Over at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Anthony Cordesman offers a critique of Pres. Obama’s announced policies concerning ISIS. As Cordesman says, while there’s much in accord with what he has suggested in the past, it is not risk-free. Those risks must be understood.
The “Best Game in Town” – Five Key Risks of the President’s Strategy
It may seem unusual to criticize a strategy you have both suggested and endorse, and it is important to stress from the outset that President Obama has almost certainly chosen a strategy that is the “best game in town” — if he fully implements it, gives it the necessary resources, and sustains it over time. The President has had to choose a strategy based on the “rules of the game” in the United States, in Iraq, in Syria, and allied states. They are rules that place major constraints on what the United States can do.
The Limited Choices That Shape the “Best Game” in Town
The United States had no choice other than to depend on regional allies for ground forces, training, bases, improvements in unity and governance, efforts to limit the Islamic State’s funding and its volunteers, and efforts to highlight its lack of religious legitimacy and horrifying departures from Islam.
With the Jeddah coordinating meeting finished in Jeddah, there is a common concern about ISIS and its future in the region. As Asharq Alawsat reports, the US is looking for partners who will play an active role in trying to contain and destroy the extremist group and, so far, it is meeting with some success. Regional states face peril from the group and agree that something must be done about it. This is spelled out in the communique issued following the conference.
What is not spelled out is exactly what each country is to do. All are reluctant to put “boots on the ground” for a variety of their own political reasons.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held a series of meetings with his Arab counterparts in the Saudi city of Jeddah on Thursday to coordination military and other forms of action against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
A joint -Arab communique said the countries agreed, as appropriate, to join in “many aspects” of the military campaign against ISIS.
Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates agreed to “do their share” in the fight against ISIS.
The 10 countries pledged to stop the flow of funds and fighters to ISIS and help rebuild affected communities.
The meetings came hours after President Barack Obama unveiled his strategy to counter the militant group, which has occupied swathes of land in Iraq and Syria.
Asharq Alawsat reports on some of the reasons for Arab hesitation, or at least the lack of full-blooded eagerness to get militarily involved in dealing with ISIS. It also notes Turkey’s reluctance in the face of its nationals being held hostage in Iraq:
A significant problem seems to be that large parts of their populations approve of the group’s ends while remaining silent about their means. Once again, the intolerance taught in regional schools, madrassas, and mosques is rearing its head and threatening the stability of regimes and the region.
The Saudi government continues to prosecute and convict young Saudis who have gone off to Syria and Iraq to take part in jihad, Saudi Gazette reports. Saudi media seems to have weekly reports on convictions for supporting terrorism, these days. But it’s also clear that there’s going to be a need for a lot more of the same. The convictions reported today are for actions taken last year. What will happen with the new crop of extremists and sympathizers?
The Saudis are leading a conference today that brings together officials from 41 states to address a common approach to terrorism in the region. US Secretary of State John Kerry is among them. Given what Pres. Obama said in his address last night, the US is going to be looking for concrete action plans, not just rhetoric, from regional powers. Just how forthcoming they will be is the big question. There might be some sort of indication tonight, or perhaps in tomorrow’s reporting.
2 Saudis jailed for fighting abroad
Mishal Al-Otaibi | Saudi Gazette
RIYADH – The Special Criminal Court in Riyadh sentenced on Wednesday two citizens to jail terms for taking part in fighting abroad, especially in Syria.
The court sentenced a young Saudi to five years in prison and imposed a travel ban for an equal period. The second Saudi was sent to jail for a period of one-and-a-half years and faced a travel ban for three years. The convicts can appeal the verdict within 30 days.
The court found the young Saudi convict guilty of violating the Kingdom’s travel documents law and the law to combat money laundering, in addition to traveling to regions of conflict and taking part in fighting.
The charges against him also included contacting his brother, who is present in the conflict zone, and concealing his brother’s incitement to take part in fighting. He was also convicted of extending cooperation to a terrorist abroad who works as coordinator to recruit young men from the Kingdom in order to take part in fighting.
The court found no evidence to prove the prosecution charges that the young man embraced deviant ideology and supported terrorists with money and giving shelter to one of the wanted terrorists.
Asharq Alawsat reports on the meeting to be held tomorrow in Jeddah that will bring together regional representatives (along with US Secretary of State Kerry) to discuss how to deal with groups like ISIS.
There have been a lot of meetings of late discussing this issue. The Arab League recently conducted its own. Saudi King Abdullah has enlisted the entirety of his government in condemning and, in some cases, jailing supporters of extremist groups. But much is left to be done.
The problem lies in definitions. What one country or government may see as extremist, another may see as simply “the opposition.” Getting everyone in the region on the same page, working from the same definitions, ought to help. But if “extremist” is going to be used to round up any and everyone who has political views not in accord with those of his government, more problems will ensue, including the loss of support by others who need to be working together.
Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat—Saudi Arabia is set to host a special regional meeting in Jeddah to discuss the issue of terrorism on Thursday, the state-owned Saudi Press Agency (SPA) has announced.
The meeting will be attended by representatives of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, as well as officials from the US. The meeting will discuss the issue of terrorism in the region, extremist organizations and their ideology, and ways of combating them.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavu?o?lu is currently on a tour of Gulf states and will attend the regional meeting in Jeddah, along with other regional foreign ministers. US Security of State John Kerry is traveling to Saudi Arabia and neighboring Jordan this week to discuss the latest regional developments, including the new Iraqi government and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and is also expected to attend the Jeddah meeting.
The announcement comes one day after Riyadh backed an Arab League resolution emphasizing the need to take quick measures to crush ISIS and other regional terrorist organizations.
…The [Saudi] cabinet called for Arab states to “take the necessary measures to maintain Arab security, [and] confront all terrorist and extremist organization … at all political, security, defense, judicial, media and intellectual levels,” according to the SPA.
Saudi media report that an American citizen is among a group of 24 who have been sentenced for taking part in a terrorist organization within the Kingdom. The articles, all based on a release from the Saudi Press Agency, typically exclude much useful information such as noting the specific crimes committed and the names of the individuals.
US citizen among 24 jailed over terror plots
Saudi Gazette report
RIYADH — The Special Criminal Court in Riyadh sentenced 24 people, including an American, to prison terms of up to 27 years Wednesday for forming a terrorist cell and plotting to attack Saudi and Bahraini interests, the Saudi Press Agency reported.
The defendants, sentenced to at least two years in prison, also include one Yemeni national, while the rest are all Saudi citizens, SPA said. The American, who was not named, was jailed for 17 years.
The court ordered the Saudi defendants to be placed under a travel ban and deport the foreigners after their release from prison.
The special court found them guilty of forming a terrorist cell that plotted attacks against oil pipelines and some citizens and disobeying the Kingdom’s rulers, with some of them traveling to join fighting abroad.
A Reuters report has a bit more information though. It notes that the American has been held for six years already, pre-sentencing. That six years is being deducted from his 18-year sentence as “time served.” Again, though, details are lacking. The Reuters reports obliquely suggests that there was some sort of involvement in protests in the Shi’a-populated Easter Province, but doesn’t actually say that. The border between “protest” and “supporting terrorism” is notoriously thin when it comes to Shi’a matters in Saudi Arabia, though. As a consequence, we really don’t know anything other than that an American has been sentenced. Perhaps the question will be raised in a US State Department press conference…
An interesting paper (5-page PDF) on how ISIS, Al-Qaeda and its spin-offs, and other extremist groups make use of social media to promote their messages and to recruit new members. The report is from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism.
The innovative ways that foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are leveraging social media and mobile apps to recruit aspirational supporters in the West reveal what is actually a paradigm shift occurring within the global jihadist movement, away from the organization-centric model advanced by Al-Qaida, to a movement unhindered by organizational structures. Counterterrorism policy and practice must rethink the way it approaches countering online radicalization.
Who represents the greatest threat to Muslims today? It’s not the US. It’s not Israel. It’s other Muslims, argues Azeem Ibrahim, of the US Army War College, at Al Arabiya TV.
Killing Muslims in the name of Islam is perverse. Religion is being used as a cloak for what is actually “ethnic, social, sectarian and/or tribal cleansing,” he says. Again, an article worth reading in full.
What is the greatest global threat to Muslims?
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Who is responsible for the greatest numbers of deaths against Muslims today? Who commits the worst atrocities against Muslims? It is not the West that claims the highest headcount nor is it Israel. The sad truth is that today Muslims kill the most Muslims around the world.
Since the beginning of the Arab Spring in late 2010, more than 100,000 have been killed. Many of these deaths were in Syria, where thousands more languish in prisons expecting similarly grim fates. And with the rise of ISIS and the threat that it poses to regional stability, many more are expected to die.
Most of the fighters are killing “infidels”. Most of the those dying are allegedly “infidels”. Almost always, that means that they are the wrong kind of Muslim to the other Muslim holding the gun. Whether they are fighters or civilians, the sin of those dying is in many cases simply being Sunni rather than Shiite, or Shiite rather than Sunni. And woe betides any smaller minorities caught in the middle.
Writing at Al Arabiya TV, Hisham Melhem finds the origin of extremist groups like ISIS to be in the Arab penchant for “conspiracy theories, delusions, self-deception, paranoia and xenophobia.” Undemocratic societies, where government seek to control the flow of information, leave vacuums which people will seek to fill. They end up filling them with nonsense, with anger, with paranoia.
It’s worth reading his column in full. He does a good job of pointing out the various zany theories that are rippling across not only the Arab world, but the world at large. And it’s scary.
Most people are averse to introspection, and rarely engage in self-criticism. Arabs are no different. However, the political culture that developed in the Arab World in the last 60 years, particularly in countries ruled by autocratic regimes, shifted blame from their catastrophic failures in governance to other external, sinister forces. For these countries, self-criticism has become next to impossible.
Over time, this legacy has created fertile terrain for conspiracy theories, delusions, self-deception, paranoia and xenophobia. If you read an Arab newspaper or many a website in the region, you will invariably encounter some of these symptoms. Admittedly, sometimes they can be entertaining, but in most cases they are downright ugly, reflecting deep pathologies of fear.
Saudi Gazette reports that the death of a Saudi national upon his return from Sierra Leone was not due to the Ebola virus. Tests in Saudi Arabia, Germany, and the US show that it was more likely that he died of meningitis.
The Saudi ban on Haj visas for people coming from Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea remains in effect.
RIYADH — The lab tests on samples taken from the Saudi man who was suspected to have died of Ebola virus showed that Ebola was not responsible for his death. Local Arabic daily Al-Watan quoted informed sources on Wednesday as saying that the tests conducted in the US and Germany gave negative results. The sources said Ibrahim Al-Zahrani had possibility died of meningitis, a disease that he might have contracted in Sierra Leone where he was on a visit. Acting health minister Adel Fakeih told the GCC health ministers in Riyadh on Wednesday that the Kingdom was free of the Ebola virus. The ministers asked the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars to issue an official fatwa (religious edict) on how the people who die of highly infectious diseases should be buried.
Al Arabiya TV carries a story about the black and grey markets in oil that are now springing up in the conflict-torn Middle East. ISIS, which has gained control over large parts of the Iraqi oil fields and most of those of Syria, is selling heavily discounted oil — often at a 70%-80% discount — to shadowy buyers. These buyers, if they can mix in their black market purchases with legitimate oil, stand to gain enormously. But ISIS, even selling at a discount, is said to be earning up to $1 million per day.
Libya, also caught up in internal conflict, is seeing attempts to move oil outside of government control.
The case of the Kurds is more “iffy”. There’s a lack of clarity about whether their sale of newly-produced oil is illegal and, at least for now, it seems that it’s being tolerated internationally. The US, for instance, recently accepted a tankerload of Kurdish oil. If this continues, then attempts to create an independent, non-OPEC oil-producer state of Kurdistan becomes much more likely. This, of course, would be at the expense of a unified Iraq.
Sales of black market oil surge in Middle East
Paul Crompton | Al Arabiya News
Crude oil sales through non-governmental channels are a rising trend in the Middle East, with Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) radical fighters and Iraqi Kurdistan getting in on the action, experts say.
In conflict-ridden, oil-drenched Iraq, both ISIS and the Iraqi Kurdistan administration are shifting barrels through non-governmental, albeit vastly different, supply chains, while the weakened central authorities in Baghdad remain unable to take action.
For ISIS, the clandestine trade in crude involves loading oil from its seized oil fields onto trucks and selling it to shadowy parties – often Kurdish businessmen – at a knockdown discount.
The lucrative practice currently nets the Jihadist group around $1 million a day, according to industry journal Iraq Oil Report.
Asharq Alawsat runs an interview with former US Ambassador Mark Hambly. Hambly, who had a reputation as one of the best “Arabists” in the State Dept., ran the Regional Media Center in London during and following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the interview, he explains why the Center was established in London.
The Center, in fact, was an expansion of the program I established in 1996-97 while I was the Information Officer at the embassy. I hired the first Arab support personnel for that office because it was abundantly clear that the pan-Arab media based in London — both print and satellite broadcast — was critically important and needed full-time attention. My job was to deal with the British media, a more than full-time job itself, but I was able to convince Washington that the Arabic media needed to be addressed as well. With the Iraq war, this became even more obvious, so the new Center was created. I was in Riyadh by then.
London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Thanks to the presence of a number of pan-Arab newspapers and media outlets (including Asharq Al-Awsat) in London, for the last decade the US Embassy in the city has played host to one of the State Department’s Regional Media Hubs which aims to conduct ‘public diplomacy’ in the Arab World, engage with Arab and Iranian journalists, and monitor the Arab media.
Mark Gregory Hambley—a former US ambassador to Qatar and Lebanon—was appointed its first director when it was set up in 2003, after a decades-long career as a diplomat in the Middle East. Since retiring from the State Department in 2005, he has acted as an occasional advisor and consultant to the US government. Asharq Al-Awsat recently spoke to Ambassador Hambley about his time as director of the Hub and American efforts to engage with Arab media over the past ten years.
The Great Game was the rivalry that played out between the British Empire and the Russian Empire in the 19th and early 20th C. for supremacy in Central Asia. Today, there’s a new “Great Game” being played out in iraq, says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The rise of ISIS/ISIL and the declaration of a new “Islamic State” have brought into high relief the problems sectarian violence in the region. The direct causes are many, but the effects are a multiple of that, affecting all states in the region, including Saudi Arabia.
Cordesman’s piece is meant as possible guidance for US policy-makers. It’s an interesting analysis.
The U.S. has good reason to try to prevent the creation of a violent, extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, to reverse the gains of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria)/ ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham), and to help move Iraq back towards a more stable and unified form of government. The chances, however, are that the U.S. can at best have only partial success. The U.S. faces years in which Iraq is divided by sectarian and ethnic power struggles, the Syrian civil war continues, facilitating some form of radical Sunni threat crossing the border between Syria and Iraq.
ISIS/ISIL did not suddenly materialize in Iraq in December 2013. For years, the group exploited growing Sunni and Shi’ite sectarian divisions and steady drift towards civil war. For at least the last three years, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s actions of building his own power structure around a Shi’ite dominated state with close ties to Iran alienated Sunnis and exacerbated tensions.
The U.S. cannot simply intervene in Iraq by attacking ISIS/ISIL. It is a major movement in Syria as well as Iraq. The U.S. must also find some way to limit and roll back ISIS/ISIL -– without taking sides in Iraq’s broader civil war. At the same time, creating anything approaching a stable Iraq means creating new and lasting political bridges across Iraq’s increasingly polarized and divided factions as well as helping to create a more effective and truly national government in Iraq, as well as rebuild Iraqi forces that serve the nation, rather than an increasingly authoritarian Shi’ite leader.
It is far from clear that the U.S. can do this, and Syria and Iraq are only the most visible challenges taking place in the strategic game board that shapes the Middle East. The U.S. must also deal with a much broader set of new strategic forces that go far beyond Iraq’s borders. The U.S. must change the structure of its de facto alliances with key Arab states in the region, and it must deal with new forms of competition -– or “Great Game” with Russia — and possibly China, as well.