Archive for the ‘Middle East prospects’ category

The Middle East After the Defeat of the Islamic State

March 27, 2018

By Daniel Byman Tuesday, March 27, 2018 via Lawfare

Source Link: The Middle East After the Defeat of the Islamic State

{When the smoke clears, the people must be served. – LS}

The collapse of the Islamic State’s caliphate and the military campaign that drove the group underground is a win for the Trump administration, the United States and the world as a whole. Even by the standards of terrorist groups, the Islamic State is bloody, extreme and toxic. However, even if the Islamic State isn’t revived——the Middle East as a whole is likely to remain broken. The region will still suffer massive civil wars, jihadist terrorism, a lack of regime legitimacy, economic weakness, and constant meddling by neighboring powers. Moreover, the Islamic State’s defeat may make several problems worse, or at least more complex.

Let’s start with some good news. Should peace negotiations in the Syrian civil war start to gain traction, the destruction of the Islamic State removes, or at least weakens, an important “spoiler”—the group would have opposed any negotiated peace and would have fought against any actor, including other Islamists, who would consider negotiations. Negotiations, however, have a sad history in the Syrian conflict, and the Assad regime, along with its Russian and Iranian backers, appears bent on winning rather than willing to accept some sort of deal.

Before the Islamic State declared a caliphate in 2014—and otherwise electrified the broader jihadist movement—terrorist groups ran amok in the Middle East, and they persist despite the Islamic State’s decline several years later. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula plagues Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is a force in Algeria and neighboring states, is deeply embedded within the Syrian opposition, and a host of smaller groups operate in these and other countries. Some that al-Qaeda has used the Islamic State’s ascendance to quietly rebuild and now poses a serious threat.

The fall of the Islamic State will likely aid these groups as would-be Islamic State recruits and funders will support others. In addition, the Islamic State often acted as a divisive force within the jihadist movement, fighting as much with rival groups as against the governments it ostensibly opposed. Its collapse may strengthen unity within the overall jihadist movement and allow these groups to divert attention to new targets.

However, no group would likely assume overall leadership of the jihadist movement, and none would match the appeal of the Islamic State. The al-Qaeda core led by Ayman al-Zawahiri has been for several years, its leadership decimated by drone strikes and arrests. In response, al-Qaeda delegated more authority to its regional branches, hurting its global image when they killed Muslim civilians or otherwise discredited the cause. Many regional groups endorse at least part of what al-Qaeda embraces, but their regionalism limits their broader appeal: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for example, will not inspire Maghrebis, while the more limited horizons of these groups are unlikely to attract the hordes of Europeans, central Asians, and others who flooded to the Islamic State’s ranks during the 2013–2016 period.

From the U.S. perspective, these shifts represent positive developments: The jihadist groups will weaken and focus more locally and regionally. However, the groups will not disappear, and some may become stronger.

Regimes in the Arab world suffer from a deep legitimacy crisis. With the , no government maintains even a hint of a popular mandate. In the past, regimes in the region from their revolutionary legacies and social and economic growth. These sources have dried up. The anti-colonial struggles are a distant memory for even older citizens of the Middle East. Rather, such “republican” regimes are military dictatorships with only a hint of representative window dressing. Arab monarchies enjoy slightly greater legitimacy from their traditions and more obvious succession mechanisms. However, much of their survival depended on their successful transformation of their societies due to oil wealth, foreign support, or other forms of “rents” that enabled them to greatly improve the lives of their citizens. In the last fifty years, life expectancy in Saudi Arabia increased from nearly 46 years to 75 years, and primary school completion rates increased by 172 percent from 1979 to 2015. However, a generation has emerged accustomed to some degree of wealth and social services, and indeed they enjoy fewer opportunities than their parents who grew up when oil price surges could be spent on a smaller population. The governments all perform poorly in bolstering economic growth and providing services, further decreasing their legitimacy. This lack of legitimacy led to the “Arab Spring” in 2011, the revolutions’ rapid spread, and the civil wars that often followed.

The collapse of the Islamic State may highlight and even exacerbate the legitimacy deficit. Area regimes have pointed to civil wars and the Islamic State’s excesses as proof of the danger of revolution and even reform. With this threat diminished, area regimes will have fewer excuses for their own failures.

Perhaps the biggest change in the region would be a further U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East. The threat of Islamic State terrorism motivated the Obama administration, which was eager to avoid the Middle East quagmire, to intervene militarily and engage in high-level diplomacy. The threat also motivated the Trump administration to continue those efforts. Even then, both administrations tried to keep their distance from the region, rejecting calls for larger interventions or sustained diplomatic efforts to end the wars. The collapse of the Islamic State diminishes the rationale for the U.S. military presence particularly in Syria but also in Iraq. President Trump also seems opposed to a massive intervention in Syria, perhaps because it would h.

Even if opportunities for peace arise in Yemen or Syria, or if a miracle happens and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is again ripe for resolution, Washington is unlikely to seize the opportunity. The Trump administration’s focus on “American first” would suggest that negotiating political settlements no longer is a U.S. national interest. In addition, U.S. bureaucratic weakness will make it less likely to negotiate effectively. These weaknesses include the dismantling of the State Department, the refusal to nominate or appoint key positions through the agencies, and the Trump administration’s difficulty in coordinating policy across government. Washington would also be less likely to act as the negotiator to restrain regional allies from fighting each other or intervening in ways that exacerbate existing conflicts—a shift that U.S. policy toward the dispute between Qatar and its neighbors and regarding Turkey’s intervention in Syria suggests is already underway.

Instead, the absence of perceived threats allows other parts of the world—or problems at home—to take precedence. Whether this is the rise of China, a more aggressive Russia, or simply a desire to keep American forces and dollars out of a perennial trouble spot, many American leaders in both political parties would see little reason to increase or even sustain U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

Although the enduring collapse of the Islamic State is a step forward, the Middle East’s troubles run deep, and new dangers will likely emerge or worsen. From an American point of view, much depends on defining U.S. interests. Washington would have a greater ability to wash its hands of a troubled region, but such a move may increase the region’s many tribulations.

 

 

Don’t Ignore Kushner’s Quiet Mideast Gains

February 2, 2018

Ahmed Charai January 29, 2018 The National Interest

Source: Don’t Ignore Kushner’s Quiet Mideast Gains

{Giving credit where credit is due. – LS}

He may be the most effective presidential Middle East envoy in decades, but he doesn’t get much respect from the press.

It is hardly an understatement to say that Jared Kushner, a baby-faced real-estate magnate and presidential son-in-law, didn’t send expectations soaring when he was named to supervise Israel-Palestine peace efforts.

Lacking years of diplomatic experience and advanced degrees in Near Eastern politics, his appointment seemed more like favoritism than a confirmation of expertise, more a presidential gift to his daughter than a strategic decision.

What little coverage Kushner has received has varied from skeptical to scornful. And, tellingly, he hasn’t tried to dispel the pundits’ prejudices. He doesn’t travel with reporters or invite press attention. His few appearances are fleeting and uneventful.

Still, his frequent visits and stray public remarks reveal a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of the region. Behind the scenes, he is making surprising progress.

First, he recognizes that Iran now matters more to the Arabs than Palestine. With Iran and Islamic militants threatening the survival of major Arab states, many Arab leaders have quietly decided to align with Israel—dialing down their interest in the Palestinian drama. Consider that President Trump’s plan to move the United States’ embassy in Israel to Jerusalem did not touch off huge protests in Arab capitals or angry editorials in the Arab press. Kushner was one of the strongest voices inside the White House in favor of the long-promised move. Any other mediator would fret that the move would needlessly complicate his job. Kushner knows that Iran has replaced Palestine as the center of Arab interest, and he spotted an opportunity that few in Washington saw.

Second, Kushner realizes that younger Arab generation has a fundamentally different perspective from that of its elders. More than 60 percent of Arabs are too young to remember the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel, and many more regard them as ancient history. Consider an American equivalent; how many millennials are outraged at the fate of South Vietnam? As a result, younger Arabs largely accept Israel’s existence as a settled fact, and generally see trading with its prosperous economy as essential to their own economic growth. I know. I have heard them tell me these things in the privacy of their living rooms. Their septuagenarian leaders do not share their views, and punish younger leaders who try to independently engage with Israelis—which only deepens the divide.

The generation gap is based on practical economic concerns. Young Arabs want well-paying jobs that allow them to marry and start families. They want good schools for the children. Many see no issue with taking an ambulance across the border to an Israeli hospital, unlike their retirement-age relatives who say that they would rather die.

Kushner correctly captured the sentiment of the new Arab generation when he said in July 2017, “We don’t want a history lesson. We’ve read enough books. Let’s focus on, How do you come up with a conclusion to the situation?”

To be sure, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the longest and thorniest conflicts in history. It cannot be resolved quickly or easily. Kushner has publicly acknowledged this, usually adding the idea that new approaches are more likely to bear fruit than old ones.

And he is trying a new approach, completely at odds with the conventional wisdom among diplomats. Kushner, speaking at the Saban Forum in Washington, said, “The most important thing was to focus on the final status issues, not on daily distractions that come up along the way.”

This signals a sharp break with the conventional State Department view that it is better to start modestly, focus on building trust, build the capacity of the Palestinian Authority, foster economic ties between the parties and lay a foundation for still greater capacity on the Palestinian side. Only then, after years of “capacity building,” can the final-status negotiations start.

Kushner blunted turned this upside down, adding that it had been tried for decades with little success. In the absence of a political horizon to steer toward, he said, people make decisions based on who is holding guns now. And that cements the current impasse.

Finally, Kushner has three key relationships that make progress possible.

First, he enjoys the complete trust of the president and has continuous real-time access to Trump. Few U.S. negotiators, at least since Henry Kissinger, have had such a unique bond with the president.

Second, he is liked and trusted by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and its influential ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer. Obama administration officials often publicly faulted Israel’s elected leaders, and the relationship was, at best, lukewarm.

Third, Kushner has befriended Saudi Arabia’s thirty-one-year-old deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Both are seen as tech-savvy, young disrupters of the status quo, and both favor practical solutions over symbolic displays. Saudi pressure on Qatar to end its funding of Hamas, the Palestinian terror group, would not have happened with earlier generations of Saudi leadership.

Other Gulf Arab leaders that I have met with tell me that they have heard positive things about Kushner, and are eager to work with him.

In short, Kushner’s correct reading of this unique moment in Arab politics as well as the strong relationships with key players that he has fostered position him, and the United States, to make historic progress in the Middle East.

Is peace between Arabs and Israelis possible? Consider the case of my homeland, Morocco. Under the leadership of King Mohamed VI, a constitutional monarchy has emerged with legal protections for Jews and other religious minorities. Here in Casablanca, Jews and Muslims attend each other’s schools, form business partnerships and leave peacefully side by side. With a dose of Kushner’s quiet diplomacy, there is no reason Arabs and Jews couldn’t live the same way in Israel and Palestine.

Why There Is No Peace in the Middle East

October 14, 2017

Why There Is No Peace in the Middle East, Gatestone Institute, Philip Carl Salzman, October 14, 2017

Many Middle Easterners see the disasters around them, and blame outsiders: “It is the fault of the Jews”; “The British did this to us”; “The Americans are to blame.”[5] Many Western academics and commentators say the same, dignifying this counter-historic theory with the label “postcolonialism.” But given that tribal dynamics were dominant in the region for a thousand years since the foundation of Islam, and thousands of years before that, blaming outsiders for regional dynamics is hardly credible. Nonetheless, “postcolonialists” will claim that pointing to regional culture as the foundation of regional dynamics is “blaming the victim.” We in the West, unlike Middle Easterners, love “victims.” But what if Middle Easterners are victims of the limitations and shortcomings of their own culture?

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Peace is not possible in the Middle East because values and goals other than peace are more important to Middle Easterners. Most important to Middle Easterners are loyalty to kin, clan, and cult, and the honour that is won by such loyalty.

There was no group and no loyalty above the tribe or tribal confederation until the rise of Islam. With Islam, a new, higher, more encompassing level of loyalty was defined. All people were divided between Muslims and infidels, and the world was divided between the Dar al-Islam, the land of believers and peace, and Dar al-harb, the land of unbelievers and war. Following the tribal ideology of loyalty, Muslims should unite against infidels, and would receive not only honour, but heavenly rewards.

Honour is gained in victory. Losing is regarded as deeply humiliating. Only the prospects of a future victory and the regaining of honour drives people forward. An example is the Arab-Israel conflict, in the course of which the despised Jews repeatedly defeated the armies of Arab states. This was not so much a material disaster for the Arabs, as it was a cultural one in which honor was lost. The only way to regain honor is to defeat and destroy Israel, the explicit goal of the Palestinians: “from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea.” This why no agreement over land or boundaries will bring peace: peace does not restore honor.

We in the West, unlike Middle Easterners, love “victims.” But what if Middle Easterners are victims of the limitations and shortcomings of their own culture?

Living as an anthropologist in a herding camp of the Yarahmadzai tribe of nomadic pastoralists in the deserts of Iranian Baluchistan clarified some of the inhibitions to peace in the Middle East. What one sees is strong, kin-based, group loyalty defense and solidarity, and the political opposition of lineages, whether large or small.[1] This raised the question how unity and peace could arrive in a system based on opposition.

Peace is not possible in the Middle East because values and goals other than peace are more important to Middle Easterners. Most important to Middle Easterners are loyalty to kin, clan, and cult, and the honour which is won by such loyalty. These are the cultural imperatives, the primary values, held and celebrated. When conflict arises and conflict-parties form based on loyal allegiance, the conflict is regarded as appropriate and proper.

The results of absolute commitment to kin and cult groups, and the structural opposition to all others, can be seen throughout Middle Eastern history, including contemporary events, where conflict has been rife. Turks, Arabs and Iranians have launched military campaigns to suppress Kurds. Meanwhile, Christians, Yazidis, Baha’is and Jews, among others, have been, and continue to be ethnically cleansed. Arabs and Persians, and Sunnis and Shiites, each try to gain power over the other in a competition that has been one of the main underlying factors of the Iraq-Iran war, the Saddam Hussein regime, and the current catastrophe in Syria. Turks invaded Greek Orthodox Cyprus in 1974 and have occupied it since. Multiple Muslim states have invaded the minuscule Jewish state of Israel three times, and Palestinians daily celebrate the murder of Jews.

Some Middle Easterners, and some in the West, prefer to attribute the problems of the Middle East to outsiders, such as Western imperialists, but it seems odd to suggest that the local inhabitants have no agency and no responsibility for their activities in this disastrous region, high not only in conflict and brutality, but low by all world standards in human development.

If one looks to local conditions to understand local conflicts, the first thing to understand is that Arab culture, through the ages and at the present time, has been built on the foundation of Bedouin tribal culture. Most of the population of northern Arabia at the time of the emergence of Islam was Bedouin, and during the period of rapid expansion following the adoption of Islam, the Arab Muslim army consisted of Bedouin tribal units. The Bedouin, nomadic and pastoral for the most part, were formed into tribes, which are regional defense and security groups.[2]

Bedouin tribes were organized by basing groups on descent through the male line. Close relatives in conflict activated only small groups, while distant relatives in conflict activated large groups. If, for example, members of cousin groups were in conflict, no one else was involved. But if members of tribal sections were in conflict, all cousins and larger groups in a tribal section would unite in opposition to the other tribal section. So, what group a tribesmen thought himself a member of was circumstantial, depending on who was involved in a conflict.

Relations between descent groups were always oppositional in principle, with tribes as a whole seeing themselves in opposition to other tribes. The main structural relation between groups at the same genealogical and demographic level could be said to be balanced opposition. The strongest political norm among tribesmen was loyalty to, and active support of, one’s kin group, small or large. One must always support closer kin against more distant kin. Loyalty was rewarded with honour. Not supporting your kin was dishonourable. The systemic result was often a stand-off, the threat of full scale conflict with another group of the same size and determination acting as deterrence against frivolous adventures. That there were not more conflicts than the many making up tribal history, is due to that deterrence.

There was no group and no loyalty above the tribe or tribal confederation until the rise of Islam. With Islam, a new, higher, more encompassing level of loyalty was defined. All people were divided between Muslims and infidels, and the world was divided between the Dar al-Islam, the land of believers and peace, and Dar al-harb, the land of unbelievers and war. Following the tribal ideology of loyalty, Muslims should unite against infidels, and would receive not only honour, but heavenly rewards.

Honour is gained in victory.[3] Self-sacrifice in the attempt is lauded, but honour comes from winning. Having lost and being a victim is not an esteemed position in Arab society. Having lost in a political struggle results in loss of honour. This is felt deeply as a loss that should be corrected. Losing is regarded as deeply humiliating. Only the prospects of a future victory and the regaining of honour drives people forward. An example is the Arab-Israel conflict, in the course of which the despised Jews repeatedly defeated the armies of Arab states. This was not so much a material disaster for the Arabs, as it was a cultural one in which honour was lost. The only way to regain honour is to defeat and destroy Israel, the explicit goal of the Palestinians: “from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea.” This why no agreement over land or boundaries will bring peace: peace does not restore honour.

None of this is unknown to Arab commentators, who repeatedly refer to the tribal nature of their culture and society. Of course, today, few Middle Easterners live in tents and raise camels, but villagers and urbanites share the same tribal assumptions and values. According to the Tunisian intellectual Al-Afif al-Akhdar, the Arabs cherish their “deep-culture of tribal vengefulness” and consequent “fixated, brooding, vengeful mentality.”[4] Former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki has said that “We need an ideological revolution; our tribal mentality has destroyed our society.”

Dr. Salman Masalha, an Israeli Druze literary intellectual, argues:

“The tribal nature of Arab societies is deeply embedded in the past, and its roots date back through Arab history to the pre-Islamic era. … Since Arab societies are tribal in nature, the various forms of monarchies and emirates are the natural continuation of this ingrained social structure in which tribal loyalty comes before all else.”

Mamoun Fandy, an Egyptian-born American scholar, wrote in the Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat:

“The Arabs, even after the arrival of Islam, were never “ideological” people who sought to develop an intellectual vision of ourselves and the outside world. Instead, we are the people of blood relations and family ties, or “Shalal” as we call it in Egypt. … Despite the fact that Islam was the greatest intellectual revolution in our history, we, as Arabs, have succeeded in adapting Islam to serve the tribe, the family, and the clan. Islamic history began as an intellectual revolution, and as a history of ideas and countries; however, after the beginning of the Orthodox Caliphate, it was transformed into a somewhat tribal state. The State of Islam became the Umayyad State, and after that the Abbasid, the Fatimid, and so on and so forth. This means that we now have a history of tribes instead of a history of ideas. … Has this tribal history, alongside tribal and family loyalties and the priority of blood relations over intellectual relations gone forever after the “Arab spring?” Of course not; what has happened is that the families and tribes have dressed themselves up in the cloak of revolutions in Yemen and in Libya, and in Egypt the opposition consists of tribes rather than concepts.”

Pictured: Bedouin men in Abu Dhabi. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The history of the Middle East, the centuries of tribal wars, and the ongoing fissures in Arab society all testify to the Arab tribal culture and structural opposition. There may have been good reasons to stick with tribal culture and organization in pre-modern times: states and empires were despotic, exploitative, and heavily dependent on slave-labor, and tribal organization gave some people a chance to remain independent. In recent times, with the modern state model, governments in the Middle East have tried to establish states, but these have foundered on tribal loyalties and oppositions, which do not fit with constitutional states. Rulers in the region have all turned to coercion to maintain their positions, making all Muslim states in the region despotic.

Many Middle Easterners see the disasters around them, and blame outsiders: “It is the fault of the Jews”; “The British did this to us”; “The Americans are to blame.”[5] Many Western academics and commentators say the same, dignifying this counter-historic theory with the label “postcolonialism.” But given that tribal dynamics were dominant in the region for a thousand years since the foundation of Islam, and thousands of years before that, blaming outsiders for regional dynamics is hardly credible. Nonetheless, “postcolonialists” will claim that pointing to regional culture as the foundation of regional dynamics is “blaming the victim.” We in the West, unlike Middle Easterners, love “victims.” But what if Middle Easterners are victims of the limitations and shortcomings of their own culture?

Philip Carl Salzman is Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Canada.


[1] Philip Carl Salzman, Black Tents of Baluchistan, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

[2] Philip Carl Salzman, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East, Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2008.

[3] Frank Henderson Stewart, Honor, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.; Gideon M. Kressel, Ascendancy through Aggression, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1996.

[4] Quoted in Barry Rubin, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Hoboken, NY: Wiley, 2006), 80-81.

[5] Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel, NY: Free Press, 2007, p. 47.

Dr. Jasser participates in a panel discussion about the state of the Middle East & ISIS

February 25, 2017

Dr. Jasser participates in a panel discussion about the state of the Middle East & ISIS, AIFD via YouTube, February 24, 2017

(It’s an about thirty-five minute long video about Middle East related topics, including America’s relations with Russia, Islamist terrorism, Islamist nations, the clash between Judeo-Christian and Islamist cultures and what the Trump administration can and should do. — DM)

 

Column One: The New Middle East

September 29, 2016

Column One: The New Middle East, Jerusalem PostCaroline B. Glick, September 29, 2016

aleppo-messA RED CRESCENT aid worker inspects scattered medical supplies after an air strike on a medical depot in Aleppo on Saturday.. (photo credit:REUTERS)

So Obama let Syria burn. He let Iran and Hezbollah transform the country into their colony. And he let Putin transform the Mediterranean into a Russian lake.

A new Syria is emerging. And with it, a new Middle East and world are presenting themselves. Our new world is not a peaceful or stable one. It is a harsh place.

The new Syria is being born in the rubble of Aleppo.

The eastern side of the city, which has been under the control of US-supported rebel groups since 2012, is being bombed into the Stone Age by Russian and Syrian aircraft.

All avenues of escape have been blocked. A UN aid convoy was bombed in violation of a fantasy cease-fire.

Medical facilities and personnel are being targeted by Russia and Syrian missiles and barrel bombs to make survival impossible.

It is hard to assess how long the siege of eastern Aleppo by Russia, its Iranian and Hezbollah partners and its Syrian regime puppet will last. But what is an all but foregone conclusion now is that eastern Aleppo will fall. And with its fall, the Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah-Assad axis will consolidate its control over all of western Syria.

For four years, the Iranians, Hezbollah and Bashar Assad played a cat and mouse game with the rebel militias.

Fighting a guerrilla war with the help of the Sunni population, the anti-regime militias were able to fight from and hide from within the civilian population. Consequently, they were all but impossible to defeat.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to join the fight, he and his generals soon recognized that this manner of fighting ensured perpetual war. So they changed tactics. The new strategy involves speeding up the depopulation and ethnic cleansing of rebel-held areas. The massive refugee flows from Syria over the past year are a testament to the success of the barbaric war plan. The idea is to defeat the rebel forces by to destroying the sheltering civilian populations.

Since the Syrian war began some five years ago, half of the pre-war population of 23 million has been displaced.

Sunnis, who before the war comprised 75% of the population, are being targeted for death and exile. More than 4 million predominantly Sunni Syrians are living in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. More than a million have entered Europe. Millions more have been internally displaced. Assad has made clear that they will never be coming home.

At the same time, the regime and its Iranian and Hezbollah masters have been importing Shi’ites from Iran, Iraq and beyond. The process actually began before the war started. In the lead-up to the war some half million Shi’ites reportedly relocated to Syria from surrounding countries.

This means that at least as far as western Syria is concerned, once Aleppo is destroyed, and the 250,000 civilians trapped in the eastern part of what was once Syria’s commercial capital are forced from their homes and property, the Russians, Iranians, Hezbollah and their Syrian fig leaf Assad will enjoy relative peace in their areas of control.

By adopting a strategy of total war, Putin has ensured that far from becoming the quagmire that President Barack Obama warned him Syria would become, the war in Syria has instead become a means to transform Russia into the dominant superpower in the Mediterranean, at the US’s expense.

In exchange for saving Assad’s neck and enabling Iran and Hezbollah to control Syria, Russia has received the capacity to successfully challenge US power. Last month Putin brought an agreement with Assad before the Duma for ratification. The agreement permits – indeed invites – Russia to set up a permanent air base in Khmeimim, outside the civilian airport in Latakia.

Russian politicians, media and security experts have boasted that the base will be able to check the power of the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet and challenge NATO’s southern flank in the Mediterranean basin for the first time. The Russians have also decided to turn their naval station at Tartus into something approaching a fullscale naval base.

With Russia’s recent rapprochement with Turkish President Recip Erdogan, NATO’s future ability to check Russian power through the Incirlik air base is in question.

Even Israel’s ability to permit the US access to its air bases is no longer assured. Russia has deployed air assets to Syria that have canceled Israel’s regional air superiority.

Under these circumstances, in a hypothetical Russian-US confrontation, Israel may be unwilling to risk Russian retaliation for a decision to permit the US to use its air bases against Russia.

America’s loss of control over the eastern Mediterranean is a self-induced disaster.

For four years, as Putin stood on the sidelines and hedged his bets, Obama did nothing. As Iran and Hezbollah devoted massive financial and military assets to maintaining their puppet Assad in power, the Obama administration squandered chance after chance to bring down the regime and stem Iran’s regional imperial advance.

For his refusal to take action when such action could have easily been taken, Obama shares the responsibility for what Syria has become. This state of affairs is all the more infuriating because the hard truth is that it wouldn’t have been hard for the US to defeat the Iranian- Hezbollah axis. The fact that even without US help the anti-regime forces managed to hold on for four years shows how weak the challenge posed by Iran and Hezbollah actually was.

Russia only went into Syria when Putin was absolutely convinced that Obama would do nothing to stop him from dislodging America as the premier global power in the region.

As Michael Ledeen recalled earlier this week, Obama chose to stand on the sidelines in Syria because he wanted to make friends with Iran. Obama began his secret courtship of the mullahs even before he officially took office eight years ago.

After the war broke out in Syria, midway through his first term and in the following years, the Russians and the Iranians told the obsessed American president that if he took action against Assad, as strategic rationality dictated, he would get no nuclear deal, and no rapprochement with Tehran.

So Obama let Syria burn. He let Iran and Hezbollah transform the country into their colony. And he let Putin transform the Mediterranean into a Russian lake. Obama enabled the ethnic cleansing of Syria’s Sunni majority, and in turn facilitated the refugee crisis that is changing the face not only of the Middle East but of Europe as well.

And as it turns out, the deal with Iran that Obama willingly sacrificed US control of the Mediterranean to achieve has not ushered in a new era of regional moderation and stability through appeasement as Obama foresaw. It has weakened US credibility with its spurned Sunni allies. It has undermined the strategic position of Israel, the US’s only stable and reliable regional ally. It has financially and strategically fueled Iran’s hegemonic rise throughout the region. And it has facilitated Iran’s development of a nuclear arsenal.

Far from causing the Iranian to become more moderate, the nuclear deal has radicalized the regime still further.

On Wednesday Ray Takeyh wrote in The Washington Post that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is now grooming Ibrahim Raisi, a fanatic who makes Khamenei look moderate, to succeed him in power.

On Monday night, for the first time, Israel Air Force jets flying over Syria were shot at by Syrian anti-aircraft ordnance.

Air force sources told the media that the aircraft were never in danger and the munitions were only shot off after the aircraft had returned to Israel and were in the process off landing.

The fact that no one was hurt is of course reassuring.

But the fact that Russia targeted the planes makes clear that Putin has decided to send Israel a very clear and menacing message.

He is now the protector of the Iranian-Hezbollah colony on our northern border. If Israel decides to preemptively attack targets belong to that colony, Russia will not stand by and watch. And with the US no longer well-positioned to challenge Russian power in the region, Israel will have to deal with Russia on its own.

To face this challenge, Israel needs to look beyond its traditional reliance on air power.

There are two parts of the challenge. The first part is Iran.

As far as Israel is concerned, the problem with the Russian- Iranian takeover of Syria is not Putin.

Putin is not inherently hostile to Israel, as his Soviet predecessors were. He is an opportunist. Obama gave him the opportunity to partner with Iran in asserting Russian dominance in the Middle East and he took it. Israel is threatened by the alliance because it is threatened by Iran, not by Putin. To neutralize the alliance’s threat to its own security, Israel then needs to degrade Iran’s power, and it needs to emphasize its own.

To accomplish these goals, Israel needs to operate in two completely separate arenas. To weaken Iran, Israel should take its cue from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and from its own past successful military ties to the Kurds of Iraq in the 1960s and 1970s.

Israel needs to deploy military trainers beyond its borders to work with other anti-Iranian forces. The goal of that cooperation must be to destabilize the regime, with the goal of overthrowing it. This may take time. But it must be done. The only way to neutralize the threat emanating from the new Syria is to change the nature of the Iranian regime that controls it.

As for Russia, Israel needs to demonstrate that it is a power that Putin can respect in its own right, and not a downgraded Washington’s sock puppet.

To this end, Israel should embark on a rapid expansion of its civilian presence along its eastern border with Syria and with Jordan. As Russia’s air base in Syria undermines Israel’s air superiority and reliance on air power, Israel needs to show that it will not be dislodged or allow its own territory to be threatened in any way. By doubling the Israeli population on the Golan Heights within five years, and vastly expanding its population in the Jordan Valley, Israel will accomplish two goals at once. It will demonstrate its independence from the US without harming US strategic interests. And it will reinforce its eastern border against expanded strategic threats from both the Golan Heights and the new Jordan with its bursting population of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

It is ironic that the new Middle East is coming into focus as Shimon Peres, the failed visionary of a fantasy- based new Middle East, is being laid to rest. But to survive in the real new Middle East, Israel must bury Peres’s belief that peace is built by appeasing enemies along with him. The world in which we live has a place for dreamers.

But dreams, unhinged from reality, lead to Aleppo, not to peace.

Middle East Strategic Outlook – July 2016

July 18, 2016

Middle East Strategic Outlook – July 2016, Gatestone InstituteShmuel Bar, July 18, 2016

♦ It may be expected that in the coming months, the Syrian efforts to implement “ethnic cleansing” of Sunnis in the north will continue and even escalate, resulting in a growing stream of refugees into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. This will continue to destabilize these countries and to pose a challenge to a weakened Europe.

♦ The overt American support for the Iranian involvement in Iraq will also serve to rally Sunnis to an anti-American position, while actually exacerbating the main problem — the sectarian divide. Therefore, the American involvement in the Fallujah campaign will not buy it Sunni gratitude.

♦ Iran is entering a new stage of war in Syria which evokes the situation that the Soviet Union found itself in in Afghanistan in 1985. Like the Soviet Union in that stage of the Afghan war, Iran has achieved no decisive victory, but has incurred significant domestic opposition to the war and has no additional resources that could tip the scales.

♦ The explanation put forward by the American administration that the attacks reflect the Islamic State’s “despair” in the face of its defeats in Syria and Iraq over the last months is specious. International terrorism “to strike fear in the hearts of Allah’s enemies” has been a hallmark of the Islamic State since its beginning and it does not need the excuse of military defeat in Syria and Iraq to continue to carry out such attacks.

Saudi Arabia

Approval of the National Transformation Plan

The Saudi Cabinet approved (June 6) the National Transformation Program (NTP), part of Saudi Vision 2030, led by Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. The NTP is supposed to be the basis for laying out targets to be met by government ministries and departments. The NTP was well received not only be the Saudi mainstream media (to be expected) but by the Saudi social media that represents to a great degree the public opinion of the younger Saudi generation. It may be expected that Prince Mohammad bin Salman will continue to take steps in the framework of his initiative that will, at least, preserve the sense of momentum and the public support he is enjoying.

Saudi-US Relations

In this framework, Mohammad bin Salman visited Washington DC in a bid to sell his project and himself as the future Saudi leader. During the visit, and especially in the meetings with officials from Congress and the security and intelligence Community, he also sought to build his own stature as future king and as the leader who must be at the helm throughout the period of implementation of his “Vision 2030” plan and beyond. His goal therefore was also to usurp Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef’s status as the favorite of the Washington officialdom as the successor to King Salman. This status derived not only from Washington’s respect of the Saudi rules of succession, but also from his years-long and tight cooperation with US agencies on security and counter-terrorism issues. Therefore, Mohammad bin Salman made an effort to project himself as a preferred effective interlocutor on those issues. The fact that Mohammad bin Salman was accorded meetings with President Obama, an honor usually reserved for heads of state, and the red-carpet reception he received, indicates that the administration now considers him as a likely future king and therefore seeks to establish a dialog with him and influence him.

Iraq

The War against the Islamic State

The liberation of Fallujah from the “Islamic State” after a month-long campaign (23 May-26 June) may be an important milestone is not the “beginning of the end” and it will certainly not lead to a stronger and more unified Iraqi state. The campaign and its anticipated aftermath will only exacerbate the sectarian divide in the country and encourage further conflict, whether in the name of the “Islamic State” or its successor under another name

The overt American support for the Iranian involvement[1] will also serve to rally Sunnis to an anti-American position. By backing a military campaign against Sunnis in which Shiite militias and Iran played a direct role, the US-led international coalition was fighting against the symptom — the Islamic State — while actually exacerbating the main problem: the sectarian divide in Iraq. Therefore, the American involvement in the Fallujah campaign will not buy it Sunni gratitude. The view of the US as pro-Shiite and pro-Iranian must have been enhanced by Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement (28 June) that Iran’s presence in Iraq is helpful to American attempts to beat back the threat of the Islamic State, and the praise heaped on the Shiite militias by the US special envoy tasked with defeating the Islamic State, Brent McGurk[2].

1701Iraqi army units and Shiite militias during the assault on Fallujah, June 2016

Many Sunnis — in Fallujah and elsewhere in Anbar Province — view the Fallujah campaign as part of a strategic Iranian plan to take control, through its Iraqi proxies, of central and western Iraq, from the Diala Governorate on the Iraq-Iran border to the Iraqi-Syrian border, in order to create a safe land-bridge from Iran through Syria to Lebanon. To achieve this objective, the Sunnis of western Iraq have to be weakened and denied the ability to stage a meaningful resistance[3].

No End to the Political Stalemate Expected

The paralysis of the Iraqi Parliament further complicates the situation. The parliament cannot reach agreement on the composition of a new cabinet, and cannot pass the 2016 budget. While Iraq can continue to muddle along with a caretaker government under al-‘Abadi (just as Lebanon “survives” without electing a president), passing a reduced 2016 budget is a sine qua non for execution of the agreement that that the government reached in May with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a low-interest loan of $5.4 billion and for loans from other international institutions.

Iran’s interest is to maintain its control over the government in Baghdad, On one hand, this calls for a relatively stable and cohesive Shiite establishment. On the other hand, Iran enhances its position in Baghdad by playing one party against the other and positioning itself as the only acceptable broker between the different Shiite factions. In the eyes of Tehran, Muqtada al-Sadr is a loose cannon, and al-‘Abadi is too close to the West and therefore must be held in check. By maintaining the innate instability of the Shiite political system, Iran attempts to preserve the Iraqi Shiites’ dependency on it to bridge the differences between the different factions.

Therefore, the Shiite infighting will continue as long as al-Sadr is around. This is clear to Iran and to al-Sadr’s rivals and increases the possibility that an attempt will be made to assassinate him. In such a case, the reaction of those elements in the Shiite community who currently support him will be violent and extreme, possibly ultimately leading to the total breakdown of the Shiite political establishment that Iran is trying to prevent.

Iran and Hezbollah in Syria and Iraq

In contrast to its singular status as power-broker in Iraq, the situation in Syria and Lebanon does not bode well for the Iranian strategy. Since these two theaters are critical for Iran’s regional designs, it has no options for an exit strategy, disengagement or even reduction of its footprint. Its primary agent, Hezbollah is suffering setbacks on all the fronts. Without massive Russian military support in Syria, Hezbollah has had to resort to repeated tactical withdrawals and it and the Iranian forces are suffering increasingly heavy fatalities, wounded and fighters taken as prisoners by the Syrian Sunni rebels. In addition to that, the rebels know their own turf better, limiting Hezbollah’s ability to deploy more troops in the more sensitive areas of the theater. Nevertheless, Hezbollah is committed to increase its footprint in the Syrian theater and cannot back down — even as its growing casualties cause increasing discontent within its Shiite Lebanese constituency[4].

Iran is entering a new stage of war in Syria which evokes the situation that the Soviet Union found itself in in Afghanistan in 1985. Until that year, the Soviet Union achieved no decisive victory over the mujahedeen, but also did not lose any battle on the ground. Like the Soviet Union in that stage of the Afghan war, Iran has achieved no decisive victory, but has incurred significant domestic opposition to the war and has no additional resources that could tip the scales. In light of this, our forecast is that the current situation in Syria will become a stalemate for all the parties at least in the months to come.

Israel-Syria-Lebanon

In these circumstances, a conflict with Israel does not serve the interests of either Iran, Hezbollah or Syria. Therefore, all four parties (and Russia) have adapted themselves to a routine of tolerance towards Israeli attacks on Syrian and Hezbollah targets that endanger Israel directly or threaten Israel’s “strategic edge” in the Syrian-Lebanese theater. In a series of actions directed towards enhancing Israel’s deterrence, the IDF held an extensive war game (12-14 June) based on a scenario of confrontation with Hezbollah. Subsequently, Israeli aircraft hit a Syrian military target near the Israeli border and uncharacteristically released a communiqué that the target had indeed belonged to the Syrian regime and had been hit in response to shelling by the Syrians near the border fence.

Hezbollah seems to be losing its predominance even within the Lebanese theater itself, where it had been almost unchallenged for decades. The attrition of Hezbollah in Lebanon is weakening it within the Shiite community. At the same time, the large (1.4 million) Syrian Sunni refugee population has effectively changed the demographic status quo in Lebanon and created a large restive population for whom Iran, Shiites and particularly Hezbollah are the prime enemy.

Syria

Bashar Assad is defiant, but not delusional

On June 7, Bashar Assad delivered a speech to the newly “elected” Syrian Parliament. This was his first major speech since the collapse of the peace talks sponsored by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Geneva in April. Assad vowed to retake every inch of the country from his enemies, and effectively dismissed the concept of a peaceful transition of power, which is at the heart of the ISSG’s approach to the resolution of the crisis.

Assad is not — as the US State Department implied — “delusional”. He clearly perceives no military or political threat to his rule. He may rationally asses that Secretary Kerry’s reported “Plan B” that called for escalated military action if Assad continued his defiance will not receive support of President Obama, who will be reluctant to increase the American military involvement in Syria and to risk damaging Iranian-American relations and the nuclear agreement, which is the centerpiece of Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

Assad also most probably assesses that neither Hillary Clinton, whose Libyan experience will discourage her from intervention, nor Donald Trump, who has laid out a non-interventionist foreign policy approach, would undertake a more active involvement in Syria than that of President Obama. Assad therefore felt free to obstruct the international efforts to transport emergency aid to civilians trapped in rebel-held areas, and to reject in his speech the August 1 deadline set by the US for developing a transition plan leading to his stepping down.

Assad’s attitude, the limits of the American, Iranian and Russian interventions and the absence of any additional forces that could appear in the theater and tip the scales means that the war will grind on. It may be expected, therefore, that in the coming months, the Syrian efforts to implement “ethnic cleansing” of Sunnis in the north will continue and even escalate, resulting in a growing stream of refugees into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. This will continue to destabilize these countries and to pose a challenge to a weakened Europe.

Iran

New Political Appointments

It may be assumed that the Iranian leadership understands that restoring full control by the Assad regime over all of Syria is unrealistic and it has an undeclared “Plan B”. This would entail defining “useful Syria” as the stretch of land from Damascus along Lebanon’s border through Homs to Aleppo and along the Syrian coast that would be essential for the above objectives. This “useful Syria,” however, does not correspond territorially with the “useful Syria” that Russia envisions. Russia’s “useful Syria” focuses on maintaining a viable “Alawistan” that would enable Russia to maintain a beachhead on the Mediterranean and a presence on the Turkish border.

There has been disagreement inside the Iranian power elite since the Syrian uprising began to deteriorate into a full-fledged civil war. The disagreement focused on the extent of the Iranian investment of resources to support Assad’s objective of restoring the regime’s control over the entire country.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which dominated the policy on Syria and was the key executor of the policy through the Qods Force and Hezbollah, has supported these objectives. Other Iranian power-brokers — notably those associated with the Rouhani camp — have warned against a Syrian quagmire and have opposed tying Iran to Assad’s fate. They argue that while it is of strategic importance to prevent Syria from falling into the hands of radical Sunni groups, it is not prudent to insist on Assad remaining in office, particularly in view of his use of chemical weapons against his own population. (The use of chemical weapons is a sensitive issue in Iran since their use by Saddam Hussain against the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war.)

The recent appointment of Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani as military and security coordinator of the Iran-Syria-Russia joint cooperation group, and the reshuffle in the Foreign Ministry, may indicate a move towards willingness to project more flexibility vis-à-vis the Syrian peace process even before the anti-Assad forces have been crushed militarily, and a formal willingness to consider the possibility of a post-war Syria without Assad personally.

This was implied in the statement by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif after his meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, that “there will be no solution if we focus on any individual [i.e. Bashar Assad],” and that the process must “focus on institutional dispersion of power and the future form of governance, through which it will be possible to reduce or even eliminate the centrality of the role of any individual or ethnicity.”

If Iran no longer insists on Bashar Assad staying in power, it could open the road to some procedural progress in the peace talks, which have been blocked by the dispute regarding his future, with Western powers and the Sunni Arab states insisting on his departure. However, the damage done by the civil war is irreversible. Even if some formula is found that would facilitate negotiations, the crux of the crisis is whether Syria will return to be dominated or even co-ruled by an Alawite minority. The Assad regime and Iran (and even Russia) cannot accept a Sunni-dominated Syria that would inevitably take revenge on the Alawites and destroy all the assets that Iran has built up over the last thirty years.

The Financial Sanctions Issue

The US administration is continuing in its determined efforts to convince the Western business community to invest in Iran. In May, John Kerry and US Treasury Department officials met with European bankers in London to tell them “legitimate business” is available to them in Iran and to “dispel any rumors” regarding future American sanctions on Iran. The administration’s message was that as long as the banks do their normal due diligence, “they are not going to be held to some undefined and inappropriate standard.”

Nevertheless, the international banking system continues to view Iran as high-risk and is likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Regardless of the credibility of the guarantees of the current American administration, which will not be in office after January 2017, the reluctance of the international financial community to approach Iran derives from real risk assessment. Iran ranks 130th (out of 168) on Transparency International’s “Corruption Perception Index” and 118th on the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” list.

Given the current state of affairs, these goals are far from achievable. The approval of the Iran Petroleum Contract (IPC) model does not guarantee its implementation, given the opaque and informal character of the Iranian economy. The goals of the regime’s Five Year Plan are also not clearly detailed and it is difficult to see how they can be achieved. Furthermore, Iran cannot comply with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) rules without a fundamental transformation of its economic structure and the very essence and worldview of the regime. Taking into consideration the leadership structure, the predominance of the Supreme Leader and the position of the IRGC in economy, such a move is impossible.

The Kurdish Factor

The alliance between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Movement for Change (Gorran) is openly challenging the Barzani clan’s dominance of Kurdish politics and raises the pressure on Massoud Barzani. To consolidate his popularity among the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s population, Massoud Barzani might therefore resort to “patriotic” acts, like holding his promised referendum on Kurdish independence soon, which PUK-Gorran will not be able to oppose. This could lead to “Kurexit” (Kurdish exit from Iraq), which would be the result not of well-thought-out strategic planning but of Kurdish political infighting.

Israeli-Turkish “Reconciliation”

The Israeli-Turkish reconciliation is a formal step that will certainly not revive the golden age of Israeli-Turkish relations. Turkey will continue to support Hamas and to incite against Israel in international fora, though it will stick to the letter of the agreement and will take advantage of the economic opportunities afforded by the reconciliation.

The French Peace Initiative

The chances that the French peace initiative will succeed in relaunching the Israeli-Palestinian peace process are very slim. The Israeli position remains that negotiations must take place directly between Israel and the Palestinians, and not through international fora. The French initiative, however, will encourage the Palestinian Authority to reject alternative proposals for direct negotiations, pending the international conference.

Terrorism

The spate of terrorist attacks by the Islamic State during the period of this report highlights the disconnect between the situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq and the threat of Islamic State or al-Qaeda inspired jihadi terrorism in susceptible countries. Most the latest attacks took place in Muslim countries (Istanbul, Turkey in June; Dhaka, Bangladesh in June; Baghdad, Iraq in June, and Mecca, Qatif and Medina in Saudi Arabia on July 4) in which the ability to “profile” potential attackers is limited and security measures are weak.

The explanation put forward by the American administration that the attacks reflect the Islamic State’s “despair” in the face of its defeats in Syria and Iraq over the last months is specious. International terrorism “to strike fear in the hearts of Allah’s enemies” has been a hallmark of the Islamic State since its beginning and it does not need the excuse of military defeat in Syria and Iraq to continue to carry out such attacks. Furthermore, these attacks were obviously planned many weeks or even months in advance. The Islamic State will continue to attempt to carry out such attacks according to its strategy to project its jihad into the heartland of its enemies — into Europe and in the territory of its enemies in the Middle East.

Spotlight on the Saudi Economic Transformation Plan

Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s economic plan represents far more than economic change: it calls for no less than a transformation of the nature of the Saudi state and political order through creation of an economically independent citizenry. The developments in the level of education of the Saudi population and particularly the potential of Saudi women entering the upper levels of the workforce, coupled with the high level of unemployment among those parts of the society, are among the unspoken drivers of the Vision 2030 plan. The goal of this process is to gradually replace the waning traditional tribal and clerical power base of the regime with a young professional economic power base out of concern that the high percentage of (unemployed) youth in the country would be a recipe for social unrest that, along with the loss of the influence of the traditional Wahhabi power base to more radical anti-establishment Salafi clerics, may destabilize the country.

Mohammad bin Salman seeks therefore to mobilize their support by making Saudi society advanced technologically and by creating a large number of jobs in technology. Monitoring of social media shows significant support for Mohammad bin Salman and his plans among the younger Saudi population, including high expectations that the economic initiatives will be followed by social change — loosening religious controls and social restrictions, expanding women’s rights and increasing social mobility. The Saudi leadership, however, is on the horns of a dilemma; accelerated change will raise the ire of the conservative elements in the elite, whereas a sense among the younger population that change is too slow will give rise to a crisis of expectations and subsequent instability.

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[1] Secretary of State, John Kerry, declared that Iran has been very “helpful” in Iraq.

[2] McGurk said that Iran-backed Shiite militias are mostly helpful in Iraq, though some go rogue: Most of them do operate under the control of the Iraqi state, but about 15-20% of them actually do not, “and those groups are a fundamental problem”.

[3] This Sunni suspicion finds support in statements of senior Shiite Iraqi leaders like former PM Nouri al-Maliki, whose hard-handed policies towards the Sunnis in Anbar Province fed the rise of the “Islamic State”, and who now praises the role of Iran and the Shiite militias, and accuses Iraq’s Sunni political leaders of supporting terrorism.

[4] Hassan Nasrallah (26 June): “The defense of Aleppo is the defense of the rest of Syria, it is the defense of Damascus, it is also the defense of Lebanon, and of Iraq. … It was necessary for us to be in Aleppo and we will stay in Aleppo. We will increase our presence in Aleppo…”.