Walking the Tightrope: Turkey in the New Middle East


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Enea Gjoza is a policy analyst specializing in foreign policy and criminal justice. He is also an intelligence research fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and a writer for Young Voices.

The Arab Spring and subsequent events have dramatically re-arranged the power dynamics of the Middle East. Formerly stable nations like Syria and Libya have descended into near-anarchy, while others, like Iraq and Jordan, have been significantly weakened by the rise of the Islamic State and the flood of refugees fleeing conflicts in the region.

Not all have been affected equally, however. While most of their regional neighbors are still reeling from the aftermath of war and revolution, the Turks have emerged almost entirely unscathed. This has left them in a position that is both enviable and vulnerable as they navigate the geopolitics of the new Middle East.

The upheavals of the last few years have diminished the ability of many of the leading nations in the region to project power outside their own borders. While Bashar al-Assad remains president of Syria, much of the country is either contested or under the control of various rebel and Islamist militias and the economy is utterly ruined after four years of war. Jordan, which has long been a bulwark of stability, is finding its resources stretched to the breaking point as it tries to absorb an estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees, or 20% of Jordan’s population. Iraq’s fragile political framework has degraded considerably since the conquest of much of the north by ISIS, and Iran is still the subject of strict sanctions and international isolation. Meanwhile, Egypt is in the process of rebuilding its economy, confronting domestic Islamist insurgents, and promoting stability and investor confidence, leaving little capacity for regional engagement.

In this environment, Turkey enjoys a number of advantages. With one of the most powerful militaries in the world, membership in NATO, a strategic position between Europe and Asia, and a fast growing population of over 70 million, Turkey possesses a level of security that has escaped most of its neighbors.

Despite the conflict in neighboring Syria and Iraq, the violence has been almost entirely relegated to the other side of the border, and its contentious domestic politics aside, Turkey has been able to maintain a relatively high measure of internal stability. Much like Jordan, Turkey has absorbed an estimated 1.5 million refugees fleeing Syria, and although this has strained the nation’s resources, its much larger economy has so far been able to handle the refugees without large negative spillover effects.

Another key contributor to Turkey’s improved strategic position is the conflict between Russia and the E.U., which has left the Turks in the enviable role of being an essential partner to both sides. The South Stream pipeline, which Russia envisioned as a way to deliver gas to the European market while bypassing Ukraine, was cancelled after the E.U. pressured Bulgaria to block passage through its territory. It has been replaced by the proposed Turkish Stream, which would run a pipeline underneath the Black Sea and through Turkish territory. Although negotiations are still ongoing, Russia has already taken steps to signal its commitment to the new plan, and the continuing hostility between Russia and the E.U. makes it highly likely that any alternative gas route to Europe will run through Turkey.

This leaves Turkey in an ideal negotiating position. It will likely be able to secure a significant discount for its own considerable energy needs from Russia (and in fact is already aggressively negotiating for one), which is seeking access to the large and growing Turkish gas market as well as an economically and politically viable alternative to the aborted South Stream route.

The proposed pipeline will not actually go through any E.U. states, so Europe will now have to purchase its gas from Turkey. A similar project, the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline, conceived as a way to connect Europe to Azerbaijan’s gas fields and thus help it diversify away from Russian gas, also runs through Turkey. This places Turkey squarely in the middle of regional energy politics, and hands significant negotiating power to a state that has long been denied entry into the eurozone.

In this favorable climate, Turkey has taken an active lead in the Middle East, operating in alignment with its perceived interests and often in defiance of the United States and Europe. Nowhere is this clearer than in its interactions with the Assad regime and ISIS. Since the early days of the Syrian civil war, Turkey explicitly signaled its desire to see the regime fall, and took several steps to bring this outcome about. These included providing training, weapons, and shelter to the Free Syrian Army, as well as allowing the rebels to cross the Turkish border freely to resupply their positions in Syria. Four years later, this policy has produced no tangible gains. More alarmingly, the power vacuum in Syria has allowed numerous jihadist groups to flourish.

A group of ISIS soldiers
ISIS does not present an existential threat to Turkey.

Despite the apparent failure of this policy, and recent comments by Secretary of State John Kerry hinting at a softening U.S. stance toward Assad, Turkey appears to have every intention of staying the course. While neither an Islamist takeover nor anarchy across the border are desirable, Prime Minister Erdogan’s government has apparently concluded that some measure of chaos advances Turkey’s interests. ISIS and similar groups, while a potential problem in the long term, do not present an existential threat to Turkey.

In fact, their continued existence serves a useful purpose: prolonging a grinding stalemate that keeps Assad from decisively winning the conflict, while also keeping Iraq’s Shiite-led government bogged down. Just as importantly, ISIS serves to keep the Kurdish populations of both nations in check, preventing them from exploring the potential for a unified Kurdish state on Turkey’s doorstep.

Considerable evidence has emerged that ISIS has been receiving at least tacit support from Turkey. According to documents obtained by Sky News, Turkey stamped the passports of ISIS militants crossing the border to fight in Syria. Kurdish activists in the Syrian city of Kobani have also reported ISIS suicide bombers attacking the town through the Turkish border. In an interview with Newsweek, a former member of ISIS confirmed that he had witnessed extensive cooperation between Islamist militants and Turkish security forces.

While the militants were apparently able to move freely across the border, Turkish Kurds were prevented from reinforcing besieged Kurdish cities in Syria. Given Turkey’s contentious history with its own Kurdish minority, it appears the threat of an autonomous Kurdish state is considered much more severe than any potential danger that ISIS poses. The Turkish government seems to have found the radical group to be a useful multi-front counterweight to its regional rivals, simultaneously undermining Syria, Iraq, the semi-autonomous Kurdish provinces in both nations, and by proxy, Iran.

While Turkey is well served by the current state of affairs, and has benefitted considerably from the conflicts currently playing out in Europe and the Middle East, this upward trajectory is not without its risks. If there’s anything to be learned from the region’s experience in the past few years, it’s that even seemingly stable states can suffer massive upheaval. Turkey is not immune to this phenomenon.

Syria in particular presents an intractable problem. The current equilibrium cannot persist forever and none of the potential outcomes are especially appealing. One thing that now seems evident is that the moderate rebels, who Turkey and the United States supported at the onset of the conflict, have no chance of emerging victorious. A complete victory by Assad would leave the Turks with a hostile neighbor who could be relied on to counterbalance Turkey’s influence regionally.

Meanwhile, an outcome that balkanizes Syria would inevitably result in the creation of an autonomous Kurdish entity on the Turkish border. This would set a dangerous precedent, creating a permanent base of operations for an alienated ethnic group that has long sought a unified and independent Kurdish nation.

Should ISIS or a similar group decisively win in Syria, the outcome would be a hotbed of radical Islam uncomfortably close to home. While some officials in Turkey’s conservative government appear to sympathize with the Islamist group, their policy of tacit support could easily backfire.

Although ISIS is not a military threat to Turkey, it could create considerable problems through terrorist attacks and insurgency style campaigns in Turkish territory, should it ever pursue that path. The 500-mile-long border with Syria is porous, and the Turkish heartland of Anatolia would provide a fertile base for recruiting extremists. Such a destabilizing influence would be especially dangerous if current economic growth, the foundation of the ruling AKP party’s power, tapers off.

The example of Pakistan is quite instructive here. The Pakistani security services have long provided considerable assistance to the Afghan Taliban as a means of wielding influence over their strategic neighbor. With Taliban offshoots now entrenched in both countries, Pakistan finds itself locked in a battle with this problematic entity within its own borders.

Iran presents another–perhaps more imminent–complication to Turkey’s regional ambitions. The Islamic Republic appears close to a nuclear deal that would result in the lifting of international sanctions currently in place. If that happens, it would regain the economic clout to more effectively combat Turkish influence. Iran, already an ally and supporter of both the Assad regime and Iraq’s Shia-led government, would be able to significantly reinforce both in their fight against Sunni Islamists when no longer faced with the crushing burden the sanctions imposed.

Most of the current conflicts in the Middle East are microcosms of the broader struggle between Sunnis and Shias for regional dominance, with Turkey and the Gulf kingdoms leading the charge on the Sunni side, and Iran serving as the patron of the Shiite bloc. Should Iran strike a deal that both ends the prospect of a foreign attack and allows for an economic recovery, it would significantly counteract the current dominance of the Sunni powers.

A coalescence of factors, including rapid economic growth, energy geopolitics, the chaotic aftermath of the Arab Spring, and an activist foreign policy have made Turkey the pre-eminent Muslim power in the Middle East. Despite the current strength of its position relative to its neighbors however, Turkey walks a delicate tightrope. Having made a number of bold and risky strategic choices to disrupt regional rivals, it could well face significant blowback should its strategy backfire. If that happens, Turkey will not only have squandered many of the gains it has achieved over the past decade, it will also leave behind a region that is more dangerous and more unstable than even the current paradigm.

Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21) is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Millions in US military equipment lost as Yemen heads down Syria’s path

Protestors in Sana'a, Yemen, during the Arab Spring.
Protestors in Sana’a, Yemen, during the Arab Spring.

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Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the U.S. Naval War College. She specializes in the Middle East, South Asia and Islamic Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @HayatAlvi

The recent evacuation of U.S. special operations forces in Yemen is a troubling trend for American involvement in the Middle East and North Africa, following the July 2014 evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, Libya. The U.S. government claims that these evacuations are temporary, but American personnel are unlikely to return any time soon.

Given the way things are going in the region, and the expansion and overflow of conflicts from one country to another, there is no way that the United States can return to solid footing in Yemen or Libya in the next few years. In fact, Yemen is likely to turn into its own version of the Syrian civil war, complete with sectarian dynamics and inter-militia rivalries.

For the United States, this is cause for serious soul-searching. U.S. foreign policies relative to the Middle East have resulted in declining U.S. influence, increased militarization throughout the region, and the precipitation of failing states since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. In Yemen, U.S. support for its long-time dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been based on narrow counter-terrorism interests with no regard for how this support would affect Yemen’s economy, human rights record, or other aspects of development.

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 “Arab Spring,” every regime that the United States has supported in Iraq, Yemen and Libya — including Saleh’s — has resulted in a failed state, with no rule of law and a collapsed economy.

The reportedly hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of U.S. weapons, equipment and supplies falling into enemy hands in Iraq, Syria and now in Yemen are more than just signs of strategic failure. Rather, they’re part of a long list of recent embarrassments, including the poor performance of U.S.-trained Iraqi military personnel when Islamic State invaded Mosul last summer, and the Islamic militant army’s confiscation of U.S. military weapons and supplies in the Iraqi territories it has occupied.

The United States and its Western allies have yet to appreciate the logic that militarization, airstrikes and drone attacks are not quick-fix elixirs to the complex problems in the Middle East. The United States lacks cohesive, comprehensive, long-term strategies for the entire region, and also for individual countries. Islamic State, by comparison, has a long-term strategy that is “light years ahead of its enemies,” according to BBC News.

The United States has unmatched military prowess for invasions and interventions, but fails miserably in post-campaign policies and strategies. It continues to have faith in supposed “allies” in the region, who usually end up undermining the very national interests that the United States is pursuing. This is because the United States fails to take into account that each state and non-state actor in the region — from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to Iran and even Shi’ite militias operating in Iraq — has its own interests and agendas that frequently do not align with the United States. Western powers cannot keep up with these growing complexities, especially in Yemen.

The situation in Yemen has the potential to further destabilize the Persian Gulf region. With the United States inadvertently working side-by-side with Iran to fight Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Iran and its proxies are emboldened and empowered. The coup by the Shi’ite Houthi tribe in Yemen is a major coup for Iran, and in many ways, it’s a coup within the region. These Iran-Saudi and Shi’ite-Sunni power struggles will continue to have diverse and violent repercussions, especially as Islamic State expands its franchises, as it has recently done in Libya and Tunisia.

In Iraq, the scale has tipped almost entirely in favor of Iran and its proxies — including equally violent and brutal Shi’ite militias. This power shift, along with the Houthi push in Yemen, will likely drive greater Iranian-backed movements and mobilizations in other countries, such as Bahrain. U.S. General David Petraeus was right when he warned, in a recent interview, that the real threat to Middle East security and stability is the increasing empowerment of Iran and its proxies.

The Sunni pushback will also grow. The hatred and violent bloodlust that many Shi’ites and Sunnis have for each other is only intensifying. They will bring down the region together in the process, while pursuing genocidal agendas and scorched earth tactics along the way. There will be no winners.

This piece originally appeared on Reuters.com on March 24, 2015.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Breaking a decades-long trend, the world gets more violent

A line of riot police in Kiev, Ukraine, February 2014.
A line of riot police in Kiev, Ukraine, February 2014.

Peter Apps is Reuters global defence correspondent, currently on sabbatical as executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). Follow him on Twitter at @pete_apps.

If you were watching the news last year, it was hard to escape the impression the world was falling apart. Now the data is in. And yes, it turns out the world’s most violent conflicts got a lot bloodier in 2014 — almost 30 percent bloodier, in fact.

According to an analysis of data from the world’s 20 most lethal wars last year, at least 163,000 people died in conflict. That compares to just under 127,000 in the 20 worst wars the previous year, a rise of 28.7 percent.

That’s a pretty disturbing spike by anyone’s terms. And if you look at the first few months of 2015, the violence doesn’t seem to be waning.

What’s even more worrying is that this seems to be part of an ongoing trend that now goes back eight years. According to the Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), global violence — as defined by a range of measures from conflict deaths, to displaced persons, to homicide rates — has been rising since 2007.

This news is in many ways surprising because up to 2007, the data suggested the world was becoming a much safer place.

According to the IEP, global violence had been broadly subsiding since the end of World War Two. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker traces it back even further. Since the dawn of prehistory, Pinker’s research suggests, mankind has been becoming less violent.

So what is going wrong now? And how bad could it all get?

Conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, not surprisingly, top the list of highest casualties, with their confrontations with Islamic State and Taliban — as well as, of course, the ongoing fight in Syria between government and opposition supporters. Nigeria’s battle with Boko Haram has sent it rocketing up the list to number four. If Sudan and South Sudan had remained united, their combined death toll would push them to the number three spot, above Afghanistan.

Of course, all this data shows is that a handful of the world’s more violent war zones are getting worse. In the developed world, by contrast, death by violence continues to fall. Indeed, British crime statistics have continued to slump despite a recession and fewer police officers.

Even within the larger wars, an increasingly small group of people — particularly the members of elements like ISIS or Boko Haram — are doing a larger amount of killing. While 20th century wars saw much of the general (male) population mobilized and fighting, today more people seem content to sit on the sidelines.

A significant and growing percent of the population in many countries feels disenfranchised and sidelined by the way the world is developing. As the Arab Spring showed, sometimes that sentiment is reflected in largely peaceful, pro-democratic action, but sometimes it isn’t.

Eight years into the global financial crisis, the rise of nationalism many feared now seems to be showing itself. In Ukraine in particular, great powers are involved in proxy conflicts with massive repercussions for those living nearby.

Added to that, some experts warn, climate shifts are contributing to the rise in violence. In Sudan, for example, changes in grazing habits and territories are at the root of at least some of the recent violence.

Yet even with the recent spike, things aren’t as bad as they were in the 1990s, when conflicts in Africa, the Balkans and elsewhere were killing tens if not hundreds of thousands of people a year. Geographically, today’s violence is very patchy. The countries I’ve highlighted reflect a relatively small proportion of the world’s surface or population.

Hopefully, things will start to improve. Already, there are promising signs that the fight is turning against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Even as those regions begin to stabilize, however, other countries such as Libya appear to collapse further into chaos.

What the U.S. and its allies can or should do remains entirely unclear. It’s hard to escape the awkward detail that many of the countries with the highest death tolls are those where the U.S. has made the strongest effort to shape events.

But we have to find a way of turning it around, somehow. And we’ve come a long way, after all. We don’t want to go back to battering each other to death with rocks.

This article was originally published on Reuters.com on Friday, March 20, 2015. 

Project for the Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

On the Frontline of Terror: The Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the Arab Spring

An Iraqi soldier stands guard in Baghdad.
An Iraqi soldier stands guard in Baghdad.

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Lara Fatah is co-founder and director of Zanraw Consulting and a Global Fellow at Project for the Study of the 21st Century. She is based in the Kurdish region of Iraq and tweets at @Lara_FFatah.

Four years ago, when various Arab populations sprung into revolution, the initial impact was somewhat muted in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). Whilst there was a reasonable level of discontent with the structure of government and corruption, the history that preceded the formation of the KRG prompted a different public reaction to those in Arab states.

Modern Kurdish history has been marred by brutal and bloody episodes, with oppression in all parts of Kurdistan and genocide by the Iraqi state in the last 50 years. A hard-fought level of quasi autonomy was established under the protection of the no-fly zone that the Allies enforced after the 1991 Gulf War, followed by a period of fruitless and costly Kurdish civil war in the mid 1990s.

Following the Iraq War in 2003, the new Iraqi Constitution cemented the quasi autonomy and the Kurds found themselves elevated to the lofty position of king makers in a highly divided Iraq. Relations between Baghdad and Erbil have never been warm, but with recent disputes over land, oil and the Iraqi budget, they have been especially fractious in the past few months.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) seized the opportunity to create an island of stability and increasing prosperity within a turbulent Iraq. They established friendly relations with many previously hostile neighbour states – in particular, Turkey, which had not even permitted the use of the term ‘Kurdistan’.

With Kurds also holding many high profile positions in Baghdad, including the presidency, a new era had dawned. The Kurds were no longer just the unfortunate victims of the fascist Ba’athist regime; they were now major game players.

With this newfound status, and as the money flowed into the region and Kurds reconnected with the outside world after many years of isolation, the level of corruption in the KRG-administered areas also increased.

The system in the KRG is based on multiparty elections and is more open compared to other Middle Eastern states which allowed for internal dissent to develop more peacefully as people dared to exercise their democratic rights of mass demonstrations. But the risk of exploitation and outside interference remained a serious threat.

Throughout late 2007 and into 2008, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two ruling parties in the KRG that is led by Jalal Talabani, then president of Iraq, suffered rumblings of internal dissent with many high profile members leaving the party citing a lack of reform. However, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the other main ruling party led by the KRG president, Masoud Barzani, had a significantly firmer grip on their rank and files and maintained a united front.

These disgruntled PUK members, led by Nawshirwan Mustafa, former deputy secretary general of the PUK, founded the Goran (Change) Movement in early 2009 and went on to win a significant number of seats in the KRG parliamentary elections and in the following year in the Iraqi elections. They were also seen as the main force behind the short-lived protests in Sulaimania in February 2011 that broke out in sympathy with the Arab street.

So whilst there was already a growing level of discontent in Kurdistan, the prospering economy and the birth of a new political movement was enough to ensure that the chaos that erupted on the Arab street did not spill over into the KRG.

Subsequently, what did spill over were the vast numbers of refugees from Syria and in turn the IDPs from the south of Iraq as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) used its successes in Syria to capture vast swathes of Iraqi territory.

Suffice to say that the two biggest impacts that the Arab spring has had on Kurdistan is firstly, that it is now home to over 1.5 million refugees and IDPs, which has increased the KRI’s population by approximately 25 per cent, placing a huge strain on the local economy and the available resources. Moreover, some politicians have expressed fear about the possible future impact on the region’s demographics.

Secondly and more ominously, Iraq’s Kurds are now the frontline of the global fight against the terror of ISIL. With the Iraqi Army all but collapsing on the northern fronts, the Kurdish Peshmerga and Counter Terrorism forces have been left to hold the line and stop further cities falling into ISIL’s grasp.

Iraqi Asad Babil tanks and an M113 APC from the Iraqi Army 9th Mechanized Division pass through a highway checkpoint in Mushahada, Iraq.
Iraqi Asad Babil tanks and an M113 APC from the Iraqi Army 9th Mechanized Division pass through a highway checkpoint in Mushahada, Iraq.

Many of the refugees who made their way to the KRG from Syria were also Kurds. There has been little to no international response to the crisis as international aid must go through the central government and Nouri al-Maliki’s Baghdad had little interest in helping the KRG secure international aid for the steady and growing flow of refugees from Syria.

The KRG found itself increasingly stretched to provide secure camps with medical and educational facilities for the refugees. Some of the refugees, mainly those in the first wave, managed to find work in the main cities, presenting the local authorities with the difficulty of absorbing their children into the already drained education system. This was worsened by the fact that many of the children, although Kurdish, due to the years of cultural suppression under Assad and before him his father, lacked good Kurdish language skills, speaking only Arabic. Very few schools teach in Arabic in the KRG and this has put these traumatised children at a further disadvantage.

Locally there have been a number of drives by Kurdish NGOs and media channels to encourage people to donate clothes, food and blankets for the refugees. The initial appeals saw an outpouring of generosity, but the longer the crisis goes on, the less there is to give.

With the fall of Mosul last June, the world started to wake up to what was happening. With more refugees entering the KRG, international aid started to trickle in more than in the previous year.

It was the fall of Mosul that saw the KRG thrust onto the frontline of the war against ISIL as the Iraqi Army melted away leaving a security vacuum- which the KRG’s Peshmerga and Counter Terrorism units filled in Kirkuk and have held a shaky line on the Northern side of the Mosul Dam. There has also been fierce fighting on the more southern fronts of Jalawa and Khanaquin areas.

On the whole, the Peshmerga have held their lines well. Their biggest failure was the disastrous retreat from Shingal (Sinjar) and the ensuing capture of the area by ISIL. The humanitarian disaster for the Yezidi tribes that were living there was well documented in the international media. The plight of those Yezidis trapped on the mountainside became iconic – many will remember the helicopter that crashed into the mountainside when delivering aid. This is arguably what tipped the West’s hand and committed them to aerial battle support.

Whilst the Peshmerga have and will continue to fight, they are woefully under equipped. Baghdad has not shared any of the foreign weaponry that has come its way, and it is not unreasonable for certain circles to suspect that Baghdad might prefer it for these weapons to be taken by ISIL rather than share it with the Kurds. ISIL intercepted two of Iraq’s largest weapons caches in Mosul and Anbar during Maliki’s term, and as such, the group is well equipped with the latest US weaponry.

Although some foreign aid weaponry has made it to the KRG, it is not enough and, was it not for the US-led coalition airstrikes, it would have been even harder to keep ISIL at bay.

The West, for the moment, seems reluctant to truly arm the Kurds, with America and the UK clinging desperately to the antiquated notion of ‘one’ Iraq, when in reality there has never been ‘one’ Iraq.

Despite some improvement in relations between the KRG and Baghdad under the new Prime minister, Abadi, in the last two years, relations between the KRG and Baghdad under Maliki were decimated, mainly due to continued disputes over oil and budget shares. This has resulted in no budget being sent to the KRG from Baghdad, which in turn is crippling the KRG’s economy. Recent negotiations between the KRG, led by Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, and Baghdad have had mixed results with some improvements in relations, but without the charismatic Jalal Talabani in Baghdad to smooth tensions in the capital – not just between the Kurds and Baghdad but also amongst the Shiites and Sunnis – the problems look unlikely to be fully resolved anytime soon. All the while, ISIL looms large on the horizon.

The Kurds gave sacrifice and held on to the besieged town of Kobane by defeating ISIL, but they cannot continue to fight the frontline on bravery alone.

Despite protests from some regional powers, including Turkey, the West must acknowledge the role the Kurds have played in halting the advance of Islamic terrorism and defeating them on many fronts in Iraq and Syria. They must help to directly and adequately arm them to win what will inevitably be a long fight and to support what so far has been the only successful example of democracy in action after the fall of Saddam in Iraq.

The USA has had a succession of failed policies in Iraq beginning with the creation of a sectarian state to replace Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and ending with the premature withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. The latter has led to disintegration of Iraq and facilitated the formation and rise of ISIL and their rapid gains, including the acquisition of advanced US weapons of modern warfare.

A U.S. soldier stands guard duty near a burning oil well in the Rumaila oil field, 2 April 2003. The 2003 invasion of Iraq has been widely criticized.
A U.S. soldier stands guard duty near a burning oil well in the Rumaila oil field, 2 April 2003. The 2003 invasion of Iraq has been widely criticized.

On a regional Kurdish level, ISIL’s aggression towards the Kurds has led to cross border solidarity among the Kurds from the different parts of Kurdistan. Peshmerga from other parts and parties of Kurdistan such as YPG from Syria, PKK from Turkey, IKDP from Iran, and the Peshmarga force of the KRG in Iraq have fought together against ISIL in Kobane in Syria and Shingal in Iraq. This has been a source of great pride amongst the general Kurdish population and has further heightened and increased an awareness and support of a “pan-Kurdish” identity unconstrained by the borders imposed under the Mandate. No doubt this has also alarmed the countries amongst which Kurdistan is shared.

The second positive outcome from the current situation is the growing discussion in the international community and media that Kurdish independence may be a possibility. Is it likely right now? Probably not, but in doggedly fighting a global terror force when the state army ran away, the Kurds are demonstrating that they cannot and should not be ignored.

Many will say that geopolitics will not allow for the creation of a Kurdistan. The international order insists on keeping Iraq united and hence the excuse for not arming the Kurds in Iraq directly.

Ironically, saving and preserving Iraq as a unified country represented by an inclusive and representative government in Baghdad is best served by recognising and admitting that the road to defeating ISIL as a force and saving ”Iraq” is best achieved if the United States and the West deal directly with the Kurds as the most trusted ally and effective ground force available in the region.

The recent brutal scenes in Kobane and Mount Shingal have further sparked the idea of a common destiny in the minds of the Kurds across current state borders; it would serve the long-term interest of the “free world” and western democracies to take note.

Project for the Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Where the West went wrong in Libya

Libyan protesters demand security and stability.
Libyan protesters demand security and stability.

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Joseph Walker-Cousins MBE is a former advisor to the UK’s Special Envoy & Head of the British Embassy Office in Benghazi (2011-2014) and Director, Middle East Business Development KBR UK Ltd. He is a global fellow at the Project for Study of the 21st Century.

Arriving in Benghazi by RAF military transport in May 2011 in the early days of the Libyan revolution, we never envisaged the aftermath of our intervention could be this bad.

Recent weeks have seen the gruesome murder of Egyptian Christian Copts and devastating suicide bombings (one last month in the eastern town of Qubbah killed 51 people and injured upwards of 80 more); all following the continuous discovery of countless headless security officials and the long list of murdered civil-society activists in Benghazi and Tripoli.

Central authority is crumbling and risks collapsing altogether. Amidst the confusion, extremist groups are proliferating; Islamic State has established an aggressive franchise, Egypt is conducting air-strikes against them, business is at a stand-still and the West has all but walked away.

Can it be turned around? I believe it can. But to do so, we must learn from our mistakes. Succeeding in Libya requires greater knowledge, determination, planning and overwhelmingly greater resources than our governments have so far devoted.

As in Iraq in 2003, we were led to believe by political émigrés back in Britain and elsewhere that Libya would be relatively simple, Muammar Gaddafi was finished, the army was useless and the tribes were broken. A new state was to be built on fresh and firm foundations. How mistaken we were to believe them.

During the early days of the rebellion, those who waved the black flag, then associated with al Qaeda, were a few hundred, fighting on the wings of the mixed civilian and military rebels and their foreign advisors. They have since expanded both in number and variety to include several other brand names including Islamic State.

Some of the Western advisors — both military and civilian — noted in private that, were these extremists only a few degrees longitude further to the east — in Afghanistan, say — we would be targeting them as opposed to coordinating with them.

Now they are in the ascendant. Following their losses in last year’s general election, an Islamist militia backed administration has seized power in Tripoli, displacing the elected Parliament to the easterly port city of Tobruk.

Libya’s official Army, Police and Oil Protection Forces have predominantly remained under Parliament’s authority while the less popular but increasingly better financed, armed and organized Islamist led militias have sided with the Muslim Brotherhood backed regime in Tripoli.

These Islamist groups are not content with just a share of the newly minted State, they want to own it entirely.

From the beginning, I and my superiors urged the National Transitional Council, which took power immediately after Gaddafi’s fall, to contain and counter these extremists. It was clear that they would expand, otherwise. They now number, including UN proscribed Ansar al-Shari’a, several thousand and are increasingly shaping and leading the fight against the elected authorities.

Initially, some in government, including civil rights lawyer and NTC spokeswoman Salwa Buqaiqis, viewed them as fellow revolutionaries fighting the tyrant. The week before her murder at their hands last June, however, Buqaiqis told me she had realised that they were a real existential threat to the country.

Former Libya PM Ali Zeidan with former US Secretary of State John Kerry and former British Foreign Secretary William Hague before his ousting in March 2014.

By last summer, Libyans were trying to resolve their differences by returning to the polls in an effort to correct an elected but broken congress. It had become partisan, an instrument of militias demanding a purge of the country’s previous officials. However, further to the east, a movement emerged, led by General Khalifah Hafter, which aimed to bring together what remained of the victorious army that had helped remove Gaddafi.

Those Libyan security forces had joined the broad-based revolt only to find themselves subsequently on the receiving end of an assassination campaign led by the Islamic extremists.

Buqaiqis told me one week before she was killed that she “hated the general, hated what he had stood for” as a former officer in the army under Gaddafi. However, he was now “the only hope” of containing the militias and extremists who, following their three consecutive losses in Libya’s general and constitutional elections, were now seeking power through force of the gun.

Hafter is not the man to lead the country; that must be done by the elected parliament and the government it appoints. However, the army and the police, who he is helping to corral still under the democratically appointed government, are the only organizations capable, with the right support, of containing and ultimately defeating the Islamist militants.

A unity government is the only internationally acceptable — or reasonable — way forward. That must mean a common purpose: most pressingly, the defeat of the Islamic State, re-establishing law and order and salvaging the economy.

This is something the Parliament in Tobruk could deliver but the Muslim Brotherhood-backed administration in Tripoli is incapable of doing, preferring to condemn the Egyptian strikes that targeted Islamic State.

At present, outside involvement in Libya risks making it ever more fragmented. Egypt’s military rulers hate the Brotherhood almost as much as IS. Other regional states, however, particularly Qatar, take a rather different approach. The West, meanwhile, simply wrings its hands.

We need to change course on Libya and more tangibly back the democratically elected legitimate authorities. And we must free the Libyans’ hands to solve their own problems by allowing them access to their own resources and supporting the resumption of oil production to source arms and outside expertise.

There are complexities. The tribal militias in the coastal town of Misrata, for example, have sided with the Islamists in part over concerns over other ethnic groups. But they could be won back.

We don’t need foreign boots on the ground. As a senior tribal figure and leading Army officer fighting more heavily armed and better financed extremists in the East told us in 2013, we should just “give them the tools, they would finish the job.”

A version of this column first appeared on the Guardian website on Friday, March 13, 2015.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is non-national, non-partisan and non-ideological. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Death Toll in 2014’s Bloodiest Wars Sharply Up on Previous Year

Rebels marching in northern CAR.
Rebels marching in northern CAR.

The body count from the top twenty deadliest wars in 2014 was more that 28% higher than in the previous year, research by the Project for the Study of the 21st Century (PS21) shows. Almost every major war in 2014 saw a significant increase in casualties.

According to analysis of a variety of data sets, 2014 saw at least fourteen conflicts that killed more than 1000 people, compared to only ten in 2013.

Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan remained the three deadliest wars, unchanged from the previous year but with all three seeing a significant spike in fatalities

Nigeria was the fourth deadliest, its number of deaths almost tripling on the previous year as the conflict with militant group, Boko Haram, intensified.

“Assessing casualty figures in conflict is notoriously difficult and many of the figures we are looking at here a probably underestimates,” said PS21 Executive Director, Peter Apps. “The important thing, however, is that when you compare like with like data for 2014 and 2013, you get a very significant increase. That says something very concerning.”

Many of the most violent conflicts involved radical Islamist groups – particularly Islamic State, the Taliban, Boko Haram and various Al Qaeda franchises.

Sudan and South Sudan remained amongst the world’s bloodiest wars. Indeed, if the two countries had remained unified, their combined death toll would have pushed them to the number three spot above Afghanistan.

Ukraine, at peace in 2013, became the eighth bloodiest war, its death toll exceeding Somalia, Libya and Israel/the Palestinian territories.

The spike in violence appears part of a broader multi-year trend. Research published last year by the Australia and US-based Institute for Economics and Peace showed a steady decline in world peace and rise in conflict related violence every year since 2007, bucking a multi-decade improvement since the end of World War II.

View the full report here. A discussion with Steve Killelea on rising global conflict trends is at the bottom of this post.

Top 20 Deadliest Countries in 2014

Compared to Top 20 Deadliest Countries in 2013

Rank 2014 Death Toll 2013 Death Toll
1 Syria                 76,021 Syria                 73,447
2 Iraq                 21,073 Afghanistan                 10,172
3 Afghanistan                 14,638 Iraq                   9,742
4 Nigeria                 11,529 Sudan                   6,816
5 South Sudan                   6,389 Pakistan                   5,739
6 Pakistan                   5,496 Nigeria                   4,727
7 Sudan                   5,335 South Sudan                   4,168
8 Ukraine                   4,707 Somalia                   3,153
9 Somalia                   4,447 CAR                   2,364
10 CAR                   3,347 DR Congo                   1,976
11 Libya                   2,825 India                      885
12 Israel/Palestine                   2,365 Mali                      870
13 Yemen                   1,500 Libya                      643
14 DR Congo                   1,235 Yemen                      600
15 India                      976 North Caucuses                      529
16 Philippines                      386 Thailand                      455
17 Mali                      380 Algeria                      340
18 North Caucuses                      341 Philippines                      322
19 Thailand                      330 Colombia                      124
20 Algeria                      242 Myanmar                        62
Total                 163,562                 127,134
% Change                       28.7    

Steve Killelea, Founder and Chief Executive of the Institute for Economics and Peace discusses rising death tolls in global conflict with PS21 Executive Director, Peter Apps:

PS21 Executive Director Peter Apps discusses the report for Reuters TV.

It’s a revolution: the cultural outpouring fueled by Syrian war

Cartoon by Amjad Wardeh depicting Bashar al-Assad snorting dust as if it were cocaine
Cartoon by Amjad Wardeh depicting Bashar al-Assad snorting dust as if it were cocaine

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miriam cooke is Braxton Craven Professor of Arabic Cultures at Duke University and holds a PhD in Arabic Literature from Oxford University.

Of all the Arab Spring countries, Syria has been the most artistically and culturally prolific. Smartphone videos, feature films, art photography, oil paintings, watercolors, songs, and theatrical plays have flooded the Internet over the past four years.

The wall of fear that had crushed the souls of the people under the draconian regimes of Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad has indeed broken. Not only can the name of the president be mentioned, unthinkable before the revolution broke out in 2011, Bashar is consistently ridiculed and even openly attacked. The YouTube finger puppet series “Top Goon” shows Beeshu (a diminutive nickname for Bashar) to be a butcher and a coward. Caricaturists are having a heyday; in this image Amjad Wardeh depicts Beeshu getting high after an explosion as he snorts a noxious mix of crushed bones and building dust.

The only materials to be exported from inside Syria, YouTube shorts are estimated to number 300,000. Made by professionals and amateurs, they provide an invaluable archive of the events and atrocities from the beginning of the revolution. Moreover, they are beginning to create a “new audio-visual language that contains techniques of immediate cinema and eye-witness reports.”[1] All are powerful, but two are particularly poignant: “Jasmenco” and “Art of Survival.”

While Facebook played a vital and well-advertised role in disseminating information and mobilizing protests, its role in providing a home for artist collectives has not been acknowledged. Facebook hosts countless sites with countless works of art produced inside and outside the country. A treasure trove of oppositional art is “The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution” site.[2] It features hundreds of cartoons, banners, murals, drawings, graffiti, calligraphy, sculpture, design, stamps, photography, cinema, video, music, theater and radio from 2011.

The “Syria Art—Syrian Artists” page, opened on 28 September 2012, specifically calls itself a “Museum/Art Gallery.” Despite that apparently exaggerated comparison with the stone structures of the world’s great capitals, this museum/gallery is everything it promises to be. Moreover, some of the art is for sale. Like conventional gallery owners, the administrators of “Syria Art—Syrian Artists” choose the artists whose work interests them, and they invite the artists to contribute some of their work. The utopian goal, art photographer Khaled Akil now in Istanbul said, is to “unite Syrians through art.”[3]

In what has come to be an expected caveat in Syrian aesthetic projects, the “Syria Art” site eschews “ideological, ethnic, religious or political beliefs or issues. Our motto: We do neither politics nor religions, we do ARTS.” Quoting Kahlil Gibran, they write: “We live only to discover beauty. All else is a form of waiting”.[4] This desire for political blindness has become critical at a time when so many new political groups are forming and it is less and less clear who is an ally, who a friend and who an enemy’s ally. The artist’s party affiliation does not matter only how a piece of art renders the humanity and pain of the crisis and says No to the violence whoever the perpetrator.

Surfing the several Facebook pages dedicated to Syrian art, one meets hundreds of artists, the dark matter of Syria’s current aesthetic production. These pages marry the real to the virtual by inviting visitors into the artists’ studios and to their exhibitions. But these pages do something else that may be as important as the site itself; they create communities of visitors who “like” the images and the videos. With their names and faces listed next to the liked image they become “friends.” As such, they can discuss the art as though at a literary salon and they can also, when necessary, intervene on behalf of the exhibited artist when she is in trouble, or, on behalf of the page when it is censored.

There are real galleries also. Notably, the Damascus Ayyam Gallery that moved operations to Beirut, Dubai, Paris and London after 2011. The curators have supported the work of Syrian artists by arranging numerous exhibitions. One of the most-often-displayed artists is Tammam Azzam. He developed a series of digital images made up of 19th and 20th century European paintings by such masters as Klimt and Matisse superimposed on found images of recently shelled buildings. Thanks to art dealers’ promotion of his revolutionary art, his works are now fetching thousands of dollars. He is not alone at a time when art from Arab Spring countries has acquired surplus value and dealers are scrambling to discover new lucrative art.

In the aftermath of the early euphoria, despite the overwhelming odds against them, artist-activists continued to create, hoping that their art, fiction, films, testimonials and poetry might make a difference and help to uproot the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad. While a few have remained inside, most Syrian artists fled to Dubai, Beirut, Istanbul, London and Paris where they have produced works that bear testimony to their belief that the revolution is on-going. The regime has arrested many of the artists who stayed. With a war on its hands, it is remarkable that goons are charged with finding and punishing those who dare to oppose its brutality. But this reality testifies to the moral authority that still inheres in Syrian artists’ work.

The tragedy of the Syrian revolution can be read in the numbers: at least 220,000 dead; millions internally displaced people; unknown number of disappeared; and about 3 million refugees. Living in camps in Turkey and Jordan and scattered throughout Lebanon and making up a quarter of its total population, some of these refugees are making art and theater.

At the end of March 2014 in Jordan’s Zaatari camp, 100 Syrian children performed for fellow refugees scenes from Shakespeare, including King Lear.[5] Throughout the chorus cried out “hypocrite” when the evil sisters lied to their father and “truthful” when Cordelia spoke. The director, Syrian actor Nawwar Bulbul, worked with the children for months, preparing them for this one moment of happiness in the desolation of the crowded camp. Even if only for a short while, art brought dignity and a measure of agency to Syrians who had lost everything.

Theater, especially ancient Greek theater, provided women refugees in Jordan and Lebanon with a crucial outlet. In the fall of 2013 in Jordan 25 Syrian refugee women put on Euripides’ Trojan Women. Giving them language–classical Arabic translation of the classical Greek–with which to express the agony of exile, the play was a success. Director Yasmin Fedda filmed parts of the play and its rehearsals. She interspersed the dramatic scenes with the women telling their stories in their miserable apartments somewhere in Amman. The women seemed astonished at how similar their tragedies were to those of some Greek women who had also witnessed the murder of their loved ones 2500 years earlier. The documentary titled Queens of Syria[6] premiered at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and in October 2014, Fedda won the Black Pearl Award for best Arab director. In December 2014 in Beirut, another group of Syrian refugee women reimagined another classical Greek tragedy. They performed Sophocles’ Antigone about civil war in Thebes to render their own experiences and their struggle to bury their men.

The story of the cooptation of the Syrian revolution by the Assad regime and then by extremist mercenaries is well known. Most pundits claim that if there was a revolutionary moment it was brief and now it’s civil war. Artists and intellectuals beg to differ. With pens and brushes they have insisted on the importance of naming and representing the protests and demonstrations “revolution.” Charif Kiwan, one of the founders of the Abou Naddara documentary film production, said: “We don’t feel we are dealing with a war. We are dealing with a revolution. I don’t know what revolution is; I can’t explain what it is, but we have the feeling that we are in front of huge breakdowns, ruptures, something very violent and also very beautiful. So, we cannot qualify this. We accept the idea that it is a revolution.”[7]

[1] Zahir Amrain & Shad Ilyas “The Incomplete Syrian Cinema” in Zahir Amrain et al. eds. Suriya tatahaddath: Al-thaqafa wa al-fann min ajl al-hurriya Beirut: Dar al-Saqi 2014, 264

[2]See http://www.creativememory.org/?cat=104 accessed 17 June 2014

[3] Conversation with Khaled Akil, Istanbul, 5 September 2014

[4] https://www.facebook.com/thesyrianart/info accessed 4 September 2014

[5] Ben Hubbard, “Behind Barbed Wire: Shakespeare inspires a cast of young Syrians” NYT 31 March 2014, see http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/01/world/middleeast/behind-barbed-wire-shakespeare-inspires-a-cast-of-young-syrians.html?emc=eta1&_r=0# (accessed 4 June 2014)

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MU6UgtCPTac Feb 24, 2015

[7] http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/18433/abounaddara%E2%80%99s-take-on-images-in-the-syrian-revolut accessed 7 September 2014

For some young Syrians, war brings unexpected freedom

"Syrian Woman" by Ruba Alash (http://dollofroz.deviantart.com)
“Syrian Woman” by Ruba Alash (http://dollofroz.deviantart.com)

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Rasha Elass is a journalist and Global Fellow at PS21. She has spent the past two years covering the uprising-turned-civil-war from inside Syria and now divides her time between Washington DC and Beirut. Follow her on Twitter: @RashaElass

Razan has a secret. She fled Damascus to Beirut at the behest of her family in mid-2013, then began to discover herself.

First she took off her hijab.

Then she found herself sharing an apartment with two strangers, both Syrian, but one of them male.

“Living with a roommate would have been weird back home, not to mention a male roommate. It’s not something I ever would have done,” said Razan, who is 28 years old.

“And the hijab? It’s a personal choice, but a different sort of personal choice now that I’m away from home. I’m anonymous here, away from family and neighbors and old friends from school who knew me all my life. And so, I’m making different choices,” Razan said.

She has not shared these things with her family, who remain in war-torn Syria.

Razan is part of a quiet trend among young, middle-class, educated and displaced Syrians who, for lack of a better word, are reinventing themselves. They are overlooked by the media, which focuses on more obvious stories like the strife of Syrian refugees. And they go unnoticed by academics, who rely on data and research that is too difficult to conduct in the current volatile environment.

The trend is not about the hijab, which Razan points out is the “obsession of the Western world, not our world.” It is about youth weaving a new reality, an alternative future for themselves and their region, even while their voices go unheard amid the loud and violent wars that surround them.

In Beirut alone, dozens of exiled Syrian musicians perform to standing ovations, drawing from their unique training in pre-war Syria, with its combination of Cold War Soviet influences, classical Arabic musical training, and Sufi mysticism. Now they cross-pollinate with their Lebanese counterparts, a complimentary bunch who lament having lost their heritage at the expense of trying to acquire the newest and trendiest in global techniques.

A similar story unfolds with exiled Syrian artists, many of whom have recently shot to international fame, with their pained expressionist canvas and unusual sculptures. The same goes for Syrian writers, poets, children’s books illustrators, rights activists, journalists, burgeoning intellectuals, and ordinary young folks. Political oppression stifled their impulse to hold public debate with each in pre-uprising Syria. But war, poverty, mourning, a fear for life, displacement and expiring visas distract them from holding one now.

A French protest in support of Mohamed Bouazizi, the "hero of Tunisia"
A French protest in support of Mohamed Bouazizi, the “hero of Tunisia”

Ask a Frenchman

They are the people that build societies, and without them a nation has no future. At no other time has it been so imperative that they tackle the issues at hand, along with their contemporaries from all over the Arab world, especially with the rise of extremists like Islamic State, with its seductive promises of heroism and belonging.

So, what does it mean to be a citizen in the Arab world in 2015? And when does belonging to a state trump belonging to a clan, sect, or religion?

What is the ideal model for the contemporary state? Should it be totally or partially secular? From which historical, philosophical, or religious context should it derive its values?

Noha el-Mikaway, the Middle East representative at the Ford Foundation, says Arab youth today are in a better position than ever to tackle these questions, but have not yet risen to the challenge.

“Unlike previous generations, young Arabs are not beholden to a Western (colonial) model that is imposed upon them. And they have everything. A common language. Technology. Social platforms. But for some reason, they don’t own the narrative yet,” she said.

Ask a Frenchman what it means to be French, and he’ll say: “Equality. Liberty. Fraternity.”

Ask an American teenager what it means to be American, and she’ll invoke the Founding Fathers, separation of church and state, and the U.S. Constitution.

Ask Syrian school children, or Lebanese, or Iraqi, and each one will give a different answer depending on their politics, ethnicity, or religion.

Perhaps this explains why the Arab Spring has been a revolution without an idea, a movement devoid of an ideology. Or why, the instant the state falls apart, its inhabitants automatically fall back on their clan, sect, or religion.

This happened in Iraq after the US toppled Saddam Hussein and his governmental institutions. It happened in Libya after the death of Moammar Qaddafi. It has been happening in Syria since the uprising.

It also happened in the mid-seventies, when Lebanon first descended into a 15-year civil war.

Illustration from the late Timurid manuscript "Sa'di and the youth of Kashgar"
Illustration from the late Timurid manuscript “Sa’di and the youth of Kashgar”

A Glimpse Into The Future?

Some say Lebanon’s past war ensures that its people today will not allow their country to fall into the abyss, and that Lebanon opted out of the Arab Spring because “there was no government against whom to protest”.

In some ways, perhaps Lebanon is a glimpse of where parts of the Arab world might inevitably be headed over the next decade after the war eventually dies down; entrenched sectarianism kept in check by warlords who no longer want to fight each other, and a backdrop of thriving but insular communities that do not talk to each other.

School children in Lebanon learn different ideas about who they are as a nation. The country’s education ministry is yet to approve an official narrative of what happened during the country’s civil war, so kids learn different versions of history and identity depending on which school they attend, of which there are many.

A Maronite Christian ninth-grader likely attends a French lycée, speaks mostly in French, and maybe snubs his Shia Muslim neighbor who learns excellent Arabic in the country’s public school system. The daughter of an upper middle class Sunni Muslim family likely attends an international school (or the American school or now, increasingly, a German school). She will graduate at least bilingual, and will think of herself as “a citizen of the world,” which in her mind also means Lebanese.

Zoom out of Lebanon, and a similar picture emerges.

Arab kids growing up in the wealthy Gulf attend American, British, French, or International schools, learning everything but a common Arab history and sense of identity. Rich kids in Jordan and Egypt get similar educations to each other, but are divorced from the rest of the people in their respective countries. Increasingly, Arab kids graduate from elite schools and are fluent in foreign languages, but they cannot read or converse in their own.

Syrian refugee children at a clinic in northern Jordan.
Syrian refugee children at a clinic in northern Jordan.

“Only interested in security issues”

Life was not so for their parents. The political generations of the fifties, sixties and seventies championed things like Pan-Arabism and socialism, ideologies that have since died. This generation, the one that protests in the streets, has not found any alternatives.

Many Syrians cannot even agree if their future country should be called the Syrian Arab Republic, the Republic of Syria, or even just Syria, a debate that lasted a hot minute before Islamist militants hijacked the country’s uprising.

It helped that money, moral support, and arms started flooding mainly from donors in the Arabian Peninsula, with Salafi Islamic ideological strings attached.

It helped also that the Assad regime released many known terrorists from prison with the aim of inflaming extremism, so as to bolster himself as the only viable alternative to ruling Syria. Or that during 45 years of Assad rule, school children were taught that being patriotic meant loving Assad, not engaging in civics or nation building.

And let’s face it, the region’s two hegemonic powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, have lit their backyards ablaze in their thirst for influence, igniting a devastating war between Sunni and Shia Muslims that promises to leave nothing but scorched earth in its aftermath, and a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen since World War II.

Arab media can barely keep up with the news, from Assad bombing his people to Yemen teetering on the brink, not to mention the increasingly surreal and brutal video productions of Islamic State.

It is no surprise that Arab media hardly notices the subtle dynamics in the region, like youth breaking cultural taboos and cohabitating without marriage, or living life as an openly gay Arab or Muslim.

“And any other issue, like poverty, environment, culture, employment, and other very important things, the media does not care about these issues,” said Layal Bahnam, an advocate of freedom of expression at the Beirut-based Maharat Foundation. She was referring to media outlets in Lebanon, long considered the region’s most tolerant country of free speech. “But these days they’re only interested in security related issues.”

For Razan and her contemporaries, the priority in these tragic times is to stay alive, and hope that their loved ones survive the war. But perhaps once the guns quiet down, she and the rest of the Arab youth will start to hear each other and have a conversation, not just about the hijab, or negotiating social mores, but about who they want to be when they grow up.

After Arab Spring, Challenges for Islamic NGOs

Children in Yemen reading pamphlets about an Islamic Relief program to improve access to education
Children in Yemen reading pamphlets about an Islamic Relief program to improve access to education (Photo: islamic-relief.org)

Pronter-friendly version here. Amjad Saleem is a political analyst and thematic expert for the World Humanitarian Summit. He is also a Global Fellow at PS21. Follow him on Twitter: @corporatesufi

Egypt’s revolution and the wider unrest following the Arab Spring produced a backlash against the Muslim Brotherhood in several countries, particularly the United Arab Emirates. Caught in that were several leading Islamic charities, groups that had emerged into the mainstream international development world in the previous decade despite facing their own challenges from the West following the events of 2001.

In early November the UAE Government released its terror watch list. There were few surprises on the list, which included the likes of organisations like Al Shabab and Al Qaeda. What did raise a few eyebrows was the inclusion of several civil rights organisations, think tanks, and charities based in the US and UK.

The highest profile was Islamic Relief, the world’s largest Muslim Humanitarian Organisation, headquartered in Birmingham, UK. The ‘proscription’ prompted the British Government to ask for details on the proscription, whilst Islamic Relief subsequently released the results of an ‘audit’ which it claimed proved any innocence of wrong doing. Though not directly done in response to the UAE ruling, the audit arguably made it harder for anyone to be suspicious about the activities of the organisation and also cleared doubts raised by the Israeli government about its activities in Palestine.

The ruling signifies a change in the whole narrative regarding the Arab Spring moving from the realm of political and religious ideology to the realm of charity and civil society. How and why did these few organisations end up on such a list? The former may be easier to articulate whilst the latter is perhaps more up to speculation.

More important is the ramifications with regard to the politicisation of humanitarian action and the future of the international humanitarian system. Pressure on the charities had been building for a while. Several of the British charities had been part of the UK Government’s review of Muslim Brotherhood activities in the UK, conducted at the start of 2014. The review itself was controversial, rumored to have been done at the behest of the governments of UAE and Saudi Arabia. Relations between both governments and the Muslim Brotherhood worsened. The final report is yet to be published, but leaked transcripts show little for proscription. but its felt that the UK government is under pressure from its gulf partners to act strongly on the report.

Adding the charities to the UAE terror list, some suspect, was specifically designed to prompt greater British action. The most important point is that Islamic Relief has no direct link to the Muslim Brotherhood. It is an apolitical International Humanitarian Organisation with a good track record of working with various western governments in responding to some of the most acute humanitarian disasters.

The ruling fails to distinguish between the affiliations of individuals and the vision & mission of the organisation. Though there may be individuals linked to some of these organisations who have sympathy for the Brotherhood, or a wider sympathy for the ideology of the Brotherhood (like a lot of UK based organisations and charities), this does not mean organisations like Islamic Relief are Muslim Brotherhood or even close to be equated with the likes of Al Qaeda. This is almost akin to accusing a UN organisation of being communist because a few of its members may be sympathetic to the principles of communism.

By labelling Islamic Relief, the UAE government has politicised even further the humanitarian sphere. It appears to be deliberately bringing Islamic Relief into the ideologically and geopolitically challenged sphere around the Arab Spring. It sends a signal as to what supposed ideological leanings are acceptable or unacceptable. This further complicates an already difficult scenario for Muslim charities. What effectively amounts to a proscription of Islamic Relief, adds a new chapter to the challenges facing Muslim charities. That is especially true for those based in Western countries who have already suffered from an increasingly securitised agenda post 9/11.

Counter-terrorism laws & other measures have already had a significant impact on humanitarian action (Humanitarian Policy Brief 2011), particularly provisions criminalising the transfer of resources to terrorist-linked groups or individuals. Those restrictions are irrespective of the humanitarian character of such actions or the absence of any intention to support terrorist acts. Thus there are ramifications for not only fundraising and disbursement but has actually led to a scenario of conditional humanitarian funding from donor governments, based on assurances that it is not benefiting listed individuals or organisations, and that greater security checks are being placed on local partners and implementing actors.

Unfortunately, the co-option of humanitarian actors into counter- terrorism efforts directed against one party to a conflict can undermine the principles of impartiality and neutrality. Counter-terrorism laws and other measures have also increased operating costs, slowed down administrative functions and operational response, curtailed funding and undermined humanitarian partnerships. They have also prevented access and altered the quality and coordination of assistance.

Polish humanitarian assistance packages in Libya (Photo: Polish Embassy, Cairo)
Polish humanitarian assistance packages in Libya (Photo: Polish Embassy, Cairo)

Another aspect of the securitised agenda has been the investigation and the shutting down of charities. For example, in the US without notice, and through the use of secret evidence and non-transparent procedures, the Department of the Treasury has closed six U.S.- based, American Muslim charities to date by designating them as terrorist organizations (CSN 2011). The consequences of designation include the seizure and freezing of all financial and tangible assets, as well as significant civil and criminal penalties (ACLU 2009). The federal government closed down a further seventh U.S.-based, American Muslim charity by declaring the charity to be “under investigation” and freezing all its assets.

Thus one of the consequences of this which leads to another challenge is that as Islamic charities have come under intense scrutiny, we see contributions to them and from them decrease.  In the midst of all this was a possible saving grace that financial support would stem from the Gulf countries. With the new list by the UAE government, this has now closed the door for that option and Islamic charities may be forced to rethink the ways to fundraise and disburse their funds. The rise of suspicions around the role of established Islamic charities has also altered the way Muslims (particularly in the West) will give to charity. Since they are obliged by their faith to give, they will increasingly be forced into informal means of discharging their Zakah, often through donations to unrecognised ‘charities’ and fundraisers at local mosques and community centres. “Ironically, attempts to close down or control formal charities may have had precisely the opposite effect by forcing charitable giving into less regulated channels.” (Kroessin 2007) Ultimately, the biggest irony in the securitization of aid debate (which has not been helped by the UAE ruling) and the increased pressure and scrutiny of Muslim charities is no doubt the fact that those who lose out most are the benefactors of the charity themselves. Excessive security crackdowns are counterproductive. The ultimate cost of measures such as these is borne by beneficiaries.

The ruling by the UAE government doesn’t serve anything apart from a political causes. It just further hinders the operations of organisations such as Islamic Relief who have used the UAE as a gateway and transit for the transfer of supply during complex emergencies. It will also further complicate their effectiveness and efficiency. The politicisation of the Islamic humanitarian sphere with the narrative arising from the Arab Spring ultimately poses problems.

By the virtue of this classification, it opens the door for many Islamic charities (including those from within the Gulf) to be labelled as well. This is because most Islamic charities will show a convergence on operations around Islamic education, Ramadan food aid, Qurban (and other programs which allow Muslim donors to fulfil their spiritual duties). The only difference is who the donors and supporters are of the different charities.

By placing Islamic global charities on such lists, it also casts aspersions on other non Muslim humanitarian partners who work with such organisations as well as the international humanitarian system that these organisations are plugged into. By virtue of guilt of association with said organisations means that many of these international organisations could be disqualified from engaging or operating within these regions.

By casting aspersions on the system it will mean that local and national charities from the region will have to respond in the absence of a ‘credible’ international humanitarian system that is tainted with its association with organisations on the list. Thus these local and national organisations have to dramatically scale up to adhere to internationally held Humanitarian Principles (Independence, Impartiality, Neutrality, Accountability) as well as IFRC codes of conduct and so on, if they have to credibly fill that gap. These standards commonly held within the international system go beyond what is acceptable in the Muslim world and pose all sorts of operational issues.

With the experience of many of the Gulf charities in places like Myanmar, Somalia and Syria, it appears that there is a long way to go before a similar standard of professionalism held by the likes of Islamic Relief is achieved. Faith identities will continue to be part of the picture, and faith-based organizations will continue to thrive as part of civil society.

Muslim charities such as Islamic Relief are not part of the problem but with the opportunities they offer can be part of the solution in not only addressing poverty and development but countering some of the radicalization narrative that governments like the UAE are worried about. In the complexities of the post 9/11 world, Islamic non-governmental organisations figure amongst the global casualties of the war of terror. This has also meant an effect on the beneficiaries of humanitarian and social welfare programmes which sets a vicious cycle of radicalisation, violence, conflict, humanitarian needs and so on.

There is hence a need to remain committed to engineering the software needed to work effectively in a range of situation. We need to create the very ‘ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become’. Engagement and partnership is needed with a variety of stakeholders including government / other (faith and non-faith) humanitarian actors / private sector and so on. A dialogue is needed between NGOs, UN agencies, humanitarian donors and governments such as the UAE in order to ensure that counter-terrorism objectives do not undermine humanitarian commitment.

This requires greater clarity from donor on the scope and applicability of counter terrorism laws and measures and the development of common principled positions among humanitarian actors. Governments can not be allowed to cast aspersions on reputable global charities without going through due process. The ostracising of Islamic NGOs previously from a Western context has meant a loss of contact with their Western counterparts, widening the gap between them. With the UAE ruling, this loss of contact could be made even worse.

Iraq: The Unexpected Victim of the Arab Spring

Baghdad, Iraq
Baghdad, Iraq

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John Drake runs the AKE Intelligence department, based in the Lloyd’s of London building. Prior to taking up the role he was the AKE Iraq specialist working regularly from the company’s Baghdad office. He is also a Global Fellow at PS21. Follow him on twitter: @johnfdrake

Iraq is not normally viewed as being one of the victims of the Arab Spring. Yet this historically significant event, a key driver of which has been poor governance, has had a devastating impact on the country. The Arab Spring saw populations rise up and overthrow regimes deemed corrupt, illiberal and incumbent beyond their political welcome. As one by one different leaders fell, observers scanned the region to see which other states were vulnerable and which other regimes might fall next.

With endemic corruption, entrenched community grievances and huge levels of public discontent with the authorities, even democratic Iraq was not safe. However, a war-weary populace, relatively strong security forces and a sometimes begrudging tolerance of the democratically elected government meant that public disquiet was muted and sporadic, not loud, disruptive and widespread as in other states.

Analysts speculated as to what might have happened in the country had Saddam Hussein still been in power. Perhaps he too would have been swept away by popular unrest, although his pervasive grip on the security forces would mean that he would have been in a stronger position than other less fortunate leaders.

Irrespective of theoretical conjecture, the post-invasion Iraqi state was not overthrown by a popular movement, but it nonetheless came under severe threat in 2014 by forces which were only allowed to emerge as a result of the Arab Spring. The collapse of Syria into a state of civil war came about as a result of the Arab Spring, and it was this development that helped catalyse the current internal cataclysm that Iraq faces.

The radical Islamist militant group currently referred to as the Islamic State organisation is a descendant of the brutal al-Qaeda franchise. As a group, like so many other radical militants, it flourished and continues to flourish in areas of poor governance and insufficient security. Here militants can evade detection and capture by the authorities while also finding a potentially sympathetic, or at least pliable local population from whom the group can recruit new fighters. The cover of a local population can also provide a degree of protection and a source of revenue in terms of tax collection or extortion in the event that a group becomes particularly well established.

Today, the traditional hotbeds of these sorts of groups, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, are being eclipsed by new Islamist hot zones including the Iraq-Syria nexus and north-eastern Nigeria. Radical Islamists in these areas are increasingly carrying out state functions: centralising the distribution of food and medicine; levying taxes; administering law and order. It is quite a significant turnaround from the end of 2011 in Iraq and the wider Middle East. At the time it had already been a year of significant change. Seemingly stalwart leaders Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali and Mu’ammar Gaddafi had all been dethroned. Meanwhile, US combat troops were preparing to leave Iraq, ostensibly having defeated the insurgency. Behind the scenes and on the ground, however, there was a strong sense of trepidation that conditions were only set to deteriorate. The government and security forces were weak and the situation fragile. Small ripples, of which there were many in the country and wider region, could quickly destabilise the post-US environment in Iraq.

US soldiers walking through a police station in Diyala province, Iraq, December 2010 (DoD)
US soldiers walking through a police station in Diyala province, Iraq, December 2010 (DoD)

In the end, though, it was domestic developments as much as external forces that triggered the crisis that Iraq faced in 2014. The government took action comparable in style to the divisive tactics of recently deposed leaders in the Arab world: it targeted a minority community and became increasingly authoritarian. Arrest warrants were issued for opposition political figures (some within days of the withdrawal of the last US combat troops) while hundreds of Sunni men were rounded up throughout the central provinces on grounds of alleged terrorism. The inefficient court system, subject to patronage and corruption, was excruciatingly slow to deal with these cases, detaining family breadwinners for months while their families grew both desperate and angry with the authorities. They began to demonstrate against the government on a regular basis from December 2012.

The seeds of discontent had been sown, but the security forces were both strong enough to contain most of the unrest and populated by Shi’ah soldiers and officers. This meant that some sort of internal uprising or mutiny against the government was much less likely than in other parts of the region. The sectarian nature of the country had provided it with a crude and temporary form of stability. However, it was not to last. Iraq does not exist in a vacuum and when neighbouring Syria became the next victim of an Arab Spring uprising it had a gradual but profound impact.

If Iraq had appeared outwardly stable in the months following the US withdrawal, it was from a comparative perspective only. The country still experienced terrorist attacks on a daily basis, albeit at a lower rate than during the more difficult years between 2003 and 2008.

Mosul in the north of the country saw regular incidents, accounting for a significant proportion of the country’s violence. Then, for two weeks in February 2012 something changed. The city fell eerily quiet for a short, almost imperceptible spell. It was speculated that the strong militant presence in the city was up to something. The suspicion was that the militants had spotted an opportunity in Syria as the situation escalated and that they had sent fighters across the border to build relationships. Their aim would be to foster support, recruit followers, create alliances and trade goods and weapons.

It was a very gradual process, often eclipsed by atrocities and fast-paced developments on both sides of the border. Nonetheless, through the volatility, what was then the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and later the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham/Syria (ISIS) began to build its networks and entrench its position.

In the same month, Iraq experienced a profound and highly destabilising shift in the security environment. Sunni residents had been demonstrating and holding mass sit-ins protesting against perceived marginalisation by the Iraqi government on a regular basis since December 2012. The protests were most pronounced in urban parts of Anbar province, such as in Fallujah and Ramadi. However, in April 2013 wider unrest was triggered not in the central part of the country, but in the northern town of Hawijah. Personnel from the Iraqi security forces stormed a protest camp in the town, sparking an exchange of small arms fire. Several of the demonstrators were shot dead, prompting a rapid and violent backlash from armed fighters across Sunni parts of the country.

What cannot be ascertained is the proportion of those fighters who were members of ISIL, rather than just angered local residents with access to firearms. What is clear, however, is that levels of violence escalated considerably from this point. The frequency of attacks went from an average of just under 60 per week prior to the Hawijah incident to almost 110 by the end of 2013. It is therefore very likely that Islamist militants were seeking to capitalise on the discontent and build on the momentum of the violence, escalating their attacks against the Iraqi state and military in the hope of earning the sympathy of disgruntled members of the Sunni population.

A campaign of assassinations also began singling out members of the security forces in places such as Mosul. Everyone from soldiers and policemen to senior officers and retired generals were killed, either in bombings targeting patrols and convoys, or surreptitious shootings targeting the victims whilst off-duty or at home. This gradually reduced both the capability and the morale of the Iraqi security forces, something which became a major defining point of the battleground in 2014.

Iraqi soldiers outside Kirkuk, Iraq, June 19 2014
Iraqi soldiers outside Kirkuk, Iraq, June 19 2014

On one night in early June, Islamists staged a brazen assault on the city of Samarra in Salah ad-Din province. Noteworthy for its revered Shi’ah mosque, the bombing of which catalysed a major escalation in sectarian killings in 2006, the city was supposed to have relatively high levels of security, not least to protect the site. However in the middle of the night residents awoke to streams of militants parading through the city’s streets. They withdrew again before dawn, but the move, both a publicity stunt and a testing of the security response, set the stage for the next militant operation.

On 10 June Islamist fighters streamed into the northern city of Mosul. The security forces, demoralised and ill-equipped, fled the city within hours. Key buildings fell, dozens were killed and the civilians who failed to flee in the darkness found themselves trapped, including dozens of Turkish nationals taken hostage at the country’s consulate in the city. Maintaining the momentum of the operation, the militants were able to drive out the security forces from numerous towns and villages, moving south through the provinces of Ninawa, Ta’mim (Kirkuk), Salah ad-Din, Anbar, Diyala and even on to Babil, at one stage threatening the Iraqi capital with strangulation.

The rapid, high-profile success of the move was a major PR coup for the militants, giving them instant worldwide credibility and thus making it easier for them to recruit more fighters. Within weeks the group had renamed itself the Islamic State and declared the territory under its control to be an Islamic caliphate. They were also able to raid local banks, seize significant oil and gas assets and have since raised finance through the smuggling of oil products. The group also centralised control over the distribution of food and medicine and generally began fashioning itself in the image of a more recognisable state entity, albeit an extreme, violent and repressive one. The fact that it has been able to confront the Iraqi state demonstrates both its power and the weakness of governance in Iraq, highlighting once again the inherent relationship between Arab Spring unrest and areas of poor governance.

At the time of writing the Iraqi security forces are only managing to counteract Islamic State militants with international support and the use of unaccountable Shi’ah militias, who on numerous occasions have been accused of criminal activities and extrajudicial violence. Iraq’s own institutions are not able to provide one of the most important responsibilities of a state: security.

As such, Iraq is not as much a victim of the Arab Spring, but rather a victim of the poor levels of governance which triggered the Arab Spring uprisings in other countries. The only way that things will improve in the country and the wider region will be the development of more efficient, accountable and resilient institutions, but that will likely take years. As such, the instability and turbulence witnessed in the wider region is likely to persist at least for the foreseeable future. Unless Iraq continues to strive for greater institutional proficiency, it will remain as vulnerable to the unrest as the other states shaken over the past five years.

Social Media in the Era of ISIS



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Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a columnist and Twitter commentator on Arab affairs. His columns on the Middle East have appeared in The Financial Times, The New York Times online, Foreign Policy and Open Democracy. Rising in prominence during the Arab Spring, Sultan’s tweets became a major news source, rivalling the major news networks at the time, until Time magazine listed him in the ‘140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2011’. Sultan Al Qassemi is a 2014-2016 MIT Media Labs Director’s Fellow and member of PS21’s International Advisory Group. Follow him on Twitter @sultanalqassemi.

Even before the Arab Spring, activists took to social media to disseminate information in an atmosphere where the narrative was tightly controlled by the state.

In November 2007 YouTube shut down the account of Egyptian activist Wael Abbas after he posted a video showing police brutality for containing “inappropriate material.” The video was later re-instated following an outcry from human rights advocates and was then used to convict the two police officers of brutality.

During the 2006 Israeli air campaign on Lebanon, activist artist Zena El Khalil turned her blog “Beirut Update” into a source for news about the war and was featured in international media including CNN, BBC and The Guardian. In the summer of 2010 an anonymously administered Facebook page titled ‘We are all Khaled Saeed” after a young Egyptian who was beaten to death by police officers became a focal point for anti-regime protests leading up to the January 2011 uprising.

For the next few months social media was prominently used almost exclusively by activists across the Middle East and North Africa from the Maghreb to the Arabian Peninsula. By 2012 Arab governments had woken up to the “threat” of social media and started imposing harsh penalties on activists further pushing them underground. There was also a significant splintering amongst activists who in some cases following the ouster of the head of the regime turned against each other. The online honeymoon was over.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi talking about social media, London, February 2015

No longer was social media an open space for the region’s activists to express themselves freely and without inhibitions. Online police whose job it was to monitor “obscene content” turned their attention to political activists on Twitter and Facebook. Online hackers affiliated to or supportive of governments across the region, such as the Syrian Electronic Army, launched denial of service attacks on certain accounts while pro-government thugs intimidated activists using the very “liberation technology” social media platforms that activists had previously employed.

The once liberal and secular activist-dominated social media landscape has made way for conservative clerics or extremist groups. For instance, the Twitter account of Egyptian pro-democracy activist Wael Ghonim (1.4 million followers) has fallen silent and has chosen to stay away “as Egypt no longer welcomes those who are like me” while the account of conservative Saudi Arabian cleric Mohamed Al Arefe flourishes with over 10 million followers. Popular Saudi clerics such as Salman Al Odah and Ayedh Al Qarnee have reached astronomical figures and outreach that liberal activists and even governments can only dream of. On the other hand, secular activists with a strong social media presence such as Alaa Abdel Fattah, Ahmed Maher and Ahmed Douma who have chosen to stay in Egypt have been locked up in jail.

Meanwhile, the drivers that produced the Arab Spring have arguably gotten worse. According to the ILO, unemployment in the region stood at almost 25 percent before the Arab Spring. Today these figures would be higher due to the drying up of the tourism industry in countries such as Egypt, the disruption of oil sales in Libya and the millions of refugees created by the Syrian Civil War and other conflicts.

Five Arab states rank amongst the top ten most corrupt states in the world and a Transparency International poll found that the “endemic” corruption actually worsened in the Arab world since the uprisings of 2011. Such a dire landscape no doubt facilitated the recruitment that was to take place online by extremists of some of the region’s young unemployed youth.

The proliferation of pro-government social media accounts bent on silencing dissent as well as the introduction of harsh penalties including jail terms for breaking loosely defined social media regulations across the region resulted in many liberal activists to either restrict their once public Facebook profiles to “Friends only” or resort to closed Facebook groups with limited members that are heavily and continuously filtered. While liberal and secular activists retreated, extremist accounts multiplied with both public and private profiles and accounts.

Although Al Qaeda has used social media to a limited degree over the past few years beyond posting their videos on YouTube, their breakaway group ISIS has taken its use another level. For starters, ISIS videos have been of a much higher production quality than Al Qaeda, using Hollywood-like special effects. In one of the videos posted online, the ISIS killer draws his knife to behead a hostage as the film cuts to slow motion to increase the dramatic effect. In a subsequent ISIS video of the beheading of 18 Syrian regime soldiers, the sound of beating heartbeats is added to the soundtrack. ISIS’ most gruesome upload to date featured the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot in a 21 minute video“that imitates the production values of documentaries aired on outlets like the History Channel”. The film ends by showing alleged homes of other Jordanian pilots identified through aerial mapping technology.

Since July 2014 ISIS has also been publishing an online magazine called Dabiq, now in its fifth issue, available to download in PDF and published in English. The propagandist publication, which without the gruesome content would look like a lifestyle magazine, features interviews with fighters and stories about recent conquests by the terrorist organization. The group has also used popular hashtags such as #WorldCup2014 to disseminate their videos and flood Twitter with their messages.

Pro-ISIS preachers haven’t only used the popular social media tools to propagate their messages. Lesser-known platforms such as PalTalk hosted lectures and debates by radical Islamists preachers who praised ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi as “the leader of all Muslims”. Invitations to listen to the PalTalk chat were posted on Twitter and advertised according to London and New York City times leaving no doubt as to who was the intended audience.

In 2014 ISIS developed an Android app called Fajer Al Bashayer (Dawn of the Good Omens) that when downloaded not only sends users automatic updates about the group but also hijacks their Twitter accounts and posts pro-ISIS tweets and updates on its behalf. Last June as ISIS forces entered the Iraqi city of Mosul the app sent 40,000 tweets in a 24-hour period. This and the increasingly gruesome videos prompted social media firms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to crack down on terror posts. This policing was most evident following the posting of the beheading video of freelance American journalist James Foley in August 2014.

The social media giants asked users not to share the video and shut down accounts of those who did as soon as they were flagged by users. The White House also intervened asking these platforms not to allow the video to be shared. Additionally, a successful campaign launched by Twitter user @LibyaLiberty with the hashtag #ISISMediaBlackout called on social media users not to share the ISIS terror videos. In its first 24 hours the hashtag was shared over 11,000 times.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi and Peter Apps, London, February 2015
Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi and Peter Apps, London, February 2015

Social media can be a two edged sword for ISIS. When the first video of the so-called caliph Al Baghdadi delivering a sermon in a mosque was released by ISIS, Muslim netizens took to social media to ridicule what appeared to be a swanky Swiss-made watch he was wearing with tweets such as “Omega: Baghdadi’s Choice”.

Policy changes by social media firms, which are generally reluctant to police online content, were evident over the past two years. In 2012 the US government attempted to shut down the Twitter account of Somali terror group Al Shabab and said that it was exploring legal channels to do so. Twitter finally shut down Al Shabab’s account after the group used to it to boast of attacks and the social media platform announced a series of new policies aimed at combating graphic images and violence.

ISIS understands the potential reach of social media and uses it for recruitment, spreading fear and propagating their extremist ideology. These platforms are also used to raise money and search for sympathizers who can propagate on their behalf and others who can potentially turn into lone wolf attackers. One of these Twitter accounts was called ShamiWitness and prior to being shut down by its administrator in December 2014 had over 17,000 followers. The user who was a marketing executive based in Bangalore, India told Britain’s Channel Four whose investigation ended his career as a propagator of terror that “he would have gone to join Islamic State himself, but his family were financially dependent on him”. Shamiwitness joined Twitter in 2009 under a different handle and started propagating for ISIS soon after they appeared. Incidents such as this may compel firms and governments to introduce further restrictions on social media thereby once again transforming the previously free and open cyber-sphere beyond recognition.

What initially was a space for liberal minded technology geeks and activists is now a darker, gloomier world in which threats are made and videos of brutal beheadings and government flogging of liberal activists are shared and cheered. Today the social media landscape in the Middle East resembles the squares and streets of the Arab Spring cities of yore: it is a new battleground for hearts and minds between regimes, Islamists and activists; between young and old; between freedom and constraint.

There are signs of hope, though. In the midst of the all the doom and gloom, comedy from the likes of Bassem Youssef, Karl Sharro and Fahad Albutairi has become a tool to counter the growing online restrictions. Satire, “the weapon of the powerless against the powerful” has angered brainwashed ISIS followers and countered racist and Islamophobic coverage in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacres. One thing is clear: the liberal minded activists of the Arab Spring may be down, but they are certainly not out.

The Arab Spring and the Limits of American Power

John Kerry in a meeting with Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, former King of Saudi Arabia
John Kerry in a meeting with Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, former King of Saudi Arabia, September 11, 2014

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Ari Ratner is a Fellow at New America. He formerly served in the Obama Administration State Department from 2009-2012 as Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment. Follow him on Twitter: @amratner

In March 2011, I was in Saudi Arabia as part of an American diplomatic mission. Relations between Saudi Arabia and the US government had deteriorated significantly since the start of the then still-young Arab Spring. The Saudi government believed that the Obama Administration was too quick to abandon long-time allies like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. They saw the hand of Iran in uprisings across the region, including in neighboring Bahrain, and feared unrest in the Kingdom itself.

Indeed, as we drove from the airport into Riyadh, the radio blared news of King Abdullah’s latest $90 billion in “stimulus” to reward his subjects’ loyalty: all government workers received two months additional salary; all students received two months additional stipend; billions were allocated to the military and religious police; billions more to build homes and mosques; and on and on. Afterwards, Saudis called in to recite poems to the King.

Despite the tension, the agenda with Saudi Arabia remained full and, befitting our strange “special relationship”, contradictory: we were caught off guard by their invasion of Bahrain even as we wanted support for our airstrikes against Gaddafi’s Libya; we wanted them to increase assistance to neighboring countries and output to the global oil market even as they were newly skeptical of our security guarantees.

Yet what has stuck with me most from the trip was a candid aside that a senior Saudi official gave on the problems facing the Kingdom: “we have a leader who wants to implement change but has a difficult time delivering on his promise; we have an opposition that holds a de facto veto over our government; we have high unemployment, especially among the young; we have mounting levels of debt, especially over the long-term; and we have a bureaucracy that is so slow and inefficient that it is difficult to get anything done.”

For a second, I wasn’t sure if he was describing Saudi Arabia or America.

The Pentagon, a linchpin of US Middle East strategy

The reality of Saudi and American politics and society are, of course, vastly different. Nevertheless, the Middle East had the historical misfortune of undergoing a revolutionary moment at the same time that America— and the wider Western world— was marked by its own profound period of political and economic dysfunction.

When long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunis on January 14, 2011, the United States was in its ninth year of post-9/11 warfare. The country was still slogging through the Great Recession unleashed by the 2007-2008 Financial Crisis. Having elected a President who pledged to drawdown the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and focus on “nation-building at home”, the American public had little appetite for renewed engagement in the Middle East. The Obama Administration, moreover, had emphasized the need to “pivot” to the country’s long-term strategic and economic interests in the Pacific.

As uprisings spread in quick succession— Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and beyond— Washington was in its first months of divided government. A new Republican majority in the House promised to constrain the powers and purse of the Obama Presidency. Foreign assistance, while only comprising approximately one percent of the budget, was an appealing target. Meanwhile, the machinery of American foreign policy— the Pentagon, the State Department, USAID, etc.— had long since become ossified by bureaucratic decay. Strategic thinking and implementation was overly reliant on the military, inflexible, and ill-prepared for such a massive upheaval.

As the Arab Spring erupted, Europe was likewise occupied by economic crisis, with Greece, Portugal, Cyprus, and Ireland needing urgent assistance. Beyond them: Italy and Spain, even France and the wider Eurozone, teetered at the economic abyss, as Brussels and Berlin struggled to cope with the fallout. Japan, meanwhile, was soon consumed by the triple disaster— earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis— of April 11, 2011.

In this context, the G8’s initial response to the Arab Spring— the Deauville Partnership announced at their summit in France in May 2011— was as much an exercise in obscuring the G8’s collective lack of resources for the “transitioning countries” than the outpouring of support that it was branded as and hoped for.

Former US Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, left, meets with Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, right, in Tunis, Tunisia, July 2012
Former US Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, left, meets with Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, right, in Tunis, Tunisia, July 2012

Yet the G8’s tepid response was merely another manifestation of a wider crisis of confidence in the West: Were the BRICs on the verge of becoming the world’s dominant economic bloc? Was the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism more capable of growth and immune to downturns? Or were these emerging economies themselves waiting for their own crises?

In sum, as the Arab Spring erupted, there was no obvious model for the region to follow— and there were severe constraints on the ability of Washington and the West to influence its course.

The Arab Spring, of course, has since become not just a period of tremendous tumult and bloodshed. It has also seen a crushing defeat of expectations— in the region and in the West. Comparisons to 1989 were rampant. Yet the differences between the Arab Spring and the Velvet Revolutions are more telling than the similarities. Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the countries behind the Iron Curtain had been forcibly cut off from their natural home. They had existing memories of democracy from which they could build, and western institutions— NATO and the EU— in which they could integrate. They had leadership— Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Mart Laar, etc.— who had a strategic vision and the ability to carry it out. And their publics were pro-western.

The Arab Spring, in contrast, has been a quagmire of epic proportions— or more accurately stated, a series of epic quagmires. Even if the US government had the “perfect” policies, its ability to influence the outcome would have been limited. The dominant causes and course of events have been set by conditions in the region: autocratic governments that failed to provide a modicum of freedom or opportunity for their citizens; the growing divide between Islamists and traditional authoritarian regimes; the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia; and the region’s failing economic, educational, and social systems— embodied foremost in the systematic marginalization of women, young people, and minorities.

Had the Arab Spring occurred in a different period, the US government might have been in a better

position to assist— as it did with the Marshall Plan following the Second World War or the SEED Act following 1989. The Mideast, similarly, may have seen the West as more of a magnet— perhaps akin to post-Cold War Latin America, where distrust of the West lingered even the region increasingly adopted western norms.

Instead, the Mideast has been left without a model. The western model has seemed weak; while the eastern model has remained distant. The Islamist model has been discredited— just as the secular authoritarian model before it. The region has splintered. Violence has surged. And the underlying challenges— the widespread lack of human dignity, political freedom, and economic growth— remain.

Three Yemeni soldiers for the first armored division
Soldiers in Yemen, a country now in chaos and at the very edge of US influence

Can the region now be turned around?

All is certainly not lost. The Arab Spring has seen some success: in Tunisia, for instance, and in reasonable reforms undertaken by countries like Jordan and Morocco.

Overall, the Arab Spring has played a deeply conflicting role. It brought to the fore a series of challenges that it may have also made more difficult to contend with. Nevertheless, these challenges are now firmly on the agenda. And a new generation— more than half of the Arab world is under the age of 25— is both awakened to them and connected to the wider world in ways not seen, perhaps, since the apex of Arab civilization.

Nevertheless, while the region must rightly retain control over its own fate, there is more that the West can do to help. From the perspective of the US government, the failure to live up to many of our promises— the repeated inability to promptly deliver economic or military assistance, for instance— has weakened our credibility, strained traditional alliances, and limited our ability to influence the situation on the ground.

These failures have not come about only as a result of the difficult regional situation, but also because of Washington’s own shortcomings. Some common critiques of President Obama’s response have merit. In its initial stages, the Administration was rightly respectful of the fact that change was being driven from the region. But President Obama has too often appeared overly cautious or indecisive. Yet the strategic failures also include a Congress that has displayed a penny wise, pound-foolish and needlessly partisan approach to foreign policy.

American economic strategy in the aftermath of the Arab Spring serves as a cautionary tale. The United States initially sought to help stabilize countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia through increased economic aid. This came in response to calls from the countries themselves; Egypt was particularly keen on debt forgiveness. In a highly resource-constrained environment, the Obama Administration attempted to ramp up aid. But Congress endlessly delayed— long before Islamist parties came to power— even when it required only the reallocation of existing funds.

Meanwhile, we relied on funding from others, like the Gulf States, each of whom had their own interests. And so conditions on the ground deteriorated, American credibility weakened, and the moment was lost.

Of course, U.S. taxpayers cannot possibly cover the cost of global crises alone. But when it comes to diplomacy, there is a basic truth: without our own resources on the table, our influence diminishes.

Support for critical investments in American national security were once bipartisan. Aid to Egypt after it left the Soviet camp received widespread support. In today’s Washington, there is often money for military action. But advancing American interests through aid has become an affront to fiscal responsibility— even if it is often far more cost-effective.

America’s military might, meanwhile, has been proven difficult to utilize in a sustained manner. In Libya, the American-led air campaign against Qaddafi was successful. Yet, ensuring stability has proved far more difficult. Libya has turned into an example of the powerlessness of American power— with military means that we are unwilling or unable to bring to bear to solve underlying challenges— a lesson of critical importance as we ramp up the conflict with ISIS.

Syria, for its own part, has become the perfect storm of the Arab Spring— combining (indeed exceeding) the worst aspects of each uprising: the kleptocracy of Egypt, the sectarianism of Bahrain, the chaos of Libya, the poverty of Yemen, all rolled into a brutal proxy war involving major regional and global powers.

Rebel-held area of Aleppo after bombardment by the Syrian government
Rebel-held area of Aleppo after bombardment by the Syrian government

Its fate, likewise, is a microcosm of the Mideast’s troubles. When Syria eventually emerges from its nightmare— a prospect for which there is no obvious path— the country will face a vast array of challenges: establishing security and a functioning government; ending sectarian warfare; rebuilding the country’s infrastructure; and addressing the underlying crises that caused the Revolution in the first place. In short, Syria needs to rebuild a functioning state and society almost from scratch. This will be a long, difficult, and Syrian-led process. But it’s essential that the U.S. remain engaged to safeguard its interests.

Yet American policy on Syria remains predominantly disengaged, perhaps understandably so. Syria is a problem from hell. President Obama’s choice to keep it at arms length has been a reasonable strategic choice. The U.S., moreover, has done its best to mitigate the refugee crisis and support various attempts at a diplomatic solution. It also achieved a victory in the elimination of chemical weapon stockpiles held by the Assad regime.

Nevertheless, the cumulative effect of reasonable reluctance in Syria— as across so much of the region— has appeared more as lack of strategy than strategic choice.

Ultimately, what is still needed from America, from the West, and from the region itself, is a far bolder long-term strategy: a re-imagination of this vital world region to match the measure of this historical moment.