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INDOMITABLE: The Faces of Kobani

Photo by Aviram Valdman, The Tower Magazine
 

All photos by Aviram Valdman
Originally published in The Tower Magazine, November 2014

 

FOR WEEKS, the eyes of the world have turned to the small Syrian border town of Kobani, where Kurdish fighters are making a desperate stand against the barbaric terrorist army of the Islamic State, known to the world as ISIS. Despite the well-known savagery of ISIS, its repeated attempts at breaking through the town’s defenses, and limited aid from Western powers, Kobani has not fallen. Fearing mass slaughter if they are defeated, Kurdish forces have kept up a relentless defense, and just last week Kurdish reinforcements were finally allowed across the nearby Turkish border to join the battle. Many believe that the tide is turning, and ISIS is slowly being pushed back from the beleaguered town.

But this has come at a terrible price. Casualties have been enormous, with Kurdish fighters and civilians killed in battle, slaughtered en masse by their murderous enemy, beheaded by barbaric captors, or forced into exile in order to escape the fighting.

Photographer Aviram Valdman recently saw the horror of the situation firsthand. Refused entrance into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, he found himself in the Turkish town of Suruç. Barely 200 meters from the Syrian border and besieged Kobani, Suruç is now inundated with refugees—somewhere between 150-250,000 men, women, and children who have left everything behind, including loved ones both living and dead.

In Suruç, Valdman witnessed a scene of desperation. The streets are awash with people, living and sleeping wherever they can. Many of them stand on the border, nearly hysterical as they watch and listen to the ongoing battle for their town, wondering if those they left behind will survive.

And the city is in the grip of near-inconceivable fear. Many refugees refused Valdman’s requests for photographs, afraid that, if they are published, they or their loved ones will be murdered by ISIS in retaliation. Many of them have good reason to be afraid, with friends and relatives who have been captured, tortured, or killed by the Islamist terror group.

On the border, Valdman also caught a glimpse of the battle itself. Only a short distance away, bombs explode, gunfire erupts, and clouds of smoke spiral into the not-so distant sky. The meaning of such images is clear: This is not the movies. This is not television. This war is real. ISIS is slaughtering, the Kurds are fighting, refugees are fleeing, and the world is watching.

 
For higher resolution viewing, click individual images. To view the complete set of images, see link to original source materials at bottom of page.
Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Photo: Kobani - Aviram Valdman

Photo: Kobani – Aviram Valdman

 

Banner Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower
Source: http://www.thetower.org/article/photos-faces-of-kobanis-horror-stricken-refugees/

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Stratfor: Turkey, the Kurds and Iraq: The Prize and Peril of Kirkuk

Originally published: TUESDAY, OCTOBER 7, 2014 – 03:00

By Reva Bhalla
Stratfor Global Intelligence

In June 1919, aboard an Allied warship en route to Paris, sat Damat Ferid Pasha, the Grand Vizier of a crumbling Ottoman Empire. The elderly statesman, donning an iconic red fez and boasting an impeccably groomed mustache, held in his hands a memorandum that he was to present to the Allied powers at the Quai d’Orsay. The negotiations on postwar reparations started five months earlier, but the Ottoman delegation was prepared to make the most of its tardy invitation to the talks. As he journeyed across the Mediterranean that summer toward the French shore, Damat Ferid mentally rehearsed the list of demands he would make to the Allied powers during his last-ditch effort to hold the empire together.

He began with a message, not of reproach, but of inculpability: “Gentlemen, I should not be bold enough to come before this High Assembly if I thought that the Ottoman people had incurred any responsibility in the war that has ravaged Europe and Asia with fire and sword.” His speech was followed by an even more defiant memorandum, denouncing any attempt to redistribute Ottoman land to the Kurds, Greeks and Armenians, asserting: “In Asia, the Turkish lands are bounded on the south by the provinces of Mosul and Diyarbakir, as well as a part of Aleppo as far as the Mediterranean.” When Damat Ferid’s demands were presented in Paris, the Allies were in awe of the gall displayed by the Ottoman delegation. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George regarded the presentation as a “good joke,” while U.S. President Woodrow Wilson said he had never seen anything more “stupid.” They flatly rejected Damat Ferid’s apparently misguided appeal — declaring that the Turks were unfit to rule over other races, regardless of their common Muslim identity — and told him and his delegation to leave. The Western powers then proceeded, through their own bickering, to divide the post-Ottoman spoils.

Under far different circumstances today, Ankara is again boldly appealing to the West to follow its lead in shaping policy in Turkey’s volatile Muslim backyard. And again, Western powers are looking at Turkey with incredulity, waiting for Ankara to assume responsibility for the region by tackling the immediate threat of the Islamic State with whatever resources necessary, rather than pursuing a seemingly reckless strategy of toppling the Syrian government. Turkey’s behavior can be perplexing and frustrating to Western leaders, but the country’s combination of reticence in action and audacity in rhetoric can be traced back to many of the same issues that confronted Istanbul in 1919, beginning with the struggle over the territory of Mosul.

The Turkish Fight for Mosul

Under the Ottoman Empire, the Mosul vilayet stretched from Zakho in southeastern Anatolia down along the Tigris River through Dohuk, Arbil, Alqosh, Kirkuk, Tuz Khormato and Sulaimaniyah before butting up against the western slopes of the Zagros Mountains, which shape the border with Iran. This stretch of land, bridging the dry Arab steppes and the fertile mountain valleys in Iraqi Kurdistan, has been a locus of violence long before the Islamic State arrived. The area has been home to an evolving mix of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Yazidis, Assyro-Chaldeans and Jews, while Turkish and Persian factions and the occasional Western power, whether operating under a flag or a corporate logo, continue to work in vain to eke out a demographic makeup that suits their interests.
At the time of the British negotiation with the Ottomans over the fate of the Mosul region, British officers touring the area wrote extensively about the ubiquity of the Turkish language, noting that “Turkish is spoken all along the high road in all localities of any importance.” This fact formed part of Turkey’s argument that the land should remain under Turkish sovereignty. Even after the 1923 signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, in which Turkey renounced its rights to Ottoman lands, the Turkish government still held out a claim to the Mosul region, fearful that the Brits would use Kurdish separatism to further weaken the Turkish state. Invoking the popular Wilsonian principle of self-determination, the Turkish government asserted to the League of Nations that most of the Kurds and Arabs inhabiting the area preferred to be part of Turkey anyway. The British countered by asserting that their interviews with locals revealed a prevailing preference to become part of the new British-ruled Kingdom of Iraq.

The Turks, in no shape to bargain with London and mired in a deep internal debate over whether Turkey should forego these lands and focus instead on the benefits of a downsized republic, lost the argument and were forced to renounce their claims to the Mosul territory in 1925. As far as the Brits and the French were concerned, the largely Kurdish territory would serve as a vital buffer space to prevent the Turks from eventually extending their reach from Asia Minor to territories in Mesopotamia, Syria and Armenia. But the fear of Turkish expansion was not the only factor informing the European strategy to keep northern Iraq out of Turkish hands.

The Oil Factor

Since the days of Herodotus and Nebuchadnezzar, there have been stories of eternal flames arising from the earth of Baba Gurgur near the town of Kirkuk. German explorer and cartographer Carsten Niebuhr wrote in the 18th century: “A place called Baba Gurgur is above all remarkable because the earth is so hot that eggs and meat can be boiled here.” The flames were in fact produced by the natural gas and naphtha seeping through cracks in the rocks, betraying the vast quantities of crude oil lying beneath the surface. London wasted little time in calling on geologists from Venezuela, Mexico, Romania and Indochina to study the land and recommend sites for drilling. On Oct. 14, 1927, the fate of Kirkuk was sealed: A gusher rising 43 meters (around 140 feet) erupted from the earth, dousing the surrounding land with some 95,000 barrels of crude oil for 10 days before the well could be capped. With oil now part of the equation, the political situation in Kirkuk became all the more flammable.

The British mostly imported Sunni Arab tribesmen to work the oil fields, gradually reducing the Kurdish majority and weakening the influence of the Turkmen minority in the area. The Arabization project was given new energy when the Arab Baath Socialist Party came to power through a military coup in 1968. Arabic names were given to businesses, neighborhoods, schools and streets, while laws were adjusted to pressure Kurds to leave Kirkuk and transfer ownership of their homes and lands to Arabs. Eviction tactics turned ghastly in 1988 under Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign, during which chemical weapons were employed against the Kurdish population. The Iraqi government continued with heavy-handed tactics to Arabize the territory until the collapse of the Baathist regime in 2003. Naturally, revenge was a primary goal as Kurdish factions worked quickly to repopulate the region with Kurds and drive the Arabs out.

Even as Kirkuk, its oil-rich fields and a belt of disputed territories stretching between Diyala and Nineveh provinces have remained officially under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, the Kurdish leadership has sought to redraw the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan. After the Iraqi Kurdish region gained de facto autonomy with the creation of a no-fly zone in 1991 and then formally coalesced into the Kurdistan Regional Government after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Kurdish influence gradually expanded in the disputed areas. Kurdish representation increased through multi-ethnic political councils, facilitated by the security protection these communities received from the Kurdish peshmerga and by the promise of energy revenues, while Baghdad remained mired in its own problems. Formally annexing Kirkuk and parts of Nineveh and Diyala, part of the larger Kurdish strategy, would come in due time. Indeed, the expectation that legalities of the annexation process would soon be completed convinced a handful of foreign energy firms to sign contracts with the Kurdish authorities — as opposed to Baghdad — enabling the disputed territories to finally begin realizing the region’s energy potential.

Then the unexpected happened: In June, the collapse of the Iraqi army in the north under the duress of the Islamic State left the Kirkuk fields wide open, allowing the Kurdish peshmerga to finally and fully occupy them. Though the Kurds now sit nervously on the prize, Baghdad, Iran, local Arabs and Turkmen and the Islamic State are eyeing these fields with a predatory gaze. At the same time, a motley force of Iran-backed Shiite militias, Kurdish militants and Sunni tribesmen are trying to flush the Islamic State out of the region in order to return to settling the question of where to draw the line on Kurdish autonomy. The Sunnis will undoubtedly demand a stake in the oil fields that the Kurds now control as repayment for turning on the Islamic State, guaranteeing a Kurdish-Sunni confrontation that Baghdad will surely exploit.

The Turkish Dilemma

The modern Turkish government is looking at Iraq and Syria in a way similar to how Damat Ferid did almost a century ago when he sought in Paris to maintain Turkish sovereignty over the region. From Ankara’s point of view, the extension of a Turkish sphere of influence into neighboring Muslim lands is the antidote to weakening Iraqi and Syrian states. Even if Turkey no longer has direct control over these lands, it hopes to at least indirectly re-establish its will through select partners, whether a group of moderate Islamist forces in Syria or, in northern Iraq, a combination of Turkmen and Sunni factions, along with a Kurdish faction such as Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party. The United States may currently be focused on the Islamic State, but Turkey is looking years ahead at the mess that will likely remain. This is why Turkey is placing conditions on its involvement in the battle against the Islamic State: It is trying to convince the United States and its Sunni Arab coalition partners that it will inevitably be the power administering this region. Therefore, according to Ankara, all players must conform to its priorities, beginning with replacing Syria’s Iran-backed Alawite government with a Sunni administration that will look first to Ankara for guidance.

However, the Turkish vision of the region simply does not fit the current reality and is earning Ankara more rebuke than respect from its neighbors and the West. The Kurds, in particular, will continue to form the Achilles’ heel of Turkish policymaking.

In Syria, where the Islamic State is closing in on the city of Kobani on Turkey’s border, Ankara is faced with the unsavory possibility that it will be drawn into a ground fight with a well-equipped insurgent force. Moreover, Turkey would be fighting on the same side as a variety of Kurdish separatists, including members of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Ankara has every interest in neutralizing.

Turkey faces the same dilemma in Iraq, where it may unwittingly back Kurdish separatists in its fight against the Islamic State. Just as critical, Turkey cannot be comfortable with the idea that Kirkuk is in the hands of the Iraqi Kurds unless Ankara is assured exclusive rights over that energy and the ability to extinguish any oil-fueled ambitions of Kurdish independence. But Turkey has competition. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is not willing to make itself beholden to Turkey, as did Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, while financial pressures continue to climb. Instead, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is staying close to Iran and showing a preference to work with Baghdad. Meanwhile, local Arab and Turkmen resistance to Kurdish rule is rising, a factor that Baghdad and Iran will surely exploit as they work to dilute Kurdish authority by courting local officials in Kirkuk and Nineveh with promises of energy rights and autonomy.

This is the crowded battleground that Turkey knows well. A long and elaborate game of “keep away” will be played to prevent the Kurds from consolidating control over oil-rich territory in the Kurdish-Arab borderland, while the competition between Turkey and Iran will emerge into full view. For Turkey to compete effectively in this space, it will need to come to terms with the reality that Ankara will not defy its history by resolving the Kurdish conundrum, nor will it be able to hide within its borders and avoid foreign entanglements.

 
 
Turkey, the Kurds and Iraq: The Prize and Peril of Kirkuk is republished with permission of Stratfor.
 
 

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Stratfor Flashback: Turkey’s Geographical Ambition

Note: Originally published by Stratfor  May 1, 2013.
(Republished by Stratfor in light of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Aug. 10 election as Turkey’s new president.)

 

By Robert D. Kaplan and Reva Bhalla

At a time when Europe and other parts of the world are governed by forgettable mediocrities, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister for a decade now, seethes with ambition. Perhaps the only other leader of a major world nation who emanates such a dynamic force field around him is Russia’s Vladimir Putin, with whom the West is also supremely uncomfortable.

Erdogan and Putin are ambitious because they are men who unrepentantly grasp geopolitics. Putin knows that any responsible Russian leader ensures that Russia has buffer zones of some sort in places like Eastern Europe and the Caucasus; Erdogan knows that Turkey must become a substantial power in the Near East in order to give him leverage in Europe. Erdogan’s problem is that Turkey’s geography between East and West contains as many vulnerabilities as it does benefits. This makes Erdogan at times overreach. But there is a historical and geographical logic to his excesses.

The story begins after World War I.

Because Ottoman Turkey was on the losing side of that war (along with Wilhelmine Germany and Hapsburg Austria), the victorious allies in the Treaty of Sevres of 1920 carved up Turkey and its environs, giving territory and zones of influence to Greece, Armenia, Italy, Britain and France. Turkey’s reaction to this humiliation was Kemalism, the philosophy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (the surname “Ataturk” means “Father of the Turks”), the only undefeated Ottoman general, who would lead a military revolt against the new occupying powers and thus create a sovereign Turkish state throughout the Anatolian heartland. Kemalism willingly ceded away the non-Anatolian parts of the Ottoman Empire but compensated by demanding a uniethnic Turkish state within Anatolia itself. Gone were the “Kurds,” for example. They would henceforth be known as “Mountain Turks.” Gone, in fact, was the entire multicultural edifice of the Ottoman Empire.

Kemalism not only rejected minorities, it rejected the Arabic script of the Turkish language. Ataturk risked higher illiteracy rates to give the language a Latin script. He abolished the Muslim religious courts and discouraged women from wearing the veil and men from wearing fezzes. Ataturk further recast Turks as Europeans (without giving much thought to whether the Europeans would accept them as such), all in an attempt to reorient Turkey away from the now defunct Ottoman Empire in the Middle East and toward Europe.

Kemalism was a call to arms: the martial Turkish reaction to the Treaty of Sevres, to the same degree that Putin’s neo-czarism was the authoritarian reaction to Boris Yeltsin’s anarchy of 1990s Russia. For decades the reverence for Ataturk in Turkey went beyond a personality cult: He was more like a stern, benevolent and protective demigod, whose portrait looked down upon every public interior.

The problem was that Ataturk’s vision of orienting Turkey so firmly to the West clashed with Turkey’s geographic situation, one that straddled both West and East. An adjustment was in order. Turgut Ozal, a religious Turk with Sufi tendencies who was elected prime minister in 1983, provided it.

Ozal’s political skill enabled him to gradually wrest control of domestic policy and — to an impressive degree — foreign policy away from the staunchly Kemalist Turkish military. Whereas Ataturk and the generations of Turkish officers who followed him thought in terms of a Turkey that was an appendage of Europe, Ozal spoke of a Turkey whose influence stretched from the Aegean to the Great Wall of China. In Ozal’s mind, Turkey did not have to choose between East and West. It was geographically enshrined in both and should thus politically embody both worlds. Ozal made Islam publicly respected again in Turkey, even as he enthusiastically supported U.S. President Ronald Reagan during the last phase of the Cold War. By being so pro-American and so adroit in managing the Kemalist establishment, in the West at least Ozal — more than his predecessors — was able to get away with being so Islamic.

Ozal used the cultural language of Islam to open the door to an acceptance of the Kurds. Turkey’s alienation from Europe following the 1980 military coup d’etat enabled Ozal to develop economic linkages to Turkey’s east. He also gradually empowered the devout Muslims of inner Anatolia. Ozal, two decades before Erdogan, saw Turkey as a champion of moderate Islam throughout the Muslim world, defying Ataturk’s warning that such a Pan-Islamic policy would sap Turkey’s strength and expose the Turks to voracious foreign powers. The term neo-Ottomanism was, in fact, first used in Ozal’s last years in power.

Ozal died suddenly in 1993, ushering in a desultory decade of Turkish politics marked by increasing corruption and ineffectuality on the part of Turkey’s sleepy secular elite. The stage was set for Erdogan’s Islamic followers to win an outright parliamentary majority in 2002. Whereas Ozal came from the center-right Motherland Party, Erdogan came from the more openly Islamist-trending Justice and Development Party, though Erdogan himself and some of his advisers had moderated their views over the years. Of course, there were many permutations in Islamic political thought and politics in Turkey between Ozal and Erdogan, but one thing stands clear: Both Ozal and Erdogan were like two bookends of the period. In any case, unlike any leader today in Europe or the United States, Erdogan actually had a vision similar to Ozal’s, a vision that constituted a further distancing from Kemalism.

Rather than Ataturk’s emphasis on the military, Erdogan, like Ozal, has stressed the soft power of cultural and economic connections to recreate in a benign and subtle fashion a version of the Ottoman Empire from North Africa to the Iranian plateau and Central Asia. Remember that in the interpretation of one of the West’s greatest scholars of Islam, the late Marshall G.S. Hodgson of the University of Chicago, the Islamic faith was originally a merchants’ religion, which united followers from oasis to oasis, allowing for ethical dealing. In Islamic history, authentic religious connections across the Middle East and the Indian Ocean world could — and did — lead to wholesome business connections and political patronage. Thus is medievalism altogether relevant to the post-modern world.

Erdogan now realizes that projecting Turkey’s moderate Muslim power throughout the Middle East is fraught with frustrating complexities. Indeed, it is unclear that Turkey even has the political and military capacity to actualize such a vision. To wit, Turkey may be trying its best to increase trade with its eastern neighbors, but it still does not come close to Turkey’s large trade volumes with Europe, now mired in recession. In the Caucasus and Central Asia, Turkey demands influence based on geographic and linguistic affinity. Yet Putin’s Russia continues to exert significant influence in the Central Asian states and, through its invasion and subsequent political maneuverings in Georgia, has put Azerbaijan in an extremely uncomfortable position. In Mesopotamia, Turkey’s influence is simply unequal to that of far more proximate Iran. In Syria, Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, thought — incorrectly, it turns out — that they could effectively mold a moderate Islamist Sunni opposition to replace President Bashar al Assad’s Alawite regime. And while Erdogan has gained points throughout the Islamic world for his rousing opposition to Israel, he has learned that this comes at a price: the warming of relations between Israel and both Greece and the Greek part of Cyprus, which now permits Turkey’s adversaries in the Eastern Mediterranean to cooperate in the hydrocarbon field.

The root of the problem is partly geographic. Turkey constitutes a bastion of mountains and plateau, inhabiting the half-island of the Anatolian land bridge between the Balkans and the Middle East. It is plainly not integral to a place like Iraq, for example, in the way that Iran is; and its Turkic language no longer enjoys the benefit of the Arabic script, which might give it more cultural leverage elsewhere in the Levant. But most important, Turkey is itself bedeviled by its own Kurdish population, complicating its attempts to exert leverage in neighboring Middle Eastern states.

Turkey’s southeast is demographically dominated by ethnic Kurds, who adjoin vast Kurdish regions in Syria, Iraq and Iran. The ongoing breakup of Syria potentially liberates Kurds there to join with radical Kurds in Anatolia in order to undermine Turkey. The de facto breakup of Iraq has forced Turkey to follow a policy of constructive containment with Iraq’s Kurdish north, but that has undermined Turkey’s leverage in the rest of Iraq — thus, in turn, undermining Turkey’s attempts to influence Iran. Turkey wants to influence the Middle East, but the problem is that it remains too much a part of the Middle East to extricate itself from the region’s complexities.

Erdogan knows that he must partially solve the Kurdish problem at home in order to gain further leverage in the region. He has even mentioned aloud the Arabic word, vilayet, associated with the Ottoman Empire. This word denotes a semi-autonomous province — a concept that might hold the key for an accommodation with local Kurds but could well reignite his own nationalist rivals within Turkey. Thus, his is a big symbolic step that seeks to fundamentally neutralize the very foundation of Kemalism (with its emphasis on a solidly Turkic Anatolia). But given how he has already emasculated the Turkish military — something few thought possible a decade ago — one should be careful about underestimating Erdogan. His sheer ambition is something to behold. While Western elites ineffectually sneer at Putin, Erdogan enthusiastically takes notes when the two of them meet.

Republished with the permission of Stratfor Glocal Intelligence
Original article: Turkey’s Geographical Ambition | Stratfor

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Stratfor: Worsening Violence in Iraq Threatens Regional Security

JUNE 11, 2014 | 1615

Courtesy, Stratfor Global Intelligence

Summary

Battles continue to rage across northern Iraq, pitting jihadist group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant against Iraqi security forces and their allies. The growing reach of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has escalated an already brutal campaign in Iraq. Alarmingly quick advances by the militants across an important region of the Middle East could draw in regional powers as well as the United States.

Analysis

Using hit-and-run tactics, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIL, has sought to keep Iraqi security forces dispersed and under pressure. ISIL has achieved this by striking at areas where security forces are weak and withdrawing from areas where Baghdad has concentrated its combat power. The jihadists have been working hard to improve their tradecraft by developing skill sets ranging from staging complex ambushes to using Iraqi army equipment effectively in surprise raids. ISIL has also sought to better develop its ties with local Sunni communities.

As far back as the days of al Qaeda in Iraq and its predecessor, Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad, founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, militancy has had a presence in Anbar province — and indeed in Mosul. During the Iraq War, the U.S. military considered Mosul one of the key gateways for foreign al Qaeda in Iraq fighters to enter the country. ISIL operations in Mosul and the wider Nineveh province are unsurprising. What is surprising is the degree of success that ISIL has managed to achieve in its latest offensive in the region.

ISIL Activity

Click to Enlarge

This success undoubtedly has much to do with local forces and tribes who have either facilitated ISIL or elected not to fight the group’s incursion into Mosul. In a city of almost 2 million, had ISIL received no local sympathy, it would have been unable to rout the Iraqi forces in the area with only 1,000 to 2,000 fighters. Social media contains several reports of local Sunnis welcoming ISIL forces, and even of local fighters supporting ISIL in attacks against government positions.

Furthermore, Iraqi security forces reportedly had around 10,000 personnel in and around Mosul. Despite the ferociousness of the ISIL attack, the fact that a significant portion of these forces fled — abandoning their uniforms, equipment and vehicles — indicates serious structural and morale issues within the force, which could be attributed in part to a high number of Sunni soldiers in the ranks who are unwilling to stand up to ISIL for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Having succeeded in its Mosul operations, ISIL will continue to take advantage of its momentum and push its gains at a time when the Iraqi government is scrambling to recover from significant losses. As well as taking large portions of the city, ISIL militants seized many weapons and military vehicles as well as the contents of Mosul’s central bank. They also freed several thousand prisoners from a local prison, potentially adding more fighters to their cause.

Stretching from the north of Mosul through Tikrit to the south and toward Baghdad along the Tigris River Valley, ISIL is striving to maintain a continuous line of pressure running through what is practically the northern spine of populated Iraq. The Tigris River Valley contains a number of key strategic energy areas, including the oil refinery near Baiji. Although the refinery is still under state control at this time, the areas where ISIL is operating largely match areas where al Qaeda in Iraq was active during the height of the Sunni insurrection in Iraq from 2004-2006. As opposed to a first-time assault or new offensive, ISIL’s actions speak more of a resurgence into historical areas of operations.

As well as continuing to push forward, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will largely seek to avoid stand-up fights against well-equipped and determined Iraqi army units, though they have held their ground against such forces in Al Fallujah and Ar Ramadi. The wide-ranging, mobile and rapidly dispersed ISIL forces have a key advantage when it comes to maneuvering in battle over the slower, mechanized units of the Iraqi army. While ISIL maximizes its impact against a disorganized Baghdad, the jihadist group seeks to consolidate its control over territory in heavily Sunni areas, where it has already made significant inroads with the local population. Ambitiously, these areas of control could include large portions of the north as well as Anbar Province. More realistically, it would mean greater ISIL presence in the longer term and, in some cases, direct control in Anbar and possibly other provinces such as Nineveh and Salah ad Din. Working toward this goal, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will continue to focus on its revitalized effort to dismantle the Awakening movement, a coalition of tribal elements that was instrumental in pushing al Qaeda in Iraq out of Anbar the first time, drawing Sunni tribes back into its fold in the process.

The Iraqi army is attempting to contain the ISIL threat that is rapidly spreading into Salah ad Din and Kirkuk provinces. Iraqi forces, supported by allied tribal elements, have reportedly struck back against ISIL outside As Samarra and in Tikrit. A number of Iraqi army units are also supposedly withdrawing from Anbar province, which will further reduce pressure on ISIL-held cities there. These forces are reportedly focusing on the northern approaches to Baghdad, while the Iraqi government is attempting to pull together all reserve units capable of quickly moving to the fight. For all intents and purposes the Iraqi army is overstretched, the geographic dispersion of threats outmatching its resources. This means that Baghdad must prioritize its goals in the fight against ISIL.

Protect the Core

The most important priority for Baghdad right now is to secure its capital and oil infrastructure and begin pushing north to meet ISIL units approaching from Mosul down the Tigris River Valley. This does not mean that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant can be eradicated from these areas: Small ISIL cells will continue to operate across the region, and indeed in Baghdad itself. It does mean, however, that the Iraqi army will try to disrupt large mobile ISIL columns seeking to raid and to establish control over towns and cities. By concentrating its forces, the Iraqi army campaign in Anbar, especially around Ar Ramadi and Al Fallujah, will inevitably be at a disadvantage as it falls to a level of secondary importance. The campaign to rid Iraq of ISIL, which was never realistic so long as the jihadists held a virtual sanctuary in eastern Syria, becomes even more tenuous over the long term.

Members of the Kurdish Peshmerga force secure an area west of the northern city of Kirkuk, on June 11.

Click to Enlarge

In the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, Baghdad holds a potential advantage, but one which the al-Maliki government has been loath to use so far. This advantage is a greater reliance and cooperation with the Peshmerga (Kurdish security forces) in a combined fight against the jihadists. For political reasons ranging from disputes over territory to energy resources distribution, the central government in Baghdad had sought to maximize its direct control over the north, while minimizing the Kurdish security presence beyond Kurdistan Regional Government-administered areas. With ISIL making alarming gains in the north, it is now far more possible that the central government in Iraq would seek to cooperate with the Peshmerga in a combined push on ISIL in Kirkuk and Mosul. To that end, the Iraqi parliamentary speaker reportedly mentioned the possibility of coordinating with Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani. Kurdish Peshmerga forces are reportedly mobilizing in preparation for defensive as well as offensive operations against ISIL.
 

The Bigger Picture

Beyond Iraq, a number of countries are immediately affected by ISIL. The Syrian battle space bleeds heavily into Iraq due to a porous border, accelerated by the almost total collapse of Syrian army border crossing posts. Since January, ISIL has been heavily involved in fighting with more moderate Syrian rebel factions, as well as with Jabhat al Nusra, the official al Qaeda franchise in Syria. As the fighting has worn on, ISIL has gradually released its hold in western Syria and turned its attention to the Raqqah and Deir el-Zour governorates. Deir el-Zour was particularly important for ISIL as it allowed it to maintain a direct supply link with its established presence in western and northern Iraq, especially in Anbar province. Through this supply link, ISIL has been able to transfer experienced foreign fighters and captured Syrian army equipment to Iraq, including vehicles and anti-tank guided munitions. It has also replenished its stock of ammunition and explosives, greatly aiding operations in Iraq.

The Syrian conflict is affected by the ISIL push in Iraq in two ways. The first is that the jihadists may divert large numbers of fighters from Syria to its Iraq push, which would open ISIL to more pressure in Syria. The second impact is the withdrawal of large numbers of Iraqi Shiite militants — men that have been fighting alongside the Syrian army — leaving to concentrate their efforts back home against ISIL. Such a withdrawal would be unpopular in the Syrian regime because it would take away an important source of manpower.

Regional Interest

Ankara is also watching the events in Iraq with considerable attention. Not only are Turkish citizens directly implicated in the conflict, with a number of Turks reportedly seized by ISIL militants, but the Turkish government also maintains an important stake in energy development in northern Iraq. Ankara has long been involved in politics between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government on issues surrounding the delivery of energy. Turkey is also increasingly concerned about the growing reach of ISIL and has already clashed with militants on its border with Syria. Turkey is especially wary of the potential for attacks by ISIL — attacks that would exploit the long border that runs from the Mediterranean to Iran. While Turkey has been hesitant to directly send forces against ISIL in Syria, the fact that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has seized large numbers of Turks — including the consulate staff from Mosul — may push Ankara to become more directly involved in the crisis.

Iran has long sustained the regime in Syria, as well as indirectly supporting al-Maliki’s government in its fight against Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq. The growing reach of ISIL, and its ever-closer presence to Iran, is sure to raise considerable anxiety in Tehran. Iran can therefore be expected to further bolster its support for al-Maliki as well as for Shiite proxies across Iraq. In supporting al Maliki’s fight, Tehran finds itself very much aligned with Washington.

The United States will avoid sending significant forces back into Iraq, but Washington will ramp up its efforts to contain the ISIL threat by delivering vital equipment such as helicopter gunships, Hellfire missiles, communications equipment, large volumes of small arms and ammunition. This assistance, coupled with a common regional interest to contain the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, will likely contain the threat to northern and western Iraq. Though Iraq’s southern energy corridor will probably be spared, the Sunni belt in central Iraq and the territories disputed between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government will face rising sectarian stress, in line with ISIL’s designs for the region.

 

Worsening Violence in Iraq Threatens Regional Security is republished with permission of Stratfor.

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Stratfor: The Geopolitics of the Syrian Civil War

By Reva Bhalla
Stratfor Global Intelligence

International diplomats will gather Jan. 22 in the Swiss town of Montreux to hammer out a settlement designed to end Syria’s three-year civil war. The conference, however, will be far removed from the reality on the Syrian battleground. Only days before the conference was scheduled to begin, a controversy threatened to engulf the proceedings after the United Nations invited Iran to participate, and Syrian rebel representatives successfully pushed for the offer to be rescinded. The inability to agree upon even who would be attending the negotiations is an inauspicious sign for a diplomatic effort that was never likely to prove very fruitful.

There are good reasons for deep skepticism. As Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s forces continue their fight to recover ground against the increasingly fratricidal rebel forces, there is little incentive for the regime, heavily backed by Iran and Russia, to concede power to its sectarian rivals at the behest of Washington, especially when the United States is already negotiating with Iran. Ali Haidar, an old classmate of al Assad’s from ophthalmology school and a long-standing member of Syria’s loyal opposition, now serving somewhat fittingly as Syria’s National Reconciliation Minister, captured the mood of the days leading up to the conference in saying “Don’t expect anything from Geneva II. Neither Geneva II, not Geneva III nor Geneva X will solve the Syrian crisis. The solution has begun and will continue through the military triumph of the state.”

Widespread pessimism over a functional power-sharing agreement to end the fighting has led to dramatic speculation that Syria is doomed either to break into sectarian statelets or, as Haidar articulated, revert to the status quo, with the Alawites regaining full control and the Sunnis forced back into submission. Both scenarios are flawed. Just as international mediators will fail to produce a power-sharing agreement at this stage of the crisis, and just as Syria’s ruling Alawite minority will face extraordinary difficulty in gluing the state back together, there is also no easy way to carve up Syria along sectarian lines. A closer inspection of the land reveals why.

The Geopolitics of Syria

Before the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement traced out an awkward assortment of nation-states in the Middle East, the name Syria was used by merchants, politicians and warriors alike to describe a stretch of land enclosed by the Taurus Mountains to the north, the Mediterranean to the west, the Sinai Peninsula to the south and the desert to the east. If you were sitting in 18th-century Paris contemplating the abundance of cotton and spices on the other side of the Mediterranean, you would know this region as the Levant — its Latin root “levare” meaning “to raise,” from where the sun would rise in the east. If you were an Arab merchant traveling the ancient caravan routes northward from the Hejaz, or modern-day Saudi Arabia, you would have referred to this territory in Arabic as Bilad al-Sham, or the “land to the left” of Islam’s holy sites on the Arabian Peninsula.

Whether viewed from the east or the west, the north or the south, Syria will always find itself in an unfortunate position surrounded by much stronger powers. The rich, fertile lands straddling Asia Minor and Europe around the Sea of Marmara to the north, the Nile River Valley to the south and the land nestled between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers to the east give rise to larger and more cohesive populations. When a power in control of these lands went roaming for riches farther afield, they inevitably came through Syria, where blood was spilled, races were intermixed, religions were negotiated and goods were traded at a frenzied and violent pace.

Consequently, only twice in Syria’s pre-modern history could this region claim to be a sovereign and independent state: during the Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty, based out of Antioch (the city of Antakya in modern-day Turkey) from 301 to 141 B.C., and during the Umayyad Caliphate, based out of Damascus, from A.D. 661 to 749. Syria was often divided or subsumed by its neighbors, too weak, internally fragmented and geographically vulnerable to stand its own ground. Such is the fate of a borderland.

Unlike the Nile Valley, Syria’s geography lacks a strong, natural binding element to overcome its internal fissures. An aspiring Syrian state not only needs a coastline to participate in sea trade and guard against sea powers, but also a cohesive hinterland to provide food and security. Syria’s rugged geography and patchwork of minority sects have generally been a major hindrance to this imperative.

Syria’s long and extremely narrow coastline abruptly transforms into a chain of mountains and plateaus. Throughout this western belt, pockets of minorities, including Alawites, Christians and Druze, have sequestered themselves, equally distrustful of outsiders from the west as they are of local rulers to the east, but ready to collaborate with whomever is most likely to guarantee their survival. The long mountain barrier then descends into broad plains along the Orontes River Valley and the Bekaa Valley before rising sharply once again along the Anti-Lebanon range, the Hawran plateau and the Jabal al-Druze mountains, providing more rugged terrain for persecuted sects to hunker down and arm themselves.

Just west of the Anti-Lebanon mountains, the Barada river flows eastward, giving rise to a desert oasis also known as Damascus. Protected from the coast by two mountain chains and long stretches of desert to the east, Damascus is essentially a fortress city and a logical place to make the capital. But for this fortress to be a capital worthy of regional respect, it needs a corridor running westward across the mountains to Mediterranean ports along the ancient Phoenician (or modern-day Lebanese) coast, as well as a northward route across the semi-arid steppes, through Homs, Hama and Idlib, to Aleppo.

The saddle of land from Damascus to the north is relatively fluid territory, making it an easier place for a homogenous population to coalesce than the rugged and often recalcitrant coastline. Aleppo sits alongside the mouth of the Fertile Crescent, a natural trade corridor between Anatolia to the north, the Mediterranean (via the Homs Gap) to the west and Damascus to the south. While Aleppo has historically been vulnerable to dominant Anatolian powers and can use its relative distance to rebel against Damascus from time to time, it remains a vital economic hub for any Damascene power.

Finally, jutting east from the Damascus core lie vast stretches of desert, forming a wasteland between Syria and Mesopotamia. This sparsely populated route has long been traveled by small, nomadic bands of men — from caravan traders to Bedouin tribesmen to contemporary jihadists — with few attachments and big ambitions.

Demography by Design

The demographics of this land have fluctuated greatly, depending on the prevailing power of the time. Christians, mostly Eastern Orthodox, formed the majority in Byzantine Syria. The Muslim conquests that followed led to a more diverse blend of religious sects, including a substantial Shiite population. Over time, a series of Sunni dynasties emanating from Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley and Asia Minor made Syria the Sunni-majority region that it is today. While Sunnis came to heavily populate the Arabian Desert and the saddle of land stretching from Damascus to Aleppo, the more protective coastal mountains were meanwhile peppered with a mosaic of minorities. The typically cult-like minorities forged fickle alliances and were always on the lookout for a more distant sea power they could align with to balance against the dominant Sunni forces of the hinterland.

The French, who had the strongest colonial links to the Levant, were masters of the minority manipulation strategy, but that approach also came with severe consequences that endure to this day. In Lebanon, the French favored Maronite Christians, who came to dominate Mediterranean sea trade out of bustling port cities such as Beirut at the expense of poorer Sunni Damascene merchants. France also plucked out a group known as the Nusayris living along the rugged Syrian coast, rebranded them as Alawites to give them religious credibility and stacked them in the Syrian military during the French mandate.

When the French mandate ended in 1943, the ingredients were already in place for major demographic and sectarian upheaval, culminating in the bloodless coup by Hafiz al Assad in 1970 that began the highly irregular Alawite reign over Syria. With the sectarian balance now tilting toward Iran and its sectarian allies, France’s current policy of supporting the Sunnis alongside Saudi Arabia against the mostly Alawite regime that the French helped create has a tinge of irony to it, but it fits within a classic balance-of-power mentality toward the region.

Setting Realistic Expectations

The delegates discussing Syria this week in Switzerland face a series of irreconcilable truths that stem from the geopolitics that have governed this land since antiquity.

The anomaly of a powerful Alawite minority ruling Syria is unlikely to be reversed anytime soon. Alawite forces are holding their ground in Damascus and steadily regaining territory in the suburbs. Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is meanwhile following its sectarian imperative to ensure the Alawites hold onto power by defending the traditional route from Damascus through the Bekaa Valley to the Lebanese coast, as well as the route through the Orontes River Valley to the Alawite Syrian coast. So long as the Alawites can hold Damascus, there is no chance of them sacrificing the economic heartland.

It is thus little wonder that Syrian forces loyal to al Assad have been on a northward offensive to retake control of Aleppo. Realizing the limits to their own military offensive, the regime will manipulate Western appeals for localized cease-fires, using a respite in the fighting to conserve its resources and make the delivery of food supplies to Aleppo contingent on rebel cooperation with the regime. In the far north and east, Kurdish forces are meanwhile busy trying to carve out their own autonomous zone against mounting constraints, but the Alawite regime is quite comfortable knowing that Kurdish separatism is more of a threat to Turkey than it is to Damascus at this point.

The fate of Lebanon and Syria remain deeply intertwined. In the mid-19th century, a bloody civil war between Druze and Maronites in the densely populated coastal mountains rapidly spread from Mount Lebanon to Damascus. This time around, the current is flowing in reverse, with the civil war in Syria now flooding Lebanon. As the Alawites continue to gain ground in Syria with aid from Iran and Hezbollah, a shadowy amalgam of Sunni jihadists backed by Saudi Arabia will become more active in Lebanon, leading to a steady stream of Sunni-Shiite attacks that will keep Mount Lebanon on edge.

The United States may be leading the ill-fated peace conference to reconstruct Syria, but it doesn’t really have any strong interests there. The depravity of the civil war itself compels the United States to show that it is doing something constructive, but Washington’s core interest for the region at the moment is to preserve and advance a negotiation with Iran. This goal sits at odds with a publicly stated U.S. goal to ensure al Assad is not part of a Syrian transition, and this point may well be one of many pieces in the developing bargain between Washington and Tehran. However, al Assad holds greater leverage so long as his main patron is in talks with the United States, the only sea power currently capable of projecting significant force in the eastern Mediterranean.

Egypt, the Nile Valley power to the south, is wholly ensnared in its own internal problems. So is Turkey, the main power to the north, which is now gripped in a public and vicious power struggle that leaves little room for Turkish adventurism in the Arab world. That leaves Saudi Arabia and Iran as the main regional powers able to directly manipulate the Syrian sectarian battleground. Iran, along with Russia, which shares an interest in preserving relations with the Alawites and thus its access to the Mediterranean, will hold the upper hand in this conflict, but the desert wasteland linking Syria to Mesopotamia is filled with bands of Sunni militants eager for Saudi backing to tie down their sectarian rivals.

And so the fighting will go on. Neither side of the sectarian divide is capable of overwhelming the other on the battlefield and both have regional backers that will fuel the fight. Iran will try to use its relative advantage to draw the Saudi royals into a negotiation, but a deeply unnerved Saudi Arabia will continue to resist as long as Sunni rebels still have enough fight in them to keep going. Fighters on the ground will regularly manipulate appeals for cease-fires spearheaded by largely disinterested outsiders, all while the war spreads deeper into Lebanon. The Syrian state will neither fragment and formalize into sectarian statelets nor reunify into a single nation under a political settlement imposed by a conference in Geneva. A mosaic of clan loyalties and the imperative to keep Damascus linked to its coastline and economic heartland — no matter what type of regime is in power in Syria — will hold this seething borderland together, however tenuously.
 
 
The Geopolitics of the Syrian Civil War is republished with permission of Stratfor.”
 
 

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Stratfor: The Israeli Periphery

By Reva Bhalla
Vice President of Global Affairs
Stratfor Global Intelligence

The state of Israel has a basic, inescapable geopolitical dilemma: Its national security requirements outstrip its military capabilities, making it dependent on an outside power. Not only must that power have significant military capabilities but it also must have enough common ground with Israel to align its foreign policy toward the Arab world with that of Israel’s. These are rather heavy requirements for such a small nation.

Security, in the Israeli sense, is thus often characterized in terms of survival. And for Israel to survive, it needs just the right blend of geopolitical circumstance, complex diplomatic arrangements and military preparedness to respond to potential threats nearby. Over the past 33 years, a sense of complacency settled over Israel and gave rise to various theories that it could finally overcome its dependency on outside powers. But a familiar sense of unease crept back into the Israeli psyche before any of those arguments could take root. A survey of the Israeli periphery in Egypt, Syria and Jordan explains why.

Maintaining the Sinai Buffer

To Israel’s southwest lies the Sinai Desert. This land is economically useless; only hardened Bedouins who sparsely populate the desert expanse consider the terrain suitable for living. This makes the Sinai an ideal buffer. Its economic lifelessness gives it extraordinary strategic importance in keeping the largest Arab army — Egypt’s — at a safe distance from Israeli population centers. It is the maintenance of this buffer that forms the foundation of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

The question percolating in Israeli policy circles is whether an Islamist Egypt will give the same level of importance to this strategic buffer. The answer to that question rests with the military, an institution that has formed the backbone of the Egyptian state since the rise of Gamel Abdul Nasser in 1952.

Achieving National Security in the Periphery

Over the past month, the military’s role in this new Muslim Brotherhood-run Egypt quietly revealed itself. The first test came in the form of the Gaza crisis, when the military quietly negotiated security guarantees with Israel while the Muslim Brotherhood basked in the diplomatic spotlight. The second test came when Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, attempted a unilateral push on a constitutional draft to institutionalize the Muslim Brotherhood’s hold on power.

The military bided its time, waiting for the protests to escalate to the point that rioters began targeting the presidential palace. By then, it was apparent that the police were not to be fully relied on to secure the streets. Morsi had no choice but to turn to the military for help, and that request revealed how indispensable the military is for Egyptian stability.

There will be plenty of noise and confusion in the lead-up to the Dec. 15 referendum as the secular, anti-Muslim Brotherhood civilian opposition continues its protests against Morsi. But filter through that noise, and one can see that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood appear to be adjusting slowly to a new order of Nasserite-Islamist rule. Unlike the 1979 peace treaty, this working arrangement between the military and the Islamists is alive and temperamental. Israel can find some comfort in seeing that the military remains central to the stability of the Egyptian state and will thus likely play a major role in protecting the Sinai buffer. However, merely observing this dance between the military and the Islamists from across the desert is enough to unnerve Israel and justify a more pre-emptive military posture on the border.

Defending Galilee

Israel lacks a good buffer to its north. The most natural, albeit imperfect, line of defense is the Litani River in modern-day Lebanon, with a second line of defense between Mount Hermon and the Sea of Galilee. Modern-day Israel encompasses this second barrier, a hilly area that has been the target of sporadic mortar shelling from Syrian government forces in pursuit of Sunni rebels.

Israel does not face a conventional military threat to its north, nor will it for some time. But the descent of the northern Levant into sectarian-driven, clan-based warfare presents a different kind of threat on Israel’s northern frontier.

It is only a matter of time before Alawite forces will have to retreat from Damascus and defend themselves against a Sunni majority from their coastal enclave. The conflict will necessarily subsume Lebanon, and the framework that Israel has relied on for decades to manage more sizable, unconventional threats like Hezbollah will come undone.

Somewhere along the way, there will be an internationally endorsed attempt to prop up a provisional government and maintain as much of the state machinery as possible to avoid the scenario of a post-U.S. invasion Iraq. But when decades-old, sectarian-driven vendettas are concerned, there is cause for pessimism in judging the viability of those plans. Israel cannot avoid thinking in terms of worst-case scenarios, so it will continue to reinforce its northern defenses ahead of more instability.

Neutralizing the Jordan River Valley

The status of the Jordan River Valley is essential to Israel’s sense of security to the east. So long as Israel can dominate the west bank of the river (the biblical area of Judea and Samaria, or the modern-day West Bank) then it can overwhelm indigenous forces from the desert farther east. To keep this arrangement intact, Israel will somehow attempt to politically neutralize whichever power controls the east bank of the Jordan River. In the post-Ottoman Middle East, this power takes the form of the Hashemite monarchs, who were transplanted from Arabia by the British.

The vulnerability that the Hashemites felt as a foreign entity in charge of economically lackluster terrain created ideal conditions for Israel to protect its eastern approach. The Hashemites had to devise complex political arrangements at home to sustain the monarchy in the face of left-wing Nasserist, Palestinian separatist and Islamist militant threats. The key to Hashemite survival was in aligning with the rural East Bank tribes, co-opting the Palestinians and cooperating with Israel in security issues to keep its western frontier calm. In short, the Hashemites were vulnerable enough for Israel to be considered a useful security partner but not so vulnerable that Israel couldn’t rely on the regime to protect its eastern approach. There was a level of tension that was necessary to maintain the strategic partnership, but that level of tension had to remain within a certain band.

That arrangement is now under considerable stress. The Hashemites are facing outright calls for deposition from the same tribal East Bankers, Palestinians and Islamists that for decades formed the foundation of the state. That is because the state itself is weakening under the pressure of high oil prices, now sapping at the subsidies that have been relied on to tame the population.

One could assume that Jordan’s oil-rich Gulf Arab neighbors would step in to defend one of the region’s remaining monarchies of the post-Ottoman order against a rising tide of Muslim Brotherhood-led Islamism with heavily subsidized energy sales. However, a still-bitter, age-old geopolitical rivalry between the Hejaz-hailing Hashemite dynasty and the Nejd-hailing Saudi dynasty over supremacy in Arabia is getting in the way. From across the Gulf, an emboldened Iran is already trying to exploit this Arab tension by cozying up to the Hashemites with subsidized energy sales to extend Tehran’s reach into the West Bank and eventually threaten Israel. Jordan has publicly warded off Iran’s offer, and significant logistical challenges may inhibit such cooperation. But ongoing negotiations between Iran’s allies in Baghdad and the Jordanian regime bear close watching as Jordan’s vulnerabilities continue to rise at home.

Powerful Partners Abroad

In this fluctuating strategic environment, Israel cannot afford to be isolated politically. Its need for a power patron will grow alongside its insecurities in its periphery. Israel’s current patron, the United States, is also grappling with the emerging Islamist order in the region. But in this new regional dynamic, the United States will eventually look past ideology in search of partners to help manage the region. As U.S.-Turkish relations in recent years and the United States’ recent interactions with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood reveal, it will be an awkward and bumpy experience while Washington tries to figure out who holds the reins of power and which brand of Islamists it can negotiate with amid messy power transitions. This is much harder for Israel to do independently by virtue of ideology, size and location.

Israel’s range of maneuver in foreign policy will narrow considerably as it becomes more dependent on external powers and as its interests clash with those of its patrons. Israel is in store for more discomfort in its decision-making and more creativity in its diplomacy. The irony is that while Israel is a western-style democracy, it was most secure in an age of Arab dictatorships. As those dictatorships give way to weak and in some cases crumbling states, Israeli survival instincts will again be put to the test.
 
The Israeli Periphery is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

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Stratfor: Egypt and the Strategic Balance

By George Friedman
Founder, Chief Executive Officer
Stratfor Global Intelligence

Immediately following the declaration of a cease-fire in Gaza, Egypt was plunged into a massive domestic crisis. Mohammed Morsi, elected in the first presidential election after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, passed a decree that would essentially neuter the independent judiciary by placing his executive powers above the high court and proposed changes to the constitution that would institutionalize the Muslim Brotherhood’s power. Following the decree, Morsi’s political opponents launched massive demonstrations that threw Egypt into domestic instability and uncertainty.

In the case of most countries, this would not be a matter of international note. But Egypt is not just another country. It is the largest Arab country and one that has been the traditional center of the Arab world. Equally important, if Egypt’s domestic changes translate into shifts in its foreign policy, it could affect the regional balance of power for decades to come.

Morsi’s Challenge to the Nasserite Model

The Arab Spring was seen by some observers to be a largely secular movement aimed at establishing constitutional democracy. The problem with this theory was that while the demonstrators might have had the strength to force an election, it was not certain that the secular constitutionalists would win it. They didn’t. Morsi is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and while there were numerous claims that he was a moderate member, it was simply not understood that he was a man of conviction and honor and that his membership in the Brotherhood was not casual or frivolous. His intention was to strengthen the role of Islam in Egypt and the control of the Muslim Brotherhood over the various arms of state. His rhetoric, speed and degree of Islamism might have been less extreme than others, but his intent was clear.

The move on the judiciary signaled his intent to begin consolidating power. It galvanized opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, which included secular constitutionalists, Copts and other groups who formed a coalition that was prepared to take to the streets to oppose his move. What it did not include, or at least did not visibly include through this point, was the Egyptian military, which refused to be drawn in on either side.

The Egyptian military, led by a young army officer named Gamal Abdel Nasser, founded the modern Egyptian state when it overthrew the British-supported monarchy in the 1950s. It created a state that was then secular, authoritarian and socialist. It aligned Egypt with the Soviet Union and against the United States through the 1970s. After the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was later assassinated by Islamists, shifted Egypt into an alliance with the United States and signed a peace treaty with Israel.

This treaty was the foundation of the regional balance of power until now. The decision to end the state of war with Israel and use Sinai as a demilitarized buffer between the two countries eliminated the threat of nation-to-nation war between Arabs and Israel. Egypt was the most powerful Arab country and its hostility to Israel represented Israel’s greatest threat. By withdrawing from confrontation, the threat to Israel declined dramatically. Jordan, Syria and Lebanon did not represent a significant threat to Israel and could not launch a war that threatened Israel’s survival.

Egypt’s decision to align with the United States and make peace with Israel shaped the regional balance of power in other ways. Syria could no longer depend on Egypt, and ultimately turned to Iran for support. The Arab monarchies that had been under political and at times military pressure from Egypt were relieved of the threat, and the Soviets lost the Egyptian bases that had given them a foothold in the Mediterranean.

The fundamental question in Egypt is whether the election of Morsi represented the end of the regime founded by Nasser or was simply a passing event, with power still in the hands of the military. Morsi has made a move designed to demonstrate his power and to change the way the Egyptian judiciary works. The uprising against this move, while significant, did not seem to have the weight needed either to force Morsi to do more than modify his tactics a bit or to threaten his government. Therefore, it all hangs on whether the military is capable of or interested in intervening.

It is ironic that the demands of the liberals in Egypt should depend on military intervention, and it is unlikely that they will get what they want from the military if it does intervene. But what is clear is that the Muslim Brotherhood is the dominant force in Egypt, that Morsi is very much a member of the Brotherhood and while his tactics might be more deliberate and circumspect than more radical members might want, it is still headed in the same direction.

For the moment, the protesters in the streets do not appear able to force Morsi’s hand, and the military doesn’t seem likely to intervene. If that is true, then Egypt has entered a new domestic era with a range of open foreign policy issues. The first is the future of the treaty with Israel. The issue is not the treaty per se, but the maintenance of Sinai as a buffer. One of the consequences of Mubarak’s ouster has been the partial remilitarization of Sinai by Egypt, with Israel’s uneasy support. Sinai has become a zone in which Islamist radicals are active and launch operations against Israel. The Egyptian military has moved into Sinai to suppress them, which Israel obviously supports. But the Egyptians have also established the principle that while Sinai may be a notional buffer zone, in practice the Egyptian military can be present in and responsible for it. The intent might be one that Israel supports but the outcome could be a Sinai remilitarized by the Egyptians.

A remilitarized Sinai would change the strategic balance, but it would only be the beginning. The Egyptian army uses American equipment and depends on the United States for spare parts, maintenance and training. Its equipment is relatively old and it has not been tested in combat for nearly 40 years. Even if the Egyptian military was in Sinai, it would not pose a significant conventional military threat to Israel in its current form. These things can change, however. The transformation of the Egyptian army between 1967 and 1973 was impressive. The difference is that Egypt had a patron in the Soviet Union then that was prepared to underwrite the cost of the transformation. Today, there is no global power, except the United States, that would be capable of dramatically and systematically upgrading the Egyptian military and financially supporting the country overall. Still, if the Morsi government succeeds in institutionalizing its power and uses that power to change the dynamic of the Sinai buffer, Israel will lose several layers of security.

A New Regional Alignment?

A look at the rest of the region shows that Egypt is by no means the only country of concern for Israel. Syria, for example, has an uprising that, in simple terms, largely consists of Sunnis, many of which are Islamists. That in itself represents a threat to Israel, particularly if the relationship between Syria and Egypt were revived. There is an ideological kinship, and just as Nasserism had an evangelical dimension, wanting to spread pan-Arab ideology throughout the region, the Muslim Brotherhood has one too. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is also the most organized and coherent opposition group in Syria. As Morsi consolidates his power in Egypt, his willingness to engage in foreign adventures, or at least covert support, for like-minded insurgents and regimes could very well increase. At a minimum Israel would have to take this seriously. Similarly, where Gaza was contained not only by Israel but also by pre-Morsi Egypt, Morsi might choose to dramatically change Egypt’s Gaza policy.

Morsi’s rise opens other possibilities as well. Turkey’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party is also engaged in a careful process of reintroducing Islam into a state that was militantly secular. There are fundamental differences between Egypt and Turkey, but there is also much in common. Turkey and Egypt are now engaged in parallel processes designed to create modern countries that recognize their Islamic roots. A Turkish-Egyptian relationship would both undergird the Egyptian regime and create a regional force that could shape the Eastern Mediterranean.

This would, of course, affect American strategy, which as we have said in the past, is now rapidly moving away from excessive involvement in the Middle East. It is not clear how far Morsi would go in breaking with the United States or whether the military would or could draw a line at that point. Egypt is barely skirting economic disaster at the moment because it is receiving a broad range of financial aid from the West. Moving away from the United States would presumably go well beyond military aid and affect these other types of economic assistance.

The fact is that as Egypt gradually evolves, its relationship with the United States might also change. The United States’ relationship with Turkey has changed but has not broken since the Justice and Development Party came to power, with Turkey following a more independent direction. If a similar process occurred in Egypt, the United States would find itself in a very different position in the Eastern Mediterranean, one in which its only ally was Israel, and its relationship with Israel might alienate the critical Turkey-Egypt bloc.

Prior to 1967, the United States was careful not be become overly involved in protecting Israel, leaving that to France. Assuming that this speculation about a shift in Egypt’s strategic posture came to pass, Israel would not be in serious military danger for quite a while, and the United States could view its support to Israel as flexible. The United States could conceivably choose to distance itself from Israel in order to maintain its relationships with Egypt and Turkey. A strategy of selective disengagement and redefined engagement, which appears to be under way in the United States now, could alter relations with Israel.

From an Israeli point of view — it should be remembered that Israel is the dominant power in the region — a shift in Egypt would create significant uncertainty on its frontier. It would now face uncertainty in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, and while unlikely, the possibility of uncertainty in Jordan. Where previously it faced hostile powers with substantial military capabilities, it would now face weaker powers that are less predictable. However, in an age when Israel’s primary concern is with terrorist actions and uprisings in Gaza and the West Bank, this band of uncertainty would be an incubator of such actions.

The worst-case scenario is the re-emergence of confrontational states on its border, armed with conventional weapons and capable of challenging the Israeli military. That is not an inconceivable evolution but it is not a threat in the near term. The next-worst-case scenario would be the creation of multiple states on Israel’s border prepared to sponsor or at least tolerate Islamist attacks on Israel from their territory and to underwrite uprisings among the Palestinians. The effect would be an extended, wearying test of Israel’s ability to deal with unremitting low-intensity threats from multiple directions.

Conventional war is hard to imagine. It is less difficult to imagine a shift in Egyptian policy that creates a sustained low-intensity conflict not only south of Israel, but also along the entire Israeli periphery as Egypt’s influence is felt. It is fairly clear that Israel has not absorbed the significance of this change or how it will respond. It may well not have a response. But if that were the case, then Israel’s conventional dominance would no longer define the balance of power. And the United States is entering a period of unpredictability in its foreign policy. The entire region becomes unpredictable.

It is not clear that any of this will come to pass. Morsi might not be able to impose his will in the country. He may not survive politically. The Egyptian military might intervene directly or indirectly. There are several hurdles for Morsi to overcome before he controls the country, and his timeline might be extended for implementing changes. But for the moment, Morsi appears in charge, he seems to be weathering the challenges and the army has not moved. Therefore, considering the strategic consequences is appropriate, and those strategic consequences appear substantial.

Egypt and the Strategic Balance is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

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