Imagining 2030: Out of a desert

Imagining 2030 is a series in which PS21 writers describe the world as they see it in 14 years time. 

Jorge Vanstreels writes on the Middle East and Foreign Policy for a variety of publications and is based in Belgium. His regional travels have led him through the West Bank, the Syria-Jordan border, or Tunisia’s deep south. He is currently pursuing his Master of Law at the University of Antwerp. Follow him on Twitter @Jorgevs


In an unknown spot somewhere in the deserts of Arabia far away from any capital stood the tiny village of Ar-Rashid on a plateau surrounded by dunes. It was night and the village was covered in a type of darkness only found in remote places. The sky was vaguely lit up with all possible stars large and small. Seen from space, not even a minuscule light was visible to pinpoint the village in the grand, dark sea the desert formed.


On a plateau, a few houses had been built of cheap bricks and covered with thin metal roofing. Three unpaved roads gave the village some sense of orientation. In the evening, the call to prayer from the administrative town some distance away was heard. Ahmed stood at the entrance of his parent’s house. Indeed, tonight his decision was final. He looked nervously to the dunes at the horizon. Their rolling shapes stood out against the lighter night sky. His father came in and Ahmed asked if he wanted to go out for a walk. Sure, said his father, a tall man in his late 30’s with curly black hair that was starting to turn slightly grey.


“What’s up?” he asked his son. Ahmed just shrugged his shoulders. “Let’s go out,” the father said. They walked to the dunes at the end of the road. Their sharp forms stood out in dark-grey against the brighter night sky. After they had climbed the top of a dune they sat down. There was silence as both looked up at the sky.


“Look”, his father said, pointing to a bright light just above the horizon to their right. It moved slowly higher describing an arc. His father’s arm followed the object’s motion until it was above them.


“When I was young,” he said, “the movement would go so much slower. You could follow that plane through the sky for more than two minutes.” Now it had flown across their vast horizon in less than a minute. Ahmed thought of those inside, looking down into what would surely be nothing.  “The times of progress,” his father smiled, dreaming of a gleaming, supersonic object they knew only from images.


Ahmed looked to his father. He was nervous, unsure as to how he would react. “So, tell me. What is on your mind?” Ahmed stayed silent. He thought of his friends. Of all those hours, those infinite days spent in a spot you could not find on a map. He had the sense the rest of the world had a sure time and place while his had not. He bit tensely on his lip while looking up at the sky. “I am going to leave,” he said, “tomorrow morning.”


There was silence from his father.


“With the bus I will go to the capital; it is decided and I do not want to change my mind,” he said, trying to sound decisive. A multitude of stars large and small was scattered generously around; the combined glow gave the night sky a pale luminosity. In between the top of the dunes shadows formed and valleys could be seen. His father sighed heavily. Although his father knew why his son wanted to leave, he asked him why. Ahmed sensed his father knew very well, but he did not tell him that.


Their country had in the last few years slipped into violence. Although the remote provinces had been spared, all the major cities had witnessed serious riots by thousand youths. They would chant slogans for justice. It was not clear what they meant by that. Aggravating it, or perhaps fueling it, was the scarcity of jobs .The country was bankrupt, as petroleum was globally out of favor.


On the dunes, a breeze swept some sand away into the air. “Father, thirty years ago you left. You risked your life to reach Europe, leaving our grandparents behind, with them trembling for your life each night. Grandmother says it cut her life short ten years. Why did you go?” Ahmed said, almost with exasperation, “What was there to find that even death could not scare you?” There was a shrug of the shoulders.


“Look son, nothing has changed. Not here, nor in those place we dream of. If someone is young like you, there is still nothing you can call a future.” He paused. “Sure, there’s a roof. There’s a bed, there’s a meal. That is it. At my age, one learns to accept that.” His father continued, “When I was as young as you I went to Europe for something better, yes. I felt angry. My parents did not understand, begged me to stay. So I shut up until I left them as a thief in the night.”


A silence. “Why did you come back?”


“I worked two years; hard. Nothing there made me happy. All the money was sent back here; then I was sent out of the country, as I did not have papers. Not that I was bothered, I had grown indifferent. So I said: better poor at home, then work and sadness and no home soil.”


Ahmed grinned.  “Yeah, that makes some sense.”


Then his father asked, “You will go to the city to protest, yes? With the imam and all his followers, right? You want to join him. You want to fight. For justice.” He said the last word with a hint of cynicism. His son nodded, looking to the sand between his feet. “All my friends are there”, he said, “Everybody goes. We have to defend the honor of our future. I can’t explain father, but you should understand. You hated your world too.”


Indeed his father had. With age, the hate had transmuted into a peaceful bitterness. Their country was not the only one. The whole of the Middle East had seen order disappear. Monarchies had fallen, autocrats had gone, borders had been redrawn, countries broken apart, others stitched together. In the days of Ahmed’s father the frustrations of the young had been channeled into religious extremism; now a different kind of extremism had emerged in the region, carried by progressive imams in cities, a new political view that merged Islam with Marxist principles of class struggle. It called for the overthrow of the established order, by blood and force if necessary. Many youngsters had heeded the call of the new Revolution.


Ahmed asked in a sudden outburst of anger, “our country, this vast country full of people is only for those corrupt and maliciously rich. They as Gods and only they decide; high up on their thrones, treating us as cattle, against the very will of Islam. Not as humans. Do you think they care for even one single moment? They couldn’t care less than for a grain of sand.”


”They do not care,” his father said softly.


Ahmed continued, “Nothing has changed, father. You left to find something better, you did not get it. What will we do? Wait until what? Until the sand has run us over and everybody forgets about honor or dignity? No. What does our religion say? We have to fight against the forces of evil. They are fighting in the streets. That’s where history goes, that’s where we have to stand, even if blood flows.”


“Look, father, I understand you do not want me to go. But what is there for me, here? Emptiness,” he gestured impatiently to the horizon.


The state, as in all provinces, had given basic education in the nearest administrative town. In the times of his father, university was free when petroleum was still selling. After that, the crisis had hit hard. Now only the very rich or the connected could afford higher education. Ahmed knew the basics of mathematics, some English, a few centuries of history, too much religion, and that was it. On television, all saw the archetype of the successful Arab man in smart suit, fast car and next to him a beautiful woman. Ahmed said firmly. “They who rule against God have to go. It is not just. I will not stay here doing nothing.”


His father stayed silent, looking to the dark slopes and valleys in front of them. ”I cannot say and I will not say you are right; however I cannot stop you either, my son,” was the only thing he said.


It was uncertain whether the time ahead would bring a better future. Uncertain too was whether the anger of the young would once again transform the region, this time for good. What was sure was that the unknown would be reached through an inevitably violent upheaval.


It was still dark when Ahmed left the house. His father would tell his mother, later. On the road the bus came. The doors closed. The engine creaked. The sun rose, fast.


Interested in contributing a piece to the series? E-mail us at

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

Turkey coup puts West an awkward position

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist and executive director of PS21. Views are his own. Follow him on Twitter

If exhausted and overstretched US and European officials could have done without one thing this weekend, it would have been a military coup in Turkey.

Turkey had remained relatively stable during the “Arab Spring” convulsions that have wracked the rest of the region since 2011. Indeed, its messy but in some sense is functional democracy was seen as one of the few role models for nearby states. Now, those assumptions will have to be undone.

Idiosyncratic, deeply divided and always a difficult partner, Turkey is central to the West’s strategy for dealing with a host of major crises, particularly the conflict with Islamic State and Europe’s refugee crisis. It is central to handling the war in Syria in particular and a crucial NATO ally when it comes to facing down Russia. It sits astride key energy shipment routes and is home to vital US bases.

All of those have been managed – just – with sensitive diplomacy and always potentially unstable deals. It’s whatever its feelings about a military takeover, the West will have little choice but to deal with whoever winds up in charge.

But that, of course, assumes the entire country does not collapse or erupt into conflict. For now, that remains probably unlikely – but far from unthinkable. If the coup shows nothing else, it is that the outside world is still all too often caught on the hop when countries unravel in ways that should have been predictable but were largely not seen coming.

An incomplete, failed coup could perhaps prove even more destabilizing. For now, talk of clashes in the streets and possibly between different elements of the military helps fuel a sense of chaos.

How things will play out in the coming hours and days is hard to say. Much will depend on whether the military commanders who have declared themselves in power can lock the country down. President Tayyip Erdogan remains at large – location far from clear – and has cooled for his supporters to take to the streets. With Turkish society brutally divided, some of the worst-case scenarios could be truly bleak.

Assuming the military is able to secure control, perhaps the simplest scenario might be a rough repeat of what happened in Egypt after its military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi. Then, the US – which, as in Turkey, has long had a relatively cozy relationship with the military establishment – initially protested heavily at the removal of a democratically elected government but swiftly accepted it. Military aid resumed, diplomatic relations continued and many US officials were quietly relieved at the relative return of stability.

Something similar could happen here – in fact, it seems likely that those behind Friday night’s takeover will be counting on it. Western frustration with the increasingly autocratic Erdogan has been rising for years, with growing frustration over what was seen as a trampling on human rights and free speech. His moderately Islamist AK Party was also seen tearing up what was once Turkey’s secular character [the Turkish military has long seen itself the guardian of those institutions.]

US and European governments could probably live with a military government in Turkey. For sure, it would end for now – perhaps forever – talk over the country joining the European Union. But particularly with a backlash on the continent against widespread migration, that was hardly looking likely in any case. The US will want to retain access to its base at Incirlik, the EU will be desperate to maintain the deal whereby Turkey keeps as many migrants as he can within its borders.

Depending on one’s definition, Turkey saw three or four military coups between 1960 and 1997. None of those stopped it being members of NATO. For some within the country and beyond, the periods of military rule are still regarded with affection. The situation now, however, may be much more complex than in previous eras.

Western states might hope a military government would step up its game in closing the Turkish border regions to Islamic State militants. That was something Erdogan’s government was seen reluctant to do, largely because the Turkish leader believed ousting Assad, rather than combating the militants, should be the top priority. That had begun to change in recent months, however, in part because of several brutal IS attacks within Turkey itself.

The most recent of those, a June 28 attack on Istanbul Airport, killed 45 people as well as three attackers. The risk now, however, is that public anger amongst even relatively moderate supporters of the AK Party might offer Islamic State a window to further grow its support and influence.

Analysts who follow IS and other militant Internet forums say the news from Istanbul on Friday – like the truck attack in France 24 hours earlier – was greeted enthusiastically by online supporters. If nothing else, the broader narrative of chaos, conflict and collapse is seen helping the jihadists just as they face up to losing terrain in Iraq and Syria.

That might only be the start of the problems. A more assertive military government might well also inflame conflict with ethnic Kurds and perhaps even a divided Cyprus, where the prospect of offshore gas exploitation has already been quietly ramping up tensions. Then there is the always messy relationship between Turkey and Russia, made more difficult in the last two years by Moscow’s military activities in Syria.

Even if things do calm down quickly, 2016 already looks to be taking its place as a historic year of instability. And with more than five months left to run, officials in Washington, Whitehall, Moscow and beyond will be nervously asking themselves what comes next.

State of Emergency in Iraq: Will the next U.S. Administration be prepared?

Asha Castleberry is a U.S. National Security Expert and U.S. Army Veteran.  She is an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project (ASP) and a member of the Truman National Security Project Defense Council. She tweets at @ashacastleberry.

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

What is going on in Iraq?  The Iraqi government has declared a state of emergency and political turmoil in Iraq is on the rise, as seen from the recent meltdown in Baghdad. The political deadlock seen in the Iraqi parliament has ignited massive protests within the Green Zone, spearheaded by the Shia opposition groups led by Iraqi Shia Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. He has has launched a de-facto coup, attacking the political legitimacy of the Shia-led Baghdad government. He has done so by demanding Prime Minister Haider to present the new list of technocrat cabinet members.  In addition, the Iraqi government has deployed security forces, in conjunction with Shia militias, to further bolster security in Southern Baghdad.

Political instability in Baghdad poses a direct threat towards the current mission against ISIS and Iraqi national reconstruction.  During Vice President Biden’s recent trip to Baghdad, he underscored that political chaos there would negatively impact current operations in the war against ISIS.  ISIS will then take advantage of this opportunity to exacerbate sectarian tensions by targeting Shia communities, especially during the Shia pilgrimage.  The recent attacks in the Nahrwan area prove this point. ISIS has also claimed attacks against Shia communities in Imam Ali-Husseiniyah in Southern Baghdad. They will also step up more attacks during the commemoration of Imam al-Kadhim, a major Shia holiday.  The timing is just perfect for ISIS, as this has occurred right after another major, violent sectarian incident in Iraq.  The recent clashes between the Peshmerga Forces and al-Hashad al-Turkmani militias in Tuz Khurmatu, Salahuddin Province has shown the country’s inability to successfully prevent such sectarian violence.

Despite political turmoil and ongoing sectarian strife, the Anti-ISIS coalition has made considerable progress during the month of April.  The Iraqi security forces liberated the Hit District in Al-Anbar province and successfully completed clearing operations in key areas in Diyala Province.  According to a recent Institute of Study of the War (ISW) situation report,  the Peshmerga Forces along with Sunni Arab forces liberated key villages in the north of Mosul, with coalition airstrike support. In preparation for the Mosul counteroffensive, the U.S. has authorized an additional 217 troops to be deployed to Iraq and provide additional air assets.  Furthermore, the U.S. has issued a 30 day extension for the U.S. air carrier, USS Harry S. Truman in the Gulf Region to support President Obama’s acceleration of the fight against ISIS. The USS Harry S. Truman provides robust maritime security, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISRs), and counterterrorism capabilities.

Nevertheless, there has been no major economic impact resulting from the political climate in Baghdad.  The Iraqi Minister of Oil has confirmed that the political turmoil in Baghdad did not impact oil exports for the month of April. Indeed, Bloomberg has reported that oil exports reached a record high of 4.3 million barrels a day that month.  However, projections still forecast that it may drop, and the country will continue to struggle to be able to afford this expensive war against ISIS.

The current political instability in Iraq is reminding us just how critical it is for the next U.S. administration to prescribe a viable strategy in such a complex and volatile country.  The U.S. needs competent leadership, similar to the Obama Administration, that knows how to carry out a comprehensive forward plan.  Based on the recent Iraqi political crisis, the American people should be questioning presidential candidates about the U.S.’s future role in Iraq.  Here are some major questions that a U.S. presidential candidate should seriously consider.  First, are Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s political reforms promising to achieve an inclusive and decentralized government?  If not, what then, is the next course of action to help build political cohesion in Baghdad?  Second, the next U.S. administration will inherit a commitment of just over 4,000 U.S. servicemembers in Iraq, with the authorization to continue using airpower.  Therefore, will the next U.S. administration maintain the same number of boots on ground? Third, if the Iraqis are fortunate enough to win back Mosul and terminate ISIS presence there before the end of the year, will the next administration then assist with peacebuilding in a post-ISIS war? Fourth, will the next administration support a three-state solution for Iraq, or continue the policy of national reconciliation with our regional partners?

Moving forward, I believe that Secretary Hillary Clinton is the best U.S. presidential candidate to deliver the best policy strategy for our future role in Iraq.  Secretary Clinton could implement a well thought out position that supports a decisive political strategy in Iraq.  She will not be incoherent and inconsistent about her position. Secretary Clinton has already conveyed her strong understanding and knowledge about countering ISIS in Iraq.  A comprehensive strategy of support, by providing more airpower, as well as Training, Advising, and Assist (TAA) for the Iraqi Security Forces, Peshmerga Forces, and Sunni Tribal Groups.

Imagining 2030: Flashpoint Manama

Imagining 2030 is a series in which PS21 writers describe the world as they see it in 14 years time. 

Russell Waite is a current MA Student in War Studies at King’s College, London.  


The year is 2030. 10 years have passed since the third Gulf War, and the spectre of conflict again appears on the horizon. The cause of the war between a US-Saudi Coalition and an Iranian nuclear state, with surprisingly little Israeli involvement, is now well known. President Trump’s bellicose rhetoric in the lead up to his presidential nomination in 2016 was not all bluster. Thankfully, it was his only “serious” foreign policy venture.

The weak Jus ad bellum for the 2020 conflict – Iran’s “imminent” use of their nuclear arsenal on Israel – proved unfounded. Many analysts have since speculated that this was due to the Coalition concentrating on naval engagements, alongside limited strikes on Iranian coastal positions and military centres. Since the conflict, Iran has refrained from marking a red line in the sand for nuclear deployment. A source of both security and concern for the region.

As in the last war, the fate of Bahrain remains central to power projection in the Gulf. Manama, the capital of Bahrain, has recovered since the war and returned to become a thriving city of nearly three million people. Coalition presence has also expanded, and Manama now hosts one of the largest concentrations of US-UK military force abroad. This is only surpassed by permanent garrisons in Europe and the US commitment towards the now 77 year old Korean conflict.

The recent militarisation of Bahrain can actually be traced to the re-construction of HMS Jufair at the Mina Salam port, all the way back in 2015. This heralded a return of UK naval interests beyond the Suez Canal. The Prince of Wales, one of the UK’s two aircraft carriers, has been on permanent station just offshore.  Since 2017, the port was expanded significantly to accommodate large elements of the US 5th fleet, the basing of which proved pivotal in the shaping of the 2020 conflict.

Since the 2020 Damascus peace deal – made possible with the stabilisation of Syria – Iran and Saudi Arabia have both made commendable efforts to foster better relations. Two notable examples include the re-opening of the Iranian embassy in Riyadh and the proposed Saud-Khomeini highway linking Saudi Arabia and Iran through Kuwait and Iraq.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have developed the warmest relations within living memory. So why is the Gulf now more unstable in 2030? Persistent underlying suspicion is certainly a factor. Even the smallest of issues – for example, what Saudi Arabia calls the Arabian Gulf, Iran calls the Persian Gulf – remain fiercely contested. Nevertheless, the driving elephant in the room is the Saudi Arabian nuclear weapons programme. Despite coming under intense international criticism, Saudi Arabia persists in pursuing nuclear weapons. The reasoning, some have argued, is latent unease with Iran’s nuclear monopoly and increasing economic strains in the region since the move away from fossil fuels. Arguably, control of trade routes in the Gulf, escalated by fears of nuclear competition, is the rationale behind the Iranian Supreme Leader’s increasingly aggressive statements. Of the claims, the UAE’s reclamation of the islands of Abu Musa, and greater and lesser Tunb have received the most attention. Of more concern for escalation is Iran’s claim to Bahrain (which it calls Mishmahig), which had originally been dropped in 1971. This may merely be sabre-rattling, but Iranian concerns over a nuclear Saudi Arabia are very real and shouldn’t be taken lightly. This concern is arguably why the planned drawdown of the US-UK military presence in Manama has been quietly shelved, with further commitment expected.

The Saudi Kingdom also faces another security concern that cannot be ignored. The now decade old chaos in Yemen and now Oman threatens to spill-over into Saudi Arabia itself. If Saudi gained the bomb, they would face very similar security concerns in their hinterland as a nuclear armed Pakistan in the mid-2010s.

Interested in contributing a piece to the series? E-mail us at

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

ISIS Goes for Broke in Libya

DDG/ECHO - Demining Sirte

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Patrick Bury has worked as a Libya specialist since 2011. He is a PhD Candidate at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute and a PS21 Global Fellow.

Despite the announcement of a UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) on 17 Dec, the rivalry between the broadly Islamist government in Tripoli and its eastern rival in Tobruk has continued, with neither side ready to accept the new GNA just yet. Meanwhile, capitalising on the security vacuum in the centre of the country, last month we witnessed a significant increase in the number and intensity of ISIS attacks in Libya, seriously threatening the country’s already damaged oil sector and risking the prospect of socio-economic collapse if the group can maintain its current tempo of operations.

Kicking off its new ‘al-Qahtani’ campaign, on 4 Jan ISIS’s affiliate in the coastal city of Sirte – Islamic State in Sirte (ISS) – launched a major assault on the Libya’s largest oil terminals at Es Sider and Ras Lanuf (which combined had an export capacity of over 500,000 barrels per day before they closed due to the ISIS threat) that began with a double suicide truck bomb attack on local Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) forces at Es Sider. One bomber hit the main military checkpoint at the entrance to the terminal, killing two guards, while the other struck an airstrip nearby in the first Libyan use of a tactic favoured by ISIS in Syria and Iraq. According to the Libyan National Army (LNA), this was a diversionary attack, and ISS then attempted to gain entrance to Ras Lanuf terminal 18 miles further east by assaulting it with 12 technical vehicles. The bombing of a telecommunications tower on 3 Jan in Ajdabiya – 130 miles east – which cut all mobile and internet networks in the town, and the attack on Es Sider airfield, were most likely attempts by ISS to slow the response of LNA and oil facilities guard reinforcements based in Ajdabiya. However, ISS were repelled by local PFG fighters and air strikes by what appeared to be jets from the Islamist Operation Dawn alliance operating from Misrata. The fighting left at least 12 dead, 25 oil guards wounded, and a 400,000 barrel oil storage tank ablaze. The next day, further fighting erupted south west of Es Sider. After suffering heavy losses (at least 30 confirmed killed but with the number perhaps as high as 150), ISS fired artillery shells and Grad rockets into the Es Sider oil tank farm, setting another tank alight.

With the fires at Ras Lanuf and Es Sider still blazing, on 7 Jan ISS struck again, this time further west when a water truck loaded with explosives detonated at the gates of a military camp in Zliten, 40 miles west of Misrata, killing at least 65 people, many of whom were police recruits,  in the worst terrorist attack in Libya since the 2011 revolution. ISIS’s Tripoli branch later claimed responsibility for the bombing. Worryingly, Zliten sources had reported a number of suspicious men arriving by boat in the days prior to the bombing. The town has been one of the locations for smuggling migrants to the Europe, and the camp was probably targeted because it was being used to train and deploy police and coast guard personnel to curb smuggling, indicating a potential alliance between human trafficking gangs and ISIS in the area.

Only three days later, PFG forces at the Zueitina oil terminal, 100 miles south of Benghazi, repelled an amphibious assault by pro-ISIS fighters in three boats. While it appears that the PFG received a tip off about the attack and were thus ready, the audaciousness of the attack, and, at 300 miles, its long distance from Sirte, is indicative of the lengths that ISS is willing to go to capture oil infrastructure. Meanwhile, on the night of 13/14 Jan an ISS explosion destroyed a length of oil pipeline near Maradah, 100 miles southeast of Ras Lanuf. The same day, the fires at the tanks at Ras Lanuf and Es Sider caused were finally put out, but not before 850,000 barrels had been destroyed in the fires. Worse was to follow.

On 21 Jan, ISS again attacked the Ras Lanuf terminal, deliberately setting another four storage tanks holding up to 2 million barrels of crude alight after they were again repelled by PFG forces. These fires burned until 24 Jan causing substantial damage and risking ‘environmental disaster’ according to Libyan oil officials. A large section of pipeline leading to the Es Sider terminal was also alight by the group.

Although an ISIS attempt to seize the eastern oilfields had been expected since late November, recent developments indicate an increase in its Libyan affiliate’s tactical capability and strategic complexity.  Clearly, the al-Qahtani campaign has seen a rapid increase in both the number and intensity of ISS attacks on Libya’s oil infrastructure. Equally clearly, and far more worrying, is that unlike in Syria and Iraq, the group now appears content to destroy Libyan oil facilities if it cannot seize them. This fact is important as it provides information about the groups capabilities and its longer-term intent in Libya.

Firstly, with ISS’ total strength currently estimated to be about 3,000 – of which perhaps less than a third are available for operations at one time – at present it appears that they still lack the capability to concentrate their forces in order to seize a major oil facility outright. LNA and Operation Dawn airstrikes, backed by international actors such as France (who was likely behind airstrikes by unidentified jets on ISS in Sirte on 10 Jan: no claim of responsibility was made but this may well be to avoid both political blowback and further ISIS attacks at home), Egypt and Jordan, and intelligence feeds provided by US and Italian drones, have contributed to this inability to mass. This has forced smaller ISS forces to rely predominantly on surprise over strength, and airpower has frequently tipped the balance in recent clashes between ISS and the PFG/LNA.

While the latter have managed to hold on to Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, the prospect of further attacks in the area, and indeed on the still functioning Brega terminal 70 miles east of the terminals remains very real. Similarly, ISS could also strike towards the oil fields at Sarir, Messla and Nafoura, which account for about 60% of Libya’s current oil output, and which could prove harder to reinforce if ISIS launched a concerted attack. It is for this reason that the LNA has sent a 95-vehicle column to interdict any ISIS sally towards these fields, as an ISS attack in this area could also cut the oil pipeline north to the Hariga export terminal at Tobruk.

Nevertheless, despite the threat of further ISIS attacks, and the grave danger this now poses to Libya’s oil infrastructure, the fact that the group is happy to destroy these facilities points to its fundamental inability to seize and hold them. There are a number of reasons for this.

Most importantly, the sectarian divides that have helped the group prosper in Iraq and Syria do not exist in Libya, thereby denying the group mass appeal amongst the Libyan populace. Indeed, almost all Libyans and the various militias are staunchly against the group due its strong foreign fighter and Gaddafi-ist elements. Crucially, this limits both its support base and its freedom of manoeuvre. The local uprising against ISS in Sirte in August – and the minor attacks on the group in areas they control since then (an ISS commander was also shot dead in Harawa on 20 Jan) – indicate that even where the group do enjoy military superiority, locals are willing to contest this, despite the dangers. Indeed, ISIS central’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi recently dispatched a senior aide known as ‘Abu Omar’ to Sirte to tighten the groups grip on the city, which has caused friction with local commanders.

Secondly, the timing of the new campaign is telling, coming as it does as ISIS faces increasing military pressure in Iraq and Syria, and as consensus around a GNA is growing. ISS and its parent organisation know they face a major threat if the new government in Libya can begin to unite the militias against the common and pressing enemy. Therefore, denying the GNA – and indeed any of its rival governments – the revenues it needs to do so by destroying oil facilities appears to be the groups’ new strategy to react to recent developments. Such a long-term goal would also potentially create the kind of social and economic upheaval that could see support for the group rise.

However, the final element in all this is the oil infrastructure itself. Unlike their operations in Iraq and Syria, many Libyan fields have been closed due to the threat ISIS poses, while a closely monitored coastline, destroyed pipelines, and a lack of other means of getting oil out mean that the group would likely struggle to sell oil without the help of the local population. While the southern smuggling route does provide an option, this route is long, arduous, and ISS lack the trucks to use it at present. As a result of these three major factors, ISS’ campaign is indicative of their longer-term weakness as much as their short-term strength.

However, it is clear that Libya’s oil infrastructure in now facing an existential threat, and its destruction would take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to replace. While it appears that the PFG and LNA forces in the Sirte oil crescent are able to hold their own at present, their longer-term sticking power will depend on reinforcement and resupply, and the knowledge that airstrikes are available if required. Should these fail to materialise, their morale could be threatened.

A concerted Libyan response is now clearly needed, but whether these latest attacks will provide enough impetus for the various armed forces to unite against the ISIS remains to be seen. Further attacks should be expected in the short term, with the threat to Brega a real worry. This knowledge has prompted strong indications that the West is increasingly likely to take decisive military action against ISIS in Libya. This would most likely include airstrikes and the deployment of special forces by the US, UK, France and Italy (all of which have conducted reconnaissance missions in Libya in recent months). Despite ISS’ longer-term weaknesses, such action cannot come soon enough if it is to save Libya’s oil facilities and protect the country’s long-term future.

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

The Islamic State versus the European Union

European_flag_in_Karlskrona_2011A printer-friendly version is available here.

T.S. Allen in an officer in the United States Army. The views expressed in his work are his own and do not reflect the position of the Department of Defense, the United States Army, or any other part of the United States Government. Follow him on Twitter @TS_Allen.

On November 14th of last year, terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State wounded or killed over five hundred French citizens with bullets and bombs in Paris. French President François Hollande responded the next day with rhetoric similar to what he had first deployed the previous January after Al Qaeda struck the City of Light, reiterating that France was “at war” with Islamic terror. The January speech had emphasized France’s unique role in combatting terror in Francophone Africa. In his November address, Hollande added a surprising new approach: in response to the global threat posed by the Islamic State, France would now invoke the until-then-untested collective defense clause of the European Union’s charter. In effect, he was obligating the peace-loving superstate to start its first war.

Several months into the European “war” on the Islamic State, however, there is good reason to question whether the EU is fighting a war against IS at all—and if it’s even capable of doing so. The European response to France’s call for help has been confused and anemic. On the security front—that is, when it comes to defending Europe with domestic counterterrorism efforts—EU leaders have aggressively pushed a new unified security agenda, setting a June deadline for establishing a new combined border force, and promising enhanced intelligence sharing and cooperation in domestic counterterrorism.

Where Europe has stumbled is on the defense front—that is, in actually going out and striking back at the Islamic State itself in Iraq and Syria, where the attack on Paris was planned. Most European powers have made symbolic moves to “intensify” military operations against IS, but only the United Kingdom has made a new, sustainable commitment of combat troops to the campaign. That reveals European counterterrorism’s Achilles heel. Security cannot exist without defense: armies and fleets, not police, are the ultimate guarantors of borders and the security of what is behind them. Yet even since the Paris attacks, the United States has provided the real defense muscle that ensures European security, and since November, only the US has claimed credit for killing IS leaders involved in plotting terrorist attacks on the West.

European neglect of defense is not new, even if it is increasingly anachronistic. The European Union has no collective defense policy, no army, and an underfunded and little-loved military staff of only two hundred. Its only articulated military aspiration is to be able to play a significant role in peacekeeping and conflict prevention activities. The collective defense clause buried in Article 42 of the EU charter is so obscure that several of the foreign ministers who France called upon to affirm their invocation of it had “never heard” of the thing. They had little reason to, as the clause very sensibly states that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—the largest military alliance in history—is “the foundation of [the] collective defence [of members of both the EU and NATO] and the forum for its implementation.” No one predicted France’s EU move, but many informed commentators, including former Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridis and former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, assumed that France would also invoke the collective defense clause in Article 5 of the NATO charter, obliging not just Europe, but the rest of the Free World to come to France’s aid.

France demurred, instead confusingly invoking the EU charter which calls upon NATO to act, without then calling upon NATO. After an emergency consultation, NATO only declared that “a number of Allies are already working with France on their ongoing operations and investigations in the wake of the attacks.” Hollande surely had sound reasons for avoiding the organization’s involvement. It struggled to lead operations in Afghanistan when it took over from America there. It also inspires Russian antipathy, which Hollande cannot afford while he seeks to build an accord with Russia that addresses Syria and hopefully also excuses an end to the pesky US-EU sanctions against Russia over Ukraine that hurt Hollande politically (a move which Germany may well support). Most importantly, as Hollande’s government has stated in the past, even being a member of NATO results in the “trivialization of [France’s] foreign policy” and “a deterioration of [France’s] ability to make decisions and act.”

To prove that France’s foreign policy was far from trivial, in the days after the Paris attacks, French politicians, diplomats, soldiers, sailors and airmen went into action. While Hollande tried to build a Euro-Amero-Russian consensus about how to deal with the Islamic State, France’s own Charles de Gaulle—the only fully operational, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier flying a European flag—steamed to Syria and doubled the number of French planes flying against IS. They bombed Raqqah, IS’ capital.

Americans enthusiastically applauded the French president for allegedly not imposing politically toxic rules of engagement on French forces, and the French military for its ability to fight light while avoiding dreaded “mission creep.” However, France is constrained by the limited capabilities of its armed forces.   In 2012, the French Chief of the Defense, Admiral Édouard Guillaud even expressed doubts about its ability to deploy 30,000 soldiers for a year—its stated goal. That number is significantly fewer fighters that even the Islamic State has.

France’s “escalation” against IS did not include any new deployments of forces to the Middle East. The De Gaulle had been preparing for its cruise, which was publicly announced weeks before the attacks, since returning from its last Middle Eastern mission months before, and will have to withdraw in March for logistical reasons. Even with the De Gaulle’s 20 planes in action, the French still only have 32 flying over the Middle East as part of what they call Operation Chammal. Eight of them are outdated Super Étendard Modernises, which have been flying since 1978 and which the French publicly admit are overdue for retirement. Simply put, France’s current contribution to the fight against IS is both modest and unsustainable.

Other European responses also fizzled. European defense budgets have been eviscerated since the end of the Cold War, and the downward trend has only increased since the global financial crisis of 2008. The European defense forces lining up behind France are small, outdated, and with one exception, unsustainable.

The United Kingdom, the only European state with worldwide military reach, was the first power to answer France’s call. After prodding by Hollande and a noisy debate in Parliament, British Prime Minister David Cameron deployed a handful of additional planes and gained authorization to expand the UK’s anti-IS bombing campaign in Iraq into Syria. As air power analyst Justin Bronk notes, however, this “will not make a significant difference” as the UK’s niche is intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft, which have long been able to fly over Syria. Like France, Britain is flying outdated planes whose retirement has been delayed to do so. Importantly, though, the UK has deployed a sustainable, enduring force, whereas the French force flying off the De Gaulle will have to withdraw in a matter of months.

Germany, the EU’s economic giant, promised a modest contribution of six Tornado jets which will be limited to conducting ISR missions (a smaller air wing than Denmark has sent against IS), a frigate to escort the De Gaulle, and 150 more trainers for Iraqi Kurdish militias. Germany only has 38 fully operational combat aircraft, however. While the Germans should be given due credit for bringing their planes into action rapidly—flying their first mission on December 16th—their contribution has still been modest. Germany has also promised to deploy about 650 additional military trainers to Mali asa part of the broader fight against terrorism, but they will be 5,000 kilometers from the Islamic State.

The rest of Europe has done basically nothing. Italy, which just took delivery of Europe’s first next-generation F-35 fighter planes, typifies the European approach to defense: it spends two-thirds of its defense budget on personnel costs, has minimal force projection capabilities despite its force’s technological advancement and size, and most importantly no political will to take to the offensive against IS. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi insists that Italy wants “to wipe out terrorists,” but he has refused to commit any Italian forces to doing so. Instead, when Hollande came to Rome in the aftermath of the attacks, Renzi promised that Italy would match a €1 billion expenditure on domestic security spending with €1 billion spent on “culture,” a curious effort to prevent the radicalization of would-be jihadi youths with free museum trips and concerts.

There is no sign that the decline of Europe’s military might will be reversed. In response to the attacks, Hollande has promised to increase military spending, even if it meant transgressing EU budget guidelines, but little of that money will go towards forces that could “eradicate” IS. The coming months may actually see a de-prioritization of defense abroad as France focuses on expensive domestic security operations. Operation Sentinel, the military’s long-standing domestic security mission, cost $1 million a day earlier this year, an amount the French government called “unsustainable” even before France entered a state of economic emergency declared in January 2016. Similarly, the United Kingdom, which released a long-awaited Strategic Defence and Security Review in the aftermath of the attacks, has at best staunched the decline of its military forces, which have seen about 30% of their capabilities axed since 2010.

Every European country has a different excuse for this lack of military might. Most European politicians would note that the EU has demonstrated significant diplomatic, intellectual, and economic power since the attacks on Paris. European leaders’ own actions, however, demonstrate that this disinterested and haphazard approach to defense is already outdated. The Paris attacks showed that the Islamic State is now a global, hybrid threat, which endangers Europe directly with terrorism and the Middle East (and thus Europe indirectly) with pseudo-conventional forces. Any effective response must address both security and defense. —which is why France is increasing cooperation between its own security and defense establishments. The EU’s first, faltering war has proven that Europe cannot pursue such a strategy with the military means now available to it.

For more than half a century, the states that today compose the EU have relied on NATO for security. France has suggested this is no longer enough, especially as Russia looks more and more like a necessary partner for Europe. The EU has demonstrated that it offers no alternative, however. Many, especially in Germany, fantasize that the solution is the formation of an EU Army, but this would require the creation of a collective defense policy of the sort European leaders don’t want to admit is necessary, a level of defense spending they cannot afford, and alienate the United Kingdom, Europe’s most capable military power. There are no easy answers here.

Nonetheless, the European response to the Islamic State suggests that change is on the horizon. As European publics become increasingly concerned with preventing terrorism, and battles in the Middle East continue to have direct ramifications on the streets of European cities, Europe will have to give more consideration to, and likely spend more on, both security and defense. It is a commonplace to predict that the European Union is doomed so long as it pursues a common monetary policy without a common fiscal policy. A new critique is in order (a re-purposing of a longstanding argument against NATO, which has an exclusively wartime, defense role): in an age of hybrid threats, it seems increasingly illogical to pursue a common security policy without a defense policy or policies that can be tied to it. Only time will tell whether this calls the ideal of an ever-closer EU, or the ideal of a peace-loving Europe, into question.

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

The other story from Saudi Arabia

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Caitlin Vito currently works at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and has also held positions with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Her research focuses on migration.

Recent headline-grabbing events coming out of Saudi Arabia overshadow an issue which has been simmering for years: the plight of the country’s migrant workers.  Western governments need to take a – albeit uncomfortable – stand against their ally.

The first planes arrived at Bole airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in early November 2013. As the passengers spilled out onto the tarmac, they were soon joined by hundreds of other returnees scrambling to collect their belongings and to make their way to the migrant transit centres. From November 2013 to March 2014, an estimated 160,000 more Ethiopians were to follow. Deported from Saudi Arabia during an unprecedented crackdown on undocumented migrant workers, they were given the ultimatum: voluntarily leave or face deportation.

Rights groups raised serious concerns over the Saudi’s treatment of migrants during their deportation. However, in Addis Ababa the scars on the bodies of women returning and their personal accounts told the story of abuse extending far beyond the mistreatment inflicted during their deportation.  Employed as domestic workers in Saudi households, many of these women spoke of routine mistreatment, ranging from withheld wages to serious psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. The Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat, a Nairobi-based migration organisation, found that in the shelters hosting female returnees a “significant proportion” were “mentally ill”, having suffered various degrees of abuse. In one shelter a woman had arrived paralysed, having been thrown off a balcony by the family for whom she worked. A 15-year old girl recounted how she was given “medicine” by her employers but was unsure what followed, although she had a “feeling they raped me”. Reports of suicide among domestic workers are not uncommon.

Despite the immediate outrage generated in Ethiopia and internationally by these revelations, this systemic abuse was already fairly well known, but largely ignored, by Saudi authorities. Domestic workers face many barriers to speaking out. Fear of being accused of moral misconduct, adultery or even sorcery prevent many women from raising issues of abuse with the police, as do laws requiring women to be accompanied by an unmarriageable male (father, brother, son) when going to the police – a relative most female domestic workers do not have in the country. As such, their grievances frequently go unheard.

Facing a system which is already stacked against them, their vulnerability is further aggravated by the fact that these women often arrive completely unaware and unprepared for what awaits them. Many women are from rural, poor regions in Ethiopia, with limited education and knowledge – if any – of Arabic. They frequently lack the skills needed to operate the modern household equipment essential to their domestic work, drawing the ire of their employers. Despite this, the economic prospects and the hopes placed on them by relatives for financial support back in Ethiopia means that there is no shortage of Ethiopian women willing to take the risk to seek domestic work in the Saudi Kingdom, making them an easy target for exploitation and abuse.

Such a toxic mix is exacerbated by pervasive discrimination towards Africans in Saudi Arabia. Saudi media feeds this with reports of Ethiopian workers being criminals, involved in prostitution and alcohol. The Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat reports a hierarchy for domestic workers, with Filipina women considered the most desirable, followed by Indonesians, and with African women last. This prejudice fans abuse within the ‘kafala system’ governing labour migration, as Saudi employers hold excessive power over their workers, making for “slavery like conditions” according to Human Rights Watch.

The condemnation garnered by the revelations of wide-spread abuse of foreign domestic workers did prompt some, albeit belated, reforms from the Saudi government. In October 2015 the government made amendments to the Labour Law which introduced or increased fines for employers who confiscate migrant workers’ passports, or fail to pay salaries or to provide copies of contracts to employees. However, as Human Rights Watch noted, the new laws exclude domestic workers, who mostly consist of migrant women. The reforms made to laws governing domestic workers back in 2013 are insufficient. They still permit employers to require a 15-hour workday and deny domestic workers the right to turn down any work without a ‘legitimate’ reason.

Sadly, recent developments make significant change in the near future unlikely. Previous events offer insight into how Saudi domestic politics impact migrant workers. The 2013 mass deportations were partially in response to the Arab Spring and Saudi government fears that high national unemployment rates, especially among the youth, could spur the spread of political instability in the Kingdom. With current regional turmoil and government fears of domestic insecurity, there is the real risk for further government crackdowns on migrant workers and toleration of their abuse, using them as scapegoats for the country’s troubles.

Of all the headline grabbing events coming out of Saudi Arabia right now, from tensions with Iran boiling over after the beheading of a prominent Shia cleric, to its role in the war in Yemen and in triggering plummeting oil prices, the plight of migrant workers, especially that of female domestic workers, has been largely ignored by the international community. This is a grave mistake. With over nine million migrant workers – roughly the population of Sweden – in a country of only thirty million, their mistreatment is a source of both internal unrest and serious friction between the Saudis and the workers’ national governments which often lack the bargaining power needed to push the Saudi government into real action.

Moreover, and perhaps most crucially, one lesson that history teaches is that tolerating serious human rights abuses against the most vulnerable only begets more – and escalating – abuses. A country that, with some justification, believes it can act with impunity because of its status as the world’s leading oil supplier may go on to commit acts that, when compounded, have profound and destabilising consequences within the Middle East and beyond.

Change will require determined action on the part of the international community. Given its close relationship to the Saudi government, the West has a particular responsibility to apply pressure on its ally regarding its human rights record – including towards migrant workers. In their extreme vulnerability, the situation of Ethiopian domestic workers symbolises the disenfranchisement of millions of migrants working in Saudi Arabia. Human Rights organisations have continually tried to draw attention to their inhumane treatment. It is time that those most able to influence the Saudi Kingdom for change, actually do.

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

Strategic Narratives without Strategy


Zachary Wolfraim is a PhD researcher in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, where he focuses on the role of narratives in shaping foreign policy behaviour. He previously worked as a consultant in NATO Headquarters on operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and LibyaYou can follow him at @Zachwol.

After the attacks of November 13 President Hollande vowed a ‘pitiless’ war against ISIS and committed additional French resources in order to wage war against the organisation. While other Western nations have supported an increased aerial bombing campaign against ISIS, the development of any kind of actual solution to the crisis on the ground has been missing. The response thus far has largely focused on tackling symptomatic problems stemming from previous inaction in Syria. For the time being, the war being waged is from the air and through the airwaves.

On a different but related front, Russian activity in Syria poses yet another challenge in light of recent events with Turkey. Since 2014 Russia has been probing the fringes of NATO and testing Western responses, exemplified by the invasion of Ukraine. The latest incident threatens to once again expose fault lines in the Alliance and potentially test member states commitment to Article V. With Russia, as with ISIS, the West has been caught on the back foot, continuously forced to respond to events rather than leading them.

There has been ongoing discussion of the importance of the narrative or the ‘strategic narrative’ of the conflicts in Syria and with Russia and how, in many ways, the West has been outmaneuvered by adversaries that have been far more effective in communicating its message. Indeed, if we build on Lawrence Freedman’s contention that a strategic narrative is deliberately constructed in order to shape behaviours and achieve a desired end-state, taking Iraq and Afghanistan as other recent examples; Western countries have been pretty miserable on this score.[1]

Since 9/11 it has been hard to pin down a singular, compelling narrative that has defined Western military interventions, in part due to the lack of overarching strategy that established their objectives. An inconclusive decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan has left the electorates of Western countries wary of further interventions built on tenuous or conflicting strategic goals. The narrative of the previous campaigns changed frequently over the years ranging from regime change to counter terrorism to state building and so on; ultimately leaving the reasons for these interventions clouded and unclear. The failure of strategic thinking has engrained a deep level of scepticism towards Western military interventions creating a vacuum into which other actors such as ISIS and Russia could create compelling and effective counter-narratives.

ISIS has thus far proven itself relatively adept at being able to utilise social media as a method by which to project its message to receptive followers as well as create avenues for recruitment. In part, this is due to the fact that they have a clear end-state. Similarly, Russia has had a much clearer vision about what it aims to achieve strategically, specifically, the restoration of Russia’s international power and clear influence over the countries in its immediate neighbourhood. As Anne Applebaum observed, it has effectively used historical tactics in conjunction with its media to threaten and intimidate its neighbours.  Similarly, Russian media outlets and Putin have cast Russia as a victim of relentless Western oppression that has sought to deny Russia its place in the world.

Countering the narratives coming from both ISIS and Russia remain challenging in large part due to the current state of conflict and whether it is possible to articulate a strategic narrative in the absence of Western strategy. In Syria, the US has stated the dual aim of seeing the Assad regime removed from power while also ‘degrading and destroying’ ISIS. European members of the coalition have largely focused on bombing ISIS with less to say about Assad. Indeed, the British debate expanding its air campaign over Syria framed the mission more in terms of the duty to allies and to ideals rather than outlining any clear conditions for ‘victory.’

Similarly with Russia, NATO and its member states need to continue to exert pressure on Russia, given the continued unrest in Eastern Ukraine. Similarly, Russian intervention in Syria has also raised the possibility of an inadvertent military contact between NATO and Russia similar to the previous Turkish incident. NATO member states and other Western states’ need to avoid their previous tepid response to Russia’s annexation of another state’s territory and be able to quickly seize the narrative while simultaneously forcefully countering competing ones.

Fundamentally, it is impossible to articulate an effective strategic narrative without an ultimate achievable goal. In this environment it becomes a serious challenge to adequately articulate a strategic narrative of success, let alone sufficiently ‘sell’ the public on the need for overseas intervention. Social media and the Internet are particular areas which need to be better understood and utilised, as this is the main area where counter-narratives are likely to emerge.

This should not be read as a rejection of overseas diplomatic or military action, but instead a call to reframe how we discuss, rationalise and ultimately, narrate these operations. Moreover, it is a plea for a clear-headed, proactive approach to strategy coupled with effective leadership. In doing so Western governments’ can take practical steps against state and non-state adversaries while also articulating what they aim to achieve through these actions and how these actions fit into wider narratives about these states.

Given the rapidly changing media landscape, adaptation is necessary. Strategy and narrative can no longer be treated as separate elements; neglecting one can now effectively condemn the other.

[1] See Lawrence Freedman, The Transformation of Strategic Affairs, IISS Adelphi Paper 379, Routledge: London, 2006.

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What the West should have learned from its long ‘war on terror’

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Peter Apps is Reuters global defence correspondent. He is currently on sabbatical as executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21).

Behind President Barack Obama’s Sunday night speech lies an awkward reality. Ever since 9/11, the West has been fighting two in some ways separate, but deeply intertwined battles against Islamist militancy.

One — to protect the West from attack — has actually gone remarkably well. The other, however — to shape events in the Middle East and surrounding regions and push back radical militant groups — has been something of a disaster. Somehow, those two campaigns must be reconciled if groups like Islamic State and its ideology are to be defeated.

Last week’s shooting at a San Bernardino, California, special needs center was the deadliest jihadist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. In all, such post-9/11 attacks have killed 45 people: a series of senseless deaths, yet a relatively small number considering the level of concern and attention paid to the topic.

The vast majority of those attacks appear to have been homegrown plots, albeit in many cases inspired and sometimes carried out by those in direct contact with militant groups elsewhere in the world.

Why have there been so few attacks? There are several reasons, including sheer distance and air travel controls that make it hard for any foreign assailants to get themselves into position. Additionally, the U.S. Muslim population remains well-integrated, particularly compared to Europe; law enforcement efforts have been massive and relatively effective; and strikes overseas have disrupted plots — as has the incompetence of the militants themselves.

And much of it, current and former security officials concede, comes down to luck.

What the Paris attacks showed, though, was the last decade of war in the Middle East coming home to roost. Those attacks may have been largely carried out by European-born or resident attackers, but the planning had clear links to Syria — and with the continent awash with refugees from Middle East war zones, stopping a handful of militants from slipping through the net is all but impossible. That’s much less true in the United States and Britain, both of which can control borders much more easily.

Simply protecting the West and letting the Middle East burn is not really an option. Many of the West’s actions over the last decade and a half, however, have made matters worse.

In Iraq and Libya in particular, we used military force to dismantle dictators, with no good alternative to fill the gap. In Syria, the West did even worse by encouraging the opposition to rise up against President Bashar al-Assad without backing them sufficiently to finish the job. The resulting instability provided the perfect environment for Islamic State to thrive.

The result has been devastating — a nine-fold increase in deaths worldwide from militant attacks, almost all of them concentrated in a relatively small number of countries across the Middle East and Africa.

Yet the situation isn’t necessarily as bad as many think it is. Yes, Islamic State still controls a disconcerting amount of Iraq and Syria. Its expansion, however, has largely been halted as a result of airstrikes and efforts by local forces. As a result, it has become much harder for the group to maintain its narrative of invincibility, particularly as it begins to be pushed back in Iraq, in particular.

With the exception of Islamic State and its urban strongholds around Raqqa and Mosul, Islamist groups have had remarkably little success making serious territorial inroads around major cities. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has never managed to hold serious urban ground for more than a handful of hours. Nor has Boko Haram in Nigeria or the various groups in Pakistan — who so brutally terrorized Mumbai in 2008 and who hit targets in their own country even more often.

Those states might have their weaknesses, but today they are more urbanized than at any point in history. For now at least, their governments have the ability to hold the cities, and their populations seem to have little appetite for Islamist militant rule. The endless attacks have a high human cost — and it’s almost impossible to stop militants infiltrating the target-rich cities — but total takeover seems unlikely.

For the United States and its allies, simply degrading Islamic State to the extent that it could no longer hold major towns would be a success. That, though, will take time — not least because the ethnic Sunni populations of places like Mosul and Raqqa would rather take their chances with Islamic State than live under — and risk recriminations by — the Shiite-dominated governments in Baghdad and Damascus. Persuading them otherwise will not be easy.

There is one country in which outside intervention has achieved such results, however — Somalia, where local African forces, backed by U.S. strikes and intelligence, have pushed Al Shabaab militants first from Mogadishu and now from wider swathes of territory.

The strategy Obama outlined on Sunday is very much in that model. Yes, there will now be small numbers of U.S. special operations forces on the ground in Syria as well as Iraq. In both cases, however, the plan is to build local capacity. If the last 15 years have shown anything, it is that larger Western interventions can be less effective. Everyone knows they will one day leave, so it’s hard to achieve lasting effects.

On that front, targeted air strikes should help. The West may be lousy at long-term strategy, but their militaries are really good at destroying structures and systems. In Iraq and Libya, that’s probably done more harm than good, but it augers badly for Islamic State’s hope of becoming an actual functioning state.

To build on that strategy, though, you need a functioning state in areas that Islamic State would otherwise control. That’s still a long way away — particularly in Syria, where regional and global powers have long been fueling the conflict by picking sides based on wider geopolitical and ideological disagreements.

What binds the two interlocking battles against militancy — to stop attacks in the West and stabilize the current conflict areas — comes down to the same thing: integration.

By that, I do not necessarily mean cultural integration — although that is unquestionably important. I mean that the populations from which potential militants are drawn — be they disenfranchised groups in Iraq and Syria, Muslims in America and Europe — feel that they get something back from the nation-state they reside in.

In the United States and Europe, that is still not that difficult. Even relatively ill-integrated new migrant populations get plenty back in terms of benefits, opportunities and the rule of law. After all, that’s why many came in the first place.

In countries like Iraq, Nigeria and most particularly Syria, rebuilding that social contract is going to be much, much harder. It will require unpleasant compromises and dealing with people the United States really, really doesn’t like. But it is not impossible. Building those structures needs to be at the heart any truly effective strategy.

There will still, of course, be fanatics who will need to be robustly tracked down and neutralized. But that is a much more manageable problem.

It will not be easy — not least because the West and its allies are themselves often ineffective, transparently hypocritical and capable of huge mistakes. In general, though, both it and the globalized world it has created remain much more appealing places to live than anything Islamic State or its allies have to offer.

This article first appeared on Reuters on December 7th, 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.

Syria, Yemen, Libya – one factor unites these failed states, and it isn’t religion


Jack Goldstone is an expert on revolutions at the Woodrow Wilson Center and George Mason University and a global fellow at PS21. This article was first published on

As world leaders gather in Paris this week to address climate change, they will labor under the shadow of recent attacks by Islamic State. Yet as they think about climate issues, they should remember that the connection between climate change and Islamic State – and more broadly, between climate change and political instability – is not just a coincidence. It may instead be the key reality of the 21st century.

The rise of IS was a direct result of the failure of the Syrian regime, as it was beset by urban uprisings in 2011. Yet those uprisings did not come out of nowhere, and were not merely inspired by protests in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Syria was an increasingly prosperous country in the 1990s, with its various ethnic and religious groups working together in cities.

Yet between 2006 and 2009, Syria was crippled by its worst drought in modern history. A recent article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that this drought was not natural. Rather, hotter temperatures and the weakening of winds that bring moisture from the Mediterranean were likely the region’s reflection of rising greenhouse gas emissions, according to computer simulations.

Combined with poor water management and government neglect of farm conditions, the drought caused a collapse of farming in northeastern Syria. Seventy-five percent of farmers suffered total crop failure, and 80 percent of livestock died. Around 1.5 million farming families migrated to cities to look for work and food, joining millions of refugees from Palestine and Iraq. The added burden these refugees placed on Syria’s cities, and the distress of the farmers who lost their lands due to the drought, helped fuel the spread of rebellion against the Assad regime.

To be sure, climate change is never the single most important cause of conflict; it is what academics call a “structural threat.” Governments that can respond to such threats – because they have popular and elite support, have resources to respond to challenges, are willing to deploy those resources to distribute food and aid to the needy, and have diversified economies that can produce jobs – are not going to be shaken because of global warming. If we lived in a world where all regions were led by such governments, then climate change might be an economic burden and force changes in our lifestyle, but it would not bring the threat of state breakdown and civil war.

Unfortunately, Central America, most of Africa, the Middle East, and much of South Asia are dominated by precisely the wrong kind of governments. These regions have too many fragile states where large segments of the elite or populace distrust the government because of ethnic, religious, or economic exclusion; where governments have limited economic resources to respond to humanitarian crises; where governments are disinclined to respond to problems among marginalized groups or regions of their country; and where the economies are too dependent on agriculture or mining, and so cannot provide work for people if they are forced to move.

In such countries – or worse, in clusters of such countries – a spike in food prices, a severe drought or a ravaging flood can provide a harsh test of government. And where one government fails, the ensuing conflicts can spread to other fragile states and inflame an entire region.

Today the world is seeing an epidemic of failed states: Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Somalia and Mali have all lost control of parts of their territory. In every case, the weakening of state authority has created space for militants, and particularly for IS, to recruit followers and conduct operations. The conflicts have also sent massive waves of refugees to a Europe that is unprepared to handle them.

Think now of a world in which the population under age 24 in Africa has increased by 500 million people, and the populations of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Yemen have increased by over 100 million people. That is the UN’s projection for 2050. Add to this mix a combination of severe droughts, devastating floods, crop failures, and massive migrations that create collisions and heightened competition among ethnic and religious groups struggling for land, resources and incomes. Then think of how the governments of these regions could and would respond to such crises, and whether Europe and other safe havens could absorb even a tiny fraction of the resulting refugees.

If such a world exists one day, the current crisis in Syria and the actions of IS terrorists may be multiplied many fold.

World leaders in Paris should therefore focus on their opportunity to remove one of the key drivers of potential state breakdowns and terrorism in the future, by adopting vigorous measures to halt global warming.

It is already too late for modest measures to address global warming. As the study of Syria’s drought shows, the weather pattern changes, depriving fragile regions of adequate rainfall, are already underway. Preventing further disasters will require more than just holding the line at today’s levels of carbon emissions in China, the United States and Europe. Africa’s current carbon footprint is tiny, as its population is so lacking in access to energy that each African produces less than one-seventh as much carbon dioxide as each Chinese. Yet by 2050, if Africa were to emit as much carbon per capita as China does today, Africa’s carbon emissions would be as much as China and the United States combined produce today.

In other words, if Africa advances just to Chinese levels of fossil fuel consumption by 2050, then even if today’s major emitters manage to stop all of their own emissions growth, total global emissions will still grow by 40 percent by mid-century, blowing past the carbon budget required to keep total temperature rise within the two-degree limit recommended by the International Panel on Climate Change to avoid severe climate deterioration.

To accommodate necessary growth in energy use in Africa – vital to making the countries of Africa more resilient and better able to provide jobs and security to their growing populations – the world must move quickly on two fronts. The major emitters must first find ways to quickly reduce their carbon output from today’s levels. And they must develop low-carbon pathways for economic growth so the rest of the world can develop without creating new structural threats for political crises.

These goals can be met. If the United States, Europe and China all reduced their carbon emissions by 20 percent, other developing countries could increase their carbon emissions by almost one-third without an increase in world carbon output. That should be the goal for the next 10 years.

Beyond that date, it is critical to find ways by which all countries can escape dependence on fossil fuels for their economies, and reduce global emissions while still promoting global economic growth.

Terrorism thrives among weak and failed states, and among displaced people. If we are to reduce both in the future, we need to make sure that our climate does not further deteriorate. If we fail to prevent continued global warming, the rise in political temperature may far outstrip the warming of the weather outside.

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

Why America Should Take Mideast Refugees


Kate West Moran is a writer and commentator on Middle East affairs.

Baghdad, March 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom. U.S. troops have entered the country to “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.” More than a decade later the rumors of WMDs have been long debunked and Saddam Hussein is dead, but terrorism thrives in Iraq, and the Iraqi people are by no means free.

With the deposing of Saddam Hussein and the dismantling of the national army in the beginning of the 21st century, the existing governmental structures in Iraq were fractured and weak. The resultant manifestation of security and governance vacuums, combined with the country’s fragile social fabric largely due to a long-simmering conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, took on an even greater fragility. Groups began vying for power and a civil war erupted. Ultimately it was within the resulting power vacuum that al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) came to prominence, and reached its operational peak in 2007. The group then expanded in 2011 to become the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). As a result, there has been a mass exodus of citizens fleeing the Middle East due to violence and persecution over the last five years.

Why is it that despite a robust military campaign in Iraq and billions of dollars in aid money allocated to grassroots NGOs, that our efforts to root out terrorism have failed? How is it that Iraq became the head of the snake that ultimately morphed into the Islamic State? And why is it that despite hindsight being 20/20, we cannot seem to understand that we helped create the group that is now the region’s most dangerous and powerful non-state actor? Ultimately, how is this history tied to the question of refugees, and the extent to which they represent a threat to U.S. national security?

Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, the facts are definitive. We were party to the creation  of the power vacuum that enabled militant groups in the Middle East to come to power, and that have displaced millions in the years since the start of the Syrian civil war. Thus, it is our responsibility to seek a just and sustainable resolution to the refugee crisis.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, many American politicians have denounced the Obama administration’s policy of pursuing ISIS directly in Syria rather than focusing on terrorist threats closer to home and subsequently sought to curb the flow of Iraqis and Syrians into the United States. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted, by a margin of 289-137, in favor of the “SAFE Act,” a bill that will tighten restrictions on resettlement of refugees from the Middle East. The fear is that the Islamic State could seek to use refugees in a Trojan horse scenario; infiltrating the refugee community and using  them as a front to enter the country. They could then proceed to carry out mass attacks in major population centers like D.C. and New York.

There are several issues with this theory. First, none of the Paris attackers were refugees, nor were any of them Syrian. The passport belonging to a refugee and found near the body of the one of the attackers who was killed by Paris police, was proven to be a forged document; another individual was apprehended in the Balkans for carrying the same passport. Secondly, it would be far easier (and more expedient) for Islamic State militants to radicalize an American-born citizen, or to send a European national on a plane to carry out attacks in the U.S., than it would be for them to take the time and effort to navigate the red tape involved in refugee resettlement.

The current vetting process for refugees and asylum-seekers is upwards of 18 months; in many cases, it can take as long as two years. In those two years, the risk of radicalization in a refugee camp is fairly substantial; by drawing out the process unnecessarily, we are increasing the opportunity for Daesh to increase its capacity by recruiting new fighters for its ranks, and alienating them from the West. The vetting and resettlement process for refugees is far more stringent than for any other individual seeking to come to the United States. The increased attention on this community vis-à-vis preventing a “9/11 2.0” is illogical at best and damaging at worst.

The rejection of Middle Eastern refugees—who are fleeing the region due to violence and terror carried out by these militant groups—is American hypocrisy at its finest. Accepting these vulnerable individuals is not just the “right” thing to do; it is also the smart thing. While no vetting process is 100% guaranteed there is substantial evidence to suggest that our continued marginalization of refugees and discrimination against Muslims in general will fuel radicalization and strengthen Daesh’s appeal. Fearmongering campaigns, Islamophobia, ignorance and ultimately rejecting refugees inadvertently positions ISIS as a potential alternative for individuals who feel isolated from their communities. We are essentially forcing them to seek an identity elsewhere by denying refugees, and Muslims in general, the title of legitimate Americans. They will seek to find an identity and belonging  elsewhere, and in some cases, this identity lies with the Islamic State’s ideology. When we reject Muslims, they too will reject us. When we shun refugees, they too will shun us.

We cannot exact collective punishment on an entire community, simply because of the actions of a few. We cannot fall into accepting Islamophobia as the norm, nor of treating refugees and Muslim Americans like a scourge on our nation. We must welcome them, not just because America is a country founded by immigrants, but because how we choose to act in the coming months and years will determine our legacy—not just in the Middle East, but on an international scale.

We can choose to lead with moral courage and compassion, and conduct our national security in an informed manner, or we can choose to close our borders, shut out refugees, and send them running into the arms of our shared enemy. Our reaction to refugees will help determine if Daesh can prosper, or will be defeated by our defiance of their expectations. By welcoming refugees, embracing Muslims as valued citizens, and promoting a truly multicultural society, we transcend their narratives of hate and enmity. That is the America we must be, if we are to see Daesh defeated and forge for ourselves the legacy we so desperately seek.

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

The forgotten women and children of Iraq

Lost women and children 2015-11-30

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Caitlin Vito currently works at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and has also held positions with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Her research focuses on migration.

The devastating consequences of unregistered marriages for Iraqi women and children are leaving many Iraqis without basic state protection. The potential security implications reach far beyond Iraq’s borders.

It was only after her husband’s death that she found out about the devastating consequences for her and her daughter. The 25 year-old woman and her husband had been married by a religious cleric – as is the case for many couples in Iraq – and their religious marriage had never subsequently been registered with the Iraqi civil authorities. In the aftermath of his death, the young widow could neither find the marriage contract that her husband had kept with him, nor the cleric who had conducted the ceremony. Without their marriage registered in an Iraqi court, and with no alternative proof of marriage, the young mother and her daughter were both left ineligible for basic state assistance, such as health care and education. Their story is not unique.

Iraqi law does not recognise a marriage if it is not registered by the courts and couples who are only married by religious clerics are still single under the law.  Registration of marriage provides a couple with a legal marriage certificate and marital identity papers, entitling the man and wife and any subsequent children to basic state assistance and civic rights. Women in unregistered marriages are left in legal limbo and are extremely vulnerable should their husbands pass away or abandon them. In such cases they are denied the state protection and support afforded to women in registered marriages.

As marriage certificates are required for women to receive obstetric care and to give birth in a hospital, many children born into unregistered marriages are not born in state hospitals. Consequently, often these children are without state birth certificates and thus do not have formal identity documents. Oumayma Omar, a commentator on the Middle East, notes the continued disenfranchisement as these children grow-up since they are denied the most basic of state assistance, ranging from education and access to rations as well as to healthcare. This lack of protection under Iraqi law, a report by the US Agency for International Development Aid (USAID) concludes, makes women and their children the “primary and most vulnerable victims of unregistered marriages”. While under certain circumstances it is possible to petition for a marriage certificate to legally prove a marriage, the requirements are frequently unobtainable, especially for the poor and uneducated.

Of concern is that unregistered marriages are a growing phenomenon in Iraq. With the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 and the breakdown in the administrative structure, people have turned increasingly to religious and community leaders for order. The 2014 USAID report highlights that growing religious authority at the local level means that marriage by verbal contract in front of a religious or tribal authority remains the most common and socially accepted type of marriage for Iraqi families.

Another contributing factor to the rise in unregistered marriages is the increasing frequency of cases where one or both of the spouses are underage. More often than not, this is true for the girl. With the legal age for marriage in Iraq 18 years old, not registering a marriage is a way to get around the law. Underage marriage is a growing problem in the country. Most notably in the poorer areas, insecurity and poverty are leading families to marry off their daughters before the legal age, hoping to secure the girl’s future and to relieve the financial burden on the family.

In some rural areas, approximately 60% of marriages go unregistered by Iraqi courts. Consequently, there are a significant number of births that are not registered with state authorities. While accurate numbers of unregistered marriages and births are extremely difficult to determine, local civil society groups have raised alarm bells over the steady increase since 2003. Statistics vary depending on the region and between rural and urban areas; however, unregistered marriages are consistently most prevalent in areas of high poverty, illiteracy and gender inequality.

Unregistered marriages are most concentrated in these areas as requirements for obtaining a marriage registration prove frequently out of reach for the poor and illiterate. Obligatory medical examinations and identity documents, with their associated costs, as well as the requirement for two approved witnesses, all pose barriers to obtaining marriage registration for many. Couples may not be able to attend the court if they live in remote areas and are not able to afford the transportation costs. Security issues often prevent people from traveling to the more urban areas where courts are located. These practical challenges are often coupled with a deep distrust of the Iraqi government as well as local beliefs that see formal marriage registration as subordination to the government, which constitutes an affront to a man’s authority over his family.

Addressing the challenge that marriage registration laws pose to Iraqi society requires action from the government as well as from the international community. Harsher penalties are needed for those who officiate unregistered marriages as some religious clerics make a business out of the practice, capitalising on the misconception that religious marriages are legally accepted and do not require court registration. Any punitive action should also be coupled with a strong national awareness-raising campaign, specifically targeting poorer regions. Distrust of government and foreign officials means that such campaigns must be carried out by local, trusted groups.  Literacy promotion will also play a role in reducing the frequency of unregistered marriages, especially given the correlation between the practice and illiteracy rates.

At the same time, laws protecting children’s fundamental right to education, regardless of gender, economic status or identity documents, must be strengthened. Laws governing citizenship and birth registration should also be assessed to identify entry points to ensure that children of unregistered marriages have the right to Iraqi citizenship and the associated legal documents. The Iraqi government must continue to be lobbied to reform laws, policies and procedures associated with citizenship and identity documents. At the international level, the global community can support reform efforts as well as provide backing to Iraqi civil society groups campaigning for greater protection for women in unregistered unions and their children.

While these laws have profound consequences for individuals and their families, on a broader level, they also pose a serious challenge to the country as a whole. Widely practiced in Iraq, the consequences of unregistered marriages reach deep into the fabric of society, further disenfranchising already vulnerable groups. By leaving a significant portion of the Iraqi population without any basic state protection, these laws risk serving as another destabilising factor in an already unstable country and region.

Beyond Iraq, the consequences of unregistered marriages should be of concern to the international community. In the current security environment, and with the influence of Daesh felt throughout and far beyond the region, it is tempting to focus solely on the so-called hard security concerns and for attention to be diverted from ‘soft issues’ and the  disenfranchisement of those most vulnerable.

This would be a serious mistake. Daesh and like minded groups feed off of disaffection.  The increasing number of children growing up in Iraq with no formal identity documents, education or access to basic services provides a new pool of potential recruits for extremist organisations which promise what has been denied to these people by the Iraqi government: access to basic support and – not least of all – a sense of belonging and identity.

Addressing the challenges and consequences of unregistered marriages is pragmatic both from a human rights perspective and a security perspective. The Paris attacks have again, with horrifying clarity, demonstrated that our fates are deeply intertwined with those of the people of Iraq and the wider Middle East. We must have the foresight to recognise that the profound consequences of unregistered marriages on Iraqis will have implications far beyond Iraq’s borders. This should be of concern to us all.

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