The Future of the Fertile Crescent: Thoughts from Nibras Kazimi

Yesterday I was delighted to discover that Nibras Kazimi has started blogging in English again. Kazimi has played the part of both activist and analyst over the last decade, working out of Washington DC or Iraq as the occasion required. At the height of the old strategy blogosphere he was running one of the sharpest blogs on Iraqi politics around, Talisman Gate. Kazimi’s internet musings began petering off in 2010 or so, and by 2011 he was writing mostly in Arabic. But it looks like he has set up a new English language blog, humorously titled Talisman Gate, Again. Over the last few days he has populated it with some excellent posts.

Here is a bit from the first, “Sunni-stan vs. Fertile Crescent“:

…Mr. Bolton’s own answer is to create a new state in the Middle East from the Sunni portions of both Syria and Iraq. I am sure that many will point out the problems with his formula. But he must be commended for at least trying to think through one. 

Essentially, the problem of the Middle East, for the last two centuries, has hinged on how to manage diversity and identity politics. This problem invited Western interference back in 1839, and continues to do so with the threat posed by the Islamic State. 

The problem is particularly acute in the post-Ottoman states of Iraq and Syria. However, let us not assume that the creation of these states was some sort of post-WWI bureaucratic fumble; the men (and woman) who sat down to draw these lines on the map were some of the most thoughtful and most knowledgeable characters in the annals of policy-making. 

There are two ways to think of both Syria and Iraq: Is it a hardware problem, or a software problem? 

Bolton thinks the fault lies in the hardware. I counsel that we should try one more software upgrade to fix the bugs. If that works, then maybe we can look towards extending the solution. If it doesn’t, then that would be the time to hear out proposals such as the one he laid out in the Times Op-Ed. 

The idea is to immediately turn Salahuddin Province into a stand-alone federal region, similar to the Kurdistan Regional Government. The provincial council of Salahuddin had asked for exactly that, in Nov. 2011, when it activated the clauses in the Iraqi constitution that allow for it. Maliki simply ignored the request. It was the most mature Sunni Arab vision for the future to emerge since 2003—an opportunity lost. 

The ISF and the Shia PMUs fought hard to liberate much of Salahuddin. They denied the caliph his hometown. They took back Saddam’s too. A federal region would show Arab Sunnis what the future looks like after ISIS. It would look like this: a regional capital in Samara, Regional Guard to protect Salahuddin, and turning political gripe into a very local affair rather than extending it to Shia-dominated Baghdad. If the clansmen of the caliph and his former neighbors can grudgingly accept it as the future, and if Saddam’s folk can do the same, then Iraq can turn a corner in the politics of sectarianism, by inverting identity politics into the politics of ‘local-ism’, as the constitution allows… [1]

And here is some from another excellent post, this time on the mechanics of defeating ISIS on the ground:

To place the center of gravity of the caliphate on a map, one needs to answer two questions: “How do the jihadists fight? What do they fight for in terms of military objectives?” And to understand jihadist military strategy one needs to understand the relative priority they give to the pursuit of war, rather than the pursuit of governance.
If they were indeed deeply committed to governance, common sense would have it that the jihadists would seek to consolidate gains, buy time, and protect territory. However, they seem to prefer to give up territory rather than fight pitches battles, they invite international and regional powers to attack them, and they seem to place more emphasis on cowing the populations they control through intimidation rather than adopting a conciliatory manner. 

I maintain that the jihadists do not legitimize themselves through statecraft. They draw legitimacy from the battlefield. This is an argument they began to make in 2005 when Zarqawi broke with his mentor Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. This was also their argument when they declared the Islamic State of Iraq, the proto-caliphate, in October 2006. In their minds, the argument had been settled, and vindicated by their return from the dead when seizing Fallouja (January 2014) and later that year when ISIS took out the 17th Division and the Tabaqa Airbase in Raqqa. The jihadists periodically revisit the argument for recruiting purposes in order to counter the narratives coming from regime-allied Salafists in the region. 

Many of those studying the jihadists are focused on the front-lines, justifiably so. The caliber of those undertaking the studies is stellar. They are right in looking at orders of battle, the differentiation of forces, tactics, captured documents, supply and logistics routes, as well as the caliphate’s war economy. The assumption is that if we should succeed at those front-lines—described by some as the “360 degree squeeze” strategy—then the defeat of the caliphate is assured, and its legitimacy is forever wounded. I disagree. I maintain that the strategic depth of the caliphate does not lie in Mosul, or in rural areas (for example: Garma, Hawija, countryside of Aleppo and Damascus, etc.), or the towns and orchards of the Euphrates Valley (Fallouja, Ramadi, Deir Azzour, Raqqa), or for that matter the areas it has already lost (Tell Abyadh, Jurf al-Sakhr, Diyala, the Turkumen towns of Kirkuk, Tikrit, and now Sinjar). The strategic depth for the caliphate lies in the deserts spanning Iraq and Syria, which the “360 degree squeeze” strategy does not address. If this depth is not shredded, then the jihadists will remain “in the fight” and hence, their cause will remain legitimate in the eyes of their core constituency….

The jihadists fight as if they were pirates, with the desert being their sea. Apart from the outlier battle of Kobani, the jihadists do not fight pitched battles. According to an Iraqi security source, only 97 corpses of jihadists were found when Iraqi forces retook Tikrit. More recently, the Kurdish Peshmerga counted under 300 jihadist corpses in newly-liberated Sinjar. Jihadist swarmed in from the desert when they took Fallouja, Mosul, Ramadi and Palmyra. They mistrust urban and rural populations after the experience of the Tribal Awakenings. From 2009 until 2012, the jihadists had to adapt to the desert as their strategic depth. They had to adapt to hostile skies too. They were largely driven out of major urban centers in 2004, and beyond that, they were driven out of the date groves and orchards of Mesopotamia. 

 Nowadays, they field various types of forces, but their elite and most successful ones, not to mention their best-equipped ones, are small, disparate mobile desert units that converge on a target when needed (for example, the inghimasiyeen forces). They treat the cities and towns they have captured as ports of call, for booty and resupply. When challenged by superior forces attempting to retake these ports, the jihadists dissolve away into the desert, leaving small and determined bands of fighters to deflect and bleed-out the invading force. Their best fighters are not garrisoned in those cities; they live in the skiffs that carry them around the desert, such as the ubiquitous Toyota pick-up trucks they favor. There may be several mother ships in the desert that steam towards a target around which the skiffs gather. They exercise strict force conservation, especially after the military debacle at Kobani. They have to do this either because the numbers of fighting men they have are too few (far less than intelligence estimates) or because they are holding them in reserve for big strategic pushes when the time is right. The instinctual individualism of piracy is mitigated by having a cohesive ideology. One may understand the perplexing nature of the Paris targets as that of a jihadist skiff sailing further afield…. (emphasis added) [2]

I encourage you to read both posts in their entirety and add Talisman’s Gate, Again, to your RSS reader.  I have added it to the blog roll of the Stage on the right. 


[1] Nibras Kazimi, “Sunni-stan vs. Fertile Crescent“, Talisman’s Gate, Again (24 November 2015).

[2] Nibras Kazimi, “What is the Strategic Depth of the Islamic State?” Talisman’s Gate, Again (23 November 2015).

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Thanks for the pointer. Talisman's Gate, Again does not seem to have space for comments (probably the right policy, given what often shows up on ME blogs). So a couple of thoughts here:

– the Sunni political sphere in Iraq and Syria is far more fractured than the Shi'a one, and so has difficulty presenting a coherent case or gaining more influence. The largest voice is with the Salafists, but they attract far too much hostility from abroad and can offer no base for broad rule. Until the Sunnis get a different act together, they are going to have a problem.

– second, in Iraq at least, the Sunnis are traditionally the providers of rule. A sense that Shi'a rule is in itself illegitimate underlies a lot of support for insurgency. Given the demographic realities and Shi'a political activism, they are going to have to absorb a different view of their role (always hard).

Military success against ISIS will go some way to changing these mind-sets. If there is enough Sunni participation to assuage pride and earn a place, so much the better (there are signs this is the case – the trick will be to build on it without fostering unpractical ambitions).

Greater local autonomy would probably help, but it's going to be messy. As the author notes, Baghdad is not going to let an untrustworthy armed force sit an hour up the road.

On the "pirates" analogy, Juan Cole made the same case. But bedouin could live in the desert more or less self-sufficiently (and pirates just need a small island). Technicals need petrol, and ammo, and mechanics and spare parts. The world has moved on demographically, organisationally and technologically. ISIS in the desert will be a continuing mind-set, a nuisance, but not a major threat. And the theology dictates that the loss of Dabiq – site of the apocalyptic last battle – would be a major setback to morale. Further, the desert tribes will go with the stronger force – they are with ISIS for the loot (and to avoid punishment). We are already seeing defections. So continuing against the ISIS centres makes sense.

I like his idea of a broader Fertile Crescent federation to smooth things out. It would make the Sunni:Shi'a ratio a bit easier to deal with in parliament, and allows for various Sunni groups to go their own way instead of being forced to pick–and perhaps fight–for one ruling group.

It might also help defuse YPG-KRG tensions. Two autonomous Kurdistan regions would reduce a lot of their current tensions.

Re: ISIS–I also agree, and argued previously, on the importance of a set piece campaign, and the uses of Dabiq. But what happens after? What happens once the caliphate is gone? Just another Salafi-Jihadist insurgency out of the deserts? If that is the case then Nazimi's thoughts start to make a lot of sense. He is taking in the long view.

And that is pretty refreshing actually.