Lowy Institute

Spare a thought for Barack Obama.

In dealing with the Middle East, few if any modern US presidents have been able to find a balance between upholding US ideals and meeting America's practical foreign policy goals. Obama has been dealt a poor hand in the Middle East but has tried harder than most to narrow the gap between ideals and practicalities. He is trying to introduce the concept of government legitimacy as a greater determinant in US relations with regional governments.

He also believes that US military interventions treat symptoms rather than causes, and that they have given Middle Eastern states absolutely zero incentive to reform the political and social malaise that has given rise to the insurgencies the region faces.

President Obama at Cairo University, 2009. (Flickr/US Embassy Kabul.)

Hence his moves to limit the military support he gives to the Iraqi Government. It's a way of forcing the Iraqi Government to take military responsibility for the fighting and political responsibility for establishing a functioning, unitary state not caught in sectarian, tribal and ethnic identity politics. It is also why he has limited his support to the Syrian opposition until it too establishes a military force that is not religiously inspired and presents a viable political alternative (one that is not simply reflective of the policy desires of regional sponsors).

The problem with such an approach, of course, is that it relies on your partners acknowledging that they need to earn legitimacy and not have it accorded to them. The rise of ISIS and other Islamist variants is due to a range of factors, but the perceived lack of government legitimacy is a significant element. And when he looks at the region, Obama sees his allies and their policies fueling the legitimacy problem by prioritising short-term interests over long-term solutions.

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In Syria, for instance, frustration over perceived US intransigence appears to have brought Turkey and Saudi Arabia together to fund and coordinate Islamist opposition groups whose ideological orientation is about as far from Western secular liberal values as they can be. And Riyadh's apparently aimless air campaign in Yemen has dragged Washington into a conflict it would rather have avoided. It is likely that Riyadh's desire for a Gulf air coalition for Yemen has led to a diminution (if not complete loss) of Gulf air support for anti-ISIS missions in Syria.

Then there's Iraq. Washington's frustration with Baghdad was evident in Obama's recent interview, in which he noted that 'if the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them.' The sentiment was echoed by his defense secretary, Ashton Carter.

Accountability and introspection are not characteristics often ascribed to Middle Eastern governments. It remains their default position to blame external forces for the problems of the Middle East. There is of course some merit to this, but the region's fractures owe more to internal dynamics than external ones. President Obama has been pretty consistent about how he views government legitimacy. For those in the region who fear the US is losing interest in the Middle East and its problems (and my attendance at the Doha Forum two weeks ago left me with that distinct impression) but can't understand why, they would do well to read President Obama's 2009 Cairo speech, in which he said that:

No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

Perhaps he, like many others, is getting tired of the region and its inability to put any premium on inclusivity and legitimacy. Few could blame him for expecting more of those who seek Washington's help.


BBC report from September 2014.

Much has been written in the last few days about what to do with returning jihadis, a conversation sparked by the three jihadis who it is claimed want to return home to Australia. The lawyer of Adam Brookman, one of the alleged jihadists, has predictably stated that he was simply a medic and that his return could be a golden opportunity for Australian authorities to use him in a 'countering violent extremism' (CVE) role.

The Guardian has written an unquestioning account of Brookman's time in Syria. There are many holes left unexplored in his story. We're told he met an unnamed Australian 'humanitarian worker' in Turkey who somehow had the expertise to infiltrate him into Syria; that he had his passport stolen; that he only drove ambulances in Aleppo and treated injured people; that his wounds were caused by a Syrian regime bombing of the medical clinic where he was working, and that he was transported unconscious to an ISIS-controlled area. The only cliché missing is that he worked in an orphanage with sick children. Readers would be well advised to treat such accounts sceptically, as should the journalists who question such people.

The ability to appropriately punish those jihadis who return is of course dependent on the ability of prosecutors to gather enough admissible evidence to secure a conviction, as well as the view of the courts as to what sentence is appropriate for the actions of these people. The first court case involving a returned jihadi will be heavily scrutinised for this reason.

Regardless, the PM is right in arguing for tough penalties for people who have gone to Syria and Iraq believing they should fight to establish or maintain an intolerant religious state that looks to expand its control through violence.

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A fundamental precept of the international system is that the state retains a monopoly on the use of force, and anyone who seeks to circumvent that principle through joining or supporting violent non-state actors should expect the state to punish them for doing so. People who seek to return may be disillusioned, misguided or naïve but we are not talking about returning tax evaders or vulnerable people who were duped into being drug mules. We are talking about people who support the violent imposition of religious rule and who believe that God not only condones violence but in some instances is pleased by it. The concept is abhorrent and people must be held responsible for their actions.

This article in The Australian advocates a 'triage' system to separate hard-core fighters from the merely disillusioned. But such a triage system already exists insofar as the court is able to exercise discretion in the punishment it imposes on people convicted of supporting the jihadist cause. Those more peripheral are given appropriately lighter punishments, but they are punished nevertheless. 

That does not mean such people shouldn't be part of any CVE program – indeed the opposite is true. There will always be a suspicion that someone who negotiates a return to Australia and is willing to take part in CVE program has only done so to avoid punishment or have it reduced. Someone who is serving a prison term but who still wants to dissuade people from becoming jihadis is more likely to be motivated by a genuine desire to stop others from repeating their mistakes, while the targets of their message will be able to see that there is a cost to going down the extremist path.


The newly released YouTube video featuring Australian doctor Tareq Kamleh is in many ways just another in the voluminous output from the ISIS media department. But this one has caused discussion here because of who Tareq Kamleh is. Unlike most of the other Australian jihadis we know of, he is well educated and had an occupation that was highly valued in Australian society.

In many ways though, this video is like others ISIS has released. The information it transmits is quite limited because the shooting is tightly controlled. He is in a clean medical facility somewhere, so the video seeks to portray ISIS as running a modern health and medical facility. But the viewer is denied any context. There is another ISIS video about its health services and, while the facility it shows is not nearly as clean and modern as the most recent one, it shares at least one characteristic: the camera lingers over medical machinery but few staff and visitors are ever seen.

In the video featuring the Australian doctor, the impression ISIS seeks to create is of a fully functioning hospital with high-tech equipment, but even a cursory viewing raises several questions. The incubators are all arranged along the walls, as though there are machines but few patients (it is impossible to see how many are occupied). We also see few if any other nurses or doctors in the shots in which the doctor appears. For an allegedly fully functioning neonatal unit, it seems there is plenty of equipment but few staff or perhaps even patients. Tareq Kamleh's statement to the camera even asks for medical personnel to join him in Raqqa because they have plenty of equipment but few staff.

Tareq Kamleh appears for about three minutes of the 15-minute video and he is one of only two English speakers, so the film is not aimed exclusively at the Western market.

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And while he is young and well educated in the medical sciences, like all the other jihadis he speaks of his journey as a religious rather than a humane obligation. He doesn't refer to people being killed, her refers to Muslims being killed. His is not a journey to relieve human suffering; it is an avowedly religious one to support his Muslim 'brothers'.

Before people argue that Tareq Kamleh's presence in a paediatric medical environment somehow shows him to be essentially an 'accidental jihadi', his acknowledgement that he is in Raqqa to undertake jihad ought to raise questions. If that's not enough, his Facebook page shows him in action shots with two different types of rifles and a bow and arrow, which shows some predilection for weaponry (somewhat incongruent with the carefully staged video showing the caring doctor in a neonatal ward). Then there is the claim that he had a wayward moral compass while in Australia.

In one way Tareq Kamleh is different to other Australian jihadis because of his education and academic qualifications. But his actions are the same as all the others. He has made a conscious decision that his religious identity transcends his national identity. We shouldn't be too concerned that he is educated rather than a minor criminal or a teenage delinquent. What should concern us is why he and others can come to believe that their religion justifies participation in the imposition of an intolerant and violent ruling system, and the belief that their own government has no right to stop them from being part of the project. Until we can address that, people like Tareq Kamleh will continue to pop up in strange places.


Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal with US Secretary of State John Kerry. (US State Department.)

Planning and leading a military coalition is a complex task, and Saudi efforts in Yemen are proving no exception.

Such interventions need a defined and achievable aim; simply relying on an air campaign to reinstate a political leader who remains resident in the country which is doing the bombing has its practical and political limitations. Such operations also need to take into account the likely short- and medium-term impacts of the intervention. Coalition partners need to understand (and, even better, agree with) the intent of the operation. And in the modern age there needs to be a great deal of attention paid to collateral damage.

On all those counts the Yemen intervention is posing some serious questions for Riyadh.

The US has provided support to the Saudis, in the shape of intelligence personnel and air-to-air refuelers, but there is a sense that this is more out of a desire to reaffirm the close relationship with Riyadh than out of any belief that Saudi action in Yemen is likely to resolve matters. Riyadh and Washington have not seen eye to eye on Syria, Iran or Iraq in recent years, so if limited support for Saudi Arabia's Yemen venture is what it takes to reinforce relations, then so be it. The concerns of some US military officers — that the Saudis have neither a coherent strategic aim or an ability to prosecute the tactical battle without inflicting significant civilian casualties — are expressed in this recent LA Times article.

There is a risk that, the longer the air campaign continues, the more that disparate elements of Yemeni society will see Saudi interference as the real enemy. And to reinforce the perception that Riyadh is paying insufficient attention to the second-order effects of its intervention, there are already indications that al Qaeda elements are taking advantage of the chaos by seizing the city of al-Mukalla.

Saudi Arabia is also finding that putting together a coalition is not a straightforward matter. Pakistan for instance, was originally listed as a coalition partner, but Islamabad has now declined the kind offer, drawing opprobrium from some quarters. And to top it off, Iraq's prime minister criticised Saudi actions in Yemen during a recent visit to Washington. Leading coalitions in the Middle East is no easy business, and it won't get any easier.


Coalitions sound great at first blush. Groups of like-minded states tackling an issue of regional or international importance. And in the Middle East there is no shortage of such issues. But, just as with any wedding or birthday gift, one should not be distracted by the shiny wrapping. We should pay attention to what's inside the box. The so-called 'coalition of the willing' that invaded Iraq, for example, was certainly willing, but it only contained four countries.

Which brings us to the issue of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. The Saudis have put together a coalition they say is designed to reinstate the legitimate government under President Hadi, whose continued existence in internal exile in Aden was coming under threat from a coalition of Zaydi Houthi fighters and troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh (the Saudis and pretty well every other Sunni Arab country would have you believe that Iran is a member of this coalition too, but the evidence is pretty thin).

Washington has said that it is providing unspecified support to the Saudi-led coalition, which sounds fair enough given Riyadh has, until now at least, enjoyed a special relationship with the US. But once we have a look at the rest of the Saudi-led coalition, some concerns start to appear.

To begin with, the Sudanese government is listed as one of the contributors to the coalition, even though its leader remains indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide. The thought of someone indicted for genocide helping to restore someone else's 'legitimate government' while being assisted by the US is richly ironic, even by the Middle East's high standards.

Then there is the contribution by Bahrain, whose discrimination against its own Shi'a majority population has been documented by the US State Department and led to the military intervention in the island kingdom by Saudi and Emirati forces.

Furthermore, one could argue that, in the time-honoured tradition of 'As ye sow, so shall ye reap', Saudi Arabia's predilection for seeking to spread its intolerant Wahhabist brand of Islam led to the Zaydi revivalist movement we refer to as the Houthis. Rather than being seen as agents of Tehran, as some commentators would have us believe, the Houthis could more accurately be described as a creation of Riyadh (or at least Saudi actions decades ago).

Yep, coalitions sure sound impressive, but they often disappoint on closer inspection.

Photo by Flickr user Khaled AlQubeli.


The problem with ideologues is that while they are ready to criticise others for their rigidly held viewpoints, they are rarely ready to recognise that they are equally rigid and intolerant.

Senator Tom Cotton, speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

Nowhere is that on better display than in the recent controversy surrounding the nuclear negotiations with Iran. It must have been a long time since a deliberately provocative, and downright rude, open letter to the Iranian Supreme Leader was penned, and even longer since such a letter was supported with the signatures of 47 US Senators.

Now I understand that junior senators like Senator Tom Cotton want to make a political name for themselves, have always had President Obama in their sights, and see issues such as this as a way to do it. But if 50 members of the Iranian Majlis had sent a similarly worded letter to the US President, what do you think the reaction of the US public, let alone the conservative faction in American politics, would have been?

What the letter did reveal though, is the sort of hubris that only committed ideologues can demonstrate. The sort of hubris that precipitated the White House's 2003 decision to invade Iraq as a precursor to a 'flowering of democracy' among countries and cultures and within a region that few (if any) of the key decision-makers had any idea about. The sort of hubris that also depicts the nuclear negotiations as a bilateral negotiation between Washington and Tehran. Greg Sheridan writing in The Australian said that the letter told '...the Iranian leadership...not to set too much store by any deal it gets from President Barack Obama on nuclear weapons.'

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Unfortunately, as the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif pointed out, the negotiations involve the P5+1 with an agreement that may eventually be backed by a UN Security Council resolution. So the US Senators' open letter should have also been addressed to the British prime minister, the Russian, Chinese and French presidents, the German chancellor and the secretary-general of the UN. Because, by Senator Cotton's logic, he also put all of these leaders on notice that none of them should expect Washington to keep its word on any future agreement. In Senator Cotton's world, the P5+1 should move over and make room for the one.

Now if it was only these people exhibiting such breathtaking and public audacity then we could simply see them as petty local politicians trying to hit a pinpoint target using a shotgun. The problem is their actions are not as random as we think and, like all good ideologues (particularly ex-army officers like the good senator), they encourage supporting attacks.

Thus a few days later The Washington Post ran a somewhat poorly written, but provocatively titled op-ed, 'War with Iran is probably our best option'. I like provocative, but I like accurate even better. So when the neocon author breathlessly claims that 'Iran aims to carry its Islamic revolution across the Middle East and beyond', he ignores the fact that Iran's revolution was Shi'a-specific, and has limited appeal even among the broader Shi'a community (which itself only represents at most 20% of the global Muslim population).

That's the problem with people who over-hype Iran's regional and even at times global ambitions. Tehran faces three significant hurdles in expanding its influence even at the regional level: it has the wrong religion, is the wrong ethnicity, and speaks the wrong language. To expand its influence, Iran creates proxies and courts allies in the time-honoured tradition of countries who seek to expand their influence but have limited means by which to do it.  

There is a deep thread of exceptionalism that runs through both American and Iranian notions of self. The problem with conservative ideologues from both countries that harbour this notion of exceptionalism is that they rarely understand that it isn't a view shared by anyone outside their respective countries. Without a modicum of self-awareness, such mindsets can lead to foreign policy adventurism as they both believe in their divinely-ordained right to lead. And, while the embarrassing letter has been seen for what it is, it reveals a way of thinking that reminds us that not all dangerous ideologues reside in the Middle East.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gage Skidmore.


During my Army career I was a military planner. I worked on lots of plans. Most were never executed, but others were. Some were standing plans that were annually revised, while others were worked up at the behest of someone higher up the operational chain. I got to know the ADF planning process pretty well and became someone that could be described as a 'military planner'.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott with Chief of Defence Force Air Chief Marshall Binskin inspecting damage in Queensland in the wake of Typhoon Marcia.

In the ADF, you could say the Chief of the Defence Force is formally the 'leading military planner', given he is the one who provides military advice to the Government and 'owns' Joint Operations Command. In practical terms though, the Chief of Joint Operations has carriage of developing operational plans, so he is really the ADF's leading military planner.

Service chiefs would have input into the plans as they are developed, but they aren't planners in their own right. They have a 'raise, train and sustain' responsibility, but not a operational military planning function.

So when The Australian penned this exclusive expose of Prime Minister Tony Abbott's plan to invade Iraq, I was intrigued.

According to the story, the PM raised an operational planning idea in his office and then sought the advice of Australia's 'leading military planners'. Not the normal way of doing things, for sure, but plausible. By the time I got to the second paragraph, however, my 'sloppy journalism' warning light began flashing. And when I noticed that the article failed to define who 'Australia's leading military planners' were, the light stopped flashing and just stayed on.

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Then the Chief of Defence Force weighed in to say the matter had never been raised with him formally or informally, and the vultures began to circle over the entrails of The Australian's sensational but poorly researched exclusive.

I assumed that a correction would ensue and that the journalist would have been advised by a military planner of the dictum that one should 'never reinforce failure'. So when The Australian clarified the situation this weekend I was somewhat surprised to find more imprecision and hype.

The previously reported 'unilateral invasion of Iraq' that was discussed with 'leading military planners' was now a dinner party discussion where the PM expressed frustration at the slow pace of deployment of ADF elements into Iraq (damn that Iraqi sovereignty issue) and perhaps asked aloud why we couldn't just take Mosul quickly. The main guest was the Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, who The Australian breathlessly claimed was 'the Pentagon's senior official overseeing the US-led war against Islamic State in Iraq'.

Even though the term 'overseeing' is left undefined, I'm pretty sure that the senior Pentagon official overseeing the war would be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Chief of Staff of the Air Force provides air force capabilities to the CENTCOM commander (based in Florida), who actually oversees the operational conduct of the war. The US Navy, Army and Marine commanders do the same for their service branches.

But never mind, one shouldn't let inconvenient facts get in the way of a good story. Rather, my attention was focused on the fact that the people objecting to the PM's proposal had in the space of a week gone from 'Australia's leading military planners' to 'others at the table'. Perhaps the confusion over who Australia's leading military planners are could be put to bed if the list of those attending the dinner was published by the newspaper.

After reading both stories all I know is that if, during my time in the Army, I briefed an operational plan to a real 'leading military planner' that was equally poorly staffed and thought through, I would have been told in no uncertain terms where I had failed to meet expectations.

To use a military planning term, it would appear that in writing about the military planning process the journalist in question has, either wittingly or unwittingly, been part of someone's anti-Abbott 'shaping and influencing' operation.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.


The Prime Minister's National Security Statement included a reference to the possible stripping of citizenship from dual citizens. There has been criticism that such a move will be ineffectual. Peter Hughes claimed it was of limited use because, even though the individuals would be prevented from returning to Australia, they 'would be free to pursue extremist causes and political violence elsewhere.' And in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday, Professor Matthew Gibney from Oxford University argued against the move from a civil libertarian perspective, saying that 'Denationalisation is thus open to the same criticism that Voltaire made of the practice in 18th century France: namely, that it simply constitutes throwing into our neighbour's yard those stones that incommode us in our own.' This largely echoed a piece  from last year by Sydney University's Professor Ben Saul.

While I acknowledge these points, they would carry more weight if the proposal to strip citizenship rendered the person stateless. The subject's failure to renounce another citizenship they possess indicates that they must continue to hold some attachment to that country, and as a continuing citizen of it, they would continue to have an identity and the safeguards afforded by that country.

The civil libertarian argument, however, fails to address what I would argue is a more serious issue: the potential eradication of targeting constraints for Australian intelligence agencies and military forces in dealing with Australian citizens engaged in terrorist activities overseas. The possession of Australian citizenship rightly imposes limitations on how much information Australia's spy agencies can collect, and perhaps more importantly who they can share it with. There have already been legislative amendments to strengthen the intelligence-collection powers of these agencies, but dealing with non-citizens gives them much greater flexibility in sharing information.

So, rather than dual citizens simply becoming someone else's problem or able to undertake violent actions elsewhere, such a move may actually free up Australian authorities to address the problem by sharing information on foreign fighters or terrorists who were formerly Australian citizens.

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This may simply mean that the former dual citizen can be arrested and jailed, or deported to their remaining country of nationality. But it may also mean they are killed in a counter-terrorist military operation. In fact, there has been criticism in the UK that people stripped of their citizenship have been killed in drone strikes shortly after, and that the information that enabled their targeting was only released to the US after they were no longer UK citizens. I think this is the more appropriate discussion to be having, rather than a civil libertarian one. To take one possible example, would the Australian public be happy to see a former dual Lebanese-Australian citizen born and raised in Sydney, but now simply a Lebanese citizen because they are fighting for ISIS, killed in a RAAF bombing mission in Iraq based on intelligence gathered by Australian agencies? I think the public would accept this.

None of the steps proposed by the Government represents a silver bullet, but incremental changes to our ability to respond represent an appropriate answer to a unique challenge. Radical jihadists are not Islamic nationalists; they recognise no authority but their interpretation of what God commands them to do. They are by definition and by action intolerant and they are as far removed from the humanist traditions of the Western societies from which some of them emerged as it is possible to be. And while Australian dual citizens fail to recognise the authority of the Commonwealth and kill in God's name, they are protected by the fact that they are citizens of a Commonwealth whose authority they have plainly rejected.

For those relatively few to whom this situation applies, we should look at the stripping of dual nationality as a military and intelligence targeting issue rather than simply a civil libertarian issue.

Photo by Flickr user Ibrahim Khalil.


New Saudi monarch King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. (Wikipedia.)

With the death of King Abdullah, the Saudi succession machinery has immediately swung into action. The Saudi monarchy prizes stability, and in order to forestall any damaging intrigue regarding succession, particularly in light of heir Prince Salman's reported poor health, Prince Muqrin was announced as the deputy crown prince in March last year.  So now King Salman and Crown Prince Muqrin ascend to their respective positions, and the opaque manoeuvrings for access to power for the next generation of Saudi Arabia's extended ruling family begins in earnest.

The new king faces significant security challenges: ISIS on its borders in Iraq, the loosening of its grip in Yemen, plunging oil prices and a challenge for regional influence from Iran. But none of these are existential threats, and the regional situation faced by King Abdullah when he succeeded was also complex. I was in Riyadh when King Fahd died in 2005 and Saudi Arabia was in the grip of an internal security threat more serious than anything it faces now. Back then, there was a near full-scale conflict in Iraq between the US-led occupation forces and both Sunni and Shi'a insurgents, Iran had announced the resumption of uranium conversion, and shortly afterward it elected hardliner Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as president.

This shouldn't be forgotten when pundits speak of the regional security challenges facing Saudi Arabia today.  The region faced near continuous crises of one form or another for nearly all of Abdullah's rule, and the decision makers in Riyadh are hardly unschooled in addressing them.  The change at the top of the House of Saud is unlikely to presage any significant change in Saudi domestic or foreign policy. 

What it will do is force Saudi Arabia and others to look more closely at the next generation, the grandchildren of Abdulaziz. It is likely that one of these (and perhaps even King Muqrin, if he accedes to the throne) will face the types of challenges — domestic instability caused by the House of Saud's inability to meet the terms of the political contract it has with its religious leaders and the social contract it has with its population; the possibility of an economically and politically dominant Iran operating in a post-sanctions environment; as well as a raft of other as yet unforeseen issues — that are likely to truly threaten the stability of the Kingdom. 


Hizbullah is likely glad to see the end of 2014.

It will be viewed as a year in which its mortality as an Islamist militia was exposed, and its 'post-Israeli withdraw/post-2006 war with Israel' glow began to appear as a distant memory. It faces challenges on several fronts.

To begin with, its ongoing support for the Assad regime in Syria has continued to cost it in blood and treasure. Casualty figures are nigh on impossible to accurately determine, but it likely numbers in the high hundreds.

Wars are also an expensive business. Because of the slump in global oil prices, it appears that subsidies from Iran are being squeezed and Hizbullah is undergoing some belt-tightening, though there is little indication that this has had any significant operational effect. But the Iraqi Shi'a militia groups which had begun to make more of an appearance in Syria have had to withdraw to Iraq to face the threat posed by the Islamic State coalition there, which means Hizbullah may have to shoulder more of the military load.

If that isn't enough, Hizbullah has also confirmed reports that the organisation has been living with an Israeli informer in one of its most operationally sensitive areas. The damage that this caused is something few of us will ever know, but it is likely to be significant. It is not the first time Israel or its allies have been able to target the organisation, but so far as we know it is the first time such a senior member has been turned. Hizbullah's 'debriefing' of the spy will determine what damage has been done. It will also likely make it difficult for future penetrations to occur, given Hizbullah is a learning organisation.

Yet the successful targeting of a small Hizbullah convoy in southern Syria last night by the Israeli Air Force also indicates that the party's operational security woes are far from over.

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On the Lebanese domestic front, some commentators have claimed that Hizbullah faces serious political competition from other elements of the Lebanese Shi'a community as local political dynamics change. But in Lebanon all is rarely as outsiders suppose it to be. Hizbullah is a canny political organisation and its strict internal discipline marks it as different from the other confessional groups operating inside Lebanon. Moreover, under Lebanese electoral law it is practically impossible to challenge Hizbullah's political dominance. As I wrote in this journal article, independent Shi'a political actors stand no realistic chance of achieving electoral success in Lebanon.

While the losses for Hizbullah in Syria are significant, Hizbullah is quick to portray itself as part of a Lebanese national resistance movement, as well as a player in the broader sectarian narrative that has increasingly come to dominate the conflict. Certainly every time I return to Lebanon, I notice greater levels of support for Hizbullah's actions among its co-religionists (even many not aligned to Hizbullah), who see the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict as an existential threat. 

Hizbullah's investment in the Syrian civil war has grown as the conflict has gone on, and its battlefield performance since it spearheaded the retaking of Qusayr has arguably been pivotal in allowing the Assad regime to regain the military initiative. Years of conflict in Syria will not only have produced a new generation of battle-hardened Hizbullah fighters, it will also have allowed it to establish links with a range of other Shi'a fighters that would otherwise never have occurred. The ramifications will become apparent in the years to come.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user LALLA - ALI.


The deadly and tragic terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo brings into sharp relief a foreign policy conundrum that we may no longer be able to simply sweep under the carpet. The problem surrounds the hypocrisy of advocating freedom of speech as a fundamental right and yet failing to criticise Middle Eastern allies who do not see it that way.

Australia is, thankfully, a country where freedom of speech is taken seriously. It is also one that sees it as something more than simply a domestic issue, and considers it a fundamental human right. Indeed, in her September 2013 speech to the UN General Assembly, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop stated that 'Australia has been at the forefront of defending human rights globally and regionally in support of equality and fundamental freedoms', including 'freedom of speech.' The Prime Minister has also said that he is a passionate supporter of freedom of speech.

The Gulf states, however, have a different view when it comes to freedom of speech. This has not hitherto stopped us from establishing good relations with them. We have been close partners and have used facilities in Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE to host our military personnel at various times over the last two decades. And in the current fight against the dangerous intolerance that Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra advocate, we welcome help from Gulf states which themselves fail to observe what we consider fundamental rights of free expression.

In the UAE, for instance, there is an unwillingness to countenance criticism of its political leadership, a characteristic shared by Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman. However, as an attack on free speech, it is difficult to top the sentence handed out to Saudi blogger Raif Badawi: 10 years imprisonment, a fine of more than a quarter of a million dollars and 1000 lashes.

Now, I'm not naïve enough to suggest that we only choose friends or trading partners among countries who share all of our values. We would be a righteous but impoverished and marginalised country. But that shouldn't stop us from publicly expressing concern, even outrage, when we believe one of our trade or security partners so egregiously transgresses what we consider fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech.

What is most disturbing about the public silence from Canberra on the Saudi case is the fact that the US State Department issued an uncharacteristically terse criticism when it said that:

We are greatly concerned by reports that human rights activist Raif Badawi will start facing the inhumane punishment of a 1,000 lashes, in addition to serving a 10-year sentence in prison for exercising his rights to freedom of expression and religion. The United States Government calls on Saudi authorities to cancel this brutal punishment and to review Badawi's case and sentence.

The PM said after the events in Paris that 'We have to be prepared to speak up for our beliefs. We have to be prepared to call things as we see them.' Surely a public statement condemning the actions of the Saudi Government would be a good way of giving substance to those fine words.

Photo by REUTERS/Francois Lenoir.


The saying 'you have the watches but we have the time' is often attributed to the Taliban (or Mauritanian immigration officials), but it is representative of the fact that indigenous armed groups understand that occupations are temporary, while the population is permanent.

The UK and France learned this in their post-World War II colonial campaigns, the Soviets in Afghanistan, the US in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam. It is a truism of counter-insurgency of course, but not necessarily a law. In some counter-insurgency campaigns the government does win.

In Iraq, the US finds itself in the rather unusual situation where ISIS has all the watches but the Coalition has all the time. While ISIS consists mostly of Iraqis, it also has a growing number of foreign fighters in its ranks. If the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi forces who were in charge before ISIS swept in were seen as occupiers in the Sunni heartlands, the rule of ISIS is now starting to be viewed as something similar, and perhaps worse.

The US has adopted a deliberate campaign to stop ISIS's momentum through the use of air power and then to assist in the retaking of key terrain using Iraqi Government, Kurdish and Shi'a militia forces. At the same time, it has placed pressure on Iraqi politicians to change the prime minister, while assembling a coalition that relieves Washington of the burden of being seen to be going it alone.

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Thus far the campaign plan appears to be working. Granted, with a deliberately light footprint in the air and on the ground, and an Iraqi military that requires significant re-training, the roll-back was always going to take time. And a government reasserting its sovereignty will always fall short of what is expected. Moreover, ISIS remains capable of achieving tactical victories in Anbar province.  

That said, one of the more noteworthy things about the US-led campaign has been Washington's appreciation of time. Once ISIS's momentum was halted, the immediate crisis forced by the disintegration of Iraqi formations and an enemy generating fear and panic through seemingly unchecked advances was over, and a more deliberate approach was possible.

So the last thing anyone in Washington wants is a major reversal that would re-ignite the ISIS campaign and allow it to regain momentum. Hence the desire to tamp down any attempts to rush precipitously to retake Mosul before the Iraqi forces are capable of doing it. This recent article suggests Baghdad is already pushing for just such a move.

Time is on Washington's side in part because, for ISIS, administration of areas under its control becomes more difficult the longer the conflict goes on. Already there are reports of rising prices in Mosul as winter sets in. The problem for the residents of Mosul is that as pressure on ISIS increases, its rule will likely become more brutal and intolerant

One thing Washington will need to be alert to is that media organisations don't share its patience. Degrade missions are rarely media-friendly. They are the military equivalent of water dripping on a rock. There are few spectacular images of the action, as the attacks are against individual targets such as fighting positions and vehicles or logistics facilities, while the advising and assisting is normally conducted in small groups in base locations or at formation level or higher. This US media report is one of many likely to emerge that shows how frustrating a degrade campaign can be for the media. It appears to express concern at the lack of hard data the US military is giving out so that the media can judge mission success.

Another danger is that media commentators will begin to equate any ISIS tactical victories with strategic success, and criticise Washington for 'dragging the chain' without appreciating the nature of the social and political terrain in which the Coalition and the Iraqi Government operates. The last thing Washington wants is be forced to rush into things before it or the Iraqi security forces are ready.

Time is a resource as much as ammunition, personnel and finances. Only this time in Iraq, time favours Washington and Baghdad rather than the insurgents.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user United States Forces Iraq.


They're baaaaack...

UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond used the Bahraini Government-funded Manama dialogue on the weekend to announce the signing of a Defence Agreement with the Kingdom of Bahrain.

It is sometimes difficult to discern substance from symbolism in these types of announcements. In terms of substance, there is not much to it. The money being outlayed for an upgrade of port facilities (£15 million) is not massive and the permanent facilities don't appear to be extensive. In addition, the Bahraini Government is footing the bill for the improvements, with HM Government paying for the running costs.

There are many reasons why the UK would be happy to ink such a deal. Here are a few:

  1. The US 5th Fleet HQ is already there so it's not as if the UK is breaking new ground. The UK has also had a permanent mine-countermeasures presence in Bahrain for over a decade and the UK naval component command is likely constrained in real estate terms, so additional berthing for capital ships makes sense if you think you're going to be involved in the region for the long term.
  2. The Gulf is a very happy hunting ground for defence companies and a grand announcement reinforcing London's concern for the security of the Gulf states that is heavy on symbolism but light on substance is a great marketing tool for British defence industry. That said, France's opening of a military base in the UAE in 2009 did nothing for its bid to build nuclear reactors there, which went to the South Koreans, or its attempts to sell their Rafale fighters, which have gone to no one.
  3. In the event of a successful conclusion to the Iranian talks with the P5+1, continued nervousness on the part of the Gulf states regarding Iranian intentions (particularly in the Gulf) can be assuaged somewhat by guarantees of continued interest such as this.
  4. Bahrain has provided fighter jets in support of the anti-ISIS coalition engaging targets in Syria. This could be seen as a tangible form of payoff.
  5. There are nearly 200,000 UK nationals in the Gulf and significant business interests, so anything that improves the ability to project military forces into the region is a sensible move. This announcement of support for Bahrain also sends the 'right' signals to Manama's two closest allies (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) that the UK means business in military and commercial terms.

On the face of it then, the case for a modest military commitment appears strong. In a region in flux, it is sensible that London postures for future possible interventions.

Unfortunately, one of the (many) reasons the region is in flux is because of the poor state of governance that results in people being disenfranchised and persecuted because of their faith or ethnicity, and that autocracies of various hues crack down on dissent through violence rather than dialogue. Given that Bahrain is one of the states which has shown a complete unwillingness to undertake any meaningful political reform and continues to suppress the political demands of its Shi'a majority, London risks sending the wrong signal that it rewards political stability more than it supports political or social equality.

Returning to the east of Suez (if that's what it is) also means a return to pragmatism rather than principle in UK foreign policy.


As part of the 'Sectarianism and Religiously Motivated Violence' Masters course which I run at ANU's National Security College, students were asked to write a post on a contemporary sectarian conflict. This piece by Sophie Wolfer was judged the best of those submitted.

The end of a 40-year sectarian struggle that has taken the lives of over 150,000 Filipino citizens is finally in sight, with President Benigno Aquino urging members of the Philippines Congress to 'swiftly enact a law granting autonomy to the Muslim region of Mindanao'.

An agreement between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) could not have come sooner for Australia, as fears continue to rise that 'festering resentment among the religious minority could be used by extremists such as the Islamic State group to recruit new fighters'. 

A poster drawn by 13-year old Julia David on child soldiers in Bangsamoro, 2014.

Traditionally governed in accordance with Islamic law and principles, the independence of the Mindanao region (referred to by its inhabitants as Bangsamoro, meaning ancestral homeland) has been contested by Muslim Filipinos since the Spanish first colonised the region in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Whilst the Moro people successfully defended the territory of Bangsamoro throughout the Spanish invasion, American occupation and war fatigue soon turned armed resistance into futile independence struggles.

When the US began to prepare the Philippines for self-rule in the mid-1900s, Mindanao was placed under the administration of Manila and assimilation programs were encouraged with the goal of 'Filipinising' the remaining Muslim rebels. This remained the status quo until the 1990s and 2000s, when new developments emerged for the possible independence of the Moro homeland.

Although recent events seem to suggest that autonomy is on the horizon, the journey has been anything but smooth sailing. Years of frustration over exclusionary policies and attitudes implemented by various governors of the Mindanao region, particularly in the post-colonial era, have stirred decades of insurgency and violence throughout the Philippines.

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The 30 years preceding the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in 1990 were marred by bloodshed, triggered in part by the Jabidah Massacre of 1968. A number of Moro recruits who were being trained to retake Sabah coveretly by the Philippine military were murdered when they attempted to escape. The massacre became a linchpin for Muslim grievances in the region and led to the formation of the Muslim Independent Movement which called for jihad (holy war) to defend the Bangsamoro homeland. 

The possibility of ongoing violence from Islamic extremists in this region presents a significant threat to many neighbouring states, particularly Australia as a key middle power in the region.

Although the current mouthpiece of the independence struggle, the MILF, has clearly stated that it does not condone or participate in Islamic extremism, the continued existence of splinter groups with ties to al Qaeda, such as the Abu Sayyaf movement, is concerning. In its heyday, Abu Sayyaf frequently carried out kidnappings, beheadings and bombings, in addition to providing sanctuary to terrorists such as the perpetrators of the 2002 Bali bombers, an attack which took the lives of 88 Australians

Regional terrorism represents a real national security threat to Australia, particularly in light of recent threats from the Islamic State and the potential for Muslim Filipinos frustrated and disenfranchised by lengthy peace negotiations to find common cause with such extremist groups. This has been highlighted in recent days by the activities of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a breakaway group that has publicly declared its allegiance and support to the Islamic State and has been disowned by the MILF. It is is suspected of being responsible for the homemade bomb that killed three and injured 22 in North Catabato province on 23 November, an attack seen as a protest against the pending peace deal between the MILF and Philippines Government. 

Much is riding on the success of the recent Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro, agreed upon by the MILF and Philippines Government on 27 March. Pending approval by the Philippines Congress, the agreement provides for a 'transitional process from the current Autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao to a new autonomous entity to be called Bangsamoro'.

The region would have a 60-seat regional parliament, control over finances (including taxes), a separate police force and the right to apply Sharia law to Muslim residents. Non-Muslims living in Bangsamoro (approximately 5% of the region's population are Christians) would continue to be governed by Manila. The Bangsamoro Basic Law has been introduced in Congress to establish governance for the proposed autonomous region and has been subject to scrutiny in a series of consultative meetings. These public hearings are scheduled to conclude by 17 December 2014, allowing the Government to ratify the bill by March 2015. 

Only time will tell if these provisions are enough to quell sectarian conflicts that have dominated the region for decades. It is crucial that the Australian Government continue to support the Bangsamoro peace process, as its success is likely to be a key factor in the ongoing battle with regional extremists.

Photo courtesy of OPAPP.


Kurdish Peshmerga advance towards Kobani, Syria. (REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis.)

ISIS is a transitory organisation whose aspiration to lead an Islamic reconquista is doomed to fail. It will eventually be degraded and splinter, some of its members joining the myriad other groups within the jihadist milieu while others fight over what is left of ISIS. One thing of enduring interest about the ISIS experience, however, is the way it has understood the Western (and local) media cycle and exploited it. 

Grotesque images of beheadings and of Western jihadis spewing forth their intolerant bile are without doubt sickening, but they serve a purpose. One of the enduring principles of war is the maintenance of momentum. Once lost, it is difficult to recover. ISIS has certainly lost its battlefield momentum and is unlikely to recover it. That's why it is trying to maintain momentum through the media.

Like all good PR practitioners, ISIS's PR jihadis understand that in order to give the impression of dominance even when you don't possess it, it is necessary to replace bad news with something that suits your purposes. Hence each video release has coincided with images that ISIS would prefer did not get much airplay.

Note that the latest video showing the beheading of Peter Kassig and Syrian military personnel was released a day or two after the fall of the town of Bayji to Iraqi government forces.

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The release of the video of the 17 year-old Australian Abdullah Elmir ranting to camera surrounded by his Lord of the Flies fan group followed a day after spectacular photos of US bombing raids against ISIS targets around Kobane hit our screens. Guess what dominated the media — images of thousands of pounds of high explosive blasting ISIS positions in Syria in the meat grinder of Kobane or a 17 year-old with a rifle blathering on about not much? The latter, of course.

This is part of a broader pattern. A day after the Turkish parliament authorised military action against ISIS (not good news for ISIS), video of the beheading of British aid worker Alan Henning was released. And if we hark back to the recapture of Mosul Dam by Kurdish forces backed by US air support in mid-August, the beheading of US journalist James Foley followed shortly after. 

None of these actions are designed to dissuade Western military intervention in Iraq or Syria, or even to goad the West into becoming decisively committed on the ground, because ISIS understands this is unlikely to occur. Rather, it has a much more short-term aim: to get ISIS's military and political setbacks out of the media cycle and replace them with bloody imagery that demonstrates ISIS is still a force. We should not, however, confuse media momentum with battlefield momentum. ISIS may have the former, but it has lost the latter.