Search in the document preview
The Islamic State: From al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate
Ahmed S. Hashim
T he dramatic victories in summer 2014 of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) over rival groups fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad — and over the government of Iraq and Kurdish forces — culminated in the declaration of a caliphate, or the Islamic State. The international community became alarmed, and the lightning ISIS advance in Iraq was blunted in mid-August by U.S. air power. Air strikes were ramped up in September and October in both Iraq and Syria by the United States and an ad hoc coalition of Middle Eastern and European states.
There has been a scramble by policy makers, militaries, intelligence officials and journalists from around the globe to understand the ISIS phenomenon, resulting in a profusion of unverified and contradictory information. This study, drawing from a multitude of open sources, seeks to provide a concise overview of the origins, ideology, goals and military operations of ISIS in Iraq and Syria from 2003 to the present in order to help governments understand and deal with this phenomenon.
THE ORIGINS OF ISIS/IS ISIS/IS has its origins in an obscure militant group, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ), that
was stood up in 2000 by a Jordanian one-time criminal-turned-Islamist named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (AMZ). His intent was to fight the Jordanian government, but he failed to gain traction. Zarqawi then traveled to Afghanistan to fight on the side of the mujahidin (resistance) in the jihad against the Soviets. Having arrived after their departure, he soon returned to his homeland to fight the well- entrenched Jordanian monarchy. His efforts came to naught, and he eventually returned to Afghanistan, where he ran an Islamic militant training camp near Herat. No evidence exists that he had much interaction with Osama bin Laden or his organization, al-Qaeda. AMZ claimed he was influenced by Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian Jordanian Islamist thinker who exhorted Arabs to fight the Soviets alongside the Afghan mujahidin: "We used to receive some audiocassettes recorded by Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, may he rest in peace. He had a great influence on my decision to engage in jihad."
Following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi moved into Iraq. There he developed extensive ties with Ansar al-Islam (Partisans of Islam), a Kurdish Islamist group. In March 2003, the United States invaded and occupied Iraq. A brilliant conventional campaign led to the erroneous belief on the part of the George W. Bush administration that Iraq would stabilize and progress towards democracy. By summer 2003, the disgruntled Sunni minority — toppled from power with the downfall of Saddam Hussein — launched a deadly insurgency. It consisted of five
distinct groups, four composed largely of Iraqis from the former regime, nationalists, tribal elements and various Islamist fighters. The fifth group was AMZ's JTJ, consisting of a smattering of Iraqis and many foreign fighters.
JTJ developed into a network aimed at resisting the coalition occupation forces and their Iraqi allies. Its goals: to (i) force a withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq; (ii) topple the Iraqi interim government; (iii) assassinate collaborators with the occupation regime; (iv) target the Shia population and defeat its deadly militias; and (v) establish an Islamic state under sharia, God's law. AMZ declared that the JTJ political platform was based on a saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammed: "I was sent to the world with a sword in my hand until all worship would be devoted to Allah alone." AMZ elaborates his project:
We will fight in the cause of God until His shariah prevails. The first step is to expel the enemy and establish the state of Islam. We would then go forth to reconquer the Muslim lands and restore them to the Muslim nation.... I swear by God that even if the Americans had not invaded our lands together with the Jews, the Muslims would still be required not to refrain from jihad but go forth and seek the enemy until only God Almighty's shariah prevailed everywhere in the world.... Our political project is to expel this marauding enemy. This is the first step. Afterwards our goal is to establish God's shariah all over the globe.... We will not be revealing a secret when we say that we seek to establish Islamic justice in the entire world and crush the injustice of disbelief and the iniquity of other religions. In pursuit of his goals, AMZ left a trail of death and destruction in Iraq. JTJ differed
considerably from the other Iraqi insurgent groups. Rather than using only guerrilla tactics — ambushes, raids and hit-and-run attacks against the U.S. forces — it relied heavily on suicide bombers. It targeted a wide variety of groups: the Iraqi security forces, Iraqi Shia and Kurdish political and religious figures, Shia Muslim civilians, foreign civilian contractors, and UN and humanitarian workers. AMZ reserved much of his ire for the Shia of Iraq. In February 2004, AMZ had called the Shia the "insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the spying enemy, and the penetrating venom." AMZ was very adept at using the Internet to promote his message, recruit personnel and terrorize his enemies, posting his first communiqué on a jihadist website in April 2004. Through creating a worldwide network, Zarqawi's volunteers posted messages from their leader and videos of militant acts, like beheadings, on multiple servers. This avoided delays in downloading and made it difficult for the material to be removed from the World Wide Web.
AMZ JOINS AL-QAEDA In late 2004, AMZ brought his group under the loose control of Osama bin Laden; the group
officially pledged allegiance to the al-Qaeda network in a letter in October 2004. The new organization, Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, or al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), provided al- Qaeda with a ready-made base from which to strike the United States and AMZ with prestige. He was now part of a brand name that drew recruits and financial and logistical support.
In March 2005, AQI articulated a cohesive ideological vision — its "creed and methodology" — in which it expressed its determination to promote and defend tawhid (monotheism) and eliminate polytheism. It defined anyone who did not believe in the essential unity/oneness of God as an infidel and subject to takfir (excommunication) and death. It expressed the belief that the Prophet Mohammad is God's messenger for the entire human race and viewed secularism (ilmaniyah) and all other isms — nationalism, tribalism, communism and Baathism — as "blatant violations of Islam." Jihad was the duty of all Muslims if the infidels attacked. Waging jihad against the enemies of Islam was next in importance to the profession of the shahada (faith). AQI argued that all Muslims — excluding the Shia — constitute one nation. There is no differentiation between Arabs and non- Arabs; piety is what counts.
In the words of Abu Maysara al-Iraqi, then the chief spokesman of AQI, the goals are explicit:
• Remove the "aggressor" from Iraq. • Affirm tawhid, oneness of God among Muslims. • Propagate the message that "there is no god but God" to all the countries in which Islam is
• Wage jihad to liberate Muslim territories from infidels and apostates. • Fight the taghut (illegitimate) rulers of Muslim lands.
International Affairs 53
• "Establish a wise caliphate" in which the sharia rules supreme, as it did during the time of the Prophet Mohammad.
• "Spread monotheism on earth, cleanse it of polytheism, to govern according to the laws of God...."
AMZ and al-Qaeda Central (AQC), the top leadership, saw eye to eye on ideology and goals, but problems arose over AQI's modus operandi in Iraq. AMZ's tactic of engaging in mass civilian casualties, earning him the sobriquet "sheikh of the slaughterers," aroused grave concern from his mentor Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, a leading Salafist thinker based in Jordan, and among al-Qaeda leaders, including second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri. In July 2005, differences of opinion between Al-Maqdisi and AMZ came out into the open. In his "Message of Support and Advice," published on his website Minbar al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, Maqdisi advised AMZ to stop targeting civilians, churches and Shia. The real enemy, added Maqdisi, was the American occupier. AMZ responded that the advice was unfair; he viewed the Shia as rejectionists and apostates and considered fighting them to be more important than fighting non-Muslims. 7 AMZ blamed the Shia for the vicious sectarian conflict:
We did not initiate fighting with them, nor did we point our slings at them. It was they who started liquidating the cadres of the Sunni people, rendering them homeless, and usurping their mosques and houses. Ayman al-Zawahiri apparently sent a letter to AMZ on July 9, 2005, that was intercepted by
U.S. military forces. In the letter, Zawahiri expresses total agreement with the goals of the jihadist military efforts in Iraq but expresses grave reservations with AMZ's tactics. The jihadists cannot win without the hearts and minds of the (Sunni) Muslim masses and the ulema (scholars). More locals — Iraqis — need to be the face of AQI. The Taliban in Afghanistan lacked popular support; hence they succumbed. Zawahiri adds that the Shia are truly treacherous and cannot be trusted but questions whether it is necessary to slaughter them in such a manner. It alienates Muslim opinion and distracts the jihadists from fighting the Americans; the conflict with the Shia can wait. Finally, is it really necessary, asks Zawahiri, to engage in public displays of brutality such as the beheadings of hostages? This was not good public relations.
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ISI It is not clear what impact AQC's expression of concern had, but in January 2006, AQI
created an umbrella organization called the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) in an attempt to unify Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Its efforts to recruit Iraqi Sunni nationalists and secular groups were undermined by its violent tactics against civilians. When the U.S. military killed Zarqawi on June 7, 2006, a top AQ operative, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (aka Abu Ayub al-Masri), was promoted to be the AQI representative in Iraq. Soon afterward, the organization announced the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) under the leadership of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. Abu Hamza al-Muhajir stated that the mujahidin have "reached the end of a stage of jihad and the start of a new one, in which we lay the first cornerstone of the Islamic Caliphate project and revive the glory of religion."9 The creation of the first Islamic state was supported by some obscure jihadist thinkers. However, it set off a storm of criticism among Iraqi insurgent groups, who considered the project a deviation from the main task of fighting the American occupiers. Most of the groups made it clear that they were interested in liberating Iraq and not in creating an Islamic state.
The first Islamic-state project was a failure. The jihadists simply did not have the resources or personnel to rule over a territory and people. Furthermore, the death of AMZ did not lessen the jihadists' reign of terror, accelerating the loss of support from the Sunni tribes and Iraqi insurgents. This was made worse by its attempts to muscle in on Sunni economic enterprises, and its propensity to insult Sunni tribal mores and customs accelerated. The falling out led to the emergence of the Sahwa (Awakening) movement. The tribes and Sunni insurgents allied with their erstwhile enemy, the United States, to fight ISI, in return for integration of the Sunni fighters into the Iraqi security services and for economic largesse to majority-Sunni areas. The weight of force directed against them proved too much for ISI. In 2008, it was describing itself as being in a state of "extraordinary crisis."
By the end of 2008, ISI was apparently defeated, and Iraq was on the path to stability and security. In early 2009, U.S. forces began pulling out of cities across the country, turning over the task of maintaining security to the vastly enlarged and American-trained Iraqi Security Forces. Later that year, to the consternation of the U.S. and Iraqi governments, ISI rebounded and appeared to be launching a concerted effort to cripple the Iraqi government. During August and October 2009, ISI
54 TheAdvanced Contemporary Affairs (Book 92)
began to sabotage government infrastructure and launch terror attacks against civilians, killing hundreds.
Nonetheless, ISI suffered a significant blow on April 18, 2010, when its top leadership, Abu Ayub al-Masri and Abu Umar Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi, were both killed in a joint U.S.-Iraqi raid near Tikrit. By June 2010, 80 percent of the group's 42 leaders, including recruiters and financers, had been killed or captured, with only eight remaining at large. The decapitation of the leadership in 2010 set the stage for the emergence of the current and most successful leader, Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai (aka Dr. Ibrahim, Abu Dua, and Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi). It is difficult to pin down exactly who this elusive character is. It is said he is descended from the Prophet Muhammad and that he hails from the al-Bu Badri tribe, which is primarily based in Samarra and Diyala. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi helped create Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah wa-l-Jamah (the Army of the Sunni People), an active jihadist group that operated in Samarra, Diyala and Baghdad. U.S. forces arrested Abu Bakr in February 2004 and released him in December that year because he was not deemed to be a High Value Target. The Jaysh Ahl al- Sunnah leadership pledged allegiance to AQI and joined the umbrella organization.
ISI REEMERGES Between 2010 and 2013, four key factors contributed to the reemergence of ISI:
organizational restructuring coupled with the rebuilding of its military and administrative capacities; the dysfunctional nature of the Iraqi state and its growing conflict with the Sunni population; the fading away of al-Qaeda under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri; and the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.
ISI goals became more nuanced and concisely articulated by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the overthrow of illegitimate governments and the creation of an Islamic caliphate. This came out clearly once al-Baghdadi transformed his organization into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and subsequently into the Islamic State. The focus on the caliphate has been elaborated in detail in the Islamic State's glossy magazine, Dabiq, of which there have been four issues to date. The first dealt with the importance of the declaration of the caliphate, among other matters. The caliphate represents the onset of a new era of "might and dignity" for the Muslims. The focus on creating an Islamic state is the defining element for ISIS, even if it was unable to gain the acclaim of the Islamic world and even if the state proves short-lived. It differs from al-Qaeda in its superior abilities to articulate an effective vision and a military strategy for implementing it. Even if ISIS fails, and there is every indication of impending overreach, this vision is remarkable for its audacity.
Having an ideology and goals of breathtaking ambition is not sufficient. ISI was a moribund mess when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over; his revival of the organization began in 2010 and culminated in the organizational structure we see today. Much of the success of ISIS is due to the creation of a cohesive, disciplined and flexible organization by al-Baghdadi and other Iraqis that he hired, including, it is alleged, a former senior Iraqi army officer known as "Hajji Bakr." First, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi began by learning from and avoiding the mistakes of AMZ, such as spectacular and provocative attacks. AMZ's successor, Abu-Umar al-Baghdadi, erred by focusing on the mind- numbing minutiae of the organization and micromanaging his subordinates. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi built a hierarchical and centralized organization that was flexible enough to allow subordinates wide latitude in the field, as long as they stayed within the mission guidelines established by the leader.
Second, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi reduced the role of the Arab expatriates in leadership posts. The presence of foreign Arabs at the top had irritated potential Iraqi supporters in the past. Instead they are now in combat units, like most of the non-Arab foreign fighters, and in support roles such as media outreach and propaganda, recruitment and collection of donations. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi thus allowed Iraqis, mostly from the military and security establishments of the former Baathist regime, to fill in the top layers of ISIS and then of the Islamic State.
Third, he divided the organization into the leadership — al-imara — or the executive, composed of Abu Bakr and his top advisers and second in command. It is the policymaking and governing body of the Islamic State. The rest of the organization is divided into first- and second- echelon structures. The first echelon consists of the Shura Council, the Military Council, and the Security and Intelligence Council. Abu Bakr directly supervises these councils. The Shura Council comes immediately below the leadership in importance; it consists of Abu Bakr himself and the "cabinet," nine to 11 members who can theoretically dismiss the leader if he does not carry out his duties as ordained by his office.
The Military Council consists of a head, chosen by al-Baghdadi, and three members. It oversees the military commanders in the wilayats (provinces) that make up the various units of the
International Affairs 53
Islamic State. Careful observation of data suggests that the military contingents are distinct and made up of Iraqis directly in IS battalions, associated local fighters from the former regime elements, and foreign fighters mainly from Arab countries (the Westerners, including those of Middle Eastern descent, are in IS units in Ar-Raqqa, Syria). An exception is the fearsome and combat-effective Chechen fighters who, allegedly, played a key role in routing the Iraqi army in Mosul.
Intelligence and military personnel from Saddam Hussein's army and security services helped set up and run the Security and Intelligence Council (SIC). It has a wide range of duties: (a) providing protective security to Al-Baghdadi for his movements and engagements; (b) ensuring the maintenance of communications between al-Baghdadi and the "provincial governors," who implement the caliph's decisions; (c) overseeing the execution of court rulings and the execution of penalties; (d) providing counterintelligence to prevent enemy infiltration of the state; (e) overseeing the delivery of mail and the security of communications among the various IS branches; and (f) maintaining special detachments for conducting assassinations, kidnappings and the collection of funds (headed by former members of the Baathist security services such as a former officer known as Abu Safwan al-Rifai.)
Of the second-echelon structure the most important deals with the finances of ISIS and the Islamic State, especially pertaining to the funding of the war machine and the running costs of its state-building process. Our knowledge of the finances of ISIS/IS is still a work in progress; there are many unverified statements about the sources of its finances that continue to be issued uncritically by governments and the media. In brief, the Islamic State gets its money from the export of oil from fields under its control; it exports the oil to the Syrian government and the Iraqi Kurdish region and to Turkish groups. It taxes the population under its control and engages in the time-honored tactic of "extortion" from businesses.
ISI Grand Strategy The resilient and flexible organization that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi built enabled him to
formulate and implement a grand strategy in which goals are matched to operational plans for achieving them. This grand strategy is based on lessons learned from the failures of its parent organization, al-Qaeda, and from two key works: Idarat al-tawwahush: Akhtar marhala satamur biha al-umma (The Management of Savagery: The Most Dangerous Period Through Which the Umma Is Passing), written in 2009 by Abu Bakr Naji (aka Muhammad Abu Khalil al-Hakaymah), and Khouta istrategiyah li taziz al-mawqif al-siyasi lil dawlah al-islamiyah fi al-Irak (Strategic Plan to Improve the Political Position of the Islamic State in Iraq), written in 2010 by members of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
Management of Savagery argues that carrying out a campaign of constant violent attacks in Muslim states will eventually exhaust these states' ability and will to enforce their authority and that, as the writ of the state withers away, chaos or savagery (tawahhush) will ensue. Of course, if the state is facing serious internal and external difficulties such as civil war, revolution or attack from outside, the jihadists can take advantage of such situations to weaken the illegitimate regime even more by attenuating its control over its territories. Jihadists can take advantage of this savagery to win popular support, or at least acquiescence, by imposing security, providing social services and implementing sharia. As these territories under control increase, they can become the nucleus of a new caliphate.
ISI believed that Iraq could be returned to and maintained in a state of savagery, despite the success of the Americans and their Iraqi allies in crushing the group in 2007-08. It is in this context that Strategic Plan was written. It called for taking measures to improve the political and military positions of ISI so that it would be ready to capture and control territory once the Americans left. It would then be in position to create the caliphate. Operationally, the Strategic Plan calls on ISI to coordinate its political and military efforts, execute an effective PSYOPS campaign against the Iraqi security forces, and implement a jihadist equivalent of the "awakening" campaign.
ISI's military revival was on full display even before the events of 2014, and its attacks were characterized by their sheer ferocity, frequency and lethality. Abu Bakr was responsible for managing and directing large-scale operations. Between March and April 2011, ISI claimed 23 attacks south of Baghdad. On May 5, 2011, al-Baghdadi claimed responsibility for an attack in Hilla that killed 24 policemen and wounded 72 others. On August 15, 2011, a wave of ISI attacks beginning in Mosul resulted in 70 deaths. On December 22, 2011, a series of coordinated car bombings and IED attacks struck over a dozen neighborhoods across Baghdad, killing at least 63 people and wounding 180. The litany of death and destruction continued into 2012. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced a campaign of "Breaking the Walls" in July 2012 that made freeing its members from prison a top
54 TheAdvanced Contemporary Affairs (Book 92)
priority. The freed prisoners provided the organization with effective combat and administrative leaders. This was followed by the July 2013 campaign entitled "Soldier's Harvest," which targeted members of the Iraqi security forces. By the end of 2012, ISI had developed a solid military cadre capable of waging a sustained terror campaign, conducting raids on government forces and launching well-planned attacks on government infrastructure.
THE SUNNI-SHIA RIFT The growing dysfunction of the Iraqi state — reflected in, among other things, the growing
chasm between the government of Nuri al-Maliki and the Sunni provinces of Salahuddin, al-Anbar and Diyala — enabled ISI to reenter the battle from which it had been ejected in 2008. From 2009 onwards, the western Sunni provinces witnessed large-scale, well-organized and well-managed demonstrations for an improved standard of living, including better job opportunities. Maliki instituted a policy of marginalizing the Sunnis politically. He went after Sunni politicians, seeking to eliminate them from the political process and from the military and security services. A feeling of marginalization drove many Sunnis back to the organization they had fought so fiercely during the "awakening."
Al-Qaeda Eclipsed? For the past four years, the fortunes of al-Qaeda have been the source of considerable
analysis. Some observers have argued that al-Qaeda is still effective and doing well as a terrorist organization because of its adaptability. Others have argued that, with the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, al-Qaeda has been in irretrievable decline. His successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been unable to control the affiliates associated with the al-Qaeda brand name. Indeed, he has been accused of allowing too many groups to come in under the umbrella of the organization. This chaotic situation has caused problems for AQC.
AQC, which is made up of the leadership, does not have any military capacity; its sustainability lies in the successes of its franchises and affiliates. However, these subgroups may not feel the need to necessarily toe the line, particularly if AQC has not contributed in any way to the local successes of these groups. AQC simply does not know the conditions on the ground in many of these places, and Al-Zawahiri cannot control the affiliates or franchises as if the organization were a hierarchical entity with him in direct command. Naturally, the subgroups will do what is in their interests. On the other hand, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which operates in Yemen, has always had closer links with AQC because its leadership has interacted with and knows the top echelon of al-Qaeda. This cannot be said of the former affiliate in Iraq going back to Zarqawi; it has always been a black sheep of the jihadist family.
Finally, there seems to be a clear generational gap between the older veterans of AQC and the more "toxic" younger generation being attracted to the likes of the Islamic State. Though it is difficult to gather social data accurately under present circumstances, ISIS and its successor (IS) have attracted a wide range of people from all economic strata and have done particularly well among a younger group ranging from the self-radicalized to the committed to those seeking adventure and for whom al-Qaeda no longer resonates. 9/11 happened a decade ago, while ISIS has gone from success to success.
The Rise of ISIS The second chapter of ISI's evolution begins in March 2011 with the outbreak of the Syrian
civil war and the transformation of the group into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), when its leadership decided to join the war against the Assad regime. This was a logical move for al- Baghdadi. According to his view, the secular Assad regime, dominated by the heterodox Alawite sect that most in the Islamic world do not view as Muslim, was trying to crush Muslims. Furthermore, Syria was a serious battle space in which ISI fighters could hone their skills and learn small-unit tactics fighting against a real army.
The Syrian battle space was politically complex. On one side stood the Syrian regime and its internal and external supporters; on the other, myriad opponents ranging from secular nationalists to liberal democrats to various Islamists, including jihadists. Al-Baghdadi sent into Syria a number of operatives — mostly Syrian veterans of the Iraqi insurgency against the United States — to prepare for the entry of ISI. A group of these veterans emerged as Jabhat al-Nusra in 2012 under the leadership of Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani (Jawlani in Arabic signifies that he hailed from the Israeli- occupied Golan Heights). Al-Nusra did well against the forces of the Syrian regime. It increased its popularity in war-torn Aleppo by establishing an efficient and well-disciplined structure for the distribution of food and medicine. This stood in marked contrast to the undisciplined and brutal
International Affairs 53
behavior of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) opponents of the Assad regime. ISI's leadership noticed this. In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio statement announcing that Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) had been established, financed and supported by the Islamic State of Iraq. Al- Baghdadi declared that the two groups were merging as the "Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham." The leader of Al-Nusra Front, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, issued a statement denying the merger and complaining that neither he nor anyone else in Al-Nusra's leadership had been consulted about it.
There are significant differences between Al-Nusra and ISIS. Al-Nusra was willing to cooperate with other jihadist groups to promote the goal of an Islamic state in Syria; ISIS was not so pragmatic. While Al-Nusra has a large contingent of foreign fighters, many Syrians see it as Syrian; by contrast, ISIS personnel are described as "foreign" occupiers. Al-Nusra actively fought for the overthrow of the Assad government; ISIS was more focused on establishing its own rule over territory and people and avoided fighting the Syrian Army. ISIS was far more ruthless in building an Islamic state; setting up a proto-state in the Syrian city of Raqqa in the northeast, where it built "a holistic system of governance that includes religious, educational, judicial, security, humanitarian and infrastructure projects...."
In June 2013, Ayman al-Zawahiri, addressed both leaders in a letter, ruling against the merger and appointing an emissary to oversee relations between them and put an end to tensions. Zawahiri stipulated that al-Nusra would fight in Syria and ISI in Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio message rejecting Zawahiri's ruling and declaring that the merger would go ahead. In October 2013, Zawahiri ordered the disbanding of ISIS, putting Al-Nusra Front in charge of jihadist efforts in Syria. Baghdadi and others within ISIS contested Zawahiri's ruling on the basis of Islamic jurisprudence and practical and logical grounds. It would be a sin to dissolve the union. Furthermore, Islam did not recognize the "artificial" Sykes-Picot boundaries created in the aftermath of World War I that had divided the Islamic umma into states. Finally, it made no sense for the jihadists to fight disunited. In February 2014, after an eight-month power struggle, al-Qaeda disavowed relations with ISIS. In May 2014, Zawahiri ordered Al-Nusra Front to stop attacking ISIS, but there was no reconciliation.
Shock and Awe When ISIS returned to Iraq in June 2014 to seize large swaths of territory, the stage was
already set for an insurgent version of "shock and awe." ISIS concentrated its forces for a lightning attack on the Iraqis and the capture of territory and cities. ISIS activated the operational links with many former Baathist insurgents, many of whom were officers and intelligence personnel in the regime of Saddam Hussein. This included groups such as Rijal Jaysh al-Naqshbandiya and others that had ensconced themselves in Mosul and ran a shadow administration. ISIS information operations conducted by Shura Council leaders convinced several military and local leaders to resign and flee their posts, eventually giving rise to "stab in the back" stories of betrayal. Remaining military units and civilian leaders were isolated and targeted by suicide bombers or assassination squads or murdered en masse when captured, to send a message to remaining government forces. Videos of massacres were distributed widely, reaching the remaining Iraqi troops on the front lines. Many Sunnis, in particular, had no reason to fight for the Maliki government and deserted in large numbers. The statement of one Sunni security officer speaks volumes:
They [the Shia] don't even consider us Sunnis to be human beings. Only Shiites got promoted to become officers, and it was only the Shiites who landed government contracts. We were second-class citizens. Maliki asked Assad to bomb us Iraqis because he didn't have any aircraft of his own [Syrian Air Force fighters bombed ISIS positions in Iraq]. What kind of a leader is that?
Upon seizing a city, ISIS personnel made straight for police and municipal buildings and core infrastructure such as water and electricity, enabling them to completely control access to vital needs.
The Iraqi security forces collapsed. Four army divisions simply disappeared and will not be easily rebuilt. The Second Division was routed from Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, on June 9, and its four brigades dissolved. The First Division lost two brigades in Anbar earlier in the year, then two more during the ISIS advance in June, with one brigade totally destroyed in Diyala just northeast of Baghdad. The same is true of Iraq's Third Division. The division's Sixth and Ninth Brigades fled the Islamic State's advance in the north, and the Eleventh largely vanished. The Fourth Division also was routed. Half its personnel vanished; most deserted, while hundreds may have been massacred. Iraqi troops on the front line were short of food, water and ammunition. They survived because the ulema and charities in Samarra provided food for them. ISIS captured an enormous amount of equipment, including 1,500 armored Humvees and large numbers of mortars and heavy artillery pieces, among them 52 GPS-guided 155mm M198 howitzers.
54 TheAdvanced Contemporary Affairs (Book 92)
The size of the June 2014 debacle became clear shortly thereafter. American advisers turning up to assess the situation and help rebuild the Iraqi security forces found an incompetent military deeply infiltrated by Sunni militants and Shia militiamen, led by an unprofessional officer corps incapable of meeting the logistics needs of its soldiers. The initial U.S. assessment, which arrived at the Pentagon on July 14, was grim. The advisers concluded that Iraqi forces would be unable to launch the kinds of offensive operations required to roll back ISIS.
THE CALIPHATE The successes of ISIS on the ground in Syria and Iraq led it to view the situation as
opportune for the establishment of an Islamic state. On June 29, 2014, ISIS began to refer to itself as the Islamic State, declaring its occupied territory a new caliphate and naming Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi as its ruler (caliph). Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami, spokesperson for ISIS, described the establishment of the caliphate as "a dream that lives in the depths of every Muslim believer" and "the neglected obligation of the era." He said that the group's ruling Shura Council had decided to establish the caliphate formally and that Muslims around the world should now pledge their allegiance to the new caliph.
The declaration of the caliphate resounded throughout the region and the Islamic world. On the ground, there was an increase in surrenders by rebel brigades in Syria's Deir ez-Zour province. Fearful of ISIS power in the wake of its successes, a number of local leaders and tribal elders in Syria and Iraq sought to avoid confrontation and agreed to peaceful surrenders of their militias and occupations of their towns and villages. These surrenders and accretions of territory provided the Islamic State with territorial contiguity between the lands it seized in Syria and in Iraq, allowing it to claim that it had erased the old colonial boundaries established by the Western powers after World War I.
Second, the declaration of the caliphate created a stir in Islamist circles, not least within AQC, which was taken aback by being upstaged. The event divided jihadist thinkers and religious personalities as well as jihadist movements. AQC and its supporters — who tended to be older and veterans of past jihads — argued that Baghdadi was an upstart who had no right to declare a caliphate; the time was inopportune and the manner inappropriate. Al-Baghdadi and his supporters — frustrated by al-Qaeda's seeming lack of vigor and success in recent years — declared that the military successes of ISIS provided both the legitimacy and opportunity to declare a caliphate.
The resurgence of ISIS and its subsequent transformation into the Islamic State has come as a shock to the Iraqi government, the region and the international community. The key question is whether the group can reinforce its hold on the area it controls, or whether it will face factional challenges or effective international push-back. The challenges are both internal and external.
Imploding from Within IS may sabotage itself without any help from the outside. It may overreach, even though its
leaders have cautioned its commanders on the ground to be prudent as they extended control over territory and peoples. The first Islamic state experiment revealed that the jihadists were not very effective at establishing and maintaining local alliances. It succumbed to hubris before it could consolidate control and began acting as if it were the dominant group, opening the door to an anti- jihadist uprising among Sunni insurgents that was aided by the Americans.
The Islamic State of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has pursued two pathways to the construction of the state, depending on circumstances and local conditions. It used violence against groups in Syria and moved swiftly to control territory and population. In northern Iraq, especially around Mosul, it sought to build and sustain alliances with local armed groups and slowly inserted itself within the population. This required compromise and prudence in dealing with the heavily armed and well- embedded former Sunni insurgents, including Baathist and Islamist groups that had established shadow financial networks. The Maliki government's unwillingness to meet Sunni demands for greater political inclusion and more resources made ISIS's job of "seducing" the Sunni fighters an easy task. Maliki's replacement, Haider al-Abadi, is seen as equally anti-Sunni. Furthermore, so many Sunni groups have gone so far to the other side that neither sees any hope of reconciliation. The longer the Islamic State can take advantage of this lack of Sunni options, the more likely it is to transform itself into a socially embedded political, economic and military presence in the Sunni areas of Iraq. Key Sunni leaders of the Sahwa movement who refused to see the merits of allying with ISIS have either been assassinated or forced to "repent" in order to join the organization.
The ideology of IS and its horrific modus operandi may engender resistance; conflict with its local partners is the most likely pathway to collapse in both Syria and Iraq. Moreover, strife with its allies over resources and power sharing may emerge. Dependence on local Sunni networks made IS vulnerable to abandonment by the groups that formed the Anbar Awakening. Resistance has
International Affairs 53
emerged in a number of areas in Syria. Groups affiliated with the main Syrian opposition group, the FSA, issued statements rejecting IS and declaring their commitment to continue the struggle against it. In Iraq, there are already strains between some of the former Baathist and nationalist elements, who see IS and its leaders as "useful idiots" who can be used to exact revenge and overturn the Shia-dominated system in Baghdad. However, there is every indication that IS and its command see the local allies as the useful idiots to be exploited. Only time will tell whether IS will succeed in fully incorporating the "allies."
Destroying IS from the Outside The international community has deferred to the United States in the effort to thwart the IS,
but President Obama's six-point plan for the defeat of the Islamic State promises more than it can likely deliver. On September 10, 2014, Obama laid out his strategy for significant expansion of the aerial bombing campaign in Iraq. Since mid-August, airpower has blunted the forward momentum of the lightning IS advance. It has even allowed the dispirited Iraqi army and the vastly overrated Kurdish peshmerga to push IS back from some of the territories it had conquered.
There are problems, however, with overreliance on airpower. The militants have learned to disperse, to tunnel, to use camouflage and to go to ground in the cities. Airpower can degrade but it cannot uproot an entire system of control over territory, people and infrastructure. IS is capable of regressing back to pure terrorism, a tactic in which it is thoroughly adept.
Second, the strategy calls for the training and equipping of the Iraqi army and the peshmerga. The United States looks set to throw more good money after bad, as indicated by the failures in summer 2014 of the Iraqi army — on which the United States had already spent $24 billion. Two IS battalions with a total of 800-1,200 men took Mosul in June from two Iraqi divisions with a combined strength of 30,000 men. The army is a victim of the failures of Iraq's body politic: sectarian tensions; promotion on the basis of ethnosectarian kinship ties rather than professionalism; corruption on a massive scale; and poor command, control and communications systems — due to the politician's mistrust of the officer corps. The best military equipment in the world will not make a difference if societal problems are not addressed.
The peshmerga are better disciplined than the Iraqi army, though organizationally weak. They have relied too much on their historical memory of being vaunted guerrilla fighters against various Iraqi regimes. The word "peshmerga" (those who face death) was evocative of their courage and tactical prowess. But they were defeated by IS in June as well. They are not a flexible or well- trained force able to deal with the wide range of military contingencies they recently faced, from guerrilla tactics to mobile hybrid warfare. The peshmerga are split between the two Kurdish political parties that dominate the region; there is no unified command and control. The peshmerga are more likely than the Iraqi army to benefit quickly from U.S. largesse and training. However, political and strategic considerations dictate that the United States cannot focus on making the Kurds combat- capable ahead of the central government in Baghdad.
Third, the strategy calls for bombing Syria, where the problems associated with bombing Iraq also apply. They may be worse; IS has embedded itself more deeply in eastern Syria. Moreover, it is unclear whether the proposed bombing campaign in Syria is about weakening IS or the Assad regime. Many in the United States hope for the destruction of the regime, but this would be a deviation of focus.
Fourth, the strategy calls for training and arming the Syrian rebels. Which ones? The United States often uses the word moderates with respect to the Middle East. However, the Syrian rebels are not moderate — three years of savage civil war have seen to that — and most are incapable of dealing with IS.
Fifth, the strategy called for bringing a coalition of European and regional allies on board in the fight. What will be the division of labor? It would seem that each country needs to be asked what it can contribute to the struggle. The most capable U.S. allies — Britain, France and Australia — will be at the "pointy end of the spear" alongside the United States.
Sixth, the United States says it will not put troops on the ground or see a modus vivendi with the Syrian and Iranian regimes. Western air power and a reliance on weak local ground forces will, however, not achieve even degradation of the IS system of control. What is likely required is the presence of enough Western ground forces to plant a small footprint in both Iraq and Syria. The United States and its Western allies have the most capable special operations forces in the world. They devastated al-Qaeda. The decapitation of IS leadership and personnel, and those allied with it, can be done most effectively by ground forces. They would enable the United States and its allies to work to decouple the Sunni tribes and former insurgents from IS. This would require the United States to put to use its recent experience of working with the Sunni community in their joint fight against the jihadists between 2006 and 2009. The Islamic State was established as a result of ISIS
54 TheAdvanced Contemporary Affairs (Book 92)
military successes in Syria in early 2014, when it kicked the other jihadist groups out of Raqqa, and in Iraq in summer 2014, when it conquered Mosul and other areas. Ground forces would be able to reduce the territories under IS control and thus work to delegitimize it.
Of course, IS cannot be defeated purely by military means. Political and diplomatic engagement with the Kurds and the central government in Iraq will be necessary. Israel and the Kurds are maneuvering to grant an independent "Kurdistan" as much Iraqi territory as possible. While the Kurds should be rewarded for their cooperation in defeating IS, this will cause problems if it comes at the territorial expense of what remains of Iraq. It will reinforce Sunni Arab grievances; they stand to lose the most in the territorial carve-up in the north. Coaxing Baghdad to offer political positions and economic equity in return for further military aid and training — as well as to ensure restraint by the Kurds — can only be done by the United States.
There is considerable pressure on Washington to ignore or bypass Syria and Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia certainly want to keep these so-called "rogue states" weak. A parade of self-styled U.S. experts on the region has been promoting the idea that the solution to this mess lies in the overthrow of the Assad regime. It is strategically myopic, recalling the idea that the best way to deal with al-Qaeda was to overthrow Saddam Hussein, when the focus should have been on Afghanistan. Engaging Iran does not mean appeasement. It means warning Tehran not to engage in machinations that are at variance with U.S. efforts to rebuild the Iraqi body politic and military along national rather than sectarian lines.
Syria cannot offer much help against IS; it is overstretched and untrustworthy. However, a policy of supporting the opposition is fraught with danger. The "moderate" opposition will turn on Assad and ignore IS; they have, in effect, been doing so. The non-IS jihadists, many affiliated with al- Qaeda, will watch as their two opponents fight each other and the United States deals with IS. These non-IS jihadists should not emerge as the winners in this melee. This does, of course, create a problem; the U.S. targeting of Jabhat al-Nusra in late September 2014 led that organization to issue threats against the West and begin working with IS forces in Syria.
ISIS did not appear out of the blue. Much of its revival has been due to events such as the Syrian civil war, but also to the fecklessness and monumental failures of the Iraqi government. Its successes and continued existence were perpetuated by the inability of regional governments and the United States to recognize it as a dire threat until summer 2014. The chances for crushing the insurgent terrorist menace are greatest when both the endogenous and exogenous challenges to the Islamic State are maximized simultaneously. This will require a more sophisticated approach than that currently being implemented by the United States and its allies.
Obama Visit to New Delhi Stirs Islamabad’s Scramble to Compete
A bove the sounds of cheering during President Obama’s recent visit to New Delhi for the 66th Republic Day military parade, a chorus of discontent emerged across the international border to the northwest. In the perennial regional competition between India and Pakistan, the U.S. leader’s second visit to one while again steering clear of the other could have serious implications for strategic stability in South Asia.
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have tea at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, Jan. 25, 2015. Obama swept aside past friction with India on Sunday to report progress on climate change and civilian nuclear power cooperation as he sought to transform a fraught relationship marked by suspicion into an enduring partnership linking the world’s oldest and largest democracies. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)
President Obama and Prime Minister Modi have tea at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, Jan. 25, 2015. Photo Credit: The New York Times/Stephen Crowley
The Jan. 25-27 visit to India also marked the second meeting between Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in less than six months, as the world’s two largest democracies seek
International Affairs 53
greater cooperation on defense, economic growth and energy. The summit occurred as the India- Pakistan relationship becomes increasingly fragile following a swell of violence on the Line of Control (LOC) dividing Kashmir between the two countries and India’s recent move to re-impose direct control over the area it administers.
Join USIP on Feb. 9 for a discussion on possible ways to address the India-Pakistan rift. For more details, see the event page.
Pakistan’s actions demonstrate its ire. Immediately following Obama’s visit, Pakistan’s high commissioner to India, Abdul Basit, was called to Islamabad for urgent consultations with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the state of bilateral relations between the two countries. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s foreign ministry spoke out against India’s bid for a permanent Security Council seat. And Pakistan pursued its own bilateral outreach, sending Army Chief General Raheel Sharif and the national security advisor, Sartaj Aziz, to Beijing for a high-profile official visit with defense counterpart General Qi Jianguo that coincided with Obama’s visit to India.
In Beijing, Pakistan’s message to India – and to its longtime ally the U.S. -- was clear: We can always look to China. Pakistan's mainline media have similarly touted the ties with China; major headlines cited Chinese officials referring to Pakistan as an "irreplaceable all-weather friend," a phrase that’s fast becoming a recurrent descriptor of the relationship by the two sides.
Meanwhile, New Delhi’s ties with Beijing have long been marred by economic competition, border disputes and tensions over China’s increasing naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Not to be left behind in the diplomatic contest, though, the Indian government sent Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj to Beijing on Feb. 1 for three-way talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Modi subsequently announced his own maiden journey to Beijing this May to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
India’s and Pakistan’s efforts to court Beijing for strategic purposes are clear. Yet while China sees Pakistan as one of its closest allies, particularly in the strategic sense, it approaches India with reluctant pragmatism, viewing the subcontinent as both its biggest commercial partner and most powerful competitor. Modi’s May trip is likely part of the contest for Beijing’s attention, even as India seeks to secure its own dominance in Asia with the U.S. partnership.
Nuclear alliances One of the most significant results of Obama’s visit to New Delhi, in fact, was the
announcement of a long-delayed deal to implement an agreement on civilian nuclear energy signed in 2008, in which the United States pledged to provide India with technology to reduce the dependence of the nation’s 1.3 billion people on fossil fuels. A new insurance pool is intended to help facilitate the entry of U.S. nuclear suppliers into India by indemnifying them against liabilities. A White House joint statement also highlighted the commitment of the two leaders to “continue work towards India’s phased entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group” and other export-control regimes.
But these latest arrangements remain more symbolic than concrete. Questions remain about whether the insurance pool will address the concerns of American nuclear-equipment suppliers enough to begin work in India. And Pakistan has consistently opposed India's bid for membership in the 48-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a non-proliferation regime that controls exports of nuclear materials.
Pakistan’s Aziz used the Beijing meetings as a platform to reassert disapproval of India’s induction to the group under a country-specific exemption. The joint Obama-Modi statement suggests that the international community may be ready to usher India into the NSG as a de-facto member in the near future.
Aziz insisted on Jan. 27 that such a move “would further compound the already fragile strategic stability environment in South Asia,” according to the Times of India.
Mistrust between leaders in New Delhi and Islamabad has been further aggravated as the U.S. and India have increased defense cooperation. Again during this summit, Obama and Modi agreed to expand joint military exercises and continue bilateral cooperation on military technology development in accordance with the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). That includes “joint production of parts and systems for the Lockheed C-130 and RQ-11 Raven drones,” according to news reports.
54 TheAdvanced Contemporary Affairs (Book 92)
In a nod to Pakistan, the U.S. recently authorized $1 billion in aid to support that country’s counterterrorism efforts. But with U.S.-Pakistan ties unsteady and political support for foreign assistance expected to wane in Washington following the NATO troop drawdown in Afghanistan last year, Pakistan has looked to China—its largest arms supplier—for some $4 billion in weapons and weapons technology in the past nine years.
Pakistan also has sought ties with Moscow; Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit last November resulted in a new military cooperation agreement. The Washington Post reports that Pakistan hopes to buy three dozen Russian Mi-35 helicopters from Russia and undertake joint efforts on counterterrorism and narcotics.
So the U.S. faces distinct and serious challenges in balancing its relationships with leaders in Islamabad and New Delhi. Among the signs to watch that might signal an easing or escalation of tensions are the fate of long-dormant peace talks over Kashmir, the role of India and Pakistan in Afghanistan and the advancement of India into the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
On Kashmir, when Obama informed Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last November of his upcoming visit to India, Sharif made a special appeal to the president to discuss the issue with Modi. It is thus surprising that peace talks were not discussed during the U.S. president’s visit to India, particularly given the recent uptick in shellings along the Line of Control that have displaced thousands on both sides and the decision by New Delhi to take direct control in its area.
There are still possibilities for cooperation between India and Pakistan that could improve diplomatic relations. Following the horrific Nov. 16 attack on the school in Peshawar, Pakistan has resolved to crack down on insurgents and to continue to target Taliban safe havens in North Waziristan. India has long called for Pakistan to get tougher with terrorist groups that target the subcontinent as well. Likewise, regional trade liberalization and economic development also offer space for enhanced ties.
As long as violent conflict between Pakistan and India can be contained, their rivalry is most likely to play out in diplomatic maneuvering, at least in the short term.
The Intersection of Three Crises
W ithin the past two weeks, a temporary deal to keep Greece in the eurozone was reached in Brussels, a cease-fire roadmap was agreed to in Minsk and Iranian negotiators advanced a potential nuclear deal in Geneva. Squadrons of diplomats have forestalled one geopolitical crisis after another. Yet it would be premature, even reckless, to assume that the fault lines defining these issues are effectively stable. Understanding how these crises are inextricably linked is the first step toward assessing when and where the next flare-up is likely to occur.
Germany and the Eurozone Crisis Germany has once again become the victim of its own power. As Europe's largest creditor, it
has considerable political leverage over debtor nations such as Greece, whose entire livelihood now depends on whether German Chancellor Angela Merkel is willing to sign another bailout check. Lest we forget, Germany is exporting more than half of its GDP, and most of those exports are consumed within Europe. Thus, the institutions Germany relies on to protect its export markets are the very institutions Berlin must battle to protect Germany's national wealth.
Many have characterized the recent Brussels deal as a victory for Berlin over Athens as eurozone finance ministers, including the Portuguese, Spanish and French, stood behind Germany in refusing Greece the right to circumvent its debt obligations. But Merkel is also not about to gamble an unlimited amount of German taxpayer funds on flimsy Greek pledges to cut costs and impose
International Affairs 53
structural reforms on a population that, for now, still views the ruling Syriza party as its savior from austerity. Within four months, Greece and Germany will be at loggerheads again, and Greece will likely still lack the austerity credentials that Berlin needs to convince its own Euroskeptics that it has the institutional heft and credibility to impose Germanic thriftiness on the rest of Europe. The more time Germany buys, the more inflexible the German and Greek negotiating positions become, and the more seriously traders, businessmen and politicians alike will have to take the threat of a so- called Grexit, the first in a chain of events that could shatter the eurozone.
The Role of the Crisis in Ukraine In order to steer Germany through an escalating eurozone crisis, Merkel needs to calm her
eastern front. It is no wonder, then, that she committed herself to multiple sleepless nights and an incessant travel schedule to put another Minsk agreement with Russia on paper. The deal was flawed from the start because it avoided recognizing the ongoing attempts by Russian-backed separatists to smooth out the demarcation line by bringing the pocket of Debaltseve under their zone of control. After several more days of scuffling, the Germans (again leveraging their creditor status — this time, against Ukraine) quietly pushed Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to accept the battlefield reality and move along with the cease-fire agreement. But even if Germany on one side and Russia on the other were able to bring about a relative calm in eastern Ukraine, it would do little in the end to de-escalate the standoff between the United States and Russia.
The Connection Between Ukraine and Iran Contrary to popular opinion in the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin is not driven by
crazed territorial ambitions. He is looking at the map, just as his predecessors have for centuries, and grappling with the task of securing the Russian underbelly from a borderland state coming under the wing of a much more formidable military power in the West. As the United States has reminded Moscow repeatedly over the past several days, the White House retains the option to send lethal aid to Ukraine. With heavier equipment comes trainers, and with trainers come boots on the ground.
From his perspective, Putin can already see the United States stretching beyond NATO bounds to recruit and shore up allies along the Russian periphery. Even as short-term truces are struck in eastern Ukraine, there is nothing precluding a much deeper U.S. probe in the region. That is the assumption that will drive Russian actions in the coming months as Putin reviews his military options, which include establishing a land bridge to Crimea (a move that would still, in effect, leave Russia's border with Ukraine exposed), a more ambitious push westward to anchor at the Dnieper River and probing actions in the Baltic states to test NATO's credibility.
The United States does not have the luxury of precluding any one of these possibilities, so it must prepare accordingly. But focusing on the Eurasian theater entails first tying up loose ends in the Middle East, starting with Iran. And so we come to Geneva, where U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met again Feb. 22 to work out the remaining points of a nuclear deal before March 31, the date by which U.S. President Barack Obama is supposed to demonstrate enough progress in negotiations to hold Congress back from imposing additional sanctions on Iran. If the United States is to realistically game out scenarios in which U.S. military forces confront Russia in Europe, it needs to be able to rapidly redeploy forces that have spent the past dozen years putting out fires ignited by sprouting jihadist emirates and preparing for a potential conflict in the Persian Gulf. To lighten its load in the Middle East, the United States will look to regional powers with vested and often competing interests to shoulder more of the burden.
A U.S.-Iranian understanding goes well beyond agreeing on how much uranium Iran is allowed to enrich and stockpile and how much sanctions relief Iran gets for limiting its nuclear program. It will draw the regional contours of an Iranian sphere of influence and allow room for Washington and Tehran to cooperate in areas where their interests align. We can already see this in effect in Iraq and Syria, where the threat of the Islamic State has compelled the United States and Iran to coordinate efforts to contain jihadist ambitions. Though the United States will understandably be more cautious in its public statements while it tries to limit Israeli anxiety, U.S. officials have allegedly made positive remarks about Hezbollah's role in fighting terrorism when speaking privately with their Lebanese interlocutors in recent meetings. This may seem like a minor detail on the surface, but Iran sees a rapprochement with the United States as an opportunity to seek recognition for Hezbollah as a legitimate political actor.
A U.S.-Iranian rapprochement will not be complete by March, June or any other deadline Washington sets for this year. Framework agreements on the nuclear issue and sanctions relief will necessarily be implemented in phases to effectively extend the negotiations into 2016, when Congress could allow the core sanctions act against Iran to expire after several months of testing
54 TheAdvanced Contemporary Affairs (Book 92)
Iranian compliance and after Iran gets past its parliamentary elections. Arrestors could arise along the way, such as the death of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but they will not deter the White House from setting a course toward normalizing relations with Iran. The United States, regardless of which party is controlling the White House, will rank the threat of a growing Eurasian conflict well ahead of de-escalating the conflict with Iran. Even as a nuclear agreement establishes the foundation for a U.S.-Iranian understanding, Washington will rely on regional powers like Turkey and Saudi Arabia to eat away at the edges of Iran's sphere of influence, encouraging the natural rivalries in the region to mold a relative balance of power over time.
Circling Back Germany needs a deal with Russia to be able to manage an existential crisis for the
eurozone; Russia needs a deal with the United States to limit U.S. encroachment on its sphere of influence; and the United States needs a deal with Iran to refocus its attention on Russia. No conflict is divorced from the other, though each may be of a different scale. Germany and Russia can find ways to settle their differences, as can Iran and the United States. But a prolonged eurozone crisis cannot be avoided, nor can a deep Russian mistrust of U.S. intentions for its periphery.
Both issues bring the United States back to Eurasia. A distracted Germany will compel the United States to go beyond NATO boundaries to encircle Russia. Rest assured, Russia — even under severe economic stress — will find the means to respond.
Shale oil and its Impact on World
M Imtiaz Shahid
S hale oil is an unconventional oil produced from oil shale rock fragments by pyrolysis, hydrogenation, or thermal dissolution. These processes convert the organic matter within the rock (kerogen) into synthetic oil and gas. The resulting oil can be used immediately as a fuel or upgraded to meet refinery feedstock specifications by adding hydrogen and removing impurities such as sulfur and nitrogen. The refined products can be used for the same purposes as those derived from crude oil.
The term “shale oil” is interchangeable, as it is used as well for crude oil produced from shales of other very low permeability formations. However, for avoiding the risk of confusion of shale oil produced from oil shale with crude oil in oil-bearing shales, the International Energy Agency recommends to use the term “light tight oil” and World Energy Resources 2013 report by the World Energy Council uses the term “tight oil” for the latter. A sedimentary rock, oil shale is found all over the world, including China, Israel, and Russia. The United States, however, has the most shale resources. Extracting Shale Oil: Obtaining shale oil from oil shale involves heating kerogen in a process called pyrolysis. Pyrolysis is a form of heating without the use of oxygen. At about 60-160 degrees Celsius (140-320 degrees Fahrenheit), kerogen reaches its natural “oil window.” At 120-225 degrees Celsius (248-437 degrees Fahrenheit), kerogen reaches its natural “gas window.” For production of oil shale, the temperatures are much higher. Pyrolysis can either be done ex situ (above ground) or in situ (below ground). Ex Situ: During the ex situ process, oil shale is first extracted from the earth by surface or underground mining. The rock is crushed, and then retorted (heated) to release the shale oil. The shale oil is then refined of impurities, such as sulfur. In Situ: In situ is a new, experimental method of extracting shale oil.
International Affairs 53
During the in situ process, oil shale is not mined or crushed. Instead, the rock is heated to its oil window while it is still underground.
One technology used for in situ oil extraction is known as volumetric heating. In this process, the rock is heated directly with an electric current. The heating element is injected either directly in a horizontal well or into a fractured area of the rock, until the oil shale begins producing shale oil. The oil could then be pumped directly from underground. Combined Technologies: Some methods are designed for both in situ and ex situ extraction.
The internal combustion process uses a combination of gas, steam and spent shale produced by ex situ processing. These compounds are burned for pyrolysis. The hot gas is continually cycled through the oil shale, pyrolyzing the rock and releasing oil.
Unfortunately, substances in the oil shale, such as sulfides, react with water to form toxic compounds that are harmful to the environment and to us. Sulfides can cause effects from eye irritation to suffocation. Water containing toxic substances is unusable, and expensive to decontaminate.
The process also produces heaps of ash. This ash can pollute ground, air, and water sources.
Another method that can be used either in situ or ex situ involves chemically reactive fluids. The fluids are injected directly into the retort zone (where the rock is being heated). High-pressure hydrogen is one of the most common chemically reactive fluids. It simultaneously heats the rock, removes sulfur, and upgrades the quality of the extracted oil. Environmental Effects: Mining for oil shale can have damaging effects on the environment. When shale oil is combusted (heated), it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas; it absorbs and retains heat in Earth’s atmosphere, a process called the “greenhouse effect.” The greenhouse effect is essential to life on Earth because it helps insulate Earth and keep it at a warm, livable temperature.
The greenhouse effect helps maintain Earth’s “carbon budget.” Carbon is constantly being exchanged between the ocean, the atmosphere, and the Earth itself. Carbon on the earth is contained in plants, soil, fossil fuels, and all living things—including us! The carbon in fossil fuels (including coal, petroleum, natural gas, and oil shale) has been sequestered, or stored, underground for millions of years. By removing this sequestered carbon from the earth and releasing it into the atmosphere, Earth’s carbon budget is put out of balance. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon into the atmosphere at a much quicker rate than the trees, water, and ground can reabsorb it. More carbon retains more heat in Earth’s atmosphere, and contributes to rising temperatures— global warming, the current period of climate change. Sometimes, climates can rise faster than organisms can adapt.
Another environmental disadvantage to extracting shale oil is the enormous amounts of freshwater required. Water is necessary for drilling, mining, refining, and generating power. Some experts estimate that three litres (.8 gallon) of water are required to produce just one litre (.3 gallon) of shale oil. Some of this water is contaminated by toxic compounds, and is costly to decontaminate.
Mining can also contaminate groundwater. During in situ processing, toxic byproducts are left underground. They can leach into other sources of water, making them unsafe for drinking, hygiene, or development.
• Shale oil (light tight oil) is rapidly emerging as a significant and relatively low cost new unconventional resource in the US. There is potential for shale oil production to spread globally over the next couple of decades. If it does, it would revolutionise global energy markets, providing greater long term energy security at lower cost for many countries.
• Analysis suggests that global shale oil production has the potential to reach up to 14 million barrels of oil per day by 2035; this amounts to 12% of the world’s total oil supply.
• It is estimated that this increase could reduce oil prices in 2035 by around 25%-40% ($83- $100/ barrel in real terms) relative to the current baseline EIA projection of $133/barrel in 2035, which assumes low levels of shale oil production.
• In turn, it is estimated this could increase the level of global GDP in 2035 by around 2.3%- 3.7% (which equates to around $1.7-$2.7 trillion at today’s global GDP values).
54 TheAdvanced Contemporary Affairs (Book 92)
• However, the benefits of such oil price reductions will vary significantly by country. Large net oil importers such as India and Japan might see their GDP boosted by around 4%-7% by 2035, while the US, China, the Eurozone and the UK might gain by 2%-5% of GDP.
• Conversely, major oil exporters such as Russia and the Middle East could see a significant worsening of their trade balances by around 4%-10% of GDP in the long run if they fail to develop their own shale oil resources.
• The potential emergence of shale oil presents major strategic opportunities and challenges for the oil and gas industry and for governments worldwide. It could also influence the dynamics of geopolitics as it increases energy independence for many countries and reduces the influence of OPEC.
• There are significant strategic implications along the value chain. Oil producers, for example, will have carefully to assess their current portfolios and planned projects against lower oil price scenarios.
• National and international oil producers will also need to review their business models and skills in light of the very different demands of producing shale oil onshore rather than developing complex “frontier” projects on which most operations and new investment is currently focused.
• Lower than expected oil prices could also create long-term benefits for a wide range of businesses with products that use oil or oil-related products as inputs (e.g. petrochemicals and plastics, airlines, road hauliers, automotive manufacturers and heavy industry more generally).
• The potential environmental consequences of an increase in shale oil production are complex and appropriate regulation will be needed to meet local and national environmental concerns. Shale oil could have adverse environmental effects by making alternative lower carbon transport fuels less attractive, but might also displace production from higher cost and more environmentally sensitive plays.
The Shale Oil Revolution is in Danger
O il producers and Wall Street analysts claim the setback in the fracking industry brought on by the collapse in oil prices will be brief and minor. Don’t believe them.
The shale oil revolution is providing a great gusher of profit, jobs, and swaggering entrepreneurship. It epitomizes the optimism surrounding America’s economic recovery.
Indeed, the rise of hydraulic fracking from Montana to Texas to Pennsylvania has lifted U.S. oil production mightily, from 5.6 million barrels a day in 2010, to a current rate of 9.3 million. And until late last year, it was widely accepted that our output would keep rising in 1 million barrel-plus annual leaps for years to come.
The recent drop in oil prices poses a major challenge to the frackers. But oil producers, Wall Street analysts, and most industry experts claim the setback will be brief and minor.
Don’t believe them. The basic economics of fracking—what it costs to drill versus what oil now sells for—spells
big trouble for the shale boom. At best, today’s producers may be able to hold production close to current levels. What’s gravely endangered is the advertised bonanza that virtually everyone deemed inevitable just a few short months ago.
Shale oil production is totally unlike drilling in any other part of the global market. In conventional wells, whether in the Middle East, the Gulf of Mexico, or the North Sea, the wells
International Affairs 53
operate on extremely long cycles. Typically, the amount of crude oil they produce declines at between 2% and 5% per year. Hence, a well that generates 2,000 barrels a day in the first year will yield between 95% and 98% of that quantity in year two. Since the output falls so gradually, wells typically keep pumping for 20 years or longer.
The wells’ long lives help account for the extreme volatility in oil prices. Naturally, producers plan their projects expecting to recoup the upfront investment required to find the oil and install the well––their “fixed costs”––and the “variable” or “marginal” costs of extracting the oil year after year, notably labor and electricity. In a business where the risks stand as tall as the rigs, companies only invest when they forecast future prices far above the total outlay of fixed and variable costs, in hopes of pocketing big profits. The rub is that energy prices frequently fall far below what’s required to return their full costs, let alone make a decent return. That was the scenario from the mid-1980s until early 2002, when oil prices averaged $20 a barrel.
When prices drop, however, almost all conventional wells keep pumping. That’s because the variable cost of lifting the crude is still far lower than the prices it fetches on the world market. Ten- year old wells often have variable costs of just $20 to $30 a barrel, so their owners keep on producing at prices of $60 or $80, even though it would require $100 oil to generate a good return on their total investment. In other words, what they spent to drill the well becomes irrelevant. All that matters is the cash they can generate over and above what’s required to suck out the crude every day. “What drives the business is the marginal cost, not the total cost,” says Ronald Ripple, a finance and energy business professor at the University of Tulsa. “Even at low prices, the production is still contributing something to cover the upfront investment.”
As a result, the global supply of oil is what economists call “inelastic.” Even if prices crater, the oil majors and sheiks keep pumping more or less the same quantities. They’ll only stop when prices drop below the variable cost—and for most wells, they seldom sink that far.
So, the primary determinant of oil prices, especially right now, is demand. Since supply won’t typically drop with a fall in the world’s thirst for oil, a decline in demand generates big, exaggerated downdrafts in prices. Naturally, wars and upheavals in oil producing countries can cause temporary shortages that mask falling consumption, but when production inevitably returns to normal levels, weak demand takes charge and prices crater.
That’s what is going on today. Oil consumption in the U.S. has fallen by over 8% since 2010, and the shrinkage in Europe is far greater than that. Meanwhile, China and India have not proven nearly as voracious as forecast. The drop in oil prices from over $100 in May to $48 has not, and will not, cause a major or even minor drop in production. That’s true even in high-cost areas such as the tar sands of Canada. In those forbidding fields, major energy companies have invested billions on plans to produce for 50 years, and even though they’re losing money on their total investment, they’re more than recouping their variable costs. So, as prices wobble, drilling will proceed smoothly. Except for fracking. Unlike conventional projects, shale wells enjoy an extremely short life. In the Bakken region straddling Montana and North Dakota, a well that starts out pumping 1,000 barrels a day will decline to just 280 barrels by the start of year two, a shrinkage of 72%. By the beginning of year three, more than half the reserves of that well will be depleted, and annual production will fall to a trickle. To generate constant or increasing revenue, producers need to constantly drill new wells, since their existing wells span a mere half-life by industry standards.
In fact, fracking is a lot more like mining than conventional oil production. Mining companies need to dig new holes, year after year, to extract reserves of copper or iron ore. In fracking, there is intense pressure to keep replacing the production you lost last year.
On average, the “all-in,” breakeven cost for U.S. hydraulic shale is $65 per barrel, according to a study by Rystad Energy and Morgan Stanley Commodity Research. So, with the current price at $48, the industry is under siege. To be sure, the frackers will continue to operate older wells so long as they generate revenues in excess of their variable costs. But the older wells—unlike those in the Middle East or the North Sea—produce only tiny quantities. To keep the boom going, the shale gang must keep doing what they’ve been doing to thrive; they need to drill many, many new wells.
Right now, all signs are pointing to retreat. The count of rotary rigs in use—a proxy for new drilling—has fallen from 1,930 to 1,881 since October, after soaring during most of 2014. Continental Resources, a major force in shale, has announced that it will lower its drilling budget by 40% in 2015. Because of the constant need to drill, frackers are always raising more and more money by selling equity, securing bank loans, and selling junk bonds. Many are already heavily indebted. It’s unclear if banks and investors will keep the capital flowing at these prices.
54 TheAdvanced Contemporary Affairs (Book 92)
Still, the future of fracking is extremely hard to predict. Continental, for example, pledges to raise production in 2015 despite the fall in its drilling budget. It would be a mistake to underestimate the ingenuity of the entrepreneurs who led the shale revolution. They will exploit new technologies that combine vertical and horizontal drilling to lower their costs. In the boom times, equipment rental, trucking, and labor were all priced at huge premiums; at $100 a barrel oil, producers put sinking the next well far ahead of fretting over their fat payrolls. Now, those costs are falling.
So it’s difficult to know where all-in costs will settle. If oil stays at around $50, a group of super-efficient producers may still be able to make money. Bruce Everett, who teaches petroleum economics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, is optimistic. “There will undoubtedly be some tailing off in U.S. drilling activity,” he says, “but I expect continued development drilling in major new areas, particularly the Bakken, even at $50.”
If demand rebounds—and it may—prices may very well rise above $60 once again, and fracking will once again become extremely profitable. But it’s not clear if the famous foe of fracking, Saudi Arabia, will let that happen. The Saudis have invested heavily to gain extra capacity of 2 million barrels a day. The Saudis may use that cushion to hold prices around $50, just out of range— at least today—for most shale oil producers.
Then again, the shale industry’s ability to hike production quickly could put a cap of $50 or $60 on oil prices. If prices rise much higher, either the Saudis will intervene, or more shale supplies will flood the market, stabilizing the price. “Because shale wells have short lives, allowing production to come on and off more quickly, fracking could moderate price fluctuations so they’re less volatile than in the past,” says David Kreutzer, an economist at the Heritage Foundation.
But the numbers are still daunting. It’s easy to get financing when your costs are $65 and you’re selling at $100. But when the price is $50, where will the producers find the funds to keep sinking those new wells? It will take a lot of new drilling just to keep production where it is now. A steady but no-growth shale industry is not what America has been counting on. The spread of rigs and jobs that seemed such a certainty, and such a staple of our recovery, may be a fading vision.
Five Bad Options for Gaza
T he latest war in Gaza—from the beginning of July to the end of August 2014—is over, but both Israelis and Palestinians believe it will not be the last one. Israelis believe they must deter Hamas from conducting additional attacks and keep it weak should a conflict occur. This is an approach that more pro-Western Palestinian leaders and Arab states like Saudi Arabia, fearing the political threat Hamas poses, often quietly applaud. For their part, Hamas leaders remain hostile to Israel and feel politically trapped by the extensive blockade of Gaza—and all the while, Gaza lies in ruins. The combination is explosive. Israeli security analyst Yossi Alpher put it succinctly: “It is increasingly clear that the Gaza war that ended in August will soon produce…another Gaza war.” The Economist also gloomily predicted that “war will probably begin all over again, sooner or later.”
Since Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007, the United States always subordinated its Gaza policy to the peace process in the hope that a comprehensive deal would transform the Israel- Hamas dynamic. This approach was always questionable: since Hamas took over Gaza, there were three major rounds of negotiations but also three major wars. And in April 2014, the peace talks, always a weak structure, collapsed yet again; renewed talks are not in sight. Both Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the moderate Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Palestinian Authority (PA) and rules on the West Bank, loathe each other, and ordinary Israelis and Palestinians are intensely skeptical that the other side is serious about peace.
The peace process is no longer a plausible way out, but the 50 days of war in 2014 also show a window of opportunity. Although Hamas claimed victory —“Gaza forced the enemy to retreat,” claimed Hamas' spokesman—its rocket arsenal is diminished and it is weaker than at any
International Affairs 53
time since the Second Intifada. At the same time, it is poised to grow far more dangerous in the coming years. Its rival, the Palestinian Authority—with its aging leadership, reliance on international donor largesse, and support for both peace negotiations and cooperation with Israel on West Bank security looking bankrupt to many Palestinians—lacks broad legitimacy, while Hamas is gaining popularity on the West Bank for having stood up to Israel. Israel too claimed victory, with Netanyahu calling it “a major military achievement.” However, polls show Israelis are skeptical and feel no one really won.6 Israel even accepted that Hamas would be part of a Palestinian unity arrangement, a huge shift from its pre-war position, when it vehemently rejected any Palestinian government that included Hamas.
Now is a good time to consider alternatives that would break us out of the cycle of provocation, response, and war. On one end, Israel could reoccupy Gaza, either ruling it directly or trying to bring in moderates like Abbas to rule there on the back of an Israeli tank. On the other extreme, a deal could be arranged that gives Hamas far more freedom to govern Gaza and have the area prosper in exchange for some form of disarmament. Israel might also try to bring the PA back to Gaza or even try to arrange a separate ceasefire with Hamas. These, along with the current approach, all have their strengths and weaknesses, but all deserve a more careful look as the peace process solution lacks credibility. Any alternative would probably involve a mix of measures from the different approaches, but for purposes of analysis, each is treated here as an ideal type.
In the end, several steps are necessary if Israel is to gain more lasting security and Gazans are to gain better lives. First, almost all the options require moderate Palestinians to govern more competently and be politically stronger: currently they are on the path to political irrelevance. Second, the world should encourage pragmatists in Hamas to work with Palestinian moderates. Finally, options that offer small changes in the status quo deserve consideration. Such steps would, over time, enable Israel to take more risks and allow everyone to move beyond the current stalemate.
What's At Stake in Gaza? Israel occupied Gaza in the 1967 war and governed it directly for over 25 years before
surrendering control over much of the Strip to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority in 1994. Israel did not reoccupy all of Gaza when the Second Intifada broke out in 2000, instead relying heavily on a security barrier, which it completed along the Gaza border in 2001. In 2005, Israel withdrew completely, this time even from the small Jewish settlements on the Strip—a wrenching move for Israelis that was bitterly controversial. Israelis hoped that this withdrawal would put Gaza and its problems behind them, removing it from the political equation, but instead it led to rocket and mortar fire. At times the attacks were just a brief disruption, at others a threat to daily life, and at all times intolerable. As Hamas's arsenal advanced from primitive, short-range “Qassam” rockets to advanced Iranian- and Syrian-supplied long-range rockets, almost all of Israel came under threat.
The rocket fire and other problems led to regular clashes, particularly in 2008–2009, again in 2012, and most recently in 2014. These clashes as well as several smaller ones led to over 90 deaths on the Israeli side, 71 of which occurred in the 2014 war. UN figures show almost 4,000 total Palestinian deaths in these three wars, among them at least 2,500 civilians, including roughly 900 children. (Palestinian deaths are harder to measure, and Israelis hotly challenge UN claims that many among the dead are civilians). Although Israel's “Iron Dome” missile-defense system has intercepted many rockets headed toward population centers, rockets have still forced Israelis to huddle in shelters, disrupted Israel's economy (especially tourism), and otherwise interrupted the daily lives of its citizens. In 2014, rocket fire led the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and several airlines to briefly suspend flights to Israel. In contrast to the 2012 conflict, Hamas was able to sustain rocket attacks throughout the most recent war, firing large salvos even as the ceasefire approached. Hamas also fired large numbers of mortars—short-range systems that cannot be intercepted by Iron Dome—leading many Israelis to leave areas near Gaza. Part of the reason Israel sent forces into Gaza was to stop the mortar threat.
Israelis also fear the tunnels Hamas has constructed in Gaza. In 2006, Hamas forces raided Israel via a tunnel and captured Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier Gilad Shalit, whose captivity only ended after five years and the exchange of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Israel discovered over 30 tunnels, almost half of which went into Israel proper. Israeli officials fear Hamas could repeat the Shalit operation or simply send operatives into Israel to kill and sow mayhem. Tunnels within Gaza itself greatly complicate Israeli military operations into the Strip. During the 2014 fighting, Hamas fighters emerged from a tunnel and surprised Israeli soldiers at the Nahal Oz border post: they did not capture a soldier, but they did kill
54 TheAdvanced Contemporary Affairs (Book 92)
five while taking only one casualty of their own. The tunnels also hide rockets, making it hard for Israel to destroy them.
Hamas has also trained an army of several thousand fighters, some of whom are embedded within Gaza's civilian population. The result is what military analyst Jeffrey White calls a “human dome,” enabling Hamas fighters to avoid the full brunt of Israel's military response. These fighters lack the skill and firepower of the IDF, but they are tenacious, and the 2014 fighting showed them to be more capable than Hamas forces had been in previous rounds.
For Palestinians, the Gaza problem is less about repeated wars—though these are tough enough—and more about the grinding misery of day-to-day life. Israel has made life difficult in Gaza as part of a policy designed to avoid a full-out humanitarian crisis but to discredit Hamas by preventing economic development in Gaza. U.S. government officials privately referred to this as keeping “Gaza's economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge.” Food security is low, electricity sporadic, and unemployment high. Making a bad situation worse for Hamas, the 2013 coup against the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt transformed a potential friend into a bitter enemy. Egypt has since clamped down on cross-border tunnels that are used to smuggle everything from diapers to rockets, devastating the Gazan economy—to the point that some Israeli security officials feared the pressure would backfire and lead to a complete collapse of order in Gaza or the empowerment of even more radical voices. Potential funders in the Gulf have also turned against Hamas, sharing Egypt's fear of the Brotherhood, and Iran and Hamas split when they picked opposite sides in the Syria conflict. War with Israel compounds all these problems.
The Gaza conflict is troubling not just for Israelis and Gazans but for the region as a whole and for U.S. interests as well. Israelis look at their 2005 withdrawal from Gaza as a questionable precedent for the West Bank: why would withdrawal in the West Bank lead to peace when the withdrawal from Gaza failed to do so? Israelis are skeptical that talks with Abbas on the West Bank will really mean peace if rockets continue from Gaza, while the back and forth between Israel and Hamas, and the resulting heavy Palestinian casualties, inflame Palestinian anger against Israel and damage the standing of moderate Palestinian leaders. As long as the conflict festers, it is difficult for the peace process to resume and gain traction, and as long as the peace process ignores Gaza, the conflict festers. Conflict in Gaza also bleeds over into neighboring Sinai, contributing to the growing terrorism problem in Egypt. For the United States, which has more than enough problems in the Middle East, close ties to Israel become a millstone when Israel is perceived as slaughtering innocent Muslims.
The Current Approach: Mowing the Grass Any solution must take into account the goals of the parties involved and the politics on all
sides. For Israel, the immediate requirement is security: no rocket or other attacks from Gaza. This applies both to Hamas and to other militant groups in Gaza, like the Iran-linked Palestine Islamic Jihad and Salafi-jihadists (who have an ideology akin to that of al-Qaeda). Some of these are Hamas's enemies or rivals, but some Israeli leaders contend Hamas could suppress them if it wanted to and that Hamas allows them to strike Israel as a way to continue applying pressure while avoiding direct responsibility. (The truth is somewhere in between: Hamas cannot prevent every attack, and most of the attacks after 2012 were from Palestine Islamic Jihad, but Hamas can certainly do more than it has done to stop them.) Israel also worries about the development of Hamas's military potential, be it by building up rocket arsenals, restoring its tunnel complex, or otherwise being able to challenge Israel more successfully. Israel believes that Hamas did not honor the terms of the ceasefire after the previous clash in 2012: Hamas placed explosives on the border, built tunnels, manufactured weapons, and did not fully prevent rocket fire from Gaza.
Hamas, in turn, has multiple and conflicting goals. On one hand, Hamas seeks Israel's destruction. On the other hand, some, though not all, of Hamas's leaders recognize Israel's overwhelming military superiority and know they must temper their goals, with some calling for ceasefires—though these same leaders at times use violent rhetoric, and precisely where Hamas stands regarding even a de facto recognition of Israel has never been fully tested.
Hamas also must maintain its internal cohesion. Hamas tries to represent the vast Palestinian refugee population in Jordan, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Arab world and globally; Palestinians in the West Bank; and of course Gazans; but the three groups have different goals. A more peaceful path threatens Hamas's internal cohesion. Having cultivated an ethos of violence for decades, and having come to power in part by denouncing the Palestinian Authority and using terrorism to undermine its efforts at peace, conciliatory steps might anger militants within the movement, particularly in the military wing, as well as members of smaller rival groups. This would
International Affairs 53
give them an opportunity to slam more pragmatic Hamas leaders for appeasement and cowardice. In general, Hamas has managed overall cohesion well, but it remains a delicate balancing act. Finally, Hamas wants to govern. It rules Gaza, and its own philosophy stresses creating a successful Islamic government—a difficult if not impossible goal if Gaza is always at war with Israel and is under near- constant blockade. Governing well also enables Hamas to win over Palestinians and make a more credible claim to overall leadership. Hamas believes that Israel did not honor the terms of the 2012 ceasefire, did not stop targeting Hamas members, did not end restrictions on people and goods in Gaza, and otherwise kept up the same policies that led to war in the past.
Both sides have a complex attitude toward an important third player: Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Israel relies on Abbas to help police the West Bank, and many Israelis recognize that Abbas is as conciliatory a leader as Israel can reasonably expect. Israelis, however, are skeptical of the peace process—a skepticism that runs deep within the Netanyahu government— so they are reluctant to make advancing the peace process part of the equation in Gaza. In addition, they regard Abbas as a weak leader whose political and physical longevity is uncertain. Indeed, before the 2014 war, Israel rejected the “government of national consensus” between Hamas and Abbas, fearing that it would be the foot in the door for Hamas to take control of more Palestinian institutions.
Hamas, for its part, sees Abbas and his Fatah party as a rival for leadership of the Palestinian national movement. Part of the reason Hamas foments terrorist attacks against Israel in the West Bank is to draw a harsh Israeli response against Abbas and the PA there and thereby undermine their popularity. In addition, when Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007, it had a short but bloody fight with PA security forces, complete with torture and executions (perpetrated by both sides). However, because Palestinian public opinion strongly favors unity, it is hard for Hamas to make its competition overt—it must appear conciliatory. Moreover, Hamas at times uses the PA as a backstop. Part of why Hamas joined the unity arrangement was that it felt unable to govern Gaza effectively due to the blockade and was happy to hand the mess over to the PA.
Both Israel and Hamas also fear Hamas could become too weak. For Hamas, a loss of power would undermine its credibility. For Israel, the perceived alternatives to Hamas are not just the moderate Abbas and the PA, but also more radical elements of Hamas, terrorists with an ideology more akin to that of al-Qaeda, or just chaos where the worst are full of passionate intensity. Thus, as one senior Israeli military official admitted, “I see no alternative to control being exercised by Hamas.”
With these goals in mind, the logic behind the latest war is clearer. Hamas, weakened by the blockade, battered by Egypt, and having lost much of its support from important donors like Iran, initially tried to restore its legitimacy by entering into a unity deal with Abbas. Israel vociferously opposed this, even though the terms of the agreement overwhelmingly favored Abbas: the unity government's senior figures were all from the PA, and Hamas allowed several thousand PA security forces back into Gaza with no reciprocity for Hamas in the West Bank. Abbas also made clear that the PA would continue to negotiate with Israel. All of these were painful concessions for Hamas— though Hamas did claim, to itself at least, that joining with the PA did not mean embracing a peace process (Hamas leaders justified this concession rather lamely by arguing that it allowed the organization to focus on fighting Israel, as opposed to governing Gaza). Israel maintained tight restrictions on what went into and out of Gaza and refused to allow the tens of thousands of civil servants in Gaza to be paid. As the International Crisis Group's Nathan Thrall points out, this made the agreement of little value to the people in Gaza, where electricity is sporadic, sewage at times floods the streets, and medical care is often lacking.
Israel particularly feared that the agreement would allow Hamas to reestablish itself on the West Bank, a security nightmare for Israel. When three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered on the West Bank by Hamas members in June 2014, Israel responded by trying to uproot the Hamas infrastructure there, arresting several hundred Hamas members and leaders, including many who had earlier been freed as part of the prisoner-release deal involving Shalit. Hamas responded with rockets—the first time it admitted to launching rockets itself since 2012—and Israel responded with air strikes on Gaza. In the past, Hamas backed away from the brink; this time, however, Hamas had little to lose and felt that a broader conflict was the only way to restore its credibility and bring publicity to the situation in Gaza, which the world was ignoring. It didn't back down and instead increased the rocket attacks; Israel responded with more air strikes and eventually a limited ground invasion.
Now that the war is over, one can look back and see how Israel's current approach to Gaza reflects its competing goals: it doesn't solve the Jewish state's problems, but it limits them while
54 TheAdvanced Contemporary Affairs (Book 92)
giving Hamas enough to survive (though not prosper). In part, Israel's approach is classic deterrence: it seeks to convince Hamas's leaders that any aggression or unwanted behavior will result in a severe response. But Israel's approach also involves continual efforts to keep Hamas weak and off- balance—though not enough to cause Gaza to collapse completely or allow even more radical rivals to gain strength.
Israel's approach is often considered part of a strategy labeled “mowing the grass.” As the label suggests, Israel considers Hamas and other terrorist groups a constant danger, but one that is almost impossible to uproot. The approach, then, is to strike regularly to keep the danger limited (or the grass mowed), recognizing that, on a regular basis, additional strikes will need to be carried out.
The current approach limits the threat Hamas poses to an acceptable cost— to Israel, at least. Fewer Israelis have died fighting Hamas since it took power in Gaza in 2007 than died in Lebanon fighting Hezbollah and other foes between 1985 and 2000, when Israel abandoned its security zone in Lebanon. Israel does not need to maintain troops in Gaza as it does in the West Bank, and because Hamas administers the Strip, Israel is not administratively or politically responsible for Palestinians there.
Hamas has also proven it can be deterred, at least temporarily, particularly if it is hit hard and feels it has gained concessions in exchange, such as a reduction of the impact of the blockade. After major clashes such as those in 2008–2009, 2012, and 2014, the number of rockets launched from Gaza fell precipitously. After the 2012 war, for example, Israeli intelligence found there was only one attack in the three months after the ceasefire, and 2013 was the quietest year in a decade. Hamas has at times called on groups to refrain from rocket attacks and even created a special security force to prevent unauthorized strikes. In essence, it acted as Israel's policeman, though of course the Islamist group would vigorously deny this claim.
Perhaps most important, containing and deterring Hamas is politically the easiest option for Israel. It does not bring the costs or opprobrium of a new occupation, allows political leaders to show they are strong—vital in Israel's political culture—and avoids reliance on the international community, which is widely viewed with suspicion among Israelis (often justifiable—just look at Hamas's use of UN Relief and Works Agency buildings in Gaza to hide rockets).
Yet, Israel's current approach has many hidden costs. Deterrence works at best fitfully, and Hamas rockets have longer ranges than in the past. The casualties Hamas has inflicted are a high number for a small state, especially one as casualty-sensitive as Israel. In addition, the rocket attacks, and the constant risk of them, impose a psychological burden. Some Israelis living near Gaza are reluctant to return, and rates of trauma are high.
Israel also pays a cost internationally. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank is deeply unpopular around the world and is even causing growing skepticism among some supporters of Israel in the United States. Ironically, this opprobrium shows up with regard to Gaza—even though Israel withdrew from Gaza completely— because of a conflation of Gaza with “the Palestinians”; thus, violence there is viewed in the context of Israel's broader occupation. In addition, the repeated wars that are part of “mowing the grass” create a different kind of opprobrium, fostering the impression that Israel deliberately kills Palestinian civilians.
Mowing the grass also hurts more moderate Palestinians. Whenever Israel attacks Gaza, the cooperation of moderate Palestinians with Israel, and their dislike of Hamas, are on full display. When PA security forces help Israelis disrupt Hamas in the West Bank, they look like collaborators. The attacks highlight the ineffectiveness and irrelevance of the moderate leadership, which has no influence over the actors and no way to protect Palestinians in Gaza. In addition, because Hamas is neither destroyed nor committed to peace, Hamas has the ability to disrupt peace talks, should they ever get on track.
The current approach also increases Hamas's reliance on Iran. Although Syria remains a bone of contention, Iran still needs allies in the anti-Israel struggle, particularly a leading Sunni group like Hamas, and Hamas has few other choices if it wants to maintain its ability to use violence and gain access to external funding. Finally, the current approach puts the conflict in stasis: Hamas is weak and off balance, but politically and militarily still a potent force.
Four Alternatives If the status quo is deficient for both Israelis and Gazans, what are the alternatives? This
section reviews four possibilities: crushing Hamas and reoccupying Gaza; a ceasefire deal with a unity government that leads the PA to return to Gaza; a deal where Hamas disarms in exchange for aid; and an extended ceasefire negotiated directly with Hamas.
International Affairs 53
Option One: Crush and Occupy Israel has the military power to reoccupy Gaza and subdue Hamas there, an approach that
conservative Israeli leaders like Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman have suggested. Once in charge, Israel could rule directly or try to install its preferred proxy and, as it did in the West Bank after retaking territory there in 2002, gather the intelligence and develop the security presence necessary to identify and arrest the Hamas cadre. The task would take months, as Hamas has a vast administrative and military infrastructure. However, Israeli intelligence is quite skilled, and over time Israel would crush Hamas and largely end the rocket threat. The timing for such a move in some ways is ideal given Hamas' international isolation.
The costs of occupation, however, are considerable—to the point that even conservative Israeli governments like Netanyahu's have shied away. Although Israel could devastate Hamas, the organization's roots in Gaza are deep, and it has spent decades as a clandestine terrorist group. Hamas would be able to run a low-level insurgency from Gaza, using guns and bombs to inflict a steady, if limited, flow of casualties on the Israeli military. An Israeli military assessment found that assuming control would cost hundreds of soldiers' lives and billions of dollars each year: “we would long for southern Lebanon,” said an Israeli military official, referring to Israel's security zone there that experienced constant clashes with Hezbollah. All factions in Gaza would almost certainly join Hamas in opposing Israel, and massive unrest could erupt in the West Bank in sympathy.
Israel would also pay heavy political costs. Israel would have to run Gaza, and in the eyes of the world the occupation would be growing, not shrinking. All of Gaza's myriad problems, ranging from sewage to crime, would be Israel's to solve. Occupation would also strengthen the Hamas narrative that Israel is committed to controlling all of Palestine and does not want a negotiated peace, destroying the credibility of moderate Palestinians as well as voices within Hamas calling for a pragmatic deal with Israel. Even if Israel handed off power to Abbas and the PA, they would (rightly) be seen as Israeli puppets, reducing what little legitimacy they have left.
Over time, it is also possible that Egypt would become less supportive, given the unpopularity of Israel among the Egyptian public. Israel relies on Egypt to police its border with Gaza, preventing arms from entering and militants from moving in and out to train and develop connections with Iran and other radical forces. If Egypt became more sympathetic to Hamas, Hamas' ability to arm and otherwise become more deadly would grow dramatically.
Option Two: Bring the PA Back to Gaza Instead of attempting to impose a government on Gaza, Israel could try to help— or at least
not hinder—a return of the PA to Gaza through peaceful means, particularly as part of a unity deal between Hamas and the PA. Since 2007, Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip while the PA (controlled by Fatah, the largest party in the PA) has controlled the West Bank. Fatah and Hamas have fought bitterly over the years, but agreed to a unity deal in April 2014 in which they would share power. Hamas accepted this deal out of weakness, but Israel refused to negotiate with a Palestinian government that had any Hamas role. After the summer 2014 war, however, Israel proved more willing to accept some reintegration of the two parts of the Palestinian Authority and to deal, at least indirectly, with a unity arrangement in which Hamas has no direct role—a complete fiction, but one both Israel and Hamas prefer.
Under such an arrangement, the PA would assume responsibility for Gaza's border crossings with Israel and Egypt as well as aspects of the economy and overall administration of the Strip; in reality, though, Hamas would continue to run much of the show. Israel's extensive cooperation with the PA in the West Bank on security issues would be applied in Gaza to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza (and especially to get Egypt to work with the PA on the Rafah crossing) and to conduct inspections to ensure Hamas is not secretly stockpiling weapons, building tunnels, or otherwise becoming more dangerous militarily.
From Hamas's point of view, the unity agreement would allow it to continue to play a political role, yet free it somewhat from the burden of Gaza's failing economy and isolation. A unity government is also politically popular, as both Hamas and Fatah supporters see themselves as one people and do not want Gaza and the West Bank to go their separate ways. For different reasons, both Fatah and Hamas need this legitimacy.
However, bringing the PA back is only the first step. The PA would have to consolidate its power in Gaza for this approach to reap its full benefits. To gain politically, the PA would need to ensure that Gaza has electricity as well as building materials, and that Gazans can go to Egypt when necessary. This could prove somewhat easier for the PA than for Hamas: with the PA back in charge,
54 TheAdvanced Contemporary Affairs (Book 92)
when Israel supplied electricity and other services and goods to Gaza, it would be to bolster the PA, not aid an enemy government. Ultimately, for the PA to succeed, Gaza would have to succeed, at least modestly; if not, Hamas's gambit of shrugging off responsibility for Gaza to the PA would succeed, dragging down Abbas by making him look like an Israeli puppet and making Hamas look good by comparison.
The eventual goal would be for the PA to be strong enough to compel Hamas to disarm, or at least make it hard for the organization to resume violence. We're a long way from that. In the meantime, and perhaps surprisingly, for this approach to work, Hamas must also gain politically. Hamas is not defeated—it retains its arms and thus some military capacity and could resume fighting should it choose to do so— and so to avoid further violence, it must know that it has a chance of triumphing politically. The unity agreement also gives Hamas more room to compete politically on the West Bank with Abbas and his supporters, and it is unclear who would win. Hamas has already gained ground politically in the latest war simply by standing up to Israel, and with peace talks in shambles, the PA has no credible path to independence that can counter Hamas's argument that Israel only understands force.
Option Three: Exchange Aid for Disarmament Another option Israelis are bruiting about is to combine two extremes: Hamas would make
the ultimate sacrifice and disarm, effectively ending its self-styled role as a resistance organization, and in exchange Israel would provide Gazans with a massive aid package that would greatly improve their standard of living. Former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz proposed an initiative in which, in exchange for the demilitarization of Gaza, Israel would offer a “significant, economic aid package for the Palestinian population that would include a budget of $50 billion over five years for infrastructure, welfare, healthcare, education, and employment,” as well as easing restrictions on border crossings. Other leading Israelis, such as former intelligence chief Yuval Diskin, have proposed less sweeping trades, with a more gradual demilitarization that focuses on particular types of weapons, such as long-range rockets, in exchange for “implementation of an international plan to rebuild the Gaza Strip,” among other concessions.
Such offers put Hamas in a bind: it must choose between advancing the welfare of Gazans and its own military power. For Hamas, disarming is a huge risk. Most Palestinians would see disarming under duress, and without significant Israeli concessions, as surrender. Most Gazans accept Hamas's view that it is military capacity, not goodwill gestures, that will lead Israel to make concessions. They point to the prisoner exchange after the Shalit kidnapping and the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and contrast them to the failure of negotiations by the PA. Hamas also fears that once it demilitarized, the PA security forces would exact revenge for Hamas's bloody takeover of the Strip in 2007. In addition, while Hamas might agree to disarm, other groups like Palestine Islamic Jihad or Salafi-jihadist fighters would not—and many within Hamas's military wing might choose to join them rather than give up the fight. That would leave a situation in which the most extreme individuals committed to violence are heavily armed while the relatively more pragmatic elements of Hamas lack any capacity to police them.
Nor is it clear who would provide the aid to Gazans should Hamas agree to disarm. The $50 billion proposed by Mofaz would be a huge sum for Israel, and skeptical Israelis would prove reluctant to give any money to Hamas even if it agreed to disarm, as Hamas would surely not end its hate-filled incitement against Israel. Hamas is not popular in the West, and the figures discussed are large for Turkey and even Qatar, Hamas's key allies. Several states in the latest donor conference on Gaza questioned the wisdom of sinking billions more dollars into rebuilding Gaza yet again, only to see their work undone in the next round of conflict.
Hamas might also gain politically. Part of the West's failed strategy so far has been to make the West Bank more attractive than Gaza economically in the hopes of enhancing the PA's stature; now the opposite could be true. So success of this option would mean a less violent Hamas, but one that is a more influential voice among Palestinians.
Option Four: Negotiate a Lasting Ceasefire Although Hamas is a seemingly implacable opponent of Israel and the PA embraces peace,
a limited deal with Hamas over Gaza is in some ways simpler than a comprehensive one with moderate Palestinians. Emotional issues in contention in negotiations with Abbas, such as the status of Jerusalem or the fate of Israeli settlements, are not present in Gaza. And Hamas is a stronger organization than the PA: if it makes a deal, it is better able to stick to it.
International Affairs 53
A limited “like for like” ceasefire, in which Hamas ends rocket attacks and polices the Strip while Israel eases the economic vise on Gaza—but neither side goes much further—is more plausible. Hamas could claim that its long- term goals remain expansive, but that it is accepting a lasting ceasefire due to its current weakness; in fact, Hamas's current approach has elements of this logic. Israel would have to ensure a modicum of basic economic activity in Gaza, and Egypt would have to allow Gazans some freedom to travel to and from the Strip (admittedly a difficult requirement given Cairo's hostility to Hamas). Such a ceasefire would also help the people of Gaza, as any deal would involve lifting economic restrictions and otherwise making life easier. This approach could even potentially shift the debate within Hamas over how much to emphasize governance versus resistance: a lasting ceasefire combined with economic rewards that would allow Hamas to govern more effectively would bolster its political position with Palestinians through non-violent means and strengthen more pragmatic voices within Hamas, making further moderation more likely.
Although the Hamas leadership is strong, a long-term ceasefire would be opposed by militants in its own military wing, along with groups like Palestine Islamic Jihad and even more radical al-Qaeda types. Much of Hamas also opposes this ideologically and—perhaps more important—believes it has gained the support of many Palestinians by positioning itself in opposition to Abbas and the PA, denouncing them for their willingness to sell Palestinian patrimony. For its part, Israel would find it hard to commit to a long-term ceasefire without a bold gesture by Hamas to show it has changed its stripes.
Hamas' pragmatism is uncertain—and there's the rub, for this option as for so many of these options. Hamas does have pragmatic voices, but it also has radical ones. So even if Hamas leaders are genuine now, there is no certainty that its leaders would not return to violence in five years, or even five months. Indeed, if there are not economic restrictions on Gaza, then Hamas might be able to smuggle in even more weapons and otherwise bolster its military capacity, making the next conflict even bloodier. And if the situation stagnates but Hamas continues to stop violence emanating from Gaza against Israel, it could find itself in the same situation the PA has been for the last 20 years: accused of being Israel's subcontractor while failing to end the occupation. Hamas thus worries that any move toward peace would lead to violent splinters and the growth of radical rivals, developments that would greatly weaken Hamas.
There would be one clear loser from this deal: Abbas and other moderate Palestinian leaders. In essence, Israel would be bypassing them, sending a message that Hamas's violence is what commands Israel's attention, not an offer of negotiations.
Implications The problem with the current Israeli and international policy toward Gaza is that there is no
end state beyond repeated conflict. The problem with all the alternatives is that they are often costly, infeasible, or uncertain. For now, it is not realistic to expect change, but as the stagnation of the status quo becomes clearer, circumstances might shift.
Any long-term strategy depends on the strength of moderate Palestinians as well as moderate Israelis. Even if Israel were to pursue the most muscular policy— reoccupying Gaza— Israel would eventually want to hand off power to moderate Palestinians. Any approach involving negotiations similarly requires moderate Palestinians to be able to triumph politically and, when negotiations end, to be the voice of the Palestinian people. Unfortunately, Hamas remains strong politically among Palestinians.
The United States should seek to strengthen voices within Hamas that favor governance over violence. There should be no illusions: Hamas as an organization remains committed to violence, including violence against civilians. But Hamas has pragmatic as well as zealous voices, and it knows when it is in a tight spot—as it is now. For pragmatic voices to win politically, Hamas needs political options. As such, it should be encouraged to work with moderate Palestinians, and the siege of Gaza should be eased as long as Hamas stops violence.
Finally, the suffering of Gazans is real and constant, and there is no end in sight. Diskin's idea of limited disarmament in exchange for greater aid will satisfy no one—Hamas will want more, and Israeli hawks will protest that Hamas remains armed—but it would reduce the threat to Israel while making life better for ordinary Gazans. Similarly, efforts to increase the PA presence in Gaza, and especially to bolster it once it is there, are small steps that might have a long-term payoff. Such specific trades that are more politically feasible should be pursued in the absence of a broader peace process.
54 TheAdvanced Contemporary Affairs (Book 92)