Gordon Campbell on Obama’s need to engage with Iran, and Act’s need to engage with reality

Incredibly, the ISIS Sunni rebels who are currently butchering their way through northern Iraq are being financed by Saudi Arabia – supposedly a Western ally – and their advance is being halted by Shia militia who have been armed and trained by the West’s supposed enemy, Iran. Consistently, the West has been wrong-footed in this conflict. Recent events in Syria had already shown the deep weakness of ISIS when it comes to holding and administering any ground they have seized. The counter-insurgency tactics that have been used successfully against them in northern Syria were devised for the Assad regime by Qassem Sulemaini, the enormously influential leader of the QUDS Force, the elite group within Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Suleimani, one of the least known major figures in the Middle East, was profiled in 2012.

Reportedly, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and their Shia militia allies are now guarding Shia shrines in Najaf and elsewhere. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the nearest equivalent to the Pope among Shia, has used his enormous authority to urge all Iraqis to support the national Army, a call to arms that Sistani carefully phrased in secular terms, to try and avoid fanning the fires of sectarianism.

Supposedly, it is now up to the Iraqi President Nour al-Maliki to reverse the polarisation of religious communities in Iraq that has occurred since the US invasion of 2003. Good luck with that. In the mid to late 2000s, there had been a genuine grassroots reaction in Iraq among Sunni communities against the presence of foreign fighters like those who are now swelling the ranks of ISIS. This so-called “Awakening” movement was welcomed by the Americans, but it withered away because al-Maliki and his Shia allies viewed them as a threat, and as a revival of the forces formerly loyal to Saddam Hussein. Well, foreign fighters are now back in force and with a brutality bound to alienate even the local Sunni communities in Iraq. Yet will al-Maliki be any more willing – or able – to support the second coming of the Awakening movement? Would Shia militia leaders allow him to do so?

Events in northern Syria show how ISIS can be defeated – and is in fact, self – defeating. Since January, the ISIS determination to impose a Caliphate first and foremost has drawn it into fierce conflict with Jahbat al-Nusra, a fellow fundamentalist group that first wants to defeat Assad by whatever pragmatic alliances will bring that about, and then worry about a Caliphate later. Since January, over 6,000 fundamentalist fighters have reportedly been killed in the struggle between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, a fight that ISIS appeared to be losing before it launched itself off into Iraq in search of easier pickings. Meanwhile, the Assad regime has made its own advances, as this entry by Fabrice Balanche on the Syria Comment website explains:

The al-Assad regime is now supported by a new civil and military elite, who have been promoted over the course of events, as less competent officers have been eliminated. The regime also benefits from strong Iranian logistical support in counter-insurgency. [i.e., via Qassem Suleimani.] The military regime’s strategy is clear: to first concentrate the army’s efforts on the usable parts of Syria and on border control, and to then follow by resuming the effort to reclaim disputed territories, once securing greater support from the population for the cause of the regime. The chaos in areas held by the insurgency, with the attendant lack of civil administration (which is also partially due to the regime’s air raids), promotes the attractiveness of government-controlled areas (where the greatest majority of the 7 million internally displaced people are residing), which in turn bolsters the counterinsurgency.

It is a strategy that contains elements of the Awakening movement: isolate the foreign fighters, accentuate their propensity to alienate the people they dominate, promote the relative advantage of living in areas controlled by the current regime. The reality is that the foreign fighters (Uzbeks, Chechens etc) who have flocked to the ISIS banner are seen to be an alien presence in Iraq/Syria as much as the Americans ever were. Right now, if al-Maliki really is the key to building bridges to the Sunni community, it is the Iranians – and not the Americans – who hold the most sway over him. Which means that for the US, the road to Baghdad currently goes through Teheran. It is up to President Barack Obama to now take that route.

The Act Party’s Awakening
With the exit of its former leader John Banks, the Act Party is currently in what might charitably be called a rebuilding phase. Mind you, it still appears to be preaching the old time religion of plucky self-reliance – which is pretty amusing, given that its own survival in Parliament has long been reliant on electorate handouts from the National Party, a form of welfare set to continue in Epsom this year. How on earth Act rationalizes its policy stance on welfare with its own modus operandi in Epsom is anyone’s guess.

You might think that Parliament’s most prominent beneficiaries would be mindful of their inability to win electorates on their own merits before preaching the gospel of self-sufficiency to others, but no…last week, here was Don Nicholson, ACT’s newly appointed candidate for Clutha/Southland, talking up the virtues of small government in the usual fashion:

“I became self-employed in 1979. Over the years I have reflected on how expansive and intrusive government takes away basic freedoms and slowly destroys an individual’s confidence to control their own destiny.

But hang on. On the very same day, Nicholson also put out a press release headlined “Minister’s hands off approach hurting kiwifruit growers”. Hmmm. So is government intervention supposed to be a good thing, or a bad thing? Or, like John Banks did with those anonymous donations from Dotcom, is the Act Party splitting its options and hoping for anonymity when it advocates the brand of big government that suits its purposes?

Decisions Decisions
This month, 30 year old Brooklynite Tom Krell – who performs as How To Dress Well – released his third album What Is This Heart? As that title suggests, How To Dress Well often seems like the sonic equivalent of a Terrence Malick movie. Yet for my money, Krell’s wistful evocations of old R&B motifs are still struggling to match what his breakthrough 2010 track “Decisions” achieved so brilliantly.

“Decisions” also happens to be one of the most beautiful videos ever made. The slo mo’d footage comes from Always For Pleasure, the 1978 documentary about New Orleans street culture shot and directed by the late Les Blank.