Lowy Institute

As a former Army officer, my service bias has always made me a believer that only events on the ground matter. The air force is a great enabler but rarely the decisive factor. But my experience of the Middle East has also taught me the value that many governments place in air power.

In the Gulf in particular, technically advanced aircraft symbolise modernity and make up for the limited manpower available to staff their militaries. And it is a service that can be both a path to, or symbol of, political authority. Both Syria's Hafiz al Assad and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak were air force pilots (and later commanders), while King Abdullah of Jordan (like his late father King Hussein) and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi are both qualified military pilots.

But as the region reels from multiple security crises, it is interesting to note the degree to which air power is being used by regional forces for a multiplicity of purposes. A student of air power would do well to focus closely on the Middle East at the moment for the rich field of research it is proving to be.

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Libya

Days of unverified reports of an aerial bombing by Egyptian and Emirati aircraft on a Libyan weapons storage area and Tripoli's international airport have now been verified by American officials (the officials claim they were not informed of the strikes beforehand, which is not to say they did not know about them beforehand). If true, the strike says much about UAE and Egyptian concerns regarding the need to contain the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, as well as to stymie Qatari efforts in Libya to do the opposite. It is also further evidence that the UAE is adopting a more muscular and independent approach to regional security issues.

Gaza

Up until two weeks ago, the Israeli air force had already conducted 4900 sorties against Gaza since the most recent conflict began. And yet, just as was the case in the 2006 Lebanon war, even the Israeli air force admits it cannot completely extinguish the threat of indirect-fire weapons from Gaza. 

Iraq

As politicians mull the possibility of air strikes against Islamic State, and the US increases surveillance of possible targets in preparation for future strikes, it is interesting to note that America has already flown 1500 sorties since 8 August (about 600 of these were combat sorties, which included 96 attacks against Islamic State targets). This shows again just how resource-intensive even a 'low intensity' air campaign can be, and why regional states will need plenty of enabling support if they are to take on Islamic State.

Iran

In the east, Iran triumphantly announced the destruction of an Israeli drone spying on its Natanz nuclear facility. The truth is that the drone was more likely flown from Azerbaijan, as this detailed report outlines. Secular Shi'a Azerbaijan and religiously Shi'a Iran have a rather testy relationship and Baku's cosiness with Israel has been an irritant to Tehran for years. Whether the drone was actually shot down near the nuclear facility or somewhere much closer to the Azeri border is perhaps something we'll never know, but it reinforces the type of surveillance technology available to a wide range of states.  

Syria

To all of this we could also add the fall of Tabqa airbase, the last military base held by the Syrian Government in Raqqa province, now under the complete control of Islamic State. Syrian Government efforts at targeting the militants from the air ultimately proved futile, again showing that effective aerial campaigns against ground forces require a concentration of effort and duration that few states can manage. 

Over the next few weeks it is increasingly likely that air power will be on display in the region in a significant way. For students of air power, the Middle East is certainly the place to watch. 

Photo by Flickr user Garry Wilmore.

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The horrific images surrounding the gruesome execution of the US journalist Jim Foley are dominating the headlines. The Islamist group had several reasons for doing what they did, and when they did it.

It reinforces the Islamic State's reputation as the baddest Islamists of them all, a useful tool when you're looking to knock off your Islamist competitors in Syria. It also shows the US that there are costs associated with its air campaign, and the warning that there is another hostage at their mercy reinforces that warning; the English language audio track was designed for the target audience.

I don't however necessarily agree that one of the aims is to goad the West into becoming more deeply involved in Iraq. The Islamic State is as aware as anyone that neither the President nor the American people are inclined to do it, and there are many more ways to skin the Islamist cat than simply put combat troops into Iraq.

But these are relatively minor aims given the shock value that the vision was intended to produce.

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People already know that the Islamic State is cruel and heartless, and they know the US isn't going to stop their air attacks just because Islamic State kills a hostage. Rather, I think the main point of the exercise was to do with the timing of the release. Islamic State had just suffered a couple of battleground reverses, having been rebuffed from Mount Sinjar and more importantly losing control over Mosul Dam, an important infrastructure prize for a putative caliphate. If you want people to stay with you, join you or submit to you, it's necessary to project an image of control and martial success. Images of destroyed Islamic State vehicles and equipment and triumphant Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers celebrating over ground you've just lost isn't good for business. In the space of a few hours though, this negative imagery was swept away by an execution video; people may have heard about Mosul Dam but they aren't reminded of it because those images are no longer displayed.

The Islamic State is very good at manipulating the social and news media space. And if it takes the beheading of someone to counter images of battlefield setbacks, then so be it. Such is the calculus of Islamic State's media department.  

Image courtesy of REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski.

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As events unfold in Baghdad, President Obama's decision to unilaterally withdraw US troops from Iraq in the absence of a Status of Forces Agreement appears vindicated. Prime Minister Maliki has exacerbated the sectarian nature of Iraq's politics, bringing the current crisis to a head. The White House must be thanking its lucky stars that it doesn't have troops working for a prime minister who is refusing all entreaties to leave.

Some commentators have opined that ISIS would not have had its successes in Iraq had there been a residual US troop presence. The reality is that ISIS has assiduously courted the Sunni tribes disenfranchised by Maliki's government, and the Iraqi military has become hollow and corrupt. A small residual US force would have been at best spectators to, and at worst complicit in, Maliki's mismanagement of the situation. Greg Sheridan's view in The Australian that 'a residual (US) force would have helped stabilise Iraqi politics and bolster the Iraqi military' is typical of the 'if only' brigade – it ignores the complex reality of Iraq's secular, religious and tribal dynamics.

That is why in some ways ISIS's decision to launch attacks against religious minorities and the Kurdish region has presented President Obama with a strategic gift which he has been quick to act upon. Iraq clearly needed military assistance but the US needed to offer it in such a way that it wouldn't be seen to profit Maliki politically. What better way to introduce US firepower than in support of a humanitarian cause and in defence of Kurdish-controlled areas? It came with the imprimatur of the Iraqi Government but is not directly in support of it. It is a difficult act to juggle but it gives the US some leverage: if Maliki tries to cling to power, expect a narrow range of US military support. If he leaves and is replaced by a more inclusive government, then air support could be more widely employed.

For its part, ISIS is beginning to learn the difficulty of trying to fight a conventional military campaign using captured equipment when your enemy has air supremacy. As far as we know, US airstrikes have only destroyed an artillery piece, a mortar baseplate, some armoured vehicles and a vehicle convoy, but even the rabid ideologues of ISIS will start to sense that trying to manoeuvre in the open plains of northern Iraq is fraught with danger when US strike aircraft lurk overhead. Nor will the demonstration effect of a few 500lb bombs and Hellfire missiles have been lost on the other protagonists. Iraqi and Kurdish forces are likely to fight more vigorously if they know air support is at hand. Moreover, should US air support be broadened in support of a more inclusive Iraqi government, Iraqi tribes now aligned with ISIS may decide that their interests are better served by opting out of the Islamist coalition.

These are all big ifs, and the situation in Baghdad is unfolding hour by hour. But it may well be that ISIS's decision to press ahead with attacks against minorities and the Kurds is a strategic, rather than just tactical, error.

Photo from Flickr user United States Forces Iraq.

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The limited use of military force announced by President Obama earlier today was likely prompted by concern at the success of ISIS's latest offensives across Syria and Iraq. The jihadist group has recently redoubled its efforts in Raqqa, Syria, in an effort to take the remaining pockets of Syrian Government-held territory in the province. At the same time, ISIS's performance against Kurdish forces would have raised concern in Washington and Baghdad, and led to a re-assessment of  some overly optimistic judgments about Kurdish capabilities.

The situation facing the Yazidis and the Christians is of grave humanitarian concern. The fact that the refugees are geographically concentrated would have made air support an attractive option for the president. Add to this the fact that the sovereign Iraqi Government invited the intervention, and the stage was set for a dual humanitarian/limited direct military intervention operation to which Obama could agree.

There will of course be accusations that Obama is a hypocrite for intervening in Iraq but not Syria. That argument is simplistic and wrong. If the US is obliged to intervene militarily everywhere there is a humanitarian need, it would never stop intervening. Obama said as much in his speech. He is one of the few US leaders to understand the limits of American power. 

Moreover, the situation in Syria is far more complex. To have assisted one side would have meant breaching a nation's sovereignty (no big deal) and potentially assisting the very Islamist forces that pose a security threat to the region and the West (a very big deal). The intervention in Iraq requires Obama to do neither of those things, so the calculus is completely different.

In his speech, Obama was careful to emphasise the need for an Iraqi political solution to the crisis engulfing the country. As long as Maliki remains prime minister, there will be little appetite for substantive US air support. The intriguing question is whether a more politically inclusive Iraqi prime minister might prompt a more robust US response in terms of air support and stand-off weapons.

Photo by Flickr user Marines.

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ISIS has released video of its leader Abu Baqr al Baghdadi appearing at a Mosul mosque (pictured) during Friday prayers last week, claiming to be the caliph, or leader, of the Muslim faithful and calling himself Caliph Ibrahim.

Carrying the supposed moniker of 'the invisible sheikh' is great for one's mystique but putative caliphs need to actually be seen. The staged video was designed to not only make sure that Baghdadi remains in the news, but that he is seen as being religiously qualified as well as a military commander. Given the wide media coverage of the appearance, the ISIS marketing team has to be congratulated for the way it is positioning the brand.

But the first rule of marketing is that people need to be attracted enough to the product to buy it. And one of the intriguing things about Abu Baqr al Baghdadi's proclamation of a caliphate and his re-branding as Caliph Ibrahim is the degree to which anybody outside ISIS buys it. On that measure, his claim to leadership of the Islamic world is off to a slow start.

High profile clerics have failed to embrace his vision and, while they may have their own political (rather than purely scholarly) reasons for doing this, their opinions do carry weight.

For instance, the influential Jordanian Salafist ideologue Sheikh Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, recently released from jail, praises ISIS's military victories but voices concerns about Baghdadi's ideological grab for power and has referred to ISIS as 'deviant'. Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, while welcoming the coming of the caliphate in the future, dismissed Baghdadi's claim to lead it, saying that only the entire Muslim nation could confer the title of caliph and that Baghdadi's claim was voided by shari'a law. The pro-caliphate Hizb ut Tahrir also repudiated Baghdadi's claim.

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Baghdadi probably understands that, as a relative outsider, he will never win the loyalty of the professional clerical class. But another key performance indicator is whether other militant groups are pledging loyalty to ISIS. In the opaque and shifting world of jihadist groups it is hard to determine exactly who owes loyalty to whom, as oaths of allegiance are always be made publicly and groups are liable to splinter for a variety of reasons. But even here the results are relatively disappointing for ISIS. Outside of ISIS itself, the supporters of Caliph Ibrahim at present include a small group of Pakistani Taliban, perhaps an element of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (or perhaps not), a branch of Ansar al Sharia in Yemen (and, if Twitter is to be believed, another branch in Tunisia as well), and allegedly the Egyptian group Ansar Bayt al Maqdisi. Some ISIS wannabes such as the unknown Free Sunnis of Baalbek also claim to have thrown in their lot with the new caliph. Indonesian groups have supposedly done the same.  

ISIS has not drawn away key al Qaeda franchisees or complete elements of the armed Syrian opposition, so Baghdadi's caliphate remains aspirational.

ISIS has certainly gained kudos and headlines through its military success but its dominance in parts of Iraq is aided by political gridlock in Baghdad and Iraqi military ineffectiveness. Neither of these will last forever and Baghdadi's forces will at some stage be engaged in decisive fighting in Iraq, at which point his tactical alliance with the tribes will come under enormous pressure. He needs to maintain military momentum, and he has been attempting to do this in eastern Syria. How long he can maintain his cross-border empire remains to be seen, but it will in all likelihood remain an ephemeral construct.

Baghdadi's caliphate claim has shown how diffuse, splintered and broadly-based the regional Islamist threat has become and how easily groups can be swayed by martial success. Even though ISIS's success, and its caliphate, will not last forever, in the idealised worldview of radical islamists it will serve as a model of what can be done by committed and observant Muslims.

The Afghan Arabs under bin Laden had to shelter in non-Arab lands and were constantly under threat. Baghdadi by contrast has achieved what nobody among contemporary jihadists has before him: he has carved out a piece of the historical Arab world, defeated the 'kafir', done away with the Western-imposed borders and placed his territory under Islamic rule. Even if few people physically join his caliphate and it lasts only weeks or months, the damage may have been done.

Image courtesy of REUTERS/Social Media website via Reuters TV.

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ISIS fighters in Fallujah, Iraq (REUTERS/Stringer)

Al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist and insurgent groups have cultivated an advanced social media presence. It serves a much more important purpose than do traditional information operations campaigns that Western militaries have been developing for the last few decades. For Islamist groups, their social media platforms are part recruiting tool, part fundraising tool and part branding tool. Video of victorious Islamic warriors parading captured Western equipment and hundreds of kaffir prisoners does wonders for the the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) brand, which in turn attracts volunteers to its ranks and money into its coffers.

The latest offensive in Iraq by ISIS shows exactly how professional the 'electronic jihadis' really are, and this excellent article in The Atlantic shows how sophisticated its social media strategy is and how ISIS uses it to create a social media reality. Even if the claim that ISIS massacred 1700 Shi'a following their victory in Mosul may not be true, when the intent is to exacerbate intra-religious tensions and create an environment in which reconciliation or even national unity is impossible, unverified images are good enough. 

One of the reasons why so many non-Arab Muslims have gone to Syria to fight is because social media has created a narrative for them in which their national and ethnic identity has been superseded by their religious one. That isn't an easy thing to do if a person critically examines arguments offered on the internet, or engages in dialogue, or is deeply embedded within the society in which they live. But those aren't the people that this type of social media targets. And if Syria has proven to be such a good destination for fighters recruited over the internet, then the longer Iraq drags on and provides vision of a successful ISIS, the more chance that non-Iraqis will be attracted to their cause.

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One of the more unusual byproducts of the advance of ISIS has been the realisation that Iran and the US share an interest in blocking ISIS advances and re-asserting government control over areas seized by the group. It is a classic Middle Eastern 'enemy of my enemy' scenario, which makes for strange bedfellows.

Publicly, President Rouhani seemed to open the door to cooperating with the US in Iraq, but this appeared to be shut again by the Iranian Foreign Ministry's spokesman.

While Tehran and Washington's security interests may converge on this issue, we should not fall into the trap of thinking that this may presage any broader degree of cooperation. The differences between the two countries on Syria and on Iran's broader regional aspirations, as well as the nuclear issue, remain significant.

Even in Iraq, the commonality of their interests are circumscribed. Iran seeks a much greater degree of continued influence in Iraq than does the US. Not only does Tehran have to factor in the possibility of a potential threat from ISIS on its border if Iraqi government control collapses, it also has to contemplate the potential loss of its influence in Syria, even if that prospect looks less likely than it did a year ago.

For that reason, Iran sees itself as Iraq's ultimate security guarantor, either directly through advisory and enabling support or indirectly through proxy militia forces. Iran traditionally likes to work through proxies and advisers in order to minimise its public footprint outside the country. As a Persian Shi'a country, Iran has always understood its 'otherness' in the Arab world (it is much better at this than the US), and acted accordingly.

Iran's actual activities in the country are difficult to verify. Some unsourced media reports talk of 2000 basiji already in Iraq, while others talk of 150 advisors from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, and yet others say that two battalions of Quds Force are in Iraq. Another report claimed that the Quds Force commander Qassim Suleimani and dozens of advisers visited Iraq last week to discuss the crisis and how to stabilise the situation.

Regardless of the support Tehran is providing to Iraq, or that which Washington might offer, we should not conflate their shared interests in defeating the immediate ISIS threat with any broader realignment of interests.

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One would have thought that a country which invades another for what it considered altruistic reasons would continue to have an interest in events there long after the troops have been withdrawn. When that country is Iraq, however, there appears to be a case of collective amnesia among Australia's political leadership.

Many would be unaware that elections were held in Iraq in April. Certainly there were no congratulatory messages from Australia, one of the members of the 2003 'Coalition of the Willing', at the fact that an election was held. A bit curious, when the current prime minister saw the invasion of Iraq as a justified attempt to create a pluralistic democratic state. Curious also, given that the foreign minister did take the time to condemn the sham election held in neighbouring Syria.

When the word 'Iraq' is mentioned, countries like Australia tend to cough, look downward and shuffle their feet uncomfortably while hoping the conversation moves on. That's because deep down we know what we did was ill-informed and without any understanding of the likely consequences of our actions. We just can't quite admit it.

If the result of the invasion was simply the replacement of one autocratic ruler with another, then perhaps we could move on. But when the government we helped usher in loses control of the country's second-largest city to radical Islamists, following a concerted week-long regional offensive by a force entrenched in neighbouring Syria, then it demands at least some comment from Canberra.

The Iraq-Syria border is in danger of disappearing and the Syrian civil war becoming a contiguous battlefront from the Lebanese border to the outskirts of Baghdad, if it hasn't already. But among the supporters of the invasion of Iraq, there will likely be studied silence or slightly embarrassed coughing. Altruism counts for nought in the face of these grim realities.

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Last week's surrender by opposition forces of their remaining foothold in the old city of Homs once again focused attention on the devastation wrought by three years of conflict on Syria. Pictures of the damage inflicted on the old city are reminiscent of World War II, and with each passing day it becomes more difficult to divine an end point for the stalemated conflict.

We should not read too much into what the opposition withdrawal from Homs means for the wider Syrian conflict. In a protracted conflict such as this, each side attempts to maximise the significance of its tactical victories and to downplay the successes of the other. The opposition lost control of Homs a long time ago so the evacuation was simply the coup de grace and allowed the evacuation of several hundred fighters back into rebel ranks. Still, Homs was considered by some as the cradle of the revolution and its loss by the opposition has handed a significant symbolic victory to the regime ahead of the 3 June elections. The Syrian Government was quick  to allow residents back into the devastated old city as a sign that the government was back in control. 

The opposition attempted to take the gloss off the regime's reassertion of control over Homs by staging a spectacular demolition of a government controlled hotel in Aleppo; the film of the explosion was quickly distributed to compete with the images of its fighters leaving Homs on buses. Given that the hotel had allegedly been heavily damaged in a similar attack in February this year, the tactical significance of last week's attack is minimal. Initial opposition claims that it was a Syrian military headquarters have been downgraded to claims that it was sleeping quarters for soldiers or a base for snipers as the days passed. This attack was for the cameras more than for tactical advantage. The narrative vs counter-narrative battle is in many ways just as important as the battlefield operations, particularly when the Syrian Opposition Coalition is in Washington trying to convince the US to trust it with advanced weaponry.

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Perhaps the most interesting outcome of the Homs evacuation was the role played by Iran and Russia in securing the deal, something acknowledged by the UN. Iran had a vested interest, given reports that part of the agreement allowed for the release of Iranian (and Hizbullah) fighters held by the opposition forces. Claims of Russian involvement once again show how deft Moscow has been in dealing with the Syrian issue compared to the West. Mind you, its task is relatively easy compared to that of the West: Moscow has a single client to deal with and a domestic population that appears supportive of Russia's increasingly bearish foreign policy.

There has been some talk of Homs simply being the latest in a series of localised ceasefires that may build some kind of momentum for more and allow a breathing space for meaningful negotiations. On the face of it, this makes sense as a way of stopping the fighting without either side having to concede defeat. But such an arrangement only ever favours the regime and normally comes after the government has battered the local residents and fighters into submission. The opposition realises this, and is aware of the risk that they could be 'defeated in detail' if localised truces were to become more widespread. It would allow the Syrian Government to concentrate its forces in far fewer areas. Once again, the opposition only has itself to blame for this predicament. The Assad regime has maintained a unity that has eluded the opposition, and without centralised control of truce arrangements, government forces are able to exploit local conditions to establish agreements that suit their purposes.

Homs is unlikely to presage a broader move towards negotiated ceasefires. It has however provided the Assad regime with a symbolic victory, and will undoubtedly be featured heavily in Syrian media during the 3 June election as an example of a return to normalcy. In reality, however, normalcy is very much a distant memory.

Image courtesy of Reuters/Yazan Homsy.

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The Middle East can be a policy graveyard for principled leaders because nowhere is there a more marked tension between, on the one hand, Western notions of tolerance and individual freedom, and on the other, the need for political stability and wealthy trading partners. The popular uprisings since 2011 have only served to throw the disconnect between principle and pragmatism into even sharper focus. How does one reconcile active NATO support for the overthrow of the reprehensible Qadhafi regime and yet virtual silence over the discrimination and persecution of the Shi'a majority in Bahrain by the minority Sunni government? Totally different autocracies certainly, but autocracies nonetheless.

The truth is that we don't attempt to reconcile thsee double standards, because the unfortunate reality is that we need allies in the region. And if we only allied ourselves with secular liberal democracies like ourselves, we would be friendless in the region.

But at least there should be some public acknowledgment by Western leaders of the lack of political, religious and personal freedom practiced by our allies and the fact that this is one of the main causes of the ongoing turmoil in the region. President Obama said it in a nice way during his 2009 Cairo University speech, while then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was more direct at the American University of Cairo in 2005 when she said that 'for 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.' The US is still achieving neither after 70 years, but at least its leaders occasionally have the gumption to highlight the West's collective dilemma and reasoned hypocrisy.

Which is what made a recent speech by ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair rile so many observers of the region. Entitled 'Why the Middle East Matters', it is a pretty simplistic view of the need to combat Islamism (as opposed to Islam) and to promote 'our' humanist values. However, one bit sticks out for its 'what is he thinking?' impact (emphasis mine):

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Elsewhere across the region we should be standing steadfast by our friends and allies as they try to change their own countries in the direction of reform. Whether in Jordan or the Gulf where they're promoting the values of religious tolerance and open, rule based economies, or taking on the forces of reaction in the shape of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, we should be supporting and assisting them.

Hang on a sec: is this the same Gulf where, in Saudi Arabia, non-Muslim expatriate workers are not allowed to build a single house of worship? Where Bahraini Shi'a are kept out of political power and effectively blocked from joining the security forces? Where Kuwaiti middlemen finance Salafist jihadists in Syria? Where Qatar supports the anti-Shi'a invective of the Arabic version of al Jazeera? At least Blair didn't have the nerve to claim that these countries were promoting democratic values.

Blair has been criticised from pillar to post for his speech. Besides being poorly constructed, it is revealing for what it says about the mindset of some who look at the region from without and try to selectively judge 'good' and 'bad' autocrats.

Realpolitik dictates that we make friends with countries which may share our interests but not the political and societal values that we in the West cherish most. There is not necessarily anything wrong with that. But when dealing with the region, and the Gulf in particular, we shouldn't confuse shared interests with shared values, and we certainly shouldn't give praise when it is not deserved. To do so is to make our values as negotiable as our interests. The US has on occasion sought to differentiate between the two; Blair's speech encourages the feeling that there are many current and former leaders who don't.

Photo by Flickr user Chatham House.

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The Syrian Government's successful effort to re-take the Qalamoun area from opposition forces was designed with two aims in mind: to reassert government control over an area abutting Lebanon that resupplied opposition forces close to Damascus, and to maintain military momentum in advance of elections, just announced for 3 June.

On the face of it, an election in Syria appears to be both grotesque and futile given the large swathes of the country that lie outside government control, and the savage fighting still going on. To anti-government forces (whose members the election law effectively excludes), it is a provocation that will almost certainly make any non-military solution to the Syrian problem even more difficult. The Geneva talks will most likely collapse, though in any case they have achieved little of substance to date.

But despite these challenges, it appears the election will proceed.

There is of course method in Assad's apparent madness. An election that returns him to office will serve as yet another point of difference between him and the fractured opposition, and feed into the nationalist, anti-Islamic-extremist narrative he has been building all along. The narrative goes something like this:

  1. The election is a victory for the Syrian people (at least those who remain in Syria in areas under government control). By contrast, the political opposition either elect themselves or are appointed by their Gulf supporters. 
  2. The armed opposition is a combination of Western/Gulf lackeys and unreconstructed Islamist terrorists. The Syrian army's recent recapture of the ancient Christian town of Maaloula from Islamist fighters and Assad's subsequent Easter visit were designed to send a not so subtle message to religious minorities (and sections in the West) that the only person preventing an Islamist takeover of Syria is him.
  3. The Syrian people need a strong leader to counter external enemies, and Assad has stood firm these past three years in defending Syrian sovereignty against the aforementioned armed opposition and their allies. 

Of course, not many people in Syria really buy this narrative (with the exception perhaps of point 2), but that's not the point. This election is really about messaging and placing more pressure on the opposition in order to further fracture it.

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Even with every incentive to coalesce, the inability of the opposition to present a united front or an acceptable alternative leader after three years has brought it to the brink of irrelevance. The election, which looks set to reinforce the tenure of a man with whom they and their allies refuse to negotiate, presents them with a dilemma they may well be unable to solve. For Damascus, it's all about contrasting the Ba'thist regime's solidarity with the opposition's fractiousness.

Assad's Russian and Iranian allies have sunk significant strategic costs into the Syrian conflict and their support for an outcome in their favour remains strong. Given Moscow's view of itself as a resurgent power, continued support for Assad in the face of US and Western opposition fits neatly into Russia's own nationalist narrative. And Tehran knows that the Washington considers the nuclear negotiations, rather than Iranian support for Assad, as the key regional focus. A neat solution for the nuclear issue that President Obama could point to as a legacy is achievable. It's unlikely that there will be such a neat conclusion to the Syria quagmire.

Militarily, Assad has tightened his grip on Damascus, appears close to retaking the third-largest city Homs, and could expect to then concentrate his forces for a push on Aleppo in the run-up to the election, thereby claiming to have a mandate from Syria's three largest population centres. Although Assad has insufficient forces to re-establish control over the whole country, a long game suits his purposes. The Islamists, meanwhile, have suffered more setbacks: they have inflicted significant casualties on themselves through their infighting, Ayman al Zawahiri has had to issue 'guidelines' to al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria on how to operate, and on the southern front the Jordanians may be losing patience with the opposition.

The Syrian election in June will be somewhat farcical, given the ongoing civil war, the restrictive electoral law and the millions of refugees in neighbouring countries who won't vote. But this election is not about presenting a democratic process. It's about sending a simple message to the opposition and its supporters: Assad is here to stay. 

Photo by Flickr user delayed gratification

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The Australian reported on its front page this morning that two Australian citizens were killed in a drone strike in Yemen in November last year. The Australian reports that, according to a 'senior counter-terrorism source', the two men were 'foot soldiers for al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula', known as AQAP, but that they were not the target of the US attack.

This will open a debate in Australia about US policy, a debate that has been going on for quite some time elsewhere. Drone strikes have killed British, German, and other nationals in the past so it's not an entirely new issue for Western countries. 

Unsurprisingly, commentary is split between people who chafe about the illegality of what they consider to be 'extrajudicial killings' and those who argue that we are at war and that enemy combatants can be legitimately targeted in time of war. Then there is the argument that the number of civilians killed in such strikes actually creates more future enemies than the current enemies it removes. These are substantial issues and beyond the scope of this post. 

The Australian Government would not allow the deliberate targeting of one of its citizens by another power. That is one of the benefits of citizenship. In the court of public opinion, however, which is what most politicians are concerned about, most Australians will feel that if you are an Australian citizen and a member of a group which the Australian Government has proscribed as a terrorist organisation, then you have made a choice that brings with it certain risks. One of those risks is being killed in a drone strike targeting other members of the organisation to which you belong.

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Would the people now condemning the lack of Australian official protest to the Americans be similarly outraged if it transpired that an Australian passport holder who was also a member of Hizbullah had been killed in an Israeli air strike targeting a weapons transhipment from Syria to Lebanon? That person may not have been engaged in direct combat, but he or she was facilitating potential future attacks by a non-state actor against another state.

Australian citizens are being killed in Syria fighting for opposition groups of various hues. An Australian citizen is also a prime suspect in a bus bombing in Bulgaria that killed six people.

The nature of the threat from Islamist terrorism means that foreign nationals will turn up in places they shouldn't, doing things that pose a risk to other people. Citizenship confers certain rights on a person, and imposes responsibilities on a government. It also imposes certain responsibilities on an individual. Regardless of the debate about the legality or policy sense of US drone strikes, if it is confirmed that these Australian citizens were members of AQAP and were not deliberately targeted, then I don't think either the Australian Government or public will lose much sleep over their passing.  

Photo by Flickr user US Department of Defense.

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When I worked as a Defence Attaché in the Gulf, my local military driver was often not who I thought he was. Resplendent in his dishdasha and with excellent Arabic, I was surprised to find out that he was a Pakistani Baluch. When I asked my interlocutors how many Pakistanis there were in Gulf military forces, the stock answer was always that, while this was common in the past, nowadays nearly all personnel were citizens.

Pakistanis have indeed played important roles in Arab states in the past: a former Pakistani president, Zia ul Haq, commanded a Jordanian formation during the fight against Palestinian groups in 1970 that came to be known as Black September; and thousands of Pakistani troops deployed to Saudi Arabia following both the Iranian revolution and the 1990-91 Gulf War.

Far from being a thing of the past, it would appear that Pakistani links to Gulf security forces remain strong. Reports last week indicated that Bahrain employs 10,000 Pakistanis in its security forces, including 20% of its air force. Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif denied Pakistan was providing troops, but the article said Pakistan provided security personnel to help quell the 2011 sectarian protests. Not officially, mind you, because they had been recruited through two of Pakistan's military welfare organisations.

Gulf states rely to a large degree on expatriate labour, while poor countries such as Pakistan welcome the remittances that such work provides to the home economy. So on the face of it, the employment of Pakistanis in Arab security forces shouldn't be too much of an issue. The UK still employs several thousand Nepalese Ghurkhas in its army, after all.

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But the situation is more complex in the Middle East and the consequences of employing large numbers of Sunni Pakistanis in Gulf states' security forces, where they may be called upon to quell protests based on sectarian discrimination, are obvious. In the Bahrain case, for example, Bahraini Shi'a complain that, while they are effectively barred from joining their own security forces based on their religion, the government employs Sunnis from countries such as Pakistan to repress them.

Saudi Arabia's attempts to develop even closer military relations with Pakistan also make strategic sense. Given Riyadh's nervousness about Iranian expansionism and Washington's willingness to undertake even a cautious rapprochement with Tehran, locking in a close relationship with a Sunni-majority country on Iran's border may be a wise investment for the future. The current controversy regarding the abduction of five Iranian border guards and their alleged presence in Pakistan shows just how vulnerable Tehran is to nefarious activity on its borders. 

Never willing to miss an opportunity to stick the boot into Pakistan, even the venerable Times of India has bought into the issue of Pakistan's military relations with the Gulf states with its politically incorrect headline 'Sunni days for Saudi's hired gun Pakistan'. 

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Syrian Defence Minister General Fahad Jassim al Freij (centre) visits the township of Yabroud, 16 March 2014.

Last week, the Syrian civil war entered its fourth year. Two events highlighted how intractable this conflict has become.

First, the Syrian parliament passed an electoral law setting the stage for (in theory) contested elections in the middle of the year. The law's stipulation that candidates must be born to Syrian parents and to have lived in Syria for ten consecutive years before nominating is a not-so-subtle targeting of the exiled opposition leadership.

UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi believes that if an election were to be run mid-year, another round of Geneva peace talks may not materialise. Should Assad run and claim victory in an election, he would be signaling to the world that any negotiated solution would need to acknowledge his primacy, a move anathema to the opposition and likely to ensure the death of political negotiations. For Damascus, such an election victory would send a clear message that the regime intends to stay. If it achieves incremental military gains, the regime may also encourage local ceasefires which could further fragment an already disunited opposition.

The second event was the Syrian regime's re-taking the town of Yabroud from the rebels, which helps to further strangle a key resupply route of men and materiel from Lebanon into Syria.

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One of the reasons Hizbullah was so active in this battle was that re-taking the town denies the opposition a location from which to deploy car bombs into the Biqa' Valley and the southern suburbs of Beirut. With the fall of Yabroud imminent, rockets were fired into Shi'a towns in the BIqa'. And as if to prove Hizbullah's point, a suicide car bomb attack was foiled against a target in the Biqa' within hours of Yabroud's recapture. Two Hizbullah members allegedly pursuing the car were killed

It seems many rebel fighters withdrew from the town once its defence became untenable. The main withdrawal route was west, into Lebanon's largely pro-opposition town of Arsal, bringing with it retaliatory fire from Syrian aircraft and Lebanese Army efforts to stop rebels from infiltrating the town.

With the Syrian regime tightening the screws on the Qalamoun area, Lebanon should expect more tension as fighters withdraw via the easiest route. As the war enters its fourth year, Beirut is increasingly feeling the impact of Syria's civil war, whether it be through Hizbullah operating in Syria, or opposition fighters withdrawing to Lebanon or attacking Shi'a targets there.  

Observing the Syrian civil war is like watching a slow-motion car crash: we all know how it turns out but we feel powerless to stop it. The year-long political and military stalemate that tactically favours the regime looks set to continue in year four of the war. Syrian Government forces are likely to press ahead with regaining as much control as they can in Aleppo in advance of the elections so that they can claim a mandate in Syria's main population centres of Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, giving themselves and their allies a fig leaf of popular legitimacy. Expect 2014 to be grim.

Image courtesy of Reuters/SANA.

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Part 1 here.

Two events last week added to rising temperatures between governments in the Gulf region.

The first was another Gulf Arab diplomatic spat, this time involving Iraqi claims about un-neighbourly interference in its internal security affairs. Prime Minister Maliki took the rather undiplomatic step of accusing Saudi Arabia and Qatar of waging war on Iraq through their support of terrorist groups in Syria and western Iraq. Riyadh returned serve, placing the fault for Iraq's ongoing security dilemma on Maliki's own exclusionary policies and on his subordination to Iran (or 'regional parties', in polite language).

Claims that Iraq has begun buying weapons from Iran have done little to assuage fears that Maliki is too beholden to Iranian interests. Of course, Saudi Arabia's unwillingness to appoint a resident ambassador to Baghdad or undertake significant financial investments in Iraq gives them little sway in that country and opens the door for its rivals.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Gulf, the single deadliest incident for security forces in Bahrain since the latest round of anti-government protests began in 2011 resulted in the deaths of three police officers in a bomb blast. The attack came after demonstrations arising from the funeral procession for a detainee who had died in hospital. Two more police officers were wounded in a separate incident earlier this week.

Adding to the significance of the deadly blast: one of the dead was a UAE police officer. The UAE and Saudi Arabia sent military and police to Bahrain in 2011, allegedly to help protect public buildings and infrastructure. They were not sent there to take an active part against protests, which raises the question of what the UAE officer was doing at the protest site.

Amid all of this strife and accusations of internal interference, the thousand-pound gorilla is Iran. There is a fear in the Gulf that Iran may inch its way into the international community and dominate its increasingly fractious Gulf neighbours economically, diplomatically and militarily. More on that in the next post.

Photo by REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed.

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