Damaged historic Christian town of Qaraqosh on Iraq’s Nineveh plain, December, 2016. NurPhoto/PressAssociation. All rights reserved.
This week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosts a meeting in Warsaw, aimed at forming a Middle Eastern coalition against Tehran. Yet, at the same time, the Trump Administration has confirmed most US forces will exit Syria by May, leaving a regional vacuum that benefits Iran, Turkey and Islamic State.
This could provoke a new surge of migration and, paradoxically, put America’s closest ally, Israel, in peril: Iran is stockpiling weapons along the border between Syria and Israel, and its proxies are poised to menace the Israeli state. Yet, on January 3, President Trump said Iran could do what it wanted in Syria.
An Islamic state of mind
If one thing unites the Christian, Kurdish and Yezidi people in northern Iraq, it is contempt for American claims that Islamic State (IS or Daesh) is defeated.
“Daesh change their tactics according to the circumstances,” says Sister Ilhan, an eighty-two-year-old nun I met in Qaraqosh on the Plain of Nineveh. “They shave off their beards, and melt back into the community, waiting until the West loses interest. Again,” she adds, pointedly.
Iraqi religious and ethnic minority groups interviewed for this article say the West has never understood Islamism, the ideology, as opposed to Islam, the religion. The Iraqis and Syrians who survived IS’s bloodthirsty rule know it isn’t simply a matter of killing a few thousand jihadis, or causing their retreat. IS’s aims aren’t necessarily about occupying territory, as western politicians or military analysts understand it.
Gill Lusk, an expert on Islamism, comments, “The short-termism that characterises the age is in stark contrast with the Islamist view, which is the ultimate in long-termism: the political horizon is literally infinity… International politicians and the media often talk as if “jihadists” (who they believe can be militarily defeated) and Islamist politicians (who can supposedly be negotiated with) were qualitatively different. In fact, they are two sides of the same ideological coin.”
Lusk draws parallels with the National Islamic Front’s 1989 coup in Sudan. “The NIF spent some 14 years preparing to take power, placing sleepers in strategic positions in the armed forces and civil service; sending trained cadres to fill “hardship posts” for teachers in remote areas of what was then Africa’s largest country; setting up charities, especially in areas of famine or especial poverty, to provide aid or services that central government failed to provide. Such tactics were also used by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, helping to ensure that Mohamed Morsi won, briefly, the presidency in 2012.”
While Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi echoes Trump, proclaiming IS is defeated, just across the border in Syria they killed four US military personnel and dozens of Kurdish Peshmerga in January. Moreover, there were 1,600 IS attacks across Iraq in 2018. Trump recently told Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he can “have Syria”, emboldening Ankara to eliminate its enemies, the Kurds, the only efficient military presence keeping civilians and religious minorities safe from IS.
Pari Ibrahim from the Free Yezidi Foundation says, “It is folly to suppose that thousands of Daesh adherents will simply stop fighting or change their ideology. And it is impossible to imagine that Turkey, of all countries, would be a force to contain Islamic extremism.”
She was alluding to the years in which Ankara turned a blind eye as IS recruits travelled through Turkey to Syria and Iraq. Turkey also reputedly allowed IS smugglers to move oil and historical artefacts across the border. Moreover, many in the region claim Erdogan shares IS’s Islamist ideology.
Although the US spent $26 billion training Iraq’s army, there is little confidence in them. Sister Sarah, a nun I met in Telusquf in northern Iraq, recalls how the army vanished when IS attacked Mosul in 2014, abandoning US munitions for the Islamists to seize. “One minute they were there, telling us they would hold back Daesh, and the next moment we realized we were alone. They didn’t even tell us they were leaving. I thought I’d be gone a couple of days, but it was three years before I could return. All my books from my studies in Britain had been destroyed. Our convent had been used as a Daesh rape centre,” she continues. “They left empty Viagra packets all over the floors.”
The Plain of Nineveh is still contested by rival military camps, as it has been since Alexander fought Darius III of Persia. Outside the convent in Telusquf stands a Kurdish Peshmerga outpost, and yet the city is in Iraq. The nuns struggle to convince local Christians not to emigrate to safer, more tolerant places. Although there have been Christians present since 100 AD, their numbers have fallen from 10% of the Iraqi population in 1950 to 1% now.
Where did it all go wrong?
The Iraqis interviewed for this article traced their problems back to the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
“We wanted Saddam gone, OK? We hated that guy. But errors were made,” a Kurdish businessman explained over lunch. We sat in the shady garden of a restaurant, high in the mountains of northern Iraqi Kurdistan, admiring the bubbling aqua marine water of the Ava Sin river.
“Right from the start, the Americans only cared about guarding the oil ministry in Baghdad,” he said. “They just shrugged as the criminal element ransacked the national museum. That sent a clear message.”
The lack of security was compounded by the American administrator Paul Bremer’s decision to fire the entire Iraqi army and security services. The Kurdish businessman, who once ran a pizza parlour in London, told me,
“The Americans thought every Baath Party member loved Saddam. They didn’t understand that no one got a job or a university place unless they joined. It was just a means to an end. Then, Bremer allowed new political parties based on Shia or Sunni identity,” the businessman continued. “How can you create a fresh national identity when so many people feel ignored by the guys with the power and money? Now, everything benefits the Shia.”
“The 2003 invasion? Tehran won,” his colleague, a property developer from Erbil, added. “Now, Iraqi security is in the hands of the Badr Brigade from Tehran. And the Popular Mobilization Forces, who take their orders from Iran.”
According to the Kurdish businessman, Iraq’s disenfranchised Sunnis were incensed when aid vanished, and the only reconstruction happened in Shia areas. Al Qaeda seized the opportunity to recruit disenchanted, unemployed Sunni soldiers into their ranks. Then Islamic State arrived, and “the hard-liners left Al Qaeda and joined Daesh.” Now, “The government in Baghdad doesn’t control anything beyond the suburbs.”
America missed another opportunity when IS was beaten back in 2017, the businessman said. “You guys needed to tell Baghdad to spread the reconstruction funds between the Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Christians and Yezidis.” “You guys needed to tell Baghdad to spread the reconstruction funds between the Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Christians and Yezidis.”
A Yezidi charity worker confirmed the allegation that only Shia had benefited. “For the first eighteen months, we didn’t see any money, although we know there’s been billions of dollars pouring into Iraq. It’s arriving now, but it’s too late for many people who’ve already left. “
An assistant to a Catholic bishop told me, “The United Nations asks the officials in Baghdad how the UN should distribute grants, and the authorities send them to Shia villages,” she explained. “We had one UN project in our area, just one, for a population of 120,000: the UN were supposed to refurbish a school destroyed by IS. They re-plastered the outer wall of the compound, painted it, and then sprayed the logo of the UN agency on the wall. The school rooms inside are still unusable.”
“If the PKK leaves, IS will take their place”
The Kurdish property developer drove us to a remote valley where the PKK, the Turkish Kurdish militia, hides. “If the PKK leave, then Islamic State will take their place,” he said. He warns that young people will emigrate, due to lack of security or economic opportunities. “Erdogan has bought our leaders,” he said, giving as an example a fifty-year oil deal with Erdogan, signed by the Barzanis, Iraqi Kurdistan’s ruling family.
Several Kurdish business people shared his view, saying infrastructure and procurement contracts go to Barzani cronies who then subcontract to Turkish firms. “They do a rubbish job, these Turks, because they’re being given just a slice of the money allocated for the project. I despised Saddam because he killed so many of my people. But only Saddam’s family was corrupt. Everyone else followed the rules. If an engineer messed up, or took a bribe, Saddam let it be known that the guy had been buried alive in concrete.” Consequently, Saddam-era roads and buildings “are still pretty good compared to the crap built now.”
Trump and Erdogan talk at NATO summit meeting, July, 2018. ABACA/Press Association. All rights reserved.There are 18 Turkish military bases within Iraqi Kurdistan, hunting the PKK, and since 2015, there have been hundreds of aerial attacks by Turkey, resulting in the deaths of 460 Kurdish civilians. In January, a crowd protested outside one of the bases, claiming that every Kurdish family in the area had lost someone because of Turkey’s inaccurate bombing campaign. The Turks shot one of the protesters dead, injuring ten others.
On the top of a mountain is a sprawling compound, memorializing the Barzani family; three enormous pavilions, with a restaurant that can feed a thousand at a sitting. The lawns are emerald green against the surrounding dun-coloured hills, while the empty buildings are kept cool in summer and warm in winter. We were the only visitors to Kurdistan’s own corner of North Korea that day.
Kurdish institutions are so distrusted that few keep money in a bank. In restaurants, female diners carry big handbags containing the sum total of their family’s wealth, in case a burglar breaks into their home while they are out.
“We made matters worse for ourselves,” the real estate developer commented. “The Barzanis want to go down in history as the leaders who delivered Kurdish independence. So, against the advice of America and Europe, they held a non-binding referendum in 2017. It caused a bust-up with Baghdad, and they closed our airport and sealed us off for six months.”
When I asked about the vote, he sniggered, “The Germans think they’re so clever because they know the result of their elections within a few hours. But that’s nothing: we Kurds know our results three months before the polls open.” His smile faded as he considered how vulnerable the people of northern Syria and Iraq will be when the Americans leave, and the Kurdish Peshmerga is attacked by Daesh and the Turks. As for the prospect of Iran tightening its grip on Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, he said, “My son has tried to sneak into Britain to find work on seven occasions. He’s failed every time, but I’ll be giving him money to try again.”