The enabling of ‘useful proxies’ becomes ‘la mode’

Conflicts Forum's Weekly Comment, 26 June - 3 July 2015 

In our last Weekly Comment, we quoted the US Defence Secretary saying: "That is an important part of our strategy now on the ground: If that government [Baghdad] can't do what it's supposed to do, then we will still try to enable local ground forces, if they're willing to partner with us - to keep stability in Iraq; but there will not be a single state of Iraq."  We then pointed to the US ‘enabling’ of the YPG (an affiliate of the PKK) in Syria, as one example of this US strategy. And we warned that the mere threat of the YPG establishment of a Kurdish belt across northern Syria would roil the region politically. 

Sure enough, the Turkish government responded in a heightened fashion by immediately ordering a division of regular troops to incurse across the border into Syria, in order to protect the Jarabulus enclave from any YPG takeover. (It is under al-Nusra control).  Such an incursion (an act of war in legal terms), would undoubtedly have been met by escalation from Syria’s allies. In the event, the Turkish army declined the governmental order (on grounds that the present Turkish government is a caretaker one – following the mixed election outcome).

On Thursday, the Daily Telegraph (a British newspaper) reported that “high level officials from the Gulf and other states” had told the Telegraph that “The United States has blocked attempts by its Middle East allies to fly heavy weapons directly to the Kurds [in Iraq]; but that the latter now say “They are willing to “go it alone” in supplying heavy weapons to the Kurds, even if means defying the Iraqi authorities and their American backers, who demand all weapons be channeled through Baghdad”.

Ostensibly the object of this further Kurdish enabling is stated (by the Telegraph) to be so that the Kurds may fight ISIS.  But further on in the report, it is clear that this Gulf arming, is to be the arming of the Peshmerga. Let us be very clear then: this has little to do with ISIS (the Telegraph is guilty of some guile here); but rather, it is all about strengthening a weakened Barzani (who is revealed in leaked Saudi diplomatic cables to be a close Saudi ally, as well as being an ally of Israel, too) in his struggle against other Kurdish factions (including the YPG, which is hostile to Barzani, who are on the ascendent, and who remain affiliated with President Assad).

The Gulf states are jumping on a bandwagon - the ‘enablement bandwagon’ – and their true intent is explicit: to by-pass Baghdad, and to undermine it.  To ‘frack’ Iraq as well as Syria, in short.

And this is not but one example of ‘enabling’ that will have the result of fracturing either the Iraqi or Syrian state. There are others: Jordan also is talking about arming (with Saudi financing, according to Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 29 June) the Sunni tribes in Anbar province of Iraq (and of using al-Nusra (al-Qaida) as a ‘security zone’ in Dera’a in southern Syria too). 

Again, this initiative ostensibly is being proposed for the purpose of combatting ISIS. But were it to be implemented, it would also further institutionalise a relationship between Jordanian and Anbar Sunni tribes that would create a new centre of power in Iraq at odds with any Shi’i-led government (the Shi’i form the absolute majority in Iraq – 60%-70%).  There is much discussion of the Jordanian state “expanding” into Sunni Arab areas of Iraq and Syria, to become a new seat of Sunni power: one Jordanian commentator wrote: "Jordan, like other countries in the region, is threatened with sabotage and fragmentation … or it could declare itself as an incubator for Arab Sunnis. Either we expand under a new formula or cease to exist!” European states have in the past toyed with the idea of such a tie-up – with the express purpose of ‘balancing’ Iranian influence in Iraq.

Although Jordanian officials claim that they do not wish to antagonize Baghdad, nonetheless Jordan – in common with Gulf states – views Baghdad “as an expression of the abhorrent sectarianism that governs the elites and the current administration [in Iraq]” (Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 20 June).

But as Foreign Policy warned recently:

“The decision to hand weapons over to the Sunni militias also poses risks. Before directly arming more ethnic- or sectarian-aligned militias, both U.S. policymakers and the public should have a deeper understanding of our potential allies past, and their possible future interests. And what the unintended consequences of arming these Sunni militias might be.

Newly declassified documents from the Islamic State’s predecessor, captured during a U.S.-Iraqi raid in 2010 and published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, suggest that some of Iraq¹s most prominent Sunni politicians collaborated with the Islamic State’s predecessor in 2009, when the group faced its darkest hour. Some of these senior figures may have worked with the Islamic State to benefit themselves, some to benefit the Sunnis, and some to weaken the hand of the Kurds in Iraq’s ethnically mixed areas in the country’s north. While the threat of the Islamic State has moved these dynamics to the back burner today, they will likely re-emerge if, and when the security environment improves. And now some of these same politicians are lobbying the United States to send money and weapons to the militias from their territories…

Conventional wisdom says that the Islamic State’s place in Iraq’s sectarian political strife rose out of the disarray that followed the U.S. withdrawal. It was at that moment that Iraq’s Sunnis were left to fend for themselves against the domineering, Shiite-oriented central government. The Islamic State’s resurgence in Iraq in 2013 and 2014 came at a time when the country’s Sunni minority was ripe to accept the group [ISIS], as a bulwark against political marginalization and crackdowns at the hands of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki¹s government.

In this telling, which has dominated U.S. media and policy circles, Maliki and his Shiite allies in the Iraqi government bear the brunt of the blame for inciting the renewed sectarian tensions that enabled the Islamic State to re-emerge and unleash the brutal campaign that has arrested the world’s attention.

The new documents published by the CTC suggest the need to approach this conventional wisdom with caution. They have important implications for understanding Iraq’s sectarian schism and for informing the ongoing policy debate on how to stabilize the war-torn country”.

In sum, the Gulf and its allies seem intent on literally deconstructing key parts of the region. And to be fair, the US and its allies are, to a certain, limited extent, warning them against such actions (i.e. attempting to block the by-passing of Baghdad through arming the Kurds); but America, Europe and Israel must share in the responsibility - and blame - too. The southern control room in north Amman ‘managing’, paying, and arming the al-Qae’da/An-Nusra dominated forces, ‘the army of Hermon’, in Syria comprises American and British membership (as well as having Israel, “hovering behind the scenes”).  For how long can European states prosecute Muslims who are European citizens (sending them to prison for life) for aiding al-Qae’da, whilst doing the same themselves?

In a sense, the Gulf and its allies (with Israel in the background) seem intent on completing the 1997 strategy of  A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm”, drafted by American neo-cons in the wake of the Israeli Labour Party’s defeat in 1996, and Likud’s and Netanyahu’s accession to power that year. That document proposed “…a clean break from the slogan, [seeking] ‘comprehensive peace’ (the Labour Party’s objective) to a traditional concept of strategy based on balance of power.”

Pursuit of comprehensive peace with all of Israel’s neighbours was to be abandoned for selective peace with some neighbours (namely Jordan and Turkey) and implacable antagonism toward others (namely Iraq, Syria, and Iran). The weight of its strategic allies would tip the balance of power in favour of Israel, which could then use that leverage to topple the regimes of its strategic adversaries by using covertly managed “proxy forces” and “the principle of pre-emption.” Through such a “redrawing of the map of the Middle East,” Israel would “shape the regional environment,” and thus, “Israel will not only contain its foes; it will transcend them”, the authors claimed

While reference is often made to “A Clean Break” as a prologue to the Iraq War, it is often forgotten that the document proposed regime change in Iraq primarily as a “means” of “weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria.” Overthrowing Saddam in Iraq was merely a stepping stone to “foiling” and ultimately overthrowing President Assad in neighbouring Syria. As US strategic analyst Pat Buchanan put it: “In the Perle-Feith-Wurmser strategy, Israel’s enemy remains Syria, but the road to Damascus runs through Baghdad.”

By 2007 (i.e. in the wake of the 2006 war, in which Israel failed in its attempt to de-fang Hesballah, David Wurmser, the principal author of A Clean Break was quoted in the Daily Telegraph as saying:

“We need to do everything possible to destabilise the Syrian regime and exploit every single moment they strategically overstep, said David Wurmser, who recently resigned after four years as Vice President Dick Cheney’s Middle East adviser.

“That would include the willingness to escalate as far as we need to go to topple the regime if necessary.” He said that an end to Baathist rule in Damascus could trigger a domino effect that would then bring down the Teheran regime.’

It seems that Saudi Arabia and its allies (with Israel always in the background), largely have taken over the role of trying to complete the Clean Break strategy. Whilst President Obama has found it a political necessity to acquiesce in this project to a certain degree - whilst keeping to his ‘red line’ of avoiding a decisive new US military entanglement in the Middle East.

It may be obvious why Israel should want Syria, Iraq, Iran (and Lebanon) fragmented into sectarian, tribal and ethnic statelets; but why should the Gulf States and their regional allies be so committed to deconstructing major elements of the Arab world. Aijaz Ahmad, the eminent Indian academic and commentator put it succinctly (in a 2011) interview:

“Syria is the last remaining representative of Arab nationalism as it used to be understood historically.  It still calls itself socialist.  Even though it has implemented a great deal of neoliberal reform, the state sector is still dominant. It bans, literally bans, religion from politics.  It will not recognize the existence of religious political parties.  It is the historic opponent of Israel for a variety of reasons … Secular, democratic -- well, not terribly democratic, but secular Arab nationalist; secular, republican, anti-Zionist, anti-monarchical nationalism ([and] in its social economic policy quite progressive -- it destroyed feudal remnants in Egypt for example).

Syria is the last remaining representative of that.  So, the Saudis, the Qataris, the monarchical Gulf Council, all these people -- their hatred of Syria comes from that old place [i.e. the reaction against the aforementioned current of nationalism] and then [the animosity] gets connected with Syria's more recent alignment with Iran …

Since the days of the Truman Doctrine, Islam has been looked at [by the Sunni world] as a great bulwark against all of these insurgent [nationalist and communist] forces in this part of the world.  One of the prominent leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and a whole gang of them were welcomed to the White House by Eisenhower.  It goes back that far, this alignment with the Muslim Brotherhood … And it is that same process that brought jihadis to Afghanistan.  Islam will fight against Arab nationalism, against communism …  [Imperialists] having defeated them in one place after another [by means of that alignment], Syria is perceived as that [i.e. the last of the kind that is yet to be defeated].

Yes, there were disgruntled elements in Libya, in Syria, for a variety of reasons.  But, in Syria certainly, they were very small.  The Muslim Brotherhood historically had a very small base.  They were quite powerful in the sixties and the early seventies …  But the regime contained them very well.  So, what you had in Syria was the Muslim Brotherhood inside the country and a whole lot of exiled intellectuals in Paris, mainly in Paris, and elsewhere …  The Americans have known from the beginning, the West has known from the beginning, that their only chance in Syria would be if they could establish a so-called "liberated zone," preferably on the border with Turkey, which could become a kind of Benghazi … which could become a ground for intervention. 

They have known that there would not be a popular uprising of the kind that you had in Egypt.  In Syria there are too many forces afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Syria is a genuinely secular country, by and large – [and] 25% of the population consists of various kinds of minorities.  The fact that the Assad regime absolutely insists on secularism, gives that 25% a great sense of security in the state.  So, there were no grounds that they could use.  This is very much manufactured -- very much manufactured from the beginning”.