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from The Great Debate:

Five questions for America on Syria

A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq

When the United States began bombing Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra positions in Syria last month, it entered into a conflict that has been grinding on for more than three years. Here are five major questions America needs to answer as the fighting unfolds in the weeks ahead:

1. What happens when the United States runs out of targets to strike? America will soon discover that there are only so many checkpoints, buildings, convoys and command-and-control structures to hit. The Islamic State is a terrorist insurgency, not a national army, so U.S. military planners are going to run out of points on a map to strike. While the group certainly does seize, hold, and administer territory, it doesn’t tend to mass troops or maintain significant administrative infrastructure yet that can be targeted from the skies.

The U.S. Air Force is excellent at striking fixed positions, but what will it do when Islamic State fighters blend seamlessly into the civilian population, like any good insurgency does when confronted by an air campaign carried out by a superior foe? Perhaps the group will take a play from Hamas’ playbook and use hospitals, mosques and schools to continue the fight -- practically daring the United States to hit them and cause civilian casualties. Its fighters are reportedly already using civilians as human shields. And despite allied efforts, the Islamic State will continue to rule its populace with brutality and coercion.

The guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea  launches a Tomahawk cruise missile while conducting strike missions against ISIL targets from the GulfSo airstrikes will only get America so far, which leads to ...

2. Who will eventually occupy the ground? President Barack Obama has committed to a "no boots on the ground" policy for this campaign -- except, of course, for the 1,600 "advisers" in neighboring Iraq. While this is politically palatable to Americans, some ground forces must wrest control of the land from Islamic State. You can't run a counterinsurgency exclusively from the air.

from The Great Debate:

Avoid a classic blunder: Stay out of religious wars in the Middle East

hoffman top

Muslims in the Middle East are fighting wars of religion. Like the carnage between Protestants and Catholics that haunted Northern Ireland during the last third of the 20th century, there is little anyone can do until local peoples crave peace so intensely they are willing to cultivate it.

History shows that outside meddling only intensifies sectarian fury. Stopping internecine war begins at home. President Barack Obama imperils Americans by trying to excise an abscess that can be cured only from the inside out. The decision to re-engage in Iraq, and the wider Middle East, also contradicts the president’s other, bigger objective: to exit the nanny business.

from The Great Debate:

To beat Islamic State, Obama needs Iran

Masked Sunni gunmen pray during a patrol outside the city of Falluja

President Barack Obama delivered a speech Wednesday night designed for an American public that has been losing confidence in its commander in chief.  Much of his address was about attitude -- we are tough, we will act, we will prevail, but we will do all this with airpower, not boots on the ground (or not many) and in cooperation with friends and allies. This mission will not be a repeat of Afghanistan or Iraq (President George W. Bush’s wars), Obama promised, but will be more like Obama’s campaigns against al Qaeda -- don’t forget he killed Osama bin Laden! -- and the continuing strikes against radical Islamists in Somalia and Yemen.

But the president must know that the Islamic State cannot be treated like the insurgents in Somalia and Yemen. The reason this group has caused such concern is that it is not just one more localized group of violent guerrillas. It is an embryonic state that is beginning to govern large areas of the Sunni heartlands of Iraq and Syria. So it will not easily be bombed into oblivion, nor will it suffice to take out its top leader with a skillfully executed commando raid, as in Pakistan.

from The Great Debate:

If U.S. joins Islamic State fight, how will it get out?

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement from Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

When President Barack Obama makes the case for military action against Islamic State militants on Wednesday night, it won't be hard to convince Americans to get involved in the conflict. The hard part will be explaining how we get out.

The president is speaking to the American people -- not to Congress. He may not even ask Congress to authorize the use of force. Just to fund it. Which they will do because they don’t want to undercut the U.S. military.

from The Great Debate:

If at first you don’t succeed in Iraq, Surge, Surge again

Major-General Hertling, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, walks during a battlefield circulation patrol on the streets in Mosul

America's new strategy for resolving the Sunni-Shi’ite crisis in Iraq? The Surge -- again.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey sounds as if he were reading off the 2007 script, echoing the divide-and-conquer strategy that was the basis for the Surge: “If you can separate those [Sunni] groups,” Dempsey said, “then the problem becomes manageable and understandable.”

from The Great Debate:

If Iraq must be divided, here’s the right way to do it

Shi'ite volunteers, who have joined the Iraqi army to fight ISIL, hold a sign during a graduation ceremony in Najaf

As Iraq spirals toward chaos and its Kurdish region talks independence, the issue of partition, or federalism, has resurfaced. This is a concept that then-Senator Joe Biden strongly advocated in 2006. Though it would be difficult to accomplish, federalism could still be a helpful element as Iraqis struggle through their current tragic mess.

The appeal of federalism could grow if Iraqi leaders in Baghdad cannot agree soon on a government of national unity, ideally one without Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has proven so divisive. Whether a “soft partition” -- meaning the creation of a Sunni autonomous zone to complement the existing Kurdish one -- or “hard partition” --meaning the formal redrawing of regional lines -- it would seem a natural idea. Not only because of the recent violence, which has caused hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to flee their homes, but also the arbitrariness with which state borders were drawn by the European powers after World War One.

from The Great Debate:

How — and why — the U.S. must support Iraq

Mourners carry the coffin of a victim killed by a suicide bomber who blew himself up inside a tent filled with mourners in Baghdad, during a funeral in Najaf A disaster is unfolding in Iraq. It is in part a result of the failed Syria and broader Middle East policies pursued by the West in the past four years.

Insurgents reportedly led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (also known as “ISIS”) have occupied Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and may be planning to push further south to the capital, Baghdad. ISIL, a largely Sunni jihadist group more radical than al Qaeda, seeks to establish an independent caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.

from Photographers' Blog:

Daily life in Shi’ite Baghdad

Baghdad, Iraq

By Ahmed Jadallah

When people mention Sunnis and Shi'ites, the topic is often sectarian violence.

This is certainly true in Iraq. The country’s former ruler Saddam Hussain came from the Iraq’s Sunni minority, but since he was overthrown, Shi’ites have dominated Iraqi politics. Now, over the past year, Sunni insurgents who target Shi'ites have been gaining ground and violence has spiraled.

With the government battling Sunni rebels, I wanted to take a step back and show the human face of the divided communities. So in Baghdad I went to photograph daily life inside some of its poor, Shi’ite neighbourhoods.

from The Great Debate:

The religion-fueled fight in Syria

The second round of peace talks in Geneva between representatives of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria and rebel forces has ended with both sides blaming each other for the lack of progress. Beyond the finger-pointing, however, lies a growing danger to the goal of a negotiated settlement. The civil war’s religious divides are widening, making compromise unthinkable.

Representatives of the Syrian regime went to Geneva solely with the hope of convincing the opposition to let President Bashar al-Assad stay in power so he can forge an alliance against jihadist forces fighting in Syria, most notably the al Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Their argument -- one that many, including former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, have made -- was that Assad is better than any likely alternative.

from FaithWorld:

Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian divide widens after Bahrain unrest

(A new sign showing the direction towards Al Farooq Junction, previously known as Pearl Square, stands along a road in Manama May 31, 2011. Bahraini authorities demolished the monument in Pearl Square in March following the country's unrest where thousands of Shiite Muslims protested by camping there/Hamad I Mohammed)

Sectarian tension between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims has reached new heights in Bahrain after pro-democracy protests that the Sunni minority government crushed with martial law and foreign military forces. Inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, Sunni and Shi'ite Bahrainis took to the streets in early February to demand political reforms in a country where the ruling Al Khalifa family appoints cabinet ministers and an upper house of parliament, neutering the powers of the elected assembly.

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