Mideast’s Expected and Unexpected

At year’s end, it’s often worthy to think back on how you thought the year would go and compare it to what actually happened. For writers who have made predictions, it represents a more public challenge, as ex-CIA official Graham E. Fuller explains.

By Graham E. Fuller

Having rashly ventured last year into making predictions for the coming year of 2015 in the Middle East, how do those assessments bear up today, one year later?

This self-graded scorecard comes in two separate articles: due to space limitations I take up here today two of the five predictions,and try to assess how close they came to what actually transpired, and what new trends may now be observable. The other three will follow next week.

Video of the Russian SU-24 exploding in flames inside Syrian territory after it was shot down by Turkish air-to-air missiles on Nov. 24, 2015.

Video of the Russian SU-24 exploding in flames inside Syrian territory after it was shot down by Turkish air-to-air missiles on Nov. 24, 2015.

  1. ISIS will decline in power and influence.

My Prediction last January 2015: I have stated earlier that I do not believe ISIS is viable as a state; it lacks any coherent and functional ideology,  any serious political and social institutions, any serious leadership process, any ability to handle the complex and detailed logistics of governance, and any opportunity of establishing state-to-state relations in the region. Additionally it has alienated a majority of Sunni Muslims in the world, regardless of deep dissatisfactions among Sunnis in Iraq and Syria.  Ideally ISIS should fail and fall on its own, that is, without massive external, and especially Western, intervention that in some ways only strengthens its ideological claims.  To be convincingly and decisively defeated, the idea of ISIS, as articulated and practiced, needs to demonstrably fail on its own and in the eyes of Muslims of the region.  

January 2016 Scorecard Assessment:

This forecast held up pretty solidly. ISIS has indeed clearly entered a process of decline over the past year. It has lost significant territory and some major cities in both Iraq and Syria; the tide of hostility towards it now includes a modest but real (and reluctant) shift by Turkey and Saudi Arabia against it, in part due to external pressures on both those states and the rising ISIS threat to them domestically.

While many Muslims may still emotionally support the idea of a Caliphate in principle, or even applaud the full-throated ISIS opposition to Western military power in the Middle East, few wish to live under ISIS or see it as a model. Small but important segments of alienated Western Muslim youth still volunteer to travel to ISIS to fight on its behalf, but the word is out that such an adventure is demonstrably unwise, if not fatal.

This weakening of ISIS has not, of course, come all on its own. The introduction of Western military power against ISIS, that I initially opposed, has unquestionably been a significant factor in the beginning of the ISIS retreat.

While I still oppose in principle more Western military force in the Middle East, especially with boots on the ground, the combination of Western air power along with regional troops, Kurds, Iraqis, Iranians, Hezbollah, is proving productive in turning the tide.

I reluctantly came to support Western air intervention against ISIS by November 2015  in view of what I called the “collateral damage” inflicted by ISIS in vital areas outside the Middle East: massive Syrian refugee flows; their destabilizing effect in the Middle East; their illegal flow into Europe; the rise in Europe of right-wing proto-fascist sentiments and parties; the threat the refugee flow now poses to the very ideal of unity within the European Union; and the rise and acceptability of xenophobic, racist, neo-fascist  Islamophobic language in the American political dialog itself.

All these factors are much more dangerous over the longer run to U..S politics and society than the few terrorist hits in the West by themselves. (See http://grahamefuller.com/isis-the-hour-has-struck/ and http://grahamefuller.com/the-deadly-collateral-damage-from-isis/ )

I forecast that this year will see the functional end of ISIS as a territorial entity in most of Syria and Iraq. That will represent a major symbolic, ideological and strategic step.

The concept of ISIS, however, while severely damaged, will not die out and will seek further territorial bases. These shifting bases will pose less of an ideological threat than does ISIS as a “state” in Syria/Iraq today, but let’s remember that the threat to the West, even by mere handfuls of terrorist-trained activists, can be generated from almost any location.

This threat however should be treated as essentially an intelligence and police challenge, not an ideological problem. For the important Russian factor in all of this, see below.

  1. The Role of Russia

Last year’s prediction: Russia will play a major role in diplomatic arrangements in the Middle East, an overall positive factor. Russia’s ability to play a key diplomatic  (and technical) role in resolving the nuclear issue in Iran, and its important voice and leverage in Syria represent significant contributions to resolution of these two high-priority, high-risk conflicts that affect the entire region. It is essential that Russia’s role be accepted and integrated rather than seen as a mere projection of some neo-Cold War global struggle, a confrontation in which the West bears at least as much responsibility as Moscow. The West has insisted on provoking counter-productive confrontation with Moscow in trying to shoehorn NATO into Ukraine. Can you imagine an American reaction to a security treaty between Mexico and China, that included stationing of Chinese weapons and troops on Mexican soil?

January 2016 Scorecard Assessment:

This prediction has proven robust. Russia has now inserted itself militarily and diplomatically into the region in powerful ways, Despite initial real dismay in Washington, the Russian role seems actually to have gained the (reluctant) strategic acquiescence of major elements of the Obama administration including in parts of the Pentagon. Indeed, the new Russian role is a game changer.

I believe the new Russian role to be an overall positive for the longer-term resolution of Middle East problems that require a genuine international cooperative effort. The growing Russian role presents meaningful problems only to neocon and “liberal interventionists” in Washington who still think in zero-sum Cold War terms, and who seek a free American hand in unilaterally determining the trajectory of world affairs.

That “free American hand” has proven disastrous over the past 15 years (at the least) for everyone in the region including the U.S.;  frankly the more that hand is constrained, the better for everybody, until greater wisdom prevails in Washington. Sadly, such wisdom is unlikely to prevail under any new American president.

The new Russian presence is also constraining the now highly irresponsible, erratic (and failing) Turkish policies under Turkish President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan in the region. Russia has dealt a sharp blow to ErdoÄŸan’s ambitions, although he still seems to hope to drag NATO into a confrontation with Russia.

The use of Russian airpower against ISIS represents an important new strategic element in the anti-ISIS struggle; Washington complains, however, that it is also eroding the power of the so-called “moderate jihadis.” I do not believe such jihadis truly represent a viable  and desirable alternative to the unpleasant Assad regime; their victory would only open the door to a huge increase of radical forces in Syria, lend breathing space to ISIS, and a prolongation of the civil war.

Next time: How did predictions on Iran, ErdoÄŸan and the Taliban fare? And what new events might we anticipate?

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan. (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com

8 comments for “Mideast’s Expected and Unexpected

    • J'hon Doe II
      January 4, 2016 at 10:13

      ANOTHER “CATALYZING” EVENT in the NWO Playbook… ?
      one must suspect/expect as much from the 9/11 monarchs?

      Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Sunday politicians in the Sunni kingdom would face “divine retribution” for his death.

      “The unjustly spilled blood of this oppressed martyr will no doubt soon show its effect and divine vengeance will befall Saudi politicians,” state TV reported Khamenei as saying. It said he described the execution as a “political error”.

      No information was released about the execution method used, but the country’s normal policy is to behead condemned prisoners with a sword.

      The UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon also voiced his dismay over the execution of Nimr and called for calm and restraint.

      Nimr, 56, promoted peaceful protest among his followers. He had been held since 2012, prompting a high-profile campaign for his release backed by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and Amnesty International.

      Yemen called the execution a flagrant violation of human rights and there was further criticism from Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. Lebanon’s Supreme Islamic Shia Council condemned Riyadh’s action as a grave mistake.

      Protest rallies were held in Bahrain – where police used teargas on the crowds – as well as in India, in Saudi’s Eastern Province and outside the Saudi embassy in London. Further demonstrations were planned for Sunday in Lebanon and Tehran, where the majority of outrage is expected to be focused.

      The cleric’s brother, Muhammad al-Nimr, whose son Ali is also a political prisoner, appealed for calm, saying the late ayatollah would have wanted only peaceful protests.

      Iran had made frequent requests to the Saudis to pardon Nimr.

      Analysis Saudi executions put ball of regional tension in Iran’s court
      Deaths of cleric Nimr al-Nimr and 46 others will be seen as direct challenge to Tehran, which may feel obliged to pick up gauntlet

      On Saturday, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Hossein Jaber Ansari, strongly attacked Saudi Arabia for ramping up sectarian tensions in the region.

      “The Saudi government supports terrorist movements and takfiri [radical Sunni extremism], but confronts domestic critics with oppression and execution … the Saudi government will pay a high price for following these policies,” he was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.

      “The execution of a figure like Sheikh al-Nimr, who had no means to follow his political and religious goals but through speaking out, merely shows the extent of irresponsibility and imprudence.”

      Iran’s parliamentary chair, Ali Larijani, warned: “Nimr’s martyrdom will put Saudi Arabia in a malestrom. Saudi will not pass through this maelstrom.”

      In Shia majority Iraq, Haidar al-Abadi, the prime minister, expressed “intense shock” at the execution, which he said would “lead to nothing but more destruction”.

      The former prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, said he believed the execution would herald the downfall of the Gulf kingdom’s government.

      Maliki, referencing the killing of a prominent cleric in Iraq in 1980, said Iraqis “strongly condemn these detestable sectarian practices and affirm that the crime of executing Sheikh al-Nimr will topple the Saudi regime as the crime of executing the martyr al-Sadr did to Saddam Hussein”.

      Hundreds of armoured vehicles were deployed in the eastern Saudi town where the execution took place and the surrounding province of Qatif on Saturday morning ahead of the announcement of the deaths. Local police were evacuated.

      Hilary Benn, the British shadow foreign secretary, said Saudi Arabia was profoundly wrong to have carried out the execution. “We are opposed to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances,” he said.

      Amnesty International on Saturday said that Nimr has been “executed to settle political scores”. Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa director, Philip Luther, told AFP that Nimr’s trial was both both politicised and “grossly unfair, because the international standards for fair trial were grossly flouted”.

      He added: “What is going on is an attempt to silence criticism of Saudi Arabia, particularly among the Shiite activist community.”

  1. Julian
    January 2, 2016 at 14:24

    Even if the IS is smashed in military terms, it’s ideology, namely Sunni extremism, is still alive and kicking, rearing its ugly head in the shape of segregated, Muslim controlled districts in European cities.
    The IS is just one of the many flavors of Islamism and the dream of Islamic conquest will not die with it. Europe is already experiencing first hand the ugly outgrowths of too many Muslims radicalizing and segregating themselves, despite having lived in Europe all their lives and having access to the same benefits “native” Europeans do (healthcare, education, rights and freedoms, etc.). And the uncontrolled influx of Muslims from Syria, Marocco, Iraq, Iran and so on will only intensify the cultural standoff building up, evident by the rise of conservative, right and even far-right parties and groups in the EU. Perhaps we’ll see Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” up close and personal in Europe in the coming years.

  2. January 2, 2016 at 13:26

    This is the first article of Mr. Fuller, with which I can at least partly agree.

    Two objections:

    1. “… the tide of hostility towards it [Islamic State] now includes a modest but real (and reluctant) shift by Turkey and Saudi Arabia against it.”

    Many people, including me, don’t share this assessment. Where is the evidence for a change of hearts and a resulting change of policies beyond appeasing statements? Aren’t IS oil trucks still crossing the Turkish border? Have Saudi Arabia and Turkey stopped the flow of weapons and money to hardline Islamic terror groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, who all collude with IS?

    2. “… a viable  and desirable alternative to the unpleasant Assad regime; …”

    The Syrian government under President Dr. Bashar al-Assad may be unpleasant for US strategists because its resolve and persistence has brought their grand geopolitical plan against Russia and China in disarray (destabilization of Libya – Syria – Iran – North Caucasus – Central Asia via Islamic terror).

    For people who oppose US hegemony, globalization, and the tyranny of Western corporations and banks, the Syrian people’s resilience is not only pleasant but a beacon of hope and Dr. Assad is a hero!

    • Mark Erickson
      January 3, 2016 at 23:31

      Completely agree on KSA and Turkey. I’m not aware of any evidence that they are opposing IS.

  3. David Smith
    January 1, 2016 at 15:44

    Mr. Fuller, you forgot to mention your prediction that the Tsarnaev Brothers would make very good patsies.

  4. J'hon Doe II
    January 1, 2016 at 12:16

    I wish my first comment of this “new” year could be cheerful and full of hope.
    Not so. The below video hit me in the heart and brought tears to my eyes.

    “I Don’t Want to Die. This War Is Not My War”: A Syrian in France’s Largest Refugee Camp Speaks Out

    (approx. 30 minutes)

  5. Zachary Smith
    December 31, 2015 at 21:59

    This was for the most part a satisfactory essay. I’d have suggested making one change about the Russian role:

    For the important indispensable Russian factor in all of this, see below.

    All the evidence I’m aware of has indicated that the US was doing diddly squat to hurt ISIS until the Russians got involved. Even at Kobane, the US bombing was just a hard slap on the wrist to redirect ISIS towards the Syrians – to take out Assad. So long as ISIS was attacking Syrian forces, the US neocons seemed to be perfectly happy with the head-choppers.

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