But do we have a strategic mind?

Here’s an excellent article from the National Interest, about the challenges of challenging Islamist terrorism. 

Unlike many other articles dealing with the same subject, this one comes with a healthy dose of pragmatism. 
I’ve had a stab at this topic in the past, but this guy writes with more authority than me:

While defeating Islamic State should be on the counterterrorism agenda for the next administration, the real objective should be to adequately meet the challenge of twenty-first-century global jihadism…

To effectively address today’s terrorist threat, we must begin by acknowledging the unique ways in which jihadism propels violence, and proceed by assessing where Western states have real strengths and real vulnerabilities in their approaches…

The jihadist threat can only be addressed honestly and thoroughly if we care to understand the power that jihadist ideas wield in propelling violent actions. Jihadism repackages traditional concepts to exploit political circumstances in the Middle East. It is when jihadist ideas do so convincingly that they quickly transform into a kinetic physical threat…

Seeing the development of jihadism not as a sequence of terrorist acts but as an evolution of a cause informed by both the use of classical Islamic concepts and their application to contemporary circumstances can help us take stock of where our assessments were shortsighted.

Still, the question remains, if this article sets out what can and should be done to help prevent terrorism, do our political leaders and the public have the required strategic mindset to stomach these policies?

I believe the answer is no. Coupled with the fact the antidote lies ultimately in the Middle East, it explains why no progress will be made on this front for the next little while. 

Not a pretty picture


An article for those who think Iraq could split (or federate) in order to obtain internal peace. 

The short answer is, it ain’t gonna happen. Well, it probably ain’t gonna happen. At least, it ain’t gonna happen by design. (Well, not peaceful design.)

The problem is that a tripartite Iraq has little bearing to realities on the ground, particularly in a post-IS context. Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab and Kurdish communities may be religiously and ethnically distinct and concentrated in particular regions, but they have also been dispersed across territories since the IS onslaught and are deeply fragmented. Internal boundaries and the uneven distribution of resources remain disputed between and within groups, creating additional challenges to reordering borders along clear ethno-sectarian fault lines. Instead of three self-sustaining regions, Iraq has become an amalgam of hyper-localized entities seeking self-rule and self-protection, while remaining dependent on Baghdad and prone to proxy conflicts.

Outward recognition is so yesterday


Michael Herzog writes

Arab steps toward normalization have become more meaningful to Israelis than anything they would expect from the Palestinians, allowing Israeli officials to present a paradigm shift: instead of obtaining Arab-Israeli normalization through Israeli-Palestinian peace, they could try to provide space and cover for peacemaking with the Palestinians through convergence with Arab states. 

But this was always the way! Notwithstanding all the other complications, no Palestinian leader could ever be expected to make peace with Israel outside an umbrella of significant Arab (read: Egypt and Saudi) support. For as long as the official Arab line is ‘no peace until Israel concedes everything’ continues, Palestinians daring to make peaceful noises (much less sign an agreement) would be left out in the cold.

I’ve long thought that Israeli-Palestinian peace requires the Arabs to extend an olive branch – perhaps opening a trade office with ‘Palestine’ (and through it, Israel) in East Jerusalem – so as to give Ramallah political cover to make the significant concessions peace will require. 

Herzog also writes

Conceptually, [France’s] efforts are informed by the classic, misguided view that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential to regional stability

He’s bang on. France (and much of the rest of the West) has it backwards. 

An intractable conflict?

The Australian Jewish News ran an opinion piece I wrote today. It is on the same topic I will be discussing at Limmud Oz, this Monday. 

See you on Monday?

Earlier this month, foreign ministers convened in Paris in an attempt to kick-start the moribund Israeli–Palestinian peace process. And as the Obama presidency winds up, many predict the US President will outline parameters of a future peace agreement, possibly as part of a UN Security Council resolution.

Perhaps to ward off these events (and dispel signs of inaction), Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu last week dragged up the ghost of the Arab Peace Initiative.

And so it goes. Despite the Middle East’s many pressing issues—turmoil in Syria, Libya and Yemen, the growing Saudi–Iranian sectarian cold war—Western powers return again and again to the prospect of Israeli–Palestinian peace.

Asking why is important. But we might also ask why the peace they so desperately crave eludes them. For almost a century the League of Nations, the United Nations, the British, the US, the Norwegians, the French, the Arab League and a host of Israelis and Palestinians have nominated themselves as having come up with a solution. None have worked.

It has been 23 years since the first Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement. The Oslo process was supposed to usher in a ‘New Middle East’. Instead, thousands of Israelis and Palestinians have since been killed. Indeed, more Israelis died as a result of terrorism during the seven years of the Oslo process than in any preceding seven-year period. (Though this number was dwarfed by the number of Israelis killed in the seven years from September 2000.)

Why is the Israeli–Palestinian dispute so resistant to resolution? The answer isn’t as simple as pointing to the traditional ‘obstacles to peace’, such as settlements or terrorism. These are but symptoms. To understand the problem, we need to take a step back—to look at the forest instead of focusing on the trees.

What is frequently called the ‘Israeli–Palestinian conflict’ actually consists of multiple, interwoven conflicts. To understand why the over-arching dispute hasn’t been resolved we need to identify these individual conflicts. This is accomplished by examining the objectives of all the parties involved. By doing so, we can distil two main types of conflict—territorial and existential.

Territorial conflicts are fought over land or resources. If two states or national movements claim the same territory, they are in a territorial conflict. Resolution comes when they agree to share or divide the land between them. Most people view the Israeli–Palestinian dispute as a territorial conflict. But if this were the only conflict at play, there would have been peace decades ago.

The other type of conflict is existential. As the name suggests, this arises when at least one party is fighting to end the existence of the other. The Israeli–Palestinian dispute involves two distinct existential conflicts. The first is waged by Islamists such as Hamas. The second by activists within the religious settler movement. (I hasten to add that religious settlers are not seeking the death or enslavement of Palestinians. But there are a significant minority struggling against the establishment of any non-Jewish state in eretz yisrael. These activists will ‘win’ when the Palestinian national movement stops existing.)

Existential conflicts don’t necessary last forever—the wider Arab–Israel dispute was existential in nature until the Arab world and, later, the pragmatic Palestinian leadership, concluded they could not defeat Israel militarily and so softened their existential conflict into a territorial one. Realistically, though, there is little hope that Hamas and its ilk will give up their religiously-inspired existential conflict.

Since existential conflicts cannot be resolved, they must be won or managed. This means that before or during a territorialist peace process, observers and participants must be aware that existentialist parties exist, that the prospect of peace enrages them and that they will violently seek to undermine that peace (because the compromises associated with territorialist peace weaken their visions of total victory).

For a territorialist outcome to be possible, territorialist leaders must not only be aware of the existence of existentialists, but also willing and able to force existentialists to accept territorialist will. This is a politically-difficult and sometimes bloody path to tread.

A significant obstacle is that the Palestinian leadership and media apparatus continue using existentialist themes—‘all of Israel is Palestine’; ‘right of return’—in their messaging. This indicates either they remain existentialist or do not have the courage to change the minds of the Palestinian people, who have been fed a diet of existentialist promises since the beginning of the dispute.

If the West wants peace, it must insist that the Palestinian Authority not only tackles the existentialists in its midst, but also presents itself as a true, territorialist alternative.

Unfortunately, the requisite awareness, willingness and ability do not currently exist, either internationally or locally. Until this is reversed, peacemaking is destined to remain an exercise in futility.

Where is Erdogan taking Turkey?


A fascinating look at the trajectory of Turkey under Erdogan. Well worth the read – it argues that Erdogan’s misreading of history is confusing his path.

Counter-revolutions aim to rewind the political order back to the past, and this is what Erdogan is doing in Turkey. Erdogan’s counter-revolution is focused on making Islam the centerpiece of Turkish politics and sees the country’s foreign policy role as being primarily anti-Western. This, Erdogan thinks, is how he will bring the Ottomans back. The irony is that while trying to revive the pre-Ataturk Ottoman Empire, Erdogan is actually trying to revive the caricature of the Ottomans that he was taught by the Kemalists.

Naive, or a plan for the future?

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Foreign Affairs is running an article containing a grand plan to end Islamist radicalism.

It’s not the first article to draw comparisons between the West’s clashes with the ideologies of fascism, communism and Islamism (off the top of my head I thought of this one, from 2007).

But the Foreign Affairs article argues that the US can implement measures to weaken the Islamist ideology. I’m not sure it’s on the money, at least not in the short-term.

I think the consequences of these moves would be to bring about Islamist governments.

The answer to an end to Islamism (and a wider flourishing of democratic ideals in the Middle East) lies not in America but in the Middle East. Only when the people there decide they’ve had enough will help from the West actually work. As the Foreign Affairs article points out, it’s those populations that have lived under Islamist governments that are more willing to see the back of them.

I’ve often thought that the Arab Middle East will follow the path of Iran. Consider that Iran’s Islamic Revolution is (slowly) coming apart. While the Green Movement from a decade ago failed, there is no doubt that Iranians are getting to the point where they will be ready to bear the costs of shrugging off the yolk of Islamist government.

A significant proportion of the Arab world, however, which has suffered the tyranny of kings and dictators since independence, continues to see Islamism as the panacea to their woes. Elections and revolutions in the Arab world in the short- to medium-term will result in the same thing – Islamist governments, because that is the will of the people.

The West, I fear, must live through this and wait until the Arab world has experienced Islamist government and realise firsthand that it offers nothing positive. Only then will moves from the West help. Hopefully it won’t take as long as the Iranian process. Events seem to move quicker these days, but I, for one, am not holding my breath.

But maybe I’m wrong. What do you think?

How does one recover from civil war?

An interesting article about the short-term interests of Iran, Russia and Hezbollah vis-a-vis Syria. I agree with the Russian aspect of the article, though think Iran is happy to be there for the long-term (after all, Syria effectively occupied Lebanon for 30 years). 

The more interesting question I ask the ether, having read this article, is how a country recovers from devastating civil wars. It would be interesting to see a comparison of countries that have undergone civil wars in recent decades – Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia, even Vietnam. What factors in their post-conflict era helped peaceful reconstruction? What factors hindered this? Are there lessons on offer for al-Assad? For us in the West?

Long may they sink

I’ve written many times that Jonathan Spyer is the best writer on the realities of the Levant. His latest article tracks the trajectory of Hezbollah from pan-Arab idol to despised symbol of Shi’ite sectarianism. 

Hezbollah’s fall from grace reflects the rise in importance of the Sunni Islamist movement, a force that is significantly impacting both the Status Quo Bloc and the Resistance Bloc. The Sunni Islamists were on the cusp of becoming a bloc a few years ago, but the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyot over-reached. 

Still, the anger and zeal that motivates Sunni Islamista into so many different movements is a powerful reality that won’t easily be tamed, either by those who would harness it or by those who would do away with it. 

Heavy is the head

Another article, this one from Reuters, that signifies decreasing American influence in the Middle East. 

There is no doubt America wants to rid itself of some of its Middle East burden – heavy is the head that wears the crown, and all that. The important question is not why America is doing so, but who will take up the mantle? Currently it’s Russia and Iran leading the way. America needs to ask itself, will the benefits that accrue from vacating the field outweigh the costs associated with America’s enemies becoming regional leaders?