Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The break-up of the Middle East

The battle against Islamic State in Iraq is a war no one can win, and there is another battle we should be worrying more about, writes Nafeez Ahmed

#‘The conquest of Mosul will have serious repercussions on the entire Middle East. The demise of IS will have implications throughout the region. Iraq, Syria and Yemen will most likely be the first to be impacted, but other states, too, will indirectly also be affected. The current chaos engulfing the entire area will have a lasting impact. Let us hope that calm after the storm will prevail’ # The break-up of the Middle # The break-up of the Middle
# # #

All eyes are on the battle for Mosul in northern Iraq. Will the Coalition defeat the Islamic State (IS) group that has been holding the city or not? In the end, it won’t matter. If we have learned anything from the last 14 years of fighting the “war on terror” in Iraq, it is that today’s hard-won victories can very quickly metamorphose into tomorrow’s epic disasters.

Whether you’re pro- or anti-war, the facts speak for themselves: the toppling of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion in 2003 created a vacuum that was filled by Al-Qaeda extremists who previously had no presence in Iraq and who rapidly transformed and expanded into the apocalyptic force known as the Islamic State.

But the very nature of the battle for Mosul is one sign among many revealing that the Middle East as we know it no longer truly exists and will never return. The region is deep in the throes of an irreversible geopolitical transition to a new, unstable disorder.

Before the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, several neo-conservative strategists in the US saw their role as marshalling US power to accelerate the break-up of the Middle East. In reality, the Middle East as we know it is breaking up under the pressure of deeper, slower-working biophysical processes: environmental, energetic, economic. These processes are unravelling the power of regional states from behind the scenes.

As states become weaker, unable to cope with their fundamental environmental, energy and economic challenges, the vacuum is being filled by extremists. But intensifying the fight against extremists doesn’t deal with those deeper issues. Instead, it is producing more extremists.

The war in Mosul will be no exception. “It’s Fallujah on a grander scale,” said Ross Caputi, a former US marine who participated in the second siege of Fallujah in November 2004. “I’ve been hearing a lot of horror stories about civilian casualties coming out of Mosul. An aid worker friend of mine was trying to recruit volunteer doctors to work in a surgical unit in [town of] Erbil, where many of the more serious cases were being redirected. She told me the situation is worse than it’s being portrayed in the media,” he said.

These concerns are corroborated by the findings of the monitoring group AirWars, whose February casualty report said that the US-led Coalition was now killing more civilians in air strikes in northern Iraq than Russia. In the first week of March, the group found that between 250 and 370 civilians were killed by US-led Coalition forces storming western Mosul, exponentially higher than the US count of just 21 civilian deaths from bombing since last November. 

Although the Russians have killed more people overall, Airwars noted that Iraqi government operations to recapture east Mosul from IS “came at significant cost to non-combatants trapped in the city. During January, claimed civilian deaths from Coalition actions more than doubled compared to December,” the group said.

The battle for Mosul is the culmination of a longer sectarian war that preceded the emergence of IS. The US-backed Iraqi government has since its inception marginalised the Sunni minority in Iraq. As the Sunni insurgency against the US occupation escalated after 2003, the US and Iraqi authorities together painted it as little more than an extremist uprising by fanatics. In reality, it was the occupation itself that radicalised the insurgency and pulled Al-Qaeda into its vortex.

Caputi saw first-hand as a soldier in Fallujah that the insurgency in 2004 was not dominated by Al-Qaeda. Instead, he said, on the pretext of targeting Al-Qaeda insurgents the US military was for the most part targeting and killing Iraqi civilians.

He described one astonishing example: when doctors at the main hospital in the city announced that US bombing had led to significant civilian casualties, the US military officially saw them as a “terrorist-supportive staff” and the hospital itself as “little more than a nest of insurgent propagandists” because “they had used the facility to issue claims of non-existent civilian casualties.”

Eventually, US troops moved to take control of the hospital on the eve of the main US assault on Fallujah. This, Caputi recalled, was considered an “information operations” success for the US.

Moreover, the war on Fallujah never came to an end. Armed by the US, Iraqi forces have intermittently attacked and bombed Fallujah almost daily since 2012. These operations stepped up after the city was captured by IS in January 2014.

In this period, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad allowed Al-Qaeda operatives to move freely across the border between the two countries in order to augment the Iraqi insurgency against American forces. This policy, which continued through to 2012, contributed to the destabilisation of Iraq.

But Al-Qaeda would not have been able to intensify its foothold in Iraq if it had not been for the deeply sectarian violence of the US military and Iraqi government towards the country’s Sunni minority, as exemplified in Fallujah, that led some among them to accept IS as a “lesser evil” and others to become radicalised enough to join the movement.


THE WARNING: US officials were warned of this outcome early on during the occupation. Yet, they and their Iraqi counterparts have learned little from this history.

According to Anne Speckhard, a Pentagon consultant who designed the US detainee rehabilitation programme in Iraq, US officials pretty much knew they were releasing dangerous extremists back into Iraqi society when they began dismantling draconian prison complexes like Camp Bucca where IS founder and leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi had been detained.

Speckhard, of the Centre for Trauma and Community at Georgetown University’s Medical Centre in the US, specialises in the psychology of radicalisation and has consulted for NATO, the US departments of state, defence, homeland security, the CIA, FBI, and numerous European governments.

“This all happened underneath our noses while we were trying to deradicalise these very individuals,“ Speckhard said. Other top IS commanders were also once at Camp Bucca, including Abu Ayman Al-Iraqi, Abu Abdel-Rahman Al-Bilawi, Abu Muslim Al-Kharasani, Fadel Al-Hayali, Mohamed Al-Iraqi, Mohamed Abdel-Aziz Al-Shammari and Khaled Al-Samarrai.

But the military sweeps that had put al-Baghdadi and others into the Bucca detention camp were indiscriminate and part of an invasion and occupation that targeted Iraqi civilians wholesale and disproportionately targeted Sunnis. According to Speckhard, internal estimates by US authorities in late 2006 confirmed that only 15 per cent of the detainees at Camp Bucca were “true extremists and adherents to Al-Qaeda ideology”.

When Speckhard interviewed former prisoners from Camp Bucca in Jordan in 2008, she discovered that US officials had never meaningfully implemented the detainee rehabilitation programme. The former prisoners told her that imams handpicked by the authorities would stand outside the fence of the prison reading Islamic verses, while detainees laughed and spat at them. “This was not the engagement I had envisioned,” she said.

What happened instead is well-known. Under US tutelage, Camp Bucca’s 24,000 mostly Sunni prisoners were routinely afflicted by systematic abuse and torture so brutal that it often resulted in death.

The camp was a microcosm of the US-led occupation of Iraq. A 2004 US army classified report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 2006 documented the existence of 62 separate investigations into allegations of prisoner abuse at US detention centres across Iraq, including at Camp Bucca.

The eye-watering list of abuses is hard to read and would have made Saddam proud: physical and sexual assaults, mock executions, threatening to kill an Iraqi child to “send a message to other Iraqis”, stripping detainees, beating them, shocking them with a blasting device, throwing rocks at handcuffed Iraqi children, choking detainees with knots, and interrogations at gunpoint.

But there were deeper issues at play. Douglas Stone, then commanding general of the US Detainee Task Force, began authorising “quick releases of detainees putting them through a four-day programme that basically checked a lot of boxes and only engaged them superficially, if at all,” lamented Speckhard. “That may have been fine for the 85 per cent who were not adhering to the militant jihadi ideology.” But it had no effect at all on the hardcore.

At the time, Speckhard recalled, she warned Stone that the rehabilitation “will only work if the politics of Iraq support it. A man who joined militant jihad because you killed his sister may agree to give up engaging in violence, but if you kill his brother next, he’ll go right back to it.”


DIVIDE AND RULE: The US military hadn’t decided to release the prisoners as an act of kindness. There was also a dubious strategic context.

“The mass releases were done to keep the Sunni tribes happy, but this was also the time we were mobilising the Sunni Awakening to stamp out Al-Qaeda in Iraq. We were releasing the detainees to support the Awakening to build up the Sunni insurgency against Al-Qaeda. It backfired,” Speckhard said.

The Sunni Awakening represented a US-led effort to mobilise Sunni tribal leaders against Al-Qaeda in Iraq. It was believed that the mass release of Iraqi detainees would help engender confidence in American intentions with the Sunni tribes and augment them with manpower. But US intelligence agencies also knew that many of those who would go on to fight against Al-Qaeda in Iraq under the Awakening were often themselves former Al-Qaeda sympathisers.

It was classic counter-insurgency strategy – an attempt to break the resistance by turning parts of the resistance against itself. Elements of the strategy are described quite candidly in an insightful US RAND Corporation report commissioned by the US Training and Doctrine Command’s Army Capability Integration Centre published in 2008.

The RAND report explicitly acknowledged that its proposed “divide and rule” strategy to exploit Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions across the region was then being implemented in Iraq by US forces. US forces should use covert strategies to sow “divisions in the jihadist camp. Today in Iraq such strategy is being used at the tactical level,” the report said.

It elaborated on what exactly this meant in Iraq: the US was forming “temporary alliances” with Al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunni “nationalist insurgent groups” that had fought the US for four years in the form of “weapons and cash”. Although these nationalists “have cooperated with Al-Qaeda against US forces” in the past, they were now being supported to exploit “the common threat that Al-Qaeda now poses to both parties”, the report said.

The idea was to fracture the insurgency from within by co-opting its wider support base in the Sunni population. It sounds clever in theory, but in practice the strategy sowed the seeds of the birth of IS in Iraq.

While funnelling support to a whole spectrum of disgruntled Sunni jihadists with various past affiliations to Al-Qaeda, the US was simultaneously backing the central Shia government of Iraq. Both sides in receipt of US support were heightening sectarian tensions. And the Iraqi government in particular increasingly displayed a brutal contempt for the Sunni minority in the country. In this context, the US strategy was doomed from the start.

“Since withdrawing from Iraq, we have seen the anti-Sunni sectarian bias of the Iraqi regime and Shia security forces become emboldened. Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi has failed to reign in these forces,” Speckhard said.

“The Iraqi authorities have even profiled and arrested top Sunni politicians. This is reinforcing biases within the Sunni tribes, and increasing the sorts of sectarian resentments that are leading a minority of Sunnis to support IS. These were the same sentiments that originally fuelled support for Al-Qaeda.”


THE NEXT INSURGENCY: While IS atrocities in Fallujah, Mosul and beyond have undermined its traction amongst local Sunnis, atrocities by the US-backed anti-IS Coalition are alienating the population in the long-run.

“On the whole, I don’t think people in Mosul look at the anti-IS coalition as their heroic saviours, although I do think they’ve changed their assessment about IS being the lesser evil,” Caputi said.

“Last year, both in Fallujah and Mosul anti-IS forces were holding these cities under siege, while IS was forbidding anyone from trying to escape, trapping everyone inside as human shields. Consequently, food prices skyrocketed and people soon started to starve. The non-profit group that I work for was able to smuggle some food into Mosul, and we didn’t see any feelings of support for IS,” he added.

In early 2014, IS was tolerated by some as a fringe part of a diverse uprising against the US-backed central government in Iraq. But IS crimes have changed that. So the coalition might well succeed in killing off the terror group’s remaining chain of command in Iraq. But will this be the end of the war?

One top Kurdish intelligence official doubts it. Lahur Talabany, a senior counter-terrorism official in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, believes that even if IS is defeated in Mosul the group will continue and escalate its insurgency from mountains and deserts outside the city.

“Mosul will get taken… but I think it is the asymmetric warfare that we need to be worried about,“ he said. While IS might disband, another more extreme group will probably emerge in its place if nothing is done to resolve Iraq’s deepening sectarian tensions. “Maybe not Daesh [Islamic State], but another group will pop up under a different name, a different scale. We have to be really careful,” Talabany told Reuters.

“These next few years will be very difficult for us, politically… We know some of these guys escaped from Mosul. They are trying to send people out for the next phase, post-Mosul, to go into hiding and sleeper cells.”

“You have to try and find them when they go underground; you have to try and flush out these sleeper cells. There will be unrest in this region for the next few years definitely,” he said.

Caputi agreed that a “victory” in Mosul could be just the beginning of a prolonged conflict, but he is sceptical of talk of “sleeper cells”. If the strategy is to kill every single IS member, it will fail, he warned. And that’s why the current operations will not end the war, because they are not dealing with the conditions that created IS in the first place.

“These operations are creating the context for a long-term insurgency against the Iraqi government and Iranian influence throughout the region,” Caputi said.

“The phenomenon of IS is more the product of historical, social, and political conditions that this war against IS has done nothing to change. Since those conditions are still there, including injustice, poverty and political repression, I expect we’ll see continued insurgency… Sunni Iraqis will remain second-class citizens under this government and they will not stand for it.”


SYSTEM FAILURE: Meanwhile, the conditions that laid the groundwork for the rise of IS in Iraq are worsening.

Those conditions include what’s happened on the surface of geopolitics: the destruction of Iraqi society under decades of war and occupation; the collapse of Syria into internecine warfare due to Al-Assad’s comprehensive destruction of civilian infrastructure; and atrocities by extremists who have increasingly captured the rebel movement in Syria with the support of the Gulf states and Turkey.

But accelerating the conflict from behind the scenes are fundamental biophysical processes unfolding across the region.

I have studied these processes, and among my findings is that IS was born in the crucible of a long-term process of ecological crisis. Iraq and Syria are both experiencing worsening water scarcity. A string of scientific studies has shown that a decade-long drought cycle in Syria, dramatically intensified by climate change, has caused hundreds and thousands of mostly Sunni farmers in the south of the country to lose their livelihoods as crops have failed. They moved into the coastal cities and the capital, dominated by Al-Assad’s Alawite clan.

Meanwhile, Syrian state revenues have been in decline because the country’s conventional oil production peaked in 1996. Net oil exports have gradually declined, and with them so has the clout of the Syrian treasury. In the years before the 2011 uprising, Al-Assad slashed domestic subsidies on food and fuel.

While Iraqi oil production has much better prospects, since 2001 production levels have consistently remained well below even the lower-range projections for the industry, mostly because of geopolitical and economic complications. This has weakened economic growth, and consequently has also weakened the state’s capacity to meet the needs of ordinary Iraqis.

Drought conditions in both Iraq and Syria have become entrenched, exacerbating agricultural failures and eroding the living standards of farmers. Sectarian tensions have simmered. Globally, a series of climate disasters in major food-basket regions has driven global food price spikes. The combination has made life economically intolerable for large swathes of the Iraqi and Syrian populations.

Outside powers – the US, Russia, the Gulf states, Turkey and Iran – have all seen the escalating Syrian crisis as a potential opportunity for themselves. As the Syrian uprising erupted into a full-blown clash between the Al-Assad regime and the people, the interference of these powers radicalised the conflict, hijacked Sunni and Shia groups on the ground, and accelerated the de facto collapse of Syria as we knew it. 

From this maelstrom, as billions of dollars poured in from the Gulf states and Turkey to the financing of the armed rebels, most of which ended up empowering the most extremist factions, the monstrosity known as Islamic State emerged.

Meanwhile, across the porous border in Iraq drought conditions were also worsening. There has been a surprising correlation between the rapid territorial expansion of IS and the exacerbation of local drought conditions. And these conditions of deepening water scarcity are projected to intensify in coming years and decades.

The discernible pattern here forms the basis of my model: biophysical processes generate interconnected environmental, energy, economic and food crises – what I call “earth system disruption” (ESD). ESD, in turn, undermines the capacity of regional states like Iraq and Syria to deliver basic goods and services to their populations. I call this “human system destabilisation” (HSD).

As states like Iraq and Syria begin to fail as HSD accelerates, those responding – whether they be the Iraqi and Syrian governments, outside powers, militant groups or civil society actors – don’t understand that the breakdowns happening at the levels of state and infrastructure are being driven by deeper ESD processes. Instead, the focus is always on the symptom, and therefore the reaction almost always fails entirely to begin to address earth system disruption.

So Al-Assad, rather than recognising the uprising against his regime as a signifier of a deeper systemic shift – symptomatic of a point-of-no-return driven by bigger environmental and energy crises – chose to crackdown on his narrow conception of the problem in the country’s angry people.

Equally, the Syrian resistance saw the problem as little more than the nefarious, corrupt and extractive nature of the oppressive Al-Assad regime, without noticing that his regime was now being undone by deeper, biophysical processes that – even without his regime – will continue to unfold.

Syria has become a failed state, but no one is dealing with the escalating process of earth system disruption that is driving human system destabilisation across the region. This is not surprising. If anything acts as an impediment to dealing with root causes and to re-building environmental resilience, new energy systems and enhancing social and political empowerment, it is war.


SLOW DEMISE: This myopia still afflicts officialdom in Iraq, which is not as far down the road of systemic state failure as in Syria.

US and Iraqi officials are pinning their hopes on the ephemeral dream of converting the country into a booming oil producer, capable of pumping out profitable petroleum at a rate to rival its neighbour Saudi Arabia.

This is a pipe dream. In my study, I cite robust data showing that Iraq’s conventional oil production is forecast to peak within a decade by around 2025 before declining. This means that after 2025 the principal source of the central government’s revenues will begin to concertedly decline.

It will only be a matter of time in this context before the state – if it does not identify a new and sustainable source of income – will be forced to retreat. In this scenario, we may see the central government increasingly unable to maintain basic social expenditures, which are already deeply strained. On a business-as-usual trajectory, Iraq as we know it is headed for full-blown systemic state failure by approximately 2040.

This is a conservative projection that in my view is likely to be accelerated by the amplifying feedback between underlying ESD processes of conventional oil depletion, climate change, water scarcity, and agricultural crisis and the HSD processes of US-backed state-sectarian repression, intensifying geopolitical competition, and a long-term sectarian insurgency from IS, Al-Qaeda or other actors.

In short, while earth system disruption slowly and quietly unravels state power, short-sighted responses result in human system destabilisation, leaving the vacuum to be filled increasingly by those seeking autonomy from the central government and the extremists who are at open war with it.

It’s not just Iraq and Syria that are sitting on the path of systemic state failure. Other countries in the region exhibit similar dynamics. In Yemen, for instance, conventional oil production peaked in 2001 and has now virtually collapsed according to the latest data. As of August 2016, net exports of oil have reduced to “a trickle” and have so far stayed that way

Post-peak Yemen, like Syria and Iraq, exhibits similar features of intensifying water and food scarcity. Electricity production is intermittent, and nationwide fuel shortages are routine, forcing factory closures, and prompting foreign companies and international organisations to suspend operations, withdrawing capital and personnel.

As livelihoods are destroyed, the geopolitics of the ongoing conflict involving US and UK support for Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen, and the persistent Houthi rebellion, are serving to erase whatever remnants of civil society remain. Now 12 million Yemenis are at risk of starvation, and 7.3 million have no idea where they will find their next meal.

This means not only that the state’s main source of revenues is almost obsolete, but that its capacity to respond to the crisis in a way that is not simply reactive to the symptoms has been fatally inhibited.

The Gulf states are next in line. Collectively, the major oil producers might have far less oil than they claim on their books. Oil analysts at the consultancy Lux Research estimate that OPEC oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 70 per cent. The upshot is that major producers like Saudi Arabia could begin facing serious challenges in sustaining the high levels of production they are used to within the next decade.

A new study in the journal Energy Policy by Steven Griffiths, vice president for research at the Masdar Institute for Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, corroborates these concerns. Griffiths points out that OPEC countries in the Middle East and North Africa in particular may have exaggerated their proven reserves. He notes evidence that “Kuwait’s proved reserves may be closer to 24 billion barrels and Saudi Arabia’s reserves may have been overstated by as much as 40 per cent.”

Another clear example of exaggeration is in natural gas reserves. Griffiths argues that “resource abundance is not equivalent to an abundance of exploitable energy.” While the region holds substantial amounts of natural gas, underinvestment due to subsidies, unattractive investment terms, and “challenging extraction conditions” have meant that Middle East producers are “not only unable to monetise their reserves for export, but more fundamentally unable to utilise their reserves to meet domestic energy demands”, he says.

This is particularly prominent in the Gulf states. “The GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries, for instance, have substantial associated and non-associated natural gas reserves, but all GCC countries with the exception of Qatar are now faced with a shortage of domestic natural gas supply,” Griffiths says.

He thus concludes that “stated proved hydrocarbon reserves in the MENA region can be misleading with regard to the outlook for regional energy self-sufficiency.”


FOOD THREATS: While this “does not necessarily imply an imminent shortage of oil, it does raise the question about peak conventional oil”, Griffith comments, going on to spell out potentially destabilising implications.

The “MENA countries that have historically relied on resource rents to support social, political and economic agendas face risks regarding their actual timelines for implementing reforms needed for their ‘post-oil’ economies,” he says.

Oil depletion is only one dimension of the ESD processes at stake. The other is the environmental consequence of exploiting oil. Over the next three decades, even if climate change is stabilised at an average rise of two degrees Celsius, the Max Planck Institute, a respected German science institute, forecasts that the Middle East and North Africa will still face prolonged heatwaves and dust storms that could render much of the region “uninhabitable”.

These processes could destroy much of the region’s agricultural potential. Yet, the Arab Organisation for Agricultural Development (AOAD) reports that the Middle East is already experiencing a persistent shortage in farm products, a gap that has widened steadily over the last two decades. Across the region, food imports now run above $25 billion a year on a net basis.

If nothing is done to address these challenges, the period from 2020 to 2030 will see Middle East oil exporters experiencing a systemic convergence of climate, energy and food crises. These crises will weaken their capacities to deliver goods and services to their populations. And the processes of systemic state failure we are seeing unfold in Iraq, Syria and Yemen will extend across the region.

While some of these climate processes are locked in, their impacts on human systems are not. The old order in the Middle East is, unmistakeably, breaking down. It will never return. But it is not yet too late for East and West to see what is actually happening and act now to transition into the inevitable future after fossil fuels.

The battle for Mosul cannot defeat the insurgency in Iraq, because it is part of a process of human system destabilisation. That process offers no fundamental way of addressing the processes of earth system disruption chipping away at the ground beneath our feet.

The only way to respond meaningfully is to begin to see the crisis for what it is, to look beyond the dynamics of the symptoms of the crisis – the sectarianism, the insurgency, the fighting – and to address the deeper issues. That requires thinking about the world differently, reorienting our mental models of security and prosperity in a way that captures the way human societies are embedded in environmental systems and responding accordingly.

At that point, perhaps, we might realise that we’re fighting the wrong war, and that as a result no one is capable of winning.

As the old oil order in the Middle East collapses over the next few years and decades, governments, civil society, business, and investors have an opportunity to build grassroots, post-fossil fuel structures that could pave the way for new forms of ecological resilience and economic prosperity.

The writer is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and winner of the Project Censored Award for reporting in the UK newspaper The Guardian.

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