Thursday, 12 February 2015

ISIS: Energy Geopolitics and the Terror Threat

The news today that the US was to scale up its military effort against ISIS reflected partly the public outrage in the US directed against it for having murdered captured aid worker Kayla Mueller. It has come after it became increasingly clear that the West's allies in the region are increasingly unwilling to use their Western bought weaponry in the struggle.

ISIS' public burning alive of its captured Jordanian pilot was intended, as all its savage actions against hostages are, to 'sharpen contradictions' in the Middle East and abroad. They knew the killing would make global news and so reveal to the public in Jordan that their air force was a participant in a 'western crusade'.

The murder had some effect in galvanising the necessary reaction of hatred in Jordan-the two prisoners that wanted in exchange were executed and the rhetoric was ratcheted up in Egypt as well. However, the longed for over-reaction would be unlikely to lead to the Sunni Gulf states committing more of their military to defeating ISIS.

The Power of Oil and Money: ISIS Demands 'Respect' as an Oil State.

Clearly, the US wanted the Gulf states to play a role to show that the war against ISIS is supported by its Arab allies in the region. Yet few of them wish to be associated with it for the obvious reason that until 2013 states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar were funding and supporting Sunni militants in Syria against Assad.

Having ramped up the forces of jihad against Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar fear that in contributing too much towards fighting ISIS they would be portrayed as Hypocrites by those sympathetic to the idea of a holy war against Iran, something used to divert discontent with autocracy outwards.

In ISIS's worldview, the Caliphate they have created is the only true successor to the role abandoned by Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and to the usurper Wahhabi state based in Riyadh that occupies the Holy Lands of Islam in partnership with the Infidel Powers from outside such as the US and Britain.

Despite the evident and inherent stupidity of this messianic conception of the world, it appeals to a number of semi-educated Muslims across the region and in the deracinated cities of the West who are able to regard the suffering and oppression of the one true umma as entirely the consequence of a sinister and evil imperialism.

Like most simplified ideologies, ISIS offers a toxic brand of ideas through which those hating the West and regimes in the region can rationalise those hatreds and act upon them. In this, they are being much helped by the way the Western powers appear to have been almost schizophrenic in their foreign policies in the Middle East.

While the 'War on Terror' was a response to Al Qaida's attack on New York on September 11th 2001, one used by President Bush's administration to launch the war against Iraq in 2003, the War on Extremism in 2015 is a response to a movement which grew out of the catastrophic chaos caused by the Iraq War and the collapse of Syria after 2011.

ISIS was not even considered a major factor in global power politics until it surged deep into Iraq in the summer of 2014 towards Baghdad and so threatened global oil supplies from Shi'ite and Kurdish regions. Republicans in the US and Israel blamed this on Obama wanting to leave Iraq too soon in order to secure his election victory in 2012.

However, ISIS was created far more as the deadly consequence of the invasion of Iraq having brought Sunni and Shi'ite militias into conflict across the Middle East as Iran and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states embarked on a ruthless proxy war with each other. It is not so clear that ISIS does not have its uses to certain regional players.

Any strategy to deal with global jihadi terrorism from the West, especially one based on a military response, was always doomed because the prime source of jihadist funding came not from Iran but from Saudi Arabia. Even with the exploitation of domestic shale oil, Saudi Arabian oil remained an important source of US imports.

Trying to combat ISIS while Saudi Arabia is continually pumping out millions of dollars into 'charities' and organisations promoting an intolerant Wahhabi form of Islam across the world means it is a fight in which the West has one arm tied behind its back. ISIS ideology is actually similar in many respects to the Saudi creed.

Reducing dependence on Saudi oil has changed little in what Michael Klare called the America's 'lethal embrace' of the KSA. The alliance, if anything has been strengthened because the US and Saudis have colluded to keep oil prices low as a means to reduce ISIS revenue from oil sales as well as to use the oil price as a tool of coercive diplomacy

By plunging oil prices low the US and Saudi Arabia hope to use this as a form of economic warfare through also ratcheting up the power of sanctions to damage Russia for its role in opposing Western designs in Ukraine ( and in Syria by backing Assad ) as well as compelling Iran to abandon its alleged nuclear weapons programme.

While using oil as a weapon as opposed to going to war to secure oil reserves-as was clear in Iraq-is a more sophisticated way of preserving US global hegemony, the dangers that come from both the developed nations remaining dependent upon Middle Eastern oil has unfortunately in no way abated since the shale oil revolution..

The geopolitics of energy has over-determined Western foreign policies since the 1970s and as the Middle East has become increasingly destabilised by revolutions, coups and wars so too have the Western Powers attempted to react in blundering ways that were powerless to affect the outcome but for which they got the blame for making worse.

In fact, most of the West's allies in the Gulf are absolutist monarchies which are relatively enlightened and open to the world, as in the UAE and Oman, or harshly repressive of any political dissent such as Saudi Arabia or else, as in Bahrain, a constitution monarchy with limited democracy but repressive towards Shi'ite Muslims.

Qatar, the loose canon of the Arab Peninsula, is an absolutist monarchy in which a constitutional referendum in 2003 promised elections by 2013. Instead, Qatar preferred to use its Al Jazeera global news network and finance to promote democracy in other Arab lands first as a way of building a good partnership with the West.

This was much needed. The West after 9/11 Europe had been on the receiving end of some aggressive terrorist acts from European Muslims descended from immigrant populations.They had learnt to detest it viscerally in supporting democracy for Israel, as it oppressed Palestinians, and by supporting secular dictatorships.

ISIS propaganda exploits the 'hypocritical' role of the Western Powers, making much of the fact they appear only 'really' concerned with oil. So ISIS pretends to stands up for 'true Muslims' who want to take the fight to the hypocrites and who demand 'respect' as a state which is based on oil just as much as Saudi Arabia is.

The Chaos of Regime Change and Terrorist Blowback.

As crazy as it appears in retrospect many advocating the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 saw both as part of a revival of the Western tradition of bringing liberal democracy and freedom to other lands; it had done after World War Two and in winning the Cold War and vanquishing global communism.

The invasion of Iraq was meant to knock out Saddam Hussein, allow the 'de-Baathification' of Iraq and install a democracy which would trigger off a domino effect that would destabilise the two neighbouring regimes, the similar Syrian dictatorship to the west and the oppressive 'theocratic tyranny' to the east in Iran.

Nothing of the sort happened. More than that the 'War on Terror' had emboldened Israel to launch its version against the Palestinians as another front on the war against Islamist totalitarianism with the tacit endorsement of President Bush and British PM Tony Blair. That and the Iraq War only radicalised a fraction of Western Muslims even further.

After the London Bombings of 7/7 2005, Britain's 9/11, Blair adamantly insisted that the 'rules of the game were changing'; there would be a 'War on Terror' at home as well as abroad. The implied meaning of there actually having been a game with rules beforehand largely went unchallenged at the time.

At one level, Blair's statement was about trying to use 7/7 as a pretext to ram through Parliament counter-terrorist legislation and build up the security state he wanted. However, at another level it was about the rules of 'engaging' with 'Islamism' as an ideology which could act to 'radicalise' Muslims at home and abroad.

Counter-terrorist laws aside, the rules of 'engaging' with 'the community' in Britain have gone through various revisions according to changing geopolitical circumstances and the rules have been changing ever since 2005. In fact, after Blair departed from Downing Street the rules changed as the 'War on Terror' was dropped as a slogan.

This, and the election of Barack Obama as President in 2008, led to a determination, as yet unsuccessful, to close Guantanamo Bay in Cuba where 'terrorist suspects' on battlefield earth had been abducted and sent to for 'questioning' and 'coercive interrogation'. Including those from countries such Libya.

In 2003, Blair used the 'War on Terror and invasion of Iraq as a means to persuade Gaddafi to relinquish his WMD. In return, the Libyan leader was rebranded as a force for stability who would re-enter the international community as one who would clamp down on Islamists and open up his oil reserves to BP.

Gaddafi's usefulness between 2008 and 2011 was questionable. He would appear to have believed the US and Britain trusted him because of the assistance he had provided in jailing and torturing jihadists who were deemed a global security threat. But Gaddafi's attempts to play off rival powers vying for oil concessions sealed his doom.

Indeed, Blair's collusion with Gaddafi and his repressive state only ensured that the backlash against the Libyan dictator would break out just as he tried to 'liberalise' the regime. His reward was to end up even worse off than Saddam who at least had a trial and was hanged rather than being bludgeoned to death by a baying mob.

The Arab Uprisings of 2011 appeared to gave momentum behind them. The Western Powers decided that, where it suited their strategic resource interests against Russia and Chinese competition, they would support Sunni Islamist democrats as a way of removing dictatorships and so lessening the regional and global support for jihadi terrorists.

This promising new dawn lasted only two years. While Gaddafi was rebranded back into a genocidal tyrant as part of a NATO backed war to oust him and empower 'moderate' Islamists and democrats, Assad proved more resilient in the face of the 'moderate' rebels of the Free Syria Army in Syria as he was able to call on foreign support.

Unlike Gaddafi, Assad ruled over a society that was divided between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims with ethnically distinct non-Arabic Sunni Kurds in the north, Druze, Christians and Yazidis. As the civil war became more savage and the FSA far more ruthless and sectarian, Assad was able to rally those who feared it more than him.

The result in Syria and Libya has been deepening civil war. One of the most important reasons that links both is firstly that where there is a collapsed state and oil up for grabs, Islamist militias dedicated to violence, brutalised by war and opposed to secular dictators are as likely to fight with the West as against it wherever beneficial.

The Western Powers learnt nothing from Iraq when it came to Libya. Where it used military force to help liberate a land with little history of democracy from a dictator, the result was not going to be a functioning democracy but a chaos that was even worse than a dictatorship. Where a state is weak and fractured, democracy means one of two things.

In Iraq it meant sectarian parties and factions and conflict backed by outside powers. The same happened in Libya even though it is completely a Sunni Muslim land. However, by empowering Islamist forces with no history of democratic politics to overthrow Gaddafi, it unleashed militia violence and racial attacks on ethnic minorities.

With the Egyptian coup of 2013, Egypt has pushed out jihadists into Libya where it is continuing a war against them on behalf of the beleaguered government which itself is made up from former exiles chosen by outside powers and remnants of the Gaddafi regime who had defected when they saw Gaddafi was losing control.

Though Sunni majority parts of Syria and Iraq remain the core of the ISIS caliphate, the appeal of the brand seems to have been spreading into regions of lawless anarchy where resentment against the 'usurper' governments is burning. In December 2014  jihadists declared Derna the first town in Libya to officially join ISIS.

As with Syria and Iraq, Libya has become the cockpit of a vicious proxy war between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, all members of the very Arab League that had supported NATO military intervention when the African Union had opposed it and which bear much of the responsibility for the chaos in Syria.

The financial support given by the Gulf states to Sunni militants opposed to Assad not only created the material and recruitment base for ISIS when they switched allegiance after breaking away in the summer of 2013 from the FSA and started to score successes on the battlefield that encouraged others to defect

Prior to that the FSA and ISIS had actually been aligned in fighting the Kurds as ethnic enemies despite the FSA being portrayed as 'moderate' and representing an 'inclusive' democratic ethos. The Kurdish militias accused Turkey of backing ISIS. Turkish officials claimed Assad was backing it against the FSA.

When ISIS rolled into Mosul and an the Western powers started to portray ISIS as a global threat, British Prime Minister Cameron tried to portray Assad as still to blame for funding ISIS as they built their Caliphate on the Mediterranean.  This was largely a lie because ISIS owed far more to Gulf state funding of jihadists.

Assad is alleged to have bought oil from ISIS go-betweens. Yet nothing in that at all detracts from the scale of the aid given to jihadists from the Gulf states in continuity with the funding they had once given the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1990s in their struggle against the Godless Soviet Union and the Afghan communists.

When William Hague accused Assad of "direct responsibility for creating the conditions in which this terrorism can thrive" he was telling a deliberate untruth. Assad's military was brutal and barbaric in its conduct of the war but so too was the FSA which had been previously fighting with ISIS and similar jihadi groups.

ISIS is a direct consequence of blowback from the foreign policy of the Western powers military interventions and the backing given to Sunni jihadists by the West's Gulf allies in their proxy wars from Syria to Iraq. It has spread into Libya where yet another lethal proxy war has taken hold, where the state has collapsed and where oil is the spoil of war.

Moderate and Extremists : The Rules of the Game Change ( Again ).

As for Saudi and Qatari funding it should be pointed out that Washington was, at least, trying to put pressure on both to stop this funding. Both states claimed to have stopped private donors doing so in 2014 when these rather embarrassing facts started to came out more in the media as ISIS started surging into Iraq.

The problem is that defections from rival Sunni militant groups into ISIS appear to have continued up until late 2014, partly as a consequence of the US led bombings. On the other hand, there were reports of defections back then from ISIS, especially of those jihadists from outside Syria who saw ISIS was on a losing streak.

So it is possible that jihadists who had aligned with ISIS and defected could then be recycled as FSA 'assets' once more depending on which forces are gaining the upper hand and in accordance with the geopolitical dictates of the game being played by the regional and global powers. At the moment, it's not clear if Assad 'must go'.

Jihadists who make themselves useful in this game are 'moderate' insurgents and those who are not are 'extremists'; the sliding scale between the two would appear to depend on an ever changing border line and so upon whether a particular Islamist group advances or retards a given set of geopolitical goals.

None of this, of course, is ever going to be admitted as being the case by Western governments. But it quite clear that the potential for plans to 'crack down' on the Muslim Brotherhood in Britain are interconnected to the fact the 2013 coup in Egypt made them no longer a useful force and even a potential 'enemy within'.

Qatar has effectively created a lobby group in Britain to rival that of Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood helps disseminate the Sunni democratic 'moderate' worldview. However as its supporters, those like Anas Altikriti would insinuate the sort of reaction Britain gets from 'the Muslim world' depends on not being complicit in repression.

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