Two Different Reactions, One Objective: Japan and Jordan on ISIS

A contribution from NESA intern Madison Barton.

The extremist group known as ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) has received various responses from a wide range of countries to their brutal tactics. The recent executions of Japanese Security Contractor Haruna Yukawa, Journalist Kenji Goto, and Jordanian Pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, have amplified the ever-growing animosity towards ISIS. Both, Goto and Yukawa were Japanese hostages whose lives were taken by the radical group. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke out against the acts of terror, denouncing the heinous behavior of ISIS, and reassuring the continuation of humanitarian aid to countries in need. However, while Japan chooses to advance with peace and prosperity in mind, Jordan is taking an antithetical approach. The two countries have suffered tremendous loss, and though the crimes have been carried out differently in each situation, they are analogously related. Why then, are the reactions so very different?

Just over two weeks ago Haruna Yukawa was murdered, one day later ISIS announced that the fate of Kenji Goto would be the same unless Jordanian prisoner, Sajida al-Rishawi, associated with hotel bomb attacks that killed 60 people, was released.  Goto was killed on January 31, 2015. ISIS claims that the Japanese aid was the reason for taking the hostages. Prime Minister Abe pledged 200 million in aid to countries fighting ISIS. The group later demanded this same amount for ransom and proclaimed that Japan joined an “unwinnable war” when they chose to provide assistance to their allies. Japan’s reaction to the horrific events has been especially interesting because it is one in which hostility and military action is not at the forefront. Of course Japan is outraged, they are mourning, and they are willing to take part in the international fight against ISIS.

Unlike Japan, Jordan has taken a more aggressive stance towards the extremist group. The video of Jordanian Pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh being burned alive was released on February 3, 2015. The pilot was taken hostage in December after his plane came down in Syria during an anti-ISIS mission. Since the release of the graphic video, there has been a surge in news headlines around the globe displaying Jordan’s indignation. Jordan promised revenge and the country has carried out their threats promptly. Hours after the news of Lieutenant Al-Kasasbeh’s death, attempted suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi, and al-Qaeda operative Ziyad Karboli were both hanged in Jordan. Since then, Jordan’s air force has performed 56 airstrikes on ISIS, wiping out 19 locations said to be housing Islamic State commanders and fighters. Other targets are their economic and financial sources. These countries’ goal is to eradicate ISIS completely, and they seem to be letting very little get in their way. Jordan has vowed that this is just the beginning of their fight and will not stop until they have accomplished their goal.

Why did the two countries have different reactions?  Both countries have remained fairly quiet in international controversies, until now. Though Japan has not taken such an aggressive stance towards ISIS this does not imply that their punishments won’t be just as severe as Jordan’s. To Japan, it seems that an aggressive approach would mean giving in to terrorist tactics which is not something that they are willing to do. Others may think that Japan’s location is responsible for their reaction, as they are not as close as Jordan and therefore are not facing an immediate security threat, thus explaining them having not taken immediate forceful action. Jordan’s reaction has been more combative. Jordan wants to wipe ISIS from the face of the earth, and no time has been wasted. Is this because of their more immediate location? Has hostility been building up in the country? Whatever the reasons are a more peaceful and stable international world order is the objective.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

2014 Israel-Palestine Peace Talks and Complications

A contribution from NESA intern, Yevin Jayatilake.

After numerous failed prospects for peace, it was no surprise that the latest series of negotiations between Israel and Palestine with heavy U.S. involvement, came to a dead end.  There were many hiccups throughout the process that started in August 2013 and ended abruptly in late April, with Israel citing the unification between Fatah-Hamas as the reason for failure. The second term of President Obama’s presidency was supposed to focus on the pivot to East Asia. This move by the administration was seen as an attempt by critics to steer away from the ongoing complications of the Middle East. However, with the appointment of Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S foreign policy remained focused on the Arab world, targeting the very complicated Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Secretary Kerry gave himself a timeline of nine months to make an attempt at successful negotiation. From Kerry’s point of view, those nine months would not need to have rendered a deal, rather the opportunity to extend the negotiations.

The United States brokered the deal between Israel and Palestine, and was the only one that remained committed throughout the nine month process. As a gesture of goodwill by the Israeli government, 104 Palestinian prisoners were to be freed in four batches, in order to keep the Palestinian leadership involved in the latest round of talks. Through the latter half of 2013 into 2014, the relationships between Israel, Palestine and the United States were stable and the possibilities of concessions were on the table. Towards the end of March 2014, the thread keeping the peace talks together started to break apart. The Israeli government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that they would not release the fourth batch of 26 prisoners, unless the Palestinian leadership decided to extend peace talks for at least another six months. For a very reasonable demand on behalf of the Israeli government, who took severe backlash for releasing what many Israelis viewed as terrorists, the Palestinian negotiators made every attempt to divert and point blame back at the other side. In the middle of this tense moment, Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel decided to issue 700 new housing tenders in the expanded settlement areas of the West Bank. The issue of settlement construction is extremely delicate to the Palestinian identity, and this put a wrench in the middle of the talks. Many U.S. officials blame Uri Ariel for the collapse of the talks, citing it was not the correct time to push expansions through. Ariel has long been to the right in Israel’s conservative party Habayit Hayehudi.

 After learning of this situation, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed 15 international treaties, declaring Palestine an independent state. Since that declaration on April 1, Secretary Kerry was trying desperately to bring the two sides to collaboration, but the leadership was so rigid on their motives, that no negotiating could undo the damage. On April 23, President Abbas declared a unity Fatah-Hamas pact, which ended any chance for reconciliation. Hamas, which is declared as a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel, does not accept Israel’s right to exist. At the culmination of the tensions, Israel decided to suspend negotiations, citing that they could not continue discussions any longer, while Hamas is a part of any legitimate Palestinian government.

The implications of this collapse are far greater than either side would like to admit. Each side is more content with delaying legitimate peace offers than trying to figure out a solution to the severely complicated problem. Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas stick to their stories and claim they cannot go back to their communities with any compromises to the other side. However, as the two sides keep delaying a resolution to the never-ending conflict, Israel becomes more vast and powerful, and the future of the state of Palestine becomes ever more complicated. With Israel expanding into Areas B and C in the West Bank and continuing to have blockades surrounding the Gaza Strip, there becomes less hope for Palestinians to have a unified land.

The situation is not only a tragedy because of the constant terror and instability that Palestinian citizens face on a daily basis, but the situation continues to grow worse with every skirmish. The leadership of both states are too rigid, and so long as they are unwilling to compromise, at even the most micro level, then no true peace can occur. The intention of the leaders as they entered the peace deals in mid-2013 was not to achieve legitimate talks, but instead to continue the status quo for as long as possible. Knowing that neither side would agree to concede on controversial topics like Jerusalem and expanded settlements, the basis of the talks was more to make an appearance of cooperation to the world. In order to move forward with any logical approach to this conflict, President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu must work together and put aside their inflexible agendas, sort out a solution, and then present it to their communities. It will not be an effortless motion; however, with the heads of both states cooperating, and support from the international community, an agreement can be reached that gratifies communities on both sides.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Al Qaeda’s Breakup with ISIS and its Consequences

A contribution from NESA intern, Philippe Labrecque.

The Syrian war just got more complex when Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s top commander, officially disavowed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). There are a variety of factions fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, but few of these groups have grown in strength as much as ISIS, as numbers of foreigners joined their ranks in the last year.

With around 1000 armed groups, with a total of nearly 100,000 fighters, friction and conflicts within such fragmented opposition with different objectives had to be expected, even between al-Qaeda’s affiliates. But al-Zawahiri’s statement in relation to ISIS goes deeper than factions fighting for control over regions of Syria.

Al-Zawahiri’s public rejection of ISIS should be understood not only as a result of diverging interests and strategy in Syria between rebel groups but also as a growing internal struggle within al-Qaeda itself. ISIS is a creation of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his organization, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), that dates back to April 2013.

After creating the al-Nusra Front to fight in Syria, al-Baghdadi expanded his operations across the Syria-Iraq border in April of last year when al-Nusra’s successes on the battlefield made the headlines. By moving his operations to Syria, al-Baghdadi demanded that al-Nusra go back to being incorporated into ISI, effectively creating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), against al-Zawahiri’s explicit orders.

The public defiance of al-Baghadadi in creating ISIS led to a schism within the about to be absorbed al-Nusra Front as many within al-Nusra pledged their allegiance to al-Qaeda and al-Zawahiri in their own defiance to al-Baghadadi. The survival of a faction of al-Nusra, loyal to al-Qaeda, and the creation of the defiant ISIS helped fuel the recent carnage and violence between rebel groups that we have witnessed since at least January 2014.

The merger under al-Baghdadi’s command had tactical implications in the fight against Assad but it also weakened al-Qaeda’s successor to Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, within the organization as al-Baghadadi grew powerful enough to refuse an order by al-Zawahiri when the latter forbid the merger with al-Nusra. Al-Baghdadi’s rising influence and might was proven when al-Zawahiri didn’t further oppose the merge of what are two al-Qaeda affiliates.

It may be premature to say that al-Baghdadi and ISIS could challenge al-Zawahiri as the leader of al-Qaeda or even the al-Qaeda’s influence in Syria since ISIS is already isolated amongst the rebel groups in the current conflict due to their unpopular, brutal, tactics and their will to dominate the entire insurrection against Assad’s regime. However, for al-Qaeda’s top commander to publicly disavow one of its affiliates demonstrates that it may only have partial control over many of its ideological affiliates. If ISIS were to overwhelm al-Nusra and become the dominant faction amongst the rebel groups, it could further damage al-Qaeda’s leadership position within the organization and against rival international Islamist groups.

What this means for the civil war in Syria is that al-Qaeda is reduced to what is left of al-Nusra as well as fighting ISIS for influence and control over the opposition while the war against the Syrian regime is still raging. Its chances of achieving the dream of an al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist state on a parcel of Syria’s land is now nearly impossible. Moreover, the break with al-Baghdadi over Syria also means that al-Qaeda has very little influence left in Iraq as al-Baghdadi retains leadership there, for the moment at least.

Russian and Iranian support behind Assad’s regime and al-Qaeda’s potentially diminishing influence in Syria’s civil war and ISIS’ increased isolation confirms what most observers knew at this point: the Syrian civil war is a proxy war between Iran and the Gulf States for influence over the Middle East.

It remains to be seen however if al-Qaeda will get out of this conflict stronger, either by influencing the outcome or through propaganda, or if it may become even more decentralized to the point where it becomes difficult to truly assess what their actual strategic objectives are and if its ideological core has any executive power over self-proclaimed al-Qaeda affiliates in other regions such as North Africa. A fragmented al-Qaeda with tens of thousands of hardened fighters, after an eventual end to the Syrian conflict, might very well become the greatest threat to the greater Middle East and the West.

Despite the disavowal by al-Zawahiri, Al-Baghdadi proved that regional commanders with enough power may pursue their own objectives and vision of what the ideological cause demands. Depending on how and when the Syrian conflict culminates, the fight against al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism may become even more multi-faceted and require fighting many varied fronts if the West, and particularly the United States, must face multiple regional leaders increasingly free of al-Qaeda’s central command.

If it is obvious that the Syrian conflict is a proxy war, it is not so clear whether an even more fragmented al-Qaeda is necessarily better from an American counter-terrorism perspective. By the war’s end in Syria, the entire Middle East and the West may very well face a large wage of battle-tested fundamentalist fighters looking for their next battleground, creating instability in neighboring countries especially.

If Syria seems in a deadlock at the moment, it shouldn’t prevent the U.S. from preparing for a potentially disrupting new terrorist threat that equally endangers the stability in various Middle Eastern countries, especially Jordan, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and Egypt. In every crisis there is an opportunity and as American interests and Middle Eastern interests converge, the U.S. should take the lead in building even stronger ties in the region and start the dialogue and cooperation with key actors in dealing with a common threat.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

 

Is it becoming harder to define Syria?

A guest blogger has joined the NESA-Strategist. Chris Chapman, a research intern at the NESA Center, will be regularly posting his thoughts on events in Middle East, particularly focusing on the Levant. The Strategist writers welcome Chris and hope you enjoy his first piece which follows below…

As it stands today the very nature of Syria as a state is in question.  Large swaths of land are no longer under government control.  The Assad government no longer holds a clear and legitimate monopoly on the use of force within the state.  Even the boundaries of the Syria state are becoming less definitive as spillover threatens Lebanon to be subsumed by the conflict.  Syria may still claim to have a government, representation in international boundaries, and recognition by the international community, but is it truly a state? Consider two potential outcomes of this conflict. 

The first outcome is the Assad regime finds a way to quell the Sunni rebels.  It is hard to picture a scenario where Assad’s forces completely expel or defeat the rebels.  Instead, we are faced with Assad controlling certain regions of land and the Sunni’s maintaining control of others.  Is this still one state?  Could these groups coexist under the same roof, let alone acknowledge the legitimacy of the other?

An alternate outcome is that Sunni factions breakthrough and defeat Assad’s forces.  This will end the current regime.   Infighting and rivalry already exists amongst the opposition.  The internal division has not yet become a massive problem because each group is primarily fixated on defeating the regime.  If they were to prove successful in that effort, then it is likely that internal competition will escalate into something larger.  Salafist groups, Al Qaeda, the Free Syrian Army, Kurds, and others will claim the right to rule Syria, or seek to carve out a portion in which they rule.  The situation will devolve into more fighting between these groups and Syria in essence becomes a tribal battleground with no clear legitimate leadership.

The outcomes in these two situations pose risks and problems for the international community and native Syrians. If the conflict does not end in absolute victory for one side, then there is a real risk that Syria as it is defined today will no longer exist.  The country could fracture into small segments?  The removal of Assad may not be accompanied by the rise of a competent replacement, which makes Syria a state with no real leadership.

Chris Chapman is currently a Research Intern at the NESA Center and an M.A. candidate at American University’s School of International Service.  Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

 

The Jihajjis

For centuries Muslims have been making pilgrimage to Mecca. The hajj is an extremely important part of a Muslim’s religious life and it leads to a growth in societal status when one returns. Upon return, those who have successfully made the pilgrimage are accorded the title of Hajji, which denotes an enhanced respect for the person in question. This practice of according enhanced respect to pilgrims has existed for centuries and continues to do so.

However, there today appears to be another method to acquire respect based upon a different type of pilgrimage, that of jihad. While less formalized than the Hajj system of societal ascendancy (no new titles are necessarily bestowed) those leaving for jihad very often do find a newfound respect from their home societies upon return from warfighting. Jihad is very clearly an important element of Islamic tradition, including both its internal and external variants. Internal jihad refers to the attempt to continually improve oneself and external typically refers to efforts to defend or expand (depending on your interpretation of the relevant religious texts) the ummah, or community of believers.

In the 1980s Afghanistan offered prime jihadi real estate. Not only was there an opportunity for jihad, there was also significant funding and state support. Saudi Arabia in particular was known to encourage its militants to go to Afghanistan to fight, partly out of religious duty, but also out of a desire to export religious militants who were worrying the political establishment (especially after the 1979 Grand Mosque Seizure in Mecca). Fighting was “openly celebrated and did not require concealment…many activists understood their work as a form of political and religious solidarity.” On return many jihadis found a newfound respect from their compatriots.

As a side note one could make an argument that jihad is significantly more respected when the jihad takes place in a foreign land. Local efforts and attacks often have very different effects – as returning Saudi (and other) militants found when they attempted to bring the fight back home.

The Arab Spring has provided new opportunities for jihad. Syria, Libya, and maybe Egypt provide opportunities for jihad. There is a lot of material coming out discussing states’ worries that returning jihadis will come back and attempt to pursue jihad in their own countries, but there is another, more subtle, effect as respected jihadis return from their ‘pilgrimages.’ Most of these ‘Jihajjis’ aren’t going to turn towards militancy in their home countries, but they may, as a result of their enhanced societal prestige, be able to influence public opinion and public policy in unexpected ways.

That effect may be much harder to gauge than that of more militant, violent actors, but it could push societies into a mindset more open to fundamentalist interpretations of religious texts and duties.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

No Candles Today

Every year on the 4th and 5th of June, a grim anniversary becomes the source of political theater.  These dates are the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, in which the central leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and the senior leaders of the Beijing Municipal Government ordered the pro-reform protesters to be forcibly removed from Tiananmen Square. 

For much of the world, the 1989 Tiananmen Protests have become almost myth.  Every year during the anniversary of the crackdown, thousands take to social media platforms to talk about “the Tank Man”, the “Goddess of Democracy”, and the pro-democracy message of the protestors.  It is unfortunate that much of what survived that spring in 1989 does so as image or slogan. 

The reality is that these protests started as a tribute to the death of Hu Yoabang, a CCP leader with a reformist bent.  The protest movement that emerged from this initial memorial was never about pushing for Chinese democracy.  It was a reform movement that wanted greater government transparency.

The battle for reform continues today, but instead of protestors concentrating within a national symbol, activists and netizens use the anniversary to highlight the degree by which the Chinese state continues to control information and worries about opposition.  Almost every year some bizarre action is taken in order to block discussion of the Tiananmen protests.  In 2010, foursquare, a social networking website, did not allow people to check in at Tiananmen.  This year, web searches regarding the Shanghai stock exchange are limited because it closed last year on June 6th with a loss of 64.89 (6/4/89).  Also this year, Sino Weibo, the most popular Chinese blogging platform, refuses to allow people to use the candle graphic.  The graphic is generally used in reference to death.

Most regimes around the globe lack the willingness and/or capacity to engage in information control to the same degree as the CCP in the People’s Republic.  However, every regime facing opposition acts to protect its own power and discredit the opposition.  When the opposition cannot be discredited, then isolate them as much as possible.  Perhaps this is the reason Prime Minister Erdogan criticized social media recently – such tools allow the opposition to circumvent the state’s ability to repress. 

The question, though, is this – how far must a regime go before realizing its efforts to repress are a waste of energy?  Is it really worth taking the steps the Chinese state takes in order to limit discussions of Tiananmen Square?  In the end, the population always figures out ways around them – as they did, at least temporarily, this year [link – using the giant inflatable duck from Hong Kong’s harbor in place of tanks].

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Fear for Fear’s Sake?

“There’s no place like India. Which is precisely why its politics and economy are such a contradictory, beautiful mess,” (Traub). 

My post today does not deeply examine a pressing issue in the realm of international relations.  Rather, it asks a series of questions of our readers here at the NESA Strategist.  Account after account discusses how deeply India fears its geopolitical situation, especially in relation to its northern Chinese neighbor.  India is fearful that China will overtly violate its borders, manipulate water supplies flowing into the subcontinent, unleash its fleet to dominate the Indian Ocean, or even conspire with Pakistan and Sri Lanka to deconstruct the progress made by India.

These fears, in some cases, may not be far-fetched.  India certainly lies at the heart of a very unstable region, just as it seeks to create its own version of the East Asian economic miracle.  Likewise, Sino-American tensions have risen recently and American leaders have made it quite clear that they feel it inevitable that an Indian-American partnership will arise.  Being boxed in strategically by the Americans may also be creating some fears among India’s leadership. 

Through Chinese eyes, however, India’s strategic apprehension seems bizarre.  Few IR specialists in China are giving much consideration to India.  The reasons why are obvious (at least to them) – China has the Korean Peninsula to worry about, the South China Sea to claim, all of Southeast Asia to lead, and a US to strategically outmaneuver.  It must also fuel its economy by making increasing inroads into the Middle East, Russia, and Africa to acquire energy sources.  China’s longstanding alliance with Pakistan and its South Asian port development prove that it is interested in the subcontinent, but there is little evidence that China fears India or even thinks of it as a real adversary. 

If anything, China sees India as a rising developing country that can help to build up its BRICS partnership. 

What is the deal?  Are Indian fears justified in regards to China?  Is China keeping its true intent regarding the subcontinent extremely close to the vest? 

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

ASEAN Under Threat?

One thing overlooked amidst China’s dramatic territorial claims in the South China Seas is how their actions have impacted the region’s most successful institution: the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  ASEAN’s reputation varies depending on the audience, but it serves as the region’s preeminent political organization.  Certainly one can argue that ASEAN has not done enough, but it has accomplished some remarkable things in its history – assisting in encouraging Burma to open up to the outside world, push forward the pace of economic integration in Vietnam, helping to create a shared SE Asia economic plan (particularly after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis), and generally increasing the amount of bilateral and multilateral interaction within SE Asia.  ASEAN may not be the most important international organization in existence, but it has served the region well (especially when comparing it to South Asia’s equivalent – SAARC).

Yet, for all its accomplishments, ASEAN seems more divided today than ever before.  This is partly due to the global economic downturn and the increased national pressures such a global change causes, but an additional reason is China.  Specifically, Chinese foreign policy in relation to the South China Sea became a flashpoint for division among the ASEAN states. 

Thus far, Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea have put them in conflict with Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand.  Indonesia and Malaysia have sought a balanced approach between their neighbors and China (but Malaysia has started to sour on China).  Cambodia, Laos, and Burma have traditionally backed the People’s Republic.  The South China Sea dispute was a major topic of discussion during the past ASEAN member meeting, but for the first time the member states were unable to issue a joint communique

China has successfully deployed their military resources and commercial fishing fleets to “acquire” substantial territory in the South China Sea.  The Chinese have coupled their actions at sea with a political offensive designed to breed discord among the ASEAN member states.  Few seem to be talking about this issue, but they should be.  ASEAN is one of the few institutions that could serve as a natural body by which to decide the territorial disputes.  With the organization weakened and sidelined, SE Asian states will pursue other options – like appealing to the United Nations or seeking greater ties to the United States.  In short, a weakened ASEAN makes it more likely that conflict will escalate. 

Analysts and scholars around the world should be examining the health of ASEAN, as it likely serves as the best legitimate means by which to alleviate rising tensions in SE Asia.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Abu Sayyaf – Threat, Irritant, or Both?

With the Moro Islamic Liberation Front making strides towards a peaceful resolution with the Filipino state, much attention has switched over to Abu Sayyaf, Moro’s more radical offshoot.  Abu Sayyaf, founded by mujahedeen fighters of the Afghan-Soviet war, has long existed as an international boogey man due to its ties and sympathies to Al-Qaeda.  After a long counterinsurgency plan instituted by the Filipino government (and supported by the United States), public opinion is finally starting to come around to a simple realization – Abu Sayyaf is not a terrorist threat comparable to AQ.  Rather, it is a criminal organization with a radical ideology – more like the FARC in Colombia or the Triads in Southeast Asia.

What to do about Abu Sayyaf?

Abu Sayyaf is increasingly isolated within Mindanao and its nearby islands and enjoys extremely limited support from the local Muslim population.  As a result of its decline, the organization has increasingly found itself without access to monetary support.  Criminal actions, primarily in the form of kidnappings, have emerged as one of the group’s primary mechanisms for income. 

With the peace process between the government and Moro progressing (albeit slowly), the problem of insurgency in Mindanao has largely been eliminated.  Consensus among the southern citizens of the Philippines is that they wish to remain a part of the country, so long as they have a greater say in the distribution of tax revenue, the celebration of cultural matters, and greater access to political decision-making. 

Better relations between north and south provide a new opportunity by which to further cripple Abu Sayyaf.  Insurgency programs run by the military should be positioned as a secondary initiative, with the national police and local police forces positioned as the lead.  Police, along with related state agencies, will be able to further push Abu Sayyaf to the fringes of society, inform the population more accurately, and build local information networks that reveal the group’s operations. 

Abu Sayyaf was always of secondary concern when Moro was conducting its campaigns.  It received attention due to its relationship to AQ, but it was never a true threat to the Filipino state.  Continuing to treat Abu Sayyaf as a substantial threat means the military will continue as the lead.  Military operations against the group run the risk of harming the civilian population and once again escalating tensions in the south.  The Philippines government and its international partners need to realize what Abu Sayyaf is – a dangerous irritant that can be effectively dealt with by careful and precise police work. 

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

The President Goes to Jerusalem

The overall opinion of President Obama’s tour of Israel and the Palestinian Territories seems to agree that the President unleashed a “corker” of a speech. We are led to understand that, by acknowledging Israeli’s fears and humanizing the Palestinians, the President has done an excellent job at recasting the situation and rising above the leadership of the respective parties. Essentially, Obama took his argument to the Israeli people, recognizing the “futility” of hoping for progress with Netanyahu.

However, this speech may be much less of a success than it appears. In fact, this speech signals a significant defeat for the President. In his first term, Obama tried to maintain that halting the construction of new settlements was of paramount importance to getting negotiations to move forward. While the current talk certainly disparages settlements, it no longer views them as an impediment to negotiations:

What I shared with President Abbas, and I’ll share it with the Palestinian people: if the expectation is we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time, then there’s no point in the negotiations.

Chalk one up for Bibi. As has been mentioned before in this blog, the new Israeli coalition is likely to be inward looking. Any attempts at peacemaking will put incredible strains on the coalition. However, now that the settlement issue has been removed from the table as a precondition for talks the government the new Housing Minister, Uri Ariel, may freely pursue his policy of enhanced settlement construction. While Obama may be correct that there need be no need for preconditions for negotiations to commence, this move will be deeply disappointing to Palestinians.

The thought that keeps pushing through is that, as great as this speech is, it would have been even more excellent had it taken place in January, before Israeli elections. The time to encourage a people to influence their people is before an election, not after. While public opinion is always relevant in a democracy, it is incredibly more so in the lead up to an election.

The other issue here, mentioned above, is Palestinian disappointment. To quote from a pro-Fatah Palestinian newspaper:

What did Obama do? He repeated his previous positions and announced them in Israel and Palestine. He therefore does not oppose a Palestinian state but he did not say how such a state can be established. Furthermore, he did not demand from Israel that it stops settlement activity in order to have successful negotiations.

Whereas in Israel Obama was greeted by children cheering, his reception in the Territories was glum.

Unfortunately it looks as if Obama may have made an excellent speech that will have little to no effect on the ground. Of course, I would love to be proved wrong.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.