In death of the nuclear deal

All the (worrying) consequences that the American withdrawal from the deal is likely to have.

 

Yesterday, the fear that many around the world – in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the US itself – became concrete as President Trump annouced his decision to rescind from the JCPOA, the nuclear deal signed in 2015 by his predecessor with China, Russia, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Iran.

Withdrawing from the deal, Trump fulfilled – once again – one of the many promises that he had made to his domestic electorate, made of Christian conservatives nostalgic of a past time in which America was “great” and did not sign deal with obscure Islamic Republics run by alledged “fanatics with beards”. Thus, just as he did last year with TPP and the Paris climate agreement, Trump abandoned also the JCPOA. However, while the previous “divorces” led by Trump have not brought about – or at least not yet – dramatic consequences, the same might not be said this time.

Withdrawing from the deal without consideration for the many voices that have come from Western Europe calling for the maintenance of the JCPOA as best safeguard against Iran’s nuclearization inevitably widens the gap between the United States and Europe. After Trump’s abandonment of the Paris agreement and his decision to relocate the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (a city as holy as contested), the unilateral withdrawal from a deal that represented a supreme example of concerted Euro-American diplomacy is thus the latest example of how the traditional allies are behaving ever more differently on an increasing number of issues.

Since 1945 and the emergence of the post-World War II order, the American-Western European friendship has been one of the certainties of international dynmics. Yet, sventy years later, trans-relations appear characterized by many frictures.

Besides complicating Euro-American relations, Washington’s withdrawal risks isolating the United States on the international stage. If the withdrawal from the Paris climater agreement, the withdrawal from the TPP and the contested decision on the status of Jeruslam had already displayed the image of the US as a super-power thinking and acting solo, the abandonment of the JCPOA leaves the United States with only two foreign friends: Israel and Saudi Arabia – two far-from-easy friends to have, surrounded by innumerate controversies and with a troublesome standing in the international arena.

In terms of alliances, another effect of Trump’s latest move is the consolidation of relations of Iran with Russia and China – two signatories of the JCPOA that have promptly reacted to Trump’s annoucement by remarking their intention to stay in the deal and to keep it alive. The consolidation of the entente between Russia and Iran, in particular, is something that should have made Trump – and his loyal allies Pomepeo and Bannon – more cautious about stepping out from the deal: at a delicate juncture of the Syrian conflict as the current one, in which Turkey, Russia and Iran are successfully using the Astana forum to divide among the three of them highly-stretegic areas of influence in Syria without Washington having a strong part to play, the departure of the United States from the JCPOA will make its position over the arrangement of future Syria even weaker vis-à-vis the Russian-Iranian duo.

Within Iran, the United States’ departure from the deal is likely to embolden the conservatives who since the beginning of the negotiations had criticized the deal. In the current intra-Iranian context – that already sees the support for the moderates weakened by a difficult economic situation which the lifitng of sanctions after the JCPOA has only partially improved – a similar strengthening of the hardliners will easily translate into a renewal of the nuclear program and a much more assertive foreign policy in the Levant.

With Iran back on the path to nuclearization and ever more assertive in the region, new and deep tensions risk emerging in the Middle East. Here, of the two battlegrounds where Iran is currently involved – Yemen and Syria – it is Syria the theatre where the situation would escalate the most. In fact, while the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen is not to be downplayed, neither Teheran nor Riayd are interesting in escalating the conflict there: for Teheran,Yemen is too far from its area of immediate strategic interest to find it convenient to divert financial and manpower resources there; for Ryadh, Yemen is at its doorstep but the country does not have the military strength to sustain a conflict that it has largely regretted initating.

Conversely, Syria is a battleground of major importance for both Iran and Israel: Iran is seeking through its involevemnt to create a corridor of influence stretching from the Islamic Repubblic to the Mediterranen; Israel sees Iran’s presence in Syria and the military empowerment of its proxy Hezbollah as an existenctial threat and is ready to respond to it with all means available. Thus, now that the US has withdrawn form the deal, the confrontation between Iran and Israel might reach the point of no-return.

This is particularly worrisome considering the attitude Netanyahu: threatened by a series of scandals that are compromising his political credibility in the eyes of many Israelis, he has been relentlessly emphasized the security threat represented by Iran and presented himself as the only leader who can guarantee Israel’s security thanks to his special relationship with Trump and his resolute approach. Far from saying that Netanyahu is seeking a full-fledged war to save himself, it is nonetheless true that recently the attention of Israel’s media has turned from Netanyahu’s judicial saga to the existential menace allegedly posed by Iran in Syria.

Finally, leaving the deal has consequences that go beyond the Middle East and touch upon other regions, actors and agendas. Of particular concern, is the fact that withdrawing from the JCPOA damages the credibility of the United States as reliable signatory of international agreements and the attractivity of non-proliferation agreements. This becomes worrying if the consideration is extended to the current attempts to initiate a negotiation process that leads Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear ambitions: if a deal signed by an American president can be so easily discarded by his predecessor and if accepting to curb nuclear amibitions is not an assurance that previous sanctions will not be reinstated, why should North Korea abandon its nuclerization and sign its own JCPOA?

These are considerations that show that even if the JCPOA was far from being a perfect deal it was nonetheless the best we could aspire to.

 

(Photo credits: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

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The forgotten side of the Strip

The attack perpetrated yesterday morning against the Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah while he was heading to Beit Hanun to inaugurate a sewage treatment plant comes as a reminder that no matter how small the Strip is, the array of actors acting there – and around there – is bigger and more complex than we might want to admit.

In the aftermath of the attack, that luckily (or perhaps purposely) left no one severely injured, everyone began to question who might be behind it.

Hamas, understandably, does not have any interest in such an attack being carried out on its territory. The group, in fact, is still trying to present itself as an entity with effective ruling capacity and is trying to sell the agreement reached last October with the Palestinian Authority not as an unescapable necessity imposed upon it by its governing failures but rather as a responsible decision that the group took on the behalf of the broader Palestinian national interest. In this context, having failed to prevent the attack against Hamdallah is a serious wound to Hamas’ image and – more importantly – one that weakens its negotiating position vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority.

The most radical and less pragmatic faction within Hamas – made of those who have always rejected any opening to Fatah and have always supported the “strong line” – is more interested in an attack that could threaten the reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority and its weakening of Hamas’ decade-long grip on Gaza. However, this faction is not made by leaders devoid of any political understandings or sensitivity (in Hamas the line separating politics and military action is often blurred) but rather of experienced militants who know when to use politics and when to use force. Therefore, they must be aware that a similar attack on Gaza’s soil cannot but affect negatively the credibility of Hamas in the eyes of the Gazans and strengthen the conviction of those who see in a reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority the only way forward.

Proceeding in the account of the interested parties, the turn of the Palestinian Authority comes next. For the Ramallah-based government, an attack against its Prime Minister on his first visit to Gaza (and the latter’s decision to proceed nonetheless his trip to the sewage treatment plan) brings a series of welcome consequences: it weakens Hamas’ credibility as security provider; it improves in the eyes of the people of Gaza the image of a Palestinian Authority who has long been seen in the Strip as a distant and hostile party; it strengthens the stance of Abbas in negotiations. Yet, not even these beneficial consequences are enough to seriously think that the Palestinian Authority could have simulated an attack of this kind. If not for moral reasons, just because the consequences are never too easy to predict and an artificial ignition of the situation in Gaza could always get out of control and trigger a chaos capable of ending Hamas’ opening.

Finally, there are the Strip’s Salafi groups – those that have never embraced politics and have made of indiscriminate violence their preferred modus operandi. The aim is to liberate the Palestinian territories from the Israeli occupier and Palestinian “apostate” organizations and ultimately establish a sharia-run Islamic State. In pursuing their goal, these actors have traditionally rejected any compromise and have always tried to boycott the others’ periodical non-violent modes. For instance, at the time of the truces reached by Israel and Hamas that saw the latter restrain form launching rockets against Israeli cities, the Strip’s Salafi organizations refrained from joining the truce and rather increased their attacks against both Israel and Hamas. Thus, they have always been engaged in fight on a double front. In this perspective, yesterday’s attack against Hamdallah could be seen as the latest opening on part of Salafists of their fight against Hamas and its pragmatism.

As of now, these remain nothing but speculations. However, what can be said with certainty is that reducing the reality of the Strip to the simple dichotomy Hamas-Fatah fails to account for the Salafi organizations that operate there. And that always find violent ways to remind us of their existence.

Dealing with them, should be made a priority by both Fatah and Hamas in their reconciliation progress.

The Day After the Islamic State

Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Strategic Assessment, Vol.20, No.3, October 2017

 

 Marta Furlan, Carmit Valensi

 

Abstract

The territorial losses suffered by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) over the past year, the fall of the Caliphate’s stronghold of Mosul and the encirclement of its de facto capital al-Raqqa indicate the imminent military defeat of the Islamic State. However, the ideological vacuum, frustration, and alienation that have been characterizing communities in the Middle East since the “Arab Spring”, the absence of a political alternative and the lack of a local effective governance to replace IS, raise the possibility that IS will survive its military defeat. In this context, it becomes imperative to assess how this entity is most likely to evolve. In providing such assessment, attention will be devoted to IS’s past evolution to deduce from it about its future. This will be followed by a discussion on which measures should be taken to deal with the “new” form of IS.


Key Words: IS, Al Qaeda, Jihadi Terrorism, War against IS


The Evolution of ISIS: 2003-2014

Before analyzing how IS is most likely to react to its military defeat in Syria and Iraq, a brief overview of the group’s evolution will allow to shed light on its capacity of adaptation and re-organization as a possible indicator for its future transformation.

The origins of IS are to be traced back to the 2003 Iraqi context and to the insurgent group al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad (TwJ) that under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi initiated a ruthless campaign of terrorist attacks against the forces of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).[i] However, the group’s operative capability was constrained by the lack of financial resources and by an excessive reliance on foreign fighters that impaired the group’s integration in the Iraqi insurgency.[ii]

It was to deal with these weaknesses and enhance the image of TwJ among the Iraqi militancy that in 2004 al-Zarqawi pledged baya’a (allegiance) to bin Laden, who on his part was interested in extending Al Qaeda’s influence over the Iraqi theatre after the setback suffered in Afghanistan. After this association with Al Qaeda, TwJ was rebranded the Land of the Two Rivers or Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and became a prominent actor of the Iraqi militant scene. Its influence grew particularly after the parliamentary elections of December 2005, when al-Zarqawi united the insurgent groups close to him under an umbrella organization known as Majlis Shura Council (MSC) in order to co-opt the other jihadist organizations[iii] and increased AQI’s violent attacks on Shiite targets in order to create inter-communal tensions that would strengthen the Sunnis’ support for the insurgency.[iv]

Against this background, in 2006 al-Zarqawi was killed in a targeted killing by a joint U.S force and his death turned into a major hindrance for AQI. Since the outset, in fact, the group’s internal cohesion, the inner coordination between its ranks, and the identity unifying its members had been dependent on the presence of a centralized structure built around the figure of al-Zarqawi. With his demise, the centralization that had enabled the group to assert itself as one of the most prominent actors of the Iraqi insurgency collapsed and AQI underwent a significant process of organizational restructuring and strategic re-thinking.[v] The group was re-organized under the dual leadership of Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi; its cadres were “Iraqified”; and its cells underwent a process of “bureaucratization and dilution” that subjected them to an inefficient bureaucratic apparatus and that led them to be unduly widespread across Iraq.[vi] As a result, AQI came to experience a high level of internal fragmentation and a fundamental lack of coordination that restrained its operational capability and that became the major weakness of the group.

In terms of modus operandi, the military and terrorist operations that had characterized the activity of the group since its earliest stage remained the core of AQI’s strategy but were redirected towards a new objective as the group endeavored to create an Islamic State in Iraq and in 2006 rebranded itself ISI. However, the violent military campaign embraced by the group was met with resistance in several areas of Iraq, such as the Anbar province. There, the local Sunni tribes resisted ISI’s attempt to impose its rule and in 2008 created military councils (sahwa) that fought the group, undermined its operative capacities, and damaged its credibility.[vii]

Therefore, when in 2010 al-Masri and al-Baghdadi were killed the general perception was that ISI was doomed to dissolution. However, in that same year Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the new leader of the group and promoted a comprehensive re-organization thereof on the basis of the past successes and mistakes: he strengthened ISI’s internal bonds so as to increase its cohesiveness; re-introduced a centralized leadership revolving around his figure that enabled to reach high levels of operational capability and coordination; and simplified the inefficient bureaucratic apparatus of the previous stage.[viii] On the strategic level, he moderated the brutal approach that al-Zarqawi had adopted against his enemies –and in particular against the Iraqi Shias- and that had ultimately alienated the support of much of the Iraqi people’[ix] divided the ranks of the Iraqi Sunni resistance,[x] and aroused the criticism of al-Zarqawi’s mentor al-Maqdisi and of most of Al-Qaeda’s leadership, including bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.[xi]

In addition to this re-structural endeavor and strategic re-thinking, al-Baghdadi adapted the group’s goal of building an Islamic State to the destabilizing changes occurring throughout the Levant in the immediate aftermath of the “Arab Spring” erupted in December 2010, and in particular the collapse of traditional nation states; the loss of legitimacy on part of most regional governments; and the exacerbation of the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. On the background of these developments, al Baghdadi extended ISI’s tactics beyond the purely militant-terrorist dimension in order to enhance the effectiveness of the group’s action. After identifying in the Sunni heartland encompassing western Iraq and eastern Syria the preferred location of his future Islamic State, al Baghdadi focused the group’s activities on both countries thanks to the high coordination enabled by the renewed centralized leadership. In both contexts, ISI proved its capabilities at the military as well as at the social level: on the one hand, it fought successfully against the enemies encountered on the ground; on the other hand, it attempted to adopt a more state-like structure and provided the population with goods (e.g. food) and services (e.g. education) that their governments were incapable of providing.[xii] Exploiting the incapability of the governments in Baghdad and Damascus to address their people’s basic needs and political demands; the weakness and ultimate collapse of the state structure in Iraq and Syria after the “Arab Spring” revealed the illegitimacy of their central governments; and the alienation experienced by the local Sunni communities, IS managed to present itself as the only legitimate alternative and to gain popular support among the Sunnis. In this way, ISI succeeded in extending its territorial control over several portions of Iraq and Syria and, after disassociating itself from al-Qaeda,[xiii] on 29th June 2014 it proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate of Iraq and al-Sham (IS), thus realizing the aspiration of its founding father al-Zarqawi.


From the Early Successes to the Latest Defeats: 2014-2017

 

Having reviewed IS’s emergence from the ashes of AQI and ISI, it is informative to delve briefly into the Caliphate’s history from the conquests and strengths of the initial period to the defeats and weaknesses of the past months.

With the proclamation of the Islamic Caliphate, the group led by al-Baghdadi completed its transition from traditional terrorist group engaged in violent military activities to quasi-state organization engaged in the provision of governance, including goods and services as well as order and security through the use of policing and law enforcement apparatuses. In completing this transition, the group adopted an efficient governmental pyramidal structure; it established ad hoc state-like institutions; and it expanded the range of its non-violent activities.  At the top of the pyramidal structure there are al-Baghadi and his two direct deputies who constitute the executive branch known as al-Imara and who are in charge of transferring al-Baghdadi’s orders to the provincial governors. Below al-Imara, the pyramidal structure is composedof eight councils: [xiv] The Shura Council (responsible for religious affairs); The Legal Council (responsible for resolving family disputes, violations of law, and the imposition of penalties); The Security Council (responsible for internal security and the enforcement of public order); The Intelligence Council (that supplies and conveys information to the leadership regarding rivals and opponents); The Military Council (that deals with warfare and preparations of the territories of IS); The Economic Council (responsible for the movement’s financial resources, including the sale of oil and weapons); The Fighters’ Aid Council (responsible for receiving foreign volunteers, smuggling them to different areas, allocating housing and addressing their different needs);  The Media Council (responsible for the dissemination of IS’s messages and official declarations and managing the group’s accounts on social networks and monitoring other sites in coordination with the Legal Council)[xv]

At the bottom of the pyramid, there is a large pool of both foreign and local fighters who are organized in three levels. This structure enables the leadership to control members more tightly, to assign military and governmental tasks more efficiently, and to deploy fighters more effectively in the areas of combat.

By means of this coherent state-like structure that distinguishes IS from traditional terrorist entities, the group led by al-Baghdadi has managed to assert its control over large spheres of public life and to expand its social activities[xvi]: it has built roads and bridges; organized recoveries for the poor; provided electricity; established lines of telecommunication; set up markets for the trade of goods; created offices for the collection and the distribution of the zakat; opened schools; maintained public order and security through the deployment of police forces; and guaranteed law and order through the establishment of sharia courts.

Additionally, besides providing services to the population, IS has also continued to rely on military means to fight its enemies and to employ violent tactics such as public executions and tortures to spread terror among the population and thus prevent popular uprisings against its rule. By means of this duality of tactics, IS has managed to consolidate its territorial control over the Sunni-dominated Jazira region and enforce its rule thereupon[xvii]; to seize control of the natural resources of the conquered territories and exploit them for purposes of self-financing[xviii]; and to obtain support, or at least acquiescence, on part of a frightened and disaffected local population.[xix]

However, IS’s early success began to decline after the group reached the maximum of its expansion in mid 2015. Since then, IS has been suffering several defeats that have considerably reduced the territories and the population under its control: as reported by HIS Conflict Monitor[xx] and by RAND Corporation,[xxi] IS’s territorial control has declined by 60% from 2015 to 2017 and the number of people living under IS has decreased from 9.6 million in fall 2014 to 2.6 million in winter 2016-17. Besides these territorial losses, the group’s income has similarly declined over the past few years, dropping from $1.9 billion in 2014 to $870 million in 2016.[xxii] As a recent study by ICSR has highlighted, in fact, the loss of territorial control has implied for IS the loss of its major sources of revenue, above which the oil reserves on which the group’s income was highly reliant and that contributed to making it the “richest terrorist organization in the world”.[xxiii]

This combination of territorial and financial losses has undermined IS’s governance capabilities because the group has found itself without the territorial control necessary to enforce a credible rule and a viable state-like structure and without the financial resources necessary to sustain an efficient governance apparatus. As a consequence, IS has diminished its governance dimension and has focused instead on military activities aimed at ensuring the group’s survivability and rebuilding its presence in the lost areas.[xxiv] At this respect, it is noteworthy how IS’s territorial and financial losses have led it to abandon the conventional military campaigns mounted by al-Baghdadi since the early days of his leadership and to return to the guerrilla warfare launched by al-Zarqawi during AQI’s first phase.[xxv] Guerrilla warfare, in fact, has considerable advantages vis-à-vis conventional military operations: it can be sustained by a group even when the financial resources are limited; it can be carried out effectively by small cells; it does not require the group to have territorial control. This shift in IS’s modus operandi could be seen during the battle for Mosul, when the group relied mostly on tactics of asymmetric urban warfare, including mortar shells, booby traps, IEDs and suicide car-bomb attacks.[xxvi]

Finally, in the framework of the recent territorial losses, IS has undergone an adaptation of its strategic thinking whereby it increasingly emphasizes the importance of striking the “far” Western enemy and the necessity for its fighters to spread beyond the Jazira region and join jihadists all over the Muslim world.[xxvii] In other words, IS seems to have extended its previously localized strategy and to have embraced a more internationalized strategic discourse similar to the one traditionally espoused by Al Qaeda. It is in the context of this rethinking that IS-inspired individuals have directed their terror activities against major European cities such as Paris, Brussels and London and that IS loyalists have joined the jihadist battlefields in places like Libya, Afghanistan and South-East Asia.

Nevertheless, IS continues operating in the Levant area and has not completely abandon its local-territorial feature so far. According to the Pentagon, about 20,000 IS fighters still control several areas in Syria and Iraq (August 2017). Between 5,000 and 10,000 fighters are now in the middle Euphrates Valley area running from Deir Ezzor to the Iraq-Syria border region[xxviii].

These recent developments and adaptations that have occurred within IS raise important questions over the next phase of the group’s life and make it imperative to provide an assessment of how IS is most likely to evolve.


What Future for IS After its Military Defeat?

In light of the above-seen resilience and capacity of adaptation that the group has displayed over its 15 year-long existence, the present paper argues that, once militarily defeated, the group will not disappear but will rather change its form and adapt to the changed circumstances: the most likely scenarios in terms of the group’s internal evolution as far as its organizational re-structuring and strategic re-thinking are concerned are the following:

 

  • “Mini-emirates”– Evolution of the group into several mini-entities scattered across the Middle East and beyond (e.g. North Africa, South Asia) in what would be a much lose network highly similar to the post-2001so-called Al Qaeda Nebula. Rather than surviving as a single and unified group, IS might split into more sub-groups ideologically-linked one to the other but inherently independent in terms of financing, definition of objectives, strategic planning, and actual conduct of operations; at the core of this scenario lies the assumption that the Salafi-jihadi current is too rooted and established in the Islamic world, hence does not necessarily dependent on a central and well-structured organization in order to flourish.
  • “Jihadi merger” – Rejoining -in a more or less tight way- of al-Zawahiri’s Al Qaeda in order to regain the lost status and deal with the setbacks suffered in terms of financial sustainability, ideological credibility, and recruitment ability. Once defeated militarily, IS might find it convenient to pursue again that “marriage of convenience” with Al Qaeda that first took place in 2004 so as to expand its ranks, acquire more operational capabilities, and enhance its status in the global jihadist world. This scenario lies on the assumption that despite some setbacks, Al Qaeda remained strong, resilient, and guided by a prudent strategy of winning over populations and subverting local conflicts to its own ends. This move not only would give new life to IS but it would also reassert Al Qaeda as the uncontested leader of the jihadi movement and probably encourage it to learn from IS’s experience and adopt more state-like tasks and features. It is important to stress however that this scenario is less likely to be manifested in the short term as the level of mutual hostility between IS and Al Qaeda would be hard to Al Qaeda loyalists describe IS operatives as “extremists,” “Kharijites,” and “takfiris”; the Islamic State, in turn, has named Al Qaeda devotees as “the Jews of jihad” and loyalists of the “Sufi” leader of the heretical Taliban. Hence, this split could be simply unbridgeable.
  • “IS.com” – On July 2017, IS information office in Raqqa province, Syria released a 30-minute video that focuses particularly on presenting foreigners from various countries who came to join IS: “This is a message to the new pharaoh of today, Donald Trump, you may have your eyes on Al-Raqqah and Mosul, but we have our eyes on Constantinople and Rome. ’Bi Idhn Allah, Bi Idhn Allah [with Allah’s permission], we will slaughter you in your own houses.”[xxix] This scenario includes the maintenance of a small and underground nucleus in the Jazira region (namely the Sunni tribal region stretching across western Iraq and Eastern Syria) where IS first emerged and expanded and shift of the strategic focus on the inspiration of attacks in foreign countries (e.g. European countries, USA etc.) by means of an ad hoc ideological propaganda mostly conducted on-line. The end of the “Caliphate dream” will thus lead the group to revise its original objectives and strategy and to shift from aiming at hitting the “close enemy” by means of military campaigns and territorial conquests, to aiming at hitting the “far enemy” by means of on-line radicalization and recruitment of sympathizers residing abroad. Fairly robust external operations arm that has really been built over the past three or four years even before the caliphate or the Islamic State was declared. And this network certainly exists in Europe and elsewhere – in South Asia, North Africa as well. Last September, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, called upon his followers not to come to the Levant in Iraq to fight, but instead to migrate to the branches and to strengthen the branches so that precisely the branches could continue the struggle.
  • “The Comeback” – Resurgence of IS in the areas from which it was expelled. This resurgence is a possibility that is likely to concretize under three specific circumstances: Firstly, if the international coalition fighting against IS makes the same mistakes that it did in the past when it withdrew too promptly from Afghanistan because assuming erroneously that the Al Qaeda menace had been eradicated successfully and permanently and that the mission had been accomplished. However, that assumption stemmed from a fundamental underestimation of Al Qaeda’s capacity to survive and re-invent itself and indeed Bin Laden’s group proved able to transfer its base to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and to evolve into a more complex and less easily-detectable “Nebula”; Secondly, IS’s resurgence might occur if the different actors that are currently involved in the fight against IS refrain from addressing properly the problem of which path to follow in the “day after IS” and do not draft any coherent and viable politico-social plan of reconstruction for the liberated areas. Thirdly, is the permanence of the factors that enabled IS’s rise in the first place. In other words, if the root causes that created a fertile ground for the group to find support among a Sunni population that felt marginalized and estranged from the Iraqi nation-state are not addressed it is likely that the remnants of IS will regroup. Similarly, if the Salafi-jihadist ideology inspiring IS’s weltanschauung is not countered with a credible and appealing ideological-religious alternative, IS or new IS-like manifestations are likely to (re)appear on the scene.

Conclusions and Recommendations

This paper argues that IS’s imminent military defeat will not imply its disappearance tout court. Rather, it will imply the end of its existence in its actual form and the emergence of a different but not less threatening entity.

In light of the possible scenarios that were proposed as far as IS’s future development is concerned, the following measures will need to be taken in order to deal effectively with the group’s new threat at the local and international level:

  • At the local level, reduce the likelihood of a resurgence of IS (or like entities) by addressing the causes that paved the way to the group’s emergence and the factors that favored its consolidation. In this regard, it will be crucial for the Iraqi government to address the grievances, alienation and disaffection that the Sunni communities felt under Nuri al-Maliki’s tenure and that led many among them to see in IS a desirable alternative to the sectarianism of Baghdad. For this to be done, a political compromise that ensures power-sharing between the country’s ethno-religious groups; reforms that guarantee that state institutions offer national rather than sectarian representation; and the effective implementation of a 2013 decentralization law[xxx] that devolves more autonomy and responsibilities to the single local governments will need to be encouraged and emphasized as the only way to resolve those inter-communal tensions that foster insurgencies and state failure;
  • Rebuild the areas – both urban and rural–freed from IS by means of an ad hoc cooperation among the Iraqi government, its partners of the U.S.-led coalition, the United Nations and aid agencies so as to address effectively the economic, security and social needs of the local communities and offer to them credible alternatives to the institutions and services provided by IS at the apex of its state-building project;
  • Continue and improve further the training, equipment, assisting and advise of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) as developed in the framework of the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) in order to enhance the effectiveness of the ISF in countering terrorism and countering insurgencies and to increase their legitimacy, credibility and trustworthiness in the eyes of the local communities;
  • At the international level, confront the security threat posed to Western countries by IS, IS-inspired individuals and returning “foreign fighters” by addressing both the pre-recruitment and the post-recruitment phase. and obstruct IS’s on-line propaganda; increase intelligence cooperation and database sharing to detect radicalized individuals; address the problem of returning “foreign fighters” by adopting responses that can range from “hard” measures such as revoking citizenship, confiscating passports and issuing arrest warrants, to “soft” measures such as developing programs of de-radicalization, psychological counseling and social re-integration.

Finally, past experience shows that these measures are more likely to be effective when local actors and international actors manage to coordinate their endeavors and share responsibilities. Therefore, while preparing for the “day after IS”, efforts need first to be invested in building this crucial coordination.


 

Notes

 

[i] Angel Rabasa et al. Beyond Al Qaeda. The Global Jihadist Movement (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2006) p.139

[ii] Brian Fishman, “After Zarqawi: The Dilemmas and Future of Al Qaeda in Iraq”, The Washington Quarterly 29, no. 4, Autumn 2006

[iii] Nibras Kazimi, “The Caliphate attempted”, Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 7, July 21, 2008

[iv] Brian Fishman, “After Zarqawi: The Dilemmas and Future of Al Qaeda in Iraq”, The Washington Quarterly 29, no. 4, Autumn 2006

[v] Andrea Plebani, New (and Old) Petterns of Jihadism: al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State and Beyond (Milano: ISPI, 2014) p.8

[vi] Brian Fishman, Dysfunction and Decline: Lesson Learned from Inside Al Qa’ida in Iraq (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, March 16, 2009)

[vii] David Kilcullen, “Field Notes on Iraq’s Tribal Revolt Against Al-Qa‘ida”, CTC Sentinel 1, no. 11, October 2008

[viii] Andrea Plebani, New (and Old) Petterns of Jihadism: al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State and Beyond (Milano: ISPI, 2014) p.10

[ix] Ibi., p.7

[x] Emily Hunt, “Zarqawi’s ‘Total War’ on Iraqi Shiites Exposes a Divide Among Sunni Jihadists”, PolicyWatch 1049, Washington Institute [online], November 15, 2015, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/zarqawis-total-war-on-iraqi-shiites-exposes-a-divide-among-sunni-jihadists

[xi] https://fas.org/irp/news/2005/10/letter_in_english.pdf

[xii] Andrea Plebani, New (and Old) Petterns of Jihadism: al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State and Beyond (Milano: ISPI, 2014) p.23

[xiii] Aaron Zelin, “The War between IS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement”, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy Research Notes, no. 20, June 2014

[xiv] Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium

[xv] Christophe Reuter, “The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State,” Der Spiegel, April 18, 2015, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/islamic-state-files-show-structure-of-islamist-terror-group-a-1029274.html [accessed: November 29, 2015].

[xvi] Laith Alkhouri, Alex Kassirer, “Governing The Caliphate: The Islamic State Picture”, CTC Sentinel 8, no.8, August 21, 2015

[xvii] James Denselow, “Mosul, the Jazira Region and the Syrian-Iraqi Borderlands”, in An Iraq of its Regions. Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy?, eds. Reidar Visser and Garteh Stansfield (London: Hurst Publishers LTD, 2007) pp. 99-122

[xviii] Stephan Heissner, Peter R. Neumann, John Holland-McCowan and Rajan Basra, Caliphate in Decline: An Estimate of Islamic State’s Financial Fortunes (London: International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2017) pp.5-8

[xix] Stephen Wicken, Iraq’s Sunnis in Crisis, Middle East Security Report II (Washington: Institute for the Study of War, May 2013)

[xx] “Islamic State Territory Down 60 Percent and Revenue Down 80 Percent on Caliphate’s Third Anniversary, HIS Markit Says”, IHS Markit, June 29, 2017, http://news.ihsmarkit.com/press-release/aerospace-defense-security/islamic-state-territory-down-60-percent-and-revenue-down-80

[xxi] Seth G. Jones et al., Rolling Back the Islamic State (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2017) p.20

[xxii] Stephan Heissner, Peter R. Neumann, John Holland-McCowan and Rajan Basra, Caliphate in Decline: An Estimate of Islamic State’s Financial Fortunes (London: International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2017) pp.7-8

[xxiii] Ibid., p.7

[xxiv] Andrea Plebani, After Mosul: Re-inventing Iraq, (Milano: ISPI, 2017) p.132

[xxv] Seth G. Jones et al., Rolling Back the Islamic State (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2017) pp.14, 32

[xxvi] Josie Ensor, “Isil ‘launches suicide attacks’ on Kurdish forces in Mosul as bloody battle to retake terror group’s Iraq stronghold begins” The Telegraph, October 17, 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/17/bloody-battle-to-retake-mosul-begins-as-iraqi-forces-move-to-wip2/; Tim Hume, “Battle for Mosul: How ISIS is fighting to keep its Iraqi stronghold” CNN, October 25, 2016, http://edition.cnn.com/2016/10/24/middleeast/iraq-mosul-isis-tactics/index.html

[xxvii] Andrea Plebani, After Mosul: Re-inventing Iraq (Milano: ISPI, 2017) p.130

[xxix] “ISIS Video Shows Its Fighters Of Various Nationalities In Raqqa, Syria; Somali Fighter Threatens Trump Says ISIS ‘Will Slaughter You [Americans] In Your Own Houses’, Memri, July 31, 2017, https://www.memri.org/jttm/isis-video-shows-its-fighters-various-nationalities-raqqa-syria-somali-fighter-threatens-trump#_ednref2

[xxx] In August 2013, the Iraqi Parliament approved amendments to Law 21 (also known as Provincial Powers Act) that increased the powers of provincial councils and governors. According to the law, local governments should choose their own judiciary and heads of security; provinces should have more control on and autonomy in the management of its financial resources; in areas of shared competency between local governments and the central government, in case of disagreement the decisions of the local government should prevail; the governorate should have responsibility for all state officials in its jurisdiction; within two years, control over housing, employment, education, health and finance should be transferred to local authorities.

Diplomatic crisis in the Gulf: old hostilities and new dangers

 

One month after the outbreak of the diplomatic crisis in the Gulf and in the wake of Qatar’s rejection of Saudi demands, it is more than ever imperative to understand the relations that have been historically linking the Peninsula’s countries one with the other and one against the other

 

One month ago, just a few days after Trump’s visit to the Middle East reconsolidated the Washington-Riyadh relationship, several Arab countries severed their diplomatic ties with Qatar; closed all maritime, land and sea links with Doha; and expelled all Qataris residing within their borders. Among those countries, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt stand particularly out – both for their geopolitical importance and for the major role they have been playing in pulling the strings that have led to the crisis that is currently paralyzing the Gulf.

Riyadh and the Arab countries that followed its steps motivated their move through a series of accusation against Doha according to which the latter would have supported groups such as Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas while also maintaining cooperative and cordial ties with Iran – Saudi Arabia’s nemesis.

Faced with the rejection of all accusations on part of Doha and with the support it found in Turkey, Iran and –though with more softer tones- Kuwait and Oman, the “group of four” has proceeded two weeks later to present to Qatar a series of 13 measures with which it was expected to comply within 10 days in order to end the crisis and its isolation within the GCC.

As of today, with Monday’s deadline now passed, Doha has denounced the Saudi requests (that go from the interruption of all links with those groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood that Riyadh labels as terrorist, to the cessation of any cordial relation with Iran, to the shutting down of the network al Jazeera, to the closure of a Turkish military base in Qatar) as unacceptable and a threat to Qatar’s sovereignty. This refusal on part of Doha seems thus to disappoint the hopes of those who had believed in the possibility of a swift end to what has emerged as the worst diplomatic crisis ever in the Gulf region.

On the background of a crisis of such seriousness that not only has no precedents but that also has the potential to change drastically the balances within the GCC and the Arab-Sunni sphere, it becomes fundamental to understand the relationships that have historically defined friendships and hostilities in the Arabic Peninsula and how they are now reflecting on the current events.

Historically, Qatar has characterized itself as the Gulf country with the most autonomous foreign policy with respect to the general line traced by Saudi Arabia and the UAE and followed by the other members of the Council. Indeed, it has always maintained cordial relations with Iran; it has hosted members of the Brotherhood when they were expelled from Sisi’s Egypt, as well as leader of Hamas and representatives of those fringe of the Afghan Taliban open to dialogue with Kabul; it has supported Hamas and its government over Gaza; it has let Al Jazeera become in 2011 a channel of support for the values and the demands that were igniting the Arab Spring and that many fears were causing instead in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain.

It thus emerges how Qatar, with respect to the other Arab-Sunni countries of the peninsula, is a sui generis actor. Interestingly, despite Qatar’s attempts to conjugate its autonomous choices of foreign policy with the necessity to conform with the line dominating within the GCC, this has not been enough to placate the hostility towards Doha on part of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, that has indeed translated into diplomatic tensions more than once.

For Saudi Arabia, in particular, it is the Iran factor to be crucial. Since 2011, with the collapse of traditional regimes in the Middle East and the breaking out of brutal civil wars that have exacerbated the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, Iran has found room –in Syria, Yemen and Iraq- to assert itself as major regional actor with whom nor its Sunni rivals nor the west could refrain from dealing. This ascent on part of Iran has caused several worries in Riyadh, that has had to cope both with the economic difficulties caused by the drop in the global price of oil and with the threats to security caused by the war in Yemen, by a Shiite population calling for ever more rights, and from a weakening of the ties with Washington under Obama. In this context, it has become crucial for Riyadh to maintain its credibility as major power by asserting its role as regional hegemon vis-à-vis Iran, and it is in the optic of this tough rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia that the isolation imposed by the latter against Qatar needs to be read.

On their part, the UAE seem to be less obsessed with the Iranian nightmare that bothers Riyadh’s sleep and seem rather to put more emphasis on the necessity for Qatar to cut all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and all the other Islamist groups of the region. Abu Dhabi, in fact, sees those groups as a dangerous destabilizing force and as a serious threat to the sustainability of the regional and peninsular status quo on which its foreign policy and its alliances rest. To this, it is then to be added how the UAE hope that the isolation –and therefore the diplomatic weakening- of Qatar can induce the US to transfer to its country the military base it actually has in Qatar.

The UAE’s fears regarding the support provided by Doha to Islamist groups active in the region is also shared by Bahrain and Egypt. Since February 2011, when the Arab spring’s protests engulfed the streets of Manama and threatened the stability of the al-Khalifa family, Bahrain is a strenuous defender of the status quo that the Islamist groups close to Doha seem willing to upset in the name of their political programs of reformism.

A similar concern is found in Cairo: here, since the coup that led Sisi to power in 2013, there has been a tough repression against the Brotherhood and any group connected to them and the government is engaged in a daily fight with Islamist-inspired groups that threaten the country’s security in less centralized areas such as the Sinai Peninsula. Moreover, the tough financial difficulties of the past years have contributed to consolidating the ties between Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, as the gulf countries have provided Egypt with substantial financial aid.

Conversely, Oman and Kuwait have historically played the role of mediators between Qatar –with whom they maintain friendly relations- and the other members of the GCC. Like Qatar, in fact, they have maintained mostly cordial relations with Iran and they similarly believe in the importance of inserting the enhancement of the Gulf-Iran relations in the broader framework of the fight against terrorism and regional instability. Like Doha, then, they have deep ties with Teheran in the field of energy: Oman has been planning for some time to begin importing Iranian gas through a pipeline connecting the Iranian province of Hormuzgan with Sohar, and Kuwait also seems to have recently initiated negotiations with Iran to import its gas.

The crisis that is interesting the Gulf is thus taking place on the background of pre-existing tensions and rivalries that the latest events have not but exacerbated. Because of the longtime nature of these tensions, making predications on what might be the consequences if Qatar and its four neighbors did not find a common line of agreement is extremely difficult. The only assertion that can be made with certainty –and with preoccupation- is that, if an agreement is not reached, the dynamics that have existed in the region until now would be upset and the regional security further compromised.

The return of the “Butcher of Kabul”

 

As Hekmatyar returns to Afghan politics, what hopes are there for an improvement of the country’s political stability?

Saturday the 29th of April was a crucial day in the dynamics of Afghan politics: Hekmatyar –the controversial leader of the Pashtun group Hizb-i-Islami- returned to the Afghan scene and addressed a crowd of around 200 supporters in the eastern province of Laghman where he has maintained his traditional power-base.

During the speech he delivered, which in a way is the rehearsal of the more important speech he is supposed to deliver in Kabul in the upcoming weeks, Hekmatyar touched on delicate topics such as peace, war, national unity and expressed his commitment to the first, his condemnation of the second, and his support for the third.

Hekmatyar’s return to the country’s political theatre is the result of the peace deal which was reached last year by Hizb-i-Islami and Kabul. As of the terms of the agreement, Hekmatyar committed to the acceptance and respect of the Afghan constitution, to the rejection of violence, and the abandonment of any military and financial linkage with terrorist groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda (with whom Hekmatyar has a long history of collaboration behind). On its part, the Afghan government accepted to grant impunity to the north-eastern warlord (who is accused of committing several war crimes during the years of the Afghan civil war), to encourage international actors to lift any sanction and restriction against the group, to release several members of Hizb-i-Islami who are currently in jail, and –the most important clause of all- to allow Hizb-i-Islami to run in Afghanistan’s elections.

Many Afghans, though, are sceptical about Hekmatyar’s new discourse of peace and concerned about his return and the impact that this can have on the country’s political stability (or, rather, what remains of it). Since last autumn, when the deal was signed, the country has thus been deeply divided on whether inviting Hekmatyar to join the political process was a wise move that testifies Ghani’s political acumen or rather a hazardous gambling that proves Ghani’s political weakness- and this divergence of opinions could indeed be seen clearly on Saturday on the streets of Laghman’s major cities, where jubilant crowds of Hekmatyar’s supporters alternated with crowds of opponents tearing his posters apart.

The absence within Afghanistan of a united stance regarding Hekmatyar and, more in general, the role to be reserved to former warlords like him reveals how delicate the entire issue of political integration is and how difficult it is to assess the implications of encouraging controversial figures to take part in the country’s political process.

Obviously, if the terms of the deal were respected by both sides, then Afghanistan would have nothing but benefits to reap: a former warlord giving up his weapons for the sake of the country’s constitution; a more stable central government challenged by opponents through elections rather than through weapons; a better functioning political system made of legitimate competition, inclusiveness, and broad representation.

Yet, reality is never as easy as it is written in agreements and several problems make the road that goes from paper to reality an impervious one.

Firstly, there is the problem of implementation: no matter how brilliantly framed a deal might be, if it is not implemented it is nothing more than a precarious sandcastle. The challenge ahead for Ghani, then, is to ensure that the deal is enforced and that Hekmatyar respects his commitments and embraces the project of a modern and democratic Afghanistan. This challenge, though, is feared by many Afghans to be an extremely tough one since Hekmatyar is renowned for having betrayed all of his allies during the civil war’s years. Ensuring his unrelenting compliance will thus require to Ghani continuous checks, political firmness, and zero toleration of deviations.

Secondly, there is the already mentioned problem of divergence of opinions regarding the deal, as a considerable number of people rejects the idea of seeing the “butcher of Kabul” (as Hekmatyar is known for shelling Kabul with thousands of rockets in the early ‘90s) being granted immunity and running in electoral lists. Until the population remains divided on whether or not the reconciliation between the government and the Pashtun leader was a positive turning-point for the country’s political future, it is difficult to expect a smooth implementation of the deal. For the deal to be enforced effectively and positively, a climate of general support for it needs indeed to be created and, in order to do so, the government should promote honest and informative public debates and encourage a nationwide propaganda capable of explaining to the Afghan people the rationale that lays behind the deal and that calls for its backing.

Thirdly, the impact of the deal will largely depend on the use that Ghani and Hekmatyar will make of it. In the optimal scenario (that though is often the most utopian one) both leaders will rely on the deal’s effective implementation to cancel their previous rivalry and work towards the common objective of a more peaceful and democratic Afghanistan. In the worst scenario (that, unfortunately, is often more likely) both leaders will use the deal for their own interests. Ghani would use it to strengthen his powerbase vis-à-vis the Tajik Abdullah with whom he is forced to share powers and his other political rivals such as former President Karzai. Exploiting the support and influence that Hekmatyar enjoys within the Ghilzai Pashtuns, Ghani could easily succeed in widening his base of supporters and bringing weight in his favour – which would be especially relevant in the case in which a Loya Jirga (national assembly) on the NUG was convened. On his part, Hekmatyar would use the deal to access the political system and the channels of power in a way that his Hizb-i-Islami is no longer capable of doing by means of arms. Exploiting his entrance in the political system and his presence in the highest spheres of politics, he could pretty easily amass power and influence in his hands at the disadvantage of the central government and undermine his non-Pashtun opponents.

As Hekmatyar returns to the forefront of Afghan politics, the consequences of his return are not clear yet since much will depend on whether and how the deal will be enacted now that the “butcher of Kabul” is back.   We cannot but follow him on his upcoming trip to Kabul and see what happens next in the Ghani-Hekmatyar rapprochement’s tale.

The “mother of all bombs” is daughter of no strategy

The US dropping of its largest non-nuclear bomb in Afghanistan reveals all the weaknesses of Washington’s Afghan policy and the need for a more comprehensive strategy capable of responding to the country’s many security challenges and political problems

 

One day after ISIS-Khorasan (the Afghan branch of ISIS) claimed responsibility for an attack near government offices in Kabul that killed five people and wounded ten, the United States dropped a GBU-43 bomb in the eastern province of Nangarhar, where ISIS-K is based. The GBU-43 bomb is a 9,797kg GPS-guided munition that was first tested in 2003, before the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is the largest non-nuclear bomb that the US has ever used in combat, and because of its destructive potential it has gained the nickname “mother of all bombs”.

After the bomb was dropped on Thursday, the head of American and international forces in Afghanistan Gen. Nicholson said that the operation was intended to damage the operational capabilities of ISIS-K and to increase the protection of international and Afghan forces against its terrorist attacks. On the same line, spokesperson within the Pentagon stressed the efficiency that deploying such a powerful weapon can have in the framework of countering terrorism in Afghanistan and the contribution that it can give to ending a “war on terror” that begun sixteen years ago and that still lacks a clear winner.

 

However, the massive military attack of Thursday does not seem to be part of any broader US Afghan strategy and it is difficult to see how a similar show of military might on part of Washington can respond to the exigencies and the challenges of the Afghan war. The bombing in Nangarhar might perhaps respond to Trump’s foreign policy narrative of an assertive and credible American military power and to the expectations of those voters who supported his project of making America “great again”, but it certainly does not respond to the needs of Afghanistan. Indeed, the problems in terms of terrorism, security, and stability that Afghanistan is facing are too complex for a mere militarist approach to be sufficient.

 

Firstly, there is to consider the weakness of Afghanistan’s democratic experiment and the stalemate that continues to paralyze policy-making in Kabul. Despite the important and undeniable step forward that the instalment of the NUG in 2014 under the leadership of Ghani and Abdullah represented, the country is still characterized by a political system made of patronage and ethnic rivalries/alliances that find their roots in a culture traditionally dominated by tribalism. In this context, it is necessary to embrace a strategy that encourages –as the NUG tried to do, but in a more credible and effective way- the development of a political system based on actual (not merely fictional) power-sharing across ethnic groups, so as to give equal representation to the country’s diverse realities. Only in this way it will be possible to make of the government in Kabul an inclusive one, in which all Afghans can recognize themselves and which all Afghans can come to trust and respect.

Secondly, adding to the NUG’s limited inclusiveness and worsening its low credibility, is the rampant corruption within the government and the military that has created over the years a wide gap between government officials and security forces on one hand, and the population on the other. This gap has eroded the trust of Afghans in the political class and the security apparatus, since they regard both of them as distant, detached from people’s grievances, and exclusively focused on furthering their interests and broadening their privileges. Unsurprisingly, this has helped groups such as the Taliban to gain a considerable degree of popular support, or at least connivance. What the Taliban (and more recently, though to a lesser extent, also ISIS-K) managed to do, in fact, was to exploit the Afghans’ distrust in the government, in the army, and in a political system perceived as corrupt and inefficient, in order to present itself as a viable and better alternative. It is on this background that a battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people –especially in those rural areas that Kabul struggles the most to reach and control- ensued, and no strategy in Afghanistan can successfully deal with the country’s internal conflict without addressing this major challenge. It is indeed crucial to replace the existing political culture of favoritism and nepotism with one of accountability and responsibility that –together with better systems of checks and balances- might restore the Afghan people’s trust. Unless this trust is restored, in fact, non-state groups such as the Taliban and ISIS-K will easily exploit the situation at their advantage, giving to people what corrupted politicians and security forces fail to give and gaining in this way their support.

Finally, there is an exogenous factor to be taken into account when attempting to frame a successful strategy for Afghanistan, and this is the role of Pakistan and its historical use of Afghanistan to gain strategic depth vis-à-vis India. In the specific, since the early ‘90s Pakistan has been doing so by backing the Afghan Taliban in their struggle to control Kabul, and the continuation of this policy up to this date reveals the necessity of a strategy that uses diplomatic and economic leverages to encourage Islamabad to change its traditional Afghan policy. At this respect, though, the picture is made more complex by the need to consider two other major players: China, that has recently supported Pakistan’s economy with investments for $57 bn, and Russia, that is tightening its ties with Pakistan in the attempt of increasing its influence in South Asia. An effective Afghan strategy is thus one that looks not only at what happens within the country but also at the broader set of actors that rotate around it and whose influence on the conflict’s prosecution/ending is of primary relevance.

 

In conclusion, Afghanistan is a country facing an extremely wide array of problems and challenges and if the US is determined to address them in order to bring an end to the conflict, a mono-dimensional and militarist approach such as embodied by Thursday’s attack is not viable nor effective, and a broader and multi-dimensional strategy is required in its stead.

 

[Photo: AP]

 

 

The ignored war of the Middle East

 

Assessing the reasons why the world’s major powers pay little attention to what goes on on the Yemeni front

 

In the Middle Eastern geostrategic dynamics and in the international media establishment a dangerous phenomenon is steadily consolidating: while everyone’s attention is focused on crucial battlefields such as Mosul and Aleppo, Yemen continues to be the theatre of a forgotten –or rather ignored- civil war.

But why is it so? Why is a civil war that in just two years has caused one of the worst humanitarian emergencies of our time so little spoken of?

The reasons are essentially two.

 

First of all, there is the complexity of the Yemeni war that makes it difficult to give a clear reading of the conflict, to reach a true understanding of its political and sectarian causes, of its evolving dynamics, of its array of actors and interests, and of its regional impact.

Yemen’s conflict -broken out in 2014 when the Houthi rebels of the north forced President Hadi to leave the country and seek exile in Saudi Arabia- is indeed particularly challenging to be understood in all its dimensions because it lacks the black-and-white contraposition that characterizes other regional conflicts. Since its outbreak, the war has been defined by a wide multidimensionality: it is a Yemeni internal confrontation between the Houthi/Saleh front and Hadi; it is a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia (with its GCC allies) and Iran; and it is a sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni forces. Therefore, understanding the war in Yemen requires understanding these many intricate and at times overlapping levels of conflict, but since applying different keys of reading to a single theatre is not an easy task (neither for policymakers nor for analysts) this has contributed to Yemen’s marginalization in the global public debate.

 

Nevertheless, there is another, more explicatory, and more worrying reason why the world is paying so little attention to Yemen: unlike what we have been witnessing in places of the Levant such as Syria and Iraq, major international powers such as the US, the EU and Russia are simply little interested in Yemen and in Yemeni affairs. And this is so for three main reasons.

 

Since its emergence out of the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, the Yemeni Republic has been one of the poorest countries of the entire Arab region.

According to the last report of the World Bank, even prior to the conflict Yemen was facing widespread poverty and economic stagnation: despite enjoying a crucial position with respect to the Mandeb Strait -which is the  fourth most important passage for international oil trade- Yemen always had to face economic difficulties because of the government’s poor management of resources and infrastructures; because of a widespread corruption curbing any entrepreneurial ambition; because of a dramatic and unsustainable population growth; and because of an economy that, unlike that of the other Gulf states, relied mainly on agricultural production rather than on oil export. Due to these economic weaknesses and vulnerabilities Yemen never attracted significant amounts of FDIs, which means that today there is no major world power with crucial and direct economic interests in Yemen to be protected.

Conversely, in countries such as Iraq and Syria, Western powers and Russia have cultivated economic and commercial interests since the late XIX century and the need to protect these interests is today one of the major reasons behind their direct involvement in those countries’ crises and behind the attention they pay to everything that happens in there.

 

Apart from economic considerations, though, there is also another factor that comes to explain the little interest foreign powers have in Yemen and it has to do with geo-strategy. In terms of geo-strategic considerations in fact, Yemen –with its position in the southern-westernmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula- has never been considered as a crucial player by foreign powers. Countries deeply involved in the region such as Britain and the US, in fact, have traditionally founded their involvement in the area on alliances with other more influential and more powerful countries. The only interest that foreign powers have in Yemen is that of avoiding the situations that might change the existing balance of power and create instability in the Gulf- and it is in the framework of this logic that the decision of the US and Britain to support the Saudi-led coalition needs to be placed.

Conversely, in the cases of Syria and Iraq foreign actors such as Washington, London, Brussels and Moscow have many and long-time geo-strategic interests because of those countries’ position in the heart of the Levant and because of their physical vicinity to the borders of Europe and Russia.

 

In addition to this, the issue of geographic position is also relevant to understand the final reason why foreign powers are little interested in Yemen and totally focused on Syria and Iraq instead.

Due to Yemen’s already mentioned position in the southernmost tip of the Arabic Peninsula, the war that has been tearing the country apart since Fall 2014 does not constitute a direct threat to the security of major foreign powers. Indeed, despite the number of refugees created by the conflict is dramatically high, most of them have fled to countries of the neighbouring region such as Djibouti, Somaliland, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Conversely, the refugees created by the wars in Syria and Iraq have mostly attempted to seek asylum in Western countries – above all Europe, but also the US and Canada – which are more easily reachable for them than for poorer Yemenis.  These flows of refugees have put a burden on the capacity of Western countries to deal with increasingly multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious societies and have created security concerns that contribute to explain why the US, the UK and the EU focus so much on Syria and Iraq while ignoring Yemen.

 

On the background of this general lack of interest, it does not surprise that when Hadi last week refused the latest UN proposal for a peace negotiation few have paid attention to it.

And yet this is a huge mistake on part of the international community. Humanitarian considerations (the number of dead, displaced people and refugees caused by the war in Yemen cannot but deeply touch our human sensibility) and security calculations (the instability and power vacuum of Yemen has inflamed sectarian tensions that could easily spread to other regional countries and has played the game of terrorist groups such as AQAP that have seen their influence grow) call for the international community to use its influence over the Saudis in order to favour the reaching of an agreement capable of bringing about the inclusive government Yemen is desperately needing.

 

It’s time for the international community to start caring about Yemen.

 

 

[Picture rights: Reuters]