By Dr. Bruce Mabley
As the dust begins to settle on the bloody aftermath of the November attacks in Paris, frustration and anger has set in against the responsible parties. No one really knows for sure who they are or whether ISIL was directly responsible for the carnage. History tells us, however, that there is a story to these scurrilous activities perpetrated by Islamic extremists. We cannot delve into the depths of counter espionage files and weigh different analyses about who did what and when. That is left for the security experts even if a doubt persists regarding their pursuit of ideological excuses instead of the truth. In the end, whatever they come up with needs to be balanced by the behaviour of all interested states and non-state actors both regional and international. What is the big picture?
Let us try and separate the wheat from the chaff and set the stage for this unspeakable carnage. We may be surprised by what we find. That the geo-political instability in the Middle East has something to do with these terror acts, I think most remotely sane observers would agree. Let us summarize the activities of various regional actors.
ISIL can be defined as an Iraqi based criminal gang parading under the mask of Islam, a religion it does not understand yet seeks to pretend it protects. The Western bombing campaign has been of limited value and is no more than a dubious stop gap measure. The West appears content to back the Peshmerga, northern Iraqi Kurds to counter ISIL on the ground. ISIL acts like a Mexican drug cartel and is run by powerful individuals. They use oil as a means of financing their activities. ISIL can best be fought as a criminal cartel (like a drug cartel in Mexico). Despite his insufferable arrogance and ignorance of international politics, Donald Trump is right in asserting his strategy to destroy the wealth of the cartel and remove their financing. Political grandstanding, token military means and visits to and by the British royals are no substitute for ending the cartel’s party now.
The Kurds are a divided people. Where did Turkish President Erdogan’s recent electoral victory come from if not from the millions of Kurds who voted AKP out of fear or economic desperation. Jobs, not Kurdish independence, drove them into the arms of their Turkish enemies. This is not surprising given the regional actors with whom they have had to work with to build their irksome notion of Kurdistan. Whether it is the Turks, Iranians, Iraqis or Syrians, the Kurds are perceived as an impediment to the unity of existing nations. Their ethnicity is almost universally perceived by Arabs and Persians to be standing outside the Islamic social compact as dissidence. Moreover, being the ‘boots on the ground’ for the recalcitrant secular West in their fight against ISIL is not going to improve the Kurdish position in the long run. Their quarrel with ISIL, although completely understandable, will only serve to alienate the Turks and Syrian opposition, both of whom are not going to go away any time soon. The Barzani family’s Kurdish experiment in northern Iraq is not an example of democratic virtue by any means. The long suffering Kurds will continue to suffer and their present posture in the region will ensure that they will remain marginalized.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar
Although a few sheiks in Qatar or Saudi Arabia, here and there, may be sending money to ISIL, it is incorrect to believe that these states are supporting ISIL. Both states are more concerned about the immediate threat that Iran poses in concertation with its regional allies in Bahrain and Syria. Both SA and Qatar are fundamentally opposed to the democratic principles embodied in the Arab Awakening and their leaders would rather sell their own blood down the river rather than forgo the carnal pleasures offered by Russian whores and Cairo casinos. Their dreadful human rights record, while painfully evident to all, should not be an excuse to lay the blame for ISIL at their feet.
Turkey is at war with the PKK and Kurdish believers in an independent Kurdistan. For the Turks, the presence of ISIL in Syria and Iraq is of minor importance. In Syria, the Turks have chosen to support the Muslim Brotherhood faction in the Syrian opposition. Once they discovered that the Syrian MB was resurrected by a deceitful and pathetic group of aging expatriates many of whom who had been absent from Syria since the 1980s, it was too late to change and ideologically incomprehensible for President Erdogan’s ruling AK Party. Turkish foreign policy and domestic policing have always been focussed on the Kurds, those inside Turkey and others just lurking across the border. The exception is the love in with Barzani and his corrupt Kurdish family in northern Iraq. Business is business. It is not out of the question that the Turkish secret service is cooperating with ISIL in Syrian border areas where Kurds are fighting ISIL. The Syrian factions that the AK Party actively supports are part of the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey has spent too much capital on getting Bashar out of Damascus to now draw back from a Bashar or nothing option. The head of the Syrian National Council, the main Syrian Opposition vehicle, is controlled by the Turks. The Russian plane, which was recently shot down in Syrian airspace, had been engaged in bombing pro-Muslim Brotherhood Syrian Turkmen.
The backdrop on political instability in the Middle East has always been the long standing Arab Israeli conflict. Even when approached by the Arab states with the Arab Peace initiative in the early 2000s, Israel reneged and has continued to exploit its one-sided relationship with the Palestinian authority and Gaza. Continued building of houses on disputed land has characterized Israeli attitudes and even the Israeli justice system has been subverted sometimes using the principles of Ottoman contract law to steal property from Palestinians. The Arab minority in Israel is condemned to the political wilderness and disenfranchised since it cannot play any political role in Israeli coalition politics. For most Israeli security experts, the Arab Awakening is an illusion and the key to understanding the Arab world is confessional in-fighting; that is, the Sunni-Shia split. Over simplification of the Arab world by the Israeli security establishment and a coercive public opinion make Israel one of the main culprits in the present regional instability. Only the former Canadian government under Stephan Harper would have had the indecency to support any and all anti-Palestinian policies casting the anti-Semitism net far and wide for any of its unhappy domestic and foreign critics. The Peace process is dead in the water, another example of how little the West is interested in righting wrongs and committing itself to even elementary forms of justice.
Iran’s Syrian meddling through Lebanese Hezbullah only stokes the fires of civil war and polarizes Syrian opposition opinion against Russia, Iran and Assad. Instead of promoting peace, the Iranians are promoting more bloodshed and suffering. The P plus 5 dance in Geneva was perhaps Obama’s only valid foreign policy legacy. On the other hand, who really expects the Iranians to not build a military nuclear capacity since Israel has one and has not signed the UN non-proliferation treaty. Iranian war crimes against the Syrian dissidents, the torture and death that it has resulted in will be remembered in a free Syria. In this regard, the Chief of police in Tehran should be one of the first tried for war crimes against the Syrian people.
This country’s generals decided to replace the democratically elected Morsi team by force of arms. Once a magnificent example of the Arab Awakening, now the generals are back in the driver’s seat to the great delight of Israeli soothsayers and deceitful politicians in the West. The liberal Left in Egypt bears some blame for Morsi’s reversal and the war on the Muslim Brotherhood. Given Egypt’s economic state and the Generals’ hold on the security and business apparatus, those seeking change could have waited four years for the inevitable defeat of the Morsi government at the polls. Instead, they have scuttled the first inklings of a democratic process and played into the hands of the Mubarak cabal.
The Europeans were caught with their pants down when the Syrian conflict occurred. Most European diplomats were convinced that Bashar would, like his father, strike down the protesters demonstrating peacefully and regularize the situation. Wrong. Once they discovered their collective lack of probity, they sought to rely on US power to magically solve the crisis. Unfortunately, the British didn’t count on the USA under the leadership of Barak Obama having decided to lead from behind. It is amazing to most non-Europeans how little any of them have been willing to crawl out of their own brand of pretentious colonialism of a by-gone era and dare to stand against current injustice whatever the cost. The imbroglio concerning the Syrian refugees is another chapter in the collective European history of abject social conservatism, shame and deceit. How can anybody trust them and especially the Syrian opposition?
Since perestroika, Russia’s territory has shrunk considerably. They have no answer for Islamic fundamentalism including massive poverty and ignorance, which are its principal cause. Only American isolationism has allowed Russia to regain a semblance of regional hegemony. Its support of Bashar al-Assad is based on the need for a warm water port in the Mediterranean. American leading from behind has allowed Russia to even play a peace maker role in Syria, a gambit destined to fail however. With so much Muslim blood on its hands from Chechniya to Afghanistan passing through Syria, long term prospects for Russia’s Mediterranean strategy do not look good. Who can blame the Syrian opposition after all the carnage? There is always the possibility of a Western sell out of the moderate Syrian opposition, another Munich, but the Syrians are made of sterner stuff and their memory is long. Honor is still important for many of them. Russia is playing a waiting game with a losing hand. They may understand the Crimean peninsula very well but dabbling in Syria and the Middle East is not wise. Russia is backing a losing horse in Syria. Knowing it may not be enough to prevent yet another shrinkage of the neo-Tsarist Eurasian paradise. It is late in the game for Russia and who knows? Maybe America will wake up and assert some form of regional leadership.
United States of America
Everyone loves to criticize America. Who can blame us? After all, Donald Trump makes it easier than before. Most informed international observers are fed up with this nauseating hypocritical swan song though and the familiar tired pedantic isolationist Yankee refrain, which is now taking on an even evangelical nature. There is no excuse for being ignorant about world politics. Some observers say that the American empire is collapsing and pinpoint the American defeat in Vietnam as their key downfall or the beginning of the end. Nevertheless, in some sense, leading from behind would have been the better part of valour during the Bush era. We might have been spared the dreadful mess in Iraq. Well, the Syrian crisis arrived on the world scene just as Obama was preparing his 2012 re-election campaign. The last thing he needed was another Iraq or Afghanistan fiasco in which American firepower would be required with possibly even boots on the ground. So, defying the counsel of McCain, Clinton and Petraeus, Obama decided to do nothing to support the democratic base of the Syrian opposition. No support for the Free Syrian Army and lip service for the brave Syrian youth risking their lives every day in the Syrian streets. Drawing a red line over Bashar’s use of chemical weapons was a colossal error in a region where words need to be seen as matching actions. Leading from behind helped ensure his election victory but gave the Russians and Iranians a golden opportunity to become real players in the Syrian conflict. Instead, the Americans along with the British contented themselves with giving pious lectures and seminars on governance and democracy. As the governance consultants from the West harvested their consultants’ pay and feted their UN benefactors, the Syrian demonstrators were risking their lives for values such as freedom from tyranny, collective justice and democracy. In the eyes of the West, more than 250,000 Arabs are expendable at the hands of Bashar al-Assad. ISIL’s infamy has cost much less in human lives.
What can Canada do? That little ingratiating oil kingdom to the North has lost much of its lustre after years of Bush league Conservative government and the price of oil in shambles. Putting all puns aside, there was a time in the early days of the Syrian conflict when the Canucks actually played a lead role in supporting the pacific Syrian opposition. We were in the front of the bus those days advising opposition leaders and pundits, protecting dissidents from Bashar’s Cyber war and his Iranian friends, and showcasing for the first time in diplomatic circles the Syrian National Congress. Foreign ministry bureaucrats quickly changed that and dragged their feet as much as they could. Why do something when you can do nothing and get away with it? These assiduous beavers are the same happy faces seen warmly applauding the newly elected Liberal government and toasting indolence instead of innovation and daring. Soon engaged Canadians and diplomats were again at the back of the bus. Nothing allows us to believe that this will change under the new benevolent political administration.
The conclusion has been obvious from the beginning. Fight ISIL for what it is and stop the lame moralizing refrain. ISIL is a criminal gang or cartel. Listening to Western media, politicians and hysterical public opinion, one would think ISIL is lurking behind every tree and that it cannot be vanquished. The artful use of social media and hiding behind the veil of Islam makes them even more impenetrable and fearsome to Western public opinion. Well, ISIL can be defeated as long as we define them for who they really are. You cannot beat an unknown and ill-defined enemy. Happily, there are international police forces who know how to combat this scourge without resorting to mass mobilization of the armed forces or moralizing international coalitions. Is it possible that our reluctance to take the serious financial steps necessary to defeat ISIL is related to other unpleasant truths to be uncovered? A financial war on ISIL may uncover the identity of those individuals or countries who are purchasing ISIL ‘s oil on the black market. One could easily imagine that such a demarche would yield unwelcome news for some on the flourishing international tax havens and accounts hidden in banks in certain countries?
Destroy ISIL’s finances and the ideological hue will melt. Cartels function on money. Drug cartels are based on drugs. Remove the drugs, the cartel collapses. This is not easy but it can and must be done. Police forces understand that and overcome fear to achieve this goal. Remove the oil from ISIL and it will cease to exist. The ISIL narrative about protecting Islam and extending the caliphate is bogus and has no grounding whatsoever in Islamic law. Let us all put our thinking caps on and stop fearing the unknown.
In Syria, start supporting the democratic and moderate youth opposition with arms to protect themselves and give them encouragement of every sort. Receiving refugees is fine but start by taking a principled stand on the Syrian conflict and support the democratic forces that have always been in Syria. Pray that when Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian friends are defeated, that the new Syria will try to forget the apathy of the West. No wonder the Turks are wary of us – Munich, Poland, Balkans, Egypt, Tibet, Palestine. The list of tolerating injustice is long and ponderous. ISIL ‘s infamy is not without its origins in global Western political governance. Unfortunately, Paris had to be the target.
Dr. Bruce Mabley is the Director and Principal Researcher for the Cercle Rossilllon. He is a former Canadian diplomat and served abroad in Paris, Islamabad, Amman, Cairo and Ankara. He has a Doctorale in Political Philosophy (Laval) and a post-doctorate in Islamic Law and Politics from the Faculté de droit de l'Université Laval.