A few days ago, when the Syrian Army liberated Palmyra from ISIS for the second time in two years, RT’s correspondent Lizzie Phelan, as usual, was on the battlefield almost as soon as the shooting had stopped. That battlefield, as she reported, was littered with ISIS corpses...and a lot, maybe the majority, of them were children in their early teens or even younger.
Phelan was shocked. I wasn’t. What I had was a memory.
In May 2009, the final act of a war that had lasted a generation was playing out at the extreme northern tip of Sri Lanka. Squeezed against the sea and a lagoon, the remnants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a group allegedly fighting for the independence of the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka, were making their last stand.
The LTTE wasn’t just another guerrilla group. Until the terrorist invasion of Syria and the rise of ISIS, it had been the most powerful insurgent army the world had ever seen. It controlled a mini state of thousands of square kilometres, and had a powerful army of thousands of trained and committed militants, with artillery and homemade armour. It also possessed a navy of gunboats and makeshift submarines, a clandestine merchant navy, and even a small air force of Czech made Zlin light planes rigged for bombing. Its commander, Velupillai Pirabhakaran, was treated as a deity by the people over whom he ruled – he was, in fact, called the incarnation of the Sun God – and his word was law.
The LTTE was also utterly brutal. Long ago, it had destroyed every one of the other Tamil rebel groups fighting the Sri Lankan state, often groups larger and better armed, but less ruthless than itself. It was also, until very recently, far and away the greatest practitioner of suicide bombing the world had ever seen; among the victims of its suicide bombers were the President of Sri Lanka, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and the former Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi; Premadasa’s successor, Chandrika Kumaratunga, lost an eye in another LTTE suicide bomb attack. Note, incidentally, that the LTTE was almost exclusively Hindu outfit, and was virulently anti-Muslim; and compare that to the usual antitheist canard about Muslims being a “death cult” eager to “blow themselves up”.
To date the LTTE is the only insurgent outfit in history to have killed two serving or former heads of state.
The LTTE began, like almost all insurgent outfits, as a small guerrilla outfit carrying out assassinations and hit and run attacks. Over time, as it gathered weapons and recruits, it began ambushing troops, “liberated” areas, and began to set up its mini state. As I have described elsewhere, it was aided and abetted by India, which armed and trained, financed and protected it in its early days, only to turn on it later. An Indian incursion into Sri Lanka, ostensibly to restore peace, turned into a protracted war between the Indian army and the LTTE, which India handily lost...and left the LTTE stronger than ever.
By the end of the 1990s, the LTTE wasn’t a guerrilla force anymore; it was a fully conventional army carrying out completely conventional military offensives, and had expanded and consolidated the territory under its control into a genuine mini state. It was funded by taxes, extortion, gun running, and plentiful donations from the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in the West. By 2002, it was negotiating with the government, and all appearances were that it would achieve a de facto partition of Sri Lanka, maintaining only the fiction of a unified country.
It was totally the LTTE’s fault that this did not happen.
Obviously, the Sri Lankan state wasn’t happy about the loss of a huge part of its territory to a rebel group, and it was only its own abject weakness that was preventing it from doing something to correct the situation. Through the first half of the 2000s, as peace talks started and went nowhere, the Sri Lankans built up militarily, with plenty of help from such countries as China, and diplomatically quite successfully isolated the LTTE by pressuring Western countries to crack down on its finances. During this period, too, it suffered a huge split with its southern forces, led by a commander called Karuna, breaking away, effectively decreasing the LTTE territory by 50%. Obviously, the LTTE should have read the writing on the wall, and settled for some kind of solution that, while not unreasonable, fell short of the independent “Eelam” it wanted.
Instead, it set out to provoke a fresh round of fighting.
In 2006, LTTE forces captured a reservoir, cutting off water to government-controlled areas, which gave the government the perfect excuse it needed to resume the war. Unlike in the three previous phases of violent rebellion – known as Eelam Wars I through III – the LTTE suddenly found itself totally outclassed by a resurgent Sri Lankan army. Slowly, it was forced back, losing base after base, and then its capital of Kilinochchi. By early 2009, having lost almost all its territory, its artillery, its navy, and huge numbers of trained troops, it was retreating towards the northern tip of the country, and obviously was finished as a conventional fighting force.
The choice before Pirabhakaran was simple. He could do one of three things:
1. Surrender; this was not an option. The Sun God’s avatar does not surrender. And he, at least, could expect no mercy from the Sri Lankan government.
2. Continue the conventional war until the bitter end, which, as by early 2009 was visible even to the blind, could only mean total defeat and destruction, or
3. Give up the conventional war, melt back into the forests, and go back to being a guerrilla army. This would have meant a de facto admission of at least temporary defeat, and the end of the mini state the LTTE had ruled for years; but it would have maintained the possibility of surviving to fight another day. What do you think Pirabhakaran, whose word as you might recall I said was law in the LTTE, chose?
Option Two: carry on the conventional war, and hope that pressure from Tamil politicians in India would force India to come to the LTTE’s aid. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, which had been ordered by Pirabhakaran himself, ensured that this was never going to take place.
It therefore only remained for the LTTE to be destroyed.
Sri Lanka is an island, shaped like a teardrop, and heavily forested in the north and east. As the LTTE retreated northwards, it carried along with it a huge number of Tamil civilians. Some of them went along because they genuinely supported the LTTE. Others went along because they were terrified of the vengeance of the Sri Lankan Army, which was purported to be raping, looting and murdering everyone it found. And still others were refugees fleeing the army’s artillery bombardment and air strikes. As they moved north, the territory they were occupying rapidly narrowed, with refugees and LTTE troops crammed in tight proximity to each other, in an area squeezed between the forest on one side and the sea on the other. Obviously, these people became, in effect, human shields for the LTTE...and something more.
They became a captive recruitment pool.
Throughout its existence as a conventional army, the LTTE had recruited children. Most of these had been “volunteers”, as far as children can be said to “volunteer” for anything, and many had been killed in human wave attacks on the Sri Lankan military. Those kids had been trained and indoctrinated for months, thought of Pirabhakran as a divine figure, and had been more than willing to throw their lives away for him.
|LTTE Child Soldiers|
But now, the LTTE began conscripting children, both boys and girls, from among the people who had accompanied it on its retreat.
The people themselves were given no choice in the matter. Armed LTTE men would appear in the tent cities and hastily dug bunkers where the people were hiding from the bombardment, pick up any children they could find, and march them off for training. This “training” at first, when the LTTE still had some territory, would go on for a week or ten days. Later, it shortened to a day or two. And at the end, when they were scraping the barrel, the average child would be taught to fire a gun for a couple of hours, and then sent off to fight.
Carrying guns almost as long as they were tall, dressed in uniforms stitched from curtains, these frightened, clueless, helpless kids were massacred by the Sri Lankan army. They died like flies, while behind their backs, Pirabhakaran and his men kept fleeing north.
Parents, often themselves injured and close to starvation, tried to save their kids in ingenious ways. One woman dug a hole in the ground and hid her teenage daughter in it during the day, covering her with upturned baskets. The girl would only come out when it was safely dark. Unfortunately, one day she was noticed by a neighbour, who informed the LTTE, and the next day the girl was taken. And all this time the army pressed closer, while from the seaward side the navy bombarded the beaches, and from above, the Sri Lankan air force indiscriminately bombed everything that moved.
I do not recall the Western humanitarian interventionists who now bleat about the Syrian Army allegedly “massacring” “moderate rebels” and “civilians” uttering a word about this, though it was much less than ten years ago.
The end came for the LTTE between 17th and 19th May 2009. By then the remnants of this once huge army was trapped on a sandy strip of beach, with a lagoon on one side and the sea on the other. And yet it was still “recruiting” children, and desperately fighting on, as though there was anything left to fight for. And also among the soldiers were other Tamil militias, comprised of former rebels, who had fierce hate for the LTTE and thirsted for revenge. Any prisoner who fell into their hands was unlikely to survive the experience.
|The LTTE's Last Stand|
The final assault of the Sri Lankan army broke through the LTTE lines on the night of 18/19th May. The next morning, Pirabhakaran’s corpse was found in a clump of trees, the top of his head smashed by a bullet. It later transpired from LTTE sources that, as the last of his “Tiger cubs” fought and died for him, he’d been attempting to withdraw through army lines into the forests after all; the LTTE at first announced that he’d done so, and tried to claim that reports of his death were fabrications.
They were not, and the LTTE was finished. Though the Sri Lankan army committed its own share of brutal war crimes, they’d destroyed it totally. All it had actually achieved in its 34 years of rebellion was the total destruction of any hope of an independent Eelam, or even an autonomous Tamil enclave inside Sri Lanka. And ever since then, by deliberately settling ethnic Sinhala people in the historic Tamil areas, the Sri Lankan government is ensuring that Tamil separatism can never rise again.
Do you understand why I at once recalled the story of the LTTE’s Last Stand when I heard Lizzie Phelan talking of dead ISIS kids littering the Palmyra battlefield?
That ISIS has been recruiting children is nothing new. Like the LTTE in its earlier days, it too indoctrinates them fiercely, and they think of the Caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi as a divine figure whose word is law. And the headchoppers are using them, just as the LTTE did, as cannon fodder to cover the retreat of the experienced troops and the top brass.
And there, I believe, the similarity ends.
Unlike Sri Lanka, with its forests and its beaches, the ISIS Caliphate in Syria and Iraq is mostly open desert, exposed to air strikes and observation. But unlike the LTTE, which had zero international backing towards the end of its blood soaked existence, ISIS still has an extremely strong support base, especially among countries which officially want it wiped out.
As I’ve said many times over, ISIS is far too useful an excuse, and there are far too many interested forces eager to keep it in existence, for it to be destroyed. Its very theatrical and cartoonish villainy is geared to that end. Almost anything can be “justified” in the name of “fighting ISIS”, including wars and colonial occupations. How can any self-respecting imperialist let such a wonderful tool go to waste?
Besides, Baghdadi and his clique are far, far more intelligent and adaptable than Pirabhakaran, and, also, they’ve been through all this before. What is now ISIS was once al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and as AQI had once controlled a mini-Caliphate in Western Iraq. When this caliphate was destroyed by a mixture of American firepower and bought off tribes of Iraqi Sunni mercenaries, the remnants went into hiding, only to emerge far stronger and more brutal in the aftermath. It knows that time is on its side, and it is ready and willing to adapt.
Instead of making a futile last stand, ISIS is melting into the “forests” – the desert tribes and the urban slums from which it had emerged in the first place – and preparing to resume the guerrilla war. The reports from cities in Iraq which were “liberated” from it already say this is happening. ISIS men are moving back into their former strongholds, resuming their networks, springing their men from prison, and preparing to start over again. It knows its many enemies are disunited and each has their own agenda; they will inevitably fall out, as they already are beginning to, and set the stage for it to rise once more.
And while this is happening, it is expanding into fresh territories – Pakistan and Afghanistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Niger and Somalia. There is no point talking about a post-ISIS situation. It is not going to be allowed to happen.
When ISIS, as it recently did, threatens China, and America is openly gearing up for a confrontation with this same China, it hardly takes a genius to figure out that commonality of interests between the two imperialist movements will lead to their collusion. It’s not even unprecedented. Just look at how America, in Syria and Libya and Yemen, has all but formally allied itself with al Qaeda, and in 2013 nearly destroyed Syria to hand it over to the headchoppers. All ISIS has to do is change the names of its local affiliates and give them a slightly different flag. Then, when something called, say, the Uighur Islamic Salvation Movement or the Chechen Freedom Army, attacks China and Russia, respectively, you’ll see the Western imperialists and their slave media falling over themselves to support these people. And anyone who points out that they are ISIS will be called “conspiracy theorists”, “Russian stooges”, and worse.
Meanwhile, the core ISIS insurgency, under its current name or a clearly identified successor, will continue in the same Iraqi and east Syrian territories. It will be cited as an excuse for continued colonial occupation of Iraq and North Syria, in the name of “fighting ISIS.” The War on ISIS, so much catchier than the “Global War (Of) Terror”, will, like its predecessor, never end; it is not meant to.
ISIS itself is by no means unaware of all this. In fact, it’s certainly banking on it. It is looking to the future. And in order to prepare for this future it needs smaller, tougher, better trained groups of guerrillas, not large units that can be annihilated from the air.
Therefore, while the Caliphs young “lions” sacrifice themselves in Palmyra and Mosul, they’re serving as a shield behind which the heavies melt away into the shadows of night, until they are ready to emerge again. Next time they may be more successful, as they were more successful this time than the last; or, just perhaps, their many enemies will get their acts together enough to stop them rising again.
No matter what happens, the kids will be equally dead, though.