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Valdai Papers

#03 | November 2014

Middle East Crisis:


Foreign Interference and
anOrgy ofExtremism
Vitaly Naumkin

Middle East Crisis:


Foreign Interference and anOrgy ofExtremism

The Middle East isone ofthe most turbulent regions inthe world today, engulfed byawave ofconflict and violence that threatens international security. Fed byrapidly growing religious extremism
inthe Arab world, the wanton destruction that characterizes the recent violence adds anew dimension tothe long-simmering Arab-Israeli conflict that periodically erupts inarmed clashes. The popular Arab journalist Hisham Melhem writes: The Arab world today ismore violent, unstable, fragmented and driven byextremism the extremism ofthe rulers and those inopposition than atany
time since the collapse ofthe Ottoman Empire acentury ago.
The blitzkrieg launched bythe Islamic State ofIraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has adopted the
simpler, ifmore ambitious, name ofIslamic State, was assudden asit was predictable. The current
surge ofjihad sentiment inthis part ofthe world isrooted inthe recent past, which began when the
USand its allies invaded and occupied Iraq without UNsanction. The years-long occupation isestimated tohave left nearly 500,000dead inaddition tocreating several million refugees and displaced
persons.
The Americans committed three major mistakes inIraq: banning the Baath party, dissolving the
army, and dismissing the government bureaucracy. Itis also clear why they did it. There were fears
that these institutions were incapable ofchange and, ifleft intact, could resurrect the old political and social order. While Saddam Hussein was undoubtedly acruel dictator who brought sorrow
toahuge number ofhis fellow countrymen and many others inneighboring Iran and Kuwait, these
decisions destroyed the state institutions that supported what had been asecular nationalist regime.
The countrys new rulers have never managed tofill the resulting power vacuum inIraq orto placate
the volatile mass ofdissatisfied skilled professionals.
A noless serious mistake was the USpolicy ofexploiting sectarian divisions. Tobe sure, the Shiite
population inSaddams Iraq faced discrimination, and the need torehabilitate them and dojustice
was clear. But the rehabilitation process was not based onnational consensus. Instead the Americans
backed Shiite religious parties the Islamic Dawa Party, also known asthe Islamic Call Party, and
the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution inIraq. Washingtons Shiite project was essentially
areligious one, turning the Sunnis into apersecuted group and predictably stoking hostility between
the different sects, let alone the inevitable hostility that would arise towards the indigenous Christian
minority that had lived peacefully for centuries inthese lands. Meanwhile, justice and rehabilitation for the Kurds has led tothe emergence ofKurdish quasi-statehood. Social fragmentation has
increased asaconsequence, and plans for nation building and afull-fledged nation state inIraq seem
illusory. Inletting the sectarian genie out ofthe bottle, those who hoped todemocratize the country and create afunctioning government bymilitary force doomed itto internecine strife. Itwas easy
todestroy the old regime, but military force cannot build anything new.
The Iraqi army under Saddam was one ofthe best fighting forces inthe Arab East. In2003, confronting aUS-led invasion, the army command thought better ofmounting what would have been
adoomed resistance toasuperior enemy, and saved the Iraqi capital from destruction byreaching
anunderstanding with the invaders. This was facilitated bymany people inthe military and the civil
service who quietly opposed the dictator and blamed him for the troubles that had befallen Iraq.
The army, like the Iraqis atlarge, was tired after the bloody wars Saddam had unleashed against Iran
and Kuwait.
According toAnthony Cordesman ofthe Center for Strategic and International Studies, the United
States must heed the hard lessons ofIraq and Afghanistan inthe future (and this isan entirely realistic proposition judging bythe movement inUS opinion polls). Among other things, Cordesman says
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#03, November 2014

Middle East Crisis:


Foreign Interference and anOrgy ofExtremism

itis important never tofall inlove with amission. But itlooks like our partners have yet tofully
absorb these lessons.
The surge offanatical jihadi groups during the occupation ofIraq was fought back bythe occupying forces and the new Iraqi government with the help oflocal tribes. But the jihadists had merely
redeployed tothe north toprepare for the capture ofMosul and neighboring towns. The most radical ofall Islamic terrorist groups inthe region, ISIL orIS, achieved just that inits lightning offensive earlier this year. Asits name suggests, the extremists want tocreate anIslamic state inan area
that includes Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. Atfirst Western and local politicians and
experts, who had overlooked the groups rise, estimated that ithad between seven and ten thousand
fighters. Today they put that number closer to4050thousand. These are extremely cruel and ruthless jihadists, hardened bythe fighting inIraq and Syria and superior tothe enemies ifonly intheir
willingness todie for the cause. They are receiving generous financial support from sources based
mostly inthe Arabian Peninsula. Quite afew ISfighters hail from other countries inthe region
aswell asEurope, America and Eurasia. Assoon asthey gained control ofRaqqa, Syria, they committed aseries ofheinous mass executions, killing anyone who didnt share their doctrine (primarily
religious and ethnic minorities) and introducing strict Sharia law. Neighboring states are dealing
with amassive refugee crisis asaresult.
It should not beforgotten, however, that ISunits invaded Mosul with the help oftacit allies who
shared the same tactical goals, including purged military officers and officials ofthe former Iraqi
regime aswell asfollowers ofNakshbandiya, aSufi sect and apparent ideological opponent ofthe
jihadists. Asaresult, the precursor for across-border Islamic state was created, occupying only parts
ofIraq and Syria, for now. Hummers captured inMosul were sent toSyria and used for apatrol
mission inthe ISstronghold ofRaqqa. Other weapons abandoned bythe Iraqi army were also sent
toSyria.
But aside from barbarically torturing, maiming, beheading and shooting dissidents, IShas created
asemblance oforder, albeit circumscribed bytheir rigid ideology. They have created alarge number ofdecent-paying jobs, reduced crime, and encouraged agriculture and trade. The local Sunnis,
atleast, are getting used tothe new rules. There isfear but also stability.
IS controls oil production inSyria and engages inlucrative black-market oil trading. Syrias lowsulfur oil, which can beprocessed atsmall makeshift refineries, issold toshadowy Turkish dealers
atvastly reduced prices. This isreminiscent ofBaghdads clandestine oil dumping tocircumvent
the sanctions under Saddam, when buyers included many neighboring states, including countries
that were far from friendly towards Iraq. Business isbusiness, particularly inthis lucrative industry.
Experts estimate that ISwas bringing inas much as$2million aday until the USbegan striking oil
installations innorthern Syria, thus depriving ISof this important source ofrevenue. But the jihadists still have huge cash reserves plundered from banks inMosul.
The Islamic States victories have inspired Islamic extremists around the world, raising the risk
ofterrorism and extremism spreading outside ofthe region. There isno doubt that ISrecruits will
eventually return totheir countries oforigin tocarry out attacks, which fact seems tohave dawned
even oncountries that Moscow has long been warning ofthe international threat ofterrorism.
Now regimes that ignored the scale ofthis threat have joined the US-led coalition against IS. But
within these countries, there are still doubts about the sincerity ofthe coalition members. The Saudi
intellectual Turki al-Hamad asks how Saudi religious leaders can oppose the Islamic States extrem3

#03, November 2014

Middle East Crisis:


Foreign Interference and anOrgy ofExtremism

ist ideology, ifthey disseminate asimilar ideology both athome and abroad. Hamads skepticism
isechoed byformer Iranian nuclear negotiator, Ambassador Seyed Hossein Moussavian, currently
aresearch scholar atPrinceton, who points out that the Arab allies ofthe United States have spent
billions ofdollars over decades topropagate this extremist ideology inthe Muslim world and continue todo soeven now. Like many other experts, hebelieves that the USand its Arab allies lack sufficient ground forces towin the war.
One ofthe weaknesses ofthe coalitions war against the Islamic State isthat itis non-contact
innature. You cannot win awar solely through air strikes, which inevitably lead tocivilian losses that
only fan anti-American sentiments and damage the reputations ofUS partners. Onthe ground, the
ISbutchers are opposed only bythe Syrian government forces and Kurdish militias.
Another weakness isthat the coalition lacks regional inclusiveness. Itmakes nosense toexclude
Iran, Syria and several other non-state actors who are involved inthe fight anyway and, moreover,
are the chief targets for the terrorists. Paradoxically, the coalition architects have demanded that
Syrian opposition forces attack both ISand government forces. The USwould like Turkey tosend
inground forces against IS, but, asAnkara said inearly October, itwould only commit troops
ifabuffer zone was established inthe Kurdish-populated Syrian border areas, backed upby ano-fly
zone (which recalls the intervention inLibya). The Turkish leaders need aplace tosend the 1.6million Syrian refugees living inits borders and the Kurds fleeing the ISoffensive. The Turkish preoccupation with the refugee problem isunderstandable. But many inthe West and inthe region believe
Turkeys true aims lie elsewhere.
First, Turkey wants the Assad regime deposed. AsDeniz Arslan wrote inTodays Zaman, this isTurkeys priority, not the fight against IS. Despite Joe Bidens apology toTurkey for suggesting that
itabetted the rise ofthe jihadists, American officials and media continued tocriticize the Turkish
government. The New York Times wrote onOctober 9that the Turkish leader was soeager totopple Assad that hehelped ISIS and other extremists byletting militants, weapons and money flow
through the Turkish border. USanalysts have also expressed skepticism ofthe buffer/no-fly zone
idea. IShas noaircraft, sothe purpose isclearly tokeep the Syrian air force out ofthe area, which
will soon become ahuge training camp for all sorts ofinsurgents, including possibly covert ISsupporters. Questions have been asked inTurkey aswell. The co-chairman ofthe pro-Kurdish Peoples
Democratic Party, Selahattin Demirta, inquired: ISIS has neither planes nor helicopters. Why
isTurkey insisting onano-fly zone? Why isit sourgent? Whose planes and helicopters are they
going tokeep out?
Second, Turkey wants tobleed dry the Kurdish militia controlled bythe Kurdistan Workers Party
(PKK), which both Turkey and the USregard asaterrorist organization, and toneutralize the Kurdish national movement inSyria that seeks autonomy along the same lines asKurdistan innorthern
Iraq. Ankara wants tokill two birds with one stone, argues Turkish journalist Cem Sey (T24). One
bird isAssad. The other isthe only force fighting ISIS the Kurds. But isAnkaras secret goal really
toweaken the Kurdish militants? Its possible. After all, President Erdogan said not solong ago: For
us, the PKK isthe same asthe ISIS.
But nomatter how the situation inIraq and Syria develops, there isno doubt about the sort oftactics
ISwill employ ifit suffers reverses onthe battlefield. The masked militants will disperse, hide their
weapons ifnecessary, and blend into the civilian population. Itis also clear that the ISmilitants will
infiltrate the so-called buffer zone for antigovernment forces which include Islamist groups that
are regarded asmoderate byWestern and some regional actors and will train inthat sanctuary.
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#03, November 2014

Middle East Crisis:


Foreign Interference and anOrgy ofExtremism

Clearly, the USadministration has been eager tomake adeal with Erdogan inwhich Turkey sends
ground forces toSyria. Indeed, IScannot bedefeated unless there isastrong land force engaging
iton the battlefield, and President Obama certainly does not want another failure inthe Middle East
onhis hands. But the White House has also been reluctant toget involved inabig Syrian war, fearing that Ankaras main aim was totopple the Assad regime rather than destroy IS. This isnot tosay
that the UShas given upthe idea ofoverthrowing Assad; infact, itis taking meaningful steps tobolster the anti-Assad opposition. Among other things, the Pentagon plans todrill 5,000militants ofthe
so-called moderate opposition per year atits base inSaudi Arabia (Adm. Kirby said inearly October that training would start within three tofive months).
Meanwhile, Russia argues not without justification that Western countries have become safe
havens and indoctrination centers for the jihadists, including those from the North Caucasus,
some ofwhom have already spilled the blood ofcivilians inthe US(the terror attack atthe Boston
marathon onApril 15, 2013). Chechen jihadists from Georgia, Turkey and anumber ofEuropean
countries, which earlier granted them asylum asfreedom fighters, form asizeable (as well asthe
most brutally effective) group offoreign terrorists fighting inSyria. Bycontrast, Russia has managed tostabilize Chechnya following two wars and toreconcile with former foes. According toDr.
Guido Steinberg ofthe German Institute for International and Security Affairs, the Chechen jihadists
inSyria are aproblem for the internal security ofEurope and Turkey, because many ofthem come
from diasporas inGeorgia orTurkey, dozens are from Austria and France, and afew are from Belgium, Scandinavia and Germany. Itis believed that ISincludes between 1,000and 2,000Chechens.
The threat ofIS has caused the overwhelming majority ofregional and global actors, including Russia, torealize that they have interests incommon. Particularly dangerous isthe growing number
ofextremist organizations inthe Levant, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa joining the terrorist
colossus. Given the crisis inrelations between Russia and the West caused bythe unjust sanctions
war over Ukraine, itis unlikely that wewill take joint actions tocounter the jihadists. But our clear
common interest inbolstering the resistance tothis threat could lead tooperations onparallel tracks,
which would require acertain level ofcoordination.
The Islamic State might bedefeated inthe end, ifthe international community, with the active participation ofregional players, devises acomprehensive strategy for eliminating religious extremism
inthe broader region. But will itbe possible toput the genie ofbitter inter- and intra-faith hostility
inthe Middle East back into its bottle? There isadeadly feud not only between the Sunnis and the
Shiites but also among the Sunnis themselves: Al-Qaeda and IS, the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, etc. Isnt ittime for the Arab world tocontemplate abroad reconciliation strategy, reject deadly internecine strife and policies ofregime change, and join forces inthe
fight against jihadi extremism?

#03, November 2014

About the author:


Vitaly Naumkin, Associate Member, RAS; Director, Institute ofEastern Studies, RAS