Iran in Iraq

I have frequently remarked—most recently on Monday this week—that the loss of Iraq to Iran, after all the blood and treasure the US poured into the country after 2003, was a stunning defeat to the US. In fact, I think it is as important in terms of the strategic reality of the Middle East as the decision by Egypt to leave the Soviet sphere of influence for the US sphere of influence in the 1970s.

This excellent feature article in the New York Times indicates just how deeply Iran has positioned itself in Iraq. To push back is vitally important to US interests. And it will be hard, but kicking the can down the road will make it so much harder in the future.

The Accidental Strategist 


Despite his best efforts, it’s just possible that President Obama accidentally stitched together the makings of a new Middle East favourable to Western interests. 

Let’s consider Obama’s record. During his administration: the distrust among Israelis and Palestinians became complete; Syria descended into civil war; Saudi Arabia and Iran began conducting a proxy war in Yemen; Egypt went from military dictatorship to Islamist ‘democracy’ to military dictatorship; Iraq went from mostly stable to failed state to Iranian client; the Islamic State rose out of nowhere and took over a third of Iraq; Iran became emboldened and free of UN sanctions (all the while continuing to pursue a nuclear option and missile technology), and is now openly supporting militias that defy Western interests in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Syria. So, yes, he left the region worse than he found it (which, given his predecessor’s record, is impressive), but the conditions Obama created in the Middle East are ripe for meaningful improvement. 

This is because a key gripe of US strategists—and Trump as candidate—is the assumed expectation among America’s partners that because the US guarantees their security, they need have little responsibility for their actions (or lack thereof). But Obama provided the Middle East with new assumptions. The lessons he imparted is that America is not trustworthy and can no longer be relied upon to guarantee regional security. This created throughout the Middle East a mood that actors would have to help themselves. A wise Trump Administration would not reverse this mood, but rather guide it—a carrot and stick approach along the lines of ‘we will help those who help themselves, but thwart all those who defy us’. 

In order to understand how this policy might work, we first need to understand the region’s strategic environment, as this will explain why each actor acts as they do. 

In a long process beginning with the First World War and culminating during Obama’s presidency, the Middle East coalesced into three main groups of interest. The first is an unofficial ‘Status Quo Bloc’, consisting of most Arab states (Qatar, Syria and Oman being the exceptions). The Status Quo Bloc is Sunni and Arab. It wants things to stay as they are—monarchical or military dictatorships whose security is guaranteed by the US. These states have long experience in swatting away clumsy Western attempts to improve their human and civil rights record, and increasingly accept Israel (which shares their objectives and enemies) as a proxy member. 

The second group is the ‘Resistance Bloc’. Although its members have different end-goals, they are united in their desire to remove America as the source of Middle Eastern stability (since America props up their enemies). Led by Shi’ite, Persian Iran, the Resistance Bloc includes ‘official’ Syria, Hezbollah and, until 2012, Hamas. Iraq is a recent member (Iraq is mostly Arab, and most of its Arabs are Shi’ite. With America asleep at the wheel, Iraq was allowed to drift into Iran’s orbit of influence, a stunning defeat for the US, given all the blood and treasure it spent from 2003). 

The third group is harder to define, which is why I describe it as the ‘Sunni Islamist Continuum’, rather than Bloc. The common end-goal among all adherents is the establishment of a Sunni caliphate over the Middle East and, eventually, the world. But that’s where the commonality ends—some want to start with internal religious reform, others with the ruthlessly-enforced imposition of new rules over areas obtained militarily. Some are willing to work with the West in the short term, others are not. Few cooperate with each other and some fight each other. However, their common end-goal allows us to place them on a continuum from non-violent, political Islamist groups like Hezb u-Tahrir, to increasingly strident groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to Hamas to Islamic State and its successors. Turkey and Qatar are also on the Continuum, and act accordingly. 

In a fascinating series of events sparked by the Arab Spring, this continuum almost coalesced into a genuine bloc. Turkey under Erdogan would like a Sunni Islamist Bloc to emerge, and so, after being snubbed by Assad in the early stages of the Syrian civil war, came out strongly against Syria and the Resistance Bloc. In the same period, the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt. This saw Egypt leave the Status Quo Bloc. Sunni, Arab Hamas—part of the Resistance Bloc and based in Damascus—was so embarrassed by Syria killing so many Sunni Arabs that it pulled out of both Damascus and the Resistance Bloc. It had the courage to do so because of Egypt’s then-Sunni Islamist government. With Muslim Brotherhood control of Egypt (actively backed by Turkey) and Sunni Islamists on the rise throughout the region, it was thought by many that their time had come. 

However, in July 2013, the Egyptian military regained control of the country and re-joined the Status Quo Bloc. Turkey was on the outer (again) and Hamas realised it had lost badly, which is why it has become so reliant on Qatar. 

The existence of three distinct groups of interest both explains regional actions and the confusion of those commentators that appear to assume the region has only two main blocs, typified by Iranian–Saudi tension. 

The Status Quo Bloc sees the Resistance Bloc as an existential external threat, but the Sunni Islamist Continuum as an existential internal threat. The Status Quo’s diplomatic actions against Qatar is not so much because of Iran, but because Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and al-Jazeera, which is intent on highlighting the Status Quo dictatorships’ myriad shortcomings. (If Qatar’s isolation continues, look for Hamas to seek to re-join the Resistance Bloc and Iranian patronage.) 

As above, as a direct result of Obama’s choices, such as pressure on America’s friends (e.g. Israel), a deliberate lack of pressure on America’s enemies (e.g. Iran in 2009 and the nuclear talks), the pivot to Asia, no help to friendly regimes in need (e.g. Egypt in 2011), and entirely hollow threats (e.g. over chemical weapons), America’s enemies learned that they could defy American interests without consequence. And America’s friends learned that that would have to learn to take care of themselves. 

Iran’s undisguised activity in Iraq and Syria is the most obvious example, as is its missile testing and the recent admission—after years of obfuscation—that it was arming Houthis in Yemen all along. Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s military intervention in Yemen, to thwart Iranian interests, is another example, as is their willingness to countenance attempts to create an ‘Arab NATO’. The isolation of Qatar has provided Fatah (a Status Quo Bloc member) with the perfect opportunity to squeeze Hamas—hence the recent cessation of payments for Gaza’s electricity and the thousands of people still on the PA’s payroll ten years after Hamas kicked the PA out of Gaza. 

So, what is to be done? The new can-do spirit in the Middle East only works in our interests if those so doing are doing things in our interests. A Middle East strategy needs to be developed, one based on a realistic understanding of the Middle East, what our interests there are, and who helps us advance them (and who doesn’t). To put it bluntly, America and the West must thwart our enemies (the Resistance Bloc and the Sunni Islamist Continuum) and help our friends (the Status Quo Bloc and Israel). 

I know it’s not a popular view, but I think Trump is on the right path, mostly. He expresses support for those countries willing to act, and pressures those countries intent on defying America’s will. But he needs to refine this policy, and quickly.  

Take Syria. The West’s focus has been defeating Islamic State. But IS is a symptom of the wider Sunni Islamist Continuum, not the cause of instability. Remove IS and others will step up to the plate. More importantly, the Resistance Bloc is heavily involved in Syria, and is the group most likely to achieve its objectives there. Like it or not, the West’s long-term priorities are to thwart Iranian activities in Syria (and Iraq), not kill a few thousand bloodthirsty jihadis. While Trump (and Congress) are placing diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran, it’s all rather ad hoc. I’m not advocating regime change, but a strategic-level policy of thwarting—diplomatically, economically, and militarily (preferably by proxy)—as many Iranian actions as possible that are against US interests.  

Further, the current and unprecedented (though under the radar) security, intelligence and economic cooperation between Israel and the Status Quo Bloc is an unintended outcome of Obama’s policy of turning his back on America’s friends. Trump must be very careful that, as he demonstrates that America is once again engaged in the region, the Status Quo Bloc doesn’t become so comfortable as to hate Israel again. 

Likewise, Trump has to make sure that by rewarding good behaviour, he does not accidentally recreate the conditions where countries in the region once again become ‘free riders’, and head back to the position they were in before Obama stuffed things up / created the pre-conditions for a new Middle East. When America’s friends defy American interests (such as with unwanted settlements or funding yet more Wahhabi mosques), America must use its considerable leverage to put them in their place. 

This is all rather difficult to pull off, but Trump has two things in his favour. First, despite his personal erraticism, his Secretaries of Defence, State and Homeland Security, appear—mostly—to have the correct strategic view of Middle Eastern realities. Second, Trump appears to have the will to implement policies that aren’t domestically or internationally popular. If convinced the strategy outlined above would make America great again (and they would), he just might put them into action.  

Chilcot and the big picture


The Chilcot Inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war has been released. Like most people, I have not read the report and don’t plan to – it stretches into the millions of words. Even the executive summary is 150 pages long! According to news reports, the report criticises the decision to entertain war, mostly because of the sketchy intelligence in regards to Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction. The report also reportedly criticises the lack of post-war planning, which allowed Iraq to descend into chaos within months. 

This post will examine the decision to enter the war through the lens of the big picture. There are some key points to consider.

First, the UK didn’t act alone. The push to invade Iraq came from the US. Yes, the UK could have said no, but this would have considerably undermined the relationship between the two countries. The same obviously goes for Australia’s involvement. That might be an unfortunate cost of being the weaker party to an alliance relationship, but that’s the unfortunate reality. 

The UK could have and did use its influence with America to shape the operation (and day-after plans). Whether or not London did enough is up for debate, but it would have been a courageous decision (in the Yes, Minister tradition) for the UK to have stayed out of the war. 

Second, from the Western perspective, it was a mistake to enter Iraq. My argument for this is (and has been from the beginning) that Iraq in 2003 was weak and stable. In a place like the Middle East, having your enemy weak but stable is one of the best possible outcomes. 

Hindsight has proven this basic theory correct, but it wasn’t hindsight that formed it. 

Third, the outcome of the Iraq war demonstrated Western power in a state-to-state war, but also demonstrated that Western forces can be defeated in insurgencies. This was a powerful lesson. 

Fourth, and important to this discussion, the outcome of the Iraq war helped focus the big picture. In 2003, Iraq was neither a member of the Status Quo Bloc nor a member of the Iranian-led (though more ambiguously populated) Resistance Bloc. The US-imposed government placed Iraq into the Status Bloc. Subsequent events have handed Iran so much influence in Iraq, however, that Baghdad is, for all intents and purposes, now in the Resistance camp. And since the Resistance Bloc is implacably opposed to Western influence and presence in the Middle East, this translates into a substantial loss for the West. An example of a greater foreign policy disaster is hard to think of. 

Fifth, it is worth contemplating if the outcome could have been different. Obviously, we’ll never know for sure, but the answer is ‘probably not.’ Yes, better planning would likely have resulted in considerably less bloodshed since the ‘Mission accomplished’ aircraft carrier press conference. But with so many Shi’ites in Iraq, and with so much vested Iranian interest, I think the end result would have been a contest of wills – out of the US and Iran, who would be willing to spend the blood and treasure for the long-term to see Iraq reside in their camp. Yes, the US spent plenty of blood and treasure, but it was always going to leave, and the (correct) view was that bleeding the Americans would bring about a faster exit. 

Had the US set up Iraq as a (pro-Western) Sunni dictatorship (like much of the pro-Western Middle East is), things might have been different. But attempting to impose a democracy on the Shi’ite majority country essentially doomed all prospects for the country to remain within the Western sphere of interests. What planners in the West still apparently don’t realise is that holding an election does not make a country a democracy. A democracy is the rule of law, and an independent judiciary, as well as representative government answerable to the people. Iraq was not ready to become a democracy in the Western sense, and the West’s attempts to make it so doomed it to fail. (Of course, they hardly had a choice, did they? Western leaders could hardly go back to their own democracies to proclaim a new Iraqi dictatorship. It ain’t the ’80s anymore…)

In summary, the Iraq war handed the Resistance Bloc one of the most important countries in the Middle East – a disaster for Western policy that will haunt us for a long time to come.

Does the Iran nuclear deal advance or undermine US and Western interests?

The P5+1 and Iran

Tom Switzer in the Weekend Australian paraphrased Lord Palmerston’s “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow…” Switzer was writing that the recent Iran deal is a good thing, and might change the Middle East for the better.

While I disagree with parts of Switzer’s analysis, the Palmerston quote made me put aside my instinctive reactions about the nuclear deal and analyse it in light of Western and, principally, US interests.

I have previously written that 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.

The wider West, which is far less loyal to Israel than the US, has only one principal interest: the continued flow of energy sources. Secondary interests, such as regional stability, help further the primary interest. There are also subordinate interests, such as human rights and the development of democratic mechanisms.

As a result of the Iran nuclear deal (or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA,) UN sanctions against Iran will be dropped. Countries, such as Australia, that have autonomous (that is, additional) sanctions against Iran will likely also quickly drop these. This will allow Iran’s massive oil and fuel deposits to be better developed and exported. On the surface, interest achieved!

But there are ramifications. Iran is engaged in a region-wide hegemonic struggle against the Sunni-dominated status quo, led by Saudi Arabia. This ‘Status Quo Bloc’ (which I have previously written about) consists of Arab countries with pro-Western dictatorial leaders who have long looked to the US for their security. That is to say, Iran is opposed to the US and is the enemy of the US’s client states in the region.

Iran has proxies or clients in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen and has come to hold considerable influence—if not veto power—over those countries’ strategic decision-making. It was once, and is once again becoming a significant sponsor of Hamas. Iran has used Shi’ite militias to undermine Western interests in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion, and is now reportedly aiding the Taliban to do the same in Afghanistan.

The massive injection of cash Iran will receive as a result of the JCPOA will significantly help it pursue its regional agenda. It will use this money to consolidate its hold on Baghdad and could use it to foment trouble in the Shi’ite-populated, oil-rich parts of Saudi Arabia. That is, Iran will use the benefits of the JCPOA to harm US interests.

This is all conjecture, of course (based on Iranian statements and Iranian precedent). Perhaps an Iranian-dominated Iraq will become stable, better run and able to export much more oil than the current mess (which is, in large part, the result of the West being blind to Iranian undermining efforts.)

The issue of trust
When considering interests, another factor to take into account is trust. There is now less trust of America in the region than there was 10 or 20 years ago.

In recent decades, Israel and Saudi Arabia have come to view the US as their principal defender (and the US has made clear it is a partner in this understanding). However, from the moment negotiations with Iran were mooted, both Israel (very publicly) and the Saudis (behind the scenes) have strongly communicated that a nuclear Iran would be a danger to them and the region, and that any accommodation with Iran would both embolden Iran and pave the way nuclear weapons capability.

These increasingly strident warnings were ignored by the Obama Administration, because, in regards to the nuclear negotiations, the priority for the West and especially the US was for a deal to be signed. Far-reaching concessions were made to achieve that priority. (The priority for Iran was to maintain its nuclear infrastructure. It stuck to its guns and achieved its priority, at the cost of stalling its nuclear development by a few years at the most. It was a win-win deal because both sides achieved their priorities!)

In ignoring the warnings of its allies, the US will guide its allies (and not just in the Middle East) to the understanding that the US cannot be trusted. The US earned incredible trust around the world because it has been the guarantor of global stability since the end of the Second World War. It is this stability (particularly that which has allowed the extraction of oil and its transport across oceans) that has allowed the phenomenal growth in the global economy from which we have all benefitted.

However, like good reputations, trust is hard to obtain and relatively easy to lose. I’m sure Lord Palmerston would agree that having allies and enemies believe what you say is a permanent interest, but under Obama’s watch, this interest has been significantly eroded. To be clear, this decreasing trust did not spring from the July 2015 signing of the JCPOA. IT is a result of American mistakes in the Middle East that began with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 (under Bush) but were significantly compounded by the Obama Administration since that time (such as when the US abandoned Egyptian President Mubarak and walked back from ‘red lines’ threats in regards to Syrian use of chemical weapons). This is especially the case in its relations with Iran.

There are three separate but linked ramifications of the US word no longer being worth what it once was in the Middle East. First, countries like Saudi Arabia do not believe that the US will prevent Iran from becoming nuclear, and so are already looking to become nuclear themselves. Second, US allies are no longer absolutely convinced the US will protect them if their enemies attempt to undermine them, and so will be tempted to seek other friends. This lets Russia back into the Middle East, and potentially provides an open door to China, as well. Third, if US security guarantees are no longer thought rock-solid, parties might be more willing to pursues their interests violently. All three of these ramifications lead to a more dangerous region.

Iran, sanctions and the nuclear negotiations

Nuclear talks between Iran and the ‘P5+1’ are once again in the news, with the sides having initialled a framework agreement (with a final, more detailed agreement to be negotiated over the next three months). The complexity of these negotiations boils down to a Western desire to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability and an Iranian desire to have the crippling sanctions against it removed.

As I have written previously, the West appears to want an agreement more than the Iranians, so seems willing to offer larger concessions. This is unfortunate, because the Iranian march toward nuclear weapons capability is bad for the region.

But there is a bigger picture here, and it remains that keeping the sanctions regime in place is more important for Western interests than reaching a deal—whatever its terms—that removes those sanctions.

Iran wants to exert its influence over the region. It supports, arms and trains regional Shi’ite or heterodox Muslim militias and countries (such as the Shi’ite Hezbollah, the Zaidi Houthis and the Allawite Syrian government) in order to advance Iranian interests. What are these interests? Principally, to undermine the countries of the Status Quo Bloc (and the US, which supports them).

Due to its efforts, Iran now possesses significant control and/or influence over four regional capitals—Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana’a. But there are other countries with sizeable Shi’ite populations—not least Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—which Iran could also use to destabilise its neighbours.

Israel’s position on the nuclear talks with Iran is well known. But Israel isn’t the story here. It remains that other Western friends in the Middle East see Iran as their principal enemy. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the two leading Arab countries, and both see Iran—and, particularly, Iranian foreign policy—as a threat to their countries. Remember, the Middle East is divided into the Status Quo Bloc (led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and the Resistance Bloc (led by Iran). (There is also a nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc, which both the Status Quo Bloc and the Resistance Bloc fear, hence the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the Iranian cooperation with the US in fighting Islamic State.)

While the Status Quo Bloc has long relied on American support, it sees current American policy as distancing itself from its Middle Eastern friends. It sees American willingness to agree to a nuclear deal well-short of original American goals not as a sign of the US pragmatically achieving what is possible, but proof that America wants to get out of the Middle East. This perception has the effect of undermining regional stability. Their thinking goes that if the West won’t protect the Status Quo countries, then those countries will have to protect themselves. On a very high level, it means they will look to start their own nuclear programs, to balance Iran. But it also means they will look to counter Iranian actions on the ground—hence the recent Arab coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthis’ recent takeover of Sana’a was seen in Arab capitals as a victory for Tehran.

The sanctions regime against Iran over the past few years has crippled the Islamic Republic economically (as has the current low price of oil), meaning Iran is increasingly having to choose between paying for services inside its borders or servicing its proxies in foreign wars.

Regardless of the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran, removing or lessening the sanctions against it will significantly improve the Iranian economy. Not only will Iran be able to export oil and other commodities, but foreign companies will be able to invest in Iran, and its banking sector will once again have access to international markets.

This will strengthen Iran and the Resistance Bloc, and further worry Iran’s enemies, adding to regional tension.

Sanctions are a tool used by the international community to force a country to change its behaviour. The Iranian attempts at nuclear weapons capability—which I believe will continue regardless of whatever deal is reached at the and of June—is not the problem, but only a symptom. The West should maintain a clear-eyed, strategic view of the region in the context of Western interests, to determine what it wants. I fear that, in its rush to sign a deal with Iran so as to notch up a foreign policy achievement, it is in the process of scoring a dangerous, strategic own goal of emboldening Iran and scaring the Status Quo Bloc, thereby further reducing regional stability.

The path to radicalisation

1512_lindt_spA spate of terrorist attacks have recently been carried out by so-called ‘lone wolves’. Attacks have occurred in the US (Boston Marathon), UK (Lee Rigby), Canada (Parliament), Israel (Jerusalem light rail and multiple stabbings), Belgium (Jewish museum), Australia (Martin Place) and, most recently, France (Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket).

Beyond the Islamist connection, what ties these attacks is the loose or entirely absent affiliation the perpetrators had with established terrorist organisations. Broadly speaking, they were individuals (or pairs) that took it upon themselves to conduct a terrorist attack.

The question now being asked by the media (and for many years by the security services) is how to stop lone wolf attacks. The short answer is, they’re impossible to stop. However, there are numerous steps a potential lone wolf perpetrator generally takes in order to carry out a successful attack. Preventing these steps being taken will help lessen the severity of the eventual attack, and might even prevent it from occurring at all.

These steps are:

  • Radicalisation
  • Learning how to attack (online)
  • Learning how to attack (physical training)
  • Preparing for the attack
  • Carrying out the attack

In a forthcoming post, I will discuss how to (try to) prevent lone wolf terrorist attacks. For the remainder of this post, I will discuss the radicalisation process.

Radicalisation of (usually young) Muslims can occur online or in the community. Broadly speaking, the pattern of radicalisation follows the well-worn path of the Arab world’s sense of victimisation since the late 18th century.

Impressionable Muslim youths see that some Muslim communities (such as the Palestinians) are ‘oppressed’ (one’s perspective informs one’s reality). They see that the leaders of most Muslim (and certainly all) Arab states are corrupt and do not lead devout lives (despite pretending to). They see the US militarily back these corrupt, secular states.

They see that Muslim countries are weak. They also see that Muslim countries cannot seem to change their weakness. That is, the Muslim countries cannot defeat Israel, they cannot eject the US presence from the region and, when the US (together with a coalition of Western countries) invades a Muslim state, they see the Muslim state powerless.

Those Muslims who would become radicalised would then be directed (either on the Internet or in person) to look at Islamic history. Islamist history would teach these people that back when the Muslim community was pure it was also the strongest. Muhammad and the four caliphs that followed him rode roughshod over all opponents, establishing in just a couple of decades a large empire, which covered what we now call the Middle East. In these first few decades, the Muslim empire overran the pagan Persian Empire to the east (and converted everyone therein), and took from the Christian Byzantine Empire the holy city of Jerusalem and most Byzantine land.

These same imams would teach these impressionable youths that as the Islamic empire grew less devout and more corrupt, and as individual Muslims did the same, it weakened. Eventually, after decades of malignant decline, the French invaded Muslim Egypt in 1798. And no Muslim army was able to dislodge it—it was the British that kicked out the French (but the British stayed). Muslim armies have barely won a battle—much less a war—since that date.

These impressionable youth, now more devout, might also be shown how individual and small-scale acts of Islamic violence have worked. A handful of bombs caused the US to leave Lebanon (1983). The Palestinian intifada (1987–1993) forced Israel to peace talks. A single battle caused the US to leave Somalia (1993). Hezbollah violence (1982–2000) forced Israel out of Lebanon. A handful of men caused death, fear and chaos in New York (2001). A single attack (with ten bombs) on Madrid trains caused Spain to pull out of Iraq (2004). Hamas violence forced Israel out of Gaza (2000–2005). And so on.

These impressionable youths are taught that the West’s strength is like a spider web; it looks loathsome but, ultimately, it’s very weak. That despite all its guns and tanks and planes, the West is afraid of war and death and will retreat rather than fight. They are pointed to the many passages in Islam’s holy books that preach the imperitive to fight, that predict the inevitable victory to Muslims, that teach Allah rewards all those who fight for him, and that martyrs are rewarded more than any one else.

This path to radicalisation has not changed in decades. The Wahhabis (founders of Saudi Arabia) trod this path in the late 19th century. The founders of the Muslim Brotherhood did so in the 1950s. Al-Qaeda’s founders in the 1990s. All followed the same path to radicalisation as the disenfranchised youth in Sydney’s West today.

What these impressionable youths are rarely taught is that many, many millions more Muslims have been killed by Muslims since 1798 than by the West (including Israel). They are rarely taught of the many battles and wars instigated by Muslims that resulted in the Muslim losing. They are rarely taught that the reason the West was strong in 1798 and thereafter was because the weakening of religious control of the state allowed for creative pursuits that resulted in more wealth and better weaponry; and that it was the stifling of such creative pursuits in the Muslim world (along with the fact the Muslim empire grew rich from taxing other people trading across its lands, not because it had to invent anything) that led to the centuries-long decline that allowed mass colonisation after the First World War. They are not told that imposing religious control over a society will not lead to Muslim victories but to degradation and even more weakness relative to the hated West.

The path to radicalisation is a very hard one to stop. The Muslim world (particularly the Arab world) will continue to be corrupt and weak for the foreseeable future. The West will continue to be strong. Palestinians will continue to be occupied.

The Internet will continue to be a source of easy-to-access information, anti-West sermons and gruesome images of dead Palestinian babies.

It is in the physical community that this path to radicalisation can be slowed, if not stopped. But non-Muslims, no matter how cynical or sympathetic, cannot make a difference. It is the Muslim communities themselves that must first acknowledge that there is a problem; that there is an aspect to Islam’s core teachings that leads some to violence. It’s a very bitter pill for a community to swallow, which is why communities have typically blamed the core reason for radicalisation on Israel or the West. But once the acknowledgment that the problem is internal is made, leading radicalised youths back to a devout though non-violent path (which the majority of devout Muslims follow) will be much easier.

There are signs that key Islamic figures around the world are starting to acknowledge the problem. On 28 December last year, Egyptian President el-Sisi—known as a devout man—said this in the heart of Sunni scholarship:

“I am addressing the religious scholars and clerics… We must take a long, hard look at the situation we are in. It is inconceivable that the ideology we sanctify should make our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing, and destruction all over the world… I am referring not to ‘religion’, but to ‘ideology’—the body of ideas and texts that we have sanctified in the course of centuries, to the point that challenging them has become very difficult.

“It has reached the point that [this ideology] is hostile to the entire world. Is it conceivable that 1.6 billion [Muslims] would kill the world’s population of seven billion, so that they could live [on their own]? This is inconceivable. I say these things here, at al-Azhar, before religious clerics and scholars. May Allah bear witness on Judgment Day to the truth of your intentions, regarding what I say to you today. You cannot see things clearly when you are locked [in this ideology]. You must emerge from it and look from outside, in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology. You must oppose it with resolve. Let me say it again: We need to revolutionise our religion.”

In the face of a handful of Australian Muslims going to fight in Syria, some Australian Muslims are speaking out about the problem of radicalisation in their community. Again, this is a bitter pill to swallow, and I applaud the courage of those at the vanguard of this hopefully growing movement.1512_lindt_sp

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.