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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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Middle East Instability to Overshadow Future Global Nuclear Nonproliferation Efforts

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The Middle East fragile situation in which contradicting aspirations of states and non-states’ actors that are involved in shaping the regional balance of power would most likely overshadow the global nuclear nonproliferation efforts in the near future. Factors such as the United States withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal last May, and the polarization of Middle Eastern rivals-allies’ relations in recent years, also encompass lack of trust, weakening on norms and increased uncertainty in the region that ultimately undermines existing multilateral arms control arrangements.

Most of the public debate on the Middle East instability, so far, has been focusing on issues such as the implications of intensified subsequent U.S sanctions, or the reaction of the global markets, as well as ongoing polarization in international relations. While this debate is important, attempts to figure out how to best deal with this situation often ignores the context of the overall global efforts to reduce proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and their implication on global security stability. A regional stabilization would be more practical by emphasizing the link between the regional WMD challenges to the Treaty on The Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) that already encompasses most of these challenges. Developments in Iran’s nuclear actions and the continuing stagnation in the Arab League’s demand to advance negotiation on a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free-Zone (WMDFZ) are significant issues that have already taken a toll on the NPT and has already eroded the treaty member states obligations to it.

The above argument is also supported by a recent Russian official statement and by a draft resolution that the League of Arab States have submitted on the Middle East WMDFZ to the United Nations General Assembly. On September 28, 2018, the Russian News Agency published a statement by the Russian Director of the Foreign Ministry Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Vladimir Yermakov. According to Mr. Yermakov, the establishment of a WMDFZ in the region is not feasible today, but it is urgent to advance it since current stagnation would “undermine the foundations of the NPT.” The League of Arab States on their part, presented on October 11, 2018, a new draft resolution to the General Assembly, calling for the Secretary-General to take responsibility on convening a conference to establish a WMDFZ in the Middle East no later than June 2019. This draft resolution takes into consideration the limited time frame before the convening of the 2020 NPT review conference and the 2019 Preparatory committee to the conference.

So far, Five out of nine NPT review conferences that were held quinquennially since 1975 have failed to conclude with a final document, which symbolically shows a unified position and the commitment of the state parties to adhere to the treaty. Legally, the authority of review conferences is to clarify and interpret the treaty clauses, and not to amend them, to improve the treaty’s implementation. This conduct makes the review conference political in nature since adopted decisions are based on political consent and are not legally binding. This political nature has often brought different issues of major controversies, such as the nuclear weapons states’ obligations under the NPT to denuclearize or the Middle East WMDFZ, to overshadow other issues on the agenda, such as the emergence of new technologies, or suggestions to increase transparency that could affect the treaty’s implementation.

In order to strengthen the NPT review process and to promote a constructive dialog among the parties, the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference have decided to include a Preparatory Committee support mechanism to improve the function and the outcomes of their subsequent review conferences. Nevertheless, the attempts to utilize preparatory committees for this aim by ultimately formulate significant recommendations for discussion at the treaty review conferences have failed to meet expectations, so far. Manifested political gaps between the nuclear member states and the non-nuclear member states that frequently appeared in previous review conferences have reproduced to their preparatory committees. These political gaps have practically obstructed improvements and  mutual understandings between state parties on nuclear issues, which prevented the formulation of a consensus- based final document in the review conference of 2005 and 2015. This in turn, significantly undermine the strength of the NPT and makes preparatory committees merely a preamble for their consecutive review conferences’ dynamics.

The first sign for the possibility to maintain and improve global cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation, in light of the Middle East tensions, would be given at the upcoming NPT review conference that is expected in April 2020. Positive outcomes of this conference would be achieved once a unified position (or at least the widest possible) of the state parties on their commitment to adhere to the NPT would be formulated and agreed upon in the final document of the conference. As the 2000 and 2010 review conferences showed, a unified position that is brought together with an adoption of some practical steps to promote the treaty goals (with an emphasis on the Middle East WMDFZ) could enhance the significance of the NPT to deal with future nuclear weapons challenges.

Despite the relative success in the 2000 and 2010 conferences, failing to fulfill commitments on the agreed practical steps to promote the Middle East WMDFZ have raised frustration in the League of Arab States. Led by Egypt, the League of Arab States have been calling to promote a WMDFZ since 1974 (together with Iran), and with great extent since the ‘Resolution on The Middle East’ was adopted in the 1995 NPT review and extension conference – a resolution that in practice included the issue within the NPT framework. This issue was ultimately one of the main reasons for the failure of the NPT 2015 review conference due to a disagreement between the US and Egypt. The US-Egypt wrangled over the WMDFZ and accused each other on inflexibility, lack of interest and the use of this topic for political purposes. These direct accusations can only reflect on the overall undermining of the NPT in recent years. The same goes with the Iran Deal, where current inability to reach equilibrium that would suitable the interests of Iran and Russia on one side and the US and other moderate Sunni states on the other side (Israel is not member in the NPT) would eventually pervade to the 2020 review conference negotiations and negatively impact the conference’s outcomes.

Nevertheless, achieving a positive outcome in the 2020 review conference depends not only on what would happen during the conduct of the conference, in terms of dynamics and the convened parties’ will to compromise, but also on the states parties’ ability to cooperate and reach at least principle agreements in the current time frame – prior to the conference’s due date. All the more so, any gains achieved regardless of the NPT context are also likely to negatively impact the 2020 NPT review conference. The treaty’s framework is the most relevant to comprehensively deal with the most crucial aspects of WMD nonproliferation in the Middle East while bringing most of the parties involved together to the same table.

The existing alternatives to gain a progress in the Middle East security situation relays on the ground that the NPT provides. Such alternatives are ranged from convening a regional arms control and regional security conference, as the League of Arab states asserts, through a direct cooperation and involvement of the NPT depositories – Britain, Russia, and the US that could provide guarantees to mitigate regional tensions. Failing to provide a pragmatic prospect for regional negotiations prior to the 2020 review conference would not only deepen the current deadlock and increase instability and frustration but would also undermine the relevancy of the NPT when it is most needed to regulate nonproliferation.

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Mohammed bin Salman: For better or for worse?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Embattled Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could prove to be not only a cat with nine lives but also one that makes even stranger jumps.

King Salman’s announcement that Prince Mohammed was put in charge of reorganizing Saudi intelligence at the same time that the kingdom for the first time admitted that journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been killed in its Istanbul consulate signalled that the crown prince’s wings were not being clipped, at least not immediately and not publicly.

With little prospect for a palace coup and a frail King Salman unlikely to assume for any lengthy period full control of the levers of power, Prince Mohammed, viewed by many as reckless and impulsive, could emerge from the Khashoggi crisis, that has severely tarnished the kingdom’s image and strained relations with the United States and Western powers, even more defiant rather than chastened by international condemnation of the journalist’s killing.

A pinned tweet by Saud Al-Qahtani, the close associate of Prince Mohammed who this weekend was among several fired senior official reads: “Some brothers blame me for what they view as harshness. But everything has its time, and talk these days requires such language.” That apparently was and could remain Prince Mohammed’s motto.

Said former CIA official, Middle East expert and novelist Graham E. Fuller in a bid to identify the logic of the madness: “As the geopolitics of the world changes—particularly with the emergence of new power centres like China, the return of Russia, the growing independence of Turkey, the resistance of Iran to US domination in the Gulf, the waywardness of Israel, and the greater role of India and many other smaller players—the emergence of a more aggressive and adventuristic Saudi Arabia is not surprising.”

Prince Mohammed’s domestic status and mettle is likely to be put to the test as the crisis unfolds with Turkey leaking further evidence of what happened to Mr. Khashoggi or officially publishing whatever proof it has.

Turkish leaks or officially announced evidence would likely cast further doubt on Saudi Arabia’s assertion that Mr. Khashoggi died in a brawl in the consulate and fuel US Congressional and European parliamentary calls for sanctions, possibly including an arms embargo, against the kingdom.

In a sharp rebuke, US President Donald J. Trump responded to Saudi Arabia’s widely criticized official version of what happened to Mr. Khashoggi by saying that “obviously there’s been deception, and there’s been lies.”.

A prominent Saudi commentator and close associate of Prince Mohammed, Turki Aldakhil, warned in advance of the Saudi admission that the kingdom would respond to Western sanctions by cosying up to Russia and China. No doubt that could happen if Saudi Arabia is forced to seeks alternative to shield itself against possible sanctions.

That, however, does not mean that Prince Mohammed could not be brazen in his effort to engineer a situation in which the Trump administration would have no choice but to fully reengage with the kingdom.

Despite pundits’ suggestion that Mr. Trump’s Saudi Arabia-anchored Middle East strategy that appears focussed on isolating Iran, crippling it economically with harsh sanctions, and potentially forcing a change of regime is in jeopardy because of the damage Prince Mohammed’s international reputation has suffered, Iran could prove to be the crown prince’s window of opportunity.

“The problem is that under MBS, Saudi Arabia has become an unreliable strategic partner whose every move seems to help rather than hinder Iran. Yemen intervention is both a humanitarian disaster and a low cost/high gain opportunity for Iran,” tweeted former US Middle East negotiator Martin Indyk, referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.

Mr. “Trump needed to make clear he wouldn’t validate or protect him from Congressional reaction unless he took responsibility. It’s too late for that now. Therefore I fear he will neither step up or grow up, the crisis will deepen and Iran will continue to reap the windfall,” Mr. Indyk said in another tweet.

If that was likely an unintended consequence of Prince Mohammed’s overly assertive policy and crude and ill-fated attempts to put his stamp on the Middle East prior to the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, it may since in a twisted manner serve his purpose.

To the degree that Prince Mohammed has had a thought-out grand strategy since his ascendancy in 2015, it was to ensure US support and Washington’s reengagement in what he saw as a common interest: projection of Saudi power at the expense of Iran.

Speaking to The Economist in 2016, Prince Mohammed spelled out his vision of the global balance of power and where he believed Saudi interests lie. “The United States must realise that they are the number one in the world and they have to act like it,” the prince said.

In an indication that he was determined to ensure US re-engagement in the Middle East, Prince Mohammed added: “We did not put enough efforts in order to get our point across. We believe that this will change in the future.”

Beyond the shared US-Saudi goal of clipping Iran’s wings, Prince Mohammed catered to Mr. Trump’s priority of garnering economic advantage for the United States and creating jobs. Mr. Trump’s assertion that he wants to safeguard US$450 billion in deals with Saudi Arabia as he contemplates possible punishment for the killing of Mr. Khashoggi is based on the crown prince’s dangling of opportunity.

“When President Trump became president, we’ve changed our armament strategy again for the next 10 years to put more than 60 percent with the United States of America. That’s why we’ve created the $400 billion in opportunities, armaments and investment opportunities, and other trade opportunities. So this is a good achievement for President Trump, for Saudi Arabia,” Prince Mohammed said days after Mr. Khashoggi disappeared.

The crown prince drove the point home by transferring US$100 million to the US, making good on a long standing promise to support efforts to stabilize Syria, at the very moment that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week landed in Riyadh in a bid to defuse the Khashoggi crisis.

A potential effort by Prince Mohammed to engineer a situation in which stepped-up tensions with Iran supersede the fallout of the Khashoggi crisis, particularly in the US, could be fuelled by changing attitudes and tactics in Iran itself.

The shift is being driven by Iran’s need to evade blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog. Meeting the group’s demands for enhanced legislation and implementation is a pre-requisite for ensuring continued European support for circumventing crippling US sanctions.

In recognition of that, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dropped his objection to adoption of the FATF-conform legislation.

If that were not worrisome enough for Prince Mohammed, potential Iranian efforts to engage if not with the Trump administration with those segments of the US political elite that are opposed to the president could move the crown prince to significantly raise the stakes, try to thwart Iranian efforts, and put the Khashoggi crisis behind him.

Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, head of parliament’s influential national security and foreign policy commission, signalled the potential shift in Iranian policy by suggesting that “there is a new diplomatic atmosphere for de-escalation with America. There is room for adopting the diplomacy of talk and lobbying by Iran with the current which opposes Trump… The diplomatic channel with America should not be closed because America is not just about Trump.”

Should he opt, to escalate Middle Eastern tensions, Prince Mohammed could aggravate the war in Yemen, viewed by Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration as a proxy war with Iran, or seek to provoke Iran by attempting to stir unrest among its multiple ethnic minorities.

To succeed, Prince Mohammed would have to ensure that Iran takes the bait. So far, Iran has sat back, gloating as the crown prince and the kingdom are increasingly cornered by the Khashoggi crisis, not wanting to jeopardize its potential outreach to Mr. Trump’s opponents as well as Europe.

That could change if Prince Mohammed decides to act on his vow in 2017 that “we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

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A gruesome murder bares world powers’ flawed policies

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s gruesome murder raises fundamental questions that go far beyond Middle Eastern geopolitics.

They go to the risks of support for autocratic regimes by democratic and authoritarian world powers, the rise of illiberal democracy in the West, increasing authoritarianism in Russia, and absolute power in China in which checks and balances are weakened or non-existent.

Mr. Khashoggi’s killing is but the latest incident of hubris that stems from the abandonment of notions of civility, tolerance and plurality; and the ability of leaders to get away with murder, literally and figuratively. It also is the product of political systems with no provisions to ensure that the power of men like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is restrained and checked.

Mr. Khashoggi was an advocate of the necessary checks and balances.

In his last column published in The Washington Post posthumously, Mr. Khashoggi argued that “the Arab world needs a modern version of the old transnational media so citizens can be informed about global events. More important, we need to provide a platform for Arab voices. We suffer from poverty, mismanagement and poor education. Through the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda, ordinary people in the Arab world would be able to address the structural problems their societies face.”

Mr. Khashoggi’s words were echoed by prominent journalist and political analyst Rami Khouri. “We are heading to the law of the jungle if big power and Mideast state autocracy is not held accountable,” Mr. Khouri said.

In a similar vein, a survey by the Arab Barometer survey concluded that public institutions in the Arab world, including the judiciary enjoyed little, if any, public trust.

“Part of the lack of trust comes from the disenfranchisement felt by many, especially youth and women… The lack of alternative political forces is adding to the fatigue and lack of trust in institutions. Citizens in the region struggle to find an alternative to the ruling elite that might help address the issues of ineffective governance and corruption,” said a report by the Carnegie for Endowment of Peace.

“Citizens are increasingly turning toward informal mechanisms such as protests and boycotts, and focusing more on specific issues of governance, such as service provision, particularly at the local level. Furthermore, with democracy under threat across the globe, calls for broad democratic reform have been replaced by more basic demands,” the report went on to say.

What puts the price Mr. Khashoggi paid for advocating controls of absolute power in a class of its own, is the brutality of his killing, the fact that he was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul rather than, for example, by an unknown killer on a motorbike; and the increasingly difficult effort to resolve politically the crisis his death sparked.

Beyond the support by world powers of often brutal autocrats facilitated by a lack of checks and balances that in the past three decades has destroyed countries and costs the lives of millions, Mr. Khashoggi’s murder is also the product of the failure of Western leaders to seriously address the breakdown in confidence in leadership and political systems at home and abroad.

The breakdown peaked with the 2011 popular Arab revolts; simultaneous widespread protests in Latin America, the United States and Europe; and the increased popularity of anti-system, nationalist and populist politicians on both the right and the left.

Mr. Khashoggi joins the victims of extrajudicial poisoning in Britain by Russian operatives of people who like him may have been a thorn in the side of their leaders but did not pose an existential threat – not that that would justify murder or attempted murder.

He also joins the millions of casualties of failed policy and hubris caused by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s gassing of Kurds in the 1980s and reckless 1990 invasion of Kuwait, support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s determination to cling to power irrespective of the human cost, the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen that has produced the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two, and China’s attempt to brainwash and socially engineer what the country’s leaders see as the model Chinese citizen.

And those are just some of the most egregious instances.

No better are the multiple ways in which autocratic leaders try to ensure conformity not only through repression and suppression of a free press but also, for example, by deciding who deserves citizenship based upon whether they like their political, economic or social views rather than on birth right.

Take Bahrain whose minority Sunni Muslim regime has stripped hundreds of its nationals of their citizenship simply because it did not like their views or Turkey with its mass arrests of anyone critical of the government.

The irony is that if elections in democracies are producing illiberal leaders like US President Donald J. Trump, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary’s Victor Orban, in Asia and Africa they are bring forth governments mandated to reverse Belt and Road-related, Chinese funding of projects that primarily benefit China rather than the recipient economically and pave the way for greater Chinese influencing of domestic politics as well as the export of systems that enhance unchecked state power.

In some cases, like Malaysia, they produce leaders willing to take on China’s creation of a 21st century Orwellian surveillance state in its north-western province of Xinjiang.

It matters little what label world powers put on their support for autocrats and illiberals. The United States has long justified its policy with the need for regional stability in the greater Middle East. Russia calls it international legality while China packages is it as non-interference in the domestic affairs of others.

Said Middle East expert and former US official Charles Kestenbaum building on Mr. Khashoggi’s words: “If they (Middle Eastern states) want to compete with the globe in IT (information technology) and tech more broadly, they must encourage risk, innovation and freedom to fail. Such social and political freedom does not exist adequately in the region. The opposite in fact, authoritarian regimes repress such initiative and openness. So what do they have to compete and globally engage in the 2020’s? Nothing.”

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