By Vijay Prashad
February 3, 2015
Neither U.S. President Barack Obama nor King Salman of Saudi Arabia can be comforted with the mess that their countries have made in West Asia. Tragically, the only pathway they seem to favour is the one that would create more distress
Pandemonium is the main current from Libya to Iraq. U.S. President Barack Obama dashed off from New Delhi to greet King Salman, the new ruler of Saudi Arabia. Both had a great deal to discuss. Neither can be comforted with the mess that their countries have made in West Asia. Tragically, the only pathway they seem to favour is the one that would create more distress in the years to come. Plainly, their example is Egypt, where both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia backed the coup by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and now back his government despite repression against protests.
The murder of a young socialist, Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, as she went to lay a wreath of flowers in Tahrir Square on the fourth anniversary of the Revolution against Mubarak, is a sign of the rot. It did not stop an “Islamic State” (IS) detachment from an attack in the Sinai Peninsula, killing over 30 security personnel and civilians. In Libya, the Saudis and the U.S. favour the strongman (Khalifa Haftar), as they did in Yemen (Abdullah Saleh). In Iraq and Syria, both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia disliked the dispensation and sought to undo it. The Saudis are driven by sectarianism — against the rule of the Shia (and the influence of Iran). It is what turns them against the governments in Damascus and Baghdad, as well as the rebels in Yemen. Mr. Obama and King Salman cannot solve the problems in the region. They have run out of ideas. Others will have to show the way.
Chaos in Libya
Libya. The Corinthia Hotel is Tripoli’s most luxurious. It has been home to successive Prime Ministers, who fear for their lives in the fractious capital city (Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was abducted from there in 2013). It is also home to the United Nations mission, which held a Libya Dialogue in Geneva. On January 27, gunmen entered the hotel and killed guards and foreign residents (including a security contractor from the U.S.). The Tripoli branch of the IS took credit for the operation.
Chaos has been the governing mood in Libya since 2011. Two governments claim to run the country — each backed by militias, each with foreign powers behind them. The U.N. mission — abandoned by the West after its war in 2011 — flounders to create a peace process. The internationally backed government of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani sent a delegation to Geneva to join the U.N.-backed peace process. His main muscle rests with the renegade general, Khalifa Haftar, who has been running his own battle against Islamist militias in Benghazi under the name of Operation Karama (Dignity). But al-Thani’s government is in the eastern city of Tobruk, exiled from the capital (Tripoli) and the main cities (Benghazi and Misrata). It sits in the shadow of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The government of al-Thani is a shell. It is the heir to those who inherited Libya from the West and the Gulf Arabs. Guns on the ground favour others. In Benghazi, the tide remains with a radical Islamist outfit, Ansar al-Sharia, which was formed after the fall of Colonel Qadhafi. In the western part of Libya, the movement known as Fajr Libya (Libyan Dawn) holds the cards. It includes the powerful Libyan Shield of Misrata and the remnants of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Their Prime Minister, Omar al-Hassi, lived in the Corinthia and had to be spirited away by security guards. Libyan Dawn refused to go to the Geneva talks. The most powerful actor has stayed away from the anaemic process backed by the West. It illustrates the irrelevance of the West in contemporary Libya (the U.S. embassy to Libya is in Malta). Qatar and Turkey, the outside backers of Libyan Dawn, call the shots.
It was only a matter of time for IS to establish itself in Libya. The city of Derna has long been a radical Islamist recruitment centre. Its inhabitants joke that Derna has sent the most fighters to Iraq and Syria of any other city. Last June, the Majlis Shura Shabab al-Islam, an offshoot of Ansar al-Sharia, joined IS. It declared that it would go after the Marda Al-Nafous (diseased souls) that had hampered “this oppressed Islamic State.” Operational links are not difficult to establish between Derna and Syria-Iraq; fighters continue to find their way back and forth via Turkey. Echoes of IS resound between Derna and Benghazi, where Ansar al-Sharia fighters take comfort in the audacity of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s pronouncements. From the gutters of defeat they seek the sensation of victory.
No Call for Peace
Yemen. Old tribal fissures in Yemen that isolated the Zaydi Shia community led by the al-Houthi family have asserted themselves. In the name of the War on Terror, the long-time autocrat of Yemen, Abdullah Saleh betrayed and killed the Zaydi leader, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi in 2004. A reasonable political settlement might have ended that conflict, but Saleh would not have it. Fully backed by the West, he used drone strikes and disbursements to destroy his enemies. Rising to the bait, Saudi Arabia — which once despised Saleh — gave in to its anti-Shia prejudice and backed Saleh’s war against the Zaydis. Saleh treated the Zaydis as the main enemy, rather than al-Qaeda. The terrorist group had been wiped out of Yemen, but then reappeared by 2004 through recruitment in prisons, experience in the Iraqi insurgency and anger at the U.S. drone war. But Saleh did not turn his full fire on al-Qaeda. His enemies were elsewhere. Operation Scorched Earth in 2009 led to a Saudi invasion of Yemen to put down the Zaydi insurgency. Tens of thousands of refugees fled the area; the death toll is unknown. There was no call for a peace process. It was a fight to the end.
“The more audacious IS can be in its heartland, the louder the echo it sends to Libya and deep into the Arabian Peninsula.”
The Arab Spring in Yemen allowed the Houthi rebels to join in the protests against the Saleh regime. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, took control of the cities of Jaar and al-Husn. A national dialogue went nowhere. The Houthis wanted a political settlement. Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s government succeeded in getting the West to believe that the Houthis were an Iranian proxy. Attention on keeping them from the reins of power seemed paramount. It is precisely what has failed, as the Houthis have now seized control of Sana’a. Whether the Houthis would be willing to be magnanimous in victory is to be seen; equally, would the Saudis and the West accept any gesture from them?
Part of a Larger War
Syria. On the day that the Saudi King, Abdullah, died, the Saudi proxy force in Syria — Zahran Alloush’s Jaish al-Islam — fired rockets into Damascus. Alloush had announced on Twitter that he would “shower the capital with hundreds of rockets a day in response to the regime’s barbaric air strikes on Ghouta.” The fight between Alloush and the government of Bashar al-Assad has become a minor, but nonetheless deadly, skirmish in the larger war in Iraq and Syria. Assad’s aircraft and helicopters continue to drop barrel bombs, killing civilians and combatants — adding up the dead in this ghastly war. His enemies are none the kinder, with their ruthless assault on civilian areas now commonplace.
Israeli assaults inside Syria against the Lebanese resistance group, Hezbollah, threatened to complicate matters. A skirmish in the Shebaa Farms, a part of Lebanon occupied by Israel, could have turned into another war between Israel and Lebanon. While rockets flew back and forth, IS released a statement that the declaration of an emirate in Lebanon would be “premature.” Beirut breathed a sigh of relief. Good news is rare in the region.
Further north, IS has suffered two military defeats. In Kobane, the Stalingrad of the Kurds, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) finally ejected IS fighters. Air strikes from the U.S. coalition helped weaken the supply lines for IS, although the porous Turkish border provided them with some succour. It was not enough. In Iraq, the Badr Brigade, a Shia militia, struck IS in the province of Diyala, which they liberated. Neither the Iraqi nor the Syrian armies had any role in these two defeats of IS. IS, however, is undaunted. It slinked out of these areas and found other places to nestle. An IS dash into Kirkuk took the life of a beloved Iraqi Kurdish leader, Brig.-Gen. Sherko Shwany; IS proved it remains in the game. Squeezed in Iraq and northern Syria, it might finally make its push into northern Jordan. IS has held a Jordanian pilot, Lt. Mu’ath al-Kaseasbeh, for a month, and threatened to execute him only after the fall of Kobane and Diyala. It has said it would spare his life if Jordan releases a jailed Iraqi suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi (her bomb did not go off in a 2005 attack in Amman, Jordan); negotiations over her release broke down and IS executed two Japanese hostages. The Jordanian pilot, it is believed, remains with IS. Tensions rise in Jordan over the kingdom’s role in the coalition against IS. This is precisely the kind of fissure that IS seeks in Jordan. A move south would set alarm bells ringing in Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, a senior intelligence officer from Jordan informs me that the U.S. attempt to create a moderate force against IS has fallen apart. The CIA’s Müs¸terek Operasyon Merkezi, set up with its allies in Turkey, is now threadbare. One after the other, rebel outfits have abandoned the CIA for other formations — most recently, the Mujahedin Army joined the Islamic Front, a group that includes the al-Qaeda affiliates, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. Neither the U.S. nor Saudi Arabia have a coherent agenda in Syria. They remain committed to the overthrow of the Assad regime, but are also alarmed by the growth of IS. The more audacious IS can be in its heartland, the louder the echo it sends to Libya and deep into the Arabian Peninsula.
Vijay Prashad is the Chief Editor at LeftWord Books, New Delhi. He is a columnist for al-Araby al-Jadeed and Frontline.