Friday, 18 August 2017 00:15

Russia re-examines relationship with Iran

As the Islamic State (IS) has been in steady retreat, Iran and Russia are facing real difficulties sustaining their partnership. Each took advantage of the fight against IS to further its military campaign in Syria.

 
Both sides avoid discussing their differences, keeping their critics from making the most of the situation, but both fail to completely conceal the friction. In 2016, Moscow and Tehran jointly shielded Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime from the opposition and sought to preserve the remaining state institutions. In an attempt to freeze the six-year-long civil war, Russia is currently opting for agreements beyond the peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan — that is, behind Iran’s back. Examples include the de-escalation zone in southwest Syria that Russia negotiated with the United States in Amman, Jordan, as well as de-escalation zones in eastern Ghouta and northern Homs, both of which were negotiated in Cairo.

In July, US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg to establish a cease-fire in southwestern Syria, in the Daraa, Quneitra and Suwayda provinces, which virtually annulled the terms established at Astana of creating a southern de-escalation zone. The latter included Suwayda rather than Daraa and Quneitra. According to some sources, the US-Russia deal demands that pro-Iranian forces pull back at least 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Israeli-Jordanian border, with Russia’s military police deployed on the ground. In the region, Moscow seeks to garner the support of the local population, even seeking to form loyal militias.

The separate agreement signed in Cairo between Russia and Islamist opposition faction Jaish al-Islam made it possible for Russian troops to run checkpoints in eastern Ghouta — an interesting development given that Turkey had officially stated in June that Russia and Iran would deploy forces to the Damascus area to monitor the cease-fire. It is hard to discern whether Russia has unilaterally revised the scenario developed by the Moscow, Tehran and Ankara working groups. However, a revision is definitely implied by Russia’s efforts to gain control of the situation in the Damascus region, where Assad’s forces and Iran-backed militias have tried different strategies to recapture opposition-held territories.

To be clear, conceptually, the zones were negotiated in Astana with Russia, Iran and Turkey as the main mediators. However, subsequent talks about the zones’ details have often altered or annulled those agreements.

Such steps raise Tehran’s fears that informal negotiating platforms are gradually replacing the Astana process. Therefore, Syria and Iran have been trying to reset at the very least the Cairo agreement inked beyond the Astana format. For instance, the Syrian Arab Army's elite 42nd Brigade of the 4th Mechanized Division has been deployed to the Jobar region, which Russia had included in the de-escalation zone. Moreover, both Damascus and Tehran are compelling Faylaq al-Rahman to leave the area along with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Presumably, Syria and Iran aim to exclude Faylaq al-Rahman’s several thousand militiamen from the above-mentioned deal, likening them to al-Qaeda-affiliated HTS extremists and undermining the opposition’s military capabilities in eastern Ghouta.

Since the start of the political and diplomatic conflict over Syria’s future, the Russian-Iranian partnership has been deteriorating into a rivalry, with Tehran impeding the creation of conditions for conflict resolution. At the same time, Moscow’s strategy directly depends on the permanent presence of numerous pro-Iranian forces controlling different parts of the front line.

Since Russia launched military operations in Syria in 2015, marking its “comeback” in the Middle East, Moscow has regarded Iran as a reliable partner. However, the Russian leadership, whether deliberately or not, has found counterbalances to distance itself from Shiite-led Iran. An Israeli-Russian accord allowing the Israeli air force considerable latitude in targeting Hezbollah in Syria emerged as the first counterbalance, which undoubtedly raised Tehran’s ire. The second counterbalance was probably Moscow's attempt to cultivate relations with the Gulf’s Arab monarchies through a set of stick-and-carrot policies as it sought to take advantage of the indecisiveness of the administration of former US President Barack Obama, especially during the lame-duck period. The third counterbalance emerged when Trump made his way to the White House and declared his willingness to restrain Iran and his commitment to backing the allied Sunni monarchies.

Hence, Russia should preserve and maintain communication channels with the United States on Syria. Unlike the earlier period, when the interaction aimed to ensure Russian troops' security, today’s task is to constrain Damascus’ and Tehran’s desire for reprisals and find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. Russia has taken several steps toward decreasing Iran’s influence: deploying military police in eastern Aleppo, establishing the de-escalation zone, and supplying weapons and equipment to prop up forces and increase the effectiveness of the 5th Assault Corps under Russian Lt. Gen. Sergey Sevryukov.

A Russian military intelligence source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that since eastern Aleppo was recaptured by Assad's troops, Russia and Iran have been fiercely vying for regional dominance.

“Prior to the military operation, Moscow tried to establish relations with local elders through the mediation of Russian officers, natives of the North Caucasus region. But the ties were later severed, and as a result, Russian bombs rained down on eastern Aleppo. Then these contacts had to be re-established. At present, the work that Russian officers from the North Caucasus have done in east Aleppo has been considered fruitful, as it allows at least limiting Iranian regional influence.”

Since eastern Aleppo was seized, Russia has definitely increased its sway over the region. Russia turned the tide of war and helped the regime survive. However, over the war years, Tehran has gained momentum and built up a multi-layer presence in Syria that includes local Shiite militants.

These groups include Syrian units, offshoots of the Lebanese National Ideological Resistance in Syria and Syrian Islamic Resistance groups (sometimes called Iraqi Hezbollah), the units of the Local Defense Forces in Aleppo and the National Defense Forces, comprising Alawites, Sunnis and other Syrians backed by Iranian military advisers and partially or fully funded by Iran. New Iranian cultural centers and Shiite propaganda among the locals are Tehran’s soft-power instruments. This strategy heightens ethnic and sectarian tensions in the region, which helps spread IS and HTS propaganda.

The rise of HTS in rebel-controlled Idlib province and the use of delaying tactics in the negotiations play into the hands of Damascus and Tehran, which need a protracted military campaign to regain losses. They blame opposition groups for their ostensible loyalty to al-Qaeda. The Syrian government’s offensive to retake Idlib is a negative scenario for Russia and Turkey. Rebel forces will apparently rally to fight the common enemy. New coalitions will emerge among the moderate and radical opposition. Ultimately, the process will strengthen al-Qaeda's position in Syria and trigger a new humanitarian and refugee crisis. Obviously, under such circumstances, the advancing troops will also suffer heavy casualties. That's why Damascus and Iran will try to drag Russia into this new round of war.

Should the situation escalate, the Kremlin would tolerate the deployment of Turkish troops.

If the United States is genuinely intent on destroying the Iranian corridor — a piece of land carved through Syria that ultimately links Tehran through Iraq with the Mediterranean coast — Moscow and Washington will probably have something to talk about, albeit unofficially.
Photo credit: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
Article published in Al Monitor: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/08/russia-relationship-iran-syria-military-situation-moscow.html

Published in Tribune
Wednesday, 21 June 2017 00:44

Russia beheading ISIS: PR or fake news?

On the 16th of June Russian Ministry of Defense announced that according to preliminary data Russian air force liquidated the leader of ISIS Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi on the 28th of May in the Southern suburbs of Raqqa. The message hit headlines worldwide and Russian politicians and several mainstream experts declared that they had no doubts in professionalism of Russian military and believed that no one else but them should eliminate the leader of the hydra.

The author of this material has a great respect for Russian military who risk their lives following orders in Syria, and understands that counter terrorism is not a public affair but is still a crucial matter from political point of view. Hopefully, Russian Ministry of Defense will soon present a video evidence and comment its messages, so everybody, and those who have doubts in particular, could know for sure how “on the 28th of May SU-35 and SU-34 planes eliminated high-ranking leaders of the terrorist group who were members of so-called Military council of ISIS, 30 middle rank field commanders and up to 300 their guards”. Supposedly among them were “Raqqa’s emir Abu Al-Haji Al-Mysri, emir Ibrahim An-Naef akm-Hajj, who controlled the territory between Raqqa and As-Suhne, ISIS head of security Suleiman Al-Shauah" and probably Al-Baghdadi.

As this evidence is not published yet, allow me to enter the camp of those who have doubts and believe that this declaration should be treated as an element of information confrontation between Russia and the US, without even mentioning its evident targeting at internal electorate before the elections of 2018. And that is why.

Location

The declaration was made two weeks after the supposed strike and several days after Syrian television reported about the elimination of Al-Baghdadi in Raqqa (while in April Russian spetsnaz was already trying to catch fleeing Al-Baghdadi). And of course, it is unclear why the delay is so long - in 2016 when Russia and the US were divvying up the head of ISIS speaker and cheif of international operations Al-Adnani, the messages in both countries were aired with several hours in between (according to the information from Syria, Al-Adnani was bombed in his car as a result of internal feuds in ISIS).

In the web there is a video from “official” media of jihadists Amaq News Agency dated 28 May, where one can see the demolished buildings shown on the photo of Russian Ministry of Defense. This video demonstrates around 10 bloody corpses being buried in a single grave. All the resources documenting the strikes of both coalitions in Syria report strikes of Western coalition that caused 18 deaths (according, for instance, to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is not much loved in Russia but has a network of local informants).

The Western coalition also reports strikes near Raqqa on 27 and 28 May. However, Russian airstrike on Raqqa is still possible – some strikes were launched in this city from time to time.

But regardless who made the strike… Jihadi resources (“official” and partisan ones) always immediately inform about a death of an emir. Neither the author, nor experts from the US and the Middle East familiar to him did not note any messages about deaths of such high-ranking officials in the end of May.

Who are the leaders?

It is noticeable that such large gathering of militants (and even of the military council) as Russian military ministry reports, took place several dozen kilometers from the combat line with Kurdish-Arab alliance “Syrian Democracy Forces”. It is unclear why the meetings should be carried out in the buildings under the heavy bombardments of both coalitions, but not underground, while ISIS intensively uses underground communication during combat in urban areas and in desert villages.

Firstly, there is information (from intercepted Islamists’ documents) that ISIS started preparing for loosing big cities, Mosul in particular, back in 2015. Foreseeing these events they have restructured their management hierarchy – Shoura Council, military council, security and reconnaissance council were evacuated into the network of underground shelters on the Syrian-Iraqi border, and Al-Adnani killed in 2016 became the head of a parallel managing structure.

Secondly, the military council was relatively small even in the better times for ISIS in order to protect it from outsiders and agents of special services, so there is even no available information on its several members (Shoura council counts approximately 9-11 persons). Hypothetically, the strikes that demolished several buildings (according to the photos presented by Russian defense ministry) would have eliminated the whole military leadership, not only Raqqa’s emir, who could be in fact responsible for the defense of the province in case of death of certain directions’ commanders. By the way, the head of security service (Amniyat) does not have to be a member of military council.

Thirdly, the names of the presumably eliminated leaders are not known for researchers, though is is not an argument. I shall clarify that.

For a long time Raqqa’s emir was Abu Luqman (Ali Moussa al-Hawikh) who was freed from prison in 2011 by Syrian government under an amnesty. He presumably had conflict with speaker Al-Adnani (and eliminated him) and was considered a possible successor to Al-Baghdadi. According to certain information, Abu Lukman was still in charge as the province’s emir in 2015 (though the media in 2015 claimed that ISIS had concealed his death). During the assassination of Al-Adnani (30 August 2016) he was already an ex-governor, though he was still alive. It is still unclear who replaced him on his post. However, as we have mentioned before, the death of emir of the central province in May 2017 was unlikely to remain unnoticed. For example, the Kurds eliminated far less significant emir Abu Khattab al-Tunisi and seven jihadists near Raqqa in 11 June and their photos immediately appeared in the “special resources”. On the 26th of March Tabqa’s (Raqqa province) emir, jihadist from Germany, was eliminated and on the 21st of March ex Nusra’s emir in Raqqa Abo Al-Abbas was killed in Idlib. Both deaths immediately became public.

The only publicly available information about the emir who controlled the region between Raqqa and As-Suhne is that opposition Syrian journalists claim that Ibrahim An-Naef Al-Hajj is a real As-Suhne local, but he was killed by an air strike back on the 24th of May in the age of 60 and had no affiliation to ISIS.

Regarding the head of Amnyat, a single name is repeated in the jihadists’ documents – “Dr. Samir” (according to some sources Abu Ali, to others – Abu Sulayman al-Faransi (from France), to third – Abu Ahmed of Belgian-Moroccan origin). It is hard to say, whether it is a single person or several ones. For instance, commander Abdurrahman Mustafa Al-Kaduli who was close to Bahdadi and was killed in 2016, had around seven names.

Thus, yes, Russian strike on the designated area is theoretically possible, but it is extremely difficult to check whether the bombardment really took place as well as to clarify the numbers and names of killed leaders. Within the framework of information warfare with the US it is a rather successful move that was mentioned by all media worldwide and provoked a desirable information noise. However, there is one nuance: if Western official institutions and media may spread evident disinformation and are still believed, in case with Russia it works differently and most often has a negative impact.

What if everybody is really killed?

Islamic state is a military quasi state with strict hierarchy in every sphere. During its existence its leadership has greatly changed, and even though a loss of a charismatic leader inflicts some damage to the organization, ISIS has learnt how to survive and manages to do it rather successfully.

Former members of Saddam Husein’s army and special services together with foreign “specialists” were replaced by a new generation. For instance, the place of Al-Adnani was taken by Abu Sufyan al-Sulami who is a well-known preacher from Bahrain with good connections in the Arab world. It were Al-Adnani and his successor who made the landmark declarations of 2016 about the continuation of fight after the “loss of Raqqa and Mosul”, probable return to the “initial existence” in these countries (underground on the Iraqi-Syrian border) and expansion of the “caliphate” to other countries of the world.

The Islamic State as its predecessor Al Qaeda has adapted to the loss of leaders, its units can act rather autonomously. As it happens now in Iraq were sabotages and suicide bombings occur even in the liberated areas. Or in Iran - in March 2017 the official resources of ISIS called the existing cells to form their own Shoura council and to elect a “minister of war” due to their autonomous existence (though according to ISIS administrative territorial the “Perisan lands” are mainly included in Iraqi “Wilayat Diyal” (does not overlap with the official borders of Diyala province)).

So, even the unproven death of the leaders does not bear much influence on the combat readiness of ISIS units while they are able to restructure in the conditions of ethnic and confessional misbalance particularly if their operatives and preachers are still active.

However, there is a weak point in ISIS ideology – it is the “caliph”. Hypothetically, the leader of Shoura council Abu Arkan Al-Amiri, a truly mythical person (no one knows where he is from, how he looks like, etc.), can take “caliph’s” place if he is killed or arrested, and Shoura council will elect its new leader.

ISIS propaganda devoted much attention to the personality of Al-Baghdadi, his education in the Islamic law and his “chosenness” (he is presumably a member of Quraysh tribe to which prophet Mohammed belonged, etc.) and never mentioned the possibility of having a successor. So, in case his death is proven and if the Islamist propaganda is not ready for it, “caliphate” may fall into disarray as it will be unclear to which “caliph” the whole “Muslim Umma” should pledge allegiance. The Islamic state should understand that.

Photo: RIA News/Evgeniy Epanchincev

Published in Tribune

Fighting terrorism by the military means has always required a surgical precision and in-depth understanding of people and forces that take part in a local conflict. A well-known French expert on Islamic studies Gilles Kepel in 2000s explained a model of counter-terrorist activity that can still be applied for modern conflicts. According to this model if a responsive strike against Islamists is carried out without decent planning and leads to the casualties among the civil population, the civilians will start to sympathize terrorists, creating an impasse for conflict resolution.

Let’s imagine that the provinces of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor are freed from the Islamic State. It does not matter who will free them - Syrian Democratic Forces alliance with direct US military support or pro-government forces operating together with the SDF to claim some territories in these provinces. We may also omit the topics, which may fuel the conflict and contribute to ISIS revival: partition of the territories, ethnic and confessional misbalance and the timeframe for political settlement in Syria. It is just important that the East of the country is free from ISIS thanks to the joint effort that somehow resembles a broad international coalition, which Kremlin has long been pleading to create.

So, it may seem that the mission is accomplished – Russia and US have achieved their goals and can go on arguing which one of them has defeated ISIS. But will it mean that the terrorism has been obliterated? In order to answer this question some other issues should be cleared out…

Inconvenient questions

The military intervention in Syria has predictably divided Russian public into three main camps: those who are firmly in favor or against the participation of the country in the conflict and those who have a shifting position. The last group is mainly represented by the middle-class.

The partisans of the operation are sure that Russia has a long-term strategy in the Middle East, knows how to get out from the Syrian impasse and they approve of Kremlin’s decision to wage war against all the militants in Syria that is required “for us and for the whole world”. They discard any criticism towards Assad regime as “the Western conspiracy” and believe that Russia may risk being attacked on the rear by the remaining “other terrorists” if it engages ISIS in the East. They do not acknowledge that these “other terrorists” may be an opposition to the regime and consist of Syrians.

The opinions of the critics of the pro-government media are portrayed as cries of madmen, who are condemning unreasonably high military spending and losses, participation of Wagner Group, imperial ambitions and interests not only in Syria, but also in Egypt and Libya.

Ordinary Russian citizens who are fed by the media which blames everything on US and Gulf countries, speak about “fighting terrorism early on”, “ruining the plans of the damned West” and about the resolution to support the strategic allies – Damascus and Teheran. Although sometimes Afghanistan is recalled, Russians always comfort themselves by saying that it is a completely different case – the scale of involvement was different and the losses were significantly higher.

It is not worth an effort to participate in this argument. As always the truth is somewhere in between. But the qualified experts prefer not to risk their career and begin their publications or speeches on Syria by mentioning “the machinations of the West” and the terrorist nature of the entire Syrian opposition to please the ruling regime.

For instance, analysts in Russia should avoid the following topics:

  • Why Russia launched its operation in the end of 2015 when the Syrian army was loosing and decided to side first with Shabiha and then with Iranian Shia International, letting them into the country?
  • Whether the late intervention of Russia into the Syrian crisis is directly related to the Ukrainian crisis and to the willingness to impose a “dialogue on an equal footing” on the West?
  • Whether Kremlin projects its perception of Russian opposition on the Syrian one and whether the list of the moderate groups is related to the forthcoming presidential elections in Russia?
  • Why did Assad regime fuel Jihadi ideas among Sunnis during the Iraqi war and send “green buses” with militants from Aleppo and Damascus provinces to Iraq through border town of Al-Bukamal?
  • Why did Assad regime free the most extremist imprisoned Islamists at the beginning of peaceful demonstrations?

If these issues are considered, Russia will have to admit that at first Damascus supported Islamists and suppressed healthy opposition, ignored Russia’s requests for extradition of extremists who fled to Syria after the war in the North Caucasus, and then took part in islamization of protest movements. For Russia it is better not to comment on the cooperation of Russia with Free Syrian Army in 2015 and on the bombardments of Liwa al-Haqq in Raqqa and Jabhat al-Nusra - in Deir ez-Zore, while these groups were not actually present in these cities.

So, it is very inconvenient to comment on these issues and it is in fact useless – any honest answers will be silenced by the wave of criticism. It is trendy to fight terrorism now. Thus, many Russian experts and media wrote about the “fall of ISIS in Aleppo” in the end of 2016 without even suspecting that the first ones to engage ISIS in Syria were the FSA units in Aleppo but not the Kurds in Kobani.

Syrian counter terrorism

From the very beginning of the military operation Moscow in fact refused to acknowledge the civil character of the war in Syria, depicting the conflict only as a struggle of Damascus against terrorists. Unfortunately, this idea became hardwired in Russian expert community and represents one of the gravest mistakes in the fight against terrorism made by Russia. The truce achieved in December despite the regime’s attempts to suppress the enclaves of opposition is surely the correct way to counter terrorism. However, even in the event of successful negotiations in Astana and the armistice preservation, there is still a risk that these measures will not be sufficient to resolve the real causes of the conflict.

The situation is aggravated by the fact that Syria and Iraq resemble communicating vessels (the so-called Wilayat al-Furat). And not only on the ground, but also underground: the Syrian-Iraqi border is crossed by the system of tunnels that was upgraded during Saddam Hussein rule. It is a perfect hiding place and R&R base for ISIS militants in case they lose Mosul and Raqqa.

Causes of “disease”

Despite the accusations of the US for ruining the balance in the region by launching the invasion in Iraq in 2003 that eventually led to the creation of ISIS and Sunni resistance, Syria is also partially responsible as it was a hiding place for many leaders of the would-be monster. Syria was a favorable country for the growth of then “Islamic State of Iraq” not only because of its refugee camps for the Iraqis but for the following reasons:

  • Extremely violent means of protest repressions during the first eight months of the Syrian uprising;
  • Ideological vacuum: a large share of Syrian Sunni were politically passive and lacked religious education;
  • Confessional nature of the war waged by the Alawite Assad’s regime and his elites against the Sunni population, which became a gift for Al-Qaeda and later for al-Nusra, ISIS and other groups.

Instead of concentrating its efforts against Al-Qaeda and ISIS from the very beginning, Damascus focused on eliminating ideologically moderate armed groups thus augmenting the opportunities for extremist organizations. The strengthening of Shia groups just upgraded the scale of war.

The fight against Al-Qaeda and ISIS

The leadership of Al-Qaeda set a course to infiltrate Syrian revolutionary movement back in 2012 and used ideological pressure on poor Sunni population to achieve this goal. Generally speaking, Al-Qaeda’s involvement in Syria was not limited to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. For instance, the exit of Jund al-Aqsa (then Sarayat al-Quds) in 2013 from al-Nusra when the latter confronted ISIS on the North of Syria, was conceived to assure the influx of foreign Mujahedeen to Idlib and Hama. In this sense, the religious rhetoric of Ahram al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam largely prevented Syrians from joining international al-Nusra and Islamic state. Nevertheless, in the context of struggle with the regime in the West al-Nusra gained a reputation of the main military movement participating in the large-scale opposition operations. The rebranding of al-Nusra into Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and its divorce with Al-Qaeda was supposed to dissolve it among other fractions and make it an exclusively local movement. This new image was presented mainly for the Syrians themselves.

Unfortunately, Russian airstrikes, which continued the strategy of Damascus and Teheran, led not to the dispersion of the opposition but to consolidation of radical and moderate movements and to enforcement of al-Nusra by more than 3-4 thousands new Syrian recruits. So, the situation is aggravated by the fact that al-Nusra became a movement with a Syrian majority.

It seems that the IS will retain its capacity of the international terrorist organization, even in the event of the defeat in Syria and Iraq. Firstly, due to the spread in more than 20 countries they will still be able to maintain the brand of a “state”. And the independence of the branches of the parent company makes the situation more difficult. Secondly, the experience of the survival of Al-Qaeda after the defeat in Afghanistan tells that a relatively small area is needed to lead terrorist operations form "safe haven".

But the experience of Iraq shows that even a few dozen experienced jihadists are able to revive an old structure. In these conditions, reactionary methods should be replaced by a long-term counter-terrorism strategy.

Published in Tribune

Eager to unlock the door to US-Arab cooperation on tackling regional issues following decades of disappointment with Washington’s lack of understanding of their concerns, three Arab leaders are engaging US President Donald Trump’s new administration over the next month.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met Trump at the White House on April 3; Jordan’s King Abdullah II will be in Washington on April 5; and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to follow later this month or in May. In their meetings, these leaders hope to discuss a number of issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the civil war in Libya, and the threat posed by global terrorist organizations. 

In their meeting on April 3, Trump and Sisi discussed holding an Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in the United States in June and renewing joint military exercises, which former US President Barack Obama halted in response to the Egyptian military government's bloody crackdown on protesters in 2013. The Egyptian leader, a former chief of the armed forces, sought logistical support from the United States for the Egyptian army in its fight against terrorism in the Sinai. Sisi would like Trump to focus more on ending the six-year-old civil war in Egypt's western neighbor—Libya. The two leaders also discussed regional issues, including Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. 

Abdullah, who hosted the Arab League Summit in Amman on March 29, is eager to solve a number of regional conflicts. Jordan is an important player in US-led military campaigns against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Abdullah will discuss with Trump the position of Arab leaders on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis—at the summit in Amman Arab leaders reiterated their support for an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and opposed the construction of more settlements.

Jordan has playedan active role in Arab efforts to end the stalemate in talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The king himself has advocated for Palestinian national aspirations. On his previous visit to Washington in February, Abdullah sought to persuade the new US administration to reverse itsrhetoric about moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and to call for a freeze of settlement construction in the West Bank. In his meeting with Trump, Abdullah will likely reiterate Arab support fora two-state solution. Thus, this time, the royal visit aims to make Trump more sympathetic toward the Arab perspective on the Palestinian issue.

On his visit to Washington, Abbas is expected to ask Trump to seriously consider a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and will reiterate the Arab position that a two-state solution is impossible without East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. In his meeting with Trump, Abbas will likely argue that if there is no Palestinian state, no one in the Middle East, including Israelis, will enjoy the benefits of peace. Denying the Palestinians their right to statehood will only lead to a rise in the level of terrorism and extremism.

The Palestinian foreign ministry said in a statement that on the sidelines of last month’s Arab League Summit, Abbas, Abdullah, and Sisi coordinated their positions on a number of regional issues and decided what they would discuss when they visit the White House.

These visits to Washington come at time when the greater Middle East is beset by numerous wars and political crises. Restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks based on the Arab Peace Initiative adopted at the Beirut Arab Summit in 2002, which calls for “land for peace,” is a high priority for the Egyptian and Jordanian governments, as well as the Palestinian people. 

The Oslo Accords initiated a period of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, delayed permanent status talks on Jerusalem, and paved the way for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Two decades later, however, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved and there is still no sovereign and independent Palestinian state. Obama—who believed that a multilateral effort, and not a single power, would be able to help reach a final settlement—was unable to resolve the crisis.

The Arab leaders want international powers to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis because they believe that if a peace agreement is reached it will resonate positively throughout the region and the world.

One positive outcome of the Amman summit was that it put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, overlooked for many years due to other conflicts and threats of extremism in the Middle East, back in the spotlight. In their final statement, Arab League Secretary General Ahmad Aboul Gheit reaffirmed a “commitment to the two-state solution and to the right of the State of Palestine to restore its sovereignty over the territories occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem.”

Will the Trump administration ask Israelis and Palestinians to prepare for talks in the near future? Will Jordan be in charge of liaising between regional actors and the United States in coordination with the United Nations (UN) and the Arab League? Will the forty-fifth US president become more sympathetic to Egypt’s agendas in Libya and in the Sinai? The answers to these questions remain to be seen.

What is known is that Abdullah, Sisi, and Abbas will do their best to convince Trump to begin taking more seriouslytheir ideas to resolve crises that threaten the security of Americans and Arabs alike.

For decades, Arabs have been justifiably disappointed with Washington’s stance on issues in the Middle East. The Jordanian, Egyptian, and Palestinianleaders are hoping to convince Trump to shift course and take Arab interests and concerns into account more than his predecessor did. If Washington fails to help the Arab world resolve its conflicts, there will be tectonic shifts toward radicalism, endangering governments in the region and opening the gate to even more chaos.

Initially published by Atlantic Council: http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/arab-leaders-try-to-get-trump-s-attention 
Shehab al-Makahleh (Sam Mak) is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics with experience as a political advisor in the United Arab Emirates. IMESClub Member. 

Published in Tribune

Iraqi troops are advancing in Mosul, taking new districts from Daesh. The liberation of the city is entailing high civilian losses and a humanitarian crisis, the scale of which is yet to be evaluated. The psychological consequences of Mosul’s occupation by Daesh will become apparent, as its devilish ideology has been poisoning the whole population.

The city’s full liberation is a matter of days or weeks of fierce battles. Mosul is an important milestone in defeating Daesh on the ground, with Raqqa its last bastion. The recent meeting of US, Russian and Turkish military chiefs ahead of the Raqqa operation promises full-scale coordination of their forces.

But Daesh will not surrender easily, and even as it loses territory and strongholds, its ideology will not vanish under bombs and shelling. Raqqa is depicted as a decisive battle against terrorism and extremism, but is that really the case? No doubt the fall of Raqqa is a crucial step in defeating Daesh as a state-like structure, but what about its ideology?

With the elimination of Osama Bin Laden, the international community, led by the US, celebrated a decisive victory over “Islamic” terrorism. But terrorism is like a Lernaean Hydra, a many-headed serpent in Greek mythology: For every head chopped off, it regrows a couple of new ones. To the huge disappointment of the international community, eliminating a concrete symbol of the phenomenon does not eliminate the phenomenon itself.

It is much easier to eradicate a symbol than fight the phenomenon, especially when it comes to ideology. A symbol is used by geopolitical powers as a self-promotion instrument, first to increase the perception of their importance in fighting this symbol, then after its eradication, to seize a PR opportunity and consolidate their positions as righteous fighters against evil. Thus, this fight turns into a show, without an in-depth or far-reaching strategy.

The core of the phenomenon of Daesh, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups lays far beyond their leaders, flags and territorial gains. They represent vicious facets of the same current, mutilating religion to serve the purely political goals of certain people and groups. The spread of extremist ideology relies on four i’s: Ignorance, injustice, interventionism and impotence. Only tackling them will enable the complete eradication of radical ideology.

Terrorism is like a many-headed serpent in Greek mythology: For every head chopped off, it regrows a couple of new ones. To the huge disappointment of the international community, eliminating a concrete symbol of the phenomenon does not eliminate the phenomenon itself.

Maria Dubovikova

Ignorance is the main assistant of the spread of extremist ideology. Ironically, the same ignorance nourishes Islamophobia worldwide, which assists the spread of extremism. It is a vicious circle, helping recruiters in Muslim communities that live in non-Muslim countries.

Injustice — political, social and so on — is used by recruiters, as it creates fertile soil for the spread of extremist ideology. Injustice refers not only to Muslim countries, but to the whole world. It occurs not just in authoritarian regimes and dictatorships, but also in democracies. The Arab world has good prospects of minimizing social and political injustice via sustainable development of civil society, but prospects for the West are far less positive.

Western interventionism and policies toward the Muslim world are another serious factor fueling extremism. It is becoming a far more serious issue as the Arab world is chosen as a battlefield for geopolitical and sectarian clashes. As such, Western interventionism is a sustainable source of the very ideology it is officially fighting to eradicate.

The helplessness of some moderate clerics is another important factor. They appear unable to adequately withstand extremist propaganda. They are inactive and passive compared to extremists. They hardly use modern technology or the Internet to deliver messages of peace to their congregations and the world, leaving this space for extremists and their messages of war. They lack adequate contact with the youth, unlike terrorist recruiters, who are brilliant psychologists.

These pillars of extremism must be tackled after liberating Mosul and Raqqa. They are responsible for spreading extremist ideology, brainwashing people and gaining new followers. No PR or self-promotion can be made fighting these pillars. Eliminating them takes time and enormous effort, the results of which cannot be privatized by certain players.

The key to eradicating “Islamic” terrorism is also found in two words starting with the letter “i”: Islam and integrity. Islam means peace, which is the only format in which it should be spread and cultivated. The integrity of the Muslim world will thwart extremists. United Arab and Muslim worlds can finally take their fate into their own, proper hands, and claim equality and respect on the world stage, preventing all external attempts to intervene and impose.

 

Initially published in Arab News: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1066026 

Published in Tribune
Tuesday, 14 February 2017 21:59

Deciphering Trump’s Opaque Foreign Policy

President Trump has set loose several competing – and contradictory – strands of foreign policy with the big question now whether he can avoid tripping himself up, writes ex-British diplomat Alastair Crooke.

It is now a commonplace to note that President Trump is advocating a mercantilist “America First” foreign policy, at odds with the prevailing globalist view of a cosmopolitan, super-culture; that he is intent on dismantling this globalist zeitgeist that he believes imposes moral and cultural norms which have weakened America’s mercantile “animal spirits” and whose embrace of the politics of diversity has sapped the strength from America’s moral and cultural sinews.

 

In practice, the policy that emerges will not be so black and white, or so easily categorized. “Team Trump,” in fact, embraces three distinct approaches: the “benevolent American hegemon” traditionalists, the Christian warriors pitted against an Islamic “hostile” ethos – and, of course, Trump’s own “America First” mercantilism. Each of these trends distrusts the other, yet must ally with one or the other in order to balance the third or at least avoid having it act as spoiler.

This inter-connectivity makes it especially hard to read the runes – the Trump administration’s marks of mysterious significance – of likely U.S. policy given the jostling and elbowing ahead between three distinct world views. And it is made even harder given President Trump’s and strategic adviser Steve Bannon’s deliberate embrace of a politics of feint and distraction, to throw opponents off-balance.

Trump’s style of mercantilist politics – though novel in our era – is not new. It has occurred before, and in its earlier setting led to profound geo-political consequences. It led then to war and ultimately to the emergence of a new geo-political order.

That is not necessarily to say that the same will occur today, but on Sept. 17, 1656, Oliver Cromwell, a Protestant puritan who had fought a civil war in England against its Establishment and its élite and who had deposed and then executed the reigning king, addressed his revolutionary parliamentarians in Westminster by posing the question: Who are our enemies? There was, he answered to the gathered parliamentarians, an alignment of “wicked men” in the world led by a powerful state – Catholic Spain with the Pope at its head. The “enmity” that Cromwell’s countrymen faced was, at its root, the evil of a religion – Catholicism – that “refused the Englishman’s desire for simple liberties … that put men under restraint … [and] under which there was no freedom.”

Since Cromwell’s day, the mainly English-speaking (Protestant) world has demonized its “enemies” as opponents of “God’s will” through their clinging to the failings of a static and backward religious ethic (as the Puritans characterized Catholicism). And, as for the complaint of “restraint” and “lack of liberty”? At its crux lay English frustration at the impediments faced by its traders and merchants. The Puritans of that time saw in Catholicism an ethos that was not welcoming to individual enterprise, to profit or to trade.

English “hawks” – usually Puritans and merchants – wanted an aggressive anti-Spanish policy that would open new markets to burgeoning English trade. Catholicism was not an ethos, the Cromwellians fervently and dogmatically asserted, in which the nascent capitalism of the time could thrive.

Cromwell’s address to Parliament in 1656 was an early articulation of the Protestant ethic: one that has contributed hugely to shaping American entrepreneurial capitalism, and in taking America to its position of power (Steve Bannon does in fact acknowledge the parallel: “I am Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors,” he once said to a reporter).

A Religious War

Today, for one significant Trump constituency (the Tea Party base), Iran is today’s Spain, and it is Islam (vice Catholicism) that is frustrating “God’s will,” by embracing an ethos that hates the Christian “ethic.” And, it is secular globalization that has sapped America’s mercantile animal spirits, imposed restrictions on trade (i.e. NAFTA), and whose cultural and “value” norms are sapping America’s moral and spiritual muscularity.

Why should this Cromwell analogy matter today? In one sense, Trump had little choice. In opposing the (“restrictive”) globalist, foreign policy – with its spinal cord of a U.S.-led global defense sphere – the President needed to stand up some alternative foreign policy to the embedded totem of “America as the gyroscope of the global order.”

Pure mercantilism – in the style of businessman negotiator-ism – is not really, of itself, a foreign policy. The power of the “benign U.S. hegemon” meme would require something more powerful to be set up, over, and against it, to balance it out. Trump has opted for the “Christianity in peril” narrative. It is one that touches on deeply buried cultural veins of Protestant imagery within the President’s Tea Party constituency.

Retired General Michael Flynn, now Trump’s National Security Advisor, perhaps best represents this religiously based, pro-Christian Republican foreign policy, while retired General James Mattis, now U.S. Defense Secretary, perhaps has a foot in both Republican camps — as Martin Wright from Brookings explains:

“Republican foreign policy since 9/11 has had two basic strands, which sometimes contradict each other. The first is that the United States is in an existential fight against radical Islam. The second is that America’s global interests involve the maintenance of U.S. leadership in Europe and East Asia — interests, in other words, that extend far beyond combating radical Islam. The Republican establishment has always toed the line on the first, but it has increasingly focused much more on the second. The global war on terror has, of late, taken second place to balancing China and containing Russia.

“But a group within the Republican tent never made this shift. These are the people who believe the United States is engaged in a war against radical Islam that is equivalent to World War II or the Cold War. They believe it is a struggle rooted in religion to which all else should be subservient — that America’s overwhelming focus must be on radical Islam instead of revisionist powers in Europe or Asia. They also generally favor moving away from a values-based foreign policy to harsh methods to wage a major war.

“For the most part, the leaders of this school of thought have been dismissed as cranks or ideologues. But their views were widely shared in the Republican electorate, who were increasingly alarmed by the Islamic State. And they found an ally in Trump.” (emphasis added)

In short, we should expect the Administration’s policy to oscillate between these two poles of Republican foreign policy, as Trump plays off one against another, in order to insert his own (“non – foreign policy”) of radical mercantilism. The Cromwellian meme of making Iran the “number one” terrorist state and radical Islam the “hostile ethos” does fit well for the U.S. President to embrace the businessman-negotiator modus operandi  under the cover of belligerency towards the Islamic “ethos.”

A Popular ‘Enemy’

Belligerency towards Iran is, of course, popular and in this way Trump’s policy translates well or at least understandably to the mores of the Washington Beltway. This “hostile Islam” meme also provides the rationale (defeating Islamic terror) for détente with Russia. I have suggested earlier that détente with Russia is key to Trump’s dismantling of Washington’s “benign hegemon” global defense sphere. Trump argues that the “blanket” U.S. defense sphere precisely limits the possibilities for the U.S. to negotiate advantageous trade terms with its allies on a case-by-case bilateral basis.

In effect, under the cover of fighting a hostile Islamic “ethos,” Trump can pursue détente with Russia – and then toughly “businessman-negotiate” with allied states (now stripped of the Russian “threat” elevating them to a status as America’s somehow privileged, defense allies). This seems to be Secretary Tillerson’s intended role.

Martin Wright again: “This is why naming Rex Tillerson as secretary of state was so important for Trump. A week before he was named, Trump’s senior aide Kellyanne Conway told the press that Trump was expanding the list of names for secretary of state and that the most important consideration was that the nominee ‘would be to implement and adhere to the president-elect’s America-first foreign policy — if you will, his view of the world.’ The implication was clear: [Mitt] Romney, David Petraeus, and others would not fit the bill, so Trump would have to look elsewhere. He found Tillerson.

“Tillerson is a pragmatist and a dealmaker. In many ways, he is a traditionalist. After all, he was endorsed by James Baker, Robert Gates, Hadley, and Condoleezza Rice. However, Trump also sees him, based on his personal relationship with Putin and opposition to sanctions on Russia, as someone willing to cut deals with strongmen and who sees national security through an economic lens and is thus an embodiment of his own America First views. Speaking in Wisconsin hours after naming Tillerson, Trump said, ‘Rex is friendly with many of the leaders in the world that we don’t get along with, and some people don’t like that. They don’t want them to be friendly. That’s why I’m doing the deal with Rex, ‘cause I like what this is all about.’” (emphasis added)

Is this – the war with a “hostile Islamic ethos” – then just a ploy, a diversion? Something for Iran to ignore? We suspect that Iran should not assume that Trump’s targeting of Iran and radical Islam is just some harmless diversion. It is not likely that Trump actively seeks war with Iran, but were Iran to be perceived to be deliberately humiliating Trump or America, the President (self-confessedly) is not of a temperament to let any humiliation pass. He likes to repay those who do him harm, ten-fold.

End of White America

But additionally, since, as polls show, and a leading American commentator on religion and politics, Robert Jones, has written, the Trump phenomenon is also deeply connected with the end of an American era: The End of White Christian America (as his book is entitled). In point of fact, the era has already passed. For, as Jones notes, “1993 was the last year in which America was majority white, and Protestant.”

Jones writes of the “vertigo” felt – even within the insular settings of many Southern and Midwestern towns where white Protestant conservatives continue to dominate society, and politics – at their “loss of place at the center of American culture, democracy and cultural power.”

Salt has been rubbed into this wound by a Democratic Party that has somewhat reveled in the passing of white majority America and exacerbated the sore through rebranding itself as the new “majority” of minorities. Jones remarks that while some in America “might celebrate” its passing, white Christian America did provide some kind of “civic glue,” and he ruminates on how the sense of void and anxiety on “what might serve that purpose [in the future], might well turn destructive.”

This is, Iran might recall, Trump’s core constituency, which he must mollify if he is to remain in office. The destructive impulse of Tea Party-ists, if scratched repeatedly, might seek to let off steam at some convenient target.

But secondly, it seems that Trump shares in some measure, this embrace of Judeo-Christian values. Certainly Steve Bannon does. He has said plainly that American capitalism – if it is to survive – must be reconnected to Judeo-Christian values. But what explains Trump’s paradoxical focus on Iran, which is fighting Islamic radicalism, rather than say, Saudi Arabia, which is not?

Here, Martin Wright gives us the clue: “In January and February [2016], Trump was under pressure to unveil a foreign-policy team. The Republican foreign-policy establishment overwhelmingly condemned him, largely because of his America First views. It was at this point that retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn started advising him. … Several weeks after Flynn came on board, Trump rolled out a list of foreign-policy advisors. Most were completely unknown, but the name Walid Phares stood out. Phares has a controversial past as a leading figure in a Lebanese Christian militia, and is known as a hard-liner in the war on terror.”

Mother Jones’ investigative report is plain: Phares, a Lebanese Christian Maronite, is a Samir Gagea man, who has a long history, dating back to Lebanon’s civil war of (intellectual) animosity towards Iran and Syria. It seems Trump (and Flynn too?) may have imbibed deeply at the bitter well of Lebanese prejudice and civil war hatreds?

Translating the Runes

So what do the runes tell us? The occult alphabet of Trump’s foreign policy will prove hard to read. The essential tension between, on the one hand, the “America Firsters” and the religious warriors – and all those who adhere to the American “traditionalist” policy position – portends the prospect of policies that might oscillate, from time to time, between these three diverse and conflicting poles.

Let us remind ourselves – “traditionalist” includes “all those officials who support the institutions of American power, and are generally comfortable with the post-World War II bipartisan consensus on U.S. strategy, even though they may seek to change it on the margins.”

It is quite likely that some of Trump’s team members who are mercantilists (such as Tillerson) or “Christian warriors” (such as Flynn), might be “bi-polar”: that is to say will be pulled in both directions on certain policy issues. We perhaps might be advised, therefore, to disregard most leaks, as more likely to constitute self-serving exercises directed towards influencing the internal struggle within “the team” (i.e. kite-flying exercises), rather than as true leaks that describe a genuine consensus reached within the “team.”

But the runes will be harder to read precisely because of Trump’s tactics of feints and distractions. As one astute chess-coach-turned-analyst has observed, Trump seems to be a pretty accomplished hand at chess:

“Chess is a game where the number of possible positions rises at an astronomical rate. By the 2nd move of the game there are already 400 possible positions, and after each person moves twice, that number rises to 8902. My coach explained to me that I was not trained enough to even begin to keep track of those things and that my only chance of ever winning was to take the initiative and never give it up. ‘You must know what your opponent will do next by playing his game for him.’ was the advice I received.

“Now, I won’t bore you with the particulars but it boiled down to throwing punches, at each and every turn without exception. In other words, if my opponent must always waste his turn responding to what I am doing, then he never gets an opportunity to come at me in the millions of possibilities that reside in the game. Again, if I throw the punch – even one that can be easily blocked, then I only have to worry about one combination and not millions.

“My Russian chess coach next taught me that I should Proudly Announce what exactly I am doing and why I am doing it. He explained to me that bad chess players believe that they can hide their strategy even though all the pieces are right there in plain sight for anyone to see. A good chess player has no fear of this because they will choose positions that are unassailable so why not announce them? As a coach, I made all of my students tell each other why they were making the moves that they made as well as what they were planning next. It entirely removed luck from the game and quickly made them into superior players.

“My Russian coach next stressed Time as something I should focus on to round out my game. He said that I shouldn’t move the same piece twice in a row and that my ‘wild punches’ should focus on getting my pieces on to the board and into play as quickly as possible. So, if I do everything correctly, I have an opponent that will have a disorganized defense, no offense and few pieces even in play and this will work 9 out of 10 times. The only time it doesn’t work for me is when I go against players that have memorized hundreds of games and have memorized how to get out of these traps. With all that said, let’s see if President Trump is playing chess.

“First, we can all agree that Trump, if nothing else, throws a lot of punches. We really saw this in the primaries where barely a day could go by without some scandal that would supposedly end his presidential bid. His opponents and the press erroneously thought that responding to each and every “outrage’ was the correct thing to do without ever taking the time to think whether or not they had just walked into a trap. They would use their turn to block his Twitter attack but he wouldn’t move that [chess] piece again once that was in play but, instead, brought on the next outrage – just like my [Russian chess] coach instructed me to do.

“Second, Trump is very vocal in what he is going to do. Just like I had my students announced to each other their [chess] strategy, Trump has been nothing but transparent about what he intends to do. After all, announcing your plans only works if your position is unassailable. It demoralizes your opponent. You rub their face in it. Another benefit to being vocal is that it encourages your opponent to bring out his favorite piece to deal with said announced plans. This is a big mistake as any good chess player will quickly recognize which piece his opponent favors and then go take them.

“Time has been the one area that our president is having problems. Executive Orders and Twitter Wars have pushed the opposition off balance but he has not been able to use this time to get all of his pieces into play. The Justice Department (his Queen) is still stuck behind a wall of pawns. Furthermore, only 5 of his 15 Cabinet picks have been confirmed as of this writing. Without control over these departments, the president can fight a war of attrition but he really can’t go on the offensive. In chess, I will gladly trade a piece for a piece if it means you have to waste your turn dealing with it. It isn’t a long term strategy if you do not have all of your pieces ready to go.”

Well, maybe its best just to sit and observe, and stop trying to read the runes?

Alastair Crooke is a former British diplomat who was a senior figure in British intelligence and in European Union diplomacy. He is the founder and director of the Conflicts Forum.

Initially published by https://consortiumnews.com/2017/02/11/deciphering-trumps-opaque-foreign-policy/

Published in Tribune

ISIS is the first terrorist organization to have successfully gained power through the use of modern media.

Its media system is working in two key dimensions. First of all, it targets the audience inside the ISIS ranks. Propaganda is used to maintain morale and to manipulate ISIS fighters.

Secondly it targets the “outside” audience. The propaganda is performed on both systemic level – through the so-called Al Hayat Media Center, the ISIS media arm – and on the network level, through social media, messengers, Skype and the direct work on the ground of so-called “ISIS emissaries”, or recruiters.

The Al Hayat Media Center produces videos shared via social media and mobile messengers, as well as publishing journals in several languages, with most issues weighing in at 60 to 70 pages.

 

The words of the Quran, and the true sense of Islam, should be the main weapon in this war on ISIS propaganda.

Maria Dubovikova

That’s 60 to 70 glossy pages of total evil, blood and terror – with the name of Allah and quotations from the Quran repeated on the each page, even though ISIS has nothing in common either with Allah or the Quran. The group just use both for the sake of its own devilish and bloody interests.

The core of the propaganda is the idea of “us and them”. We are righteous Muslims, ISIS declare. “They” are kafirs – infidels – and crusaders.

But ISIS is also putting Muslim communities under pressure, through threats and oppression. The group knows that even the calmest Muslims cannot bear sustained oppression and humiliation for a long time, and finally they will become radicalized.

So why is ISIS propaganda proving so successful? The reasons are simple.

1. Visual communication

The first reason is the high quality work produced by ISIS ideologists, with specialist design and promotion. The visual quality of their journals is very high. Across the world, societies value images over text, and so ISIS has chosen the right form of propaganda. By spreading images through the modern media, ISIS reaches millions of people.

2. Preying on ignorance

The second reason is the historically ill-conceived system of integration of Muslim immigrants in Western societies, and the lack of a coherent promotion of the true image of moderate Islam to the broader public. ISIS is successfully using religious texts, playing on the weak religious literacy of some Muslims, and an absolute ignorance of many non-Muslims about Islam.

3. West’s Mideast policy

The third reason is the Western countries’ policy in the Middle East leading to the chaos in the region. The dangerous play on the discords and the regional contradictions, and the imposition of Western models of behavior and politics inapplicable to the region, lead to the growth of anti-Western sentiments and tensions inside the societies. This is successfully used by the ISIS ideologists. ISIS constantly reminds people of what it sees as historical injustice, or a constant humiliation by the West – the ‘kafirs’, the ‘crusaders’ – on Muslim civilization. ISIS uses the actions of the international coalition and Russian ideologists to promote the idea that the West and Russia are waging a war against the Muslim world.

4. Social environment

The fourth reason for the propaganda success is the state of the social environment. The modern world is gradually losing its reference points for values. This is witnessed in the mutation of the institution of family, social isolation, and the paradox of wealthy societies, in which some are led to seek thrilling experiences. The social inequality and lack of justice also play to the hand of ISIS. And to the lonely, ISIS promotes the idea of a society where everyone is a brother or sister. They promise justice and equality. But they also propose a ‘thrilling’ experience – to those who are seeking it: to kill not only in PC games, but in real life.

How to fight the war

The moment to counter the propaganda battle is already lost. And while there is no guarantee we will win the wider war, there is still a chance to fight an idea with another. And the words of the Quran, and the true sense of Islam, should be the main weapon in this war on ISIS propaganda.

 

initially published by Al Arabiya: https://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/2015/12/10/ISIS-s-propaganda-success-and-how-to-fight-it.html

Published in Tribune

Pursuing an active policy in Syria up to direct involvement in the military conflict seems to be bringing Moscow both fresh opportunities and new risks, both internal and external, that range from the palpable to the obscure.

Risks

The most obvious risks are image-related. While the denigration of Russia in Western media has become routine in recent years, the perception of Russia in the Arab and Islamic information field has always been more nuanced. While some TV channels (Al-Arabia, Al-Jazeera and the Gulf media) have vilified the Kremlin for supporting Bashar Assad, others such as Shiite TV station Al-Manar, Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, etc., have been openly supportive about Russian anti-Americanism.

But now the situation has changed.

Under certain circumstances, the Syrian operation may help Russia in its relations with the West, but information-wise the status quo is likely to remain for a long time to come. As a result, some will see Russia as a country that defends dictators and bombs the moderate opposition and civilians, while others will see it as an enemy of the Sunnis. Details regarding the groups bombed, real targets for air attacks, or the fact that Russia has 20 million Sunnis residing in its territory will be virtually ignored.

The most obvious risks are image-related. 

Russia is, as always, rather weak in information warfare, and apparent absurdities like the total defeat of ISIS in areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army [1] voiced by official sources only serve to aggravate the situation. The Arab community, including Christians, rejects Russian commentators’ attempts to interpret the Syrian campaign in religious terms as a holy war, the Russian Orthodox Church’s religious mission, etc. Such statements not only revive the image of Western crusades in the Middle East but also echo with the offensive missionary rhetoric of George Bush Jr.

 

Russian domestic propaganda correlates poorly with foreign media outreach, and a comparison of the two information streams gives the impression that Moscow's policy is neither consistent nor transparent.

However, these image-related losses are far from being the biggest problem, as the looming political risks are much more ominous.

The three main domestic risks have been much talked about and boil down to possible popular discontent over the Kremlin's policies.

First there is the terrorist threat, which seems to have firm foundation. On the one hand, there are ISIS sympathizers resident in Russia who see the Syria operation as an assault on genuine Islam. The other involves thousands of battle-hardened and well-networked Jihadis who will be driven out of Syria first to Iraq and then to their homelands, which seems to be exactly the scenario Moscow is trying to prevent by interfering in the Syrian affairs.

The logic of ISIS’s evolution has prompted the inevitable gradual ouster of romantic jihadis out of their current territory and the future export of jihad. Southern Russia is definitely high in their priorities list. Hence, President Putin's approach "strike first if the fight is unavoidable" seems to perfectly match this logic.

First there is the terrorist threat. 

Risk number two involves the unpredictable response of Russian society to any future battlefield losses. When ISIS captured a Jordanian pilot and burnt him in a metal cage, thousands of people in Amman went out onto the streets to protest both against ISIS and the participation of Jordanians in the war on the Islamists. There has been no similar trigger-event reported involving Russians, and any similar public response by Russians has yet to be seen, not least since Moscow's previous military campaigns in the southern Russia left a negative impression Russian public consciousness.

Risk number two involves the unpredictable response of Russian society to any future battlefield losses. 

At the same time, it is no secret that weakening of traditional bonds combined with the underdevelopment of liberal values and civil society have atomized Russian society, undermining its ability to mobilize and increasing its tolerance regarding human victims.

 

Finally, the third domestic risk involves economic impact of the Syrian campaign. Irrespective of the burden on the Russian state budget (which is not thought to be enormous, in terms of purely military costs), given the broader economic downturn, the general public will find it hard to understand the need for yet another round of belt tightening, this time for the sake of murky geopolitical interests in a faraway and essentially unknown country.

The likelihood of this risk becoming a real concern will grow with time. If the operation lasts several months and produces striking political effect, the population is unlikely to launch serious protests.

All these obvious risks only prove that the Syrian operation must be swift and bring political resolution acceptable both for the Arab world and the West. Only in then would Russia's reputational losses be more or less compensated and its claims for leadership justified.

The third domestic risk involves economic impact of the Syrian campaign. 

This prompts us to look at the issues that Russia needs to resolve in Syria.

Obvious and not so Obvious Issues

All these obvious risks only prove that the Syrian operation must be swift and bring political. 

What Moscow requires is the establishment of a relatively friendly Syrian regime to guarantee continued Russian military presence there. This scenario may indicate Russia’s real return to the region and its ability to effectively resolve large-scale problems beyond its near abroad, as well as its claim to the role of Europe's shield, which could radically alter the entire relationship with the EU on Russian terms.

The need to solve this triple conundrum, i.e. a swift operation, a settlement recognized globally and regionally, and the establishment of a stable regime, brings to the fore the problem of political resolution according to a scenario that should determine the military operation.

What Moscow requires is the establishment of a relatively friendly Syrian regime to guarantee continued Russian military presence. 

The official aims proclaim counterterrorism and support of statehood, which allow for very broad interpretation, as terrorism may apply both to ISIS and the armed opposition, and statehood support – to strengthening the incumbent president or the preservation of Syria on the world map.

In fact, looking at these political issues opens the way to analyze the aims in greater detail.

Russia will not be pleased either with an excessively broad or excessively narrow interpretation of the term terrorism, because the former would boil down to a mere strengthening of the ruling Syrian regime (unacceptable to the international community and Middle East), and the latter would deprive Damascus of any motivation to participate in the resolution, effectively taking us back to the situation that existed two years ago. Hence, the problem is in drawing a red line dividing the opposition into moderate and radical segments, and further engaging the moderates in the settlement process.

 

In most cases, it is hardly plausible to rate the opposition's radicalism by religion or commitment to violence or by political agenda. In the final count, the religious discourse is employed by too many sides of the conflict, this civil war has already claimed over 200,000 lives, the level of violence is already excessive, and political agendas of many parties involves have nothing to do with reality.

Methodologically, it would seem more sensible to single out ambitious structures orientated at nation-building, comprising Syrians and trusted by some elements in the Syrian population. Such groups may be quite small but still emerge as constructive actors in the peace process despite ideology and other factors.

As far as statehood is concerned, the formation of a relatively stable political system implies the need for this military operation to be accompanied by other activities aimed at strengthening institutions and the country’s reintegration.

Elites in Russia and other countries plus the expert community have been criticizing the U.S. intervention in Iraq for 12 years. The invasion should clearly have been avoided, with all the attendant gross errors, the ensuing protracted crisis and terrible violence that has taken almost 200,000 lives. However, the United States attempted to provide Iraq with a new political system and preserved statehood, suffering enormous financial, image-related and human losses.

Russia will not be pleased either with an excessively broad or excessively narrow interpretation of the term terrorism, because the former would boil down to a mere strengthening of the ruling Syrian regime and the latter would deprive Damascus of any motivation to participate in the resolution. 

For five years, the West has been censured for its Libyan operation that differed from Iraq in its limited dimensions and was limited to air support of anti-Qaddafi forces. Given the Iraq experience, neither Europe nor the United States were ready to take responsibility again. But the Libyan state fell apart.

Neither scenario would suit Russia.

The rapid completion of the operation and restored statehood would offer a small or very small Syria, with the government bolstered by Russia within a limited territory, e.g. in Latakia and Damascus. At the same time, President Putin's remark at the Valdai Forum that forgetting the country’s previous borders would entail the emergence of several permanently warring states is also quite true. The only way out seems to lie in some kind of decentralization of Syria and the division of responsibility for its territory among other powers, primarily regional countries that could help Syria strengthen institutions in its interior areas.

The rapid completion of the operation and restored statehood would offer a small or very small Syria. 

Finally, the restoration of statehood would require massive assistance to overcome the economic consequences of the war, which primarily involves financial aid (USD 150-200 billion over a period of 10 years by ESCWA estimates), as well as establishment of bodies for the distribution of funds and control over spending.

Certainly, neither Russia nor any other country would be able to do this on its own.

As a result, all these goals, i.e. turning the moderate opposition into the government's partner, reintegration of the Syria territory, and economic revival, necessitate a reformatting of the approach to external participation in the Syria settlement on Russian terms, and the identification of partners able to operate within the boundaries set out by Moscow.

 

With due respect to the Western role in the Syrian settlement and the significance of Russia-West relations, the key partners should come from the region.

First, the West is the potential target audience of Russia's efforts in the Middle East and has to show it has received the message about Russia's return to the regional theater. Russia is working to alter the format of its relations with the West and to display its readiness to be a global power.

Second, although Russia's relations with certain Middle Eastern states are hardly healthy, they are free of the kind of burdens seen in Russia-West dialogue. Cooperation on Syria with the West will always remain a sort of projection of the entire bilateral relationship.

Third, it is the countries in the region that are most interested in Syrian normalization and the restoration of order to this territory swamped in chaos.

As for the search for regional partners, until recently Russia's Middle East strategy was described by Western analysts as "the art of being everybody's friend." But things are different now. By supporting the Syrian government and establishing an information center in Baghdad, Russia has effectively built a Shiite coalition in a Sunni-dominated region dominated.

All these necessitate a reformatting of the approach to external participation in the Syria settlement on Russian terms, and the identification of partners able to operate within the boundaries set out by Moscow. 

The Russia-Iran rapprochement hardly seems a guarantee for a long-term alliance. With the military operation completed and the settlement process launched, the two powers would naturally become rivals competing for influence in Syria, while Iran, exhausted by its pariah state status, is likely to choose the pro-Western track.

Tehran is too close to Damascus and is short of resources, which would seriously limit its ability to influence the solution of these three problems.

To this end, Russia should be especially interested in engaging the Sunni states, i.e. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, countries that have become estranged from Russia because of its Syrian operation.

Relationship normalization requires a degree of accommodation of their interests. Turkey needs to see the Kurdish threat minimized, and Saudi Arabia would like to check the rise of the Shiite belt. Theoretically, and both problems could be handled (to a lesser extent that involving the Kurds) within the process of Syria's political transformation and its territorial reintegration.

With due respect to the Western role in the Syrian settlement and the significance of Russia-West relations, the key partners should come from the region. 

Besides, Moscow could offer Riyadh diplomatic assistance in the Yemen settlement, as the military operation there appears undeniably flawed.

Concurrently, Russia could also exploit the grave differences that exist between the Sunni states.

Although Egypt is dependent on Saudi Arabia, it views their relationship as rather burdensome and would be glad to see Russia as an alternative partner. The creation of a counterbalance to the Shiite alliance in the Moscow-Cairo-Algiers axis for stabilizing North Africa would help Egypt gain regional clout, while Russia would demonstrate its refusal to take part in the region's confessional confrontations.

Besides, minor Gulf states will not always support the Saudis' anti-Iran policy, whereas Turkey views Russia as a key economic partner.

By supporting the Syrian government and establishing an information center in Baghdad, Russia has effectively built a Shiite coalition in a Sunni-dominated region dominated. 

Finally, Moscow could boost its efforts in the Palestine settlement by lending momentum to the intra-Palestinian political process and taking practical steps to strengthen state institutions of the Palestine Authority, thus demonstrating its constructive role in the region.

In theory, all these measures coupled with the Russia-Iran partnership and effective cooperation with Israel could spawn conditions amenable not only to a Syrian settlement but also to building a new stable system of regional relations in the Middle East. However, the requirements for a healthy outcome are so numerous that an optimistic future appears essentially indistinct.

INITIALLY WAS PUBLISHED ON RIAC: http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=6789#top-content 

 

1. See: http://syria.mil.ru/news/more.htm?id=12060220@egNews and http://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2015/10/06/en-syrie-la-russie-frappe-plus-l-opposition-que-l-etat-islamique_4783454_4355770.html

 

Published in Tribune

During last week’s G20 summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that according to his country’s intelligence, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is financed by private individuals from 40 countries, some of them G20 members.

He highlighted the scale of the illegal trade in oil and petroleum products. “The motorcade of refuelling vehicles stretched for dozens of kilometers, so that from a height of 4,000 to 5,000 meters they stretch beyond the horizon,” Putin said, comparing the convoy to gas and oil pipeline systems.

Turkey is using its involvement in the fight against ISIS to hit the Kurds, whose militias are among the most effective forces against the group in Syria. Turkey’s weakly controlled 565-mile southern border is the main gateway for foreign extremists from all over the world to join ISIS. In Turkey jihadists get all they need, even fake ID cards and passports.

 

Ankara violated international law, as the jet should have been escorted away from Turkish airspace, not shot down

Maria Dubovikova

Ankara apparently does little to stop these dangerous activities. The passports of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks were fake and made in Turkey. Turkish businessmen make deals with ISIS oil smugglers, providing the group with billions of dollars.

After the G20 summit, Russia launched a true war against ISIS’s oil infrastructure and the caravans of trucks transporting oil to the Turkish border. This has made Ankara nervous. Last week, following intense Russian bombing in Syria along the Turkish border, Ankara summoned the Russian ambassador, warning that bombing Turkmen villages could lead to “serious consequences,” and urging Moscow to “to immediately end its operation.”

The whole article is available herehttp://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/2015/11/25/Turkey-s-downing-of-a-Russian-jet-is-a-grave-error.html 

Published in Tribune

BEIRUT -- As soon as Russia launched the first stages of its military campaign in Syria, world media erupted with epic slights on President Vladimir Putin and the deprecation of Russia's strategic motives in Syria. Is this information operationsimply a recrudescence of Cold War neuralgia, or is there something more profound at work here?

One can see, too, that the U.S. administration's response to Russia's initiative has oscillated uncertainly. Initially, Washington took a "business as usual approach," suggesting that it and its allies' air campaign would proceed unchanged. But the administration then seemed blindsided by the speed and extent of the Russian action. Last week, a Russian official arrived at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad to announce the immediate start to the Russian air operation in Syria, and to insist that the U.S. keep its aircraft (and personnel) out of Syrian airspace altogether that day. Since then, the Russian tempo of air attacks has been impressive, leaving little or no space to others.

Clearly, "business as usual" in these circumstance was impractical (if some calamitous air incident in the Syrian skies was to be avoided). And President Obama's opponents immediately pounced: Putin was wrong-footing America (again). Secretary of State John Kerry hotly demanded military coordination that would at least keep the U.S. coalition flying -- and in the game.

The second approach has been to try wrest at least the political initiative back into American hands -- by conceding to Russia its military role -- whilst trying to set parameters (essentially President Bashar al-Assad's removal), that would require a major reworking of the Syrian leadership, in which America would have a major say. (Britain and France similarly lifted a leg, to mark their territory of having a claim in any final outcome, too.)

During all these maneuvers and rhetorical skirmishing, however, the U.S. has also been quietly re-positioning itself towards the political settlement which it now sees as coming somewhat into focus. In London and Berlin, Secretary Kerry modified the U.S.'s initial absolute objection to President Assad remaining in office: Now, he said, Assad might remain for a transitional phase, however long that might be, "or whatever," adding that ultimately this was for the Syrian people to determine (see our last Weekly Comment). On Wednesday, Kerry went further, and said something equally significant: Exiting his discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Kerry said that Syria must remain "united ... [and] be secular." This represents a huge (if barely remarked) shift: It cuts the ground from under the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the jihadists -- in fact, from all Islamists who cannot accept a secular state, which, to be clear, effectively removes pretty well all the Gulf protégés from having any significant slice of the cake. 

No doubt, Lavrov had made it plain to Kerry that Assad has told the Russians that he is open to political change and to reform (and that Russia believes him). But perhaps Lavrov also explained why the particular historical circumstances of Syria voided any prospect of a Brotherhood insertion into government being a workable prospect. In any event, Kerry changed tune.

The third U.S. tactic seems to be "containment" -- that old standby: a massive information war is underway to suggest that the Russians committed themselves only to attack ISIS, and nobody else (when Russia never made any such undertaking). Lavrov is explicit: Russia is targeting ISIS and "other terrorist groups," as they had always "said they would do." Nonetheless, the info war campaign continues in order to put pressure on Russia, and to contain its military campaign. American officials have been on record saying that "moderates" turned out to be as rare as mythical unicorns amongst the Syrian armed opposition, and that only "four or five" were in the field now -- and yet suddenly it seems that there are all these "moderate CIA trainees" under attack now. In fact, there are no "moderate jihadists." The term is an oxymoron: there are only jihadists who are more -- or less -- close to ISIS or al Qaeda. It is a parsing of definitions that simply does not interest Russia.

Tom Friedman puts a somewhat different gloss on events from his well-briefed perspective: Let Putin and his allies have a go at defeating ISIS (and good luck to them). But when they fail, and find the Sunni world has turned against them, then they (the Russians) will need a ladder out of the tree, which only Washington will be able to lend, to help Putin recover from his strategic mistake. This is too reductive. Putin well understands the difference between traditional Sunni Islam in the Levant and the very recent blow-in of militant Gulf Wahhabism, which is at odds with this traditional Sunni Islam of Syria and Iraq. He knows, too, that many Sunnis still hold to the notion of citizenship within a secular, or non-sectarian state; and that Syria and Iraq are both inheritors to venerable, old civilizations (Greater Syria and Mesopotamia); each with their own political cultures and visions. The fight against contemporary orientations of Wahhabism has never been the reductive struggle between a Shia minority (the Alawites) and a Sunni majority; it is as much a struggle to preserve the Levantine tradition against a foreign (Gulf) culture, Wahhabism, floated into the region on a tide of petrodollars

Why should President Putin understand this cultural war better than Western leaders? It is because Orthodox Christianity (of Russia) never entertained the Western binary opposition between the Roman Christianity and Islam. Orthodox Christianity and traditional Sunni Islam share many attributes together, and have a history of close relations.

So what are the Russians doing? Firstly, they are running through a "bank" of "terrorist" targets assembled by Syrian, Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah intelligence services. It is unlikely that this phase will last long -- and then, the mode will smartly change. With the primary targets destroyed, the ground offensive will begin, led by the Syrian army (with direct support from Hezbollah, and with advice from Russian and Iranian officers). What will be different now, however, is that the ground forces will have the benefit of all-weather and nighttime air support, plus real-time imagery. Whilst Russian soldiers will not be directly involved in boots-on-the-ground operations in support of the Syrian army, Russian forces will be directly involved in securing a safe area around their air base near Latakia. To the extent that this keeps Latakia secure, it will as a byproduct, free up the Syrian army from the need to station troops there, thus making them available for other tasks. 

For now, the Russians seem (as evidenced by their airstrikes) to be intent firstly on eliminating any hostile threats adjacent to their forces in the area of Latakia (the Russian air base is located some 20 miles south of Latakia). This is standard military modus operandi. Their secondary and tertiary objectives seem to be to secure the M4 highway between Latakia and Aleppo (targeting pockets of insurgent forces adjacent to the highway), and in striking insurgent-held areas along the M5 highway.

There is nothing political behind such strikes -- in the sense of strengthening one insurgent group in opposition to any other. It seems, rather, very clear that the Russians are preparing for the subsequent ground sweep by the Syrian army: the Russian air force is securing lines of logistic support to the Syrian army, and concomitantly denying those same lines to the jihadists. It is, in short, all rather military -- and in line with what Russia says are its objectives.

So, why this flood tide of snide commentary, disinformation and claims of a covert, "underhand" Russian strategy? What is it that so irks the West? Well, of course, one part of it is that Putin has put Washington on the spot, and made the West's claims to have been fighting ISIS for the last year to appear hollow. But there may be more to it than this.

For the past few decades, NATO effectively made all the decisions about war and peace. It faced no opposition and no rival. Matters of war were effectively a solely internal debate within NATO -- about whether to proceed or not, and in what way. That was it. It didn't matter much about what others thought or did. Those on the receiving end simply had to endure it. But whilst its destructive powers were evident, its strategic benefits have been far from evident -- especially across the Middle East. 

What probably irks the West most is that Russia has unfolded -- and begun -- a sophisticated military campaign in the flash of an eye. NATO bumbles along much more slowly with its complicated structures. Iraqis have long complained that in military terms, assistance promised by the NATO powers takes (literally) years to materialize, whereas requests to Russia and Iran are expeditiously met. So Tom Friedman's condescension towards the Russian military intervention does have more than a whiff of orientalism to it.

But all the hoo-ha probably stems also from the sense that this Russian initiative could mark the coming into birth of something more serious -- of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a putative military alliance. Admittedly, the "4+1 alliance" -- Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq, plus Hezbollah -- is not branded as SCO (and the coalition partners do not overlap with SCO membership), but the 4+1 allianceventure might well yet prove to be a "pilot" in non-Western, successful coalition-operating. Furthermore, its objective is precisely to preempt NATO-style regime change projects -- a prime SCO concern. This prospect certainly would irk the Western security establishment -- and would potentially change many an existing NATO calculus.

Not surprisingly, then, it might be seen in some Western quarters as hugely important to set a narrative of failure for the 4+1 alliance, and to denigrate any sense that its military example might have strategic importance for the non-Western world.

 

INITIALLY PUBLISHED ON HUFFINGTON POST

Published in Tribune
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