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The Kurds: A Divided Future?
The Kurds: A Divided Future?

The Kurds: A Divided Future?

Originally published in The New York Review of Books

The Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq are linked by a thin and fragile thread, a two-lane highway that passes camps filled with refugees from the wars ravaging these lands. The road is bisected by the Tigris, the international frontier that separates not only Syria from Iraq but also Kurds from Kurds. This was the border that first took shape one hundred years ago this week with the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France—the first of a series of negotiations aimed at dividing the former Ottoman territories of the Levant between the two European powers. And while ISIS has made its hostility to the Anglo-French map well known, it is arguably the Kurds who have been most affected by the modern state system that has emerged from it.

Just how divided the more than 30 million Kurds continue to be was made clear to me this spring, when I crossed this border from Iraq to Syria. The crossing itself is not difficult: on the Iraqi side, an immigration officer of the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil checks with her supervisors, fills out a form, and gives the green light. The whole procedure takes less than fifteen minutes. A small boat then ferries you across to Syria, where an employee of the newly-minted Autonomous Administration of the Syrian Kurdish region enters your information, and gives you a stamped piece of paper attesting to your right to enter. You are then free to drive westward to Qamishli, the first major Syrian Kurdish town. On neither side of the border can one find evidence that the sovereign governments in Baghdad and Damascus are exercising their authority here.

Easy procedures, yet complex politics. The Kurds may have thrown off central rule in Iraq and Syria but the border is still there: despite the Kurds or, perhaps more accurately, because of them. The Kurds have long talked of reuniting their people in a greater Kurdistan, but today their population is carved up between not only Syria and Iraq, but also Turkey and Iran, which have sizable numbers of their own. These different national populations have discovered over time that what sets them apart may be more significant than what they have in common: differences in dialect, tribal affiliation, leadership, ideology, historical experience. And Kurdish parties on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border are reaffirming these differences every day with remarkable bureaucratic fastidiousness. What’s more, the Kurdish parties seem to have internalized the very nation-states they scorn: in Syria, their leadership and members are almost exclusively Syrian Kurds; in Iraq, Iraqi Kurds; and in Iran, Iranian Kurds. Only the Kurdish movement in Turkey, which has pan-Kurdish ambitions, includes Kurds from neighboring states, though the top leadership is from Turkey (and some only speak Turkish). 

All this is apart from the deep political divisions that exist among the respective national populations. In Iraq, for example, the Kurdish leadership has developed strong relations with Turkey, which has become a principal source of investment and trade; while in Syria, the dominant Kurdish party, the PYD, is a sworn enemy of the Turkish government through its close links with the PKK, the militant Kurdish movement in Turkey that is now at war with the government. And within both Kurdish regions, the dominant parties face strong opposition from a number of other factions. 

Here is the quandary in which the Kurds find themselves when they make their claim for independence: Whose claim exactly? And how to realize it? To what territory, and under whose authority? As these questions remain unanswered, the old borders are proving stubbornly persistent—by the Kurds’ own hands.

In many ways, Syria’s Kurds today appear to be reliving what their Iraqi counterparts experienced at the end of the Gulf War in 1991: the same economic desolation; the same combination of military control and security provided by rebel Kurdish parties that are prized for their ability to maintain law and order but enjoy only lukewarm local support; the same deep relief that a hated regime no longer has much say in their affairs; in both cases, a measure of unexpected support from the US; the same upswell of hope now that they are finally achieving some autonomy; and the same nagging fear that an oppressive central government—whether the current one in Damascus or a future incarnation—will return to impose its will.

But looking across the Tigris, Syria’s Kurds regard their Iraqi compatriots’ twenty-five-year-old experiment in self-government as only a partial success. The Iraqi Kurds’ opportunity arose from serendipity: Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and subsequent defeat there left a political vacuum, but the regime rebounded, brutally suppressing their rebellion. Then, the United States and its Gulf War allies bailed them out, establishing a safe haven. Freed of the regime, the Kurds ruled their quasi-independent enclave for twelve years. After the 2003 invasion, Washington compensated them for their loyal support by securing them a place in Baghdad and helping them consolidate their autonomy. Oil and gas exploration and trade with Turkey and Iran gave the Kurdish region’s economy an enormous lift. Looking at the troubles to their south, Kurdish leaders called themselves “the other Iraq.”

But amid this remarkable progress, there have been continuous setbacks. Between 1994 and 1998, the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties, Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), fought a civil war in which Barzani opened the gates of Erbil, the region’s capital, to Saddam’s forces in order to defeat Talabani. The conflict was brought to an end by US mediation in 1998, and the two parties agreed to form a unity government in 2005. This brought stability and prosperity, but also allowed the two ruling families to split up the oil bonanza between them. Economic growth came with rampant corruption, which, when oil prices plummeted a year ago, has landed the two parties in a profound crisis of legitimacy. Instead of progress, Kurds have suddenly faced drastic reductions in public-sector salaries, while their protests have been suppressed or preempted through intimidation by the KRG’s party-led security police.

Meanwhile, Barzani has clung to power as the region’s president, even though his term in office has expired (twice)—and despite his failure to institute reforms. At the same time, the prospect of true independence for Iraqi Kurdistan looks agonizingly remote. This may explain Barzani’s recent renewed call for an independence referendum: more a gambit to shore up his flagging popularity than a concrete step toward fulfillment of the Kurdish dream.

For Syria’s Kurds, the lessons of Iraqi Kurdistan are in any case far from the immediate concerns of war. Unlike its counterpart in Iraq, Syria’s Kurdish population is separated into three cantons in two non-contiguous areas in the country’s north, and continues to face a constant threat from ISIS forces nearby. Also unlike the Iraqi Kurds, they are aided by their alliance with Turkey’s militant PKK, but this has brought challenges of its own. The civil war in Syria has revitalized the PKK, allowing it to effectively seize control of Syrian Kurdish areas through its Syrian affiliate, the PYD, expanding the territory under its command. But the collapse of peace talks between Ankara and the PKK last summer has meanwhile precipitated a new violent conflict in Turkey, causing the Turkish government in turn to put more pressure on Syrian Kurdish areas. (Since the peace talks broke down, Turkey has accused the PYD of sending arms across the border to support the PKK’s insurgency.) Today, the Turkish-PKK war is causing large-scale displacement in southeastern Turkey and giving no sign of letting up. It seemed paradoxical, standing safely in Qamishli in a Syria at war, to listen to the sounds of gunfire just across the border in Turkey.

Complicating matters further, while the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish leaderships have diametrically opposed relations with Turkey, both are now allied with the US in a joint struggle against the Islamic State—a struggle in which both Kurdish regions have proven notably effective. This has presented the Syrian Kurdish PYD with a tricky strategic choice: Should it seek to replicate the Iraqi Kurdish model of using American power as a vector for Kurdish ambitions? If it does so, it knows that Washington seems likely to limit those ambitions, providing some degree of Kurdish autonomy within a Syrian state that Washington hopes to rebuild through a peace process sponsored by the US and Russia. Or should Syria’s Kurds exploit the country’s disorder to expand the territory under their control and simultaneously escalate the war in Turkey in overall pursuit of the ultimate Kurdish goal: to gather up the four severed Kurdish parts and reconstitute them into a single “Greater Kurdistan”?

Though the motivations are very different, the long-term geographic aspirations of the Kurds are oddly similar to those of the jihadists they are fighting: both seem equally intent on erasing the old borders of the post-Ottoman order. When I drew this somewhat audacious parallel in conversation with a PYD official in northern Syria during a visit in March, there was a brief, uncomfortable silence. Then he flashed a bright smile and said: “Daesh threw the first bomb. We will reap the result.”

Syria’s Kurdish leaders are frank about their willingness to use conflict and chaos to their own advantage. The PYD’s fighting force, the YPG, having gained a sense of its value, and therefore leverage, as an indispensable ally in the fight against the Islamic State, doesn’t shy away from playing the big powers in the region—the US, Russia, Turkey, the regime of Bashar al-Assad—against each other, regardless of the cost. If Washington continues to treat the YPG as little more than a private security company, a hired hand to help it dislodge ISIS from the banks of the Euphrates, and refuses to help the YPG in its territorial ambition to unify the three Kurdish cantons (which are interspersed with Arab, Turkoman, and Christian populations), then the YPG believes it can use the prospect of a defacto alliance with Russia to get more support from the US.

Kurdish leaders say that Russian officials have told them that if the YPG tries to extend the area of northern Syria under its control all the way to the shores of the Mediterranean (where, incidentally, few if any Kurds can be found), Russia will not prevent it. This may help explain the PYD’s announcement of a federal region (under its control, and with boundaries not yet established) on the eve of the Kurdish New Year in March, a statement that lit up social media and electrified opinion throughout the dismembered Kurdish realm. Another reason for the timing of the announcement may have been the PYD’s wish to draw attention to its cause after it was excluded from the Geneva talks about Syria. Of course the announcement does not create a unified region—to unify the Kurdish areas would require a major military effort against both ISIS and Turkey, and US-backed rebels north of Aleppo. But the YPG is a disciplined and accomplished military force and, unimpeded by a major power, could make significant headway in realizing this goal.

What makes such consolidation of territory particularly dangerous is the possibility that it might draw in the Turkish military. Turkey has already warned that any move to connect the Kurdish canton of Afrin north of Aleppo with other Kurdish areas further east along Turkey’s border would be unacceptable. This is not only because it cannot countenance a large area of Syria’s border with Turkey controlled by Kurds allied with the PKK. It is also because such a move would sever the only remaining supply line to rebel groups in Aleppo that are backed by Turkey. A Turkish military counter-move against the YPG, if not done by proxy, might in turn trigger Russian airstrikes, and from that point on, given Turkey’s likely invocation of its NATO membership, further international intervention could derail efforts to wind down the Syrian war.

It need not come to this. If it does, it will be because the Obama administration, the one power that has leverage with both Turkey and the YPG, is so internally confused that it cannot accomplish either one of its strategic goals: a political transition to a post-Assad era in Syria and the defeat of the Islamic State. It is pursuit of these two aims that has seen some factions in the Obama administration pressing for greater support for Turkey-backed Syrian rebels in Aleppo and along a corridor to the Turkish border; and other factions that are championing a strengthening of the YPG as the US’s most effective auxiliary in the fight against the Islamic State, which it sees as the top US priority. The two approaches cannot be successfully pursued simultaneously.

The sensible way forward would be for the Obama administration to condition its support for the YPG on the latter’s willingness to rein in its territorial ambitions; the quid pro quo could be a promise of US support for Kurdish rights in Syria during a political transition and beyond. At the same time, the administration would need to nudge Erdoğan to return to peace talks with the PKK in exchange for US support of Turkish interests in northern Syria, including prevention of a unified PYD/YPG-run Kurdish region and an end to the YPG’s provision of weapons and other assistance to the PKK in southeastern Turkey.

Such a deal, a tall order by any reckoning, is further complicated by two issues. One is Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism, including, in recent months, the intimidation, censorship, and detention of journalists and other critics, and the use of the fight against the PKK to try to push through constitutional amendments in Turkey to create a presidential system. The Turkish head of state may prove difficult to dissuade from the effort to erode his country’s democratic institutions, unless either military failure in the southeast or a popular uprising against his rule provides the necessary counter-pressure. The other issue is the Turkish perception that the PKK’s resurgence is part of a larger regional competition involving Iran. According to this view, Iran has stoked Kurdish irredentist nationalism in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria (but not at home) against those Kurds who are supported by Turkey and who are willing to work within the existing state system. The area in which this struggle has unfolded most dramatically is northern Iraq.

 “We are in a chess game in which we are the pieces, not the players,” observed Shaho Saeed, a philosophy teacher at the University of Sulaimani, in northern Iraq. In the past, the Kurds’ four hosts—Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria—used the Kurds’ geographic and ideological divisions to limit their aspirations in their own territory. Now, with Damascus preoccupied with greater threats and the government in Baghdad effectively neutralized, the Kurds have two enemies fewer to cope with, more time, and more terrain in which to lay the foundations of a future unified state. Their two other hosts, Turkey and Iran, remain strong, however, and despite their quarrel over who should rule Syria, both seek to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish state.

Turkey’s proven method of influencing Iraq’s Kurds is economic: it uses its weight as an economic powerhouse to offer favorable trade, investment, and business contracts to northern Iraq. In return for their pliancy, Iraqi Kurds gain an export channel for their oil through Turkey, which secures what has become their principal revenue stream. This arrangement, in place since 2008, has worked well for both sides and has survived regional upheavals, at least until now. But neither Turkey nor Iraq’s Kurdish leadership has much to offer Syria’s own Kurds, at least as long the PYD remains in charge and subordinate to the PKK.

Iran’s method is to rule by dividing: to support one Kurd against another, and Baghdad against the Kurds. The main dividing line in northern Iraq lies between pro-Barzani Kurds near the Turkish border, who speak the Kurmanji dialect, and Surani-speaking pro-Talabani Kurds in areas closer to Iran. Notwithstanding the two parties’ strategic partnership and common enmity toward the Islamic State, Iran has handily exploited the historic competition between them, and has tried to bring its own favored Kurds—the PKK in Turkey, the PYD/YPG in Syria, and Talabani’s PUK in Iraq—into a broad alliance against Barzani’s KDP. For its part, the PUK is torn between its ideological predisposition and its economic interests: “Its heart belongs to the PKK but its pocket to the KDP,” as Shaho Saeed put it memorably.

In short, the Kurdish political landscape is no less fractured than the region around it. Iraqi Kurdistan may have ended its economic dependence on Baghdad but any notion it harbors of breaking away from Iraq can never amount to more than quasi-independence—shibeh istiqlaal in Arabic—as an opposition leader put it, as long as the region, floating on a sea of corruption and adrift in economic misery, lacks the economic resources, military power, and international recognition it would need. Were Barzani to press ahead with formal statehood, the Kurds, who would be a late addition to the family of nation-states, would be living in a newly independent failed state on the model of South Sudan. Heavily indebted to the oil companies that came in search of its riches, the new entity would be choked off economically by Turkey and wracked by internal conflicts stoked by Iran.

Having been denied a state for the last one hundred years, and now facing a collapse of the old post-Ottoman states in Baghdad and Damascus, many Kurds may dream of destroying the modern borders of the Middle East to finally create one. Yet they first have to contend with ISIS, which wants not just to erase the borders but to bring down the entire Middle East as we know it. Nor have the Kurds been very effective at changing any of the borders that obstruct them. What comes next may be determined less by Kurdish dreams and schemes than by what remains of Syria once Daesh leaves, and what protections for Kurds might be wrung from that. Paradoxically, to guarantee their autonomy—and their survival—the Kurds may end up needing Sykes-Picot just as much as their old overlords did.

A car burns outside the UN headquarters at the Canal Hotel after a huge suicide truck bomb explosion rocked the building. Baghdad, Iraq, September 2003. AFP PHOTO/Sabah ARAR

Al-Qaeda’s Virulent Strain in Iraq

As part of our series The Legacy of 9/11 and the “War on Terror”, Joost Hiltermann argues that the U.S. invasion of Iraq gave rise to a fierce variety of Sunni Islamist militancy, one just as intent on killing Shiite Muslims as on fighting the U.S. occupation.

My friend Arthur telephoned me one summer morning in 2003, when I had just returned from Iraq, which had fallen into U.S. hands that April. Arthur was head of the refugee program at the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights. A decade earlier, he and I had travelled together to Iraq, Iran and Turkey to investigate the refugee crisis in the wake of the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Now, he said, he wanted to go to Baghdad for meetings about addressing the new war’s human cost. He asked me if he should bring a bulletproof vest. We at Crisis Group had raised the alarm about an incipient insurgency in Iraq, based on my observations during two visits since the U.S. invasion. But the situation in the capital, if chaotic, was still calm relative to what we did not know would soon transpire. I told him a vest would not be imperative.

A month later, Arthur was sitting in the office of the UN special representative, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, when a flatbed truck rumbled into the UN compound at Baghdad’s repurposed Canal Hotel, setting off a massive bomb that killed both men as well as twenty others. I try to salve my conscience by thinking a bulletproof vest would not have saved my friend, but I’ll never know for sure.

The Canal Hotel suicide bombing was the first such attack in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Responsibility for staging it was claimed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian petty criminal drawn into jihadist circles in prison and to Iraq by the U.S. military occupation, just as fighters from around the Muslim world had flocked to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan a generation earlier. Two years earlier, al-Qaeda had established itself as a global brand with the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., targeting its “far enemy” – Western powers – in spectacular fashion.

The U.S. had responded to the attacks in New York and Washington first by invading Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban were sheltering Osama bin Laden and his band, and then also Iraq. The connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq was not obvious and, as it turned out, largely non-existent, at least until the U.S. invasion itself attracted would-be jihadists to the country. The particular conditions prevailing in Iraq due to the U.S. invasion, and longstanding tensions between Iraq’s religious communities, allowed Zarqawi to build a strong al-Qaeda franchise, one more virulent in its sectarianism than bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, and intent on killing Shiites, in particular. Zarqawi deemed the Shiites apostates, a radical notion not commonly held by Iraqi Sunnis at that time. But he was able to rally Sunni support because of many Sunnis’ antipathy for Iran and their belief that Shiites had made common cause with Iraq’s neighbour during the eight-year war between the two countries in the 1980s.

Middle East and North Africa Program Director Joost Hiltermann while on a research trip to devastated Sinjar, Iraq, September 2016. CRISISGROUP/Noah Bonsey
As the sectarian war raged, Iraqi society transformed from diverse to deeply divided

Within a year, the insurgency that Crisis Group had seen coming was in full swing, aimed primarily at U.S. troops and the nascent Iraqi security forces. But Zarqawi’s group, which core al-Qaeda soon disowned for its freelancing and sectarian outlook, took over parts of the insurgency and turned them into something else entirely. By targeting Shiite clerics and houses of worship, as well as crowded marketplaces in predominantly Shiite neighbourhoods, this new al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) plunged the country into a vicious sectarian war. Shiite militias, some backed by Iran, responded to the killings in kind, attacking not just suspected AQI operatives but also the country’s Sunni population broadly speaking. The fight might have taken place even without AQI, given the U.S. occupation authority’s very public association of Sunnis with Saddam’s regime and its labelling of the country’s Shiites as oppressed – a narrative that the new ruling Shiite Islamist parties did little to discourage. But AQI was certainly the proverbial match that lit the oil-soaked tinder.

As the sectarian war raged, Iraqi society transformed from diverse to deeply divided, a change first expressed in the way Iraqis defined themselves. Apart from my visits to Iraq, I also attended a number of workshops with Iraqis in Amman, then my home base. Before 2005, these Iraqis, mainly politicians, technocrats and civil society figures, would invariably self-identify as Iraqis; then suddenly they began, as if by invisible hand, referring to themselves and each other as Sunnis and Shiites.

The U.S. killed Zarqawi in a commando operation in 2006; essentially leaderless, AQI did not regain its potency. It did not disappear, either, but survived as insurgencies worldwide often do: hidden in the countryside, popping out only to weaken the authorities’ morale through night-time raids on checkpoints, ambushes of patrols on major arteries and sometimes incursions into urban areas. But the damage to Iraqi society was done: the sectarian killing went on even without AQI’s bloodier operations to goad it, and now with Shiite militias predominant.

Fighting coursed through mixed Sunni/Shiite areas for some three years until the U.S. succeeded in restoring a measure of order through a new military approach – the “surge” – and its marshalling of Sunni tribal groups. These were motivated to fight AQI by the latter’s viciousness vis-à-vis those Sunnis who did not bend to its will. In 2012, AQI’s remnants fled to a Syria engulfed in civil war to recast themselves as still another new version of al-Qaeda. They soon split from core al-Qaeda more definitively to set up the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), capturing a good part of northern Syria, which they ruled with brutal hand before returning triumphantly to Iraq in May 2014. They then declared the establishment of a new caliphate in the territories they began “liberating” from Baghdad’s control – eventually, almost a third of the country.

In short, the U.S. invasion created a monster. Welcomed by many for overthrowing a horrid dictator, U.S. forces and the soon installed Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) quickly made themselves unpopular through their inability (interpreted as unwillingness) to impose security, disbandment of the Iraqi army, sweeping ban of the Baath party, patronage and empowerment of Iraqi exiles, paternalism in governance (which the CPA’s incompetence made all the more galling) and disregard for Iraqi governing institutions that had remained functional despite Saddam’s regime’s violent rule. Even after the CPA dissolved, handing over the reins of power to an interim Iraqi government in 2004, the U.S. presence was hated and actively resisted by those who felt unfairly painted with the broad brush of collaboration with Saddam’s regime, a charge of which they deemed themselves innocent. For AQI, it was a perfect environment in which to thrive, capitalising on one group’s resentment and grievance.

Over time, Iraqi militants took control of AQI, giving it, and its successor ISIS, a predominantly Iraqi leadership possessing an Iraq-inflected ideology that was based partly in religion (a very narrow, some would say twisted, interpretation of Sunni Islam) and partly in Iraqi Arab chauvinism. Many of the group’s top cadres came from the ousted regime’s intelligence and security agencies. Today, after its territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria, the group’s remnants are back to playing the long game in a classic insurgency, roaming beyond the view of the authorities and harassing government forces with pinprick attacks in an attempt to rebuild the so-called caliphate’s old might.

The U.S. enterprise in Iraq was ill conceived and even more poorly executed

The fate of AQI and ISIS in Iraq is less relevant than the message their emergence sent. Virulent ideologies and violent actors are all around, but they need the right soil to blossom. Post-invasion Iraq provided it, as have many other war-torn countries and regions since then. Even if the U.S. had pursued a wiser policy focused as much on building a just society as on getting rid of an inconvenient enemy, it might still have struggled to achieve its ends. But despite all its protestations, bringing democracy to Iraq was never its central focus, and AQI rose in the chaos that it created.

The U.S. enterprise in Iraq was ill conceived and even more poorly executed. It allowed for some democratic processes to take hold, but these fell victim to the rampant corruption it also encouraged. I said at the time – and continue to strongly believe – it could never have succeeded, even with substantially more resources, better expertise and greater will. Much as the region’s governments cry out for reform, Middle Eastern autocrats will not be enduringly brought down by foreign hands, and especially not through half-baked plans that rely on very selective readings of history, the politicisation of ethnic and religious difference, and the promotion of some groups over others, with no quarter given. These are the easily exploited circumstances in which Zarqawi and his gang arose.

From the perspective of U.S. grand strategy, the Iraq gambit was a gratuitous act of self-harm, even if most Iraqis were deeply relieved to see the old regime gone, and even if many would still not want anything like it to return. It was a false response to the 9/11 attacks, as none of the organisers or perpetrators had any link to Iraq. It was a case of hubris that gave an ambitious jihadist group that had just carried off a dramatic attack on symbols of U.S. power the chance to spawn many would-be imitators, such as Zarqawi and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in the Middle East and beyond. Further, it breathed new life into global jihadism after it lost its safe havens in Afghanistan and was largely on the run.

Following 9/11, the Iraq war became the first accelerator of jihadism, luring many younger people seeking a chance at heroism and martyrdom, as well as community and purpose. The Iraqi case also showed that while grievance played a major role in driving the insurgency – grievance against the U.S. occupation; against the Shiite Islamist parties that took control of the state, shunting the Sunnis aside; and against these parties’ principal sponsor, Iran – it took an externally introduced ideology, with its attendant spectacular attacks on selected targets, to provide the fuel that allowed the insurgency to spread and assume its virulently sectarian form.

Incongruously, AQI and, later, ISIS wound up strong enough to lead Iran and the U.S. to converge and sometimes even tacitly cooperate in their separate anti-jihadist efforts. Iran opposed the U.S. military’s presence in Iraq but not its help in fighting Sunni jihadists. For its part, the U.S. had been at odds with Iran since the 1979 revolution and the hostage crisis, but still could see benefit from Iran-backed militias upholding the ramshackle new order it had created in Iraq, especially in fighting a tenacious insurgency. It just preferred for these groups to be fully incorporated into, and controlled by, the U.S.-backed central state.

The Iraqi case shows that jihadists can be their own worst enemy through excess

The Iraqi case also shows that jihadists can be their own worst enemy through excess. Their savagery instils fear but it also alienates potential supporters, if not entire communities, for example when they impose harsh punishments for smoking or force families to give up their daughters in “marriage” to them. It is because of such practices that the U.S. military was able to mobilise the tribal groups that became known as the Awakening Councils or Sons of Iraq. AQI might have been a good deal more effective in winning over the population where it operated if it had moderated its version of Sunni Islamist thought or represented local grievances to attract, indoctrinate, equip and deploy the disaffected. Instead, AQI was the handmaiden of its own undoing. This experience taught some of al-Qaeda’s later franchises, such as Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, to soften their approach to governance, thus burnishing their legitimacy and extending their rule.

Zarqawi died fifteen years ago, but his violent legacy outlives him. It is visible in fragile states and on battlefields throughout the Muslim world, as well as in cities in the West and Russia. Zarqawi did not invent suicide bombings, but he turned them into a routine transnational-jihadist weapon. He mainstreamed the targeting of civilians – an old practice of warfare controversial even within the jihadist milieu – in non-combat settings. And he pioneered the so-called double-tap attacks, setting off a second bomb once the earlier one had drawn first responders and people desperate to find their loved ones.

The notion that no one is safe, that the only rule is that there are no rules, is particularly frightening, including for humanitarian workers who, without a political agenda, seek to bring succour to war’s victims. One such person was Gil Loescher, who died in 2020 at age 75, a refugee expert who travelled the world to advise the UN. He wrote extensively on the threats his profession has come to face. “In the global war on terror, the line between humanitarian activity and military activity has become blurred”, he warned.

Loescher knew whereof he spoke. Of the eight people in Vieira de Mello’s corner office in the Canal Hotel when the truck bomb exploded, he was the only one to live, though he lost both his legs in the effort to extricate him from the wreckage. Despite his injuries, he continued his work in shaping international policies on refugee issues, including through his writings, thus allowing humanitarian agencies to better address the critical challenges that our increasingly complex world faces, and contributing to a legacy that – perhaps – can outlast Zarqawi’s.

[Dedicated to Arthur Helton, St Louis, MO, 1949 – Baghdad, 2003]