hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 18 May 2015

The Middle East needs Grand Strategy


Alphen, Netherlands. 18 May.  This weekend chickens began coming home to roost.  A Libyan ‘minister’ warned that not only was ISIS using the Mediterranean migrant crisis to smuggle its fighters into Europe, the militants were profiting from the trade.  And, the EU moved to establish a mission that would interdict the traffickers close to the Libyan coast and perhaps within Libya.  Today, news comes that the Iraqi city of Ramadi has fallen to ISIS.  The Middle East is as unstable and dangerous as at any time since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.  Worse, the threat such instability poses to the region and beyond is growing, symptomatic and axiomatic of a new systemic struggle.  As such the defeat of ISIS will require far more than its military eclipse. 

Now, few who know me would call me naïve and yet I know what I am about to venture will seem precisely that.  For all the excellent work being done to counter ISIS I am struck by the absence of a political strategy for the Middle East. ISIS is as much a symptom of several interlocking conflicts that are feeding off each other as the cause and will only been seen off in time by a new settlement in the Middle East that will itself demand the kind of political ambition and vision that none of the key leaders seem to have, be they in the region or without.  Nothing less than the re-establishment of strong, legitimate states across the region will suffice; states that able and willing to meet the needs of a burgeoning but deeply divided people.  

Something more clearly must be done.  The first phase of the mission of the sixty-nation “Global Coalition to Counter ISIL” to “blunt ISIL’s strategic, tactical and operational momentum in Iraq” has met with some limited success.  However, there appears little or no consideration concerning the political objective vital to the achievement of a more stable Middle East.  Worse, Saudi-led Gulf Co-operation Council air-strikes in Yemen are indicative of an emerging regional-systemic struggle in which the fundamentalist threat posed by ISIS is merging with the struggle for regional supremacy between Iran and a host of other actors. 

There is a very real danger that the current struggle between Middle Eastern (and increasingly European) states and anti-state elements could be but the curtain-raiser to a wider Middle East war between states, fuelled and intensified by mistrust between elites and peoples, the mutual hatred of Shia and Sunni factions, Iran and many Arab states and possibly between Israel and an Iran-inspired, proxy-led coalition. Such a war would have profound consequence for the region and the world.  For example, Europe is particularly vulnerable to loss of energy supplies from the region and to the further de-stabilisation of its societies by AQ/ISIS-inspired Islamic fundamentalism. Moreover, key Western allies such as Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon are facing profound risks from the current instability that show no signs of abating.

An important first step is to understand the cause of the current conflicts. Arab elites talk much nonsense about the brief colonial period as a way to avoid the consequences of their misgovernment.  However, Europeans must bear some responsibility. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in May 1916 the Anglo-French Sykes-Picod agreement was struck.  Under the terms of this agreement the Middle East was carved up to serve British and French interests via a series of ‘protectorates’ none of which was strong enough to dominate the region, but all of which inherited ancient disputes and grievances.  During the period of de-colonisation in the 1950s and early 1960s it appeared that Arab nationalism would become the expression of an emerging ‘Arab nation’.  However, defeats by Israel in 1967 and 1973 and the perception on the Arab Street that Arab governments were in the pocket of a West was inimical to Arab interests enabled the steady rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the creed of the Caliphate as an alternative to the ‘failed’ state.  The rise of fundamentalism was further enabled by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia which sought to buy AQ elements off by funding Salafi jihadism both in the region and beyond. The collapse of Syria and the Shia-Sunni divide in Iraq created the conditions for Islamic fundamentalism to mutate into ISIS which now poses a threat to all the states in the region and many beyond.

Achieving a new political settlement will require Herculean leadership and strategic patience, neither of which the West and its leaders possess in abundance.  Morevore, there would be many barriers in the way of any such strategy towards such an end: There is no grand strategic political vision for the region; little or no strategic unity of effort and purpose between the US and its European allies; little or no political ownership of any such strategy at the highest levels in the region, the White House and/or European chancelleries; and whilst there is some focus on the ‘tactical’ challenges posed by ISIS (such as trafficking), there is little or no political desire to consider the bigger strategic picture.  Worse, behind the headlines there is a profound lack of willingness by leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to properly engage political capital, strategy thinking and/or invest in a stable Middle East. 

Therefore, what ‘strategy’ exists is essentially a ‘containment’ strategy.  Indeed, in spite of air strikes ISIS is being made to appear stronger than it is and thus able to exploit divisions by choosing when, where and how to act.  Sadly, it is inadequate ‘strategy’ made worse by elite European ‘political correctness’ concerning the defence of Europe’s legitimate interests in the region.  The situation is further complicated by the new geopolitics and the growing tensions between China, Russia and the West preventing the drafting of political strategy in the UN Security Council.

However, for all the above the status quo is not an option. Therefore, the West must act.  If not the current struggle will see one or a combination of the following outcomes: some form of Caliphate in parts of the region which will lead to a protracted struggle (possible and extremely dangerous); some form of hybrid Caliphate and/or hybrid states all of which embrace Islamic fundamentalism (extremely dangerous); states propped up by the West (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, PA) the elites of which are despised by their populations subject to AQ, ISILSpropaganda and a range of Iranian-inspired proxies (very plausible, simply postpones collapse of state structure); and/or a general Middle Eastern war which pits Iran against the Gulf States, but which also includes Israel in de facto support of the Gulf States (increasingly likely and very dangerous).

The strategic aim must be re-furbish the state in the Middle East, with the focus some form of political stability in the Levant.  Thankfully, most people do not want to live under a Caliphate and loyalty to the state (if not elites) remains strong.

Therefore, the Global Coalition needs a new political mandate that would see the following:  re-doubled efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian struggle via some form of two-state solution (yes, I know); Iran locked out of much of the Middle East through the blunting of its proxies and a carrot-and-stick approach to dealing with Tehran that combines containment and encouragement (the Nuclear Framework Agreement is a first step);  the reinforcement of friendly Middle Eastern states with aid and development and support for security sector reform (Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, PA) and with political support (Gulf States) as a bulwark against a general collapse; the discreet promotion of political reforms; support for the Arab League to create/install a new regime in Damascus; and enhanced support for an enhanced Arab League to defeat of ISIS.  The proposed Rapid Reaction Force is a good first step but an overt and early victory is needed.

As I said at the top of this blog many of my proposals will seem utterly naïve to seasoned Middle East watchers.  However, it is precisely the ambition implicit in such a strategy that will be needed if the Middle East and much of North Africa is not pose a growing threat to itself and all of us.  Efforts thus far have simply not been up to the strategic challenge.  Critically, the scenarios and the challenges outlined above capture both the scope and the nature of the current struggle and if not properly gripped and quickly will lead inevitably to a general Middle Eastern war.  The most that can be hoped for from current ‘political’ strategy is a Middle East that remains inherently instable.  Given the proliferation of dangerous technologies the prospect that such a struggle will be increasingly shaped by enemies – state and non-state – means the current policy of containment will in time be doomed to fail.  

The bottom-line is this; all of the conflicts in the Middle East and their consequences are joined up. it is about time that the response of the 'international community' (however so defined) is also better joined up. 

Machiavelli once said: “All courses of action are risky.  So prudence is not in avoiding danger (it is impossible) but calculating risk and acting decisively.  Make mistakes of ambition, not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do things, not the strength to suffer”.

Julian Lindley-French


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