United States Should Pivot on Shia-Sunni Divide

Barack Obama Nouri al-Maliki
American president Barack Obama greets Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, July 22, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

The balance of power between Shia and Sunni has shifted since the 2003 Iraq War. A bold new strategy of isolating Iran while simultaneously reaching out to and cutting a nuclear deal with it could reset the balance in the region and allow the United States to recalibrate their Middle East as well as global strategy.

Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the United States have had a Sunni-centric approach to the Middle East that has hobbled their diplomatic flexibility. It is time for this to stop. Read more “United States Should Pivot on Shia-Sunni Divide”

Republican Perry: Turkey Ruled by “Islamic Terrorists”

Texas governor Rick Perry, a Republican Party presidential candidate, said on Monday night that Turkey is ruled “by what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists” and he questioned whether it should remain a member of NATO.

Perry was participating in a Fox News debate of Republican Party presidential hopefuls in South Carolina. The state is due to vote in the party’s primary election this Saturday to nominate an opposition candidate to run against President Barack Obama in November.

The Texan observed that Turkey was moving “far away” from the country that he lived in during the 1970s when he was stationed in Turkey as a United States Air Force pilot. Turkey at the time was under an unstable secular government that was overthrown by the military in a 1980 coup. Nevertheless, it “was our ally,” said Perry. “Today, we don’t see that.”

The current conservative government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan conducts a more independent foreign policy and has sought to infuse Islamic values in a nation that is overwhelmingly religious but seen aggressive attempts at secularization under both civilian and army regimes for much of its republican history.

Erdoğan has severed ties with Israel in favor of a policy that is more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, including Hamas, a group the United States regard as a terrorist organization. He tried to negotiate a nuclear fuel exchange agreement with Tehran in 2010 over Western objections but also agreed late last year to host an early warning radar system for NATO’s European missile shield despite Iranian pressure and threats.

Recently, the government in Ankara has distanced itself from Damascus after fostering trade relations with the Ba’athist regime there in previous years. President Abdullah Gül said in August of last year that he had “lost confidence” in his Syrian counterpart and Turkey has refused to close its border with Syria for refugees seeking to escape the brutal crackdown on anti-government demonstrations.

American-Turkish relations have been complicated by Turkey’s assertiveness. Where it used to be staunchly pro-American and considered itself Western, Erdoğan and his Islamist party have realigned their country to become a power in region. The move has not been without suspicion — from the United States as well as opposition parties inside Turkey that fear an Islamization of their society.

If Turkey is to be a regional player, it cannot be perceived as an American puppet regime. Nor can it maintain cordial relations with the Jewish state if it is to present itself as an alternative to either theocracy or secular dictatorship.

Especially in the wake of the “Arab Spring,” which forced authoritarian, secular and often pro-Western governments out of power, Turkey’s blend of democracy and Islamism may be a model for revolutionaries in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria where the majority of people are conservative and Muslim and antisemitism is rife. It is why Ankara has distanced itself from the depots it was so willing to do business with just a few years ago in the name of “zero problems with neighbors” and embraced the new order in the Middle East — one it hopes to lead.

This could be an opportunity for the United States to exert influence through Turkey on countries that are generally anti-American except for their (military) establishments that have for decades conducted a foreign policy that lacked popular support.

Perry didn’t recognize such an opportunity. He said he wanted to “send a powerful message to countries like Iran and Syria and Turkey that the United States is serious.”

Grouping Turkey, a NATO ally for sixty years, with overtly anti-American regimes like Iran and Syria would constitute a major shift in American strategy and possibly undermine its foreign policy across the Middle East if it is seen as mistaking conservative Islam for extremism.

A foreign-policy advisor to Rick Perry’s campaign elaborated on the governor’s comments to an ABC News journalist after the debate, explaining that it was the Turkish government’s association with Hamas that prompted his use of the word “terrorists.” She added that as president, Perry “would welcome the opportunity to work with Turkey on regional issues like Syria or Iraq.”

Escalating Sectarian Divide Threatens Post-American Iraq

The fragile political power-sharing arrangement imposed by American forces during the Iraqi occupation is at a renewed risk of collapse. Recent moves by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite backers have considerably threatened the state’s sensative coalition structure, which couples a Shia prime minister with Sunni and Kurdish deputies, a Sunni parliamentary speaker with Shia and Kurdish deputies, and a Kurdish president with Shia and Sunni vice presidents.

When American troops left Iraq less than a week ago, the long disgruntled Sunni establishment was on the defensive almost immediately, as deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, leader of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, was issued a stop work order Monday by Maliki’s office. Citing only “administrative irregularities” and the ambiguous charge of traveling without informing the government, Mutlaq is now effectively barred from entering the cabinet.

More recently, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a former general secretary of the country’s largest Sunni Islamist bloc, the Iraqi Islamic Party, has fled to the semi-autonomous Kurdish north after being issued an arrest warrant for allegedly running a hit squad targeting government officials. Hashimi has called the allegations “absurd” and describes them as a smear campaign led by Maliki and his Shia backers who control the state’s Interior Ministry.

While Prime Minister Maliki called Wednesday for Kurdish authorities to hand over Hashimi for trial, the Sunni leader thanked Iraq’s Kurdish president Jalal Talabani on Tuesday for a promise of security as he weighs leaving the country.

The move puts Talabani in the middle of a renewed sectarian divide that has already seen the powerful Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, which controls nine ministerial posts and 82 parliamentary seats, suspend its participation in national unity cabinet meetings.

Iraqiya members have claimed for months that government security forces are arresting hundreds of their members, accusing them of being members of Saddam Hussein’s now outlawed Ba’ath Party.

Despite winning national elections in 2010, Iraqiya leaders have been unable to take the post of prime minister from Maliki and his State of Law party and last week called him a “dictator” who is undermining the sensitive the power-sharing agreement that keeps Iraq from plundering into full blow sectarian war.

A lesser known contributing factor to the current crisis are the increasing claims for semi-autonomous status from regions across the country. Most recently, councilors from Diyala, citing “unjust measures” including exclusion and disregard from Maliki’s government in Baghdad, submitted to the cabinet a request for the Iraqi High Electoral Commission to declare the province an independent administrative and economic region.

Turkmen in the Shia-dominated Iraqi National Alliance have likewise called for the establishment of regional status for Tuz Khormato in Salah ad Din Province and Tal Afar in Ninawa, as hysteria over regional power dynamics grows.

Added recently to the list of disgruntled Sunni opponents of Maliki is the emir of Iraq’s largest and most powerful tribe, the Dulaimi. Sheik Ali Hatem Suleiman, whose influence spans much of Anbar Province, once a bulwark of the insurgency, has called for a massive tribal conference to discuss the replacement of Maliki, who he has publicly threatened with setting on fire.

Meanwhile, sectarian violence in Anbar is on the rise. Last month, a convoy of security forces sent by Maliki from the Shia holy city of Karbala to investigate the murder of Shia pilgrims were killed execution style after begin taken hostage. Officials have blamed their deaths on the tactics of Al Qaeda linked Sunni militants.

A spokeswoman for the United States Department of State has expressed concern over these developments, urging rival political groups “to work out their differences peacefully, politically, through dialogue, and certainly in a manner that is consistent with democratic political process and international standards of rule of law.” However, many of the country’s most important Sunni leaders are now exiled, and observers fear the Sunni establishment could react by withdrawing further from parliamentary functions.

Such a move could not only bring down the government but would likely lead to increased Shia control of the state as new appointments would be made by Maliki directly. In this scenario, with the country’s northern population firmly supporting the Sunni-led uprisings in neighboring Syria, the potential for a populist revolt will be increasingly dependent on the outcome of this renewed political stalemate.

After Revolution, Egypt Falls Back on Tradition

Islamist parties in Egypt could win up to 70 percent of the seats in a new parliament. According to the Associated Press, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing and the puritanical al-Nour Party won last weekend’s elections resoundingly, possibly enabling them to play a key role in the drafting of a new Egyptian constitution soon.

If the results bear out and are repeated in the next rounds of voting, Egypt’s main Islamist parties would command an overwhelming majority in the freely elected legislature and could feel empowered to implement religious laws in a country that has lived under an Arab nationalist and secular government for half a century.

Ahead of last week’s vote, the Brotherhood in Egypt indicted a willingness to cooperate with secular parties. It did say to favor a ban on alcohol and allowed pious Muslim women to wear traditional garb that was frowned upon during the Mubarak regime and associated with religious extremism.

The al-Nour Party is more fanatical. According to a spokesman, it will push for an alcohol ban across Egypt, including tourist areas for which the Brotherhood was prepared to make an exception. al-Nour also champions the erection of a dedicated police agency to ensure that people fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

The preliminary election results are a reminder of the limited support that the persistent revolutionaries of Tahrir Square enjoy across the spectrum of the Egyptian population.

The ousting of longtime president Hosni Mubarak was extremely popular but modernization along Western lines should not be expected any time soon, especially as the notion of “economic reform” has been tarnished by the halfhearted liberalization efforts of the 1990s which opened Egypt’s economy up to the world but also institutionalized corruption and strengthened single party rule.

The need for a pro-growth program is pressing all the same. Months of political upheaval have left Egypt’s economy in shambles. Foreign direct investment has virtually come to a standstill while the tourist industry, which employs up to two million people and accounts for more than 11 percent of gross domestic product, remains idle. Egyptian growth has stalled and no major reforms can be expected from the Islamist parties that are hostile to globalization and wary of international trade.

A traditionalist moment, perhaps a religious revival should be considered likely in the short term. The breakdown of a fifty year-old regime and the chaos of an infant democracy that has replaced it left many Egyptian voters apparently craving for a semblance of order and predictability.

The Brotherhood, although it was formally banned as a political organization by the National Democratic government, is familiar to many Egyptians as a charitable institution. Voters evidently deemed it a safer choice than opting for one among an array of secular parties, ranging from the far left to conservative.

Runoff elections for the first round of voting are scheduled for early next week. A second round will take place in the second half of December and a third in January. There are nearly five hundred seats up for grabs however only two-third can be contested by political parties. The remaining seats are open to candidates running as individuals although they may be associated with an established political force.

The military council currently ruling Egypt has promised to respect the election results but insists that the army’s status remain “unchanged,” which would cement its heavy presence in the national economy, and that the “secular nature” of Egypt is maintained.

Iraq’s Shia Militias an Enduring Threat

As the last few thousand American soldiers pack up their gear and look forward to spending the holidays with family and friends, commanders in Iraq worry about the potential fallout. 

Most of the attention about future security threats in Iraq has focused on two main points of friction: the reestablishment of Al Qaeda as a strong and deadly terrorist group and the possibility of Arabs and Kurds fighting one another in the flashpoint city of Kirkuk. Jeffrey Buchanan, spokesman for the American forces in Iraq, recently made his concern about Al Qaeda in Iraq clear in an interview with The New York Times, saying, “I cringe whenever anybody makes a pronouncement that Al Qaeda is on its last legs.”

Major General Buchanan is not alone in this viewpoint. Indeed, it would be especially difficult for the United States to forget that Al Qaeda still controls a few hundred fighters in northern Iraq with suicide bombings on provincial government buildings to back that assertion up. And while the terrorist group is not what it used to be in terms of its operational capability, strong leadership and bases of operations, the social and political conditions that helped spawn Iraq’s Al Qaeda in the first place is nowhere near resolved. A substantial percentage of the Sunni Arab community looks at Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with the utmost suspicion, constantly raising objections to his consolidation of power and his arrest of Sunnis across the country.

Al Qaeda is not the only militant group operating in Iraq however nor is it considered by some experts to be even the most powerful or dangerous.

To people who monitor Iraq on a daily basis and continue to see the bombings in residential areas, assassinations against Iraqi government officials and the taking and killing of Iraqi hostages, this statement may be hard to wrap one’s mind around. Kidnappings, indiscriminate shootings and roadside bombings have, after all, been used by Al Qaeda to generate news coverage from the Iraqi and international press.

But we should not — and for the sake of American and Iraqi security within the country, cannot — forget about the many Shia militias that are still making a splash in southern Iraq and in Baghdad. Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army used to be the most headline grabbing Shia militia out there before it was creamed by a 2008 joint American-Iraqi military operation against it in Iraq’s second largest city of Basra. The Mahdi Army, now renamed the Promised Day Brigades, is still out there wrecking havoc if it needs to but two other militia organizations are just as slick — the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (“League of the Righteous”) and Kata’ib Hezbollah, a group that is funded and trained by Iranian external security forces according to American authorities.

It was Kata’ib Hezbollah, nor Ṣadr’s group, that spiked American casualties in Iraq this summer when fifteen soldiers were killed by rocket propelled improvised bombs and roadside explosives. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq is an offshoot of Ṣadr’s Mahdi Army and known for its deadly sniper attacks on foreign troops since 2007, some of which have been uploaded to the Internet for aspiring militants to see.

What will become of these three militias once the United States military is fully out of Iraq? They that they are only launching attacks on coalition forces in order to convince them to leave. If that is so, will they cease their violent operations the day after American soldiers pack up and head to Kuwait? With Baghdad still expecting to host a few thousand private security contractors and thousands of State Department personnel, this is an open question. It is anyone’s guess whether American diplomats and contractors will be perceived as an extension of the occupation by these fanatics.

Kata’ib Hezbollah‘s closeness to Tehran is another reason to doubt that it will lay down its arms and join the Iraqi political process once America leaves. Iran hopes to gain influence in Iraq and prevent it from resurging as a strategic adversary as it was under Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime.

None of this is to disparage President Barak Obama’s Iraq withdrawal plan. He was simply following the Status of Forces Agreement signed by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Rather, it is a reminder to both the Iraqi government and its ally in Washington that Al Qaeda is not the only insurgent force willing to fragment the country for its own objectives.

Tunisians Vote Amid International Scrutiny

Tunisians headed to the polls on Sunday in what was the first free election in the Muslim world since their country ignited the Arab Spring last January.

Although many voters told foreign reporters that their priorities were boosting employment and cleaning up the corruption that they associate with the old regime, there is concern in Europe and the United States about the mounting popularity of political Islam.

Ennahda, the Renaissance Party, is expected to win a plurality of the votes if not a majority. The secular front, by contrast, is splintered with more than a hundred liberal and socialist parties contesting the election.

Ennahda‘s rise hasn’t just fueled anxiety in the West but in Tunisia as well where President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali imposed a secular regime for almost 25 years before he was ousted in a popular uprising this year.

Especially among the urban youth who played a key role in the revolt, the Islamist political presence is regarded warily, notwithstanding assurances from Ennahda‘s leaders that they do not seek to impose religious values on the entire nation. They say they draw inspiration from Turkey where a conservative Muslim government is less aggressively secular than were its predecessors although there, too, the opposition worries that an overtly religious sentiment among the political class could permeate Turkish society and make it less tolerant.

There is division within Ennahda about the party’s Muslim identity. Whereas the leadership claims to seek a pluralistic democracy and has promised to work with liberal parties before a proper government is formed, there are supporters who favor more space for traditional Islamic values, ranging from the freedom for woman to wear the veil to a ban on alcohol.

Secularists pushed back vehemently during election day when Ennahda representatives were called “terrorists” by some. The first free vote was universally heralded as a victory by Tunisians but their politics are almost certainly to become more polarized than they were during Ben Ali’s days when Muslims weren’t allowed to express their faith in public.

Tunisians elected an assembly on Sunday that will draft a new constitution to replace the one that allowed Ben Ali to cling to power for decades. It will also appoint an interim government and set elections for a new parliament and president.

If Ennahda fails to secure an outright majority, its influence will be diluted in a coalition with secular members of the assembly who champion modernization.

An Expanded Gulf Cooperation Council

In a surprise announcement by Gulf Arab leaders last week, the Gulf Cooperation Council welcomed proposals by Jordan and Morocco to enter into the alliance. The GCC, consisting of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has been wracked by internal protest against monarchial rule since the Arab Spring began in Tunisia last January.

The Al Khalifa Sunni ruling family of Bahrain is still experiencing its most extensive period of civil unrest since earlier in the decade when Shiites rose up against the monarchy for an extension of political rights.

Saudi Arabia, the most powerful state in the GCC, continues to dispatch police to its restive Eastern Province where the bulk of its oil reserves are located, in order to crackdown on Shia protests there. UAE authorities have launched arrest raids against human rights defenders and civil society activists, most of whom come from the emirates’ wealthy clientele. Oman under Sultan Qaboos bin Said has been relatively peaceful  compared to demonstrations that have turned violent elsewhere yet residents in the quiet Gulf sultanate are taking to the streets. Oil rich Kuwait is dragging its feet on providing citizenship to thousands of people who, although not Kuwaiti in origin, have moved to the small Gulf state to improve their lives.

The monarchies of the Persian Gulf are thus nervous about the type of political developments occurring around them, and in some cases, within their own borders. Saudis and emirates, who are preferably on the side of regional stability, have already acted in concert with the GCC to quell Bahrain’s protest movement. The offering of a GCC bid to Jordan and Morocco could be another tact to add new members and defend the alliance.

Why Jordan and Morocco? Like the GCC overall, both are pro-Western regimes boasting strong intelligence and military relationships with the United States. Both are indeed monarchies, which would suit them well in a club that is composed exclusively of kings and sultans. Both also happen to be countries with large Sunni populations, which would undoubtedly help Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners unite the region’s Sunni community against encroaching Iranian influence.

But if Jordan and Morocco are welcomed to join, why not Egypt, Iraq or Yemen? Geographically speaking, Iraq and Yemen would be far more preferable than Jordan, which is not even considered a Persian Gulf nation to begin with. Iraq also happens to sit atop the region’s second largest pool of oil, a product which would fill the pockets of the GCC with billions of dollars more in revenue.

While Yemen’s oil production is scheduled to dry out completely in the next decade, Yemenis still possess more oil than the Jordanians, who rely almost completely on foreign aid to sustain their infrastructure and fund their government.

Post-Mubarak Egypt, still in its infant stage of democracy and trying to reassert itself as an independent power, was notably absent as well, straining ties between Egypt and its traditional Gulf backers. Yemen, with all of its domestic problems and a nationwide protest movement of its own, remains the ugly sister on the outside looking in.

The Jordanian and Moroccan bids should therefore be seen as a political strategy rather than an example of economic unification. Surrounded by an ascending Shia government in Iraq and the loss of a strategic ally in Hosni Mubarak, Gulf royals are nervous.

How the United States and Europe fit into this equation is still to be determined. Indeed, it is important to remember that just because Jordan and Morocco are encouraged to apply doesn’t mean that both will find a new home in the GCC. Yet if their applications are accepted, the regional balance of power will be tilted more toward the Sunni states.

Does Al Qaeda Still Matter?

The death of Osama bin Laden begs the question whether the terrorist organization that he created remains a threat to the United States if not the world at large. Without its charismatic leader, does Al Qaeda still matter?

Both the Obama Administration and terrorism experts are cautious. They know that the killing of bin Laden at the hands of American special forces is likely provoke a violent response. Al Qaeda has to prove that it can survive the demise of its founder.

Bin Laden, moreover, hasn’t played a key strategic role in the organization for many years. Being America’s most wanted terrorist made it impossible for him to effectively orchestrate another attack after 9/11. The consensus among defense and foreign policy analyst as reported by The New York Times, is that bin Laden’s death does not “end the threat from an increasingly potent and self reliant string of regional Qaeda affiliates in North Africa and Yemen or from a self radicalized vanguard here at home.”

There are several loosely affiliated terrorist groups around the Muslim world claiming to be part of Al Qaeda, notably in the Maghreb and Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula appears to have been the most successful of these organizations as it attempted several attacks against Western targets, all of which were foiled. Terrorist activity in West Africa goes mostly unreported in international media and may actually have less to do with religious fanaticism than regional and tribal disputes. The same is true for the insurgency along Pakistan’s western frontier where bin Laden was long presumed to be hiding.

What made bin Laden successful — and his death such a devastating blow to the organization — was his ability to rally dissatisfied and estranged young Muslims everywhere to a cause. “Al Qaeda was an idea and an ideology, symbolized by an extremely charismatic figure in Osama bin Laden,” writes Fareed Zakaria.

Bin Laden was this Saudi prince like figure who had gone into the mountains of Afghanistan forsaking the riches of a multibillion dollar fortune, fought against the Soviets, demonstrated personal bravery and then crafted a seductive message about Islam and Islamic extremism as a path to destroy the corrupt regimes of the Middle East.

Without its fountainhead, Al Qaeda is likely to lose part of its appeal as well as sponsorship.

What is more, the pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and other authoritarian Arab regimes have undermined part of Al Qaeda’s rationale. “Al Qaeda existed because bin Laden argued that the regimes of the Arab world were dictatorial and oppressive,” according to Zakaria.

He argued that the United States were supporting those regimes and, as a result, Muslims had to engage in terrorism against the United States and those regimes. He claimed that the only way to achieve change was through violence, terrorism and Islamic extremism.

The rioters and protesters of the “Arab Spring” proved him wrong. They managed to bring down Hosni Mubarak, a stalwart American ally, almost without violence — let alone terrorism. In very few instances has Islamism been part of the anti-government protests that also swept Bahrain, Jordan and Libya. The people there want jobs, not sharia.

The death of bin Laden may not discourage a generation of freelance terrorists from inflicting serious harm. But the central organizing ideology that presented an existential seduction to the Muslim world as well as an existential threat to the West is probably damaged beyond repair.

Old Wounds in the Persian Gulf

The Arabian Peninsula on a Norwegian globe from the 1950s
The Arabian Peninsula on a Norwegian globe from the 1950s (Magnus Halsnes)

American, Arab and European armed forces may be intensively focused on operations over Libya but something just as dramatic is unfolding on the other side of the Middle East. Although this conflict may not be as violent as the one currently underway in Libya, it is nevertheless highly significant for every country that has even a remote interest in the region.

The drama in question concerns the rebellion in the island kingdom of Bahrain, a small nation barely visible on a map but a geostrategic hub where the Arab world’s most fractious political and social fault lines converge: sectarianism, class, religion and age. Read more “Old Wounds in the Persian Gulf”

The Volcanic Island in the Persian Gulf

View of downtown Manama, Bahrain
View of downtown Manama, Bahrain (Shutterstock)

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are usually described in the press as the “big” American allies in the Middle East — the countries that hold the most geostrategic weight and the ones whose leaders are most willing and able to help the United States in the region when it cannot help itself. Before Hosni Mubarak was thrown out of his palace, all three states were also seen as the most politically stable, at least in the short term when compared to the tinderbox that is Lebanon and the young Iraqi democracy. Read more “The Volcanic Island in the Persian Gulf”