Daniel Pipes is known for accurately predicting events in the Middle East. If you want to truly understand what is happening and what is going to happen in the Middle East this article is a must read.
The Mackenzie Institute (Sep 9) — The Middle East stands out as the world’s most volatile, combustible, and troubled region; not coincidentally, it also inspires the most intense policy debates – think of the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Iran deal. The following tour d’horizon offers interpretations and speculations on Iran, ISIS, Syria-Iraq, the Kurds, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and Islamism, then concludes with some thoughts on policy choices. My one-sentence conclusion: some good news lies under the onslaught of misunderstandings, mistakes, and misery.
Iran is Topic No. 1 these days, especially since the nuclear deal the six great powers reached with its rulers in Vienna on July 14. The “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” seeks to bring Tehran in from the cold, ending decades of hostility and inducing Iran to become a more normal state. In itself, this is an entirely worthy endeavor.
The problem lies in the execution, which has been execrable, rewarding an aggressive government with legitimacy and additional funding, not requiring serious safeguards on its nuclear arms program, and permitting that program in about a decade. The annals of diplomacy have never witnessed a comparable capitulation by great powers to an isolated, weak state.
The Iranian leadership has an apocalyptic mindset and preoccupation with the end of days that does not apply to the North Koreans, Stalin, Mao, the Pakistanis or anyone else. Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i et al. have reason to use these weapons for reasons outside of the normal military concerns – to bring on the end of the world. This makes it especially urgent to stop them.
Economic sanctions, however, amount to a sideshow, even a distraction. The Iranian government compares to the North Korean in its absolute devotion to building these weapons and its readiness to do whatever it takes, whether mass starvation or some other calamity, to achieve them. Therefore, no matter how severely applied, the sanctions only make life more difficult for the Iranian leadership without actually stopping the nuclear buildup.
The only way to stop the buildup is through the use of force. I hope the Israeli government – the only one left that might take action – will undertake this dangerous and thankless job. It can do so through aerial bombardment, special operations, or nuclear weapons, with option #2 both the most attractive and the most difficult.
If the Israelis do not stop the bomb, a nuclear device in the hands of the mullahs will have terrifying consequences for the Middle East and beyond, including North America, where a devastating electromagnetic pulse attack must be considered possible.
To the contrary, if the Iranians do not deploy their new weapons, it is just possible that the increased contact with the outside world and the disruption caused by inconsistent Western policies will work to undermine the regime.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (aka ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, Daesh) is the topic that consumes the most attention other than Iran. I agree with Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, that Iran is a thousand times more dangerous than ISIS. But ISIS is also a thousand times more interesting. Plus, the Obama administration finds it a useful bogeyman to justify working with Tehran.
Emerging out of almost nowhere, the group has taken Islamic nostalgia to an unimagined extreme. The Saudis, the ayatollahs, the Taliban, Boko Haram, and Shabaab each imposed its version of a medieval order. But ISIS went further, replicating as best it can a seventh-century Islamic environment, down to such specifics as public beheading and enslavement.
This effort has provoked two opposite responses among Muslims. One is favorable, as manifested by Muslims coming from Tunisia and the West, attracted moth-like to an incandescently pure vision of Islam. The other, more important, response is negative. The great majority of Muslims, not to speak of non-Muslims, are alienated by the violent and flamboyant ISIS phenomenon. In the long term, ISIS will harm the Islamist movement (the one aspiring to apply Islamic law in its entirety) and even Islam itself, as Muslims in large numbers abominate ISIS.
One thing about ISIS will likely last, however: the notion of the caliphate. The last caliph who actually gave orders ruled in the 940s. That’s the 940s, not the 1940s, over a thousand years ago. The reappearance of an executive caliph after centuries of figurehead caliphs has prompted considerable excitement among Islamists. In Western terms, it’s like someone reviving the Roman Empire with a piece of territory in Europe; that would get everybody’s attention. I predict the caliphate will have a lasting and negative impact.
Syria, Iraq, and the Kurds
In certain circles, Syria and Iraq have come to be known as Suraqiya, joining their names together as the border has collapsed and they have each simultaneously been divided into three main regions: a Shiite-oriented central government, a Sunni Arab rebellion, and a Kurdish part that wants out.
This is a positive development; there’s nothing sacred about the British-French Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 which created these two polities. Quite the contrary, that accord has proven an abject failure; conjure up the names of Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein to remember why. These miserable states exist for the benefit of their monstrous leaders who proceed to murder their own subjects. So, let them fracture into threes, improving matters for the locals and the outside world.
As Turkish-backed Sunni jihadis fight Iranian-backed Shi’i jihadis in Suraqiya, the West should stand back from the fighting. Neither side deserves support; this is not our fight. Indeed, these two evil forces at each others’ throats means they have less opportunity to aggress on the rest of the world. If we do wish to help, it should be directed first to the many victims of the civil war; if we want to be strategic, help the losing side (so neither side wins).
As for the massive flow of refugees from Syria: Western governments should not take in large numbers but instead pressure Saudi Arabia and other rich Middle Eastern states to offer sanctuary. Why should the Saudis be exempt from the refugee flow, especially when their country has many advantages over, say, Sweden: linguistic, cultural, and religious compatibility, as well as proximity and a similar climate.
The rapid emergence of a Kurdish polity in Iraq, followed by one in Syria, as well as a new assertiveness in Turkey and rumblings in Iran are a positive sign. Kurds have proven themselves to be responsible in a way that none of their neighbors have. I say this as someone who, 25 years ago, opposed Kurdish autonomy. Let us help the Kurds who are as close to an ally as we have in the Muslim Middle East. Not just separate Kurdish units should come into existence but also a unified Kurdistan made up from parts of all four countries. That this harms the territorial integrity of those states does not present a problem, as not one of them works well as presently constituted.
The June 2015 election turned out not so well for the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP), the party that’s single-handedly been ruling Turkey since 2002. It’s an Islamist party but more importantly of late, it is the party of tyranny. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, its dominant figure, does as he wishes, gaining undue influence over the banks, the media, the schools, the courts, law enforcement, the intelligence services, and the military. He overrides customs, rules, regulations, and even the constitution in the block-by-block building of a one-man rule. He’s the Middle Eastern version of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
For the most part, Erdoğan has played by democratic rules, via elections and parliament, which has served him well. But the June election could spell the end of his self-restraint. Long ago, when mayor of Istanbul, he signaled that he ultimately does not accept the verdict of elections, stating that democracy is like a bus: “You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.” He has now reached that destination and appears ready to step off. He has initiated hostilities against the Kurdish PKK group as an ugly electoral tactic (to win over Turkish nationalists); he might go so far as to start a war between now and the Nov. 1 snap elections, taking advantage of a constitutional provision deferring elections in time of war.
Accordingly, the June electoral setback will not prove much of an obstacle to Erdoğan, whose path to tyranny remains open.
Erdoğan’s undoing will likely not be domestic, nor will it concern a relative triviality like votes; it will be foreign and concern larger issues. Precisely because he has done so well domestically, he believes himself a master politician on the global stage and pursues a foreign policy as aggressive as his domestic one. But, after some initial successes of the “Zero problems with neighbors” policy, Turkey’s international standing lies in tatters. Ankara has bad relations or major problems with nearly every neighbor: Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Greek Cyprus, Turkish Cyprus, and Greece, as well as the United States and China. Some foreign escapade will likely be Erdoğan’s undoing.
In November 2000, Ehud Barak said that Israel resembles “a villa located in a jungle.” I love that expression; and how much truer it is today, with ISIS on Israel’s Syrian and Sinai borders, Lebanon and Jordan groaning under unsustainable refugee influxes, the West Bank in anarchy, and Gaza approaching the same?
Everyone knows about Israel’s high-tech capabilities and military prowess. But much more about it is impressive bordering on extraordinary.
Demography: The entire modern, industrial world from South Korea to Sweden is unable to replace itself demographically, with the single, outstanding exception of Israel. Societies need roughly 2.1 children per woman to sustain their populations. Iceland, France, and Ireland come in just below that level, but then the numbers descend down to Hong Kong with its 1.1 children per woman, or just over half of what’s necessary for a country to survive long term. Well, Israel is at 3.0. Yes, the Arabs and the Haredim partly explain that high number, but it also depends on secular Tel Aviv residents. It’s nearly unprecedented development for a modern country to have more children over time.
Energy: Everyone knows the old quip about Moses taking a wrong turn on leaving Egypt. Well no, it turns out he didn’t. Israel has as large an energy reserve as—get this—Saudi Arabia. Now, this resource is not as accessible, so it’s far more expensive and complex to exploit than Arabia’s enormous and shallow pools of oil, but it’s there and Israelis will someday extract it.
Illegal immigration: This is a brewing crisis for Europe, especially in summertime, when the Mediterranean and the Balkans become highways from the Middle East. Israel is the one Western country that has handled this problem by building fences that give control over borders.
Water: Twenty years ago, like everyone else in the Middle East, the Israelis suffered from water shortages. They then solved this problem through conservation, drip agriculture, new methods of desalination, and intensive recycling. One statistic: Spain is the country with the second-highest percentage of recycling, around 18 percent. Israel does the most recycling, at 90 percent, five times more than Spain. Israel’s now so awash in water that it exports some to neighbors.
In all, Israel’s doing exceptionally well. Of course, it is under the threat of weapons of mass destruction and the delegitimization process. But it has a record of accomplishment that I believe will see it through these challenges.
Islamist Ideology: Three Types
Islamists can be broken down into three main forces:
Shiite revolutionaries: Spearheaded by the Iranian regime, they are on the warpath, relying on Tehran’s help, apocalyptic ideology, subversion, and (eventually) nuclear weaponry. They want to overturn the existing world order and replace it with the Islamic one envisioned by Ayatollah Khomeini. The revolutionaries’ strength lies in their determination; their weakness lies in their minority status, for Shiites make up just 10 percent or so of the total Muslim population and further divide into multiple sub-groups such as the Fivers, Seveners, and Twelvers.
Sunni revisionists: They deploy varied tactics in the common effort to overthrow the existing order. At one extreme stand the crazies – ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Shabaab, and the Taliban, hate-filled, violent, and yet more revolutionary than their Shiite counterparts. The Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates (such as President Erdoğan of Turkey) fill the middle ground, using violence only when deemed necessary but preferring to work through the system. Soft Islamists like Fethullah Gülen, Pennsylvania’s Turkish preacher living in self-exile, forward their vision through education and commerce and work strictly within the system, but whose goals, despite their mild tactics, are no less ambitious.
Sunni status-quo maintainers: The Saudi state heads a bloc of governments (GCC members, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco), only some of which are Islamist, that wish to hold onto what they have and fend off the revolutionaries and revisionists.
Islamist Tactics: Violent vs. Lawful
Violent Islamists, Shiite and Sunni alike, are doomed. Their attacks on fellow Muslims alienate coreligionists. They challenge non-Muslims in precisely those areas where the latter are strongest; the combined might of the military, law enforcement, and the intelligence services can crush any Islamist uprising.
Islamist violence is counterproductive. Its drumbeat quality teaches and moves public opinion. Murderous assaults move opinion, not the analysts, the media, or politicians. An incident like the Charlie Hebdomassacre in Paris moves voters over to anti-Islamic parties. Blood in the streets teaches. It’s education by murder.
In contrast, lawful Islamists working within the system are very dangerous. They are seen as respectable, appearing on television, appearing as lawyers in courtrooms, and teaching classes. Western governments mistakenly treat them as allies against the crazies. My rule of thumb: The less violent the Islamist, the more dangerous.
Therefore, were I an Islamist strategist, I’d say, “Work through the system. Cut the violence except on those rare occasions when it intimidates and helps reach the goal.” In fact, the Islamists are not doing this, to their detriment. They are making a major mistake, to our benefit.
Islamism in Decline?
The Islamist movement could be on the way down due to infighting and unpopularity…