Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category


The jihadist insurgent group ISIS, or as it now prefers to be called, the Islamic State, appears well on the road to achieving its stated goal: the restoration of the caliphate. The concept, which refers to an Islamic state presided over by a leader with both political and religious authority, dates from the various Muslim empires that followed the time of the Prophet Muhammad. From the seventh century onward, the caliph was, literally, his “successor.”

The problem with this new caliphate, which, an ISIS spokesman claimed on Sunday, had been established under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Islamist militant leader since the early days of the American occupation of Iraq, is that it is ahistorical, to say the least.

The Abbasid caliphate, for example, which ruled from 750 to 1258, was an impressively dynamic and diverse empire. Centered in Baghdad, just down the road from where ISIS is occupying large areas of Iraq, the Abbasid caliphate was centuries ahead of Mr. Baghdadi’s backward-looking cohorts. Abbasid society during its heyday thrived on multiculturalism, science, innovation, learning and culture — in sharp contrast to ISIS’ violent puritanism. The irreverent court poet of the legendary Caliph Harun al-Rashid (circa 763-809), Abu Nuwas, not only penned odes to wine, but also wrote erotic gay verse that would make a modern imam blush.

Centered on the Bayt al-Hikma, Baghdad’s “House of Wisdom,” the Abbasid caliphate produced notable advances in the sciences and mathematics. The modern scientific method itself was invented in Baghdad by Ibn al-Haytham, who has been called “the first true scientist.”

With such a proliferation of intellectuals, Islam itself did not escape skeptical scrutiny. The rationalist Syrian scholar Abu’l Ala Al-Ma’arri was an 11th-century precursor of Richard Dawkins in his scathing assessments of religion. “Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true,” he thundered. “The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.”

It is this tolerance of free thought, not to mention the supposed decadence of the caliph’s court, that causes Islamist radicals to hark back to an earlier era, that of Muhammad and his first “successors.” But even these early Rashidun (“rightly guided”) caliphs bear little resemblance to jihadist mythology. Muhammad, the most “rightly guided” of all, composed a strikingly secular document in the Constitution of Medina. It stipulated that Muslims, Jews, Christians and even pagans had equal political and cultural rights — a far cry from ISIS’ punitive attitude toward even fellow Sunnis who do not practice its brand of Islam, let alone Shiites, Christians or other minorities.

How did this ideological fallacy of the Islamist caliphate come about?

In the late 19th century, Arab nationalists were great admirers of Western societies and urged fellow Muslims, in the words of the Egyptian reformer Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, to “understand what the modern world is.” Many not only admired Europe and America but also believed Western pledges to back their independence from the Ottoman Empire.

The first reality check came when Britain and France carved up the Middle East following World War I. Disappointed by the old powers, Arab intellectuals still held out hope that the United States, which had not yet entered Middle Eastern politics in earnest, would live up to its image as a liberator.

But after World War II, America filled the void left by France and Britain by emulating its imperial predecessors. It avoided direct rule but propped up a string of unpopular autocrats. This resulted in an abiding distrust of Western democratic rhetoric.

Then there was the domestic factor. The failure of revolutionary pan-Arabism to deliver its utopian vision of renaissance, unity and freedom led to a disillusionment with secular politics. At the same time, the corruption and subservience to the West of the conservative, oil-rich monarchs turned many Arabs against the traditional deferential model of Islam.

Out of this multilayered failure, which often included the brutal suppression of both secular oppositionists and moderate Islamists, emerged a nihilistic fundamentalism, which claimed that contemporary Arab society had returned to the pre-Islamic “Jahiliyyah” (an “age of ignorance”). The only way to correct this was to declare jihad not only against foreign “unbelievers,” but also against Arab society itself in order to create a pure Islamic state — one that has only ever existed in the imaginations of modern Islamic extremists. These Islamists misdiagnose the weakness and underdevelopment of contemporary Arab society as stemming from its deviation from “pure” Islamic morality, as if the proper length of a beard and praying five times a day were a substitute for science and education, or could counterbalance global inequalities.

The wholesale destruction of Iraq’s political, social and economic infrastructure triggered by the American-led invasion created a power vacuum for these “takfiri” groups — first Al Qaeda and then the more radical ISIS — to fill. Despite the latter’s recent battlefield success, however, there is little support for the jihadists or appetite for their harsh strictures among the local populations, a fact reflected by the 500,000 terrified citizens who fled Mosul.

Even in the more moderate model espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist dream of transnational theocratic rule appeals to a dwindling number of Arabs. Only last week, Moroccan women showed their contempt for the conservative prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, by converging on Parliament armed with frying pans after he’d argued that women should stay in the home.

Rather than a caliphate presided over by arbitrarily appointed caliphs, subjected to a rigid interpretation of Shariah law, millions of Arabs strive simply for peace, stability, dignity, prosperity and democracy. Three turbulent years after the Arab revolutions, people still entertain the modest dream of one day having their fair share of “bread, freedom, social justice,” as the Tahrir Square slogan put it.

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist based in Jerusalem.

Posted on 2 July in


There is a Sarajevo somewhere in Jordan. It lies well outside Amman, somewhere in the hostile terrain to the east or the north. Were the armed ISIS extremists — who now call themselves representatives of the Islamic State and soldiers of the new caliphate — to cross this line, the current conflict that engulfs Syria and Iraq would likely explode and grow more complex and costly by quantum degrees. This is not the sort of red line that is the product of an ill-considered, halfhearted burst of presidential bravado. This is the type of red line that triggers historic change and is worth considering as we mark the epoch-making events in Sarajevo that spawned World War I 100 years ago.

For now, the wars in Syria and Iraq seem almost to be inviting the United States to remain more or less on the sidelines. Once an amorphous mess, it has seemed to take on something of a shape and symmetry. In both countries today, alliances featuring the ruling governments working in collaboration with Iran and Russia are taking on the extremists. With the announcement this weekend of Russian planes and munitions being shipped to the government in Baghdad, the orchestrated bombings last week of ISIS targets by Syrian jets in Iraq, and the active role of Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in both places, it almost seems like a traditional conflict with two sides vying against one another.

Further, with Moscow and Tehran willing to take up the fight against ISIS, it might be tempting for Washington to effectively sit this one out. After all, if the United States wants promises of political reform and the Iranians and Russians clearly don’t require it to intervene, the Iraqis will be even harder for America to deal with. Intransigent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may simply opt for the support of Tehran and Moscow, as well as a tacit alliance with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, avoiding the hard work of creating a truly representative Iraqi government — which also happens to be the most self-serving possible choice. Unfortunately, for the world, the route of “letting others fight our battles for us” might be “easier” — but it’s exceptionally dangerous.

The two wars that have spilled into one another do not represent a simple two-sided conflict. In Syria, not only is the opposition still fragmented, containing extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra that are themselves bitter enemies (usually) of ISIS, but it also involves more moderate groups, like the Free Syrian Army. You remember them? That’s the collection of rebels the United States has effectively resisted supporting thus far because it was uncertain of their allegiances or trustworthiness. Three years later, of course, now that ISIS has gone from terrorizing northern Syria to marauding across Iraq, the United States has somehow discovered that it is possible to “vet” suitable partners among them and start offering training and aid. The $500 million that Barack Obama has pledged to this effort is a good thing, though it’s diminished by its lateness. Meanwhile, in Iraq, it is not just Sunni extremists versus an out-of-touch Shiite regime in Baghdad. There are more moderate Sunnis who don’t relish the prospect of living in ISIS’s 13th-century self-declared caliphate. And there are the Kurds who seek and deserve independence — a fact not appreciably advanced by the declaration of support they received over the weekend from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is not exactly the ally of first resort you want in that neck of the woods.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that in its current configuration — and absent a constructive move toward effective political resolutions in Iraq or Syria — the conflict offers a panoply of unappetizing potential conclusions.

It is fine to pit Assad and Maliki plus Iran and Russia against ISIS, except under the following circumstances: Either side wins or, alternatively, there is a draw.

ISIS winning and establishing control over Iraq, Syria, or a large zone encompassing parts of Iraq and Syria would be a catastrophe that could haunt the region and the world for decades to come. Were Assad and Maliki to triumph with big debts owed to the Iranians, it would not exactly be a formula for regional stability, and it promises further insurrections and abuses to come. The most likely outcome, a draw, doesn’t look much better. Northwestern Syria will be a region of nominal governmental control, with the help of sponsors; some portions of Syria and Iraq will get an ISIS caliphate, a hot zone of extremist mayhem that will likely infect much of the region and from which more global terrorist efforts will emanate. Partition-by-default is a formula for unending conflict.

This frames the problem of staying out or disengaged. The United States might mitigate risk by leaving the messy business of a distant war to others with more skin in the game. And, it has to be admitted, this might work. All parties might deplete themselves, wear each other down, stay focused on fighting each other, and leave U.S. interests more or less intact. But this also raises the chances that the United States may get outcomes over which it has little or no influence — that may someday (possibly very soon) require of the country much riskier, more dangerous action, whether it wants to be involved or not.

This brings us to that red line in Jordan. Go find a map. Now you determine where this red line might be. You might say it is right at the Jordanian border because any breach of the sovereignty of such a valued ally and bastion of moderation in the Middle East would be intolerable. Jordan has been so dependably helpful to the United States and its interests, so constructive in the peace process with Israel, and such a pillar of the moderate and reforming path in the region that even the U.S. Congress, champions of inertness and the black hole of democracy that they have become, would likely demand American intervention. Read more…

By David Rothkopf

David Rothkopf is CEO and Editor of the FP Group. His next book, National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear is due out in October of this year.

Published on June 30 in



ISTANBUL — When the Iraqi city of Mosul was captured on June 10 by the armed militias of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, many world leaders were shocked and concerned. Turkey’s leaders were more alarmed than most; ISIS militants stormed the Turkish consulate in Mosul and kidnapped 100 Turkish citizens, some of them diplomats. As I write, the hostages, including two babies, are still in the hands of ISIS.

Back in Turkey, a heated media debate abruptly came to a halt after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in his usual authoritarian tone, asked the media “to follow this issue silently.” Two days later, an Ankara court issued a gag order, banning all sorts of news and commentary on the events in Mosul. The reason, the court explained, was first “to protect the safety of the hostages” but also to prevent “news that depicts the state in weakness.”

But Turks need to discuss their state’s weaknesses, and the mistakes made in the multiple crises along the country’s southeastern borders. And they should do this without falling into the deep polarization that has plagued Turkey’s political landscape recently. This is not about being for or against Mr. Erdogan; it is about Turkey’s future security and its relationship with its troubled southern neighbors.

In fact, Mr. Erdogan and his professor-turned-foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu deserve credit for abandoning Turkey’s traditional conservative foreign policy, which only focused on protecting the status quo and responding to new developments defensively. Mr. Davutoglu’s famous goal of having “zero problems with neighbors” was an expression of the vision that the world around Turkey might change and that Turks could play a pivotal role in shaping it.

This vision worked well for a while, and the Erdogan-Davutoglu team even felt that, with the chain of Arab Revolutions in 2011, the time had come for their moderately Islamic “Turkish model” to serve as an example for the whole region. This was not a bad idea, the veteran Turkey and Middle East expert Graham Fuller explains in his new book, “Turkey and the Arab Spring.” Yet too much idealism, if not ideology, along with overestimating Turkey’s power, led to some serious mistakes.

In Syria, Turkey’s first mistake was to underestimate the durability of President Bashar al-Assad, who had quickly turned from friend to enemy. The second mistake was to underestimate the threat posed by radical jihadist groups such as ISIS that had gradually overshadowed the more moderate and democratic-minded Syrian opposition.

To be fair, Turkey didn’t willingly nurture a Qaeda offshoot beyond its borders. But by focusing so singularly on toppling Mr. Assad, and turning a blind eye for quite some time to the anti-Assad extremists, it unwittingly helped create a monster.

Yet still there is one bright spot in the region — and it is a direct result of Mr. Davutoglu’s “zero problems” vision: Iraqi Kurdistan, which is now Turkey’s best ally in Iraq, if not the whole region.

This is deeply ironic, of course, because for decades Turkey was paranoid about Kurds and their political ambitions — both at home and abroad. The Erdogan-Davutoglu team, along with President Abdullah Gul, gradually turned this bitterness with the Kurds into reconciliation and eventually an alliance.

The alliance between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan has grown over the past five years, as Turkey invested heavily in the partly autonomous Iraqi region, opened a consulate in its capital Erbil, and Mr. Erdogan even befriended its leader, Masoud Barzani.

The relationship was further cemented earlier this month, when Ankara signed a 50-year deal with Iraqi Kurdistan’s leaders, allowing them to export Kurdish oil to the world via a pipeline that runs through Turkey. The deal, which was opposed by Iraq’s central government in Baghdad, indicates that Turkey now sees Iraqi Kurdistan as a strategic partner, and cares very little about the territorial integrity of Iraq that it used to obsess about.

It’s no wonder, then, that a spokesman for Mr. Erdogan’s party recently announced that Turkey would support Iraqi Kurds’ bid for self-determination. “The Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of the entity they are living in,” he said — a clear departure from traditional Turkish policy.

Apparently, Turkey is now willing to welcome Iraqi Kurds, perhaps even Syrian ones, as allies and to serve as a buffer between Turkey and the chaos in both of those countries. This could prove a very wise strategy, especially if it can be combined with a successful domestic peace process that ends the long-running conflict with Turkey’s own Kurdish nationalists, who for years used bases in northern Iraq and Syria to attack Turkish soldiers in the majority-Kurdish southeastern regions of the country.

But Turkey’s leaders need to show the same sort of wisdom and flexibility on other issues, too. The reconciliation with the Kurds was partly possible because Mr. Erdogan and his colleagues largely freed themselves from the ideological constraints of ethnic Turkish nationalism, which was a hallmark of most of their secular predecessors.

Yet the masters of the New Turkey seem to have their own ideological constraint — Sunni Islamism. They should be able to outgrow that, and instead of taking a side in the region’s growing Sunni-Shiite divide, they should champion reconciliation, be more wary of Sunni extremists, and reach out to non-Sunni Muslims — both at home and abroad. If they do not, many of Turkey’s recent diplomatic accomplishments could be overshadowed and reversed by sectarian strife.


The open warfare and shaken statehood that characterize Syria, Iraq and Libya are the painful commemoration of the Arabs’ own 100 Years War for stable, legitimate statehood.

What the French, British and Italians did in Syria, Iraq and Libya after World War I led to the last 100 years of erratic patterns of development that have now erupted in open warfare within and among some countries.

Syria, Libya and Iraq are only the most dramatic examples of countries suffering from serious sectarian and other forms of warfare that could easily lead to the fracturing of those states into smaller ethnic units. Similar but less intense tensions define most Arab states. With the exception of Tunisia, the citizens of every Arab country have always been denied any say in defining the structure, values or policies of their state.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Syria, Iraq and Libya should be at once so violent, fractious and brittle. The capture of cities and territory across northern Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) symbolizes a common aspect of the fragmented nature of many Arab countries: the ruling party or family that runs the government is at war with well-armed non-state actors that reflect widespread citizen discontent with the power and policies of the central state. The brittle Arab state is not simply melting away, as happened in Somalia over the last two decades; rather, the state in many cases has become just one armed protagonist in a battle against several other armed protagonists among its own citizens.

The novelty of Iraq today, as with Syria to a lesser extent, is the presence of fighters from many other countries who have joined the fray, because the borders of the country have largely been erased by their own lack of legitimacy in the eyes of the citizens. So in this sense ISIS is a greater threat in the short run than other such militant sectarian movements, because it controls territory that provides a base of operations; it enjoys fiscal resources (oil, bank robberies, commercial routes); it attracts fighters from abroad who have no relationship to the local people under their control; it operates as a hybrid between a guerrilla force and a formal army; and, it explicitly challenges the state-based system of countries that we inherited from the spoils of World War I.

The world has never seen such a phenomenon as this post-state territory of deterritorialized individual fighters whose only principles are anchored in an ancestral vision of religious dictates. Groups such as ISIS have no future in the Middle East. But they will be a major problem for some years to come, until legitimate statehood and efficacious governance take root. This has never really happened in most Arab states because of the ongoing lack of validation of all states by their own people.

The battle now taking place in Syria, Libya and Iraq is very complex and will continue because it combines elements of wars of independence, civil wars, attempts to redefine the borders and values of individual countries, and revenge movements against the mismanagement, sectarianism and harsh rule of the past half-century at least. Drone attacks and troops from the United States or Iran or any other foreign source will not have any significant impact on the multiple forces that drive the fighting and fragmentation in many Arab countries, and would probably only aggravate the violence.

Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya have all shown how hard it is to shape new governance systems in the wake of the ouster of their autocratic leaders, if there is no clear social contract that gives all citizens equal opportunities to reconfigure their state. Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Iraq have also indicated the willingness of many actors to use military force to maintain their rule or challenge the incumbent rulers.

The popular uprisings that erupted three-and-a-half years ago have exposed the lack of foundations for coherent statehood in several Arab countries, and in some cases led to a vacuum that has been filled by various fighting forces in Syria, Iraq and Libya. The groups that will tap the desires of indigenous communities to live in peace with one another will be the ones to emerge victorious. Until then, the region will have to endure many years of violence that will only end when ordinary people feel they have had the opportunity to engage in the two seminal state-building processes that they have always been denied – self-determination and genuine sovereignty.

ISIS and others like it reflect none of these sentiments, which is why they will not be part of the long-term scene in the region, despite their short-term prominence. Any response to ISIS should not focus on only restraining their advances, but rather on responding to the local citizens’ 100 years of unfulfilled desires for conditions that would promote their self-determination and sovereignty.

June 18; Rami G. Khouri is published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.


Who lost Iraq?

Written on June 16, 2014 by Waya Quiviger in International Conflict, Terrorism & Security, Middle East, News, Op Ed

It is becoming increasingly likely that Iraq has reached a turning point. The forces hostile to the government have grown stronger, better equipped and more organized. And having now secured arms, ammunition and hundreds of millions of dollars in cash from their takeover of Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest city — they will build on these strengths. Inevitably, in Washington, the question has surfaced: Who lost Iraq?

Whenever the United States has asked this question — as it did with China in the 1950s or Vietnam in the 1970s — the most important point to remember is: The local rulers did. The Chinese nationalists and the South Vietnamese government were corrupt, inefficient and weak, unable to be inclusive and unwilling to fight with the dedication of their opponents. The same story is true of Iraq, only much more so. The first answer to the question is: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lost Iraq.

The prime minister and his ruling party have behaved like thugs, excluding the Sunnis from power, using the army, police forces and militias to terrorize their opponents. The insurgency the Maliki government faces today was utterly predictable because, in fact, it happened before. From 2003 onward, Iraq faced a Sunni insurgency that was finally tamped down by Gen. David Petraeus, who said explicitly at the time that the core element of his strategy was political, bringing Sunni tribes and militias into the fold. The surge’s success, he often noted, bought time for a real power-sharing deal in Iraq that would bring the Sunnis into the structure of the government.

A senior official closely involved with Iraq in the Bush administration told me, “Not only did Maliki not try to do broad power-sharing, he reneged on all the deals that had been made, stopped paying the Sunni tribes and militias, and started persecuting key Sunni officials.” Among those targeted were the vice president of Iraq and its finance minister.

The turmoil in the Middle East is often called a sectarian war. But really it is better described as “the Sunni revolt.” Across the region, from Iraq to Syria, one sees armed Sunni gangs that have decided to take on the non-Sunni forces that, in their view, oppress them. The Bush administration often justified its actions by pointing out that the Shiites are the majority in Iraq and so they had to rule. But the truth is that the borders of these lands are porous, and while the Shiites are numerous in Iraq — Maliki’s party actually won a plurality, not a majority — they are a tiny minority in the Middle East as a whole. It is outside support — from places as varied as Saudi Arabia and Turkey — that sustains the Sunni revolt.

If the Bush administration deserves a fair share of blame for “losing Iraq,” what about the Obama administration and its decision to withdraw American forces from the country by the end of 2011? I would have preferred to see a small American force in Iraq to try to prevent the country’s collapse. But let’s remember why this force is not there. Maliki refused to provide the guarantees that every other country in the world that hosts U.S. forces offers. Some commentators have blamed the Obama administration for negotiating badly or halfheartedly and perhaps this is true. But here’s what a senior Iraqi politician told me in the days when the U.S. withdrawal was being discussed: “It will not happen. Maliki cannot allow American troops to stay on. Iran has made very clear to Maliki that its No. 1 demand is that there be no American troops remaining in Iraq. And Maliki owes them.” He reminded me that Maliki spent 24 years in exile, most of them in Tehran and Damascus, and his party was funded by Iran for most of its existence. And in fact, Maliki’s government has followed policies that have been pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian.

Washington is debating whether airstrikes or training forces would be more effective, but its real problem is much larger and is a decade in the making. In Iraq, it is defending the indefensible.

June 12, The Washington Post

Fareed Zakaria writes a foreign affairs column for The Post. He is also the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and editor at large of Time magazine.

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