. Shlaim, Hussein.
20. Oren, 65, claims that Murtagy was a lackey of Amer and a commissar, but there is no real indication thereof. In any case, Murtagy had little field experience, even at Yemen where little fighting actually took place. Mohsen, far more familiar with the Sinai terrain, was cut out yet remained officially in charge of the Sinai corps. Notably, an early plan drawn up during 1965-66 but shelved shortly before the war had anticipated precisely the sort of thrust that the Israeli army would launch into the Sinai.
21. Kandil, 82-83, remarks acidly in consideration of the fact that Saadi owed his position to his friendship with Amer, “he was understandably reluctant to leave his side.” The claim about Nassar is made by Oren, Six Days, 215, citing an Egyptian article. It is uncertain, however, if this was a trumped-up accusation made up in the aftermath, when the regime was seeking scapegoats.
22. Eric Hammel’s impressively jingoistic Six Days in June: How Israel the 1967 Arab-Israeli war (Pacifica: Pacifica Military History, 1992), 218 claims that Hosny succumbed to “Israeli pleas” to avoid a massacre. In fact both precedent and the record since have shown that Israel’s army was not queasy about inflicting massacres if it could serve a purpose. Hammel gives the chest-thumper’s account of the war. Wajih Madani was a former Kuwaiti royal guard captain of Palestinian origin, who had served as the PLA commander but been severely inhibited by Egypt’s control. See Sayigh, 169.
23. Hertsog, Wars, 171.
24. Kenneth Pollack, Arabs at War: Military effectiveness, 1948-1991 (London: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 310. Even the generally churlish Hammel acknowledges the “aggressive and resourceful” Rakan, Six Days, 375.
25. While Dayan was no wild-eyed fanatic, he had carved out a career as a conqueror and was quite willing, in the ruthless practicality of any warlord, to seize what he could. He believed that Israel could carve out a “Greater Israel” comprising large chunks of the Levant outside Israeli borders. Yael Yishal, Land or Peace: Whither Israel? (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1987), 63-64.
26. Hertsog, Wars, 180-81
27. In fact, Khatib had appealed to the Palestinian civilians to cooperate with the conquerors. During the battle, he had asked Atta not to fight in the Old City’s holy sites lest they be targeted. Nonetheless, he was caught in limbo, and eventually banished by Dayan to Jordan. Avi Raz, The Bride and the Dowry: Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians in the aftermath of the Jume 1967 war (Yale University Press, 2012).
28. Ghoul, who commanded the elite cavalry in the rearguard, was blamed by the military court in the aftermath of the war, and publicly disgraced and court-martialled. This seems unfair; Hertsog and even Hammel mark him as a quite competent commander trying to organize a retreat in an impossible situation.
29. A Muslim Brethren opposition article a decade later claimed that Assad’s brother Rifaat had also declined Bagh’s plan. They also claimed that Khaddam, himself a Sunni by background, had given priority to the minoritarian families to whose background trrhe Baathist elite belonged, and accused Suwaidani of fleeing the battlefield. Finally, they termed Hafez Assad “the seller of the Golan”. I cannot confirm or deny the claims about Khaddam and Suwaidani. What is certain is that most of the army was recalled well before combat took place. Robert Rabil, Embattled Neighbours: Syria, Israel, and Lebanon (Boulder: Lynne Riener Publishers, 2003), 34.
30. Sayigh, Movement.
31. They had played a major role in helping Nasser seize power during 1954. See Kandil.
32. One of the officers backing a coup was Othman Nassar, the Gebel Libny field commander during 1967. Now in charge of the commando force, he addressed Amer thus, “We implore you not to give this man [Nasser] power over us…he will not shrink from humiliating and destroying us.” Kandil, 87-91, covers the coup and countercoup.
33. If anything, of course, Assad’s failure to dispatch his airforce to supplement the invasion force and fidayin decided the defeat, and perhaps his coup was an attempt to preempt any such move by Jadid.
34. Ahron Bregman, Cursed Victory: A history of Israel and the occupied territories (Penguin UK, 2014).
35. Examples include Oren, Pollack, Hammel,
36. Julian Thompson, in his foreword to a Dayan biography written by Martin van Creveld, Moshe Dayan (Orion, 2015), is perhaps overstating the point when he claims that modern Israeli operations, “with its ham-fisted tactics in the Occupied Territories, would have horrified Dayan”. Certainly the Israeli soldier was no stranger to ruthlessness. At the same time, the mobile, adaptive, and inventive force he presided over is a far cry from today’s army, which is effectively a gendarmerie heavily reliant on its international diplomacy rather than any military skill and more accustomed to bullying villagers than tank maneouvres.
37. See, for instance, Israel US ambassador Ron Dermer’s remarks in support of a notorious anti-Islam association, one of several, which is in turn linked to Richard Perle, a former advisor to both the United States and Israeli governments. http://www.politico.com/story/2016/12/israel-dermer-frank-gaffney-232651; accessed 14 December 2016. Several anti-Muslim thinktanks are also linked to rightist Israeli governments, and there has certainly been an attempt by such people as Perle to expand the war against Muslim countries at large, and most pressingly Israeli opponents such as Hamas.
Bism Allah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim
Libya, Syria, and the Oversimplification of the Regime Change Narrative
The Anti-Imperialist narrative
Regime Change is a word that often comes up in analyses of the Middle East and has been misused spectacularly in the purported cause of anti-imperialism while only serving selfish, cruel elites. After the United States’ disastrous invasion of Iraq, premised upon the forcible removal of its brutish Baath regime, as well as the NATO bombardment of Libya to remove Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, a beguilingly simple narrative appeared to anti-imperialists the world over. The United States was trying to destroy revolutionary, anti-imperialist regimes—the infamous neoconservative pamphlet by the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) was only, after all, a fairly recent document—and it was spawning and manipulating anti-regime groups in these countries to do so. With Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein gone, anti-imperialist focus swung around to Syria, whose Baathist regime was at least verbally an opponent of the United States and particularly its closest ally, Israel.
Indeed, anti-imperialists fretted, did we not remember Afghanistan, where the benignly invited Russian invasion was ousted by bloodthirsty mujahidin forces that the West termed, at the time, “freedom fighters”? Did we not recall the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, all for the fiendish purpose of expanding NATO under the pretext of humanitarianism (“ha!”, a skeptical antiimperialist may sneer), at the expense of its pro-Russian regime? Or how about Chechnya, where radical forces revolted against the sovereign Russian federation under the guise of autonomy? Pah! Such narratives may have fooled the majority of the media-brainwashed Sheeple, but not skeptical, sophisticated and discerning anti-Imperialists like ourselves. Regime change is the Perennial Agenda, and the so-Called “Arab Spring” simply its tool if not outright creation. (1)
Holes in the Anti-Imperialist Narrative
These “alternative” narratives, very alluring popular among the alternative media (both left and right, both of them self-identifying as opposed to expansionist empire), are of course over-simplified, distorting rubbish. But let us assume for argument’s sake that they are true. In Libya, for instance, the Western air campaign was a major factor in the ouster of Qaddafi. Assuming that these are simply cunning astroturf programmes designed to overthrow a grimly determined Axis of Resistance, we still cannot adequately answer the following questions:
-Why did the Western-backed rebels in Libya fall apart in short order?
-Why did the United States, having favoured Islamist mujahidin in Afghanistan, invade Afghanistan in 2001 and proceed to occupy it on precisely the premise of opposing Islamism?
-Why did the imperial powers, having apparently whipped the world into a state of outrage by framing the Resistance Axis for the Syrian chemical attacks in 2013, fail to overthrow the Resistance regime? Why, in fact, did it reach out to the Resistance and make a deal (suitably criticized by the Israeli Settler State) with Iran within two years?
Anti-imperialists typically have ready-made answers to these questions, usually to do with the radicalism and inherent fanaticism of the reactionary forces that the United States and Imperial Powers concoct against the Resistance. In Libya, the bungling idiocy and irrational factionalism of the rebels is a typical excuse for explaining away the chaos. After all, didn’t Iraq fall apart after the American invasion? It’s clearly an example of American policy backfiring: Blowback, etc.
Some especially Intrepid Anti-Imperialists will go so far as to tell you that this is not Blowback, but in fact exactly what the Imperialists planned: organized chaos to necessitate repeated intervention. Here, typically, Afghanistan is brought in as an example. The mujahidin factions, Taliban emirate, and Al-Qaeda group (used interchangeably, since they are of course to the Discerning Anti-Imperialist for practical purposes one and the same) were known to be fanatics, and it was known that they would haul back Afghanistan into the Pits of Reaction and Fanaticism, thereby necessitating American intervention (the fact that the second half of this statement, assuming that Irrational Islamic Fanaticism and Reaction is the problem, coincides perfectly with neoconservative, Imperialist and interventionist dogma, is lost on these anti-imperialists, who are perfectly willing to agree with Imperialists in the short run if they think it will hurt them in the long run.) The more direct, blunder voices in the Anti-Imperialist sphere will remark that the brutality of Saddam, Assad, Qaddafi, and Najibullah was a Necessary Evil, and the only glue holding these otherwise anarchic, chaotic and irrational countries together.
What the Argument misses
This is a delectably alluring argument, delectable because of its apparent continuinity (contradictions are not readily acknowledged in the Anti-Imperialist Sphere) (2) and alluring because, even though it mimics Imperialist propaganda in its characterization of the Irrational, Fanatical Natives (a mimicry that Anti-Imperialists will never, of course, acknowledge), it ultimately blamed Imperialist Forces like the United States and thereby redeems itself for its momentary flirtations with imperialist rationale.
The inconvenient truth, however, is that these arguments, though not always (though often) wrong in of themselves, miss massive slices of the picture. They miss the fact, for instance, that religiously based politics if not outright religious politics have a long, indigenous history in the region quite separate from—and usually, if not always, opposed to—imperialism. (I partly addressed this in my previous article.) (3) They miss the fact that Qaddafi had an eight-year détente with the West prior to his overthrow, that dyed-in-the-wool imperialists like Tony Blair agitated on this anti-imperialist beacon’s behalf, and that even when the West did intervene against Qaddafi, it intervened on a certain side of a multipronged, complex insurgency. They miss the fact that the most direct and arguably important government involved in Qaddafi’s removal was not a Western, or pro-Western, regime, but the Sudanese government, which had itself been on Western blacklists for decades and itself threatened with an invasion in the mid-2000s, during which that anti-imperialist bastion Qaddafi hosted Sudan’s rebels. (Of course, pro-interventionist Westerners rarely mention Sudan’s involvement either, though for quite different purposes: it hurts the argument that you are selflessly overthrowing a dictator when the dictator next door is playing a major role; either way, this ignorance of Sudan’s involvement is another common point for both interventionists and anti-imperialists) (4) .
They miss the fact, and this is particularly important, that the Libyan opposition, itself locally divided and in some cases completely mutually independent of each other, never mind the West, had different external backers. To be sure, during 2011 there was a somewhat hysterical reaction and exaggeration of the threat Qaddafi posed to his opponents (5) —even the usually excellent Al-Jazeera station rode into this trap—but that does not mean, as Anti-Imperialists would have us believe, that the anti-Qaddafi movement was a monolithic bloc of pro-Western fanatics out to hurt a maligned leader, or that its dynamics were applicable elsewhere to, for instance, Syria. The anti-imperialist narrative refuses to countenance any context or complexity beyond the February-to-October 2011 period, which forever enshrines Qaddafi as the perennial anti-imperialist victim and his opponents forever as an imperially-controlled bloc of NATO mercenaries and fanatics.
For one thing, this narrative, at least as much as any anti-Qaddafi propaganda, misses the complexity and context of Libya before, after and even during the 2011 war. For one thing, the rebel groups were a disunited, heterogenous bunch who cannot be easily dismissed as fanatics, imperial tools or mercenaries. The West (here more Britain and France in the first place, and the United States only tangentially) were supporting a particularly, perceived “liberal” and pro-Western faction in the opposition, led partly by Mahmoud Jibril; in this they were supported by the United Arab Emirates, which was at least as suspicious of the “Islamist” factions in the rebellion as it was of the regime itself. It is the UAE that has been the major international backer of Khalifa Hiftar, the renegade Libyan general who has attempted with Western support to stamp himself as Libya’s new ruler. This group was also generally allied, not because of ideological or strategic purposes but simply by convenience and mutual interests, with the Zintan-based militias from the western ranges of the Nafusa Mountains.
Opposed to this group was a collection of Islamist factions, usually remnants of the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (which antiImperialists, like Imperialists, happily term as Al-Qaeda, and which was subjected to torture by the anti-Imperialist leader Qaddafi with the knowledge and compliance of the Imperialist leader Tony Blair) or groups linked to the Muslim Brethren or the Sanousi order, particularly strong in the eastern Cyrenaican region, and Misrata in the western region. A similar pattern has repeated next door in Egypt, where the UAE and Saudi Arabia resolutely backed Abdel-Fattah Sisi over the elected Islamist leader, Mohamed Morsi, who was favoured by Turkey and Qatar.
Finally, the local aspect and dynamics of different conflicts are entirely lost on the Anti-Imperialist dogma. In the Libyan case, even a simple Turkey-etc versus UAE-etc dichotomy can be an oversimplification because of its focus on geopolitics and ignorance of local realities (it is not entirely clear, for instance, that Zintan and Misrata are ideologically different areas), yet not even this minimum geopolitically-focused tip of the iceberg is available in Anti-Imperialist analyses, which blithely puts Turkey (because NATO) and Qatar (because oil) in the same bloc as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and the West. It also takes no small sadistic pleasure in misattributing the post-Qaddafi violence to the utterly idiotic claim that only his iron fist could have held an unruly land together. (6)
This is the shallowness of the Anti-Imperialist Doctrine on Libya. Its analyses on Syria in particular is even worse, for at least in Libya the West did support a significant part of the opposition and help topple Qaddafi. In Syria—rhetoric notwithstanding—the West has attacked literally everybody apart from the government, even the rebels that anti-Imperialist dogma insists are Western hirelings. The major conflict between Turkey and Qatar, with their typical sympathy for the Islamist-dominated Syrian mujahidin (7) , and the West and the powerless exile SNC; the complete lack of coordination between the Syrian mujahidin on the ground and the generally pro-Western Syrian exiles; the heterogeneity in Syria’s rebel spheres; the fact that the White House has blocked every attempt to diplomatically or financially isolate the Assad regime; heck, the fact that Assad was a longtime collaborator in the same Imperialist War on Terror that the Imperialists hate so much when it comes to Iraq; the fact that Iran, supposedly the strategic target of Syrian Regime Change, has been merrily funnelling tens of thousands of auxiliaries and troops into Syria under the Americans’ nose, just as it did in the Iraq occupation where it was also painted by the Anti-Imperialists as a victim of American intrigue; the fact that it has overwhelmingly been airstrikes, to which the Syrian mujahidin have no recourse, that have levelled entire Syrian cities and towns on a level that Qaddafi could never have dreamt of—none of these facts matter, if they exist at all, to the Discerning Anti-Imperialist’s dogma.
I’ve written elsewhere on the major fallacies in Afghanistan discourse, so I won’t spent much time here; but it is true that a bizarrely simplistic, ignorant revision of the Afghanistan conflict has been a key building block of Anti-Imperialist dogma as much as imperialist propaganda. This included the often-exaggerated American support for the Afghan mujahidin—exaggerated by pro-Americans because it inflates their sense of contribution to the Soviet Union’s demise, and exaggerated by anti-imperialists because it fits so neatly into their dogma—as well as the idea that the Americans had any control over the Afghan mujahidin factions, the vast majority of which were localized, and the more internationally linked of which were largely confined to Pakistan, which was and remains suspicious of American intentions in the region. It also includes a complete distortion of the catastrophic 1990s civil war as the inevitable outcome of American-induced fanaticism, another revision that completes exaggerates American influence in Afghanistan during this period, and which ignores the fact that various remnants of the mujahidin fought with each other and made unlikely deals, including with Russia, for purposes that had nothing at all to do with America. And it offers absolutely no clue—indeed prefers to ignore outright—the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the Taliban-dominated insurgency therein, relegating it—again just like American interventionists and neoconservatives, except that they blame Pakistan and other regional states only, while Anti-Imperialists blame regional states and America’s 1980s role—to currents of fanaticism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is for such reasons that Anti-Imperialists, echoing imperialists to the letter in their rationale, howl Al-Qaeda at the sight of a mujahid fighter in Syria. The legacy of propaganda runneth deep.
Distortions with the Same Logic
Idiotic innuendo and conjecture has been a common tool of Anti-Imperialist dogma as much as imperialist dogma. In the imperialists’ case, they may point at a picture of (for example) Jerusalem mufti Amin Husaini, an early Palestinian leader against Zionism, with Adolf Hitler and claim that Palestinians are crypto-Nazi antisemites; this argument has, indeed, been done to death by hardcore Zionists. In anti-imperialists’ case, they may point to a picture of Ronald Reagan sitting with various mujahidin leaders to claim that the United States supports regime change by fanatical Islamists against progressive Anti-Imperialist governments, even as the United States has killed literally tens of thousands of Islamists in the interim period.
Just to point out how ridiculous this binary worldview is, imagine how ridiculous the following arguments are:
1) Because the Iran-contra programme involved Israeli weapons being sold to Iran by American neoconservatives, Iran and Israel are secretly best buddies whose mutual ire is just an act.
2) Because the United States and Russia both support the government of Uzbekistan, the United States and Russia are and have always been on the same side.
3) Because Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill allied with and sat next to Stalin against Hitler, America and Britain are actually pro-Soviet communist governments and the Cold War never happened.
4) Because Qaddafi helped undermine Sudanese dictator Omar Bashir in the mid-2000s, with the support of the West, he is obviously a Western puppet and he was, actually, never overthrown at all in 2011 since that would make the Binary Dichotomy of Imperialism crash.
Anybody, including, hopefully, Discerning Anti-Imperialists, would know that these are moronic generalizations that completely distort historical events based on false binaries. Unfortunately, many Discerning Anti-Imperialists have followed the exact same logic in places like Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere, not only making vacuously pompous fools of themselves in public but doing actual harm by spreading blatant lies.
The idea of a centrally coordinated Imperialist conspiracy against them is an attractive proposal to various tyrants of the world, including those who collaborated and rubbed shoulders with Imperialists whenever it suited them. But this argument’s many omissions include local dynamics, which are heterogenous and varied from place to place, never mind country to country, and it cannot easily or coherently explain away these omissions or contradictions that confound its ignorant premises. Moreover, these premises are as often as not based on the exact logic, spectrum and sometimes even rhetoric of the imperialist powers that the Anti-Imperialists claim to see through; they simply position themselves at the apparent, though rarely actual, opposite end of this spectrum, disagreeing with whatever an imperialist power claims to have said irrespective of the actual facts on the ground and even more so the gap between the imperialist power’s actions and its rhetoric. The superimposition of a clumsy regime change across vastly different contexts and regions is as distorting, dishonest and incoherent as that of the imperialists that it claims to oppose.
1. See among others Tim Anderson, Patrick Cockburn, Charles Glass, Rania Khalek, Nir Rosen, John Pilger, Seymour Hersh, and Robert Fisk, a large proportion of whom used to command some admiration for their purported commitment to justice. See outlets like Al-Masdar News, Mint Press News, Russia Today, Press TV, and frequently the London Review of Books, Counterpunch, The Real News, Democracy Now, Mondoweiss, and Jacobin.
2. The dreaded Wahhabi, Salafi, jihadist, radical Islamist, etc is a particular staple that both imperialists—when dealing with groups as varied as Daaish, Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Ahrar-ul-Sham, Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Hamas, and Muslim Brethren—and anti-imperialists, mostly when dealing with the same factions when they threaten a purportedly anti-imperialist government, employ. Imperialists usually include Iran and Hezbollah in this bracket too, however (substituting Wahhabi for Khomeinist and Salafi for revolutionary), which anti-imperialists rarely do.
3. See https://layyin1137.wordpress.com/2016/09/09/beyond-1979-the-roots-of-islamism-in-the-modern-arab-world/; this deals with the Arab-majority world, and I plan to add sequels for other Muslim regions.
4. Asim Fathelrahman Ahmed, “Sudanese Role in Libya 2011,” African Perspectives, Vol. 11, Issue 38, 2013. http://www.sis.gov.eg/Newvr/africa38/africa38en/10.pdf
5. Maximilian Forte provides a good account of anti-Qaddafi propaganda in his otherwise disorganized, distorting and meandering Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (Montreal: Baraka Books, 2012), which for the most part is precisely the sort of incoherent “anti-imperialist” drivel that this article aims to debunk. I do generally favour the 2011 campaign against Qaddafi, but it is—unlike the case of Assad—true that there was considerable propaganda against him that exaggerated his threat.
6. The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath, edited by Peter Cole and Brian Quinn, is an excellent collection of essays on the Libyan revolt. Another solid source is Cherif Bassiouni’s book on Libya, though I have been unable to read more than a few excerpts as it is very difficult to procure.
7. The word mujahidin is typically reserved for the Afghan guerrillas in the 1980s, but I think it can be easily applied without fear of contradiction to the Syrian guerrillas as well. “Jihadists” is a common pejorative, but I should clarify that this is not what I mean here; similarly, I do not mean it in an uncritically admiring way in that all opposition are mujahidin or behave as mujahidin ideally should. I do not, for instance, condone or support groups like Nusrah Front (Jabhat-Fath-al-Sham) or their ideological positions even though they would self-identify as mujahidin and even though they are more locally rooted than a blanket denunciation may indicate. For an analysis of the “jihad” aspect that I do not necessarily endorse but which has some revealing facts and is generally fair, see Charles Lister’s The Syrian Jihad (London: Hurst & Co, 2015). It should be noted that even not-necessarily Islamist groups have often identified as mujahidin, such as the FLN-dominated Algerian moudjahedine from the 1950s.
Bism Allah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim
ISLAMISM AND CONSERVATISM IN ARAB POLITICS
Particularly since 2001, it has become a staple to see discussion on political Islam in the Muslim world described in negativist terms—that is to say, Islamism has only come about because other, more secularist, ideologies either failed or were failed and the blind masses swung in another direction. This article will, focusing on much of the Arab-majority world, attempt to address that gross, misleading distortion. (See this utterly incorrect extract from a Patrick Cockburn rag for an example: https://twitter.com/BenjaminNorton/status/769605965851295744)
The heyday of Arab socialism around 1960, with Gamal Nasser thundering from balconies to rapturous crowds and Voice of the Arabs broadcasting Cairo propaganda to millions of Arabs, is well known. This is often contrasted, by people across the political spectrum, with the contemporary rise of Islamism in the Muslim, including Arab, world. An especially popular theme has been to put this rise of Islamism down to external factors—whether the influence of reactionary Saudi propaganda, the Iranian revolution, the trauma after repeated defeats to Israel, or other factors. While these factors have undoubtedly played a partial role, this explanation is over-simplified to the point of outright distortion and misses the critical factor of early politics in the Arab (and more broadly the Muslim, but let’s concentrate on the Arab world for now) world.
As is well-known, the Ottoman Sultanate’s collapse led to a colonization and partition of the Middle East into French and British mandates. While the Sharif family, led by Hussein bin Ali and his sons Abdallah I, Ali, and Faisal I, had been promised the rule of the Arab majority world instead of the Turkish Ottomans, they instead came second to British-French negotiations. The result was that Britain took Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq in addition to their Egyptian protectorate, while France took Syria and Lebanon (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine having been carved out of the historical “Sham”—that is, Levant or greater Syria—region). Saudi Arabia, originally also meant as a part of the Sharifs’ territory, was instead conquered by the British Empire’s secondary ally there, Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud. Yemen and Oman were ruled by conservative monarchies based on Zaidi Islam and Ibadi Islam respectively, while the eastern Gulf was a conglomerate of tiny statelets ruled by local sheikhs.
Rule by these foreign powers was, of course, immediately opposed. Faisal I bin Hussein tried to protect the prized Damascus from France, but was routed and sought assistance from the British Empire, who had meanwhile been stunned by a ferocious revolt in Iraq. The solution was to place Faisal as Iraq’s king, a strongly dependent British client much along the same lines as Egypt’s monarchy. In Transjordan, Faisal’s brother Abdallah I assumed the same title; perhaps the Sharif family envisioned a confederation of dynastic principalities in much the same way as many rulers of the Middle East prior to the Ottomans and Mamluks had done. Of course, even as they depended on British support, Faisal and especially Abdallah never gave up the idea of retaking Syria. As such, the borders within which the Arab states were confined were always resented.
Various local forces, such as southern Syria’s Druze sect and northern Iraq’s Kurds, continued to give France and Britain trouble. In the occupied interior, however, the rise of a peculiarly anti-British, autonomist nationalism was brewing. Its early proponents were mostly either intellectuals or ideologues who opposed foreign rule on principle, or notables of local elite families who had lost their longstanding influence. In the former category we can also include religiously motivated preachers, such as Egypt’s Hasan Banna, Syria-Palestine’s Izzaddin Qassam, and Iraq’s Mahdi Khalisi, who preached resistance to the foreign occupation. A third category gradually emerged, which constituted soldiers in the new Arab armies, who also resented foreign control. Of course, there was considerable overlap between these categories.
In shunning foreign domination, a number of ideologies emerged. These included a right-wing nationalism, which called for an advanced Arab state free of foreign domination, much along the lines of Germany and Turkey; as such, it had a rather far-right extremist fringe as well and, since Germany was a rival to the hated occupiers, even some indirect Nazi influence. They also included socialism and Marxism, which was seen as a way to both share wealth and industrialize the state towards the much-vaunted ideal of progress; this had a communist-influenced fringe, but communism was not very popular because of its openly atheist tendency. Again, Marxism also appeared to give an alternative to Britain and France. They included a “state-nationalist”, or watania, ideology as opposed to a pan-Arab qaumia ideology; this was often, but not always, favoured by people of non-Arab background, such as the considerable body of Circassians, Turkmen and Kurds that inhabit the Middle East. (It should be noted that early Arab nationalism, except for the far-right, was not necessarily opposed to these minorities, but took their status as societal if not racial Arabs as a given.) Finally there was a “liberal”, economically conservative Arab nationalism, exemplified by the landowning families: they wanted to be free of foreign domination, but they also accepted Western ideas of governance and society and were generally favorable towards an independent friendship with the West. This was typified by the Sharifs who ruled Iraq and Jordan, as well as in particular Nuri Saeed, their longtime military lieutenant who was a key ally of British interests in the region for forty years and who often served as prime minister.
Though it has until recently received much less attention, the ideology of Islamism was already widespread by 1940, a decade after Banna had founded the Muslim Brethren in Egypt and by which time a classically “Islamist” rural revolt had already occurred in Palestine. The localized networks of these groups—the Muslim Brethren maintained a widespread informal network, which included both armed and political activity but also charity and other such services, while Qassam mobilized at the Levantine countryside nearly independently of the urban elite—and the general appeal of a pietistic Islamic pretext were both key to understanding the spread of Islamism. Nor was it exclusive to other patriotic or nationalist forces; quite the contrary. Since the history of Arab fortunes closely entwined with Islam, Arab nationalists—particularly rightist nationalists—at least gave lip service to the role and prestige of Islam; few among them were outright secularists even if they were personally irreligious. A figure like Amin Husaini, the infamous mufti of Jerusalem during the 1940s, exemplifies the crossover between Islamism and rightist Arab nationalism.
Because of the opportunities afforded to armed forces, it was the various army officers who struck the earliest blows. A case in point was Bakr Sidqi, who had become famous—indeed, celebrated—in Iraq when he massacred an Assyrian settlement, both fighters and civilians, in 1935. The Assyrians, who were privileged by the British in much the same way as the Alawites were privileged by the French, had formed an armed paramilitary which was loathed by many Iraqis as the symbol of foreign domination. Therefore Sidqi’s exploit propelled him to fame, and he used this the next year to mount a coup alongside the civilian statesman Hikmat Sulaiman. The Turk Sulaiman, whose brother Mahmoud Jaudat had been an Ottoman officer who played an important role in the 1908 coup against sultan Abdul-Hameed II bin Abdul-Majeed, and the Kurd Sidqi were hardly Arab nationalists: they exemplified the watani tendency and wanted to turn Iraq into a modern centralized republic along the lines of neighbouring Turkey.
A year later, however, Sidqi was murdered in a conspiracy planned by a group of midranked officers whose ringleaders adhered to a mixture of rightist pan-Arabism and Islamism. Their most famous member was Salahuddin Sabbagh, who led an influential group of four colonels that the British nicknamed the “Golden Square”; as well as Sabbagh, they included Mahmoud Salman, Kamal Shabib, and Fahmi Saeed. Sabbagh, a fervent ideologue, declared that as a Muslim, he could not accept British rule of a Muslim country; as an Arab, he could not do the same, and he was particularly opposed to British rule in Palestine, which he emphasized was part of the Muslim-Arab nation. Substitute America or Russia for Britain, and such a statement (as Ibrahim Marashi points out in Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History) is indistinguishable from modern-day Islamists in the Arab world (Eliezer Beeri, in Army Officers in Arab Politics and Society, claims that Sabbagh was a specifically racialist Arab nationalist, but there is little to back this up and one of his collaborators, Baghdad commandant Amin Zaki, was a Kurd whom Sabbagh hailed for devotion to the “Arab cause”).
Four years later, during the heat of the Second World War, the Golden Square, in concert with mufti Amin Husaini from Jerusalem, Baghdad commandant Amin Zaki, and civilian statesman Rashid Ali, toppled the Sharif monarchy in a coup meant to coordinate with Germany against Britain. Amin Husaini, as Zionist authors never tire of reminding us, was an ally of Hitler against their common enemy, Britain. The coup was swiftly crushed in a British invasion where the Golden Square fell apart and was slain, with the exception of Sabbagh who escaped to Turkey for a decade.
Iraq was not the only theatre where Islamists and other anti-British forces collaborated. In Egypt, a daring but rather foolhardy conspiracy was hatched to impede the British campaign in North Africa. It included both members of the far-right Egyptian Youth group, including Anwar Sadat, and Islamists in the army, such as Abdel-Raouf Abdel-Munim. Abdel-Raouf is an especially cogent character here because he was both a Muslim Brethren member and a founder of the future Free Officers movement, a quintessentially nationalist movement. Even Gamal Nasser, the modern emblem of secular Arabism and a future persecutor of the Muslim Brethren, briefly joined up with the Brethren and trained their members.
In the tumultous years that followed the Second World War, the Islamists were a key, if not the key, component of anti-British agitation in Egypt, and Arab independence as a whole. During the war in Palestine, one segment of the Egyptian force was composed of Muslim Brethren volunteers led by Ahmed Abdel-Aziz, an upper-class officer martyred in the field and later described by Arab nationalists in Nasser’s period as a role model. The Muslim Brethren militia formed an important force in the Negev campaigns during that war; their leader, Kamel Sharif, maintained good ties with the Egyptian and Jordanian armies. The founder of the Arab League, Abdel-Rahman Azzam, was a close friend of Muslim Brethren leader Hasan Banna, typifying the close connection between early Arab nationalists and Islamists. The restless Jerusalem mufti Amin Husaini was, again, a key figure, and his cousin Abdul-Qadir Husaini—the celebrated leader of the siege of Jerusalem who was martyred in May 1948 after he was stranded at Qastal with plummeting ammunition—led the Jihad Muqaddas (Holy Jihad) army, made up of local volunteers waging jihad for the holy land. A more prototypically Islamist segment can hardly be imagined.
In spite of the contribution at Palestine, the Muslim Brethren were, under British pressure, blacklisted in Egypt before the war was over. Egypt’s prime minister Mahmoud Nuqrashy specifically banned them en route a generally autocratic campaign, and he was soon murdered by a stray Brethren member named Abdel-Maguid Hassan. Though Hasan Banna condemned the murder as un-Islamic and inexcusable, Nuqrashy’s successor Ibrahim Abdel-Hady only doubled down on the crackdown, which included the murder of Banna and the ban on the Brethren for the rest of the monarchic period. Several Brethren members were tried, and even though the Egyptian field commander in Palestine, Fouad Sadek, vouched for them, the government was unrelenting. The Brethren fled to ground, and their armed wing, led by Saleh Ashmawi, engaged in sabotage activities against the British army. It was at this point that Brethren activity in the army became especially frenetic. As mentioned, Abdel-Raouf Abdel-Munim was a founding Free Officer; other early and important Free Officers who were onetime or remained Brethren members included Sadat, Hassan Ibrahim, Kamaleddin Hussein, Rashad Mehanna, and even Nasser himself. Apart from Abdel-Munim, who Nasser purged, each of them was a member of the Free Officers’ junta after the July 1952 coup.
The coup, led by Nasser in concert with a celebrated, respected senior officer Mohamed Naguib, ousted the monarchy for good. It also led to a struggle for power between various coupmakers. The popular artillery officer Rashad Mehanna, who was assigned to the symbolic but powerless position of regent early on, was an Islamist leader whose artillery lieutenants, Fathullah Rifaat and Mohsen Abdel-Khaliq, mutinied against Nasser in December 1952. More pressing was the conflict between Naguib, an old-fashioned gentleman with basically traditional instincts who wanted to transition to parliament rule, and Nasser, who wanted to maintain a personalized dictatorship capable of single-mindedly developing Egypt. Naguib’s generally conservative, Islamist-friendly politics can be seen in the fact that he commissioned Abdel-Razzaq Sanhury, a renowned legalist, to codify sharia into state law—something that Islamists to the current day yearn for, and for less than which current-day statesmen like Recep Erdogan have been branded “radical Islamists”. Sanhury also served as Naguib’s liaison with the Muslim Brethren, whose deputy Abdel-Qader Ouda organized mass rallies in Naguib’s favour when he came into conflict with Nasser. The Islamists were not alone here—the various political parties, including communists and liberals, backed Naguib because of Nasser’s hostility towards them—but their role was decisive in ensuring that Nasser’s attempt to purge Naguib in February 1954 failed, because they organized the gigantic protests that forced Nasser to back down.
Nasser spent the summer of 1954 trying to win over the Brethren and split their forces, his wily spymaster Salah Nasser adopting a carrot-stick policy. In October 1954, the penny dropped when a Muslim Brethren officer, Mahmoud Abdel-Latif, tried with spectacular incompetence to murder Nasser at a speech in Alexandria. He missed nine shots at point-blank range—leading to disquieted allegations that it was a staged attempt—and Nasser’s bravado in the face of danger was sufficient to entirely turn the popular tide in his favour. Armed with both a popular mandate and dictatorial force, he banned the Brethren and imprisoned thousands, executing their second-in-command Ouda in spite of a belated plea for reconciliation from jail. Naguib, disgusted with the Brethren’s naivete, was himself arrested a month later for his links to the Islamists and spent the last decade of his life under house arrest. The remainder of the Brethren escaped to neutral or conservative countries like Saudi Arabia, where they were welcomed by the pietistic crown-prince Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz and were tainted with a repute for reactionism that was spectacularly unfair given their contribution to Egypt’s revolution. (It is notable that even at this time, Muslim Brethren cells led by Fathi Shaqi remained active in Ghazza alongside the famous Egyptian field commander Mustafa Hafez; among their members were Yasser Arafat and Salah Khalil, later leaders of the more secularist Fatah faction).
While Egypt provided the most concerted and spectacular case of Islamists in and out of power, sympathetic sentiments continued to smoulder across the Arab-majority world. The Algerian independence movement’s earliest champions were classic Islamists: Abdelhamid Ben Badis, Messali Hadj, Malek Bennabi and Bashir Ibrahimi, who had agitated for Algerian independence on the basis of its Islamic obligation and character since the 1920s, long preceding both liberal and socialist approaches to Algerian patriotism. The monarchy of North Yemen had been basically the Zaidi version of a caliphate, and even the Egypt-backed republican forces that fought them during the 1960s proclaimed an Islamic republic, and included large numbers of pietistic, socially conservative lower-class Yemeni members whose “backwards” bumptiousness frustrated Nasser no end (“you see,” he once spat in disgust to Nikita Khrushchev after meeting the republican leader Abdullah Sallal, “what I have to deal with?”). It is important to note that, despite his internal hostility to Islamism, Nasser presented the image of an Islam-friendly alternative to communism abroad. This was illustrated in both his relations with the United States, whose leader Dwight Eisenhower bailed him out of a military defeat against Israel, Britain and France in 1956 for fear of a communist takeover, as well as Syria and Iraq.
The middle 1950s were a tumultous time in Syrian politics, as it was courted by both East and West and as ideologues of all stripes bickered and competed in its relatively open political space. The exaggerated spectre of an imminent communist takeover, entertained by both the United States and by local actors, led to a concerted effort to integrate Syria with Egypt in a pan-Arab alliance. Pan-Arabism was by now firmly in vogue, with Nasser the toast of the Arab world after his political triumph over Israel, Britain and France. On the other hand, Syrian actors of all stripes were apprehensive of communist influence, which was never great but which was sufficiently feared for a wide number of them, both officers and statesmen, to invite Nasser to merge Syria with Egypt in February 1958. Because of both Nasser’s popularity and the fear of communism, this was greeted with enormous enthusiasm in both Egypt and Syria. The Sharif monarchs of Iraq and Jordan—whose call for an Arab union, only one ruled by themselves and not a republican dictator, preceded that of most other Arab movements—responded with a British-sponsored federation, but this never really caught on and soon collapsed. Jordan’s young ruler Hussein bin Talal navigated this crisis skilfully and without harm; on the other hand, his cousins in Iraq were swept away.
In July 1958, a loosely organized “Free Officers” group in Iraq mutinied, with mass support from the Iraqi citizens, and bloodily overthrew the monarchy, whose remnants were killed by firing squad. Nuri Saeed—the long-derided epitome of pro-Western treachery—was captured, lynched and his corpse, like that of Iraqi regent Abdulelah bin Ali, mauled and dragged through the streets. The coup’s military leaders were Abdul-Karim Qasim and Abdul-Salam Arif. It had been a long time coming; we have seen the Iraqi officer corps mutiny in the 1930s and 1940s already, and the Iraqi regime’s closeness to Britain—especially in the aftermath of Britain’s 1956 attack on Egypt—stamped out whatever support it retained outside the political elite. Free Officer cells had been founded by Rifaat Sirri as early as 1956, during that same war.
Rifaat Sirri, Abdul-Salam Arif, and their close collaborators, Abdul-Wahhab Shawwaf and Nazim Tabaqchali, exemplify the close relationship between proto-Islamism and rightist Arab nationalism at the time. Each of them described and interpreted their pan-Arab sentiments in exactly the same Islamically based way as Salahuddin Sabbagh had in 1941 and as a modern Islamist may. With the exception of Rifaat, each of them was the son of an Islamic leader—Shawwaf’s father was the mufti of Baghdad—and each of them was opposed not only to the pro-West monarchy but also the apparently atheistic communists. Unlike Syria and Egypt, communism had a real street power in Iraq, principally among lower-class Shias and certain intellectuals, and they organized huge rallies and kept militias that dwarfed their competitors. The threat of a communist takeover in Iraq was not as far-fetched as Syria or Egypt. To pietistic officers such as this segment of the Free Officers, a union with the Egypt-Syria federation offered not only a stepping stone towards Arab-Islamic unity but also a bulwark against communism. In short, their enthusiasm for the secular Arabist Nasser, whose secularism was at any rate not well known outside Egypt, derived from the same sort of conservative pietistic concerns that any Islamist may have.
Abdul-Karim Qasim, the new dictator of Iraq, had other ideas. He was not affiliated to any ideologies, including communism—indeed, he was publicly respectful of religion, proclaimed the Iraqi people to be “Allah’s party”, and changed his official title, “The Unique Leader”, at the insistence of a cleric who claimed that unique rulership belonged only to Allah. What Qasim did believe in was the sort of watani Iraqi nationalism that had characterized Bakr Sidqi, to whom he had distant familial links. It has also been speculated that Qasim’s background—his family was half Kurd and half Shia—predisposed him against the Arab unionism project, which was dominated by Sunni Arab officers. From the start, Qasim was unwilling to align Iraq with the Egypt-Syria union. Because most of his fellow officers did not share this reluctance, he turned to the communists, who had some officer followers and who also possessed a massive militia.
Qasim’s lieutenants, most notably his once-loyal second-in-command Abdul-Salam Arif, remonstrated with him to no avail, and they may have tried even to murder him. At any rate, Qasim remained unmoved, and purged the agitated Arif from the leadership. This led to a conspiracy between the influential Rifaat Sirri, so long active in the Arab nationalist underground, as well as Tabaqchali, the army’s northern commander, and Shawwaf, the Mosul garrison commandant. Mosul was a hotbed of conservative Sunni nationalism of precisely the sort that resented Qasim’s leftward shifts. The conspirators had already contacted Rashid Ali, the restless right-wing Arab nationalist leader who had led the 1941 revolt with the Golden Square.
In the spring of 1959, Shawwaf mutinied at Mosul, but Rifaat and Tabaqchali were quickly detained and could not mount their planned mutinies in Baghdad and Kirkuk respectively. After a bloody battle—where not only rightist Arab nationalists, but also Arab tribesmen, collided with not only leftist loyalists but also Kurdish militiamen—Shawwaf was slain and the mutiny crushed. His corpse was buried in Damascus, where Nasser’s propaganda machine had long waged a relentless war on Qasim. Rifaat, Arif, Tabaqchali and Rashid were grilled at the public court that Qasim had set up, which was led by his bombastic cousin Fadil Mihdawi. They specifically cited hostility to the foreign creed of communism as their motivation. Qasim, who as dictator usually exercised his privilege to pardon inmates from execution, unusually upheld the sentence for Rifaat and Tabaqchali. Meanwhile he also had to remonstrate with his uncontrollable communist allies, who in concert with Kurdish militiamen had run riot in Kirkuk and massacred a large number of rightists, Arabs, and Turkmens. The episode again underlines the large current of rightist, conservative, and Islamically oriented sentiment that remained in Iraq’s officer class.
The Egypt-Syria union imploded two years later; it had been dominated by Nasser’s arrogant deputy Abdel-Hakim Amer and his ruthless Syrian lieutenant Abdul-Hamid Sarraj, and set up in Syria the sort of hitherto unknown security apparatus that had been founded in Egypt from 1954. It had attempted to impose the Egyptian style of centralized rule on the always decentralized Syrian landscape. It had also broken the backs of the traditional landowning families that had long dominated politics; in their place came generally left-leaning officers, often from minority sects and religions. What had probably clinched the deal was Nasser’s mass nationalization of Syria’s commerce, which alienated the wealthy merchant class and a significant body of rightist or independent officers outright. Even former supporters of Nasser were disillusioned; most notable were the Baath party, a vaguely “Arab socialist” party that had originally enthusiastically supported Nasser but chafed at his domination. Like Nasser, the Baath had been viewed benignly by the United States as a basically containable alternative to communism. They established a number of cells in the officer corps of both Iraq and Syria. They had basically the same attractions as Nasser’s pan-Arab socialism, but they were spectacularly prone to division over the pettiest matters and dominated by the personalities of their leaders.
In September 1961, a very loose coalition of officers led by Abdul-Karim Nihlawi mounted a coup that dissolved the Egypt-Syria union. A series of behind-the-scenes power struggles, coups, and mutinies ensued as the remaining forces in Syria wrestled for domination. Next to the chaotic Syrian scene, Qasim seemed perfectly secure. But in February 1963, he was ousted and bloodily murdered by an alliance of the rightwing officers, led by Abdul-Salam Arif who he had pardoned himself, and the Baath officers, led by Hasan Bakr. The next month Syria’s Baath, also aligned with non-Baathist officers like Ziad Hariri and Rashid Qutaini, seized power from the tottering rightist government. In both cases, the Baathists established brutal paramilitaries, especially Iraq where they ran riot that summer and dominated the still-weak regime of Arif. In November 1963, however, the Iraqi Baath’s thuggish paramilitary commanders, Mundhir Windawi and Ali Saadi, fell out with the more cautious Bakr, and in the ensuing confusion Abdul-Salam Arif and his brother Abdul-Rahman successfully ousted them from Iraq, banning the party and decrying it—in another nod to the conservative pietistic background that had bred them—as a secular party.
In spite of his earlier support for Nasser, which had led him so enthusiastically into the coups, Abdul-Salam Arif’s enthusiasm cooled as he realized, like Qasim, that Iraq’s landscape was very different to Egypt’s. He also likely had religious concerns in mind; this was a period where Nasser was especially brutal towards the Islamists, and Arif, the pietistic scion of an Islamic preacher’s family, was moved to personally request that Nasser release the noted Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb, towards whom the Arif brothers were quite sympathetic. The Arifs’ only civilian prime minister was Abdul-Rahman Bazzaz (1965-66), an Islamist technocrat-cum-theoretician who espoused an Islamic identification rather than specifically Arab, subjected Arab union to Islamic union, and who was as a result more conciliatory towards the rebellious Kurds in the north. The Arifs were obviously taken by him, and were only forced to remove him after the pro-Egypt Nasserites mutinied.
Arif also attempted to publicly reconcile the Arab socialism preached by Nasser with Islam. Where Nasser’s other ally, Abdullah Sallal at Yemen, had not made any pretences to socialism and declared Yemen an Islamic republic, Arif hesitantly claimed that Iraq was economically bound to Arab socialism but morally and legally bound to Islamic law. This was a far cry from Nasser’s secularism, and another indication that the legacy of secularism—preached by Nasser, the Baath, and communists in ascending order—in the Arab nationalist sphere was neither unanimous nor uncontroversial. Not until Bakr returned at the helm of the Baath party to topple Abdul-Rahman Arif in 1968 did a secular form of Arab nationalism predominate, not without considerable force and bloodshed.
While Islamic political parties had never been a significant political force in Syria, they remained a powerful social vehicle for opposition to the Baath party. Characterized by a brutal police state, dominated as it was by minoritarian members—although its official dictator Amin Hafiz was a Sunni Muslim, his chief lieutenants were nearly exclusively Alawites, Druze, Ismailis and Christians—and governed by a more obvious secularism and leftism than Nasser, it was an obvious opponent to the Islamist parties, who were also backed by the Sunni middle class that had been hit by Baathist nationalization. In 1964 a revolt broke out at Hama—where the Islamists would be so brutally crushed during 1982—after a student was arrested for erasing Baathist slogans from the blackboard. Hafiz only quelled it with difficulty, while smaller uprisings in Aleppo and Hims were also put down. The Baath party constituted only a minority in Syria—indeed, its Marxist-leaning ideologue Yasin Hafiz erased the term “secularism” from a public copy of his private treatise, in order to make it more palatable to the Syrian masses (see Itamar Rabinovitch, Syria under the Baath 1963-66)—but it controlled the important army and security units by this time. The tensions between this paranoid, minority-dominated secularist state and the generally conservative and pietistic, Sunni-majority public were to flare up again as factors in the 1979-82 and post-2011 conflicts.
By way of conclusion we can return to Egypt, where the Islamist opposition had always been stronger and most evident. After the 1967 defeat, which forced him to purge at least part of his state apparatus, Nasser showed some more tolerance towards Islam in public spheres—at least where it could serve the government. During 1967-70, the army was given a moral commisar, Gamaleddin Mahfouz, who preached the virtues of jihad and the importance of Islam to Egyptian soldiery. Sadat, Nasser’s successor and another onetime Muslim Brethren member, continued to expand the scope for political Islam in the 1970s. Whereas the triumph of the glorious Arab nation and Arab socialism had been watchwords in the 1960s, the 1973 war in particular saw a large number of soldiers, both rank-and-file and commanders, adhere to a public pietism also reflected in the general Egyptian public (see George Gawrych’s The Albatross of Decisive Victory). One of them, the Islamist officer and field commander Abboud Zummur, organized the Islamist murder of Sadat in 1981, which was at least well-received in parts of the army who probably knew about it beforehand (see Hazem Kandil’s Soldiers, Spies, and Revolt). The popular 1980s army commander, Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala, was also close to the Muslim Brethren and well-known for his emphasis of Islam in society, as opposed to the stoutly secularist dictator Hosni Mubarak.
The 1967 defeat and the post-1970s developments in large parts of the Muslim world may have contributed to the rise of Islamism. But they were not its cause, and Islamism as a political force, usually in opposition but sometimes in concert with rulers, had remained a significant public factor through even the age of secular Arab nationalism. Islamism was not a new invention brought about by the failure of other ideologies; rather, it was one of the most natural indigenous ideologies that had only temporarily been driven to ground.
Bism Allah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim
Recently I’ve had a lt of requests from cullies and shipmates to write up a list of recommended books. These are a bunch of really good books I’d recommend. It’s just a start, I’ll add to the list as I thjink of more books InshaAllah Taala
Africa: A Modern History. Guy Arnold, 2005. This is over a thousand pages long in fairly small print, yet I’ve hardly read a book that flies by so quickly. The reason is the style of the writer—a longtime British observer of Africa with rather postcolonial sympathies—which is flexible, fast, discussing things from thematic to specific, from economy to wars and coups. He is especially hard, happily, on Western colonialism and condescension towards Africa, but he doesn’t hesitate to give other forms of domination as well as hypocritical dictators who use West-bashing (e.g., Qaddafi) a hard word too. I do disagree with some of his analysis, at least semantically, but I appreciate the effort and it’s a good, honest, and for the most part comprehensive look by a wellwisher of the continent and its folks.
From Saladin to the Mongols. Stephen Humphreys, 1977. This is my favourite history book, not only because I like the subject, but the ease, keen observation, and combination of fluency and precision that marks Stephen Humphreys’ work. I haven’t seen a combined political-military-social analysis quite to match it in historical work, and I really, really recommend it—not only is it clinical, but at times—such as the section of the Mongol invasions—it’s downright lyrical at times. I nearly shed a tear at the disastrous, humiliating end of Nasir Yusuf b. Muhammad, the final Ayyubid sultan at Syria. A really solid piece of work
Empires of Mud. Antonio Giustozzi, 2009. A superb analytical work on the political economy and history of Afghanistan’s military barons, with a special but not exclusive focus on Abdul-Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan. A groundbreaking book with deep detail unmatched, as far as I know, in English language at any rate. Villainous mercenaries, tub-thumping adventurers, destructive barons and conniving commanders, wily feudalism and autocratic centralism–it’s superbly and scientifically dissected herein (see also next three books).
Revolution Unending. Gilles Dorronsoro, 2005. There are a number of excellent books about Afghanistan (few of which, unfortunately, are famous outside of academia) but the most clinical, comprehensive so far is this thoughtful, balanced book. One minor critique I have is the author’s tendency to over-categorize things such as ideology or social background, which in a fluid conflict zone is a problematic exercise. Nonetheless, that’s a minor quibble. A highly recommended book—if there’s a single book you read on Afghanistan, this is it.
Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond. Abdulkader Sinno, 2007. Before 2009-10, the vast majority of literature on post-Russian Afghanistan was written in a rather double-standarded ideological manner—see, for instance, anything written by the loathsome William Maley. Sinno’s excellent book, which dissects the organizational differences between various non-state groups in Afghanistan, thrusts a fair number of cliches aside as well as provide a solid academic comparison of various groups, from the highly centralized Hizb-i-Islami 1 group captained by Gulbadin Hikmatyar to the completely decentralized Harakat-i-Inqilabi group founded by Mohammad-Nabi Mohammadi. Variables including foreign sponsorship, diplomacy, internal revenues and different structures each come under consideration. I actually wrote a school paper recently on the same subject, but I didn’t come across this excellent book till I had nearly finished.
An Intimate War. Mike Martin, 2014. This is a remarkable, blow-by-blow and terrifically detailed work on Afghanistan’s restive Helmand Province, whose twists and turns can—as Mike Martin, who formerly worked alongside a British garrison of whose viewpoint and methodology he emerges very critical, shows—fill an entire book. A truly remarkable, nearly ethnographic book based partly on a huge number of interviews from a number of primary actors and a critical analysis of their account. When something is this well-detailed, you can read it nearly like a novel. Real life is far more interesting than fiction, and this history laden thick with conflict and deception is as enjoyable for the intrigue as it is for analysis.
Republican Iraq. Majid Khadduri, 1969. It’s easy to forget the decade of republican military rule that Iraq experienced in between its monarchy and the notorious Baath regime. Nowhere is this fascinating period chronicled, again in great detail and with thoughtful analysis, better than in Majid Khadduri’s book written a mere year after the Baath takeover. I confess it rather saddens me too—quite a few of the book’s characters, including dictators Abdul-Karim Qasim and Arif brothers Abdul-Rahman and Abdul-Salam—strike me as basically decent, well-meant folk who collided unnecessarily and catastrophically over very avoidable disputes. Alack, such are politics during military rule. It makes for woeful reflection, but terrific reading.
Sovereign Creations. Malik Mufti, 1996. Though the idea of a pan-Islamic union is rather popular—an idea I have no problems in admitting my attraction towards—it’s easy to forget that the postcolonial Arab regimes in the Middle East attempted a number of such mergers during the 1950s and 1960s. The longest-lasting, unfortunately, was a mere three years: the shortlived 1958-61 United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria. This book focuses on internal disputes within Iraq, which long mulled the idea of a merger, and Syria while also examining out the intentions and calculations of their regional neighbours and the colonial powers. It does a fine job in an easy-paced, fluent style.
Mongols and Mamluks. Reuben Amitai-Preiss, 1995. During the thirteenth-century the Mongol khanate swept across Eurasia, flooring in its path the regimes of China, Central Asia, Anatolia, Khurasan, virtually all of what is now Russia, and Iraq–including the Abbasid caliphate. The juggernaut finally screeched to a halt at “Goliath’s Spring”, Ayn Jalut, where a Mamluk army largely comprised of similar steppe cavalry (“for every pestilence,” quoth a Muslim panegyrist who saw little difference between Mamluk Turks and Mongols, “there is a cure of its kind”) set up the start of a twenty-year campaign where it eventually won out to carve an extraordinary slave-elite military state in Egypt and Syria. A remarkably clinical, if ruthless, state founded by Zahir Rukanuddin Baybars and Saifuddin Mansur Qalawoun receives a comprehensive overview in this book. Perhaps because the Mamluks, at least initially, took this conflict far more seriously than the Mongols, who had plenty of land to fall back on, they seem to have made some extraordinary adjustments, of which their highly advanced political-military system and in particular their espionage apparatus is especially fascinating.
ISIL, Concubines, and the Ideology of Impunity
A shocking story that the self-styled caliphate that spans the Iraq and Syria borderland has recently launched a “theology of rape” has sent a wave of hysteria across the internet. News that ISIL or Dawlah, as I’d rather call them since the “Dawlah” or state is the focus of their ideology, have captured and raped sex slaves as a matter of doctrine has drawn horror. As usually happens when rando Muslims do something vile, we’ve had Muslims in the West flock to condemn the atrocity while analysts have focused on Dawlah’s ideology. I would argue, however, that Dawlah’s rapine has nearly nothing to do with doctrine or scripture and everything to do with the control mechanics of wartime rape.
A disclaimer: this isn’t an attempt to entirely wipe out ideological lens. Nor is it an attempt that Dawlah are “selective” Muslims who use Islam as they see fit; there are plenty of those, both in extremist militancy and in some governments. Too often people claim that extremism has “nothing to do” with Islam but avoid the fact that it often does tangentially. For example, Al-Qaeda’s list of atrocities aimed at Western civilians in particular is quite clearly a contravention of Islamic legalism; there are more or less broadly-agreed-upon and fairly restrained codes of conduct for jihad (which is not to say they haven’t been violated at different stages in history), but Al-Qaeda contravene them by attempting, in very modern terms and with modern justifications usually predicated on the need to use every tool at their disposal against a more militarily powerful opponent, a total war. But the overall premise that Al-Qaeda give—that the Muslim world needs to be freed from foreign subjugation—is widely shared by a not insignificant number of Muslims, both laymen and scholars; it is the murderous means, of terrorism and civilian-aimed attacks, that Al-Qaeda use that the vast majority of Muslims reject out of hand. So Al-Qaeda proper’s ideology can be said to have at least tenuous links with certain aspects of Islam, even if it ignores inconvenient restrictions and caveats; it is, after all, not alone in that respect and arguably many Muslim governments and militants juggle their conveniences with Islamic jurisdiction to various extents, though rarely to the same extent on so grave a matter as violence.(1)
Another disclaimer: this is not an Islamic scholarly rebuttal; I have no qualifications in Islamic jurisprudence or theology. Rather it is an attempt to analyze Dawlah from a political viewpoint against its own ideological evolution.
By contrast to what can be argued as a “selective” interpretation of Islam on other groups’ part, Dawlah rejects any sort of traditional Islamic legalism whatsoever. This is not simply pick-and-choose from the tradition; rejection of compromise with any party, including the tradition, is an active part of its dogma as it stands. Rather, whatever benefits the Dawlah is seen as legitimate, and whatever inconveniences the Dawlah, including the restraints of Islamic legalism, is brushed aside with contempt (Dawlah’s online ideologues—a heady range including “Ghazi Shami”, “Marwan Tounisi”, and “Shami Witness”—like to refer to this as “coconut” Islam, a pejorative is usually applied to anything that doesn’t endorse their Dawlah outright).
This can be seen as similar to “selective” Islam in the sense that it picks and chooses Islamic jurisdiction based on its conveniences, and indeed there is an arguable if indirect link; Dawlah propaganda claims, after all, that their Dawlah state, as a self-styled caliphate, is the greatest tool to fulfill the needs of the Muslim world. But increasingly with time, the Dawlah has gone from becoming a “tool” to an end unto itself; now, particularly with so much of the Muslim world, including hardline Islamists, pitted against it, the “state’s” ideologues predicate Islam itself upon loyalty to the Dawlah. This goes beyond mere opportunism: it makes the state not a tool, but a determinant, of Islam. Over time its thugs’ warcry of “Baqiyaaaa”—“forever”, claiming that the State will live on till endtimes—has become nearly a dogma in its insistence and vigour. The State no longer simply serves Islam, as was the overall role of historical Islamic caliphates and their offshoots: the State is made out to have embodied Islam in totality; opposition to the State has been turned into “apostasy”, while anything that advances the State—no matter how contrary to Islamic laws—is endorsed.
There are various reasons that can be put forward for this. One of them is somewhat ideological, which is that Dawlah neatly claimed, without any agreement from the wider Muslim ummah whatsoever, the much-vaunted post of “caliphate”; millions of Muslims, and not just old-fashioned ideologues or young hotheads, recall the perceived glory days of Islam. Particularly the age of Prophet Muhammad, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, and the Rashidoun Caliphs who succeeded in the seventh-century, are seen as ages of superb governance, which is an uncontroversial position with Muslims. A subsequent millennium of monarchic caliphates, ending with the Ottoman Sultanate that spanned six centuries, is widely and uncontroversially seen as an imperfect but nonetheless strong, relatively fair and desirable stronghold of Islam that embodied some semblance of Islamic unity, dignity and values. The subsequent divisions, weaknesses, and uncertainty of the Muslim world has also led to a yearning for the return of the caliphs: prior to the twentieth century, the shortest period without a caliphate was a couple of years after the 1258 Mongol conquest of Baghdad, and even that was lamented by chroniclers. Most Muslims nowadays at least yearn for aspects if not the body of the historical caliphate, and some groups—most notably the controversial Hizb-ul-Tahrir party, a pacifist but ambitious party that has some currency in the West—have placed enormous emphasis on its restoration.
Dawlah’s unilateral claim to have restored the caliphate in the summer of 2014 was a gamble at winning over the Muslim world. By and large—largely because of Dawlah’s brutality, particularly its gratuitously thuggish and wildly broadcast executions as well as its attacks on minorities and other sects, but also because of its unilateral self-declaration—this was widely rejected by a large body that included Islamists such as Dawlah’s opponents in Syria, as well as more importantly scholars from various backgrounds. After more than a year Dawlah has managed to attract a bare handful of ideologues, few of them even scholars by any traditional mark, to its banner, and this is a sticking point that has repeatedly hurt them.
The State did attract hundreds of largely identity-stricken youths from the West to fight for the “Caliphate”, and it also has key support from various Iraqi Sunni factions driven to desperation by a decade of insurgency and repression under a spiteful Baghdad regime. Rarely are such fighters persuaded by rigorous scholarship and Islamic legalism; it is more their identity as Muslims and the labels, not substance, of the self-professed “Islamic State” that draws such youths. But its theological and scholarly limits were immediately clear; as Abu Abdulmalek, the top shariah scholar of the Ahrar-ul-Sham Islamist faction in Syria, stated in a Jul 2014 public notice, the Caliphate was meant to be a government that could serve the Muslim Ummah, not a totalist utopia built largely exclusively on the corpses of Muslims. Even fellow “jihadi” scholars, including the controversial Palestinians Abu Qatada Umar Uthman and Abu Muhammad Isam Tahir—Uthman having controversially supported a similarly rejectionist group in Algeria during the 1990s, even earning criticism from other “jihadis” for it, and Tahir having known, though rejected, the original founder of what became ISIL, Abu Musab Zarqawi—rejected the “Dawlah” outright. Its gamble at Islamic legitimacy had failed.
It is for this reason—the absence of support by any notable body of scholars—that I would pose is one reason that Dawlah have not become simply “selective” in their interpretation of Islam but outright rejectionists against anything perceived as traditionalism or “mainstream”. Early on, especially during the summer of 2014, Dawlah had tried to present themselves as at least somewhat legitimate with occasional handouts on film and periodic festivals to whip up both internal morale as well as external legitimacy as “acceptable” Muslims. They had, of course, always choreographed grisly executions of captives—dating back to Abu Musab’s wildest days in 2004—but shortly after declaring their “caliphate” they did briefly try to present themselves as theologically viable candidates. However, it soon became clear that no validation was forthcoming; rare ideologues, like the Australian preacher Musa Cerantonio and the Jamaican-British preacher Abdullah Faisal, were trumpeted from the rooftops in Dawlah propaganda, but no scholars of any weight or authority, even jihadis, had any sympathy. Even when the United States and a gaggle of other, most anxious Gulf, countries bombarded Syria and Iraq, there was little sympathy for Dawlah even as there was some outrage in the Muslim world at the bombardment itself. (2)
Particularly over the winter of 2014-15, therefore, Dawlah abandoned much of their attempts at ideological veneer and it was here that they claimed exclusivist membership of and support of their State as a determinant of Islam, and therefore a shroud of impunity to any member of the State. No longer did Dawlah propaganda try to wheedle Muslims into their arms, but instead tried to justify itself to its existant followers; now, grisly executions were not only broadcast but justified energetically on the grounds that some Muslim in history had once done it, so it could not be illegal even if that Muslim had done it illegally. Even massive disapproval by Muslims was taken as a justification: this only proved, according to Dawlah’s propagandists, that most Muslims were nonbelievers and that Dawlah’s flimsy numbers were a proof of its uniquely virtuous nature. Opposition by Muslims and Islamic law was no longer a source of dismay; it became a propaganda tool to convince millennarian followers that they, and they alone, were on the right path. (This is not to deny the “sincerity”, which is impossible for us to calculate, that IS fighters have; however, their interpretation of Islam is a retroactive and self-serving one, even if subconscious and not intended)
Dawlah’s glossy but substantially hollow magazine, Dabiq—breathlessly followed by Western analysts as a key insight into terrorism ideology—revealed more about their modus operandi in carving out a new ideology, one based entirely around the State. As long as it called itself Islamic and adopted Islamic rhetoric, the State—and, more importantly, its followers, who were given a rationale of utter impunity quite different to the traditional code of conduct for jihad in Islam—could violate as much Islamic doctrine as it needed.
Perhaps the most telling example of this came in a recent Dabiq issue, which urged women—including married women—to “migrate” to the Dawlah and abscond with its “mujahideen”. The pesky matter of that well-known Islamic injunction on adultery as a major sin punishable by death? No matter, Dabiq announced airily; because it deemed non-loyalists of the Dawlah to be non-Muslims, the women’s husbands were “non-Muslims” and that made their marriages illegal (3). This sort of retroactive justification, flying in the face of both Islamic law and procedure, is characteristic of Dawlah’s propaganda: as long as it’s rhetorically done in God’s path, Dawlah can blatantly any of God’s commands and perform feats of self-serving justification after the fact. It is a sort of “reformism” in its own right, similar in attitude ironically to the same sort of state-driven “Muslim reformism” so beloved of certain Western regimes. The ends, as determined by the state, justify any means, even the most unambiguously unIslamic ones.
Insofar as it is influenced in any way by the Islamic tradition, the Dawlah ideology now seeks to aggressively pick out keywords from history, never mind their status under Islam. The case of concubines is an example. Historically, concubines were a feature in many cultures and in wartime, Islam permitted this practice amid captives albeit with injunctions as to their treatment, their status and their rights, much as it had permitted slavery with very tight regulations and caveats not present in other traditions. Against the abolitionist pressure of the 1800s as well as its own push at modernization, the Ottoman Sultanate—not without controversy—abolished the slave trade, though it continued unabated in some parts of the world well into the twentieth century. Much as they had unilaterally declared themselves a caliphate and the arbiters of Islam, Dawlah unilaterally declared the reimposition of the slave trade, and—presumably in part because enough women weren’t absconding from the West to join the thirsty “mujahideen”—also, apparently, of concubines.
This has, of course, aroused shock and horror. Rukmini Callimachi, a dubious NYT reporter (and a writer with a long history of hyperbolic articles that usually exaggerate the threat—and therefore, to potential recruits, appeal—that Dawlah poses, and in my opinion indirectly if unknowingly helped boost its recruitment)(4) took care to emphasize the fact that certain Dawlah fighters prayed before raping their victims, with the implication that their prayers made it ritualistic and therefore somehow bound to Islam. Western Muslims have, understandably but perhaps unnecessarily, reacted with speedy denials about the legitimacy of such acts. Some have declared it a time to introspect and perhaps revise the Islamic tradition.
There are several problems with this. A major problem, as has been noted above, is that Islamic tradition as it stands is not only irrelevant but actively loathed by Dawlah. They rhetorically claim inheritance of Islamic law and values, yet they have not only shunned it but made it a point to do so precisely because, according to their rhetoric, it has failed to give what they—and therefore, since they have appointed themselves Islam’s guard, in their view Islam—want. In this sense, Dawlah are very much revisionists of convenience ironically not dissimilar to the same pro-Western “reformers” pushed by certain Western governments. That makes them far, far different from traditional Islamic scholarship as well as most Islamist groups—from the Ahrar-ul-Sham of Syria and Taliban of Afghanistan to Hamas of Palestine and Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, each of which Dawlah has categorically shunned—who are for the most part, though not spotlessly, sticklers for Islamic procedure to the extent of being labelled “fundamentalists”. There is a reason that for the better part of a century no other Islamist group, however hardline, attempted to revive such institutions as slavery; such a unilateral declaration goes precisely against the consensus-based jurisdiction of traditional Islam, and fits very much into Dawlah’s worldview. Orthodox or traditional scholars are the last people Dawlah are likely to heed.
The second problem is that it assumes Dawlah are driven towards rape by theology and ideology. As has also been noted, Dawlah have a consistent track record of appropriating and revising ideology to fit their attendant conveniences. Much as a mass-decapitation-by-explosives—what one Islamist critic online sarcastically called the minhaj, or methodology, of gore entertainment franchises—was justified because it could serve the Dawlah’s psychological warfare needs, and much as adultery and retroactive takfir against the cheated-on spouse was justified because it could serve Dawlah’s plethora of lusty single fighters, so too has the collection of concubines. Moreover, given Dawlah’s history of nearly always justifying such stances after the fact, it is nearly certain that the “ideological” aspect was taken as an afterthought, to assure thirsty young rapists that their rape was not a crime and could be continued—rather than serving as an original ideological bedrock to commit crime.
This is further strengthened when one considers the historical use of rape as a weapon of war, in particular but hardly exclusively by non-state militias. Mass rape, in particular, assures the psychological breakdown of communities, particularly in villages and small towns. It traumatizes, sometimes beyond recovery, the victim and renders their family and community in a state of shock. Though perhaps the first to justify it by claiming to represent Islam, Dawlah are hardly alone in this. From militias, like Dawlah, alone—never mind state armies which themselves have a terrible record—recent systemic rapists include various militias in Congo’s bloody war, Serbian militias in the 1990s Balkans, shabiha paramilitaries in Syria, the Interehamwe genocidaires of Rwanda, the millennarians in Uganda’s LRA, together with others.
An example perhaps more resonant with Dawlah than any other comes from central Afghanistan during the 1990s, where opposed Hazara Hezb-e-Wahdat and Pakhtoun Ittihad-e-Islami militias systematically raped each other’s civilians as a means of cleansing and terror. The reason it resonates is that, like Dawlah, both groups portrayed an exclusivist self-image as mujahidin and often labelled their opponents as nonbelievers. Not as systematically extreme as Dawlah—indeed, they eventually coalesced around the Northern Front to fight the Taliban advance and now ironically act as members of the Afghanistan regime under the occupation—their opportunistic exclusivism and communalism was a smaller, temporary version of what Dawlah has now made infamous.
Nor is this an exclusively Muslim issue, far from it. Serb militias in the Balkans, fighting for the unity of Yugoslavia against purported foreign subversion; Russian soldiers in Chechnya, fighting to retrieve their country’s glory after the humiliation of 1990; Kivu militants in the Congo, purporting to defend Tutsi rights after the Rwanda genocide; Indian soldiers in Kashmir, fighting to crush a vilified insurgency; Colombian soldiers and paramilitaries against socialist guerrillas; each have used mass rape systemically and justified it as necessary for whatever cause they claim to support. With arms and assured impunity, extremists can act like animals. In Congo, for instance, the notorious militia commander Bosco Ntaganda assured his (largely underage) fighters that their weapons and status as “soldiers” was enough for them to do anything, including mass murder, rape and displacement, a near-identical method to Dabiq’s howls. The common factor linking such groups is the heady intoxication of self-proclaimed impunity—a very different tune to the constant introspection and discipline of any orthodox Islamic stance, and most Islamist political groups.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State is not a fundamentalist symptom of a hijacked tradition that requires ideological reform of Islam; indeed, it is quite the opposite: a brazenly modern, rejectionist and post-traditionist militia that has made a point of rejecting orthodox Islamic views even as it appropriates their title. To focus on ideology on what is a brash but not unfamiliar militia group of thugs is to miss the point and, therefore, bungle the diagnosis.
1) I would add that the Nusrah Front in Syria has been Al-Qaeda’s first “guerrilla militia” affiliate to attempt to govern any sort of territory, rather than the transnational terrorism that made their name, and if it succeeds there Al-Qaeda may transform in some respects to a conventional sort of warfare without dropping their hostility outright; this seems, however, unlikely to happen with the major stakes in Syria and Nusrah’s rare propensity for making unnecessary enemies. UPDATE NOTE: It has been pointed out that AQ’s eventual gameplan was indeed to control territory much as Nusrah does. But it was the pre-“militia” role that AQ espoused–attacks, for instance, against civilian centres such as most infamously the WTC and also the East Africa embassies–that were mostly condemned by Muslims, including those who may have sympathized with AQ’s stated anticolonial aims. It is also probably for this reason, combined with Nusrah’s military value and mixed-to-positive reputation within Syria’s opposition, that it has been seen as less controversial than AQ proper or other AQ affiliates
2) Dawlah’s links with the old Iraq Baath party, while occasionally oversimplified and exaggerated, also can have done little to help.
3) The “adultery” case reminds me of a bizarre incident from the 1980s in eastern Afghanistan, referenced in David Edwards’ Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad. It refers to a hardline young woman who warned her husband not to join the Khalqi communist army of the time, and that she would consider him a disbeliever and their marriage would be annulled automatically. The husband paid no heed and went to the army. Claiming her marriage invalid, the woman then absconded with an unmarried youth. By Islamic law, of course, despite her claims (and presumable conviction) to Islamic righteousness, her marriage was still intact; joining the communist army did not annull one’s Islam. The region, then under mujahidin control and officially Islamic law, therefore executed the woman even as she taunted them for cowardice and lack of faith. The woman’s lover managed to slip away. This story was narrated to Edwards by Samiullah Wakil, a mujahid field officer who sympathized with the woman.
4) It is also worth noting that Callimachi has supported the same self-styled Muslim reformists, such as Asra Nomani, who gleefully exploit Dawlah’s opportunistic revisionism to push their own, more conveniently pro-Western, opportunistic revisionism
Note: I originally wrote this for a publication on a news site, but they rejected it “for policy reasons”. I thought I’d best print it afore it becomes outdated.
Afghanistan: Lessons from the Past, Implications for the Future
2015 Copyright etc
With the eventual drawdown of the United States and NATO, the Afghan regime that rode to power on their backs in 2001 finds itself in a difficult position not dissimilar to that of the former USSR-imposed regime of Najibullah Ahmadzai after its patrons withdrew; as then-opposition leader Burhanuddin Rabbani remarked of Najibullah, Kabul’s regime is “like a suspended teardrop, about to fall.”
Yet Najibullah hung on to power surprisingly long after the Russians withdrew in 1989; it wasn’t until Apr 1992 that he was eventually ousted, bringing into place a dysfunctional “Islamic State of Afghanistan” officially under Burhanuddin’s leadership that from the outset was imperilled by vast mistrust between the commanders and leaders that had brought about Najibullah’s downfall. One important measure that Najibullah had taken in this respect was to encourage mistrust and divisions among his opponents, primarily by using a “carrot and stick” approach, offering amnesty to some mujahidin defectors while officially cutting back his regime’s notorious abuses, as well as his secret service playing off commanders against one another.
This was not, of course, simply Najibullah’s doing: a variation of competing sponsors—from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to Iran and the United States—as well as competition over finances, clans, ideology or simply ambitions meant that the mujahidin had, from the late 1980s onwards, begun to seriously fight amongst themselves. The longest-lasting such enmity emerged between Gulbadin Hekmatyar and Shah Massoud, who had already fought each other in northern Afghanistan well before Massoud marched into Kabul in Apr 1992, prompting a ferocious battle between the pair and their respective supporters that claimed thousands of lives.
That conflict, and the splintered Afghanistan that emerged, offers lessons for both today’s Kabul regime and the Taliban insurgency as well as their respective supporters. Kabul has, of course, long tried to wheedle away Taliban fighters from the front: former president Hamid Karzai famously called them his “brothers” and he tried to promise some amnesty; additionally, the United States and NATO—rather ironically given the tens of thousands of troops they maintained to prop up the Kabul regime—tried to portray the Taliban movement as simply an agent of Pakistan, downplaying the considerable support it enjoyed at rural Afghanistan and especially in the south and east. The links that the Taliban undoubtedly enjoyed with Pakistan’s army and intelligence were always equivocal, and based more on mutual interest and a common narrative of Islamic jihad against invaders rather than control by one party over the other.
In this respect the TTP insurgency that mushroomed in Pakistan from 2007 was an unlikely boon for the Kabul regime and its backers, and there is some evidence of links between Afghanistan’s secret service and members of the TTP insurgency, such as former TTP third-in-command Latifullah Mehsud (the enemy of my enemy, and so on). Pakistan, for its part, had overplayed its hand under Pervez Musharraf’s regime in trying to simultaenously satisfy and outsmart the United States: repeated incursions into the historically autonomous FATA northlands, which were meant to appease the United States’ calls to “do more” and which agitated more locals than they were worth, only galvanized the TTP narrative that Pakistan was an agent of the United States, killing FATA locals, and helped draw people towards the TTP, who quite ironically ignored the repeated orders of Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, to whom they claimed to answer, to focus on the invasion of Afghanistan. Not until Pakistan tried its own “carrot and stick” approach, drawing such commanders as Khalid Sajna away from the TTP’s hardline commanders Fazlullah Hayat and Abdul-Wali Omar, did the TTP begin to fragment.
For their part, the Taliban leadership want to avoid the same sort of splits in their ranks, especially as much of Afghanistan has come under their control. The belated exposure that their respected founder Mohammad Omar had passed away—perhaps as early as Apr 2013—was a potent attack at any faultlines. Omar’s eventual successor and confidante, Akhtar Mansoor, long faced accusations of ambition, especially by Taliban commanders who felt that his Ishaqzai clan was overrepresented in the leadership. One of these dissidents, former Kabul corps commander Abdul-Rauf Khadim, eventually split from the Taliban and this year joined the extremist group, self-styled “Islamic State of Iraq and Levant”, who have attemped to open a franchise in Afghanistan and wipe out the Taliban insurgency. It is quite likely that Khadim did this more over his dispute with the Ishaqzai leaders, especially Mansoor, than any ideological relation with ISIL, who have managed to alienate an impressive number of Islamic groups from Syria, Iraq, Libya, Chechnya as well as Afghanistan.
But even apart from defectors, there has been disquiet at Mansoor’s ascent. There has long been dispute, most notably with famous field commander Abdul-Qayum Zakir, over Mansoor’s proximity to Omar. Though Zakir promised to be “the most obedient Taliban” member if Mansoor was properly picked as leader, a number of Taliban officers have tried to push Omar’s eldest son Mohammad Yaaqub as successor. Yaaqub’s supporters criticized the selection process and claimed that many officers had simply not attended the shura where Mansoor had been picked. The discord appears serious enough for Omar’s brother, Abdul-Mannan Houtak, to publicly request a peaceful mediation.
Nonetheless, the fissure should not be overestimated. Tensions are not a novelty to the Taliban leadership—its founder, Omar, was reported to have had considerable differences with his second-in-command Mohammad Rabbani, while many prominent Taliban commanders conflicted during the 2000s—but a strength that they have traditionally shown is to overcome or suppress such rifts. One of the causes d’etre of the Taliban foundation had been to quell the autonomy of powerful commanders, so that even at the height of the tensions between Zakir and Mansoor the campaign continued largely unabated. The fact that Mansoor’s second-in-command was named Sirajuddin Haqqani, the aggressive Zadran commander whose father Jalaluddin Haqqani had been a formidable commander of both insurgencies against Russia and the United States and a pragmatist leader with experience of the mujahidin rifts in the 1990s, should probably help, as should the support of another prominent eastern commander, Abdul-Latif Mansoor. The fact that, unlike the competing sponsors of the mujahidin against Russia, the Taliban’s jihad has only a handful of foreign sponsors, particularly Pakistan, should also help.
However, Kabul is not out of cards. One chip is the strength of largely autonomous militias, especially that of Abdul-Rashid Dostum, whose appointment as Ghani’s vicepresident underscores the Afghan regime’s reliance on strongarm fighters. An infamously brutal predator, Dostum nonetheless has experience as a hefty paramilitary commander since he fought for the Russian occupation during the 1980s. During the 1990s he effectively ruled northern Afghanistan as an autonomous state separate from the rest, with its own currency and airlines, trading independently with the Central Asian states. The Junbash militias he commanded received the support of Central Asian leaders, especially Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimov with whom Dostum shares ethnicity, and it is clear that Ghani needs Dostum’s muscle more than vice versa.
Tajik-dominated former mujahidin militias have also proven hardened opponents against the Taliban advance. The most formidable such leader, arguably, is Ismail Khan, who unlike many such militia leaders seems to command genuine local support after decades as Herat’s effective ruler, without the reputation for gratutious violence than some others. Though Ismail’s tendency towards autocracy has provoked some dissent, as has a troubled relationship with Kabul, it is difficult to find another commander with a similar level of local legitimacy. Finally, a number of minority militias are likely to remain embittered opponents to the Taliban advance, with memories of a scorched-earth campaign in the Hazara-dominated Bamyan region. Again, the price for Kabul’s survival seems to be the return of often exceptionally vicious militias over a state army, many of them also favoured by the United States for their uncomplicated ruthlessness.
This runs the additional risk of an ethnicization and communalization of the conflict as occurred in the 1990s—though there are some Tajiks and Uzbeks in the Taliban army’s ranks, the vast majority remain Pashtun fighters and that is unlikely to change. Pro-regime Pashtuns, such as southern leader Gulagha Sherzai, have been widely loathed for thuggery; many of Sherzai’s abuses were responsible for provoking surrendered Taliban officers, including current leader Akhtar Mansoor and former commander Abdul-Ghani Baradar, back into the insurgency. Furthermore, Taliban commanders like Abdul-Majeed Nurzai and Abdul-Mannan Abdul-Rahim enjoy strong roots and considerable respect in such regions, as do Haqqanis, Mansoors and other mujahidin veterans in the east.
Another important card in Kabul’s pack is the occupation itself as a diplomatic tool and military force. Unlike the Russian withdrawal, done with overwhelming foreign pressure, NATO and the United States are likely to have a considerable residue in Afghanistan for several years. Having officially withdrawn in 2014, the United States nonetheless maintains a garrison of some ten thousand troops. Effectively, the Kabul regime has been forced into dependency on external benefactors—something that jars a considerable number of traditionally autonomous Afghans, even those opposed to the Taliban insurgency—but it remains an important chip.
It has been in an effort to prolong this occupation that Kabul has attempted to play up the threat of a Taliban alliance with the bloodthirsty ISIL group; an article published by the sympathetic RFERL website drew nearly exclusively on Afghan security officials to construct the case of such a partnership. In fact, quite the opposite has taken place: whatever ISIL recruits in Afghanistan have fought fiercely versus the Taliban fighters especially in the eastern province of Nangarhar. ISIL has been particularly bitter towards the Taliban movement because Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman Zawahiri, proclaimed his allegiance to Mohammad Omar, “Commander of the Faithful”; news of Omar’s death was met with gleeful derision by ISIL ideologues online, who accused Zawahiri of either dishonesty or allegiance to a corpse.
Perversely, therefore, the prospect of an ISIL outgrowth chimes in with two of Kabul’s short-term objectives. Firstly, ISIL are a direct challenge to the Taliban. Secondly, the longer ISIL stays the more inclined the United States and NATO will be to extend their stay in Afghanistan and thereby protect Kabul’s embattled regime. How much influence ISIL have is unclear; they have attracted headlines and a number of recruits, most notably the dissident commander Abdul-Rauf Khadim and the former TTP commander Saeed Khan-Orakzai, but their success on the battlefield has been minimal and, as elsewhere, enormously exaggerated by their active media efforts.
Whether or not ISIL present another significant force on the scene, however, the Afghan landscape has already become extremely complicated. What Afghanistan needs more than ever, is a decrease in equivocal external interference—most obviously the occupation itself, which is increasingly unpopular within the countries that constitute it, but also Pakistan’s support of the Taliban rebels and the support given by Iran, the United States and the Central Asian dictatorships for various pro-regime militias—and thereafter a reconciliation between the various groups. Thirty-six years of nearly endless conflict has exhausted the people, and reconciliation between enemies has a long tradition in Afghanistan. But the calculations and objectives of various actors have made the possibility of a reconciliation as unlikely as it is necessary.
The real concern of the Iran deal: Not Israel, not even close.
The finalization of the nuclear agreement between the United States and Iran at Vienna in Jul 2015 has provoked a number of contrasting reactions. On the one hand, Israel’s radical and increasingly buffoonish premier Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly sunk into the depths of comic-book despair: this is a historic surrender, he and his minions warn, a surrender of the West to the monolithic terrorism of the East: fervent nods of agreement come from his far-right constituency, both in Tel Aviv and Washington DC. On the other hand, advocates of the policy—themselves nearly as uncritical of its signatories as their opponents across the aisle are of Netanyahu—have cheered a historic win that ends a 36-year public impasse between Washington and Tehran. Both camps, focused on the personas of their leaders and the historical implications of imaginary civilizational clashes and imaginary legacies of peace, are utterly disconnected with the actual losers of the policy.
First, let us turn to the winners. Iran, whose foreign minister Javad Zarif has long been a shrewd and measured diplomat through the peaks and troughs of his country’s recent foreign relations, can certainly celebrate. Not because, as the grandiloquent cynic of a leader Ali Khamenei has often cynically boasted to his own gallery, Iran has somehow stuck a defiant finger against the forces of imperialism—indeed, the likeliness of an Iran-US deal has increased steadily under Khamenei’s publicly defiant, privately shrewd leadership. The two countries have faced a number of mutual enemies—as different as the thuggish Baath regime of Iraq and the severe Taliban regime of Afghanistan, and a number of regional movements including, most notably in recent times, the Syrian opposition to Iran-backed dictator Bashar Assad; in Syria, the United States’ policy shifted dramatically from initial lukewarm rhetorical support to bombing their fortifications in Idlib last autumn under the guise of hunting the entirely separate cast of fanatics in the self-styled Daulah caliphate. Long before the nuclear deal, Iran and the United States had uncertainly but increasingly firmly clasped hands behind closed doors even as the conservative Arab monarchies to whom the United States has long been affixed howled in indignation outside.
The real winners are Iran’s people, subject to cruel and pointless sanctions for a generation that subjected them to intense economic uncertainty under a cynical but basically remarkably functional regime. To the injury was added the sort of insult that makes one wonder what Iranians did to deserve such treatment: Iranians, regardless of politics, are an intensely proud people, yet for the better part of this generation they became caricature fanatics, terrorists, and extremists completely out of sync with reality in considerable sections of the global media (see Betty Mahmoody’s bilious memoirs for just one instance); the alternative view of the “good Iranian”—see celebrity Reza Farahan, who in a particularly heartfelt moment last year urged the United States to attack his country—was hardly more representative, and odiously similar to the treacherous Cuban exiles who have spent a lifetime urging the invasion of their own country.
For Iran’s people, this is a triumph, and so Zarif can be said to have done his duty as a representative. For Israel, despite the astoundingly tone-deaf propaganda filtering out of Netanyahu’s office, this is not exactly a disaster. Iran has never posed any sort of threat to Israel, except perhaps indirectly during the 2000s when they capitalized on Palestinian guerrillas’ desperation to play the generous donor—that relation, too, has expired once it was no longer needed and once Palestine’s dominant Hamas guerrillas proved far too close to the Syrian guerrillas Iran’s state media was castigating, Netanyahu-style, as homogenously evil terrorists. But for Israel, the only threat Iran poses is that of a competitor, another nuclear power in the region, and more than anything else it is fear of competition, not conquest, that has led Netanyahu to shriek monotously on about civilizational wars and terrorism for over twenty years, prior to which the governments of Israel and Iran had held their noses long enough to conspire, rhetoric never ceasing, against Iraq during the 1980-88 Gulf conflict. No, Israel and Iran have never posed any mutual threat, no matter how many Israeli politicians try to pose as betrayed victims. Neither the regimes of Iran nor Israel, opportunistic politicians both, has shied from rhetoric, and so we can expect a cacophony of white noise even now that may convince irregular observers of a mutual antipathy.
The real losers of the deal are the people of Syria, Iraq, and less directly but still considerably Yemen. Their oppressors’ backer now has nuclear capability, andW though it is unlikely to use it that does add definite clout to its bargaining ability. On the residents of Iraq and Syria, and to a large extent Yemen, Iran’s policy has been no less imperialistic and predatory than the regimes Khamenei so cynically condemns. Like Tel Aviv, Tehran has reduced the people of the region to a caricature of sectarian barbarians, in need of foreign domination to set them straight. Iranian attitudes towards Syrians (and, increasingly, those Palestinians such as Hamas not prudent enough to goose-step to its Syrian policy) are scarcely different to Israeli attitudes towards Palestinians: simply switch Israel’s “barbarian Arab” spectre for Iran’s “sectarian Wahhabi” spectre. As the bloody conflicts of the past four to five years have shown, it is not only Palestine but Syria and Iraq as well that have groaned under foreign assaults by, now, two nuclear powers.
The fact that the reportedly tough negotiations at Vienna had no reference to any withdrawal of support for the increased desperate and hated Assad, shoul hammer the final nail in the coffin of the canard that the United States supports Syria’s opposition. Faced by a pharaonic dictator at one side and gleefully gory fanatics on the other, both of which complement one another remarkably, the people of Syria will have a difficult time reminding anybody of their plight. This also holds for Iraq and Yemen, to varying degrees, where several millions of people have been basically wiped off considerations because of the purportedly greater relevance of the Iran deal and of the wildly overblown Daulah fanatics, who enjoy a symbiotic relationship with a largely alarmist and hysterical media that can’t get enough of their carefully broadcast atrocities. Again such a backdrop, millions of Middle Easterners, mostly Sunni Arab biut also including other denominations, are, to a geopolitical scene dominated by rhetoric and propaganda more than facts, irrelevant in the scheme of things. They now face two contemptuous, expansionist and imperialist nuclear powers in the region in addition to their own brutal regimes.
One last word, since the Sunni Arabs have come up. With two nuclear bullies—Israel and Iran—on the scene—it would be remiss not to mention the third, non-nuclear bully that has squandered away any advantage it may have had through clumsy politics and a desperation to control power and wealth. That is, of course, the range of Arab monarchies and those in between (with the qualified exception of Qatar, whose foreign policy and maneouvres have largely been better), who protested so volubly against Iran’s nuclear deal and effectively cut themselves out of any influence in the process; who put more energy into overthrowing a legitimate government in Egypt and financing its thuggish replacement than they ever did, rhetoric aside, for their brothers in Syria and Iraq; who bought millions of dollars of arms but have proven exceptionally clumsy at their usage, save bombarding the same spots in Yemen for a season to make a point against a Houthi threat their own policies helped spawn. Iran and Israel, contemptibly contemptuous of as they are, have and claim no formal obligations towards Arabs; nor does the United States, as tempting as it is to blame Barack Obama for the betrayal of millions of people from Egypt to Syria. The Arab monarchies at least claim leadership, and they have through a mixture of selfishness, short-sightedness and greed failed. This month Saudi Arabia’s veteran foreign minister, Saud Faisal, whose father Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz enjoyed a rare reputation in the Muslim world, passed away. On recent evidence—unlike Zarif and even the colourless John Kerry, both of whom at least served their constituencies if at the expense of others—Saud cannot be said to have done his job.
FRAGMENTATION AND RESTORATION IN THE EARLY ANDALUS STATE
The Umayyad conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century swept in another eight centuries of consolidated Muslim rule in the region. Given the lasting legacy of Muslim Andalusia it is surprising that early Muslim Andalusia was fraught with divisions between tribes, ethnicities, and political competitors. The roughly forty years of Umayyad caliphal rule in Andalus were marked by a tumultous, unpredictable political environment that eventually broke away from the central Islamic world.
Though conquest continued nearly unabated, with the exception of some isolated resistance in mountainous Asturias and the Pyrenees, and on the whole the Andalusian province contained many of the socioeconomic hallmarks—broad tolerance and coexistence and a fairly robust economy—of its more stable successors, the political leadership was prone to dramatic and often stark changes. In the 730s, the Umayyads reached the peak of their incursions into Europe; in the 740s, the province fell prey to revolts and eventual secession, while the 750s were marked by an ongoing struggle between various emirs for control that finally resulted in the reemergence of the Umayyad family at the helm of an emirate.
Part of the cause of this political instability lay in the diverse geography and makeup of Iberia, with mountains, plains, forests, deserts, rivers and valleys ensconced each with its own complex environment and inhabitants. Similarly, the heterogenous nature of the Iberian populace—which included Visigoths, Jews, Basques, Christians, and with the advent of the Umayyad conquest Arabs, Berbers, and Muslims thrown into the mix—lent itself to difficulty maintaining a consolidated central rule in the area.
But there was also instability inherent in the Umayyad caliphate and its various agents. The Umayyad caliphate had, controversially and rather bloodily, been established as a dynastic regime under the control of the Umayyad family in the second half of the seventh century1. Quite distinct from the idealized “Rightly Guided” caliphal age that preceded it, the Umayyad regime was therefore based around the Umayyad family and its dependents and supporters, who rose to an elite position often at the expense of other constituencies2.
With a few exceptions, such as the much admired caliph Umar b. Abdulaziz b. Marwan whose short rule included a sweeping number of reforms that were posthumously shelved, the Umayyad caliphate’s ruling family and its supporters and dependents, such as the Makhzoumis of Arabia, constituted the cream of the elite. On a lower scale were the tangential affiliates, dependents and allies of this elite—usually tribal confederations affiliated with the dominant rulers—and on the next scale other Arab confederations less reliable to the rulers. Respected Arab families who had once opposed or still posed a threat to the Umayyads, such as the families of the popular anti-Umayyad rebels Husain b. Ali b. Abi Talib and Abdullah b. Zubair b. Awwam, were systematically excluded from power and influence, though they were usually given token favours as a conciliatory gesture of caliphal generosity3.
On the next rung of the hierarchy were the non-Arab mawali, or clientele, of Arab conquerors who had been taken in, so to speak, by Arab tribes upon their conversion to Islam and at least officially affiliated with these families: they were either freeborn converts or freedmen: relevant to our study in particular are the Berbers, one of the first non-Arab peoples to accept Islam on a wide basis and a dominant force in the conquest of Iberia as well as the native populace of the Maghrib just a stone’s throw across the Gibraltar Straits. The rights of these mawali were officially to be respected as equal Muslims, but the Umayyad Caliphate’s care to look after its own affiliates tended to marginalize them at various junctures in its history. Concurrently, complaints about unfair treatment of fellow Muslims often underpinned rebel activity and would eventually help to bring about the downfall of the Umayyads in the mid-eighth century.
These dynamics played out in the conquest of Iberia and in the consequent power struggle. The conquest had been pioneered at the behest of Musa b. Nusair, an ambitious and influential governor of Maghrib of fairly obscure roots. A member of the Yamani confederacy’s Lakhmi tribe, Musa’s rapid promotion to the governorate of the Maghrib had been done at the exclusive behest of the Umayyad governor of Egypt, Abdulaziz b. Marwan b. Hakam, a brother of the caliph Abdulmalik. It was not without controversy; Musa’s predecessor, Hasan b. Nauman, had ably managed to quell a longstanding Berber revolt by a careful policy of Berber inclusion in the Umayyad army and government4.
Nonetheless, Musa b. Nusair continued and enhanced this same policy on unprecedented levels. More than any governor of the Maghrib, Musa encouraged proselytization of Islam and inclusion of Berbers in the Umayyad setup. Musa had a wide array of Berber mawalis who he appointed to important positions: most notable here was Tariq b. Ziad, the Berber commander of the army that attacked Iberia in 711. This may have been a byproduct of Musa’s own rather humble origins and an attempt to foster a power base independent of the traditional Umayyad elite in North Africa; in any case, when he armed and equipped Tariq’s Berber-dominated army for the expedition across the Gibraltar Straits, it was an unprecedented act in the Umayyad caliphate in that a non-Arab mawali population had its own effective army.5
This leap of faith, and the inevitable hostility it aroused from the entrenched Arab-dominant Umayyad army, may help to explain Musa b. Nusair’s less than appropriate response to Tariq b. Ziad’s decisive defeat of the Visigoth armies; according to reports the Maghribi governor belaboured and perhaps even lashed his triumphant officer with a whip6. Apparently Tariq had been sent as a vanguard commander, and his initiative in taking the Visigoths full-on and vanquishing them was not only a risk but also hurt Musa’s standing with the established elite. Given Musa’s ambitious plans of using Andalus as a springboard to attack the Byzantine Empire from the west7, he could not afford such a risk.
Though they proceeded quite cohesively thereon to conquer much of the peninsula thereon, there are numerous reports of tension between Musa b. Nusair and Tariq b. Ziad, some of which—like the tale of Prophet Solomon’s fabled table, the ownership over which they apparently quarrelled8—need not be taken literally so much as an example of this tension. Eventually both were recalled to Syria and consigned unkindly to the margins by the recently installed caliph, Sulaiman b. Abdulmalik b. Marwan, a less than fitting reward for the pair’s yeoman service9.
The animosity directed towards Musa b. Nusair by the nobility was now transferred towards his successor, Abdulaziz b. Musa b. Nusair. By most standards Abdulaziz had been remarkably successful; he completed the conquest of the peninsula, set up a system whereby Christians and Jews could practice their faith and customs under Muslim rule with a minor jizya tax in accordance with Islamic law10, and managed through skilful diplomacy to quell a revolt by a Visigothic commander, Theodemir (Toudmir in Arabic sources).11
This did not impress, and likely appeared to threaten, other leaders in the Muslim army, led once again by the Fihri commander Habib b. Abi Ubaidah b. Uqba. Complaining to the caliph, they raised the rather dubious claim that Abdulaziz b. Musa b. Nusair had come under the influence of his Christian wife, Egilon, widow of the last Visigothic leader Roderick, and that he was cultivating dangerous sympathies with the locals and entertaining royal ambitions. At length they convinced Sulaiman b. Abdulmalik b. Marwan into permitting the murder and replacement of Abdulaziz, done by Habib in 716.12 The popularity of Musa b. Nusair’s family was such among the mawali that Muslim chronicler Muhammad Ibn Qutia credits the Berbers explicitly with the appointment of Abdulaziz’s cousin, Ayub b. Habib, whose rule was shortlived13; it was caliph Sulaiman, Ibn Qutia writes and who we may safely assume had the support of Habib’s Arab faction, who sacked both the North African governor—Abdulaziz’s brother Abdullah b. Musa b. Nusair, also killed by Habib—and Ayub, thereby permanently seizing power from Musa’s family.14
The positions of the Arab nobility in the west rested largely on the uncertainty of the administrative structure in the western provinces of the Umayyad Caliphate. Unlike nearby Egypt, Iraq and Arabia, the administration of the western provinces was never stable. Initially North Africa, the first appendage, had been governed via the governor of Egypt, and then made a separate province through which Iberia was also governed. This helped the emirs in the Maghrib, particularly long-established families such as the Fihris, develop into a ruling class of their own with a fairly confrontational policy towards the locals and little oversight from the central Umayyad regime as to their activity. Though ambitious expeditions in the way of jihad continued, the burden of their expenses was levied on the non-Arab population, both Muslims and otherwise, who were subject to extortionate taxation. A particular complaint among fast-growing Berber Muslim communities was that despite their conversion and enrollment in the army, they were still often required to pay the jizya tax meant for non-Muslims, thereby giving them the burdens of both the Muslim and non-Muslim communities.15
An outstanding exception were the reforms of a shortlived but dynamic caliph, Umar b. Abdulaziz b. Marwan, who upon his instatement instituted a wide set of reforms that were seen as more authentically in line with Islamic law and fairer towards the Umayyads’ subjects16. When Umar took over the Maghrib and Andalus were in a state of flux; the unpopular Maghribi governor Muhammad b. Yazid had installed harsh taxation to pay for ambitious but largely unsuccessful northward campaigns in Spain by his Andalusian deputy Hurr b. Abdurrahman17. Umar instilled two important changes, making both Andalus and the Maghrib separate provinces with separate governments directly overseen by the central regime, and appointing to their respective posts a pair of handpicked reformers, Samh b. Malik and Ismail b. Abdullah b. Dinar, both of whom earned widespread respect for their proselytization and outreach to the Berber mawali populace, the abolition of unpopular taxation, and competent administration.
Ismail b. Abdullah b. Dinar’s appointment in the Maghrib would have particularly rankled the former ruling class; his grandfather, Abu Muhajir Dinar, had been a freedman from the mawali and both a colleague and longtime opponent of the Fihri conqueror Uqba b. Nafi18. Uqba’s descendants the Fihri family, as well as others, had hitherto benefited directly from their implementation of a confrontational policy largely tolerated by former caliphs, but this must have alienated the non-Arab mawalis and probably contributed to tensions within the army. Notably, despite the decrease in tax revenues, the Umayyad army’s performance actually improved during the shortlived regime of Umar b. Abdulaziz b. Marwan; by 721, Samh b. Malik had established a foothold in Septimania and conducted a siege against the Frankish duke Odo at Toulouse, where he was killed19. By now Umar had also expired—popularly suspected of poison at the behest of the embittered nobility20—and the policy did not long outlive him. The incoming caliph, Yazid II b. Abdulmalik b. Marwan, quickly put Andalus back under North African control, appointing his own governor, Bishar b. Safwan, who in turn appointed Anbasa b. Suhaim as governor of Andalus.21
Anbasa b. Suhaim adopted a novel policy of revenue collection, not from Muslim mawalis this time–presumably more watchful over their rights now–but the seizure of property and land from Christians and Jews, or at least those in Septimania where the campaigns continued22. Anbasa faced a challenge not from aggrieved Muslim soldiers but from a Christian rebel named Pelagius, sheltered in the highlands of Asturias. Setting up a small principality there, Pelagius managed to defeat several Umayyad expeditions and the government eventually appears to have assumed it was not worthwhile to pursue further conflict in difficult terrain, tending to leave him alone.23
It is difficult to ascertain whether Pelagius’ exploits enjoyed any sympathy amid the Christians under Umayyad rule, though he certainly later became legendary as a champion of Christendom24, but in any case Anbasa b. Suhaim’s policy was controversial enough that his successor, Yahya b. Salamah, immediately reversed it and restored the property and rights of the non-Muslims25. This in turn probably antagonized the Muslims, particularly the frontier troops, and a flurry of shortlived governors followed Yahya in the late 720s until the appointment of a respected commander, Abdurrahman b. Abdullah. Abdurrahman, formerly a second-in-command to Samh b. Malik, enjoyed a reputation for competence and fairness26. But nonetheless Abdurrahman too faced a number of challenges, and much emphasis has been laid on the caliphal certificate he carried to leverage his leadership with the competing factions27.
The most immediate challenge was that of a rebel Berber secessionist, Uthman b. Nisa, usually known as Munuza in Spanish chronicles. It is unclear if Uthman enjoyed wide support among the Berbers of Andalus or if he represented only himself and his faction, but in any case he seems to have been a longtime upstart who has tentatively been linked with Pelagius’ Asturias revolt28. Based in Catalonia, Uthman linked with the ruler of Aquitaine, Odo, who wanted autonomy from the Merovingian regime that had been coopted by the upstart Charles Martel29. Common interest against larger neighbours appears to have bound the pair more than anything else, but in 731 Abdurrahman b. Abdullah led a huge army—which indicates both Berber and Arab participation—to kill Uthman.
Having disposed of the rebels, Abdurrahman b. Abdullah continued northwards, defeating Odo’s advance force—“only God knows the number of the slain,” Isidorus Pacensis lamented30. Circumstances forcecd Odo, already a survivor of the siege of Toulouse ten years earlier, to appeal to his former enemy Charles Martel, who seized the opportunity to boost his prestige as a defender of Christendom. Charles famously routed the Umayyad army at Tours, propelling him to this status in what has been one of the more exaggerated military results in history. The indiscipline of the Umayyad army also contributed—when the Franks slew commander Abdurrahman, they fell into squabbles about the replacement as well as the share of spoils from the campaign31, further helping Charles to scatter them back south. While by no means as cataclysmic an event as has been popularly rendered32, the battle marked the northernmost penetration of the Umayyads into Europe and, more relevant to this study, exposed again the fragmentation within the Umayyads’ ranks.
The next governor, Abdulmalik b. Qatan b. Isma of the Fihri clan, emerged as a key player in the fragmentation of Umayyad Andalus from the caliphate. Though abruptly stripped of his post and arrested after another failed foray across the Pyrenees33, Abdulmalik craftily played different sides of the Muslim rule in Andalus against one another. As a longtime campaigner Abdulmalik apparently had more of an ear to other factions’ dissatisfactions than previous leaders from the Fihri family, and stinging from his summary dismissal he briefly managed to manipulate them to seize power again.
Abdulmalik b. Qatan b. Isma’s replacement, Uqba b. Hajjaj, was an energetic campaigner but had, importantly, been appointed by the unpopular governor of North Africa, Ubaidullah b. Habhab, the latest in a series of inflammatory governors. Perhaps conscious of his own mawali ancestry, Ubaidullah had fattened the ruling class significantly at the expense of the Maghribi mawali, levying extortionate taxation and undoing many of the tentative reforms pursued earlier. This provoked a massive revolt by the Berbers, only exacerbated by a ruthless and indiscriminate crackdown34, in North Africa from 740. The rebels were rather unconvincingly termed as fanatic kharijis, after the breakaway sect in Islam’s first internal conflict, but as Khalid Blankinship demonstrates this was probably a convenient term to tar any dissidents with, since many of the rebels appear to have been perfectly orthodox Muslims with political grievances35. In any case, the rebellion quickly swept the Maghrib, forcing the embattled caliph Hisham b. Abdulmalik b. Marwan to send a massive influx of Syrian troopers into the fray.
The revolt in North Africa forced Uqba b. Hajjaj to depart to help put it down, and in his absence Abdulmalik b. Qatan b. Isma helped instigate another revolt in Andalus. This shows that there continued to be underlying tensions and probably some cross-Gibraltar solidarity between the Berbers of Andalus and the Berbers in the Maghrib. More cogently, however, Abdulmalik exploited the sudden influx of Syrians into North Africa as a threat to both the Berbers and the Arabs, mostly from the opposed Yamani background, in Andalus, so while the revolt was led by Berbers it was a joint effort to safeguard their perceived interests36. So committed was Abdulmalik to this policy that he rebuffed a desperate plea for assistance from the besieged Syrian commander in Tangiers, Balj b. Bishar, and even publicly tortured to death a merchant named Zaid b. Amr, who had violated his embargo by sending supplies to Tangiers37.
But the tenuousness of Abdulmalik b. Qatan b. Isma’s own links with the Andalusian Berbers was abruptly shown when in 743 the Berbers promptly rebelled against him, swiftly turning the tables and showing that perhaps they did not equate their interests with the interests of the Arab leaders in Andalus. The North African revolt having by now been quelled with enormous difficulty, Balj b. Bishar—now appointed an interim governor for Andalus—crossed the channel. Balj routed Abdulmalik and publicly executed him at Cordoba.38
This dizzying array of events show that by now, the 740s, the protagonists in Andalus appear to have taken on three broad categories, constantly shifting. The first constituted the newly arrived Syrians, whose perceived haughtiness and strain on resources made them unwelcome. The second was the settled Arab population of Andalus, which was largely of Qahtanite Yemeni stock and which took, notably, to calling itself baladis, roughly translatable in this context to people of the land39, who had been consigned to the same status as the non-Arab mawalis while the Syrians took over the top rung. The third were the Berbers, constantly in flux, but apparently more disposed towards the familiar settled Arabs than the newcomers. Muhammad Ibn Qutia unites these last two factions despite their shaky history; according to this account, this coalition informed the Syrians: “Our country is too small, even for us—get out!”40
The settled Arabs having been replaced by Balj b. Bishar, Abdulmalik b. Qatan’s family revolted in the north, led by the frontier commander Abdurrahman b. Alqama. A sharpshooter with the bow, Abdurrahman reportedly personally shot dead Balj in their confrontation at Huelva41. The Umayyads now settled for a more palatable replacement, Thaalabah b. Salamah, a reliable second-in-command to Balj b. Bishar who nonetheless came of the Yemeni stock to which many baladis belonged. This did not, however, appease the rebels.
Eventually, the caliph Hisham b. Abdulmalik b. Marwan appointed a pair of capable and evenhanded Yemenis, to the Maghrib Hanzala b. Safwan—a veteran of the difficult conflict against the Berber rebels, who had tried to reform the Maghribi government similarly to Musa b. Nusair a generation earlier—and to Andalus Husam b. Darrar. In Andalus, Husam saw off his predecessors and assigned the newcomers to specific parts of Andalus—the Damascene Syrians to Elvira for instance—in order to overcome their disputes; the settlement was paid by the jizya revenues in order to relieve any of the quarrelling factions.42
The new arrangements, which restored temporary order, did not last long, however. The last major enduring prejudice of the Umayyad caliphate, the conflict between the clan confederations of Mudar and Yaman, came back to remove the last vestiges of caliphal rule in Andalus. This conflict had underpinned many of the feuds between the tribes. In northern Spain, the Mudari partisan Sumail b. Hatim urged a revolt with a figurehead from the Fihri family, Yusuf b. Abdurrahman b. Abi Ubaidah43. This coincided with a coup in North Africa led by another Fihri leader, Habib b. Abi Ubaidah b. Uqba’s son Abdurrahman, but the Fihri revolts appear not to have been coordinated or related except in that Abdurrahman b. Habib b. Abi Ubaidah’s revolt threw off the last North African jurisdiction over Andalus44. Sumail executed Husam b. Darrar and installed Yusuf, a leader not without redemptive qualities but with a shaky hold on power largely dependent on the sufferance of Sumail’s Mudari kinsmen.
Yusuf b. Abdurrahman b. Abi Ubaidah’s Cordoban state was officially autonomous by 750, by when the Umayyad caliphate had itself bloodily collapsed and its scions massacred45. But the Andalusian ruler’s vindictive right-hand man Sumail b. Hatim quickly alienated various factions who found an alternative leader in Abdurrahman b. Muawiah b. Hisham, a grandson of caliph Hisham b. Abdulmalik b. Marwan. This daring young survivor of the Umayyads’ purge soon posed an unexpected threat that eventually eclipsed the longer-established leadership in Andalus. Abdurrahman, whose mother was a Berber and who had had help in his flight from Syria by Berbers in North Africa46, managed to draw in the support of Berbers, Yemeni partisans and even some Mudari partisans, such as Husain b. Dujann, who were opposed to Sumail and Yusuf’s rule47. They also included important army commanders linked with the Umayyad family—Yusuf b. Bakht, Abdullah b. Khalid and Ubaidullah b. Uthman—whose defections proved important for Abdurrahman to defeat Yusuf48. Abdurrahman eventually established his own family’s dynasty in a thirty-year period, but the difficulty involved therein indicates that even such a talented politician would have immense trouble unifying the diverse stretches of Muslim Andalus.
The struggles in early Muslim Andalus under the Umayyad Caliphate rose from several factors. These included Andalus’ typically subservient role as an appendage of the Maghrib province, the typical unaccountability that prevailed in its ruling class, the privileges of Arabs over non-Arabs intrinsic to the Umayyad system and the struggles between Arabs of various clans. Only under specific governors were polarizing policies reformed, but it could occur only on the sufferance of powerful settler families such as the Fihris who tended to prioritize their own privileges. The resultant confusion threw the politics of Umayyad Andalus into turbulence, and it was not until the Umayyad emirate, independent of the caliphate, that these divisions were finally navigated in order to set up an independent and strong principality.
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Vol. 19. The Caliphate of Yazid b. Mu’awiyah, tr. Howard, I. (1990).
Vol. 23. The Zenith of the Marwanid House, tr. Hinds, M. (1990)
Vol. 24. The Empire in Transition, tr. Powers, S. (1989).
Vol. 27: The Abbasid Revolution, tr. J. Williams (1990).
EXIT THE IMPROBABLE SURVIVOR
If Izzet Ibrahim Khalil Duri, longtime deputy to Saddam Hussein and leader of the Naqshband Army in Iraq, has really been slain today, it marks the end of a long, improbable and even astounding career.
There was no reason to presume that Izzet Ibrahim would long outlive his longtime patron Saddam Hussein. A nearly illiterate loyalist from an impoverished background—his father, Ibrahim Khalil, had sold ice blocks in Iraq’s Salahuddin Province—with no power base of his own, it was Izzet’s sheer reliability—with no power base of his own, Izzet’s position banked heavily on Saddam—that had recommended him to become a top henchman of the Baathist dictator for forty years. For a backward rube from rural central Iraq, clientele with Saddam was a road to social and economic promotion.
Sick and frail by the time the United States conquered Iraq in 2003, Izzet was the most wanted man in Iraq—beating, for a time, even the infamous Al-Qaeda in Iraq (IS) founder Abu Musab Zarqawi—for the vast majority of the war, beating even Al-Qaeda ideologues and Baath veterans. How did he survive? The record suggests a far cleverer, more versatile character than could ever have been expected from the bony, red-mustached officer seen in a stiff salute.
Strangely in a country where the Baath came to infiltrate everything from the most rudimentary profession to the most committed ideologue, Izzet had not been a registered member of the party, strictly speaking: certainly he shares none of the party titles enjoyed by other longtime regime leaders, such as Taha Ramadan, Khairi-Sabahi Ahmed and Chemical Ali Majid. Apparently Saddam was confident enough that his client and henchman would not waver that he never bothered. Izzet’s position was, instead, vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, a body subordinate to the Baath. It was a post he held for over thirty years; on the way he survived his daughter’s failed marriage with Saddam’s thuggish son, Uday, whose divorce does not seem to have dented Izzet’s own stakes. While he cannot be plausibly exempted from the collective crimes of the regime, Izzet oddly appears in very few of the recorded Baath abuses—in which high-ranked henchmen like Chemical Ali, Taha Ramadan, Hussein Kamel and others regularly featured. The likeliest explanation is that, like defence minister Sultan Hashim and Adnan Tulfah, Izzet played the “sympathetic foil” role in the regime: unlike Sultan and Adnan, however, both respected soldiers whose careers had progressed on their professional merits, Izzet had been a longtime and unquestioning officer for Saddam.
Izzet and Ramadan had assisted Saddam in his gradual takeover of the Baath Party under the military dictator, Ahmed Bakar, under whose regime the civilian wing of the Baath—bolstered with strongarm militias from which Saddam himself had come—marginalized the Baathists in the army, led by Salih Ammash and Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar, both eventually purged before Saddam formally seized power in 1979. As Saddam’s deputy Izzet oversaw the rise of several paramilitaries loyal to the regime. Saddam liked to play soldier—for a man who never joined the army, the Baathist dictator always swaggered about in fatigues—and he promoted several of his colleagues, including Izzet, to the rank of commanders, much to the chagrin of career soldiers.
Izzet’s principal role during the 1980s war with Iran was in the Kurdish north, where he had longtime contacts, particularly among the Naqshbandi Sufi brotherhood. The Baath regime was a secular one, but as has only occasionally been noted Izzet—both conservative and, apparently, terribly traditionalist—was one of its few openly pietistic figures. Izzet also owned substantial holdings in the north that had been formally appropriated by the regime, and he often leveraged these into influence. Quietly, this influence appears to have increased to the extent that Izzet managed to find a haven after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Consequently, Izzet was one of the very few regime members who opposed the massacre of the Kurds by 1988—an objection that temporarily saw him sidelined in the late 1980s in favour of Saddam’s kinsman, the callous Chemical Ali—though he wasn’t above threatening a repeat of the massacre in 1991, when the Kurds threatened to and did break away.
That was in the wake of the swift, devastating 1990-91 war with the United States over Kuwait. Just hours before Iraq invaded and conquered Kuwait, Izzet had in fact hammered out an agreement, with a genial handshake flung in for effect, with the Kuwaiti royalist Saad Sabah in Jeddah. It is unclear whether this was a calculated ruse on Izzet’s part or if he had simply not been informed, but in any case the invasion backfired spectacularly, playing right into the hands of a hawkish Washington establishment and triggering one of the most one-sided wars in history that drove Iraq out and led to a decade of sanctions, poverty, aerial siege and misery that crippled ordinary Iraqis even as Saddam and his henchmen railed anti-imperialist slogans from the comfort of their largely unaffected palaces.
In an effort to capitalize on growing outrage in the Muslim world at the invasion and to monitor an increased religiosity among its citizens, the Baath regime adopted a more Islamic overtone in the 1990s. Ever the pietistic Sufi, Izzet led this effort, leveraging his political connections into a controversial fast-tracked certificate from shaikhs in the north and chairing an Islamic Congress at Baghdad in 1993. It has generally been suspected that the regime’s appeals to pietism were a cynical exploitation—which may or mayn’t hold—but in Izzet’s case, he had long been both a practicing Muslim and a superstitious conservative character. A botched attempt on his life at Karbala in 1998 further seems to have convinced Izzet that Allah had protected him for a purpose.
With that background, it is perhaps unsurprising that Izzet quickly found refuge during the 2003 conquest of Iraq, where his zone command in the north quickly melted against persistent aerial bombardment. Nonetheless, as a septuagenarian stricken with illness and a price on his scalp, it is remarkable that Izzet survived as long as he did. The brutal regime had been hated even by most insurgents, and Izzet had been a longtime accomplice. It appears that Izzet had a far more reliable power base than had been expected, perhaps as the foil to the brutal Chemical Ali and other lieutenants of the regime. It was also one of the more important bridges between the secularists and Islamists whose relationship so confounded analysts of the insurgency.
The younger, harder Baathists were led mainly by Khairi-Sabahi Ahmed, who spent the war in Damascus on the sufferance of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. The Syrian and Iraqi regimes, though both Baathists, had long been enemies, and Izzet’s hatred and suspicion as an old-school Sunni nationalist of the Iranians with whom the Syrians were linked meant he kept his distance. This itself led to a split in the regime loyalist ranks, with Izzet’s base in north-central Iraq and Sabahi’s across the border in Syria; they coordinated as did most insurgents at that point, but were distinct. By 2004-05, the abuses of the counterinsurgency, epitomized by the siege of Fallujah but also by the brutality of the security services, had led to increased animosity against the occupation. Sufi leaders such as Abdullah Mustafa, the Irbil leader of the Naqshbandi Army, and Abdul-Rahim Qadiri, leader of the Qadiri order in Karkuk, announced jihad against the occupation. Particularly in northern and central Iraq, Izzet’s Naqshbandis enjoyed far more currency than the discredited and suspected Baathists in Syria.
How exactly Izzet survived and led the insurgency will probably not be publicly known for years. Around the former regime stronghold of Takrit, his former bodyguards Basim Intu and Qasim Intu, and his nephew Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim, were suspected, as of 2005, of financing the insurgency. Periodically proclaimed dead only to reappear in a murky 2013 clip, he relied largely on the support of field officers such as the powerful field commander Abdul-Baqi Saadoun, who by 2014 had become enough of a threat that Izzet sacked him. Though the explosive, controversial and unabashedly sectarian Al-Qaeda in Iraq (later IS) were an outsized outlier among the rebel ranks, often fighting with other rebels and flinging accusations of heresy or treachery, by 2014 Iraq’s mainstream Sunni Arab opposition had become desperate enough that, in a fit of what intelligence expert Malcolm Nance pithily termed “swallowing antifreeze”, they supported a massive IS offensive led by Adnan Najam and Tarkhan Umar that seized Mosul and spread from there. Their leader, Abu Dua Baghdadi, announced himself caliph in the summer of 2014 and drew an influx of recruits attracted by the slogans IS espoused and by its sudden burst of momentum.
The Naqshbandis’ relations with IS were ambiguous; they supported its conquest of 2014, yet by 2015 its open sadism and millenarian nihilism—often openly flouting the same Islamic principles it so stridently screeched—forced Izzet to publicly distance the Naqshbandis from their allies. It was one of the last moves, if reports are to be believed, that the grizzled old campaigner ever made. In Apr 2015 the offensive against the rebels reportedly slew Izzet, ending at long last an unexpectedly resilient, resourceful and violent career that varied from a loyalist henchman in a brutal totalitarian regime to a wily insurgent leader, and, once relieved of the shadow of his longtime master, an unlikely survivor.
Ibrahim Moiz, 2015
Note: Citations to follow InshaAllah
Note: I have yet to update the citations, they will follow shortly InshaAllah.
2015 Copyright etc
The rapid rise of the fanatical Islamic State in 2014 to control a broad, oil-rich region in the heart of the north-central Jazira has provoked serious shifts. A weakened Iraqi regime largely propped up by Iran and the United States has seen a change of face, with the suave Haider Abadi replacing his divisive predecessor Nouri Maliki, even as many Maliki-age policies continue unabated. Iraqi Kurdistan, practically independent, has expanded to engulf its prize of Kirkuk, the oil-rich northern town long coveted by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. An effort to reconcile publicly with Iran, long a sparring partner who shares a number of common enemies, by the United States has come just as a number of fiercely anti-Iran Iraqi Sunnis have gathered under the Islamic State’s banner.
This last development has been especially surprising considering the short-lived but much-publicized American thaw with sections of the predominantly Sunni Iraqi insurgents in 2006-08, which has been credited with marginalizing Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia—the Islamic State’s previous title. Even Sunni Arab leaders “vetted” by the United States, including longtime Iraqi deputy leader Tariq Hashimi—hounded into a Turkish exile as soon as the Americans officially withdrew from Iraq in 2011—and Riyad Asaad, the founder and former commander of the Free Syria Army, have publicly claimed that the Islamic State, despite its well-known fanaticism and moral absolutism, is a better option than having to live under a purportedly sectarian, Iranian-controlled Iraqi state. In return, conservative American hawks like John McCain have asserted that the 2011 American withdrawal exposed the Sunnis to a vindictive Shia regime.
McCain’s line of reasoning is typical of the mentality that marked American beltway talk in 2007-08, when the much-celebrated but highly dubious general David Petraeus successfully called for a “surge” that was mildly successful in the short term but hailed by a virtual industry of sycophantic hangers-on in the press as a roaring success that rescued the American occupation from the brink of failure. The logic behind the “surge” tried to reconcile both leftist critiques of the war and rightist support by arguing that, while the rightists had been correct to remove Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, they handled the subsequent occupation badly and alienated Iraqis partly because of insufficient troop levels, an argument that had been posed prior to the war by ostensible critic, the army’s deputy leader Eric Shinseki. The invocation of Shinseki and the idea that Iraqis wanted the Americans to stay—also pushed by largely unrepresentative Iraqi puppets whose very positions depended on American support and who thereby had a very clear but undeclared vested interest in their stance—convinced liberals that the surge was the correct path, and its myth endured so long that it was subsequently transferred, completely unsuccessfully, to Afghanistan.
McCain and other hawks argue that the Americans did not sufficiently guard against Iranian intrigue to assure the Sunni Arabs, who then went over to join the Islamic State. There is some truth here, but highly manipulated and selective. It is certainly true that Iranian influence in the Iraqi government, particularly epitomized by the utterly callous Badr Corps that dominated the interior ministry, was a bane for most Sunni Arabs. But the idea that American surges could somehow help amend the situation is also highly questionable. History shows not that America was a safeguard versus sectarianism in the Iraqi regime, but to the contrary that the Americans pioneered and fostered sectarianism, under the guise of counterinsurgency, as much as Iran.
Rewind to 2003. When the American army, abetted significantly by the British army, invaded Iraq, law and order broke down completely. This was particularly exacerbated by the ignorant, stubborn American viceroy Paul Bremer III, a Bush lackey who immediately fired the entire half-a-million-man Iraqi army in a provocative move that saw the insurgency arise. Over the next year Bremer outsourced security and military operations to a number of callous and unaccountable mercenary conglomerates like Blackwater, who operated far more thuggishly than the official army and were widely resented. Meanwhile, the blanket privatization of Iraq’s long-state-dominated economy saw infrastructure collapse. By the time he scurried out of Iraq in the summer of 2004, Bremer had managed to alienate nearly everybody both in Iraq and large segments of the United States regime.
Initially dismissed as Baathist “deadenders” by the hawkish American defence minister Donald Rumsfeld, the insurgency was actually dominated by a mishmash of mostly but not exclusively Sunnis, many of them sidelined by the occupation, many of them former army men and many of them Islamists of various stripes from both within and without Iraq. By late 2003 the public focus had shifted from the shrinking Baath role to the founder of what would become the Islamic State, a shadowy Jordanian militant named Abu Musab Nazzal-Zarqawi. A lifelong troublemaker who had taken advantage of Jordanian ruler Abdallah II’s amnesty in 1999 to travel to Afghanistan, Nazzal had in fact been turned down by Al-Qaeda’s leadership, which suspected him as a Jordanian mole and were also unsympathetic to his virulent hatred of Shias. Like many conservative Sunnis, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri considered Shias a deviant misguided sect, but they did not share Nazzal’s fanatical hatred of Shias; they had contacts with Iran like Mustafa Hamid, for instance, and their primary focus was to attack the United States. By contrast, Nazzal’s ideology focused overwhelmingly on purging what he considered a cowardly, treacherous fifth column from the Muslim world.
Banished to the western Afghan town of Herat, Nazzal escaped after a brief struggle when the United States invaded, and—apparently via Iran, ironically—entered northern Iraq, where a small but ferocious Islamist Kurd militia called Ansar-ul-Islam, which had cordial informal relations with Al-Qaeda but no operational coordination, was fighting on the eastern border against the secular Kurd parties that had set up an autonomous, pro-Western region there. Though Ansar-ul-Islam welcomed support, they—even more so than Al-Qaeda—had cordial relations by necessity if nothing else with an Iranian state just across the border, and fairly soon Nazzal and a coterie of like-minded militants had formed a separate militia that was virtually unknown outside their small circle.
More than anything, it was media coverage and official American policy that sent this tiny militia catapulting into stardom. In his Feb 2003 address to the United Nations Security Council, American state minister Colin Powell erroneously marked out Abu Musab Nazzal as the missing link between Iraq’s Baath regime and Al-Qaeda, neither of which had actually accepted Nazzal at the time. Nonetheless, Nazzal’s profile shot up as a result and he soon displayed a talent for headline-seizing stunts that has carried on to his successors in the current Islamic State. A series of bombs in Baghdad, one of which killed the capable ambassador United Nations ambassador Sergio Vieiro, late in the 2003 summer were claimed by Nazzal. In 2004, Nazzal abducted an American journalist, Nicholas Berg, in Mosul—nothing new in itself, except that Nazzal gruesomely decapitated him on tape in another trademark of the Islamic State. The American army and the media, thirsty for an identifiable and sinister enemy, quickly latched onto Nazzal as their target.
Throughout 2004 and 2005, a dizzying number of captured Iraqi insurgents—ranging from Ansar-ul-Islam and Ansar-ul-Sunnah to Islamic Army of Iraq and Army of Muhammad (may Allah bestow peace and blessings on His prophet)—were captured and publicly identified by the occupation as “lieutenants of Zarqawi”. For the occupation and its shaky client regime, the attribution to Zarqawi aimed at both Iraqi and American audiences: firstly, it could discredit the entire Iraqi insurgency as a product of foreign sectarian fanatics, and secondly, it could point to the apparent domination of brutal fanatics as a sign that Iraq was, no matter the existence of “weapons of mass destructions”, now a major arena in the “war on terror”.
Many insurgents would themselves express surprise and even doubt at the apparent preponderance of Zarqawi. A Baathist leader, Majid Qaoud, scoffed, “Does it not occur to you that he might be a convenient invention? The embodiment of evil, one of those things of which the Americans are so fond?” Qaoud, a sheikh from the insurgent hotbed of Rimadi, declared, “Neither I nor my relatives have ever seen this al-Zarqawi fellow.” Even years later, Sahwa leaders—Sunni tribesmen who switched sides—would pose the question to their new American patrons, though in more discreet, roundabout matter. As late as 2005, the Shia dissident leader Muqtada Sadr proclaimed that Zarqawi was an American fiction designed to sow roots in the insurgency.
There is no evidence to credence these claims, but it is certainly true that nearly every move the Americans made in the early years of the insurgency benefited Abu Musab Nazzal, and that the idea of the murderous Jordanian leader’s domination of . Even as they cracked down on separate Islamists and tribesmen in Mosul, Rimadi, Fallujah and Samarra, the Americans officially claimed that the majority of their targets were Zarqawi’s men.
In the summer of 2004, the situation was especially stark. A broad coalition of insurgents seized the town of Fallujah; their official leaders were Abdullah Jannabi, Zafar Ubaidi and Omar Hadid: Abdullah and Zafar were local Islamic preachers while Hadid shared a strikingly similar background—petty criminal turned born-again Muslim and influential Islamist commander—but no concrete links of any sort with Abu Musab Nazzal-Zarqawi. There was an important supporter of Nazzal—Omar Jumaa, a severe ideologue who had helped found the tiny militia—in Fallujah, but this was not unusual in the pell-mell early years of the insurgency, and at any rate an airstrike would take out Jumaa in Sept 2004.
On its own, the American army had few qualms about attacking Fallujah. But they also faced another public crisis further south: the town of Najaf, one of the most important sites for Shias, had been taken over by Muqtada Sadr. While most Shia clerics like Abdul-Aziz Hakim and Ali Sistani had prudently tried not to appear overly sympathetic to the United States that had bombarded their oppressor out of power, Sadr was unusual in that—as a scruffy, angry young man whose apparent courage and dedication inspired hundreds of followers—he was totally opposed to the occupation, and he had an important sympathizer in the regime, national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie.
In that early stage, too, Sadr expressed solidarity with his “Sunni brothers”—a line he would later withdraw when sectarianism grew rampant—and at least some Sunni insurgents sympathized with him. Unnamed secularists declared in a 2004 interview, “Contrary to what you imagine in the West, there is no fratricide war in Iraq…the young Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr…is, likely ourselves, in favour of the unity of the Iraqi people….We support him from a tactical and a logisticial perspective.” Nor was this an exclusively secularist perspective. Two other notable Sunni Islamists of the ultraorthodox Sunni Salafist school, which is often very suspicious of Shias, Najamuddin Krakar—formerly head of the Ansar-ul-Islam Kurds but then in Norway—and Mahdi Sumaidai, a Mosul Islamic preacher, also avowed their solidarity with Shias who rebelled. The top American commander in Iraq at the time, Ricardo Sanchez, believed, “There is a linkage that may be occurring at the lowest levels between the Sunni and the Shia. We have to work very hard to ensure that it remains at the lowest level.” Quite contrary to official rhetoric that branded America as a bulwark against sectarianism, in 2004 it utterly suited the Americans to drive a wedge between at least the dissident sections of Iraq’s Sunni and Shia communities. Not only was it desirable, at the time the survival of the American enterprise in Iraq depended on it.
The Americans did withstand the 2004 crisis; influential cleric Ali Sistani persuaded Muqtada Sadr to back off from a potentially devastating confrontation, and the army then turned its focus fully on the Sunni-majority insurgency. Fallujah was flattened in the winter of 2004, while the revolts in Rimadi, Mosul and especially Samarra were also forcibly crushed. At the end of 2004, Al-Qaeda’s leadership in South Asia—desperate for a proxy on the ground in the most publicized war versus the Americans—swallowed their pride and accepted Abu Musab Nazzal as their viceroy in Iraq; a major turnaround for the once ragtag outcast, whose militia would henceforth be known as Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and, posthumously, as Islamic State in Iraq. By 2006 what began as an insurgency had evolved into a vicious sectarian civil war that gave the resourceful, media-savvy American commander David Petraeus a solid casus belle to remain in Iraq in the unlikely role of arbiter. By this time, a solidly pro-Iranian Islamist party, the Daawah party, had come into power, and the pro-American Daawah contender Adel Mahdi-Muntafiqi narrowly beaten by the decidedly more lukewarm Ibrahim Jaafari as the candidate for premier. Sectarianism in the security services, which the Daawah Partys political ally the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraqs military arm the Badr Corps controlled, was rife and sectarian cleansing had begun. In 2006-07, the intrepid American reporter Martin Smith compiled a report for PBS on the militias’ dominance in the Iraqi security services; he gave the Badr commander assigned to interior minister, Bayan Jabr, an especially tough grill. There was also a more sympathetic interview with Jabr’s predecessor Faleh Naqib, who claimed—correctly—that Jabr had overseen the targeting of the security services towards the Sunni population. In essence, the blame for Shia sectarianism was placed entirely on Iran.
But there is a gaping hole in this argument, and that is to ignore entirely the precedent set by the Americans long before Daawah took over. Certainly Bayan Jabr deserves no sympathy; as interior minister he oversaw and whitewashed blatantly sectarian and abusive persecution of Sunnis who, despite his insistence of non-partisanship, were classified and persecuted as “terrorists” with minimal accountability (tellingly, Jabr also cited American conduct in its “war on terror” as a precedent). But he had simply followed, and Iranified, a process that the Americans and their favoured candidate, Falah Naqib—the same man who now accused Jabr—had set in motion in 2004-05.
Naqib, interior minister from mid-2004 to early 2005, belonged to an officially secular party that—unlike the early occupation—incorporated Iraqi, often Sunni Arab, military men who had fled under Saddam Hussein’s rule. The party leader was a secular Shia, formerly Baathist, named Ayad Allawi. Less infamous than his notoriously corrupt and treacherous cousin Ahmed Chalabi—who had charmed the neoconservatives in the American regime as well as the American media into the invasion of Iraq but who also had close ties with their official enemy in Iran’s regime—Allawi, unlike Chalabi, remained an asset to the CIA, who found his claims against Saddam Hussein’s regime less exaggerated than Chalabi’s fanciful, shameless lies. After the utter failure of Chalabi and Paul Bremer had propelled Iraq into disaster, Allawi, with a significant Sunni constituency as well, became the new favourite candidate to lead Iraq and took over as interim premier to succeed Bremer in the summer of 2004.
Importantly, Ayad Allawi’s conscious image was as that of a strongman who could do what was required to return Iraq to stability. In Jul 2004, the premier was widely reported to have personally shot a string of captured prisoners in Baghdad’s Amiriah police station; interior minister Faleh Naqib, also attendant, congratulated Allawi and the local sheriff, Raad Abdullah, ordered his officers not to report the matter. But rather than hurt him, the idea of a tough sheriff appealed to both many Iraqi citizens (the leakers indeed saw Allawi’s action as entirely justified and a positive indication) and, especially, to a flustered American occupation. Iraqis had suffered under the widespread abuse and torture of Paul Bremer and Ricardo Sanchez’s regime, and they would suffer under the same under the pro-Iranian regimes of Ibrahim Jaafari and Nouri Maliki. In between, however, was an oft-overlooked period under Ayad Allawi that connected both of these.
Given a license to kill, Falah Naqib employed his uncle, a thuggish former army commander named Adnan Thabit, as leader of a new homegrown police commando division. Thabit also belonged to the corps of officers who had been imprisoned for attempting to dislodge Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, and apparently he suffered torture and brutality there. This would further translate into his leadership of this gendarmerie.
Officially, the police commandos were portrayed as a positive development: an indigenous unit that, with American support, could retrieve security for Iraqis. David Petraeus, one of the few early American commanders who had tried to coopt Sunni Arabs with mixed success, enthusiastically promoted the commandos, who assisted the American army over the autumn of 2004 in their assaults on Mosul and Samarra. The commandos’ operations occurred under the eye of Jim Coffman, a lieutenant of Petraeus, and a shadowy figure named Jim Steele. A ruthless efficient commander who had headed America’s “drug wars” in Latin America by employing merciless government militias to smash the anti-American guerrillas, Steele’s focus on human intelligence revolved largely around the coercion of information out of captives via cruel methods, including systemic torture.
Jim Steele’s role has since been critiqued extensively in a 2013 documentary, Searching for Steele, produced by Mona Mahmood, from which much of this section stems. At the time, however, the United States regime—whose vicious vice-president Dick Cheney and defence minister Donald Rumsfeld both personally knew and patronized Steele—enthusiastically promoted the programme and enthusiastic press coverage was nearly exclusively effusive—the exception being a journalist named Peter Maas who presented a more balanced, holistic and critical analysis that was largely lost at the time.
From the American army, David Petraeus and Jim Coffman both uttered paeans to the “brotherhood of the close fight” that had grown between the Iraqi commandos and their American handlers. Another shadowy paramilitary long fostered by the CIA, called the Scorpion Unit, also operated with impunity. The Americans could not, after the 2003-04 Abu Ghraib torture scandal, personally torture prisoners: they could, however, watch as Iraqi clients did the dirty work for them and plausibly deny contact later, as at least Petraeus has successfully done. Armed with a conglomerate of admirers such as Tom Ricks, Linda Robinson and his future mistress Paula Broadwell—as well as adoring journalists like Michael Gordon and John Burns of the New York Times, Petraeus would progress to build a self-image as an imaginative commander who could gel with the natives and rescue America from the precipice. What was essentially an outsource of abuse to unaccountable local clients became portrayed as a bond between the Americans and Iraqis.
Though officially non-confessional at the time, and led by token Sunnis like Falah Naqib and Adnan Thabit, the American-backed commandos would lay the ground that would be exploited and enhanced by Iran-backed militias. With the campaign against Muqtada Sadr having reached détente, the commandos’ debut in the autumn of 2004 at Samarra and Mosul was organized exclusively versus Sunnis; like Bayan Jabr, Thabit justified his actions versus “the terrorists”, for whom “all kinds of means” were needed to force out confessions. The neoconservatives in the American regime, always sympathetic to the idea that Arabs understood only force, warmed to a missive related by their counterterrorism czar in Baghdad, Hank Crumpton, entitled “Fight Terror with Terror”, which quoted Thabit as explaining the necessity of impunity for his forces thus: “It is necessary that their forces be feared, as this was what was required in Iraqi society to command respect.”
Indeed, despite its official non-sectarianism, the police commando division focused nearly entirely on Sunni Arabs in a way that would be replicated by the Iran-backed force shortly afterward. There were direct links: one of the most feared Shia sectarian militias, the Wolf Brigade, morphed from a battalion in the commandos and clearly shared the systemic sadism. Even the hardhearted Jim Steele viewed the Wolf Brigade commander, Abu Walid Qurashi, as a thug; Abu Walid would quickly transfer from American-backed fealty to Iranian-backed fealty and he would serve as an especially prominent paramilitary commander under Nouri Maliki before he was captured and executed by Islamic State at Mosul in 2014. Thabits top officer, Rasheed Fulaih, was a close coordinate of the Shia militias and remains an influential officer now leader of an army division in the conflict.
Most striking was an attempt to win “hearts and minds” by giving the triumphant commandos their own special television programme, regularly broadcast in 2004-05; according to a glowing History Channel report (Insurgency and Counterinsurgency), “Terrorists in the Grip of Justice” became Iraq’s most popular programme. A brainchild of Mosul sheriff Ahmed Khalaf, another Sunni Arab with little compunction about crushing other Sunnis, the programme featured blindfolded prisoners from 2004 raids who were forced to confess to crimes they may or may not have committed. An aged captive, wheezing creakily with age and clearly in considerable pain, confessed to the unlikely charge of having killed thirty people. Another prisoner was accused of homosexuality with his purported accomplices on the hallowed grounds of a masjid, an utterly merciless accusation; asked if he had any shame for his crimes, the prisoner seems to have thought the matter over for a few seconds—a confession would destroy his reputation, as well as that of the insurgency that he may or may not have supported, but his captors had him by the throat—before reluctantly answering in the affirmative. More unlikely information would follow; another insurgent commander, a former army officer turned Islamist leader Muayyad Nasiri, publicly confessed to having received support from nearly every conceivable enemy: Iran, Al-Qaeda, Abu Musab Nazzal-Zarqawi, Syria, Baath, most of them almost certainly untrue. It was the sort of forced “justice” that had been rife in Baath-age Iraq and indeed a tactic employed by Saddam Hussein against his opponents: now it was rife, indeed approved, under an apparently democratic regime.
Within months, when the Iran-friendly Shia Daawah Party won an election overwhelmingly boycotted by Sunni Arabs, the process pioneered under Falah Naqib would now go overwhelmingly to Shia militias, particularly in the powerful Badr Corps but also homegrown sectarian vigilantes. To many Iraqi Sunnis, long suspicious of Persian designs both real and imagined, this confirmed American-Iranian collusion. The insurgency took on a more sectarian role increasingly dominated by Abu Musab Nazzal-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, especially because in 2005-06 most of his Islamist competitors had been wiped out by the occupation.
And as bizarre as Sunni suspicions of a joint Iranian-American conspiracy may seem considering the longtime political sabre-rattling between the United States and Iran, on the subject of Iraq they were not far wrong. In Iraq, Iran and the United States may have vied for control. But when it came to Sunni areas in the north and west, it was simply a competition for which country could control the persecution.
By 2006, Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia had enough dominance in the insurgency to spread into the urban centres formerly controlled by other Islamists. AQI’s wanton brutality and their attempt to break the back of a traditional tribal structure that they incorrectly accused of incompatibility with Islamic shariah soon alienated enough Sunni tribesmen for the Americans to find an opening; in 2006-07, Petraeus and his lieutenants, such as John Allen and Jim Kelly, began to entice Anbari sheikhs onto their side long enough to present a case to extend an overwhelmingly unpopular war as the unlikely “saviours” of Sunnis and defenders against nefarious sectarianism. AQI continued, wittingly or otherwise, to play into their hands: in Feb 2006, the AQI commander Haitham Badri bombed the Shia Askari shrine at Samarra, triggering a year of ferocious sectarian warfare that provided the Americans with an ideal casus belle to remain in Iraq. So complete was the myth that ironically, formerly powerful career hawks like the ruthless American defence minister Donald Rumsfeld, now advocating a quick withdrawal, were brushed aside in the urge for this “surge”.
If Abu Musab Nazzal-Zarqawi had been credited for the Sunni insurgency, on the Shia part—rather than indict an increasingly vicious government, both America and Iran found a convenient scapegoat in the hotheaded upstart Muqtada Sadr. Sadr, a largely indigenous dissident leader who received minor and strictly qualified support from Iran, was blamed entirely for the sectarian mess on the Shias’ part; the Americans would, incorrectly, point him out as an Iran plant and the cause of Sunni resentment, pointing to the fact that his militia—increasingly slipping out of his control and into the Iranian sphere—was increasingly resented. Iran, for its part, played up accusations of Sadr, ensuring that the United States would reactively entrench the Daawah-led government of Nouri Maliki and play into its hands; they also cultivated extreme defectors from Sadr’s militia like the Khazali brothers Laith, Qais and Ali, responsible for mass sectarian cleansing against Sunnis. So complete was the deception that in 2008, when the Badr Corps and Maliki regime drove Sadr out of Basra, the Americans officially celebrated what they thought was a blow to Iran’s domination in Iraq. In actual fact, it was quite the opposite.
By 2010, a mixture of American collusion and Sahwa collusion had provided Nouri Maliki’s regime with enough respite to swing fully into the Iranian orbit. In the towns, where Maliki had indirectly overseen a sectarian cleanse to drive Sunnis into Sahwa-controlled tribelands, urban Sahwa commanders like Raad Hassan and Adil Mashhadani were suddenly arrested—in fairness, quite a few of them had unsavoury backgrounds, though no more than their arresters—and in some cases executed. The Americans, now committed to a withdrawal, mounted a few symbolic protests, but it was hardly an unavoidable scenario.
It had, after all, been American intervention that had rescued Maliki from an election he had lost (ironically, against a party now headed by former American client Ayad Allawi and allied with longtime American irritant Muqtada Sadr), and the Americans were still trying to woo the regime into their corner rather than the Iranians. Indignant Sahwa leaders, feeling betrayed, would soon rejoin the insurgency, this time willing to tolerate an Islamic State that had gradually grown more discreet after Abu Musab Nazzal-Zarqawi was slain in 2006, and that under its latest leader—Abu Dua Badri-Baghdadi, who would later declare himself caliph—would focus entirely on non-Sunnis and “apostates” rather than Iraqi Sunni competitors. Opponents of the Islamic State in Iraq—both secularist Kurds and Shia Arabs—would increasingly grow hostile to Sunni Arabs as inevitable “terrorists”, and even now both sets are, backed by both Iran’s military support and American airpower, fulfilling an agenda against Sunni Arabs that serves only to drive them into the Islamic State’s camp. In Syria, meanwhile, the Islamic State followed its Iraqi model—infiltrating and initially supporting the insurgency before, like a parasite, expanding to annex and actively fight it.
These concerning developments make it more necessary than ever to understand and duly learn from history, rather than the self-serving narratives promoted by various sides. Neither sectarian extremism nor polarization are inevitable; both have fairly recent roots. Authoritarianism and brutality, often sanctioned from abroad, have threatened to rip the region asunder. And it is not only Iran but, as this article hopes to show, the United States whose military adventures in Iraq have brought the situation to such a critical point