ISIS could trigger Arab revolution

On the darker upper strip of my computer screen I saw my eyebrows rising, as I read, for the first time, President Obama’s mission in Iraq and Syria. Now, as his aides and spokespersons drone on and on about that mission, I get ticked off or, alternately, amused.

Can the United States and its allies really “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL)?

Personally, I deplore this war because of the deaths and devastation it’s going to cause, and the piles of dough we, American taxpayers, are squandering on it. So far the war’s price tag is estimated to be $1 billion a month. It’s likely to rise.

Yet I also see the war having a far-reaching, liberating effect on Arab societies. I see it reviving and strengthening the Arab Spring, which Arab monarchies and dictatorships had foolishly thought they had behind them. More on this in a minute.

Meanwhile, I’m afraid Obama isn’t going to “destroy” ISIS. Remember his repeated vows to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” Al Qaeda during the Afghanistan war? Thanks mainly to that war, Al Qaeda and its many affiliates have mushroomed in the Middle East, North and West Africa, and elsewhere. If Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam had any lesson for the United States, it’s that conventional military establishments, however powerful, can’t defeat modern guerrilla forces that are ready to die to end their oppression and avenge their subjugation and humiliation.

Afghan Mujahedeen taught this lesson to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, then the world’s largest conventional military juggernaut. The Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian guerrilla groups in Gaza have driven it home to Israel, the superpower in Middle East.

Ignoring these glaring lessons and lurching into a new war in the hope of stamping out the world’s most powerful Muslim guerrilla force is just insane. Albert Einstein defined “insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

The gruesome atrocities that ISIS has committed against civilians in Iraq and Syria are indeed heinous and inhuman. They’re repugnant to Islamic tenets and principles. Beheading innocent civilians, killing Yazidis and Christians or converting them to Islam by force are certainly not part of the “jihad,” struggle authorized by Islam, they claim to have waged.

Islam sanctions two kinds of jihad. The greater jihad,  jihad al-kabir, is the struggle to resist one’s own immoral impulses and actions. The lesser jihad,  jihad al-saghir, is armed struggle to defend one’s community or territory against outside aggression. ISIS obviously has proclaimed the lesser jihad against the Shiite government and militias in Iraq, the Alawite government in Syria as well as America and its allies. Islam would probably support its armed struggle if it is, or was, meant to resist the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Shiite pogrom against Sunni Arabs in Iraq or the suppression and oppression of people by the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria.

But Islamic law strongly prohibits its inhuman atrocities against civilians, mentioned above. These crimes belong to the categories of the brutal torture, murder and humiliation of mostly innocent Muslims in Abu Gharib, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere by American forces. They’re as barbaric as American soldiers peeing on Afghan Muslim corpses, or Israelis slaughtering Gazan children.

In any case, the more America and its allies beat up on ISIS, the more it will attract recruits and monetary support from fellow Sunnis from around the world. Already, some 3,000 American and European Sunni youths and many thousands more from the Muslim world have joined the guerrilla organization. I expect the trend to accelerate in the months and years ahead.

It reminds me of a comment an Iraqi friend made to me during one of my three research trips to Iraq. In 1991 Subhy Haddad, a veteran Iraqi journalist, was working for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. I had him over for lunch at Baghdad’s Sagman Hotel, where I was staying.

Between bites on his eggplant Domla – eggplant with meat, vegetables and spices stuffing – Haddad said I wouldn’t be able to interview some of the Shiite intellectuals and politicians I had on a list. About half of them had fled to Shiite Iran to escape then Sunni Arab President Saddam Hussein’s persecution. If Sunni Arabs (as different from Sunni Kurds) ever got knocked out of power, he continued, Shiites would wreak vengeance on them. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs “would then turn to their fellow Sunnis in the region” for support. Iraqis, he added, were “more loyal to their ethnic groups than to Iraq.”

I remembered Haddad when successive Shiite governments in Baghdad and their brutal militias began slaughtering Sunni Arabs after the United States had overthrown the Saddam regime. Many of those persecuted Sunni Arabs joined Al Qaeda in Iraq to resist the U.S. invasion and the Shiite pogrom. ISIS has resumed that struggle and strengthened it manifold.

That the United States sired ISIS is missing from American discourse on that militant group. Senator Carl Levin was a rare exception. “ISIS did not exist before our invasion of Iraq,” said the chairman of the Senate Arms Services Committee at a hearing on the issue. “They are a consequence of our invasion of Iraq.”

Levin echoed a chorus of voices from politicians and pundits in the Middle East. ISIS is “the product of foreign invasion,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

And America’s expedition against ISIS is going to produce the same results as did its war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan: spread and bolster the movement, aggravating threats to American security.

If the Sunni Arab militancy in Iraq and Syria has alarmed the United States, it has spawned panic among Arab monarchies, which are its next targets. In fact ISIS, the Al Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist militant groups already are calling for the ouster of repressive Arab monarchies. No wonder five of those monarchies – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates – have jumped on America’s anti-ISIS bandwagon in a desperate effort to save their thrones.

The thousands of Arab youths from Persian Gulf countries who are honing their fighting skills in this war will one day return home. They will almost inevitably revive and fire up the simmering revolutionary movements against their tyrannical monarchies, the most formidable they ever faced.

I don’t expect many of these anachronistic power structures to survive another Arab generation.

  • Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He covered seven Middle Eastern countries as a newspaper reporter and conducted fieldwork in five as a research fellow for the University of Chicago Middle East Center.



Barhain atop democratic ‘volcano’

By Mustafa Malik

 For the United States, the Bahraini uprising is more worrisome than most others now swirling in the Middle East and North Africa.

America’s stakes in Bahrain was underscored to me this past Jan. 13 by a researcher in Manama, the Bahraini capital. “The Al Khalifa rulers are sitting on a volcano,” said Numan Saleh, who was affiliated with the Bahrain Center for Studies and Research. “When the volcano erupts, would the [U.S. Navy’s] Fifth Fleet remain anchored in Juffairare [near Manama]? Would America and the West take their [Persian Gulf] oil supply for granted?” Little did I know that many of us in America would be asking on these same questions in four short weeks.

The recent Cabinet reshuffle by Bahraini regime and its gift of $2, 650 per family have been pooh-poohed by protesters; they left the monarchy with absolute power. A dialogue with the opposition, called for by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, either. Yet the Obama administration is having a hard time recognizing the reality that Al Khalifa despotism is fast becoming history. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently she hoped that “a national dialogue can produce meaningful measures that respond to the legitimate aspirations of all the people of Bahrain.”

Holy cow! How would American revolutionaries have felt if Friedrich-Wilhelm III, then king of the Prussian Empire, had told them that a dialogue with the British King George III would satisfy their “legitimate aspirations”?

More ominously for the United States and Saudi Arabia, the Shiites are about 15 percent of the Saudi population, living mostly in the kingdom’s eastern Al Hasa region. Al Hasa is soaked with the world’s largest oil fields and used to be part of historic Bahrain. The Shiites in Al Hasa, as elsewhere in Saudi Arabia, are systematically discriminated against by their Sunni government, and many of them nurture fellowship with the repressed Bahrain Shiites at the other end of a 15-mile causeway.

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, as all other west Asian states except Iran, were created artificially by British, French and local rulers less than a century ago. The citizens of these states are more deeply rooted in their old sectarian and ethnic communities than in state institutions foisted on them overnight from above. Hence the Shiites in Bahrain and the whole Arabian Peninsula feel affinity with the Shiite Iran, forming the so-called “Shiite Crescent.”

Abdul Karim al-Iryani, then Yemeni foreign minister, anticipated today’s Arab upheaval and the American dilemma two decades ago. In October 1991 al-Iryani, a Ph.D. from Yale, told me in the Yemeni capital of Saana that “when the tide of freedom and democracy comes, the current American [Gulf] security structure will become untenable.” The autocrats that were pillars of that structure would be “gone or have their wings clipped.” I asked him what the United States could do then to ensure continued supply of Gulf oil and its strategic ties to the region.

“Flow with the tide,” he replied.

The Yemeni statesman was a decade off on his prediction for the arrival of the democratic tide, but his caveat to America seems to be on target and timely for today’s U.S. policy makers. It’s perilous for the United States to be known by tomorrow’s democratic or populist Arab governments as the nation that tried to save the skin of their repressive autocrats. The administration should embrace the democratic “tide.” It should call on the Bahraini king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, to retire; unless a democratically elected government wishes to keep him as a constitutional monarch.

The United States, too, needs to reassess its pointless confrontation with Iran. It’s clear that America (or Israel) can’t stop Iran’s nuclear program through military strikes, which, on the contrary, would trigger an anti-American conflagration throughout the Middle East. That would perhaps mark the beginning of the end of the U.S. domination of the region and send oil prices through the roof, plunging industrialized societies into deeper recession. Instead, the Obama administration should engage Tehran in a meaningful strategic dialogue with Iran, which would have the best chance of preserving much of American security and economic interests in west Asia.

Mustafa Malik, host of the blog Beyond Freedom,  is a columnist in Washington. He covered the Middle-East as a journalist and conducted field research on U.S.-Arab relations as a senior associate for the University of Chicago Middle East Center.