Reframing the Current Crisis in Iraq

Eugenio Lilli, PhD Candidate, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London and Chair of the KCL US foreign policy research group. Follow me on Twitter @EugenioLilli and on

During the past few months, politicians, media outlets, and pundits alike have framed the current crisis in Iraq in a seemingly straightforward fashion.

The popular narrative goes as follows: a barbaric, Islamic extremist group, called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), has established control over areas astride the border between Syria and Iraq. Vastly larger, but mostly ineffective, Iraqi armed forces have not been able to stop the ISIS advance whose militants have come close to reaching the outskirts of the capital Baghdad. Iraq, vexed by ineluctable sectarian conflict, now stands on the brink of civil war. However, the ISIS threat goes beyond the area it currently controls. In fact, the ISIS has ostensibly displayed global ambitions: its leadership has announced the creation of an Islamic caliphate and has called on Muslims worldwide to vow allegiance to its self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

There are at least three aspects of this popular narrative that are inaccurate and somewhat misleading.

1) First aspect: the current crisis in Iraq is all about the ISIS.

Although the ISIS has undoubtedly achieved the status of “ the public face” of the Iraqi insurgency, it could hardly be described as the only actor involved in the fighting. Reliable accounts, in fact, provide evidence that the insurgency in Iraq is a complex aggregation of diverse militant Sunni groups. An all but complete list of these groups includes, along with the ISIS, other Islamist extremist factions (such as Ansar al-Islam), the Military Council of the Tribes of Iraq (that comprises as many as eighty tribes), and the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order (a militant group that claims to have Kurdish and Shiite members and surely hosts many Sunni Baathists once loyal to the regime of Saddam Hussein). Notably, antipathies exist among members of this heterogeneous alliance. As an example, some Islamic extremist groups consider former Baathists to be infidels.

2) Second aspect: the root causes of the current crisis in Iraq mostly stem from religion and sectarian tensions.

Although the armed confrontation in Iraq has indeed pitted a Sunni insurgency against Shiite and Kurdish forces, the current conflict is by no means a theological confrontation rooted in the seventh century. The root causes behind the fighting are primarily political. Sunni political grievances include: fair access to government revenue and services, a say in the process of national decision-making, an end to rampant corruption in the Shiite-led government, and a modicum of social justice. These are clearly secular and not religious grievances. Notably, they are not new grievances either. During the last years of the George W. Bush presidency, in fact, the United States already acknowledged the existence of a number of such potentially destabilizing issues. Tellingly, embedded in the eighteen political “benchmarks” identified at the time by the United States to foster political reconciliation in Iraq, there were laws to distribute oil revenue equitably and provisions to reverse the purge of Baathists from government positions.

3) Third aspect: the goal of the ISIS leadership is to create a global caliphate.

It is true that the ISIS has announced the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in the territories the group has seized in Iraq and Syria. It is also true that the ISIS leadership has asked Muslims living beyond the areas under its direct control to swear their allegiance to the new caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. However, there are clear limits to the ISIS capability to achieve global reach. To begin with, the ISIS has scored its major military successes in areas where local populations were mostly friendly to the insurgency. ISIS is going to face a stiffer resistance in Shiite and Kurdish majority areas. Moreover, and this is linked to points 1 and 2, the current Iraqi insurgency is primarily a marriage of convenience. Cooperation among the above mentioned unlikely Sunni allies will probably terminate as soon as the common Shiite enemy is defeated. Ensuing infighting will likely weaken the insurgency and degrade its ability to seize additional territory. Furthermore, the appeal of the ISIS to Sunni communities in the wider Middle East should not be overestimated. Moderate Sunnis might not feel comfortable with ISIS extremist doctrine and tactics. Finally, the international coalition that is presently forming under the aegis of the United States will represent a huge obstacle not only to the ISIS potential expansionist goals but also to the extremist group’s very existence.

What does this tell us about the way the international community should respond to the current crisis in Iraq? I see at least two important implications:

1) The international community would be mistaken in considering the Iraqi insurgency solely, or primarily, as a terrorist threat.

2) Any international military intervention in Iraq must be followed by a serious long-term commitment by the international community to facilitate sectarian reconciliation and to pressure the government in Baghdad to resolve the political grievances that fueled the Sunni insurgency in the first place.


‎Is blowing up social media an act of war?

We find ourselves on the cusp of another significant military intervention in Iraq. When last we met here in 2003 it was over the question of the threat posed by the supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction held by Saddam Hussein. Today it is in response to the use of a social media as a weapon of mass effect. If the calculus for war was incorrect at that time, to varying degrees of negative consequence depending on the party, then we should take the time to consider whether the threat against which we propose to act is correctly framed and understood. Read, reply here and join the discussion at #CCLKOW.


At the very heart of what the military professional does is the moral authority of the sober calculus between war and peace. Taking life being the first and most basic restriction we commonly acknowledge, the justifications to do so must be serious. We should not be in the business of asking fellow citizens to do such things lightly. Hence such ideals and guides as just war. Rather, however, than consider our moral correctness in responding to the Group Formerly Known as — and Now Referred to as — [1],  I would prefer to examine the claims that THEIR actions of late demand a response which makes use of, as one pundit put it, “every force at our disposal.” Does THIS GROUP’s actions rise to the level of an act of war?

The execution of lone citizens, bereft of any consolation of camaraderie or deed in defence, in desolate surroundings, is just one type of the extreme perceived brutality THAT GROUP seeks to impose upon its enemy audience. Even as many eschew the actual images, just knowing about the event now is enough to feel the agony that situation must have evoked and inspire justified anger. And right we should feel that way, for the sake of our humanity – if you do not, I should like to weep for you and maybe also put you in a cage.

Certainly these images shock, offend, anger and infuse with righteousness. As individuals.

As individuals is not, however, the way in which the state is meant to think and behave. The state represents the whole, and for good reason. The whole has an entirely different set of needs and qualities. The whole is greater than the sum of our fears and grievance; it is also the sum (and more) of our strengths.

Let’s be clear. Lone Americans or Britons or Japanese, et al, will always be vulnerable to THEY WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED. Their respective countries? I am going to be bold and say no. [2]

I have in the past discussed the use of traditionally non-threatening acts such as auto accidents as acts of war. As well, I have examined the role of sub rosa conflict. I am perfectly happy to grant the asymmetrical actor his due in pursuing war according to the means he finds handy and effective. [3]

However, whether such ‎acts are a reasonable threat to the target societies – and thus demand a use of force in keeping with such a challenge – has not been at the forefront of the discussion. Because the actions are so brazen and awful they have assumed a weight and authority which seems unassailable. That is a dangerous path to the use of force and the recourse to war.

Worse, while THEY pose little risk to the West, THEY (and some others) do seem to be causing a problem for the region. THEY (and other factions) are killing their own in a heart-breaking fashion, in numbers we mostly dare not consider. And it is for this that the misconstruction of their threat is really problematic. There is a role to be played in support of local action. But that sensible action will be steamrolled by rationalised vengeance without a proper accounting of the threat. If we do not correctly apprehend the issues then our policies, strategies, and tactics will be flawed and unlikely to achieve much beyond continued chaos.

I suspect this is less a piece about a specific set of questions and more taking a moment to question the consensus. However, in honour of my place, I’ll frame the essential question in these terms:


Are we over-egging the threat pudding? And in the process, might we be forgetting the roast?



1. The article linked above is an interesting analysis of the legitimacy of THAT GROUP’s political claims regarding statehood by Lieutenant Colonel Tyrell Mayfield, a U.S. Air Force Political Affairs Strategist, There is much concern about how to name THEM and why.

2. Well, qualified no – we could certainly flail ourselves into submission.

3. And let’s be clear, the strong have every reason to use low spectrum hybrid options – the asymmetry of their obvious power superiority is at times a hindrance to action. Putin could not INVADE Ukraine, the mismatch alone would be the outrage, no matter the provocation. But he can do so in the gray zone of plausible deniability. Whether HE poses a larger threat hangs on whether Ukraine is part of a revanchist march (yes) or a means to distract domestic criticism (no, but pay attention).)


Reflections on President Obama’s IS speech

Eugenio Lilli, PhD Candidate, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London and Chair of the KCL US foreign policy research group. Follow me on Twitter @EugenioLilli and on

On September 10, US President Barack Obama delivered a speech on the threat represented by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. A lot has already been said and written about Obama’s four-point strategy to tackle the IS.

In this blog post, I would like to draw your attention on two aspects that have received less coverage but that I believe to be quite important nonetheless.



First, Obama said: “Now let’s make two things clear: IS is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of IS’s victims have been Muslim. And IS is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. IS is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

For President Obama, the Islamic State is “a terrorist organization, pure and simple”. This is a clear oversimplification of a much more complex phenomenon. As we know, the IS includes former Iraqi Baath party members and Iraqi Sunni tribesmen that do not squarely fit Obama’s definition of terrorists and are not simply fighting or supporting the IS for the sake of slaughtering all who stand in their way. My concern is that by narrowly defining the IS threat as a terrorist threat, the US response will be inadequate to solve the crisis in the long term. The United States, in fact, may be tempted to focus too heavily on military means while discounting the importance of addressing the political, economic, and social grievances that enabled the rise of the IS in the first place.

Second, Obama said: “This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out IS wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.

Here, I am skeptical about President Obama’s description of the US counterterrorism strategy in Yemen and Somalia as “successful”. This point is also discussed in an interesting article by Hayes Brown.

As for Yemen, years of US counterterrorism have failed to eradicate the local branch of Al-Qaeda. On the contrary, National Counterterrorism Center Deputy Director Nicholas Rasmussen recently stated that “We [the United States] continue to assess that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [which is based in Yemen] remains the Al-Qaeda affiliate most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United State.”

As for Somalia, the United States has been fighting the US-designated terrorist group al-Shabaab at least since 2008. In his speech, President Obama singled out the killing of Ahmed Godane, the top commander of the group, as evidence of the effectiveness of US counterterrorism strategy in the country. However, as noted by Brown, rather than discouraging the remaining members, the killing of Godane has led al-Shabaab to quickly name a new leader and to renew its allegiance to al Qaeda.

Given the persistent threats represented by AQAP in Yemen and Al-Shabaab in Somalia, it is not straightforward to understand President Obama’s choice of these two countries as successful examples of the US strategy of counterterrorism.

These are my thoughts. Now, I would like to hear from you. What is your take on these two issues?


In Putin’s Shadow

Quick post, but there’s a very good article by Peter Pomerantsev over at The Atlantic on Russia’s new breed of information warfare. Of particular note is the speed at which the Kremlin has managed to manufacture into importance the concept of ‘Novorossiya’ as a term to define the sections of Ukraine that Russia threatens to separate from Ukraine, or annex outright. Pomerantsev’s points about wanton unreality, and the general attack on the notion of objectivity reminded me, in a tangential fashion, of one of my favourite quotes on power from the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Before continuing, I’d like to point out that this is in no way an attempt to say that anything from George R.R. Martin’s pen is directly relevant to the situation in Ukraine. Rather, it’s an interesting way to think about the interaction between power and truth, and that interaction is important in regards to Ukraine. No “What can Buffy the Vampire Slayer tell us about people dying in Donetsk?”, etc. Since the quote is well reproduced in Game of Thrones, I’ve included the clip below (Safe for work, unlike half the programme, and spoiler free):

For those without headphones at work, the books don’t delve into the riddle’s answer (although arguably the entire series is an attempt at one). Varys (a royal advisor, of sorts) tells Tyrion:

In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me- who lives and who dies?

In the TV version, this conversation continues:

Tyrion Lannister: Depends on the sellsword.
Lord Varys: Does it? He has neither crown, nor gold, nor favor with the gods.
Tyrion Lannister: He has a sword, the power of life and death.
Lord Varys: But if it’s swordsmen who rule, why do we pretend kings hold all the power? When Ned Stark lost his head, who was truly responsible? Joffrey? The executioner? Or something else?
Tyrion Lannister: I’ve decided I don’t like riddles.
Lord Varys: Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.

In my mind, if we think of the riddle as a question of power, then the answer to the riddle lies outside its formal structure. The person with the true power is Varys, because Varys is the person able to set the categories and terms which constitute the riddle itself. This is similar to the control of belief and ideology epitomised in George Orwell’s 1984. But as a comparison to Russia’s information war, a 1984 comparison doesn’t work. Russia exercises power in setting the terms of debate, but it doesn’t control this in a unilateral fashion. Russia’s power lies in its ability to destroy or undermine faith in the truth of any basic ‘assumed’ categories present in the narratives of others. Where this connects to Pomerantsev’s piece is that he highlights the Kremlin’s ability (via Russia Today and other media channels) to introduce an inescapable element of doubt into almost every area of the debate. In other words, Russia doesn’t need to persuade, instead by coughing up enough static, it can attack the basis of discussion itself.

Controlling narratives, undermining basic precepts for discussion – it’s hard to say which is more powerful. Although nihilistic, the latter might be more important. After all, Varys’s riddle is only a puzzle if one believes that kings are the ultimate political authority, priests are holy and that merchants are rich. If one can’t trust those three basic ideas as true, then the riddle is unsolvable. The best answer to a world order dominated by rich western states which set the terms might be to destroy the assumptions upon which it operates.


Getting ready for war, this time don’t forget a plan for peace

Eugenio Lilli, PhD Candidate, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London and Chair of the KCL US foreign policy research group. Follow me on Twitter @EugenioLilli and on

At last-week’s NATO summit in Wales, the United States stepped up its diplomatic effort to form an international coalition against Islamic State (IS) forces in Iraq and Syria.

In the wake of the summit, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Poland, and Denmark will be the “core group” of a larger and extended coalition against the IS threat. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry urged NATO members to come up with concrete plans to tackle the IS: “We need to attack them in ways that prevent them from taking over territory, to bolster the Iraqi security forces and others in the region who are prepared to take them on, without committing troops of our own.” In addition, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei reportedly authorized Iranian military cooperation with the United States and the “core group” countries in Iraq. These latest diplomatic developments seems to give credit to the hypothesis that a major international military campaign against IS militants is about to begin.

While planning for war is clearly underway, not much has been said about any planning for peace. Let’s pretend for a moment that this US-led international military campaign is effective in rolling back IS forces from the territories they have seized astride Iraq and Syria. Who is going to secure and govern such territories? The Syrian Opposition Coalition? The Kurds? The Iraqi government? Whatever the case, the United States and its allies should be aware that any involvement in the current crisis in Iraq has to go well beyond the end of major military operations. In order to have a chance to be successful in the long term, any plan should include a clear commitment by the United States and its allies to continued military engagement in the region, as well as efforts to restore governance and delivery of basic services to the populace. In fact, if newly-liberated territories were to be left ungoverned and unprotected, Assad forces or IS militants could easily manage to reoccupy them, sooner rather than later.

The lack of a plan for peace, while preparing for war, is especially worrying because of its potential for blowback. Let’s take a brief look at three relatively recent military campaigns where an ostensibly effective strategy for war was not followed by a clear plan for peace.

In the 1980s, the United States supported an armed insurgency in Afghanistan against the local communist-led government and the Soviet Union. US officials set up a particularly complex but efficient system to provide economic and military assistance to a number of very diverse Afghan militant groups. US strategy was eventually successful insofar as, on 15 February 1989, the last Soviet troops were forced to abandon Afghanistan. However, the United States had no equally effective peace plan for post-conflict Afghanistan. On the contrary, after the Soviet withdrawal, Washington quickly disengaged from the country. Partly because of that, Afghanistan plunged into a protracted bloody civil war that eventually led to the rise of the Taliban regime.

On 19 March 2003, the United Stated began a military campaign against the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. US military operations led to the quick defeat of the Hussein regime by May 1 of the same year. However, many studies of the US invasion of Iraq have provided extensive evidence that the United States had no well-designed peace plan for the country. The lack of such a plan resulted in a costly US military occupation and a decade of continued instability, the negative effects of which are still present in today’s Iraq in the form of Shiite-Sunni sectarian tensions and the rise of the Islamic State.

After exactly eight years, on 19 March 2011, the United States took part in a UN-sanctioned NATO-led military campaign in support of a popular uprising in Libya. Western military superiority was decisive in helping a fledging Libyan opposition to overthrow the regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi. However, the United States and the other members of the coalition were again quick to disengage from the country they had just helped to liberate. Since then, Libya has been plagued by growing violence and unrest that have driven the North-African country toward an all-out civil war and made the possibility of state breakdown very real.

All that considered, the old saying “once you break it, you own it” appears particularly appropriate. In fact, to get involved in the “war phase” of a crisis without being ready, or willing, to commit the same amount of resources to the “peace phase” of it is likely to have extremely negative consequences, not only for the country experiencing the crisis but also for those countries that decided to intervene in support of one or the other warring party.

The latest international diplomatic moves tell us that the likelihood of a major military campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria is very high. Let’s see if this time, while preparing for a difficult war, leaders in Washington will also find the time to work out a much needed plan for peace.

Eliminate IS

Operation Eliminate the ‘Islamic State’!

Dr. Andreas Krieg, Lecturer Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, Qatar Armed Forces – @andreas_krieg

The ‘Islamic State’ (IS), the self-declared caliphate of believers, continues to rage across the Levant leaving behind a trace of blood and destruction. Ethnic cleansing, mass-executions, rape and other horrific war crimes have become the trademark of an organization trampling Islamic values under foot. While Western publics got used to these atrocities, they have now been roused from a doze of general apathy by the carefully staged and broadcasted beheading of another US journalist in Syria. Sotloff’s cruel execution follows last month’s ferocious beheading of James Foley – both videos are a graphic demonstration of power amid superpower impotence exercised by an organization of merely a few thousand ideologically motivated thugs. Both times, the mummed executioner directly addressed the US President, calling on the superpower to stop its military operation against the ‘caliphate’. In reality, however, apart from intending to spread fear among adversaries or attracting new recruits, IS’ well-staged videos have one purpose: luring the superpower and its Western allies into escalating their military engagement in Iraq. And as it seems, Western publics take the bait. Public pressure on US President Obama is mounting. Both Republicans and Democrats urge the President to not just contain the threat of IS but to eliminate an organization that in the hearts and minds of Western publics has become the embodiment of evil. Yet, there are few Western options for bringing down this pseudo-Islamic empire – even fewer military options. But what can the world do to stop this bloodshed?

So far, the Islamic State does not constitute a direct threat to the West, neither to Europe nor to the US. Although its foreign fighters could become future perpetrators of terror in the West, were they to return, for the time being IS’ butchery primarily concerns the people in Lebanon, Syria, Kurdistan and Iraq – and secondly, the riparian states in the region. The ‘Islamic State’ is a hollow construct, brutally trying to coerce Muslims and non-Muslims alike, into a submission to the radical utopia of a caliphate that in this shape and form has never existed. It is the chimaera of an old vanguard, nourished by decades of fruitless jihad and inspired by the transfigured interpretations of the Prophet’s teachings by unimpressive provincial clerics. The new generation of mujahedeen joining IS to follow this vanguard into abyss, are mostly disillusioned young adults barely able to speak Arabic, let alone recite Quran. They have become the willing executioners of an ideologically motivated criminal organization not just failing to respond to public grievances in the region but most importantly exacerbating public grievances in their area of responsibility. Their uncompromising application of misinterpreted divine laws does not resonate well with the millions of people IS has forced to pledge allegiance to Al Baghdadi, its wizard-in-chief. The economy in the ‘Islamic State’ lies in tatters, citizens have been deprived of their earthly pleasures and civil liberties, women and children subjected to humiliating and gruesome punishments. The little sympathy for the mujahedeen that IS might have initially enjoyed as the people’s liberator from Assad’s or Maliki’s patrimonial regimes, has vanished. In Mosul and Raqqa, the biggest cities in the Islamic State, a few thousand mujahedeen see themselves confronted with the challenge of coercing millions into allegiance whose hearts and minds they have lost a while ago. Public outreach initiatives by IS fighters distributing charity to the poor, cannot belie the long-term fragility of dissident masses being repressive ruled by a delusional band of bearded thugs. If not within the civilian population, where do the ‘Islamic State’s’ centres of gravity lie, and how can they be targeted to bring down this jihadist house of cards?

Strategically, the ‘Islamic State’ has three centres of gravity, namely what the military defines as the “source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act”. The most important strategic centre of gravity (CoG) for IS, are the Sunni tribes that have jumped on the jihadi bandwagon not based on ideological conviction but pragmatist considerations. Marginalized by a widely Shia dominated regime in Baghdad, many Sunni tribes, including members of Saddam’s Tikriti clan, have accepted IS as a vehicle to achieve their objective of ousting the sectarian patronage system permeating state institutions from Baghdad all the way to the local level. Second, IS relies on a well-established ‘jihadi highway’ that allows extra-regional recruits to join the organization. The steady flow of ideologically intoxicated, often Western youngsters making their way from Turkey to Syria, ensures that IS can keep its growing territory in check. Third, the ‘Caliphate’ can rely on an extensive self-sustaining economy of extortion financing its various activities. Although the resources might be scarce to adequately run a proper state of its current size, they generate an income that makes IS probably the most affluent jihadi organization in modern history. On the operational level, IS centre of gravity are its lines of communication enabling IS to rely on well-coordinated swarm tactics, i.e. a hybrid of traditional armoured formations supported by suicide bombers. It grants IS a high degree of manoeuvrability and operational flexibility in its rapid advances.

What good, can the West do in targeting these centres of gravity militarily, both on the strategic and operational level? The short answer is: very little. In a complex environment such as Northern Syria and Iraq, air strikes without boots on the ground can only provide cosmetic solutions at best. Even the employment of the Kurdish Peshmerga as Western proxies can only do little more than cracking the organization’s military façade. Due to its flexible operational approach, Al Baghdadi’s mujahedeen can only be contained by these external military operations, not eliminated. Armour and larger formations of fighters can be destroyed from the air, yet, in an urban environment small groups of mujahedeen become difficult to target. The unlikely alliance of the willing that has opened the front against IS in Northern Iraq, just embarked on a costly and long-lasting war of attrition that will not be won on the battlefield as long as IS’ strategic centres of gravity remain untouched. The solution to the ‘Islamic State’s’ disintegration, the elimination of its forlorn disciples as well as the burial of its crooked ideology, lies with the Sunni tribes who have provided the organization with the momentum it needed to advance. Winning over these tribesmen who are often in the fight for more autonomy and political self-determination rather than religious fanaticism, would be an approach that could eliminate this cancer from within – yet, it would be a strategy doomed to fail if pursued by the West. Given the West’s awful record of meddling with Arab and Muslim internal affairs in past decades, this political solution would have to be implemented by those who first, enjoy credibility among Sunni tribes; second, are abundant with resources to support the tribes; and third, enjoy the stability within a disintegrating Middle East to commit to this solution long-term: the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).  Increasingly recognizing the immense threat emanating from IS on its doorstep, the GCC has to overcome its negligible internal differences and assume the leadership role the West groomed it for in the past decade. This means going beyond clamping down on mujahedeen trying to join the ‘Islamic State’ or drying up IS’ increasingly unnecessary external donations. The West, including Turkey, should limit their strategic activities to eliminating the ‘jihadi highway’ and ensuring that IS cannot convert its extorted rents and produced oil into war-sustaining capability. For the GCC to be able to achieve its strategic objective, the international community in general and the West in particular, would probably have to abandon the idea of Iraq as a unitary nation-state. Accepting the de facto political fragmentation of Mesopotamia might be a prerequisite to dealing with the root cause of the current conflict, which IS has hijacked for its own ideological agenda.


No Sacred Cows


Continuing the series of posts to drive professional military and scholarly discussion, this piece challenges your thinking to exceed its normal bounds and question that which you hold to be eternally true. No problems! Comment here and join the discussion on Twitter at #CCLKOW.


Battery Park City and the Port of Newark are separated by a mere five miles. However, between this short distance one spans more than three centuries of military history.

‎The former – now a forest of high rise residences – earned its name as the site of the battery of guns protecting the island of Manhattan from its earliest settlement through the first decades of the 19th century. In that period, coastal defense focused upon direct maritime threats to critical harbors and nodes. The latter represents a current front line defending the homelands. Today’s volume of transoceanic shipping has allowed people and weapons to become the deadly needle in a haystack of anonymous containers.

Within the centuries bracketed by these two points defense of the homeland at the coast has evolved through several other phases as well. Mapping the point of critical threat and necessary defense over time would make for an interesting exercise, but this shifting ‎locus of effort has deeper significance as a symbol of the relentless and ceaseless march of change across warfare. Yes, warfare is marked by many important constants, but its greater character is entirely mutable. What worked yesterday may seem quaint today and novel tomorrow.

So, to today’s questions, which are intended to drag you in entirely two different directions:

1. That thing which you hold to be sacrosanct in warfare – from strategy to tactics, doctrine to weapons, soup to nuts – is now irrelevant. You don’t defend the homeland with local artillery any longer, right? What might replace it? Why?

2. Alternatively‎, give a thought to those local batteries. The examples of Mumbai and Benghazi point to the rise of local, lightly armed threats to urban centres, with rivers/harbours providing infiltration points. Such developments would make battery parks relevant to the defense of the urban landscape again. What other “relics” of past warfare might be on the rise?



The Troubled Past of Foreign Relations with the Kurds

Eugenio Lilli, PhD Candidate, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London and Chair of the KCL US foreign policy research group. Twitter @EugenioLilli

A few weeks ago, fighters of the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as ISIS, seized control of significant swaths of territory in northern Iraq. Ostensibly to stop the IS offensive toward the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil and to provide indispensable humanitarian relief to thousands of displaced civilians, the international community soon mobilized.

US President Barack Obama ordered targeted airstrikes against IS forces and humanitarian air drops in northern Iraq. The US administration also began to send hundreds of military advisors and weapons to help the Kurdish peshmerga in their effort to fight the Islamists back.

French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron said their countries were also ready to supply arms and other forms of aid to Iraq’s Kurds. Similarly, in a meeting in Brussels, the foreign ministries of  EU countries agreed to arm the Kurdish forces.

There have been speculations that the current international support for Iraqi Kurds could translate in the near future into international support for a Kurdish breakaway from Iraq and the formation of an independent Kurdish homeland.

What does the 20th century history of  Kurdish relations with foreign powers tell us about such a possibility?

After the end of World War I, the victorious Allied powers met to dismember the vast territories of a defeated Ottoman Empire. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres proposed the creation of an autonomous homeland for the Kurdish people. Noticeably, this proposed Kurdistan would not include the Kurdish communities of Iran, French-controlled Syria, and British-controlled Iraq but would grant the Kurds control of an area on what is now Turkish territory. The Allies also made quite clear that they would not provide military or financial assistance to the fledging Kurdish state. As a consequence, it did not take long before Kemal Ataturk’s Turkish nationalist forces, who strongly opposed the recognition of autonomy to ethnic or cultural minorities within Turkey, violently dashed Kurdish hopes for an autonomous homeland.

In 1946, when Soviet troops were still occupying northern Iran, the Soviet Union encouraged Iran’s Kurds to form an autonomous state entity. In doing so, Soviet leaders were reaffirming the longstanding Czarist Russia’s objective of exerting influence on Iranian territory. The resulting Kurdish Mahabad Republic was short-lived though. Under increasing US and British pressure, in fact, the Soviet Union was eventually compelled to withdraw its troops from Iran. Abandoned by their foreign patron, the Kurds were left defenseless against the subsequent offensive mounted by Iranian government forces.

During 1974-75, Iran, with US and Israeli blessing, supported a Kurdish uprising against Iraq’s central government. Iranian leaders were only too willing to seize any opportunity of weakening their rivals in Baghdad. However, in a sudden about-face, Iran concluded a treaty with Iraq, known as the Algiers Agreement, where Teheran pledged to cease assisting the Kurds’ rebellion in Iraq. The agreement resulted in the quick end of the uprising and the forced relocation of more than 250,000 Kurds from northern Iraq to other areas of the country. 

In the 1980s, the United States and the Soviet Union played Iran and Iraq against each other as part of their cold-war struggle for global dominance. Iraq’s Kurds rose up again in a renewed effort to gain independence. The Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein responded by using chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels. In one particularly infamous case, the use of poison gas by Iraqi armed forces led to the death of at least 5,000 civilians in the Kurdish city of Halabja. Confronted with such a blatant violation of international law, the international community stayed silent.

Again, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the United States instigated Iraqi Kurds to take arms against the regime of Saddam Hussein. However, by the end of February of that year, US President George H.W. Bush abruptly halted Operation Desert Storm thus providing the opportunity to the Iraqi military to regroup and crash the Kurdish upheaval in the north. Fearing a repetition of the terrible events of the 1980s, two million Kurds escaped toward the Turkish and Iranian borders; at least 20,000 of them died in trying to do so.

Even today, while the international community has declared its willingness to provide military and humanitarian assistance to Iraq’s Kurds in their fight against the Islamic State, important international actors, including the United States, are contributing to a problem that is weakening the Kurds at their most vulnerable moment: the Kurds, in fact, are running out of money. The Iraqi central government is required to share oil revenues with the Kurdish regional government in Erbil, but Kurdish authorities have stated that authorities in Baghdad have failed to do so recently. At the same time, the US administration and others have stopped Kurds’ attempts to sell oil of their own. Tellingly, a tanker carrying about $100 million worth of Kurdish oil is currently sitting off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico unable to unload its valuable cargo. For the Kurds, reaching economic self-sufficiency would undoubtedly represent an essential step toward achieving political independence.

This all but complete historical overview clearly shows that the relations between the Kurds and foreign powers have been characterized by a pattern of cynical exploitation and cold abandonment. If I were a Kurd, I would be extremely skeptical about the possibility that the current international mobilization will translate into genuine future support for the creation of an independent Kurdish homeland.

Qatar Doha Andreas Krieg

#Reminder: Qatar’s Foreign Policy: Islamists YES – Islamic State NO

Dr. Andreas Krieg, Lecturer Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, Qatar Armed Forces – @andreas_krieg

In recent weeks, Qatar has come under criticism once more – this time not for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, or for the inhumane working conditions of many local labourers, and also not for alleged unorthodox practices when it came to winning the bid for the FIFA World Cup 2022. This time criticism revolves around Qatar’s alleged support for the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) as the world’s current ‘empire of evil’. This time, it is not Qatar’s neighbours who engage in public ‘Qatar-bashing’ but Western politicians, blogs and social media outlets. These unsubstantiated allegations if echoed often enough, might develop into just another cyber-myth surrounding the rich Gulf Emirate.

Based on the populist image that has been drawn by Western media, Qatar is ruled by an ultra-conservative, Wahabist family who ideologically subject the country’s foreign and security policy to spreading radical Islam. In fact, Qatar has supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and affiliate groups in Libya and Syria; it supports the Brotherhood’s Palestinian offspring Hamas, as well as backed jihadi militants in the Libyan and Syrian Civil War. Based on this observation experts believe to have identified a trend whereby Qatar’s foreign and security policy is increasingly ideologically motivated by radical Islamist considerations. In so doing, media reports lump together Islamist political parties, charity organizations or religiously motivated opposition forces and Al Qaeda. More recently, in many reports, particularly at the more conservative end of the spectrum, the distinction between political Islam and global jihadi organizations such as IS, completely vanished. Despite its development into an established, respected and sustainable political power in the Arab World, political Islam and its role in the Arab public sphere has been discredited. Yet, it is important to differentiate between those Islamists that primarily cater for the inclusive provision of public goods or adl (social justice), and those subordinating common good with brute force to the fanaticism of a minority. Although IS has realized in the meantime that the administration of territory and people requires more than terror and brute force, its mujahedeen nonetheless belong to the latter group.

These nuances are important to understand when judging Qatar’s raison d’état post-Arab Spring. As a small peninsula at the Gulf, wedged between the regional superpowers of Iran and Saudi Arabia, Qatar traditionally had to choose between autonomy and influence when defining its foreign and security policy. Influence meant typically having to bandwagon along Saudi Arabia as its bigger brother, thereby relinquishing its autonomy in parts. Achieving autonomy, on the other hand, was tantamount with the loss of influence, resulting in an augmented sense of insecurity. The Father Emir, who handed over his rule to his son Sheikh Tamim last year, tried in his reign to overcome this dilemma by establishing Qatar as an independently acting, yet influential regional player – a player who autonomously from the sometimes counterproductive ideological conventions of Riyadh approaches foreign and security policy with a degree of pragmatism. Fuelled by the sheer unlimited wealth generated from its hydrocarbon resources, Qatar managed to not only attract the US as its external protector or open an Israeli trade office, but also to build relations with the Taliban and Hamas as well as reach out to Hezbollah and the Houthis when needed. The hedging of international and transnational relations was the direct path to transform neutrality into influence.

The Arab Spring seemingly created new opportunities for Qatar to expand its influence. The region threatened to sink further into the authoritarian quagmire and Qatar’s neighbours adopted a growingly hostile stance towards the dawn of democratization on the horizon. Qatar on the contrary, saw the developments as a chance to buy credit and trust from those that it deemed to be the region’s future decision-makers: the Arab publics who had taken to the streets. Qatar decided to support those groups and organizations who it thought could most effectively fulfil the people’s demand for more social justice. A new maxim in Qatar’s foreign and security policy emerged: to align with those forces who could most effectively, sustainably and inclusively provide social justice and security (adl wa al-amin). This maxim was not just inspired by the altruistic decision to do what is right, but by the pragmatic attempt to gain influence as a small state. Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its Islamist offshoots in other countries, can be partially explained by these pragmatist considerations. As the only opposition force amid decades of tyranny able to provide public goods inclusively to the masses whenever states were unwilling or unfit to do so, Islamism was regarded by Qatar as the people’s natural choice to be supported. In countries where the path to more social justice remained obstructed by tyrannical regimes refusing to step down, like in Libya and Syria, Qatar intended to support those militant groups that with discipline, morale and experience could most effectively engage regime forces militarily: jihadist fighters who regarded the liberation of their home country from authoritarian oppression as their personal duty under Islam such as the Tawhid Brigades in Northern Syria.

The ‘Islamic State’ is neither an organization that caters for the common good of the masses, nor an organization in which Syrians or Iraqis fight to liberate their homeland. IS is an organization of fanatic, extremist mercenaries, who under the banner of the Prophet, claim to establish what can only be described as a scurrile caricature of the once mighty caliphate. Thereby the self-proclaimed mujahedeen go against all conventions of what is commonly accepted as moral interpersonal or interstate behaviour. Thus, while some wealthy Qataris have privately funded IS’ predecessors in Iraq and Syria, the State of Qatar has not done so, knowing that this organization stands in opposition to Qatar’s raison d’état. Actively supporting a transnational or even global jihadist organization such as IS rejecting the legitimacy of the current regional international set-up, would be pragmatically and ideologically suicidal for Qatar. Qatar would further lose the hearts and minds of the people in the region, alienate its allies in the West and the GCC while gaining little more than the influence over a group of extremist thugs that in the eyes of Qatar’s pious leadership, negate fundamental principles of Islam. In respect to IS, Qatar stands firmly with the rest of the Arab World and the GCC making the containment of IS a foreign and security policy priority. In the meantime, Qatar has realized that the future of the Arab World belongs to the individual in a growing Arab public sphere. In the long-run, power in the Arab World will not be in the hands of autocratic tyrants but those who can cater for the needs of the majority. Qatar will continue support those who cater for the greatest possible number of people in their area of responsibility – even if that means supporting Islamist groups such as Hamas.




Start Running

It appears that a British citizen, “John”, was responsible for the murder of US journalist James Foley. No, there will be no link to the video here. Questions abound regarding Foley’s death – did America mess up a rescue attempt earlier this summer? was it the result of a failed shakedown? – as does analysis of its possible strategic impact. Over at War on The Rocks, Brian Fishman’s astute comments about the continuing disconnect between the end goal of “defeating” ISIS and the available means are worth repeating: “without real national consensus to sustain a strategy, there is no viable mechanism to defeat ISIL.” It seems John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, didn’t get the WOTR memo, as he resorted to quite non-diplomatic language to state (via Twitter, of course) “ISIL must be destroyed/will be crushed”. The reason that Fishman’s comments stand out in the morass of “Something must be done” commentary is that it correctly identifies the ultimate restraint on American action in Iraq (not Syria): America itself. How much will a single video change that? I don’t think that can be predicted with any accuracy, but what I do think is that “John”, and others like him, should be very, very afraid.

Earlier this summer, I wrote about a “laissez faire” policy towards the “problem” of foreign fighters from Western countries running off to fight in Syria. In a nutshell, my argument was they shouldn’t be prevented from going, but they should be warned that actions have consequences, and some form of open-source watch list should be established. Since then (well, before, even) “John” and his friends have provided us with a steady stream of video footage of ISIS members committing war crimes, carnage and, with the recent Yazidis, threatening to commit crimes against humanity. Taking a step back from the immediate strategic context and potential security challenges, I think it’s quite productive to think in terms of post-conflict justice. Hence the title for this post: over a long enough time span, ISIS’s members are pretty much screwed.

In the short term: will the British government raise a fuss if someone like “John” happens to get hit by an American bomb, or riddled with bullets by American special forces, the Peshmerga, the Iraqi army, the Syrian government, rival foreign fighters, etc? After this, I somehow doubt it. At the end of the day, the only people that can’t kill British jihadis without tripping off lawsuits are British forces, and David Cameron seems very, very wary of committing the UK to Iraq. Even if military force won’t destroy ISIS, I expect that Iraq is going to get more dangerous for anyone who fights for them. Syria isn’t exactly a safe haven, either.

The medium and long term, are, however, more interesting. After all, are the people committing war crimes going to stick around Iraq forever? I doubt it, and when the time comes to leave, they are going to have problems. At the moment security services across Europe are very worried about tracking the foreign fighters that return. One of the problems is that it’s often difficult to convict them of anything, since evidence from Syria and Iraq is scant (at the moment). Western states like Canada are finding that their laws intended to stop people fighting abroad don’t really fit with conflict in the 21st century. Many have either rushed through new legislation, or are considering it. But we don’t need new laws for war crimes – “John”, if he is indeed a British citizen, is a murderer, and we have laws that mean British citizens committing murder outside the UK can still be charged with that crime in British courts. That’s why, I think, from the perspective of justice, the deck is stacked against war criminals in jihadi groups for two reasons: politics and information.

The primary reason, I think, is that these are transnational war crimes. Every criminal tribunal prosecuting war crimes has, at some point, had to deal with the balance of justice and peace. Certainly, there can be no “true” peace after massive war crimes without a measure of justice, but at the same time, demands for justice can stoke the embers of conflict. Just look at the recent furore over amnesty in Northern Ireland. Truth commissions ostensibly privilege truth-telling and the need for clarity on behalf of victims over punitive justice. But if “John” ever returns to the UK (willingly? extradited? captured?), the English courts don’t have to concern themselves with such issues – murder is murder. If “John” happens to end up in the US, well, bad luck, I suppose. There is little political barrier to prosecution in either case.

Lack of information is a traditional shield for war criminals. The circumstances of war crimes are rarely clear cut. At this point, we don’t know that much about the leaders of ISIS, let alone who is committing which atrocity. But that’s not to say that we won’t. If King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation can identify “hidden influencers” in foreign fighter networks from open sources, then we should probably bet that behind closed doors, the security services know more about these people than they can say in public. Aspects of armed conflict that would once be witnessed by individuals alone are now captured and stuck on Youtube for the world to see. Open source citizen journalism can be remarkably effective in answering “Who? What? When? Where? How?” by locating and assembling these fragments of evidence, take, for example, Bellingcat on the recent MH17 shoot down in Ukraine. For those who commit war crimes in their 20s, we should remember that efforts are still being made to track and prosecute Nazi war criminals, some 71 years after the end of World War 2. The authorities now have a world of digital information to work with, which can be stored near-indefinitely. Foreign fighter networks operate in an environment where one hidden camera phone could produce evidence linking individuals to a war crime, that is, if they don’t film it themselves and upload it for the world to see. This means that “John”, and others like him, can’t rely on the immediate anonymity that a mask provides to protect them forever. Members of armed groups that utilise social media are, over a long enough time span, likely to be identified. I doubt that any future government will be willing to “forgive and forget” ISIS’s war crimes, which means that anybody like “John” who makes it back to the UK alive and unidentified should expect to spend the rest of their lives waiting for a knock on the door from the police. Good.