THE LEVANT NEWS -- 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.
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, HIzballah—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 affect 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 EU; 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 US 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.
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 an free American hand in unilaterally determining the trajectory of world affairs. That “free American hand” has proven disastrous over the past fifteen years (at the least) for everyone in the region including the US; 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 Erdoğan in the region. Russia has dealt a sharp blow to Erdoğan’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 Asad 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, Erdoğan, 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)