No peace yet in Iraq or Syria

With plenty of fight­ing left to be done, the threat of U.S.-Rus­sian con­fronta­tion per­sists

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - GWYNNE DYER Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

The shoot­ing was still go­ing on down by the river last week when Iraq’s Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi dropped by and pre­ma­turely de­clared that the bat­tle for Mo­sul was over. He was mis­led by the var­i­ous Iraqi army, po­lice and mili­tia units who were com­pet­ing with one an­other to de­clare vic­tory first, but now it re­ally is over — and there is lit­tle left of Mo­sul.

The siege be­gan on Oct. 17 of last year, so it lasted nine months — longer than the Bat­tle of Stal­in­grad. It prob­a­bly killed more civil­ians, too, be­cause the U.S.-led air forces were used to com­pen­sate for the short­age of trained and mo­ti­vated Iraqi ground forces.

In­di­vid­ual ISIS snipers were reg­u­larly taken out by airstrikes that lev­elled en­tire build­ings. Life is re­turn­ing to some of the east-bank sub­urbs that were re­taken last year, but there is noth­ing to go back to in the old­est part of the city on the west bank, where ISIS made its last stand. And the level of de­struc­tion has been al­most as high in a lot of other cities.

The Sunni Arab com­mu­ni­ties of Iraq and Syria are shat­tered and scat­tered. The mixed Sunni-Shia neigh­bour­hoods of Bagh­dad were mostly “cleansed” of their Sunni res­i­dents in the civil war of 2006-08. Even Sunni-ma­jor­ity cities in Iraq that were taken back from ISIS a cou­ple of years ago, like Ra­madi and Fal­lu­jah, are still largely de­serted, with few signs of re­con­struc­tion.

Not many of the es­ti­mated 900,000 peo­ple in refugee camps around Mo­sul, al­most all Sunni Arabs, will be go­ing home soon, ei­ther. And in Syria, the east­ern side of Aleppo, Syria’s big­gest city, fell last De­cem­ber af­ter a four-year siege. It now con­tains a few tens of thou­sands of peo­ple rat­tling around in the ru­ins.

Raqqa, ISIS’s cap­i­tal in Syria, will be largely de­stroyed in the next few months, and af­ter that it will be the turn of Deir-es­Zor. The calamity that be­gan in 2003, when the U.S. in­va­sion of Iraq over­threw the cen­turies-long Sunni rule over a mostly Shia coun­try, has reached its fi­nal phase.

There can be no come­back for the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, who only make up one-fifth of the coun­try’s 36 mil­lion peo­ple. They have been ru­ined by their long com­plic­ity with Sunni mi­nor­ity rule of the coun­try, first un­der the Turk­ish em­pire, lat­terly un­der Sunni tyrants like Sad­dam Hus­sein, and fi­nally by their re­luc­tant, des­per­ate sup­port for ISIS. Some, maybe most, will re­main in the coun­try, but not as equal cit­i­zens.

The Sunni Arabs of Syria will not suf­fer the same fate, for they are fully 60 per cent of that coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion, but their cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is ap­palling. They were very un­wise to throw their lot in with ISIS and alQaida — which most of the Sunni fight­ers in Syria did in the end, though it is im­politic to say so in pub­lic — and they are now pay­ing a heavy price for that mis­take.

In the longer run, how­ever, Syria’s Sunni Arab ma­jor­ity will have to be rein­te­grated into the gen­eral so­ci­ety. It isn’t im­pos­si­ble: mil­lions of ur­ban Sun­nis never fought against the regime any­way, re­gard­ing their mostly ru­ral fel­low Sun­nis who fell for the ji­hadi fan­tasy as se­verely mis­guided.

There’s at least an­other year’s fight­ing against ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked forces in Syria be­fore rec­on­cil­i­a­tion can even be­gin. There may be much more than a year’s fight­ing be­fore the Kurds are sub­ju­gated again in Syria and Turkey.

They are out of the box now, con­trol­ling al­most all of the Kur­dish-ma­jor­ity parts of north­ern Syria and many ru­ral ar­eas in south­east­ern Turkey. Since Turkey’s Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyib Er­do­gan restarted the war against Turkey’s Kurds two years ago, they have even taken con­trol of some parts of the Kur­dish-ma­jor­ity big cities in the South­East — and bits of them look like Syria’s dev­as­tated cities.

As for Iraq’s Kurds, it may prove im­pos­si­ble to put them back in the box at all. Thanks to the col­lapse of the Iraqi army three years ago, when ISIS over­ran much of the coun­try in a fort­night, the Kur­dish Re­gional Gov­ern­ment now rules over all the tra­di­tion­ally Kur­dish ar­eas of Iraq. It is ef­fec­tively an in­de­pen­dent coun­try, and it has sched­uled a ref­er­en­dum for Septem­ber to make that of­fi­cial.

Iraq’s gov­ern­ment will fight that, of course, but un­less the United States is will­ing to bomb the Kurds the way it bombed ISIS, Bagh­dad is un­likely to win. The Iraqi army couldn’t even have re­taken Mo­sul with­out the lav­ish use of U.S. air power.

Wash­ing­ton is much more likely to be­tray the Syr­ian Kurds, but un­less it does, they too will prob­a­bly man­age to keep their de facto state within a nom­i­nally re­united Syria. (Turkey would be happy to crush them for free, but the Syr­ian regime and its Rus­sian and Ira­nian back­ers would cer­tainly veto that.)

So there’s lots of fight­ing left to be done, and lots of op­por­tu­ni­ties yet for the United States and Rus­sia to stum­ble into a con­fronta­tion. Stay tuned.


Peo­ple walk through a neigh­bour­hood as the sun sets on the west side of Mo­sul, Iraq. U.S -backed forces suc­ceeded in wrest­ing Mo­sul from the Is­lamic State group but at the cost of enor­mous de­struc­tion. The nine-month fight cul­mi­nated in a crescendo of dev­as­ta­tion.

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