Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Antakya’

Rolling the Dice with an Islamic State Too Crazy to Last

March 22, 2020 Leave a comment

The mechanics of 2010s Middle Eastern warfare are a bloody mix of science fiction and amateur hour. Mike Giglio’s taut accounts of them can be so raw it nearly put me off reading more than a few pages of his new book. But his experiences ended up challenging any complacency I might have had about some of the dysfunctional chaos into which the region has descended.

Shatter the Nations: ISIS and the War for the Caliphate” (Public Affairs, November 2019) turned out to be an excellent, addictive account of Giglio’s seven years of fascination for the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh), its recruits, its origins and its enemies. The book wears its history efficiently and lightly, and is refreshingly free of geopolitics. Even better, this fast-paced drama is propelled forward by real Syrians, Iraqis, Egyptians and others. The American journalist author himself certainly goes the extra mile. When taking a vital trooper’s seat in a lead vehicle, he even has to pass up belts of ammunition to the turret gunner.

By two-thirds of the way through, even when I put the book down and was walking down a harmless street in Brussels, Giglio had cast such a spell that I found myself feeling as if I too was in a Humvee. I was hearing bullets thud into armoured plates, willing on a machine-gunner in duels with snipers and peering through cracked, mud-stained windows for the inevitable next car bomb lumbering out from behind a shattered building.

Liking our way to a better world

The narrative starts in Egypt during the “Arab Spring”, where a naïve youth movement against police violence is crushed with utter brutality. The movement was inspired by Western values, but Giglio highlights how the U.S. government had no understanding of that context: there was “a certain mind-set at the time, halfway through President Barack Obama’s first term – the feeling that it was possible to sit at your laptop and like your way to a better world”. Giglio shows how a similarly pro-Western, pro-reform Syrian opposition movement gradually turns ruthless in order to survive. “The euphoria of [the original] moment … was central to the darkness that followed,” Giglio says. “The sense of betrayal that came when … the rest of the world lost interest.”

The only Arab uprising that led to at least a medium-term transition was in Tunisia, where the protests started. This was a small sidebar to the devastation visited upon several major countries of the Arab world. Egypt soon went back under its military’s authoritarian yoke. Order collapsed into civil wars in Yemen and Libya. All that was left was Syria, “the Arab Spring’s last great struggle”. Yet CIA support gave “ten bullets at a time, just keeping rebel groups alive but not allowing them to win”. The last stab in the back was Obama’s decision in 2013 not to honour his pledge to view Syria’s use of chemical weapons as a red line.

Soon, Giglio says, the Arab Spring was dead and the region entered a “foggy transition” to something far more dangerous. The Damascus regime bombed civilian areas and executed suspected rebel sympathisers with impunity. No longer were there revolutionaries in Syria who wanted to uphold the U.S.-led world order. “Moderate” fighters were superseded by ardently Islamist ones with draconian social rules, young men who insisted on being addressed by the honorific “sheikh”.

The U.S. role in Iraq made a destructive contribution. Its reckless Iraq war in 2003 had spawned the first al-Qaeda rebellion, and when the U.S. crushed that, the insurgency’s surviving members morphed into a new and even tougher organisation, ISIS. Exploiting the sectarian divides ripped open by the U.S. actions, ISIS pushed U.S.-backed Iraqi forces back to the gates of Baghdad and Arbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Killing and torturing with a ruthlessness that matched that of Assad’s secret police state, it crossed the wide-open desert border to become pre-eminent in Syria.

Metal war machines

Giglio joins the “war-fuelled underworld” of the Syrian war in the early 2010s, haunting places like Antakya and Gaziantep along the Turkish border. Here he became a player in a cast of journalists, aid workers, Gulf financiers, fixers, smugglers, merchants, refugees, jihadists and spies, all of whom conspire in hotel reception halls and café terraces round “little hourglass-shaped glasses of clay-brown Turkish tea.” He’s especially good at illustrating the curious overlaps between ISIS and the West. He notes that ISIS’s international fighters were “mirror images of our modern world, men and women at ease in it and part of it”. The same goes for the conflict itself: “it was a war of GPS-guided missiles and advanced IEDs, and it was also a war of long-haired jihadis fighting men in skull masks as the two sides charged in their metal war machines”.

Author Mike Giglio aboard a Humvee west of Mosul in 2017. Photo by Warzer Jaff.

Giglio plausibly dates ISIS’s plunge into dead-end millennial conflict to 2 August 2014, when, having captured Mosul, it decided to attack the Iraqi Kurds directly and to confront the United States. This decision swept aside those who wanted ISIS to run its own territory, a Syrian journalist tells him, a “statist” faction dominated by veterans of the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. Even so, remnants of that faction’s thinking stayed to the last, creating “Islamic State” car number plates, taxes and bureaucratic offices.

The fanatical faction, seeing extremism as an end in itself, then embarked on a genocidal campaign against the Yazidis, another action that made ISIS a global target for eradication. (The Global Alliance against Daesh now counts 82 member states). In one of many fascinating ground zero episodes in the book, Giglio listens in for an hour as a regular Syrian rebel commander negotiates by cellphone with one of the Iraqi leaders of ISIS. The ISIS leader teases, threatens, cajoles, invokes the primacy of his vision of Islam and ends by telling the Syrian: “either you cleanse us or we cleanse you”. The attack on the Iraqi Kurds probably sealed ISIS’s short term outlook, since that’s what triggered the first U.S. air strikes in Iraq. ISIS then began beheading its foreign hostages in Syria. That was the final straw. As Giglio points out, “Americans could stomach all kinds of atrocities overseas except the killing of one of their own”.

Giglio doesn’t try to pin down ISIS to any one ideology, although he notes how its members were attracted to glory for their community, and aware that the land they fought over was steeped in the history of Islam. He notes how al-Qaeda focused on sophisticated high-profile operations, while ISIS spread terror with attacks on everyday life. ISIS was able to recruit thousands of fighters from the lands of its own enemies with its offer of making them feel bigger than they could at home, but “they dreamed of the glamour of violence, having no real sense of it”. He tracks down a defector from ISIS, who cannot shake off the nightmare of his actions, remembering trainers who taught “us that God is waiting for you, and you must go to him … we wanted to die”.

A fresh insight Giglio offers is that for many radicalised Syrians, their pre-war identities shattered by the conflict, there was an “origin story centred on an act of violence that marked the divide between the person they had been before the war and who they had come to be”. Some ISIS sympathisers he meets seem proud of fighting the West and the Russia-backed Assad regime at once. Others remind him of lapsed Catholics. One drinks alcohol, has a girlfriend in another town, smokes constantly, never seems to pray but still self-identifies as an Islamist. “The genius of the ISIS survival strategy”, Giglio says, was “allowing people to come and go … a shadow network that was always there but also gone the second you turned on the light”.

An American deity

The same shadowy nature applies to the Americans whose role in the war Giglio skilfully weaves into the narrative. “America’s presence around the front was something like a deity’s, everywhere and nowhere at once”. When he comes across U.S. soldiers, they are a fit cohort of specialists, quite unlike the heterogeneous mix of Iraqi soldiers who are some of his most memorable characters: thin and fat, fit and unfit, young and old, gaunt and relaxed. They are fighting for their family, each other or the rare opportunity of gainful employment, “sin eaters carrying the burden of their allies – of the United States, which had started a catastrophic war and then pulled its troops from the country not because the war was won but because Americans were tired of it”. In Syria, everyone was shocked by the Damascus regime’s merciless levelling of opposition urban areas; this book keeps reminding the reader of the shocking destruction the air power of the U.S.-led alliance wrought on ISIS’s main city in Syria of Raqqa, Mosul in Iraq and other ISIS-held areas. It shows how wrong the U.S. was to claim that its air attacks almost never killed civilians.

Giglio’s writing has lyrical moments too, as when he describes the edgy state of Iraq at the height of the ISIS threat in 2014-2015. “With Ayad we got into our hired driver’s sedan and rolled through the wired aggression of downtown Baghdad after dark. Military police in blue-and-black fatigues stood with their machine guns in the shadows of the streetlights. Checkpoints were illuminated against the night’s haze. Concrete blast walls wrapped around homes, topped with glass shards and razor wire. Teams of security guards perched on many rooftops. Entire blocks had been cordoned off by gates of reinforced metal, where a knock would be met by the creak of a sliding hatch and a pair of wary eyes. The prison-yard claustrophobia had written itself into the city’s DNA. Every layer of fortification and barricade testified to an old escalation of violence. A local could point to each as a marker in the story of Baghdad’s tragic recent history, like reading the rings inside a fallen tree”.

In the end, as Giglio puts it, ISIS’s “so-called caliphate was too crazy to last, and ISIS seemed to like it that way.” U.S.-led power crushes ISIS’s state on earth. Giglio’s three-act narrative – beginnings, a zenith of terror, and collapse after it lost Mosul – ends. But the intensity of his testimony up to this point leaves the reader feeling as though the story can’t be over. Indeed, Giglio hints that the dynamics that propelled ISIS to the headlines could still gather its shattered pieces back together again. ISIS cells and sympathisers are actively promoting the brand in Africa, Afghanistan and even Asia. Europe is also squarely in the cross hairs. Giglio shows vividly how ISIS deliberately smuggled hundreds, if not thousands, of adherents into Europe alongside refugees. As one ISIS supporter tells him, “Syria will be visited on them.”