Fight against ISIS may become ‘catalyst for reviving moderate Sunnis’

Iraqi forces are planning an assault on the northern city of Mosul, hoping to retake it from Islamic State fighters, the spokesman for the country’s counter-terrorism unit said on Monday.

“The new tactic of launching a quick attack shrouded by secrecy proved successful and we are determined to keep following the new assault tactics with help of intelligence provided by Americans,” spokesman Sabah Nouri told Reuters.

“The peshmerga machine is now working...As time goes on the peshmerga morale and experience is growing,said Roj Nuri Shawes, a senior Kurdish official and outgoing deputy prime minister of Iraq who is now on one of the front lines outside the regional capital of Erbil. “What’s Isis doing? It’s defending,” he told the Financial Times:

Mr Shawes said the limited US air strikes have played a critical role in emboldening the peshmerga, who have also received help from Iraqi forces as well as hundreds of fighters from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK).

The United States on Monday targeted two Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria, including the Islamic State spokesman, following similar actions by the U.N. Security Council last week, Reuters adds:

The move aims to weaken the Islamic State – an al Qaeda splinter group that has seized swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and declared a caliphate – and al Qaeda’s Syrian wing, Nusra Front.

Some observers believe the fight against ISIS may become a catalyst for reviving moderate Sunnis.

laith kubba2Supplying arms to forces fighting the Islamic State and dropping bombs, do not address “the substance” of the IS threat in Iraq and Syria, said Laith Kubba (left), director of the Middle East and North Africa program of the US-based National Endowment for Democracy. An adviser of former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Kubba said that it takes more political will and “real regional strategy” for the US to defeat the IS. “Short-term containment does not work,” he said.  

Armed movements driven by an ideology like that of ISIS are expansionist as well as eliminationist, writes The New Yorker’s George Packer:

There is always a new enemy to defeat, a new threat to the dream of purifying the world. The Islamic State, whose success makes it a magnet for jihadists around the globe, has recruited hundreds of suicide bombers, who could carry out operations across the region. Its many hundred fighters holding European or American passports will eventually return home with training, skills, and the arrogance of battlefield victory. It’s hard to believe that the ambitions of ISIS will remain confined to the boundaries of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Nouri al-Maliki’s announcement that he is stepping aside as Iraq’s Prime Minister, after completely changing direction in the last 24 hours is welcome said Kubba. His 180 degree turn is good news, he tells News Radio.

Michael Stephens, deputy director at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies spoke to Al Jazeera about the significance of Mosul Dam:

“Mosul Dam controls a lot of the water going into Baghdad, and it is one of the main water collection points for northern Iraq. It also produces hydro-electric power so it is of big strategic importance.”

“The Islamic State group are focused on securing water and food in any area they attack. It’s in line with the group’s strategy of trying to control bigger areas of infrastructure, so they can declare that their operation is working. They decided that they wanted something that gives them more leverage.”

“Rather than destroying it the question is would they maintain it properly: i.e. keep electricity and water services running for the population? They wouldn’t blow up the hand that feeds them. But there are questions as to the groups suitability to maintain it.”

“For the Peshmerga the significance is less strategic. It is more an issue of pride. They were clearly struggling and needed support.”

“[New Prime Minister] Abadi is trying to show power by ordering the retake of the dam.”

Only President Obama can explain to the public why containing and defeating ISIS requires deep, steady, patient engagement, Packer contends:

But fully absorbing the lessons of the past should mean being able to think clearly about going forward: Find partners, internationally and locally, and don’t get out in front of them. Understand the complexity and the importance of politics. Locate the elusive ground between overreacting and underreacting. Pay attention to other people’s nightmares, because they might be contagious.

The National Endowment for Democracy’s Laith Kubba presented his analysis of developments in Iraq on PBS NewsHour along with NED Board member Zalmay Khalilzad (above).

On-line dissidents innovate as repressive regimes deploy ‘digital weapons’

While China’s Internet branch is exploding beyond the domestic market, Beijing is tightening the rules for online communication, Deutsche Welle reports:

In early August, the State Internet Information Office issued new regulations for chat services. It stipulated that only media organizations registered in China are allowed to disseminate instant messages. Additionally, private users are required to register their accounts using their real names and will be subject to a verification process. 

According to The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, CloudShield Technologies, a California defense contractor, is selling lucrative spyware tools to foreign security services, some of them with records of human rights abuse:

CloudShield’s central role in Gamma’s controversial work — fraught with legal risk under U.S. export restrictions — was first uncovered by Morgan Marquis-Boire, author of a new report released Friday by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. He shared advance drafts with The Post, which conducted its own month-long investigation.  

The prototype that CloudShield built was never brought to market, and the company parted ways with Gamma in 2010. But Marquis-Boire said CloudShield’s work helped pioneer a new generation of “network injection appliances” sold by Gamma and its Italian rival, Hacking Team. Those devices harness malicious software to specialized equipment attached directly to the central switching points of a foreign government’s national Internet grid.

The result: Merely by playing a YouTube video or visiting a Microsoft Live service page, for instance, an unknown number of computers around the world have been implanted with Trojan horses by government security services that siphon their communications and files. Google, which owns YouTube, and Microsoft are racing to close the vulnerability.

Citizen Lab’s report, based on leaked technical documents, is the first to document that commercial spyware companies are making active use of this technology. Network injection allows products built by Gamma and Hacking Team to insert themselves into an Internet data flow and change it undetectably in transit. ….

Security researchers have documented clandestine sales of Gamma and Hacking Team products to “some of the world’s most notorious abusers of human rights,” said Ron Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab, a list that includes Turkmenistan, Egypt, Bahrain and Ethiopia.

But dissidents and activists are becoming more sophisticated and resourceful in using the internet to promote democracy and human rights, and circumventing censorship and to groups like Movements.Org, as demonstrated by the following sample cases:

  • A Syrian activist and university student seeking asylum in the United States posted an urgent request for help and representation, as his life would be in grave jeopardy should he return to his native country. A professor at The John Marshall Law School, based in Chicago, took on the case, and is helping the activist attain asylum.
  • A famed former Iranian political prisoner who spent tens of years in jail asked for help saving a radio station he runs which broadcasts into Iran.  A senior American official saw the post and reached out to the dissident.
  • A North Korean defector asked for helping getting information in and out of their dictatorial regime.  Radio, satellite and computer experts connected with the defector to talk about new technologies to help make this possible.
  • A Cuban blogger hoping to circumvent censorship in her home country and Ecuador posted a request for technological help getting around firewalls.  She was contacted by several computer programmers and security experts who offered to walk her through the process of protecting her information.
  • Activists requested a  song be written to honor the late Russian accountant, Sergei Magnitsky, who was was arrested and tortured after exposing corruption of the Putin regime.  Magnitsky died in prison. A songwriter in NYC saw the request on, and wrote a catchy song to commemorate his life (see below).  The song was featured on Al Jazeera and in The Wall Street Journal.
  • A request written on behalf of a famed Syrian dissident who spent a decade in prison under Bashar al-Assad’s regime, asked to publish an op-ed in a major American publication about how to bring peace to Syria.  A short time later, the article was published in The Daily Beast.
  • A Saudi expert on combatting state-sponsored incitement in textbooks posted a request to speak with members of the German government due to their strict anti-hate-speech laws.  A former German foundation executive saw the post and is now connecting the Saudi activist with senior members of the German government.
  • A secular Syrian group posted a request for PR aid to explain to Americans that the opposition is not comprised solely of radical elements.  The founder of a strategic communication firm based in Los Angeles responded and offered help.
  • An editor from a major American paper posted a request for human rights stories that often are not told. He was contacted by a liberal activist from Iraq whose family and friends were killed by al-Qaeda.

Advancing Human Rights has launched, an online platform where dissidents in closed societies can connect to the legal, media, public relations, and technological expertise of open societies. A dissident seeking asylum in a closed society can connect with an asylum lawyer abroad who can provide pro bono legal assistance. A journalist dedicated to unearthing the secrets of dictators can connect with local dissidents to piece together the story. By leveraging democratic tools to assist activists achieve freedom, activists can challenge authorities with a new, clear voice.

Kurdistan Rising – acknowledge or ignore unraveling of Iraq?

Kurdistan Iraq ISIS Stansfield 0731This summer, the world has watched as an al Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State group, launched a militant offensive into Iraq, seizing large swaths of land. A new Center for Middle East Policy’s Middle East Memo, Kurdistan Rising: To Acknowledge or Ignore the Unraveling of Iraq, examines how the fall of Iraq’s key city of Mosul has changed matters for Kurds in Iraq. American policymakers need to take stock of the reality of the Kurdistan Region in this “post-Mosul” world, writes Gareth Stansfield, Professor of Middle East Politics and the Al-Qasimi Chair of Arab Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter.

Having been autonomous in Iraq since 1991, the Kurds heeded the aspirations of the United States in 2003 to assist in the removal of the Baath regime of Saddam Hussein, and played by the rules of the game established in the post-2003 period, albeit unwillingly at times. However, they have consistently refused to follow a path that would result in relinquishing the powers they enjoy. They have even taken steps to extend their autonomy to the point of having economic sovereignty within a federal Iraq, thus bringing them into serious dispute with Baghdad and the government of Nouri al-Maliki and earning the rebuke of the United States.

By so strongly embracing the concept of Iraq’s integrity as crucial to American interests in the region, key allies and partners have been marginalized along the way.

Kurdistan now stands on the threshold of restructuring Iraq according to its federal or confederal design, or exercising its full right to self-determination and seceding from Iraq. By ignoring the realities of Kurdish strength in Iraq, U.S. and European powers run the risk of losing influence in the only part of Iraq that can be called a success story, and antagonizing what could be a key ally in an increasingly unpredictable Middle East.


The end of the Arab state?

arab human rights waslaStates in the Middle East are becoming weaker than ever, as traditional authorities seem increasingly incapable of taking care of their restive publics and, as state authority weakens, tribal and sectarian allegiances strengthen, says a leading analyst.

When sectarian or ethnic minorities have ruled countries – for example, the Sunnis of Iraq – they typically have a strong interest in downplaying sectarianism or ethnicity,” notes Christopher R. Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, and US Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia, and Poland:

They often become the chief proponents of a broader, civic concept of national belonging, in theory embracing all peoples. In Iraq, that concept was Ba’athism. And while it was more identified with the Sunni minority than with the Shia majority, it endured for decades as a vehicle for national unity, albeit a cruel and cynical one. When the Ba’ath party – along with its civic ideology – was destroyed by the US occupation, no new civic concept replaced it. In the ensuing political vacuum, sectarianism was the only viable alternative principle of organization.

“There are many reasons for the weakening of Arab nation-states, the most proximate of which is the legacy of the Arab Spring,” Hill writes for Project Syndicate:

At its outset in 2011, Arab publics took to the streets seeking to oust authoritarian or monarchical regimes widely perceived to have lost their energy and direction. But those initial demonstrations, often lacking identifiable leaders and programs, soon gave way to old habits….. These processes demand a broader, far more comprehensive policy approach from Western countries. The approach must take into account the region’s synergies and not pretend that the changes that are weakening these states are somehow unrelated.

“The US, in particular, should examine how it has handled the breakdown of Syria and Iraq, and stop treating each case as if there were no connection between them. America called for regime change in the former while seeking regime stabilization in the latter; instead, it got the Islamic State in both,” notes Hill, currently Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.


Why Yemen is no model for Iraq

YEMEN FAREAThe suggestion that Yemen could be an example for how to bring stability to Iraq came as a shock to most Yemenis, says a key analyst.

“The contradiction between their country’s political reality and its reputation as an Arab Spring success story has always been glaring, but now it had become absurd,” Farea Al-muslimi (left) writes for Foreign Affairs.

The deal that led to the ousting of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled since 1978, “was a rotten one,” he contends:

It merely handed the presidency over to his deputy, Hadi, and ensured that Saleh would continue to play a role behind the scenes. He was also given immunity for all his wrongdoing during his 33 years in power. And that is not the same thing as democracy. Even worse, the deal made a real transition to democracy in Yemen all the harder and it sowed the seeds of new conflicts.

One of the deal’s key promises to the tens of thousands of pro-democracy activists who took to the streets to bring down Saleh was to hold the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). It was supposed to bring together all the political factions, from the southern separatist movement to young modernizers to negotiate an outline for Yemen’s future political structure; and put the outcome of these negotiations to a public referendum for approval. However, the NDC, held from March 2013 to January 2014, did very little beyond extending the terms of parliament (whose mandate expired in 2008) and the president (whose democratic legitimacy consists of a hastily rushed-through referendum on his serving one term in office). The NDC then ignored its own bylaws and refused to put these decisions to a public vote.

A few years ago in Yemen, people used to warn of an “Iraq scenario” if its problems weren’t addressed, meaning that Yemen would be the new Iraq. They don’t anymore, Al-muslimi concludes.