France in Disarray: what the left Must do – Pages 10-11
SEPTEMBER 2014 N o 1409
ISLAMIC STATE FILLS MIDDLE EAST VOID
IS back in business
Emerging in an increasingly chaotic Middle East, IS is profiting from the region’s growing sectarianism, political vacuum and the ambivalence of the West
SQUEAK CARNWATH – ‘Lucky Star’ (2004)
The new cold war
By Serge Halimi
In 1980 Ronald Reagan expressed his idea of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union in one short sentence: “We win, they lose.” Twelve years later, his immediate successor at the White House, George H W Bush, was satisfied that the task had been accomplished: “A world once divided into two armed camps now recognises one, sole and pre-eminent power, the United States of America.” The cold war was officially at an end.
That period too is now over. Its death knell sounded on the day Russia had had enough of “losing” and realised that its ritual humiliation would never come to an end, with one neighbouring country after another being persuaded – or bribed – into joining an economic and military alliance against it. Obama, speaking in Brussels in March, stressed that “Today, NATO planes patrol the skies over the Baltics and we’ve reinforced our presence in Poland. And we’re prepared to do more” (1). Vladimir Putin, addressing the Russian parliament, observed that this was part of the “infamous policy of containment” that the western powers had pursued against Russia since the 18th century (2).
However, the new cold war will be different from the old one. As Obama pointed out, “unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology.” The latest confrontation is not between an American superpower, drawing the imperial assurance of a “manifest destiny” from its religious faith, and an “evil empire” castigated by Reagan for its atheism. On the contrary, Putin is appealing with some success to Christian fundamentalism. On annexing Crimea, he suddenly remembered it was the place “where Saint Vladimir was baptised … adopting Orthodoxy predetermined the overall basis of the culture, civilisation and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.”
In other words, Moscow will not allow Ukraine to become a rear base for its enemies. The Russian people, inflamed by nationalist propaganda that is even more extreme than western brainwashing (and that’s saying something), won’t have it. Meanwhile, in the US and Europe, the supporters of rearmament are raising the stakes, with warlike declarations and a host of assorted sanctions that only increase the determination in the enemy camp. “The new cold war may be more perilous,” warns Stephen F Cohen, one of America’s leading Russia experts, “because, unlike its predecessor, there is no effective American opposition – not in the administration, Congress, media, universities, think tanks” (3). The well-known recipe for every kind of trap…
ranslated by Barbara Wilson (1) Speech by Barack Obama in Brussels, 26 March 2014. (2) Speech by Vladimir Putin to the Russian Parliament, 18 March 2014. (3) Address to the annual US-Russia Forum in Washington DC, 16 June 2014, reproduced in The Nation, New York, 12 August 2014.
Inside this issue Sinai strikes back ismail alexandrani Page 2-3 Israel’s other friend in high places igor delanoë Pages 4-5 Ukraine: life on hold hélène richard Page 6 How long will exception be the rule? evelyne pieiller Page 7
By Peter Harling
The so-called Islamic State (IS) – the jihadist movement also known as ISIL or ISIS and by the derogatory acronym Da’ish in Arabic – now controls much of northeast Syria and northwest Iraq (1). In a region beset with so much confusion, it appears uniquely determined and self-assured. Despite its name, it is in no sense a new state, since it rejects the concept of borders and largely does without institutions. Yet IS tells us much about the Middle East – and especially about its genuine states – as well as about western foreign policy.
IS is an aggressive movement with a surprisingly clear identity, given its origins and the fact that it is made up of volunteers from many different places. It began in Iraq where, following the 2003 US invasion, a handful of former mujahideen from the Afghan war established a local Al-Qaida franchise. Very quickly their ideology parted company from that of Al-Qaida central: they focused on enemies close at hand rather than less accessible ones, such as the United States or Israel. Increasingly ignoring the US occupier, they instigated a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia, and then descended into fratricidal conflict, using extreme violence against supposed traitors and apostates in their own Sunni camp. The ensuing self-destruction, between 2007 and 2008, reduced the movement to a few diehards entrenched in the Iraqi desert.
That the movement is back in business – in spectacular fashion – is due only in small part to IS itself. The way has been paved for it by its enemies, who make an impressive rollcall of major players in the region: first there are Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, which have used every means possible and imaginable – and unimaginable in the case of Syria’s chemical weapons – to fight a Sunni opposition they first sought to radicalise, in the name of a
Peter Harling is project director with the Middle East programme of the International Crisis Group; he lived in Baghdad from 1998 to 2004
Panama Canal: China muddies the water françois musseau Pages 8-9 Yes or no, it’s all change for Scotland keith dixon Pages 12-13 Backs against the walls in Cairo nael shama Page15 The shape of things to come? laurent cordonnier Page 16
so-called “war on terror”. Then there are Iraq and Syria’s ad hoc partners, the US and Russia respectively, which have encouraged them in this. Maliki and Assad’s loyal ally, Iran, has done more than offer unconditional support; it has pursued a foreign policy in the Arab world that has increasingly focused on supporting pockets of Shia militias, which contribute to sectarian polarisation.
Also on the list are the Gulf monarchies whose petrodollars, redistributed recklessly, finance a semi-clandestine Islamist economy. Turkey for a time left its border to Syria wide open, allowing free passage to jihadists from much of Europe, and as far as Australia. The US also deserves to be judged in absentia for its failure to act: after a decade of senseless activism under George Bush, Barack Obama has gone to the other extreme – impassive, remote and laissez-faire – even as failing states in Syria and Iraq have clearly evolved into breeding grounds for jihadists. It should be no surprise, then, that in the course of the past two years, IS has not only thrived but made striking advances, taking over cities such as Raqqa, Fallujah and Mosul. IS is thus the first movement in the Arab world to bring jihadism from the margins to the centre.
Part of its success stems from its consolidation strategy. Its aim is not so much to conquer the world, despite the claims of propagandists and critics alike, but to root itself firmly in the territory it occupies. This inclines it to greater pragmatism than is generally acknowledged. Until recently at least, its fighters would hold western captives to ransom, where previous generations of jihadists would have killed them for shock value. The filmed decapitation of journalist James Foley is thus a significant departure from recent practice. IS fighters expend great effort fighting for oil wells, which give them a high degree of financial autonomy. They are happy to attack weak Sunni rivals in selected areas, but have little appetite for confronting more serious adversaries: they mostly shun the fight with the Syrian regime, steer clear of taking Iraq’s Shia militias headon, and when needed have moderated their antagonism towards Kurdish factions, who also defend their turf fiercely.
All the same, IS has little to offer to those it purports to represent. The disastrous situation
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