Mark Collins – What Future For the Sunni Arabs of the Levant and Mesopotamia? What State(s)? And the Caliphate

Extensive excerpts from a major Globe and Mail article by Mark MacKinnon, fine journalism.  One can only feel a pall of almost impenetrable pessimism, particularly now that ISIS has changed the game by mass killings well beyond the immediate territory of its Caliphate:

On the trail of terror

almost all of the 1.1 million refugees in Lebanon – like the bulk of the 750,000 refugees in Jordan – had fled the Syrian army, not IS (the two million refugees in Turkey are a different matter, since most people fleeing IS-controlled eastern Syria would likely head there). Those were the Syrian army’s bullets, not Da’esh’s, shooting best friends where they stood, and tearing off jaws. The Syrian army, not incidentally, answers to commanders who are Alawite by faith, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

The rage those experiences produce – an anger that the Palestinian experience has taught us will be passed on for generations – is what IS feeds off. While the West debates shutting its borders to refugees over a single, suspiciously intact Syrian passport, the wars in Syria and Iraq are still producing thousands of new refugees and internally displaced people every day. And luring people like the Paris attacker to join the jihad

The vast majority of Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslims, whether they are fleeing IS or Mr. al-Assad’s forces and their Shia militia allies from Iran and Lebanon. The same holds true in Iraq, where refugees I’ve met in the camps of Kurdistan tell chilling stories of IS brutality. But ask them why locals did not resist IS when the extremists arrived in Mosul and other cities, and they switch to tales of how Iraq’s Sunnis were persecuted by Iraq’s Shia-dominated military before IS arrived. 

To the West, the IS militants are unqualified barbarians. In parts of Iraq and Syria, they are seen as needed protection against a sectarian foe… 

The Sunni Awakening bested al-Qaeda in Iraq, but not [the then prime minister, Shia] Mr. al-Maliki. By 2013, the Iraqi government had disbanded the Sons of Iraq. The Sunni militias were no longer in charge of the streets of Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi. Mr. Maliki’s Shia-dominated army was the only force allowed to publicly bear arms. Refugees fleeing the IS takeover of Mosul would later tell me how the Iraqi army would detain and sometimes torture young men simply because they had Sunni names.

Iraq’s descent back into chaos happened as Syria’s civil war – which had begun when Mr. al-Assad’s soldiers opened fire on peaceful (and predominantly Sunni) demonstrators at the end of the “Arab Spring” in 2011 – was entering a dangerous new phase. Proof emerged that his forces had used chemical weapons in the summer of 2013 against something that still existed then: religiously moderate Sunni rebels.

…the refugee children’s parents, in the fall of 2013, saw hope in the expected Western military action against the al-Assad regime. “Everybody is waiting for the strike,” said Mahmoud Hoshan, a refugee who ran a mobile-phone shop in the camp. “We don’t want to be disappointed. People are selling their things, getting ready to go back.” 

But the West, as we know, backed down. Russian President Vladimir Putin offered both his ally, Mr. al-Assad, and Mr. Obama an off-ramp from conflict – a deal to remove chemical weapons from the country – and both sides gratefully took it. 

The war would continue. The al-Assad regime would use barrel bombs instead of chlorine gas…

To Mr. Obama, it probably looked like he was avoiding Mr. Bush’s mistakes, not to mention keeping a war-weary United States out of another intractable Middle Eastern conflict. But to the Sunnis fighting Mr. al-Assad – who briefly looked to the skies hoping American jets were coming to save them – it was a huge betrayal. After all, imaginary chemical weapons had been enough to trigger the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of a Sunni dictator. Now the use of real ones (against a Sunni population) was being allowed to go unpunished in Syria… 

In the fall of 2013, IS was one militia among many in Syria’s conflict. Nine months later, by the summer of 2014, it had largely subsumed the local al-Qaeda affiliate, and had taken over territory from the edge of Aleppo to the outskirts of Baghdad… 

IS has…a pool of anger and resentment to draw on, young Muslims who now see the conflict as civilizational, rather than a beef with the U.S. government and its military. The Koran and its more dangerous interpretations have been with us for centuries. There is nothing new about the ideology of IS, the idea of a caliphate or the need to wage jihad against all non-believers.

…As the Paris attacks demonstrated yet again, refugees are not the worry – at least not yet. As with the Madrid and London attacks in 2004 and 2005 and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January [all al Qaeda], nearly all the perpetrators were born, bred, marginalized and radicalized in the European societies they attacked. The kerosene was everywhere; IS only provided the match…

There is no prescription here [this article]. Only a warning, a feeling I picked up during that ill wind that blew me from the Bekaa Valley to Brussels, via Paris. 

It’s a simple one: Worse lies ahead down the road that world leaders are currently plotting. A Russian-French agreement to work together to punish IS, while necessarily empowering the remnants of the al-Assad regime to expand back into parts of the country where it is feared and reviled, will not stem the refugee flow from Syria. Nor will it convince the country’s Sunni Muslims that we care about their interests. The same applies in Iraq, where we bolster the Kurds and a hated national army against IS there. 

“Why don’t they stay and fight for their country?” is one barb often aimed at the young men fleeing Iraq and Syria. 

The root of the problem is, they don’t have one. 

Except that some may turn to the Caliphate.  And, as the article highlights, it has not been primarily the West’s actions stirring up these Sunni Arabs.  Even more important is the Islamic 30 Years War.

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


23 thoughts on “Mark Collins – What Future For the Sunni Arabs of the Levant and Mesopotamia? What State(s)? And the Caliphate”

  1. One way of looking at things:

    (With full acknowledgements to whoever wrote this)

    A highly restricted briefing document on Syria:

    President Assad (who is bad) is a nasty guy who got so nasty his people rebelled and the Rebels (who are good) started winning (hurrah!).

    But then some of the rebels turned a bit nasty and are now called the Islamic State (who are definitely bad!) and some continued to support democracy (who are still good).

    So the Americans (who are good) started bombing Islamic State (who are bad) and also giving arms to the Syrian Rebels (who are good) so they could fight Assad (who is still bad) – which was good.

    By the way, there is a breakaway state in the north run by the Kurds who want to fight IS – Islamic State – (which is a good thing) but the Turkish authorities think they are bad, so we have to say they are bad whilst secretly thinking they’re good and giving Turkey guns to fight IS (which is good) but that is another matter.

    Getting back to Syria.

    So President Putin (who is bad, cos he invaded Crimea and the Ukraine and killed lots of folks including that nice Russian man in London with polonium poisoned sushi), has decided to back Assad (who is still bad) by attacking ISIS (who are also bad) which is sort of a good thing.

    But Putin (still bad) thinks the Syrian Rebels (who are good) are also bad, and so he bombs them too, much to the annoyance of the Americans (who are good) and who are busy backing and arming the Rebels (who are also good).

    Now Iran (who used to be bad, but since they have agreed not to build any nuclear weapons and bomb Israel are now considered good) are going to provide ground troops to support Assad (still bad) as are the Russians (bad) who now have ground troops and aircraft in Syria.

    So a Coalition of Assad (still bad), Putin (extra bad) and the Iranians (good, but in a bad sort of way) are going to attack IS (who are bad) which is a good thing, but also the Syrian Rebels (who are good) which is bad.

    Now the British (obviously good, except that nice Mr Corbyn in the corduroy jacket, who is probably bad) and the Americans (also good) cannot attack Assad (still bad) for fear of upsetting Putin (bad) and Iran (good/bad) and they have to now accept that Assad might not be that bad after all compared to IS (who are super bad).

    So Assad (bad) is now probably good, being better than IS (but let’s face it, drinking your own wee is better than supporting IS, so no real choice there) and since Putin and Iran are also fighting IS that may now possibly make them Good.

    America (still Good) will find it hard to arm a group of rebels being attacked by the Russians for fear of upsetting Mr Putin (now Good) and that nice mad Ayatollah in Iran (also Good) and so America may be forced to say that the Rebels are now Bad, or at the very least abandon them to their fate. This will lead most of them to flee to Turkey and on to Europe (bad) or join IS (still the only constantly bad group).

    To Sunni Muslims, an attack by Shia Muslims (Assad and Iran) backed by Russians will be seen as something of a Holy War, and the ranks of IS will now be seen by the Sunnis as the only Jihadis fighting in the Holy War and hence many Muslims will now see IS as Good (Doh!)

    Sunni Muslims will also see the lack of action by Britain and America in support of their Sunni rebel brothers as something of a betrayal (might have a point) and hence we will be seen as Bad.

    So now we have America (now bad) and Britain (also bad) providing limited support to Sunni Rebels (bad) many of whom are looking to IS (good/bad) for support against Assad (now good) who, along with Iran (also good) and Putin (also now, unbelievably, good) are attempting to retake the country Assad used to run before all this started.

    I hope that clears all this up for you.

    With full acknowledgements to whoever wrote this, which simply turned up on my email”

    2015 and all that, Good Thing-wise:

    Mark Collins

  2. It only seems confusing because the western MSM has done a fabulous job of spreading completely wrong information. It should be said that the very confused White House has been a prime contributor of that false information and the MSM has been guilty of stenography.

    First the Prime Minister and Defence Minister are both Sunni as are some other leaders in Syria as well as members of other faiths. Second the Syrian constitution has already been changed (2012) to fix the problems that the Sunnis wanted changed. The down side is that a large number of the Sunnis don’t want to share power they want to be the only power. The up side is that every day there are fewer and fewer of them left. Iran, Hezbollah and Russia wouldn’t be there if out side actors hadn’t armed the opposition to bring down the only secular state in the region.'s_Council_of_Syria

  3. Canada following German lead ‘twould seem:

    “Justin Trudeau to pull fighter jets, keep other military planes in ISIS fight
    ‘No pressure’ [but what implications drawn?] from allies to reconsider taking fighter jets out of Syria, PM’s adviser says

    The Liberal government will withdraw Canada’s fighter jets from the fight against ISIS, but CBC News has learned that not all military aircraft will be pulled from the mission in Iraq and Syria.

    The Department of National Defence said Thursday [Nov. 26] that while the CF-18s will be withdrawn from the U.S.-led coalition combat mission, other planes — two Auroras, which are surveillance aircraft, two transport planes and a Polaris in-flight refuelling plane — will still fly alongside our allies…”

    How typically Canadian in a way–we won’t kill people, we’ll just help other Western countries kill people (all Kurdish considerations aside). Sweet, eh? And the Germans are a very different historical case.

    Compare our government with UK PM Cameron in the British House:

    ‘… “We shouldn’t be content with outsourcing our security to our allies. If we won’t act now, when our friend and ally France has been struck in this way, then our friends and allies can be forgiven for asking: if not now, when?”..’


    Mark Collins

  4. ISIS, or, and now some serious reality:

    “Unwinnable War Two

    the political strategy almost makes the military one look as if it lacks stupidity. It calls for making allies of regional unfriends like Assad, Putin and maybe Iran, to whom the reassertion of Sunni power in Mesopotamia is anathema. It also calls for the reconciliation of unfriends of unfriends such as Erdoğan with Putin, a quixotic project even before the Turks shot down a Russian jet; Erdoğan has winked at IS activity on and within his borders, both to pander to Islamists in Turkey and as a counterweight to Kurdish separatism. Local stakeholders include Islamic Front, which seeks a non-democratic Islamic theocracy with the backing of our Saudi friends. Jaysh al-Mujahideen, insofar as it still exists, opposes not only IS but the Turks’ counter-insurgency against the Kurds.

    Out of this it’s expected that a political solution will crystallise, in which Assad will play a key role while also standing down for a post-incumbency career in The Hague. The International Syria Support Group, lauded by Cameron in his answer to the FAC [UK House Foreign Affairs Select Committee], foreses political negotiations before the end of this year, leading to free elections in eighteen months. Somehow this will hobble homegrown Western jihadism, too, and notwithstanding IS affiliate activity in Yemen, Nigeria, Egypt and elsewhere. Costs, human and other, can balloon ad libitum.

    This is not realism, but surrealism. It can be made sense of only expressively. After Paris, civilisation demands futile acts of symbolic violence. Raqqa contains upwards of 300,000 civilians. Doubtless some of them back IS, or would do if allowed to grow up, and anyway are guilty by proximity if not association. The odd ‘precision’ missile may go astray, and splatter a school or hospital together with its inhabitants as in Kunduz. Quibbling that the project of bombing Syria back to civilisation – so successful in Iraq and Libya – rests on no coherent political or military strategy, is as welcome in Washington, Whitehall and the Quai d’Orsay as a cactus in a condom. As Talleyrand said of the Bourbons, western policy-makers have learned nothing; unlike the Bourbons, though, they’ve also remembered nothing.”


    Mark Collins

  5. RCAF bombing to stop fairly soon,

    whilst NATO wants us to expand training beyond Kurds:

    Mark Collins

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