Here's an interesting take on Syria from Ammar Abdulhamid, "a liberal Syrian pro-democracy activist whose anti-regime activities led to his exile in 2005", and who know lives in the US:
Why do all the powers supposedly arrayed against the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State (IS) seem incapable to date of effectively hitting its strongholds in Syria?
Is it fear of civilian casualties, which are unavoidable in any large-scale military operation? This might indeed be a factor in the case of the United States, France and the UK, which have scrupulous legal rules and militaries that actually care about such things. But this cannot explain the behavior of Russia and the Assad regime which, it should be clear by now, care not a whit for such “modern” and “Western,” not to mention “impractical,” concerns. Indeed, the willingness of both to inflict such casualties, often intentionally, is on display every day and is well-documented.
I do not believe that fear of civilian casualties fully explains Western behavior either. After all, there are quite a few installations where IS maintains a presence that are located outside densely populated areas and that could, I suspect, be targeted with minimal human collateral damage. But striking these installations carries risks and costs far beyond any immediate loss to IS.
So, what is it that lurks behind the near universal decision to avoid bombing these installations and IS strongholds, except on a minimalist basis? The short answer, I suspect, is something quite sinister that is worth airing openly: the Islamic State has a kind of doomsday threat that has all of the intervening powers over a barrel.
The Islamic State, after a long period of quiet preparation, managed to burst dramatically onto the scene in both Syria and Iraq, succeeding within a few short months in establishing and consolidating its hold over major swaths of territory that, in Syria in particular, included all major oil and natural gas infrastructure in the country. It also included a number of key dams, including Sadd Al-Tabqa, Syria’s biggest dam.
This control of key assets gives ISIS a major trump card in its dealing with its enemies, domestic and foreign. Should push come to shove, it has the ability to obliterate these vital assets within days, if not hours, plunging the whole country into darkness, destroying critical agricultural lands, and interrupting water supplies and services, effectively setting the clock back on development in the country by a century. The cost of repairing all this will be astronomical, and Syria simply does not have the requisite resources to cover even a small fraction of it....
Considering all this, as well as the recent changes in the U.S. position on regime change and Assad’s removal from power, it seems reasonable to conclude that the Obama administration realizes what is involved in this matter at this stage, including the nature of the calculations driving each side, and specifically, what IS can do in Syria and parts of Iraq should it feel an existential threat from any side. This is why the U.S. and its allies seem to be avoiding conducting major strikes against IS strongholds, and why they seem to have decided to limit their involvement in the Syrian scene to a strategy of slow-motion targeted showdown with IS. The hope here might be to facilitate the implosion of IS in a manner that could help ward off the catastrophic scenario for Syria described earlier.
But this is wishful and downright delusional thinking. A few setbacks in Syria and Iraq, such as the loss of the Tishreen Dam in northern Syria, and the town of Ramadi in Iraq, no matter how major they might seem at first, do not constitute an existential threat to IS, as it still has the ability to retrench then come back and reconquer lost territory at some point, as they recently showed in the town of Qarayatein in central Syria, which IS has taken back in August, lost parts of it in early December, and is now launching operations to retake it. Only a serious existential threat, that is, one in which ISIS realizes that it can no longer retake territory or gain new ground, will trigger the apocalypse scenario. Unless there is some catastrophic collapse of the command structure, IS leaders will likely be able to see the writing on the wall in advance giving them enough time to implement their doomsday strategy.
So, in reality, the current American and allied policy in Syria boils down to accepting both the Assad regime, under Russia-Iranian tutelage, and the Islamic State. It will be up to a future administration to decide whether to try and work out a different scenario or to accept the fait accompli which the Obama administration has given us....
Beyond these token steps, neither side can actually do anything to seriously undermine IS presence in Syria at this stage; and while the motives might be different, with the U.S. and its allies more worried about the potential humanitarian cost for Syrians, and Russia and its allies more worried about the material costs of it all, the result is the same: rhetoric, propaganda, mutual accusations, and doublespeak notwithstanding, both sides seem to have reconciled themselves to living with the Islamic State for the foreseeable future. The fact that the UN itself has negotiated a deal between the regime and IS to move IS fighters’ families from Damascus to Raqqa seems to come as a reflection of this spirit of normalization.
An interesting choice for Three Great Speeches of 2015, from Paul Berman. Interesting - and surprising, at least for the first choice: David Cameron's speech on Islamic extremism at the Ninestiles School in Birmingham back in July. For the speech Cameron was advised by Maajid Nawaz - Nawaz subsequently being the subject of a Guardian hatchet-job - and praised by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
The other two speeches - Manuel Valls, the Socialist prime minister of France, to the National Assembly in January after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and Hilary Benn here in parliament earlier this month - are perhaps more obvious choices:
This kind of left, antifascist and antitotalitarian, has somehow remained on its feet all along in France, which is why the French Socialist Party has proved to be reliably militant against the Islamist movement. In the English-speaking countries, though, a good many people on the left have for many years gone marching in a different direction entirely. In the United Kingdom, Benn’s father, the late Tony Benn, was for a long time pretty much the leader of the wayward march. But Hilary Benn, the son, is a throwback to the older tradition. He is a fine orator, too. Among my readers is there perhaps a Democratic Party politician with left-leaning inclinations? Someone dreaming of the vice-presidency? Or of still higher office? Are there Democrats who faintly recall that, back in the days of Harry Truman, American liberalism (and American socialism) used to be militant on the international stage? Those readers will want to listen to Hilary Benn deliver his magnificent oration...
In sum, three speeches of 2015: Calling for a condemnation of the Islamist ideology and not just of Islamism’s wilder extremes; calling for a passionate hostility to anti-Semitism; and calling for a revitalization of the ideals of the anti-fascist left of long ago. Three speeches without parallel in the United States—speeches that offer to the United States and the world an alternative outlook, suitable for the more thoughtful Republicans, who ought to identify with Cameron, and doubly suitable for liberal Democrats, who ought to see in Valls and Benn, the socialists, a model of clarity.
Russian director Vitaly Mansky's new film, on North Korea:
Tom Parfitt in the Times (£):
A documentary film has exposed the artifice and absurdity of life in North Korea, despite attempts by officials there and in Russia to suppress it.
Under the Sun, made by the Russian director Vitaly Mansky, is to be released in cinemas in the United States and Germany next year.
The film tells the story of an eight-year-old girl joining North Korea’s Children’s Union, a state-organised youth group, but includes footage showing that party handlers created a fake life for her and her family for the benefit of the cameras.
Mansky, 52, met representatives of the repressive communist state by chance at a film festival and won approval to make a documentary if the Koreans had oversight.
The veteran film-maker and his crew were chaperoned by officials on two visits to Pyongyang and had to show their footage to censors every evening. They contrived however, to make copies and edit out sensitive shots from the material they handed over. By leaving the camera running before and after shots, the crew recorded how the film was directed by men in black coats who instructed the girl how to show appropriate joy at living under the regime of Kim Jong Un, who rules a country in which poverty is rife.
North Korea has sent a diplomatic protest to Russia over the documentary, which received some state funding. Moscow officials are now scrambling to discredit the film.
Mikhail Shvydkoy, an aide to President Putin, tried to cancel a screening at the Black Nights festival in Tallinn, Estonia, last month.
Moscow has cordial relations with Pyongyang and is indebted to North Korea for being one of the few countries to endorse the annexation of Crimea last year.
Mansky said he initially hoped to “do a film that was simultaneously propaganda and anti-propaganda”. Pyongyang, however, became “afraid that the film wasn’t going in quite the right direction”, the director said. “Now the film is double-bottomed: a film showing the official story, and the other side, how it is constructed.”
Mansky was allowed to choose the film’s heroine after a ten-minute interview with five schoolgirls. He chose Zin Mi, who told him that her father was a reporter and her mother worked in a canteen. The girl also said she lived in a small flat with her parents and grandparents.
When the crew was taken to Zin Mi’s “home”, she was with just her parents in a large, plush flat. Her father was suddenly an engineer in a famous sewing factory and her mother a worker at a model dairy plant. Left alone, Mansky opened cupboards in the flat and found them empty. “It was all very strange,” he said. “The escorts genuinely thought that we believed that it was the family apartment. They thought I was an idiot.”
He added: “I really want this film to be shown in Russia, because this is a very instructive story for us and a very important warning in the context of what’s happening to us today.”
The Guardian has more detail:
In one scene, Zin-mi praises the health-giving qualities of kimchi in preventing ageing and cancer, and Mansky allows the audience to see how the crew are instructed to reshoot the scene over and over until the North Korean minders are happy they’ve achieved the right gusto.
In another sequence, a factory forewoman gives a speech congratulating workers on their productivity while regime representatives can be heard demanding several takes and asking for heightened zeal each time.
The film’s official narrative says that Zin-mi’s father is a garment factory worker, but an on-screen title added in post-production reveals that this role is fictional – the film crew learned later he is really a print journalist. “They have their own imagination of how it should be and for them it’s quite logical that they’re changing the occupation of the father,” said Mansky.
The Russian minister of culture Mikhail Shvydkoy, according to Mansky, "complained that we lied to our North Korean partners and should feel ashamed about that, because the people who helped to make this film could be killed. So the Russian Federation want to remove their support of the film.”
Despite the obvious hypocrisy of the official argument, they do have a point. The people who helped make the film, including poor Zin Mi and her family, are indeed now in danger. There are no heroes here.
Terry Glavin wonders what would happen if 2016 should see the defeat of ISIS and the end of their self-declared caliphate. It's not beyond the realms of possibility. But we should be careful what we wish for:
In any such unlikely event as ISIL’s demolition, the loudest boasts should be expected to come from the catastrophically inept foreign-policy coterie around U.S. President Barack Obama.
Credit where it’s due, though. The Obama administration has proved adept at persuading a vast body of American public opinion that even the most meagre breadcrumbs of a geostrategic deliverable – Washington’s creaking concordat with Tehran over its nuclear program is just one example — constitute a whole loaf.
That same public-opinion cohort has been similarly persuaded ISIL and Syrian dictator Bashar Assad are bitter enemies. As a consequence, an ISIL defeat could be spun to lend an air of decency to Obama’s unseemly collaborations with Moscow that anticipate the persistence of Assad’s brutal regime in Damascus.
Unfortunately, the real world has a way of intruding into the most reassuring propaganda fictions.
ISIL is only the most recent and most obscene eruption of barbarism to be visited on the Arabs of Syria and Iraq. It was incubated and more or less conjured into existence by the Assad regime so Assad could present the revolution against him as jihadist, and himself as ISIL’s sworn enemy and an indispensable ally in the global war on jihadist terrorism.
The removal of ISIL as a battlefield force would certainly strengthen the hand of the revolutionary Syrian forces arrayed against him and that would be a good thing. But there’s a catch. The Syrian opposition is nearly friendless in NATO capitals. With ISIL gone, it would likely be much more difficult for them to secure the win they need to get out from under Assad’s war against Syrian civilians
There’s another catch.
After five years of “anti-interventionist” paralysis in NATO, many Syrian “fighting-age males” have been left to surmise, not unreasonably, the world has abandoned them, and all that’s left is Allah. That deep sense of betrayal, followed by an ISIL collapse, would leave one significant battlefield force in the region with convincing bragging rights: al-Qaida.
Two years ago, al-Qaida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri renounced Al Baghdadi and his caliphate after a serious schism centring on strategic, tactical and “theological” questions.
Al-Qaida wanted to stick to hijacking the Syrian revolution, slaughtering “Crusaders and Jews,” and going easy on the huge Sunni Muslim populations taken as hostages in jihad. But Al Baghdadi had to go and make a huge pornographic deal about enforcing “hudud” — the Wahhabi barbarism that relies on coercion by slavery, mass executions, and so on.
Among otherwise secular young revolutionaries who have given up hope of help from the United States or any other democracy, Jabhat Al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s proxy in Syria, has built a reputation as a serious and disciplined fighting force, squaring off against ISIL and Assad. With any defeat of ISIL, particularly a crushing, final defeat, what you would hear from al-Qaida and Jabhat Al-Nusra would run along the lines: of “See? We told you so.”
In this way, owing in no small part to American indifference and the myopic “anti-interventionist” calamities of White House policy, even the crushing defeat of ISIL could lead us all right back to the horror from which Barack Obama, the antithesis of George W. Bush, promised to extricate us all: al-Qaida, in strength, rooted in vast Islamist badlands, unrepentant and ascendant.
Another esteemed Saudi cleric - this time the grand mufti and chairman of the Senior Scholars’ Commission and Ifta Council, no less - shares with us his hard-won wisdom:
Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Asheikh, grand mufti and chairman of the Senior Scholars’ Commission and Ifta Council, said that the newly formed Islamic Military Alliance will defeat Daesh (the so called IS).
He slammed Daesh, describing it as part of the Israeli army.
In a telephone talk with Okaz/Saudi Gazette, Asheikh said that the members of Daesh are doing a great harm to Islam and Muslims.
“They cannot be considered as followers of Islam. Rather, they are an extension of Kharijites, who rose in revolt against the Islamic caliphate for the first time by labeling Muslims as infidels and permitting their bloodletting.”
Referring to a recent threat by Daesh leader against Israel, the grand mufti said: “This threat against Israel is simply a lie. Actually, Daesh is part of the Israeli soldiers.”
Kharijites? All is explained here:
Members of the Islamic State (IS) have often been described as modern-age Kharijites, in reference to the Muslims who rebelled against the ruling powers in early Islamic history. The Kharijite rebellions began in the 7th century, against the Umayyad Caliphate, and persisted against the Abbasid Caliphate.
Salafists such as the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia — who shares IS' religious principles, but not political views — call IS members Kharijites. Notably, these Salafists refused to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who surprised the other Salafist movements by declaring himself the caliph of all Muslims. Salafist movements never expressed a serious disagreement with IS until Baghdadi's announcement of the caliphate last June....
The word Kharijite means “those who defected from the group,” referring to the Islamic groups that rebelled against the third and fourth caliphs, Uthman and Ali, and the rulers of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, beginning in 644. These "Kharijites" organized rebellions against Uthman, Ali, Muawiya and other caliphs. Those in opposition to the rebellions called the rebelling groups the Kharijites and accused them of turning their backs on Islam, since the caliphate and its leaders represented true Islam.
The Kharijites first appeared under the reign of the third caliph, Uthman, from 644-656, when they rebelled against the leaders of the Quraysh tribe that controlled both the government and its financial resources. The group called for equality and to end the separation between ruler and parish. They believed that anyone had the right to lead the caliphate, even slaves. They led several revolutions against the rulers, even using violence against women and children to achieve their means.
Most of the Kharijite communities have died out, except for the Ibadis in Oman and certain regions in North Africa, notably in Algeria. These groups were moderate Kharijites who were not known to use violence or start riots....
This description of Kharijite is considered to be a politically-motivated, negative labeling of the group aimed at achieving several objectives: first, distancing Salafism from IS, and second, pushing back against the broad acclaim received by the group for promoting global jihad. Salafist jihadist movements were surprised by IS' great growth in such a short time. Hundreds of militants came to Syria and Iraq from across the globe, leaving other Salafist organizations behind to join IS. IS took over vast lands and came to control significant financial resources. It posed a direct threat to Saudi Arabia, as the country is considered the top sponsor for the international Salafist movement.
It has become an urgent need for the Saudi regime to dissociate itself from the acts and language of extremist Salafist movements. Salafist movements opposing IS use the term “modern-age Kharijites” in two ways: Official Saudi discourse labels all the Salafist jihadist movements that oppose it Kharijites, including al-Qaeda and IS; and al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups use this term to tarnish the name of IS among Salafist jihadists.
The truth is, IS is nothing but the complete realization of Salafist jihad, which was born and raised under the auspices of Saudi Arabia decades ago, notably during Afghanistan’s wars against the Soviet Union from 1979 to 1989. IS also embodies the Islamic world's two major extremist movements: the Salafist Saudi movement and the International Brotherhood movement. Salafist Wahhabi extremism merged with the Brotherhood’s political Islam and created the phenomenon of al-Qaeda, IS and other similar groups.
The further Israeli connection suggests how desperate - and delusional - the mufti and his fellow Saudi Salafists have become.