Proxy War

News that ISIS has seized Iraq’s biggest water impoundment facility, the Mosul dam, and taken 3 towns despite nominal Kurdish opposition will come as no surprise to readers of the Belmont Club. DW reports:


“Islamic State” fighters have seized Iraq’s biggest dam, an oilfield and three more towns. ISIS also scored its first major defeat of Kurdish forces since sweeping through northern Iraq in June.

The capture of the Mosul Dam could give the group a base from which to attack major cities and aid its bid to topple Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government. ISIS’s capture of the northern town of Sinjar has already forced up to 200,000 people to flee, the United Nations announced on Sunday.

“A humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in Sinjar,” UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov said Sunday after ISIS, formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, captured the town near the Syrian border, which had served as a refuge for thousands of families displaced from elsewhere in previous fighting. …

In July, the Kurdish political bloc ended participation in Iraq’s national government in protest over Prime Minister’s Maliki’s accusation that the ethnic group had allowed “terrorists” to stay in Arbil, the capital of the minority’s semiautonomous region.

ISIS also raided Lebanon, with the NYT reporting the group kidnapping 17 cops in the town of Arsal, perhaps to trade as hostages for some of their own men held in jails.  It’s almost like they are creating access along various neighboring border points, like a doctor preparing to insert a drug, through which they can inject their militants into other countries. It’s an epidemic vector, with ISIS playing the role of Ebola.


Robert Scales, a former Army Major General and Douglas Ollivant write in the Washington Post that ISIS has become ‘militarily transformed’, something already noted on this site.  As I put it, “Maliki and Assad are no longer fighting the Viet Cong. They are fighting the NVA”.   Scales and Ollivant say that the new terrorists can shoot straight:

When terrorists were stupid enough to come out of the shadows, they fought as a mob of individuals. One rip of a Kalashnikov or a single launch of a rocket-propelled grenade was enough. If they stood to reload, they risked annihilation at the hands of their disciplined, well-trained and heavily armed American opponents.

Today, it’s different. We see Islamist fighters becoming skilled soldiers. The thrust of the Islamic State down the Euphrates River illustrates a style of warfare that melds old and new. U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq used to say: “Thank God they can’t shoot.” Well, now they can. They maneuver in reasonably disciplined formations, often aboard pickup trucks and captured Iraqi Humvees. They employ mortars and rockets in deadly barrages. To be sure, parts of the old terrorist playbook remain: They butcher and execute prisoners to make unambiguously clear the terrible consequences of resistance. They continue to display an eager willingness for death and the media savvy of the “propaganda of the deed.”

The Business Insider’s Paul Sodra writes that Saudi Officials Think ISIS Fighters May Hit Them Next. “Saudi Arabia is calling on its allies, Egypt and Pakistan, to provide military assistance in keeping its border closed to militants that have already taken over vast swaths of Iraq and Syria.” The London Times writes:


Saudi Arabia has deployed thousands of troops from Egypt and Pakistan along its frontier with Iraq, amid fears of invasion by the al-Qaeda splinter group that has declared a radical Islamic state across the border.

Panicked by the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis), Riyadh has taken the drastic step of calling in military assistance from its close allies to shore up the porous 500-mile border, Gulf security sources said.

It’s not obvious that Pakistan’s army can shoot straighter than ISIS. There is one army that undoubtedly can. But fans of Sherlock Holmes will remember the story of the dog that did not bark in the night-time. The big dog in the Middle East used to be the United States and Saudi Arabia’s not counting on it to bark. Why?

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

To understand the behavior of the dog, one might refer to the remarkable New York Times info-graphic detailing the bewildering alliances ranged for and against ISIS. The United States is listed as being allied with the following and opposed in some respects with the following:

  • Iran
  • the Gulf Monarchies, including Saudi Arabia
  • Turkey and the Iraq Kurds
  • the Kurds and the Maliki government
  • the Gulf Monarchies and the Sunni insurgents

In what must be the understatement of the year, the NYT says: “the major players in the Iraq and Syria crisis are often both allies and antagonists, working together on one front on one day and at cross-purposes the next.” This may also be known as “leading from behind”, since the one entity the US is not listed as supporting is itself.

The name of the game is proxy war.

The Business Insider notes that despite appearances to the contrary, the Gaza strip conflict is actually a proxy war between one Arab/Muslim faction and the another.

The war between Israel and Hamas is one of the more puzzling events in the recent annals of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A ceasefire had held between the two parties for nearly a year and a half; the strategic payoff of the latest conflict is vague for both sides, and neither side seemed to have an obvious interest in going to war. Even if it’s clear that both Israel and Hamas had been preparing for a major conflict, with Hamas spending 40% of its budget on its tunnel network and booby-trapping UN infrastructure and the Israelis looking increasingly committed to a long and already costly ground operation inside of a hostile Gaza Strip, it’s uncertain why the worst conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in well over a decade is happening now.

The truth is that rival diplomatic, sectarian, and ideological blocs that have been on a steady collision course are colliding. Here are some such conflicts, apart from the ever-festering over-sixty-year-old one between Israelis and Palestinians, that are playing out in Gaza right now.


Business Insider has its own version of the NYT fight card. What’s going on in Gaza is:

  • Sisi vs. the Muslim Brotherhood
  • Muslim Brotherhood supporters vs. the old regimes
  • Iran vs. the Sunni states (and Israel and the U.S.)
  • Fatah vs. Hamas
  • various and sundry score-settlings and revenge killings.

Yee-haw. And the Western left thought it was about the downtrodden Third World versus the Jews when in fact it is about the oil rich Middle East versus everybody.

Bonus question: whose side is Obama on?

  1. He’s still figuring it out.
  2. He hasn’t thought about it.
  3. On one side, but it’s not clear which.
  4. On more than one side, but it’s not clear which.
  5. On America’s side which is why he opposes domestic energy production so much.


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