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.

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.

 

Please Sir, Could I Have Some MANPADS?

A few weeks ago I argued the United States should not be arming Syrian rebels. This week the United States stepped up its aid to the rebels, but maintained the non-lethal nature of said aid. The rebels, unsurprisingly, are not happy about this. A spokesman for the Syrian National Council, Mohammad Sarmini, states:

“This has become embarrassing and degrading. The regime’s escalation has rendered even our unmet pleas foolish. We used to beg for antiaircraft missiles. What do you ask for to counter Scuds?”

The same article mentions that Gulf States are already in the process of providing rebels with small arms. We need to be clear about what the rebels are asking for. They are not asking for more AKs or ammunition for small arms, they are asking for advanced and dangerous weapons systems. Sarmini’s quote indicates a desire for weapons designed to counter Scuds and antiaircraft weapons. While it appears that Syrian rebels have managed to get their hands on a few Chinese-made FN-6 shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles, they are not in wide circulation as of yet. Regardless, there are serious issues with deciding to supply the rebels with this type of weaponry.

Man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) hold a particular danger for proliferation. MANPADS falling into the wrong hands would most emphatically not be desirable. One of the most famous uses of MANPADS was in 1994 when a plane carrying the leaders of Burundi and Rwanda was shot down – triggering the Rwandan genocide. Of course, not all attacks need lead to genocide, but there have been other instances of attacks on civilian airliners. For example, in 2002, Al Qaeda fired a few shots at an Israeli civilian aircraft in Kenya (they missed). Suffice it to say, a few well fired missiles at civilian airliners could have dramatic economic effects, not to mention the significant loss of life.

Sarmini’s mentioning of arms for countering Scuds is also problematic. Patriot missile systems, or something similar, are incredibly complex and it is very unlikely that, even were the rebels to receive them, they would be able to operate them. Even the Patriot systems in Turkey are operated by NATO troops, not Turkish forces. It is also highly unlikely the United States would send NATO troops into Syria to operate advanced anti-ballistic missile (ABM) technology, let alone directly giving them to the rebels. At that point, intervention would be necessary to at least protect the troops operating the weapons systems. An intervention in Syria is clearly not palatable for the United States.

The proliferation concerns here should not be downplayed. While they do not make up the majority of Syrian rebel forces, Jabhat Al Nusra is gaining strength. Some estimate them as making up around a quarter of rebel forces. The same report notes that this Al Qaeda-affiliated group, generally held to be a direct descendant of Al Qaeda in Iraq, has attempted to sponsor cross-border attacks in Jordan. The United States simply should not be giving advanced weapons systems like MANPADS or ABMs to rebels when potentially a quarter of those rebels are affiliated with Al Qaeda. 

Small arms are already being taken care of by our allies in the region. Given that fact, it is better for the United States to focus on being ‘above the fray’ as much as possible so as to be able to produce a solution acceptable to all players. As described by my colleague Mr. Presto, siding fully with the rebels will make it much less likely the United States will be able to broker a deal with all sectors of Syrian society. So, sending small arms does not add to what is already being sent. This type of weaponry also presents serious proliferation concerns, especially if these arms fall into Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters or spread outside the borders of Syria. The more serious, advanced weapons systems being discussed above, ABMs and MANPADS, either also hold too great a danger of proliferation or are too complex to be usable in the shifting sands of Syria’s rebellion.

Added bonus for the week is a map, also linked to abvove, of MANPADS attacks in Africa:

IB-MANPADS-map-1_HIGHRES

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.

A Farewell to Arms

It was revealed this week that Secretaries Clinton and Panetta, joined by then CIA Director Petraeus, all advocated arming Syrian rebels with the goal of overthrowing Bashar Al Assad. However, the White House declined to pursue the recommendation, citing worries that arming the rebels would add to the suffering in Syria.

So, in the words of Chernyshevsky, what is to be done?

Indeed, the Syrian conflict has irrevocably turned into an armed conflict. This week heavy fighting occurred across a wide swath of Syria, including hard fought battles in Damascus. It makes a certain amount of sense that given the extent of the ongoing armed conflict the United States should marshal its capabilities in support of the rebels.

However, the White House’s argument, that arming the rebels will only serve to enhance the conflict and lead to further suffering, has a certain logic as well. After all, if the United States starts providing direct military arms to rebels one can only imagine that Iran (and potentially Russia) will expand their own programs to counter any American influx of weapons. Too many analysts assume that the conflict cannot get any worse – it certainly can.

The history of the United States in arming localized insurgencies and governments in civil wars has a rather dubious history. That mujahideen in Afghanistan spring immediately to mind, but Afghanistan is not the only example of an arms support program going awry, or at least having unforeseen effects. American programs in Nicaragua and Guatemala haven’t led to easy solutions. Arming Chinese nationalists during the Chinese Civil War are another example of the difficulties of using entrance of arms to aid a combatant. Even in situations that could be considered moving in the right direction, as in Colombia, progress often takes decades (and produces debatable results).

All too often the United States has a fixation on doing something – be it aid, arms shipments, or direct intervention. To turn Chernyshevsky around, the question should not be what is to be done, but should anything be done?

It is clear that, barring the use of chemical weapons or some sort of black swan event, the United States will not be intervening directly in Syria’s conflict. The memories of Iraq and the continuing mission in Afghanistan are far too potent. Arming rebels does not present a clear path to a rebel victory either. At best it would lead to more of the same, at worst it could lead to even further deterioration, degradation, and destruction.  Aid and humanitarian assistance don’t offer a pathway towards ending the conflict either, but they can mitigate some effects of the fighting on the populace. Diplomacy is another tool that may be helpful, but it is unlikely that Russia or China will change their view in the near term. However, effective diplomacy will prove vital in the event of Assad’s collapse.  

This leaves the United States in the unenviable position of having no effective tools at its disposal to effect rapid change. Sometimes it is best to recognize the limitations of one’s position and choose a more cautious approach. Standing on the sidelines will not lead to any change in the current battles, true. However, by avoiding getting involved with the conflict directly via arms shipments the United States will be more able to play a long game. It will not antagonize Russia, ease the diplomatic struggle, and may make it easier for America to help in later negotiations. The Syrian Civil War has already spiraled well outside of Assad’s ability to control. Assad will go, but until it is known what will replace him it pays to hedge one’s bets.

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.

Jabhat Al-Nusrah’s Expanding Influence

Recently, the US State Department designated Jabhat al-Nusrah, an Islamist rebel group currently operating in Syria, as a terrorist organization, claiming that the group’s name serves as an alias for Al Qaeda in Iraq. The State Department underscored al-Nusrah’s responsibility for almost 600 attacks since November 2011 (40 of which were suicide attacks) and warned against providing the group with any form of assistance.

As anticipated, the designation sparked a backlash in Syria almost immediately, igniting protests and prompting a flood of statements by well-known organizations like the Syrian National Council and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood – both of which condemned the designation outright, emphasizing that Assad and his regime were far more deserving of the terrorist label.    

While heated debate regarding the designation will undoubtedly continue, both sides can agree on one thing: that al-Nusrah is growing and its influence expanding. David Ignatius of The Washington Post notes that “rough” estimates put al-Nusrah’s size “somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 fighters, according to officials of a non-governmental organization that represents the more moderate wing of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).” Of the FSA’s fighters, Al Qaeda “accounts for 7.5 percent to 9 percent” of the total, Ignatius writes. The Economist provides a similar size estimate, stating that al-Nusrah totals approximately 7,000 fighters, and, in Aleppo, is “one of the four biggest brigades fighting on the front line.”

Al-Nusrah’s seemingly strategic behavior and calculated maneuvers have only won the organization more support. Given its steady stream of funding from donors in the Gulf and weapons acquisitions, al-Nusrah is emerging as a prime fighting force amongst the opposition groups; in turn, attracting the attention of new recruits. Off the battlefield, al-Nusrah is making further gains, as well. In his Foreign Policy piece, Aaron Zelin writes, “[T]here are tentative signs that Jabhat al-Nusra has also been providing local services,” and “becoming embedded within the social fabric of the population.”

Al-Nusrah makes no effort to hide its ultimate end goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate, and this objective has left many religious minorities fearful that its end state resembles “Taliban-style rule,” Reuters reports. As the organization grows and expands its reach, the West faces increased pressure to counter al-Nusrah’s influence, so that it doesn’t fill the governance vacuum left over by Assad’s regime. Unfortunately, the terrorist designation has already backfired on the US, and could ultimately lead to the unintentional empowerment of al-Nusrah. This dangerous possibility warrants immediate address and new strategic thinking because an al-Nusrah with any amount of influence will likely instigate sectarianism and disrupt Syria’s path towards peace.      

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.

Post-Assad Chaos, or…?

Reports came out this past week that Assad’s forces may be on the brink of defeat.  The battle is now essentially being fought over Damascus with the regime relying on increasingly desperate measures to continue fighting (though the Syrian Vice President is arguing the conflict remains a stalemate).  The Assad regime’s strongest international allies are wondering about the regime’s longevity (while making sure to clarify that they remain ever-steadfast in their support of the regime).  It is now the time to examine what a post-Assad Syria might look like.

The revolution in Syria has been an appallingly bloody affair – putting Syrians in grave danger, decimating the economy, destroying infrastructure, and increasing social hostility.  Analysts have long feared that a victorious opposition would turn to retribution and sectarianism.  I do not disagree that a post-Assad Syria will likely be a contentious, if not an outright dangerous, place, but is it certain that chaos will reign after Assad goes?

The devastation within Syria will undoubtedly guarantee that any post-Assad regime will face incredible challenges, but such difficulties do not guarantee that a post-Assad regime is doomed to failure.  A post-conflict Syria is not locked into a path dependent course. 

The current groups making up the Syrian opposition are divided.  The Free Syrian Army remains dominant due to its alliance of fighting groups leading the armed struggle against Assad’s forces.  Local Coordination Committees, often assisting the Free Syrian Army by passing information, remain focused on local organization and establishing some type of grassroots governance.  The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a new opposition group that seeks to become the platform for a new regime, is untested and faces a legitimacy problem as its members primarily reside outside of Syria.  The divided nature of the opposition is troublesome, but too many overlook the positive features of Syria’s opposition. 

First, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces is an organization based on avoiding the mistakes of the former Syrian National Council.  Second, the Local Coordination Committees have constructed a network of institutions that provide some measure of local governance – a resource on which to build a new Syria.  Third, for all the hype given to the danger of jihadi groups operating within the opposition, their appeal is isolated and their reputation complicated by their outsider status.

Given the dangers that could result from post-Assad chaos, is it not finally time to truly engage the opposition?  The opposition has provided lists of specific resources it needs to begin rebuilding the country.  These requests are not for weapons, but rather aid in the form of foodstuffs, building materials, communication equipment, financial lending guarantees, and other similar items.  The increasing desperation of the Syrian people and the failures in getting help to them provide further cause for action.  Syria after Assad will be an uncertain place, but uncertainty can be diminished with engagement and strategic assistance. 

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.

How to talk about Environmental Security without being alarmist.

Foreign policy analysts are not known for having optimistic outlooks. More often than not they respond to world events with overly pessimistic prognostications, as the subheading of this Foreign Policy article demonstrates.

Yet even among this dour crowd, those who focus on environmental security tend to stand out as being particularly alarmist. DARA International, for instance, recently released its 2nd annual Climate Vulnerability Monitor. The study finds, among other things, that climate change is currently responsible for over 5 million deaths per year and that it could reduce the global GDP by 3% by 2030. It further argues that there is little likelihood for international cooperation on climate change issues and that the high costs of investing in adaptive technologies now will likely preclude the necessary actions to mitigate the consequences of climate change. 

As Carolyn Lamere and Schuyler Null of the New Security Beat point out, however, this report has been criticized by political analysts and environmentalist for being misleading  and using a questionable methodology.

These criticisms should be troubling to those who believe that it is important to consider environmental and climatic factors in foreign policy analysis. If too many people “cry wolf” about the effects of climate change and environmental degradation, then leaders will continue to ignore the very serious environmental problems facing the world today.

Ensuring that environmental security receives its fair share of attention from policy makers will require analysts to explain the effects of environmental change within the context of the political, economic, and social situations in which they occur. 

This approach has recently been admirably employed in articles detailing the impact of drought on the Syrian revolution. As Michael Renner puts it in his article for WorldWatch,

while deep-seated popular discontent over decades of repressive rule surely is a key driver of Syria’s civil war, climate-induced pressures have added fuel to the fire. This is a key point: the repercussions from environmental degradation do not occur in a void, but rather interact with a cauldron of pre-existing societal pressures and problems.”

There should be no doubt that changes to the environment will significantly alter the course of world events in the coming years. Yet, analysts should temper their predictions and consider other factors if they want policy makers to take these changes seriously.

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.