Lowy Institute

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.

Read More

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.

Hide
Comments

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.

Comments

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.

Read More

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.

Hide
Comments


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.

Read More

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.

Hide
Comments

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.

Read More

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. 

Hide
Comments

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. 

Read More

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.

Hide
Comments

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.

Comments

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.

Read More

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.

Hide
Comments

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:

Read More

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.

Hide
Comments

Questions abound over what to do about ISIS and whether it should be pursued into Syria (the US has now started hitting ISIS targets in Syria). Concentrating simply on ISIS though, risks misunderstanding the regional nature of the problem and the fact that ISIS is just the strongest of numerous Islamist groups threatening to upset the regional balance and trying to establish its own version of Islamic rule. Others might not be as publicly aspirational (or provocatively foolhardy) as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's ISIS and his claim to have established a caliphate, but liberal democrats they ain't.

To concentrate solely on ISIS as the media (and hence the public) tends to do can lead us into thinking that if we degrade ISIS then we have fixed the problem.

But take this week as a snapshot of how complex a problem we are really facing. On Israel's long-dormant border with Syria, the UN and Syrian military have now left the field of battle to the control of Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that continues to pledge loyalty to al Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. And in Lebanon, Jabhat al-Nusra has just executed the second Lebanese police officer of 22 soldiers and police officers they hold. Islamic State supporters have beheaded two of the soldiers. These are just the latest deaths of Lebanese security personnel in an ongoing battle with Islamists that saw Jabhat al-Nusra and affiliates briefly take over the Lebanese town of Arsal in early August.

In Syria, Islamist groups wanting to implement their version of Islamic government also battle away, for the most part cooperating with, but not part of, Jabhat al-Nusra. The umbrella group Islamic Front, however, suffered a setback recently with the death of the leader of Ahrar al-Sham and other senior figures in a mysterious attack in northern Syria. The transnational nature of the Islamist problem was illustrated by the fact that even the Dagestani branch of the Islamic Caucasus Emirate sent its very public condolences. The US sees a group of vetted rebels as a possible solution but as this and this show, while the idea of vetted secular Syrian rebels sounds attractive, the devil is in the detail.

None of this is to say we are wrong to focus on ISIS in Iraq. ISIS threatens a government that is internationally recognised and which owes its existence ultimately to the 2003 invasion, of which Australia was a part. The Iraqi Government should be encouraged to take the ground fight to ISIS while supported by air strikes, and while regional governments help to degrade ISIS through squeezing its revenue base, sealing off its borders (in the case of Turkey) and persuading ISIS's non-Islamist allies to leave it to its own devices or even take up arms against it.

When leaders are asked about airstrikes in Syria though, the question that needs to be asked is not simply whether we are going to target ISIS but what we are going to do about other Islamist groups in Syria, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, both of which threaten Lebanon. None of these groups fundamentally differ about their desired societal endstate; its simply who should lead that is their point of difference.

The problem with this regional Gordian knot is that it cannot be cut simply by a sword, as Alexander did. It is a problem of breathtaking complexity, of which the military solution is a small but necessary part. While Australia's contribution is small, Australians should be alerted to the complexity of the environment so that they don't expect a neat solution or 'victory'. The problem of course, is how to make such a complex issue simple enough for the public to digest.

Comments

The Prime Minister's unsurprising announcement of an Australian military commitment to the US-led anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition answered a few questions and raised others. I think the justification for military intervention in Iraq is relatively straightforward, but the environment within which our forces will operate is anything but.

The mission Tony Abbott described was to 'disrupt, degrade and if possible destroy this movement', a better, more nuanced formulation than Obama's simple 'degrade and destroy'. These are specific military task verbs, and 'destroying' something that is not a static target is very difficult. A movement such as IS can be rendered operationally ineffective to the point that it no longer practically exists but this will take time. Don't expect a neat surrender.

More importantly, the Australian public needs to understand that this mission is simply about targeting IS; it's not about making a better Iraqi nation. I would argue that the multiple identities (to coin a Bernard Lewis term) of Iraqis make it virtually impossible to do this in the short- to medium term, if ever. That doesn't mean we shouldn't contribute to defeating IS, but it does mean we should be mature enough to understand that this is not a binary battlefield — in other words, it's not the Iraqi government vs Islamic State.

Rather, it is IS against Iraqi Government forces, Kurdish fighters, experienced Shi'a militias (who may or may not wear Iraqi military uniforms) who see political advantage in military success and who will leverage this to advance their political aims, Iranian interests providing support to said militias (including their own advisers), and Sunni militias designed to obviate the need for Shi'a-dominated security forces in Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq.

If this appears confusing that's because it is. But it doesn't lessen the threat IS poses, nor does it invalidate our decision to provide aircraft and military advisers to the region.

Read More

What it does mean is that the Government should not hide behind bland assurances that we are supporting the legitimate government of Iraq. We will likely be part of a coalition that is supporting forces acting in sympathy with the Iraqi Government — only in some cases we will be supporting actual Iraqi government forces. This is the Middle East, and in many ways this is the best that can be expected. That's why it the Australian public should be brought into the tent regarding the complexity of the societal landscape into which our forces will be deployed.

While the international coalition is being assembled, don't expect it to be anything other than a collection of states acting together for a limited period of time on a specific issue. Tony Abbott was keen to mention the fact that some Middle Eastern states had indicated that they would contribute to military operations, and included Bahrain while keeping a straight face. This is not to belittle tiny Bahrain's contribution, but rather to highlight the irony: this is a state whose minority Sunni monarchy actively discriminates against its Shi'a majority and refuses to undertake meaningful domestic reform which is now taking the fight to a Sunni jihadist group in support of Iraq's Shi'a-majority government. The UAE is also stumping up. This is a country which just a few years ago helped quell Shi'a protests against Bahrain's Sunni Government. On top of that, there is still concern over whether Iran, the regional state which (other than Syria) faces the most direct threat from IS, will be invited to a Paris meeting to discuss the issue. Regional rivalries infect so many aspects of security policy.

This is the environment into which Australian forces are being deployed. None of this is to say that the deployment is unwarranted. What should be articulated by the Government is the fact that we are simply providing a short-term military assistance mission to a deeply flawed nation in a deeply flawed region as part of a coalition, not all of whose members share our liberal democratic traditions. This is going to be the ultimate pragmatist's intervention, and the public should not be left under any false illusions that is anything else.

Hide
Comments

It's fair to say that President Obama is a reluctant commander-in-chief and sees the Middle East as a place where the limitations of US military force are most apparent. So his speech  tonight on America's strategy against Islamic State (IS) was from someone who wishes he didn't have to deal with what he has to. But that is what being president is about.

In such a short speech, it is difficult to capture the intricacies of a strategy to deal with as complex a problem as IS in Iraq and Syria, but I thought Obama laid out as clear a plan for public consumption as was feasible at this stage. Some early thoughts:

  1. A clear and ambitious mission: It doesn't get much clearer than 'degrade and destroy', but the second part is harder than the first. The first part is already occurring, with over 150 airstrikes ordered. 'Destroying' is harder, but given that IS is a coalition, stripping away its less ideological elements and then scattering its core may render it as ineffective as al Qaeda currently is. Whether IS will be completely destroyed or just morph into something smaller will be for people to judge in the future. The effect may well be the same.
  2. Play to your strengths: As has been the case throughout his time in office, Obama was keen to emphasise that the ground combat would not be carried out by US forces, and that Washington would provide the technologically advanced enabling support such as airstrikes to support local ground efforts. The US will also provide training and organisational support that allows Iraqi forces to engage IS. This effort still involves an additional 475 US military personnel, but gives Obama and his military the flexibility to disengage relatively quickly or to withdraw support if the Iraqi political class ceases to play along.
  3. Watching the language: Coalition building in the Middle East is a fraught process and despite Obama's very public mentioning of the fact that 'we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region', it is likely that many of those same partners will provide limited support. As an aside, the use of the term 'Arab' as opposed to 'Sunni Arab' was deliberate and a desire to downplay the religious issue that permeates much of the regional hand-wringing over the issue.
  4. This is going to take a long time: Coalition building takes a long time, force generation and deployment takes a long time, training and mentoring takes a long time, degrading and destroying takes a long time. Be prepared for the long haul.
  5. Authorising Sunni militias: Shi'a militias are part of the Iraqi landscape and in some instances they have been resurrected for the fight against IS. The Sunni National Guard units that will now be stood up sound awfully like a Sunni militia, no matter how much they may be dressed up as being part of the Iraqi military.
  6. The Syria issue: Not mentioned a lot but where it was, Obama raised more questions than he answered. Although Obama said the US was ramping up its military assistance to the Syrian opposition, it wasn't spelt out exactly which opposition he was talking about, how they would be deployed or sustained, or who they would fight (just IS, Jabhat al-Nusra also, the Assad forces, or the Islamic front?). Syria is not a binary issue.

 

Comments

The complexity of the task facing the Obama Administration in putting together a coalition to target radical Islamists in Iraq should not be underestimated. There are so many competing jealousies, so many personal, political and religious agendas, that the seemingly straightforward task of putting together a coalition of states against a murderous band of religious fanatics who recognise no international norms is anything but simple.

The actual plan for addressing the Islamic State (IS) threat will be outlined by President Obama soon, however it appears likely that the coalition will be in three parts:

1. The 'core' coalition: US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has already coined the term 'core' coalition (which in Australia at least brings back memories of 'core' and 'non-core' promises). Not all of these nations will necessarily take part in air strikes but the intimation is that they will be there for the long haul. The list is depressingly familiar: North America, the UK, Australia and some European states as well as Turkey as the only Muslim NATO member. Ankara has done too little to police its border with Syria, thus partly enabling the growth of IS and other noxious Islamist groups.

2. The 'non-core' coalition: Regional states for the most part who, while recognising the threat posed by Islamists, would rather not be seen to be too keen to bomb fellow Muslims, or to bomb them at all. This is partly due to their ingrained desire to buy their way out of trouble, and for some it is the fear that such action will be unpopular domestically and create internal instability. The Arab League has recently issued a strongly worded statement backing action against IS but the gap between the League's rhetoric and action is normally significant.

Read More

Saudi Arabia has already used its financial clout to provide US$3 billion worth of French weapons for the Lebanese Army, ostensibly in support of its increasingly bloody conflict with IS and Jabhat al-Nusra elements, but also to bolster it against pro-Iranian Hizbullah forces in Lebanon. Saudi Arabia will also be crucial in trying to convince Iraqi Sunnis to distance themselves from IS and cooperate with a reformed Baghdad government.

3. The 'unmentionable' coalition: For all the talk of the threat to the West from IS, the one country (besides Iraq) which has been actively involved on the ground and which sees IS as a realistic existential threat is Iran. Iran is very much part of the international coalition, but nobody can afford to mention the fact in polite company.

This is a messy coalition and one in which there will be plenty of free-riders and others doing more than their fair share. Yet in some ways this coalition is simpler than those of the past. Obama has largely abandoned America's ideological obsession with democratising the region. As long as IS is dealt with, whether it is done with the help of theocrats, autocrats or democrats matters little in the short term. The challenge for the US is going to be whether the 'non-core' and 'unmentionable' parts of the coalition can reach a modus vivendi, or whether they will revert to type and view everything through a narrow and short-term lens.

Hide
Comments

In this fast-paced world of media grabs, it is easy for selective quoting to misrepresent what leaders say. In his 28 August press conference for instance, when President Obama was asked whether he needed Congressional approval to go into Syria and attack Islamic State, he said 'I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet.' President Obama was excoriated for not having a Syria strategy years after the crisis began, when he was actually commenting on the military approach to IS in Syria.  Clumsy language perhaps, but he wasn't evincing a complete absence of US strategy towards Syria.

More disturbing was a comment a little further into his press conference. In talking about the future of President Bashar al Assad in light of the IS threat, Obama said 'I don't see any scenario in which Assad somehow is able to bring peace and stability to a region that is majority Sunni and has not so far, you know, shown any willingness to share power with them or in any kind of significant way deal with the longstanding grievances that they have there.'

With this simple sentence Obama virtually sidelined religious minorities in the region, appeared to indicate that Sunni Islam was the region's political as well as religious orthodoxy, and suggested that only 'they' could rule and guarantee stability at the same time. Rather than simply state that Assad's illegitimacy rested on his flouting of international norms and lack of popular consensus, Obama bought into the religious argument.

Now, one could be kind and say Obama has to talk this way because Washington is trying desperately to build a coalition of apparently reluctant regional Sunni states to take military action against Sunni jihadists operating in a Shi'a Arab majority country. But part of the problem with the region is the way in which Sunni-majority states (and some Shi'a majority states, it must be said) see religious identity is a precondition for political leadership, thereby marginalising the rest.

Read More

Obama's use of religious identity in discussing the region's politics also exposes him to accusations of double standards. What about Bahrain, for instance, where the Sunni minority actively discriminate against the Shi'a majority with no effort being made to work towards a substantive power-sharing arrangement? But the Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain, and if Obama's rather strange words are to be taken at face value, political discrimination is only practiced against Sunnis.

I'll write more in the future about the strange bedfellows that a regional and Western anti-IS coalition is going to throw up, and the double standards that are likely to abound when they take military action. But a president trying to put such a group together would do well to steer clear of any reference to religion. Religious identity is part of the problem in the region, and including it in his speeches and statements will just leave Obama open to the religious intolerance practiced by both Sunni and Shia.

Photo by Flickr user James Gordon.

Hide
Comments

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.

Read More

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.

Hide
Comments
Loading...