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Posts Tagged ‘ISIS’

I recently attended another conference in the Gulf:  the inaugural Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, which took place October 19-20, 2014 in the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  The Debate was sponsored by the Emirates Policy Council with the support of the UAE Foreign Ministry.  I do not intend to give a detailed summary of what occurred (especially since this information can be found at http://www.epc.ae/?q=epcevents/22/eventdetails ), but to discuss how the organization of the Debate reveals what is especially important at present to the UAE—a small, but enormously wealthy oil exporting nation located in a highly turbulent neighborhood.

The Debate began the morning of October 19 with a speech by Dr. Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.  Dr. Gargash set the tone for the conference, in my view, when he stated, “Over the past few years, the UAE has repeatedly warned about the growing threat that extremist actors and ideologies pose to our region.  While some of our allies thought that we were being too alarmist, the rise of Daesh [ISIS] confirms the magnitude of the threat.  Instead of becoming moderated through engagement, so-called ‘moderate Islamists’ are increasingly being drafted into the ranks of radical groups.  This demonstrates the fallacy of trying to distinguish between ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ forms of ideological extremism.  Make no mistake:  many of these movements that are described as ‘moderate’ in some lexicons, provide the environment for greater radicalization and the emergence of groups such as Al Qaeda and Daesh.  Therefore, countering the threat posed by these groups requires a clear-sighted and comprehensive strategy.”

The bulk of the conference consisted of nine debate panels in which different themes were discussed.  In the conference program, the “Premises of the Debate” stated that the UAE and other GCC states “are not recipients of regional and international powers’ impact only, but are regional and international actors as well.”  Despite this, the first three debate panels were devoted to a discussion of the policies toward the Gulf of the United States, the European Union, China, and Russia (the first session also included the Deputy Secretary General of NATO).  In much of the first session, though, the speakers from the West and from Russia argued about Ukraine—something that is of only secondary interest to the Gulf states.

Panel 4 focused on Iran (which most Gulf Arab states view quite negatively), Panel 5 on Turkey (whose “Islamist” foreign policy is viewed uneasily), Panel 6 on Egypt (where the UAE and Saudi Arabia welcomed the ouster of the elected president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsy by the Egyptian military), Panel 7 on Iraq (where the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad is seen as being heavily influenced, if not completely controlled by, Iran), Panel 8 on Syria (where the need to oust the Alawite minority Assad regime as well as combat ISIS was emphasized), and Panel 9 on both Yemen and Libya (where America and the West are not seen as being sufficiently concerned about restoring order in these increasingly chaotic countries).

While the choice of subjects to discuss in the nine debate panels was a good indicator of what is currently of concern to the UAE, the choice of subjects not to discuss was also revealing.  Most noteworthy, there was no panel on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  Indeed, this was barely mentioned by any of the speakers except by one each from Russia and China in Panel 2.  These two went on at length about the plight of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis.  Indeed, the Chinese speaker became quite emotional.  The Arab participants I spoke to during and after the panel, though, were not impressed.  They know full well that Russia and China both have strong ties to Israel, and that neither will do anything in support of the Palestinians that would risk their relations with the Jewish state.  What not having a panel on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict at this conference suggested to me was that the rise of ISIS, the threat from Iran, the situation in Egypt, and the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya are all far more important to the UAE.

Other subjects that were not discussed include unrest in Bahrain (where relations are tense between the Shi’a majority and the Sunni monarchy which is backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE), uncertainty in Oman (where the long-reigning monarch, Sultan Qaboos, is rumored to be seriously ill and where his successor has not been named), the situation in Saudi Arabia (regarding both succession to the throne and Shi’a restiveness in the Eastern Province—where much of Saudi oil is), and the foreign policy of Qatar (which, as a result of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and efforts to engage moderate—and even not so moderate—Islamists, is very much out of step with Saudi and UAE foreign policies in particular).

I surmise that there were no debate panels on these topics not because the UAE isn’t interested in them, but because they were deemed as being too sensitive to discuss openly.  I have no doubt, though, that they are all being discussed privately throughout the Gulf.  Hopefully, though, the realm of what can be discussed openly will increase in future Abu Dhabi Strategic Debates.  Indeed, if some of the problems that were not discussed this time get bad enough, they will need to be.

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Iran’s Tasnim News Agency published an interview with me today. The interview was conducted by e-mail in English, but the article appeared in Farsi. I am posting here the English-language e-mail interview:

Tasnim: On ISIS/IS, how do you assess their recent ups and downs in the battlefields on Syrian and Iraqi soil?

Katz: The ability of ISIS to gain a footing in Syria allowed it to gain a footing in Iraq. ISIS was helped in Iraq by the fact that Sunni Arab communities view the Shi’a-led government in Baghdad as more of a threat to them than ISIS. What is especially remarkable about the spread of ISIS in Iraq is not so much that ISIS is strong but that Iraqi government forces initially proved so weak.

Tasnim: How successful are the Syrian and Iraqi government in defeating or countering ISIS/IS fighters?

Katz: Clearly, neither government has defeated ISIS, but they appear now to at least be more successful in preventing its further spread and even rolling back some of its gains.

Tasnim: As we know, ISIS/IS simultaneously has severe confrontations with two national armies, some governmental affiliated militia and almost all of other rebellious groups in Syria. How could ISIS/IS handle this situation?

Katz: ISIS doesn’t seem to care how many enemies that it has, and seems ready to fight against everyone. While it hasn’t so far, this will eventually prove to be a problem for it.

Tasnim: What set of goals are followed by ISIS/IS? Do they have any practical roadmap to gain their goals?

Katz: ISIS seems to want to take over as much territory it can to establish its “caliphate” in Syria, Iraq, and beyond.

Tasnim: The US State Department Spokesperson has said that the US continues its support to the “moderate opposition” of the Syrian government, while recently it speaks about countering ISIS/IS. In this situation the former leads to weakening of Assad’s government while the latter one results in Assad’s strength. How can this contradiction can be figured out, especially when it seems that ISIS has the upper hand and defeated the “moderate opposition,” in this regard this stance can benefit Assad more.

Katz: American policy is indeed highly confused. It is debatable whether a “moderate opposition” could have been supported successfully in 2011-12, but actions on the part of Assad and ISIS appear to have eliminated this possibility at present.

Tasnim: Might the US, for balancing of power, attack some Syrian government targets?

Katz: I don’t think that this is likely. Although Washington has announced that it will not coordinate with Damascus any attacks America might launch against ISIS on Syrian soil, Washington will not want to push Damascus into undertaking actions that limit America’s freedom of action.

Tasnim: In western countries, what’s their policy to counter these extremist groups? Have they really determined to eliminate these groups? How?

Katz: As previous experience with Marxists, extreme nationalists (such as the IRA and ETA), as well as jihadists has shown, it is very difficult to eliminate these groups, especially in the short-term. In the long-term, however, these groups’ bad behavior serves to undermine their appeal.

Tasnim: Obviously, ISIS/IS poses a huge threat against Iran and the US. What hinders these two old rivals to coordinate and cooperate with each other to cope with this group? At least in the case of Iraq?

Katz: It has long been my view that Iranian-American relations will improve when a common threat to both emerges. ISIS is that common threat. As long as it remains so–and especially if that threat grows worse–then Tehran and Washington will have to cooperate in order to combat it. Both, however, have to recognize this. When they will both do so is unclear.

Tasnim: In the case of Syria and Iraq (and even though Ukraine), it seems that Russia takes a more active position and gets involved in the crisis to defend its interests and allies, but in all of them there is not any major/determinant activity from American side. How do you analyze this situation? Is this a sign of a New world Order which the US no longer has global hegemony in?

Katz: There is a line of reasoning that has emerged in Washington that believes that because of the “shale revolution” in North America, the US no longer needs petroleum from the Middle East, and that America may be able to supply some of its Western allies with petroleum. This being the case, then what happens in the Middle East simply is no longer as important as it used to be. America, then, can simply let those for whom events in the Middle East are important deal with problems there.

Tasnim: As mentioned earlier, for how many and which countries (like Russia), is it feasible to take a decisive stance and enforce their desired policy to fulfill their interests?

Katz: If America cannot enforce its will in the Middle East, then it is unlikely that less powerful nations will be able to do so. The more that Russia gets bogged down in Ukraine, the less able will it in particular be to influence events in the Middle East.

Tasnim: How do you estimate/predict Iran and 5+1 talks’ results? What sort of compromise is possible?

Katz: It seems to me that the more of a threat that ISIS is seen to be to everyone, then the more willing everyone should be to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue.

Tasnim: Is it possible any deal will be achieved by current deadline or is more time needed?

Katz: More time will probably be needed.

Tasnim: Might the recent updates of US sanctions against Iran harm nuclear negotiations?

Katz: The recent tightening of US sanctions on Iran certainly does not help achieve an agreement.

Tasnim: If the final comprehensive deal get signed, does the US keep its other sanctions against Iran or impose new ones based on other issues?

Katz: If a final comprehensive deal does get signed, I do not believe that the US will impose any new sanctions. Congress, though, may not let the Obama Administration reduce the existing US sanctions quickly. This is not so much because Congress distrusts Iran (though it does), as because Republicans in Congress distrust Obama.

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