Michael Weiss is the co-author with Hassan Hassan of the New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. He is the Senior Editor at The Daily Beast and Editor of The Interpreter. Shirin Lotfi was an editorial assistant at Fathom.
Inside the Army of Terror
Shirin Lotfi: How did you come to write this book?
Michael Weiss: I’ve been covering the Syria conflict since its inception. I started with a report on the Sunni opposition in June 2011 and got sucked in. I stayed with it as the crisis went from a peaceful protest movement to an armed insurgency to a mostly Jihadi-driven conflagration. My interest in ISIS derived from my reporting in Aleppo in summer 2012. I spent the night in a town called Al-Bab with a bunch of activists, Free Syrian Army (FSA) guys; Al-Bab had just been liberated from the regime. I got there days after they booted out the Assad forces. The following morning we drove to Aleppo city, to an area called the Bab al-Hadid district which had just been taken by the FSA from the regime. I’m not a war correspondent and this was my first report into a war-zone. I interviewed people on the ground, the hosts who kept me in the safe house in Al-Bab and we became friendly and stayed in touch.
Well, not six months later, Al-Bab was seized by ISIS, almost completely quietly, without much violence. The family at whose house I stayed overnight had been driven out of the town; their home occupied by the jihadists. So there is a personal stake in this book for me. And of course there is a much greater one so for Hassan, my co-author, who is from eastern Syria, from Abu-Kamal, in fact — a border town through which jihadists have been pouring back and forth for the better part of a decade – first sent there by the Syrian Mukhaberat to blow up British and American forces, although now the traffic goes in both directions.
Because Hassan comes from a tribal area, he has great contacts within the Jazira and through him we managed to get all these interviews with the relatives of ISIS fighters and ISIS fighters themselves – a lot of them whom have been killed since we wrote our book. We opened the book with a typical foreign fighter, Abdelaziz, a Syrian by heritage who grew up in Bahrain. He wasn’t even particularly religious, but he went to Syria in 2011, worked his way through various rebel brigades, became disillusioned, then went back to Bahrain, connected with ISIS on Skype or social media, was radicalised, and went back to Syria to join ISIS.
By the time we got a hold of him he had fought in the battle of Mt. Sinjar, he had taken a Yazidi sex slave and was defending the ISIS project in terms that made him sound like a brainwashed cult member. He was eventually shot by a Syrian sniper.
Who are ISIS and how did they manage this blitzkrieg operation to conquer one third of Syria and now one third of Iraq? One of the things we try to do with the book is debunk this idea that ISIS came out of the blue. We’ve been fighting them for over a decade. First, there’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), then there’s the Mujahedin Shura Council, then there’s ISI (Islamic State of Iraq), and now it’s ISIS or the Islamic State – its latest incarnation.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was the founder. Like all totalitarian movements, they have undergone various transformations in not only their outlook, their tactics and strategies, but in the personnel –the kinds of people who run the show.
Most of the guys running ISIS were former Saddamists. They were Ba’ath Party members, they worked in the Iraqi military under Saddam, or they were Mukhabarat officers. And that is important to any understanding. It explains why they are much better than Al-Qaeda at lording over a local population, and at conducting themselves at the level of conventional warfare as well as unconventional warfare – that is to say, typical insurgency attentats, terrorist attacks, suicide bombings, VBIED attacks. Also, it explains why their informational warfare – propaganda, agitprop, as we used to say – is very sophisticated. I would argue, informed by the fact that we are talking about the Iraqi Ba’ath, trained by the Soviets.
There was a great report by my friend Christoph Reuter in Der Spiegel, about an ISIS commander called Haji Bakr who was killed a couple of years ago in Syria. Bakr established the ISIS operation in Northern Syria and Aleppo. Christoph got his hands on all these documents, showing the building of counter-intelligence structures, the various sleeper cells and the apparatuses that allowed ISIS to take over terrain. He said it was like something out of the Stasi in the 1970s.
All this must be fully appreciated before we attempt any strategy to degrade, destroy or even contain ISIS. This is not just a terrorist organisation. It is also a mafia. It is a totalitarian political project thriving in a geopolitical environment in which Sunni Muslims see themselves as disposed and disenfranchised, murdered, ethnically cleansed and the victims of chemical attacks. ISIS presents itself as their only defender, the only custodian of their future.
It’s a very intricate tapestry and one that, frankly, the United States and this coalition is unintentionally weaving for ISIS. Either by acquiescing to the Hezbollah-isation of Iraq’s security forces in the form of the creation of Hashd al-Shaabi, the consortium of Shia militia groups, many if not most of which are backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), with blood on their hands – having killed American soldiers during the occupation – or by selling a nuclear with Iran as the first step toward rapprochement with between Washington and Tehran.
SL: What was the most challenging part in writing this book? How long did the research take?
MW: The most challenging part was the fact that it had to be written in a month and I nearly had a nervous breakdown. You can ask my wife, who was six months pregnant at the time, all about that…
The research was a little bit easier because we’d been covering this for a long time, so we knew where to look and we had all these interviews under our belt already. I can say with extreme confidence that Hassan and I have never worked so hard in our lives and probably will never work so hard again. Most people have a year to do a book; we had a month to do 90,000 words.
SL: And do you find the information easily accessible or was it very challenging?
MW: I educated myself, because there was a lot about AQI I didn’t know. I wasn’t an analyst or scholar of it.
One of things we wanted to do with this book is debunk this myth that ISIS grew out of absolute enmity and antagonism towards the Syrian regime, that it is the logical conclusion of the revolution. We have a whole chapter dedicated to Bashar al-Assad’s facilitation and underwriting of AQI that ran up to about 2009, so two years before the Syrian Revolution.
Indeed, if you look at the dynamics of the war, the regime hasn’t really prioritised the fight against ISIS and where it does actually fight ISIS, it loses badly, because it doesn’t provide resupplies to its own soldiers. This sounds strange to a Western imagination, but to Assad, it was, ‘if I allow these jihadists to take over large swathes of territory, provided they’re not creeping into Damascus or trying to impinge on the strategic corridor from the capital to the coast or Lebanon — as far as I’m concerned they can take the hinterland, they can take the Jazira and the countryside. It’s no big deal, in fact it’s great because it sells the propaganda campaign, which is I’ve only been facing jihadists, that there has been no moderate position, no democratic ferment; this is a jihadist plot, suborned by the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.’
For him, it was about burning half his country in order to make a point. He didn’t really make that point – the West hasn’t embraced him – although you might say we’re objectively aligned with him in the current campaign as we’re not engaging with him or his proxies. And here we come to another reason that ISIS is thriving rather than losing.
We wanted to demystify the organisation and show them to be native, successful and with a prowess which has not been seen thus far in the annals of international terrorism.
They do have a form of government. We like to say they have not created a state, thinking that by doing so we diminish their capabilities and achievement. But they are administering terrain, charging taxation, running oil refineries, and they have a very elaborate grey and black market economy – selling oil back to state actors and para-state actors. It’s a very sophisticated project and to defeat your enemy you first have to understand it. The West still hasn’t really wrapped its head around it.
I keep telling people in government who are very interested in running a counter-propaganda campaign is that putting out tweets showing ISIS barbarism and ISIS atrocities doesn’t work. ISIS put them out anyway!
They like to exhibit their own atrocities, because that’s a recruitment driver. It galvanises the Ummah. How could the lynchings and the immolation of Jordanian pilots ever appeal to 16 year old boys in Tunisia? Well, if you’ve been indoctrinated and frankly just opened your eyes to the last decade and seen what’s happened in the region, there’s a justification for anything and everything.
By the way, ISIS are not the only ones doing this. The Shia militias are cutting people’s heads off, playing bongo drums on them and putting that stuff on Youtube and Facebook. Why are they doing that? Again, it’s a form of martial self-exhibition, designed to drum up the recruitment effort and it works.
SL: ISIS is currently present in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan. How much is Islamic State planning to conquer?
MW: We have to be careful; their propaganda says they want to take over the world. Do they have a global ambition? Of course; all movements of this ilk do. What do they think they can feasibly achieve? Frankly, I think they’ve impressed themselves with what they’ve managed to take in terms of terrain. They have about a third of Syria, they have about a third of Iraq. When Boko Haram pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi they gained about 20,000 square miles of territory in West Africa with the stroke of a pen. They have a very entrenched presence in Libya, with between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters. They’ve taken and retaken Sirte. They have a presence in Yemen, they’re in Afghanistan – where they’re fighting the Taliban and Iran. They have a presence in the Sinai Peninsula and are trying to create a faction in Gaza. In Chechnya jihadists have also pledged allegiance to ISIS, so they now have a sizeable contingent in the Russian Federation.
The reason they’re so successful is that nothing succeeds like success. They’ve managed to achieve in the space of three years what Al-Qaeda never did in 20.
Their narrative is that they are fighting a global conspiracy, led by the US and the Jews, backed by the Rafida (the bigoted term they use to describe Shia), which of course is best represented by Iran, its Alwaite client in Damascus, and its Shia proxies in Iraq and Syria including this massive sectarian army built by the IRGC, known as the National Defence Force (NDF). That narrative plays to their base.
This started in Iraq: because the Sunnis are a minority there, the only way to win is to foment an apocalyptic civil war where the Sunnis go after the Shia, the Shia militarise, radicalise and retaliate against the Sunnis, then Sunnis from around the world pour into Iraq and create a sinecure for the imminent takeover of the Middle East. Zarqawi issued a communiqué or Fatwa about the fires burning in Dabiq, this town in Aleppo where Armageddon is meant to take place.
The disciples of Zarqawi have been realising his vision well enough. He is now seen as the godfather of an extraordinarily successful and encompassing jihadist vanguard. I don’t think he, if he were alive, would even fathom what has been achieved.
The merger between the secular Ba’athist elements from Iraq and radical Islam is very, very interesting. It started under Saddam, before we went to war. The Islamic Faith Campaign, a programme to marry Ba’athism with Salafism, was inaugurated by Saddam after the successfully rebuffed invasion of Kuwait. He always knew the threat against his regime was going to come from within as much as from without – from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists – so he attempted to marry two irreconcilable ideologies, and ended up producing adherents of one at the expense of the other. He certainly wasn’t the first dictator to play with Islamic terrorism and get burned. A lot of these guys who worked in the regime, they joined the insurgency because – in another brilliant ‘stroke of the pen’ move – de-Ba’athification and the disbanding of the Iraqi military rendered them unemployed and abased. They had gone from being the equivalent of multi-millionaires with mansions all over the country, a dozen mistresses and Mercedes cars to being told to push a kebab cart for a living.
Zarqawi in 2006 realised that AQI had bitten off more than it could chew and was now seen by Iraqis as a foreign, occupying force. The way they got around that was to Iraq-ise the franchise. But, unintentionally, by Iraq-ising the franchise, the very elements of this ‘illegitimate apostate regime’ ended up taking it over. So today we see a Frankenstein – a hybrid ideological monster. We’re fighting a foe that we have known very intimately on two separate levels and have been at war with for decades.
ISIS and Iran
SL: ISIS has a bloody hatred of Shia Muslims, what is the relationship between Iran and ISIS?
MW: It was recently unearthed in his achieves that Osama Bin Laden was looking to set up an active Al-Qaeda franchise in Iran. The Iranian regime has played a very tactical game with Al-Qaeda, going back decades. If you read the 9/11 Commission report, essentially, the game is that Iran uses Al-Qaeda as leverage against the West. The Iranian attitude is if they don’t get what we want from the United States, they use Al-Qaeda; they can activate these guys, host them on Iranian soil, and train them.
To give you a recent example, the so-called Khorasan group of Al-Qaeda, dispatched from Waziristan or from Al-Qaeda’s base area of operations in AfPak into Syria to embed with Jabhat al-Nursa, the official Al-Qaeda franchise in Idlib. The late leader of the Khorasan group, Muhsin al-Fadhli was in Iran up until 2013 and the Iranians say they had him under house arrest. How did he get from Iran to Idlib if they had him under house arrest?
Even prior to this, in 2011, the US Treasury Department designated Iran-based Al-Qaeda facilitators who, Treasury said, were sending jihadists into Syria to join Jabhat al-Nusra with the full knowledge of Iranian authorities. Well, in 2011, Al-Nusra was a part of the organization we now call ISIS. Iran’s pretence of being this mighty force for Sunni jihadist counterterrorism is pure propaganda, although it certainly seems as if half of the US political establishment has swallowed it whole.
You have to appreciate the fact that Iran has inherited Iraq, or at least the power centre of the country – there’s no getting around that issue. The US is blind deaf and dumb if it thinks otherwise. We were at war with Iran during the occupation. We were fighting two enemies: AQI and the Quds Force. In fact, there were two separate tasks forces by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) devoted to countering either both threats to the sovereignty and integrity of the country. So it makes perfect sense that the Quds Force had the kind of entente cordial or some type accommodation with Salafi jihadists.
There is a myth even among so-called specialists that sectarianism governs all in the region, and it’s simply implausible that the Khomeinists would cast their lot with Sunni radicals. Well, they’ve done this before, haven’t they? Hamas is the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood arm in the Palestinian territories and yet who trained them and who financed them? Shia Iran.
A lot of the guys in the pre-9/11 period in Al-Qaeda passed in and out of Iran like it was their own back yard. Are doing this by circumventing the security services and Iranian intelligence? Or are they doing this with their understanding and even facilitation?
The Assad regime has played a similar game with Al-Qaeda going back years: propping them up, sending them off to kill Americans, and then turning to America and saying, ‘Hey, we can help you sort this problem. You just have to work with us and show yourself to be working with us to the Arab world.’ It may sound flippant to suggest that one of the world’s worst mass murdering tyrants is at bottom motivated by a need for attention, but that really does seem to be the case with Assad. The bus depot that his Mukhabarat used to ferry jihadists arriving at Damascus International Airport to eastern Syria, and then across the border — can you guess where it was located in the Syrian capital? Right across the street from the US embassy. If you know Assad, this macabre joke makes perfect sense.
SL: The IRGC locks Sunni families in their houses and burns them down, why doesn’t the media cover this kind of atrocities that the IRGC commits?
MW: Well it’s the NDF and Assad’s regime doing this – you can say it’s the IRGC as they built the NDF. The reason it’s not being covered is we are not at war with Syria or Iran. There is an argument to be made that media is a top-down affair. We all meant to be bottom up, so to speak. We go after the story; it doesn’t matter if it embarrasses the government or exposes the short-sightedness or stupidity of US foreign policy.
However, there’s a huge cheerleading section in the US media for this Iran deal and also the more vogue theory, which is very prominent in DC right now, that we should welcome Iran in from the cold because they will be a great partner in counterterrorism and regional stability. Frankly, Obama himself has said to Jeffrey Goldberg, David Remnick and Tom Friedman in various sort of slippery ways, he believes Shia jihadism is less reckless and more rational that the Sunni variety. He also thinks that he can bring ‘equilibrium’ to the Middle East by lowering the temperature on Sunni-Shia sectarianism. Nice work if you can get it, Barack. He doesn’t realise that is he is overseeing and exacerbating that sectarianism to record heights.
This is the reason that our Gulf Arab allies, Turkey and Israel are terrified: they apprehended before our own political class and commentariat that Obama’s true ambition is to quit the Middle East but before doing so, welcome Tehran in as a force good rather than ill. This entails seconding the Quds force as a new Janissary for the next phase of Pax Americana, now with less Americana. With the passage of every day and every news cycle there is more and more evidence to corroborate this explanation of Obama’s true legacy.
The most recent I saw was in Foreign Policy. John Hannah had a piece on the back of this GCC therapy session in Washington. All of the Saudi and the Qatari and the Kuwaiti representatives who were sent said Obama kept telling them they should ‘learn from Qasem Soleimani’ (the commander of the Quds Force) and the IRGC as ‘these guys know how to get things done … they can do counter insurgency.’
Now, for someone who claims to be wary of how our least reliable allies behave with respect to Sunni extremism, this was an edifying moment. Of course, the Saudis, Qataris and the Turkey have built their own Quds Force, its called Jaish al-Fatah and it’s a franchise in northern Syria consisting of Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham and other Salafist groups. Mabrouk, Obama! The anti-war president is creating the conditions for more war. Yemen is just a foretaste.
US Foreign Policy
SL: Do you think that the result of the Iranian nuclear negotiations would influence or impact ISIS in any way?
MW: You can’t take the nuclear negotiations in isolation. I wish you could. I’m in favour of negotiating with Iran and there is absolutely nothing controversial about it. Every president since Carter has done this. I’m also sceptical of using military power to end their nuclear programme. But again, this not just about arms control; that’s the delivery mechanism for a much bolder and sweeping policy change, another reason why these comparisons between Obama and Reagan are hilarious. Yes, Ron cut a deal with Gorby in Reykjavík, but did he ever waver in his commitment to containing and defeating and outspending the Soviets? Did he give the KGB $150 billion?
The IRGC has effectively taken over Iran. The way that Soleimani is positioning himself now, this sort of Selfie phenomenon where he is taking pictures with Hadi Al-Ameri and the Shia militias of Iraq, he’s like ward heeler on the hustings. He’s all over the place! What is he doing? He is exhibiting himself as a politician in the making. He knows he’s outplayed the Americans and that he will be a major beneficiary or everything this nuke deal entails. I mean, $150 billion signing bonus, what are they going to do with that money? Are they going to build schools and hospitals in Tehran or to feeding malnourished Iranians? Of course not. The Supreme Leader owns more real estate than Donald Trump; he can feed the entire country, under sanctions, with the proceeds from his various ‘endowments.’ This cash is going to go into the NDF in Syria, to Hashd al-Shabi in Iraq, to the Houthis in Yemen, to Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad. We are kidding ourselves if we think that this going to be a force of moderation.
SL: Shifting towards US policy towards ISIS: how effective do you find the US Airstrikes against ISIS or the Obama administration policy toward ISIS. In other words, if you could advise the government what would that be?
MW: Kobani took a few months, it worked, but this was a town that the US had described as symbolic, whose fall seemed to be imminent until we dropped thousands of tons of ordnance on it. Kobani is now a ghost town, I’m glad that ISIS was driven out of it, but ISIS took this as a tactical setback as part of a strategic defeat.
In other words: look at what the Americans had to do in order to retake this scruffy little burg on the border between Syria and Turkey. The same thing they did in Fallujah in 2004. The brave warriors of Allah fended off the infidels.
Also, look at the fight ISIS put up in Kobani. They sent all the moronic Saudi suicide bombers and the people who want to become instant martyrs they throw them at Kobani, but the field commanders and the infantry, the real soldiers of ISIS are busy laying the groundwork for the seizure of another piece of more critical terrain elsewhere. During the battle of Tikrit, another case where Hashd al-Shabi and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) said it would take a matter of days, well it took three weeks. They were driven to a halt. Saddam Hussein’s home town was held by 400-750 ISIS fighters versus 30,000 pro-Iraqi forces, most of them militiamen.
The only thing that took Tikrit was the use of US airpower, much to the chagrin of the Shia militias who said they could do this without the Americans. Tikrit today is also a ghost town where people are fearful of returning because they think they’re going to be the victims of the depredations of the pro-Iraqi forces that are now in control there, but while the Battle of Tikrit was raging guess what ISIS was doing? It was busy planning its operations in Al-Anbar and the eventual sacking of Ramadi.
What they are doing now is very interesting too. I would submit that the biggest victory the coalition has had is Tal Abyad. There is no question – a strategic border crossing, the loss to ISIS is significant. But what I find really interesting is that ISIS did not really put up much of a fight. ISIS has withdrawn tactically from there. They have allowed the Kurdish militias to push further and further into Raqqa – they just took a military base in northern Raqqa. I think what they are trying to do is create a kind of magnet effect. They want to draw the Kurdish YGP militias and their FSA partners into the heartland of Raqqa where ISIS will then fight on their own home turf and under their own terms. These guys are smart – even when they lose they still manage to win in some respect. You can’t fight a group like this with air power alone. The difficulty posed to the US right now is that – with the exception of, and I have my criticisms of them, the PYD and the YPG militias – there really is no credible ground force in either Syria or Iraq with which the US can partner. We have various FSA brigades and battalions but there is no cohesive military structure to work with. In Iraq, the ISF is a busted flush – people don’t want to turn up to recruitment efforts and I don’t blame them. Especially if you are a Sunni – do you want to be deployed to Ramadi, then killed and branded a collaborator and a traitor? If you’re Shia do you want to go into Ramadi, into the lion’s den, the heart of Sunni Arab political and sociological dominance in Iraq? Only if you want instant martyrdom.
Instead who are the actors on the ground? You have the IRGC in Iraq, the IRGC in Syria, Hezbollah in Syria, and you’ve got Hashd al-Shabi in Iraq. None of these forces like America or want to really work with America. They’ll accept airpower that advances their own interests, but guess what: they all blame America for the creation of ISIS. You have guys in Asa’ib al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah who say the Americans not only created ISIS but are dropping weapons and supplies to ISIS. Some militias in Iraq have threatened to shoot at US cargo planes. There was a report by Bloomberg that the US and Iranian forces are sharing a base in Al-Anbar to train up separate agents for their separate policies. And the Iranians, you’ll be surprised to hear I am sure, are spying on the Americans. So again, if you’re ISIS you just have to sit back, rub your hands and say: we don’t even have to do much work here, just turn on CNN or read the New York Times and listen to Obama play the lawyer for the Supreme Leader – that’s our recruitment effort.
SL: Clearly bombing and having a war with ISIS militarily will not result in the destruction of ISIS, nor will it end ISIS’s deeply rooted ideologies. What are some factors that could prevent ISIS from flourishing or expanding – how could we defeat ISIS?
MW: Syria is where the war should begin. It’s a much more amenable set of conditions for trying to push ISIS back. If they lose Raqqa and if they lose terrain in Deir ez-Zor they’re not finished but that is a hammer blow to them.
Syria is a Sunni majority country, most of the Sunnis don’t want to work with ISIS they don’t want to be lauded over by ISIS; they’ve cut pragmatic deals with ISIS because of the lack of any alternative. They certainly don’t want to be ruled by Assad and the FSA has proven to be corrupt and illegitimate in the eyes of many of them.
The first thing you have to do is provide an incentive to the population. You have to prove to Sunnis that America cares about their plight. And by prove to them I don’t mean Samantha Power tweeting out gravely concerned warnings about the use of barrel bombs and chlorine gas. The US has if not air supremacy then certainly air superiority in northern Syria. Why not put that to even better use by stopping the Syrian Air Force from dropping barrel bombs and chlorine gas on the heads of mostly Sunnis? If they did that, then suddenly the local population in Syria says ‘oh you know what, America does care after all, so maybe we do have a partner here with the CIA or with the Pentagon.’
SL: And why do you think the US is not doing this?
MW: The excuse given is that if we engage Assad in Syria then Iran will turn the Shia militias in Iraq against US soldiers – some partner, huh!
If we threaten their ally and their proxy, they’re going to kill us. These are the great, rational minded, non-reckless jihadists we should be working with.
The Obama administration does not want to be at war with state institutions or state actors – it only wants to fight a strictly counterterrorism war. A strictly counterterrorism war against ISIS is a recipe for failure, not success. You have to look at this through a political and anthropological prism; it’s not just about terrorism. The collapse, the dysfunction and the desuetude of both states, Iraq and Syria over the course of 13 years, has led to ISIS’s proliferation. You have an Abadi government in Baghdad that is milquetoast. He’s a decent guy, he’s not sectarian, he wants to do more, he wants to arm the Sunni tribes and create a Sunni national guard but he can’t. His hands are tied, he answers to a higher authority – the IRGC. And in Syria, from a moral and humanitarian perspective, partnering with Assad puts a bulls-eye on the United States in the eyes of all Sunnis.
Also, Assad can’t fight ISIS – every time his soldiers do, they end up with their heads on pikes. So the people who are succeeding against ISIS on the group are the FSA and the YPG militias.
The one good thing that came out of this debacle of the Iraq War is that we learnt a great deal about how the country works, a great deal of knowledge about how the society functions. Village by village, hamlet by hamlet, city by city. During the book I interviewed US military intelligence officers who can tell you the history of the country and how it operates and functions at a very granule level. We are not listening to them. They are not relevant; they are not empowered in this current policy making.
The people we’re listening to are those who suggest that the Shia militias are the way forward. Many of them work for think tanks and have consultancies on the side, and those consultancies have contracts with the Iraqi government. They don’t tell you that when they come on MSNBC or ABC news.
Emma Sky, anti-war Brit, speaks fluent Arabic, goes over to help Iraq reconstitute itself from the ashes of Saddam, becomes essentially the governor of Kirkuk, and has just published a memoir: this is how we fucked it up, this is how we got it wrong: this is how Bush got it wrong, and this is how Obama got it wrong. Are we listening to her? Is Emma being invited into the White House to give briefings? No.
When David Petraeus, Masrour Barsani, and even to some extent Muktada Al-Sadr (I never thought I’d be defending or praising this man): when they all say the Shia militias pose a greater longer term threat to Iraq as a country and a state than ISIS, you’d think that maybe given their backgrounds and their experience, they know what they’re talking about?
Am I going to listen to Brett McGurk, a guy who couldn’t become ambassador to Iraq, because he was busy shagging the reporter who was meant to cover his shenanigans in the Green Zone? This is a massive dysfunction at the level of US policy-making and it started under Bush and it’s been greatly exacerbated under Obama. People in their early 20s and 30s, they have degrees in creative writing, they were Rhodes scholars, so they spent some time in England, but they haven’t travelled the world, they know shit about the Middle East, and they don’t really care. Everything is filtered through the alembic of ‘narrative’ or public relations. A former intelligence officer, who has forgotten more about Iraq than Obama’s National Security Council will ever know, told me an anecdote. It was 2010, and he was advising the administration on Iraq and Afghanistan. He managed to corner one of the White House’s teenaged press flacks and warned the guy that the withdrawal plans for Iraq were going to backfire. The response says it all to me. ‘Well, if our plan works,’ the flak said, ‘we’ll take credit. If Iraq fails and descends back into civil war, we’ll just blame George Bush.’
Now take this and add to it the wonderful, world-healing narrative we were sold in 2009 – Barack Obama will go to Cairo and put out his hand in friendship and peace to Muslims and all will be well. The rest is an Evelyn Waugh satire.
SL: I don’t want to get off-topic, but John Kerry, what is your opinion about his foreign policy?
MW: Yaalon nailed him when he said ‘give him his Nobel Peace Prize already and be done.’ This is someone who went to Russia twice, both times essentially to be rolled by Putin, and he keeps coming back for more. He doesn’t need a Nobel; he needs a safety word. The first time, Kerry was treated by the Kremlinistas as though he were the cultural attaché for Papua New Guinea, and not the Secretary of State for the world’s only superpower. Can you imagine, say, Richard Holbrooke allowing himself to be abased in this way? This is the man who one week called Assad Hitler, and the next said that he was being cooperative and professional in his help with ridding Syria of its chemical weapons (which, as we now know, Syria is not quite rid of).
It’s what I call Four Seasons Orientalism. Statecraft conducted at the level of five-star hotel chinwags and all-you-can-eat buffets. What went wrong? What went wrong is that people like Kerry sat down with Bashar and Asma who told him how things ‘really work’ in Syria and he gobbled it up along with his labneh. The Arab Spring took everyone by surprise, but are you telling me that if you had spent some time in Egypt or Tunisia, Libya, Syria, you couldn’t have sensed a coming storm? Of course you could.
It started in Syria as a call for economic reform, it wasn’t revolution, and it was met with horrific, violent repression, turned it into a revolution. The idea that there’s going to be a soft landing for Assad … What regime do you think has been in existence for 40 years? Who do you think you’re dealing with?
Thanks for this very thorough and enlightening piece. What I cannot understand is why politicians and other leaders don’t seem to understand that they are only as good as their worst consultants. If Obama wants to leave a positive legacy, he should be looking for the best consultants and not just those who seems to be willing to tell him what he wants to hear. Oy!
I have been to the Middle East, I have taught political science and hold a Masters degree in International Relations. I know that the former Soviet Union, used Syria as a proxy, and in turn Syria had its own proxies for going on well over 40 years.
What we have now is an ally in Saudi Arabia which is trying to eradicate Shia threats and a so called ally in Iraq that is Shia. We support the Kurdish who are the most aggrieved nation in the Middle East, as like the Polish in the past they do not have a state. That scares and alienates the Turks.
Our President has on the service run a feckless program which as discussed is not going to be decisive. I would look to the Saudi’s as being the main logical reason for his half stepping, apart from narcissistic in the moment advisers he has apparently hired and listens to.