The "caliphate" of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will not last. His self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), announced two years ago, is on the defensive. It will vanish as quickly as the morning mist on the Euphrates River. But what about jihadism, Islamist terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Syria â€" all factors that feed this Middle East chaos? Alas, none of that will disappear with the defeat of ISIS.
Iraqi troops continue to gain ground, recently taking back the city of Fallujah, which ISIS had been occupying since January 2014. It already lost Tikrit and Ramadi earlier this year. Soon the battle for Mosul, the second biggest city in Iraq and the caliphate's so-called capital, will begin. Baghdadi's other stronghold, the Syrian city of Raqqa on the banks of the Euphrates, will face coordinated assault from the Damascus regime's army on one hand and Kurds on the other.
Itâ€™s believed that U.S. President Barack Obama wants to see ISIS removed from Mosul and Raqqa by January 2017, when he leaves the White House. None of the progress weâ€™ve seen toward this goal in the past few months would have been possible without the help of the U.S. Air Force. In the fight against ISIS, it was the American warplanes, and not the Russian ones (which only intervene in Syria), that made a decisive contribution.
What would the terror group's loss of Mosul and Raqqa mean? First, six million people who live under the tyranny of the caliph's rabble, would be freed. But it would lead to the dismantling of the governance structures that the caliphate has imposed â€" civil service, tax collection, the Islamic law Sharia, oil sales â€" everything that made experts say that ISIS was a richer and a more lasting terrorist organization than others.
Still, the arrival of ISIS did not create the situation in Iraq and Syria. On the contrary, it's the tragedies in these countries that gave birth to, and fueled, the Sunni Islam extremist group. The recapture of Raqqa and Mosul would destroy this embryonic state. A military defeat would take away one of the elements that gave ISIS its apparent aura, its image of invincibility. But the ideology that drives the groupâ€™s actions â€" Sunni jihadism â€" would survive in one shape or another. And it will continue to do so for as long as Sunni Arabs are in their current situation.
In Iraq, Sunni Arabs represent just 20% of the population. This minority dominated the former regime of Saddam Hussein. For 30 years, Husseinâ€™s Ba'ath party bullied the Shia Arab majority and tortured the Kurdish minority. When the U.S. overthrew Saddam in 2003, the Kurds had already established an autonomous region in northern Iraq. For the Shiites who took over Iraq, it was time for revenge. Now it was the turn of Sunnis to be hunted down, marginalized, thrown into prison, tortured or randomly executed at some roadside checkpoint.
Regional power play
In Syria, the Ba'ath party was dominated by a different religious minorities â€" the Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam. Most Syrians are Sunni (60%), and the initial Syrian uprising of 2011 was largely the work of the Sunni peasantry. Sunni Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood have long been the most resolute opponents of President Bashar al-Assadâ€™s regime.
The Assad regime has kept its grip on power in Damascus, and over the Sunni majority â€" Photo: Watchsmart
Ultimately, the region's giants got involved in the Iraqi and Syrian battles with ISIS. Iran, a Shia power, now closely backs the Shia rulers in Baghdad; while Saudi Arabia, the ultimate Sunni force, as well as Turkey, have sided with the Sunnis.
Born in Iraq, the al-Qaeda stepchild of ISIS became the embodiment of the Sunni revolt against Shia oppression. In the middle of the Iraqi upheaval â€" a legacy of the American invasion that would eventually lead to the state's collapse â€" ISIS grew and blossomed, presenting itself as the protector of Iraq's Sunni population. The group spilled into Syria, which along with al-Qaeda, turned into one of the most active arms in the fight against the Damascus regime.
On the ruins of these two decomposing countries, jihadism found itself a cause beyond its political and religious madness: to defend Sunnis. That cause isn't unfounded: The Sunni Arabs of Iraq and Syria are indeed under threat. In Syria, they make up most of the 5 million people who were displaced by fighting, as reported by Patrick Cockburn of The Independent newspaper. In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of them roam from one refugee camp to another. They've been reduced to a few enclaves, driven out of cities like Baghdad, Ramadi and Tikrit, which were destroyed in the fierce combat against ISIS gangs. Car bombings in Shia neighborhoods by ISIS only exacerbated Shiite anger toward Sunni.
The fight against ISIS is both political and military. It's not just about removing Baghdadi from Raqqa and Mosul but also about knowing who will control these cities afterward.
So even if the state-like organization of ISIS is destroyed, something else will come along to embody Sunni hardship. Jihadism can survive the caliphate's defeat by moving into guerrilla warfare. How long will this continue? Well, as long as Syria and Iraq don't accept the diversity of their population and grant their citizens equal rights. It's a job that will last at least a generation.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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