Advice for the incoming president

is-barrack-obama-a-bad-presidentA new US president is two years away. The current president’s Middle East policy is significant for its repeated failures. Here, I offer advice for the next president. Before doing so, I would point out that globalisation has impacted on the Middle East, too, and few problems there can be analysed or resolved in isolation from broader Middle Eastern and external actors and influences. Second, the basic wants and needs of major players in the region will remain as they are now. This lets us plot a Middle East strategy for an incoming president.

America’s strategic interests
American strategic interests in the Middle East are few and simple: security for Israel; unrestricted flow of energy sources for the global economy; stability and security for those countries that seek to help the US pursue its interests; and a weakening of those parties that oppose US interests. Second-tier interests include the establishment of a Palestinian state and the spread of human rights in the region. These second tier interests cannot contradict the first. This is why, to date, there is no Palestinian state and human rights are only protected in one Middle Eastern country, Israel.

These interests have not changed in decades. What has changed over time is the priority placed on these interests by different administrations and circumstance, and the consequent willingness and ability to pursue these interests. In recent decades, Iran and those parties it sponsors have become the principal challenge to US interests. The US should challenge Iran on as many fronts as possible. Russia has also re-emerged as a challenge to US interests in the region.

I would argue that a new president (either Republican or Democrat), together with a Republican-heavy Congress, will face the right strategic circumstances to stitch together a grand bargain.

Over a period of 12 to 18 months, quiet but intensive diplomacy and action should send strong messages to key regional players. America will demand concrete actions from friendly parties (and tie these demands to implied or stated threats of withheld American financial or military assistance), but will also make numerous promises to key parties.

What do the major players want?
Israel

  • Security, with or without the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza

The Status Quo Bloc (in particular, Egypt and Saudi Arabia)

  • No threats to their internal stability
  • To see Iran weak and contained
  • A reversal of fortunes for organised Islamist groups, including Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Islamic State
  • No independence or autonomy for non-Arab Sunni religious or ethnic minorities anywhere in Middle East (e.g. Kurds)

Iran

  • No threats to its internal stability
  • To be the regional hegemon
  • To export its revolution to Shi’ite majority countries / areas
  • To see Israel weakened and destroyed
  • To see America exit the Middle East
  • To see organised Sunni Islamist groups emboldened in or adjacent to countries at odds with Iran (Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia
  • A reversal of fortunes for Islamic State

Kurds (noting they are divided)

  • Independence or autonomy in areas where they are the majority (e.g. Parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria)

Palestinians – Fatah

  • Political survival, maintenance of control of Palestinian Authority
  • Re-establishment of authority over Gaza / weakening of Hamas
  • Palestinian state in West Bank and Gaza regardless of concessions made, though with an eye on political survival (which requires no concessions)

Palestinians – Hamas

  • Expanded unrest in West Bank, Jerusalem and rest of Israel
  • Weakening of Fatah

Islamic State

  • Expansion and consolidation of its control
  • Recognition by increasing number of jihadi groups

Muslim Brotherhood

  • Popular dissatisfaction of rulers in Sunni countries

What America should demand from each party
Israel

  • Act forcefully to stop settler ‘price tag’ attacks
  • Free, without pre-conditions, a few dozen Fatah prisoners
  • Announce that it will only allow building in areas it believes it will retain in a final status agreement with the Palestinians, forcefully prevent building in all other settlement areas
  • Transfer some parts of the West Bank under full Israeli administrative and security control (Area C) to Area B (i.e. to Palestinian administrative control)
  • More building approvals for East Jerusalem Arabs
  • A publicly expressed willingness to meet with Arab officials or leaders to discuss the Saudi peace initiative
  • An expressed willingness to recognise the ‘State of Palestine’ in a reciprocal arrangement for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the ‘Jewish state’

The idea is to provide Fatah with some victories as a result of diplomacy, not violence

Fatah

  • No more incitement or implied encouragement of violence in Government-owned media
  • No more implied encouragement of lone wolf or any other attacks against civilians (including settlers) or soldiers by anyone paid a wage for or by Fatah
  • No more unilateral actions vis-a-vis the UN and other multilateral organisations
  • Renewed attempts to fight corruption, including within Fatah
  • A positive reply to the Israeli suggestion of mutual recognition

The idea is to provide certainty to Israel that the Palestinian leadership has reconciled itself to Israel’s ongoing existence

Saudi Arabia

  • An announcement that it (preferably under a Gulf Cooperation Council or Arab League label) will open a trade office in (East) Jerusalem, to deal with the Palestinian Authority and Israel
  • A (secret) commitment to keep down oil prices

The idea is to provide a diplomatic umbrella under which the Palestinians can make concessions, and to place economic pressure on Iran and Russia

Egypt

  • A commitment that it is willing to transfer a small part of northern Sinai to Gaza to help over-crowding, but only as part of a final status Israel-Palestinian agreement

The idea is to hold out the promise of a viable Gaza Strip 

Status Quo Bloc generally

  • Statements welcoming a long-term US military presence in the Middle East as a guarantee against those parties that attempt to undermine sovereignty
  • Noticeably fewer anti-Israel resolutions in UN bodies, particularly the General Assembly and Human Rights Council

The idea is that in exchange for renewed American security commitment to the Middle East, Middle Eastern countries will not pretend to their publics that they do not want the US there, and to give Israel assurances of Arab acceptance of Israel’s permanency

Iraq

  • Constitutional reform to allow greater rights and influence of Sunni tribes in their regions
  • Removal of Iranian financial and military assistance, with the threat that all US assistance will be removed otherwise
  • Iraqi cooperation can also be obtained with an American threat to aid in secessionist movements (e.g. Kurds) if Iraqi cooperation is not forthcoming

The idea is remove Iraq from Iran’s sphere of influence and help prevent internal conditions that make it susceptible to internal or external undermining

What America should promise, either publicly or privately, as necessary

  • A renewed and forceful commitment that it will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons or ‘breakout capacity’, and that sanctions relief will come as a result of good Iranian behaviour, not as an attempt to elicit good behaviour
  • Renewed funding and training for Iranian human rights and democratic agitators
  • Diplomatic and military assistance for parties fighting Iranian-backed terrorist groups and militias
  • A willingness to look the other way (within limits) as Status Quo countries shore up internal stability by preventing organised Islamist groups (such as Muslim Brotherhood) from gaining ground
  • A renewed promise to Israel not to allow the UN Security Council and other UN bodies (the latter through threats to funding) to hurt Israel if Israel responds to attacks by Hamas or Hezbollah
  • A renewed commitment that America will prevent creeping recognition of Hamas’s permanency, with concomitant commitment that if Hamas accepts Quartet demands (recognition of Israel, renunciation of terror, recognition of past Israel-PLO agreements), US and Israel will accept it, trade with Gaza, etc
  • A renewed willingness to use American military power (including boots on the ground) to preserve or re-instate sovereignty of the region’s countries, but only in active (i.e. boots on the ground) cooperation with relevant militaries
  • An understanding with Russia to allow eastern Ukraine to secede from Kiev in exchange for cancellation of contracts with Iran in regards to the Bushehr nuclear reactor and air defence weaponry. NATO will cease expanding eastwards. Russian involvement with Syria, especially including its military presence at Lartaka, will no longer be challenged. A commitment that, once Iran is properly contained, the US will work with Saudi Arabia to raise oil prices

The idea is to weaken and contain Iran, to convince America’s friends that it will protect them while making clear it’s a two-way relationship, to allow Russia a renewed ‘privileged sphere of influence’ (à la the Cold War) while making clear the US sees the Middle East as its own privileged sphere of influence

Postscript – there is almost no mention in here of Syria. This is not an oversight. There is currently no party aligned with US interests that has a chance of winning. The US should only involve itself militarily to pursue its own interests, and should do so where the outcome and exit strategy is certain. Serious, boots-on-the-ground involvement should only occur in active cooperation with Arab states and, again, only when the outcome and exit strategy are clear and align with American interests.

Islamic State, the US intervention and Australia

Bill Leak - The Australian

The Royal Australian Air Force and Special Air Service are involved in a US-led coalition that is seeking to ‘disrupt and degrade’, in US President Obama’s words, the Islamic State (IS). Australia’s commitment is fairly minimal. The air force is bombing targets in Iraq and the SAS—not yet deployed—will train and assist Iraqi forces, but not actually fight. While this blogger isn’t particularly opposed to military interventions that either advance or defend the national interest, I would argue that this particular intervention does neither, beyond alliance maintenance. As such, I think it is a waste of time, money and, possibly, lives.

Before I get to the wisdom of the Australian commitment, I will discuss the threat posed by IS and the reason for American intervention.

What is IS?
IS used to be known as ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and, before that, as Islamic State in Iraq (before it joined the Syrian civil war). It was al-qaeda’s franchise in Iraq (and, later, Syria), but ideological and personal differences between the ISIL and al-qaeda leadership saw the former ejected from the latter.

In June this year, ISIL announced the formation of a new Islamic caliphate in areas under its control, which span the Iraq–Syria border. It shortened its name to Islamic State, in part because the border between Syria and Iraq (and even the name Syria) is a colonial imposition.

Why won’t it last?
Notwithstanding its military successes and slick media presence (the reason, in part, so many people know about it, despite it being only one of over 1500 militias active in Syria), IS does not pose the long-term threat that media suggest; its (lack of) longevity is tied to its recruitment methods and fighting ability, and its lack of constituency.

Most IS fighters are not from the areas that IS controls. Indeed, many IS fighters are from other countries, including Australia. However, Australian and other international jihadis have fought with plenty of different groups in Syria; they flock to who they think is winning. Moreover, IS is able to pay its fighters because of all the gold and money it obtained when it overran Iraqi banks earlier this year. Jihadi doctrine aside, being able to pay one’s fighters is an important recruiting agent among Syrian-based militias. If and when Islamic State starts to lose (or lose the ability to pay its fighters), its fighters will desert.

Although IS has scored some impressive military victories, including against the Iraqi army, it remains that most of the people it fights are poorly disciplined, poorly trained and poorly armed. The Iraqi army fits two of these categories. If IS were to come up against a well-trained army, it would not win. That is why it is having trouble overcoming Kurds (both in Syria and Iraq), as these forces are highly disciplined and motivated.

Most importantly, IS lacks constituency. It has imposed its rule on its subjects, and kills or enslaves anyone who outwardly disagrees with it, or who is not a Sunni Arab. And while it is attempting to win hearts and minds among Sunni Arabs in the short term (such as by supplying law and order, reconstruction of infrastructure, education (according to its strict Islamist interpretation) and social services, IS offers nothing in the long term. Crushing restrictions on the way of life lead to economic and social ruin. If IS manages to hold its territory for a couple of years, it will turn it into Afghanistan under the Taliban. IS’s constituents will eventually get sick of IS control, and will either rise against it, or back a party that looks like it could defeat it.
Indeed, one of the reasons IS has short-term support (from Sunni Arabs) in areas under its control is because people in these situations tend to back the winners. You’re not going to back a losing militia (even if you’d like it to win) if, because you backed that party, you will be killed, or have your land taken from you. IS will have surface-level support from locals for as long as it is winning. As soon as a different group with the will and capability to defeat IS comes against it—whether it be a secular Syrian militia, a foreign army or another Islamist militia—popular support (and fighters) will leave IS. This lack of natural constituency (and the fact that its severe form of ruling will breed resentment) is the biggest weakness of IS, which is why it will not last.

Why is the US intervening?
IS is not on the cusp of over-running the Iraqi capital or winning the Syrian civil war. And it had scored impressive military victories in both countries long before the US decision to intervene. Moreover, the US knows degrading and destroying IS will not end the Syrian civil war; if and when IS is defeated, other jihadi groups will fill the vacuum. Indeed, it’s not even about IS victories in Iraq—IS’s successes in Iraq is a symptom, not the disease. The disease is a very badly-managed central government that alienated many Iraqis. Getting rid of IS will not solve Iraq’s problems.

Bill Leak - The Australian

So, what prompted the US decision? There are two reasons. The first, and the one that actually sparked the intervention, is because IS starting chopping off American heads.

The second relates to the bigger picture. The members of the Status Quo Bloc have been extraordinarily upset with US Middle East policy over the last couple of years, because of softening policies in regards to the Resistance Bloc and hardening policies in regards to the Status Quo Bloc. (A proper examination would take an entire post, not one paragraph, but quick examples are the perceived ignoring of the 2009 Green Movement in Iran, attempts at reconciliation with Iran since that time, turning away from Egypt’s Mubarak during the January 2011 revolution and the harsh response to the counter-revolution that removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power, and its dropping of red lines in regards to the Syrian Government’s actions in that country’s civil war.) I would note that the Status Quo Bloc consists of the US’s friends in the Middle East, who look to Washington to guarantee their security, and have been increasingly concerned about the future. Read this post to understand the Middle East’s big picture.

And while the members of the Status Quo Bloc still rate Iran’s march toward nuclear capability as their biggest threat, they have been frightened by IS successes due to the popularity of Islamism throughout much of the Sunni Middle East. If IS kept on growing, it could destabilise Jordan, and it might earn the loyalty of more and more Arabs, thus potentially threatening some of the Status Quo monarchies/dictatorships with internal Islamist rumblings. (As in support for hamas, popularity for the group tends to be higher among those people that don’t have to live under its yoke.)

By taking action against IS, and by strong-arming the Arab states into officially and (in some cases actually) taking part of this coalition, the US is shoring up its support among the members of the Status Quo Bloc. The US is saying, ‘we are still the guarantor Middle East security, and you Arab states still need us.’ The Status Quo states have been pleading with the US to deal with IS, and now the US has listened to them.

Should Australia be participating?
But why is Australia participating? IS does not threaten Australia. Yes, Australian jihadis fighting with IS might return to Australia, further radicalised and up-skilled. But if IS wasn’t there, Australian jihadis could (and do) join other groups. It is in Australia’s interests to maintain our alliance with the US, and this is why Australia is involved. That said, I believe Australia could have gotten out of this war. Unlike a Labor government, which may feel it would have to prove its loyalty to the alliance with the US, a Liberal government does not have to. It could have been argued relatively easily that we’ve done our time in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now it’s time to consolidate the budget, etc. Moreover, unlike other US interventions—such as 2003—the US is not struggling for credibility this time. In 2003, not many Western countries wanted to be part of the US invasion of Iraq, and it was important to the US that Australia was involved. That is not the case this time. Australia could have sent over a few dozen advisers and left it at that, but sending over warplanes is a rather large budgetary commitment. I believe that in weighing up the pros and cons of Australia’s involvement, the cons easily outweigh the pros.