Since the downfall of long reigning President Suharto in May 1998, Indonesia has successfully, if not always without difficulty, transitioned from authoritarian rule to a functioning democracy.
Earlier concerns over Islamist ascendancy have proved largely unfounded, and a diversity of Islamic political expression is accommodated within the framework of democratic electoral politics. How was this development possible in the world’s most populous Muslim country, and can it serve as a template for the ongoing transitions in the Middle East?
Islam, Nationalism, and the Indonesian Republic
The Indonesian archipelago has a rich history of taking outside influences (especially religious ones) and adapting them to complement existing social structures, traditions, and belief systems. The first major encounters with Islam date from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries when the religion arrived peacefully via trading merchants from Persia and India. Spreading gradually to Sumatra, Java, and beyond over the centuries, Islamic practice including Sufi traditions amalgamated with indigenous custom and became part and parcel of many of the archipelago’s different cultural identities.
This gradual syncretic adoption is reflected in predominantly tolerant and diverse forms of religious expression across Indonesia. For instance, on Java there is a distinct difference, in terms of religiosity, between two major Islamic strands: Many nominal Javanese Muslims (abangan) identify with an indigenized syncretic form of practice, Agami Jawi, while other Javanese identify as Santri, practicing a stricter but still moderate form of Islam. Outside Java, believers in places like Aceh in northern Sumatra, parts of the Moluccas, and in central Sulawesi (formerly known as Celebes) observe a stricter practice while, on the other hand, some Sasak on the island of Lombok still adhere to an Islamic animist-ancestral amalgam known as Islam Wetu Telu. In fact, one could say that in the majority of cases, a dynamic and tolerant equilibrium exists between the archipelago’s overlapping strands of national, religious, and cultural identification. Indonesians share a strong sense of national, political identity forged from a common history of anticolonial struggles, shared national language (bahasa Indonesia), and state-sponsored education. The size of Indonesia’s two major socio-religious organizations also gives one an appreciation of the influence of Islam in daily life. Both organizations boast many devout followers. The traditionalist Sunni Nahdlatul Ulama (NU, Awakening of Ulama) has about 30-35 million members and formed in 1926 in reaction to the reformist Muhammadiyah (Followers of Muhammad). Its raison d’être is to spread and retain conservative Islamic teachings and practices through a large network of religious boarding schools. The reformist Muhammadiyah numbers approximately 29 million. Established in 1912, it focuses on social and educational activities through a promotion of ijtihad (individual interpretation of the Qur’an and sunna) rather than the uncritical acceptance (taqlid) of orthodox interpretations of tradition by ulama.
At the same time, the modern Indonesian state has not always had an easy relationship with the polity’s cultural-religious identification. Indonesia declared its independence from the Netherlands in August 1945, but in the months leading up to it, a lively constitutional debate took place centering in part on the emerging pancasila (five principles) ideology of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president. Enshrined in article 29, section 1 of the 1945 constitution, the five principles are belief in one God, national unity, humanitarianism, consensus democracy, and social justice. Originally, the first principle also contained the words “with an obligation for Muslims to implement Islamic law,” but this was soon dropped by the largely secular-nationalist minded Sukarno. This left many stricter Muslims, particularly from outside Java, with the sense that the finalized constitution marginalized Islam.
Sukarno and his nationalist allies soon successfully weakened and splintered the Islamic political party, Masjumi (an acronym for the Council of Indonesian Muslim Associations) in an attempt to reduce its political appeal. By 1958, opposition to Sukarno’s increasingly authoritarian “guided democracy” led to open rebellion under the aegis of the short-lived Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia. After the military crushed the rebellion, Sukarno jailed many of Masjumi’s leaders for their involvement and eventually outlawed the party. Erstwhile Islamic militias such as Darul Islam and Tentara Islam Indonesia, which had participated in the war of independence against the Dutch, met with similar fates. Sensing the threat they posed to his nationalist project, Sukarno banned both, and by the 1960s, they had fallen into disarray after suffering sustained attack from the Indonesian armed forces.
In 1965, a failed coup ignited a bloody power struggle in which the army purged the country of President Sukarno’s communist allies and installed Gen. Suharto as head of state. With the rise of Suharto, failure to profess a recognized religion meant potential persecution as a communist, a fate the majority of Indonesians were eager to avoid as it is estimated that between 500,000-1,000,000 alleged communist sympathizers died in a brutal slaughter between 1965 and 1966. It thus comes as little surprise that between 85 to 90 percent of the Indonesian population carry identification cards identifying themselves as Muslim. Keen to stymie any challenges to his authority, Suharto also refused Masjumi a return to politics, and with his 1971 overhaul of the electoral system, he effectively de-Islamized Indonesia’s state-level political structure. The major Islamic organizations were forced to align themselves under the banner of a regime co-opted political party, the United Development Party (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan).
Nevertheless, Suharto was only partially successful in subsuming society’s Islamic identification to the diktats of his “New Order” ideology. In effect, his marginalization of political Islam merely precipitated a greater role on its part in fostering civil society activity. Rather than directly challenge the authorities for political power, moderate reformists such as Dawan Rahardjo, Djohan Effendi, and Nurcholish Madjid focused on building a strong and dynamic Islamic community based on education and social welfare. Their ideas on Islamic social and educational renewal emerged in close association with the Islamic Students Association (Himpunan Mahasiswa Islam), which appealed to a younger generation of well-educated, urban, middle-class Indonesians who were enjoying some of the benefits of New Order economic development.
Democratic Transition and Political Islam
By the 1990s, Suharto himself began to encourage the restoration of Islamic issues onto the political agenda. Eager to court Islamic support as a counter to growing pro-democracy sentiment and rumbling military dissent, it became politically advantageous for Suharto to tolerate Islamic political activism. He promoted pro-Islamic officers in the army and supported the Association of Muslim Intellectuals (Ikatan Cendekiawan Muslim Indonesia) made up largely of professionals, scientists, economists, educators, scholars, and regime supporters.
The strategy eventually backfired in the wake of the devastating Asian financial crisis of 1997. The Indonesian rupiah went into free fall against world currencies, and the banking sector collapsed under a mountain of bad loans. The prices of oil, gas, and other commodity exports plummeted as per capita gross domestic product fell by 13 percent. The crisis was exacerbated by Indonesia’s worst drought in fifty years. As inflation soared, food prices rose, and ensuing shortages led to widespread rioting. By the following year, Suharto’s grip on power had loosened in the face of the economic meltdown and pressure from the reformasi movement, the broad movement to bring down Suharto’s New Order.
Prominent Islamic leaders such as Abdurrahman Wahid, president in 1999-2001, Amien Rais, leader of Muhammadiyah, and Nurcholish Madjid along with their associated organizations played major populist roles in Suharto’s eventual downfall and its aftermath by helping to disseminate democratic values throughout society via voter education and election monitoring. Their links to Muslim activists on the frontlines of student protests and rallies against the president exemplified the compatibility of Islam with democracy, political rights, and justice. Underscoring moderation and support for Sukarno’s five principles was crucially important during the turmoil and prevented calls for the creation of an Islamic state from gaining any traction. Appeals to Indonesians’ sense of tolerance and national pride took precedence.
Suharto tried to deflect public anger by blaming Sino-Indonesians and global financial institutions for the crisis, but tensions within the military weakened his hold on power. Factional splits that had developed in the 1980s between “red and white” (secular nationalist) and “green” (Islamic) groups increased, and some began questioning Suharto’s authority. In this turbulent economic and political climate, factions within the green military began shifting their support to the Indonesian Council for Islamic Da’wa (Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia) and the Indonesian Committee for Solidarity of the Islamic World (Komite Indonesia Untuk Solidaritas dengan Dunia Islam), both of which received substantial funding and donations from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Eventually, key factions of the military simply abandoned the president. He had become too much of a liability.
Islamic Political Parties
Upon Suharto’s departure, pressure mounted on Abdurrahman Wahid, leader of the NU, to run for office. Wahid was wary of NU’s return to politics as potentially damaging to its social mission but was eventually persuaded to head the newly-formed National Awakening Party (Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa), which combined Islam with the nationalist pancasila ideology. Notwithstanding NU’s long-time championship of an Islamic-oriented Indonesia and Wahid’s personal stature, neither it nor any of the welter of Islamic parties and groups that sprang up in the post-Suharto environment could achieve a parliamentary majority. By late 1998, the prospect of a single Islamic political voice emerging looked highly unlikely. Although forty out of eighty political parties were, to varying degrees, Islamic-oriented, this number decreased by election time in 1999 to twenty eligible groups.
The outcome of this proliferation of parties was ultimately unsatisfying for all contenders. Megawati Sukarnoputri (Sukarno’s daughter) led the secular-nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia-Perjuangan) to 37.4 percent of the vote (153 seats in parliament) while Wahid’s National Awakening Party only garnered 12.6 percent of the vote for 51 seats. Despite this, behind-the-scenes jockeying for power and horse-trading maneuvers by Islamic groups produced a coalition that backed Wahid for the presidency.
Wahid, however, was simply unable to hold together a broad coalition of competing interests. Notwithstanding the increased Islamic influence that led to his elevation, the confusion that reigned during Wahid’s presidency (and his eventual impeachment in mid-2001) indicated a process still very much in transition. But rather than impeachment signaling a return to authoritarian ways, it became the first big test of Indonesia’s new democratic credentials. Parliament followed constitutional protocol by replacing Wahid with then-vice-president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who went on to complete the remainder of Wahid’s five-year presidential term. Ironically, the Islamic groups who had pushed so hard for Wahid to serve were now left with the unpalatable option of the secularist Megawati as the next constitutionally mandated president. They duly accepted the appointment, nonetheless.
Political machinations aside, developments in the post-Suharto party system introduced political players with stricter forms of Muslim identity politics capable of appealing to major Muslim constituencies. Islamic-oriented political parties appeal to sections of more conservative-minded, urban middle classes with an interest in promoting social decency, political moderation, and piety based on Islam as an ethical reference. The moral concerns of these constituencies combined with feelings of uncertainty toward social change in the face of rapid development have no doubt helped bolster the appeal.
Yet, while the number of Islamic parties is more prevalent than at any time in Indonesia’s past, most of their involvement is of a moderate kind and very far from being associated with the institution of an Islamist theocracy. Moreover, the results of the 1999 election indicated clearly that Indonesians en masse favored a democratic polity over an Islamic state, giving the secularist-nationalist parties of the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle and the Golkar party 58.3 percent of the vote while the various Islamic parties amassed less than 42 percent. True, the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera or PKS), whose leaders claim it does not seek to impose Shari’a (despite links to the Muslim Brotherhood), increased its vote from 1.5 percent in 1999 to 7.45 percent in 2004. But this success was largely a result of its image as a relatively new and untainted party, as well as the stagnation and subsequent unraveling of Megawati’s tenure. The PKS leadership skillfully exploited the situation to cast itself as a “clean” Islamic party committed to an anti-corruption platform, rather than to the imposition of Shari’a rule. Although the public’s perception of it has tarnished somewhat over the years, especially recently, it marginally increased its share in the People’s Representative Council (the Indonesian version of the House of Representatives) in the 2009 elections to almost 8 percent but made less significant inroads in many of the regions.
Most significantly, the PKS and other Islamic-oriented groups represent only 169 out of 560 seats in parliament—a mere 30 percent. The stunning electoral triumph of the secular-nationalist Democratic Party (Partai Demokrat) in 2009 with 148 seats alongside the more established Golkar and Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle groups (106 and 94 seats respectively) indicates that Islam does not necessarily trump other interests or issues in Indonesia. Still, there is a growing concern that not enough is being done to combat radicalism, intolerance, and increasing intimidation of local religious minorities by hard-line Islamist vigilantes such as Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front).
Lessons to Learn
The Indonesian experience shows that countries do not emerge in a straightforward transition from authoritarian rule to multiparty democracy overnight: The challenges of transition are multiple. Success depends on translating momentum for change into meaningful reform and improvements over a sustained period of time. This involves redressing past injustices, economic stabilization, popular legitimization, judicial reform, diffusion of democratic values, marginalization of anti-system actors, ensuring greater civilian rule over the military, party system development, and the routinization of politics. What also needs to be recognized is that democratization is not the same as democracy; one is a process, the other a political system. Democracy can become the “only game in town” if and when change occurs incrementally on the behavioral, attitudinal, and constitutional levels.
Indonesia’s transformation, in common with other democratizations, has been anything but easy. There continue to be corruption issues, ongoing policy ineffectiveness, judicial problems, institutional frictions, and personality politics but what is clear is that there has been substantive reform. The political system is now a functioning democracy with all its benefits and shortcomings. Reviewing the steps taken to get there may help in producing applicable measures for steering the turbulent Middle Eastern societies toward a more democratic future.
To begin with, there is the need to organize free and fair elections though elections in themselves can hardly be expected to channel contests peacefully among political rivals or accord public legitimacy. There also has to be corresponding reform of state institutions, policymaking procedures, and an attendant recovery of civil liberties. Inclusive suffrage, the right to run for office, enhanced freedom of expression, and access to alternative information are some of the necessary building blocks. Indonesia’s first two elections in 1999 and 2004 were the freest in more than forty years with huge amounts of political activity and media coverage. The lifting of press restrictions, the release of political prisoners, and the formation of new political parties all bore witness to its climate of reform.
Dismantling the most repressive structures of an authoritarian regime and removing the military gradually from politics are also major tasks of reform. In Indonesia, political leaders moved quickly to separate the police from the military. Turning the military into an asset rather than a threat to the process is a challenge but not insurmountable. Persuading the generals to “return to the barracks” involves investment in their professionalism, an appeal to their sense of honor, and realistically, an appeal to their wallets.
To prevent a reactionary backlash, allowing the military to retain substantial economic interests may be a prudent move if a difficult pill to swallow in the short term. However, one must be exceptionally wary of grand bargains being struck, whereby political hegemony is transferred on the assurance that the military unconditionally retains its reserved economic domains and privileged status. Rather, the aim must be to create enough time and space to institute some step-by-step reforms and gradually phase out military embeddedness in the body politic, something that the recent Middle Eastern revolutions have thus far failed to do.
Indonesia managed to reduce the sociopolitical role of its armed forces by allowing it to retain its substantial economic interests in the short term, and there have even been attempts to phase this out completely although very incrementally. This paved the way for constitutional reform of the army’s dual role in politics and the economy in 2002 and the formal removal of its allocated seats in parliament in 2004. All of this brought improved civilian rule of the military over time.
This, in turn, can help in the provision of transitional justice. A society often needs to allow some of its open wounds to heal so that it can move on. It is an incredibly fraught and thorny process, but one way to do this is to give them a good “airing.” This may involve the establishment of some form of truth and reconciliation commission as in South Africa or East Timor, depending on circumstance. South Africa provides a better template for reconciliatory justice than the attempts in East Timor. The 2002 Ad-Hoc Court for Human Rights Violations in East Timor convicted only a small number of lower-ranking military officers. Indonesia’s military (especially its top commanders at the time) have largely avoided recriminations. Syria represents a perfect example of where such an undertaking will be critical, but this process may also be applied in such countries as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia where long-standing authoritarian regimes were swept from power. The scale of the Assad regime’s violence and the country’s crosscutting sectarian rivalries make the potential for wide-scale retribution and bloodletting a very real prospect. Future prosecutions at the International Criminal Court or a similar tribunal for the worst offenders of the Syrian regime should be contemplated. Such steps are important in post-conflict situations as they provide mortar to rebuild respect for state institutions and the rule of law. Restoring pride and trust in institutions such as the judiciary, law enforcement, and security services is a massive task of reform that will take time and substantial effort.
A third critical factor, major constitutional and decentralization reform, brought improved representation and accountability to Indonesia, albeit by degrees. Although far from perfect, the restructured People’s Consultative Assembly (Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat) now consists entirely of popularly elected members sitting in the People’s Representative Council and a new Regional Representatives Council (Dewan Perwakilan Daerah). In fact, Indonesia’s 2004 elections bore witness to a meaningful and extensive number of permitted political parties, stabilized election rules, amendments to decentralization legislation, and constitutional limitations on the power of the executive. The president is elected directly and can only serve one renewable five-year term. Parliament has also gained more power in the legislative process, which encourages the president to maintain broad support in the legislature.
The success of Indonesia’s 2009 elections further attests to real stabilization and routinization. A diverse media remains open and vigorous, and civil society activity continues to flourish with an array of nongovernmental organizations and pressure groups. This is not to say things are all smooth sailing, but most important is the fact that the new democratic framework is accepted. Current president Yudhoyono may be ex-military, but he is unconditionally committed to, and readily submits his interests to, the new rules of the game—something that new Middle Eastern leaders have yet to learn.
The recent Islamist electoral successes in Tunisia and Egypt suggest a different political dynamic than Indonesia. Yet the tenor of the uprisings, at least in their initial phases, as well as subsequent reactions to authoritarian behavior by elected Islamist officials, indicate that a substantial number of people in these countries, as in Indonesia, will expect parties to respect the rule of law and address their countries’ economic and corruption problems. As evidenced by the public backlash to Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s recent power grab and the assassination of Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaïd, attempts at a coercive institutionalization of Islamist theocracy may well be met with continued protests and uprisings.
The real issue for the Middle East is not whether it will be secular or Islamic. In many ways, this is a false dichotomy and a distraction from much greater concerns. What one is witnessing in the region is a simultaneous convergence of multiple social, economic, and political vectors bringing things into sharp relief. Looking at the conditions in these countries, there were clear indications that storms were brewing. Despite the substantial wealth that narrow self-serving elites enjoyed (some of which trickled down to the middle classes), economic stagnation was rife; combined with rising prices for basic foodstuffs and high unemployment among educated, tech-savvy but disenfranchised youth this created an extremely volatile mix. What the people of the region now have to do is find ways to strike a different social contract by translating the popular momentum for greater political freedoms, effective rule of law, and better living conditions that brought down their autocrats into representative capacity. And if the Indonesian example teaches anything, it is that moderate Islam and democratic development are not incompatible bedfellows.
Paul J. Carnegie is senior lecturer in political economy at the Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. He is the author of The Road from Authoritarianism to Democratization in Indonesia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and taught previously in both Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
 See, for example, Thomas Carothers, “Egypt and Indonesia,” The New Republic, Feb. 2, 2011; Jay Solomon, “In Indonesia, a model for Egypt’s transition,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 12, 2011.
 Clifford Geertz, The Religion of Java (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1960), pp. 121-31.
 Fauzan Saleh, Modern Trends in Islamic Theological Discourse in 20th Century Indonesia: A Critical Survey (Leiden: Brill 2001), pp. 17-29.
 Robert Cribb, ed., The Indonesian Killings of 1965–1966: Studies from Java and Bali (Clayton: Monash University Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, 1990), p. 12; idem, “Genocide in Indonesia, 1965-1966,” Journal of Genocide Research, June 3, 2001, pp. 219-39.
 Suzaina Kadir, “The Islamic factor in Indonesia’s political transition,” Asian Journal of Political Science, 2 (1999), pp. 21-44.
 Mohammad Fajrul Falaakh, “Islam and the Current Transition to Democracy in Indonesia,” in Arief Budiman, Barbara Hatley, and Damien Kingsbury, eds., Reformasi: Crisis and Change in Indonesia (Clayton: Monash Asia Institute 1999), pp. 201-12; Robert Hefner, Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 189-200.
 Ken Young, “The national picture: A victory for reform?” in Susan Blackburn, ed. Pemilu: The 1999 Indonesian Election (Melbourne: Monash Asia Institute, 1999), pp. 3-11.
 Komisi Pemilihan Umum, “Indonesian elections with figures and facts 1955-1999,” General Elections Commission, Jakarta, 2000.
 Sadanand Dhume, “Indonesian Democracy’s Enemy Within,” Yale Global, Dec. 1, 2005.
 See, for example, “Indonesia: ‘Christianization’ and Intolerance,” Asia Briefing, no. 114, International Crisis Group, Jakarta/Brussels, Nov. 24, 2010, p. 17; “Religion’s Name: Abuses against Religious Minorities in Indonesia,” Human Rights Watch, New York, 2013, pp. 60-6, 71-86.
 Andreas Schedler, “What Is Democratic Consolidation?” Journal of Democracy, Apr. 1998, pp. 91-107.
 Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America and Post-communist Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pp. 5-14.
 Paige Johnson Tan, “Indonesia Seven Years after Soeharto: Party System Institutionalization in a New Democracy,” Contemporary Southeast Asia, 1 (2006), pp. 88-114; Douglas Webber, “A Consolidated Patrimonial Democracy? Democratization in Post-Suharto Indonesia,” Democratization, 3 (2006), pp. 396-420; Marcus Mietzner and Edward Aspinall, “Problems of Democratisation in Indonesia: An Overview,” in Edward Aspinall and Marcus Mietzner, eds., Problems of Democratisation in Indonesia: Elections, Institutions and Society (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010), pp. 1-20.
 Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 26.
Syria’s difficult rebirth
It is now ten years since a peaceful demonstration against Bashar al-Assad’s regime organised by students in Deraa was brutally repressed by police and government forces, thus triggering a chain of events that plunged Syria into a terrible civil war.
The fighting – which saw the total destruction of historic cities such as Aleppo and Raqqa, the UNESCO heritage site of Palmyra and a large part of the capital Damascus – caused the death of some 250,000 fighters of all sides of the conflict (loyalist soldiers, ISIS guerrillas, Kurdish irredentist fighters, Islamist militants of the Syrian Liberation Army, militiamen of the Syrian Democratic Forces), as well as the death of at least 230,000 civilians, victims of the brutal occupation by the troops of the Islamic Caliphate or “collateral victims” of the fighting and bombing of villages and towns.
The civil conflict quickly turned into a “small world war”, with the armed intervention of various extra-regional players: Turkey on the side of Islamist rebels; Russia and Iran supporting the government in Damascus, and the United States
supporting the Kurds and the “democrats” of the “Syrian Democratic Forces”.
Over the last ten years, 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country and are living precariously in refugee camps in the neighbouring countries of the Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
6.7 million people have had to leave their homes and are considered “internally displaced”, i.e. refugees within Syria’s borders, while at least 5 million people – trapped in the north-west of Syria and in the Idlib region, where scattered troops of the Islamic Caliphate are still operating – are in need of humanitarian assistance.
According to data from the UN Refugee Agency, over 13 million Syrians have lost everything and are surviving on government aid and international charity.
Besides this humanitarian catastrophe, the government of Assad (who has been confirmed as President of the Republic for a fourth term) is facing an economic emergency that began after the first clashes in 2011 and has progressively worsened during the civil war.
According to the World Bank, the loss in terms of GDP between 2011 and 2016 was around 226 billion dollars, while the cost of destroying civilian housing and infrastructure exceeded 117 billion dollars.
The prices of basic necessities, such as food and fuel, have increased 20-fold compared to the period before the conflict, while the Syrian pound has progressively depreciated.
It is estimated that at least 70 per cent of the population currently lives below the poverty line and has limited food supply. According to World Vision International, life expectancy for Syrian children in 2021 has fallen by thirteen years.
The situation is further worsened by a huge water emergency: since last January, the water level of the Euphrates has dropped to the point that, due to the lack of water, the Tabqa and Tishreen dams risk closure, with severe damage to agriculture, electricity production and the supply of running water to the populations of the entire north-east region.
The Covid-19 pandemic has not spared this unfortunate country, although the official estimates of infected and dead people – albeit high – are not very reliable due to the impossibility for the health authorities to carry out the mass screening necessary to know the real extent of the contagion.
On the military front, the situation is still rather confused.
Government troops, with Russian and Iranian help, managed to inflict an almost definitive defeat on the ISIS militia.
The men of the Caliphate – after having been expelled from Aleppo, Palmyra and Raqqa (which had even been designated by Al Baghdadi as the capital of the Islamic State) – have partly fled to the Iraqi desert, from where they continue to carry out actions against the Iraqi forces, and have partly dispersed in small groups in the desert and mountainous area of Idlib and Deir Es Zor, in the so-called Aleppo-Hama-Raqqa triangle, where they continue a troublesome and sometimes bloody guerrilla warfare that has nothing to do with the overwhelming victories that brought them close to definitive military victory in 2014-2015.
Today ISIS is content with ambushing government military convoys and perpetrating extortion against the population trapped in the region, in view of self-financing for reasons of mere survival.
The Syrian army, however, is finding it increasingly difficult to definitively get rid of ISIS from the Syrian territory, both because of the difficulties connected with the need to effectively control a vast desert and mountainous area, and because it has not yet managed to completely defeat the Kurdish guerrillas of the “Syrian Democratic Forces”, still supported by the United States, and because it must also deal with the scattered Islamist armed formations of the “Syrian Liberation Army” supported by Turkey.
Therefore, despite having avoided the definitive defeat that seemed close between 2013 and 2015, Bashar al-Assad’s regime cannot easily and calmly tackle the problem of rebuilding the country.
After having secured his fourth term in office through elections (the outcome of which was a foregone conclusion because only Alawites and Christians voted massively for him, while the Sunnis mostly abstained or were “dissuaded” from taking part in the election), the Syrian President is trying to strengthen his government by reorganising his security apparatus with fully trusted and loyal men.
Last May the President appointed his loyal General Jamal Mahmoud Younes as Head of the Committee for the Security of the Eastern Region, who is also responsible for the security of the Homs Governorate.
Younes, who comes from the Assad family’s “fief” of Latakia, is considered to be very close to the President’s brother, Maher al-Assad, under whose orders he served in the Fourth Armoured Division from 2012 to 2013. Maher is considered to be very close to Iran and Russia.
Another prominent member of the new Syrian security apparatus is General Ramadan Yusef Al Ramadan, also an Alawite and subject to personal sanctions by the European Union – together with his colleague Younes – for his role in the repression of the first incidents in Deraa in 2011.
Ramadan has been appointed Head of the Security Committee of the Latakia Governorate, an extremely sensitive area because it is actually under Russian military control.
Assad therefore finds himself in the need to reconcile the difficult requirements of definitively defeating the insurgency, resolving the very severe economic situation and coexisting – as reasonably as possible – with the presence of two cumbersome allies, Russia and Iran, which – after having ensured his survival – seem determined to permanently establish themselves on Syrian territory.
Russia, whose help has been fundamental in preventing the collapse of the Damascus regime, continues to provide air and ground military support to the fight against the insurgents still active and to exploit the credit it has acquired with the regime to strengthen its presence in the region on a permanent basis.
In early June, the Russian Defence Minister authorised the start of works for the renovation of the Khmeimim air base in the Latakia region, after the runway had already been lengthened to support the fast traffic of Russian military vehicles (one aircraft per minute). The new airport was even used a few days ago for a mysterious mission that took a Russian aircraft to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport.
This mysterious episode shows that Russia’s presence in the area could even be functional to the search for a stabilisation of relations between Israel and Syria (President Putin has never made a secret of his sympathy for Israel).
The Iranian military presence in Syria is of a very different calibre and dangerousness for Israeli security.
Iran already has a strong military presence in the region: from the Lebanon – where Hezbollah politically and militarily controls the whole south of the country and the sensitive area bordering the Galilee – to Iraq, handed over to the pro-Iranian Shiites by George W. Bush with the 2003 war.
While, as reported by Israeli intelligence sources, the Iraqi nuclear programme has resumed at full speed at the same time as the development of the capacity to construct modern ballistic missiles – effective also as carriers of nuclear warheads – over the next few years Syria could become – against its will – a dangerous nuclear outpost on the Israeli border.
A nightmarish prospect made even more worrying by the very recent election of a hardliner like Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi as President of the Republic of Iran. A prospect that would not help Syria to get out of its decades-long crisis, but would bring it back to the front line in the confrontation with Israel, if Russia did not make its voice heard.
Intelligence and Evolution of Democracy in Jordan
The relationship between democracy and the character of secret intelligence presents an interesting puzzle. The very concept of democracy demands that an intelligence agency serves democratic interests by providing one country’s security and preparedness against potential threats both internal and external. The core notion is that a stronger and safer country can turn itself into a heaven where democracy can continue to be practiced.
The role of intelligence in the building of democracy and political stability in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is crucial. Jordan, strategically located in the Middle East, presents a long-run import-export relationship.
On the one hand, Jordan, a country of few natural resources, imports oil products and natural gas to meet its energy needs. On the other hand, Jordan exports a valuable resource which is security in terms of intelligence, geographic security, and stability. Jordanian General Intelligence Department’s (GID’s), Dairat al Mukhabarat, primary objective is to defend Jordan from internal and external threats that target its political stability, violate its sovereignty, or undermine the security of its people.
The focus of GID’s operations is the collection of intelligence pertaining to security issues within the Middle East, including surveillance of paramilitary groups and guarding borders to prevent an influx of terrorists from the wider region. The agency is accountable to ministerial control, but in practice reports to the King briefing him on matters of national security. The GID also provides the Prime Minister with regular analyses of the kingdom’s political climate, and it is committed to preserving the power of the Jordanian constitution when executing its duties.
Justice, Human Rights and Transparency
Justice, transparency, the respect of human rights and security are key ingredients to build accountability, trust, and stability, which are necessary for the functioning of democracies and market economies. The GID has been at the forefront of efforts to consolidate Jordan’s architecture of democracy making the safeguard of these ingredients a cornerstone of its mission.
Practically, Jordan’s intelligence agency fully recognizes the International Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Convention against Torture. The detainment quarters of the agency meet internationally approved standards and are recognized as an official state prison making it accessible for inspection and review, in accordance with the “Jordanian Prison Administration laws.”
On Justice, the Jordanian Constitution provides that the judiciary is an independent power and divides courts into three types: regular courts, religious courts, and special courts. The Military Council of the GID falls in the third type of courts. Specifically, in accordance with Law 24 of 1964 on the General Intelligence Department (the so-called “GID Law”), the Intelligence Director appoints members of the Military Council and ratifies its decisions that pertain to officers and members of the GID. Judgments of the said Council are considered as final and are not open to any means of contestation.
The relationship between the intelligence agency and the judiciary, a key-component of democracy, is solid. The public prosecution at the State Security Court normally issues warrants and, provides them to the General Intelligence Department for the detainment of individuals connected to terrorism. The conviction of ringleaders of terrorist plots that originate from neighboring countries like Iraq and Syria is crucial part of the judicial-intelligence partnership to maintain internal stability, prerequisite for Jordan’s democratic evolution. A representative case of the intelligence-judicial cooperation is the conviction of an attempted suicide bomber who took part in the 2005 Amman bombings in Jordan but survived, when her explosive belt failed to detonate.
The GID also leads the national fight against corruption in all its forms, perceiving the phenomenon of corruption as major obstacle to the kingdom’s democratic evolution and economic development. In this regard, the GID has incorporated the anti-corruption directorate that was set up in 1996 and conducts secret investigations of corruption cases and collects relevant data, disrupts corrupt practices, makes referrals to the public prosecutor, and eventually to civil courts when sufficient evidence is available.
Senior members of the GID are not immune to secret investigations for corruption practices. In a self-cleansing process, the GID’s former head for the period of 2005-2008 was sentenced to 13 years in prison on charges of embezzling public funds, money laundering and abuse of office. The anti-corruption directorate has run a project titled “Strengthening the Capacity of Government and People to Act against Corruption” with the aim to expose the Department’s staff to international best practices in fighting corruption and attend specialized training workshops.
Since its establishment, the Anti-Corruption Directorate has uncovered numerous cases of fraud that helped save the state treasury hundreds of millions of Jordanian Dinars (JD). As consequence, people, including non-Jordanians, were referred to courts, including civil servants. In addition, foreign nationals have been expelled from the kingdom for fraud practices. The fraud cases involve bribes, embezzlement of funds, the forgery of official documents, smuggling operations, tax evasion, and copyright infringements. Last but not least, middlemen who are trafficking in the illegal sale of kidneys and other human organs have also been arrested throughout the years.
The Fight against Terror
Most important, the GID carries out intelligence operations to protect the security of the state. Specifically, the GID maintains several task forces devoted to specialized areas of intelligence, including counterintelligence. The government employs GID staff to monitor the security of government information systems and personnel.
Additionally, an anti-terrorism task force conducts operations to gather information on organizations active in Jordan and throughout the Middle East. It is not coincidence that Jordan has aided international anti-terrorism efforts and has repeatedly succeeded in foiling terrorist plots and dismantling terror organizations that planned to launch attacks in or outside of Jordan. Such organizations included, for example, Mohammad Army (1989), Bay’at Al-Imam Organization (1994), Khader Abu Hosher (1999), Jordanian Afghans (2001), and the Reform and Defiance Movement (1998).
Jordan’s geopolitical position has long made it a prey for terrorist activities targeting Jordanian and foreign nationals. For example, in 2005, rockets aimed at two US warfare ships visiting the Jordanian port of Aqaba narrowly missed their targets. There were two claims of responsibility, both from groups believed to be affiliated with Zarqawi, then militant leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. In 2004, Jordan became target of the Al-Jayousi terrorist group that planned to unleash a Chemical Weapons attack against GID’s headquarters. The objective was to damage its facilities and image of a fortress agency, because of GID’s major role in combating terrorism at the national and regional levels. In late 2006, the Jordanian intelligence thwarted a bomb attack against foreign tourists traveling through Queen Alia International Airport in Amman. Several of the convicted conspirators were Iraqis. An attack against American troops deployed at a military base in the south of the kingdom was foiled by the Jordanian intelligence in 2019.
The Kingdom has also been repeatedly targeted by the terrorist group of ISIS, but all planned attacks have been thwarted by GID. An ISIS-linked planned combined attack against Jordanian military and security sites, moderate religious scholars, and media stations was prevented in 2018. Notably, in 2018 alone, the GID foiled 62 terrorist operations abroad and 32 internal operations. In 2020, the GID thwarted several ISISlinked terrorist operations including a major one that aimed at simultaneously targeting the intelligence building in the city of Zarqa, security officials in the northern city of Irbid and an Armenian Orthodox Church in the Ashrafyeh area near the Al-Wehdat camp.
Jordan has long experience in the fight against terrorism since Afghanistan became fertile ground for the first generation of jihadist groups, the second generation coming from Iraq and the third generation active in Syria. Given this reality, Jordan’s efforts focus on the rule of law, and the fight against terrorism through mechanisms and operations supported by GID. As King Abdallah pointed out in a letter to the GID in mid-February 2021, the agency must remain a model of efficient intelligence in countering terrorism and security threats to the kingdom and be in position to provide the best modern intelligence assessments to decision-makers in the political, economic, and security-related fields.
In practice, Jordan’s GID supports a four-track plan in the fight against terrorism. The first track is Legislation. Jordan has endorsed in April 2014 the amendment of the 2006 anti-terror law that focuses on terror-related crimes and funding. The 2014 amended law foresees the death penalty for those who commit terrorist crimes that result in the death of people, partial or total damage of facilities, and use explosives, chemicals, and radioactive materials. Financial activities in support of extremist groups, attempts for recruitment to terrorist organizations, and the creation of websites encouraging terrorist activities are penalized under the amended law.
The second track lies in Executive Measures. Following United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 on countering terrorism, Jordan has taken a series of measures to comply with the resolution, including the adoption of the anti-money laundering Act of 2007. Jordan has also updated the specifications of personal identification documents in compliance with international safety standards, thus minimizing forgery risks.
The third track is based on Treaties and Conventions. Jordan is party to both formal and informal anti-terror treaties and conventions and has contributed to a number of regional and international treaties with the aim to combat terrorism.
The fourth track highlights GID’s cooperation with government ministries. A representative cooperation is with the interior ministry’s programs to contain jihadist ideology applied since 2007 to prisoners. The programs include religious lessons and interviews with scholars and imams to fight this ideology, through dialogues and by holding sessions of psychological counseling and social rehabilitation.
Jordan continues to be in the eye of a storm as armed jihadist groups and al-Qaida as well as ISIS militants attempt to pour into the country. Because of this reality, Jordan employs its intelligence agency to mobilize regional and international cooperation with sister agencies based on defensive, operational and intelligence strategies to counter takfiri and jihadist groups emanating from crisis ridden Syria. Jordanian intelligence has foiled in 2012, one of the largest terrorist attacks planned on Jordanian; the attack was scheduled to be executed by militants from Syria who intended to attack western diplomats and to detonate explosives in two shopping malls and in the district of Abdoun. In late April 2014, the Jordanian air force destroyed vehicles transporting weapons to the kingdom from Syria. Throughout the last years, Jordan’s GID has intensified actions to alert friendly countries and strategic allies on armed jihadist organizations active in Syria and the possible infiltration of militants to neighboring countries, through unannounced visits and meetings with security strategy makers and implementers in certain Arab countries, and western capitals.
Public Opinion Perspectives
The main characteristic of the GID like all intelligence agencies is that they operate in secrecy, and unlike governments they do not seek popularity or public approval for their activities, nor are they expected to seek popular ratings within public opinion. The secret nature of GID’s tasks and duties limits the ability of any study to explore public opinion perspectives and restricts any opinion poll to general perceptions.
That said, a Jordanian research center has produced statistical evidence on the level of trustworthiness that GID enjoys within the public, and on relations between different branches of the Jordanian state, civil and military, not based on a single public opinion poll, but on an accumulating amount of data from polls conducted by the center over a 19-year period (2001-2020).
According to them, the General Intelligence Department along with the Armed Forces are the most trusted institutions in Jordan.
Jordanians have come to realize that the security and stability Jordan enjoys is no coincidence, but a result of the efforts of the Jordanian security apparatus, and the GID in particular. This perception has brought the agency that usually operates in secret and seeks no popularity or approval into the limelight as the first line of defense against groups that target Jordan.
As the kingdom has marked its second centennial, the political and security challenges plaguing the region, necessitate the effectiveness of GID’s role in safeguarding the security of Jordan and its state institutions, prerequisite for the kingdom’s sustainable democratization.
Washington’s less than selfless help to Syria
Now that people everywhere start to realize the need for pacifism, the United States continues to train thousands of militants in Syria, who will later take part in attacks on the government forces.
At al-Tanf military base in the country’s southeast, and in the 55-kilometer security zone around it, still under US control, the American special services are enlisting former militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), now languishing in Kurdish-controlled prisons, to participate in acts of sabotage against the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).
The selection is among persons whose next of kin are currently being held in the ill-famed al-Hol camp in the city of Al-Hasakah. According to available data, 1,500 ex-ISIS fighters from among those captured by the US-led international coalition are already completing their training at a US military base.
The militants’ main priority is destabilization of the situation in Syria’s central and southern regions, including the establishment of control over the area between the cities of Abu Kemal and Mayadin in Deir ez-Zor province. The armed gangs also attack oil facilities, transport infrastructure, government forces, and mine roads.
The United States also believes that the transfer of terrorists will partially relieve the Kurdish prisons where the number of inmates, captured during constant raids by coalition forces in peaceful quarters has reached 7,000.
Judging by the increased activity of CIA-linked terrorists and saboteurs in the country’s southern provinces, it becomes clear that there is a general plan to undermine the process of a political settlement aimed at restoring peace and ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic.
From a historical perspective, terrorism has been viewed by Washington not so much as something to fight against, as an instrument of its own struggle against geopolitical rivals. Previously, the US recruited former SS members in Germany and their collaborators in Western Ukraine and the Baltic countries to pit them against the Soviet Union. Even though those people were Nazi criminals, many of them found refuge and employment in the United States. The same tactic was used against the USSR and the legitimate government in Afghanistan when outright criminals and terrorists became America’s allies. One of them was Osama bin Laden, who became a US agent and subsequently created al-Qaeda, which, in turn, gave rise to ISIS. Both of these terrorist organizations – the world’s largest – have on many occasions been found to have links to the United States. The years of the Syrian crisis provide additional evidence of this collaboration, and its volume keeps growing. Well, it looks like the Americans never learn from history now that in Syria, for example, they are working ever more closely with Islamic radicals…
America’s “dirty wars” in the Middle East
When it comes to the number of wars waged anytime in history, the United States leaves all other countries far behind. With rare exceptions, American incursions were not justified by any security threats. For the most part those were military interventions that breached international law, caused numerous unnecessary casualties among civilians, destroyed infrastructure and plunged entire nations into chaos.
The root cause of the current unrest in the Middle East was Washington’s ill-considered decision to impose development paths alien to the region.
At the same time, the Americans were quick to realize that by creating long-lasting conflicts they could derive real economic benefits from them. “Controlled chaos” sometimes tends to slip out of control, however, but overall it still remains extremely beneficial for the United States.
In this sense, the Americans have become the greatest source of terror of our day and age. Not a single coup anywhere in the world can be done without the US having a hand in it. Each time the Americans try to force their idea of democracy on others, the result is civil conflicts, chaos, and an upsurge of terrorism. When they invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaeda appeared; when they entered Iraq under a false pretext, it gave rise to Sunni radicalism; when they brought democracy to Syria the result was a protracted civil war and a humanitarian catastrophe.
During the past 15 years, the United States has turned the Middle East into a zone of permanent conflicts and wars.
After the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya was plunged into permanent civil war, losing part of its territory and actually falling apart into several regions controlled by various Islamic groups, including ISIS. Until recently, slave trade flourished in some areas there.
Today, the territory of Libya is peppered with foreign military bases and awash in militants and mercenaries from around the globe – around 20,000 are currently active in the country. Libyan officials are mired in total corruption, and ordinary Libyans suffer all the hardships caused by the war and the raging economic crisis.
In Yemen, the US-inspired civil war, stemming from the conflict between the Houthis and the Saudis has been raging for more than five years now. The country, torn apart by internal conflicts and outside interference by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, has practically lost its statehood.
There is a humanitarian catastrophe now unfolding also in Syria. The country lies in ruins, roughly divided into three parts: the part controlled by Assad (60%); the area to the east of the Euphrates (30%), which is occupied by the Syrian opposition and the remnants of the ISIS army, forced to retreat to the lower valley of the Euphrates; the third region (10%) in Idlib province is controlled by Turkey and its Islamic allies.
The most volatile area is controlled by the Syrian opposition, mainly led by the Syrian Kurds, who have a large, well-armed army. They are supported and actually supplied by the Americans.
Cynicism, lies, and double standards are the keystones of American foreign policy.
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