"The worst is yet to come" - The war for the Middle East

© Moises Saman/Magnum Photos: Sunni fighters opposing Islamic State take positions at the front line near the IS-controlled village of Haj Ali in the southern Mosul countryside.

© Moises Saman/Magnum Photos: Sunni fighters opposing Islamic State take positions at the front line near the IS-controlled village of Haj Ali in the southern Mosul countryside.

Smoke pierces the clear opaque sky. Water gently laps against Mosul's eastern and western shorelines, a timeless mass unceasing and gently flowing through and away from the madness of Mosul. The Tigris river's water, a beautiful crystal blue, shimmers in the sunshine; a stark contrast to the human nightmare hugging it in a deathly embrace, threatening to infect its natural beauty. These waters once made Mesopotamia one of the Middle East's most fertile regions and the cradle of civilisation, the breadbasket of the Middle East, the seat of empires.

The drone continues assessing the torn city ghosting through the empty streets, the only thing moving in so many parts of the city. Craters dot the landscape like pock marks and rubble is strewn everywhere, littering the empty streets. Rubble is strewn across the streets, littering the homes of the deceased and the living meshed together in a city of death. Collapsed rooftops enter homes uninvited, families lied buried beneath. 

Bridges have been split in two and submerged by explosions to trap ISIS militants fighting the Iraqi military, trapping desperate civilians along with them; men, women and children. An explosion strikes the city again. Rivers of blood weave their way through the smoldering ruins of Mosul, a place of vibrant life, transformed  by violence. The screams pierce the air as police, solider and medical worker are unable to muffle the cries, the wailing and the pain that sweeps the impoverished, broken neighbourhoods.

An assortment of seared timber, charred vehicles, human flesh, and debris decorates the city, a twisted portrait of war woven together. In the scorching heat the city spews soot and dust, the large plume of smoke emitted by the flames split the morning sky, a beautiful blue distorted by the horrors of war. The people re-build, they search the rubble for the dead and wounded men, women and children, and they persevere in the shadow of violence. They gather in the enduring chaos, witnesses to perverse fanaticism and the corrosive and divisive politics of intermittent war. Iraq's flag flutters pitifully on a rooftop, feeble and alone. A simple breeze could bring it to the ground, casting it amongst the dust and blood where twisted metal, bullets and trauma will envelop it, as Mosul has enveloped the living. It is a lonely spectacle, the site of murder, terror and brutality, a draconian dream. 

Mosul lies in ruins. 40,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed in the siege of Mosul according to Kurdish intelligence. The Iraqi army has mopped up IS insurgents to the north in Tel Afar. According to Iraqi News, the Popular Mobilisation Units spokesperson, Ahmed al-Assadi, the pro-government factions contributed 20,000 fighters towards eliminating IS's redoubt at Tel Afar following its defeat in Mosul. The IS-held town fell in a matter of weeks, even as more British soldiers were committed towards the training the Iraqi military. 

Across the border, the Syrian War - raging for six and a half years - has ebbed away from the spotlight. The heaviest fighting, for now, is over and a precarious ceasefire holds as Russia, the United States, Jordan and Israel reached an agreement on establishing safe-zones in southwest Syria. Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, IS's final strongholds, are expected to fall by October or November according to the United Nation's special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura. "What we are seeing is the beginning of the end of the war," Mistura assessed, "After Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor – and that is a matter of a few months – there will be a moment of truth.,” he said. Seasoned Middle Eastern journalist for The Independent Patrick Cockburn saw the civil war's ending as early as March, 2017 assessing that "winners and losers" were emerging in what may be the final phase of the Syrian civil war." 

The siege of Aleppo and the final assault on the city, which drew outrage across vast swathes of the international community, broke the back of the opposition. In an article published by The Guardian on 31st August, 2017, Jordan announced that “bilateral ties with Damascus (were) going in the right direction.” Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani followed up this statement emphatically. “This is a very important message that everyone should hear.” Opposition leaders were informed by Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, that the Saudis were disengaging. “The Saudis do not care about Syria anymore,” said a senior western diplomat. “It’s all Qatar for them. Syria is lost.” In June, the Trump administration came to an agreement to scrap the CIA's program providing military support for President al-Asad's multiple enemies (moderate and extremist) as Washington sent a signal of intent that it aimed to improve relations with Vladimir Putin's Russia on the crisis. 

Of-course, genuine peace will remain elusive in Syria for sometime. The war's most violent phase is over, however the conflict has devolved into a counterinsurgency in the Syrian deserts and sparsely populated areas surrounding places such as Qalamoun, Deir ez-Zor and Aleppo which held little value to the president to begin with. Idlib and Raqqa (barely) remain in the hands of jihādist fighters. The legacy of sectarian violence an ethnic cleansing by multiple government and rebel factions will leave a deep scar on its diverse but divided communities.  

While the Obama and Trump administrations did not want to see the establishment of ISIS’s statelet which spread as it did across north-eastern Syria and north-western Iraq in 2014-2017, the costs of the bombing campaign have still contributed to breaking the socio-economic fabric of villages, towns and cities across Iraq. U.S policymakers underestimated the effects the Syrian civil war would have on Iraq and rigid policy approaches towards the rebels fighting Assad failed to take into consideration the complexity of fighting on the ground. There was no dividing wall between extremists and the United States supposedly moderate opposition allies. This is not merely a question of directly strengthening terrorist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Daesh and Al-Qaeda.The United States and its European allies have turned a blind-eye to the human rights violations of Kurdish militant groups and the Iraqi military which levelled parts of Mosul to the ground, as President Asad and Russian airpower levelled Aleppo. 

This lack of differentiation between moderates and extremists, an unwillingness to pressurise or hold actors at various ends of the spectrum accountable for atrocities in Syria has been mirrored in the Iraqi civil war. The frequency and lethality of suicide bombings in Iraq has become a common sight. It is a nation consumed by civil war and an epicentre of violence which has drawn in numerous state and non-state actors embroiled in the wider regional conflagration of the Persian Gulf. The spectre of the suicide bomber dominates Iraq. According to Al Jazeera there were zero suicide attacks in the country's history until 2003. Since the creation of the occupation put in place by U.S-led forces deposing Saddam Hussein there have been 1,982 (as of September 2015) resulting in the deaths of over 20,000 Iraqis.

Is this reckless policymaking where security interests trump regional considerations, where short-term achievements sow long-term instability and consequence? Or is it merely the reality of conflict and the limits to which the United States and the West now hold sway on an ever-changing theatre of war? The crisis facing Europe may have convinced politicians in the halls of power that fanning the civil wars in the heartlands of the Middle East did not suit their interests. The continent, joined at the hip with the Middle East, faces a severe refugee/migrant crisis which is conjoined with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) ambivalent threat of asymmetrical warfare and urban terrorism which seeks to induce fear, uncertainty, a lack of confidence in governmental ability to protect its civilians, and above all polarisation.

Ending the Syrian Civil War and stabilising and unifying a Iraq fractured and destroyed by decades of intermittent war are the first steps to reestablishing order to the region. Stabilisation through military power, dirty wars and bombing has all but guaranteed that it will not necessarily be a Western order, but a Iranian-Hizullah-Russian order. Policymakers must be prepared for disarmament, de-radicalisation, and tackling the flourishing deeply-embedded war economies proliferating across the Middle East. 

The decrease in violence will be meaningless for European and Middle Eastern security if thousands of battle-hardened and unemployed local and foreign men, women and children are without prospects, employment and alienated by authorities across the Middle East and Europe after the war. This will ensure that countries like Yemen, Iraq and Syria will become continue being breeding grounds for transnational and international terrorism and extremism as Pakistan and Afghanistan did in the wake of the Soviet-Afghan War (1979 - 1989).

The question of Kurdistan and how it will be dealt with by the Syrian and Iraqi governments will be important to shaping the futures of the shattered countries. The referendum of Iraqi Kurdistan in September sent shockwaves across the Middle East and the military campaign to dislodge ISIS could not mask the political divides in the country and invited Turkey pressure to protect Turkmen Sunni interests and prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state. 

These will hinder post-ISIS Iraq as the state struggles to govern the collapsed country and ISIS revert to its preferred strategy of asymmetric warfare and bombings in major cities and towns. Targeting IDPs camps, Sunni heartlands and take refuge as sleeper cells in Mosul will undermine efforts to rebuild the country. These attacks will only worsen conditions for the lost generations of Iraq as its young people face a desolate future with little opportunities as oligarchies from Erbil to Baghdad cling to power and intra-political competition sharpens in Sunni and Shiite communities. Conflicts between the KRG and PKK and the government in Baghdad, as well as the Popular Mobilisation Forces and U.S proxy war on the Iraqi-Syrian border will allow ISIS to regroup in Hawija, Salahaddin and Diyala. 

Other countries remain war zones including Libya and Yemen. Gaza is predicted by the U.N to be uninhabitable by 2020 and the Qatari crisis and blockade drags on. One conflict in the region affects another. Hizbullah's position within Syria, Iraq and Lebanon has strengthened despite their losses and the flow of arms throughout and into the region have strengthened the armouries of paramilitary, militia and jihādist alike. The millions of refugees and IDPs scattered across multiple countries have altered the demographics of communities for a long time, reshuffingly the religious, national and ethnic dimensions of communities and the fabric of nations carved into the sand by the colonial powers. This post-colonial/post-Cold War order will change the nature of Middle Eastern politics.  

The Syrian War has devolved into a ferocious counterinsurgency campaign to root out guerrillas, terrorist groups, jihādists and remaining anti-Asad elements. The destruction of the ISIS's caliphate - far from ending the conflicts - paves the way for new confrontations in the region where tensions remain at toxic levels. IS has been forced to relinquish - as it was in 2007 under General David Petraeus' Surge in the Iraq War - large amounts of territory. However, it has not forced the terrorist organisation underground, it has broken like a hornet's nest spreading the organisation across the region and has not stopped sleeper cells and foreign fighters from returning home to attack and/or inspire home-grown extremists to kill and maim European, Asian and Middle Eastern civilians in the streets of Brussels, London, Paris, Beirut, Berlin, Kabul and beyond. IS, while a significant influence on the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, was a symptom not the cause of the Arab Revolutions and the Middle Eastern wars. 


Matthew C.K Williams