After Isis: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East by Seth J. Frantzman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I received a review copy through LibraryThing from the publisher Gefen Publishing…from their Jerusalem office! It took more than a month to get to me after I was notified by LibraryThing and a funny thing happened in that time…somebody decided to announce a withdrawal from Syria abandoning the allied ISIS-fighting Kurds to the Turkish regime. I’m not sure if the title needs rethinking, but certainly, there might need to be another chapter or two. Frantzman opened his Preface with “The war on ISIS is now largely behind us.” and my note read “Enter October 2019”.
Frantzman is a veteran conflict journalist and he’s written a comprehensive analysis of the fight against, and decline of, and the claimed defeat of (I have no expertise, but I wonder if it won’t resurge) ISIS from 2014-2019. In his second chapter, in 2015, he and a colleague Lura Kelly had an opportunity to get “to a frontline position near Mosul Dam (site of a major battle in 2014). He had contacts there and they “decided to risk it.” That struck me, because the good field journalists are always at risk.
Too much to synopsize…as I usually do, here are some observations. One is that this book could have benefited from some maps. I suspect my copy is a final version because it was published September 30th, so it looks like there won’t be any. I would have also appreciated a glossary of the players – there are so many acronyms from the multiple units, it was hard for even this retired military man to keep them all straight.
Frantzman keeps his chapters reasonably short and focused and this is not just a chronology. He provides the history of relations and events that preceded and caused the topics he covers.
A Kurdish copmmander told him, after receiving aid from Bulgaria, “Everyone knows we are not just fighting for ourselves but [for] the whole world, and we need their support. […] Why is the US government’s interest more with the Arabs than the Kurds?” Frantzman said he had no answer. I have an answer, but mine is speculation.
In 2015, Brig. Gen Sarhad “mocked Europe’s fear of terror, ‘They had one attack in Paris; we had seven car bombs here.'” They live that every day.
Frantzman on the Iraq town of Sinjar occupied by Yazidis: “It’s hard to describe a landscape so torn and broken. Leaving the mountain behind, ones sees the terraces and old stone houses at its base.” The Yazidis suffered ISIS genocides and have little trust for the Arabs who supported ISIS. ISIS was calculating in their use of social media to “broadcast its mass killings”, and the Twit-ter, on which ISIS members bragged of selling women.
The epigraph for Part III, The Struggle for Iraq, 2016 reads
“How would you rate American, Russian, and Iranian policies in Iraq?”
“It’s like this. If you work on a project with the US, they ask you for a progress report in three months. The Russians want it in six months. For Iran, it’s ten years.”
– Conversation heard in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, Tanya Goudsouzian on Twitter, February 2019
American politics and diplomacy seem to have no idea of the long game some countries can play.
I like the literary tone of Frantzman’s description of Mosul Dam: “The water looked unnatural, as dam lakes always do, as if it were computer-generated imagery in some badly made movie about water on Mars.”
General Sa’adi al-Obaidi said of ISIS’s targeting of Sunnis in Fallujah, “The government had mistreated the Sunnis, and they flocked to ISIS.” The enemy of my enemy is my friend was a common theme in the incredulous support ISIS garnered.
Kurd betrayal was not far off from the initial T banning of certain travel – Kurds with Iraqi passports were caught up in the ban, “…citizens from Iraqi Kurdistan, the closest ally to the US in fighting terrorism.”
When Frantzman wanted to visit the camp of Hamam-al-Alil IDP (Internally Displaced Persons), he grew fearful when Shi’ite militiamen began shouting at his driver. “These were the wrong people to mess with in the wrong place, in the middle of nowhere near Mosul, where people can disappear.” He said, “I hadn’t been scared in the battles against ISIS; what always worried me was being detained, kidnapped.” Serious stuff for the journalist, and any foreigner.
Frantzman intimates at an Erdogan attack on the Kurds many times in his book, outlining an inevitable that happened right after publication. In early 2018, T crowed about victories over ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa, and talked about leaving Syria…making good on his arrangements with Erdogan in October, 2019. Frantzman notes that DoD and State appointed staff advised him against the withdrawal. They seem to have tried, but failed. Mohammed bin Salman “was cultivating the Trump administration.” So easily manipulated. Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir told the Manama Dialogue confab that T defeated Daesh in Iraq. But…the Kurds did. Makes me wonder again what the business interest in Saudi Arabia is.
Frantzman rightly speculates “the large picture of reduced US involvement means that other countries will step in to fill the vacuum. That may mean Russia, Iran, Turkey and other s in the Middle East.” Yep…Russia filled that vacuum quickly. And Turkey launched its offensive immediately.
This is a hard look at a hard subject that is too far over the horizon for most Americans. Israel has to be more than concerned…and Frantzman lives in Jerusalem. He said he had an addition to conflict after his first trip to Iraq in 2015, but “then one day I was home. And I wanted to stay home with my family and sons.” I hope he can stay there.
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