The Caliphate vs. Everyone Else

Commentary No. 383, Aug. 15, 2014

In the endless geopolitical realignments of the Middle East, the Caliphate of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS or ISIL) seems to have frightened just about everyone else involved in Middle Eastern politics into a de facto geopolitical alliance. All of a sudden, we find Iran and the United States, the Kurds (both in Syria and Iraq) and Israel, Turkey and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government, western Europe (Great Britain, France, and Germany) and Russia all pursuing in different ways the same objective: stop the Caliphate from expanding and consolidating itself.

This hasn’t yet altered significantly other loci of geopolitical conflicts such as Israel/Palestine and Ukraine, but it is sure to have an impact on them. Of course, all these actors are pursuing middle-term objectives that are quite different. Nonetheless, look at what has happened in just the first half of August.

Nouri al-Malaki has been ousted as Premier of Iraq under the combined pressure of the United States, Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the Kurds, primarily because he resisted including a significant role for Sunnis in the Iraqi government. And why was that important? Because, for all these actors, it seemed the only way to undermine the Caliphate from within.

The United States has committed its drones and a new force of circa 1000 Marines and Special Forces to safeguard Yazidis and Iraqi Christians from their slaughter (an operation requiring de facto assistance by Bashar al-Assad), stopping the advance of the Caliphate on Erbil – the Iraqi Kurdish capital, where there is a U.S. consulate and a significant number of other U.S. citizens – and probably other things after a currently ongoing assessment in the field. President Barack Obama refuses to indicate an end date for this operation and therefore almost certainly will have left unfulfilled his signature promise for a total withdrawal from Iraq during his presidency.

The Turkish government has closed down the open border for anti-Assad forces into Turkey, previously a key element in their Syrian policy. Former Senator Joseph Lieberman, a known hawk and ardent supporter of Israeli policies, has publicly praised Obama for what he has just done, while the Iranians have abstained from criticizing him. The Saudis, who can’t seem to decide on their Syrian strategy, have apparently decided that silence and mystery is the best tactic.

So what is next? And who is profiting from this realignment? There appear to be three obvious short-term winners. The first is the Caliphate itself. The re-entry of the United States into the Iraqi military struggle enables the Caliphate to portray itself as the major force defying the devil incarnate, the United States. It will serve to bring many additional recruits, especially from the western world. And one can expect that it will try to engage in hostile activities within the United States as well as western Europe. Of course, this short-term advantage would collapse, were the Caliphate to suffer serious military reverses. But it would take some time for this to occur, if ever. The army of the Caliphate appears still to be the most committed and trained military force in the region.

A second major winner is Bashar al-Assad. The outside support for anti-Assad forces has always been far less than decisive, and it is likely to dry up even further in the short term, as more and more Syrian opponents line up with the Caliphate.

The third major winner is the Kurds, who have consolidated their position within Iraq and improved their relations with the Kurds in Syria. They will now be receiving more arms from western countries and possibly from others, making their military, the peshmerga, into an ever stronger military force.

Are there clear losers? One, I suspect, is the United States. Unless the Caliphate were to crumble in the near future (something that seems most unlikely), this military effort will soon expose once again the limits of U.S. military abilities as well as the inconsistency of their public positions concerning Iraq, Palestine, and Ukraine. And Obama will have lost his biggest claim to geopolitical achievement. The U.S. public supports success, not a quagmire.

And there are at least three groups whose immediate future as winners or losers remains unclear. One is Iran. If the United States and Iran are on the same side both in Iraq and Afghanistan, can the United States refuse to come to some compromise agreement with Iran on the issues of nuclear energy? The Iranian position in this negotiation is at least strengthened.

A second is Hamas. The Israelis are already under heavy international pressure to reformulate their positions concerning Palestine. Will this emphasis on the dangers of the Caliphate serve as additional pressure? Most probably, but the Israelis will stall as long as they can.

The third is Russia. As I write this, the Kiev government is resisting the entry of Russian trucks that the Russians say is a humanitarian mission to aid the trapped and suffering inhabitants of Lugansk, which is surrounded by Ukrainian troops seeking to starve them into surrender. Is this truly different from the efforts of the Caliphate to starve the Yazidis on their mountain top into submission? If the United States and western Europe are in favor of humanitarian aid in one place, can they sustain the position of being against it in the other?

We are living in interesting times.

Hamas vs. Israel: Winning the Diplomatic Game

Commentary No. 382, August 1, 2014

There has been a great deal of violence for about a century in the geographic zone we may today call Israel/Palestine. This zone has seen a more or less continuous struggle between Palestinian Arabs and Jewish settlers concerning the rights to occupy land. Both groups have sought juridical affirmation of their rights. Both groups have sought legitimation in competing historical narratives. Both groups have sought to solidify levels of support from their “peoples” throughout the world community. And both groups have sought to get world public opinion on their side.

The way the game has been played has evolved because of shifting geopolitical realities. In 1917, British military occupied this area, ousting the Ottoman Empire, a shift that was thereafter consecrated by obtaining a Mandate from the League of Nations for a country called Palestine. Also in 1917, the British occupying government issued what is known as the Balfour Declaration, which asserted the objective of establishing a Jewish National Home in Palestine. The term “home” is unclear and its meaning has been a subject of controversy ever since. A series of decisions in the 1920s separated the Mandate into two parts. One was Transjordan (what is now Jordan) defined as an Arab state to become eventually independent. The other was Palestine west of the Jordan, to be governed differently.

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Germany and the United States: Unprecedented Breach

Commentary No. 381, July 15, 2014

On July 10, the German government demanded the immediate departure of the head of the CIA mission in Berlin. Such demands are not unusual, even between ostensible allies. What is unusual is that it should be publicly announced, and with much fanfare. What accounts for what some are already calling an “unprecedented breach” in the very close relations after 1945 between the United States and the German Federal Republic?

It only took one day for the subject to become the occasion of two major articles, one an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times and the other a major story in Germany’s Der Spiegel. Both are pessimistic that the unprecedented breach can be swiftly, if ever, repaired.

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The Two Competing Middle-Run Scenarios for Iraq

Commentary No. 380, July 1, 2014

The worldwide attention to the growing strength of the forces led by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has spawned an enormous debate about what ought to be done by all non-ISIS actors to contain what is widely perceived as a very dangerous movement. At some point however, the expansion of ISIS will reach its limits, and Iraq and the larger region will settle down into some de facto arrangement and set of boundaries. We might think of this as the middle-run scenario.

The world actors can only decide – and promote – one of the two really competing middle-run scenarios for Iraq, and they are very different indeed. One is a partition of Iraq into three autonomous ethnic states (at least de facto, possibly formally). The second is a reunified inclusive Iraqi state, based on Iraqi nationalism. These alternatives, to the extent they are openly discussed, are usually presented as an analytic debate. They are in fact a political debate.

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Jihadistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran

Commentary No. 379, June 15, 2014

A jihadist movement, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has just scored a stunning and sweeping victory by capturing Mosul, Iraq’s third city located in the north of the country. Their forces are proceeding southward towards Baghdad and have seized Tikrit, hometown of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi army seems to have fallen apart, having also ceded Kirkuk to the Kurds. ISIS has also taken prisoner Turkish diplomats and truckers. It now controls effectively a large chunk of the north and west of Iraq as well as a contiguous zone in the northeast corner of Syria. Commentators have labeled this trans-border zone Jihadistan. ISIS seeks to reestablish a caliphate in as large an area as possible, one based on a particularly strict version of sharia law.

The shock and fear that the successes of this movement have inspired may lead to major geopolitical realignments in the Middle East. Geopolitics is an arena of frequent surprises, in which known antagonists suddenly reconcile themselves and transform their relation into one of what the French call frères ennemis (friendly enemies). The most famous instance in the last half-century was the trip of Richard Nixon to China to meet with Mao Zedong, a trip that fundamentally revised the alignments within the modern world-system and has underlain the China-United States relationship ever since.

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The Russian-Chinese Geopolitical Game

Commentary No. 378, June 1, 2014

Governments, politicians, and media in the “western” world seem incapable of understanding geopolitical games as played by anyone elsewhere. Their analyses of the newly proclaimed accord of Russia and China are a stunning example of this.

On May 16, Russia and China announced that they had signed a “friendship treaty” that would last “forever” but was not a military alliance. Simultaneously, they announced a gas deal, in which the two countries will build a gas pipeline to export Russian gas to China. China will lend Russia the money with which to build its share of the pipeline. It seems that Gazprom (Russia’s major gas and oil producer) made some price concessions to China, an issue that had been holding up an agreement for some time.

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The Center Isn’t Holding Very Well

Commentary No. 377, May 15, 2014

The list of countries with enduring and worsening civil strife is growing. A short while ago, the world media were highlighting Syria. Now they are highlighting Ukraine. Will it be Thailand tomorrow? Who knows? The variety of explanations of the strife and the passion with which they are promoted is very striking.

Our modern world-system is supposed to permit the Establishment elites who hold the reins of power to debate with each other and then come to a “compromise” that they can guarantee. Normally these elites situate themselves in two basic camps – center/right and center/left. There are indeed differences between them, but the result of the “compromises” has been that the amount of change over time is minimal.

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The Neo-Zapatistas: Twenty Years After

Commentary No. 376, May 1, 2014

On January 1, 2014, the Ejército Zapatista de Libéración Nacional (EZLN) celebrated the twentieth anniversary of its uprising in Chiapas. This year, they are engaging in a self-appraisal. In April, in the official outlet of the EZLN, Rebeldía Zapatista, Insurgent Subcommandant Moisés published an editorial about the “war against forgetting.” He says that in a mere nineteen years, the struggle of the EZLN has “held in check” (toreado) the evil system that has been oppressing the indigenous peoples for 520 years.

What has been the achievement of the EZLN? In what sense can it be said to have been a success? The EZLN has been scoffed at not only by the world right but by certain elements of the world left as being largely irrelevant to the world struggle against imperialism and neoliberalism. What have they accomplished, ask the critics? Has their trajectory been more than a public relations show?

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