Lowy Institute

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.


While Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have all felt the heavy burden of hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian civil war refugees on their soil, Lebanon has felt the largest impact on its security from the fighting.

Lebanon's complex patchwork of religious communities each has their own external supporters. Add to this mix Hizbullah's participation in the fighting in Syria and a porous border, and the spillover effects from Syria are of huge concern to Beirut. And as always, it is the Lebanese security forces that bind the country together as political leaders continuously put self-interest and communal concerns above the national interest.

Lebanese soldiers, Beirut, 2005 (Flickr/Charles Roffey)

I have a soft spot for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). For all its faults, it is arguably the one truly national institution in the country. And that is no mean feat in a place where one's national identity must compete for loyalty against the much stronger pull of familial, regional, sectarian and in some cases tribal identity. It is also no mean feat when you have to share the security space with Hizbullah, whose training, equipment and discipline match if not exceed that of the LAF.

The main criticism of the LAF is that when Hizbullah wants to act, the LAF either stands aside or on occasion coordinates with it. The LAF's counter-argument is that taking on Hizbullah would not only be difficult militarily, but more importantly would also threaten the unity of the LAF itself.  A very senior LAF officer once told me that his primary focus was on maintaining the unity of the LAF because it was the only national institution.

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The LAF's size and equipment make it incapable of repelling foreign invasions, and it will never confront Hizbullah, yet the LAF has had plenty of experience in fighting security threats inside the country, and it is good at it. I remember the national pride on display in 2007 as the LAF defeated Fatah al-Islam fighters holed up in Nahr al-Barid refugee camp, an action which involved some extremely bloody fighting. Now however, the fighting is becoming more constant as militants feel the pressure in Iraq and Syria. The LAF was called upon to fight against Islamist fighters in the border town of Arsal in August and in Tripoli in October, and there is no indication that this will be the last of it.

But there is a more immediate problem. There are still over 20 LAF and other security force personnel being held captive by Islamist militants who were captured during the fighting in Arsal. While little is heard of it in the West, two have been beheaded and it remains a significant political issue in Lebanon. There is a tent protest in downtown Beirut that causes ongoing traffic problems in an already gridlocked city. There is also the tricky issue of the three soldiers who have allegedly defected to ISIS or Jabhat al Nusra, although media reports in Lebanon claimed that one had subsequently turned himself in to the LAF.

The LAF operates in a tough neighbourhood. There are few militaries which have to deal with a significant and ongoing internal security problem while trying to negotiate the release of its soldiers from the same people it is fighting. And the LAF receives little political support. After all, Hizbullah, one of the country's main political parties, operates a battle hardened militia supported by an external power, whose actions in support of the Assad regime in Syria is one of the causes of the problems the LAF has to address. On top of that, LAF commanders need to avoid placing personnel in a position where soldiers' sectarian loyalties collide with their loyalty to the LAF.

The fact that the LAF still turns up to the fight despite all of this is one reason I continue to have a soft spot for it. 


Having just spent a few days doing research in Kuwait, it was interesting to see how relatively relaxed Kuwaitis appeared to be about events in neighbouring Iraq.

Kuwait would quite naturally be concerned about the possibility of the conflict spreading further south, as well as the impact it may have on Kuwait's own sectarian relations. Yet on both counts Kuwaitis appear relatively sanguine, and with good reason. They don't see ISIS as any type of existential threat, largely because Iraq's Shi'a-dominated south acts as a protective buffer.

Kuwaiti soldiers during rehearsals for the 50/20 celebration parade, 2011.

Nor do they see the sectarian tensions being imported into Kuwait. Kuwait has always stood out as a rather unusual example of the inter-sectarian compact.

It does have a small but vocal Salafist trend amongst its Sunni community, and several hundred Kuwaitis are believed to have fought or are fighting in Syria and Iraq. Yet its Shi'a community (about a third of the population) is integrated to a much greater degree than anywhere else in the Gulf.

There are several reasons for this, but perhaps the most significant is the fact that many of the richest merchant families in Kuwait are Shi'a (many of Persian origin) and they have been staunch supporters of the Emir for decades. This was particularly welcome during the period of Arab nationalism (a largely Sunni construct) during the 1950s and 60s. While the Iranian Revolution and some terrorist attacks perpetrated by (mainly foreign) Shi'a in Kuwait caused tension, the role of Kuwaiti Shi'a in opposing the Iraqi occupation of 1991 allowed the Shi'a to regain any ground they may have lost. 

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What this means is that, when dealing with regional security issues, Kuwait must steer a careful course as close to the middle as it can, lest it exacerbate sectarian tensions.

Kuwait rather diplomatically sent a naval vessel in support of the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) intervention in Bahrain in 2011, ensuring it ticked the Gulf solidarity box without upsetting its own Shi'a constituency. For the same reason, Kuwait has joined the Coalition against ISIS but has not contributed aircraft like the other GCC members (with the exception of Oman). But it has provided timely financial assistance and basing support.

Article 68 of the Kuwaiti constitution forbids offensive war and requires the Amir to decree a defensive war, which provides legal justification for the lack of Kuwaiti aircraft in the Coalition. But the understanding that the jihadists in Iraq in particular have some sympathy among Kuwait's Salafist and tribal minorities would also be a major consideration in Kuwait's approach.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user DVIDSHUB.


When you are an observer and student of a place like the Middle East, it is easy to mix several interests. Does religion, history and politics push your buttons? You won't find a better region for it. Are you a security analyst? There is a surfeit of riches here. A gastronome perhaps? Come on in.

But for a sports nut, it's not so easy. You really have to work to find a fulfilling sporting experience in this part of the world.

I have worked hard to combine my regional interests and sporting loves, and it has been difficult but not impossible. In the mid-1990s I remember playing cricket every Friday afternoon in a cavernous soccer stadium in Damascus. As the melodious tones of the azzan filled the air, we were watched by bemused Damascenes who wondered what the hell these people were playing and hoping that we could bugger off so they could get on with their soccer game.

In 2005, I am proud to say I was part of the revival of Saudi rugby, which had been stopped due to security concerns. The Jeddah team's visit to Riyadh signaled that there was still life in the union and I am happy to report that the Najdis sent the Hijazis back to the coast with their tails between their legs. (Self) selection in the Saudi team followed shortly after (I have the jersey to prove it), and because the security situation did not allow teams to travel to Saudi Arabia, we went to the safety of Bahrain to announce that Saudi rugby was well and truly back.

This love of sport and the Middle East partially explains my presence in Beirut this past weekend. I came here for research, of course, but also to run in yesterday's Beirut Marathon.

Now, I would like to tell you that the Beirut Marathon is a metaphor for some aspect of Middle East life, but it isn't. In fact, in some ways it provides a great counter-narrative, because it featured many things the region lacks. It was well organised and it was meritocratic. The fastest runners did best, rather than the most politically connected runners, or runners of a particular religious persuasion.

The Beirut Marathon was an interesting distraction from the normal fare of a Middle East researcher, but it was only a distraction because no matter how hard you try, it is difficult to escape the region's many fault lines. That's why tomorrow it's back to looking at the the place of the Shi'a in Lebanon.

Photo is the author after running the Beirut Marathon.


If you relied only on the media, you could be forgiven for thinking that the focus of the fight against ISIS has been on the Syrian city of Kobane.

This is thanks to the easy access for international media to the Turkish side of the border near Kobane and the resulting images, as well as the work of the Kurds and their associated lobby groups who want the world to focus on their issues. At one point the ABC even claimed that a hill near the town was 'strategic'. Tactically important perhaps, but strategic ? I don't think so.

As Secretary of State John Kerry noted, the US does not consider Kobane a defining element of the coalition strategy. Rather, it quite rightly sees that Iraq is ISIS's main effort and hence the bulk of Washington's force is directed there.

Kobane's value though, lies in what it represents more than what it is. One of the principles of war that applies to insurgent groups as much as it does to conventional armies is the maintenance of momentum. If you have momentum, then you force your opposition to make reactive decisions under pressure that often turn out to be sub-optimal. You can also create fear and panic in the opposition, as ISIS showed in its attack on Mosul and subsequent drive south which resulted in the collapse of several Iraqi army divisions. ISIS has also relied on battlefield victories to replenish its ammunition stocks and gain military equipment and recruits.

The capture of Mosul, though, may well represent a high point in ISIS's campaign.

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While the group is still pressing its advantage in al-Anbar province in Iraq, it has lost Mosul dam and has been investing in Kobane for over a month without success. If it is unable to capture Kobane, it will have lost significant personnel and resources against some Kurdish irregulars (with coalition air support) for little to no gain. One of ISIS's lines of operation will have stalled, and very publicly so.

ISIS is a media savvy organisation and it realises that being beaten back in Kobane would be a very public loss. And in the social media world ISIS inhabits, a public loss can also be a strategic one. Images of coalition airstrikes and Kurdish fighters tearing down ISIS flags don't do much for ISIS's reputation as a near-invincible jihadist war machine, an image on which it has relied for much of its success to date.

Kobane also offers the coalition opportunities greater than the limited value of the town itself. In the past week the coalition has increased its support for the Kurdish fighters, indicating a willingness to fight for the town's defence. This limited action offers some significant practical benefits for the coalition. It will be learning much about integrating airstrikes with indigenous forces and can use the Kobane battle as a live run for future actions against ISIS in Iraq. At the same time, the coalition is able to degrade ISIS forces in the region, who appear to be reinforcing failure in their assault on Kobane.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ogbodo Solution.


The question of defining a 'moderate' rebel in Syria's civil war bedevils the US as it works to fulfill its plan, announced by President Obama on 10 September, to arm and train anti-ISIS groups in Syria.

The term 'moderate' is thrown around with gay abandon without anyone defining exactly what they mean by it.  And with good reason. It is first and foremost a relative and not an absolute term. Notice how often we write 'moderate' in inverted commas when using the term? Someone Riyadh considers a moderate could well be a raging Salafist to a Western audience, while someone considered a moderate by the West would likely be not sufficiently Islamic to placate many in the Gulf. This interview from April is a good example of the complexity of the Syrian battlespace and why the term 'moderate' should be considered extremely subjective.

But Western politicians of all persuasions would have you believe that a moderate rebel is 'someone that we can do business with', which is a rather vacuous idea, since you can only ever measure how moderate a person is when they are actually in a position to wield power. On the path to success, people and groups (particularly in the Middle East) are likely to say whatever it takes to get external support.

The proposition that Washington can find (or create) a group of 'moderate' rebels to back as part of its plan to degrade and defeat ISIS while not sowing the seeds of a future disaster is full of holes. A couple of issues spring to mind:

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First, the countries that have been mooted as possible training locations for the 'moderates' have their own agendas regarding Syria and are hardly liberal democracies, so it is reasonable to assume that they will seek to advance their own interests  and agendas (including the place of religion in society) while saying the right things about the need for an inclusive, moderate armed opposition. That paragon of moderation, Saudi Arabia, has agreed to host training for the neo-secular moderate opposition, and discussions appear to be ongoing regarding Turkey's role. President Erdogan's AKP is a modern Islamist party, and the President himself has been complicit (either by commission or omission) in the mess that is Syria by concentrating simply on felling Assad without giving any consideration to what to do when he didn't fall. 

Second, the US will have no effective control over the actions and equipment of these 'moderate' forces once they cross the border back into Syria. Why would any right thinking moderate commander do Washington's bidding when he knows that today's US liaison team will be rotated out long before the war is ever concluded? You can try to sub-contract the oversight to 'friendly' regional nations but the problem remains. You can't insulate the weapons, training and logistics support in such a manner that they only provide an advantage to the moderates and not the Islamists, who inhabit the battlefield in greater numbers. As this piece argues, so-called vetted groups' weapons and operations are already directly supporting al Qaeda-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra as well as Salafist groups under the Islamic front umbrella.

Even after the ISIS threat is addressed, there is still the question of what to do about Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Front and myriad other Islamist groups inhabiting the Syrian battlefield. None of them have fixed personnel rosters, and individuals can and do travel between them depending on battlefield success, resource availability, leadership disagreement or doctrinal differences. Some will undoubtedly find their way into the 'moderate' groups currently being 'vetted' for training in 'liberal' regional countries.

Trying to find enough 'moderates' to form a critical mass and then training them in countries whose governments have contributed to creating the Islamist morass in Syria in the first place will be near impossible, and will ultimately create the conditions for further instability. Only this time the West will have contributed directly to it.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Freedom House.