The wheel has turned full circle

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The sudden takeover from within of virtually the entire northwestern part of Iraq by ISIS — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — following the collapse and flight of the Iraqi army has brought to a head the seismic shift in the Middle East. The shift began with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, gained momentum during the misnamed Arab Spring, and assumed concrete shape with the Russian-brokered destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, the US-Iranian rapprochement, and the consequent diminished strategic value of Saudi Arabia and Israel to the West.

What, then, is the shift, and what is driving it? It has now become clear that the propellant is the ‘security threat’ — in reality a threat to their way of life — that is posed by the proliferation of extremist, sectarian, Islamist fighters in numbers unseen in Afghanistan, or Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. This shared danger has spawned unexpected cooperation between diverse nations, many of which had been adversaries until recently.

As Salafist militants swarm across borders — from the Levant to the Persian Gulf to North Africa and beyond — States are disintegrating: their territorial integrity and sovereignty under threat, their state institutions destroyed, their economies in a shambles and their armed forces impotent in the face of the new, brutal form of war these invaders are waging in which terror is their weapon of choice and civilians their main, often only, targets.

But from within this chaos, a group of countries on the frontline of the battle has decided to stem the drift towards chaos. They have decided to fight the militancy directly, to weed it out in their areas and cut it off at its roots. They are already sharing intelligence, pooling their resources and cooperating on the battlefield, and coordinating their efforts to secure support from the international community. The shape of this alliance is at present fluid. Six months ago, it consisted of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Today, Iraq is under direct attack, but a new regime has come to power in Egypt that faces the same threat and, therefore, shares the same goals.

According to informed sources in the Levant, this ‘Security Arc’ will seek to maintain the territorial integrity and sovereignty of participating countries. Second, it will try to secure strategic cooperation against immediate and future extremist threats. Third, it will try to forge a common political worldview that will enhance the alliance and lead to further collaboration in other areas.

Jordan’s King Abdullah once took an uncharacteristic sectarian jab at the four nations, describing them as the “Shia Crescent”. But the security alliance taking shape between the four States has little to do with any common ‘sect’. On the contrary, Abdullah and his western-backed Sunni Arab allies have played a direct role in its development by launching a ‘counter-revolution’ in 2011 that was designed to forestall popular Arab uprisings in their countries by redirecting the peoples’ energies against their regional adversaries.

To weaken Iran, isolate Hezbollah and take care of the ‘Shia threat’ once and for all, from the early months of 2011, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, the UAE and their Western allies poured money, weapons, training and resources into unseating Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But in their single-minded haste to cripple foes, these Arab monarchies and their western allies recruited fighters indiscriminately, deliberately ignoring the violent, extremist ideology that these fighters embraced, in the arrogant belief that these could be controlled or crushed once their usefulness had come to an end. Ed Husain, Senior Fellow of the US think tank Council on Foreign Relations, said in August 2012: “The unspoken political calculation among (US) policymakers is to get rid of Assad first — weakening Iran’s position in the region — and then deal with al Qaeda later.”

In the end, Assad didn’t fall, and Iran didn’t waver, Hezbollah dug in, and the Russians and Chinese stepped into the fray. As the Syrian conflict developed into a regional geopolitical battle, heavy weapons, porous borders and increasingly sectarian rhetoric created a unique opportunity — from Lebanon to Iraq — for Salafist militant groups, including al Qaeda, to gain influence and create a corridor from the Levant to the Persian Gulf.

Former CIA director Michael Hayden said: “The dominant story going on in Syria is a Sunni fundamentalist takeover of a significant part of the Middle East geography, the explosion of the Syrian State and of the Levant as we know it.” This was well before ISIS made initial moves in Iraq.

The ideological brand of political violence, characterised by indiscriminate killings of civilians in Shia areas, summary executions, suicide bombings and beheadings, all filmed and disseminated through YouTube to sow terror in ordinary people, is threatening to turn the entire area into a stomping ground for bigoted emirs who wish to rule their terrorised, universally shunned and desperately poor fiefdoms by their narrow interpretations of Shariah law. For some, this is a price worth paying — the Saudis continue unabashedly to fund and weaponise these conflicts. But the other supporters of this 21st century jihad, particularly in the West, have become wary that the jihadi march will not stop at any border and soon cross their own.

So fearful are their leaders of admitting that they have made a colossal mistake, that few have taken any concrete steps to inhibit — financially or militarily — the proliferation of this new, self-styled ‘army of Islam’.

And so it is left to the targeted countries to tackle the problem. The same Western-Arab axis that sought to cripple Shia ascendency in the Middle East by fuelling sectarianism and encouraging an armed Sunni reaction, is now belatedly trying to make common cause with Iranians, Syrians, Lebanese and Iraqis, to meet the new ‘security threat’.

Not a Uniform Union
This alliance is as yet tentative. In Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, there exist significant — mainly Sunni — populations that currently do not back a security union between the four States. Decades of sectarian propaganda beamed in relentlessly on more than 50 television and radio channels, from the Gulf countries and the West has made them highly suspicious of the intentions of Shia Iran and its allies.

Although these populations are just as likely to be targeted by Salafist militants who have now killed Sunni moderates (along with Christians, Kurds and Shiites) in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, their reluctance to see political foes gain influence has often led them to provide cover for militant co-religionists and allow them to proliferate locally. But earlier this year, when Hezbollah took the decision to fight openly in Al Qusayr, it became clear that the parties supporting this security alliance would no longer humour the dissenters.

This new Security Arc, forged with or without the approval of naysayers, is beginning to get covert support from an unlikely source: the United States.

In the past year, Washington has gone from backing a mostly Sunni ‘rebellion’ in Syria to reaching out to Iran. This about-turn stems from the realisation that the US has dangerously overplayed its geopolitical game and allowed religious militancy to swell beyond the point of no return. Neither Washington nor its NATO partners can reverse this trend unaided. Both miserably failed to do this in their decade-long ‘War on Terror’. The US now understands that it needs the assistance of vested regional partners and rising powers that face a more imminent threat from militants — Iran, Russia, China, India, Syria and Iraq — not just to fight extremism, but to cut off its source in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan.

The Americans are in a huge predicament: How should they tackle the proliferating offshoots of al Qaeda, for which they will have to turn to old foes in the region — Iran, Syria and the Hezbollah. For starters, this means that they will have to disavow 30-plus years of ‘policy’ and risk alienating long-time regional allies that include not only the Gulf Sheikhdoms but also Israel. Further success in eliminating extremism will almost certainly mean an acceptance of the predominance of Iran and the decline in influence of Saudi Arabia.

Washington’s conflicting signals on the Middle East, most recently Obama’s hesitancy in committing the US to backing the Maliki regime in Iraq, are a result of this tortured indecision. Actions, however, speak louder than words: the US struck a nuclear deal with Iran in Geneva in record time, having secretly opened direct channels of communications first. Last November, Obama met his Iraqi counterpart Nuri al-Maliki. Soon after that the US began sharing intelligence with Iraq for the first time after American troops withdrew from the country. One of the first fruits of this cooperation was information on the movement of militants in the Anbar desert.

Today, the US-Saudi relationship has soured to the point that even officials question any real convergence of interests; European ambassadors are starting to trek back to Damascus, their intelligence officials lining up to meet with their Syrian counterparts to share information on jihadists; the formidable Israelis have been shunted aside on some major Mideast decisions; NATO -member Turkey is working overtime to ease relations with Iran and Iraq. The list goes on.

The speed at which this cooperation has grown in the past year is proof of the extreme disquiet with which the US had begun to view the jihadist/Salafist threat and the lengths to which it will go to address it.

In December last year, a senior Hezbollah source told me: “The US is focussed more on making arrangements directly with opponents instead of relying on their allies.” Washington has realised that its regional allies are themselves the source of the instability and will have to be cajoled or coerced into accepting the new reality.

Some of these allies are political parties within the Security Arc. They are being brought into line more quickly now, partly because of the threat of terrorism hovering over their own backyards. In Lebanon, for instance, the national army which had so far been shackled by pro- Saudi political interests looks set to finally tackle Salafist militants in key towns, cities and refugee camps where their numbers have swelled. That is a tremendous breakthrough after almost three years of sitting on the fence, waiting for a ‘spillover’ from Syria and taking virtually no security precautions to prevent it.

Security Arc: Plan of Action
The convergence of extremist sectarian militias into the 50,000-strong “Islamic Front” has created further common cause on the other side. Last December, the US and the UK withdrew support for the ‘rebels’, belatedly fearing radicalisation of the ‘rebellion’. And Iran launched a diplomatic initiative in neighbouring Gulf states that recorded its first success when Oman refused to support a Saudi initiative for a GCC union.

But to stamp out jihadism in Syria and now Iraq, three main objectives need to be achieved — and it will take a collective effort to get there. First, extremists have to be weeded out from inside the areas where they are growing in number and influence and where political will exists: inside the Security Arc, from within Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran. This is primarily a military solution — though some fighters may surrender/exit through negotiated political outreach, or when a mentoring State/individual calls it quits.

Second, a global sanctions regime has to be established to financially cripple jihadist/ Salafist networks by targeting their sources of funding. This is already being done in a small measure, but the West’s relationship with many of the violating States and individuals has prevented any genuine progress in the past. As Patrick Cockburn’s recent column in The Independent, ‘Mass Murder in The Middle East is Funded by Our Friends the Saudis’, points out: “Everyone knows where al Qaeda gets its money, but while the violence is sectarian, the West does nothing.” The new US-Iranian rapprochement — fast-tracked to tackle terror — could change this, given the dramatic realignment of priorities and alliances.

Third, neighbouring States — and even those well beyond the region — have to shut down their borders and enforce airtight immigration security. On Syria’s borders, we are already seeing both Turkey and Jordan taking some drastic measures, but the Iraqi border still remains porous and dangerous. Hence, Washington’s recent intelligence upgrade with Iraq.

Gravitating toward the ‘Security’ Priority

One can already see the calculations changing in nations beyond the Security Arc. Many keenly understand the vital role these four countries will have to play to stem militancy. All eyes right now are on Syria, where the security scenario is precarious for the region — particularly in Egypt, Jordan and Turkey.

The latter three are the regional states most likely to support the Security Arc’s strategic objectives, albeit with reservations that accompany some fairly stark political differences.

Jordan, for example, has played ‘host’ to an array of foreign special forces, troops, intelligence agencies and contractors, all focussed on the task of bringing down the current Syrian government. But even its long-time financial dependency on Saudi Arabia is not worth the thousands of jihadis stationed on Jordanian territory, waiting to enter conflict zones. Arab media puts the number of Jordanian- origin jihadists inside the country at a horrifying 1,000. By contrast, the Europeans are terrified of even a handful of their own Islamist militants coming home.

According to a well-connected Lebanese source, around four months ago, Jordan, Syria and Iraq began quiet discussions (on separate bilateral tracks) about economic and security cooperation. The Jordanians initially balked at the security upgrade, but came around eventually. They are not just worried about extremism, but about economic collapse too — either can set the other off. Worst of all would be complete irrelevance in a region undergoing rapid change. The Jordanians are not mavericks, and sandwiched as they are between Syria and Iraq, it is not hard to see their new direction.

Already, State security courts in Amman are imprisoning prominent Salafists and Jordanian fighters intent on crossing over into Syria. Jordan has shut down its border, enforced tight security around the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees, and is likely to take further measures as relations with the Syrian government continue to improve.

The Turks have also taken measures to tighten up their borders. An internal battle still rages within its Islamist establishment where a hot-headed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cast his lot almost three years ago with the Syrian opposition. His intransigence on this issue has come at a price: armed militants have found refuge inside Turkey’s border with Syria, political violence has seeped into the country. With his own popularity on the wane in the Arab world across all sects, Erdogan’s own suppression of protest has marked him out as a hypocrite. And Kurdish ‘autonomy’ in Syria raises ambitions for Kurds in the entire region.

The Turks will understand the security imperative, but the clincher will be the economic ones. Syria needs a lot of reconstruction and Iraq has oil wealth to spend once calm returns. Furthermore, a gas pipeline initiative stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean will altogether bypass Turkey — if it doesn’t play ball.

Egypt is likely to fall in line with the Security Arc for the simple reason that it now faces the same problems. Indebted as the interim military government may be to the petrodollars of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf State sponsors, Egypt will be entirely bankrupt if religious militancy takes hold. Attacks against security forces in the Sinai surged during Egypt’s popular uprising in early 2011, and have gained momentum again since last summer when the military establishment returned to power. Today, non-Bedouin militants from outside the area are flocking to the Sinai, stocked with advanced weaponry from conflicts in Libya and Sudan. During the short reign of the Muslim Brotherhood that endorsed Syrian rebels, many Egyptians flocked to the fight in Syria. It is likely that a State governed or dominated by a secular military establishment will follow the Syrian example and implement heavy security solutions to neutralise extremists.

Whatever one’s political inclinations, there is little doubt that inaction against Salafist militants at this juncture will lead to the disintegration of States throughout the Middle East.

The most dangerous hubs today are Syria, followed by Iraq, because of their political and geographical centrality in the region, and the likelihood of smaller or weaker neighbours being swept into the chaos.

The fight against extremism will therefore start inside the Security Arc, and will receive immediate support from the BRICS states and non-aligned nations. The West may choose to play key roles behind the scenes instead of unsettling their regional allies — at least for a while. But as confrontation escalates, countries will have to take clear sides in this pivotal battle, both in the Mideast and outside. Expect opportunism to play a hand — there may be a point at which a ‘stalemate’ may be desirable for some. Few will dare to support the extremists, however, so also anticipate some serious narrative shifts on ‘good-guys’ and ‘bad-guys’ in the Mideast.

The writer is an independent Lebanese journalist based in Beirut

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