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The Islamic State in the new geostrategic context of the Middle East

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The Salafi-Jihadist movement of al-Qaeda ideology self-entitled “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (Dawlat Al-Islam Fi Al-Iraq wa-l- Sham – Da’ish, Islamic State of Iraq and Levant – ISIL, ISIS, Etat Islamique de l’Irak et Levant – EIIL) appeared on the contemporary terrorist setting in 2012 and asserted itself surprisingly fast as one of the most important play- ers in the context of contemporary radical Islamism as well as in the Middle East conflict arena with its political and geopolitical changes brought about by the twisted “Arab spring”.

On 29 July 2014, after having gained control of important parts from the north and west of Iraq almost as far as Baghdad, the leader of the organization, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, proclaimed the institution of the “Islamic caliphate” under the name of the “Islamic State”, self-proclaiming itself “caliph” and reintroducing this title for the first time after 1924, when the ottoman Muslim caliph- ate and caliph were abolished in Istanbul by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) and replaced with the re- publican regime. Rhetorically, the final objective of the 3rd millennium caliph is to create the new Islamic caliphate whose capital would be Mecca, Saudi Arabia and which would include the Levant, Maghreb and the Arabian Peninsula.

The current structure was created as an extension of the former Iraqi al-Qaeda organization “Al-Qaeda in the Country of the Two Rivers”1 after the death – at the end of June 2006 – of its founder and leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. The new organization was created on 13 October 2006 and it was named the Islamic State of Iraq (Dawlat Al-Iraq Al-Islamiy), being led by “emir” Abu Abdullah Al-Rashid Al-Baghdadi and the Egyptian Abu Ayyad Al-Massri. Both leaders were killed during an Iraqi-American operation in April 2013, so that the leadership of the organization  passed  to  Abu  Bakr  Al-Baghdadi,  whose  real  name  is  Ibrahim  Awwad  Al- Samarrai, an experienced Iraqi jihadist fighter that activated under the leadership of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi as well as a the leader of a provincial Salafi group. A former imam of a mosque and having graduated religious studies at the Islamic University of Baghdad, he was detained by the Iraqi security forces in 2004 for several months, so that after being released his reputation extended and he was presented as a ferocious, violent and brutal figure. Extending operations on the Syrian territory, the organization adopted the name “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”, attempting an unsuccessful unification with the Syrian al-Qaeda organization Al-Nusra Front, a union that has been rejected by the “central leader” of al-Qaeda, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. This was the moment that marked the beginning of extended dissensions and dreadful armed conflicts between the Iraqi and Syrian Salafi organizations, Al-Baghdadi himself having issued a  statement  in which he  announced the separation  and  complete  independence from  Al- Zawahiri’s leadership.
On 29 June 2014, after a series of rapid and spectacular terrain gaining operations that allowed taking control of six administrative districts in Iraq and the northern Syrian gover- norates, “emir” Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself “caliph”, a follower of the Prophet in the leadership of the Islamic nation. The name Da’ish becomes “caliphate” known as the “Islamic State”.

Troops, financing, equipment
Da’ish can be considered an exclusively “Iraqi” movement when analyzed from the point of view of the Iraqi jihadist troops’ superiority, at an estimation of 7,000-8,000 people in June 2014 when Mosul was gained over and it reached at approximately 20,000 people in August 2014. There are also – as it happens with al-Nusra in Syria – selected jihadist mercenaries; Islamic and Arabian people originating from the countries that traditionally provided fighters (Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia) as well as western citizens originating from France, Belgium, Great Britain, the United States and the Netherlands.

On the other hand, as compared with other active organizations of this type, this organization is different in terms of the original manner in which it managed to get financing and equipment. We are dealing here first of all with the depreciation of the Iraqi national banks from the cities it gained control of, the money thus obtained being evaluated (in mid- 2014) at approximately 7 billion dollars, an amount that turned Da’ish into the richest extremist-jihadist movement worldwide. A similar method has been used for the procurement of military equipment from the Iraqi army and security forces which left the battlefield and withdrew from al- Qaeda’s attack, giving up its armament, ammunition and even uniforms. Another source of procurement in this sector is, at it happened with banks, the plunder of the barracks and armament and equipment storages of the Iraqi army. The “Islamic State” possesses various and large quantities of military equipment, including of American origin, turning the structure into a real army. Its active arsenal includes M16 machine guns and assault rifles with night vision, howitzers, machine-guns, Grad multiple rocket launching systems, Stinger surface-to-air missiles, filed artillery, BM-21 and Humvee armored carriers, military trucks, T-55 and T-72 tanks, 122 and 152 caliber mortars, ZU-23 Soviet anti-aircraft gun, at least one Scud missile and the list could continue. According to the Iraqi and Amercan intelligence services, while occupying Mosul (July 2014), Da’ish fighters captured nuclear materials from the Mosul university. According to the remarks made by the Iraqi UN Ambassador, the materials that had been taken from the university “can be used in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, even though they would not present a significant destruction risk”.

Less than a month after the occupation of Mosul, “caliph” Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi began implementing one of the first practices used in his time by Prophet Mohammad against non- Muslims in Medina and Mecca (Christians, Jewish and people of other religions). Mosul and the surrounding area host a Christian community comprising approximately 3,000 people (out of  which one third have left their homes and left). As it happened 1,400 years ago, the “new caliph” presented these people four possible options: convert to Islam, pay jizzya – a negotiated tax allowing them to maintain their religious identity,  leave  the  town or be killed. The personal belongings of those who have left were confiscated for the benefit of Da’ish. The UN support mission in Iraq  condemned this decision; moreover they assessed it as being “crime against humanity”.
“Da’ish” can no longer be considered a national or domestic problem, approached by means of diplomatic  debates or  office agreements in accordance with the methods largely used after the killing of al-Qaeda’s leaders. The failure of this course emerged in the approach of  the  conflicts  in  Syria and Iraq and in the passivity of the Arab and international community as regards the establishment and the rise of the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” as well as the proclamation of the …caliphate in Syria and Iraq. The “Da’ish” must be considered a new face of the global war against terrorism, re- questing a new thinking and reevaluation of this Islamic anti-radical campaign, whose results are more and more overshadowed by the extension of fundamentalist neo-terrorism with an ascent that seems to be out of any kind of control.

From this point of view, we can say that the establishment and the rise of the “Da’ish situation” is greatly due to the great fiasco that ended the trajectory of the contemporary political Islam, from secrecy to leadership, questioning whether the political Islam – in view of the Egyptian, Tunisian, Syrian or Yemenite experiences – still has perspectives in the political equation of the Arab-Islamic world. The Islamism preaching slogans and alternatives inspired by the medieval age of Islam’s beginnings was substituted by a Salafist militant Islamism that built a holistic image of Islam, applied individually, according to circumstances and without spreading Allah’s words, but replacing Allah himself and imposing its rhetoric in the most prag- matic and brutal manners.

Under these circumstances, we question if the “encirclement” of the command, operational and logistic structure of the “Da’ish situation” can lead to its liquidation, as it happened, to various extents, with the structure led by Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula and other Salafist factions that had activated in the terrorist-antiterrorist environment since 2011?

In  this  case  the  answer  is  without  a  doubt  negative.  The  “encirclement”  and “harassment” of the new terrorist-Islamist “situation” can no longer be considered a synonym with intelligence and operational actions meant to impede the multiplication and appearance of new terrorist factions and structures, covert by names inspired by the golden legends of the medieval past. It must focus on an idea frequently evoked in rhetoric, but very little applied in practice: the emptiness of the unique ideological fountain from which the radical-extremist Islamism feeds its components. Further discussions on the failed “civil state” as a supplier of terrorism would rhetorically support with different means the same objective as the “Da’ish situation”. Those people who, from one reason or another, are convinced to sacrifice them- selves or kill in deserts and cast terror in a forgotten village in the name of the “victory of the black pendant” over the “heretics” cannot be included in principles and criteria issued two dec- ades ago by the western intelligence services and governmental alliances that fight against an abstract terrorism which is the same all over the world.

There is no difference between the Shiite, Sunni, anarchist or nihilist terrorism when their common objective is to serve a certain religion or despotic ideology. Deeper issues occur when these trends interact with states or with the states’ intelligence services. The Sunni al- Qaeda is illustrative as an example: ever since it appeared until it split into numerous small groups that still operate, al-Qaeda has had a lot of independence, being overpowered only by the abstract concept of “Islamic nation” and the global Muslim caliphate.

Nowadays, terrorism preserved its Islamic ideological independence and is associated to more or less structured groups of interest, including in terms of financing, ordered objectives and targets or temporary alliances that serve to the achievement of the objectives they fight for. Beyond the organizational and command structure, the “culture” of this type of terrorism is characterized by a long quiet period dedicated to preparation, during which the affiliated or selected elements that are to become jihadists deal with social inclusion in the surrounding society, either in the outskirts of the cities or in tribal peripheral regions from the “failed” states, as it is the case in the south of Yemen, in countries from the Horn of Africa or in Caucasus, and generally in the areas selected to be turned into areas appropriate for expansion in order to be turned into   Islamic “territories” or “emirates”. This is a time when social insertion takes place and local alliances are created based on the religious discourse and on social support or the provision of services for the poor, where the terrorist groupings are rooted in order to be further trained and pre- pared. This “foundation” largely explains the rapidity with which the fighters of Djabhat Al- Nussra from Syria or the fighters of the “Islamic State” of Iraq and Syria were able to advance and consolidate themselves in the field, being supported by the Sunni organizations from the occupied regions in the north-east of Syria and in most of the Iraqi territory until the border with Syria and Jordan. To this factor we must add the voluntary insertion of Sunni jihadist factions into the Da’ish, factions that possessed a large experience in the “battlefield”, like “Ansar al- Islam” in the north of Iraq or “Ansar Al-Shari’a” and “Beit Al-Maqdes” in the north and north-east of Syria, as well as the efficient exploitation of hostility that the Sunnis in both countries mani- fest in relation with the authorities that hold power, namely the Shiite government from Bagh- dad in Iraq and the Baath Alawi government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The Islamic State: the end of Iraq?
The dramatic developments in Iraq generated, as it was normal, numerous questions to which analysts tried to answer: how was it possible that the Iraqi army and the security forces, with more than 1 million troops (many of which were trained by American allies at costs of bil- lions of dollars) fell so quickly and without any significant fight against the jihadist attackers? How was it possible for the al-Qaeda organization Da’ish/ISIS to turn, into a short period of time, into an entity of rebels – many of whom are foreign mercenaries that were trained and practiced guerilla fights – into a real army organized and equipped for extension and occupation and capable in the same short period of time of humiliating the “prestige” of the Iraqi national armed forces and the “firm political determination” of the central government in Baghdad? Ultimately, which is the impact and what kind of consequences can these domestic and regional developments generate and which are the influences that they could have on the positions of the main players in their immediate vicinity and in the international community?
Western and eastern observers have been trying to explain the fall of the military in Mosul, where at the advice of their commanders, thousands of soldiers and leading officers have given up when hearing the simple rumor that the “black jihadists” of the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” were getting near.

The first observation here would be that the Iraqi army presents itself – in its functional, operational and behavioral dimensions as a group of armed militias, and not as it should be an organized national army. It is mostly made up of fighters from the former Shiite and Sunni militias that appeared during the 2003 invasion, of unemployed people eager to have a “job” and of people that joined in lacking national feelings or military believes, but who wanted to become heroes and get financial and social gains. After Paul Bremer, a former American civilian governor, brutally dissolved the Iraqi “Baath” army – an ideological army, well trained and experienced – the US focused on building the new “democratic” army on criteria not related primarily to the quality of people, but to the number of them, their fast and superficial training, inappropriate to  the  religious, ethical and  tribal  conditions.

Basically, the victory of  the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” is not likely on the long term and ultimately it will not be allowed by the main regional and international players. In Syria the Da’ish militias from the north of the country have already been bombed by the Syrian aviation beginning with the first half of July 2014, during an operation coordinated by the authorities in Baghdad and supported by the Russian Federation and the government in Tehran.
Under these circumstances, any settlement of the situation in Iraq that does not originate from a large consensus and national dialog between all the segments of the political arena will remain a simple situational temporary resolution of a problem that continues to exist for a long time.

 “Global caliphate” or Iraqi enclave?

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s self-entitlement as “caliph” of the Muslim “empire” in the territories controlled by the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (Ad-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi Al-Iraq wa Suriya – Da’ish, the short Arab form, ISIS and EIIL abbreviations in English and French) and the continued territorial expansion of the “caliphate” (completed with the takeover of Sinjar city and the dam from Mosul in northern Iraq) have brought into light the cross-border and universal Islamic aspirations of this Salafist-jihadist group. Either well-founded or elusory, these territorial-expansionist and ideological ambitions brought into the attention of analysts and observers an interesting aspect related to the transnational attractiveness of the Islamist-terrorist organization: there is an increasing number of Iraqis and Syrians that can no longer take the endless political conflicts between the numerous partisan militias that have been damaging the Iraqi society and decide to join the Da’ish, considered to be a possible savior of Iraq, a solution to es- cape the slough brought in by the western invasion and by a government incapable to reestablish stability and social understanding in the country. The transnationalism of the Da’ish is equally supported by the increasing number of fighters – mercenaries or not mercenaries – that come from outside the country, including the western non-Islamic world, that decide to join the “caliph” Al-Baghdadi. In spite of these characteristics, facts indicate that we are dealing with an Islamist entity that employs old tactics and methods in order to gain and consolidate authority and control in a geographic area of a state in which its real social and identity coordinates and roots can be found – Iraq and the Iraqi tribal extensions from the north of Syria – without which Da’ish cannot provide strategic geographic depth that allows it to support its claims of being – as said by Al-Baghdadi – “a representative of the global Muslim nation”. Its rapid geographic advance that has occurred since June must be realistically regarded from the point of view of at least two factors: the deficiencies of the Iraqi military forces, with a cohesion strongly influenced and weakened by the regional, tribal and family feelings of belonging or interests of the soldiers and commanders, on the one hand, and the fact that terrain gains of the Da’ish mujahidin forces occurred “at home”, in the Iraqi social, traditional and religious environment, where the former Iraqi al-Qaeda faction that currently became “Da’ish” managed to survive after the over- whelming defeat of the Sunni revolts in 2006-2008. At the same time, the “native” Iraq has al- ways been the place where the fate of the “caliphate” and of the Salafi organization led by the fanatic adventurer Al-Baghdadi will be decided.

There is a series of possible analogies that could facilitate a better understanding of the extent at which Da’ish could extend, of what it could do and of what it would not be able to do under the effect of its global euphoria. First of all, al-Qaeda’s experience in Afghanistan proved that no matter how strong its transnational ideological motivation would be, those adopting and promoting it require, primarily, that its roots be deeply anchored in the local social environment. It is true that during its Afghan period, when al-Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden attracted numerous isolated, alienated or unfulfilled individuals in their societies, it would have not survived without the solidarity and loyalty connections to an armed faction that was created by the society, in this case the Taliban rebels that are indivisibly a part of the Pashtun society of Afghanistan. This can greatly explain the ease of the 2001 American invasion in casting out the Mujahedin, but not the Taliban rebels. Da’ish cannot be placed in an analogical relation with the Taliban as long as it exists and operates inside Iraq, but if we think about Syria, it is in a similar situation with the “old” al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Da’ish may consolidate its positions in Syria – and it proved to possess the necessary potential to do so – just like the Taliban were able to implement themselves firmly in the northern districts of Pakistan, near the border with the neighboring Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani “comrades” were unable to seriously and stably extend beyond their social, religious and traditional environment. From this point of view, we can say that the future – more or less predictable – of the “Islamic State” will largely depend on the manner in which it manages to maintain “the cord to its origin”, which keeps it connected to the origin named Iraq and Iraqi society.

Even the attractiveness that the organization has for Sunni jihadists remains limited to the socio-religious environments. From this point of view, an illustrative example is given by Lebanon, whose multi-religious morphology and marginalization of the Sunnis led to the situa- tion in which the only source of candidates for the jihadist adventure of Da’ish to be these Sunni enclaves, while the recruitment possibilities for the future jihadists depend only on the option of the people belonging to other Salafist groups in Lebanon, a situation similar to what happened in Syria.

In Jordan, Da’ish can attract jihadists coming from the isolated elements of the society, from the demographically rich areas – to be found around Amman and Zarqa suburbs (Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi came from this environment). Their desire to fight in Iraq reached its peak after 2001 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, so that it would be difficult to say that the Jordanian Mujahedin would show the same enthusiasm to enroll in large numbers under the black flag of “caliph” Al-Baghdadi.

Even in Syria, where Da’ish managed for the first time to overtake vast regions in the north of the country in 2001, “The Islamic State” is considered to be a foreign entity whose leaders and commanders are of other nationalities than the Syrian one – Arabs, non-Arabs, Iraqis. The victories of Da’ish in Syria are first of all due to the dissentions, conflicts and weak- nesses of the other rebel factions, be them Syrian or Islamic multinational, which allowed the Islamic State to take them under its control or extend its own authority on the areas that they controlled. The social “matrix” of Da’ish is rather limited to the north-eastern extremity of the Syrian national territory, where its authority has been imposed by constraint, thus creating powerful and latent tensions between the local tribes and associations of clans, on the one hand, and  the  Iraqi “invaders” on  the  other hand.  By rapidly  exploiting  the  weaknesses  of  the “competitors” and by establishing temporary alliances that were cancelled once they were no longer useful, Da’ish offers the second analogy in concept and tactics, this type with the former leader Saddam Hussein, who, in 1968, along with a small group of people originating from Tikrit, established alliances with other officers from the military so that later he could disembarrass himself of these people by means of his famous “purification”. At present, Da’ish is committed  to  eliminate  all  rebel  structures and factions in Syria by “purifying” regions in the north-east of the country – governorates Raqqa, Hassakeh and Deir-Ezzor and to ex- tend offensives towards districts Alep and Homs for the same purpose. All that al- Baghdadi  can offer to his comrades is  an Iraqi-Syrian enclave, isolated on land and landlocked,   without   any   secure   access routes to the oil fields and the energy market, no recognition and mostly, with no experience in social administration and management.

No matter how much hostility the Iraqi Sunnis would have towards the central govern- ment in Baghdad, they do not want the “Da’ish” option for the creation of their expected and desired “free future”. At the same time, as long as the Iraqi political class does not reach a consensus on the crisis, which would include all the social and religious categories and layers in the decision-making and leadership process, as announced by the new Iraqi Prime-Minister Heydar Abbadi, “Da’ish” will not hesitate in using the crisis and chaos to consolidate its “mini- Islamic state” with the same methods that had been used by Saddam Hussein in order to impose his absolute authority on the Iraqi society. As for the “universal caliphate” that  Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his idealists are dreaming about, it remains, at the most, a future subject to be included in the memoirs of the “caliph”.

“Da’ish” in the geostrategic context

NATO’s “historical” summit held in Great Britain, 3-4 September, was dominated by the shadows of two “participants” whose positions and actions cause great concern to the entire political and public international community: “tsar” Vladimir Putin and “caliph” Abu Bakr Al- Baghdadi. They independently managed – by what happens at Europe’s and at NATO’s east- ern border on the one hand, and by what happens in the Arab Middle East Mashreq, on the other hand – an unprecedented performance in all the time span after the end of the Second World War and the fall of the former communist bloc: they opened the way for a new cold war with the potential of escalating at any moment; a war in which the participants are no longer two military and ideological opponents, but three parties: the laic West with its armed branch called the North Atlantic Alliance, the Russian Federation that Moscow aims at promoting in all its previous splendor and greatness and the Arab-Islamic East that faces the treat (along with the entire international community) of dealing with the revival of the brutal medieval Islamic rule and Allah’s globalized leadership at global levels.

The leaders attending the Wales summit agreed on two fundamental issues out of a se- ries of issues that were included in the summit’s agenda: to create a new surrounding wall of the Russian Federation by installing a belt of several NATO military bases from the north to the south of the eastern border of Europe and create a military alliance that would include, at the beginning, 10 NATO members, an alliance that would be enlarged with other Arab states hav- ing the mission of fighting against the “green danger” represented by the jihadist terrorist organization named “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”. This alliance, characterized by editorialist and commenters and a “sweet and sour coalition”, proves at least several things that raise suspicion in the Arab world: first of all the lack of imagination of the western decision- makers who only repeated the model used by the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq and against Gaddafi’s regime, but not against the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad; “a sweet and sour alliance” meaning that the western participants with their air forces and navy stationed in territorial waters, far from the battlefield could assume the role of warriors without troops in the field, while  the proper confrontation (and loss of lives) could be arrogated to the allies whose central role will have to be given to the Iraqi government (and not the Syrian one!) led by the newly appointed Prime-Minister Abbadi – a government whose army is equal to that that gave up the fight when faced with the fighters of “caliph” Al-Baghdadi. The decision to hastily create a coalition also proved the perpetuation of this incoherence as well as the same old hesitations and indecision that characterize the western community.

Was it really necessary so much time to achieve a serious and objective evaluation of the danger represented by the expansion of Salafist Islamism, and particularly for the achievement of a fast consensus on the counteracting measures that need to be implemented? It is difficult to guess something like this, since when the Iraqi city of Mosul and the northern part of Syria were taken over, there were many people who rhetorically signaled the seriousness of the situation. Prime-Minister David Cameron and the American President were two of the most fervent supporters of this idea. At the end of June, during an interview for the press, Barack Obama said: “I believe that we are facing a seri- ous threat that cannot be eliminated before the end of my current presidential term”. When the American president ordered the first air attacks against the “Islamic State”, Obama did not set the objective of stopping the expansion of Islamism, but of protecting the Iraqi Kurdistan, ethni- cal and religious minorities and the American people from this expansion. This initial sub- evaluation of the jihadist ampleness, intentions and potential is caused, according to all prob- abilities, to the Obama doctrine called light footprint, materialized in the wide use of air attacks and the avoidance of ground operations – a possible effect of the concern towards the “saturation” of the Americans when it comes to the American military’s commitments in costly wars outside the national borders. The “sweet and sour” touch that the Arab journalists attrib- uted to the haste in making the decision at the NATO summit was not considered to be a resul- tant of the immediate commitment to stop the jihadist wave, but rather an emotional reaction (including meant to calm the American spirit) to Da’ish/ISIS’s dramatic decapitations of journalists  Foley  and  Sotloff  and  to  the threats of repeating these acts of cruelty against other American or British citizens that could have the same dramatic fate.
In this con- text, we are dealing with at least three questions whose answer exceeds the limited framework of the anti-Islamist campaign in Iraq:

1. Which will be  the   position  of the US and NATO and in general of the western community as related to Syria and the jihadist Salafism that activates in this country? On 21 August, the reserved General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rhetorically said at the Pentagon: “Is it possible for the ISIS to be defeated without taking into consideration the presence and the actions of this organization in Syria? The answer is definitely no! In order to complete things, we must take action in Syria”. This uncompromising evaluation was later on confirmed by President Obama who told the press that: “We will do what we have to do to protect the American people and to make justice after the barbarian assassination of James Foley. We will carefully examine what needs to be done and we will not be impeded in this respect by any border” (hinting here at the border of Syria – our note). Afterwards, the statement was nuanced both by President Obama and by the American Secretary of State John Kerry: the coalition will operate in Syria without requiring the approval of the Security Council as long as the Damascus regime has lost its legitimacy and the Salafist danger is more urgent than any other diplomatic consideration or international law. The alternative was assessed by the Syrian authorities as “aggression” if it takes place without the consent of the Syrian government, while the Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov said that an intervention in Syria without the approval of the Security Council would be a serious violation of the principles of international law. Under such circum- stances, the US would be facing a particular difficulty: unlike Iraq, which they are very familiar with considering their 9-year occupation and the data offered by the intelligence services in order to prepare operations against Da’ish, Syria is terra incognita due to the lack of contact with the authorities in Damascus, which, ironically, are currently offering their cooperation for the fight against terrorism. (On 25 August, the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Al-Moallem said that his country was “prepared to cooperate with the international community, including the United States of America and Great Britain, in the fight against terrorism”. The Syrian minister added that “any possible attack on objectives from the Syrian territory must be carried out in cooperation with the leadership in Damascus.”)

Barack Obama’s cooperation with the Syrian regime is problematic, even if the American leader authorized American drone raids on Da’ish objectives in the north of Syria without the acceptance of Damascus. There is also another sensitive issue: what will happen with the Syrian regions freed from the Islamic State and Salafism that fight in this country? Will the Syrian opposition be sufficiently united and strong to provide and support their functionality, even against the possible attempts of the regime to regain them by using force in order to “ensure the territorial integrity and unity of the country?”

Beyond disappointment and denial to cooperate, be it limited and temporary, between the western community and the Baath regime, what does not change is the fact that on the one hand, the desire exists and its achievement depends only on the accounts of each party, thus remaining in incertitude (until proven otherwise, if Washington makes the decision that “since Bashar al-Assad’s regime lacks legitimacy, a military intervention in Syria would not require his approval”). On the other hand, if Syria is not included in the future plans of the coalition, the campaign against the “Islamic State” might show the world – unfortunately – only the empty half of the glass.

2. The second question is the following: to what extent is the jihadist Islamism of Da’ish/ ISIS a danger for the stability and security of the Arab monarchies in the Golf since, as we al- ready know, the presence and potential threats of the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” have turned into an obsessive psychosis? There is no secret in the fact that as long as the Salafism of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was highly important in the monarchic interests of Saudi Arabia primarily so that it imposed its own approaches in relation with the Damascus regime, the former Iraqi Shiite religious government of Nouri Al-Maliki and the conflict between the Sunnis from these states and the Shia expansionism of Iran, jihadism was financially and logistically supported by generous “sponsors” from the western part of the Golf (a formula rhetorically used so that it avoided the explicit nominalization of direct governmental implications). Such generosity risks at becoming currently too costly: according to an Arab proverb “the spell reflects upon the sorcerer”, because the Islamic State turned into a type of evil spirit freed from the lamp in which it has been locked for many years, which openly declared its ambition to extend control over a large part and possibly the entire Arab-Islamic East and remove the Arab regimes that it considers to be “corrupt” and deviated from  the  “real  faith”. The rhetoric pattern of the new Salafist ji- hadism places the ab- solute hereditary monarchies  from  the  Golf on top of this list.

According to Osama bin Laden’s recipe, if the “western crusaders” cannot be attacked on their own territories, they will have to be made to come willingly to the Middle East by attacking Islamic locations that would spontaneously lead to the creation of another Afghanistan or another Iraq, in other words, new fronts in which the “great war” against the “unfaithful” could take place. This is the thinking that made “caliph” Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi to threaten with the invasion of Kuwait in August and afterwards with the invasion of Saudi Arabia, where the Kaaba temple would have been destroyed as a symbol of “pagan worship of rocks” (an allusion to the famous Black Rock from the walls of the temple, venerated by all the Islamic people of the planet). The other oil monarchies are dealing with similar problems, since approximately 4,000 Saudi jihadists and other 1,500 originating from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar are currently activating in the service of the “Islamic State”.

3. Finally, the third question that concerns politicians, analysts and the media refers to the role and position that the United States and the Islamic Republic could have in the context of the “Da’ish phenomenon”. If – excepting situational and strongly opportunistic options – a real cooperation between the West and Damascus in the fight against jihadist terrorism remains an uncertainty, things are different in the case of the Tehran regime, since it is one of the main supporters of President Bashar al-Assad and the government in Baghdad, having a powerful predilection for the Shiites and Iranians, being at the same time a target of immediate perspective for the American Administration’s regional relations. In mid-June, the “reforming” President Hassan Rohani was giving America “the hand of cooperation” – a gesture obviously opportunistic in the context of the Iranian-American negotiations that were in progress. The head of the Iranian state said: “If we see that the US is decided to take firm action against terrorist groups, then we could consider cooperation with the United States”. The offer gave rise to reactions in the US. Two days later, when questioned about a possible coordination and military cooperation or any other kind of cooperation with the Islamic Republic in order to support Iraq which was half- controlled by the jihadists of the “Islamic State”, Secretary of State John Kerry: “we do not exclude anything that could be constructive”. In fact, confidential discussions on this theme have already taken place in Wien between the Americans and the experienced negotiator Richard Burns, in the context of recommencing the final round of negotiations with reference to the Iranian nuclear programs (cf. Jay Solomon, 15 July, www.http//online.wsj.com). Despite the reciprocal suspicions, a relatively rhythmical coordination between the US and the Islamic Republic of Iran seems to be taking place together with the first air raids carried out by the American troops at the beginning of August against some locations and installations of the Islamic State.

If President Barack Obama maintains his decision of not using land forces in anti-Islamist operations, the Iranians are not to follow the same pattern, despite the repeated denials about the military Iranian presence in the neighboring of Iraq. What is illustrative for Tehran’s availability is that it appointed at the end of June General Qassem Soleymani, the commander of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to mobilize, organize, restructure and consolidate the regular Iraqi army and the Shiite militias from this country, on considerations that it would protect the sacred Shiite locations from Najaf and Samarra, threatened with the invasion and occupation by the Da’ish fighters (cf. “The Guardian. 14 June, http// www.theguardian.com). The presence of the Iranian forces on the ground against the Islamic State would be welcome in terms of facilitating the air operations by establishing, pinpointing and communicating coordinates of the Da’ish targets to be attacked and destroyed during airborne operations. The American- Iranian cooperation in the anti-Islamist campaign cannot be surprising if we consider the developments in the relations between Washington and Tehran, which have already been materialized at the end of 2013 when an Interim Agreement for Multilateral Negotiations had been signed, supposed to become a final agreement by the end of this year. The fight against Islamist radicalism and Sunni extremism embodied in the “Islamic State” can stand as a convergent point between the American and the Iranian interests.

Possible perspectives

In the general context of the geostrategic implications of the western commitment in the Middle East, there is one thing that should be carefully be given thought by the Arab governments before turning to the help and rescuing intervention of the foreigners: the fact that the “Islamic State” did not came from the void or the prehistoric caves, but that it is the product of the Arab-Islamic society, created from its structures, realities and contemporaneity and developed in an Arab environment with Arab-Islamic moral, financial and logistic support. Consequently, according to logics, the “Islamic nation” (Umma) should be the first to be involved in the correction of errors made intentionally by giving up fatalism and the old tradition of blaming others for all the consequences of their own acts and deeds.

After September 11 and more recently after the developments of extremism embodies by the “Islamic State”, the Arab governments and media generally blamed the United States and the West for “not taking action”, for “hesitating to intervene” and save the world from al- Qaeda. After the NATO summit in Great Britain which established the creation of a 10-state- coalition, there were mentions of a “sweet and sour” coalition, of a “new western invasion” in the Arab-Islamic world and the doubt, criticism and blames remained at a constant level in this respect. When the number of countries joining the alliance got to 40, turning thus the community of the Middle East into an isolated isle, in less than a week, until September 11 (a memorable day due to the attacks that happened 13 years ago), 10 Arab states (the 6 Arab monarchies from the Gulf, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon) plus Turkey decided to join the international coalition as well.

Under the new strategic conditions that are being created in the Middle East and in view of the reactions that the western world and NATO are trying to unify in order to be afterwards applied, it becomes more and more evident that the United States of America finds itself at a turning point in which it needs to reevaluate its policies towards the Middle East, in terms of evaluating the efficiency and justify the maintenance of Barack Obama’s policy of avoiding a military commitment in this part of the world. From this perspective, we can easily understand that the regional presence and expansion of “Da’ish” and its increasing danger is the factor that finally decided the return of the US and of the West to the direct intervention policy in the region. This was the real reason, not – as some may have superficially believed – the decapitation of the two American journalists. It is interesting to notice that until the barbarian killing of the two journalists, President Barack Obama constantly sustained that the US does not have an elaborated strategy to fight the Islamic State, even though several days later the American President started to speak about that same strategy. It is even more surprising that the leading power in the global war against terrorism considers that it takes a “global war” to destroy a band of fanatics! The statement made about the lack of a strategy can be considered more like an emotional expression of a situational context created by an emotional event – the decapitation of the two journalists.

The United States do have strategies. The American superpower has always had a strategy whose general coordinates worked during all the major events of history when intervention was required. The strategy was not invented overnight. The coordinates of the strategies have always been focused on maintaining the balance of power between the involved countries in a specific part of the world, so that it does not allow the rise and consolidation of a certain power at the cost of another one and ultimately, to the detriment of the United States’ strategy. In the Middle East there are at least three such powers that aspire to a local privileged regime that could affect the controllable balance of power and influence: Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Da’ish/ISIS does not stand as an existential threat to America’s national security interests and it can be annihilated even without the alliance made up of more than 40 countries and armies of the world. Nevertheless, its disappearance would not mean that radical jihadism will also disappear, since it is able to find new fertile locations where it could grow and enhance, perpetuating the general threat of the world. The direct involvement of the three regional powers mentioned above does not mean that they are “tied” and committed – willingly or not – to a common “global objective” that forces them to use or moderate their desire to disrupt the regional balance.
Barack Obama did not delay the announcement of the strategy for the “new long war” against Islamist terrorism. The main coordinates of this strategy consist of a US and probably British airborne war against the presence of the Islamic State and Salafism in general in Syria and Iraq, while ground operations were being deployed in Iraq by other regional states whose role is to be later established; the military and logistic support provided to the Iraqi government led by Heydar Abbadi; the consistent arming of the “moderate” Syrian opposition; the training of the Syrian rebels from the neighboring countries (Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia); coordination of intelligence aimed to identify and annihilate financing and procurement channels of the Islamic State; the support and protection of the civilians and ethnic and religious minorities from the countries affected by the jihadist-Salafist groups and other tactical measures that are characteristic to war, which will probably never be revealed to the public. One of these measures – in case they have already been established – refers to the post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq and in Syria – an objective that numerous analysts consider to be “colossal”. If Iraq, with its oil reserves and incomes of approximately 100 billion dollars obtained from oil, manages to sup- port more substantially the reconstruction efforts, things are quite different in the case of Syria because its economy, including the oil one, is practically destroyed. In this case, after annihilating the jihadist-Salafist problem, someone will have to contribute to the Syrian reconstruction.

The United States will definitely commit to some of the reconstruction effort, but it would not cover the entire financial and logistic support required. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates which supported the Syrian uprising and the “revolutionary Salafism” will probably be the countries that will significantly participate in this post-conflict reconstruction effort. This is one of the problems included on the agenda of discussions that John Kerry had in Jeddah. The results will be known at an ulterior moment. The other problems and difficulties that the anti-jihadist coalition will be probably facing originate from the situations and crises that characterize the Arab-Islamic societies and whose explanation can be found in the issues that erode the government system, the concept of power and the functions of the Arab countries’ institutions, as well as the relationship between them and the various ethnic, religious, tribal, cultural and traditional components of the societies existing in the Arab world. In the recent years, after the beginning of the “Arab spring”, many of these cultural, political and social vices have been brought to light and we notice that their defining coordinates are similar, whether it is about Iraq, Syria, Libya, or Palestine, Egypt of the Arab Maghreb.

With reference to the revival of the radical Islam, put across by the rise of Da’ish, the international community and the Arab-Islamic world have finally shown an almost unanimous desire to fight and annihilate the radical Islamism and violent terrorism in general. This perspective is not a new one; it had appeared after the September 2001 attacks and grew in view of the “Arab spring”. Which was the result of the “global war” against religious radicalism and terrorism 13 years after it commenced? More terrorism, more violence! More militias and armed groups and organizations! In 2001 there was practically one “fashionable” terrorist group – al- Qaeda. At present there is no credible inventory of the violent Islamic – Sunni or Shiite – entities or structures. Al-Qaeda turned into a simple Islamic faction that is strongly competing in the mosaic of terrorist-jihadist groups that activate in the Arab-Islamic world and which is in full process of expansion in the region and at an international level, asserting themselves as new and threatening elements in the global geopolitical and geostrategic equations and possessing overstate and cross-border potential. Da’ish proved – even though it happened at a lower scale for the time being – that the growing Islamism is able to ease political boundaries and impose new “Sykes-Picot” agreements, this time built on the criteria of implementing Allah’s governance on earth. Prior to the Islamic State, in 2012, “The Party of Allah” (Hezbollah) assumed the same right of ignoring frontiers and sent its militias to Syria in order to protect the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah was acting in this manner as a political party, with representation in the legislative and executive institutions of the Lebanese state, but Da’ish is not part of any state, it is not recognized by any states and is at war with all the countries that op- pose its utopia to transform the Arab-Islamic world and the non-Islamic world into a universal caliphate. These two examples are enough to show the two faces of Janus, the double image of religious radicalism and extremism: the one offered by Da’ish, above any law and strongly opposed to the traditional concept of nation-state, embodied in the Sunni radicalism, on the one hand, and the Shiite radicalism encouraged and supported by the regional and international centers of Shiite religious influence, created according to the principles of the Islamic revolution.

For the time being, the new episode in the war against terrorism seems to continue to ignore the strongly religious and political nature and specificity of the Islamist terrorism, considering it from the point of view of an exclusive military confrontation. The United States and its allies are still conceptually avoiding giving an extended redefinition of terrorism in the frame- work of which it would consider not only the American security interests and anti-terrorist legislation, but also the ideological, doctrinal and political nature of terrorism. The reason that stands beyond this position can be found in the fear of facing a new reality. Under the present circumstances, if the definition of terrorism would be extended, it would practically mean that the West and the North Atlantic Alliance would have to face an alternative that nobody desires at this time: either support the Syrian Baath regime led by Bashar al-Assad in his supposed fight against the Islamic State and Salafist Islamism in general, or to declare a total war to this regime and the terrorist groups that infest the Arab-Islamic Mashreq, which would mean in fact, entering a latent belligerent stage with the main sponsors of the regime and of the terrorist franchises: Iran, the Russian Federation, China, Hezbollah, on the one hand, and the Arab monarchies on the other hand, since they were the ones that openly or covert have always supported the ultra-radical Islamism.

The anti-terrorist coalition can be a positive development only if it were given a “road map” that took into consideration the “post-conflict” options and the possibility of a complete or partial failure, as well as the roles that each member will have within the alliance.
On 12 September, American General John Allen was appointed the military coordinator of the “global” alliance against Da’ish. General Allen possesses a lot of experience in the fight against terrorism: in 2006-2008 he led the American troops in Iraq in the famous “Sunni trian- gle” from the west of the country and, together with the Sunni local tribes, he built the famous Sahawat militias that played a very important role in the removal of the al-Qaeda Mujahedin from the west of Iraq. In 2011-2013, in Afghanistan, he led the international coalition (ISAF), after having been nominated in 2012 for the supreme military commander of NATO.

At the same time and almost simultaneously, the spokesperson of the Department of State and of Pentagon said that “starting now, the United States is at war with the terrorist organization the Islamic State – a war that America will carry just as it fought against the terrorist network al-Qaeda”. The statement, in Iraq’s case, seems to be either too optimistic, or it is meant to prove America’s determination to annihilate the Islamist terrorism. While being in Florida on 17 September for a meeting with his generals, Barack Obama reaffirmed his decision of not sending American ground troops in the war against Da’ish. At the same time, the new Iraqi Prime-Minister Heydar Abbadi officially stated that Iraq would not accept foreign military troops on its territory. From this perspective, the strategy of war seems rather simple: Da’ish will be attacked by the aviation and by the Iraqi forces, possibly supported by the American military “advisors”. The question that appears here is: in this case, why was it necessary to mobilize 40 states? Was it necessary for logistic, informational, civilian protection reasons, for missions that are not directly connected to the active campaign? Analysts consider that there are too many countries for such a “small” war. This unprecedented mobilization has already created numerous questions and doubts about America’ long-term objectives when it created the anti-terrorist coalition. “Is it only anti-terrorist?”

The coalition can practically take action at any time in a war that is estimated to be a very long one, as the American officials assessed. There is one question to be discussed here, though the issue never came up in the media and probably not even during the summit in Wales or at Jeddah or in other governments from the Arab world: will the “new war” be a punctual one, with the objective of destroying the Islamic State and the active fundamentalism in its area of operations (Iraq, Syria and probably Lebanon) or is it a war planned to change or create the premises for a positive reformatory change in the entire Arab world of the Middle East? Will it release energies that draw about the general reevaluation of the eternal crises that have been characterizing this part of the world for a very long time – corruption, authoritarianism, religion as a political weapon, religious weariness, selfish interests and traditional approaches, the revival of “Arab solidarity” and of the “common Arab action”, the reestablishment of relations between power and the society, between the state and religion and between tradition and the imperatives of contemporaneity?
Without such thinking coordinates that could be brought as close as possible to implementation, we could speak about another useless war in the Middle East, that would open the way for new conflicts and inferences in the region, as well as for new reconfigurations of geo- strategy and geopolitics in the framework of a new cold war already introduced to the world.

 

*First published in “Geostrategic Pulse”

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Israel-China Relations: Staring Into the Abyss of US-Chinese Decoupling

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Israel knew the drill even before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boarded his flight to Tel Aviv earlier this month four days after the death of his father. It was Mr. Pompeo’s first and only overseas trip since March.

Echoing a US warning two decades ago that Israeli dealings with China jeopardized the country’s relationship with the United States, Mr. Pompeo’s trip solidified Israel’s position at the cusp of the widening US-Chinese divide.

Two decades ago the issue was the potential sale to China of Israeli Phalcon airborne warning and control systems (AWACS). Israel backed out of the deal after the US threatened withdrawal of American support for the Jewish state.

This month the immediate issue was a Chinese bid for construction of the world’s largest desalination plant and on the horizon a larger US-Chinese battle for a dominating presence in Eastern Mediterranean ports.

Within days of his visit, Mr. Pompeo scored a China-related success even if the main focus of his talks with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was believed to be Iran and Israeli plans to annex portions of the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.

Israel signalled that it had heard the secretary’s message by awarding the contract for the Sorek-2 desalination plant to an Israeli rather than a Chinese company.

The tender, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.

China’s interest in Israel is strategic given the fact that the Jewish state is one of the world’s foremost commercial, food and security technology powerhouses and one of the few foreign countries to command significant grassroots support in the United States.

If there is one thing Israel cannot afford, it is a rupture in its bonds to the United States. That is no truer than at a time in which the United States is the only power supportive of Israeli annexation plans on the West Bank.

The question is whether Israel can develop a formula that convinces the United States that US interests will delineate Israeli dealings with China and reassure China that it can still benefit from Israeli assets within those boundaries.

“Right now, without taking the right steps, we are looking at being put in the situation in which the US is telling us we need to cut or limit our relations with China. The problem is that Israel wants freedom of relations with China but is not showing it really understands US concerns. Sorek-2 was a good result. It shows the Americans we get it.” said Carice Witte, executive director of Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL) that seeks to advance Israeli-Chinese relations.

Analysts, including Ms. Witte, believe that there is a silver lining in Israel’s refusal to award the desalination plant to a Chinese company that would allow it to steer a middle course between the United States and China.

“China understands that by giving the Americans this win, China-Israel relations can continue. It gives them breathing room,” Ms. Witte said in an interview.

It will, however, be up to Israel to develop criteria and policies that accommodate the United States and make clear to China what Israel can and cannot do.

“In order for Israel to have what it wants… it’s going to need to show the Americans that it takes Washington’s strategic perceptions into consideration and not only that, that it’s two steps ahead on strategic thinking with respect to China.  The question is how.” Ms. Witte said.

Ports and technology are likely to be focal points.

China is set to next year takeover the management of Haifa port where it has already built its own pier and is constructing a new port in Ashdod.

One way of attempting to address US concerns would be to include technology companies in the purview of a still relatively toothless board created under US pressure in the wake of the Haifa deal to review foreign investment in Israel. It would build in a safeguard against giving China access to dual civilian-military use technology.

That, however, may not be enough to shield Israel against increased US pressure to reduce Chinese involvement in Israeli ports.

“The parallels between the desalination plant and the port are just too close to ignore. We can’t have another infrastructure divide,” Ms. Witte said.

The two Israeli ports will add to what is becoming a Chinese string of pearls in the Eastern Mediterranean.

China already manages the Greek port of Piraeus.

China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd (CHEC) is looking at upgrading Lebanon’s deep seaport of Tripoli to allow it to accommodate larger vessels.

Qingdao Haixi Heavy-Duty Machinery Co. has sold Tripoli port two 28-storey container cranes capable of lifting and transporting more than 700 containers a day, while a container vessel belonging to Chinese state-owned shipping company COSCO docked in Tripoli in December 2018, inaugurating a new maritime route between China and the Mediterranean.

Major Chinese construction companies are also looking at building a railroad that would connect Beirut and Tripoli in Lebanon to Homs and Aleppo in Syria.  China has further suggested that Tripoli could become a special economic zone within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and serve as an important trans-shipment point between the People’s Republic and Europe.  

BRI is a massive infrastructure, telecommunications and energy-driven effort to connect the Eurasian landmass to China.

Potential Chinese involvement in reconstruction of post-war Syria would likely give it access to the ports of Latakia and Tartous.

Taken together, China is looking at dominating the Eastern Mediterranean with six ports in four countries, Israel, Greece, Lebanon, and Syria that would create an alternative to the Suez Canal.

All that is missing are Turkish, Cypriot and Egyptian ports.

The Chinese build- up threatens to complicate US and NATO’s ability to manoeuvre in the region.

The Trump administration has already warned Israel that Chinese involvement in Haifa could jeopardize continued use of the port by the US fifth fleet.

“The writing is on the wall. Israel needs to carve out a degree of wiggle room. That however will only come at a price. There is little doubt that Haifa will move into the firing line,” said a long-time observer of Israeli-Chinese relations.

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Will Gulf States Learn From Their Success in Handling the Pandemic?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic for Gulf states has done far more than play havoc with their revenue base and fiscal household. It has propelled massive structural change to the top of their agenda in ways that economic diversification plans had not accounted for.

Leave aside whether Gulf states can continue to focus on high-profile, attention-grabbing projects like Neom, Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion USD 21st century futuristic city on the Red Sea.

Gulf rulers’ to do list, if they want to get things right, is long and expensive without the burden of trophy projects. It involves economic as well as social and ultimately political change.

Transparency and accurate and detailed public reporting go to the core of these changes.

They also are key to decisions by investors, economists, and credit rating companies at a time when Gulf states’ economic outlook is in question. Many complain that delays in GDP reporting and lack of easy access to statistics complicates their decision-making.

Nonetheless, if there is one thing autocratic Gulf governments have going for themselves, beyond substantial financial reserves, it is public confidence in the way they handled the pandemic, despite the fact that they failed to initially recognize crowded living circumstances of migrant workers as a super spreader.

Most governments acted early and decisively with lockdowns and curfews, testing, border closures, repatriation of nationals abroad, and, in Saudi Arabia, suspension of pilgrimages.

To be sure, Gulf countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia that receives millions of Muslim pilgrims from across the globe each year, have a long-standing history of dealing with epidemics. Like Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, they were better prepared than Western nations.

History persuaded the kingdom to ban the umrah, the lesser Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in late February, days before the first case of a Covid-19 infection emerged on Saudi soil.

Beyond public health concerns, Saudi Arabia had an additional reason to get the pandemic right. It offered the kingdom not only an opportunity to globally polish its image, badly tarnished by human rights abuses, power grabs, and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but also to retain religious influence despite the interruption in the flow of pilgrims to the kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia is still a reference for many Muslim communities around the world,” said Yasmine Farouk, a scholar of Saudi Arabia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

It also allowed Saudi Arabia to set the record straight following criticism of its handling of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 when the kingdom became the epidemic’s epicenter and in 2009 when it was hit by the H1N1 virus.

Saudi Arabia is also blamed for contributing to a public health catastrophe in Yemen with its frequent indiscriminate bombings.

A country in ruins as a result of the military intervention, Yemen has grappled for the past four years with a cholera epidemic on the kingdom’s borders.

Trust in Gulf states’ handling of the current pandemic was bolstered by degrees of transparency on the development of the disease in daily updates in the number of casualties and fatalities.

It was further boosted by a speech by King Salman as soon as the pandemic hit the kingdom in which he announced a raft of measures to counter the disease and support the economy as well as assurances by agriculture minister Abdulrahman al-Fadli that the crisis would not affect food supplies.

Ms. Farouk suggested that government instructions during the pandemic were followed because of “trust in the government, the expertise and the experience of the government [and] trust in the religious establishment, which actually was following the technical decisions of the government.”

To be sure, Ms. Farouk acknowledged, the regime’s coercive nature gave the public little choice.

The limits of government transparency were evident in the fact that authorities were less forthcoming with details of public spending on the pandemic and insight into available medical equipment like ventilators and other supplies such as testing kits.

Some Gulf states have started publishing the daily and total number of swabs but have yet to clarify whether these figures include multiple swabbings of the same person.

“It is likely that publics in the Middle East will look back at who was it that gave them reliable information, who was it who was there for them,” said political scientist Nathan Brown.

The question is whether governments will conclude that transparency will be needed to maintain public confidence as they are forced to rewrite social contracts that were rooted in concepts of a cradle-to-grave welfare state but will have to involve greater burden sharing.

Gulf governments have so far said little about burden sharing being allocated equitably across social classes nor has there been transparency on what drives investment decisions by sovereign wealth funds in a time of crisis and changing economic outlook.

Speaking to the Financial Times, a Gulf banker warned that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “needs to be careful what he spends on . . . Joe Public will be watching.”

Headed by Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund has gone on a $7.7 billion USD shopping spree buying stakes in major Western blue chips, including four oil majors: Boeing, Citigroup, Disney, and Facebook. The Public Investment Fund is also funding a bid for English soccer club Newcastle United.

The banker suggested that Saudi nationals would not appreciate “millionaire footballer salaries being paid for by VAT (value added tax) on groceries.” He was referring to this month’s hiking of sales taxes in the kingdom from five to 15 percent.

The fragility and fickleness of public trust was on display for the world to see in Britain’s uproar about Dominic Cummings, a close aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who violated lockdown instructions for personal reasons. Mr. Johnson is struggling to fight off demands for Mr Cummings’ dismissal.

To be sure, senior government officials and business executives in the Gulf have cautioned of hard times to come.

A recent Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey of CEOs predicted that 70 percent of the United Arab Emirates’ companies would go out of business in the next six months, including half of its restaurants and hotels and three-quarters of its travel and tourism companies.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan warned earlier this month that the kingdom would need to take “painful” measures and look for deep spending cuts as a result of the collapse of oil prices and significantly reduced demand for oil.

Aware of sensitivities, Mr. Al-Jadaan stressed that “as long as we do not touch the basic needs of the people, all options are open.”

There was little transparency in Mr. Al-Jadaan’s statements on what the impact would be on employment-seeking Saudi nationals in a labor market where fewer migrant workers would be available for jobs that Saudis have long been unwilling to accept.

It was a missed opportunity considering the 286 percent increase in the number of Saudis flocking to work for delivery services.

The increase was fueled by an offer by Hadaf, the Saudi Human Resources Development Fund, to pay drivers $800 USD a month, as well as a newly-found embrace of volunteerism across the Gulf.

The surge offered authorities building blocks to frame expectations at a time when the kingdom’s official unemployment rate of 12 percent is likely to rise.

It suggested a public acknowledgement of the fact that well-paying, cushy government positions may no longer be as available as they were in the past as well as the fact that lesser jobs are no less honorable forms of employment.

That may be the silver lining as Gulf states feel the pressure to reinvent themselves in a world emerging from a pandemic that potentially will redraw social, economic, and political maps.

Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia

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Foreign intervention in Libya

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Since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Tripoli has transformed into an appalling sight of consistent injustice, rising fundamentalism and morbid law and order situation. Amidst the whirlwind of fractured institutions and failed socio political system in Libya, foreign countries have also found a suitable battleground for fighting their proxy wars. Currently, there are two governments operating in libya, each claiming to reflect the genuine mandate of Libyan people. The United Nations backed government of National Accord, under the leadership of President Fayaz al serraj is being supported by Turkey, Qatar, Italy and publically by all western democracies. Whereas, a shadow government, is being maneuvered from the eastern city of Tobruk. It enjoys the support of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France and the United Arab Emirates.

In 2012, less than a year after NATO intervention, Libyans turned to polls, in the pursuit of voting for an efficient leadership. As a result of elections, the General National Congress or GNC came into power. It was tasked with devising a constitution within the next eighteen months. Despite, it’s full capacity, the government failed to deliver on time due to evident disorganization and post-gaddafi mayhem, which was still at large. However, Libyans again went to vote in 2014, electing a House of Representatives or HoR in power, this time. These elections were repudiated and their result was declared illegitimate by GNC, on the claims of low voter turnout and series of violence which engulfed the entire electoral process, across the country. Rejection to form government, forced HoR to flee Tripoli and establish itself in Tobruk, where they aligned themselves, with Libya’s strong man, commander Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Forces.

Haftar had remained a part of Libya’s political arena for as long as Muammar Gaddafi had, he joined the military in 1961 and served in its ranks until, the Chad misadventure of 1987, which not only made him fall out with Gaddafi, but also enforced him into exile in the United States. Nonetheless, Haftar returned to Libya after the war and started rebuilding his former network of loyalists who worked with him decades ago, and ended up establishing the Libyan National Forces. His forces launched “Operation Dignity”[1]in 2014, with the official intentions of relieving Libya from local militias, radical nationalism and religious fundamentalism.

Amidst the chaos of political deterioration and significant power vacuum, foreign countries started to manipulate the Libyan crisis for their own interests. Turkey is a regional player, and is severely concerned about their maritime trade route. For, being surrounded by hostile neighbors, Turkey finds it hard to trade through any other channel smoothly, except Mediterranean which it shares with Libya. Thus, it is actively vouching for a friendly government in Tripoli. Turkey’s parliament has recently passed the controversial law that has permitted the deployment of Turkish troops on Libyan soil, in order to support al Serraj’s government. Meanwhile, states like Italy and France are  interested in Libya’s oil resources, and are also supporting respective governments as per their interests. International oil companies such as Italian Eni, French Total and Russian Taftnet, along with British Petroleum are on and off, getting exploration and management contracts to tap oil resources, with the Libyan National oil corporation. Where Russian mercenaries are fighting on ground with Haftar’s forces, France has also provided covert logistical support to his forces, each interested in their own share of resources.

Furthermore, the United Arab Emirates, Cairo and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are eagerly backing Haftar’s LNA for the sake of preventing another wave of Arab spring, to reach their borders. UAE has conducted airstrikes on Benghazi in 2014, from an Egyptian base in Libya, in order to support Haftar’s operation Dignity. They have also recently established their own base in eastern province of Al-Khadir, to support further LNA’s advances. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has also pledged it support to Haftar under the crown prince, Muhammad Bin Salman. As, just before Haftar’s Tripoli offensive,  Riyadh promised him millions to buy tribal leader’s loyalties and to financially support the fighters in LNA.

Another reason behind Arab countries ardent sponsorship is, the question of muslim brotherhood. LNA has vowed to eliminate all the elements of religious extremism, including the muslim brotherhood. Cairo, UAE and KSA are known for their crack down on the brotherhood, while Turkey and Qatar are assumed to support the political activities of organization. Such difference in approaches has also led these countries into a state of perennial proxy war with each other.  

Recent Moscow talks and Berlin conference, in the beginning of this year, has indeed provided an opportunity for all the parties in conflict to come on the negotiating table, and draw out strategies for adherently following the Libyan arms embargo of 2011, for effective ceasefire. Yet, without a proper policy in place, which can prevent foreign interventions in Libyan domestic crisis. It will create a potential environment for Tripoli to transcend into a turmoil similar to Syria and Yemen. War in Libya, has already incited an endless cycle of unnecessary fighting, uncountable deaths and a vicious void of ills like; human trafficking and smuggling. From, exponential worth of 53.2 billion dollars in 2012 to 4.6 billion dollars in 2016, Libya’s natural revenues have shrunken conspicuously over the last decade. In addition to that, with global coronavirus pandemic still out and loose, conflicts like one in Libya have a higher potential of turning into a major confrontation. It’s a textbook example of how precarious the situation might get, if not taken sensibly, by international community.


[1] Anderson, Jon Lee. “The unravelling.” The New Yorker 23 (2015).

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