I’ve seen the massive number of tweets from celebrities on the Gaza conflict and am flabbergasted at the capricious nature of American empathy. The Israeli incursion into Gaza has apparently sparked a fire of outrage in the conscious minds of the celebrity culture, and it’s become fashionable to show support. From Selena Gomez to Mia Farrow, #FreePalestine has become the hashtag of choice. But why?
Ostensibly, it’s the number of civilian deaths, but there have been many more civilian deaths in our own backyard of Mexico due to the drug cartels, and nobody’s tweeted #FreeJuarez. Maybe it’s because they’re Palestinians, and thus deserve much greater support due to the perceived injustices they’ve endured, because a peasant in Mexico doesn’t rate. Mexican trials are recent, and the Palestinians are perceived to have been persecuted for years. But that fails the test when applied to Syria. The Syrian people have lived under the brutal dictatorship of the Assad family for generations, and the current civil war has killed more civilians than all deaths of every Arab/Israeli conflict of the last fifty years combined – yet no celebrity has ever tweeted #FreeDamascus.
So it must be the belligerents. Syria is an internal fight, Arab on Arab, but the Gaza conflict is between a western country (Israel) and the Palestinians. That must be the cause of concern.
But that doesn’t hold water when applied to Libya. The U.S. led a host of western countries to remove Ghadaffi in Libya, and then our feckless “lead from behind” strategy let the country descend into absolute chaos. Kidnappings and murders by the various militias are occurring so prominently that our foreign policy culminated with us fleeing the country last week and abandoning our embassy. Ansar al Sharia just declared an emirate in Benghazi, and has begun to purge anyone who doesn’t believe the way they do, murdering civilians left and right, yet nobody’s tweeting #FreeBenghazi. Tripoli, the capitol, is literally burning to the ground, which we saw from the rear exit ramp of a Marine Corps Osprey as we ran with our tail between our legs, but nobody’s tweeting #FreeTripoli – despite the begging and pleading from civilians in that country for help in stopping the violence. Violence that we – the West – created with our “No War” war. Makes me wonder.
In no way do I mean to detract from the suffering, but in the greater scheme of carnage and death, Gaza is a pimple on the ass of destruction, yet for some odd reason people treat it as if it were the Jewish Holocaust, when real genocide is occurring in places just around the corner. While celebrities verbally joust over the conflict in Gaza, Iraq is poised to become a cyclone of violence of Biblical proportions, and nobody seems to even notice.
Two days ago, Iraq took a huge step towards all out slaughter when Shia militias kidnapped, killed, and then hung from light poles multiple Sunni men as a warning to others who might have a mind to support the ISIS, now known as the Islamic State (IS). On the other side, IS has begun to purge Mosul, demolishing shrines and forcing Christians to flee with nothing but the clothes on their back or face a horrible death. That’s when they’re being charitable and not beheading hundreds of soldiers at a single time.
The war is coming, and when it does, it will not be a slight pinprick. It will not be Gaza. It will be a slaughterhouse, and I wonder if anyone will tweet. I mean, besides IS using twitter to flaunt their beheadings of innocents. In 2007, I was in Baghdad at the height of sectarian tensions, and we were seeing 1,000 murders a month in the morgue. Those were the ones that were found. It was easily triple that number, with scores of people disappearing without a trace. And that was an underground war, not an all out fight, which is what’s currently gathering like a storm on the horizon. Something nobody is paying attention to as they tweet about Gaza. Because that’s what’s cool. It’s not about death. It’s about being popular.
Iraq is headed towards a river of blood – and if you think I’m using hyperbole, Google ISIS on YouTube. If you can stomach the atrocities (Warning – Extremely graphic. This website is morally reprehensible. Do not click the link unless you want to see savagery. By no means do I condone its content and hesitated to post it here.). The Islamic State is the personification of the motorcycle gang in The Road Warrior. Literally. It is a mass psychosis unlike the world has ever seen, a duplication of the Assassin cult in the 12th century magnified by a thousand, and eventually, they’re coming here. But nobody’s tweeting about them.
Iraq didn’t have to be this way. To hear the talking heads on TV, the troubles hinge on religion and, “there’s nothing we can do. It’s a cauldron of violence waiting on a match. They’ve been fighting FOR A MILENNIUM.”
“They” being the Shia and Sunni factions, because, you know, those two sects just hate each other. Which is false. Iraq is about as complex as any conflict in history, with many, many different actors, and it isn’t a neat split along Sunni/Shia lines. That’s just an excuse we use in America because we like neat problems. There is a split, but it’s encapsulated in the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham – now known as the Islamic State – and not in Iraq writ large.
When people talk about Iraq they mention three things: Sunni, Shia, and Kurd. When I hear that, I think “Kurd? What religion is that?” The answer is, it isn’t a damn religion. It’s a nationality. The Kurds span four countries, from Iran to Syria, and they are Muslim. Which is to say, they encompass the general split of the Muslim world. 80% are Sunni, and 20% are Shia. So why aren’t they attacking the hell out of each other? Why aren’t the Kurdish Sunnis killing the Kurdish Shia, or vice versa? Clearly, there is something greater at play in Kurdish unity than religion. As there is something greater at play in the sectarian tensions in Iraq beyond simple Shia/Sunni hatred.
Whenever I hear that the government of Iraq has fallen sway to Iran because of the Shia religion, I shake my head. The government HAS fallen sway to Iran, but that is a symptom of the power vacuum the U.S. left versus a genuine love of the theocratic state. Iran is Persian. Iraqis are Arab. Iraq fought a war with Iran for eight years, which is about the length of time the U.S. was in the country. We lost about 4,500 soldiers. Iraq lost 500,000. I say again, Iraq lost a HALF A MILLION of their citizens in the same time frame fighting Iran. Shia and Sunni. Make no mistake, Shia or Sunni, there’s not a lot of love for the Persians. The worst that could happen would be Iran entering the current fight, because it would polarize everything on religion. It would no longer be about government, or nationality, it would be split exactly on religious lines.
The problem in Iraq isn’t a religious one – it’s a government one. Religion only comes into play because ISIS (or IS) makes it so. It isn’t about Sunni and Shia, but it has become so because of history. You want to know the primary issue in Iraq? It’s this: “The Shiites never thought they won, and the Sunnis never thought they lost.”
That quote is from a friend of mine who worked the Sunni Awakening, a Princeton grad of Arabic studies and a member of the United States Army Special Forces. A much smarter man than me, but he hit the nail on the head. He used the terms “Sunni” and “Shia” because of convenience, knowing the simplicity didn’t really explain the complexity, so I’ll try to do so now.
Religion is nothing more than a backdrop for the troubles. People talk about how the Sunnis and Shiites have fought forever, but honestly, that’s no different than the fight in Christendom. We had our own “reformation”, given a king who decided that the papal authority was not worthy (because he wanted a divorce) with a large amount of fighting and bloodshed, some horrific. Do you, as an American, look at a Catholic (or at a Protestant) and think to yourself, “I’d like to gut that guy.”
No, you don’t, and that’s no different than the split from Shia and Sunni writ large. Only a genuine radical psycho would want to kill someone for simply being Protestant or Catholic, but that’s exactly the Islamic State. They are literally frothing at the mouth nut-jobs, wanting to behead anyone who doesn’t believe like them, starting with the Shia, and they are beautifully manipulating the Iraqi population to meet that goal – along with recruiting western foreign fighters, including some from the US. When they’re done killing in Iraq, make no mistake, they’re moving on. And the west is the target. Don’t believe me? Believe the words of the first U.S. suicide bomber in Syria, when he says in his martyrdom tape, “We’re coming for you.”
I don’t mean to downplay the Shia/Sunni split, because the comparison to Christianity is less than perfect, and there are distinct differences, including some serious bloodshed, but there are more parallels than people want to admit. People talk about how long these two sects have been fighting, using that as a convenient blanket for Iraq, but they fail to understand the underlying cause inside Iraq. And that is, religion is secondary. Tribalism comes first.
Iraq has a national identity, but Maliki has failed to unify it. Anyone who says differently, pulling up the sawhorse of Sykes-Picot, fails to understand the very meaning of the nation-state. The lines weren’t perfect, but they were by no means ridiculous. Saddam Hussein himself understood this, and worked hard to solidify them. But he had a problem, namely that he was a sadistic dictator, and he couldn’t rely on the goodwill of all. He did what’s known as “Coup-proofing” his levers of power. To do that, he resorted to people he trusted. First, the tribes of Tikrit, then of other tribes. Saddam was Sunni, and thus, the men he chose were Sunni. He didn’t do it because of religion, he did it for survival, using trusted friends. They were in his tribe, and happened to be Sunni. He didn’t build a “Sunni state”. He built a state that would allow him to survive, and religion took a backseat. As I said, 80% of the Kurds are Sunni, and yet he dropped nerve gas on them. Why? Because the Kurds were a threat, and it was never about religion. It was about controlling the country.
Fast forward to 2008, when Maliki took over. He did the exact same thing. He never thought he’d won, and was petrified of swinging from a lamppost, as had happened when the Ba’athists ruled. When we left, he resorted to what he knew: “Coup Proofing”. We should have expected nothing less. The man had lived his entire life watching his friends get executed. Why did we think he would govern any differently? We could have influenced that, but the administration chose to leave. From that decision one can draw a direct line to ISIS taking over half the country.
We made a lot of mistakes in Iraq – starting with going in in the first place – but out of all of them, leaving was the worst. It takes years to build a cohesive government – especially given the trauma Iraq had been through. Hell, it took us nine years to even ratify the U.S. constitution, yet we thought we could leave a country that had experienced the evil of Saddam Hussein within four years of establishing a nascent democracy? Really? They NEEDED our guidance. Needed our help. We, in the United States, looked at the country and said, “Your ball now”. Plenty of Iraqi’s – Sunni and Shia – said, “Don’t do this. Please….”
And we did. As for the argument of “It’s all Iraq’s fault. They wouldn’t give us a Status of Forces Agreement”, I call bullshit – as will anyone who knows about the end-game. PM Maliki wanted us to stay. He went so far as to tell us he’d sign a decree – outside of the government – that our soldiers would be protected. We would have none of that. It was time to go, based on the political winds in Washington. We demanded Maliki bring it to his parliament, and we knew the proposal would lose. It did.
Think I’m making up the state of U.S. commitment? Take a look at Afghanistan right now. Karzai – the president of Afghanistan – has told us repeatedly he wants us out. We presented him with a SOFA for continued operations and he has refused to sign it. What are we doing in Afghanistan? Running away? No. We decided to wait him out, letting the elections go in the hopes that the new guy would sign it. Don’t talk to me about Maliki. The differences are too stark. He wanted us to stay, and we didn’t. Karzai wants us to go, and we won’t. We could have stayed in Iraq. Period.
Maliki was left to his own devices, floundering in a world of tribalism, and he did what he knew best: Coup Proofing. Iran became his protector, and the military became his enemy. He was fearful of Ba’athist influence (Sunni was a sideshow – they just happened to be so), and he began his purges, wrecking eight years of American work. We’d picked men out of merit, he turned them out because of Tribe. We trained the Sunni Awakening, he saw a threat. I could go on, but the answer in Iraq isn’t Sunni versus Shia. It’s about a population that doesn’t trust its government. At least it was.
Now that the Islamic State is on the scene, and Iran is contributing troops to fight them, it has most definitely become religious, so much so that I fear there is no turning back. Maliki could have tried to use a national identity to fight IS, but he chose Iranian help. To any Sunni watching, having Persians in their country fighting can mean only one thing: Religion has triumphed over nationalism.
Make no mistake; ISIS/IS is a religious endeavor, so much so that it scares the hell out of both Iran and Saudi Arabia – two of the staunchest religious countries in existence on both sides of the fault line. ISIS wants a war between Sunnis and Shiites. Period. That is its goal, and, due to the incompetence of the Maliki government, they’re about to get it. There is potential for enormous bloodshed in Iraq, and it’s coming closer and closer. When that happens, I doubt there will be any hashtags proclaiming #FreeBaghdad. The celebrities will just sit back and tweet about missing girls in Nigeria for a day and a half, oblivious to the slaughter.
Right up until a group of American foreign fighters, trained in the deadly arts of terrorism at an IS camp, come home, slipping through our nets with a blue passport and an American flag. They’ll cause an attack greater than 9/11. We’ll be forced to intervene, stepping once more into Iraq to eradicate the nascent Islamic State, or face an onslaught of further attacks.
When that happens, we’ll see the celebrity hashtags appear. Against the United States.