Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"The Coming War in the Middle East" (Updated)

Lieutenant Colonel Joel Rayburn writes at the Heritage Foundation about "The Coming War in the Middle East." He predicts a spreading Sunni-Shiite conflict. Writing about the current conflict in Syria, Rayburn writes:
What is the next stage in this conflict? It is not hard to predict if we recall how the Nusrah Front behaved in Iraq in its earlier Al Qaeda in Iraq incarnation. Initially welcomed into Iraq in 2004 and 2005 by more nationalist Sunni insurgent groups who were glad of reinforcements, Al Qaeda quickly moved to take command of the entire Iraqi rebellion itself and transform an insurgency into a sectarian war.

Al Qaeda leaders, well-provisioned by wealthy Gulf financiers, could easily outspend their local Iraqi nationalist rivals, hiring away the labor pool of young Sunni fighters who were the foot soldiers of the Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups. Al Qaeda’s leaders then installed a reign of terror in Sunni territories, murdering Iraqi tribal and community leaders who defied them, imposing Taliban-style Islamic law, and forcing Iraqi tribes to surrender their daughters into marriage with Al Qaeda commanders.

Having established bases in Iraq, Al Qaeda also sought to expand its jihad beyond the country’s borders, launching massive attacks against hotels in Amman, Jordan, with the aim of opening a war against the Jordanian monarchy (though the effort backfired when it horrified the Jordanian population). Eventually, Al Qaeda leaders even attempted to become the political alternative to the Iraqi state, declaring themselves the government of an “Islamic State of Iraq” in 2006. Al Qaeda’s overbearing treatment of Iraqis ultimately resulted in the local backlash known as the “Awakening,” and, by 2007, the terrorist organization was in a full-blown war with the Iraqi Sunnis that had originally welcomed them.

In retrospect, Al Qaeda in Iraq did these things because it could not help it. It is in this totalitarian organization’s nature to attempt to bring its narrow religious ideology into reality on the ground. In its current guise of the Nusrah Front, we can expect them to do the same. Having been welcomed into Syria by hard-pressed rebels who were eager to see the arrival of well-armed, well-trained, well-financed reinforcements, we will increasingly see Nusrah commanders use their Gulf cash to hire away the foot soldiers of other non-jihadi rebel groups.

As the Nusrah Front conquers more and more territory from the Syrian regime, we will see Nusrah commanders imposing strict Islamist rule over their local fiefdoms, and it will not be long before some grouping of Nusrah commanders declares the “Islamic Emirate” or this or that sub-region of Syria—probably beginning with an emirate in the vast desert area of the Jazeera or Deir ez-Zour in eastern Syria, adjoining the Iraqi provinces of Anbar and Ninewa that were longtime Al Qaeda strongholds. The creation of such Islamist enclaves will be a relatively easy matter for Nusrah if Syria continues to break into warring communal pieces, a la Yugoslavia, as it appears to be doing.
 Rayburn expects that the conflict will spread to Jordon, which is already facing threats from Al Qaeda:
We are told by journalists and Syrian observers that the Nusrah Front contains in its ranks a large contingent of Jordanians, just as Al Qaeda did. Once Nusrah has confidently established some territorial bases in Syria, Nusrah fighters will likely begin to branch into Jordan, as Al Qaeda in Iraq’s Zarqawi unsuccessfully attempted to do in 2005. This time, Nusrah fighters will find a more amenable situation awaiting them.

To begin with, Jordan’s radical Salafi community has grown in strength in recent years, and will offer a ready pool of fighters and other supporters. And the Jordanian state, which rose firmly to Zarqawi’s challenge in 2005, is far more vulnerable now, with a long-running protest movement and popular discontent over the government’s perceived corruption having greatly weakened the state’s legitimacy. Indeed, evidence that such plots are already underway emerged just weeks ago, when Jordanian police foiled a “Mumbai-style” plot in which Al Qaeda operatives planned to “bring Amman to its knees” by killing as many people as possible. Simply put, to Nusrah’s eyes, the shaky Hashemite monarchy probably looks ripe for the picking.
He likewise expects the conflict to spread to Lebanon, and from there across the Middle-East to finally threaten Saudi Arabia:
We can envision, then, a sectarian war raging across the whole of the Fertile Crescent, drawing in all the former territories of Turkish Arabia. The prospect will be a frightening one for the region’s major powers. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia could one day find chaos rather than functioning states on their permeable borders. If Al Qaeda/Nusrah can establish a base in Jordan, Saudi Arabia will find itself threatened by Al Qaeda franchises on both north and south that will be well-positioned to resume the pursuit of Al Qaeda’s core goal of toppling the Saudi monarchy and “liberating” the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

The Saudis showed great resiliency in defeating a serious Al Qaeda insurrection in 2004-2008, but that was a strictly internal threat that lacked a real foreign base. Simultaneous Al Qaeda bases in Jordan and Yemen would pose a more serious, if not an existential, threat to Saudi rule. If watching the fall or near-fall of half a dozen regimes in the Arab Spring has taught us anything, it should be that the Arab states that appeared serenely stable to outsiders for the past half century were more brittle than we have understood. The implosion of Turkish Arabia would test those regimes to the limit, and we cannot assume that the rulers of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait would be any better equipped to defeat the potential challenge than Muammar Qaddhafi and Bashar al-Assad were.

The rulers of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran are surely not blind to this nightmare scenario. As the situation in Turkish Arabia continues to unravel, those regional powers will be compelled to become ever deeper involved in an attempt to keep the tide of war from breaking on their own lands. This conflict could very well touch us all, perhaps becoming an engine of jihad that spews forth attackers bent on bombing western embassies and cities or disrupting Persian Gulf oil markets long before the fire burns out.
Update: A couple articles that seem to relate.

First, the Times of Israel reports on an awkward moment during Pres. Ahmadinejad's visit to Egypt that underscores the Sunni-Shiite divide:
The daily reports harsh words between Egypt’s top cleric, the sheikh of Al-Azhar University Ahmad Tayyeb, and Ahmadinejad. Tayyeb reportedly rebuked the Iranian president for assisting Shiite expansionism in Sunni states and for Iran’s intervention in Bahrain. Ahmadinejad, in return, called for Sunni-Shiite cooperation, saying he saw “no reason for disunity.”
... Al-Ahram, an Egyptian establishment daily, dedicates an article to an embarrassing clip taken from a joint press conference of a Sunni cleric with Ahmadinejad, broadcast by Sky News Arabia.

A visibly perturbed Ahmadinejad listens to the cleric and whispers something in the ear of his aide, words interpreted by the paper as “I am leaving.” The aide then interrupts the cleric’s speech, saying, “We did not agree on this. We spoke about unity.” Ahmadinejad then left the press gathering without answering questions, a clear sign of his frustration.
The second article is from David Goldman on the continuing food crises in Egypt. Goldman, citing a Washington Post article, notes:
... the government is telling Egyptians (almost half of whom live on less than $2 a day) to eat less. You can’t make this sort of thing up. Egypt lost another $1.4 billion in foreign exchange reserves in January, and probably is flat broke after figuring in arrears to oil and food suppliers, and it imports half its food, so something had to give. In response, Egypt’s Islamist government is emulating North Korea’s approach to food shortages
Goldman also writes:
... the government proposed to cut back its bread subsidy to three hand-sized loaves of pita bread per person per day, about 400 calories’ worth. A state that can’t feed its people is a failed state, and that’s why the Egyptian state is at the brink of collapse, as Egypt’s defense minister warned last week.
Finally, he observes that the riots in Egypt during the past 10 days are as much food riots as anything else.

Read the whole thing.

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