In a speech to the Sydney Institute, Julie Bishop declared the threat Isis pose to international order is greater than the one Soviet-led communism presented. The historical ineptitude of this aside, there’s something preposterous about a government whose foreign minister makes such a statement, while threatening life imprisonment for Australians fighting against this alleged menace.
Since the implosion of the Levant after the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, the corresponding mobilisation of Muslim foreign fighters flocking to the fray is the largest since the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s. An unprecedented number of Australians and Europeans have also joined the fighting, mostly aligning themselves with jihadi groups, due to their relative hospitality to foreigners, including Australia’s very own jihadi head-lopping superstar, Khaleed Sharrouf.
Less scrutinised have been two main counter mobilisations: Shiites, promulgated by the state-run foreign fighter program headed by Iran’s extra-territorial operations outfit, and Westerners assisting the Kurds. This latter foreign fighter outfit is known as Lions of Rojava.
Lions of Rojava launched on Facebook in 2014, which serves as a recruitment centre for foreign volunteers, predominately coming from the Americas, Europe, and Australia. Rojava, ‘the West’ in Kurdish, implies that the fighters are based in Western Kurdistan. A number of Australians have joined this foreign fighter outfit, and two have been killed. I know one of these volunteers personally.
Tony Abbott, with characteristic awkwardness, thankfully clarifying the moral difference between fighting with the Kurds against the Isis ‘death cult’ (an Abbottism which always makes me think of Spinal Tap) and annexing large amounts of the Middle East, taking women as concubines, and hoisting the severed heads of captured soldiers on film with your children, heads a government that looks to detain the veterans of the most effective, and ideologically Western partner force on the ground fighting Isis.
Nine months of coalition operations mounted against Isis have yielded nothing close to President Obama’s declared mission to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ the jihadi quasi-state. Writing in the latest issue of Perspectives on Terrorism, Charles Lister argues: ‘Considering the sheer scale of IS operations in Syria and Iraq and the questionable nature of its command and control links with groups in other countries, the strategic priority for the international community should remain countering IS in its Iraqi and Syrian heartlands. However, the existing strategy is neither sufficient in scale or design to effectively achieve this objective or to transform tactical gains into long-term strategic progress.’
The other force that rivals the counter-insurgency effectiveness of the Peshmerga are the so-called Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in Iraq. These are dominated by Iranian-backed and IRGC-QF led Shia militias, viciously sectarian and anti-Western in their outlook, and whose presence on the ground will do nothing to alleviate the key to Isis’s success in Syria and Iraq: disenfranchised and disillusioned Sunnis, who view jihadists as preferable to a Shiite-dominated Iranian-backed government in Baghdad.
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) were woefully underequipped in Iraq’s Sunni heartlands, a point underlined by the fall of the capital of Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Anbar province, Ramadi earlier this year.
Faced with waves of suicide bombs, ISF forces quickly fold and retreat under Isis bombardment. The Shia PMUs that invariably take their place have been accused of looting, atrocities seemingly borrowed from the Isis playbook, and have been implicated – predominately militias formed during the occupation of Iraq – in the murder of Western military personnel.
The Isis slogan of baqiya wa tatamaddad (‘lasting and expanding’) that is so integral to their recruitment and propaganda efforts, is not going to be countered without effective partner forces on the ground. The resilience that al Qaeda in Iraq showed after their routing during the Surge of 2007-8 – eventually relocating their leadership to Syria – was remarkable, and must be kept in mind during this campaign. A clear lack of strategic clarity, presumably through a Western inability to influence events on the ground, is present. The Kurds provide a clear alternative to the status quo. The Kurds are a secular, pro-Western, democratic people, who argue that individual rights and liberty are consistent with Islam. In Iraq, semi-autonomous Kurdistan enjoys unparalleled democratic institutions, civil society, and a free press.
In Syria, the Kurds present something hitherto unseen in the fight against Isis: an aggressive, effective, and capable rebel group who have dealt losses to Isis, recently pushing forward towards the self-proclaimed capital of the khilafah: Raqqa.
While it would be irresponsible of the Australian government to encourage Australians to join the fray in Syria, the idea of prosecuting Australians who have chosen to fight and defend the Kurds against Bishop’s perceived greater-than-Soviet threat to world order, is stupid.
For one, there’s no logical parallel between prosecuting veterans fighting with Isis or al Qaeda franchises, and secular, pro-Western forces. There’s a well-documented history of veterans fighting with jihadi groups returning to the West, and becoming involved in acts of domestic terrorism: both more lethal, and more effective, than their inspired, domestically-radicalised counterparts.
The idea of Australians fighting Isis, and returning home to murder cartoonists for the crime of satire, or placing bombs in the London Underground, is ludicrous. The person I know currently in Syria posts pictures on Facebook of areas liberated from the apocalyptic and genocidal version of Islam that the so-called Islamic State promulgate.
If a nuanced and individualised response to Australians fighting, or supporting, jihadi groups is justified, then the same clarity deserves to be extended towards Australians fighting against Isis.
The argument posed by useful idiots such as George Moinbot in the Guardian (arguing that a Brit who blew up a Syrian prison for Jabhat al-Nusra, freeing dozens of imprisoned jihadists was analogous with heroism). Monbiot’s question, ‘should we not be celebrating this act of extraordinary courage?’ is of course silly in this regard. If the same piece was written about Westerners risking their lives to defend the world’s largest stateless minority, and defeat the world’s most prolific jihadi organisation? Well, his piece is immeasurably improved.
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