Saudis a liability in fighting ISIS ideology


An official State Department photo of the September 11 meeting in Jeddah between Secretary of State John Kerry and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, posted on Flickr, could be a metaphor for the current state of U.S.-Saudi relations, says Simon Henderson, the director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

It is out of focus, he writes for the New Republic:

Why such a photo was chosen for Flickr, along with a single (in-focus) close-up of Kerry and the Saudi monarch, can only be a matter of speculation. One obvious possibility is that the U.S. side was upset with the attendance — indeed, the prominence — on the Saudi side of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, one-time long-serving ambassador to the United States, later head of Saudi intelligence, now adviser and special envoy to the king as well as secretary-general of the Saudi National Security Council (NSC). A fuzzy photo might have served to downplay his involvement…..

Saudi Arabia regards itself as the leader of the Muslim world, and as such sees itself as existing in an existential struggle with Iran for dominance of this world. The centuries old Sunni/Shiite divide, which has opened up dangerously since the 1979 Iranian revolution, is compounded by the political Islam of the Brotherhood, which views Arab monarchies such as the House of Saud as anachronisms at best but, more dangerously, un-Islamic.

“We are fighting an ideology, not a regime,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Time reports:

Kerry is so animated by this war of ideas that he calls it even more important than the military campaign against the group. ….. “The military piece is one piece,” Kerry said. “It’s a critical component — but it’s only one component.”

“Probably far more important than the military in the end,” Kerry continued, is the effort “to start drying up this pool of jihadis.” The goal is to mobilize Arab leaders, preachers, and media outlets behind a message that ISIS does not represent a “pure” vision of Islam, but a grotesque distortion of it. That, they hope, can blunt ISIS’ ability to recruit new fighters among impressionable young Muslim men. Stopping a fighter from signing up, Kerry said, is “a far better mechanism than having to go chase him down in the battlefield.”

But a growing and influential faction within western foreign policy makers mistrust the Saudis, who espouse a hardline interpretation of Islam and are suspected of being the source of many of the group’s funds and fighters, writes FT analyst Borzhou Daragahi:

“Saudi has shown itself as being barely able to contain terrorism within its borders and certainly a sizeable chunk of fighters, recruiters, funding, support, preachers for Isis has come from Saudi, the country,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi researcher and analyst. “The preaching of jihadist ideology is in Saudi, not Egypt or elsewhere.”…

Taken together the interlacing networks of animosity, mistrust and fear among the spectrum of forces resemble the warring factions in Lebanon rather than the Allied front that invaded Europe on D-Day. That creates ample points of weakness for Isis to press in an effort to turn its enemies against each other or at least corner them into inaction.

Isis already has a record of being closely tuned to the sectarian and political rivalries among its enemies and using them for its own benefit. Many of its seemingly baffling moves, such as its extreme sectarian rhetoric or its high-profile beheading of westerners, make sense as attempts to inspire its enemies to take actions that strengthen its own hand. By drawing Iran, Syria and Shia militias deeper into the fight, or goading larger numbers of American troops to be deployed they would draw more recruits, justify their jihadi world view and gain legitimacy.

“Isis has studied the situation,” Mr Jiyad said. “It knows there is much rivalry among the forces fighting it. Isis are strategic, they are not thugs. Their leaders are smart and know how to sow discord between its enemies.”

A leading Iraqi expert on ISIS told CNN that Obama may already have revealed more about U.S. plans than he should have to the militant group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“The mistake was announcing too much of the strategy, and this was a free gift to al-Baghdadi to prepare and counter what has been revealed,” said Hisham al-Hashimi, who has studied jihadist groups and their evolution in Iraq over the past decade.

“Help is needed from Saudi and Egyptian religious scholars in fighting ideology with ideology,” al-Hashimi said. “This is key to extracting ISIS from the roots.”

But another analyst argues that “the West must overcome its reluctance to offend the Saudis, and speak out much more forcefully against the insidious influence of Wahhabism and the ideological support it offers violent extremism.” “The Arab gulf states must choose a side. They cannot continue to finance terrorism and use fundamentalism as a policy tool and yet claim to be fighting it abroad. Saudi Arabia is both a sponsor and a target of jihad — it should wish to be neither,” Ahmad Samih Khalidi writes for the New York Times:

This may well be the real test of the West’s leadership. And if the United States and its allies instead amble into another major military conflict in the Middle East without realistic objectives and a clear-eyed plan to achieve them, they will have already failed.

ISIS strategy needs ‘political, cultural, ideological tools – and Arab reform

HISHAM MELHEMThe U.S. strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy” and the formation of a “broad coalition” to do so, does not guarantee the destruction of ISIS, says a prominent analyst.

That objective “requires political, cultural and ideological tools, in addition to brute military force,” writes Hisham Melhem (left), the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC.  “Ultimately, the defeat of ISIS can be achieved, only when the Arabs exorcise the political and ideological demons that created Islamic extremism that metastasized over the years and morphed into ISIS,” he contends.

The fundamental cause of the production of extremism in the Arab world lies in a culture of oppressive political exclusion, coupled with religious bigotry, analyst Rula Jebreal writes for the Daily Beast:

It is up to the United States to do more to encourage inclusive politics in Arab states, as it recently did in Iraq when it forced Maliki out of the prime minister’s office because of his exclusive and sectarian policies.

What will ultimately turn the tide in the Middle East are groups that actively advocate for a democratic culture and its values around the Arab world. A campaign to promote these ideas on every level must begin, as part of the counterterrorism initiative launched by Kerry. Grassroots activism that makes a strong demand for democratic values can work in parallel with counter-terrorism strategies to achieve more concrete results. Moderates can never become mainstream if the leaders the West continually chooses to back are military dictators or internationally politically connected despots —  generation after generation.

iraq isis spectatorThe U.S. should recognize the political opposition, represented by the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, as the sole representative of the Syrian people, argues Mouhanad Abdulhamid, the co-founder and programs director at SANAD (Syrian-American Network for Aid and Development):

Washington should hand over to the National Coalition all diplomatic posts in the U.S. and work with its allies in Europe and the United Nations to do the same. This recognition shouldn’t be given, but earned under specific U.S. terms and conditions. For example, the U.S. should pressure the coalition to commit to a unified, democratic and secular government in Syria that is friendly to America’s regional interests. In addition, the opposition must commit to a national reconciliation process that includes, but is not limited to, the Alawite, Kurd and Christian minorities.

But who are the moderates and how powerful can they become?

“There was nothing I saw in Al Bab in August 2012—still early days in the insurrection that is now halfway through its fourth year—that led me to feel that if the Syrian uprising toppled Assad, it would lead to an inclusive, minority-respecting, and more or less democratic outcome,” writes analyst Jamie Dettmer:

Like other countries convulsed by Arab Spring insurrections, there was a mismatch between Western expectations and perceptions and the thinking and religious views of the majority involved in the fighting, and that was a year before the emergence of ISIS. The war back then was clearly becoming more sectarian and Islamic—the trajectory was obvious.But not only is the Obama administration going to find it hard to select rebel groups it can work with, it will also have the problem of persuading them to focus on ISIS at the expense of their struggle against Assad, and if the regime starts making up more ground, that in turn could ignite local Sunni anger to the benefit of the jihadists.

“There are certainly moderates remaining,” says Jonathan Schanzer, a Mideast expert with the Washington-based think tank the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “The problem is that they are few in number and lacking in support. They have been marginalized by U.S., European, Turkish, and Arab policies that have only served to boost the presence and capabilities of the more radical factions. It’s unclear to me how Washington’s new approach can help reverse this trend in an urgent or expeditious manner—which is what is needed.”


Let locals take the lead on ISIS

Mideast Syria Militants Rise AnalysisThere may be a continuum between the purportedly non-violent Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State, or ISIS. Nevertheless, “it bears repeating that ISIL’s campaign is not fundamentally a religious phenomenon, or manifestation of mainstream Islam,” said Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Here is a great example, he told  the launch of the Senate Human Rights Caucus:

Here is a great example: Last year, two wannabe jihadists, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, set off from England to join ISIL in Syria. Before they left, they ordered two books from Amazon: Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. This is a movement for people whose only religion is nihilism. The fellowship they seek is not from people seeking God, but from those who get their kicks from killing. And they will be destroyed first and foremost by those whose traditions of faith they have hijacked.

Let locals lead

When western forces fought in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003, they quickly defeated the armies fielded by those states. But then the west took primary responsibility for defeating the insurgencies that had taken root inside the borders of those states, notes Emile Simpson, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and author of ‘War From the Ground Up’:

The follow-on mission, which I experienced as an infantry officer in southern Afghanistan, became indistinguishable from local politics. Given the need to tackle all the problems that stoked insurgency – poor governance, corruption, land rights, ethnic prejudice – it could not have been anything less. The hard military objective of defeating an enemy evolved into an open-ended commitment to stabilise politics and civil society.

“If the mission is to remain within clear bounds, it cannot take responsibility for the permanent defeat of Isis, which must lie with local actors and regional states,” he writes for the Financial Times. “Their security is what is primarily at stake, and the long-term stabilisation needed to defeat an insurgency requires them to fix their politics

The West should also be wary of inadvertently enhancing Iran’s regional power, say analysts.

“ISIL is a five-year problem,” Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s strategic affairs minister, said a few hours before Mr. Obama addressed the nation on Wednesday night, using the acronym the Obama administration employs to describe the Sunni extremist group. “A nuclear Iran is a 50-year problem,” he told the New York Times, “with far greater impact.”

“The Iranians may well think we need them to help defeat ISIS and that this will make us more accommodating in the nuclear negotiations,” said Robert Einhorn of the Brookings Institution, who had responsibility for enforcing sanctions. “If they do think that, it is an illusion.”

ISIL did not emerge from nothing, Malinowski told the Senate Human Rights Caucus:.

There’s a reason why such a destructive force ascended in this part of the world at this moment in history. It ascended because a dictator in Syria has spent three years trying to crush what began as a peaceful democratic movement, destroying towns and cities, driving half the people of his country from their homes, until some of them became so desperate that they turned to the false deliverance and destructive fanaticism ISIL offered. It ascended because many in Iraq’s Sunni population felt legitimate grievances were ignored by the government in Baghdad. ISIL not only abuses human rights; it is the product of the abuse of human rights.

Iraq’s new government must unify to defeat Islamic State

iraq isis spectatorThe formation of Iraq’s new government in Baghdad on Sept. 8 is an important first step toward dealing with the Islamic State transnational jihadist movement, writes Kamran Bokhari, advisor for Middle Eastern and South Asian Affairs at STRATFOR, the global intelligence consultancy…..

The menace of the Islamic State provided the impetus for Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni political principals, and their respective international patrons, to agree on a new government, although the interior, defense and national security ministries have yet to be decided. There are some notable changes in the composition of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s new Cabinet, not least of which is the appointment of former Premier Nouri al-Maliki to the presidential council, holding the Shiite post of vice president. Outgoing parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi assumed the vice presidential position assigned to the Sunnis. Interestingly, Iraq’s Kurdish president, Fouad Massoum, chose to accept three vice presidents rather than two as part of a factional agreement. Former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite and centrist politician supported by the country’s Sunni minority, came on as the additional vice president.

Kurdish Concessions

Another key change in the Cabinet was the removal of the Foreign Ministry portfolio from Kurdish favor, appointing instead Ibrahim Jaafari, a prominent Shiite politician and close ally to Iran. Outgoing Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari assumed the deputy prime minister post reserved for the Kurds, while noted Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlaq retained the Sunni deputy premiership. ….

Iraq’s Kurds were able to gain two additional concessions in the new Cabinet. First, Adel Abdul-Mahdi of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq replaced Abdul-Kareem Luaibi Bahedh as deputy prime minister for energy affairs. The new oil minister is not only close to Tehran but enjoys close ties with the Kurds, a relationship Arbil hopes will facilitate future negotiations over the chronic issue of energy exports and revenue sharing. ….

While the central government said it would resume fund transfers to the Kurdistan Regional Government, the two sides are unlikely to resolve their core energy disagreements anytime soon, especially considering the Kurds’ attempts to export their own oil and control their own energy revenues. Regardless of who is energy minister, Baghdad will continue its efforts to undermine the Kurdistan Regional Government’s energy policies, as well as its prominence in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

Enduring Tensions

Despite achieving a basic framework for a government in which the Sunni community has been integrated, getting key Sunni elements to turn against the Islamic State will be difficult. The Sunnis are wary after being persecuted at the hands of al-Maliki, despite a 2007 agreement promising to make them stakeholders in Baghdad.

With al-Maliki still in the presidential council and wielding influence through the civil and military bureaucracies, bringing the Sunnis back into the system will be extremely difficult. The tribal and ex-Baathist core that is attempting to leverage Islamic State aggression will not sell out the transnational jihadist movement without exacting a high price. It hopes to gain a share of the political and security landscape, but more important, it wants a cut of the oil. It is precisely here that Kirkuk becomes a thorny issue: The Sunnis want a major share of the oil fields, and the subject is already a source of tension in the dispute between Baghdad and Arbil over energy resources. 

On the security front, the Islamic State-led Sunni uprising will make the finalization of the Iraqi government’s security ministries difficult. The Shia are wary of the Sunnis retaining control of the defense portfolio, while the Sunnis are concerned that the Interior Ministry will go to a person like Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization and successor to the Badr Brigades. Al-Ameri is very close to the head of the overseas operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, at a time when Iran and the Iraqi Shia are employing Shiite militias in the fight against the Islamic State. … 

A unified Iraqi government, able and willing to cooperate with foreign powers, offers the best chance to defeat the Islamic State. Unfortunately, this is why the transnational jihadist movement will be exploiting any opportunity to undermine Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish cohesion at the parliamentary level and beyond. 


ISIS: it is the ideology that matters


President Obama on Wednesday authorized a major expansion of the military campaign against rampaging Sunni militants in the Middle East, including American airstrikes in Syria and the deployment of 475 more military advisers to Iraq. But he sought to dispel fears that the United States was embarking on a repeat of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the New York Times reports.

“Working with our partners,” he said, “we will redouble our efforts to cut off its funding; improve our intelligence; strengthen our defenses; counter its warped ideology; and stem the flow of foreign fighters into and out of the Middle East.”

The strategy drew commendations and criticisms from analysts and observers.

“It is one thing to declare the sanctity of borders; it is quite another to assure that those borders provide their inhabitants peace and security rather than oppression and instability,” said Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the author of “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.”

Mideast Syria Militants Rise AnalysisThe missing piece of the president’s approach is a concerted international program to help weak states deliver the popular contentment that reinforces loyalty to nations as they now exist, he wrote for the Times:

In the 1950s, containing the Soviet reach and the terrifying nuclear arms race were obvious first priorities. The problem Mr. Obama faces, from Donetsk to Mosul, is quite different — the simultaneous drives of a relatively weaker Russia and a terror-prone faction of religious Middle East extremists to bite off chunks of nearby states by inflaming sectarian, tribal or ethnic antagonisms within them. Today’s Russian menace and Islamic State horrors are threats to be sure, but largely because Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and other potential targets all contain within them ethnic groups and sects fighting over power and influence. So Mr. Obama’s big challenge is to help weak states reconcile, compromise and unite, and thus deny enemies a chance to start civil wars.

“If that sounds like nation building, it is,” Nasr concludes.

It is legitimate for the US to pursue ISIS, according to a senior administration official, because it is “the true inheritor of Usama Bin Laden’s legacy.”

In other words, it is the ideology that matters, not the organization, analyst Yishai Schwartz  writes for the New Republic:

Ideologies are notoriously difficult to stamp out. They evolve and spread and can go underground. States cannot. And while the Islamic State is most definitely a terrorist group, it is also a state. It has territory under its control and centralized bureaucracyall of which makes it more easily destroyed.

Different countries are suspicious of the United States for different reasons, but all feel betrayed in some way by recent U.S. policies, said Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Institute in Qatar.

“They see the security threat posed by the Islamic State. They want it defeated, because at the end of the day, the Islamic State overturns states, and as states, they are threatened,” he tells the Washington Post.

However, he said, “there’s this nagging doubt that this strategy is intended just to serve American interests and not the broader interests of the region.”

Barry Pavel, a former Obama national security aide now at the Atlantic Council, said the president might be acting too tentatively.

“I’m not sure half-steps into Syria are ultimately going to achieve the president’s goals,” he tells the Times. “It’s a fine strategy for contain and disrupt. It’s not a strategy for defeat by any means. If you want to defeat ISIS, you have to go all-in to Syria, which the president isn’t prepared to do.”

Obama’s challenge in persuading the American public to support his strategy against the Islamic State group has less to do with how many troops are in the fight than answering the question, “What are the strategic objectives of the United States?” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution who worked at the State Department from 2009 to 2012.

“You can say ‘no boots on the ground,’ but that does not really solve their anxiety,” she tells the Washington Post. “They want to know what defines the end of our engagement.” 

ISIS is purely and simply not a terrorist organization any longer. Neither is it the simple manifestation of nihilistic evil the president makes out, analysts Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberley Kagan write for the Weekly Standard:

ISIL has described a very clear vision of seizing control of all of the territory of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories.  It intends to abolish all of the borders and redraw them according to a new structure of governance suitable to its hateful version of an old Islamic heresy.  That vision also makes it more than a simple terrorist organization.  It’s awfully hard to develop a sound strategy when you start by mis-diagnosing the problem so profoundly. That’s why the “strategy” the president just announced has no chance of success.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg worries that the U.S. “will be counting on a dysfunctional Iraqi army; intermittently effective Kurdish guerrillas; Sunni tribes of dubious loyalty; and, of course, the Free Syrian Army—the force that Obama has spent three years disparaging as a collection of farmers and carpenters and engineers—to do the hard work of rooting ISIS out of presumably fortified towns and cities.”

“Much of what Obama is promising in this ramped-up campaign is help for these outfits, but the U.S. has spent a dozen years training the Iraqi army, with negligible results,” he notes.  

It is imperative that international action does not bolster the IS ideology, says Quilliam, the UK-based anti-extremist group.The following issues need more attention, it suggests:

  • It is vital that international action against IS does not tacitly give legitimacy to the Assad regime, which has played a central role in the unprecedented turmoil wracking the region right now. Hence, the international community must also take a strong line against all of those responsible, including Assad and IS, by working with, and supporting, the most competent Syrian opposition groups.
  • The border between Turkey and Iraq/Syria must be secured to help prevent the flow of foreign fighters to IS, fighters who comprise a significant percentage of the group. The porous border between Turkey and Syria, in particular, must be secured, something for which Ankara must take immediate responsibility.
  • Greater pressure needs to be placed on states and private individuals in the region that have financed jihadist groups in Syria. IS’s precipitous rise is, among other things, a direct product of the wrong-footed policy of funding Islamist militants to pursue international political goals, and those responsible must be held to account.
  • More training and support needs to be offered to the Iraqi government to help counter the appeal of jihadism in the country. Concurrently, European governments must do more to counter the appeal of jihadism amongst their own populations and support initiatives that undermine jihadist messaging and recruitment efforts on- and offline.
  • Diplomatic pressure must be exacted upon Baghdad to ensure that the recent reshuffle in parliament makes tangible change. It is imperative that the Sunni community in Iraq is not alienated again and that the new government rules in an inclusive manner.
  • With at least 12,000 foreign citizens from 81 states fighting for IS, we must be aware that military action will cause the deaths of some of these people, including Britons. British citizens are still the responsibility of the UK government, and we must therefore redouble efforts to prevent more Britons going to fight and, equally, set up deradicalisation programmes in prison for those who return.

“Jihadism is an inherently destructive force, not a constructive one,” Quilliam’s Managing Director, Ghaffar Hussain, said in response to last night’s speech. “The international campaign against IS must do all it can to encourage local people living under IS rule to reject their message of hate and division and work with the new Iraqi government to restore peace and create inclusive politics. This kind of change can only come from within, and it starts with empowerment.” 

But the composition of Iraq’s new government does not inspire confidence that it can embrace inclusive politics.  

“Much of the praise for this new government is unwarranted and premature,” said Wayne White, a policy expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute and a former State Department analyst. “Most of its cabinet members are retreads from previous sectarian governments.”