An American banker, a Saudi billionaire, and a financial collapse that stunned the Middle East

Nicholas Schmidle writes: When Glenn Stewart enrolled at the University of Oxford, in 1975, he was not a typical first-year student: a twenty-year-old American with mediocre grades, he had taken neither A-level exams nor Oxford’s entrance test. But he had an unusual degree of confidence, and, after securing a strong reference from an English grammar school that he’d attended for a year, he persuaded an Oxford admissions officer to let him in.

Stewart had grown up in the Washington, D.C., suburb of College Park, Maryland, where his father taught chemistry at the University of Maryland. An enterprising kid, he made money on weekends by selling soda in the bleachers at college football games. After Stewart’s junior year in high school, his father went to England on sabbatical and took the family along. As Stewart later wrote in a self-published memoir, “A Gentleman and a Player,” he loved being among foreigners: “I could tell they were bemused by my brashness, never having met a Yank up close before.” After a year at the grammar school, he reluctantly followed his family back home, received his diploma, and completed a couple of semesters at the University of Maryland. America bored him, however, and he sought his fortunes abroad.

At Oxford, Stewart, who was tall and lean, with long brown hair, exuded what one classmate called a “sense of adventure.” He joined a clique of theatre enthusiasts who included Rowan Atkinson, of “Mr. Bean,” and Pierre Audi, a student from Lebanon, who now directs the Dutch National Opera. Audi told me that Stewart had seemed unusually attuned to other cultures. The tumult in the Middle East—the Yom Kippur War, the opec oil embargo — made a strong impression on Stewart. Where others saw a crisis, he glimpsed opportunity. He began intensive study of Arabic and Islamic history. His thesis explored Byzantine-Hamdanid relations in the tenth century and the evolution of the Christian concept of holy war. While Audi was trying to “run away from the Middle East,” he told me, Stewart was charging toward it. [Continue reading…]

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Four active Arab wars stem from a common malaise

Rami G. Khouri writes: The latest war in the Middle East, the Saudi Arabian-led assault on Yemen to prevent the Houthi movement from taking full control of the country, has triggered a fascinating legal and ideological debate about the legitimacy and efficacy of the venture. The significance of this war in Yemen is not really about the legally authorized use of force to ensure a calm Arab future. It is, rather, mainly a testament to the marginalization of the rule of law in many Arab countries in our recent past.

The 10 Arab and Asian countries participating in the fighting have justified it on the basis of assorted legal mechanisms through the Arab League, the United Nations Charter and the Gulf Cooperation Council, which allow countries to come to the life-saving aid of governments threatened by domestic or foreign aggression. The more meaningful and lasting dimension of the Yemen conflict is its expansion of active warfare in collapsing states adjacent to the energy-rich region of the Arabian Peninsula.

I am sickened but mesmerized by the nightly routine of flipping through assorted pan-Arab satellite television channels and following the four active wars that now define many aspects of the Arab world – in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq – with lower intensity fighting and destruction in countries such as Somalia, Egypt, Sudan and Lebanon. In all these fractured lands, violent extremists such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS have put down anchorage and are operating across borders.

The capacity for warfare and other forms of political violence across the region seems unending, just as the mass suffering of civilians seems unlimited. The telltale signs of what these wars are about and why they happen so regularly is evident on the television screens in the human and physical landscapes that are slowly crumbling here and there.

The two most striking images that stay in my mind as I follow the day’s fighting in our four active wars is the primitive condition of our cities and villages, and the equally ravaged condition of our human capital. Streets and sidewalks are caricatures of what they should be, buildings are often simple, unpainted cement block structures with usually informal associations with such amenities as water and electricity. Individuals are often shabbily dressed and drive dilapidated pickup trucks and beat-up old sedans, because they do not have the money to buy anything better. This is not a consequence of the wars; it is the cause of the wars. [Continue reading…]

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Responding to failure: Reorganizing U.S. policies in the Middle East

In a recent speech, Chas W. Freeman said: I want to speak with you today about the Middle East. This is the region where Africa, Asia, and Europe come together. It is also the part of the world where we have been most compellingly reminded that some struggles cannot be won, but there are no struggles that cannot be lost.

It is often said that human beings learn little useful from success but can learn a great deal from defeat. If so, the Middle East now offers a remarkably rich menu of foreign-policy failures for Americans to study.

• Our four-decade-long diplomatic effort to bring peace to the Holy Land sputtered to an ignominious conclusion a year ago.

• Our unconditional political, economic, and military backing of Israel has earned us the enmity of Israel’s enemies even as it has enabled egregiously contemptuous expressions of ingratitude and disrespect for us from Israel itself.

• Our attempts to contain the Iranian revolution have instead empowered it.

• Our military campaigns to pacify the region have destabilized it, dismantled its states, and ignited ferocious wars of religion among its peoples.

• Our efforts to democratize Arab societies have helped to produce anarchy, terrorism, dictatorship, or an indecisive juxtaposition of all three.

• In Iraq, Libya, and Syria we have shown that war does not decide who’s right so much as determine who’s left.

• Our campaign against terrorism with global reach has multiplied our enemies and continuously expanded their areas of operation.

• Our opposition to nuclear proliferation did not prevent Israel from clandestinely developing nuclear weapons and related delivery systems and may not preclude Iran and others from following suit.

• At the global level, our policies in the Middle East have damaged our prestige, weakened our alliances, and gained us a reputation for militaristic fecklessness in the conduct of our foreign affairs. They have also distracted us from challenges elsewhere of equal or greater importance to our national interests.

That’s quite a record.

One can only measure success or failure by reference to what one is trying achieve. So, in practice, what have U.S. objectives been? Are these objectives still valid? If we’ve failed to advance them, what went wrong? What must we do now to have a better chance of success? [Continue reading…]

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How climate change fueled conflict in Syria and threatens the rest of the Middle East

Scientific American reports: Climate change can make storms stronger, cold spells longer and water supplies drier. But can it cause war? A new study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says drought in Syria, exacerbated to record levels by global warming, pushed social unrest in that nation across a line into an open uprising in 2011. The conflict has since become a major civil war with international involvement.

Drying and drought in Syria from 2006 to 2011 — the worst on record there — destroyed agriculture, causing many farm families to migrate to cities. The influx added to social stresses already created by refugees pouring in from the war in Iraq, explains Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who co-authored the study. The drought also pushed up food prices, aggravating poverty. “We’re not saying the drought caused the war,” Seager said. “We’re saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region.”

Seager added that the entire Middle East “faces a drier, hotter climate due to climate change. This will stress water resources and agriculture, and will likely further increase risk of conflict.” Global warming is desiccating the region in two ways: higher temperatures that increase evaporation in already parched soils, and weaker winds that bring less rain from the Mediterranean Sea during the wet season (November to April). [Continue reading…]

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Killing of Jordanian pilot unites the Arab world in anger

The New York Times reports: There was one sentiment that many of the Middle East’s competing clerics, fractious ethnic groups and warring sects could agree on Wednesday: a shared sense of revulsion at the Islamic State’s latest atrocity, burning alive a Jordanian pilot inside a cage.

In Syria, the government denounced the group that has been fighting it for months, but so did Qaeda fighters who oppose both the government and the Islamic State. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian government for once agreed on something, the barbarity of the militant group for the way it murdered the Jordanian, First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh. And in Cairo, Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of the 1,000-year-old Al Azhar institute, was so angered that he called for the Islamic State’s extremists to be “killed, or crucified, or their hands and legs cut off.”

That leading Sunni scholar’s denunciation was even harsher than similar outbursts from the region’s Shiite leaders, theologically the more traditional foes of the Islamic State.

In a way that recent beheadings of hostages had not, the immolation of Lieutenant Kasasbeh set off a regionwide explosion of anger and disgust at the extremists, also known as ISIS or ISIL, or to most Arabs by the word “Daesh.” Even more significant, in a chronically embattled region that bequeathed to the world the expression, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the Islamic State suddenly found itself friendless in the extreme.

Name almost any outrage in the Mideast in decades of them — the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the Achille Lauro hijacking, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the gassing of the Halabja Kurds, the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole — and the protagonists would readily find both apologists and detractors. But with one breathtakingly vicious murder, the Islamic State changed that dynamic, uniting most of the region against it.

Martin Chulov adds: The day after the horrific images of the caged pilot being burned alive were released, the streets of the capital Amman were subdued, except for the crowds that lined the road from the airport to the royal palace to welcome home their monarch King Abdullah from his shortened visit to Washington.

Privately though, inside tea houses, universities, shopping malls and restaurants, people seethed. Radio and television stations played patriotic hymns on high rotation and all 23 minutes of the gruesome images were being widely circulated on social media. Occasionally, passions flared.

“I swear to God we will kill all those pigs,” said Musab Ibrahim, from inside a cafe in Amman’s Old City. “Whatever it takes to finish them is what we will do.”

On a nearby table, four men interrupted a card game to condemn the executioners and eulogise Kasasbeh. “He is our son, he is a hero. All of Jordan is with him and with our king,” said Yousef Barghouti, a primary school principal.

“We are all Hashemites and we are following the government with no reservations in this fight against these godless terrorists,” said another man, Yousf Majid al-Zarbi. “Have you seen that video? I mean really, how in humanity could this be a just punishment for any person?”

At intersections in the heart of Amman, street vendors sold flags and funeral bouquets prepared for Kasasbeh. There were few takers, though. A society that had been gripped for almost a month by the plight of Kasasbeh, and the pleas for mercy from his desperate parents, had seen the raw horror of his death eclipse their worst fears. Ghader Shathra, a nurse, said she had been numbed by the news and the reality that it would likely lead the country to war.

“We have watched as the region has disintegrated. We have taken in almost 2 million refugees and we have hoped it wouldn’t come our way. But sometimes you have to stand and fight. We have no option.”

Sophia Jones reports: despite the king’s vow to wage a “relentless war” against the Islamic State group — a declaration backed by many Jordanians who are demanding revenge for the pilot’s murder — there is an undeniable sense of doubt among other citizens. They question Jordan’s role in the U.S.-led air campaign desperately trying to reel in the group that has claimed large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

“I support this crisis to be solved, not Jordan fighting ISIS,” explained Souheil, a 23-year-old shopkeeper in Amman who referred to the late pilot as Jordan’s “martyr.”

Atef Kawar, a member of the Jordanian parliament representing the kingdom’s Christian minority, also expressed concerns over the United States and other Arab countries invested in combating the Islamic State group.

“I think that we should all unite as one hand to fight terrorism,” he told The WorldPost over the phone. “It’s to our country’s benefit [to be part of the coalition]. But clearly, the coalition doesn’t have a plan.”

Meanwhile, The Guardian reports: The United Arab Emirates has suspended its air attacks against the Islamic State in Syria since the capture of a Jordanian pilot who was burned alive by the jihadi group, it has emerged.

US officials confirmed that the UAE, one of the four Arab states in the anti-Isis coalition, had ceased its participation because of concerns over a lack of contingency plans to rescue downed aircrew.

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The Arab world has no counterforce to the murderers in our midst

Hisham Melhem writes: There is something malignant in the brittle world the Arab peoples inhabit. A murderous, fanatical, atavistic Islamist ideology espoused by Salafi Jihadist killers is sweeping that world and shaking it to its foundations, and the reverberations are felt in faraway continents. On the day the globalized wrath of these assassins claimed the lives of the Charlie Hebdo twelve in Paris, it almost simultaneously claimed the lives of 38 Yemenis in their capital Sana’a, and an undetermined number of victims in Syria and Iraq. Like the Hydra beast of ancient Greece this malignancy has many heads: al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Sunni Salafists and Shiite fanatics, armies and parties of God and militias of the Mahdi. This monstrous ideology has been terrorizing Arab lands long before it visited New York on 9/11, and its butchers assassinated Arab journalists and intellectuals years before committing the Paris massacre of French journalists, cartoonists and police officers.

The devil’s rejects of this ideology engage in wanton ritualistic beheadings while intoxicated with shouts of Allahu Akbar, oblivious to the fact that most of their victims are Muslims. They are perpetuating mass killings and rapes, uprooting ancient communities, declaring war on the great pre-Islamic civilizations and religions of the Fertile Crescent, and managing to turn large swaths of Syria and Iraq into earthly provinces of hell.

The time of the assassins is upon us. And the true tragedy of the Arab and Muslim world today is that there is no organized, legitimate counterforce to oppose these murderers—neither one of governments nor of “moderate” Islam. Nor is there any refuge for those who want to escape the assassins. [Continue reading…]

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In the Middle East, as in France, satire is a weapon against extremists

Nahrain Al-Mousawi writes: In the wake of the deadly attacks on the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, some are portraying the current showdown as one between Western free speech versus an angry and intolerant Islamic world. In fact, it is the Islamic countries of the Middle East that have led the way in attacking the extremists of groups such as Islamic State using the instruments of satire. The use of mockery and caricature as a way of mocking Islamic extremism is, in fact, in some ways far more pronounced in the Middle Eastern media than it is in Europe.

Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) has slaughtered hundreds of Iraqi civilians and soldiers, raped and enslaved hundreds of women, held public crucifixions and stonings in Syria, and staged the executions of U.S. journalists and British aid workers. The group is revolting, abhorrent, and terrifying. But the region on which Islamic State has unleashed its sadistic campaign has responded producing a surprising volume of satire.

On Iraqi state TV, a satirical soap opera dedicated to mocking Islamic State, State of Myth, depicts the gruesome yet absurd “contributions” ISIS fighters and ideology unleash on a fictional town in Iraq, such as a green-energy car-bombing factory– cost-effective, reasonably priced, environment-friendly, and export-ready! All this information is provided by an IS engineer in a TV interview, where the female news announcer has resorted to wearing a sheet while asking questions.

While some claim humor is a way of taking back power – the power to name, to shame – on an uneven playing field, the show appears to be making fun of not only IS’s crude, fumbling, and sadistic methods to gain power, but also the strategic powerlessness of Iraqis trying to play along with, manipulate, and knowingly skirt the cruelty of that blundering power. [Continue reading…]

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Wars and instability prompt biggest migrant wave since World War Two

The Guardian reports: The two “ghost ships” discovered sailing towards the Italian coast last week with hundreds of migrants – but no crew – on board are just the latest symptom of what experts consider to be the world’s largest wave of mass-migration since the end of the second world war.

Wars in Syria, Libya and Iraq, severe repression in Eritrea, and spiralling instability across much of the Arab world have all contributed to the displacement of around 16.7 million refugees worldwide.

A further 33.3 million people are “internally displaced” within their own war-torn countries, forcing many of those originally from the Middle East to cross the lesser evil of the Mediterranean in increasingly dangerous ways, all in the distant hope of a better life in Europe.

“These numbers are unprecedented,” said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration. “In terms of refugees and migrants, nothing has been seen like this since world war two, and even then [the flow of migration] was in the opposite direction.”

European politicians believe they can discourage migrants from crossing the Mediterranean simply by reducing rescue operations. But refugees say that the scale of unrest in the Middle East, including in the countries in which they initially sought sanctuary, leaves them with no option but to take their chances at sea. [Continue reading…]

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The whole world needs feminism, but the Middle East needs it acutely

Elif Shafak writes: After a talk I gave in London a woman in the audience approached me: middle-aged, tall, and wearing a designer dress. Although she agreed with me on various issues she could not understand why I was critical of military takeovers. “In the Middle East a coup d’état is the only way forward,” she said. “If it weren’t for [Egypt’s president] General Sisi, modern women like me, like yourself, would end up in a burka. He’s there to protect the likes of us.”

As I listened to her, I recalled scenes from my childhood in Turkey. I remembered my mother saying that we should be grateful to General Kenan Evren, who led the coup d’état in 1980, for protecting women’s rights. After the military seized power, a number of pro-women steps were taken, including the legalisation of abortion. Yet the coup would eventually bring about massive human rights violations and systematic torture in police headquarters and prisons, particularly against the Kurds, maiming Turkey’s civil society and democracy for decades to come.

Female adulation of male autocrats is widespread throughout the Middle East. I have met Syrian women who have tried to convince me that Bashar al-Assad is the best option for modern women. The Syrian regime seems aware of this rhetoric, recruiting hundreds of so-called Lionesses for National Defense , who are said to be fighting against Islamic fundamentalism and defending women’s freedom. [Continue reading…]

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The anti-imperialist and religious ideology of ISIS

Geneive Abdo and Lulwa Rizkallah write: For many in the West, it seems abhorrent that anyone would voluntarily join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). However, it is only through support from local Iraqi communities that the militants have been able to conquer cities, such as Mosul, while waiting at the gates of Baghdad.

In recent interviews with Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders, the ISIS appeal became more apparent. When ISIS began taking territory in Iraq, “Sunnis had no choice but between fleeing or getting killed or defending themselves. To defend themselves they could either possess weapons or turn to ISIS as an alternative because they had weapons, and followed Islamic thinking,” said one Sunni tribal leader, who travels to Iraq frequently from Jordan, and wished to remain unidentified for his own safety.

While much focus has been centered on the economic incentives ISIS provides, its powerful religious and ideological appeal to Iraqi communities, particularly the younger generation, is perhaps most luring. It is simplistic to dismiss the ISIS Caliphate as neither “Islamic nor a state,” as is often stated in the Arabic press. Among Western governments, the religious dimension of the ISIS appeal is downplayed for two primary reasons: Admitting religion as a role is an acknowledgement that little can be done to stop the spread of ISIS. And two, if ISIS is about religion, then how is it that the vast majority of Muslims condemn the movement?

While it is difficult to clearly state what branch of Islam ISIS follows, many have found commonalities with at least some precepts of the Wahhabi movement of Sunni Islam, founded in Saudi Arabia. Reference is made here to the concepts of takfir, or the rejection of those who are not Muslims, and jihad, waging war against those who are not Muslims, or who are Muslims, but are deemed to reject strict Islamic traditions. One is thus required to identify themselves first and foremost as a Muslim—but a Muslim according to ISIS’ definition, which is not uncontroversial. The duties they then perform are portrayed as religious. [Continue reading…]

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Poll: Arab opinion strongly opposed to ISIS

Christian Science Monitor reports: The Arab public has an overwhelmingly negative view of the Islamic State and a clear majority of Arabs support the goal of the US-led coalition to “degrade and destroy” the extremist Islamist group – even though the same public sees the US and Israel as the biggest beneficiaries of the anti-IS fight.

Those are among the key findings of a poll carried out in seven Arab countries and among Syrian refugees, which the survey’s organizers say is the first serious attempt to gauge Arab opinion concerning IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

“We keep hearing there is fertile ground in Arab society for ISIL [but] there is no love lost for ISIL,” says Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Center of Washington, which conducted the poll, released today, with its parent organization, the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar. [Continue reading…]

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The battle for Kobane offers a glimpse of Kurds’ new model democracy

By Karthick Manoharan, University of Essex

As the battle against Islamic State fighters draws in viewers across the world, there has been some attention given to the men and women resisting them in northern Syria. The Syrian part of Kurdistan, or Rojava, as the Kurds would like to call it, has been fighting Islamists for well over two years now but only recently has the battle for the border town of Kobane brought them to light.

And while it’s easy to portray the Kurdish people as pitted against this new terrorist threat, they are actually involved in something far more profound. Kobane is symbolic and the conflict there carries a universal significance. Not only are the Kurds battling the Islamists, but they are also attempting to create a model of democracy that might actually bring stability to a war-torn region.

The Kurdish political vision is not founded on any particular racial, ethnic, regional or religious belief but rather on an idea, or a set of ideas, that should resonate with people everywhere.

Fighters in Kobane claim to be standing up for the freedom of everyone in the region, be they Kurds, Turks, Arabs or anyone else. The way the fighters in Kobane have challenged stereotypical gender roles is just one example.

As far as religious difference goes, Kobane disproves both Islamophobes who believe the Middle East to be incapable of progress and politically correct Islamophiles who push the patronising idea that religious identity is a top priority for Muslims the world over. In their readiness to defend the Yazidi minority against persecution from IS, the Kurds have essentially been promoting a radical secularism and a vision of tolerance in a region torn by religious strife.

[Read more…]

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How Oman became the Middle East’s indispensable nation

Bilal Y. Saab writes: To many Omanis, it is offensive to openly contemplate life after Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, the widely admired albeit absolute monarch who has been receiving medical treatment in Germany since July. But policymakers elsewhere in the world have no choice but to do just that. The 73-year-old Qaboos is said to have colon cancer and rumors suggest he may not be around for too long. The Omani royal court has said he is recovering from successful surgery, and some say that he will return to Oman in time to attend the annual National Day military parade on November 18. But dark clouds of uncertainty nevertheless hover over the country’s future. And given Qaboos’ importance as a strategic partner for the West — and for Washington in particular — it’s only natural to wonder what will transpire after he is no longer in charge in Muscat.

Oman tends to feature far less in international discussions about the Middle East than other countries in the region. But that is mostly a reflection of its deliberate preference for avoiding the spotlight. Indeed, Oman has long had tremendous strategic significance for Washington — although, unusually for the region, not because of its oil. Rather, it provides a rare regional example of domestic tranquility, cosmopolitanism, religious tolerance, and skillful diplomacy.

The country benefits greatly from its geography. Oman controls the southern half of the Strait of Hormuz — which includes the waterway’s main deep-water channels and shipping lanes — through which approximately 30–40 percent of the world’s oil supplies pass (the other half of the Strait is controlled by Iran). Oman also has an extensive coastline that faces the Indian Ocean, which has allowed the country to become a regional trading hub and spurred a more open society. In recent years, Oman has built the second-biggest dry dock in the Middle East at the strategically important town of Duqm, with quays stretching for 2.5 miles. Given its location, Duqm has a vast advantage over Dubai, a rival regional trade powerhouse: Duqm is not along the Strait of Hormuz, which brings enormous savings in insurance and fuel costs because of Iran’s tendency to threaten to close off the waterway for political reasons.

Oman is also an island of religious moderation and tolerance in the region. The country is religiously distinctive from its neighbors: It is the only one in the Arab world with a population that predominantly adheres to Ibadism (a sect of Islam that is neither Sunni nor Shia); it is also the only Arab country that has developed truly tolerant religious traditions. It is common practice in Oman, for example, for different Muslim sects to pray in one another’s mosques. Amid the violent hostility between Sunni and Shia Muslims elsewhere in the Arab world, Oman offers a model of peaceful coexistence. [Continue reading…]

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The collapse of order in the Middle East

freemanIn a speech delivered in Washington DC today, Chas Freeman said: Da`ish [ISIS] and the 15,000 foreign jihadis it has attracted are an existential threat to Arab societies and a potential menace to Muslim societies everywhere. Da`ish poses no comparable threat to the United States. Some Americans argue therefore that Da`ish doesn’t matter. A few suggest that, because tight oil and shale gas production is making North America energy self-sufficient, what happens in the Middle East as a whole should also no longer matter much to Americans. But the Persian Gulf is where international oil prices are set. If you doubt this, ask an American tight oil producer what’s happening in today’s energy markets and why. Without stability in West Asia, the global economy is also unstable.

Da`ish aspires not only to destroy the states of the Mashriq – the Arab East – but to conquer their territories and use their resources to mount attacks on the United States, European countries, Russia, and China. It wants to get its hands on the world’s major energy reserves. Its depredations are a current threat only to stability in West Asia, but its recruitment efforts are as global as its aspirations. Quite aside from the responsibility the United States bears for creating the conditions in which this dangerous cult could be born and flourish, Da`ish threatens American interests abroad today. It promises to threaten American domestic tranquility tomorrow. It sees inflicting harm on the West as a central element of its mission.

For all these reasons, Da`ish cannot be ignored by the United States or other nations outside the Middle East. It requires a response from us. But Da`ish must be actively countered first and foremost by those it targets within the region, not by the United States and its Western allies. This means that our response must be measured, limited, and calculated to avoid relieving regional players of the primary responsibility for protecting themselves from the menace to them that Da`ish represents.

Muslims – whether Shiite or Sunni or Arab, Kurd, Persian, or Turk – now have an expanding piece of Hell in their part of the Earth, a growing foulness near the center of Islam. It is almost certainly a greater threat to all of them than they have ever posed to each other. Da`ish will not be contained and defeated unless the nations and sects on its regional target list – Shiite and Sunni alike – all do their part. We should not delude ourselves. The obstacles to this happening are formidable.

Virtually every group now fighting or being victimized in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon has engaged in or been accused of terrorism by the others. Sectarian violence continues to stoke hatred in the region. The religious animosities between Shi`ites and Sunnis are more intense than ever. The geopolitical rivalry between Iran and the Gulf Arabs remains acute. The political resentments between Turks, Kurds, and Arabs and between Arabs and Persians are entrenched. Each describes the other as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Unity of command, discipline, and morale are the keys to both military and political success. Da`ish has all three. Its opponents do not. Some are dedicated to the defense of Shiite privilege. Others assign priority to dislodging Shiite or secular authority. Some insist on regime change. Others seek to prevent it. A few support Islamist democratic movements. Others seek to suppress and eradicate them. Some fear terrorism from the victims and enemies of Da`ish more than they fear Da`ish itself. Most treat opposing Da`ish as a secondary strategic objective or a means of enlisting American and other foreign support in the achievement of other priorities, not as their primary aim.

With few exceptions, the states of the region have habitually looked to outside powers for leadership as well as firepower and manpower with which to respond to major security challenges. Despite vast imports of foreign weapons systems, confidence in outside backing has enabled the countries in the region to assume that they could avoid ultimate responsibility for their own defense, relying instead on their ability to summon their American and European security partners in times of crisis. But only a coalition with a strong Muslim identity can hope to contain and shrink Da`ish.

There is no such coalition at present. Every actor in the region has an agenda that is only partially congruent with the Da`ish-related agendas of others. And every actor focuses on the reasons it cannot abide or work with some or all of the others, not on exploring the points it has in common with them. [Continue reading…]

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Kobane: A victim of selective outrage

Nervana Mahmoud writes: The city of Kobani is falling in front of our eyes. The black flags of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have been slowly spreading above the buildings of this unfortunate Kurdish town in northern Syria. Sooner or later the resistance of the Kurdish fighters that are currently heroically trying to defend Kobani will crumble against an avalanche of medieval barbarism from ISIS, which is doubly fortified with modern weaponry. The tragedy of Kobani may seem irrelevant in the wider context of the turbulent Middle East, however, it highlights clearly the flawed thinking process of many in the Arab world, and alarmingly also in Turkey.

Compare the muted response to the beheading of female Kurdish fighters, or the rape and forced marriages of Yazidi women by ISIS fighters to the loud, angry responses that have — rightly — erupted following the recent Israeli aggression in Gaza. The baffling silence is even more problematic when both Muslim regimes and the public, unanimously agree that ISIS does not represent Islam and that its sick actions are non-Islamic. Imagine if Israel beheaded three female Palestinian suicide bombers? The reactions would probably exceed any expectations, from flooding the streets of Western cities with thousands of protestors to even violent attacks against Israeli targets around the globe. Understandable? Yes the innocent loss of lives and siege of Gaza are despicable, but why not the same depth of anger for Kurds? The answers lies within our selfish duplicity, we care only about fellow Arabs, but we rail against others when they do not care about us.

The reasons behind our selectivity and bias lies deep in the post-colonial nationalism and Islamism that has spread throughout the Middle East since the mid part of the twentieth century. [Continue reading…]

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Why Obama has picked the worst allies for his war on ISIS

Rami G Khouri writes: President Barack Obama’s bold move to lead a coalition of countries to degrade, contain and defeat the “Islamic State” group in Syria and Iraq through a combination of military and political means is sensible in principle, but it is likely to run into a serious problem — one that has plagued other such endeavors.

The combination of foreign-led military power and local Arab government partners that must anchor a successful attack to vanquish the Islamic State is the precise combination of forces that originally midwifed the birth of Al-Qaeda in the 1980s and later spawned its derivative — the Islamic State — today.

The United States and its fighting partners in the Middle East and abroad face two profound dilemmas that have no easy answer.

First, the combination of American militarism and Middle Eastern (mostly Arab) autocratic regimes can certainly contain and rattle the Islamic State in the short run, but in the long run, as recent history confirms, it is likely to generate new, more dangerous and more widely dispersed groups of militants and terrorists.

Second, there is no easy way, and few other options, in the short run to contain ISIS today before it spreads further and causes more damage to the region, so there seems to be no alternative now but to repeat the questionable patterns of the last 20 years of war against Al-Qaeda and its successors.

The biggest weakness in Obama’s coalition is its Arab members, all of whom are autocratic and paternalistic states that share several embarrassing traits:

  • They are reluctant to use their formidable military arsenals in the fight against ISIS, either from political fear or technical weaknesses;
  • They face strong problems with their own public opinions at home that are very dubious about partnering with the American military;
  • Their own mistreatment of some of their prisoners in their jails incubated the birth of Al-Qaeda in the 1980s;
  • Their sustained mismanagement of social, economic and political development in the past 40 years was the leading contributor to the mass grievances that sparked large-scale Islamism and emigration from the 1970s, the retreat of the state from some quarters of society, and the birth of militias, tribal groupings, and criminal gangs as powerful new actors in society.

The most troubling symbol of how hard it is for Arab regimes to fight the Islamic State and other such phenomena is the Arab jails in the 1980s and 90s that were the incubators for many of the early recruits and leaders of Al-Qaeda. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: Secretary of state John Kerry said on Saturday that Egypt has a critical role to play in countering the ideology of Islamic State, the militant group known as Isis.

Kerry was speaking in Cairo as part of a regional tour to build support for President Barack Obama’s plan to strike both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi frontier, defeat Isis Sunni fighters and build a coalition for a potentially complex military campaign in the heart of the Middle East.

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America’s island mentality

“Traveling in Europe made me understand that America has an island mentality: No one exists except us. There’s a whole other world out there, but most Americans – all they know is America” — will.i.am

A recent Pew poll asked Americans about what they perceive as “global threats facing the U.S.” the threat from ISIS being among them. The news is that 67% of Americans view ISIS as a major threat to the U.S. — a threat only exceeded by the threat from “Islamic extremist groups like Al Qaeda.”

I guess that after more than a decade of indoctrination in which we have been led to regard Al Qaeda as the purest distillation of evil ever known, it will take some time for the average American to accept the idea that there could actually be anything worse than Al Qaeda.

Even so, the fact that most Americans now perceive ISIS as a major threat doesn’t really reveal a whole lot more than the fact that most Americans watch television.

What I find more interesting than the numbers is the premise behind the pollster’s question: that something could be a global threat and yet not necessarily be a threat to America.

This is a reflection of the prevailing mentality among Americans: that America and the world are in some sense separable.

America can be engaged with or disengaged from the rest of the world because, supposedly, if we are so inclined, the rest of the world can be shut out while America tends to its own affairs.

Is it any wonder that a nation that has such difficulty in seeing itself as part of and as inseparable from the world, also has difficulty viewing climate change — the greatest challenge facing our planet — as a threat?

The Pew poll found that 52% of Americans view the spread of infectious diseases as a threat to the U.S., lower, for instance, than the perceived threat from North Korea’s nuclear program.

No doubt for most people being questioned, when it comes to infectious diseases the issue of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa will have been uppermost in their minds.

President Obama’s announcement on Sunday about a U.S. response to the crisis again reflects America’s island mentality. This is how he framed the urgency of the issue:

“If we don’t make that effort now, and this spreads not just through Africa but other parts of the world, there’s the prospect then that the virus mutates. It becomes more easily transmittable. And then it could be a serious danger to the United States.”

He also said, “We have to make this a national security priority.”

For the United States, the Ebola outbreak is less of a humanitarian issue than it is a threat to America’s security.

It’s as though if health workers in Africa could guarantee that the disease was contained and there was no risk of it spreading overseas, then the U.S. would have no reason to be concerned.

America sees itself as a generous country, in part because Americans have a staggering level of ignorance about how much foreign aid the U.S. grants.

Americans on average believe that 28% of the federal budget — more than is spent on defense — is spent on foreign aid when in reality it is just 1%! When informed about actual spending, the majority of Americans say that 1% is about right or too much — only 28% say that 1% of the budget is too little.

What these numbers imply is that most Americans perceive the world as a drain on this nation’s resources. Having been led from birth to believe that this is the greatest nation on earth, how could the rest of the world be perceived otherwise?

When Obama lays out his strategy for dealing with ISIS this evening, it goes without saying that one of the central pillars of his argument will be that this organization poses a threat to America’s national security. To present ISIS in any other way would risk implying that the threat which ISIS poses across the Middle East constitutes a sufficiently urgent threat that even if it was to advance no further, this should nevertheless concern Americans. Such an argument would likely elicit a shrug — we don’t live in the Middle East so why should we care?

The idea that we might care because we all live on the same planet, breath the same air, and inhabit the same world, has little traction in the hearts and minds of Americans who see the world as somewhere else.

The idea that those whose lives are not in danger have a responsibility to pay attention to the needs of those in peril, is a humanitarian impulse which in an era of unquestioned realism, is always a lower priority than the national interest.

Returning to the question about global threats, rather than ask Americans a conceptually mangled question about threats to the U.S., it might have been more interesting to try and gauge awareness about actual global threats, which is to say, threats that are global in scale.

These would be — at least by my reckoning:

  • the excessive production of greenhouse gases by human activity resulting in climate change
  • the Holocene extinction — the mass extinction of species and loss of biodiversity that has resulted from human activity
  • population displacement which now exceeds 50 million people, the largest number since World War II
  • industrialized agriculture involving the use of toxic pesticides and genetically modified crops which poisons the food chain, degrades ecosystems, resulting in the loss of topsoil thereby undermining the basis for agriculture
  • nuclear weapons both in existing arsenals and through proliferation
  • infectious diseases including antibiotic resistant superbugs
  • chronic illness caused by unhealthy lifestyles, poor nutrition, and profit driven pharmaceutical protocols promoted by the disease-maintenance industry
  • racism and other forms of intolerance which undermine the growth of political pluralism
  • the endangered ethnosphere in which the accumulated knowledge of indigenous peoples, their languages and cultures is rapidly being lost
  • homogenized global culture in which human aspirations are manipulated in the service of commerce
  • technological dependence through which intelligence is being displaced from minds into devices
  • inequality stemming from inadequate political representation and excessive corporate power
  • ignorance resulting in the proliferation of all the above threats.

Compared with these issues, I don’t believe that ISIS constitutes a global threat, yet it nevertheless poses an urgent threat calling for a global response — a response that should not be artificially separated from the need to envision a post-war Syria.

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The existential threat posed by ISIS to the Middle East and beyond

Gareth Stansfield writes: ISIS have exposed a great strategic illusion/miscalculation by Western powers. This is to say that the West is clinging to a traditional, statist response to a cross-border terrorist/insurgent threat from a non-state actor. This is actually a choice of the West not to recognise the expanding threat not because ‘we’ cannot see it, but because political leaders are scared to acknowledge it – scared by the still-fresh memories of the public backlash following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and scared by the prospect of engaging in the no-win world of Middle East politics. But the situation now is different to then. ISIS is a terrorist organisation (and a spectacularly effective one) and remains border-less. But it has also acquired a substantial chunk of territory (a development which is convincing – insofar as it substantiates the idea of the caliphate – to impressionable recruits). So we have supremely violent, ideologically rampant terrorism fused with a new, border-less version of something like a modern state. This is a new development and one that seems to be studiously, and perilously, ignored.

It is not possible to defeat ISIS by attacking their forward-placed troops on the Great Zab river as they look east towards Erbil: the ‘state’ itself would have to be targeted at its points of concentration – Mosul, Fallujah, Raqqa, Hassekeh – if the challenge of ISIS is to be met. If one were to be privy to ISIS strategy meetings around Ibrahim al-Baghdadi and his policy team in Raqqa, (and, unlike everyone else, they have articulated their vision, they do seem to have a strategy, and they certainly have policies) one would probably see a plan that sees ISIS grow in the Middle East through a combination of pushing the message of their success and thus seeing recruitment grow and neighbouring states undermined. It would be combined with an aggressive policy of territorial expansion, with Lebanon and Jordan both being prime targets. Indeed, the black flag of ISIS has already been raised in these countries.

ISIS therefore do not play by the rules of the game that still underpin much of the West’s responses to such challenges. They are making a new rule book – one that combines the most modern approaches of strategic planning, media messaging, psychological warfare, and counter-insurgency (consider how they have shut down opposition among their close partners/potential threats and implemented their own version of identifying those who could be ‘reconciled’, and those who are ‘irreconcilables’ – a technique perfected by the US in Iraq in 2007-8), with the most brutal, inhuman techniques of control imaginable. Their methods then see the organisation grow either because some followers are genuinely impressed by what is seem to be a strong organisation for once being able to stand up for them, or because some are simply too fearful of the consequences of not being in the biggest and nastiest gang around.

As their plan has unfolded, ISIS have brought two thresholds forward – one is their own advance and the reformation of realities on the ground on the Middle East; the second is the reaction of Western populations and the pressure they could bring to bear on their governments to take actions to roll back ISIS.

The question to ask now is simply which threshold will be passed first? Will ISIS succeed and strengthen the so-called Caliphate so it can no longer be dismissed as the fantasy of a self-proclaimed leader on a remarkably lucky streak, or will the international community recognise the threat of ISIS as being an actor with real agency and with aspirations that are absolutely antagonistic not only to Western interests, but to allies in the Middle East, and stop them? Neither prospect is palatable, but then neither, it seems, is muddling through and banally hoping for the best.

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