The success of the terrorist group formerly known as ISIL or ISIS (acronyms for translation of its Arabic name, Islamic State in the Levant, or Iraq and Syria) in occupying much of eastern Syria and western Iraq has set the stage for renewed American intervention. Last month, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations and the U.S.-GCCC recently convened a program of speakers to explore the dynamics of the regional crises and its implications for Arab and U.S. interests and policies.
Samir Sumaida’ie, formerly Ambassador of Iraq to the United States (2006-2011) and formerly Permanent Representative of Iraq to the United Nations (2004-2006) noted that actions and policies can have long term devastating consequences. We are suffering from actions taken decades ago. When he grew up in a Baghdad the country was doing well and prospects were good. Then a military coup set the country on a downward course beginning with the Baathist regime and ending with the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. What he did not destroy the sanctions did. Enter the Americans without much idea of what it was they were walking into. Everyone was happy that Saddam was gone, but they made bad decisions disbanding not only the military but the police. Looting and chaos followed. There followed an attempt to create a new political order in the American image, but with a vision of an Iraq divided into Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, they implemented a system that deepened these divisions. At the same time Islamists trained outside the country found it in their interests to play that game in a winner-take-all system that created the conditions that led to the current situation. The entire region is only beginning to wake up from the Middle Ages. They need to catch up. The Arab spring faltered for both internal and external reasons. This is the context of the current catastrophe. We have refugees who must be dealt with today. We need a stable political order. We need a long-term international alliance to combat the ideology of terrorism. These three must be wedded in an overall strategy embraced by all parties. We must recognize that without a resolution of the Palestinian Israeli dispute the potential for instability will remain.
Dr. Imad Harb, Distinguished International Affairs Fellow at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, observed that there is an arc of instability from Iraq to Lebanon and another from Yemen to Libya. There has been no president elected since Michel Suleiman, and the parliament’s extended tenure is about to expire. The U.S. has sought a consensus candidate, neither Michel Aoun nor Samir Geagea. Electoral committees were to be called into action to prepare November elections. Maronites want the presidency to be established before any extension of the existing parliament. For the first time people in the poor sections of Lebanese cities are listening to jihadist talk. Recruiters are helped by outside funding and the presence of Palestinian refugee camps. Jihadists even took over one town and although driven off they took some police as hostages with them. Hezbollah nearly controls the country. The U.S. is called upon to help implement U.N. Res. 1701 that ended the Israeli incursion. Lebanon is now involved in the Syrian war. Syria is attracting jihadists from everywhere while the moderates are ineffective. Cities are under control of the regime and the countryside is i the control of extremists. Communities that had remained neutral are being forced to take sides. It is not just ISIS, but Jabhat-an-Nusrah, as well. Geneva 2 collapsed. It is unclear what the U.S. can do. They could bomb ISIS, but the outcome may be more unintended consquences.
Dr. Thomas Mattair, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council, sad that Iran has restricted its enrichment of uranium to a limit of 5% and are in discussion of the use of recently discovered facilities and the U.S. has agreed to some modest limits on sanctions. Gulf Arabs remain concerned that these negotiations were started without informing them and they are still not included. There are still large gaps in limits and time horizons and testing. Mattair doubts that agreement will be reached within the four month time limit. Gulf Arabs see themselves as being on the front line and they, like Israel, oppose any Iranian enrichment whatsoever and might start enriching themselves. They fear U.S. acquiescence in Iran’s regional ambitions. They warned us against invading Iraq and are uneasy that we have not intervened more robustly in Syria and are disappointed in our failure to produce an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Obama identified loosely connected networks of terrorists rather than Iran’s nuclear program as the greatest danger to American interests in the region. Although the U.S. has supported some collective action against Syria, it has not gone as far as Jordan and other Arab states wish. We’ve struggled over to whom we could safely give weapons, and indeed IS has captured American weapons. Because of inadequacy of the Iraqi government, IS has found supporters on the ground.
Professor David Des Roches, Senior Military Fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University and Malone Fellow in Arab and Islamic Studies to Syria. He focused on military aspects of he situation in Iraq. IS is not Napoleon sweeping through Europe. It was fighting a regime unpopular with the locals. It has positioned itself as the defender of the downtrodden. Paying the Sunnis not to oppose the Shia led federal government put them in the position of either accepting a subordinate position with them or standing apart from them. When ISIS took Mosul, the Kurds took Kirkuk. The Barzanji and Talabani factions of the Kurds are at war with another and we cannot give heavy weaponry to them. They would divert military assets towards the big prize of Kirkuk. Neutralizing IS requires a troop commitment Obama is not interested in making. If the enemy is completely defeated, the Baghdad government will have no incentive for reform.
Mr. Matthew A. Reynolds, North America Representative, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) arvued that the one constant in Middle East history since WWII is the unresolved nature of the Palestinian issue. There are 5 million Palestinian refugees. He focused on Gaza, but mentioned the current situation of the Palestinian refugees in Syria. The devastation is much worse than we see on TV. Gaza is mostly 3 miles wide and one third of that is made into no man’s land by Israel. It was already called the world’s largest open air prison before the current war. We have reached a tipping point and must now confront health issues. Eleven of his UNRWA colleagues were killed in the recent hostilities. One-half of the supply of all poultry has been eliminated. The only power plant will be inoperative for months. Untreated sewage dumped into the sea will adversely affect Israel itself. Gaza needs nothing less than a new deal: Freedom to trade, freedom to move, and freedom from aid dependency. With modern technology there is no justification for a medieval type surge against Gaza civilians. The violence Israel sows will only hurt their own people.
Joshua Yaphe with Bureau of Intelligence Research at the U.S. Department of State said Saudi Arabia has offered $500,000 million for Gaza reconstruction. The Gulf states have become more active in diplomacy, most recently calling for U.N. chapter 7 to be applied to Israel. Qatar called for suspension of Syrian membership in Arab League in 2011. In 2012 its membership in OIC was suspended. Most experts have not noticed this unprecedented outburst of diplomacy. Compared to the response in previous Gaza wars when actions involved consultation with all stakeholders and required no long term commitments beyond humanitarian financial, GCC states now take a more direct role.
The following points were made during the discussion:
Maliki had ministers from diverse groups but high jacked the ministries by appointing his own cronies. We must find a way to prevent this.
Capital is a coward and does not want to go into places that are insecure and unstable. The displacement in Gaza is equivalent to the displacement of 48 million Americans.
Without reconciliation among the major factions in Iraq we will get more of the same, with a distinct possibility of more fragmentation. A change requires staging not just the cabinet but the PM’s office and the security forces with diverse personnel.
IS is proud of stoning adulterers and executing those who will not support them. You defeat such a group only by shrinking the base of their support and they see no alternative although they may change their minds after living under them long enough.
Israel seems to be using Hamas as a prop to say no to Palestinian rights. The PLO, too, was told that once it recognized Israel there would be peace.
The interpretations of Islam coming out of the Nadj simply cannot be applied in cities like Cairo and Baghdad, but they indoctrinate children into believing that anything else is heresy, ISIS is the extreme of the extreme. Abu Dhabi has established a new institution of scholars to try to challenge the more extreme ideologies as has al- Azhar.
Saudi society is more conservative than the Saudi monarchy. King Abdullah is moving deliberately. They had a wake up call when al-Qaeda took action in the peninsula. The Saudi government is now very harsh in fighting fundraising for terrorism, but there is a concern with the education of children that paves he say for terrorism.
At one point Iraq accused Syria of involvement in terrorist bombing, but one year later Iraqis were prohibited from criticizing Syria obviously for sectarian reasons.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute