West Asia stands out as the world’s most volatile, combustible, and troubled region, one which also inspires the most intense policy debates — think of ISIS, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Iran deal. The following survey reviews some key topics, then concludes with thoughts on policy choices. A one-sentence summary: some good news lies under the onslaught of misunderstandings, mistakes, and misery.
ISIS may be Topic No. 1 these days, but Iran is the most important issue, especially since the nuclear deal the six great powers reached with its rulers. The “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” seeks to bring Tehran in from the cold, ending decades of hostility and inducing Iran to become a more normal state. In itself, this is an entirely worthy endeavour.
The problem lies in the execution, which has been execrable, rewarding an aggressive government with legitimacy and additional funding, not requiring serious safeguards on its nuclear arms program, and permitting that program in about a decade. The annals of diplomacy have never witnessed a comparable capitulation by great powers to an isolated, weak state.
The Iranian leadership has an apocalyptic mindset and preoccupation with the end of days that does not apply to the North Koreans, Stalin, Mao, the Pakistanis or anyone else. Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i et al have reason to use these weapons for reasons outside of the normal military concerns — to bring on the end of the world. This makes it especially urgent to stop them.
The only way to stop the buildup is through the use of force. I hope the Israeli government — the only one left that might take action — will undertake this dangerous and thankless job. It can do so through aerial bombardment, special operations, or nuclear weapons, with option #2 both the most attractive and the most difficult.
If the Israelis do not stop the bomb, a nuclear device in the hands of the mullahs will have terrifying consequences for West Asia and beyond. To the contrary, if the Iranians do not deploy their new weapons, it is just possible that the increased contact with the outside world and the disruption caused by the inconsistent policies of outside states will work to undermine the regime.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (aka ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, Daesh) is the topic that consumes the most attention. I agree with Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, that Iran is a thousand times more dangerous than ISIS. But ISIS is also a thousand times more interesting. Plus, several governments find it a useful bogeyman to justify working with Tehran.
Emerging out of almost nowhere, the group has taken Islamic nostalgia to an unimagined extreme. The Saudis, the Ayatollahs, the Taliban, Boko Haram, and Shabaab, each imposed its version of a medieval order. But ISIS went further, replicating as best it can a seventh-century Islamic environment, down to such specifics as public beheading and enslavement.
This effort has provoked two opposite responses among Muslims. One is favourable, as manifested by Muslims coming all over, including South Asia, attracted moth-like to an incandescently pure vision of Islam. The other, more important, response is negative. The great majority of Muslims, not to speak of non-Muslims, are alienated by the violent and flamboyant ISIS phenomenon. In the long term, ISIS will harm the Islamist movement (the one aspiring to apply Islamic law in its entirety) and even Islam itself, as Muslims in large numbers abominate ISIS.
The Iranian leadership has an apocalyptic mindset and preoccupation with the end of days that just does not apply to anyone else.
One thing about ISIS will likely last, however: the notion of the caliphate. The last caliph, who actually gave orders, ruled in the 940s. That’s the 940s, not the 1940s, over a thousand years ago. The reappearance of an executive caliph after centuries of figurehead caliphs has prompted considerable excitement among Islamists. In Indian terms, it’s like someone reviving Ashoka’s empire with a piece of territory; that would get everybody’s attention. I predict the caliphate will have a lasting and negative impact.
SYRIA, IRAQ, AND THE KURDS
In certain circles, Syria and Iraq have come to be known as Suraqiya, joining their names together as the border has collapsed and they have each simultaneously been divided into three main regions: a Shia-oriented central government, a Sunni Arab rebellion, and a Kurdish part that wants out.
This is a positive development; there’s nothing sacred about the British-French Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which created these two polities. Quite the contrary, that accord has proven an abject failure; conjure up the names of Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein to remember why. These miserable states exist for the benefit of their monstrous leaders, who proceed to murder their own subjects. So, let them fracture into threes, improving matters for the locals and the outside world.
As Turkish-backed Sunni jihadis fight Iranian-backed Shia jihadis in Suraqiya, outside powers should stand back from the fighting. Neither side deserves support. Indeed, these two evil forces at each others’ throats means they have less opportunity to aggress on the rest of the world. If we do wish to help, it should be directed first to the many victims of the civil war; if we want to be strategic, help the Kurds.
As for the massive flow of refugees from Syria: Western governments should not take in large numbers but instead pressure Saudi Arabia and other rich West Asian states to offer sanctuary. Why should the Saudis be exempt from the refugee flow, especially when their country has many advantages over, say, Sweden—linguistic, cultural, and religious compatibility, as well as proximity and a similar climate?
The rapid emergence of a Kurdish polity in Iraq, followed by one in Syria, as well as a new assertiveness in Turkey and rumblings in Iran are a positive sign. Kurds have proven themselves to be responsible in a way that none of their neighbours have. I say this as someone who, 25 years ago, opposed Kurdish autonomy. Let us help the Kurds who are as close to an ally as we have in Muslim West Asia. Not just separate Kurdish units should come into existence, but also a unified Kurdistan made up from parts of all four countries. That this harms the territorial integrity of those states does not present a problem, as not one of them works well as presently constituted.
The great majority of Muslims, not to speak of non-Muslims, are alienated by the violent and flamboyant ISIS phenomenon. In the long term, ISIS will harm the Islamist movement, and even Islam itself, as Muslims in large numberes abominate ISIS.
The Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP), the party that’s single-handedly been ruling Turkey since 2002, is an Islamist party, but more importantly, of late, it is the party of tyranny. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s its dominant figure, does as he wishes, gaining undue influence over the banks, the media, the schools, the courts, law enforcement, the intelligence services, and the military. He overrides customs, rules, regulations, and even the Constitution in the block-by-block building of a one-man rule. He’s the West Asian version of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
For the most part, Erdoğan has played by democratic rules, via elections and Parliament, which has served him well. But recent elections have not gone well and he has used the methods at his disposal to rig the votes. This is hardly a shock: Long ago, when mayor of Istanbul, he signalled that he ultimately does not accept the verdict of elections, stating that democracy is like a bus: “You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.” He has now reached that destination and appears ready to step off.
Erdoğan’s undoing will likely not be domestic, nor will it concern a relative triviality like votes; it will be foreign and concern larger issues. Precisely because he has done so well domestically, he believes himself a master politician on the global stage and pursues a foreign policy as aggressive as his domestic one. But, after some initial successes of the “zero problems with neighbours” policy, Turkey’s international standing lies in tatters. Ankara has bad relations or major problems with nearly every neighbour: Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Greek Cyprus, Turkish Cyprus, and Greece, as well as the United States and China. Some foreign escapade will likely be Erdoğan’s undoing, as suggested by the recent downing of a Russian plane.
Saudi Arabia is the most unusual country in the world. Even if you’re from, say, Qatar or Abu Dhabi, its social mores and governmental institutions are strange. It hosts, for example, not a single movie house. Men and women use separate elevators. Non-Muslims are forbidden to enter two of its cities (Mecca and Medina). A vice squad terrorises the population. Christians get in trouble for praying, Jews are, with rare exceptions, prohibited.
The government runs a powerful, competent police state with few pretenses of elections, a Constitution, or the other rigmarole of dictatorships. It observes, censors and intrudes. Police checkpoints proliferate. The government employs three different military forces — Pakistani mercenaries to defend the oilfields, a national army to protect the borders, and a tribal guard to protect the monarchy. Monarchies typically count 10, 20, or even 50 members in the royal family; the Al Saud has around 10,000 males (females don’t count politically) and they constitute a nomenklatura, to use that helpful Soviet term. Family members run the country, which has been called the only family business with a seat at the United Nations.
But this structure now stands in danger. For 70 years, the monarchy looked to the US government to provide external security. Now, for the first time, in the age of Obama, that assurance no longer exists, and especially not after the Iran deal, in which Washington aligned more closely with Tehran than with Riyadh. The Saudi leadership is taking steps to protect itself, the most notable ones of which are working with Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood. My prediction: these are temporary alliances that will not outlast the crisis.
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has now been in power for over two years, since July 2013, in the aftermath of a massive demonstration against the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi. Sisi has the right priorities in mind: suppressing the Islamists and fixing the economy. But I worry about his achieving success in either arena.
No one despises Islamists more than me. I endorse tough measures to battle this totalitarian movement, such as rejecting their efforts to apply Islamic law, excluding them from mainstream institutions, and banning their representatives from elections. But Sisi’s heavy-handed and extra-legal policies go too far and are counterproductive. For example, sentencing nearly 600 people to death for the murder of a policeman, followed a month later by sentencing another near 700 people for the same murder, is not only massively disproportionate, but also likely to backfire and help the Islamists gain sympathy.
Israel’s doing exceptionally well. Although it is under the threat of WMDs and the delegitimization process, it has a record of accomplishment that will see it through.
The economy is the other major problem. In the 1950s, Gamal Abdel Nasser, also a military officer, put in place a socialist regime typical of that era, with great Soviet-style factories badly attempting import substitution. Not only is that system still in place, but the state’s economic role grew substantially under Mubarak and continues to grow further under Sisi. Both Presidents keep retired military colleagues happy by giving them sinecures. “You’re a retired colonel? Good, take over this cotton factory” or “Start this desert town.” Estimates suggest that about 25% to 40% of the Egyptian economy hobbles as part of “Military, Inc.”
Also, a disdain for agriculture creates enormous problems, so that Egypt, both in absolute and relative terms, imports more of its caloric intake than any other large country. For example, figures for the fiscal year 2013-14 show that Egypt imported 5.46 million tons of wheat, or 60% of the country’s total consumption, making it the world’s largest wheat importer. Once the bread-basket of the Nile, Egypt can no longer feed itself, but instead depends on the Saudis and others for subventions to purchase food abroad. The recent gas field discovery in the Mediterranean will help, but will not solve this problem.
He still rides high, with impressive popularity ratings (recall the cookies and pajamas bearing his face), but should he falter, that support will quickly evaporate. Islamists will exploit his incompetence no less than he took advantage of their failures. The cycle of coups d’état threatens to repeat, with Egypt falling further behind, the precipice of disaster looming closer along with the prospect of massive emigration. I wish Sisi well, but am braced for the worst.
In November 2000, Ehud Barak said that Israel resembles “a villa located in a jungle”. It’s a great expression; and even more true today, with ISIS on Israel’s Syrian and Sinai borders, Lebanon and Jordan groaning under unsustainable refugee influxes, the West Bank in anarchy, and Gaza approaching the same.
Everyone knows about Israel’s high-tech capabilities and military prowess. But much more about it is impressive bordering on extraordinary.
Demography: The entire modern, industrial world from South Korea to Sweden is unable to replace itself demographically, with the single, outstanding exception of Israel. Societies need roughly 2.1 children per woman to sustain their populations. Iceland, France, and Ireland come in just below that level, but then the numbers descend down to Hong Kong with its 1.1 children per woman, or just over half of what’s necessary for a country to survive long term. Well, Israel is at 3.0. Yes, the Arabs and the Haredim partly explain that high number, but it also depends on secular Tel Aviv residents. It’s nearly unprecedented development for a modern country to have more children over time.
Energy: Everyone knows the old quip about Moses taking a wrong turn on leaving Egypt. Well no, it turns out he didn’t. Israel has as large an energy reserve as—get this—Saudi Arabia. Now, this resource is not as accessible, so it’s far more expensive and complex to exploit than Arabia’s enormous and shallow pools of oil, but it’s there and Israelis will someday extract it.
Illegal immigration: This is a brewing crisis for Europe, especially in summertime, when the Mediterranean and the Balkans become highways from West Asia. Israel is the one Western country that has handled this problem by building fences that give control over borders.
Water: Twenty years ago, like everyone else in West Asia, the Israelis suffered from water shortages. They then solved this problem through conservation, drip agriculture, new methods of desalination, and intensive recycling. One statistic: Spain is the country with the second-highest percentage of recycling, around 18%. Israel does the most recycling, at 90%, five times more than Spain. Israel’s now so awash in water that it exports some to neighbours.
In all, Israel’s doing exceptionally well. Of course, it is under the threat of weapons of mass destruction and the delegitimization process. But it has a record of accomplishment that I believe will see it through these challenges.
Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org, @DanielPipes) is president of the US-based Middle East Forum. © 2015 All rights reserved by Daniel Pipes.
Next week: Reject Islamists, accept liberals, deal warily with dictators.