Monday, August 11, 2014

Who Are the Yazidis in Iraq and What Are Their Beliefs?

The holy Yazidi temple of Lalesh in Iraq.
As I noted in my previous post on ISIS and the Yazidis, the brutal jihadists of ISIS have been slaughtering hundreds of people of the Yazidi faith in Northern Iraq. For many - including myself - this was the first time I had heard of the Yazidis. Who are the Yazidis and what do they believe?

The Yazidi are a Kurdish-speaking ethnoreligious group who practice a syncretic religion that combines Shi'i and Sufi Islam with indigenous regional folk traditions. These traditions include elements shared with the Christian and Mandaean communities of the Near East, as well as with more ancient Gnostic, Marcionite, Zoroastrian and early Mesopotamian religions. They live primarily in the Nineveh Province of northern Iraq, a region once part of ancient Assyria.

To make things easy, I have provided a copy of an article from the BBC here below entitled "Who, What, Why: Who are the Yazidis?" Its a great little summary, certainly better than anything I could do:
"On account of their unusual beliefs, the Yazidis are often unjustly referred to as "devil worshippers", and have traditionally held themselves apart in small communities mainly scattered across northwest Iraq, northwest Syria and southeast Turkey.
Estimating their current numbers is difficult, with figures ranging from 70,000 to 500,000. Feared, vilified and persecuted, there is no doubt the population has dwindled considerably over the course of the past century. Like other minority religions of the region, such as the Druze and the Alawis, it is not possible to convert to Yazidism, only to be born into it.
The ongoing persecution in their heartland of the Mt Sinjar region west of Mosul is based on a misunderstanding of their name. Sunni extremists, such as IS, believe it derives from Yazid ibn Muawiya (647-683), the deeply unpopular second caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. Modern research, however, has clarified that the name is nothing to do with the loose-living Yazid, or the Persian city of Yazd, but is taken from the modern Persian "ized", which means angel or deity. The name Izidis simply means "worshippers of god", which is how Yazidis describe themselves.
Their own name for themselves is Daasin (plural Dawaaseen), which is taken from the name of an old Nestorian - the Ancient Church of the East - diocese, for many of their beliefs are derived from Christianity. They revere both the Bible and the Koran, but much of their own tradition is oral. Due in part to its secrecy, there have been misunderstandings that the complex Yazidi faith is linked to Zoroastrianism with a light/dark duality and even sun worship. Recent scholarship, however, has shown that although their shrines are often decorated with the sun and that graves point east towards the sunrise, they share many elements with Christianity and Islam.
Children are baptised with consecrated water by a pir (priest). At weddings he breaks bread and gives one half to the bride and the other to the groom. The bride, dressed in red, visits Christian churches. In December, Yazidis fast for three days, before drinking wine with the pir. On 15-20 September there is an annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Sheikh Adi at Lalesh north of Mosul, where they carry out ritual ablutions in the river. They also practise sacrifice of animals and circumcision.
Their supreme being is known as Yasdan. He is considered to be on such an elevated level that he cannot be worshipped directly. He is considered a passive force, the Creator of the world, not the preserver. Seven great spirits emanate from him of which the greatest is the Peacock Angelknown as Malak Taus - active executor of the divine will. The peacock in early Christianity was a symbol of immortality, because its flesh does not appear to decay. Malak Taus is considered God's alter ego, inseparable from Him, and to that extent Yazidism is monotheistic.
Yazidis pray to Malak Taus five times a day. His other name is Shaytan, which is Arabic for devil,and this has led to the Yazidis being mislabelled as "devil-worshippers". The Yazidis believe that souls pass into successive bodily forms (transmigration) and that gradual purification is possible through continual rebirth, making Hell redundant. The worst possible fate for a Yazidi is to be expelled from his community, as this means their soul can never progress. Conversion to another religion is, therefore, out of the question.
In remote areas of southeast Turkey towards the Syrian and Iraqi borders, their once-abandoned villages are starting to come back to life, with new houses being built by the communities themselves. Many Yazidis are returning from exile now that the Turkish government leaves them undisturbed. Despite centuries of persecution the Yazidis have never abandoned their faith, testimony to their remarkable sense of identity and strength of character. If they are driven from Iraq and Syria by IS extremists, the likelihood is that more will settle in southeast Turkey where they are left to live out their beliefs in peace."
I hope readers found this BBC summary helpful. Below are some additional wonderful pictures of the Yazidis I came across. Let us just hope and pray that the international community will protect the peaceful Yazidi people from the medieval savages of ISIS who are seeking to hunt them down.
Girls and boys from a Yazidi religious school sing hymns and prayers
Yazidi women and children in procession

Yazidis worship the Peacock Angel

The Sheer Horror of ISIS in Iraq As They Slaughter Yazidis

The lunatic terrorists of ISIS on the march in Iraq
Anyone who has been an observer of the Middle East for many years becomes used to seeing some nasty things and unsavory groups. Sadly, this is not a region where human rights seems to be a priority. Nevertheless, the horrors that we have seen in Iraq the last few days are still beyond belief.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria - ISIS  - has been wreaking havoc across northern Iraq. IS remember is a group that is too extreme even for al-Qaeda, and IS have become known for perpetrating the worst kinds of atrocities on both civilians and especially upon captured enemy fighters and Shia Muslims and Christians in particular. . The group adheres to an austere - dare I even say medieval view of Islam - and regards those who do not agree with its interpretations as infidels and apostates. 

ISIS now controls large swathes of territory across both Northeast Syria as well as much of Northern and Western Iraq. ISIS is now threatening both Baghdad, as well as the autonomous Kurdish state in Northern Iraq. ISIS has even captured Iraq's largest dam - the Mosul Dam - and could if they choose decide to flood much of the countryside - it has been estimated that if ISIS decided to blow the dam up and release the water Mosul would be buried under 65 feet of water and even Baghdad would be under 10-15. Hundreds of thousands would surely die. Below is a map showing the approximate amount of territory ISIS controls:
Territory: The above map shows the areas of Iraq and Syria currently controlled by Isis forces
Territory controlled by ISIS
Currently, ISIS has captured the town of Sinjar in Northern Iraq, which is where much of the population of the Yazidi sect live (to learn more, read this entitled Who are the Yazidis and What are Their Beliefs?). To escape ISIS, tens and thousands of Yazidis fled Sinjar, and thousands are now trapped on a nearby mountain where hundreds have been dying from thirst and starvation. This is not the worst of it though. ISIS has been indiscriminately killing the Yazidis, and recently buried 500 Yazidis in a mass grave - with many of the victims still alive. The sheer horror of this is almost beyond the human imagination to comprehend.

As an American, I was quite happy to see the US finally depart Iraq in 2011 and leave the country to sort out its own affairs. Now, however, I am thrilled that the US has decided to launch airstrikes against ISIS to try to turn the tide against the jihadists, as well as to work with the Kurds to save as many of the trapped Yazidis as possible. 

If you want to read the latest on the suffering of the Yazidis, ABC News has an excellent article and overview here. It is gut-wrenching to read, and a testament of man's capacity for sheer evil and brutality.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Major New Doctrine Planned For Israeli Air Force?

Generic Avionics to Set Path for the Network Centric IAF. Photo: Israel AIr Force / USAF
The Israel Air Force (IAF) is in the process of making significant changes in its structure and capabilities to enable it to destroy ten times as many targets from the air as it currently can.

In an extensive interview with the US military and defense news website Defense News, IAF air operations chief Amikam Norkin explained that the IAF would be implementing a new operational doctrine enabling the IAF to fire on many more targets within the same amount of time.

According to the Defense News article, the IAF has been able to greatly improve its so-called “Sensor-to-Shooter” capabilities. In plain English, Sensor-to-Shooter means the ability to take vast quantities of data and information – obtained through a variety of data links and sources – and then take advantage of this data through the use of laser-guided bombs and precision weaponry (Note: there is a nice summary of the components of Sensor-to-Shooter on website of defense contractor Thales). While I would strongly recommend reading the entire Defense News article, (particularly if you’re a military or strategic studies buff), two sentences in the piece jumped out at me:
Under the new concept, Israel will focus on “hurting the enemy where it hurts the most,” Norkin said, referring to leadership, commanders and significant war-fighting assets.“We won’t be able to push the enemy to the point where he can no longer shoot rockets and missiles. Therefore we need to push him to the point where he doesn’t want to shoot his rockets and missiles,” the IAF officer said.
The "Sensor to Shooter" Challenge
What does this mean in practice? One possibility is that the IDF is thinking about a future conflict with Hezbollah.

It is universally acknowledged that Hezbollah now has tens and thousands of missiles, some with enough range to strike anywhere in Israel. Given that the IAF will only be able to take out a small number of these missiles, the IDF believes the most critical thing it can do is strike Hezbollah’s leadership –  such as Hassan Nasrallah and his deputies – as well as other top Hezbollah assets.

Although the Defense News article does not mention this, one educated guess here is that the IDF hopes destroying Hezbollah’s leadership and other key assets would throw the Lebanese group into a state of confusion. The aim is to leave an enemy like Hezbollah leaderless, destroy its communication capabilities, and leave its forces on the front lines thrashing around like a chicken without a head.  In military jargon, this would be described as degrading the enemy’s “Command and Control” (C2) capabilities. In that context, if the IAF can truly destroy 10-times the number of targets within the same time frame, than Israel’s military leadership may hope it can rapidly end any conflict by quickly eliminating the enemy’s C2 capabilities.

Of course, there is the following question: Does the increase in the IAF’s destructive – even an increase by a factor of ten – allow the IDF to win wars without a major commitment to ground combat? Ground combat is very messy, especially against a guerrilla force ensconced in civilian areas, but aren’t “boots on the ground” still critical to winning the next conflict against Hezbollah or other enemies?? Based on the recent war in Gaza, it looks like the answer is a resounding yes – and that ground forces will still play a central role in the IDF’s military philosophy.

I suspect we’ll be seeing more details on the IAF’s plans in the Israeli press over time.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Assad Is Odious - But the West Still Talks To Him Behind the Scenes

Two years ago, many were predicting the imminent fall of the Assad regime. As an increasing amount of Syrian territory slipped out of the regime’s control, it seemed like only a matter of time until rebel forces would be in central Damascus. Now, however, the narrative regarding Assad’s survivability has changed dramatically.
If there was any doubt about Assad’s staying power, news out of Damascus should put paid to that notion quickly enough. According to a BBC article, Western intelligence agencies have been visiting Damascus for talks with the Syrians on how to mutually combat the radical Islamist groups fighting the Assad regime. As readers familiar with the events in Syria are no doubt aware, the opposition to Assad has been increasingly co-opted by radical Jihadist al-Qaeda-affiliated groups such as al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), resulting in continued strong support for Assad amongst Syria’s non-Sunni minorities, especially the Alawites who form the backbone of the Assad regime.
Why, however, would western intelligence agencies be interested in talking with the Assad regime? The answer is that large numbers of European Muslims have gone to Syria to fight with the opposition, most of whom have ended up joining al-Nusra or ISIS. I have seen estimates of the number of Europeans fighting in Syria as anywhere between 1,500 – 3,000, including 700 from France alone.
From the perspective of western intelligence agencies, Europeans who travel to Syria to fight Assad could easily end up becoming radicalized there, especially if they have joined the two al-Qaeda groups within the opposition. Naturally, European governments worry about the threat of thousands of their radicalized citizens returning to the Europe and turning the skills they have gained in Syria against their own countries. While European intelligence agencies can track a few tens of returning radicals, once you get into the range of thousands the threat matrix increases exponentially.
Clearly, one excellent source of information about European Muslims fighting with the opposition in Syria would be the Assad regime itself. Brutal but effective, Assad’s security agencies — the dreaded Mukhabarat and the Military Intelligence Directorate — are a prime source of information for information of interest to European intelligence agencies concerned with protecting their own homelands against a possible new nexus of terror. Of course, there is no official confirmation from European intelligence agencies of there coordination with the Assad regime, there is strong evidence that this is gpoing on behind the scenes.
Does this mean that the West is now tilting to Assad? Not so far, and indeed, the western line continues to be that “Assad must go.” However, the very fact that leading western intelligence agencies are now even talking to the Assad regime — much less cooperating with it — shows how messy and confusing the Syrian civil war has become. At the end of the day, however, countries tend to focus on their own national interests — first and foremost of which is protecting their own homelands — and from that perspective it is not altogether surprising that western spies are buddying up with the Assad regime — however odious we may find Assad to be.


Friday, September 6, 2013

Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites and Christians - What are the Demographics of Syria?

As I've discussed previously in my post entitled Syria: Sunnis Versus Alawites, the situation in Syria can increasingly be seen through the lens of a sectarian conflict between the minority Alawites - who are considered an offshoot of the Shiite branch of Islam - who control the Assad regime, and the majority Sunni population that spearheads the revolt. Of course, that it is a bit simplified, but the general framework is correct.

I recently came across a map of Syria that wonderfully demonstrates the true demographic complexity of that country. If you look at the map, you can see that Syria has 17 different ethnic and religious groups, ranging from Sunnis, Alawites and Christians, to tiny minorities of Armenians, Aramaeans and others (and in an interesting surprise, the country evidently includes some Jews who live near the town of Palmyra). Another point worth highlighting in this picture is that you can see the Alawite population concentrated in a grey green cluster on the Mediterranean coast near the ports of Lakatia and Tartus, which as discussed in an earlier post, is where Assad might as a fallback option look to establish an Alawite mini-state apart from Syria.

Another interesting point to consider is that this shows how the maps of new countries in the Middle East - which were drawn primarily be the colonial powers Britain and France in the first half of the 20th century - had artificial borders which created an almost built in recipe for conflict. As the Sunnis Arabs are clearly the largest demographic group in Syria by far, it was probably not realistic that a small minority Alawite population of only 12% could be expected to rule (by authoritarian means) the country indefinitely without raising the ire of the Sunnis. In that sense, what could be argued here is that Syria is essentially re-balancing among more natural ethnic and religious lines. While some countries have managed to achieve this rebalancing peacefully - think the break-up of Czechoslovakia into the two countries of Slovakia and the Czech Republic - in Syria this rebalancing has tragically turned into a brutal killing field of inter-ethic and religious conflict.

Ronn Torossian on Algemeiner

Saturday, August 31, 2013

US Military Forces Around Syria and What They Might Attack

US Military Forces Near Syria
For the last several days, the news has been filled with updates on if or when American military forces will strike Syria in response to the Assad regime's alleged use of poison gas in an opposition held area near Damascus called Ghouta. While a few days ago it looked like an attack on Syria was imminent, as of Saturday, August 31st, President Obama has decided to hold off on striking Syria until he gets authorization from the US Congress to do so.

I personally think that the US is - again - rushing into a potential conflict in the Middle East without having thought through all of the potential repercussions of doing so. With that said, however, the amount of power the US could use against the Syrian regime if it chooses to do so is massive. On top, we can see the disposition of forces in the region. Note that the US has five cruise missile carrying destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea near Syria, and it is those cruise missiles which would be the primary means of striking the Assad regime's military forces.

The next question is, what exactly would the US and it's allies be trying to attack in Syria? The map below is an excellent overview of the major airbases, military bases, and Army units of Assad's regime, all of which could be targeted.
Syrian military assets the US might attack

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sunni-Shiite Conflict Explodes in Lebanon

Demographic Map of Lebanon
I have long argued that much of the strife in the Middle East can be seen through the lenses of the longtime Sunni-Shiite split in the region. At this point, I think it's very clear that what are seeing in Syria is a battle between Sunni rebels (unfortunately increasingly dominated by hardline Jihadists) and the Alawite/Shia regime - see background here.

Now, it appears that Lebanon is on the brink of a Sunni-Shiite civil war itself. Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in Lebanon have been on the rise since Hassan Nasrallah decided to go all in on support for the Assad regime and sent thousands of his fighters to Syria to support Assad. In the last couple of weeks, unfortunately, tensions between the two sects in Lebanon have exploded.

It started with a car bomb back in July exploding in in the Shiite South Beirut suburbs dominated by Hezbollah which injured 53 people. Things got much worse on August 16 when another car bomb exploded in Hezbollah-dominated territory, this time killing 22 Shiites and injuring hundreds. Responsibility for the blast was claimed in a You Tube video by a Sunni Jihadist group calling itself the Brigade of Aisha.

Not surprisingly, a few days later two bomb blasts ripped through Sunni areas of the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, including one at the Taqwa Mosque, many of whose members are hardline Sunnis. Although Hezbollah did not explicitly claim responsibility for the blasts, a branch of Al-Qaida quickly announced that it blamed Hezbollah and vowed vengeance.

As people familiar with Lebanon know, the country endured a horrible civil war between 1975 - 1990, in which over 100,000 people died, a huge number for a country of only four million people. As the map above shows, the country is a complex stew of various ethnic groups, and it has always been balanced on a knife's edge and frequently been the playground of larger conflicts playing out in the Middle East. Lebanon is a beautiful country, but I fear that it is on the edge of being dragged into the nightmare playing out in Syria.