The good news just keeps pouring in from the Middle East. No, seriously. You know the saying, “All good things must come to an end”? Well, so must all not-good things. Right now the not-good things dominate the headlines. But patience is a virtue, and virtue produces the good. Let me explain what I mean via comments on four recent news stories.
First, about a week ago we got news that Jabhat al-Nusra, habitually but misleadingly described as an al-Qaeda affiliate, routed the habitually but misleadingly described “moderate” Free Syrian Army groups in Idlib province, within striking distance of the key northern city of Aleppo (or what’s left of it). The FSA groups did not fight back, but fled or defected, leaving their weapons in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, among whom, supposedly, is a small but elite cell U.S. intelligence calls Khorasan that is devoted to striking the “far enemy”, namely the United States.
Now, this seemed like terrible news and was described in the press as a major setback to President Obama’s habitually but misleadingly termed “strategy” for Syria, because it undermined and possibly destroyed potential boots on the ground to fight the Islamic State. But all is not as it seems.
The “moderates” the strategy aims to train, in bases in Saudi Arabia and possibly Jordan (if we twist their arms hard enough)—all 5,000 that have been funded out of a minimum necessary of 15,000-20,000—were to have no logistical liaison with FSA forces already on the ground and fighting. This is despite the bleating over some years now about the U.S. government helping the FSA—help that was episodically announced but that never seemed to show up. (There are reasons for this, of which more below.) Worse for half a plan pretending to be a strategy, the FSA’s main enemy is the Assad regime, not IS/ISIS/ISIL (pick your acronym—as before, I prefer Da’ash, the acronym formed from the Arabic for Islamic State). But the Administration has spurned my advice and that of others, not least the Turkish government, and so has avoided hitting Assad regime targets. The result was exactly as Liz Sly, the Washington Post foreign correspondent based in Beirut, explained it on November 2:
A Jabhat al-Nusra base was one of the first targets hit when the United States launched its air war in Syria in September, and activists said the tensions fueled by that attack had contributed to the success of the group’s push against the moderate rebels. “When American airstrikes targeted al-Nusra, people felt solidarity with them because Nusra are fighting the regime, and the strikes are helping the regime,” said Raed al-Fares, an activist leader in Kafr Nabel, in Idlib. “Now people think that whoever in the Free Syrian Army gets support from the U.S.A. is an agent of the regime,” he said.
Had the U.S. government attacked Assad regime targets along with Da’ash targets, this vise-grip of an optic could be been avoided, likely leaving FSA forces more or less in tact.
It gets worse. As the Nusra grip formed around the FSA factions in Idlib province, FSA commanders called three times for U.S. air strikes to come to their aid. As David Ignatius reported on November 4 for the Washington Post, the plaints grew simultaneously more desperate and more forlorn by the day. “The FSA needs urgent Coalition support”, said an October 28 message. Three days later, the FSA warned: “We’ve got major problems w Nusra in Idlib. . . . Close air support badly needed.” And then, on November 2, “Morale is low . . . air support would be welcomed to stave off disaster.”
Even with U.S. fighter jets active and nearby, we did nothing to help them. We even cast doubt on whether there was even a problem. This is how Karen de Young described it in the November 3 Washington Post:
A key official with the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the U.S.-backed political umbrella for the Free Syrian Army, said Monday that it has appealed for three days to the administration for emergency assistance. “We sent a note to Gen. Allen’s office on Friday” requesting coordinated airstrikes and expedited military aid, the opposition official said. “We were told that the information was passed on to Centcom. . . . No response.”
“We are aware of press reports of a major al-Nusra offensive against the Free Syrian Army, but I have nothing confirming this,” said U.S. Central Command spokesman Maj. Curtis J. Kellogg.
This tells everyone in the region what it really means to be a client of the United States these days: You may be used for domestic political purposes, and you may be promised the world, but you will be left dangling in the wind when things get serious.
Perhaps this is all for the best. President Obama has long been skeptical—out loud no less at one point—that the FSA could ever make a real difference on the ground against the Assad regime. And it is well known that the U.S. government feared from the start that any significant military “stuff” given the moderates would likely end up in the wrong hands, which partly explains the promise-but-don’t-deliver dodge. And the decision to keep the training of 5,000 “moderates” separate from the FSA order of battle already deployed in Syria also presumably turned on a dour assessment of FSA capacities, both military and political. Given what happened in Idlib—the fleeing without a shot and the mass defections to Nusra—the President now looks to have been right the first time (although it is also possible that, had he acted early and boldly, the FSA would never have come to such a pathetic pass). So why did he change his mind in his new “strategy”—or did he?
The incident has much to teach, if only Western observers can get past the misleading labels that obfuscate the social and political realities of the Levant. How could it be that “moderates” in the FSA would so readily go over to “Islamists” in the al-Nusra/al-Qaeda camp? The answer ought to be instructive.
Explicit ideology does not play nearly the sort of definitive role in this conflict that most Western observers assume. Thanks not least to the role that the Assads and the Ba‘ath have played over the past forty-some years, Syrians do not think in abstract ideological terms. They barely think in abstract theological terms either, to the extent that there is a meaningful distinction between the two in a culture that has never budged from the historical default mode of political theology (see Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God if you don’t follow the vocabulary here—see it even if you do). Loyalties and affinities are instead defined by tribe/clan/family, which in Syria corresponds almost exactly to sectarian affiliation, by the economic ties those loyalties and affinities create, overlaid in turn by local eccentricities that magnify the whims of individual patriarchs, clerics, and brash young military types. The appeal of a group like Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria therefore has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden’s twisted thinking and illegal fatwas. It has nothing to do with rabid, hateful tawhidi sermons. It has nothing to do with madrassa-level religious educations, which almost none of Nusra’s members have. It is, in short, a “radical” group defined not by its thinking but by its extremely shallow institutional roots.
To get some idea of how Jabhat al-Nusra has been able to “stick” in elements of Syrian Sunni society, consider that one of its strategies has been to train bakers. Yes, I’m serious. The local Nusra leaders reasoned that in a civil war in which the regime uses starvation as a weapon, the rebel group that controlled the making and distribution of bread would end up in the catbird’s seat. So Nusra trained bakers and bought up all the bakeries it could in various sections of the country under its sway. This strategy worked. But that is about as deep as its institutional structure goes, for it gets no advice or aid from Ayman al-Zawahiri, holed in in some Waziristani cave. This is why the “al-Qaeda affiliate” label invariably applied by the Western mainstream press is so misleading. But in a place where nothing save religious sects and tribes has deep institutional roots, dominating the distribution of bread is more than enough to secure a usable advantage over your competitors.
As for the FSA types, they are not “moderates” in any way Westerners typically use the term. They do not think in abstract typological terms. All they know is that a monstrous Alawi regime has been murdering Sunnis—their parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, and friends by the tens and now the hundreds of thousands for years—and no Sunni Arab state has been willing or able to do a damn thing about it. So they are willing to ally with any group, temporarily at least, that has the same priority in the fight against the regime as they do.
That is why it is misleading to label any of these groups, not Jabhat al-Nusra, not Ahrar al-Sham, and not even Da’ash, as “terrorist.” All these groups use terrorist tactics when it suits them, including the Harakat Hazm FSA affiliate. Armed Syrian Sunnis today compose a disunited and radically under-institutionalized insurgency, not a set of terrorist organizations. Americans have come to be so obsessed with terrorism as a word-magic symbol that we use it as the great sorter of moral and tactical judgments in a part of the world about which we still insist on knowing next to nothing: Terrorists are bad, non-terrorists are, at least relatively, good. The great “terrorism” sorter enables us indulge our Manichean brain in a place where the two-valued orientation makes about as much sense as an orchestra composed of gray squirrels.
Note, too, that FSA defectors do not go over to groups like Nusra as individuals for the most part, which would imply a decision made on the basis of individual agency. This is how Westerners think, and they typically project the assumption of individual agency onto others. It doesn’t work like that in Syria. Families or parts of families go over together, because that provides some protection in a fluid situation, and because it allows decisions to be more socially coherent on behalf of the relevant group as a whole. This makes perfect sense in a tribal society, but Westerners as a rule do not understand tribal societies, just as those in tribal societies do not understand how Western societies work. This causes no end of misunderstanding and grief.
There is something else going on too that is potentially even more important. Like the original Islam of the 6th and 7th centuries, and like the Wahabbi revitalization movement of 18th-century Arabia, al-Qaeda-like groups in Syria and Iraq today offer a way out of tribal and local parochialisms. They provide a social template for the mobilization of consent and action on a trans-clan, trans-tribal basis. In other words, they provide a platform for real national-level politics, which, in a civil war, has to accompany military activity if some kind of endgame is to be imagined and collectively sought.
Sunnis in Syria have traditionally been deeply divided, and those persisting divisions have hurt them badly in their fight against the Assad regime. Had they been able to unite at the outset of the uprising, when the momentum was in their favor, they could have polished off Bashir al-Assad and his thugs before the Iranians and Russians could come to his aid and breath a second wind into his regime. But they botched the opportunity, mostly not for military but for political reasons. Today’s young fighters are keenly aware of their elders’ failure, and Nusra—and even Da’ash—represent for many a way to consolidate their fighting effectiveness against the regime. The potential result is that, out of this horrific civil war, there might arise a new Sunni political community in Syria capable of actually governing the country (what’s left of it, at least). Good news, see?
The second story concerns Syria’s smaller neighbor, Lebanon. A few days ago the ink started drying on a military deal that is sending $3 billion worth of French weapons to the Lebanese Army, courtesy of Saudi Arabia. Lebanon’s population is about 4.5 million. That works out to about $667 worth of destructive stuff per person, not that the place is entirely bereft of small arms arsenals and bomb materiel as it is. The Franco-Saudi arrangement follows not only some pitched battles this past summer between the Lebanese Army and Da’ash marauders oozing across the border from Syria, it also followed reports of an Iranian offer to supply arms (and “advisers”) to Lebanon to help it fight Da’ash—but which was understood properly to be a sub rosa means of aiding Hizballah, which at the time was getting its head stomped in across the Syrian border.
To analogize to the Spanish Civil War: if Syria is “Spain” in the sectarian conflict enveloping the region, Lebanon is something like “Portugal”—smaller, more vulnerable, and easy for the great powers to overlook. Lebanon’s delicate communal balance has never been able to insulate itself for long from wider regional dynamics. The PLO catalyzed a civil war there in the mid-1970s, accompanied by multiparty foreign intervention, and now the Sunni-Shi‘a tempest threatens to cause another, with Iran holding up one axis of conflict and Saudi Arabia the other.
It is understandable why so many parties want to pour astonishing amounts of weaponry into the country, but the risks to the Lebanese of so doing are not slight. The Saudis have their eye not on Lebanon for its own sake, but on Iran; the French want to sell weapons, and need to sell weapons so that the French military can afford to buy for itself what French arms manufacturers make. (The fact that French advisers are going with the weapons to Lebanon and have pledged to stick around for a decade as they are assimilated tickles the fancy of those with historical grounding and a sense of irony. The last time the French military won a battle in the Levant was when it ousted “King” Faisal from Damascus in June 1920.) If there is another iteration of civil war in Lebanon, it’s the Lebanese who will suffer most by far from the new, wild profusion of ordnance.
What is happening in Lebanon mirrors a phenomenon coursing throughout the region: the thoroughgoing militarization of politics. In a region where institutional glue at the state level is so weak, the militarization of politics will have an obvious but for some reason still generally unrecognized impact: It will strengthen military institutions at the expense of all others, and in so doing it will shape significantly the path of political development in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and beyond. It will even shape the contours of a rising independent Kurdistan.
In the short to medium-term, this means that hopes for political pluralism and the development of strong civil society institutions are all in vain. Just as war is not good for moderation in politics, militarized politics is not good for pluralism, democracy, accountability, rule of law, a free press, or the protection of minorities. All the programs the U.S. government still runs for such purposes and the many millions of dollars it is still spending on them are very likely to fail to produce anything remotely positive in a protracted militarized environment.
So where is the good news here? We are all bearing witness today to a dying order in the Near East. It is not just the end of the so-called Sykes-Picot era; it is also the end of the attempt to wrap a certain non-Western culture—the Arab one—in the garb of the Westphalian state, and in a form of modernity that is Western in its institutional roots. An institution is a set of rules, or habits, through which society accomplishes certain necessary functions, but it is often forgotten that institutions work well only when there is a corresponding fold within consciousness. The modern Western state—with its impersonal Weberian forms of authority and its secular space made available for a politics that isn’t all-or-nothing—has never quite taken in the Arab world because Arab societies evolved forms of consciousness that did not readily correspond to them.
The lack of fit has produced decades of instability, despotism, and, lately, increasingly desperate attempts to find a way out of the historical cul-de-sac Arabs find themselves in. Unable to go forward in the vehicle of what was for the Arab countries the artificial Western state, the “return of Islam” was bound to happen at some point or other. This accounts, too, for the seeming contradiction—at least to believers in Western modernization theory—that the more traditional polities in the region, the monarchies, have been generally the most successful, stable, and immune to radicalized Islamist agitation. Many observers think that their success has been an accident of their oil wealth, but this is not so. Algeria has oil but not a successful state by Western standards; Jordan has no oil but, until recently, has been pretty successful. So was oil-less Lebanon, in its own way, until its civil war dragged it under.
The region is suffering such horrendous times because it is stuck between eras. The old is dying, or already dead, and as Antonio Gramsci famously put it in another context, the new is having trouble being born. Better than Gramsci for this purpose is Herman Hesse, who wrote as follows in Steppenwolf:
Every age, every culture, every custom and tradition has its own character, its own weakness and its own strength, its beauties and ugliness; accepts certain sufferings as matters of course, puts up patiently with certain evils. Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures, two religions overlap. . . . Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand, no security, no simple acquiescence.
What happens when a generation is caught in this way, as the Arabs are caught now? It freaks out; or, to put it somewhat more formally, it tends to produce religiously based chiliastic violence. As several have observed, we have examples of this across the centuries and across cultures, from the Jewish Zealots of the First Century CE to the Crusaders in Jerusalem in 1099 to the Peasants Revolt in Germany in the 16th century to the Taiping Rebellion in China at the end of the 19th century to the Mau-Maus in Kenya in the 1950s and 1960s—not to speak of the native American Ghost Dances of the late 19th century. Now we have al-Qaeda and Da’ash. They are doing, in their own cultural context and in their own time, the very same thing. And like all the other desperate chiliastic episodes in recorded history, they will burn themselves out and fail, leaving a path of blood and destruction in their wake.
Why is this good news? Because Da’ash represents the final playing out of the futile string of militarized Islamism. This is the end. It can’t get any more radical, primitivist, delusional, nihilistic, and self-destructive. When it crashes and burns, nearly every sentient Muslim will see clearly that Islam, in this distorted militarized form, is certainly not “the answer.” Only when militarized Islamism has completely played itself out will the Arabs come face to face with what they must do: Develop modern political institutions of their own that correspond to and do honor to their capacious and beautiful civilization. They will in time institutionalize forms of governance that do work, and they will evince forms of accountability and lawfulness that will work, too. These forms will not, because they cannot for indelible reasons of political sociology, look exactly like Western forms or even inhabit territorial shapes Westerners take for granted. So Westerners must at the same time learn to respect the dignity of difference in order to conduct normal cooperative relations with a new, rising Arab world—a lesson Americans have a particularly difficult time learning, for reasons that, alas, must not detain us here.
The third news item did not get much play in the Western press. Arab News reported, and the Associated Press picked up a shard of the story, that on November 3 military and political leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt met to form a rapid reaction force to respond to Islamist militants in the region and, not coincidentally, to put some muscle in the Sunni effort to counter Iranian policy in the region. A photo of the meeting showed military uniforms on one side of the table, Western suits on the other, with backbenchers aplenty ready to get to work.
The Arabs are famous for multiparty gabfests that accomplish nothing but great heaps of leftover food. This meeting was different. Da’ash supporters are suddenly popping up, killing Shi‘a observing Ashoura, and getting arrested en masse, in Saudi Arabia. Amid reports of Egyptian and joint UAE-Egyptian intervention in Libya, the Houthi surge in Yemen, and the overlapping messes in Syria, Iraq, and, perhaps soon, Lebanon and Jordan, the logic of the discussion doesn’t get any clearer. The premise is that no one is going to come to the aid of the Sunni world—not the Americans, not the Turks, not anyone. The GCC, meanwhile, is the wrong vehicle because Qatar is on the wrong side and Bahrain is paralyzed by domestic challenges. All that is left is a new arrangement for self-help.
The Saudi-Kuwaiti-UAE-Egyptian meeting displays multilateral self-help at its starkest: the Saudis and the other Gulfies pay, and the Egyptians become the hired mercenaries doing the great bulk of the actual expeditionary fighting. For the time being, the Egyptians have their eyes focused on Libya, the Saudis on Yemen to the southwest and of course Da’ash toward their eastern border. We should not be surprised to see the Egyptian military active soon in some way in Yemen if the Yemenis fail to find a political solution to their problems. It has already been active at the margins with air power in Libya and will become more active if General Khalifa Haftar ultimately fails to take and hold Benghazi. If in due course the Saudis drag Pakistan toward this new arrangement, for its nuclear weapons dimension, that would not be surprising either. (It would be alarming.)
What does all this mean? It means that not only has politics in the Arab world become militarized, so has diplomacy. In the absence of a U.S. strategic effort to suppress security competitions in the region—one of the main purposes of U.S. postwar grand strategy in Europe and East Asia, as well as the Middle East—there is no choice but for the locals to take the job into their own hands. The problem is that their hands are shaky and their aims are not remotely disinterested. A Sunni Arab rapid reaction force might or might not be effective; in an under-institutionalized environment, even feeble efforts can sometimes prevail. But it presages not just surgical interventions; it could assemble into one axis of a coming regional sectarian war.
That’s good news?! Yes, it is. If the United States is not going to clean up after the mess that it and its NATO allies made in Libya, someone has to do it. If U.S. policy in Yemen is limited to killing “terrorists” with Predator drones, someone must do the hard work of persuading the parties to calm down and get a grip. If U.S. diplomacy is not going to twist Qatari arms to stop their mischief-making, which now apparently includes an expanded military relationship with the utterly noxious government in Sudan, someone else has to apply counter-pressure.
Most important, if U.S. policy is too weak or distracted to suppress security competitions in the region, such competitions are going to arise—and there’s no point in our complaining about them. And if a sectarian war that will further radicalize and bloody the region is coming, it will be a war in which the United States has no business taking sides—so let the antagonists organize themselves without U.S. involvement, and without any concomitant U.S. responsibility for the outcome. It is true, as Ben Rhodes once blurted out, that the United States is overinvested in the Middle East. It is true, too that we should reduce our military profile there, getting out of Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar and taking the 5th Fleet out of Bahrain.
The United States cannot “leave” the Middle East; things are not so simple. Strategic choices for great powers never break down into either/or propositions, foolish talk of “pivots” notwithstanding. But we obviously can’t control the Middle East either; indeed we control less and less as time passes. So it behooves us to reduce our exposure to trouble there in rough proportion to our capacity to manage it. The sooner we stop our sleepwalking over the dunes the better. And that’s more good news.
Fourth, and finally for now, we heard just yesterday that President Obama wrote last month a fourth letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei. According to Wall Street Journal reports, the letter proposed explicit cooperation against Da’ash if a nuclear deal could be signed by the November 24 deadline, and the United States, it was further reported, has put a detailed framework agreement on the table. The framework supposedly satisfies Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle needs if they do not in truth seek a weapons capability. So far, the President has received no direct response to any of his letters, nor has he received, so far as we know, any response to the U.S. framework proposal from Iranian negotiators.
We also learned, supposedly, that U.S. negotiators have conceded to Iran on the issue of centrifuges: We’re prepared to live with 6,000 now, instead of merely 4,000. Last week we suggested that a Russian role in reprocessing Iranian fuel rods would reduce the prospect of an Iranian breakout, thus enabling a more generous position on the centrifuges, but the Iranians publicly denied that they were agreeable to that Russian role. To offset the impression that we are caving, and to defend ourselves against French suspicions that we are indeed caving, the President repeated at a press conference on Wednesday the mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” Does he mean it? Will we walk away if the Iranians do not bend?
No one really knows. I’m not sure the President yet knows. What we all know is that another episode of “kick the can down the road” has been rendered a lot less likely by the outcome of the midterm elections. The President might get a deal relatively unscathed past this Congress; he’s bound to have a harder time with the next Congress. So if he intends to push a wounded duck of an agreement up and then down Capitol Hill, he needs to do it sooner rather than later. So we are likely coming to a real moment of truth.
Some have argued that the Administration’s reluctance to attack Assad regime targets is related to its sharp focus on getting an acceptable deal with the Iranians over the nuclear portfolio. Some have argued that Obama thinks of his effort to bring Iran in from the cold as comparable to Nixon’s China coup in 1972. According to this analysis, Iran is the key that can save the Administration’s reputation in foreign policy for all time. If he pulls this off, so the argument goes, all else will be forgotten if not forgiven.
Maybe. I remain skeptical that this President, this White House, this Administration, is capable of that scale of strategic thinking. I suspect the decision-making process is more compartmentalized and incrementalist by nature, which also seems to be the conclusion reached by insiders Bob Gates and Leon Panetta in their memoirs. But I agree—and here I am at one with both Barack Obama and Bibi Netanyahu, it seems—that the outcome of the engagement with Iran is vastly more important than Da’ash, or Syria, or the future of Iraq.
Even if I am mistaken, and the Administration really does think as grandly as some claim, I am skeptical that it is going about its Big Idea in a competent fashion. The way to get the Iranians to bend is not to give them a pass on their regional mischief, but rather to stuff it back in their faces until it hurts. Western liberals think that goodwill extended engenders goodwill returned, that concessions extended engender concessions returned, that friendship proposed leads to friendship accepted. That sort of thing works well at suburban country clubs and at EU-based soirees. It doesn’t work with Iranian mullahs (or Chinese communists or Russian kleptocrats, and so on). Displays of liberal reasonableness are very likely to be taken in Tehran as signs of weakness and lack of resolve. Maybe the Iranians have already decided to make a deal. After all, they showed no signs of relenting in the Iran-Iraq War until they suddenly did, remaining blood-on-the-saddle types to the very end in order to gain the best possible terms. But if not, one can easily imagine a situation where we sit down expecting the Iranians to reciprocate our generosity in order to close the deal and they expect more U.S. concessions to follow the ones already offered—at which point they may pocket the concessions and propose an extension.
What it all comes down to is who hurts more from walking away from the table. If the Iranians walk, they still have their program and can hope in time to wiggle out of or find ways around the sanctions regime. Not making a deal with the United States also preserves the mullahs’ ideological purity of relentlessly dissing the Great Satan. If the Obama Administration walks, its entire foreign policy gets spilled down on the floor, which, on top of the outcome of the midterms, makes the President look like a consummate political failure for all time. In my judgment, it will be harder for us to walk than it will be for the Iranians to walk, meaning that the pressure is on us to make the final concessions needed to seal a deal—and then hope it can get through Congress.
What if the deal goes down in flames despite all we do? What if the Iranian regime is incapable of saying “yes” even to a fawning U.S. proposal—what if it, too, is under-institutionalized, vulnerable to the mystical whim of one sick old man? What if Obama smokes out the mullahs and forces them to admit that, yes, they seek nuclear weapons? What then?
How could this be good news? It will be good news because it will finally clarify what the real choices have always been. It will shut up all the half-brained pundits who have been telling us for years that an Iranian nuclear arsenal is deterrable, so why all the fuss? (To his credit, President Obama has been wise enough to reject this notion.)
With so much good news out there from the Middle East, I can barely wait for tomorrow’s headlines. But patience, patience.