the Blog Papers of Dr. Michael Sakbani; Economics, Finance and Politics

Dr. Michael Sakbani is a professor of economics and Finance at the Geneva campus of Webster-Europe. He is a senior international consultant to the UN system, European Union and Swiss banks. His career began at the State university of NY at Stoney Brook,then the Federal Reserve Bank of New York followed by UNCTAD where he was Director of the divisions of Economic Cooperation, Poverty Alleviation, and UNCTAD`s Special Programs. Published over 100 professional papers.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

ISIL, a Phenomenon Pre-told; Evaluation of President Obama’s Strategy

       ISIL, a Phenomenon Pre-told; Evaluation of President Obama’s                                                      Strategy
       Dr. Michael Sakbani*

The rise of the Islamic State in the Levant, hereinafter, ISIL, is about the most predictable thing any observer of the developments in Syria and Iraq could have contemplated[i].

In Syria, a sectarian regime foisted itself for half a century on 75 % of the population through repression and police state willing to commit any crime to keep its hold on power. When a spontaneous, initially peaceful but ill-prepared revolution erupted in the early days of the Arab Spring, the West listening to the advice of Israel, stood on the side-line. And as the the regime turned on the civilian population with every arm in its possession, deploying even chemical weapons, and killing more than 200,000 in the last three and a half years, the west led by the US stood there with no strategy and chose no party to support (Washington Post)[ii]. Under the pretext of fear that arms might fall into the wrong hands, it denied the moderate Syrian free Army the qualitative help that might tip the scales in its favor. The horrendesness of the regime’s crimes did not convince Mr. Obama and other Western and Arab leaders, that this popular uprising of the majority deserves qualitative military backing (Washington Post)[iii]. Instead, they hid behind the paralysis of the UNSC, done by Mr. Putin, and let the situation fester for years with hundreds of Syrians killed, gassed and dispossessed every day. This tragedy took place with complete indifference by the international community as if the wasted lives had no value. The Syrian people were left to face alone their destruction and destitution. No wonder, that many co-religionists around the world were revolted and some went to Syria to join the fight infused with fundamentalist fury to fill up the vacuum of indifference. 

For a full year, the policy of doing nothing allowed crucial time for the extremists to build up their force and organization in Syria, and hence, ISIL emerged. ISIL has neatly fitted into Bashar Assad’s strategy of turning the Syrian democratic uprising against his dictatorship into a claimed external terrorist intervention. No wonder that many rumors circulate about ISIL`s links to Syrian intelligence.

The Syrian tragedy continued and stalemated in a sea of blood and destruction. And, while the west witnessed that with benign neglect; the extremists gathering in Syria from around the world were determined to fill the vacuum and take advantage of the tragedy. Their first step was to try to take over the Syrian revolution by occupying the areas liberated by the opposition and killing hundreds of armed opposition fighters and this has been the pattern up till now. After establishing themselves in Syria, they entered into Iraq to halt the Shiite backed slaughter and increase their writ.  It became soon clear to the moderate Syrian opposition that these groups were a burden on the revolution and have their own different agendas. When the moderate opposition turned its arms against ISiL in the midst of 2014, they were, in the words of Mr. Obama, "outgunned and outmanned". 

In Iraq, destroying the Iraqi state, dissolving its army and security forces and installing a sectarian political process were prime objectives of the US, Iran and Israel (Sakbani, 2007)[iv]. And in the faulty management of Iraq under Donald Rumsfeld and his proconsul Paul Bremer, they fashioned the modalities to accomplish that.

The political process installed by the US in Iraq was based on sectarian sharing. In three elections under all kinds of restrictions and political exclusions, Iraq has had two sectarian Prime ministers from the same sectarian “Daawa” party, Messrs Jaafari and Maliki.  The first fell by his sheer incompetence, while the second, Mr. Maliki installed in 2006 in a deal between the US and Iran, was kept in power, against all advice, for eight years until he almost brought down the Iraqi state. Maliki was bent on a policy of marginalizing the 30 % Arab Sunnis and exacting collective revenge upon them for the crimes committed by the previous regime. He was an authoritarian product of the sectarian divisions instituted by the US. In eight years of governing, he let 28 Shiite militias terrorize and disposes the Arab Sunnis and built up an army and security forces officered, in part, by Shiites trained by Iran and others with scant military background or training. It was inevitable that this situation would be exploited by al Qaida in the Arab Sunni areas. Indeed, in 2007, it became clear to the US that only by mobilizing the Arab Sunni tribes can al Qaida be defeated. General Petraeus did precisely that. But after defeating the extremists, Mr. Maliki refused to fulfil the promise to integrate these forces into the security forces, cut off their funding and put hundreds of them in jail. al Qayda thereafter picked their leaders one by one for assassination. When a year ago, the Arab Sunnis rose in a peaceful protest against their mistreatment, Mr. Maliki turned his militias, and infiltrated armed forces on them, killing hundreds and imprisoning thousands.

The record of Mr. Maliki combined sectarian bias with incompetence in dealing with the security and economic sufferings of the Iraqi people in all the regions. In the last year and a half, Mr. Maliki at the behest of Iran, supported Bashar Assad in Syria and allowed Iran to supply him through Iraq with men and arms. He also gave financial aid to Assad.

The combination of absent strategy by the West and, at best, the ambivalence of the Gulf Arabs about the Arab Spring, has in effect parented the ISIL. Now that it has shown its savage face and manifested its hostile regional designs, the West, led by the US, still seems to have no comprehensive strategy and so far, has made wrong choices in its tactical approach.
The prevailing stance in Iraq, which is the first phase of Mr. Obama’s strategy, consists of gathering sectarian Shiite militias, the sectarian and ineffective Iraqi army and the self -interested Kurdish Peshmerga, into an alliance for containing ISIL. These disparate elements have different agendas that will not serve the objective of making the Sunni Arabs peel away from ISIL. According to the Washington Post reports of Friday 5 September 2014, the minute the battle of taking back Emerli ended, these diverse elements fell back upon their contradictory agendas. The Shiite militias wanted to cement their dominance over the Sunni Arabs and in fact massacred and pillaged the liberated villages, the Iraqi army wanted to keep its infiltrated and incompetents command in charge and the Kurds wanted to conquer more territory to incorporate into their region. Giving arms and support to this coalition is an adventure in folly.

 The US has insisted that the formation of an inclusive Iraqi national government should come first after Maliki. Mr. Haydar Abadi did form an incomplete but new government. The new Iraqi government is, however, the product of the same sectarian political process of Iraq and has familiar old faces, some of whom have eminent sectarian past. But Mr. Abadi is also a member of the same sectarian Daawa party. It should be recalled that Mr. Maliki was the head of a unity government that in reality excluded everybody from actual power. To be sure, it will take some time to jump over the prevailing sectarian parties to an Iraqi national compact with national Iraqi political parties, i.e. a civil state with no religious preferences. It is this objective plus meeting the grievances of the Iraqi Sunnis that is the key to a successful strategy against ISIL Mr.Abadi must be placed under scrutiny to see if his government headed and manned by the same politicians will indeed behave as a non- sectarian Prime Minister for a civil state of equal citizenry. In addition, the new Government has to carry out the daunting task of providing the staggering economic and security needs of the entire population. The Iraqi population in all regions is beginning to take stock of the corrupt politicians in Iraq, It would not be surprising if we see a common protest against the sectarian and corrupt politicians in all of Iraq. Iraq, as it is now led, cannot easily change itself.

Towards a New Strategy of Confrontation:

Addressing the US population on 10/9/2014, Mr. Obama laid out a broad strategy for facing the danger of ISII. Mr. Obama did not elaborate in his 13-minute address the details of his strategy; he was concerned to convince the American public of why it is in the US interest to intervene and to assure them that there will be no boots on the ground in his strategy. He did, however, invoke the broad outlines of forming an international coalition to deal with ISIL. From the press interview he gave three days before the address on the NBC Meet the Press, one can discern a three-phase strategy (Meet the Press, NBC.)[v]: a containment phase, a degradation phase and an elimination phase. The timeline is in years and not defined. Crucially, the President indicated that he will deal with ISIL in both Syria and Iraq, a sound view. It would be too premature to evaluate Mr. Obama’s strategy; we simply do not know the details and cannot delve into work-in-progress military plans. Nevertheless, one can bring out some points of the critical bearing.   

In both Syria and Iraq, the first task ought to be establishing viable national states based on equal citizenry, endowed with pluralistic free democratic institutions laid down in national compacts. Only such governments can defeat ISIL and secure and stabilize the situation. This is not a Utopian objective. Despite all that has happened in Iraq, the Sunni Arabs, the Kurds, the smaller minorities and a large portion of Shiites, i.e. the majority of the population, are non-sectarian and would subscribe to a democratic national compact. The problem in Iraq is largely the result of the sectarian religious political parties that have populated the political process after the US invasion.

 Syria is much more amenable to a national compact. Its Sunni majority (80 %) practices a tolerant Islam and has lived under secular regimes and received secular education for 94 years. In all their denominations, the Syrians basic reference is national, not sectarian.
This implies several tactical steps:
a. In both countries, the present political systems must be revamped. This means in Iraq, the severing of the Iranian tutelage and the total abandonment of sectarian politics, together with the dissolution of all militias. It also means discarding discriminatory laws such as the uprooting of the Baath and the often abused law on terror and clearing the administration of agents of external interests. Mr. Abadi has yet to release the thousands of Sunnis imprisoned by his predecessor and to negotiate with the Council of Revolution of the Sunni tribes that rose a year ago against the sectarian regime of Maliki. If after eleven years, the Iraqi politicians cannot turn the page, and keep insisting on delegitimizing their opponents, then Iraq will never settle into peace and stability.
b. In Syria, Mr. Assad and his collaborators must be removed and a new fully empowered body would prepare transition to a new system in accordance with Geneva I. This fully empowered authority would prepare elections for a Constitutional Assembly which drafts a new constitution and ushers the country into a new system based on equal political participation of all, including regime supporters not involved in the crimes of the last three and a half years. This will not be feasible right away and as Geneva II meetings showed, is unacceptable to the regime. But any multinational strategy to deal with ISIL cannot succeed if it ignored the Syrian uprising's  demands for a genuine change, for which the Syrian population has endured the terrible cost of hundreds of thousands of victims. If Assad and his collaborators are allowed to stay, the principal motive for all the recruits into ISIL will continue.
c. The territorial integrity of Iraq is crucial to more than 80 % of the Iraqi population and is a barrier against potential ethnic cleansing and extended instability in a country with a mixed populations everywhere. Moreover, Iraqi society has never experienced ethnic animosities and has had a record of peaceful co-living and inter-marrying. Thus, a liberal democratic federated state can give the Kurds a wide regional autonomy which should satisfy their aspirations of running their own affairs. To carry that into full independence will not work; Kurdish nationalism is a 19th century idea which will face external and internal resistance and will not serve the welfare of ordinary Kurds. A landlocked Kurdistan in Iraq stands to lose more than it might gain and Kurdish opportunism and territorial overreach would also be dangerous for Kurds in all the surrounding countries. This means that arming the Peshmerga without the approval and control of the Iraqi government is a direct threat to the territorial integrity of Iraq as the Kurds claim territories where they are a minority. The US should, despite Israeli splintering policies, reach a clear understanding with the Kurds that the price of arming them and helping them is to stay within a democratic federal Iraq. 
d. Iran is involved in both Syria and Iraq. If some collaboration with Iran is possible, it should not include bargaining about keeping Assad and his criminal collaborators in power. Iran’s role in inflaming Sunni –Shiite strife, and its intervention through local agents, in the internal affairs of the Arab states is destabilizing and nifast to the social tissue. The confrontation between Iran`s Shiism and Saudi fundamental Sunnism is at the root of the chaos in the area. Iran should be shown that its expansionist strategies which aim at splitting the Arab societies vertically on sectarian lines will not work and will only gain it Arab hostility and further, it is harmful to its interests and welfare. A historical regional compromise  with Iran’s new leadership is not beyond reach if firmness and reason are combined
  There are four factions involved in the Syrian civil war: the regime and its militias, foreign forces from Iran and its clients: Hizbullah of Lebanon the Iraqi Shiite militias and other recruits sponsored by Iran, from central Asia, ISIL and the Syrian Free Army with its various components. A successful strategy must train and supply the Syrian Free Army and equip it with qualitative advanced arms. Several Arab countries, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are ready to host that. If the US really means to change its stance on Syria, then, it is a chance to be used to give the SFA a sound structure,  cohesion and unified command. Its recruits should be screened and paid salaries and not be loose volunteers. It should be equipped with arms that can neutralize the air force and armored units of the regime so that it can establish a foothold and an administration on Syrian soil.  Next, the regime must be placed under military pressure to encourage defections and enable the Syrian Free Army to take over areas recaptured from ISIL. If the US persists in giving priority to ISIL and leaves Assad in place, its strategy will yield no results. The Syrian population will not accept the regime that slaughtered them and destroyed their countries. 

The second prong of the military strategy is the reorganization of the Syrian and Iraqi armies on a professional basis. Both armies have a pool of qualified professional cadres with genuine national allegiances.  These can be mobilized in a short time.
The starting point in Syria is the revamping of the Syrian Free Army and gathering into it all the deserted officers and recruiting into it new paid elements. Assad’s army, or whatever is left of it, is at the top an Alawite force, but unlike the Iraqi army, it is a competent one. Thus, officers not associated with Assad should be kept
In Iraq, Mr. Maliki has given the most commanding position to mostly unqualified loyalists with scant military backgrounds. He retired most of the senior cadre of the old Iraqi army. The bulk of these officers of the old army are not Baathists but are non-loyalists to the sectarian regime. The new Iraqi Prime Minister acknowledged that the Iraqi army and security forces have failed and should be reorganized on a professional basis.

In both countries, the national armies should have a monopoly of arms. The Iraqi Shiite militias, under whatever names, have been agents of sectarian crimes and foreign influence and should be disbanded. And so should be the Assad militias, known as Shbihas.

In the short run, while the indigenous military reorganization is taking place, Mr. Obama aims at assembling a multinational alliance to lend support to the military efforts. In addition to NATO members, the alliance will include local regional states like the Gulf States, Turkey, Jordan and perhaps Egypt to give it legitimacy and political cover.

 The Arab League has muted forming a Pan Arab force in its meeting on 5- 6 September 2014. Mr. Kerry, the US Secretary of State, held in Jidda on 11 of September 2014, a meeting with the Foreign Ministers of Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Arab Gulf states to discuss setting up a multinational coalition for facing ISIL. There was an endorsement of the objective by all the participants, but Turkey did not sign the concluding statement. In the same vein, France is calling for a meeting in Paris on September 15 for all the Coalition members plus the permanent members of the UN Security Council. The purpose of the Paris meeting is to discuss the tasks and distribute the roles. According to US official statements, some forty countries are willing to join the coalition. However, it is unlikely that these countries will put on the ground the necessary boots to do the job; the basic fighting will have to be done in phase one by the reorganized Iraqi and Syrian Free Armies, the Peshmerga and the Arab Sunni tribes. The Arab Gulf- states will perhaps pay the bills and provide logistic support. Crucially, they promised to help in drying up the financial sources of ISIL.

Is there an Arab Sunnis pay off?

The Arab Sunni tribes and former military officers from Sadam’s time must be peeled off ISSL and pressed into the fight. However, the experience of the tribes with Mr. Maliki, as discussed above, is a very negative one. This time an ironclad arrangement must be made.  This will certainly deprive ISSL of very significant support.

There is a general question that is common to all Sunni participation in this alliance: what is the payoff? Iraq after the US invasion has become a killing field of Sunni Arabs and a state that uses its force and laws against them. Mr. Maliki did not even behave as a part of the Arab collective. Therefore, in what way is the new Government ushering in a new order? ; we only have Mr. Abadi’s word on that. Mr. Obama should give this point cardinal importance and condition his support upon holding this promise.

The question arises as to who will be the beneficiary of the Sunni participation in eliminating the ISIL, a Sunni terrorist organization operating side by side with numerous Shiite militias, of equal terrorist bend? Obviously, it will be Iran if the Iraqi government does not change its previous sectarian relationship to Iran. Indeed, Iran‘s strategy is to help in Iraq defeating its challenger, the ISIL, and to insist in Syria on rehabilitating the Assad regime by making it a partner in the fight. Absent, a clear cut and publically declared US strategy, Iran will sabotage any attempt to deal with Shiite militias. a precondition for meaningful Sunni participation. If Mr. Abadi returns to Iraq an Arab character to its policy, that would then create its own dynamics at the expense of Iran and its militias. Iraq`s identity as an Arab country has been buried under the chaos of current sectarianism and the old despotism of Saddam Husain.
In the containment first phase, the above-mentioned forces would stop the ISIl advance in Iraq and would role it back helped with US and allies air power. The question arises what will happen if ISSL decides to melt into the local population in big cities like Mosul. Specifically, how can military operations avoid the civilians and collateral damages so that this war would not look as another US war on Sunnis.

Mr. Obama’s second phase seems to echo his Pakistan and Yemen Strategies of liquidating significant ISIL leaders. This means using Drone strikes with all their collateral damage. How long one might ask will this phase take? Eliminating ISIL as a military force and resettling the affected population requires expediency. It is questionable, at any rate, whether such a strategy can yield significant net positive results.

With respect to the third phase, there are five questions. The first is what should be the objective in Syria; only inflicting loses on ISIl or also eventually weakening Mr. Assad to coax him into meaningful negotiations in accordance with Geneva I.  The second is: will the US support and protect local implantation of the Syrian opposition authorities in the recaptured areas? The third is the financing of the SFA manpower to recruit soldiers as professionals. Another order of questions concerns the 1.8 million refugees expelled from their homes in Iraq. These include Yazidis and Christians from the Nenawa plain and, more numerically, Sunni Arabs from several provinces. While the coalition faces the 20-30 thousand strong ISIL, what will happen to the refugees and where will their returning to their homes figure in the priorities of the campaign? Similar considerations apply to the Syrian refugees. Finally, what time framework are we talking about? If Mr. Obama drags training the SFA for years, there will be nobody to train.
The international coalition led by the US, will not defeat the phenomenon of Jihadi terrorists even after it defeats ISIL. As long as 27 million Arab Sunnis spread from West Iraq to Syria are not engaged in their own governance and excluded from decisions affecting them, there will be a vacuum into which will slip all kinds of terrorist groups. The key to solving this problem is not allied airstrikes, Beshmarga fighters and Shiite militias, but a social contract with disaffected Sunnis, especially in Syria, which makes them feel they are citizens equal in treatment to all others. That is why the promised democracy of the Arab Spring and by implication, the success of the Syrian revolution should be the key strategic goal of the US, and its compliant Arab partners.     
Military means are surely not enough to solve the problems. The Syrian and Iraqi populations need reestablishment of security and restarting of their economies. Poverty and economic misery are the hotbeds of all evils and the recruitment grounds for extremists[vi]. While Iraq has all the financial resources for reconstruction and for building the necessary service infrastructure, Syria needs massive financial help to rebuild its destroyed infrastructure and restart its shattered economy.  A multilateral Fund principally financed by Arab states should be established to oversee this rebuilding effort. Fortunately, both countries have qualified cadres capable of carrying out this effort.

Iraq and Syria are major Middle East countries with a combined educated population of close to 56 million. If they can find democratic stability and economic prosperity, then the power relationships in the whole area will shift. The Arab Spring will then bear its transforming promise and the instability and chaos here and there would be a temporary and passing phase. The tasks required ahead are not easy but they are doable in the intermediate-term. 
In the longer term, the reasons for the rise of ISIL must be dealt with. ISIL is a phenomenon of religious schism and Governance failure (Sakbani, 2011)[vii]. It recruits its support and manpower from two sources: the disaffected segments of the population with economic, political and injustice grievances and from those, especially foreigners seeking a psychological or social refuge. Its followers, mostly not well educated, are not interested in following real Islam, rather using Islam as a justifying platform of action.  The fundamentalists include a very large number of youngsters from the Gulf States. A factor that might explain this zeal is the constant mixing in these countries between the religious and political discourses. Thus, deracinating jihadi fundamentalism requires dealing with the ills which facilitate its growth. This includes winding down the Shiite- Sunni clash, liberating the people from poverty, tyranny and absolutist views in order to give them the hope that their future will be better than their past. A part of any program is the demonstration of the sterility of political Islamists and their failure everywhere they won power. The establishment of civil states, on the principle of equal- citizenry is a sine qua non for a sure future. There is an obvious need to reform and liberalize the educational systems towards more open and tolerant Islam and the exposure of the fantasy that the past is better than the present common to all jurist (fiqh) thinking in Islam.

Geneva, 13/9/2014.
·         Professor of Finance and Economics, Webster university, Geneva; former Director of the divisions of economic cooperation, Poverty alleviation and Special Programs in UNCTAD, Geneva; Senior advisor to the UN system, The EU and Swiss private banks.

[i] The Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, said a year ago that if the US does not act, fundamentalists will fill the vacuum. Senators Macain and Graham went to President Obama in September 2013 urging him to hit strategic targets in Assad’s controlled area. Senator Macain said on hard talk, of BBC on September10, 2014, that the president promised to do so and then changed his mind 4 days later. Turkey, according to its foreign minister, warned the US about the fundamentalist threat if Mr. Maliki continued his discriminatory policies and if Mr, Assad continued in Syria.
[ii] See the Washington Post, “Train and Equip”, 12 September, 2014 on how the president and his security advisers chose to support no party in the conflict.
[iii] Washington Post, 10,11 and 12 September, 2014 Ibid.
[iv]M. Sakbani,“, “the Gensise of the US problems in Iraq”, in www.michaelsakbani,, 2007.
[v] Interview on meet the Press, NBC, 7 September, 2014.
[vi] Michael Sakbani, “The revolution of the Arab Spring; are Democracy, Development and Modernity at the Gates “, in Journal of Contemporary Arab AffairsDevelopment, volume 6, May 2011.
[vii] Michael Sakbani, “ Islamic Fundamentalism as a Phenomenon of Religious Schism and Governance Failure of Modernization and Development.”, in. michaelsakbani,, 2011.