Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., Grace Wakim & Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D.
Allah Akbar (meaning God is Greatest) is a colloquial expression commonly used by Muslims, especially in the Arab world, to praise God and express commitment to the religion of Islam. Muslims often use the term to express emotions, such as gratitude, fear, and joy.
Sometimes, it is overused and clichéd—to the point of losing its intended meaning—such as when chanted during soccer matches.  To many in the West, Allah Akbar represents a petrifying expression, especially when used in relation to al-Qaeda’s, and now ISIS’, version of their so-called “martyrdom” operations. However, for the people of Mosul, it should now serve as one of the most meaningful phrases. Indeed, as the recapture of Mosul from the Islamic State is drawing to an end, the citizens of Mosul can joyfully repeat this familiar term—and without any terrorism connotations or undertones.
The military assault to recapture Mosul from ISIS started in October 2016. At the time, ICSVE researchers wrote, Competing Interests, Civilian Confusion, Conspiracy Theories and Chaos in the Assault on Mosul. Now, facing liberation, we wonder whether the same observations apply post-liberation? Will the sectarian conflicts that already existed well before ISIS took over territories in Iraq be more accentuated following the fall of ISIS? Can those who lived under ISIS, particularly impressionable youth who have become entrenched in ISIS’ doctrines and their malevolent beliefs, be able to recover? Can they be rehabilitated in detention? If so, can they safely be reintegrated into communities ravaged by the brutalities of ISIS?
Many would argue that by losing Mosul, ISIS lost an important battle. There are still many unknown challenges, however, and celebrations for some have been cut short by worrying signals of potential strife to come. Despite losing their territory, ISIS is still recruiting online while its homegrown and directed “lone wolf” extremists have, and continue to be, deployed around the world. Their threat remains global. Locally speaking, in Iraq, ISIS still has many of their members and supporters hiding out in urban environments and refugee camps, among others. Peshmerga leadership shared with ICSVE researchers that they have pieced together a list of approximately 20,000 ISIS cadres and ISIS affiliates and supporters. This crucial intelligence is being used to target and hunt down such individuals in the region.
ISIS militants are also known to pursue defectors who flee the group, as revealed in our interviews with ISIS prisoners. One Iraqi boy who escaped ISIS in the past year and made it into a refugee camp told ICSVE researchers how his ISIS emir repeatedly contacted him, stalking and telling him that he could not leave and that he needed to act as a sleeper agent. His safety and true separation from the group actually came with arrest. Yet, Iraqi officials, both in Kurdistan and Baghdad, shared that when youth or family members of ISIS cadres are arrested and detained, authorities often face legal, process-related, and ethical barriers in assessing how to deal with them. While at the same time, we heard repeatedly a genuine desire by prison and government officials to rehabilitate and reintegrate youth.
In addition to challenges associated with rebuilding and reconstructing the physical Mosul, the challenge of rewiring the psychological state—at a minimum, to its pre-ISIS capture state—of its residents will remain a daunting task, particularly in the context of children who were molded under ISIS’ tutelage and the wider traumatized population. The citizens of Mosul have witnessed beheadings, hand-cuttings, torture, murders, and other forms of violence. In some cases, some even had to reluctantly participate and engage in these activities. ISIS defectors told ICSVE interviewers how men and women, and even children, were forcibly gathered to watch the beheadings of people on the streets, which represented ISIS’ way of making clear that any resistance was futile and would lead to brutal punishment. The group put big screens up in the streets to inundate residents, including children, with their propaganda videos and atrocities—all framed in terms of glorious actions and with the purpose of desensitizing its residents to violence. Defectors spoke about the normalization of brutality, among both children and adults. One ICSVE interviewed defector expressed concerns about the dangerous effects of violence on children in particular—that is, how they will ever be recovered after having grown up under extreme brutality.
Populations in conflict zones almost always have high rates of traumatization and usually display serious symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Saddam’s Baathist regime, the 2003 U.S.-led coalition invasion, and the post-2003 events that further widened the Sunni-Shia divide and violence are deeply entrenched in Iraq’s collective consciousness, creating a normalcy in repeated traumatization and post-traumatic arousal states among the general population. One woman who escaped to Baghdad after being subjected to the brutal rule of ISIS relayed her inability to stop compulsively washing her hands, and even her hair, sometimes using harsh bleach to attempt to, as she described, “remove from her body, and her mind, the dirty realities of life under ISIS.” Trauma is rife throughout the population, and mental health issues can be expected to be as well.
Recent research by the organization Save the Children revealed that Mosul’s children have shown “dangerous levels of psychological damage,” and even exhibited “toxic stress” signs, all conditions that affect children’s “mental and physical health.” The organization is trying to raise awareness about the issue as well as asking for funding and support from the government of Iraq to provide trained psychologists for the affected populations. Many other organizations are also providing mental health support for internally displaced people, but there still exists a huge need for long-term help, especially in the case of those who are not easy to identify and reach.
According to government officials in Iraq, an estimated half a million youth lived and served under ISIS-dominated territory in Iraq. Some became Cubs of the Caliphate. Others attended ISIS schools where beheadings and brutality served as the norm. Even those kept at home still witnessed atrocities out on the streets. Having the appropriate treatment and care is crucial to prevent those kids who did not get sucked into violence, including those who did, from continuing a path set out by ISIS to continue the cycle of violence and become perpetrators of violence themselves.
ICSVE interviews with government officials and mental healthcare practitioners in Iraq revealed that, generally speaking, Iraqis, and Syrians for that matter, often have strong stigmas against addressing mental illness or pursuing psychological therapy altogether. Equally important, Iraq is bereft of many of the well-trained psychologists and psychiatrists they once had, with many having moved to the Gulf States and Jordan during the 2003 U.S.- led coalition invasion of Iraq. In 2006, when we introduced the Detainee Rehabilitation Program for the U.S. Department of Defense to address the 23,000 detainees and 800 juveniles held at the time in Iraq, we found it difficult to find qualified Iraqi psychologists and social workers. The situation has only worsened since then. How will the psychological problems be dealt with remains yet to be discovered.
Laudably, the Prime Minister’s office in Iraq has already introduced a number of measures focused on education and deploying psychologists to survey teachers and youth in the affected areas to learn how to identify and serve their needs. Similarly, prison officials in Iraq are also looking at how to develop rehabilitation and reintegration programs for youth currently imprisoned who served under ISIS.
There appears to be hope on the part of the government of Iraq to release youth who served under ISIS while their elder cadres who organized and took part in systematic rapes, beheadings, and killings will generally face death sentences. The will of Iraqi officials, both in Kurdistan and Baghdad, to rehabilitate and reintegrate detained youth and the spouses of ISIS cadres and their children who have been detained in camps—with their movements restricted—is laudable. More importantly, such efforts are necessary as this is not a problem that interested parties can overlook or kill their way through—there simply are too many youth and families who have been affected. These are complex issues that require effective rehabilitation and careful release programs that work not only with the youth held in prison but also with their family members and communities to whom they are being released.
A senior police officer in the Mosul region whose brother was abducted by Islamic State militants told journalists, “I am affected — and there are a lot of people who are affected like me…[I] don’t believe that anyone who lost a family member will forget this.”  Indeed, the fact of having served under ISIS is not easily forgivable, even for youth who did not rape, torture, or kill, as well as ISIS family members—including the wives of ISIS members—who did engage in or carried out such atrocities. The fact of having served or having been a family member of cadres in such a heinous organization can make it difficult to be welcomed back or to live safely in one’s community without social stigma or actual revenge occurring.
Arguably, one of the thorny problems is that Iraqi culture assumes a culture of revenge, enacted in the years of absence of adequate safety and security in many areas of Iraq. With the 2003 U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq, Iraqi society has witnessed tribes, militias, and individuals often taking matters of justice into their own hands. Sectarian violence unleashed by Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq slashed open societal rifts that have not yet healed. This was followed by revenge narratives that became especially pronounced during the period of Maliki’s second term in power—often seen as largely responsible for sidelining the Sunni population in Iraq and eventually leading to the rise of ISIS in Iraq. To this this day, such narratives still permeate popular culture on both sides of the sectarian divide.
Revenge attacks and killings continue to occur in post-ISIS Mosul as well. In an area near Mosul, fifteen family members of ISIS cadres were reportedly beaten to death while spouses of ISIS cadres report being terrified. ISIS youth we interviewed in prison in Kurdistan also expressed fears that if released Shia death squads would hunt them down and kill them. Indeed, stories abound of Shia militias who have taken justice into their own hands, throwing ISIS cadres off cliffs and conducting systematic summary executions—to just name a few. There are also reports of young people being detained and brutally attacked while fleeing Mosul without any proof of them being ISIS members. The Associated Press (AP) reported the Iraqi government forces at checkpoints treated those fleeing from Mosul as ISIS’ family members versus as innocent civilians fleeing a terrorist group. Unless addressed, such stereotypes will further widen the gap between the people of Mosul and the rest of the population of Iraq.
One interesting effort at reconciliation and healing has been made to break through the ideological indoctrination and terror techniques that ISIS engaged in and break stereotypes they instilled in the youth of Mosul and the rest of Iraq. This effort brings together hundreds of Sunni young men from Mosul who lived under ISIS rules to meet with Shia’ people from Iraq’s southern provinces. It was made to break the misconception that both groups harbor about each other. The initiative was filmed and is called Hala Bikkon, or You’re Welcome.
The short documentary showcases young men of Mosul who were taught by ISIS that the southerners [Shia’] were their enemy and told to wipe them from the face of the earth, now meeting these Shia in person. One of the young men states, “When Daesh came, we were told that people of the south hated Sunnis, southerners were going to kill us.” While the sectarian strife in Iraq is longstanding, and although many of the young men knew that such characterizations were only partially true, if true at all, they did not feel equipped or courageous enough to argue with Daesh.
That Sunni and Shia citizens alike call today for unity in Iraq and to denounce the ethnic and sectarian division that Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq unleashed after the U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq and that Daesh has been capitalizing on—and trying once again to magnify—is commendable. One of the bus riders optimistically asserted that despite ISIS’ evil indoctrination, “the youth of Mosul have not been influenced by Daesh’s ideology,” instilling hope in the viewer. The filmed visit between the two groups of young men went well, and trips to other places in Iraq are being planned in the future. This and similar initiatives are important and necessary to rebuild unity across sectarian divides that terrorist groups have exploited, but they also have to happen on the higher policy and grassroots levels as well as be reflected in actual governance and security measures. The simple breaking of stereotypes is unlikely to be enough to rebuild confidence and trust between the different ethnic groups who have experienced all the brutality that has transpired.
Any efforts at rehabilitation of ISIS youth, spouses and wider family members must seriously take into account the issue of deep traumatization and family and community reintegration. In a context in which collective punishment is occurring and revenge is at times generalized to anyone connected to ISIS, the government of Iraq will have to find a way to carefully work not only with former cadres and family members they wish to release back into society, but also with their communities, tribes, and wider family members who must be ready and willing to take them back.
Our ICSVE research already revealed setbacks with Yazidi boys, who after being forced into the Cubs of the Caliphate, were released back to their traumatized mothers (who had also witnessed the killings of their family members and who may also have been rape victims). These boys had been ideologically indoctrinated into ISIS, witnessed extreme brutality, were taught to be brutal themselves, and were then released back to their equally traumatized mothers without any good treatment. They are reported to be confused and aggressive while their mothers are unable to cope in the face of these young boys predictably acting out their overwhelming trauma in extreme conduct disorders. In Erbil, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, ICSVE researchers were also informed about a young boy who had been part of ISIS and was released without any adequate planning and preparation while his parents had gone missing. Having nowhere secure to return to, the boy went back to his ISIS connections. Meanwhile, human rights workers, as well as family members of ISIS cadres, report being on the receiving end of threats. They are told to leave, face collective punishments, round-ups, and detention of entire families.
Reconciliation and peacebuilding in post-ISIS Mosul, including post-ISIS Iraq, requires strong political will and determination. Strictly speaking in the context of liberated Mosul, sentiments and attitudes of projecting collective guilt upon those who lived under ISIS must be countered. The manner in which justice and reconciliation is carried out in post-ISIS Mosul will have a huge bearing on the future Shia-Sunni relationship in Iraq. Equally important, while crimes against all communities must be investigated, acts of arbitrary revenge towards select communities must be avoided at all costs. Such crimes must beinvestigated and properly dealt with when they do occur. Security and justice for all is paramount to successful rebuilding. Such an approach is necessary to safeguarding the long-term success of Iraqi forces in defeating ISIS in Mosul, and in the wider Iraq, and to minimize the prospect for the reemergence of conditions that led to the rise of ISIS in the first place. By the same token, those who once lived in the ISIS-held territory in Iraq must begin to trust their government and have confidence in their ability to provide for their security and ensure justice.
Given that in reality it is impossible to eliminate everyone who fell prey to ISIS and who offered support to them, a transparent legal mechanism must be put in place to sort out those who are truly guilty and separate them from those able to be rehabilitated and reintegrated. Robust deradicalization and post-traumatic stress disorder programs then must be introduced to address and heal the wounds that exist in the psyche of young children, families, and wider communities. Failure to rehabilitate and reintegrate the youth, particularly those who lived under ISIS, could jeopardize the long-term success of the successful operation against ISIS in Mosul and potentially result in the return of ISIS or other radical violent elements representing the Sunni struggle in Iraq through violence. Arguably, these rehabilitation efforts are costly and will not be easy to achieve, but the costs of failing are even higher in terms of seeing a resurgence of ISIS or similar to ISIS ideology and violence.
Reference for this Article: Speckhard, A., Wakim, G., & Shajkovci, A. (July 27, 2017) Ensuring a Long-term Win Against ISIS In Mosul: The Need for Rehabilitation, Reintegration & Restoring Security and Justice. ICSVE Research Reports
Grace Wakim – is a Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) working on the ISIS Defectors Interviews Project and providing linguistic and subject matter expertise on the Middle East. She is a native Arabic speaker and has a BA in English with a concentration in Linguistics from George Mason University. She comes from years of experience working in the Arab media where she was a promotion producer for different Arabic channels, including news channels. She is pursuing an advanced degree in International Security.
Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D. – is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. Prior to joining ICSVE, Ardian has spent nearly a decade working in both the private and public sectors, including with international organizations and the media in a post-conflict environment. He is fluent in several languages. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He also holds several professional certifications in the field of homeland security as well as a professional designation for his contributions to the field of homeland security and homeland security efforts in general. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism courses.
 See for example Daniel Engber. Available at http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2006/09/god_is_still_great.html
 ICSVE Interviews with officials at the Ministry of Peshmerga, Sulaymaniyah, Iraq (June 2017).
 Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla. “ISIS Defectors: Inside stories of the terrorist caliphate. Advances Press, LLC, 2016.
 Save the Children (July 5, 2017). “Mosul’s children mentally scared by brutal conflicts,” available at http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/2017-07/mosul%E2%80%99s-children-mentally-scarred-brutal-conflict
 ICSVE interviews with officials in Baghdad, Iraq. “Education in Iraq Post Daesh-ISIL Terror,” Conference (March 29-30, 2017).
 First author personal accounts in Iraq while tasked with the program.
 In both cases ICSVE researchers have been giving their time and expertise to aid in such efforts; Charles Stafford. (July 2017). “Iraqi prison hopes to reform ISIL recruits. “Al-Jazeera. Available at http://www.aljazeera.com/video/news/2017/07/iraqi-prison-hopes-reform-isil-recruits-170721114348232.html
 Anna Lekas Miller. (July 19, 2017). “Revenge attacks on families of ISIS could start a new cycle of violence in Iraq,” The Intercept. Available at https://theintercept.com/2017/07/19/revenge-attacks-on-families-of-isis-members-could-start-a-new-cycle-of-violence-in-iraq/.
 Anna Lekas Miller. “Revenge attacks on families of ISIS could start a new cycle of violence in Iraq.”
 Patrick Cockburn. (July 18, 2017). “More than just revenge: Why ISIS fighters are being thrown off buildings in Mosul.” Independent. Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-mosul-iraq-fighters-killed-thrown-off-buildings-reasons-corruption-revenge-patrick-cockburn-a7845846.html; Zubeda, Personal communication (July 2017).
 Associated Press. (July 2017). “Tensions rise in waning days of Mosul battle.” Available at http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/world/2017/07/05/iraq-mosul/103456696/
 Human Rights Watch. (July 13, 2017).”Iraq: Alleged ISIS families sent to ‘rehabilitation camp:’ Evictions, detentions amount to collective punishment.” The Intercept. Available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/07/13/iraq-alleged-isis-families-sent-rehabilitation-camp; ICSVE researcher personal communication with human rights advocates. Sulaymaniyah, Iraq (June 2017).
Politics by Other Means: A Case Study of the 1991 Gulf War
War has been around since the dawn of man and is spawned by innate human characteristics. Often, when efforts at resolving conflicts fail diplomatically (be it at the nation or international level), war is what follows and seemingly the only other option. As Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military commander and military theorist, once said, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce” and, despite the horror and destruction of war, war is necessary for the conduct of foreign policy. War and physical combat allows for resolutions that cannot come about from any other way, once all legitimate foreign policy tactics have been exhausted. With the U.S. there are an abundant amount of examples showing how direct military conflict has solved a foreign policy problem. The 1991 Gulf War is a prime example.
The Gulf War began in August of 1990, when Iraqi tanks rolled over the Iraqi-Kuwait border, claiming vast oil reserves and annexing the country. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had just come out of the Iran-Iraq War, an almost eight-year, prolonged war of attrition which ended with, “an estimated quarter of a million dead…over 60,000 Iraqis [as] prisoners of war…[and] had run up a debt of over $80 billion…[with] the collapse of world prices meant that Iraq’s oil revenues in 1988 amounted to $11 billion, less than half its 1980 revenue”. Not only this, but Iraq had been fighting what was essentially a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, which involved the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The hundred year plus dispute between Iraq and Kuwait about sections of the border with essential waterways leading to the Gulf, the economic hardships and falling price of oil, the U.S. severing ties with the Middle Eastern nation due to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the fear of decreasing power and influence in the region, and the desire to attain the funding for nuclear weapons programs were all central factors in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
International outcry was swift and critical of Saddam’s actions. This was largely due to the fact that Iraq was now closer to Saudi Arabia and the threat of him and Iraq controlling a substantial portion of the world’s oil reserves was very real. Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, discussed this with NPR, stating, “The stakes in 1990 and ’91 were really rather enormous. Had Saddam Hussein gotten control of the Saudi oil fields, he would have had the world economy by the throat. That was immediately recognized by capitals around the world”. Immediately following the invasion, on August 03, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iraq withdraw from the country and, when Iraq did not abide by this demand, the UN “imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq (The Iraqi government responded by formally annexing Kuwait on August 8)”. The U.S. too engaged and tried to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait by placing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, utilizing this military presence as a deterrent.
Despite such action by the most powerful international foreign policy and diplomatic body in the globe, and diplomatic action on the part of the U.S. and other foreign nations, war still occurred in January of 1991, which eventually pushed Saddam out of Kuwait via aerial and naval bombardment and, by February, had armor and infantry troops rolling towards Baghdad. The question that remains is, was the war necessary to solving the situation in Iraq and did such military action further international foreign policy goals of the United States?
War was the only other option that the United States could take when dealing with Saddam. The United Nations, the Arab League, and the United States had all vitriolically and openly opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. When Iraq tried to open diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis (while not complying with the UN’s order and keeping troops in Kuwait), the U.S. requested that the Iraqis comply with the decree and pull out of Kuwait, following Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s line of thought that concessions to a dictator would strengthen the Iraqi influence and desire for more power.
While the fact that the United States did not try to pursue a diplomatic avenue with Iraq in this matter is certainly an interesting method, it is also understandable. Giving in to Iraq’s desires and granting them concessions when they had flagrantly disregarded international law and violated the sovereignty of a fellow nation state (in addition to committing horrendous crimes against their own population), capitulating to the Iraqi government would have been a mistake. It would have solidified their power and their influence within the region and would have seemingly legitimized their standpoint.
Not only would negotiating on such terms have legitimized their view and stance, but it effectively would have been negotiating with a terrorist. The former Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1989 to 1991, Joseph C. Wilson, (who would later play a key role in the Plame Affair during the Iraq War), discussed how, “several hundred hostages were held by Saddam, 150 Americans as well as another 70 in our care to keep them out of Iraqi hands…There is no doubt that our personnel and our families were at risk, in considerable danger in fact,”. Hussein’s motivation for holding these Americans and others of varying nationalities (notably British) was most probably to utilize them as a deterrent to an attack from the West. Engaging in capitulation and trying to negotiate with someone who was essentially a terrorist (utilizing terror and violence, or the threat of such action, to attain a political goal) was not something that the United States nor the United Kingdom was willing to do under any circumstances.
The United States, in this instance, was dealing with a terrorist and a dictator, a megalomaniac who was determined to reclaim what he believed was rightfully Iraqi territory and gain access to further wealth through illegal means. The potential of his army in securing what were important and essential global financial centers in the Middle East was serious and it is possible he was planning to invade Saudi Arabia at some point. Saad al-Bazzaz, the former head of both the Iraqi News Agency and the Iraqi Radio and Television Establishment in addition to being an aide to Saddam, alleged in 1996 that, “the Iraqi leader ordered the elite Republican Guard to be ready to launch an offensive…nine days after the invasion of Kuwait…The invasion plans called for four divisions, or 120,000 troops, to thrust into the desert to capture oil fields more than 180 miles away”. The fact that Iraqi troops also, in January of 1991, after the initial aerial bombardment, captured the small, Saudi Arabian coastal city of Khafji, lends credence to the idea that Saddam may have been planning something larger. al-Bazzaz also alleged that Saddam again began planning an invasion of Saudi Arabia while the Battle of Khafji was ongoing, but resorted to defense when it was apparent he would lose Kuwait.
Upon the conclusion of the Gulf War, what did the U.S. gain? One of the most significant achievements in the aftermath of the conflict was that the United States was able to create a coalition of military forces (including those from Middle Eastern nations like Syria and Egypt) to side with other nations (former colonizers like France and the United Kingdom) who are often opposed to their conduct of foreign policy or have fraught relationships. As well, the State Department’s Office of the Historian notes, “Although Russia did not commit troops, it joined the United States in condemning Iraq, its long-time client state”. The Office goes on to describe how Secretary of State Baker and his staff went about gathering allies and were instrumental in assisting in diplomatic and coordination efforts for the eventual air and ground campaign. The U.S. gained improved relationships that bonded by the pursuit of an enemy and the removal of a foreign power from a sovereign nation and were further solidified in the UN’s policing of Iraqi airspace and nuclear deproliferation programs.
Often, wars can be prevented and all out avoided through the use of diplomacy and foreign policy. The Vietnam War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, and the Chaco War of the 1930’s between Bolivia and Paraguay are prime examples of when diplomacy should have been utilized to the fullest effect and in which foreign policy officials and avenues for conflict resolution were not fully considered or utilized. However, in this instance, war was the only viable option for removing Saddam from Kuwait and returning the country to its rightful citizens. Negotiating or trying to work with the Iraqi government on the terms they had decided (meaning working with them in a foreign territory they have illegally acquired) would have given their actions an aura of legitimacy and possibly emboldened Saddam to further push the boundaries of international law. By giving Saddam an ultimatum and proceeding with physical combat and engaging in a war, war with Iraq was the correct decision when considering the person and government being dealt with.
Middle Eastern interventionism galore: Neither US nor Chinese policies alleviate
A recent analysis of Middle Eastern states’ interventionist policies suggests that misguided big power approaches have fueled a vicious cycle of interference and instability over the last decade.
Those approaches are abetted, if not encouraged by US and Chinese strategies that are similar, if not essentially the same, just labelled differently. The United States has long opted for regime stability in the Middle East rather than political reform, an approach China adopts under the mum of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.
As a result, both the United States and China de facto signal autocrats that they will not be held accountable for their actions. This week’s US response and Chinese silence about the suspension of democracy in Tunisia illustrates the point.
The policies of the two powers diverge, however, on one key approach: The US, unlike China, frequently identifies one or more regimes, most notably Iran, as a threat to regional security. In doing so, US policy is often shaped by the narrow lens of a frequently demonized ‘enemy’ or hostile power.
The problem with that approach is that it encourages policies that are based on a distorted picture of reality. The Obama administration’s negotiation of a 2015 international nuclear agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program proved that amending those policies constitutes a gargantuan task, albeit one that is gaining traction with more critical trends emerging in both the Democratic Party and among Evangelists.
The recent study, ‘No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,’ published by the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, suggests by implication that China has at the vey least allowed instability to fester in the Middle East that is fueled as much by destabilizing Iranian interventions as by similar actions of various US allies.
The study was authored by researcher Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, the Institute’s co-founder and executive vice president and founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council.
To be sure China may not have been able to influence all interventionist decisions, including the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but potentially could have at times tempered the interventionist inklings of regional players with a more assertive approach rather than remaining aloof and focusing exclusively on economic opportunity.
China demonstrated its willingness and ability to ensure that regional players dance to its tune when it made certain that Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries refrained from criticizing Beijing’s brutal attempt to alter the ethnic and religious identity of its Turkic Muslim population in the north-western province of Xinjiang.
Taking Syria as an example, Li Shaoxian, a former vice president at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, articulated China’s approach in 2016 as Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first visit to the Middle East. “China doesn’t really care who takes the presidency…in the future—as long as that person could stabilize and develop the country, we would agree,” Mr. Li said.
To be fair, the Quincy Institute study focuses on the interventionist policies of Middle Eastern states and recommendations for US policy rather than on China even if the report by implication has consequences for China too.
A key conclusion of the study is that the fallacy of US policy was not only to continue to attempt to batter Iran into submission despite evidence that pressure was not persuading the Islamic republic to buckle under.
It was also a failure to acknowledge that Middle Eastern instability was fueled by interventionist policies of not just one state, Iran, but of six states, five of which are US allies: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The US allies, with the exception of Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar, are perceived as supporters of the regional status quo.
On the other hand, the United States and its allies have long held that Iran’s use of militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen; its intervention in Syria and support of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip; and its armament policies, including its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs, destabilize the Middle East and pose the greatest threat to regional security.
They assert that Iran continues to want to export its revolution. It is an argument that is supported by Iran’s own rhetoric and need to maintain a revolutionary façade.
Middle East scholar Danny Postel challenges the argument in a second paper published this month by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies that seems to bolster the Quincy Institute’s analysis.
“The view of Iran as a ‘revolutionary’ state has been dead for quite some time yet somehow stumbles along and blinds us to what is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East. A brief look at the role Iran has played over the last decade in three countries — Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — reveals a very different picture: not one of a revolutionary but rather of a counter-revolutionary force,” Mr. Postel argues.
The scholar noted that Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian armed groups in Iraq responded in similar ways to mass anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020 in Lebanese and Iraqi cities that transcended sectarian divisions and identified the Iran-aligned factions with widespread corruption that was dragging their countries down.
They attacked the protesters in an attempt to salvage a failed system that served their purpose and suppress what amounted to popular uprisings.
“Do they really think that we would hand over a state, an economy, one that we have built over 15 years? That they can just casually come and take it? Impossible! This is a state that was built with blood,” said an Iraqi official with links to the pro-Iranian militias. A Hezbollah official speaking about Lebanon probably could not have said it better.
Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of a popular revolt is no less counter-revolutionary and illustrative of the length to which Iran is willing to go to protect its interests.
“Indeed, for all the talk of Iran’s ‘disruptive’ role in the region, what the cases of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon reveal is instead an Islamic Republic hell-bent on keeping entrenched political establishments and ruling classes in power while helping them quell popular movements for social justice, democratic rights, and human dignity,” Mr. Postel concludes.
“The idea that Iran is a revolutionary power while Saudi Arabia is a counter-revolutionary power in the region is a stale binary. Both the Islamic Republic and the Saudi Kingdom play counter-revolutionary roles in the Middle East. They are competing counter-revolutionary powers, each pursuing its counter-revolutionary agenda in its respective sphere of influence within the region,” Mr. Postel goes on to say.
Counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt appeared to contradict Mr. Postel in a paper published this week that asserted that Hezbollah remained a revolutionary pro-Iranian force in its regional posture beyond Lebanon.
“Hezbollah’s regional adventurism is most pronounced in its expeditionary forces deployed in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but no less important are the group’s advanced training regimen for other Shi’a militias aligned with Iran, its expansive illicit financing activities across the region, and its procurement, intelligence, cyber, and disinformation activities,” Mr. Levitt said.
Mr. Postel’s analysis in various ways bolsters the Quincy Institute report’s observation that tactics employed by Iran are not uniquely Iranian but have been adopted at various times by all interventionist players in the Middle East.
The Quincy Institute study suggests further that a significant number of instances in the last decade in which Middle Eastern states projected military power beyond their borders involved Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on battlefields that were as much related to competition for regional influence among US allies or the countering of popular movements as they were to rivalry with Iran.
“Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic – and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed in recent years,” the report said.
The report’s publication coincided with the indictment of billionaire Thomas J. Barrack, a one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the UAE, widely seen as another case and form of intervention by a Middle Eastern state.
By implication, the study raises the question whether compartmentalizing security issues like the nuclear question and framing them exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than discussing them in relation to diverging security concerns of all regional players, including Iran, will lead to a sustainable regional security architecture.
There is little indication that thinking in Washington is paying heed to the Quincy Institute study or Mr. Postel’s analysis even though their publication came at an inflection point in negotiations with Iran suspended until President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in mid-August.
That was evident in a proposal put forward this month by former US Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross on how to respond to Iran’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support of armed proxies as well as Mr. Al-Assad as part of the nuclear negotiation. Mr. Ross suggested that the United States sell to Israel the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound mountain-buster capable of destroying hardened underground nuclear facilities.
Members of Congress last year offered legislation that would authorize the sale as a way to maintain Israel’s military edge as the United States moves to reward the UAE for its establishment of diplomatic reltions with Israel by selling it top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets.
The administration is expected to move ahead with the sale of the jets after putting it on hold for review when Joe Biden took office In January.
The Quincy Institute and Mr. Postel’s calls for a paradigm shift in thinking about the Middle East and/or Iran take on added significance in the light of debates about the sustainability of the Iranian clerical regime.
Contrary to suggestions that the regime is teetering on the brink of collapse as the result of sanctions and domestic discontent, most recently evidenced in this month’s protests sparked by water shortages, widely respected Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour argues that the Iranian regime could have a shelf life of at least another generation.
Mr. Sadjadpour draws a comparison to the Soviet Union. “Post-Soviet Russia… didn’t transition from the Soviet Union to a democratic Russia, but it essentially became a new form of authoritarianism which took Communism and replaced it with grievance driven Russia nationalism—led by someone from the ancient regime and a product of the KGB, Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Sadjadpour argues.
“Likewise, if I had to make a prediction in Iran, I think that the next prominent leader is less likely to be an aging cleric—like an Ayatollah Khamenei or Ibrahim Raisi—and more likely to be someone who is a product of either the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s intelligence services. Instead of espousing Shiite nationalism, they will substitute that with Iranian nationalism—or Persian nationalism,” he goes on to say.
An Iranian nationalist regime potentially could contribute to regional stability. It would likely remove the threats of Iranian meddling in the domestic affairs of various Arab countries by empowering Shiite Muslim groups as well as support for political Islam. Iranian nationalism would turn aid to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen into a liability rather than an asset.
Mr. Sadjadpour’s prognosis coupled with the Quincy Institute report suggests that the Biden administration has an opportunity to reframe its Middle East policy in the long-term interests of the United States as well as the region and the international community.
The nuclear talks are one potential entry point to what would amount to the equivalent of turning a supertanker around in the Suez Canal – a gradual process at best rather than an overnight change. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be another.
Concern in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran about the fallout of the withdrawal suggests that stabilizing the greater Middle East in ways that conflicts can be sustainably managed if not resolved creates grounds for China, Russia and the United States to cooperate on what should be a common interest: securing the free flow of oil and gas as well as trade.
China, Russia, and Iran may be bracing themselves for worst case scenarios as the Taliban advance militarily, but the potential for some form of big power cooperation remains.
China scholars Haiyun Ma and I-wei Jennifer Chang note that in the case of Afghanistan “despite the Taliban’s advancement on the ground and its call for Chinese investment, the current military situation and the political process have not yet manifested a power vacuum created by the US retreat, which makes Chinese entry and gains…largely symbolic in nature.”
The Russian bear in Lebanon
It turned out that the Biden-Putin summit on May 16 has established a wider effect than anyone would expect.
It exceeded by far political analysis, especially in Lebanon. The summit almost coincided with the Russian economic delegation’s visit to Beirut on the 18th of the same month and the announcement of its study results to initiate investments projects in Lebanon.
The results revealed the Russian delegation’s future plans in rebuilding the oil refineries in Zahrani and Tripoli and rehabilitating the latter’s port. Regardless of the projects, the Russian companies intend to deal with, if they are approved and encouraged by good signs changes can be relied upon. It means that Lebanon has taken an important leap in its economic policies by gradually moving towards the East.
Naturally, Lebanon’s orientation towards the East “if it happens” will not be absolute and definitive, but rather principled and partial. This is an important matter by itself. It is marked as a qualitative leap that may minimize the private companies’ monopolization of energy imports, which will be directly reflected, firstly, in electricity production in Lebanon, and secondly in facilitating the provision of petroleum products in Lebanon. Such projects became a necessity, in particular, after the collapse of the Lebanese lira against the American dollar.
Logically, changing the reality of the production of electricity will reveal immediate results. It will be reflected in the change in the rehabilitation of the economic infrastructure fields in Lebanon. It will also positively reflect in other vital areas, such as determining the prices of food commodities, which became outrageously high.
Accordingly, one of the most important reasons for the obscene rise in food prices is related to the high costs of transportation in the last month alone. It is almost above the purchasing power of the Lebanese. For example, the prices of vegetables and fruits, a non-imported commodity, which is not supervised by government support, remained within reasonable prices; however, once the diesel prices started rising, it directly affected the prices of the seasonal vegetables and fruits.
In addition, there are unseen accomplishments that will go with the entry of Russian companies, which is creating new job opportunities in Lebanon. Lately, it was reported that unemployment in Lebanon will reach 41.4% this year. It is a huge rate, which the Lebanese media, in general, use to provoke people against the current resigned government. However, it neglects to shed the light on the importance of the Russian investment in creating new job opportunities, which will affect all social groups, whether they were transporters, building workers, porters, cleaners, or university graduates.
The companies coming to Lebanon are directly supported by the Russian state. However, they are private companies, a fact that has its advantages. They are familiarized with dealing with other Western international companies. Russian companies have previously coordinated with French and Italian companies in Lebanon, through contracts concluded for the extraction of gas in Lebanese fields and in other fields outside Lebanon. Russian- European coordination process is also recognized in rebuilding Beirut’s harbor. A German company will rebuild the docks, while the French will rebuild the containers or depots, and the Russian companies will rebuild the wheat silos.
It seems that the process is closely related to the future of Lebanon and the future of the Chinese project, the New Silk Road, [One Road, and One Belt]. However, it is not clear yet whether the Russian companies will be investing in Tripoli’s refinery and in regenerating and expanding its port or it will be invested by the Chinese companies. If this achievement is accomplished, then Tripoli will restore its navigating glorious history. Tripoli was one of the most important ports on the Mediterranean. Additionally, there is a need for the Russian and the Chinese to expand on the warm shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
Secondly, the project will boost Tripoli and its surroundings from the current low economic situation to a prosperous economic one, if the real intentions are there. The results in Tripoli will be read as soon as the projects set foot in the city. Of course, this will establish another Sino-Russian victory in the world of economy and trade, if not in politics as well.
The entry of the Russians and the Chinese into the Lebanese field of commerce has international implications. It will come within international and global agreements or understanding. Nevertheless, it is a sign that the Americans are actually losing their grip on Lebanon. This entry will stop the imposition of a limited number of European-oriented Lebanese monopolizing companies, which have dominated the major Lebanese trade of oil and its products. Dominance is protected with the “illusion” of meaningless international resolution. It is true that the Americans are still maneuvering in several places; however, this is evident to the arbitrariness of decisions making in the U.S. today. It is the confusion resulting from ramifications of the “Sword of Jerusalem” operation in Palestine; it seems that they do not have a clear plan towards policies in the region, other than supporting “Israel”.
If the above is put into action, and the Russian companies start working within a guarantee agreement with the Lebanese state. This means a set of important issues on the international and regional levels. And it also means that the Americans would certainly prefer the Russians to any Chinese or Iranian economic direct cooperation in Lebanon.
Firstly, it is clear that in their meeting Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin reached a kind of consent to activate stability in the region. Two years ago, the Americans had a different plan. According to an established source, the Americans actually intended to strike internal stability in Lebanon and ignite another civil war round, before finalizing stability in Syria. This assertion tunes with David Hale’s, an American envoy to Lebanon, a declaration about the American anger over the $10 billion spent in Lebanon to change the political reality and overthrow Hezbollah from the government. Consequently, the American project is behind us now. Russia and China need to invest in the stability of Lebanon, in order to secure their investments in the process of rebuilding Syria.
Secondly, the Lebanese state guarantee, which the Russians require, is directly related to the lack of confidence in the Lebanese banking policies, which have lost their powers as a guarantor for investments after the role they played since November 17, 2019 till today. It proved the inefficiency of the financial policies of the Lebanese banks, which was based on the principle of usury since the nineties of the last century. In addition, a state guarantee will enable the Russian companies to surpass the American sanctions.
The state guarantee increases the value and importance of the Lebanese state as an entity in the region, and this can be understood from Macron’s statements after the explosion of Beirut port last August when he said that Lebanon’s role in the region as we know it must change.
Thirdly, if we consider the history of international unions in the world, including the European Union, the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council and others, they started as economic alliances before they end as political alliances. Therefore, at this historical stage and in order to work on the economic recovery of Lebanon, which needs more investments instead of falling under the burden of more debts. Lebanon needs to head East towards economic unity with Syria. In cooperating with two superpowers, Lebanon and Syria can form an economic bloc on the Mediterranean shores, a bloc that can get Lebanon out of the vortex of Western absurdity and expand its alliances and horizons to be a real economic and cultural forum where the East and the West can meet.
From our partner Tehran Times
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