Kyle W. Orton’s Syrian Strategy #mustread

Middle East Analyst Kyle W. Orton was recently appointed as an Associate Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. The HJS is a British based think tank that aims to “fight for the principles and alliances which keep societies free–working across borders and party lines to combat extremism, advance democracy and real human rights, and make a stand in an increasingly uncertain world”. The HJS has its critics, but their statement suggests a post-ideological approach. Christopher Hitchens (drinks be upon him) claimed to have gone through such a transformation in his support for the 2003 Iraq War. Hitchens was accused by many of flip flopping, from extreme leftist to neo-con hawk, most inarticulately by George Galloway–who incidentally has a shameful record of praise for the [Assad] Regime–in their infamous 2005 debate. Hitchens’ rebuttal speaks to the post-ideological point “yes it’s true I was an opponent of the last Gulf war [1991]…I don’t know why anyone thinks that is a point against me…I wouldn’t have been invited here if it wasn’t known that I was probably mistaken…I began a process of re-examination of which I can’t really say, or be expected to say, I am ashamed”. Rather than viewing everything through ideological lenses and espousing mass produced positions labelled: left or right, it’s best to develop the ability to (re)examine, and adapt to, information objectively, it gives one a far more comprehensive and illuminating account of the challenges facing civilization. It is in this post-ideological spirit Orton’s appointment with HJS–someone whose resume also includes contributor to Left Foot Forward “Britain’s No.1 left wing blog”–should be viewed by its critics.

Orton’s first paper for the HJS: Destroying Islamic State, Defeating Assad: A Strategy for Syria, is a fantastic read. I won’t replicate Orton’s strategies. I will simply comment on what I feel about the contents of the paper. Firstly the nuances and increasing complexity of the Syrian civil war, and IS’ growth and exportation of jihad to its neighbors and Western societies, as evidenced by the attacks in Paris in November, and in San Bernardino California this week, makes a strategy for Syria quite urgent. Orton writes with clarity and conciseness in his paper and demonstrates just how difficult a project that is, and for me, it shows just how inept the West has been with its foreign policy, particularly the Obama administration, and how cunning Syria, Iran, Russia, IS and others have been in setting the stage for this conflict and responding to Western ineptitude. From the foolhardy concentration on IS in Iraq instead of Syria, arguably IS’ most valuable territory, to the failure to support the removal of Bashar al-Assad–before rebel groups became largely displaced and/or infected by Islamist groups–helping IS’ propaganda ring true in the ears of Sunni Muslims. Orton makes clear whatever the plan for IS, the regime must end because that end will aid the ideological fight against IS’ propaganda. The complications in ending, both the regime and IS, are plentiful. Some are touched on in Orton’s paper, others I will mention here.

Orton does a great job describing the scandalous–and to my mind largely unknown–mutually beneficial relationship, between the regime and IS. Orton describes how the regime sabotaged Iraq, prior to and during the uprising in Syria, by “funnelling foreign Salafi-jihadists into Iraq to join IS’ predecessors, al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq in their fight against American and British troops and the elected Iraqi government” and “released violent Salafist prisoners early in the uprising”. These facts, no one ever cares to mention, when the blame for IS’ growth and invasion of Iraq are being thrown at the feet of the United Sates (US). He also points out that, it’s not the case that the US surge had no successes, but by December 2013, there was a recommencement of the Iraqi civil war, and ISI–not yet ISIS/IS–had set about undoing much of those successes, undoubtedly aided by the regimes aforementioned sabotage, which enabled IS’ “de facto control of large areas of Iraq” prior to the capture of Mosul in 2014, which of course, led to the declaration of the caliphate, headed by IS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This scandalous relationship also plays a role in IS’ revenue collection, and in the functionality of the area’s they rule over. It is well known that oil is a major source of the group’s income, but perhaps less known, is the trade of “crude for imported refined fuel and natural gas for utilities supplied by the [Assad] regime”. Another not so widely known source of IS’ revenue is the “mafia-style” taxation of the population in Raqqa city and other territories in which IS has gained a foothold. This makes halting their expansion an absolute must.

Orton suggests “rolling back IS’ physical control of territory would deprive it of its main income—from taxes and oil—and would also assault its ideological legitimacy. IS’ famous slogan is “remaining and expanding”; if that can be disproven by events, it would severely dampen IS’ appeal to foreign fighters and embolden those living under its rule, thus weakening IS”. The strength of the Caliphate is indeed central to IS’ propaganda, and when you get down to it, the West is in a no win situation here. As McCants pointed out in November, IS’ foray into global jihad is a show of strength, and attempt to distract from its weaknesses. Therefore, we know, unequivocally, that the more territory IS loses as a result of Western airstrikes, ground troops or arming of Sunni tribes and/or Kurdish forces, the more terror attacks the West will suffer. On the other hand, if the West allows IS to expand, continue to extort funds from the populations they subjugate, and collect revenue from the spoils of war, the more powerful and attractive they will become to Islamists worldwide. Perhaps, even incorporating other Islamist and Jihadists groups’ overtime. Because, in their mind, the end game is a showdown between Christianity and Islam, this will see the West dragged into a war one way or the other. If IS hadn’t of started their Western jihad in Paris, I believe they would have done so eventually, once strong enough to provoke their grand finale. In saying that, IS is unlikely to get there, considering the other players involved here, like Iran and Russia, who once they’ve used IS for their agenda will seek to deal with them. Nor do I think, if the West withdrew from the conflict today, terrorism perpetuated by those loyal to IS would drop to zero, but in any case, surely it is better to defeat the enemy as it is, as opposed to what it could become?

There is another thing to consider in this however. If we’re to accept that civilians in the West will be targeted for jihad, more so if we increase our activity against IS, then we must do what we can to minimize the risk and harm of such attacks. Are we willing to increase surveillance efforts to detect home-grown jihadists, which is extremely difficult as this week’s attack in California again proves? And what about the refugee crisis? Orton writes that IS wants to construct a “utopia as a prelude to the apocalypse”. This is why they’re not solely trying to persuade Islamists to wage armed jihad, but also calling for “doctors and engineers, to make hijra (emigration) to the Islamic State to help in its functioning”, and it is “IS’ belief that it has created utopia for Muslims that makes it so opposed to refugees leaving: it is very damaging for their brand”. If correct this puts the West in a precarious position on the refugee question. Increased activity in Syria will displace more people, that will seek to flee to Europe. IS wouldn’t be worthy of their brand if they didn’t capitalize by sending war-hardened jihadists through those channels, to connect with their European sympathizers, and orchestrate terror attacks like we saw in Paris this November. Anyone who thinks this is ridiculous or racist is guilty of donning those ideological lenses referred to earlier. If attacks lead Europe to close its borders, and the Gulf States continue to shun refugees, they have little option but to remain, which may bolster IS’ claims of a “utopia for Muslims”, attracting more foreign fighters. No matter what any government or party thinks at this point, Western civilians will not escape this foreign conflict, without blood being spilled on their streets.

Of course the sectarian nature of this conflict can’t be ignored, any more than the religious underpinnings that enable Islamist groups like IS in the first place. As Orton points out the ruling family in Syria are Alawi, a branch of Shi’a Islam, whilst the majority of the population are Sunni Muslims. In most places where Islam holds sway, the Shi’a and Sunni divide causes problems, and it has done since time-immemorial. True to form the regime sought to utilize religious tensions and committed atrocities against Sunni Muslims in Syria to intensify sectarian tension, thereby taking attention off the desire of its own expulsion. Also Iran has taken control of the conflict on behalf of Syria, and on behalf of its own interests, and imported Shi’a jihadists–approximately 20,000 at last estimate–which plays into IS’ narrative, which claims among other things, that IS is the “protector of the Sunni’s”. Moreover, US foreign policy has never really focused on the ousting of the regime–not least because of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, which he thinks will be his defining moment–and the money Iran stands to acquire through their dealings with the US, can be used to support the regime, who as mentioned, have been squeezing Syria’s Sunni majority. Ipso facto the US is perceived to be aligned with Iran and Syria–Shi’a Islam–in a war against Sunni Muslims, whose only defender is IS. The propaganda almost writes itself doesn’t it? This refusal of the Obama administration to support Sunni tribes against the regime means they will not be our ally against IS, and may end up joining them. I think these foreign policy blunders will be Obama’s legacy, not the nuclear deal with Iran.

Perhaps the most unnerving part of Orton’s paper is on the Kurds who are held up by many, including Maajid Nawaz, as the side to back against IS. I have not yet heard anyone that supports the Kurds today, give a moment’s consideration to the issues raised in this paper. Even Kurdish champion Hitchens, said in reference to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) “Many of us who are ardent supporters of Kurdish rights and aspirations have the gravest reservations about the PKK…This is a Stalinist cult organization”. It is this group Orton argues, that has too much presence and influence in Kurdish forces fighting IS writing “the People’s Protection Forces (YPG), are dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the militant Marxist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (designated as a terrorist organization by the United States) which has historical ties to the Syrian regime”. Moreover, Orton suggests the Kurds cannot be relied on to help in any plan to remove the regime writing “the PYD’s focus is on building a proto-state in the Kurdish-majority areas of north-eastern Syria, not forcibly removing the government in Damascus”. And of course, a Kurdish state project also feeds IS’ narrative, that they’re the protectors of Sunni Muslims. As Orton points out the vast majority of Sunni Muslims would oppose Kurdish expansion and rule over them in those areas, citing Amnesty International’s documentation of war crimes committed by the PYD, “ethnic cleansing against Arabs and Turkomen, and even some Kurds” and “the PYD threatening to call in US airstrikes against people who would not leave” for example. If backing of Kurdish forces in Syria doesn’t fuel the US/West backed conspiracy against Sunni Muslims I’d be surprised. This is a problem for those that would hold the Kurds up as warriors of justice in this conflict.

Another wholly depressing fact about the regimes opposition; is that so many groups are in bed with Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat an-Nursa. Even the ones described as moderates are usually described as “moderate Islamists”. Even if, as Orton hopes, the West can “peel some of these groups away from Nursa”, if any of those groups came to power after the fall of the regime, Syria would still not be a country that many of us would care to live in. So anyone thinking we can solve this conflict and the result will be a democratic, free, and equal society is going to be hugely disappointed, as we all were after the so-called Arab spring in Egypt. Even if such a benevolent group–there are none that I can see–came to power, its neighbors would quickly drag it into their conflicts and destabilize the country once more. Because no matter ones strategy for Syria or for IS, there is no strategy for the region, and as yet no strategy to combat the Islamist ideology, a conversation we are starting to have, but is still in its infancy due to centuries of shielding religion from criticism, and today’s Islamists and regressive leftists attempting to silence that conversation, in so doing, providing cover for the ideas that lend credence to Islamist/jihadist groups like IS. For me, realistically no matter what course we take, action, inaction; we will be indicted for our mishaps and our victories will not be celebrated.

Kyle W. Orton’s Syrian Strategy #mustread

Making sense of ISIS’ attack on the city of love and how to respond

Last week, I watched William McCant speak about his new book The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, at the Brookings Institution. For me, it was just another foray into the increasingly complex situation in the Middle East – the birthplace of Islam, and the historical and present-day hub of Islamism and Jihadism, currently being exported worldwide. I’m not so naïve as to believe I’m adequately aware of all the nuances involved here, such is the nature of the beast. Nonetheless, I seek to educate myself in this area, because the threat of islamism has a long reach, and is ever-present in today’s world. The populace of any democratic nation better become informed, and fast, if they’re to support policies to address this issue. What I’ve learned thus far made me skeptical of the idea, that ISIS was behind the terror attacks in Paris, which left 129 people dead and hundreds more wounded. That said, given the apparent sophistication and coordination of the attacks, I thought it equally unlikely, that the perpetrators were a band of unaffiliated loons. I thought Al-Qaeda a likely candidate at first, despite no obvious targets – unlike the slaughter of Charlie Hebdo staff members this January for the “crime” of blasphemy – but I was sure a reason would come soon enough. As McCant pointed out in his talk, ISIS’ primary concern is spreading the caliphate in the region and because of this, they’ve had little cause to extend their activities beyond that end (at least at this stage). So whilst it feels like these attacks are becoming normalized, we really are in uncharted territory here.

In response to ISIS’ claims of responsibility, France has increased their efforts in Syria, hitting ISIS strongholds in Raqqa. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, had a 30-minute, informal discussion about the Paris attacks and the civil war in Syria, at the G-20 summit this week. According to this articlePresident Obama and President Putin agreed on the need for a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition, which would be proceeded by UN-mediated negotiations between the Syrian opposition and regime as well a ceasefire.” Again, at the risk of being skeptically premature, this looks like more lip service from Putin. It is well known that Russia is an ally of Iran – on the side of the Assad regime – in the Syrian civil war. Since September this year, Russia has sought to appear meaningfully engaged against ISIS in the conflict. However, as Middle East analyst and Syrian war aficionado Kyle W. Orton observed, so far Russian airstrikes have targeted opposition groups more than ISIS; likely in an effort to strengthen Assad’s position and keep the threat of ISIS in play, taking focus off the regime. Another article reportedthey talked about a new proposal to end the Syrian conflict and Obama’s hope that Russia’s airstrikes in Syria would focus on Isis, not opposition groups fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad”. If Putin had a smirk on his face when that was put to him, I would not be surprised. Perhaps I’m being too cynical, after all, ISIS targeted Russia prior to the Paris attacks, claiming responsibility for the downing of a Russian plane over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt earlier this month. Again I was perplexed. ISIS seemed not to realize that Russia’s targeting of opposition groups benefitted them. In addition, if it’s true, as McCant and others suggest; that ISIS hoped to demonstrate their strength by striking in the heart of France, thereby diverting attention from their recent military/territorial losses. Then it may prove counter-productive as far as their expansion in the region is concerned (it may also suggest Russia’s tactics as outlined above, also fits ISIS quite nicely). McCant further posits that the attack on Paris could be a net widening exercise; an attempt to replace Al-Qaeda as the face of global jihad in an effort to draw more recruits. Both theories could be true, or neither. Unfortunately we don’t know, and either way, ISIS has upped the stakes with this shift, and are perhaps courting disaster. In any case, due to the many uncertainties, one hopes that a 30-minute conversation and an increase in airstrikes, is not the extent of the analysis and response to this complex issue.

One would also hope (against hope at this point) these attacks will prompt world leaders to address the ideology enabling groups like ISIS, namely Islamism. Maajid Nawaz and the usual voices are again making desperate pleas for honest dialogue, which alas, will likely fall on deaf ears once more. Before victims bodies were cold, the media began voicing concerns of a backlash against Muslims in Europe – que the Islamaphobia brigade – and although I am yet to hear of any such backlash taking place, it may well come if people’s grief is allowed to metastasize. Governments need to motivate Muslim communities to address the problems with their faith, and their youth, particularly young men; make improvments in integration policy, and denounce right-wing fascists that would use this atrocity to whip up hatred against all Muslims, playing into ISIS’ recruitment strategy. However, preventing such a backlash doesn’t require silence or obfuscation on our part. Rational (non-regressive) liberals, conservatives, feminists, atheists, Muslims and so on, must have honest discussions about all the issues, no matter how uncomfortable. For example, if Ahmed Almuhamed entered Europe under the guise of an asylum seeker, then this is a real problem. Those that scoffed at the mere suggestion that refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria may pose a terrorist threat – a grossly racist thing to even imply! – may want to clear their throats before speaking on this issue again. Total closure of Europes borders, and a hardening of hearts against refugees, hardly aligns with humanist values, but something has to be done to reduce the risk of jihadists slipping through the cracks, especially in light of ISIS’ seemingly recent incursion into global jihad. Whatever the topic, let’s not allow the discourse to be dominated by fascists on both sides.

Lastly, today on 3News New Zealand Prime Minister John Key suggested that “dark communication” – the use of phone apps like Surespot and Wickr – means it’s increasingly difficult for intelligence agencies to monitor terrorist activity. This makes “whistle blowers” like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange seem all the more culpable to me. Revealing intelligence methods, undoubtedly gives groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS the means to adapt, allowing them to operate under the radar, but that’s a matter for another day. The point is, New Zealand is not immune from terrorism. The Sydney Siege in Australia (2014) was very close to home. How long before we have our own Islamist inspired attack? We must be cognizant of the possibility, as New Zealand takes part in training Iraqi troops for their fight against ISIS.

In summary, from my limited vantage point on these matters, a multilateral approach seems the only option. Globally, we need to start having honest discussions about Islamism and push for doctrinal reforms that make contemplating joining an islamist or jihadist organization, anathema. There needs to be better integrative policies – particularly across Europe – achieved in liaison with members of Muslim communities, we must admit that our “allies” in the fight against ISIS – Russia for example – do not share our ultimate ends, and any conversation about Syria must include the removal of Bashar al-Assad as well as the destruction of ISIS, and we must develop a plan to tackle the refugee crisis, which stands to get worse as military operations in Syria intensify.

Not too hard is it…

Making sense of ISIS’ attack on the city of love and how to respond

A Review of Islam and the Future of Tolerance

Caveat: I know Maajid is not an apostate! I say it tongue and cheek.

Islam and the Future of Tolerance gives readers something which feels almost alien – a cordial, open, honest conversation about the challenges of reforming Islam. As I turned each page I found myself anticipating (perhaps wanting?) to see a cataclysmic locking of horns (Infidel vs. Apostate). This epic cage match never eventuated. In fact the only part in the book remotely resembling an impasse, pertained to the reading of Islamic history in the sections ‘Nature of Islam’ and ‘Finding the Way Forward’. The disagreement was of little consequence to the overall discussion. What was particularly gratifying was seeing Sam’s eagerness to learn from Maajid, demonstrating again – unlike some of his opponents – just how open he is to new ideas. Initially Sam took the backseat in the conversation, and adopted more of an interviewers’ style, seeking clarification around the concepts and definitions on offer. When one reads the book you come to understand Sam’s admission that he was the one most changed by their conversation, which makes the suggestion that Maajid is Sam’s lapdog, simply absurd.

The conversation becomes more even-handed as you read on. Still – although I didn’t do a word count – it seemed Maajid got the bigger slice of the dialogue. I was quite happy about that, I read Sam all the time, and I know his views fairly well. Maajid has one other book – Radical, a memoir which I highly recommend – and his public appearances and articles, provide a pretty clear picture of his own views. However, the depth and nuances of those views really come to the fore in this book and it was all the more gripping for that reason. There is a feeling throughout that Sam is being cautious, as if he’s half expecting a backlash of the sort he has become accustomed. He rather amusingly even “bends over backwards” to articulate a position held by his detractors to gauge Maajid’s reaction (surely, Maajid must, at the least, agree with his opponents here, this conversation is going too well, with a little too much agreement!). If that is indeed what Sam was doing, I certainly can’t fault him for it. Too often people appear liberal and interested in honest discussion and turn out to be just another religious apologist. I too found myself reading Maajid, waiting for something to object to on those grounds. Thankfully that moment never came to pass.

Maajid does a great job demonstrating the nuances in scriptural interpretation and how literalism doesn’t necessarily equate to bad (a view Sam understands as his Jainism example shows). As an example he used the stance of the Hanafi School – which were closest to the time of prophet – regarding the prohibition of khamr (alcohol). In essence the word khamr relates to alcohol derived from grapes, so the prohibition therefore, only relates to wine. Maajid points out this is a literalist argument, making the blanket ban on alcohol an interpretation that was successful in supplanting the traditional view. In regards to the murder of infidels he asks, does “smite their necks” translate to “smite their necks today?” Good point, however, I would ask, if God thought it permissible during the war against infidels of the period – and clearly many Muslims feel history is repeating itself – what are the chances an omniscient deity would have a different view in 2015? Do we really need another prophet to tell us whether that edict is applicable today? It’s when you start tying scripture to actual concepts of God – what He is and what powers He possesses – that you run into problems. A better way to allow reform to grow, would be to divorce the two, which sadly can’t be done.

The alcohol example actually indicates both a solution and a problem. The solution being there is wiggle room here. The problem being that it hinges on arguing for interpretations which, whether scripturally viable or not, have to, at least, be better argued than current interpretations enabling the problems we see, and will need to be argued for as long as Islam permeates the religious landscape. Whatever one takes away from the alcohol example, one point has to be that the interpretation which bans all alcohol won over many Muslim communities. Also, Sam rightly points out that some interpretations are more plausible than others, and even if reform was achieved; if someone or some group in the future reads the texts uncritically, and is anchored to the concept of God and the belief that the Quran is the inerrant, eternal word of God – in line with the Asha’ira school – then religious barbarism can be renewed again and again. So whilst I agree it’s certainly unrealistic to apostatize 1.6 billion Muslims; can even Maajid deny that it would be a hell of a lot easier? Again it comes back to what people believe is at stake. The interpretations that get you a more liberal Islam are not just difficult because the cases are not well argued, or there isn’t scriptural justifications for them. It also has something to do with the consequences of getting it wrong. If you believe in God and read the Quran and Hadith, it is understandable why you may conduct yourself in a way that doesn’t dovetail with modern society. Whereas if you misinterpret Shakespeare – unless you’re an academic and have written a patently ridiculous interpretation of Shakespeare’s works, that draws ridicule from your peers – then there is not much at stake.

With all that said this book was a thrilling read and – if you will allow me this cliché – a breath of fresh air. They cover a lot of ground from the role of foreign policy to the Regressive left and the differences between Islamism, Jihadism, and conservatism among the world’s Muslims. They touch on belief as drivers of behavior, the challenges of having this conversation in other contexts and locations, what it means for women to have this conversation and so on. You won’t read this book and come away with all the answers to your questions or a blueprint of how to reform Islam. Rather you will go away with a better understanding of the issues, a renewed hope in civil discourse, and the knowledge that you were a small part of what will be seen as the kick starter, for the reform of Islam. Not to take anything away from the many men and women – in some cases children – (Muslim and non-Muslim), who have been working on this front, but I would not be too begrudging if these two gentlemen were most remembered as the founding fathers of this effort.

Two asides:

  • Maajid says in the book that doctrines are the construct of human beings which is true. However, one of those human beings is thought to be a prophet. This legitimizes his interpretation of the word of God more than any ensuing theologian. And if God came down tomorrow and said “hey, ISIS has the right of it, stop bastardizing my words with your liberal interpretation”. What then? This may seem like an insincere question but I assure you I am wholly sincere. After all people readily buy into the idea that God has come down from the heavens on different occasions to deliver his word to the people, utilizing prophets like Moses and Mohammed. If it were to happen again, and that was his message, would we or would Maajid as a Muslim, tell him to go fuck himself. Or would, or rather should we be joining ISIS to defeat the infidels and re-establish the caliphate?
  • Maajid highlights what I consider to be a loophole that gets Muslims out of some the more undesirable edicts in Islam. He mentioned that in one tradition, the prophet Mohammed channeled the word of God and addressed believers stating “Oh, my people if you don’t sin and repent, I will bring a people more blessed than you who will sin and who do repent, because I want your repentance”. This he says led some schools within Islam to advocate for their right to sin. Well one could simply appease Him here. Sure I will drink and attend a strip club in the infidel’s homeland and for this I will repent. Then tomorrow, I and eighteen of my brothers will wage Jihad against the infidel, and if my interpretation of scripture is wrong in this regard, well then I may simply repent for that too. Of course, if God did indeed say that, well what is he playing at? This is another reason why I can’t bring myself to believe in Him. He seems such a contradictory, inconsistent, emotional, reactionary character!
A Review of Islam and the Future of Tolerance