What lies behind the “Islamic State” threat
What lies behind the “Islamic State” threat
Turning Engagement Into a Regional Dialogue Mechanism in the Middle East
Turning Engagement Into a Regional Dialogue Mechanism in the Middle East

What lies behind the “Islamic State” threat

This interview with Crisis Group’s Project Director for Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria and Senior Middle East and North Africa Adviser, Peter Harling, is translated and republished here with permission from Le Point.

Going beyond the clichés, Peter Harling shares some disturbing truths on the origins and the rise of the Islamic State. The horrific murder of hostage Hervé Gourdel in the name of the Islamic State organisation has focused France’s attention on the jihadi group and reinforced President François Hollande’s determination to strike the group’s positions in Iraq.

But what really is this ultra-radical group? Who contributed to its ascension? Why does it continue to attract disciples around the world? And how can it be stopped? International Crisis Group’s project director for Iraq, Lebanon and Syria and senior Middle East and North Africa adviser, Peter Harling, who lived and worked in Iraq for seven years, reveals to Le Point some disturbing truths on the war against the Islamic State.

Le Point: Is François Hollande’s determination to strike IS in Iraq a good strategy?

Peter Harling: The question is not one of François Hollande’s determination, but of the nature of the enemy and the relevance of the means used to combat it. To announce that we will avenge in Iraq or elsewhere a murder that took place in Algeria falls into the category of political agitation and public relations. It doesn’t reflect strategic thinking.

However, this group has called for the killing of the “bad and dirty French”.

In the West, Daesh (Peter Harling uses this acronym, also employed by the French government, to designate the IS organisation) evokes the image of terrorists genetically programed to be evil. This allows us to close our eyes to politics, as if there was some particular type of person that had to be destroyed in order to solve the problem. Thus the predominance of military solutions. However, Daesh attracts people who cannot be defined with a strict typology, and the West’s response with airstrikes only increased Daesh’s ability to mobilise.

What do you mean by that?

Some disoriented Europeans, tempted by ultra-violence, find in the organisation’s crimes and the way they are staged a sort of ideal of radicalism and virility. In Syria or Iraq, by contrast, Daesh can be perceived simply as an ally of necessity, essential for responding to the aggressions of a sectarian government perceived as an Iranian- backed occupation force. Daesh also expresses diverse and profound frustrations regarding the existing order, at a point when there is no existing alternative: secular elites are impotent, “mainstream” Islamic trends have failed and fragile government structures have been ripped apart by predatory behaviors serving individual or nepotistic interests.

How do Sunni populations perceive this organisation: as a terrorist group or a liberator from the Shiite yoke?

Both! The Sunni Arab world is in an existential crisis. So far, the region has, so to speak, failed to exit from an era of decline that began under the domination of the Ottoman Empire and continued through colonialism, multiple Western intrusions and the trauma of the creation of Israel. The great independence movements, which started as powerful sources of inspiration, quickly degenerated into autocratic kleptomaniac clans. Their Islamist alternatives, offering attractive visions of the future, were utopian and failed miserably when put into practice.

The Arab uprisings – a flashing, beautiful moment – were meant to offer redemption and a new beginning to the region but for now have turned into a nightmare. Imagine the mixed feelings of confusion, failure, bitterness, injustice and humiliation that followed. Add the unthinkable violence applied by the Syrian regime, without any serious reaction from the West; the depth and breadth of the humanitarian crisis that ensued; the upsetting rise of reactionary trends in Egypt, in the Gulf and elsewhere. Finally, add to all of this the constant provocations coming from the Shiite world, which is enough in the ascendant to be experiencing a form of hubris. In sum, very few people like Daesh, but there is nothing else.

How did the organisation manage to take possession of large parts of territory?

Daesh is filling a void. It imposed itself in the north east of Syria essentially because the Syrian regime had withdrawn from this largely barren region. It was able to take control of Mosul, in Iraq, simply because the authorities were present only through local elites sold-out to Baghdad and a sectarian, cynical and incompetent security apparatus. Daesh recently penetrated into the north of Lebanon, in a particularly neglected fringe of the country.

However, Daesh does not use its limited resources to try to expand its territory in zones where its occupation is doomed to fail, that is, zones where there can be an active resistance. That is why it has always been absurd to think that the organisation would march to Baghdad, which is well defended by Shiite militias, or take over Erbil, a fiefdom of Kurdish factions. In the same way, Daesh does not seriously attack the Syrian regime. On the contrary, it focuses on imposing its hegemony in those zones it is capable of dominating, decimating any potential Sunni Arab competitor.

Who is to blame for the rise of IS?

Everyone participated in it: the Iranians, by supporting the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, whose explicit aim was to radicalise Sunnis in order to discredit and to combat any opposition in the name of a so-called “war against terrorism”, and then by bankrolling a Shiite jihad which could only reinforce its Sunni counterpart. The West, by encouraging a Syrian revolt to which we offered solidarity and support, but which we mostly left on its own to face extreme forms and levels of violence. Turkey, which until recently had its borders wide open to anyone claiming to be going to fight Bashar al-Assad. The Gulf monarchies, which financed the Syrian opposition in an indecisive, confused and reckless way, which indirectly benefited the jihadis.

Did the massacre of the Christian and Yazidi minorities in Iraq motivate the American decision to intervene?

Daesh kills people at every turn. Its fighters also proceeded to mass executions among Sunni tribes, and the world did not protest. They beheaded Alawite fighters. And we should mention the many horrors committed by other actors who do not pay for their crimes: the Syrian regime caused the death by malnutrition of many civilians, including children, in neighbourhoods surrounded and besieged to achieve that very end. I don’t really see how air campaigns against Daesh, independent of policies to deal with the other terrible sufferings endured by people across the region, are going to help secure the future of, specifically, Christians or Yazidis.

How then can we put an end to the Islamic State?

The first thing to do would be to break with the time frame imposed by the media. As it is, we strike abruptly and in a rush against a threat that we have watched grow – and have otherwise ignored – for over two years. What precipitated the intervention was media attention to some striking themes: the martyrdom of Eastern Christians; extreme barbarism as exemplified by the beheading of Westerners; and the “war against terrorism”. This is what triggered a military counter-attack. It therefore falls, in my opinion, under the rubric of “ritualisation” of the conflict: just as Daesh is making a spectacle of itself, aided by a formidable and perverse talent for publicity, so we are putting on a performance of our own, presenting our actions as part of an eschatological struggle against evil.

Yet Daesh is an enemy at once limited in size, deeply in synch with the regional psyche and interconnected with the many profound issues at stake in conflicts in the region. Time, skillfulness, considerable means and real strategic reflexion are all going to be needed in order to fight this organisation. Why rush and multiply mistakes that will simply aggravate the situation? To take only one example: at the very moment that we allegedly fly to the rescue of Christians in Iraq, using some very expensive weaponry, the UN announces it will reduce the food aid provided to Syrian refugees. How do we expect this tormented population, already robbed of all they own, to interpret such a decision?

Turning Engagement Into a Regional Dialogue Mechanism in the Middle East

Originally published in World Politics Review 

Dialogue seems to be in vogue in today’s Middle East. Iranian and American negotiators are in Vienna to find a way to restore the 2015 nuclear deal that President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. Iranian and Saudi security officials recently held meetings in Baghdad to mend their relations. and United Nations-led efforts to deescalate and end the war in Yemen are picking up steam. While these processes remain fragile, they present an important opportunity to establish a broader regional dialogue that aims to lessen tensions by opening new channels of communication, the time for which is ripe.

Part of the backdrop to these conciliatory efforts is the failure of former President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, the cornerstone of his attempt to extract better terms from Iran on the nuclear front and reduce its regional influence. This campaign saw the reimposition of wide-ranging sanctions on Iran beginning in 2018, along with an increase in bellicose rhetoric and military posturing from the United States and its allies. The policy flopped: Iran did not return to the negotiating table; its nuclear and missile programs grew exponentially; and it became more aggressive in the region and more repressive at home.

The Gulf Arab states, which threw their full support behind “maximum pressure,” paid a hefty price for its failure. If Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were hoping that the approach would clip Iran’s nuclear wings and constrain its power-projection across the Middle East, it instead emboldened Iran to target their economic interests at a time when both countries crave stability—the UAE, as it looks to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its unification and host the World Expo; and Saudi Arabia, as it deals with the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with long-declining government revenues. The Gulf states’ allegations of Iranian influence in Yemen have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, increasingly pushing the Houthi rebels into Iran’s arms and prompting them to strike directly at Saudi Arabia.

This backlash occurred just as doubts about Washington’s reliability as a security guarantor reached new heights. The Gulf states believe that the U.S. is withdrawing from the region, a fear that President Joe Biden’s policies and rhetoric have done little to assuage. Rather, much like his former boss, Barack Obama, Biden has made clear his desire to end the Yemen war and resolve the Iranian nuclear file in part so as to focus on relations with other great powers, including what he recently called the “long-term strategic competition with China.”

For its part, though Iran did not knuckle under to “maximum pressure,” it continues to pay a ruinous economic cost as a result of U.S. sanctions, coming on top of its own economic mismanagement. It watched as U.S. and European military forces deployed to the Gulf region in increased numbers and certain Gulf countries normalized ties with its arch-rival Israel, sharpening Tehran’s sense of encirclement by the U.S. and its allies.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 ripped through the region, serving as a reminder to both sides of the Persian Gulf that geography means shared destiny. Notably, some of Iran’s Gulf Arab rivals helped it battle the virus early in the pandemic.

Clearly, the animosity between Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbors is a lose-lose proposition. This realization—combined first with the understanding that a pandemic knows no borders and then the arrival of the Biden administration—has created an urgent and apparently mutual desire to deescalate tensions and engage diplomatically. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which traditionally opposed dialogue with Iran unless it unilaterally pulled out of what they see as strictly Arab affairs, have dropped that precondition. All of this opens a window of opportunity to start an inclusive regional dialogue—one that is not contingent on progress on the nuclear front.

Dialogue in the region should build on recent deescalation and aid efforts, and on the changing calculus following Biden’s inauguration. There is no silver bullet for resolving the decades of mistrust, tension and conflict in the Gulf. To be most effective, conflict prevention and resolution should take the form of multiple parallel tracks, where progress can be made at different paces and independently of the others, but leading to the same, still distant, objective: an inclusive regional security arrangement in which all states—regardless of size, military prowess, alliances and political structure—can feel secure and prosper.

None of the regional tensions will be resolved easily, but the opening of new communication channels can, at a minimum, help prevent incidents from spinning out of control.

To begin with, though, goals should be limited.

The best way to jump-start the process is for a core group of European countries, with U.N. and European Union support, to dispatch special envoys to the region for discreet engagement with the so-called 6+2 countries—the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, plus Iran and Iraq—and other stakeholders, including external actors like the U.S., Russia and China. The U.N. and EU envoys would explore the possibilities for dialogue and assess the obstacles to progress in order to lay the groundwork for a regional dialogue. Securing the Biden administration’s blessing in some form would be key to their success.

Then would come confidence-building. The first step would be for all sides to cease their hostile rhetoric and propaganda in their respective state media outlets, ending the insults and mutual demonization that have long hampered friendlier ties. Both sides should also facilitate religious pilgrimage. Saudi Arabia already took steps to ease the participation of Iranian pilgrims in the annual hajj. In return, Tehran could reestablish direct flights from Saudi Arabia to the holy city of Mashhad, in northeastern Iran, to enable Gulf states’ pilgrims to visit the shrines there.

Both sides should also agree to end their support for the other’s dissidents, based on the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. Eventually, Iran and Saudi Arabia should reestablish full diplomatic relations, and the UAE should send its ambassador and diplomats back to Tehran, restoring the full diplomatic ties that were downgraded in 2016.

The European-led, region-owned dialogue should then work toward an agreement on a statement of principles. These could include commitments to refrain from the use or threat of force toward one another; reaffirmations of mutual respect for independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all the countries concerned; and pledges of non-interference in one another’s internal affairs.

The dialogue should also discuss the establishment of a military-to-military deconfliction mechanism between Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbors. The adversaries’ current inability to communicate instantly during military incidents opens the door to miscalculation and, as a result, escalation, something that has been avoided so far, in large part by luck. A hotline for urgent communication between navies and an ad hoc crisis cell—composed of the principal actors’ representatives and a U.N. observer, based in a relatively neutral state, like Oman or Kuwait—could help defuse tensions before they escalate. Down the line, discussions could focus on ways to deescalate through shared security mechanisms, such as prior notification of troop movements and military exercises.

At the same time, the dialogue should discuss ways to expand people-to-people ties and cooperation on non-security issues of common interest. These could include public health, educational exchange, contacts among women entrepreneurs, environmental conservation and counternarcotics. Such confidence-building measures will help cement the dialogue.

None of the regional tensions will be resolved easily. Efforts to end Yemen’s war and manage regional competition in places like Iraq and Lebanon should continue alongside the dialogue; progress in Gulf talks might help move such efforts along. Still, the recent transition of power in Washington offers a fresh opportunity to reduce risk and begin to calm things down. Dialogue and the opening of new communication channels can, at a minimum, help prevent incidents from spinning out of control. The moment has come to get the ball rolling.