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Fictionalizing Syria

The Cipher Brief

Ammar Almamoun


It is now almost six years since the Syrian Revolution began, and to this day, the concept of an “ideal” end state remains vague and out of reach. Will Syria become a democracy or will it remain a dictatorship? Will the country remain technically united but suffer from conflict between warring militias, or will it divide into smaller, autonomous regions along ethno-sectarian lines?

These questions are being asked for two reasons. First, the modern state – the regime of Bashar al Assad – has failed. The Syrian people felt forsaken by this dictatorship and its claims of secular prosperity so they revolted against it. However, because Syrians do not have a historical precedent or memory of a state before French colonial occupation, there is no clear idea or system to shape what will happen after the war ends.

Second, the Syrian opposition, with it’s incapability to provide a coherent program for replacing the regime and its institutions, has no clear cultural or practical revolutionary agenda to deconstruct the religious ideas that lead to fundamentalism or regain the trust of the people in the concept of a modern state. Even though they have Western support, moderate opposition actors are not really capable of  effecting actual change or shaping the future state. Instead of trying to recreate a Syrian identity that could form the basis of this state, they are lost in the short-term political process of promoting their own version of “the Syrian cause.”

These points help us to understand Syria today and, more importantly, what it means to be Syrian: what is missing and what is being added by Syrians in exile, and the factors that have created what could be called the “ideal victim” narrative, which stigmatizes Syrians in a way that induces sympathy.

They also help us to understand the ways that a new life in refugee host countries has reshaped Syrians’ awareness of themselves and helped create a new Syrian identity, one defined by troubled  relationships with host countries, life in camps, and the fact they no longer have a real life experience in Syria.

The “Ideal Victim”

For the past  six years, the media has shown Syrians as a product of the failure of humanity, where Syrians  gain their value as humans by how much their stories are being circulated in media, rather than the real life effect of the war. They are part of a victimization process that is being put forth by the media. This “victim narrative” manifests in two key ways.

First, we see images of Syrians crossing borders, seas, and drowning, which present refugees as a unified group of similarly distressed people who are waiting to reach the West, the land of freedom and well-being.

The second manifestation of this victim narrative is the “Syrian Survivor,” which we see in less prominent media reports about refugees who passed the International Baccalaureate tests, or did something else special, as if being a refugee and these modern Western achievements are mutually exclusive.

The victimizing aspect of this is that the appeal of these accomplishments doesn’t come from their inherent value as people. Instead, they derive their legitimacy from the word “refugee.” Rather than being just an administrative status, this word is becoming a sort of tool to gain sympathy and added  political value, which makes it even more difficult to define what is truly Syrian.

Indetermination

The idea of indetermination comes from literary criticism, and it describes the points of emptiness in a narrative, which readers have the chance to fill with their own experiences. In the Syrian narrative we see that Syrians, especially those who are growing up in camps or live outside Syria, have a huge problem relating to the country itself.

Their experience with Syria is limited so, for them, it’s just a set of fictional stories from their parents and the media. I say fictional because, after a while, memory naturally adds fiction in order to make experiences and events more “logical.” For this reason, accounts describing how Syria was, and how it will be, cannot always be trusted.

Eventually, this will lead us to a new generation of Syrians, who didn’t witness Syria but adapt a narrative that speaks to their “group” of Syrians –  one that can never speak to all Syrians.

The example of Palmyra prison and the brutality that the regime exercised there perfectly underlines this point. Media stories, folk tales, and literature  have given us – the generation that didn’t actually witness this brutality – stories of what occurred there, such as the novel “The Shell” by Mustafa Khalifa. But, once the prison was bombed by both the Syrian regime and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the generations to come are left only with past knowledge of what went on there.

We have no reference now about the prison, no solid images or facts. All we have are stories. Literature, novels, and folk tales that build small fragments of fact – documents and prisoner testimonies – into fictional works that try to explain the horrors of this prison. This is in direct contrast to places like Auschwitz in Germany, where the terrors of the concentration camp are vividly recorded in images, prison records, testimonials, and the evidence of the physical structure itself.

Thus, Palmyra prison and its destruction is a metaphorical example of how fiction has begun to play a role in constructing the future Syria, while simultaneously de-constructing its past in the absence of valid documentation.

Integration: the Grand Colonialist Narrative

Finally, one of the main issues related to refugees and their status in host countries is the concept of integration, which is flawed in two key ways.

First is inequality. The colonialist narrative of enlightened Europe tries to integrate refugees into society as if this narrative is supreme. It’s not only a way of helping new arrivals to adapt into the bureaucracy and institutions of the host state, which is logical, but it also sets two distinct value systems, one that is “right” and another which is “wrong.”

In part, this comes from a racist and colonialist point of view, which regards refugees as exotic creatures who need to be civilized, instead of considering them as people who come from different historical experiences, with their own values and worldview.

The second, and more dangerous, flaw comes from “refugees” themselves and their refusal to acknowledge the host country’s value system. Based on my personal experience, some Syrian refugees refuse the values of the “infidel” state and deny being part of it, because those values try to make them forget where they come from.

What is dangerous about this, is that it raises questions about the meaning of revolution in Syria and how it has actually changed the mentality of the Syrian people. Syrians should now be able to question old beliefs and create some kind of distance from the past in order to build a modern and free Syria that goes beyond the duality of regime/revolution as standards to judge and categorize people and thoughts. This will allow people to accept some of what the host country offers them.

An Alternative Narrative

What Syria needs now is an alternative body of culture – by culture I refer to the wider meaning of text, values, and images – in order to build a future Syria.

We need to create a body of thought that future generations can relate to; a coherent narrative that recognizes Syria as it is, instead of building a fictional “meta-Syria,”,which is romantic, victimized, and based on the denial of reality.

Most of all, we need to construct an honest narrative that represents all Syrians and their differences, one that Syrians now and in the future can relate to in order to regain their shattered identity. This will present a positive alternative to the images and texts of today, which only represent violence, loss, and values that are determined either by a relationship with the regime, the revolution, or violent fundamentalism.

Voices from Turkey: Turkey-Iran Relations

Bülent Aras and Emirhan Yorulmazlar


Simplistic binary readings generally fail to explain the trajectory of Turkish-Iranian relations. The geostrategic rivalry between these two regional powers has deep historical roots, is subject to long-term patterns, and is amenable to realignments as a result of shifts in regional and international balances of power. For these reasons, assessing Turkish-Iranian relations requires a broader understanding than the prevalent narrow topical analysis provides.

Historical patterns in Turkish-Iranian relations

Historically, Turkey and Iran have been mirror images of one another, rarely seeing eye to eye but unable to part ways due to their geographical proximity. Turks were exposed to Persian culture on their move westward and inherited indelible political and religious legacies. Iran is home to a large Turkic minority, and historically, Persia was ruled by Turkish royal families such as the Safavids and the Qajars from the early 16th century, when they accepted Twelver Shiism, until the Pahlavi era in the 20th century.

The Ottoman-Safavi split was essentially a rivalry of two Turkic dynasties, which respectively carried the banners of orthodox Sunni Islam and Shia Sufism. The modern histories of Turkey and Iran have followed a similar path: Their early attempts at Westernization sowed the seeds of later estrangement from that process because of both countries’ inability to fulfill their national ambitions in purely Western terms. Turkey’s break with Westernization took the distinct form of Turkish conservatism, which allowed for pragmatic cooperation with the West, while Iran embraced revolutionary zeal with a strong anti-Western tone.

After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iran attempted to use an Islamic approach to overcome its traditional Shia isolation in the wider Muslim world. Without organic links with the Sunni world, Iran’s initial civilizational call for Islamic revolution failed to resonate in the wider region. Iran was left to pursue revolution in one country, which nonetheless set the stage for limited Iranian leadership in much of the Shia world. Similarly, Turkey responded to its post-Cold War identity crisis with a multidimensional approach that focused on opening up to and building ties with traditional zones of influence from the Balkans to the Caucasus. Thus, in broad terms, pro-Western Turkey and anti-Western Iran competed in the post-Cold War era not only in the Middle East but also in the Caucasus and Central Asia, the Gulf, and even the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater.

The shadow of the Iraq War

The 2003 American invasion of Iraq provided a watershed moment through which to assess Ankara’s and Tehran’s regional policies. First, both countries opposed the American invasion and occupation, which they feared could restrict their room for maneuver in their historical sphere of influence. Second, they were suspicious that America would support Kurdish nationalism in northern Iraq and were wary of the invasion’s broader impact on the Sunni-Shia balance in the region.

Despite its initial opposition to the invasion, Ankara stood closer to Washington in pursuit of Turkey’s regional goals. This was largely because, first, Turkey did not want to see Iraq collapse into disunity—with possible domestic and regional spillover effects—and, second, its national interests would have been broadly undermined if the United States had been humiliated and had withdrawn from Iraq without putting into place a new political order that could ensure a sustainable Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish coexistence. In removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, however, Washington had put itself in a paradoxical situation in which it required Iran’s cooperation to stabilize Iraq, given Iran’s close bonds with the Shia majority, while simultaneously, pro-Iranian Shia militias were increasingly targeting U.S. troops in Iraq.

Thus, aiming to contain the chaos in Iraq, boost its regional and international clout, and prevent any escalation in the U.S.-Iranian conflict, Turkey positioned itself as a possible mediator between Iran and the United States. The most famous Turkish attempt to bridge the U.S.-Iranian gap came in May 2010 when, hoping to head off a new round of international sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program, Turkey and Brazil persuaded the Iranian administration to sign a declaration agreeing to limits on its nuclear program. While the deal was rejected by the United States and never implemented, Turkey’s mediatory role fit its policy of minimizing the prospects of escalation between the United States and Iran. It also fit Iran’s conventional approach of seeking Turkey’s cooperation and minimizing competition at times of international isolation. While Turkey and Iran continued to compete from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon and from the Gulf to Afghanistan, the two countries were able to compartmentalize their growing energy and commercial relations, which increased to historical highs due to the international sanctions on Iran that cut it off from many other markets. Ankara and Tehran also appeared to reach a tacit understanding on the common fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and its Iranian arm, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan.

The Arab uprisings ended this semblance of harmony. The Syrian conflict and Turkey and Iran’s divergent policy choices became deal-breakers for the two rival regional powers. While Turkey framed the growing conflict as a humanitarian issue and an opportunity to enhance its regional clout, Iran saw the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as a critical threat. This was because the Iranian establishment considered Syria to be a firewall that would block the disruptive impact of the Arab Spring from toppling regimes friendly to Iran or from reaching its own borders. Turkey worked through proxies but refrained from directly embroiling itself militarily, while Iran employed more direct proxies such as Hezbollah and later deployed its own paramilitary assets to prevent the fall of Damascus. Iran did not hesitate to use the sectarian card in the conflict, employing Shia militias in Syria and Iraq against what it called the forces of extremism, which included not only Al Qaeda and its offshoots—including the Islamic State—but also almost all Sunni rebel groups fighting the Assad regime in Syria.

On the Turkish side, the initial thought was that Assad’s days were numbered and that the war would therefore cause minimal damage to Turkish interests. Ankara also believed that Tehran could be convinced of the need for a political transition that would remove Assad but co-opt elements of the regime to avoid total disintegration.

Despite occasional outbursts against Turkish policy in Syria from leading figures in the Iranian establishment, Iran generally chose to limit tensions with Ankara until the summer of 2013 due to the crippling economic effects of international sanctions and the lame duck administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This approach also fit Turkish interests but proved unsustainable, as Ankara was unable to decisively turn the tide in Syria without greater support from its Western partners, nor was it able to persuade Iran to support a negotiated end to the Syrian crisis. Therefore, following the election of President Hassan Rouhani and the disclosure of direct talks between the United States and Iran, Tehran felt it had a freer hand to pursue its interests in Syria—and thereby undermine Turkish interests—thanks to the diplomatic cover provided by the talks. It became evident that the United States would not decisively counter Iranian interests in Syria and Iraq, particularly after the rise of the Islamic State in 2014 emphasized long-standing fears among U.S. policymakers that the terrorist group or other radical groups could take over Syria if the Assad regime collapsed.

While Iran aggressively pursued its goals—emphasizing the fight against what it regarded as Sunni extremism—the marginalization of Sunni interests drove Turkey and Saudi Arabia to set aside their ideological differences to stand together against Iranian expansionism. Alienated by the United States’ unwillingness to intervene decisively in Syria, Ankara and Riyadh together escalated their military support for the anti-Assad rebels in Syria—support which accelerated after Saudi King Salman ascended to the throne in January 2015 and brought a new activism to Saudi foreign affairs. But the ensuing Turkish- and Saudi-backed rebel offensives, in turn, precipitated Russian military intervention in Syria to rescue the Assad regime beginning in September 2015 and put Turkey and Russia on a collision course over their competing agendas in Syria, which culminated in Turkish fighters downing a Russian jet after it strayed into Turkish airspace. Iran’s approach to Syria has therefore hurt Turkey’s interests but has also prevented Tehran from capitalizing on the diplomatic opportunities presented by the historic 2015 nuclear accord that it concluded with Western powers, China, and Russia.

The prospective panorama of relations

The interaction between the sectarianism stoked by both the Sunni and Shia elements involved in the Syrian civil war and escalating Iranian-Arab and Turkish-Kurdish confrontations is shaking the foundations of the regional order and undermining security and stability. Iran has successfully employed the sectarian card as part of its outer defense in the Levant, particularly in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. But Iran is surrounded by Sunni-majority countries and can only hope to realize its domestic and regional goals in cooperation—or at least coexistence—with the rest of the neighborhood. For Turkey, its official discourse against sectarianism does not change the fact that it is now seen as a pro-Sunni power and, in general, has alienated Shia actors in the region. This does not bode well for Turkey’s broader aims of regional integration nor its internal dynamics given its large Alawite and Kurdish populations, who feel threatened by the Islamic State and remain suspicious of the growing Turkish affinity with Sunni causes.

Obviously, neither Iran nor Turkey can eliminate the sectarian tensions unleashed over the past five years; nobody can put the genie back in the bottle. The Gulf monarchies are apprehensive about Iranian encroachment in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and beyond. In response, they are relying on a military buildup and the power of religious orthodoxy to help deter and roll back Iranian intrusion into what they regard as a rightfully Sunni Arab sphere of influence. This combination of geostrategic rivalry with sectarianism and ethnic solidarity, whereby the Arab powers aim to crowd out non-Arab claimants—Turkey and Iran—for regional leadership, creates a volatile regional setting that is not conducive to stabilization efforts. Even worse, Ankara and Tehran do not seem interested in finding a middle ground or stopping the current cycle of conflict—the necessary first step to stabilizing the region and shaping a new, sustainable regional order in accordance with their national interests.

Despite these difficulties, against the convenient backdrop of American retrenchment, there are strong reasons for both Ankara and Tehran to explore opportunities for détente and seek possible avenues for cooperation. The Syrian crisis has pitted Iran and Turkey against one another, but whether through the current stalemate or after some future settlement, the two countries share and will continue to share common challenges. Looking several moves ahead, it will be important to set the parameters for cooperation now in order to address three main challenges.

First, Kurdish separatism is a real possibility in both Syria and Iraq and is a more distant—if just as divisive—threat in Turkey and Iran. The Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq enjoys strong U.S. support and continues to flirt with the idea of independence. Syrian Kurdish fighters are building de facto autonomy on the ground and enjoy military support from both the United States and Russia, though this is likely to dry up once the Islamic State is defeated. In Turkey, the PKK has resumed its terror campaign against the Turkish state. Iran will be watching these developments closely, nervous about its own Kurdish minority and well aware that the PKK seeks to overturn the existing state order in both Turkey and Iran. Indeed, the PKK and its offshoots’ continued threat to Iran’s national unity was again demonstrated by the recent clashes in northwestern Iran.

Second, the Russian attempts to fill American shoes through military activism in Syria and to a lesser extent in Iraq are a medium- to long-term threat to both Turkey’s and Iran’s regional objectives. Russia has previously worked to counter Turkish and Iranian efforts to build influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and Moscow has now carried its destabilizing influence right into Syria and Iraq—the traditional spheres of influence for Turkey and Iran. Moreover, the recent flare-up in the Azeri-Armenian conflict carries the risk of undoing Turkish regional designs, including energy pipelines, as well as Iran’s internal balances with its large Azeri minority. Thus, beyond short-term concerns about the future of Damascus, Iran is likely to find itself in a similar position to Turkey, with its regional interests undermined by Russia and eventually forced to confront Moscow’s meddling.

Third, extremism is a common threat that requires a joint response. Iran has been willing to instrumentalize the Islamic State to legitimize its regional claims, pointing to Arab promotion of religious orthodoxy as vindication of Iran’s association of Sunnism with terrorism. Turkey, on the other hand, faces a multifaceted dilemma in that it feels the need to confront the Islamic State as a security threat but has broader qualms about the transition to a post-Islamic State order that could maximize Iranian clout, bring Kurdish autonomy or independence to its southern border, and further tip the Sunni-Shia balances in both Iraq and Syria in Iran’s favor.

The more responsible course for Iran and Turkey would be to fight terrorism—separate from its sectarian alignment—as a broader strategy and try to respect traditional Sunni-Shia balances in the region. This might help to stabilize a disintegrating region. Yet both countries are far from abandoning their claims in the broader geostrategic competition. Indeed, Turkish moves to deepen ties with Saudi Arabia and its recent rapprochement with Israel might remove any remaining ground for cooperation with Iran.

Both Turkey and Iran, for different reasons, have recently sought Europe as a partner in overcoming their specific problems—the influx of refugees in Turkey’s case and economic isolation in Iran’s case. Progress in these areas might pave the way for further cooperation, provided that the European Union comes out with a strategic vision to enlist both countries against what it perceives as the twin threats of terrorism and immigration. In this vein, a Turkey-EU deal backed up by Turkish-Iranian cooperation in Syria could have positive humanitarian effects while also addressing the European Union’s perceived threats, essentially serving to keep the Syrian people in Syria.

Iran is also well situated to emerge as an alternative energy supplier for both the European Union and Turkey and is desperate for European investments to start accruing the economic benefits of the nuclear deal. Turkey has been willing to facilitate the transfer of Iranian gas to the Western markets and sees a commercial opportunity in helping Iran to overcome the adverse effects of international sanctions, given that both Turkey and Iran need alternative modalities for economic growth.

Conclusion

This complex background defines both countries’ geostrategic options. It will take political leadership to define areas of cooperation and to limit the destructive effects of confrontation in today’s highly charged and competitive regional context. Only by finding common ground can Turkey and Iran contribute to a mutual goal of secure and stable regional order. Events since 2011 have proven that the alternative is disorder, humanitarian suffering, and spillover effects that threaten both nations’ respective domestic balances.

The Enormous Political Risk of Saudi Arabia’s Oil Reform

Sagatom Saha


 

On June 7, Saudi Arabia laid out its National Transformation Plan to shift away from an oil-based economy. To do so, the plan’s architect, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, intends to create the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, to float an IPO of the world’s most valuable oil company and to cut welfare for some of the world’s most heavily subsidized people. Given all of the superlatives, it’s hard not to speculate about the plan’s ambition and viability. And many have. GE has already made an enormous bet, promising to invest at least $1.4 billion in the country.

But even if he can check off all the items on his wish list, the deputy crown prince may not guarantee a prosperous future for his kingdom. By cutting subsidies and ceding some control over its oil industry, Saudi Arabia might surrender an asset rivaling oil in value: political order in a region engulfed in conflict.

The primary cause of difficulty will be the belatedness of the post-oil push. Large economic transitions are most attainable when coffers are full and revenues are high. Saudi Arabia is setting out on a path for diversification under a chronic deficit and persistently low crude prices.

To realize a diversified economy, Saudi Arabia would need to create an unprecedented private sector with six million new jobs by 2030—more if women enter the workforce in larger numbers. The oil boom between 2003 and 2013 created only one-third as many. Saudi Arabia hopes to create 450,000 non-oil jobs before 2020. However, the country needs to create 226,000 jobs a year just to accommodate new entrants.

The prospect of a smooth transition has already passed by. In past years, the kingdom could have invested its massive foreign exchange reserves into the same schemes it now hopes to realize. Instead, Saudi Arabia is using that money to plug deficits nearing $100 billion a year.

Compare that to reserves of $593 billion in February declining by $10 billion a month. Graver still, domestic fuel consumption threatens to squeeze Saudi Arabia’s only significant revenue stream: oil.

The Saudi populace relies almost entirely on domestic diesel and associated natural gas for power. Demand is growing so fast it will shave two million barrels a day from exports by 2020 at current rates. Ironically, Saudi Arabia needs these exports to finance the post-oil future.

The country has long benefited from commanding international oil markets and deriving vast revenues from its oil wealth. Now that boon is a burden.

Without a glide path, Saudi Arabia must find the investment—$4 trillion, by McKinsey’s estimate—to push Saudi Arabia toward a new economic future. Doing so could destabilize the kingdom, the world’s biggest oil exporter and a U.S. ally.

The tough timetable has already prompted several unprecedented decisions, most notably the move to float an IPO of Saudi Aramco. Even if only 5 percent of the company were sold as per current plans, it would be the largest offering in history, estimated at $100 billion.

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman framed the IPO in “the interest of more transparency, and to counter corruption.” Certainly, going public with even part of the company would nudge the kingdom’s finances toward transparency. This may be the problem.

Saudi Arabia, far more so than many of the region’s monarchies and autocracies, maintains an expansive, intricate patronage network of royal family members. While impossible to calculate the exact sum of “family allowances” sustaining the network, it was estimated at $37 billion in 1996 with revenues from one million barrels of oil going entirely to “five or six princes.” This figure has likely grown since.

Family stipends offer political stability in a country without direct hereditary succession and where opposing factions within the family loom large. Going public with their stipends endangers the long-standing bargain of cash for compliance.

Extraordinary letters from senior princes reveal family members have called for regime change, expressing extreme distaste for the current oil policy and the deputy crown prince himself. Opening Saudi Aramco’s books could right the country’s burgeoning fiscal deficit, but it gambles with insurrection from within the ranks.

The risk from the country’s elite is matched with risk from the general populace. Saudi Arabia has already started removing subsidies and cutting public spending. Although many of these expenditures are economic inefficiencies, they also form the basis of a payment-based social contract.

These cuts portend unrest at best, and Arab Spring turmoil at worst.

Earlier this year, Saudi construction workers torched buses in Mecca because they had not received wages in months. One former White House foreign-policy advisor said, “The conditions that produced the Arab Spring five years ago haven’t gone away, and they seem to be even more of a concern in Saudi now.”

Saudi Arabia sidestepped the wave of unrest in 2011 owing to its generous oil-financed welfare system.

Naturally, the Saudi government is introducing reform gradually, to avoid such a situation. However, cuts will need to be deeper and quicker to put the country’s finances back in order. In January, Saudi Arabia more than doubledgasoline prices. That increase only brought gasoline to only twenty-four cents a liter or about ninety cents per gallon, only a tiny step toward the goal of prices in line with the international market.

Meanwhile, the Saudi adult population will more than double in the next fifteen years, offsetting cuts to the system of payments and subsidies.

Saudi Arabia intends to phase out subsidies not only for petroleum products, but also for water and electricity over the next five years. The plan includes the introduction of sales and income taxes and cuts to government wages, meaning lower salaries for more than two-thirds of Saudis.

The first price hike for gasoline had Saudis rushing to fill their tanks within hours. What comes next could be worse. There is a long, well-established history linking subsidy cuts to political instability. Neighboring Yemen and fellow oil producer Nigeria are recent examples of countries where price hikes incited violence.

The Saudi Arabia embarking on the National Transformation Plan will therefore be different political constraints than the Saudi Arabia of the oil boom. Those expecting economic change, like the deputy crown prince, should watch for political change as well.

Sagatom Saha is a research associate for energy and U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Before Obama leaves office, here’s what he should do about Iran

Washington Post

Zalmay Khalilzad and James Dobbins

Zalmay Khalilzad was U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations under President George W. Bush.  James Dobbins was a Special Envoy to Afghanistan under Bush and Obama.


America’s relationship with Iran poses a classic geopolitical dilemma. Iran is an important regional power that pursues adversarial policies with its neighbors and represses its people at home. Yet the United States can only address key issues affecting U.S. interests if it engages Tehran wherever possible. As it did vis-à-vis the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the United States needs to pursue policies designed to preclude regional hegemony and to create a balance of power in the region, while also expressing support for human rights and engaging Iran diplomatically.

If the chaos in the Middle East is to be calmed, the United States will have to work not just with traditional partners but also with competitors. Iran has contributed to the sectarian polarization of the Middle East and the conflicts that region has fostered, but it isn’t the sole cause of these. Washington and Tehran are at loggerheads over Syria, but they support the same governments and leaders in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

To enable productive engagement, the United States will have to work with its partners in the region to establish a favorable balance of power. This means continuing its military deployments and arms sales to ensure the security of the Persian Gulf, while asserting its rights under the new nuclear agreement to prevent Iran from making covert progress toward a weapon. At the same time, the United States should start planning a policy framework to deter Iran from restarting nuclear programs once certain restrictions in the agreement lapse. Finally, the United States and its partners must jointly compete against Iran in Iraq and Syria.

Such efforts will better position the United States to engage Iran to settle regional conflicts and defeat the Islamic State. Each of us led discussions with Iran during the administration of George W. Bush, and we were able to achieve limited understandings in some areas and even active cooperation in others. The Bonn Agreement, which established the post-Taliban interim government in Afghanistan, was the apogee of this cooperation, and it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to achieve without Iran’s support. Notably, this success occurred in the context of the active assertion of U.S. power against the Taliban. The United States can likewise craft policies to shape the political and military contexts in Iraq and Syria.

During the Obama administration, contacts with Iran have focused most heavily on nuclear issues. But these contacts occur irregularly, involve a small circle of individuals and tend to address only the most urgent issues. Secretary of State John F. Kerry may have Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on speed dial, but there is only so much that two very busy men can accomplish. In any case, Kerry will likely be leaving office in a few months, and the U.S.-educated Zarif will eventually do the same. There is no guarantee their successors will establish the same kind of rapport. U.S. policy should not be dependent on their doing so.

That’s why before he leaves office, President Obama should take steps to enhance communications between the two countries. The most obvious move would be to reestablish normal diplomatic relations. It is not clear that the Iranian regime would be ready to go this far, however, and such a step would be quite controversial in the United States as well.

Short of that, however, the Obama administration and the Iranian government could assign middle-ranking U.S. and Iranian diplomats to the interests sections of the embassies that already represent each to the other. It is worth noting that the United States had a substantial diplomatic presence in Cuba before the resumption of full diplomatic relations last year. An even more modest measure would be for the United States to simply allow Iranian diplomats accredited to the United Nations in New York to travel to Washington on occasion. Such a gesture might be reciprocated by Iran, allowing visits by U.S. officials based in Dubai, where the United States maintains an office that monitors Iranian affairs.

U.S.-Iranian engagement should certainly focus on the battle against the Islamic State, but it should also focus on the pathways to stabilizing the region. The United States should seek to help Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran come to an understanding regarding Iraq and Syria and to explore a Westphalia-like agreement to curb sectarian and geopolitical conflict. Such an agreement will not occur without active mediation from the outside. Currently, only the United States can play that role.

In addition, Obama should not ignore the aspirations of the Iranian people, many of whom hope for greater freedom and contact with the world. Human rights issues should be part of the agenda for any enhanced engagement. Also, the United States should facilitate private travel between the two countries for students, scholars and ordinary citizens. The best way to do this would be to resume direct commercial flights between the two countries. This step would be of particular benefit to the hundreds of thousands of Iranian Americans and their many relatives in Iran.

None of these steps would resolve the many differences between the United States and Iran on their own. Better communication does not always yield accommodation. But better communication always yields better information, and better information always permits, even if it cannot guarantee, better policy. It is difficult to see how the Middle East can be stabilized without engaging and coming to some understandings with Iran.

The Slow Death of the Syria Cease-Fire Brings a Hybrid War With Russia Closer

World Post

Alastair Crooke


BEIRUT — Gradually, the mist of ambiguity and confusion hanging over Syria is lifting a little. The landscape is sharpening into focus. With this improved visibility, we can view a little more clearly the course of action being prepared by Iran, Russia and the Syrian government.

Russia is emerging from an internal debate over whether the U.S. is truly interested in an entente or only in bloodying Russia’s nose. And what do we see? Skepticism. Russia is skeptical that NATO’s new missile shield in Poland and Romania, plus military exercises right up near its border, are purely defensive actions.

Iran, meanwhile, is studying the entrails of the nuclear agreement. As one well-informed commentator put it to me, Iran is “coldly lethal” at the gloating in the U.S. at having “put one over” Iran. Because, while Iran has duly taken actions that preclude it from weaponizing its nuclear program, it will not now gain the financial normalization that it had expected under the agreement.

It’s not a question of slow implementation — I’ve heard directly from banks in Europe that they’ve been visited by U.S. Treasury officials and warned in clear terms that any substantive trade cooperation with Iran is closed off. Iran is not being integrated into the financial system. U.S. sanctions remain in place, the Europeans have been told, and the U.S. will implement fines against those who contravene these sanctions. Financial institutions are fearful, particularly given the size of the fines that have been imposed — almost $9 billion for the French bank BNP a year ago.

In principle, sanctions have been lifted. But in practice, even though its sales of crude are reaching pre-sanctions levels, Iran has found that, financially, it remains substantially hobbled. America apparently achieved a double success: It circumscribed Iran’s nuclear program, and the U.S. Treasury has hollowed out the nuclear agreement’s financial quid pro quo, thus limiting Iran’s potential financial empowerment, which America’s Gulf allies so feared.

Some Iranian leaders feel cheated; some are livid. Others simply opine that the U.S. should never have been trusted in the first place.

And Damascus? It never believed that the recent cease-fire would be a genuine cessation of hostilities, and many ordinary Syrians now concur with their government, seeing it as just another American ruse. They are urging their government to get on with it — to liberate Aleppo. “Just do it” is the message for the Syrian government that I’ve heard on the streets. A sense of the West being deceitful is exacerbated by reports of American, German, French and possibly Belgian special forces establishing themselves in northern Syria.

All this infringement of Syrian sovereignty does not really seem temporary but rather the opposite: there are shades of Afghanistan, with all the “temporary” NATO bases. In any case, it is no exaggeration to say that skepticism about Western motives is in the air — especially after Ashton Carter, the U.S. defense secretary, raised the possibility of NATO entering the fray.

As Pat Lang, a former U.S. defense intelligence officer, wrote last week:

The Russians evidently thought they could make an honest deal with [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry [and President] Obama. Well, they were wrong. The U.S. supported jihadis associated with [Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syria wing] … merely ‘pocketed’ the truce as an opportunity to re-fit, re-supply and re-position forces. The U.S. must have been complicit in this ruse. Perhaps the Russians have learned from this experience.

Lang goes on to note that during the “truce,” “the Turks, presumably with the agreement of the U.S., brought 6,000 men north out of [Syria via the] Turkish border … They trucked them around, and brought them through Hatay Province in Turkey to be sent back into Aleppo Province and to the city of Aleppo itself.” Reports in Russian media indicate that Nusra jihadists, who have continued to shell Syrian government forces during the “truce,” are being commanded directly by Turkish military advisers. And meanwhile, the U.S. supplied the opposition with about 3,000 tons of weapons during the cease-fire, according to I.H.S. Jane’s, a security research firm.

In brief, the cease-fire has failed. It was not observed. The U.S. made no real effortto separate the moderates from Nusra around Aleppo (as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has affirmed). Instead, the U.S. reportedly sought Nusra’s exemption from any Russian or Syrian attack. It reminds one of that old joke: “Oh Lord, preserve me from sin — but not just yet!” Or in other words, “preserve us from these dreadful jihadist terrorists, but not just yet, for Nusra is too useful a tool to lose.”

The cease-fire did not hasten any political solution, and Russia’s allies — Iran and Hezbollah — have already paid and will continue to pay a heavy price in terms of casualties for halting their momentum toward Aleppo. The opposition now has renewed vigor — and weapons.

It is hard to see the cease-fire holding value for Moscow much longer. The original Russian intention was to try to compel American cooperation, firstly in the war against jihadism and, more generally, to compel the U.S. and Europe to acknowledge that their own security interests intersect directly with those of Moscow and that this intersection plainly calls for partnership rather than confrontation.

The present situation in Syria neither facilitates this bigger objective nor the secondary one of defeating radical jihadism. Rather, it has led to calls in Russia for a less conciliatory approach to the U.S. and for the Kremlin to acknowledge that far from preparing for partnership, NATO is gearing up for a hybrid war against Russia.

It is also hard to see the cease-fire holding any continuing value for Tehran either. While the Iran nuclear agreement seemed to hold out the promise of bringing Iran back into the global financial system, such expectations seem now to be withering on the vine. As a result, Iran is likely to feel released from self-imposed limitations of their engagement in Syria and in other parts of the Middle East. Damascus, meanwhile, only very reluctantly agreed to leave its citizens in Aleppo in some semi-frozen limbo. Iran and Hezbollah were equally dubious.

All this suggests renewed military escalation this summer. Russian President Vladimir Putin will probably not wish to act before the European summit at the end of June. And neither would he wish Russia to figure largely as an issue in the U.S. presidential election. Yet he cannot ignore the pressures from those within Russia who insist that America is planning a hybrid war for which Russia is unprepared.

The Russia commentator Eric Zuesse encapsulated some of these concerns, writing that “actions speak louder than words.” Earlier this month, he notes, the U.S. refused to discuss with Russia its missile defense program:

Russia’s concern is that, if the ‘Ballistic Missile Defense’ or ‘Anti Ballistic Missile’ system, that the U.S. is now just starting to install on and near Russia’s borders, works, then the U.S. will be able to launch a surprise nuclear attack against Russia, and this system, which has been in development for decades and is technically called the ‘Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System,’ will annihilate the missiles that Russia launches in retaliation, which will then leave the Russian population with no retaliation at all.

Zuesse goes on to argue that the U.S. seems to be pursuing a new nuclear strategy, one that was put forward in 2006 in a Foreign Affairsarticle headlined “The Rise of Nuclear Primacy,” and scrapping the earlier policy of “mutually assured destruction.” The new strategy, Zuesse writes, argues “for a much bolder U.S. strategic policy against Russia, based upon what it argued was America’s technological superiority against Russia’s weaponry — and a possibly limited time-window in which to take advantage of it — before Russia catches up and the opportunity to do so is gone.”

So, what is going on here? Does the U.S. administration not see that pulling Russia into a debilitating Syrian quagmire by playing clever with a cease-fire that allows the insurgency to get the wind back in its sails is almost certain to lead to Russia and Iran increasing their military engagement? There is talk both in Russia and Iran of the need for a military surge to try to break the back of the conflict. Does the U.S. see that ultimately such a strategy might further entangle it — just as much as Russia and Iran — in the conflict? Does it understand Saudi Arabia’s intent to double down in Syria and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political interest in continuing the Syrian crisis? Does it judge these very real dangers accurately?

No, I think not: the political calculus is different. More likely, the explanation relates to the presidential election campaign in the U.S. The Democratic Party, in brief, is striving to steal the Republican Party’s clothes. The latter holds the mantle of being credited as the safer pair of hands of the two, as far as America’s security is concerned. This has been a longstanding potential weakness for the Democrats, only too readily exploited by its electoral opponents. Now, perhaps the opportunity is there to steal this mantle from the Republicans.

All this hawkishness — the American shrug of the shoulders at making Iran feel cheated over the nuclear agreement; at Russia, Iran and Damascus seething that the Syria cease-fire was no more than a clever trap to halt their military momentum; at the psychological impact of NATO exercising on Russia’s borders; at the possible consequences to Obama’s refusal to discuss the ballistic defense system — all this is more likely about showing Democrat toughness and savvy in contrast to Donald Trump.

In short, the Democrats see the opportunity to cast themselves as tough and reliable and to transform foreign policy into an asset rather than their Achilles’ heel.

But if all this bullheadedness is nothing more than the Democratic Party espying an apparent weakness in the Trump campaign, is this foreign policy posturing meaningful? The answer is that it is not meaningless; it carries grave risks. Ostensibly this posture may appear clever in a domestic campaigning context, where Russia is widely viewed in a negative light. But externally, if the Syrian cease-fire comes to be viewed as nothing more than a cynical ploy by the U.S. to drag Russia deeper into the Syrian quagmire in order to cut Putin down to size, then what will likely follow is escalation. Hot months ahead in Syria. Russia will gradually reenter the conflict, and Iran and Iraq will likely increase their involvement as well.

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire after airstrikes in Idlib, Syria on June 12. (Abdurrahman Sayid/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

There are those in the U.S., Turkey and the Gulf who would welcome such a heightened crisis, hoping that it would become so compellingly serious that no incoming U.S. president, of either hue, could avoid the call to do something upon taking office. In this way, the U.S. could find itself dragged into the maw of another unwinnable Middle Eastern war.

We should try to understand the wider dangers better, too. Baiting Russia, under the problematic rubric of countering Russian “aggression,” is very much in fashion now. But in Russia, there is an influential and substantial faction that has come to believe that the West is planning a devastating hybrid military and economic war against it. If this is not so, why is the West so intent on pushing Russia tight up into a corner? Simply to teach it deference? Psychologists warn us against such strategies, and Russia finally is reconfiguring its army (and more hesitantly, its economy) precisely to fight for its corner.

As another noted Russia commentator, John Helmer, noted on his blog on May 30, the new NATO missile installations in Eastern Europe “are hostile acts, just short of casus belli — a cause of war.” According to Reuters, Putin warned that Romania might soon “be in the cross hairs” — the new NATO missile installations there will force Russia “to carry out certain measures to ensure our security.”

“It will be the same case with Poland,” Putin added.

Did you hear that sound? That was the ratchet of war, which has just clicked up a slot or two.

When the Caliphate Crumbles: The Future of Islamic State affiliates

War on the Rocks

Clint Watts

Panic over which future Islamic State affiliate should be of chief concern rises each day as the Islamic State loses turf in Iraq and Syria and foreign fighters flee. This panic should be muted, though, as all Islamic State affiliates are not created equal. A scary jihad map from al Qaeda last decade looks remarkably similar to a scary Islamic State map today. The names change but the places largely remain the same. Much like al Qaeda affiliates eight years ago after jihadi battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan cooled, only a few Islamic State affiliates will grow while many others wane. Anticipating which Islamic State affiliates will rise and fall in the coming years requires a deeper examination of the current construct of each affiliate, the bonds that bring affiliates closer to the Islamic State, the convergent and divergent interests between headquarters and the affiliates, and a long-term outlook for each region. Examining these factors across 16 current or potential affiliate regions paints a dire picture for the Islamic State as an enduring cohesive global terrorist organization. Its strongest current affiliates in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula face stiff competition from local rivals and rising counterterrorism pressure. For the Islamic State to endure beyond Iraq and Syria, its options are few and depend more on its ability to self-finance than any other factor.

All Affiliates Are Not Created Equal

Islamic State affiliates; referred to by the group as wilayats (provinces), like their al Qaeda parallels come in different shapes and sizes. Will McCants, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute and author of ISIS Apocalypse, characterizes Islamic State affiliates in three ways:

  • Statelet — a governate that holds territory and operates like a state
  • Insurgency — a governate that occupies territory, but cannot always hold it, and is unwilling or unable to perform the functions of a state
  • Terrorist Organization — a governate that holds no territory and can only operate clandestinely

As an example, the Islamic State’s three wilayats in Libya represent statelets, its Boko Haram affiliate in Nigeria represents an insurgency, and its wilayats in Saudi Arabia only qualify as terrorist organizations. This affiliate landscape is dynamic; the status of all affiliates remains in flux. The Islamic State’s strongest affiliate in Libya sustained losses just this week. To illustrate the different types of affiliates currently composing the Islamic State brand, I’ve assessed each affiliate and its current status in a chart below (Figure 1). In some cases, regions host terrorist groups pledged to the Islamic State that have not been designated formally as wilayats. I describe these areas that produce high numbers of foreign fighters or suffer large amounts of Islamic State-inspired violence as “Horizon Wilayats” that may emerge over time as official provinces.

ISIS affiliates Figure 1

The Bonds That Bind 

Three years ago, counterterrorism debates ignited over a rumored conference call in which Ayman al-Zawahiri presided over a global gathering of al Qaeda affiliates. News of this communications session initially sparked the familiar chirp of pundits: al Qaeda is growing stronger, it’s winning, it’s on the march. But this terrorist communication was confused for commitment and allegiance at a time when al Qaeda’s network instead began to crumble. Bonds were not strengthening, but breaking. Affiliate pledges and communications provide only weak indicators of terrorist collaboration. The stronger bonds that bind terrorists together and suggest true coordination between a headquarters are physical, not merely virtual.

Similarly, today’s Islamic State social media propagation across a wide range of affiliates has been interpreted as a strong sign of its growing network. Electronic communication and sharing suggest coordination, but represents only one of the softer, weaker bonds surfacing in the open source. Pledging bay’at (allegiance) to the Islamic State proves the most obvious indicator, but the speed and nature in which Islamic State Central confirms bay’at tells more about the relationship. Following allegiance, collaborative social media work naturally occurs, but the specifics can be telling. Some affiliates broadcast in lockstep with headquarters, while others, either lacking routine communication with headquarters or sufficient technical production capability, broadcast only sporadically.

True allegiance, whether to al Qaeda or the Islamic State, occurs when terrorists physically collaborate on battlefields. Those affiliates closer to the head shed in Syria and Iraq naturally build tighter relationships with leadership. As seen with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of the first affiliates to rebrand as al Qaeda last decade, failed digital communication and collaboration with al Qaeda Central (AQC) in Pakistan during the group’s surge in 2012likely contributing to the group’s decline. Affiliates in West Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Southeast Asia have always struggled to get equal attention as compared to those more proximate to the bosses. Beyond social media posts, affiliates best emulating the headquarters will duplicate their administrative governance documents. Islamic State wilayats in Libya and Yemen have duplicated governance policies closely mirroring law in Syria and Iraq. Physical relationships always prove the most telling. Countries with large volumes of foreign fighters surfacing in Syria and Iraq will have more and stronger connections with the Islamic State over the long term. Affiliates enjoying tighter relationships with headquarters will also receive investments in money and men to help sustain or grow their emirate and generate high profile attacks.

Above all, the movement of headquarters’ leaders from Syria and Iraq to an affiliate signals strategic calculation effectively done only through an in-person meeting. Drone strikes outside of Pakstan, Iraq and Syria or surprising Delta Force raids provide some of the only open source clues of affiliate connections to those outside of government intelligence circles. During al Qaeda’s move to affiliates, key operatives were unsuccessfully dispatched to capitalize on the Arab Spring and secreted into the Khorasan Group among Jabhat al-Nusra. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) dispatched envoys to al Shabaab, providing some of the first overt signs of the Somali group’s official connection to al Qaeda. The recent U.S. airstrike killing an Iraqi stationed in Libya, Abu Nabil, suggests the Islamic State now follows a similar pattern.

The Converging and Diverging Interests Of Terrorist Affiliates

Beyond the strength of bonds that bring militants together, a deeper examination of the converging and diverging interests between the Islamic State and its blossoming affiliates will signal which battlefields show promise beyond Syria and Iraq. Those affiliates expanding the brand and providing the group future options will be favored over those former al Qaeda affiliates reaching for the Islamic State’s fame.

The Islamic State accrues straightforward benefits accepting affiliates. After declaring a caliphate, receiving bay’at pledges from global affiliates became a signature way for the Islamic State to demonstrate its rise over its former overlords in al Qaeda. The Islamic State orchestrated the first pledges for maximum propaganda value by pulling in support from former al Qaeda strongholds such as Algeria and Afghanistan. Affiliates have also become a vehicle for achieving success with minimal effort. The Sinai wilayat downed a Russian airliner, providing the Islamic State brand effortless success and increased media content and distribution benefiting both parties. Depending on the environment, a good wilayat can provide potential financial support over the longer term, an expanded set of recruits to join the ranks in Syria, and may even serve as a future safe haven for the Islamic State should its current caliphate evaporate. Both Yemen and Syria served this purpose for al Qaeda over the last decade as its leaders expired in Pakistan. The Islamic State also benefits if affiliates can provide access to specialized skills, equipment, and even targets (such as Westerners). Most importantly, a good affiliate will energize global supporters. Al Qaeda’s affiliates over the last decade demonstrated that Arab affiliates closer to the ideological heartland inspire global supporters in ways African and Asian affiliates sprinkled around the periphery cannot.

From the affiliate’s perspective, pledging to the Islamic State brings a mixture of self-interests, some of which may be more of detriment than benefit to the headquarters. Those first affiliates pledging to the Islamic State largely consisted of breakaway al Qaeda middle managers frustrated by local lack of progress who sought promotion. Frustrated, relatively unknown background players formed wilayats in Afghanistan and Algeria to directly challenge longtime al Qaeda strongholds. Hardliners and violent young bucks broke from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to form a Yemeni wilayat. These new affiliates benefited by connecting to the Islamic State, whose unprecedented media machine amplified its new local group. Should they fail, these new Islamic State upstarts could retreat to a safe haven in Syria and Iraq.

Breakaway faction interests in Algeria, Afghanistan, and Yemen do not hurt headquarters like those long-lasting terror groups who glom onto Islamic State fame while offering little to the global brand. As seen with al Shabaab, which clung to a merger with al Qaeda after its fortunes waned in 2012, some affiliates jump to the Islamic State to reinvigorate their dying efforts. Ansar Bayt al Maqdisi, now the Islamic State’s Sinai wilayat, likely serves as a similar example. Naturally, resource-strapped affiliates may seek out the Islamic State for money and resources, draining the headquarters’ coffers. Today, many selfish Islamic State affiliates, particularly those in Nigeria and Southeast Asia, have clamored for the Islamic State to allow them to keep local manpower at home and possibly incentivize global fighters to relocate as the war in Syria and Iraq declines.

Factors Driving Future Islamic State Growth

The Islamic State’s headquarters, should it crack under coalition pressure over the next year, will face a similar dilemma as al Qaeda did during the Pakistani drone siege of 2009 to 2011: Where should they move to survive and thrive?Regardless of the bonds and ainterests that help describe the relationship between the Islamic State and its affiliates, three factors will largely influence where the Islamic State seeks a new homeland. First, the Islamic State proved able to break away from al Qaeda largely because it was self-financed. Moving forward, those affiliates able to generate their own revenue will have a significant advantage in the post-caliphate era. Second, as seen by post-Bin Laden al Qaeda’s failed emirates in Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel, affiliates facing less counterterrorism pressure in the near term will have a greater chance of surviving over the longer term. Third, affiliates in many countries face a range of jihadi competitors. Wilayats with less competition will likely prove more fruitful for the Islamic State as they can conserve resources by avoiding battle with their former al Qaeda brothers.

The chart below evaluates 27 factors noted in the above discussion weighted and compared across 16 affiliate regions. Factors were informed by open source indicators I populated, foreign fighter data discussed in “Beyond Syria and Iraq, The Islamic State’s HR Files Illuminate Dangerous Trends,” and a comparison of expert judgments. I relied on the godfather of Islamic State administration, Aymen al-Tamimi, to understand where governance practices were being shared, used the work of Charlie WinterJ.M. Berger, and Aaron Zelin to assess social media collaboration, and leaned on Will McCants for comparing affiliate constructs. The horizontal axis assesses perceived bonds between affiliates and the headquarters. The vertical axis depicts the degree to which an affiliate’s interests converge with that of the Islamic State. Arrows show the affiliate’s future outlook, either positive or negative depending on potential revenue, counterterrorism pressure, and jihadi competition.

Three clusters of affiliates naturally arose after evaluation of more than two dozen factors. Those affiliates with the tightest bonds and convergent interests with Islamic State headquarters (upper right quadrant of Figure 1 “al Qaeda Rivals”) represent locations with long histories of jihadi violence and were some of the first to pledge to the Islamic State and challenge al Qaeda. The outlook for “al Qaeda Rivals” seems dim as they struggle against a combination of challenges: local jihadi competitors, international counterterrorism efforts, intense state opposition, and financial challenges. The Islamic State’s most promising affiliate in Libya suffered a serious setback this week losing their prized port of Sirte.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, several “Bandwagon” affiliates offer a better outlook since they face fewer local rivals, weaker counterterrorism pressure, better ability to self-finance. Yet Indonesia, the Philippines, Somalia, and Nigeria have the weakest bonds with the Islamic State. Comparatively few foreign fighters from these locales have traveled to Syria. Disloyal al Qaeda affiliate Boko Haram and the Somali splinter emerging for the Islamic State often pursue wanton violence that ultimately proves detrimental to the greater brand. Invigorated Indonesian and Filipino terror groups, now Islamic State devotees, show little difference from their al Qaeda-supporting forms of a decade ago. All of these affiliates pledge to either the Islamic State or al Qaeda to bolster their own image and keep their troops at home. Finally, these “Bandwagon” affiliates have never drawn significant global support and would likely be the least preferred travel destinations of most surviving Islamic State foreign fighters, who for the most part will differ ethnically from these peripheral groups.

In between the “al Qaeda Rivals” and “Bandwagon” affiliates are “Morphing” existing and future affiliates. Those “Morphing” include two affiliates from historical jihadi conflict zones on the decline. Russians from the Caucasus joined the Islamic State in Syria largely because their efforts were crushed at home. AQIM splinters joining the Islamic State immediately after declaration of the caliphate have largely been routed by the Algerian government and outpaced by their previous AQIM overlords.

Emerging areas may provide possible alternatives with greater viability compared to traditional affiliates. Islamic State-inspired violence has sprung up in Bangladesh; though the outlook there appears positive for jihadis, the country lacks tight linkages with Syria and Iraq. Central Asia provided a significant uptick in foreign fighters to Syria, and jihadi-inspired violence hit Kazakhstan this week. Meanwhile, Lebanon not only produces a high rate of foreign fighters to Syria, but also offers an easy transit point from Syria.

Al Qaeda affiliates may have a marginally better outlook than the Islamic State

The Islamic State’s options for reconstituting in an affiliate appear bleak, should it need to scale back in Syria and Iraq. All of its fountains of support across North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia face stiff local competition or mounting counterterrorism pressure. More importantly, the Islamic State’s vaunted caliphate-funding model may quickly become the group’s lynchpin if it moves from state to affiliate and from conventional army to insurgency and terrorism. With no turf to govern, there will be no spoils to take, necessitating a shift to donations and black market operations. The Islamic State has employed off-putting violence, alienating many potential donors. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, always measured its violence in part to prevent the loss of its core financial donors. Al Qaeda’s approach endures to this day, as seen by Qatari kingpins powering the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra. Over time, Islamic State affiliates will struggle under competition because no affiliate, at present, seems to govern on sufficient scale to replenish this funding stream, and their type of violence will be unlikely to attract committed donors. Islamic State affiliates will be dependent on black market spoils that often turn local populaces against terrorists in ways more legitimate taxes and donations do not.

What to look for as the caliphate crumbles?

Financial outflows from Syria and Iraq, the dispatching of Iraqi Islamic State envoys, and the emigration of foreign fighters (already underway) will provide the most illustrative signals of the post-Islamic State terrorism landscape. The most indicative data will come from the roughly 15% of Islamic State foreign fighter survivors I estimate will be unable or unwilling to return home. These “floating” fighters lacking roots to a homeland affiliate will be inclined to choose the most promising global affiliates for safe havens. As noted last week, Europeans will be the most important tell and will be inclined to mix with those of similar ethnicity and language. For example, French and Belgian foreign fighters may be better suited for North Africa or Lebanon.

Central Asian, Russian, and Chinese fighters will be another important contingent to watch should they choose to resettle with an Asian group known for attracting foreign fighters, such as the Khorasan wilayat or possibly more likely the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In the coming months, some Islamic State affiliates will decline and be absorbed by other affiliates in a natural process of consolidation and reconstitution. As an example, recent news suggests Sinai wilayat members may already be relocating to Libya. Ideological leaders represent the bishops of the Islamic State chessboard, and their movement from the caliphate will confirm the game is up. Keep an eye on their travel. If they choose to leave Syria and Iraq, they will be the last to go and will only move to the safest of affiliates — those most amenable to continuing the Islamic State’s vision for governance.

Having controlled territory to this point, the Islamic State has been able to stockpile cash, although coalition airstrikes have recently taken quite a toll on this reserve. In preparation for a move or to survive in general, the Islamic State will increasingly transfer funds to other locations. Analysts should watch for increased hawala transfers from the Levant to affiliates, increased money laundering through black market connections in Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq, and even financial sheltering via social media applications and digital currencies leveraging the Islamic State’s global network of supporters.

Lastly, of all locations, Lebanon may be the most important to watch. A fragile state close to Syria, Lebanon is producing high rates of foreign fighters, faces floods of refugees, lacks a strong international counterterrorism presence, faces constant sectarian strife, and sits proximate to every jihadi’s common enemy, Israel. Lebanon, moreso than any other country, seems an ideal opportunity for the Islamic State should the caliphate end. Much like the American withdrawal from Iraq six years ago, the Islamic State’s demise, when it comes, won’t spell the end of jihad — just the close of a chapter and the start of a new one somewhere else.

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