Shmuel Bar: The Demise of the Arab State, Re-Tribalization, and the Emergence of “Jihadistans” in the Next Five Years

The Demise of the Arab State, Re-Tribalization,and the Emergence of “Jihadistans”
in the Next Five Years
(Shmuel Bar, March 15, 2017)

Transcript available below

Watch his speaker playlist here

About the speaker

Dr. Shmuel Bar served for thirty years in the Israeli government, first in the IDF Intelligence and then in the analytic and operational positions in the Israeli Office of the Prime Minister. Since the mid 1980s he has specialized in the ideology and operational codes of Islamic fundamentalist movements and particularly the Jihadi movement that later evolved into al-Qaeda.

He is an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of Warrant for Terror: The Fatwas of Radical Islam and the Duty to Jihad. He holds a Ph.D. in History of the Middle East from Tel-Aviv University. From 2003 and June 2013 Dr. Bar served as Senior Research Fellow and then Director of Studies at the Institute of Policy and Strategy in Herzliya, Israel and on the steering team of the annual “Herzliya Conference”.

In addition to being an Adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, he is also a Senior Research Fellow at International Institute for Non-Proliferation Studies, has been (2007) Distinguished Koret Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He has lectured at various academic institutions on issues relating to Israeli national security.

Dr. Bar has headed over 25 research projects – many of them for US government agencies – and published over 40 books, monographs and articles in professional journals on issues relating to the Middle East, including strategic issues in the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, deterrence (both nuclear and vis-à-vis terrorist threats), radical Islamic ideology, Iran, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians.

He heads “Shmuel Bar- Research and Consultancy Ltd.” and is also Senior Research Fellow at the Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy Research at the Technion University in Haifa. Dr. Bar is also founder and CEO of IntuView Ltd – an Israeli based software company in the area of natural language processing.

He also spoke at Westminster on the subject of: The Fertile Crescent After ISIS – Between Russia, Iran and Israel. For more on governance and reform in the Arab world, see Mansour Al-Hadj’s Westminster talk, What are the Prospects for Real Reform in Saudi Arabia?, and Kenneth Pollack’s Westminster talk, Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness.


Robert R. Reilly:

Our speaker tonight is an old friend, Dr. Shmuel Bar, who served for thirty years in the Israeli government. First, in the Israeli Defense Forces intelligence and then in the analytic and operational positions in the Israeli office of the Prime Minister. Since the 1980s, Dr. Bar has concentrated on the ideology and operational codes of Islamic fundamentalist movements and particularly the jihadi movement that later evolved into Al Qaeda. He’s adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and he’s author of Warrant for Terror: The Fatwas of Radical Islam and the Duty to Jihad, one of the best books on that subject. I couldn’t recommend it to you highly enough.

I do have to tell you that when I asked Shmuel what he would like to speak on tonight, he gave my the longest topic that anyone has submitted at Westminster. I’ll just read it for you, so you can get the full flavor: “Scenarios for the Middle East: The Next Five Years Demise of the Arab State, Re-Tribalization, the Emergence of Jihadistans and Proxy-stans, and the Contemporary Great Game.” If you had to take a breath while saying that, I would understand. And he agreed to that elide down to the topic tonight, “The Demise of the Arab State, Re-Tribalization, and the Emergence of Jihadistan in the Next Five Years.” Please join me in welcoming Shmuel Bar.

Shmuel Bar:


Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here. So, since you already read out the entire title, I don’t have anything left to say. I think that we have a tendency to look at the Middle East and to say, you know, we are looking at what’s happening now, and it is always the things that happened yesterday, and so we say this happened in Aleppo, this happened in Iraq, and this, and we lose sight of the trends. We lose sight of the big picture.

I’ve been doing for quite some years, scenario-izing of the Middle East. In May 2010, I was asked by the U.S. Department of Defense to offer scenarios for the Middle East and I offered a number of scenarios. Two of them were the fall of the Egyptian regime as a result of protests when Mubarak is ill and cannot control it. His aides and his deputies are not able to take decisions because they’re not used to making decisions because they’re used to a charismatic and centralist leader. The regime falls and the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power.


At the same time my scenario for Syria was that I described Syria being like King Solomon in the story in the Qur’an of King Solomon. King Solomon was old and he was about to die. He beseeched allies and said, “How can I, the wisest man in the world, die in bed?” He said, “No, you can die standing up on two staffs, commanding the world of the djinn,” the genies. So he does and he dies. The genies see him and they think he is still alive. They continue to obey his last order until earth worms eat up his two staffs, his body falls, and only then do the genies realize that their fear of his last order and they start behaving, doing what they want.

And I said this is Syria. It is beginning to erode and it will erode into an Awali-stan, a jihadistan in the north, a tribal-istan, and the area in the south. Now, these projections, at the time that I made them, there was potential for these things to happen, and we have to divorce ourselves from the current event and to look at the underlying features of theater or the underlying features of an entire area in order to try and understand where they can lead. We are, therefore, looking at dramas, Syria and Iraq, and we have to look far beyond. So what I want to talk about tonight is the far beyond, another five years ahead and more.

First of all, Daesh, the idea that defeating Daesh militarily in Mosul or in Aleppo means the defeat of Daesh in general or what we would call the jihadi-Salafi movement is wrong. The ideology which feeds on the sense that the Sunnis in Iraq, for example, are the natural rulers, this is the cradle of the caliphs, and it is unacceptable that the Shiite Rafid, the Shiites, will rule that country.

They feel oppressed by the Shiites. The Shiite government of Iraq will not be able to restore its control over all of the Sunni areas. They will be able to do quite a lot of ethnic cleansing and massacres if the Iranians are willing to bring in as much firepower and military power as they need for that, but this will have a cost of exacerbating the sense of oppression by the Sunnis. So the jihadi movement itself we will see the end of like we saw the end of Al Qaeda. We got Al Qaeda 2.0 and we get Al Qaeda 3.0, and then we get ISIS 2.0 and ISIS 3.0. We have to understand this is an ideological movement, this is not a military movement.

I think the underlying feature of this region is something which I call strategic entropy. Entropy as everybody studied in school, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, says that the amount of energy which is expended from a system in moving from order to chaos is not enough to bring it back into order, and anybody who has ever tried to make an egg out of an omelette is aware of that. Try it.

This means that if we look at what has happened today, the disintegration of the Middle East, first of all, Iraq will not be a country again. Syria will not be one country again. Libya will not be one country again. Yemen will not be one country. As we see, I think a very good case is that Somalia, which turned into a non-country many, many years ago, continues to have a representation in the United Nations, etc., but it is not one country. So this is going to be the situation.

Now the question is what do we have instead? We have a tendency to think that everything must be replaced by something similar to what it was. This is I think because in orderly societies if a government falls in a parliamentary system, there is another government formed. If a president dies, there is a vice president who takes his place. There is always something that comes instead.

But let us imagine that a regime can fall in Syria without a regime taking its place. A country can disintegrate and no country can take its place. It can just remain disintegrated for many, many years. Now, if we look back at history there are quite a few cases of that, of very fluid changes in borders, of warlordships which are in flux and always moving around, etc. It is not something which is alien to human history, but for some reason we are too focused on the Westphalian states that we do not understand that for most of history there were not strict borders but tribal frontiers.

I was involved in a project for DIA and we had a number of days of discussions and this was about three years back. It was actually the advent of ISIS, and a woman from Langley said to me, do I understand you right? Are you trying to say that Sykes-Picot is dead, that the borders are going to be erased? I said yes. She said that is ridiculous. People need borders. I said really, when the United States had an eastern border, which was the sea, and a western frontier, which was just as far as every once in a while the American Army could go, was it less a country? Yes, there are cases where you have frontiers, you do not have borders. It is not a sine qua non for human existence.

Now, so what do we have instead of states? We have frontiers and we have a process of re-tribalization. As the Arab state has collapsed in these countries, the tribal identity has reasserted itself because people do not need borders, but they need some sort of collective identification because they need a group which is stronger than them which can protect them.

What we are seeing now in Syria and Iraq is very, very similar to the process of tribal coalitions, and, actually, people in various tribes and various clans grouping together, and they need the excuse to say we are one tribe, and then they discover that they have some primordial ancestor who was the same just because we control these resources but in order to make use of these resources we need their routes to somewhere, so we, of course, cannot just cooperate with them because they are another tribe, so let us now invent that we are the same tribe, and let us discover this.

And we can see this actually in Syria and in Iraq, this process, and when you look back at early Islam, when you look at the stories of the jahiliyya, you actually see more or less the same. And you can see it across history, so this dynamic is actually the same dynamic which actually existed in the past, which all goes to show that human nature does not change.

So, what are we going to have? We are going to have these tribal areas, which are frontiers, and they will always be moving and changing according to the ability of each tribal area or each group to impose its will. But how is it going to impose its will? Well, it is going to ally itself with who? External powers; Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United States, etc. Now, what that means is that many of these tribal areas become what I call proxy stans. In other words, you are competing now with Russia over the proxy stan of the Kurds.

The Kurds want to be an American proxy. The Americans for too many years have preferred not to upset the Turks who have been your ally, until it turned out that with allies like that you do not really need very many enemies. And now the Russians have co-opted the Kurds. The Russians go to Astana, and they say we are bringing the Kurds. Oh, that is great, so now the Kurds now have two options, but they realize they are going to have to be a proxy stan of somebody. Maybe they can play around and be a little bit of an American proxy, a little bit of [a] Russian [proxy].

You already have certain groups which are Turkish proxies, Saudi proxies, Saudi-Kuwaiti proxies, etc., which brings us back to a sort of great game. Everybody is playing in this area. And we can no longer talk about Syria and Iraq since now, here in the United States, you no longer have a State Department. At least it seems rather empty there in Foggy Bottom, so you have a great opportunity to change all of the departments. I know that it costs a lot of money to replace all of the maps, but stopping talk about Syria and stop talking about Iraq, and call it the Iraqi-Syrian theater, and so you now have a super theater, which is Iraq, Syria, Lebanon.

But in this super theater the question is do you want to confine this super theater to where it is, to find areas within this super theater which fit your interests and therefore you are going to say we are going to confine ISIS here, we are going to contain there or are you going to allow it to expand south into Jordan? How do you prevent this super theater from growing and growing?

Once you accept that the Sykes-Picot is dead, once you accept that these countries are defunct, then you can start asking yourself not which country do we want in its place but where are the interests and what can we do to minimize the damage of the situation for the interests of the United States, of its allies of the Western world, etc. I liken this to a person who gets divorced or his beloved dies, and until he comes to terms with it, he cannot start a new relationship, so this is why I suggest replacing all of the maps at the State Department.

First of all, let us accept the deaths of the states of the Middle East. May they rest in peace. Now, we are looking at it. What do we need? Well, you definitely want to keep Jordan a state. How important is Turkey in its current manifestation? How important is Iraqi Kurdistan? Is it important that there be Iraqi Kurdistan with Syrian Kurdistan? Maybe you need two Kurdistans, one-and-a-half Kurdistans, Rojava, should it be together, etc. All of these are questions which should be addressed without prejudice to former borders.

Here we have a number of jokers. Russia: Russia is going to continue to play this role in the region. However, the Russian-Iranian axis is not symmetric. Iran could not have achieved what it achieved on the ground with Hezbollah, etc. without the Russian support. The Russians went in there with airpower because they realized that without that, the regime would fall, but Russia has what you call useful Syria. Russia, actually, as far as they are concerned as long as you can get Alawistan with a certain buffer around in northern Syria, as long as they have their naval services in the Mediterranean, and they have a card of we are on the ground fighting ISIS, [then they can say] look America, we can do these services for you, what do we get in return? So, [the Russians say] let us start talking, let us start talking about Ukraine, let us start talking about sanctions, let us start talking about the Baltic states and all of these upstart countries which have joined NATO and used to be part of the Warsaw Pact.

A good friend of mine was the National Security Adviser of a European country whose president was one of the first dignitaries who met Putin when he was first elected, that was before the Medvedev intermission. He asked Putin [on] his first day in office, Mr. Putin, what are your goals? My first goal [is] to restore the predominance of the Presidency in Moscow. This thing, the Duma, the idea that they are running the country, nyet harasho. Now, the second is to restore the dominance of Moscow over Russia. This federation thing, [no], Russia must be a unified country. Chechnya, etc.? Nyet harasho. Thirdly, I want to restore the predominance of Russia over its near abroad, these countries which suddenly they think they are part of the European Union. And finally, to restore Russia as a world superpower. And he said it on the first day in office.

They have said Russia is a third world country with a nuclear arsenal, but it definitely is projecting power in the Middle East, and by projecting power with minimal effort in the Middle East, it is actually creating cards, which it can use in the dialogue with the United States. Here we have a table set, and we have to look forward and say how is the game in the Middle East going to affect the game in Europe, and between the United States and Russia, and in the Asian context, and in the Chinese context.

Another point here which I think is important in this context is that in Syria and Lebanon, we have sort of lost touch with Lebanon. [There are] 1.4 million refugees, Syrian refugees, Sunnis who have left their homes because Shiites have thrown them out, and hate Shiites, and hate Hezbollah in a country of 4 million, which already has its refugees. In other words, this is a complete revolution in the demography of what used to be Lebanon. Now, these are concentrated to a great extent in the north where you have a very strong Sunni, Wahhabi population area of Tripoli.

So, what happens if Daesh or what used to be Daesh moves in with the refugees into Lebanon, and then what you have is a sort of small jihadistan on the Mediterranean. We have the experience in the Horn of Africa of piracy, but piracy in the Mediterranean is something near the gas and things like that. That is something else. Can the European Union [act]? Is it [the] European Union? Is it NATO? Is it the United States? Who is responsible? Who is going to run the show? These are things which I think from the point of view of military strategy that the Europeans, the EU, NATO, everybody has to take into account.

Russia will have its ports in Tartus and Latakia, [which] they are building. I was amazed. I was not amazed. I have not been amazed for ages, but I was amused that when Russia issued an official statement that it is building a permanent base in Latakia, but it will not permanently hold nuclear weapons there. And it just went like that, and there was no response from the U.S. State Department. There was nobody. Nobody even talked about it.

Wait a minute, what do you mean ‘not permanently’ have nuclear weapons? Why? Because the Russians have tactical nuclear weapons, and they can conceivably say we are bringing in a few tactical nuclear weapons into Latakia. Ah, you do not like it? Well, actually, we think you have strategic nuclear weapons in Turkey in Incirlik. Well, let us talk about them. Let us talk about them, and if we are talking about that, let us talk about Poland. In other words, what you have here is potential as a result of what is happening in the Middle East of broader developments, and you have to be ready for it. It is a strategy.

I have always said this in the context of intelligence preparations for leaders. If you tell your political leader, your president, your prime minister, what you heard on the news today, and you just organize it in a brief, he will say thank you very much, I will turn on CNN. If you tell him a few days before, he will [say] okay, give me some time to think about how I am going to respond to the press. But if you tell him half a year before or a year before, then maybe he can change things. And so, this sort of scenarioizing is a necessity for sound strategic planning.

So: Turkey. Turkey is the joker in the equation. Turkey, I think, is going on the road of disintegration. Turkey is currently a country which by normal demographic terms by 2030 would be more than 50 percent Kurdish. The Turks, ethnic Turks, are having one-and-a-half babies. Ethnic Kurds are having four, five, or six babies. That is demography. Erdoğan is aware of that. The war against the Kurds in Turkey is linked to a strategy of making Turkey so unfriendly for the Kurds that in a time when in any case you have extensive, massive migration, they will join the Kurds in northern Syria, and they will move to Europe.

Now, Turkey is going through multiple civil wars. It has a war against the Kurds in Turkey. It is waging a war against the Kurds in northern Syria, but in the course of the war against the Kurds in northern Syria – this is what we call in Hebrew ‘chutzpah,’ they [went] to the EU, and asked the EU to fund [house building. This was] outside of the fact that they have to give Turkey money in order for Turkey not to send any more refugees. They wanted the EU to fund building of houses for the Syrian refugees who are now in Syria. Where? In the Kurdish area in northern Syria.

In other words, [Turkey wants the EU to fund its campaign] to de-Kurdize [the area or] in other words, to ethnically cleanse the Kurdish area after the Turkish Army would go in there, and take care of it, and create a buffer of the Syrian Arabs, so they will be able to block irredentism from the Kurdish area of northern Syria because the worst thing to have [would be] an independent Kurdish area there, projecting towards the Kurds in Turkey.

So, here we have the war against the Kurds in Turkey [and] the war against the Kurds in Syria. In Turkey, in public opinion polls, Pew polls, [9.3 percent] of the population does not define ISIS as a terrorist organization. There is a reason for that. In other words, you have a very strong ISIS-sympathizing [population] within Turkey, and this has been exacerbated by the fact that Erdoğan’s status within the AKP has eroded because he is now perceived as having sold his soul to the Russians, turning a blind eye to Assad. In other words, he has not said no, I agree for Assad to remain, but he has restrained himself in that context.

And here you are an ally of Russia, which is massacring Sunnis, Sunni Muslims, so in order to enhance his position, he has to do something else. And here he is turning to the idea of if in any case borders are changing in the Middle East, well, we actually were not happy with those agreements at the end of World War I, which took away from Turkey all sorts of places like Eastern Thrace, so let us go and talk about Mosul, let us talk about those areas, which means that Turkey, Erdoğan specifically, is trying to use this in order to strengthen himself within his own party and within Turkey.

How are you going to respond to this? If you go along with Turkey, you are actually sending the Kurds in to the arms of the Russians. You are abandoning your major ally, actually your most significant ally against ISIS, and ISIS 2.0, 3.0 is going to remain. Do you want to do that? And of course, you have to ask the question if Turkey, as a very belligerent and fascist state, is your cup of tea. Now, add to that one more thing. You do not decapitate one quarter of the leadership of your army, and have many of them in jail, and many of them fleeing to the West, and a lot of them going underground in Turkey without the danger of a military underground of Kemalists who really do believe that Erdoğan has stolen the country from them.

See the rest of his talk…