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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Which antidote to ISIS?

Rami G Khouri writes: I have no doubt that the single most important, widespread, continuous and still active reason for the birth and spread of the Islamic State mindset is the curse of modern Arab security states that since the 1970s have treated citizens like children that need to be taught obedience and passivity above all else. Other factors played a role in this modern tragedy of statehood across the Arab world, including the threat of Zionism and violent Israeli colonialism (see Gaza today for that continuing tale) and the continuous meddling and military attacks by foreign powers, including the U.S., some European states, Russia and Iran.

In my 45 years in the Arab world observing and writing about the conditions on the ground, the only thing that surprises me now is why such extremist phenomena that have caused the catastrophic collapse of existing states did not happen earlier. At least since around 1970, the average Arab citizen has lived in political, economic and social systems that have offered zero accountability, political rights and participation. States have been characterized by steadily expanding dysfunction and corruption, economic disparities that have driven majorities into chronic poverty, and humiliating inaction or failure in confronting the threats of Zionism and foreign hegemonic ambitions. They have also virtually banned developing one’s full potential in terms of intellect, creativity, public participation, culture and identity.

The Islamic State phenomenon is the latest and perhaps not the final stop on a journey of mass Arab humiliation and dehumanization that has been primarily managed by Arab autocratic regimes that revolve around single families or clans, with immense, continuing support from foreign patrons. Foreign military attacks in Arab countries (Iraq, Libya) have exacerbated this trend, as has Israeli aggression against Palestinians and other Arabs. But the single biggest driver of the kind of criminal Islamist extremism we see in this phenomenon is the predicament of several hundred million individual Arab men and women who find – generation after generation – that in their own societies they are unable to achieve their full humanity or potential, or exercise their full powers of thought and creativity; or, in many cases, obtain basic life needs for their families. [Continue reading...]

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James Foley and fellow freelancers: exploited by pared-back media outlets

Martin Chulov writes: For more than three years now, much of what the world has seen, read and learned about the Middle East has been produced by journalism’s newest hands. They are not recruits, in the true sense of the word: few have the endorsement of established media outlets. Even fewer have been sent to the region with budgets, backing, or even basic training.

But from Tunisia to Syria and all stops in between, freelance reporters and photojournalists have reported history with a determination that old media could rarely match, even during the halcyon days when media organisations could afford to maintain correspondents and bureaux around the world.

Libya was a magnet for many freelancers when insurrection broke out in February 2011. Some had covered the tumult next door in Egypt, others were drawn to journalism, wanting to witness the end of Gaddafi’s cult-like state.

As the battle for east Libya ebbed and flowed around the town of Ajdabiya, the freelancers at times outnumbered the anti-Gaddafi rebels on the frontline. Both groups – with a fair few staff reporters among them – would often surge forward together or scamper for safety when regime forces advanced. James Foley was among them. [Continue reading...]

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A piecemeal parochial approach won’t solve the Middle East crisis

Chris Doyle writes: “The lamps are going out all over the Middle East”, to update Sir Edward Grey’s doom-laden warning to Europe a hundred years ago. The areas of calm and stability seem like small oases in a multitude of firestorms. Many areas are literally without lights. Gaza has around two hours electricity a day. The power cuts in Yemen are worse and worse, leading to major protests. But, more worryingly, the lights of the democratic, liberal, pluralistic forces that for many months in 2011 lit up the region are also dimming, overshadowed by the twin forces of brutal dictatorship and brutal religious sectarian extremism.

Syria and Iraq are divided and near ungovernable, in the waiting room for failed-state status. The so-called Islamic caliphate or Isis, which in reality bears no resemblance to any caliphates of the past, covers an ever-expanding area, larger than the United Kingdom, including 35 per cent of Syria. Libya is being terrorised by rival militias. Palestinians in Gaza, for the fourth time since 2006, are at the wrong end of an Israeli military aggression that pits one of the world’s most sophisticated militaries against a captive population inside the world’s largest prison. The collective pile of rubble from these conflicts would grace a mountain range.

Those states and areas that enjoy calm become refugee camps. Lebanon and Jordan host almost two million Syrian refugees between them, as well as 2.5 million Palestinians. Tunisia is confronted with a mass Libyan exodus; while Iraqi Kurdistan is home to more than 300,000 Iraqis displaced only since June, as well as 220,000 Syrian refugees. In each case, the numbers are rocketing up – with the number of Syrian refugees alone expected to reach four million by the end of the year. Each humanitarian appeal is underfunded.

Will it get worse? The signs are worrying. The fighting in Lebanon last week, in Arsal in the north Bekaa valley, is yet another example of why the Syrian crisis threatens to move from spilling over, to swamping, its smaller neighbour. The instability could spread to Jordan. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states will not be immune to the regional changes.

Given the epidemic of crises in an area of the world vital to our trade, energy and security interests, the minimal expectation would be an energetic and engaged response. Yet, when asked about Western policy towards the region, my instinctive response is, “There is one?”

The failure is first and foremost one of leadership, at an international and regional level. Who are great international statesmen in the West or in the Middle East? Who do young Arabs, who make up most of the population, look to for inspiration? President Obama has been blasted for his indecisiveness but he is not alone. George W Bush and Tony Blair were decisive over Iraq and destroyed the country. There is no strategy, and often the debate is reduced to a question of to bomb or not to bomb. [Continue reading...]

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The false dichotomy between military action and successful diplomacy

Shadi Hamid writes: The Middle East, as a region, is more unstable, divided, and rife with extremism today than it has been at any other point in recent decades. It would make little sense to blame these developments on American military intervention. The past six years have been characterized not by the use of force, but by a very concerted desire on the part of the Obama administration to reduce our regional engagement, in general, and our military footprint in particular.

The presumption was that with the withdrawal from Iraq, a key Arab grievance would be addressed. The Obama administration could, then, re-establish a relationship with the Arab world based on “mutual respect,” leading to a “new beginning.” It wasn’t unreasonable to think this. After all, it was precisely our over-engagement, and the waging of two costly, tragic wars, that appeared to provoke such anger toward the United States. Yet disengagement and detachment haven’t helped matters. Anti-Americanism persists at strikingly high levels and, in a number of countries, attitudes toward the U.S. are more negative under Obama than they were during Bush’s final years.

The Bush administration’s fatal mistake wasn’t military intervention per se, but rather the misapplication of military force under false pretenses. In other words, not all military adventures are created equal: Bad interventions are bad, but good interventions are good.

The two most destructive conflicts in the Middle East today are in Syria and Iraq, two countries that have imploded not because of too much intervention, but because of too little. In Syria, our failure to intervene with air support to help rebels hold territory and targeted military strikes to diminish the regime’s ability to kill not only exacerbated the humanitarian toll, but also undermined “moderates” — who have begged endlessly for the most basic weaponry — and strengthened extremist groups like ISIS. The claim, oft-repeated by opponents of intervention, that “there is no military solution” is a straw man, setting up a false dichotomy between military action and successful diplomacy, when the two, in fact, go hand in hand. Assad has no real incentive to negotiate in good faith in the absence of a credible threat of military force.

Consider ISIS’s recent capture of territory in the strategic Syrian city of Deir Ezzour. The group’s military success had very little to do with hatreds of any kind, ancient or otherwise, and more to do with the failure of the international community to support the rebels of the Free Syrian Army, who warned American officials, including Samantha Power, that ISIS was closing in. For weeks, they pleaded for assistance but were ignored. “The FSA numbers are big, but we don’t have weapons, we don’t have ammunition, we don’t have anything,” complained one FSA commander.

In Iraq, the original sin was the Bush administration’s decision to invade in 2003 (or was it the elder Bush’s failure to back the Iraqi uprising of 1991, effectively allowing Saddam to stay in power?). But, again, there was nothing inevitable about the fall of Mosul to ISIS in June and the eruption of civil war in Iraq. To emphasize, as Obama has, that this is a conflict between Iraqis and must be resolved by Iraqis, is banal and self-evident, but it also implies — in the context of Obama’s broader approach to the region — a certain studied detachment. This is not our civil war, but theirs. Except that the U.S., through a staggering combination of incompetence, neglect, and myopia, is directly implicated in the country’s political deterioration. As Ali Khedery, the longest continuing serving U.S. official in Iraq, writes: “The crisis now gripping Iraq and the Middle East was not only predictable but predicted — and preventable. By looking the other way and unconditionally supporting and arming Maliki, President Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that President Bush unwisely initiated.”

If anything, the lesson of Bosnia, Kosovo, and, for that matter, Rwanda, is that supposedly “primordial” conflicts over religion, sect, and ethnicity are the very ones, due to their intractability and viciousness, that are more likely to require outside military intervention. Ultimately, the end of the Bosnian war did not mean that Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats hated each other any less; it meant that, despite their hate, they would agree to abide by a peace agreement. This return to “politics” would not have been possible without, first, the resort to force by NATO and the international community. [Continue reading...]

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Obama’s foreign policy and the future of the Middle East

Speaking in Washington DC on Monday afternoon, Chas Freeman said: In April, our four-decade-long effort to broker a secure and accepted place for a Jewish state in the Middle East sputtered to a disgraceful end. In the tragicomic final phase of the so-called “peace process,” instead of mediating, the United States negotiated with Israel about the terms of Palestinian capitulation, not with the Palestinians about self-determination. The U.S. effort to broker peace for Israel is now not just dead but so putrid it can’t be shown at a wake. Israel didn’t believe in it, so it killed it. May it rest in peace.

From the outset, Israel used the “peace process” as a distraction while it created facts on the ground in the form of illegal settlements. Israeli expansionism and related policies have now made Israel’s peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians– and, thus, with Israel’s Arab neighbors – impossible. The United States created the moral hazard that enabled Israel to put itself in this ultimately untenable position. Forty years of one-sided American diplomacy aimed at achieving regional and international acceptance for Israel have thus perversely produced the very opposite – increasing international isolation and opprobrium for the Jewish state.

We will now “cover Israel’s back” at the United Nations as its ongoing maltreatment and intermittent muggings of its captive Arab population complete its international delegitimization and ostracism. We will pay a heavy political price for this stand globally, in the Middle East, and very likely in escalating terrorism against Americans abroad and at home. It may satisfy our sense of honor. But it more closely resembles assisted suicide than a strategy for the survival of Israel and our own position in the Middle East. [Continue reading...]

Freeman spoke at the Middle East Policy Council, preceded by Kenneth Pollack, Paul Pillar, and Amin Tarzi — the 77th Capitol Hill Conference can be viewed here.

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Interview with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif

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Shibley Telhami: ‘We are what we have to defend’

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Blame the state for sham Arab democracy

Rami G Khouri writes: The recent string of “elections” across the Arab world raises profound questions about the Arab world’s apparent difficulty in adopting institutions and practices of liberal pluralistic democracies.

But is the problem really about the ability of Arab social values to accommodate democracy, or is there a deeper problem related to the clumsy nature of statehood that has emerged in this region during the past century?

The “elections” I refer to include spectacles in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and the Lebanese presidential election-selection that was not even held on time due to political bickering among the country’s sectarian leaders. The Egyptian, Syrian and Algerian cases repeat the ugly legacy of the modern Arab tradition of family-run security states and dictatorships that put on a show of voting to secure approval ratings of 87 or 93 or 97 percent, complete with adoring crowds of supporters of the “Great Leader.” [Continue reading...]

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Israel wants the Middle East to remain dominated by dictators

Ynet columnist, Smadar Perry, writes: Egyptian polling stations opened Monday morning across the country. Tens of thousands of inspectors-judges, representatives of civil organizations, foreign diplomats and even representatives of the Arab League have arrived to ensure that no one would try to tamper with the ballots.

The truth is that there is no need for that. Barring any dramatic surprises, “Egypt’s strongman,” Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will be the president. All surveys grant the second candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, symbolic success. Sabahi himself is already offering his services, hoping that they’ll just take him, as the prime minister or vice president.

Next week will be the turn of the sweeping victory in Syria. After arranging two anonymous “rivals” for himself and forcibly taking the right to vote from the six million refugees who have run away from him, Bashar Assad will be the “rais” for the third time. He will of course justify himself by saying that “that’s what the nation wants,” and no one will be able to force him to keep promises or create reforms.

The reason is so prosaic: Up until this moment he hasn’t even bothered presenting a political platform or economic programs. He doesn’t have to. Bashar will win for certain, and after the elections, as they say, everything will work out (for him).

In the past few days I have been hearing more and more complaints from people I talk to in the Arab world that Israel – and the criticism focuses constantly on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – only wants dictators in our neighborhood. We democrats don’t care about the Arab Spring, the protests, the terrible economic distress, the refugees and the terror attacks.

My interlocutors present irrefutable proof of their claim, how Israeli messengers are lobbying vigorously, as we speak, for the waiting president al-Sisi among the high echelons of the administration in Washington. Netanyahu, they say instinctively, is insisting on not getting in Bashar’s way. He is the only one he wants in the palace.

Between you and me, they’re right. We’re better off with dictators. [Continue reading...]

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The Ukraine/Crimea crisis: ramifications for the Middle East

Yossi Alpher writes: Israel’s approximately one million Russian speakers maintain close relations with Russia. Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, in the past sought (unsuccessfully) to develop a closer relationship with Russia and its “near abroad” as a counter to Israel’s strategic reliance on the US. Israel’s decision to absent itself from the recent UN General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea rather than vote as usual with the US presumably reflects Lieberman’s policy input.

Israeli strategic thinkers are well attuned to Russian logic regarding the need to invoke extreme measures against Islamist terrorism – one of the rationales for a beefed-up Russian presence in Crimea. Some Israeli Middle East experts find Russian expertise regarding the region more compelling and less likely to confuse ideology with interests than that of the US.

Further, precisely because the Putin government in Moscow does not pressure Jerusalem over the Palestinian issue, Russia’s assertiveness in Crimea – by ostensibly highlighting US, NATO and EU weakness there – is likely to strengthen the hand of the Israeli political right in rebuffing western peace-process-related pressures and boycott/sanction threats. In the same context the Netanyahu government, having watched how the 1994 western commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity was rendered meaningless by Russia, now has an additional rationale for refusing to buy into US and other security guarantees regarding the West Bank and Jordan Valley. On the other hand, Israeli governments since 1967 are themselves no strangers to the concept of unilateral annexation of neighbouring territory. [Continue reading...]

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Saudi Arabia’s military exercise was a goodbye wave to America

Faisal Al Yafai writes: When one of the most powerful militaries in the Middle East holds the largest military exercise in its history, the region and allies would be wise to look beyond the explosions and manoeuvres at the political intent.

Last week’s “Abdullah Sword” military exercises in the north-east of Saudi Arabia brought together 130,000 troops, as well as military jets, helicopters and ships. With the notable exception of Qatar, all the GCC countries were there to observe the exercises, as well as the head of Pakistan’s army.

On the surface, the exercises were timed to coincide with the ninth anniversary of the accession of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. But military movements of this order send messages. But to whom?

The obvious answer is Iran, Saudi’s great regional rival, or one of the three states that the Saudis are most concerned about – Syria, Iraq or Yemen. And it will not have escaped Tehran’s notice that the CSS-2 ballistic missiles that Riyadh paraded for the first time last week can easily reach any part of Iran.

Certainly, a message of strength was being telegraphed to the region. But there was also another one, over the heads of the region, to the United States: if you leave, the region can defend itself. [Continue reading...]

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Syria and the Arab affliction of family rule

o13-iconRami G Khouri writes: Perplexity and despair seem to be the two sentiments that most often define people’s attitudes to the mayhem in Syria.

The fighting by an expanding range of Syrians, backed by a regional and global web of supporters, has reached barbaric proportions in some cases, with civilians largely paying the price.

Refugee and displaced persons flows continue to grow and now account for some 6 million people. While efforts to find a diplomatic breakthrough continue and most interventions by outside forces are focused on providing humanitarian aid to the millions of Syrians in need, a wider web of Arab, Middle Eastern and global actors pump in money and guns to keep the Syrian war going.

Nobody knows what to do and more and more voices are calling for external military intervention to protect civilians or even to topple Bashar Assad’s regime. The impact of the war on neighboring countries is reaching unsustainable levels, especially Jordan and Lebanon. To their credit, the neighbors have kept their borders open to fleeing Syrians, even though these host countries are finding it more and more difficult to absorb any more refugees due to the pressure on their own social infrastructure, such as housing, water, education, and medical care. The host countries have received financial assistance either directly or through the United Nations and other international organizations, but it is well below what is needed.

Perhaps one reason why Arab host countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq keep their borders open is that these countries have all experienced the pain of conflicts that sent many of their own citizens fleeing for shelter in neighboring lands. So we should keep in mind that what is happening in Syria, terrible as it is, should not be seen as an aberration in modern Arab history, but rather represents perhaps the culminating chaos of that history. Syria once referred to itself as “the throbbing heart of Arabism.” That might be an appropriate description in retrospect, because the country’s destruction and implosion today very much mirror those deviant tendencies that have defined the configuration and behavior of so many Arab countries.

Some time in the 1970s, the majority of Arab states left behind their nationalist development aspirations and instead settled into a pattern of conduct that has culminated in the ghastly situation in Syria. The single most debilitating reality of modern Arab history has been the tendency of Arab countries to be ruled by single families that rely on vast security networks to maintain their rule. Single family rule is bad enough; military-security-police states are equally bad. Put them together and you get the core weakness of the modern Arab state system that has seen country after country suffer the scourge of internal war, mass suffering and significant refugee flows. [Continue reading...]

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The Sunni-Shiite divide in the Greater Levant

Giandomenico Picco writes: The entire region from Pakistan to Lebanon — what I refer to as the Greater Levant — has been affected by profound, seismic changes during the course of the last three decades. These began in the late 1970s, in the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran triangle.

Pakistan received the political support of Saudi Arabia, both in its tense standoff with nuclear India and in its increasingly intense relationship with the Soviet Union, which had invaded neighboring Afghanistan in December 1979. The Khomeini revolution (February 1979) in Shiite Iran convinced the Sunni “world” of an epochal change in the making. This little-noticed affair was at the very root of a more open confrontation along sectarian lines. In the mess of the first Afghan War of the 1980s, which I witnessed up close and personal, the underlying Sunni and Shiite conflict was barely noticed by the rest of the world, though it was better perceived in the war between Iran and Iraq in the same decade.

In the 1990s, however, events in Afghanistan revealed the true face of the underlying confrontation between Sunni and Shiite throughout the region. By the mid 1990s, the Taliban, with Pakistani support, began to make their run for total victory in Kabul. Soon the Sunni Afghan tribes (i.e., the Pasthun) and the Shiite Afghan tribes (i.e. the Tajiks and Hazaras), were engaged in open sectarian civil war. The Shiite tribes were supported by Russia and Iran, while the Taliban received support from Pakistan, somewhat from Saudi Arabia and, for a while, from the West, though in a very undecided way.

The tragic events of September 11, which had been masterminded by Sunni men who had trained in Afghanistan, resulted in a new understanding between Iran and the United States. The interests of both countries had coalesced. The 2001 Bonn Agreements between Washington and Tehran revealed that both nations had a common enemy in the Sunni extremists. At the same time, Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun Sunni, became president of Afghanistan and the opposing Tajiiks came back to Kabul and entered into a coalition of sorts with Karzai. While this did not end the sectarian conflict, which continued during and after the U.S. military intervention, post-2001 Afghanistan is an example of a country rife with sectarian conflict, yet one in which compromise of a sort can be sought and even found.

But then came Iraq. Iran welcomed the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, seeing it as payback for 1534, an important, sad date in the Shiite narrative. In that year, Suleiman the First (the Ottoman Sultan) conquered Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and “the land of the two rivers” came under the control of the Sunni minority. Iran felt that the West had inadvertently given them a chance to reclaim Baghdad for the Shiites. Again, the ancient Sunni-Shiite conflict structured events but was little noticed by the West.

Despite vigorous efforts, there has been little progress on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Indeed, there has been no progress at all since Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by one of his own fellow citizens in mid 1995. The longest running conflict in the modern Middle East now seems to have little effect on the day-to-day events of the region. Indeed I would submit that the conflict is no longer pivotal in the region.

There are several reasons for this shift in the prominence and perception of the issue: for one thing, the Cold War came to an end and power struggles in the region were no longer proxy conflicts between the superpowers. Globalization, moreover, has weakened national and nationalistic boundaries and created unprecedented economic interdependence. Technology has made the individual more powerful than he or she has ever been before and the very concept of the nation-state is changing. The simple, two-dimensional worldview of decades past has yielded to recognition of a multiplicity of variables in the Greater Levant. Still, the principal, underlying and organizational dynamic of the entire region is no longer the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but the Sunni-Shiite conflict and its cold and hot wars in every country from the Hindu Kush to the Litani River.

The lead actors in this ongoing drama remain Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. If a new architecture for the entire region is going to be found, then these two countries must take on the responsibility. Yet the chess game between Riyadh and Tehran continues: in Iraq, the Shiites have won a victory of sorts in the West’s defeat of Saddam. Yet Saddam’s Sunni backers in the region do not accept this as the last word. This remains the core line of demarcation for both sides. [Continue reading...]

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Israeli military intelligence sees genuine political change in Iran

Summarizing the assessment of Israeli military intelligence, Haaretz reports: Syria is continuing to fall apart, with forces that oppose the regime now in control of nearly half the country, in the north and the east. But the Assad regime continues to cling to the cities that are important to its survival and maintains a fairly wide corridor that includes the Alawite cities in the northwest of the country, as well as Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and the southern city of Daraa. Last March, Assad seemed to be on the verge of collapse, but was able to recover thanks to massive aid from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Since the victory organized for Assad in June by Hezbollah forces in the town of Qusair, on the Lebanese border, the fighting has become static, with no thrust of momentum or victory by either side. Presently, the opposition looks too weak and divided to topple the regime in the near future.

All the signs are that the upheaval in the Arab world will continue into 2014. The worsening economic situation – which the violence has only aggravated – will likely push more young people into the arms of the jihadist organizations, which will increasingly also clash with Israel on the margins of their main activity.

As for Iran, intelligence discerns a genuine struggle over the future image of the country between the spiritual leader Ali Khamenei and his conservative allies, and a more moderate group headed by the new president, Hassan Rohani. Expert analysis does not view Rohani’s election as a deception by Khamenei intended solely to mislead the West, but rather as an authentic leader who is creating an independent power center. The internal struggle between the blocs in Iran has yet to be resolved, but Rohani enjoys broad public support, despite the clout of the Revolutionary Guards and the senior army officers who are loyal to the spiritual leader.

Haaretz reported in September that on the eve of Netanyahu’s departure for the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the head of MI, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, provided him with an assessment holding that a deep strategic change was being played out in Iran, expressed in Rohani’s election victory in June.

Kochavi appears to be sticking to this opinion. Earlier this month, he presided over a ceremony at which prizes for creative thinking were awarded to intelligence officers. According to a report on Israel Radio, a group of officers from the research division who “identified the change in Iran” received a special certificate of appreciation from Kochavi. Officially, senior Israeli figures such as Netanyahu, Ya’alon and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are scoffing at the change in Tehran and saying that Rohani’s “charm offensive” is simply a mask assumed by the regime solely in order to get relief from the international sanctions. It turns out that MI, without for a moment detracting from the dangers of Iran’s nuclear project and its support for terrorism, thinks otherwise.

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Syria’s civil war tests whether borders drawn less than a century ago will last

The Washington Post reports: That half of his farm lies in Syria and half in Lebanon is a source of mystery and inconvenience for Mohammed al-Jamal, whose family owned the property long before Europeans turned up and drew the lines that created the borders of the modern Middle East.

Jamal has mostly ignored the invisible frontier that runs a few yards from his house — and so did the Syrian civil war when it erupted nearby. Relatives were kidnapped, neighbors volunteered to fight and shells came crashing in, killing some of his cows, injuring three workers and underlining just how meaningless the border is.

“I blame Sykes-Picot for all of it,” said Jamal, referring to the secret 1916 accord between Britain and France to divide up the remnants of the collapsing Ottoman Empire. The result was the creation of nation-states where none had existed before, cutting across family and community ties and laying the foundations for much of the instability that plagues the region to this day.

Less than a century after they were drawn, the durability of those borders — and the nations they formed — is being tested as never before. The war in Syria is spilling into Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Israel, sucking in places that for centuries belonged to a single entity and people whose history, faith and livelihoods transcend the nations in which they were born.

Sunnis from across the region are pouring into Syria to fight alongside the rebels, many in pursuit of extremist ideals aimed at restoring Sunni dominion. Shiites from the same countries are flocking to defend President Bashar al-Assad’s Shiite-affiliated regime, compounding the sectarian dimension of a war that no longer is just about Syria.

Civilians are fleeing in the opposite direction, 2.3 million of them to date, transforming communities lying outside Syria in ways that may be irreversible.

“From Iran to Lebanon, there are no borders anymore,” said Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s minority Druze community. “Officially, they are still there, but will they be a few years from now? If there is more dislocation, the whole of the Middle East will crumble.”

Nobody seriously expects existing borders to be formally redrawn as a result of the ongoing upheaval. But as world powers prepare to gather in Switzerland next month for talks aimed at ending the Syrian conflict, this is a moment every bit as profound as the one that followed World War I when the region’s nations were born, said Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics. [Continue reading...]

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