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 is adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, and he is 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 me the longest topic that anyone has submitted at Westminster. I will 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 you were 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.
Thank you very much. It is a pleasure to be here. So, since you already read out the entire title, I do not 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 is 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 have 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 are not used to making decisions because they are 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. And they want to fight back. So here you have another civil war in Turkey. Now, given all of that, the possibility of a Turkish descent into chaos grows. We have already seen the terrorist attacks in Turkey. And over time this is going to affect the rest of the region as well.
There are other issues.
The Price of an Eroding Jordan
By the way, I was just in Jordan, and a friend of mine in the royal Hashemite court said, Shmuel, we love Trump. I said yeah, despite the Muslim ban, etc.? He said yes, you see his is the not-Obama. People voted for Obama because he was the not-Bush. And we like him because he is the not-Obama. He said to me, you see this is like the Christ and the anti-Christ. There is a Christ [and] there is an anti-Christ. You know, we are happy with anybody who will restore American deterrence against our enemies.
But they say [there were] things we could have done years ago, safe zones to prevent Syrian refugees, we cannot do it anymore because you need the acquiescence of Russia for it, the Iranians are already on our borders, there has been infiltration by Hezbollah into Jordan. Now the big question is whether you are going to allow this erosion of Jordan, and what the price is for that. And this is a very important question.
Now, I mentioned Turkey. I want to say something about Saudi Arabia. Muhammad Bin Salman is here. He dropped in. He really just dropped in, you know, and his main purpose was to convince the Americans that, ‘I am your guy. Forget about this Muhammad Bin Nayyef. He is not good for you. I am good for you.’ So when I convince my father to depose him as Crown Prince and appoint me as Crown Prince because I do not want to be his Crown Prince because he will depose me as Crown Prince, you support me and you keep your bureaucracy, all of those leftovers in the State Department who liked Muhammad Bin Nayyef. You keep them from supporting him, and I in return see what we can do together.
So he says, I realize that the glue which kept Saudi Arabia and the United States friends, which was the oil, has worn out. Why? Because you have your own oil, etc., so I need new glue. What is this glue? Before the oil glue runs out entirely, I come out with the IPO of Saudi Aramco, I bring into the Saudi Sovereign Fund a sum of money which is equivalent to Ali Baba, Microsoft, Facebook, and everything [else combined], the largest sovereign fund in the world. And what do I do with it? I invest in corporate America and corporate Europe, and I create new glue because corporate America and corporate Europe will want you to continue to be friends with Saudi Arabia because we are invested in you. And this is basically Japan invested, of course, China invested.
The other thing is I am going to invite American companies into Saudi Arabia, but just like the Indians did and the South Koreans did, sure, come in, but you have got to use Saudi companies, you have got to train my youth. You have got to give them employment. Even if they do not do anything, you are going to employ them, which means that my youth, sixty percent of my population, which is unemployed, is going to get employed, and they will be happy with me. Right?
Okay, so this is the deal. In return, I will restrain my Wahhabis because, by the way, I know they do not like me. By the way, I know that the Wahhabi establishment is becoming thinner and thinner. And instead of the Wahhabi establishment, youths who are going Islamic, are going all the way to be jihadis. We did social monitoring, social media monitoring with my company in Saudi Arabia. The percentage of the youth in Saudi Arabia, those who are using social media, and here we are talking about – Saudi Arabia generates about 40 percent of the social media in the Middle East, alone, so it is a real public opinion poll when you take into account that these are the youths, and the youths are 60 percent of the population.
So only about 6-7 percent come out Wahhabi in the rhetoric, etc., establishment Wahhabi, but about 14-15 percent come out jihadi. What is more, over 70 percent of the people who support the war in Yemen are the jihadis who do not support Muhammad Bin Salman, so the people who are supporting his war are the ones who do not support him, and he knows that. I can guarantee you that he knows the results of the project that we did.
So, here he has a dilemma. He has to create a new glue with the United States, he has to create a new powerbase for himself. So he says I am going to take the youth, I am going to make them into my powerbase. I am young, they are young. I am going to be there for a long time. And as for all of these princes who they say will not like it, etc., I am going to tell them, gentlemen, either – I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said now either we hang together or we hang separately, so you are going to have to support me. So that is Saudi Arabia.
Egypt and Yemen
Egypt has gone through a very difficult period or the Morsi era. I think that the estrangement between the United States and Sisi has pushed Sisi into more authoritarianism than he initially intended, has created a sense among the Muslim Brotherhood during the latter part of the Obama era that America is with them, and therefore they should not reach any sort of compromise with the new regime, and has pushed Sisi into the arms of the Russians.
So the question is can you retrieve Egypt. There is an attempt to do it, but Egypt is a critical element because we are now going a little bit south, taking a boat, going through the Suez Canal, going south, and we hit Bab El Mandeb. Bab El Mandeb is interesting. When the Houthis originally went south, I was at [the] State Department, meeting with people policy planning, and so I said, tell me, what is the most significant thing that happened in the Middle East in the last week. So somebody says, Kerry met with – because in [the] State Department, nothing significant happened if Kerry was not involved.
And I said no, the Houthis took an area very close to Bab El Mandeb. [And someone said], oh, what is important in that? I said, well, they can just fire a simple rocket at a ship going through, and that will block [shipping]. It will raise insurance prices. It will cause havoc for the Suez Canal. It will force the Egyptians to take their navy, and what Israel did in 1967, by the way, to make sure that they have freedom of traversing the Bab El Mandeb. And the Iranians then have a hold on two major chokepoints, which are the Hormuz and the Bab El Mandeb.
And so, somebody there said, do you really think a war could break out in the Middle East because of water? I said yes, I think so. I know that that is really imaginative, but you know, it also shows that history is a good thing to study occasionally. But I think that there is real potential for explosion there because – I will take you to our war with Lebanon in 2006.
We had a missile boat near Beirut. Hezbollah fired a Chinese rocket, a missile that they got from Iran. This boat was equipped with all of the ELINT capabilities that you needed. It hit the boat. There were casualties. Why? Because just by mistake, just by accident, they hit it at a time when it was Friday night, and all of the sailors took five minutes off to light candles for Sabbath. And that is when they hit it, and so the soldier who was supposed to be manning the radar was not there.
Now, imagine the USS Cole, famous because it was hit by jihadis in Yemen. And let us imagine that they fire and instead of disrupting the missile, it hits it and there are American casualties. Will the United States then, like when your sailors were taken, say thank you, Iran? I am not sure. In other words, the potential here for conflict is immense in a place like in the Persian Gulf, like in the Hormuz.
Iran: we are looking ahead. Khamenei is not a spring chicken. He has cancer. He will live another half year, another year, another two years. He will die. The Iranian Constitution does not set a time limit for the period of the triumvirate of the Experts Council, the Guardian Council, basically, an IRGC-controlled interim government, which can last for a long time. If Iran moves from the current form of rule, which Khamenei himself is the last vestige of the pre-Revolution who still has some sort of sense that he does not want to provoke the Sunnis too much. He does not want to create too much of an image of Iranian imperialism.
The IRGC is different. When you look at IRGC media, a month does not go by without at least four or five mentions of [the idea that], by the way, Bahrain is actually part of Iran and should come back to the homeland. So imagine that the IRGC starts subverting the Shiites in eastern Saudi Arabia. You will have cyber-attacks on ARAMCO like they already did, terrorist attacks in Bahrain, [and] the Saudis have to invade. And then the Iranians want to save their brethren [because] they are Iranians, Bahrain is Iranian, and they find people in Bahrain who are going to call for an Anschluss. Okay? Well, we all know how Anschlusses end.
What happens then? And then somebody tries to reach a compromise, and they say, well, yes, well, we want the American bases out of here. So here the idea of an Iranian praetorian state is going to be a different stage in Iran’s role in the region. They will say, well, Iraq is falling apart, we must protect the Shiites in Basra. And by the way, we will help them market their oil, by the way. So all of these are things that we have to think about, that this could evolve in such a way, and then we have to say, well, what can be done to mitigate some of these? And it has to be done [sooner] rather than later.
Finally, because I am Israeli, I have to say something about us. Fortunately, whenever I come here, people ask me about Israel. I say, you know, all of my life, I have been analyzing the Arabs, and it is much, much easier than analyzing the Jews. I think that the fallacy of thinking that if Mahmoud Abbas dies, then you will have a successor is the same fallacy of saying if the Syrian regime goes, then another regime will take its place, if a state declines, then another state takes its place. No.
You now have two main competitors, [Mohammed] Dahlan and [Fatah Secretary-General Jibril] Rajoub. The Jordanians and the Saudis are supporting Dahlan, and Rajoub is supported by others. Actually, none of them can gain enough power to actually take over the Palestinian Authority, so all of the chances are that post-Abu Mazen, the Palestinian Authority will decline into a de facto canton-ization.
Now, this is going to be very bad for Israel because it is always good to have someone [who] you can, if you cannot make with him, at least you can deter him. [This is] because it is enough to say to him, look, you know, do not do this from here because if you do this from here, I am going to do this to you here.
Deterrence calls for somebody who is in power who does not have too many filters. In other words, he can absorb your deterrent message, he can interpret it correctly, and he can give orders in order to act on it. When you do not have that, and this is what Israel’s security envelope has eroded in this area, since we no longer have a regime in Damascus, we do not have anybody to deter in Damascus. We do not have anybody to make peace in Damascus, but certainly we do not have anybody to deter.
When Bashar al-Assad came to power, I was still in government service, and I gave him the nickname in Hebrew חומץ, בן היין hometz ben hayayin, which means vinegar, the son of wine because here his father at least you could do a deal with him. I mean you were not going to make peace with him, but you did a deal with him, not one bullet from the [Syrian] Golan since ’73, and it worked. With Bashar Al Assad, it was impossible. With no Syria or with multiple Syrias, it is certainly impossible.
Add this to the Palestinians, the Jordanians are afraid. By the way, my assessment that there is going to be canon-ization of the Palestinians, the Jordanians think the same. I heard from the Jordanians [that] King Abdullah thinks that this is what is going to happen. And then they say, no, we do not want this disease, they say ‘this disease’ of the Palestinians, to infect Jordan. We want to cordon it off because this is a disease of disorder, of chaos, and we do not want that to spread to the other side of the Jordan [River].
A Poly-Nuclear Middle East
And this is going to be – I am not even going into Israeli politics, which is bad enough, and this is going to pose a really serious dilemma for us. So putting all of that together, if I may sum up, the situation is not that bad. [It] could be worse because one of the big questions is we have not even mentioned the word nuclear, right, and it is not because I believe in the JCPOA. It is not because of that. It is just because I left it for the end.
A poly-nuclear Middle East: Iran would be the first to cross the threshold. As you know, Israel will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, but Israel will also not be the second. This is one of Paris’ famous statements, “We will not be the first, but we will also not be the second,” which means not that we are going to let somebody else be the second, but we are going to do our best to prevent anybody from being the first, so there will be no need for a second. Okay?
Now, what this means is that I believe with a high level of confidence that upon the signing or before the signing of the JCPOA, Iran reached an agreement with North Korea for a parallel track for enrichment and development of nuclear materials in North Korea. And this is not even a violation of the JCPOA because the JCPOA has absolutely no provisions regarding outsourcing. There is nothing there.
Now, the Iranians do not trust the Russians. They do not trust them in Syria, and they do not trust them that if the JCPOA falls apart, that the Russians will give them back their fissile material because the Russians have their own ideas, and they have their dialogue with the Americans, etc. So they need the North Koreans, and they have this relationship. I do believe that the Al Kibar reactor was not a Syrian reactor, it was an Iranian reactor. It was a North Korean reactor, which was built in Syria for the Iranians, for the Syrians and the Iranians, but mainly for the Iranians. And therefore, this is a possibility.
The Rest of the Middle East Will Want Nuclear Weapons
Now, if Iran is perceived as coming to sneak out or break out, Saudi Arabia will immediately ask Pakistan to provide deterrence, extended deterrence, to the holy places of the Sunnis against the Shiites. Pakistan would love to do that because if you position Gauri missiles in Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons, you actually now have second-strike capability against India, which changes the entire equation in the subcontinent.
Now, Egypt [and] Turkey will not be able to accept that Saudi Arabia, this desert kingdom, is going for nuclear weapons and we are going to have to live under a Saudi-Pakistani umbrella. Then we are moving towards a poly-nuclear Middle East. And in a poly-nuclear Middle East, it will not behave like the Cold War because the Cold War was bilateral. The Cold War by the time you reach the point where you had intercontinental ballistic missiles, you also had satellites so you could see, so you were not dependent on some HUMINT, somebody whispering in your ear, ‘Oh, they are opening their silos,’ you could see it. Nobody in the Middle East has that intelligence except for Israel.
In the Cold War, by the time you reach that level, you also had second-strike capabilities with submarines, etc., and you had M.A.D., which means that there was not the use it or lose it mentality. But when you do not have a second-strike capability and you do not have M.A.D., then the tendency to act before somebody else hits you is greater.
The Middle East Has Religion
And finally, religion did not play a role in the Cold War. I mean I do not recall anybody, any stories, any American president, certainly any Russian president ever went to a priest or a minister and said, tell me, what should I do with my nukes? It did not work that way. And you had a very strict command-and-control structure, all of that, so it is completely different. So, the chances of nuclear confrontation in a poly-nuclear Middle East are much, much greater than they ever were in the Cold War.
Even though, in parentheses, I have to tell you an anecdote.
Russian TV is constantly showing their actions in Syria. They always show pilots, the planes, driving down, dropping their bombs. In the background on Russian TV, you have an Orthodox priest chanting. And when the bombs hit, then you hear the chant, deus vult, deus vult. This shows the Middle Ages is now. And this is also a fascinating thing, but having said that, the Cold War was not religiously motivated, a poly-nuclear Middle East can be.
So, to end optimistically – no, I really want to end optimistically. A good friend of mine who passed away about a year ago was in the British Army in World War II. He fought for the independence of Israel in ’48, and ’56, and ’67. He was a great professor of linguistics at the Hebrew University. And during one of the intifadas when buses were blowing up, he said to my wife who he had mentored for her Ph.D., “I do not understand young people, you get so depressed from such little things. You see when I was a young man, Hitler had occupied all of Europe, Rommel was defeating Montgomery in the western desert, we were preparing for a last stand on the Carmel Mountain. A few years later we lost six thousand people out of a population of six hundred thousand, and then the Americans and the Soviets were going to blow up the world in the Cuban missile crisis. And ever since then things have been looking up.”
We must have generational perspective. And, gentlemen, as Forrest Gump said, and that is what I have to say about that.
It sounds like we need another Sykes-Picot. Otherwise, [they went through] tribal warfare for centuries to get to where they are now, so we have a steep hill to go down before we can start coming up again.
But Sykes-Picot in the terms of those days included massive military intervention, which you are not going to have. Neither America nor Russia, nobody is going to do it, and therefore the current entropy will continue. There is no appetite in the world to impose this order in the Middle East. In other words, appetite to do what is necessary because we are talking about, basically, reoccupation of all of these countries, and it is not going to happen.
You touched on Libya very briefly. Can you explain a little bit more on Libya?
Yeah, Libya is also one of what I call the humpty dumpty states. You know, Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, and all the King’s horses cannot put it [back together again]. In other words, Libya was a tribal country, and was held together. And the chances that Libya will become a country again are I think nil, just like Yemen, just like Syria, just like Iraq. However, one of the issues is in various scenarios, and I did not even mention North Africa, but what happens in Algeria, for example, post the current president, of course, will go the way of all flesh. And will such an event precipitate a return of Algeria or an attempt by Islamists in Algeria to take control?
Now, obviously, people in Algeria remember the period of the 1990s, and are wary of it, but our attempt to impose the rational actor model on history is pathetic because as a historian, I get the feeling that if the rational actor model were true, then most of what we know as history would not have happened. I mean start from Pearl Harbor and [Operation] Barbarossa. It just would not have happened.
So in Libya one of the issues is going to be, of course, the continuing migration through those areas, [and] the risks of more chaos in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean is no longer mare nostrum of Europe. And continued jihadistans [are going to be an issue]. We are going to have a lot of little jihadistans who will have various relationships with each other. And this is also going to affect strategic planning, but also methodologies of intelligence, collection and analysis. No longer can you just say, oh, we get SIGINT, and we are listening in to Putin. No. The whole methodology has to go back to cultural intelligence, to intelligence on tribal levels. And in Libya, we can see this already. It is one of those factors.
To the extent that you can tell us, and apart from what you told us about the empty desks and hallways of the State Department, are there many people or offices within the Intelligence Community in the United States, the State Department, the Pentagon, the National Security Council that get any part of what you just told us today?
Well, in the past when I was talking in a different era with the State Department some time ago, the discussion was surreal. I had a discussion with them, and then a very senior person said, “Perhaps you could tell us, how can we send a message,” this was during the time of Morsi in Egypt, “to Morsi that sending the Muslim Brotherhood people to burn down churches is not good for him, but we do not want to sound like a Christian country, trying to protect our coreligionists because that will make their situation worse.” I said, no, no, no, in the Middle East, when a minority has an external power protecting it, then it is better because they say, oh, there is deterrence.
But why don’t you tell them that a wise man once said that while the will of the majority must always prevail, in order for it to prevail it must be just, and oppression of the minority by the majority is worse than oppression by kings. [He said], oh, that is great! Can you give me the source? I said yes, Thomas Jefferson. Just go into the Jefferson Memorial, you will see it written on the wall. And then I get out and I say, well, thank you very much. They say thank you very much. I say, well, yes, thank you. It is my pleasure because I love science fiction. He says what do you mean? I said, well, you know I have always loved these stories about parallel worlds, and I walk into Foggy Bottom, and the Middle East that you see and the Middle East that I come from are parallel worlds where a thousand flowers of spring are still blooming. But most DOD officers who have served in the region know what the story is. They may have been constrained by political correctness here and there, but they know what the story is, especially in DOD.
You have to look at intelligence communities. The structure in Israel and Britain is different to the structure in the U.S. A case officer in Israel or Britain is somebody who knows the language and is very deeply immersed in the culture. [In] the structure in the United States, you can have people who are dealing with a country [that they have] maybe been [to] once, and [they] do not know the language, so it is very hard for these people to think in any way which is not American, and that is a real problem. The military people do because they have been there, and they have been shot at, so they know that the rational actor model [does not apply. They do not tell themselves], oh, rationally, he should not shoot at me, but, yes, he shot at me.
One thing about the Cold War is that everyone had a long time to react to a problem, like India and Pakistan have like ninety seconds to make a decision about whether there is a missile coming at them or not. That would be the same thing in the Middle East. That could start a whole war.
Yeah, the reaction time is much less, and the intelligence is less, and the command-and-control structures [are different]. And let us not forget another thing, in the United States, you have a principle in various levels of DEFCON of separation of delivery systems and weapons. You do not weaponize your missiles all the time. It depends on the DEFCON, right? France never allowed pilots to fly with live nuclear weapons because De Gaulle was a general, he knew that he was subordinate, and so he said I do not trust soldiers. The Russians certainly did not trust their soldiers, so they were very, very strict. But in a culture where you have your strategic weapons, you do not trust anybody with it except your brother, or at most your cousin. So, weapons and delivery systems which are strategic capabilities are concentrated in the same hands, which makes them even more volatile.
Robert R. Reilly:
Shmuel, you mentioned that defeating ISIS would only be a temporary gain because it is a manifestation of an ideological war. You have not mentioned that ideological war except in that instance. What are you aware of that is being done within the Middle East or by any European country or the United States to address it at that level?
I think that there has been a shift, for example, in the UK from the good old prevent policy. And interestingly enough, I do some work with the Germans, and I see a shift in Germany. However, I think the political correctness is still the rule. It is very difficult to shift from pretending that this is not ideology, this is some sort of criminality or something like that, to understanding that this is ideology. And once you understand that this is ideology, it still does not mean that you understand the ideology because you have to understand that.
And once you understand that, then it is still a long way to developing a counter strategy, and the counter strategy is not going to be the CVE that America invented, countering violent extremism. And I have always asked myself, do you only want to counter violent extremism? In other words, as long as people are saying to others, “Yes, you must kill them,” etc., but you have not done anything, okay, I am okay with that. I think that it is really still a long way away before any sort of real strategy is formulated. And I am not quite sure that even if people understand the problem, even formulating a strategy, then you have to create the tools, a toolbox, for that strategy. And that also takes a long time.
And you do not have, either here or in Europe, and this is one of the critical issues, the collaboration of the academic community. [This is] because the academic community which is dealing in Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs tends to [engage in] political correctness, and it is not cooperating, and all of these are obstacles.
To get to the situation at hand with Washington twelve miles away, it seems at times that the current administration has some schizoid characteristics. For example, General Mattis, the Defense Secretary, tried to appoint Anne Patterson as his aide. [She] was instrumental in pushing the Morsi regime in Egypt. Thanks to the opposition of Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton, it was blocked, so he withdrew the nomination. So there seem to be supporters of the same policies as Obama within the current administration. At the same time there were others within the administration talking about draining the swamp of Foggy Bottom, about which you talked about, and developing different policies, and recognizing that Iraq will never be put together again, and that Libya will never be put together again. So it seems to be very much in sharp contrast in terms of whether we are going to advance new policies, or more or less follow the policies of the past. What do you think?
I do not know, but fortunately, I am not an analyst of the United States. I just think that in any government, especially a government which is headed by somebody who is not a politician and has not spent the last twenty years thinking about exactly what is the Muslim Brotherhood, and what is this, and what is [that]. I think that it is going to take some time to create any sort of comprehensive, rounded out policy towards this entire issue, so it is true, God is in the details, and so is the Devil, but sometimes these details are because of some sort of developing strategy. I think it takes time. It is really hard to tell today how the various figures and the fact that this administration has not filled all of the ranks yet, what the policy is going to look like.
Thank you. That was fascinating. Can I ask, early on you spoke about 95 percent of the populations that just want to get by and live normal lives.
It could be 94 [percent], it could be 96 [percent].
But if you are talking about the ideology expanding and all of these little jihadistans, is it likely that the ideology will spread to many more of otherwise sort of general populations? I mean how do you see the trends developing in that respect?
I think that the waves of migration of refugees is a critical issue. I think that we are talking about Syria, a country where a quarter of the country’s [population] are refugees. We are talking about a number of refugees in Europe, which just cannot be absorbed because of the mass. When you have so many people who have left their country with such traumatic situations, and they come to Europe, which does not exactly love them, and which loves them less and less because they are going to be terrorist attacks, and this is going to reflect towards these refugees, this is a vicious circle, this is a cycle.
And today, let us say, a kid who reaches Europe at the age of six, and he knows he has seen traumatic things, and ten years hence somebody comes to him and says, you know why you left Syria? Look, these people did it to you, but they did it to you because the infidels here in Europe, the Americans and the British, etc. were accomplices because they could have prevented it. And they are right, they could have prevented it. It was very simple at the beginning to prevent it, and you did not, and so while you cannot find the near enemy in Syria because you are here, you can fight the far enemy here, and you can punish them for what they did. And you know something, it is logical, and it is going to be very, very difficult to stem the tide of this indoctrination. It is going to happen a lot in Europe, and of course, it is going to reflect on relations between these populations, etc.
The absence of regimes in these areas means there is going to be a lot of safe zones for terrorism in those areas, and this is going to mean that you are going to have to, every once in a while, send in special forces, or just bomb places, etc. And when you do that, of course, civilians get killed, and of course, that exacerbates it even more. So I really cannot see all of this ending in peace on earth and good will towards all men.
Robert R. Reilly:
Thank you very much.