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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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Syria’s difficult rebirth

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It is now ten years since a peaceful demonstration against Bashar al-Assad’s regime organised by students in Deraa was brutally repressed by police and government forces, thus triggering a chain of events that plunged Syria into a terrible civil war.

The fighting – which saw the total destruction of historic cities such as Aleppo and Raqqa, the UNESCO heritage site of Palmyra and a large part of the capital Damascus – caused the death of some 250,000 fighters of all sides of the conflict (loyalist soldiers, ISIS guerrillas, Kurdish irredentist fighters, Islamist militants of the Syrian Liberation Army, militiamen of the Syrian Democratic Forces), as well as the death of at least 230,000 civilians, victims of the brutal occupation by the troops of the Islamic Caliphate or “collateral victims” of the fighting and bombing of villages and towns.

The civil conflict quickly turned into a “small world war”, with the armed intervention of various extra-regional players: Turkey on the side of Islamist rebels; Russia and Iran supporting the government in Damascus, and the United States

supporting the Kurds and the “democrats” of the “Syrian Democratic Forces”.

Over the last ten years, 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country and are living precariously in refugee camps in the neighbouring countries of the Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

6.7 million people have had to leave their homes and are considered “internally displaced”, i.e. refugees within Syria’s borders, while at least 5 million people – trapped in the north-west of Syria and in the Idlib region, where scattered troops of the Islamic Caliphate are still operating – are in need of humanitarian assistance.

According to data from the UN Refugee Agency, over 13 million Syrians have lost everything and are surviving on government aid and international charity.

Besides this humanitarian catastrophe, the government of Assad (who has been confirmed as President of the Republic for a fourth term) is facing an economic emergency that began after the first clashes in 2011 and has progressively worsened during the civil war.

According to the World Bank, the loss in terms of GDP between 2011 and 2016 was around 226 billion dollars, while the cost of destroying civilian housing and infrastructure exceeded 117 billion dollars.

The prices of basic necessities, such as food and fuel, have increased 20-fold compared to the period before the conflict, while the Syrian pound has progressively depreciated.

It is estimated that at least 70 per cent of the population currently lives below the poverty line and has limited food supply. According to World Vision International, life expectancy for Syrian children in 2021 has fallen by thirteen years.

The situation is further worsened by a huge water emergency: since last January, the water level of the Euphrates has dropped to the point that, due to the lack of water, the Tabqa and Tishreen dams risk closure, with severe damage to agriculture, electricity production and the supply of running water to the populations of the entire north-east region.

The Covid-19 pandemic has not spared this unfortunate country, although the official estimates of infected and dead people – albeit high – are not very reliable due to the impossibility for the health authorities to carry out the mass screening necessary to know the real extent of the contagion.

On the military front, the situation is still rather confused.

Government troops, with Russian and Iranian help, managed to inflict an almost definitive defeat on the ISIS militia.

The men of the Caliphate – after having been expelled from Aleppo, Palmyra and Raqqa (which had even been designated by Al Baghdadi as the capital of the Islamic State) – have partly fled to the Iraqi desert, from where they continue to carry out actions against the Iraqi forces, and have partly dispersed in small groups in the desert and mountainous area of Idlib and Deir Es Zor, in the so-called Aleppo-Hama-Raqqa triangle, where they continue a troublesome and sometimes bloody guerrilla warfare that has nothing to do with the overwhelming victories that brought them close to definitive military victory in 2014-2015.

Today ISIS is content with ambushing government military convoys and perpetrating extortion against the population trapped in the region, in view of self-financing for reasons of mere survival.

The Syrian army, however, is finding it increasingly difficult to definitively get rid of ISIS from the Syrian territory, both because of the difficulties connected with the need to effectively control a vast desert and mountainous area, and because it has not yet managed to completely defeat the Kurdish guerrillas of the “Syrian Democratic Forces”, still supported by the United States, and because it must also deal with the scattered Islamist armed formations of the “Syrian Liberation Army” supported by Turkey.

Therefore, despite having avoided the definitive defeat that seemed close between 2013 and 2015, Bashar al-Assad’s regime cannot easily and calmly tackle the problem of rebuilding the country.

After having secured his fourth term in office through elections (the outcome of which was a foregone conclusion because only Alawites and Christians voted massively for him, while the Sunnis mostly abstained or were “dissuaded” from taking part in the election), the Syrian President is trying to strengthen his government by reorganising his security apparatus with fully trusted and loyal men.

Last May the President appointed his loyal General Jamal Mahmoud Younes as Head of the Committee for the Security of the Eastern Region, who is also responsible for the security of the Homs Governorate.

Younes, who comes from the Assad family’s “fief” of Latakia, is considered to be very close to the President’s brother, Maher al-Assad, under whose orders he served in the Fourth Armoured Division from 2012 to 2013. Maher is considered to be very close to Iran and Russia.

Another prominent member of the new Syrian security apparatus is General Ramadan Yusef Al Ramadan, also an Alawite and subject to personal sanctions by the European Union – together with his colleague Younes – for his role in the repression of the first incidents in Deraa in 2011.

Ramadan has been appointed Head of the Security Committee of the Latakia Governorate, an extremely sensitive area because it is actually under Russian military control.

Assad therefore finds himself in the need to reconcile the difficult requirements of definitively defeating the insurgency, resolving the very severe economic situation and coexisting – as reasonably as possible – with the presence of two cumbersome allies, Russia and Iran, which – after having ensured his survival – seem determined to permanently establish themselves on Syrian territory.

Russia, whose help has been fundamental in preventing the collapse of the Damascus regime, continues to provide air and ground military support to the fight against the insurgents still active and to exploit the credit it has acquired with the regime to strengthen its presence in the region on a permanent basis.

In early June, the Russian Defence Minister authorised the start of works for the renovation of the Khmeimim air base in the Latakia region, after the runway had already been lengthened to support the fast traffic of Russian military vehicles (one aircraft per minute). The new airport was even used a few days ago for a mysterious mission that took a Russian aircraft to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport.

This mysterious episode shows that Russia’s presence in the area could even be functional to the search for a stabilisation of relations between Israel and Syria (President Putin has never made a secret of his sympathy for Israel).

The Iranian military presence in Syria is of a very different calibre and dangerousness for Israeli security.

Iran already has a strong military presence in the region: from the Lebanon – where Hezbollah politically and militarily controls the whole south of the country and the sensitive area bordering the Galilee – to Iraq, handed over to the pro-Iranian Shiites by George W. Bush with the 2003 war.

While, as reported by Israeli intelligence sources, the Iraqi nuclear programme has resumed at full speed at the same time as the development of the capacity to construct modern ballistic missiles – effective also as carriers of nuclear warheads – over the next few years Syria could become – against its will – a dangerous nuclear outpost on the Israeli border.

A nightmarish prospect made even more worrying by the very recent election of a hardliner like Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi as President of the Republic of Iran. A prospect that would not help Syria to get out of its decades-long crisis, but would bring it back to the front line in the confrontation with Israel, if Russia did not make its voice heard.

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Intelligence and Evolution of Democracy in Jordan

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The relationship between democracy and the character of secret intelligence presents an interesting puzzle. The very concept of democracy demands that an intelligence agency serves democratic interests by providing one country’s security and preparedness against potential threats both internal and external. The core notion is that a stronger and safer country can turn itself into a heaven where democracy can continue to be practiced.

The role of intelligence in the building of democracy and political stability in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is crucial. Jordan, strategically located in the Middle East, presents a long-run import-export relationship.

On the one hand, Jordan, a country of few natural resources, imports oil products and natural gas to meet its energy needs. On the other hand, Jordan exports a valuable resource which is security in terms of intelligence, geographic security, and stability. Jordanian General Intelligence Department’s (GID’s), Dairat al Mukhabarat, primary objective is to defend Jordan from internal and external threats that target its political stability, violate its sovereignty, or undermine the security of its people.

The focus of GID’s operations is the collection of intelligence pertaining to security issues within the Middle East, including surveillance of paramilitary groups and guarding borders to prevent an influx of terrorists from the wider region. The agency is accountable to ministerial control, but in practice reports to the King briefing him on matters of national security. The GID also provides the Prime Minister with regular analyses of the kingdom’s political climate, and it is committed to preserving the power of the Jordanian constitution when executing its duties.

Justice, Human Rights and Transparency

Justice, transparency, the respect of human rights and security are key ingredients to build accountability, trust, and stability, which are necessary for the functioning of democracies and market economies. The GID has been at the forefront of efforts to consolidate Jordan’s architecture of democracy making the safeguard of these ingredients a cornerstone of its mission.

Practically, Jordan’s intelligence agency fully recognizes the International Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Convention against Torture. The detainment quarters of the agency meet internationally approved standards and are recognized as an official state prison making it accessible for inspection and review, in accordance with the “Jordanian Prison Administration laws.”

On Justice, the Jordanian Constitution provides that the judiciary is an independent power and divides courts into three types: regular courts, religious courts, and special courts. The Military Council of the GID falls in the third type of courts. Specifically, in accordance with Law 24 of 1964 on the General Intelligence Department (the so-called “GID Law”), the Intelligence Director appoints members of the Military Council and ratifies its decisions that pertain to officers and members of the GID. Judgments of the said Council are considered as final and are not open to any means of contestation.

The relationship between the intelligence agency and the judiciary, a key-component of democracy, is solid. The public prosecution at the State Security Court normally issues warrants and, provides them to the General Intelligence Department for the detainment of individuals connected to terrorism. The conviction of ringleaders of terrorist plots that originate from neighboring countries like Iraq and Syria is crucial part of the judicial-intelligence partnership to maintain internal stability, prerequisite for Jordan’s democratic evolution. A representative case of the intelligence-judicial cooperation is the conviction of an attempted suicide bomber who took part in the 2005 Amman bombings in Jordan but survived, when her explosive belt failed to detonate.

The GID also leads the national fight against corruption in all its forms, perceiving the phenomenon of corruption as major obstacle to the kingdom’s democratic evolution and economic development. In this regard, the GID has incorporated the anti-corruption directorate that was set up in 1996 and conducts secret investigations of corruption cases and collects relevant data, disrupts corrupt practices, makes referrals to the public prosecutor, and eventually to civil courts when sufficient evidence is available.

Senior members of the GID are not immune to secret investigations for corruption practices. In a self-cleansing process, the GID’s former head for the period of 2005-2008 was sentenced to 13 years in prison on charges of embezzling public funds, money laundering and abuse of office. The anti-corruption directorate has run a project titled “Strengthening the Capacity of Government and People to Act against Corruption” with the aim to expose the Department’s staff to international best practices in fighting corruption and attend specialized training workshops.

Since its establishment, the Anti-Corruption Directorate has uncovered numerous cases of fraud that helped save the state treasury hundreds of millions of Jordanian Dinars (JD). As consequence, people, including non-Jordanians, were referred to courts, including civil servants. In addition, foreign nationals have been expelled from the kingdom for fraud practices. The fraud cases involve bribes, embezzlement of funds, the forgery of official documents, smuggling operations, tax evasion, and copyright infringements. Last but not least, middlemen who are trafficking in the illegal sale of kidneys and other human organs have also been arrested throughout the years.

The Fight against Terror

Most important, the GID carries out intelligence operations to protect the security of the state. Specifically, the GID maintains several task forces devoted to specialized areas of intelligence, including counterintelligence. The government employs GID staff to monitor the security of government information systems and personnel.

Additionally, an anti-terrorism task force conducts operations to gather information on organizations active in Jordan and throughout the Middle East. It is not coincidence that Jordan has aided international anti-terrorism efforts and has repeatedly succeeded in foiling terrorist plots and dismantling terror organizations that planned to launch attacks in or outside of Jordan. Such organizations included, for example, Mohammad Army (1989), Bay’at Al-Imam Organization (1994), Khader Abu Hosher (1999), Jordanian Afghans (2001), and the Reform and Defiance Movement (1998).

Jordan’s geopolitical position has long made it a prey for terrorist activities targeting Jordanian and foreign nationals. For example, in 2005, rockets aimed at two US warfare ships visiting the Jordanian port of Aqaba narrowly missed their targets. There were two claims of responsibility, both from groups believed to be affiliated with Zarqawi, then militant leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. In 2004, Jordan became target of the Al-Jayousi terrorist group that planned to unleash a Chemical Weapons attack against GID’s headquarters. The objective was to damage its facilities and image of a fortress agency, because of GID’s major role in combating terrorism at the national and regional levels. In late 2006, the Jordanian intelligence thwarted a bomb attack against foreign tourists traveling through Queen Alia International Airport in Amman. Several of the convicted conspirators were Iraqis. An attack against American troops deployed at a military base in the south of the kingdom was foiled by the Jordanian intelligence in 2019.

The Kingdom has also been repeatedly targeted by the terrorist group of ISIS, but all planned attacks have been thwarted by GID. An ISIS-linked planned combined attack against Jordanian military and security sites, moderate religious scholars, and media stations was prevented in 2018. Notably, in 2018 alone, the GID foiled 62 terrorist operations abroad and 32 internal operations. In 2020, the GID thwarted several ISISlinked terrorist operations including a major one that aimed at simultaneously targeting the intelligence building in the city of Zarqa, security officials in the northern city of Irbid and an Armenian Orthodox Church in the Ashrafyeh area near the Al-Wehdat camp. 

Jordan has long experience in the fight against terrorism since Afghanistan became fertile ground for the first generation of jihadist groups, the second generation coming from Iraq and the third generation active in Syria. Given this reality, Jordan’s efforts focus on the rule of law, and the fight against terrorism through mechanisms and operations supported by GID. As King Abdallah pointed out in a letter to the GID in mid-February 2021, the agency must remain a model of efficient intelligence in countering terrorism and security threats to the kingdom and be in position to provide the best modern intelligence assessments to decision-makers in the political, economic, and security-related fields.

In practice, Jordan’s GID supports a four-track plan in the fight against terrorism. The first track is Legislation. Jordan has endorsed in April 2014 the amendment of the 2006 anti-terror law that focuses on terror-related crimes and funding. The 2014 amended law foresees the death penalty for those who commit terrorist crimes that result in the death of people, partial or total damage of facilities, and use explosives, chemicals, and radioactive materials. Financial activities in support of extremist groups, attempts for recruitment to terrorist organizations, and the creation of websites encouraging terrorist activities are penalized under the amended law.

The second track lies in Executive Measures. Following United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 on countering terrorism, Jordan has taken a series of measures to comply with the resolution, including the adoption of the anti-money laundering Act of 2007. Jordan has also updated the specifications of personal identification documents in compliance with international safety standards, thus minimizing forgery risks.

The third track is based on Treaties and Conventions. Jordan is party to both formal and informal anti-terror treaties and conventions and has contributed to a number of regional and international treaties with the aim to combat terrorism.

The fourth track highlights GID’s cooperation with government ministries. A representative cooperation is with the interior ministry’s programs to contain jihadist ideology applied since 2007 to prisoners. The programs include religious lessons and interviews with scholars and imams to fight this ideology, through dialogues and by holding sessions of psychological counseling and social rehabilitation.

Jordan continues to be in the eye of a storm as armed jihadist groups and al-Qaida as well as ISIS militants attempt to pour into the country. Because of this reality, Jordan employs its intelligence agency to mobilize regional and international cooperation with sister agencies based on defensive, operational and intelligence strategies to counter takfiri and jihadist groups emanating from crisis ridden Syria. Jordanian intelligence has foiled in 2012, one of the largest terrorist attacks planned on Jordanian; the attack was scheduled to be executed by militants from Syria who intended to attack western diplomats and to detonate explosives in two shopping malls and in the district of Abdoun. In late April 2014, the Jordanian air force destroyed vehicles transporting weapons to the kingdom from Syria. Throughout the last years, Jordan’s GID has intensified actions to alert friendly countries and strategic allies on armed jihadist organizations active in Syria and the possible infiltration of militants to neighboring countries, through unannounced visits and meetings with security strategy makers and implementers in certain Arab countries, and western capitals.

Public Opinion Perspectives

The main characteristic of the GID like all intelligence agencies is that they operate in secrecy, and unlike governments they do not seek popularity or public approval for their activities, nor are they expected to seek popular ratings within public opinion. The secret nature of GID’s tasks and duties limits the ability of any study to explore public opinion perspectives and restricts any opinion poll to general perceptions.  

That said, a Jordanian research center has produced statistical evidence on the level of trustworthiness that GID enjoys within the public, and on relations between different branches of the Jordanian state, civil and military, not based on a single public opinion poll, but on an accumulating amount of data from polls conducted by the center over a 19-year period (2001-2020).

According to them, the General Intelligence Department along with the Armed Forces are the most trusted institutions in Jordan.

Jordanians have come to realize that the security and stability Jordan enjoys is no coincidence, but a result of the efforts of the Jordanian security apparatus, and the GID in particular. This perception has brought the agency that usually operates in secret and seeks no popularity or approval into the limelight as the first line of defense against groups that target Jordan.

As the kingdom has marked its second centennial, the political and security challenges plaguing the region, necessitate the effectiveness of GID’s role in safeguarding the security of Jordan and its state institutions, prerequisite for the kingdom’s sustainable democratization.

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Middle East

Washington’s less than selfless help to Syria

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Now that people everywhere start to realize the need for pacifism, the United States continues to train thousands of militants in Syria, who will later take part in attacks on the government forces.

At al-Tanf military base in the country’s southeast, and in the 55-kilometer security zone around it, still under US control, the American special services are enlisting former militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), now languishing in Kurdish-controlled prisons, to participate in acts of sabotage against the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).

The selection is among persons whose next of kin are currently being held in the ill-famed al-Hol camp in the city of Al-Hasakah. According to available data, 1,500 ex-ISIS fighters from among those captured by the US-led international coalition are already completing their training at a US military  base.

The militants’ main priority is destabilization of the situation in Syria’s central and southern regions, including the establishment of control over the area between the cities of Abu Kemal and Mayadin in Deir ez-Zor province. The armed gangs also attack oil facilities, transport infrastructure, government forces, and mine roads.

The United States also believes that the transfer of terrorists will partially relieve the Kurdish prisons where the number of inmates, captured during constant raids by coalition forces in peaceful quarters has reached 7,000.

Judging by the increased activity of CIA-linked terrorists and saboteurs in the country’s southern provinces, it becomes clear that there is a general plan to undermine the process of a political settlement aimed at restoring peace and ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic.

From a historical perspective, terrorism has been viewed by Washington not so much as something to fight against, as an instrument of its own struggle against geopolitical rivals. Previously, the US recruited former SS members in Germany and their collaborators in Western Ukraine and the Baltic countries to pit them against the Soviet Union. Even though those people were Nazi criminals, many of them found refuge and employment in the United States. The same tactic was used against the USSR and the legitimate government in Afghanistan when outright criminals and terrorists became America’s allies. One of them was Osama bin Laden, who became a US agent and subsequently created al-Qaeda, which, in turn, gave rise to ISIS. Both of these terrorist organizations – the world’s largest – have on many occasions been found to have links to the United States. The years of the Syrian crisis provide additional evidence of this collaboration, and its volume keeps growing. Well, it looks like the Americans never learn from history now that in Syria, for example, they are working ever more closely with Islamic radicals…

America’s “dirty wars” in the Middle East

When it comes to the number of wars waged anytime in history, the United States leaves all other countries far behind. With rare exceptions, American incursions were not justified by any security threats. For the most part those were military interventions that breached international law, caused numerous unnecessary casualties among civilians, destroyed infrastructure and plunged entire nations into chaos.

The root cause of the current unrest in the Middle East was Washington’s ill-considered decision to impose development paths alien to the region.

At the same time, the Americans were quick to realize that by creating long-lasting conflicts they could derive real economic benefits from them. “Controlled chaos” sometimes tends to slip out of control, however, but overall it still remains extremely beneficial for the United States.

In this sense, the Americans have become the greatest source of terror of our day and age. Not a single coup anywhere in the world can be done without the US having a hand in it. Each time the Americans try to force their idea of democracy on others, the result is civil conflicts, chaos, and an upsurge of terrorism. When they invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaeda appeared; when they entered Iraq under a false pretext, it gave rise to Sunni radicalism; when they brought democracy to Syria the result was a protracted civil war and a humanitarian catastrophe.

During the past 15 years, the United States has turned the Middle East into a zone of permanent conflicts and wars.

After the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya was plunged into permanent civil war, losing part of its territory and actually falling apart into several regions controlled by various Islamic groups, including ISIS. Until recently, slave trade flourished in some areas there.

Today, the territory of Libya is peppered with foreign military bases and awash in militants and mercenaries from around the globe – around 20,000 are currently active in the country. Libyan officials are mired in total corruption, and ordinary Libyans suffer all the hardships caused by the war and the raging economic crisis.

In Yemen, the US-inspired civil war, stemming from the conflict between the Houthis and the Saudis has been raging for more than five years now. The country, torn apart by internal conflicts and outside interference by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, has practically lost its statehood.

There is a humanitarian catastrophe now unfolding also in Syria. The country lies in ruins, roughly divided into three parts: the part controlled by Assad (60%); the area to the east of the Euphrates (30%), which is occupied by the Syrian opposition and the remnants of the ISIS army, forced to retreat to the lower valley of the Euphrates; the third region (10%) in Idlib province is controlled by Turkey and its Islamic allies.

The most volatile area is controlled by the Syrian opposition, mainly led by the Syrian Kurds, who have a large, well-armed army. They are supported and actually supplied by the Americans.

Cynicism, lies, and double standards are the keystones of American foreign policy.

From our partner International Affairs

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