The Borg of the Middle East

My latest piece, about the fall of Palmyra to ISIS, appears in City Journal. Here's the first part.

ISIS has conquered Syria’s spectacular Roman Empire city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site long known affectionately as the “bride of the desert,” and in all likelihood is gearing up to demolish it. We know this because they’ve done it before. ISIS used hammers, bulldozers, and explosives to destroy the ancient Iraqi cities of Hatra and Nimrud near Mosul, and they did it on video.

“These ruins that are behind me,” said an ISIS vandal on YouTube, “they are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah. The Prophet Muhammad took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca. We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.”

Muslims have ruled this part of the world for more than 1,000 years. All this time, they’ve been unbothered by the fact that Palmyra, Hatra, and Nimrud include pagan monuments, temples, statues, and inscriptions that predate Islam. Only now are these places doomed to annihilation. ISIS is more belligerently Philistine than any group that has inhabited the region for a millennium. The only modern analogue is the Taliban’s destruction of the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan with anti-aircraft guns, artillery shells and dynamite in March 2001, mere months before their al-Qaida pals attacked New York City and Washington.

This attitude toward history harks back less to the seventh century than to the twentieth, when Pol Pot reset the calendar to Year Zero after the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia, and when Mao Zedong’s Chinese Cultural Revolution murdered millions in the war against everything “old.”

Maamoun Adbulkarim, Syria’s antiquities chief, told Reuters that the army carted hundreds of ancient statues away to safety, but of course the giant Roman columns and the museum itself aren’t going anywhere except, perhaps, underneath the jaws of ISIS bulldozers. “This is the entire world’s battle,” he said.

That’s how bad things are in Syria now. The mass-murderers, war criminals, sectarian gangsters, and state sponsors of international terrorism in Bashar al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party regime can plausibly tout themselves as the defenders of civilization. In this particular case and in this particular place, they’re right.

Palmyra is more than 2,000 years old. It began as a humble caravan stop in the second century B.C., but Rome eventually annexed it and turned it into a dazzling and prosperous metropolis. Lying in an oasis in modern-day Homs Governate, during Rome’s time it served as a crucial hub linking Europe to Persia, India, and China.

The ruins sprawl over a vast area, preserved in the desert, away from the dense and overbuilt coastal areas of modern Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Unlike most Roman ruin sites, this one includes nearly intact buildings, some of them enormous. The architectural style is a delightful blend of Roman, Greek, and Persian. Some of the standing columns bear inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic. It’s a magnificent place, the Levantine melting pot at its finest, a startlingly beautiful crossroads where the East meets the West, where everything and everybody is blended.

But now it has been overtaken by a totalitarian death cult that uses mass murder and heavy weapons and machinery to transform everything and everyone into a single block-like structure, with itself at the center. ISIS is the Borg of the Middle East.

Read the rest in City Journal.


The Muslim Brotherhood Takes Off its Mask

ISIS is threatening to kill judges and security personnel in Egypt after a Cairo court sentenced former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi to death while, at the same time, what's left of the Muslim Brotherhood is promising a revolution that “exterminates all the oppressors.”

So much for the Muslim Brotherhood being moderate.

Human beings are naturally compelled to violently resist violent repression regardless of their ideology, but the Brotherhood's ostensible moderation was always limited to its strategy. Its members largely refrained from violence because they believed a peaceful path to their radical Islamist utopia may have been open to them. Now that that's off the table, the mask and the gloves have come off.

And that word, “exterminate.” This is not the language of freedom fighters. Thomas Jefferson and Vaclav Havel never threatened to exterminate anyone. This is the language of ISIS, Al Qaeda and Pol Pot. 

Most of the world's Sunni Arab terrorist organizations are spin-offs of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Al Qaeda. ISIS, meanwhile, is a spin-off of Al Qaeda. Hamas in the Gaza Strip isn't even a spin-off. It's the Muslim Brotherhood's Palestinian branch.

The ideologies of all these groups scarcely differ. They all want a Sunni theocracy, and they're all hostile to secularists, minorities, and the West. The differences lie only in their severity, but the Brothers are looking and sounding less moderate by the day, and there's no reason to be the least bit shocked that ISIS views them as their comrades and is threatening revenge on their behalf.

Egypt's young Muslim Brotherhood leaders exiled themselves to Istanbul to get clear the severe government crackdown which has so far killed more than 2,500 and imprisoned more than 16,000. And from there they mounted an insurgency against the regime and the relatively tepid leadership of their own organization.

As Eric Trager and Marina Shalabi write in Foreign Affairs, they “rebelled against the group’s older leaders, blaming them for 'misanalyzing' the political situation leading up to Morsi’s overthrow and then mismanaging the post-Morsi period. They further rejected their leaders’ calls for a patient, long-term struggle against Egypt’s military-backed government. They advocated instead for revolutionary—and violent—tactics to destabilize the government sooner rather than later.”

A few years ago, after the removal of Hosni Mubarak but before the election of Morsi, Western optimists argued that the Brothers were going to change, that the younger generation was more moderate than the dinosaurs, that it was only a matter of time before their less-conservative views dominated the organization.

It's easy, especially in hindsight, to see the fatal flaw in that analysis. Younger generations in the West are often more liberal than their parents and grandparents, at least in some ways. The majority of Republicans in the United States under the age of 30, for instance, support gay marriage. Almost half of Republicans under the age of 50 support gay marriage. Times here are changing.

But the Muslim Brotherhood is not the Egyptian Republican Party. Nor is General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's military regime the Democratic Party of Egypt. The only thing Egypt has in common with the United States politically is that it's more or less divided into two partisan camps—those who want a religious dictatorship and those who want a military dictatorship.

This is not new. I noticed it the first time I visited Cairo back in 2005. I met a handful of genuine political liberals at the time, but they were all too keenly aware that the percentage of Egyptians who agreed with them was in the high single digits at best.

You can't have democracy without democrats. And when the overwhelming majority want one kind of dictatorship or another, they're guaranteed to get one kind of dictatorship or another.

Historically, Egyptians haven't been prone to civil war the way the Iraqis, Syrians, and Lebanese are, but if the Muslim Brotherhood takes the next logical step and actually teams up with ISIS, watch out.

Egypt's Former President Sentenced to Death

Former Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi has been sentenced to death.

His political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, is not half as “moderate” as its apologists claim. One of his last acts as president was appointing a member of Gamaa Islamiya, a terrorist organization responsible for murdering dozens of tourists in 1997, as the governor of Luxor—the very place where those tourists were massacred.

Few in the West liked or trusted him, and plenty of Egyptians who voted for him suffered spasms of buyer's remorse, but he was nevertheless the first and only freely elected president in the entire history of Egypt.

And now he has been sentenced to death by a court controlled by the nation's military strongman, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Sisi has declared total war on the Brotherhood. The man is not content to simply keep his opponents out of power. He won't tolerate them as a non-violent dissident force. He can't even tolerate the former president drawing breath in a dungeon.

This is Middle Eastern “strong horse” politics at its finest (or worst), but you know what? This sort of thing works until it doesn't. Nothing's stopping Sisi from going full Assad and creating a North African version of Syria's Baath Party regime, but not even a total surveillance police state is enough to put down the armed Sunni Islamist insurrection in Syria, not even with Iran and Hezbollah on side.

It's not hard to see where this is heading. Whatever's left of the Muslim Brotherhood will almost certainly abandon its mostly non-violent strategy to transform Egypt into an Islamic utopia and take up rifles and car bombs.

If you're planning a Nile River cruise or a trip to the pyramids, wait.

UPDATE: Right on schedule, two judges and a prosecutor were just shot and killed.

The Middle East's Nuclear Arms Race is On

President Barack Obama hoped a nuclear deal with Iran would prevent an arms race in the Persian Gulf region, but the Saudis don't trust what's coming any more than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does, and they're no longer shy about saying so. And they promise to match the levels of enrichment capacity the Iranians get to keep.

“Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too,” said Prince Turki bin Faisal, the New York Times reports.

Prince Turki argued that the United States was making a “pivot to Iran” that was ill advised, and that the United States failed to learn from North Korea’s violations of its nuclear deals. “We were America’s best friend in the Arab world for 50 years,” he said, using the past tense.

The Saudis were never America's best friends in the Arab world. That designation goes to Morocco, which has been a genuine ally for more than 200 years. The American-Saudi alliance was always strictly transactional, and it makes large majorities of people in both countries uncomfortable.

Aside from the fact that the House of Saud can play well with others to a certain extent, at home the regime is only fractionally less draconian than ISIS. Beheadings in Riyadh's “Chop Chop Square” are as ho-hum and routine as speeding tickets on  American freeways.

But whatever. The Saudis no longer feel, or no longer wish to at least say, that they're our best friends. It's common knowledge even in Washington that they oppose the Iranian regime and its nuclear weapons program as stridently as the Israelis do. The fallout in relations was as predictable as it was inevitable.

A democratic Iran would be a natural ally of the United States while the Saudis, with their popularly backed medieval system, are natural enemies. At some point the US will pivot, and the pivot will likely be permanent, but until the clerical regime in Tehran reforms itself out of all recognition or is overthrown from below, we're stuck with the awkward and ailing alliance we have. Let's try not to squander it further.

Raúl Castro’s Papal Publicity Stunt

Cuban dictator Raúl Castro flew to the Vatican, met privately with Pope Francis, and says he’s returning to church.

“I promise to go to all his Masses, and with satisfaction,” he said after the meeting on television. “I read all the speeches of the pope, his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church. I’m not joking.”

Fat chance.

The man is 83 years old and has been an atheist and a communist since the Season One premiere of Leave it to Beaver. His regime once outlawed religion entirely and to this day has its boot on the neck of the island’s priests.

There’s always a chance, I suppose, that, unlike Christopher Hitchens, he’s changing his heart and mind about God near the end of his life. It’s far more likely, however, that he’s trying to burnish his image abroad now that the United States is normalizing relations.

Even if he goes back to church every Sunday and starts praying in front of the cameras, few will believe he’s sincere. Politicians do this sort of thing all the time. Does anyone seriously believe that America’s Congress critters are even half as churchy in real life as they appear? Raúl is a lower form of life even than they are. He’s only a “politician” when he leaves the island and hobnobs with his betters. At home he helms a police state.

At least he got to see Europe with his own eyes when he flew to the Vatican. Italy is hardly the most high-functioning and prosperous nation in Europe—it looks and feels like Greece or even Egypt compared with Switzerland and Germany—but compared with Cuba it’s Canada.

Cuba’s natural beauty is undeniable, and it’s easy to see Havana’s former grandeur through the rot and decay, but even the refurbished part of the capital in the tourist quarter looks and feels surreal and blank. It’s like a Disneyfied version of Cuba. Clean and well-maintained, to be sure, and pleasant enough on the surface, but there’s no real economy there aside from some token high-end restaurants for tourists that locals can’t afford to eat in on their 20-dollars a month Maximum Wage. 

Some of your friends have been to Cuba, I know, and some of them say it’s great. It can be great if you stay inside the tourist bubble, but leaving that bubble and interacting with the rest of Havana is like getting thumped in the stomach by a cop wielding a truncheon. More than half the capital’s population lives on a ration card and a salary smaller than a child’s allowance in an urban disaster area that looks like it was bombed during a war. 

Rome had to have made an impression on Raúl Castro. He knows what a nation with a market economy looks like, and that’s good. He can’t possibly go home and believe his own propaganda about “socialism,” which in Cuba is actually communism, but he hasn’t believed that nonsense for years anyway. Now that his more-hardline brother Fidel is out of the picture—is he still even alive, or is it Weekend at Bernie’s down there?—Raúl has implemented microcapitalist reforms and will likely continue moving, though perhaps at glacial speed, toward a Latin American version of the Chinese and Vietnamese model.

He should aim for the Chilean model, but he won’t, not even after visiting Europe. Seeing what a properly functioning country looks like and feels like isn’t enough for the power mad. North Korea’s Jim Jong Un went to school in Switzerland. He knows damn well what a civilized country looks like and can’t possibly believe that the prison state he inherited is doing the best it possibly can. He hasn’t been to Seoul, but surely he’s seen pictures on the Internet and can contrast his vibrant neighbor with the soul-crushing totalitarian anthill of Pyongyang. Absolute power, though, corrupts absolutely, and the tyranny of the Kim family probably even creeps out the Castros at this point.

It’s not entirely meaningless that Raúl is telling Westerners what they want to hear. It’s cynical, sure, and it won’t amount to much in the end, but unlike the boy king of the underworld over in Pyongyang, he seems to be tiring of his isolation.

The Iranian Leader's Bizarre Twitter Feed

Want a trip into bizarroland? Take a look at the Twitter feed for Iran's “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Khamenei.

It's ridiculous that even though US President is black, still such crimes agnst US blacks continue to occur. #BlackLivesMatter #FreddieGray

No, his Twitter feed hasn't been hacked by Al Sharpton. Nor is this a spoof site. It's the real online megaphone for the Iranian dictator.

This pasty old man doesn't give a flying fork about black people, especially those who live in the United States. When he and his underlings chant “Death to America,” they don't mean death to white America. They're talking about the whole country, from our black president at the top to undocumented immigrants on the bottom and everyone in between.

Here are a few of his tweets for May Day.

It's not just a complement that the #Prophet kissed the hands of #workers, it's a lesson to all of us. #WorkersDay

Govt must not buy from outside #Iran its consuming goods which can be produced domestically. This is an example of honoring Iranian workers.

This one, though, is my favorite:

US Police kill people over any excuse; this type of power doesn't ensure security but leads to insecurity. #Baltimore

When Iranian-backed terrorists in Lebanon murdered former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri with a gigantic bomb in downtown Beirut, did that lead to security or insecurity? Did Iranian-backed death squads in Iraq lead to security or insecurity? How about the Iranian-sponsored Houthi takeover of Yemen? How's that going?

And what about Khamenei's Basij militia cracking heads during the Green Revolution and torturing activists in prison?

Ok, perhaps I'm being unfair. Wallowing in whataboutery is for college students, not serious analysts. Maybe Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders could come over here and teach American police officers about cultural sensitivity. The plainclothes Basijis could train our undercover police officers so incidents like this don't happen again. Iranian judges who sentence gay people to death by hanging from cranes could be guest lecturers at American law schools. Perhaps MSNBC could invite the warden of Evin Prison to host one of their shows in the next season's line-up.

Then again, maybe not. Washington Post journalist Jason Resaian—who is an American citizen, by the way—is languishing in Evin Prison right now. He was arrested last year and has been slapped with the ludicrous charges of “espionage” and “conducting propaganda against the establishment.”

I long ago lost track of how many times paranoid Middle Easterners thought I was a spy while I was working over there—many of them think every journalist in the world is a spy—but I can't remember the last time I took it seriously.

That second charge, though, “conducting propaganda against the establishment” is something every journalist who works in the Middle East has to be wary of. Almost every Middle Eastern country is a police state of one kind or another that can and will arrest anyone for any reason or no reason at all.

In 2005, a spokesman for Hezbollah—the Lebanese terrorist organization founded, funded, and controlled by the Iranian regime that is now tweeting “black lives matter”—called me at home and said, “we know who you are, we read everything you write, and we know where you live.” He accused me of “propagandizing against the party” because I cracked a joke about Hezbollah on my blog. I even made it clear in that very same blog post that it was a joke, so there was no misunderstanding.

From Hezbollah's and Iran's point of view, anything that doesn't precisely conform to the party line is propagandizing against the establishment or the party. Making sure everyone knows it, and knows there may be terrible consequences for anyone foolish or brave enough to give them the finger, is part of their mission statement.

And we're supposed to believe that the man who's in charge of all this cares even a whit about police violence in the United States or worker's rights on May Day?


Khamenei has 120,000 Twitter followers but only follows five people himself. Wondering who are the lucky five, I clicked to find out and discovered that three of them are his other accounts, one of them is from the ghost of his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, and the last is some random Islamic Twitter feed.

Twitter is a one-way conversation for this guy. Following other people? That's for teachable folks who might learn something from somebody else, or at least for those of us who are passively interested in what somebody else has to say.

Iran's ruler is doing what the Soviet Union used to do and what Hugo Chavez did more recently. Both used the West's language of human rights as weapons against the West while resisting everything Western human rights activists stand for. Partly they were just being cynical, and partly they were pointing out the West's supposed hypocrisy.

You could argue that I'm just doing what Khamenei is doing by saying the other guy has no clothes, but there's a difference, and it's crucial. I actually care about human rights, not just for Americans, but also for Iranians and everyone else. Plenty of Iranians care about human rights, too, but it's safe to say that pretty much none of them are fixtures in the Iranian government.

The most foolish among us might be convinced that tyrannical dictators on the other side of the planet care more about such things than we do. That's the theory, anyway. Hey, maybe the Iranian leader is one of us! Maybe everything our own government says is a lie!

Every village has its idiot. Moscow managed to sucker some of us during the Soviet era, at least for a while, with this sort of shtick. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez tricked a handful, as well. For years the Bolivarian Republic's embassy in Washington flooded my inbox with press releases that read like they were written by Elizabeth Warren.

The communist bloc was an unspeakable prison house spanning more than one continent, but its utopian ideals appeared lofty to a small percentage of Westerners who couldn't be bothered to look at the details. The utopian ideals of Iran's revolutionary regime, though, will never gain traction among those of us who aren't Shia Muslims.

Iran's tyrant will not pull this off, but it's fun watching him try.

Under the Black Flag

I reviewed ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan for Commentary. Here's the first half.

ISIS isn’t a terrorist organization. It’s a transnational army of terror. The CIA claims it has as many as 31,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, and Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, thinks the number may be as high as 200,000. When ISIS fighters conquered the Iraqi city of Mosul last year, they stole enough materiel to supply three fighting divisions, including up-armored American Humvees, T-55 tanks, mobile Chinese artillery pieces, Soviet anti-aircraft guns, and American-made Stinger missile systems. ISIS controls a swath of territory the size of Great Britain and is expanding into Libya and Yemen.

ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, paints a gripping and disturbing picture of this new “caliphate” in the Levant and Mesopotamia. In the most comprehensive account to date, the authors chronicle ISIS’s roots as the Iraqi franchise of al-Qaeda under its founding father, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, its near defeat at the hands of Americans and Iraqi militias in Anbar Province, its rebirth during the Syrian civil war, and its catastrophic return to Iraq as a conquering army last summer.

The book is personal for both authors. Hassan was born and raised in the Syrian border town Al-Bukamal, right in the center of ISIS-held territory. Weiss is an American journalist who reported from the Aleppo suburb of al-Bab, back when it had a burgeoning democratic civil-society movement and wasn’t the “dismal fief ruled by Sharia law” it is today. Anger and disgust are at times palpable on the page, but emotion never distracts from the richly detailed narrative—based in part on interviews with ISIS commanders and fighters—that forms the backbone of their book.

Like all good historians, they start at the beginning. ISIS began its life as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) after the United States demolished Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003. The Bush administration saw Arab democracy as the solution to the Middle East’s woes, and Syria’s tyrant Bashar al-Assad didn’t want to be the next Saddam. Assad waged a proxy war to convince Washington that participatory politics in the region would be perilous. Weiss and Hassan quote former Syrian diplomat Bassam Barabandi, who says candidly that “[Assad] started to work with the mujahideen.” He dispatched Syria’s homegrown jihadists to fight American occupation forces, and most of those jihadists would sign up with AQI. Assad pulled off a win-win scheme, purging Syria of potential enemies while teaching both the American government and citizenry a lesson they still haven’t forgotten: Occupying and democratizing an Arab land is a far messier and bloodier business than most in the West are willing to stomach.

It worked so well in Iraq that Assad would eventually replicate it inside his own country. When the uprising against him began in 2011, he framed the conflict as one between his secular regime and Islamist terrorists, even when the only serious movement against him consisted of nonviolent protests for reform and democracy. Few in the West bought Assad’s line at the time, so he then facilitated an Islamist terrorist opposition. His loyalists like to present a choice: “Assad or we burn the country.” And they are not kidding.

As Weiss and Hassan detail, Assad opened the jails and let Islamist prisoners free as part of an ostensible “reform” process, but he kept democracy activists in their cages. He knew perfectly well that those he let loose would cut a burning and bleeding gash across the country, casting him as the only thing standing between the rest of us and the abyss. That was the point. “Après moi, le déluge,” as Louis XV used to say.

The first thing ISIS does when conquering a new city or town is set up the grisly machinery for medieval punishments in town squares. “Letting black-clad terrorists run around a provincial capital,” Weiss and Hassan write, “crucifying and beheading people, made for great propaganda.” It was all Assad could do to ensure the Obama administration wouldn’t pursue a policy of regime-change as it had in Libya and as the previous administration had in Iraq.

There was a precedent for this perverted Baathist-Islamist alliance. Osama bin Laden had declared the “socialist infidels” of Saddam’s government worthy allies against Americans, and the remnants of Iraq’s ancien régime—what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld mistakenly called the dead enders—felt the same way. As a result, Weiss and Hassan note, “most of [AQI’s] top decision-makers served either in Saddam Hussein’s military or security services.”

Read the rest in Commentary.


Kurdistan Thrives Despite War With ISIS

A suicide-bomber blew himself up and killed three people—the terrorist himself, along with two Turkish citizens—in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, at a popular café just down the street from the US Consulate.

ISIS is taking credit, of course, and there’s no reason to doubt it since they’re in the midst of a hot war with the Kurds. And the front line is just 30 miles away—an easy morning commute—from Erbil's city center.

The attack took place in Ainkawa, however, a lively and prosperous Christian suburb of Erbil that was once geographically separate but has, in the last couple of years, been absorbed into the sprawl thanks to an explosive infilling construction boom.

The death toll is low, but it’s fair to say this was an attack against Christians, Kurds, and Americans simultaneously.

We know already that ISIS has genocidal intentions toward the region’s Christians, Shia Muslims, Yezidis, and Alawites. Late last year they murdered and raped thousands of members of Iraq’s Yezidi minority, and just yesterday they frog-marched a large group of  Ethiopian Christians down to a beach in Libya and beheaded them on camera. (No doubt they’d try to kill all the Jews if Israel wouldn’t bust out the doom hammer.)

My friend Asher Abrams is in Erbil right now—as a tourist. He expected “an interesting but uneventful visit for a couple of weeks,” but then, boom. Not 24 hours after he landed, while he was still recovering from his flight, he heard a loud explosion followed by what sounded like firecrackers. He looked out the window of his hotel room and saw a rising column of smoke.

“People appeared to be mostly going about their business,” he wrote on his blog. “If I was expecting mass panic, it was not to be found.”

Yeah, well, the Kurds are indefatigable. An occasional car bomb now and then is nothing compared to what they went through a couple of decades ago, when almost 200,000 were murdered, some of them with chemical weapons, during Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal Campaign.

In any case, Erbil is a tough place for ISIS to operate. The Kurds are no more enamored of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's legion of genocidaires than Americans are, and they're currently fighting much harder. Their intelligence networks are state of the art, and anyone who doesn't speak locally accented Hawleri Kurdish stands out at once.

The world's nastiest army is banging on the door, but these people are doing such a good job keeping the wolf away that the place is booming despite it all. Middle class and elite housing is going up everywhere, most famously in the area known as Dream City which includes a replica of the White House.

KFC is in Kurdistan now. So is TGI Fridays. Pizza Hut has been there for a while. Starbucks might even open a store in one of the brand-new malls.

Call it crass consumerism if you want, but it's an extraordinary thing inside the borders of Iraq. After so many years of isolation from the rest of the human race—first under the boot heel of Saddam Hussein, then international sanctions followed by the Iraq war—having international chains makes the Kurds feel like they are part of this world, like they're no longer living in some alternate dimension.

Last time I was there, in the late 2000s, they didn't even have international banks. Credit cards weren't accepted anywhere. Nor were ATM cards. I had to bring huge pocketfuls of cash or I'd find myself stranded and broke. The locals were mostly unaffected by this, of course, but they knew they were cut off and they wanted international chains. I saw one fake franchise after another—at least three McDonald's knockoffs with names like “MaDonal,” and a bogus Dominoes Pizza outlet that went ahead and called itself Dominoes Pizza and even put a trademark-infringed logo on the banner outside.

The Kurds don't need that kind of fakery anymore. Their autonomous region is alas still part of Iraq, but it's also part of the world. I wouldn't call it the Dubai of Iraq just yet, but every day it looks and feels more like Jordan and less like the howling wilderness of poisoned mass graves that it used to be.

One of these days, the Kurds will enjoy independence and join not only the rest of the world but also the United Nations as a member state and the roster of robust American allies. ISIS might be able to dent that progress a little with an attack here and there, but it can't stop what's coming. Neither, for that matter, can Baghdad.

The Kurds' Heroic Struggle Against ISIS

ISIS is getting its ass kicked by the Kurds.

In Syria's Hasaka Province, where the Iraqi and Turkish borders converge, YPG fighters have ISIS on the run, and they've just retaken two more villages outside the long-besieged city of Kobane on the Turkish-Syrian border.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forced ISIS to flee Sinjar near Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, the site of horrible massacres against the Yezidi minority last year. As many as 5,000 civilians were killed, thousands of women were dragged off as sex slaves, and tens of thousands were forced to flee onto a mountaintop without food or water.

Sinjar was the penultimate straw for Washington and the start of the war between Iraqi Kurdistan and ISIS. The last straw for Washington came just weeks later when an ISIS column made a beeline for Erbil, Iraq's Kurdish capital, in American Humvees stolen from the Iraqi army in Mosul.

The Kurds are the only people in the region whose willingness to fight matches that of ISIS, and unlike ISIS nearly all their fighters are recruited internally. They haven't issued any worldwide calls for enlistment. They don't troll social media looking for disgruntled young people abroad. With just a handful of exceptions, no one from outside the region volunteers to fight alongside them. They receive little support from the West and no support from the neighbors.

On the one hand it's astonishing that they're able to maintain a firewall hundreds of miles long against so vicious an enemy with so little help, but the Kurds have fielded better fighting forces than the Arab states for decades. Shortly after the first Persian Gulf War, Iraq's Shias and Kurds mounted simultaneous uprisings against the government, together wresting control of most of Iraq from Saddam Hussein. He managed to massacre his way into retaking the Shia parts of the country, but his army—the fourth-largest in the world at the time—was no match for the Kurds in north. Women and children left the cities on foot and took refuge in the mountains while the men stayed behind to purge the regime more than a decade before the rest of the country was finally rid of it.

Picking a fight with the Kurds is a little like going to war against Lebanon's Druze or the Israelis. It's like trying to invade and occupy Texas. Only ISIS leaders, at this point in history, are drunk enough on their own ideological belligerence to think they can best the people who whooped Saddam Hussein's military machine while everyone else who tried was gunned into ditches.

But ISIS is learning, and its commanders are asking the Peshmerga for a ceasefire. The Kurds, though, are even less likely to negotiate with who the Kirkuk chief of police calls “blind snakes” than Americans are. We have two continents and an ocean between ourselves and ISIS, but a hardy person could walk from Mosul to the Kurdish autonomous region in a less than a day, and that border is as potentially porous as the Mexican-American border.

Iraq's central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government are planning operations to reclaim Mosul from ISIS later this year, but Baghdad is loathe to give the Kurds much help in the meantime. Kurdistan is still at least technically part of Iraq, and its officials have to ask the central government for money and weapons. At times Baghdad grudgingly says yes and other times it says no. Everyone knows the Kurds want their own state, and the central government doesn't want them to grow so strong that they can finally tell the rest of Iraq to sod off and damn the consequences.

So they need help from outside, but they aren't getting much. Bayan Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government's representative to the US, says most of the promised American weapons shipments still haven't arrived.

Washington is so afraid of cheesing off Baghdad and Turkey, which are both hostile to Kurdish independence, that it's still willing to largely blow off its only genuine and competent allies in that part of the Middle East. The Kurds are by far the most pro-American people over there, more so even than the Israelis, and the only reason they aren't yet powerful enough to be reckoned with internationally is because they haven't achieved full independence. They are still, after all these years, the world's largest stateless people and treated as second-class allies in favor of Turkey, which has been obnoxiously unhelpful in the Middle East for more than a decade, and Iraq, which is a de-facto Iranian client state.

The US may eventually get its alliance priorities straight. In the meantime, the Kurds are doing yeoman's work nearly alone and without even much recognition, let alone thanks.

Iran's Goal is Middle Eastern Hegemony

The chattering class has spent the last couple of days pontificating on and bickering about the so-called nuclear “deal” with Iran, but largely missing from the conversation is a recognition of the Iranian government's ultimate goal—to become the regional hegemon. Its nuclear weapons program is simply a means to that end.

Last month Ali Youseni, former intelligence minister and current advisor to President Hassan Rouhani, made that perfectly clear at a conference in Tehran. “Since its inception,” he said, “Iran has [always] had a global [dimension.] It was born an empire.”

A nuclear deal isn't beside the point, exactly, but at best it's more of a patch than a solution, and the truth is we don't yet have a deal anyway. What we have is a “framework” for a deal that may or may not be agreed upon in the future, and it's not clear that Washington and Tehran even agree on the framework. The US, for instance, says Iran has agreed to cease and desist using advanced nuclear centrifuges, yet Iran says “work on advanced centrifuges shall continue on the basis of a 10-year plan.”

The Iranian government is more patently dishonest than the American government, of course, and may be selling a face-saving bill of goods to its exhausted population, but Washington has never been and never will be above political spin, and it's entirely possible—and perhaps even likely—that each side genuinely perceives  the results of the talks so far differently.

Much of the pontificating and bickering among those in the chattering class is a bit premature, but one thing at least should be clear: the Iranian government is and will continue to be a pernicious force in the region regardless of any agreement. Even with a good deal from our point of view, replacing a rapid expansion of Iran's nuclear weapons program with sanctions relief and economic growth will at best be a wash.

Many in Washington seem unbothered by Iran's ultimate ambitions and are only concerned with Iranian nukes. In an interview on NPR in December, President Barack Obama said a deal could break Iran's isolation and enable the country to become, as he put it, “a successful regional power.”

Iran, though, is already a successful regional power. It has been an on-again off-again regional power since the Persian Empire ruled much of the ancient world, and it has been more culturally and politically sophisticated than most of the Middle East for thousands of years. The current era, which began in 1979 with the  installment of Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary clerical regime, is a but a rough patch—a mere blip—in all that history.

But we're not past that blip yet. The elderly “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei will pass from the scene soon enough. The Guardian Council and Revolutionary Guard Corps may eventually reform themselves out of all recognition as the Vietnamese and Chinese Communist Parties have done, or they may be overthrown like the Soviet client states of Eastern Europe in 1989, but we're not there yet. Iran could eventually become a force for good if and when a new government reins in or dismantles its terrorist proxies in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, and beyond, but for now the regime is aggressively projecting power beyond its borders into the Arab world in ways that are entirely detrimental to both the West and the Arabs.

Zoom out and look at the rest of the region. One Middle Eastern state after another has disintegrated into schismatic abstractions controlled by rival armed groups. Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, and Yemen are all, as scholar and analyst Jonathan Spyer put it, “living in the time of the militias,” many of which moonlight as international terrorist organizations.

Iran backs armed factions in four out of five of those countries—Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, undisciplined Shia militias in Iraq, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The only reason it has no footprint in Libya is because Libya has no natural Shia constituency for Iran to throw its weight and power behind.

Tehran's most effective project so far is Hezbollah, which has dominated Lebanon for decades and is expanding into its range of operations deep into Syria. Its Iraqi proxies just burned and looted Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, and its Houthi clients in Yemen are well on their way to conquering the city of Aden, one of the country's largest cities, after seizing control of the capital Sanaa a couple of months ago.

One could argue that Iran's influence isn't entirely negative since its proxies are fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but ISIS wouldn't have gained much traction there in the first place if it weren't for the vicious depredations of Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki, both Iranian clients. Besides, the world's largest state sponsor of international terrorism is the last country on earth we should want as a firewall between us and international terrorist organizations. 

Iran's ability to disrupt the Middle East is unmatched by any other state in the region, but it couldn't conquer and rule the whole area even if it did have nuclear weapons. It can, however, foment fragmentation, chaos, terrorism, and war, and will continue to do so whether or not its government signs and adheres to an agreement with the US. A deal that allows Iran to grow stronger through sanctions relief without addressing any of that, alas, will almost certainly make the Middle East a worse place than it already is.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia's Big Adventure

It was bound to happen sooner or later, and the Middle East decided on sooner: Saudi Arabia is bombing Yemen, and Egypt is prepping a ground invasion.

Why was this bound to happen? Because Yemen's Iranian-backed Shia Houthi movement is sweeping across the country in force. And if any two countries in the Sunni Arab world are going to get involved in that fight it will be Egypt and Saudi Arabia, partly because they're Yemen's neighbors and partly because that's how they roll. Egypt fought a long war in Yemen from 1962 to 1967 and the Saudis invaded Bahrain in 2011 to put down a Shia rebellion against the Sunni ruling house of Khalifa.

Iran has been a regional power since the time of the Persian Empire, and the current revolutionary regime that swept away the Shah in 1979 wants to restore Iran's place as a regional superpower. It's tricky, however. The overwhelming majority of the Middle East's population is Sunni and Arab while Iran is Shia and dominated by Persians. These ethnic and religious differences mean little to us in the West, but they mean everything in the Middle East. 

Much of the Arab world is fractured along ethnic, sectarian, and tribal lines, but Iran, despite its patchwork of Persians, Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis, and Arabs, has long been a coherent nation-state. It rests atop the region's relatively temperate highlands and can easily project power down to the hot Arab lowlands below. Its preferred method these days is divide-and-conquer rather than direct confrontation, and it has been perfecting the art of sectarian proxy war since its Revolutionary Guard Corps founded Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982.

Yemen's Houthis are its latest project, and the neighbors are not going to stand for it. They'd rather have Al Qaeda take over the country, not because they swoon over Al Qaeda—they don't—but because sect in that part of the world, as ever, trumps ideology.

It's not just that the Houthis are at war with the Egyptians' and the Saudis' fellow Sunnis. Every Arab government in the region aside from Syria's and Iraq's fears and loathes the rise of Iranian power.

Egypt’s megalomaniacal former president Gamal Abdel Nasser got more than 20,000 Egyptian soldiers killed in his ludicrous bid to overthrow Yemen’s monarchy in the mid 1960s. “In this terrain,” Patrick Seale wrote in The New Republic in 1963, “the slow-moving Nile Valley peasant has proved a poor match for the barefoot, elusive tribesmen armed only with rifle and jambiya--the vast, curved, razor-sharp dagger which every male Yemeni wears in his belt.” But that disastrous doesn’t register as a loss any more than the disastrous war against Israel in 1973—which Egypt claims to have won—registers as a loss.

Egypt's current ruler General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi wouldn’t care either way. He's basically a 21st century version of Nasser, minus the latter's regional popularity. Throngs of Arabs outside Egypt aren't clamoring to be annexed by Cairo as they did during the 1950s, but Sisi is nevertheless as puffed up and full of himself and eager to restore Egypt as the rooster of the Arab world regardless of what anyone else over there thinks about it. Pulling a Nasser and stomping the Shias of Yemen wasn't inevitable when he seized power from the Muslim Brotherhood last year, but it became almost inevitable when the Gulf region cried out for help against Iranian malfeasance on the peninsula.

The Saudis, meanwhile, are Iran's bitterest enemies in the Arab world, and they share a border with Yemen. Saudi citizens on their own side of the border have long been linked to Yemen in the same way Vancouver, British Columbia, is more linked to Seattle and Portland than to Quebec. Riyadh is simply not going to tolerate Iranian adventurism so close to home in a region that overlaps with its own territory. If Iran succeeds in Yemen—and it might—there's nothing stopping Tehran from backing a Shia insurgency against the Saudi crown and the fanatical Sunni Wahhabis.

So here we are with yet another Middle Eastern civil war that's sucking in regional powers. The United States can stay out of it. The United States is going to stay out of it. The United States is less involved in Yemen right now despite the internationalization of the conflict than when the country was kinda sorta “stable” before the Arab Spring blew through the place and knocked everything sideways.

You might think from Western media coverage of the region that the Israelis are the only ones concerned about Iran's expansionist foreign policy and its nuclear weapons program, but that's only because Arab governments make less public noise about it in public. Look at what Arab governments are doing, however. While the Israelis groan about it on television and in Congress, the Arabs are going to war.

Yemen Falls Apart

Suicide-bombers killed at least 137 people and wounded more than 350 in Yemen at two Shia mosques in the capital city of Sanaa on Friday. The very next day, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seized control of the city of al-Houta, and the day after that, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebel movement conquered parts of Taiz, the nation's third-largest city. Rival militias are battling for control of the international airport in the coastal city of Aden, and the US government just announced that American troops are evacuating Al Anad airbase.

ISIS is taking credit for the Sanaa attacks. “Infidel Houthis should know that the soldiers of the Islamic State will not rest,” it said, “until they eradicate them and cut off the arm of the Safavid (Iranian) plan in Yemen.” Al Qaeda has a much larger footprint in Yemen, so the ISIS claim is a little bit dubious, but ISIS is on the rise there and its attitude toward Shia Muslims is more bloodthirsty—more explicitly genocidal as the quote above shows—than Al Qaeda's.

Regardless of who committed the latest round of atrocities, everything in Yemen is about to become much, much worse. The region-wide storm of sectarian hatred has been gathering strength by the year for more than a decade, and it blew the roof off Yemen earlier this year when the Houthis, who are Shias, seized control of the capital and sent Sunni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi into semi-exile in Aden.

The Houthis see their takeover of the city and government institutions as a natural progression of the revolution in 2011 that toppled former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but it isn't, not really. While they enjoy some backing beyond their Shia support base, the sectarian dimension is inescapable. Shias make up almost half the population, and the Sunni majority is keenly aware that minorities in the Middle East are capable of seizing power and lording it over everyone else—especially if they're sponsored by a regional mini superpower like Iran. Syria has been ruled by the Iranian-backed Alawite minority for decades, and Saddam Hussein used brute force to bring the Sunni minority to power in Iraq.

Still, the Houthis have virtually no chance of ruling the entire country. Their “territory,” so to speak, is restricted to the northwestern region surrounding the capital. Previous governments had a rough go of it too. South Yemen was a communist state—the so-called People's Democratic Republic of Yemen—until the Soviet Union finally ruptured, and four years after unification with North Yemen, the armed forces of each former half declared war on each other.

Far more likely than a comprehensive Houthi takeover is a new and more dangerous phase of Yemen's endless self-cannibalization—more dangerous because this otherwise parochial and irrelevant conflict has been internationalized, with ISIS, the Saudis, and Iran squaring off against each other in yet another regional proxy war.

The Houthi movement is named after Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, an insurrection leader killed by the former government in 2004. They are Shias, but unlike the “Twelver” Shia Muslims of Iran—who revere eleven imams and await the birth of the occluded twelfth—most of Yemen's Shias are “Fivers.” Iran doesn't mind. From its point of view, better the odd “Fiver” Shias than Sunnis, but all that really matters is that the Houthis are willing to say yes to Tehran, its weapon shipments, and its top-notch military advisors and trainers. 

The next-door Saudis, of course, are backing what's left of Hadi's former government down in Aden. They've been Yemen's primary patron since the 1930s and won't sit back and idly watch as Iran's Islamic Revolution is exported to their back yard any more than the United States would have allowed the Moscow to conquer Canada during the Cold War.

Yemen's conflict is tribal, sectarian, and political at the same time, and it's becoming increasingly internationalized even as the US is leaving. It's also a little bizarre. Last month, President Hadi declared Aden the new capital, though no one in the world, not even his allies, recognize it as such. A few days ago a Houthi-commanded military jet flew over the city from Sanaa and fired missiles at his residence.

The US has few friends and even less leverage, especially now that it's all falling apart, so Washington is washing its hands and bringing everyone home. All we can really hope for there is less instability, not so much because Yemen's local squabbling affects us—until now it hardly registered outside the country—but because dangerous adversaries that threaten the West are hoping to expand their base of operations and their ability to export malfeasance everywhere else. Let's not forget that Osama bin Laden's family is of Yemeni origin, as was Anwar Al-Awlaki, one of Al Qaeda's chief propagandists before the Pentagon vaporized him with a Hellfire missile in 2011. The deadliest bomb-maker in the world plies his trade with Yemen's branch of Al Qaeda and has planned at least three attacks against commercial airliners. And now that Iran is involved in the Saudi family's sphere of influence and the Sunni majority is backsliding, ISIS and Al Qaeda are gaining even more traction.

Consider the city of Radaa. Al Qaeda briefly seized power there in 2012, but local tribesmen and government troops drove them out. Now that the Houthis are in the saddle in Sanaa, however, the tribes in Radaa are siding with Al Qaeda again. Al Qaeda's takeover of al-Houta three days ago shows that Radaa is anything but an isolated case.

All this parallels events in Iraq. The Sunni tribes of Anbar Province forged an alliance with American soldiers and Marines against Al Qaeda in the mid-2000s, but after the US withdrew and President Nouri al-Maliki ruled the country as a heavy-handed Iranian proxy, many tribes in Anbar switched their allegiance to ISIS.

Yemen may well turn into the Iraq or Syria—take your pick—of the Arabian Peninsula. All the US can really do at this point is watch in horror as the Middle East continues to chew its own leg off and malefactors with global ambitions thrive in the chaos.

Postscript: My latest collection of dispatches, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is now available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

Egypt Wants to Junk Cairo

Egyptian officials want to dump Cairo as their capital and build a new one out in the desert. Can’t say that I blame them. These people have to live in Cairo—with 18 million people, it's far too large to commute in from outside—and the city is awful.

I can't hardly think of Cairo without remembering a passage from Travels with a Tangerine by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a British Arabist expat who lives in Yemen.

Few visitors have liked Cairo on first sight. “Uff!” exclaimed an eight-century caliph, “She is the mother of stenches!” Later, a geographer wondered why anyone should have wanted to build a city “between a putrid and mephitic river, the corrupt effluvia of which cause disease and rot food, and a dry and barren mountain range devoid of greenery.” The ground teemed with rats, scorpions, fleas, and bugs, the air with miasmas. In Cairo Symon Semeon buried his companion Brother Hugo, who had succumbed to an attack of dysentery and fever “caused by a north wind.” My guidebook, compiled a century after I.B.’s visit, was disturbingly frank about the dangers of living in a polluted high-rise city where light and air rarely penetrate the dark alleyways. Its author, al-Maqrizi, warned that “the traveler approaching Cairo sees before him a depressing black wall beneath a dust-laden sky, from which sight his soul shrinks and flees away.”

Yes. Alas, that is Cairo. And it's actually worse now than it was. Parts of downtown look almost European at night if you squint at them just so, but the decades-long progression of rot and decay are unmistakable in the daylight. Much of the city that has been built in the meantime is clotted with communist-style garbage architecture. One looming hulk near Tahrir Square resembles nothing so much as a Kafka-esque Ministry of Bureaucracy.

Roughly half of Egyptians earn less than two dollars per day, so you can imagine what the slums look and smell like, but even the “fancy” neighborhoods like Zamalek are drab and depressing.

So it's easy to understand why the nation's rulers want to pick up and leave and start over. Cairo will sink even further if that ever happens, but what do they care? They use a crooked military dictatorship to lord over the country like it's their own private plantation.

They want to build a 270 square mile city—large enough to house five million people—in just five to seven years. It would be paid for by wealthy investors from the Gulf region. If they actually build this thing in such a poor country where hardly anyone has any money, it will likely turn into a lonely government compound surrounded by a North African version of China's spooky ghost cities.

Cairo is a disaster, but it's at least theoretically fixable. Most cities in Eastern Europe were in similarly horrendous condition during the communist era, but political and economic reform transformed most of them over time into the gems they used to be before the catastrophic mid-20th century had its way with them.

That kind of change won't likely sweep Egypt any time soon, though, so the elite for the time being will be either be trapped in the urban hell that is Cairo or stranded in a botched utopian scheme in the middle of nowhere. Everyone else will continue to suffer right where they are.

A Real Downside to Any Deal With Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caused a stir last week when he blasted President Barack Obama’s attempt to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. American television media covered little else for 24 hours. The prime minister and the president are still bickering about it this week on Twitter. Both have ignored a disturbing reality: any deal with Iran, good or bad, is likely to benefit ISIS.

President Obama is pursuing an agreement for understandable reasons. Far better to resolve the West’s differences with Iran diplomatically rather than violently. Prime Minister Netanyahu, likewise, is wary of the president’s plan for understandable reasons. A bad deal may be worse for Israel than no deal at all. Yet neither Obama nor Netanyahu seem to notice how an agreement, regardless of its content and efficacy, will be viewed by the Middle East’s Sunni Arabs, who are as alarmed as the Israelis are by Iranian ambitions.

The war against ISIS is being fought on two fronts in two countries, and the Middle East’s Sunni-Shia conflict rips right through the center of both. ISIS is the bloodthirsty wing of the Sunni jihadist movement, while Iran and its Syrian, Iraqi, and Lebanese allies make up the Shia resistance. In no way do average Sunni Arabs view ISIS as their standard bearer. Tens of thousands have lit out from its territory for squalid refugee camps abroad. But at the same time, most Sunni Arabs tremble at the rise of Iranian power and are reluctant to stand against the maniacs on their own side, especially when the U.S. and Europe appear to side with the Persians and Shia against them.

That’s not how it is, but that’s how it looks. Consider this: Iranian Revolutionary Guard general Qasem Soleimani is personally leading the Iraqi operation to wrest control of the city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, from ISIS. When Iraq’s Sunnis see Shia militias and Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops gunning for their territory, they feel a looming threat to their very existence. And at the same time, the West is bombing ISIS positions in both Syria and Iraq, while Washington is at least nominally allied to Baghdad and trying to cut a deal with Tehran. The Sunnis see the world’s only superpower teaming up with their enemies and gearing up to smash them to pieces.

It looks little better from a Sunni’s perspective in Syria. The U.S. hardly supports the malignant Assad, but all of Washington’s air strikes have landed on Sunni jihadist targets even after President Obama accused Damascus of deploying chemical weapons in civilian population centers. Like the government in Baghdad, the House of Assad is firmly in the Iranian camp. The state, along with the ruling family, is heavily packed with members of the Alawite minority, adherents of a heterodox religion that fuses Shia Islam, Christianity, and Gnosticism.

The Assads have had their boots on the necks of Syria’s Sunni majority since 1971, when the late Hafez al-Assad seized power, and they’ve been the Arab world’s staunchest Iranian allies ever since. Assad is also, along with Iran’s clerical regime, a patron and armorer of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, by far the deadliest Shia terrorist organization in the world and one which is actively and effectively fighting against Syria’s armed Sunni opposition on behalf of its masters. In light of all that, ISIS has an easier time presenting itself as the defender of the region’s Sunni Arab majority against an axis of Persian-Shia-Alawite perfidy.

Read the rest in City Journal.

Let Iraq Die: A Case for Partition

Iraq is finished, an expiring, cancerous nation on life support. Pulling the plug might be merciful. It might be cruel. But either way, it’s time to accept the fact that this country is likely to die and that we’ll all be better off when it does.

The Kurds in the north, who make up roughly twenty percent of the population, want out. They never wished to be part of Iraq in the first place. To this day, they still call the bathroom the “Winston Churchill,” in sarcastic homage to the former British prime minister who shackled them to Baghdad. Since the early 1990s, they’ve had their own government and autonomous region in the northern three provinces, and they held a referendum in 2005 in which 98.7 percent voted to secede and declare independence. The only reason they haven’t finally pulled the trigger is because it hasn’t been safe; the Turks—who fear the contagion of Kurdish independence inside their own country—have threatened to invade if they did.

The Sunni Arabs in the west, who make up another rough twenty percent of Iraq, aren’t itching for independence necessarily, but they sure as hell aren’t willing to live under the thumb of Shiite-dominated Baghdad any longer. Millions of them live now under the brutal totalitarian rule of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which has declared its own state not only in a huge swath of Iraq but also in much of northeastern Syria. ISIS either controls or has a large presence in more than fifty percent of Iraq at the time of this writing.

Iraq’s Shiite majority, meanwhile, is terrified of its Sunni minority, which oppressed them mercilessly during Saddam Hussein’s terrifying rule and which now flies the black flag of al-Qaeda and promises unending massacres.

President Obama campaigned on ending the war in Iraq. For years—and for perfectly understandable reasons—he was very reluctant to wade into that country’s eternally dysfunctional internal problems, but even he was persuaded to declare war against ISIS in the fall of 2014 when its fighters made a beeline for Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region and the only stable and America-friendly place in the country.

But however engaged the US chooses to be, the current war in Iraq is likely to drag on for years. If Iraq somehow manages to survive its current conflict in one piece, another will almost certainly follow. Its instability is both devastating and chronic. Far better at this point if Iraq simply terminates itself as a state and lets its various constituent groups peaceably go their own way, as Yugoslavia did after its own catastrophic series of wars in the 1990s.

In his limited response to ISIS after its seizure of Mosul in early June, Obama called for, among other things, Iraq’s “territorial integrity” to be respected.

Obviously it would have been preferable had ISIS not invaded from Syria and conquered Iraqi territory, but generally speaking there is nothing holy about Iraq’s current borders. It has never been a coherent nation-state. Nor, for that matter, has Syria. Both are geographic abstractions that never would have existed had European colonial mapmakers not created them in the early twentieth century for their own self-interested reasons, now long obsolete and forgotten. Had Middle Easterners drawn their own borders, whether or not they did so peacefully, the map would be strikingly different—and more organic.

As Lebanon Renaissance Foundation co-founder Eli Khoury put it, “Syria and Iraq have so far only been governed by ruthless centralized iron. It’s otherwise hard to make sense of these places.”

Theoretically, Iraqis and Syrians still could have forged collective identities and ideals of patriotic nationalism between the time of their nations’ founding and now, but that didn’t happen in their neighborhood any more than it did in the former Yugoslavia. The dictators of Syria, Iraq, and Yugoslavia all tried to paper over the disunity in their countries with a theoretically binding international ideology—Baathist Arab nationalism, communism—but totalitarian regimes always crash in the end, and their ideologies inevitably go down along with them.

In the absence of tolerant pluralism and democratic political liberalism, the basic incoherence of these states guaranteed one of two outcomes. They’ll either be governed by “centralized iron,” as Khoury put it, or they’ll come apart at the seams. Centralized iron only holds incoherent nations together so long. Removing Hussein blew Iraq apart, and Syria blew apart even without its tyrant Bashar al-Assad being forced into exile or dragged from his palace.

Iraq’s current troubles began just one day after the US finished withdrawing its forces, when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, accusing him of planning terrorist attacks against Shiite targets and of murdering Shiite officials. Hashimi fled to Iraqi Kurdistan before security forces could grab him and now lives in Turkey.

In 2012, he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to death, along with his son-in-law Ahmed Qahtan.

Is he guilty? Did he do it? I have no idea. Iraq has no shortage of vicious individuals, inside and outside the government, willing to use deadly force both overtly and covertly against rivals. Some of Hashimi’s bodyguards confessed, but it’s entirely possible they were coerced or even tortured.

Whether or not Hashimi was guilty, Shiite militias carried out death squad attacks against Sunnis all over Baghdad both before and after this happened. Iraq’s sectarian violence never entirely dissipated during the American occupation, and after the withdrawal it rose again.

The following year, Maliki’s government accused Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi of the same thing Hashimi had been accused of. Some of his bodyguards were also arrested and charged with committing terrorist acts. But now the conspiracy theories were getting ridiculous. Issawi was and is known as a reasonable and peaceable man. Accusing him and his people of terrorism is like accusing Alan Greenspan of operating his own secret prison on the side when he was running the Fed.

Issawi convinced plenty of the implosive chaos at the heart of the Maliki government when he said, “The tyrant of Baghdad will not keep quiet until he targets all of his opponents.” If the finance minister, of all people, could be accused of something like this, any Sunni leader or even civilian could be rounded up and placed in front of a Stalinist show trial.

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