They get it (sort of…)


While I disagree with their policy recommendations (to accept Iranian hegemony), the authors of this Foreign Affairs article at least understand the big picture as described in this blog for years: the existence of three groups of interest in the Middle East, the lack of US strategic thinking both now and over the last 14 years, the tensions between apparent allies due to different threat perceptions and more. Also discussed in the article is the rise of Iranian-backed militias, which I’ve never addressed. 

While it’s worth the read, it’s also worth rejecting their conclusion. The answer is not to accept Iranian hegemony, but to determine what US/Western interests are and unwaveringly support actors and actions that advance them, and resist actors or actions that undermine them. I wrote about that here.

Iran’s Axis of Resistance Rises

By Payam Mohseni and Hussein Kalout, Foreign Policy, 24 January 2017

In 2006, in the midst of a fierce war between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously stated that the world was witnessing the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” She was right—but not in the sense she had hoped. Instead of disempowering Hezbollah and its sponsor, Iran, the war only augmented the strength and prestige of what is known as the “axis of resistance,” a power bloc that includes Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas in Palestine.

But the 2006 war was only one in a series of developments that significantly transformed the geopolitical and military nature of the axis—from the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which first opened the door to greater Iranian regional influence, to the more recent fall of Mosul to ISIS in 2014, which led to the proliferation and empowerment of Shiite militias. These changes have prompted a fundamental reconfiguration of the contemporary Middle East order. Arab elites, grappling with the consequences of an eroding Arab state system, poor governance, and the delegitimization of authoritarian states following the 2011 Arab Spring, enabled Iran and its partners, including Russia, to build a new regional political and security architecture from the ground up. With the support of Tehran as the undisputed center of the axis, Shiite armed movements in Iraq and across the axis of resistance have created a transnational, multiethnic, and cross-confessional political and security network that has made the axis more muscular and effective than ever before.

The most important issue that the new U.S. administration will face in the Middle East will be the rise of the Iranian-led axis. But given the deterioration of the regional security order and the empowerment of Iran and its allies, especially after the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement, the question is what to do about it. So far, policy discussions have focused on single issues on a case-by-case basis: balancing power in Syria, engaging or pushing back on Iran post-nuclear deal, or managing an increasingly volatile Yemen, for example. But crafting a Middle East policy requires a more comprehensive approach, one that understands the nature of the axis and how it has fundamentally changed over the past several years. The axis’ ideology has evolved: From a primarily state-centered enterprise, it has transformed into a transnational project supported by an organic network of popular armed movements from across the region.

THE RISE OF POPULAR ARMIES

Prior to the Arab Spring, with the exception of Hezbollah and Hamas, the axis of resistance was a partnership of states—Iran, Iraq, and Syria—that largely assumed the quintessential markers of the modern Weberian state (notwithstanding the militant challenges Iraq faced after 2003): centralized decision-making, official state borders, and militaries with a near monopoly over legitimate means of violence, meaning that the state had the sole right to enforce domestic security and wage war externally. In ideology, they were united in their call for an independent regional order and their resistance to Israel and to what they saw as U.S. imperialism.

After 2011, Arab states gradually lost their monopoly over the legitimate means of violence when the Arab Spring protests erupted, civil war broke out in Syria and Yemen, and jihadist groups like ISIS began establishing their own administered territories in Syria and Iraq. Consequently, with the failure of the modern nation-state project in the Arab world, modern armies contracted due to the inability of political elites in obtaining the loyalty of soldiers willing to die for the state. In Iraq, the national army trained by the United States melted away in the face of an ISIS assault on Mosul, while inside Syria countrymen quickly turned on one another and significant segments of the Syrian army defected. Power within the axis devolved to the many nonstate actors and militias that rose up to fill the security vacuum in an indigenous process of “state building” that moved beyond the Weberian state, and they rallied not only against their traditional enemies but new ones too, such as Sunni extremists like ISIS. These new militias include the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Syrian National Defense Forces (SND), as well as foreign groups such as the Afghan Fatemiyoun and Pakistani Zaynabiyoun brigades operating in Syria. They encompass a rich mosaic of ethnicities and confessions, totaling hundreds of thousands of combatants. And they receive broad popular support, as they are often the military arms of social movements that emerged within critical segments of societies in war-torn countries.

Despite the diversity of beliefs and motives among the armed groups, the Iranian influence over them is clear. They are modeled after the Basij, the Iranian paramilitary that mobilized millions of people during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Indeed, the Arabic name for the PMF, Hashd al-Shabi, carries the same meaning as the Basij—both the Arabic word hashd and the Persian word basij, meaning “mobilization.” The pluralization of military and security forces, trained and organized by Iran, has revitalized and localized institution building and patronage from the bottom up, giving way to new elites with mass support from across Iraq and Syria, and even more recently, from Yemen. In Iraq, for example, the security vacuum left by the failure of the Iraqi state and the fall of Mosul to ISIS gave rise to multiple armed movements, particularly following a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ali Sistani in 2014 calling for armed resistance against the militant group. Notably, Sistani’s decree paralleled the order that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gave in 1979 that established the Iranian Basij. Recently, the Iraqi parliament ratified a law legalizing the PMF on November 26, 2016, immediately following Basij Day in Iran, which celebrates Khomeini’s founding of the paramilitary group.

Today, the new Shiite militias, such as Kata’ib al-Imam Ali and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, have evolved beyond their predecessors. The older Badr Brigades and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, for example, were not as reliant on mass mobilization, did not have a coherent strategic vision of their role in the region, were more hierarchical and conservative, and were usually associated with a political party. And as the controversial cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demonstrated, these older militias often had a tense relation with the clerical establishment in Iraq. In Sadr’s free-wielding Mahdi Army, for example, younger and senior clerics clashed over political and military strategy. Moreover, there was much friction between pro-Iranian militias committed to the velayat-i faqih (the theocratic model of governance in Iran) and those that championed Iraqi nationalism or were dismissive of clerical governance.

Today, the rise of ISIS and insecurity in the region—as well as greater clerical authority and the issuing of authoritative fatwas—have made the new militias more cohesive and strategically minded. Indeed, not only does the clerical establishment have a higher degree of control over the militias but it has also narrowed the differences between the clerics who are critical and sympathetic to the idea of velayat-i faqih. The protection of Shiite holy sites is also much more paramount today than in the past, as ISIS has threatened to attack the holy cities of Karbala, Najaf, and Samarra in Iraq and the shrine of Lady Zaynab bint Ali, the sister of the prominent Shiite Imam Hussein ibn Ali, in Damascus, which are the geopolitical and religious nexus of the axis groups. Historically embedded within the social fabric of these shrine communities and centers of pilgrimage, the clergy and clerical institutions therefore serve as the ideological backbone to enable the transnationalization of popular armed movements throughout the axis’ domains of power by providing meaning, symbols, and strategic focus to these groups.

The formation of the PMF in 2014 as an umbrella organization also critically changed the nature of the militias, centralizing power through a ruling committee and unifying their strategic and operational objectives. Importantly, the PMF is seen as legitimate by many actors—Iraq granted the group legal status and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad formally invited it to fight alongside him in the civil war. The fact that these militias now exercise “legitimate” means of violence suggests that there will be far-reaching consequences for the Middle East, one of which is that they will have important roles to play in the post-conflict period, whenever that is achieved.

SECTARIAN IDENTITY WITHOUT SECTARIAN IDEOLOGY

In the 2000s, the axis was first and foremost marked by its resistance against Israel and the U.S. regional order, and its push for independence and against anti-imperialism. Today, the axis has also turned into the center of resistance against jihadismand Sunni Wahhabi extremism, which has widened its appeal to non-Islamic religions and minorities in the region, such as Christians, the Druze, Yazidis, and Kurds, as well as to secular regimes, such as Egypt’s, as an attractive partner for fighting terrorism. This axis shift has given greater prominence to Shiite identity but not to a sectarian ideology: while Shiite self-assertiveness and Shiite pride are actively cultivated, anti-Sunni rhetoric is actively discouraged (except against the Wahhabi doctrine of takfirism, or excommunication of different religions or Islamic sects, particularly Shiism). This does not mean that Shiite groups in Iraq are innocent of abusing or discriminating against Sunnis. But the overall policy of the axis has continued to be supportive of pluralistic religious and ethnic identities, especially in comparison to the rise of fundamentalist movements in the Muslim world.

The Shiite and religious minorities also now have greater shared interests with secular, Arab nationalist regimes. In Syria, for example, Assad and many of his top military-security officials are Alawi Shiites, but the Syrian state is staunchly secular and pan-Arab. The majority of the Syrian Arab Army is Sunni as are the geographic areas under the control of the Syrian government, such as the strategic urban cores of Damascus and Aleppo. Further, a range of minority groups including Christians and the Druze have rallied around the Syrian state and joined the various pro-government militias. The National Defense Forces, established explicitly in conjunction with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and based on the Basijmodel, are more than 100,000 soldiers strong and have mobilized Christians, Druze, and Sunnis opposed to extremism. In Lebanon, too, the axis has effectively incorporated leading Christian political parties, and there has been outreach to the Kurds as well, both in Syria and Iraq.

With the increased radicalism and fundamentalism of fringe Sunni groups, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda ally Jabhat Fath al-Sham (formerly the al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front), vulnerable minority groups have come to view Iran and its allies as moderate, reasonable, and as a source of protection. This is a far cry from only a few years ago, when Iran was viewed as radical, and the Saudi and Gulf states portrayed themselves as the “moderate” regional allies of the United States working to contain Iran. In addition, Iran’s support for Palestinian groups, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, has been a key feature in spearheading pro-resistance and pan-Islamic solidarity. The spread of conspiracy theories that the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia worked together to create ISIS and other jihadist groups has also downplayed religious sectarianism and contributed to the axis’ resistance narrative.

A STRONGER REGIONAL POSTURE

Since 2015, Iran has been amplifying its anti–Saudi Arabia rhetoric—yet another policy change within the axis of resistance. That year, Tehran officially questioned the ability of the Saudis to manage and secure the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca—a critical pillar of Saudi legitimacy—after the Hajj Mina stampede in Mecca that year killed hundreds of Iranian pilgrims (and thousands overall). And over the last year, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has sought to delegitimize the Saudi state by refusing to acknowledge its official name, referring instead to Saudi Arabia as the land of “Hejaz and the Najd.” This war of words has been fueled not only by the perception that the Saudis back ISIS and other extremist groups such as al Nusra Front but also by the broader geopolitical rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Tensions rose with the regionalization of the civil war in Syria, after Tehran blamed Saudi Arabia for the death of Iranians during the hajj, and then again when Riyadh executed the leading Shiite Saudi Ayatollah, Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, in early 2016.

Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war in September 2015 has also significantly altered the standing and power of the axis. Moscow has deftly exploited the gradual decline of U.S. influence in the Middle East and the strengthening of Iran and its allies, especially following the Iranian nuclear agreement. Not only have the Russians helped tilt the military balance in Syria in favor of Assad, but Russia is now an important regional actor—from its participation in an intelligence sharing base in Baghdad (comprised of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah), to its improved bilateral relations with Iran (providing Tehran with the all-important S-300 air missile defense system).

But given the messy alignments in the region, it is often difficult to determine who is a friend or foe of the axis as Russia and the United States are engaged in seemingly contradictory axis politics. For example, Washington is simultaneously supporting the Iraqi government’s campaign to oust ISIS from Mosul while also backing Syrian rebels to overthrow Iraq’s ally, the Assad regime. Iraq is an important marker for where relations between Iran and the United States will head as both countries have strong influences over Iraq. Washington’s interest in a centralized Iraqi state is also to ensure, in part, that Iran does not gain complete control of the country. Washington’s policy in the region will therefore be critical in determining the leverage it has in curtailing Russia and shaping some of the core issues facing the axis, such as power-sharing and governance, anti-terrorism and demilitarization, de-escalation of sectarian conflict, and, of course, engagement with Iran.

RECOGNITION OF THE RESISTANCE

In response to the axis’ staying power, particularly the unexpected survival of the Baathist regime in Syria, several states in the Middle East have shifted their policy to accommodate its rise. As one of the traditional leaders of the Arab world and the most populous Arab states, Egypt, for example, refused to back a Saudi-favored UN Security Council resolution on the Syrian civil war in October 2016. Shortly afterward, Egypt voted in favor of a Russian-backed resolution on Syria and surprisingly sent its oil minister to Tehran in November after Saudi Arabia punished Egypt by severing oil shipments to the country—an all the more unexpected development given the lack of full diplomatic ties between Iran and Egypt following the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
The Egyptians have signaled their cooperation over security as well as the fight against terrorism. Syrian security chief Ali Mamlouk met publicly with Egyptian intelligence officials in Cairo in October (his previous few visits having been conducted privately). And the leadership at Egypt’s al-Azhar, the world’s leading Sunni seminary and academic institution, repudiated the dominant Saudi discourse on sectarianism—the excommunication of Shiites—and strongly defended Shiism as a mainstream Muslim denomination. This behavior demonstrates that, despite the tactical partnership between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Egyptian and Saudi strategic visions are greatly at odds, and Egypt is moving to position itself as an independent actor between the pro-axis and pro-Saudi blocs. Further, as a secular pan-Arab state, Egypt is wary of Wahhabi fundamentalism and rejects sectarianism, which it considers a Saudi strategy to position itself as the leader of the Sunni world.
Similar shifts have occurred in Lebanon, a bellwether for the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In a reflection of the growing influence of the axis, in October 2016, the pro-Saudi Sunni Lebanese leader Saad Hariri endorsed presidential candidate Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah and head of the largest Christian parliamentary bloc. Hariri had originally endorsed Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces Party and member of Hariri’s March 14 Alliance, expecting the Syrian government to fall, but when that failed to happen, threw his support behind Suleiman Frangieh, a pro-Syrian ally and member of Hezbollah’s political coalition. It took nearly a year, but eventually Hariri was forced to accept Aoun—Hezbollah’s consistent choice for office since the beginning of Lebanon’s political stalemate. Hariri’s decision to cede to these pressures was influenced by the Iranian nuclear agreement, the changing status quo in Syria and the region, as well as domestic factors, including the emergence of other Sunni leaders that threatened to undermine his legitimacy. In the end, Hariri became the prime minister.
In Palestine, pro-Iranian factions of Hamas have now overtaken leadership of the Gaza Strip, following the opaque decision in September 2016 of senior leader Ismail Haniyeh to settle in Qatar, possibly to replace Khaled Meshaal as the head of Hamas’ politburo. (Hamas’ leaders typically live outside of Gaza so that they can travel freely.) The internal splits within Hamas are reflected in the military and political wings of the movement, the former having been historically closer to Iran and the latter to the Gulf monarchies, especially following the Arab Spring. Imad al-Alami, reportedly the new transitional leader of Hamas in Gaza, has been the group’s main link to the axis of resistance, having cultivated close ties to the IRGC and Hezbollah over the past few decades and traveling frequently to Iran.
Also partly in reaction to regional developments favoring the axis, Morocco appointed its first ambassador to Iran in October 2016, seven years after it unceremoniously cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran. Morocco is currently trying to diversify its political relations with international and regional powers, and is looking for opportunities to diminish some of its traditional reliance on Western powers and Saudi Arabia, especially given the perception in the Middle East that Washington had abandoned former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Further, Morocco, like Egypt, is concerned with the rise of the extremist religious threat within the Maghreb, which is largely perceived to be linked to Saudi patronage and funding.
THE MODERATION OF IRAN?
As the key player and lead state in the axis of resistance, and with the completion of the nuclear agreement and the possibility of Iranian “moderation” as a consequence of the deal, the question of whether Iran will shift its policies away from the axis deserves special attention. Will Iran moderate? And what would “moderation” mean in the current geopolitical context within the Middle East?
For Iranians, especially hard-liners such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the IRGC, the roots of the regional geopolitical crisis—especially the conflict in Syria—are existential. In their minds, the Syrian conflict has less to do with Syria and more to do with the goal of the United States and its regional partners to undermine Iranian power. Thus, it is highly unlikely that the Supreme Leader and IRGC will give up on Syria—or, more broadly, the axis of resistance.
Iran’s support for the axis also stems from its revolutionary ideology. The hard-liners wish, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, to be a cause, not just a country. For the Iranian Supreme Leader, support for the axis is a part of its revolution, and a drastic change would otherwise mean emptying the revolutionary regime and turning it into a “hollow tree,” devoid of values. For Khamenei and his faction, this is an unacceptable outcome given the ideological and revolutionary foundations of the state.
What does this hard-line worldview mean, then, for Iranian moderation, especially when moderates such as President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif do not have full control over regional security files such as Syria? In this light, Iranian moderation does not mean that Iran will give up support for the Assad regime, Hezbollah, and its regional allies. Moderation entails the degree to which Iran will be willing to cooperate and work with the United States, the international community, and regional actors within the geographic territory of the axis of resistance, including collaboration on issues of power-sharing, counterterrorism, development and reconstruction, and other areas of mutual interest. Moderation might also involve bargaining with Iran to pull back from Yemen or Bahrain, which are beyond the main contours of the axis, for example, and pursue meaningful detente with the Gulf monarchies. Iranian moderation on these terms would still be significant given the potentially positive role it could play in stabilizing the Middle East.
THE PATH FORWARD
Growing Iranian power means that there is a real risk of the axis expanding across Shiite-majority Bahrain and into the Shiite eastern Arabian Peninsula where the main Saudi oilfields rest, or consolidating its position in Yemen and the Bab al-Mandab. However, the regional security order on which the United States has traditionally based its policies to contain and isolate Iran has unraveled, thus rendering obsolete and counterproductive Washington’s previous methods of containing and balancing Iran. Moreover, the challenge is not just limited to Iran. The new U.S. administration will be compelled to deal with a more resilient and autonomous set of actors within the axis.
At this point, dismantling the axis of resistance would be unfeasible. The clock cannot be turned back. There is a critical amount of social support behind the institutions and armed movements of the axis—many of its combatants are willing to fight and die for their cause. Without recognizing the changing facts on the ground and the means for credible engagement, applying greater pressure on Iran and the axis will yield marginal gains given they have thrived under decades of war or warlike conditions. This means that the United States must work pragmatically using the necessary tools of statecraft and diplomacy to negotiate and establish new rules to the geopolitical game and to manage the rise of the axis. This should involve demarcating the boundaries and zone of influence for the axis and engaging both state and nonstate actors.
In this light, dismantling or renegotiating the nuclear deal will be impractical, particularly if it risks alienating the United States’ international allies and the Iranians themselves. It would thus behoove Washington to retain allied cooperation in case it wishes to strike a larger bargain with Iran on a range of outstanding regional, military, and nuclear issues not dealt with in the nuclear agreement. Moreover, the United States has much to gain from axis players as well, such as cooperation over counterterrorism and providing stability in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and the Gulf states—in addition to counterbalancing Russia. And engaging the axis, especially in Iraq and Iran, will allow the United States to balance growing Russian influence in the region.
As the sectarian dynamics in the Middle East may jeopardize any U.S. efforts for engagement and regional integration of the axis, and have only empowered Iran and its allies thus far, Washington must first focus on deescalating sectarianism and mitigating the rising tensions between Riyadh and Tehran. To do this, Washington must work with Egypt, which is also opposed to sectarianism, to rebalance the region, and to actively work to reduce tensions when flashpoints occur, such as with the execution of Sheikh Nimr. Moreover, throughout this process, Washington must take care not to be seen as taking sides. There is tremendous transnational Shiite support around Iran, and the United States must seem balanced, not taking actions that might be interpreted as heavy-handedly pro-Saudi by the larger Shiite communities in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Otherwise, this will only empower Iran and radicalize the Shiite world. In seeking to stabilize the Middle East, Washington must also remember that the Gulf states rely on external security umbrellas while the axis of resistance has managed to create its own indigenous regional security structure against all odds.
In tackling these challenges, the United States must recognize that the axis of resistance has transformed in fundamental ways. It has, in spite of all odds, strengthened in the midst of raging conflicts that have otherwise torn the Middle East apart. It has grown more muscular through its transnational alliance of irregular militias and international backing from Moscow and more vocal in its criticisms of Saudi Arabia and its promotion of Shiism. In return, it has received greater support and recognition from key regional players such as Egypt and Lebanon. If Washington is to truly move forward in the region, it must acknowledge these new realities and engage with Iran and its allies to influence the emergence of a new Middle East.

A word to the wise


Israel should not let itself be carried away by having Trump in the White House. Four years of unrestricted settlement growth will only produce an eventual backlash. Rather, now is the time to build ‘economic peace’.

The recent UN Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements provoked critical comments from the Australian government (which isn’t on the Council). The peace conference in Paris (for which Israel wasn’t present) provoked critical comments from the British government. And with the Trump ascendancy, there is now a pro-Israel administration in the US (though Trump may well prove to be unpredictable). 

The alignment of conservative governments in these three English-speaking countries (especially since the UK will be increasingly independent of EU foreign policy) has the Israeli government salivating, given the sustained diplomatic pressure placed on Israel during the Obama years.

Indeed, a day after the Trump inauguration, Israel announced hundreds of apartments will be built in east Jerusalem, with Netanyahu boasting he will be ramping up construction in the settlements.

But Netanyahu ought to be cautious, for a couple of reasons.

Although a large segment of the American public love Trump, an equally large section loathes him, as does much of the media. Polite society around the world find him a caricature, at best. If Israel seeks to do whatever it wants, protected by Trump, the popular hatred of Trump will be extended to Israel by association. 

Further, after a couple of years of international diplomatic frustration, the next US administration will pile pressure on Israel as a way to expunge memory of the Trump era, in much the same way that Obama immediately put pressure on Israel, after eight years of American support under Bush. (And there is little doubt, given the depth of feeling about Bush, Obama and Trump, that Trump’s replacement will be an anti-Trump, in much the same way that Obama was an anti-Bush and Trump is an anti-Obama.)

However, the Trump presidency provides an opportunity for Israel. Many, including myself, argue that sustained international pressure on Israel is counter-productive, since it convinces Israel that the world will not have its back when it comes time to make potentially dangerous concessions. Well, now a supportive administration is in place. I’m not suggesting that Israel withdraw precipitously from the West Bank, as this will only encourage terrorism. But Netanyahu and others have spoken in the past of ‘economic peace’, and of building up the Palestinian Authority as a responsible economic actor ahead of, or hand-in-hand with, further withdrawals. This doesn’t mean merely pressure on the Palestinians to curb corruption (though that is vital). It means Israel putting in place measures that really help Palestinian individuals, businesses and government. With Trump in the White House, and conservative governments in London and Canberra, Netanyahu has a unique opportunity to have the international community offer the right balance of carrots and sticks to the Palestinians at the same time Israel does. Will Netanyahu recognise and grasp this opportunity, or will he bow to populist tendencies, and reap the whirlwind in four years time?

The crack widens


I wrote back in October last year that a crack was appearing in the Status Quo Bloc, because of differences of opinion (and subsequent action) between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. As I wrote at the time, the crack appeared because the Status Quo Bloc is not a traditional alliance, but merely a group of states brought together by shared interests. The Bloc was strongest when the Middle East’s only other real bloc was the Resistance Bloc, led by Iran. But the emergence of the Sunni Islamist Continuum has revealed divergent interests within the Status Quo Bloc. To the Saudis, the Resistance Bloc is the greater threat. To the Egyptians, the Sunni Islamist Continuum is the greater threat. 

There’s also mutual enmity between the Sunni Islamists and Resistance Bloc, typified by bloodshed in Syria. The Saudis have backed (some) Sunni Islamists in its proxy war with Iran, which has upset Egypt. Egypt has come to see the Resistance Bloc as an effective enemy of the Sunni Islamists, and so has taken some policy positions friendly to Iran, which has annoyed the Saudis.

Hence, the crack is widening, as this article describes.

About the only thing that will paper over the crack is strong Western (read: US) leadership. Because both the Resistance Bloc and the Sunni Islamist Continuum are inimicable to Western interests. With Trump in the White House, we’re in a new world. Who knows if he’ll be able to see the Middle East’s big picture?

The case for realism: Lessons from the Middle East


If I had the time, this would be the first paragraph in a book I’d love to write:

The US is, without question, the world’s most powerful country. And yet nowhere are the US’s interests and will challenged more, and more successfully, than in the Middle East. These failures are not limited to one side of US politics, and they are not limited to particular decades (although in the last two decades, the situation has become more pronounced). The reasons for US failures are manifold, but they boil down to lapses in realist will and perspective. On those occasions where the US has pursued non-realist approaches, typified most recently by the Bush and Obama Administrations, the results have been a defiance of the West and increased bloodshed.

Maybe I should crowdfund? Any takers?

Strategy vs tactics: The case of Islamist violence


While there’s nothing groundbreaking in this article from late last year, it does remind us that the concept of fighting a war of ideas is not just rhetorical flourish—it’s the way things are. We can’t bomb Islamic State into submission. As the article points out,

The concept of territorial gains is a twentieth century, somewhat anachronistic notion. In World War II … the world was an infrastructure-centric place. To stop the Nazis, it was primarily a question of destroying their ability to continue fighting. Bombs and bullets were the preferred means to that end.

But what of ISIS? The militant group’s weapon of choice is a perverse and apocalyptic vision of the world and its place within it. To propagate its corrupting influence, it needs only the internet and disaffected populations receptive to its worldview. While we have made significant gains on the battlefield — killing many of its leaders, destroying weapons caches and disrupting supply lines — we have done little to disable ISIS’ ability to recruit followers, or ultimately, target western societies.

It comes back to something that I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog, and one that I think will be a recurring theme this year—the need for strategy. The Cold War, and the Second World War, for that matter, allowed us to crystallise a strategy because we had a clearly defined enemy. We knew who we had to defeat, so we were force to come up with a way to defeat it. These days, those saying that violent Islamists have replaced these two defeated foes as the West’s principle enemy are routinely denounced as being alarmist, or even ‘Islamophobic’. And it’s true that violent Islamism does not pose a threat to Western interests in the same manner as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. It’s also true that some of Islamism’s critics come across as particularly nasty. But it’s also true that violent Islamists do pose a threat to Western interests—mostly to individual Westerners through acts of terrorism, as opposed to the state itself, but a country’s duty and purpose is to protect its citizens, right?

Nazi Germany was defeated through force of arms—its army was rolled back and Germany was destroyed. The Soviet Union was defeated by bankrupting it—the people under its control were unhappy, and Moscow no longer had the money to enforce its will on its people, so it imploded.

But violent Islamism is individual-driven, not state-driven. You cannot bankrupt it. And while groups like Islamic State and al-Qaeda must be defeated on the battlefield (or through other kinetic options like assassination), that’s not going to defeat the idea. Indeed, it will actually help perpetuate the idea because, to a large extent, Islamism is a victim mentality. It thrives on being defeated, and its adherents entrap others by saying the reason for Islam’s low status in the world today is because Muslims aren’t devout enough. That is, violent Islamists will continue being defeated on the battlefield until Muslims are devout enough to warrant victory.

Ultimately, though, impressionable Muslims turn to ideologies like that of Islamic State because it presents an explanation for the world that fits in to the selfish reasoning of society—and I’m not talking about Muslim society, I’m talking about modern society. The explanation goes like this: You, Muslim, are not well off because the infidel West oppresses you. You can never become well-off because the infidel West won’t let you. There’s no point integrating yourself into the infidel West, because that way you’ll lose your Muslim identity and effectively become an infidel. The only way to succeed is to reject the infidel West and support those who want it bring it down.

The laziness aspect here is that the targeted individual sees an explanation that blames others for his or her (or his or her family’s or community’s) socio-economic situation. It’s easier to blame others for your situation—and much easier to resign yourself to that fate—than it is to take fate by the reins and get yourself out of it. Explanations are never black and white. The reason for the socio-economic depression of the Muslim community and family and individual in Western society is not only the community’s or family’s or individual’s fault. The state and the majority society shares some blame, too. But neither is it solely the fault of the state or the majority society. Ultimately, it is the individual and the community that will have to use the tools available to it to lift themselves into the middle class, just as previous rounds of immigrant communities have the world over. 

But I digress. It feels as if we in the West do not have a strategy to defeat Islamic State, or all the other manifestations of Islamist violence. Everything we have been doing thus far is tactics. We are in no danger of losing this war. But we need to develop a strategy if we want any chance of winning it.

Why is there no peace?


The pre-Christmas Security Council resolution about Israeli settlements—and the reactions to it—once again highlight the difficulties in forging Israeli–Palestinian peace. There is no agreement about anything, not even whether the resolution helped or hindered the cause of peace.

A key to understanding why peace has been so hard to achieve (and why, despite both sides claiming to desire it, negotiations haven’t occurred for years) is to look at what both sides mean by ‘peace’. In short, the concept means very different things to Israelis and Palestinians. 

For Israelis, ‘peace’ means security. It means less Israelis dying in terrorism and war. Because less Israelis were killed by Palestinians before the Oslo peace process than during or after, the peace process is considered a failure. This does not mean that Israelis are anti-peace. Quite the opposite, for decades poll after poll has revealed that Israelis would be happy with the creation of a Palestinian state as long as Israeli security was not imperilled as a result. Stung by the security failures of the Oslo peace process, Israelis will only back another peace process if the Palestinians first prove they want peace. This is a reversal of the popular concept of the peace process, summarised by ‘land for peace’. Israelis now believe in ‘peace for land’, in that order. 

For Palestinians, ‘peace’ is about achieving what they consider their national rights, which include the establishment of a state and the immigration to Israel of the descendants of Palestinian refugees from 1948 (which would end Israel’s Jewish majority ). When the Oslo process began back in 1993, things were looking good. The Palestinian Authority was established. Israel withdrew from 60 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza ( including 90 per cent of the population). Palestinians were allowed many trimmings of statehood, such as diplomatic representation. But progress quickly stalled. Israel didn’t withdraw from nearly as much land as the Palestinians thought they would or should. Movement through Israeli checkpoints and between the newly-created-though-non-contiguous Palestinian-controlled areas became more difficult during the Oslo process than before. The nepotism of the newly installed Palestinian leadership, and the impunity of the newly installed Palestinian security forces made life difficult for normal Palestinians. This corruption was hardly Israel’s fault, but these difficulties were brought about by the peace process, thereby adding to its unpopularity.  

There is a circular, chicken-and-egg argument as to who is mostly to blame. Israel slowed down implementation of the peace agreements, and generally made life harder for the Palestinians, in an attempt to improve Israeli security. Would Palestinians have been less inclined to support terrorism if Israel had have ceded more land, or made movement less difficult for Palestinians? None of the above includes discussion of the people on both sides committed, through politics or violence, to undermining the peace process. No Israeli or Palestinian action would mollify those who considered any concession to the other side as religiously forbidden. 

More importantly, none of the above explains why no one is attempting to make peace right now. The short answer is, neither side got all or part of what it wanted through negotiations and peace processing, but both sides are getting part of what they want through unilateral actions. There is, therefore, in the minds of both Israelis and Palestinians, no particular need for a new peace process. 

Because of Israel’s soldiers in the West Bank, its separation barrier and its intelligence assets, Israeli security is currently really good. Israelis aren’t dying in mass casualty attacks any more. And while there is some Israeli–Palestinian security cooperation, Palestinian media and politicians continue to be full of praise for Palestinians that try to kill Israelis, and full of encouragement for any and all actions (whether domestic or international) that seek to undermine and, ultimately, end Israel’s existence. Israelis remain convinced that their current feeling of security is in spite of, not because of Palestinians, and that ceding land to Palestinians will undermine Israeli security. So Israelis are happy not to enter negotiations. 

As for Palestinians, they have realised that they are, step by step, getting closer to statehood by using the international community: The UN General Assembly and a multitude of individual countries have recognised Palestine as a state (despite it meeting few of the Montevideo Convention criteria of statehood); this ‘State of Palestine’ has acceded to numerous treaties and international bodies, including the International Criminal Court, where it is attempting to make like more difficult for Israel in the realm of international law (a concept known as ‘lawfare’). Even the Security Council has stepped in, passing the resolution about Israeli settlements. All of this has come about without the Palestinians compromising on a single issue, including their maximalist and unachievable demand for the ‘right of return’.  

The international community justifies all these actions as attempts to help the Palestinians in the face of supposed Israeli intransigence. But the ironic thing is, these actions are actually making both sides more intransigent. Israelis, because they are losing all trust in the international community to have their back ahead of potentially dangerous Israeli concessions. And Palestinians, because they are winning battle after battle with Israel, and getting closer and closer to their dream of statehood, by going down this road. Why, then, would Palestinians bother with negotiations, which involves compromise, when they can get what they want for free? 

The problem is, the way each side defines ‘peace’ enables them to exclude the other’s definition. If Israelis can have security without Palestinian statehood (and if, as history shows, movement towards Palestinian statehood reduces Israeli security), why bother with Palestinian statehood? If Palestinians can have movement towards statehood without the need for compromise, why compromise? This is why, for several years, there has been no negotiations, despite a standing Israeli offer, on the condition that Palestinians, at some point, accept Israel as a Jewish state (and in doing so, indirectly concede the Palestinian ‘right of return’). Israel so offers because it knows no Palestinian leader will accept. And Palestinians are far too content winning battles against Israel in the international community to enter the perilous domain of negotiations, which includes the implicit demand for compromise. 

Unless the Israelis and Palestinians realise that their own definitions of peace will not be fully realised until the other’s is, peace will not come about. The international community has an obvious role to play; while pressure against Israeli intransigence is necessary, so to is pressure against Palestinian intransigence. The recent trajectory of international policy in regards to Israeli–Palestinian peace is therefore making things more difficult. 

Another Iranian victory


I’ve long argued that the Saudi-led, years-long effort to keep down the price of oil was supported by America to damage the economies of both Russia and Iran. (Others have argued the policy was a Saudi effort to bankrupt the American shale oil industry.)

But in a November decision, both OPEC and non-OPEC members voted to decrease oil supply, thereby pushing up the price of oil. But the decision doesn’t apply to Iran, which will benefit from increased oil prices without having to cut production.

Saudi Arabia had been paying heavily for the policy, burning through its cash reserves. It was somewhat inevitable that the Saudis would have to drop the policy, especially since Iranian diplomatic and economic isolation has all but ended, thanks to an apparent American reversal of the policy of isolating Iran.Why, I’m sure the Saudis asked themselves, should they continue to pay heavily for a policy designed to isolate Iran, when their chief partners in that policy—America—appeared to want to bring Iran out of isolation. 

I wonder also whether Russia, which will also be a big winner from increased oil prices, might have whispered sweet nothings into Saudi ears. What did the Saudis get from Russia that the Americans can’t or won’t provide them with? Something to do with Yemen? Maybe promises of nuclear technology?