Frenemies: Why Rival Insurgents Work Together -The National Interest


This article tries to explain the phenomena of “coopetition”, situations where groups simultaneously collaborate and compete. The article focuses on non-state actors in general, but with extra attention paid to the Syrian civil war, where groups like the Al Nusra front sboth compete and cooperate with other rebels groups such as the Free Syrian Army and Al Qaeda. The article suggests that the contradictions can be understood by looking at fragmentation that exists in these groups at a local level. Each off-shoot of the larger group has its own local needs and faces its own pressures. At times they will create conditions where cooperation, even with one’s enemies makes perfectly good sense.

It is worth noting there are other possible explanations for this type of behavior. On a more macro level, coopetition may simply be the result of balancing behavior in a complex threat environment. The logic of alliances based on traditional IR theory is that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, and alliances form to counter the biggest threat. However, in situations like Syria, instead of having one enemy state or alliance to balance against, each actor (both state and non-state) probably faces several. Therefore they have to re-balance and realign depending who is the biggest threat at any given moment. Today’ friend may be tomorrow’s enemy, and visa-versa. Or, as is often said in the context of the Middle East, “the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy”.

p.s. my apologies for the tacky adds surrounding the article. The argument is interesting, unfortunately the publishers are lame.

10 new wars that could be unleashed as a result of the one against ISIS -Washington Post


“The borders of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” are shrinking fast. The group’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria are collapsing one by one. The U.S.-led war has reached a point where questions are being raised about what comes next.

So far, the answer seems likely to be: more war.”


This article probably oversimplifies things in the sense that it suggests that these wars are discrete events. Rather, the conflicts being played out in Syria are the product of long submerged tensions that were unleashed first by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then the Arab Spring. Once the state system began to collapse in 2010, they were bound to come to the fore. The article is effective though, in the way it identifies the various schisms and how they have been effected by recent events.

The Twenty Years’ War -The Atlantic


This article is interesting for two reasons. First, rather than looking at the US’ role in the Middle East policy as a discrete series of policies, it frames them together as part of a 20 year war. The second is the conclusion it reaches about how that war is going:

“…a sober assessment of the last 20 years suggests that the United States lost the broader war. The country wasn’t occupied and there was no surrender. But Americans have paid an exorbitant price for the two-decade campaign in strategic, economic, and moral terms. When terrorists strike a great power, the destructive potential lies not in the act itself but in the great power’s response to the act. In 1914, Serbian terrorists killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. Austria-Hungary used the attack as a pretext for war against Serbia, triggering a cataclysmic conflict, World War I, in which four empires collapsed—the Russian, German, Ottoman, and Austria-Hungarian. Similarly, in the Twenty Years’ War, America’s response has had far greater consequences than al-Qaeda’s attacks.”

What do ordinary citizens in the Arab world really think about the Islamic State? -Washington Post


This issue has already been discussed on this blog


However it is worth reiterating the point:

“The findings were stark: Not many Arabs sympathize with the Islamic State. The percent agreeing with the Islamic State’s goals range from 0.4 percent in Jordan to 6.4 percent in the Palestinian territories. The percent agreeing with the Islamic State’s use of violence range from 0.4 percent in Morocco to 5.4 percent in the Palestinian territories. The percent agreeing that the Islamic State’s tactics are compatible with Islam range from 1.0 percent in Jordan to 8.9 percent n the Palestinian territories.”

How much will $15 billion IMF loan really cost Iraq? -Al Monitor


With everyone’s focus on ISIS, little attention is paid the other dimensions of Iraqi politics in the Western press. Between the struggle with ISIS, low oil prices and rampant corruption, Iraq is facing a financial crisis. Baghdad has recently signed a 15 billion, 3 year bail out package with the IMF (International Monetary Fund).

“The IMF will help provide the loan to Iraq from several parties: The IMF will provide $830 million; the World Bank, about $5 billion with an interest of 1.5-3%; and the rest will come from other organizations and countries and will be guaranteed by the IMF at an interest rate of 7.5- 8%, provided that Iraq repays the loan and its interest in a very short period of seven years,” Mashhadani said.”

As usual, the deal involves structural adjustment policies (SAPs):

“Among the conditions set by the IMF is that the government decrease subsidizing fuel prices and reformulate the budget terms and fund allocations to reduce government spending, especially in the operating budget.”

Not surprisingly, there is push-back in parliament. Iraq signed a similar deal in 2004 and could not live up to its commitments. The nature of post-Saddam Iraqi politics also makes the deal problematic. There are questions about how the money will be distributed. For instance, will it be split up on a regional basis with the Kurds getting an independent share or will it all go to Baghdad? There are also concerns that the money could simply disappear into a black-hole of corruption. The deal is also being signed at a point where intra-Shi’a politics are breaking down. Shi’a protests against corruption have been organized by Muqtadā al-Ṣadr. While the complaints are legitimate, al-Sadr has been opportunistic in his exploitation of the situation. No doubt, the deal with give him more ammunition to work with.
Read more:

U.S. Support for Al Qaeda-Linked Rebels Undermines Syrian Ceasefire -Huffington Post

  • “State Department spokesperson John Kirby expressed concerns that U.S.-backed Syrian opposition factions such as Ahrar al-Sham have been cohabitating with the Nusra Front.”
  • “Ahrar al-Sham along with Jaysh al-Islam, another Western-sponsored faction, not only have zero inclination to respect the ceasefire, they have aspirations that completely contradict the U.S. stated goal of ushering in a Jeffersonian democracy to replace Syrian President Bashar Assad.”
  • “Which prompts a fair question that goes beyond simply upholding a fragile ceasefire: How in the world does the U.S. government believe for a second that a post-Assad regime in Syria will be secular to any degree based on the current makeup of the opposition’s negotiating team, whose members by and large have openly proclaimed that they want to establish an Islamist state? The unfortunate answer is that the U.S. government has never absorbed the lessons of previous policies based on the credo, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”


The point being made in this article is nothing new. Since the US was pulled into Syria by the rise of ISIS, it has had to maintain a balance between a group of partners (allies is perhaps too strong a word) that are incompatible with each other, and in some cases, hostile toward the United States. The problem cropped up before when Turkey began bombing the PKK and Russia began bombing the FSA. It was also evident right from the start that Iran and Saudi Arabia were not going to be on the same page.

Nevertheless, the article over simplifies the US dilemma, and in particular, Washington’s goals. The author is correct that the US desire for a “whole, unified, pluralistic, nonsectarian Syria,” is incompatible with its present policies. However Washington’s most pressing goal is to isolate and defeat ISIS, preferably in a way that does not undermine what can only be described as a coalition of the wary. That means beating ISIS without ceding Syria to Iran or the Kurds. Only then will Washington set its sights on Jeffersonian democracy. Therefore, as long as ISIS still controls large tracks of Syria and Iraq, the logic of “the enemy of my enemy” will continue to dominate American planning, even if it becomes increasingly complex and in the long term, will likely prove unworkable. The problem is not that Washington does not see this, it is that there does not appear to be much alternative.

For the full article, see:

Why Brussels? -Various Sources


VOX asks Peter Neumann, a professor at King’s College London and the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation why Brussels seems to be at the center of IS activity in Europe. His response is fairly standard:

  • “First, the country has an especially longstanding and well-organized network of radical Islamist recruiters, making it easier for people to join up there than in other European countries.”
  • “Second, its police and intelligence agencies are epically undersized, making them incapable of dealing with the past five years’ massive surge in jihadist recruiting. The Belgian state, according to Neumann, mostly turned a blind eye to these problems. So it was “just a question of time until something happened.”
    In Belgium, like in France and other countries in Europe, you have these areas in cities that have over the past years, if not decades, become migrant ghettos. You had a lot of issues with social/economic deprivation — the best example of that is Molenbeek, the part of [Brussels] where all these jihadists seem to be coming from.”
  • Third, “…parts of Europe that have been completely abandoned by the state, by the authorities, by even Muslim communities. And for a long time, people were happy with that. They would be leaving us alone, and we would be leaving them alone.
    But over the years, this situation festered. Jihadist structures took advantage of that, and basically go about their business almost unhindered. What happened after 2011-’12 is that groups like Sharia4Belgium — a prominent group — went into these places and very systematically recruited large numbers of people.”

Newsweek has a somewhat different take. The article argues a new generation of Jihadists have emerged in Europe:

  • “Their knowledge of Islam is quite limited; they are more like jihadi hipsters than dedicated Islamists, or what some experts in the intelligence community call “jihadist cool.” They celebrate what the Dutch coordinator for security and counterterrorism called “pop-jihad as a lifestyle.”
  • “These shallow Islamists have proved to be a challenge for European countries that use a traditional de-radicalization program for Muslims lured into the world of radical fundamentalists: It’s hard to re-educate people about Islam when they knew almost nothing to begin with. In what may be the most representative event depicting the nature of these new Islamist extremists, two British Muslims, both 22, purchased copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies in August 2014 just before they boarded a plane on the first leg of their trip to join ISIS fighters in Syria.”
  • “These are youths who gather in groups, such as the recently dismantled Sharia4Belgium. They know less about Osama bin Laden than they do about Tupac Shakur; Belgians who travel to Syria to fight often revere the deceased American rapper on social media, identifying themselves with his lyrics about life in the inner cities. But these attackers also have their own rap music, hip clothes popular with young Muslims that are sold by companies like Urban Ummah and slogans akin to what might be found on a bumper sticker (“Work Hard, Pray Hard.”) Their tweets often end with terms like #BeardLife and #HijabLife.”
  • In some respects, the Newsweek analysis is similar to that of VOX:
    “Based on interviews with European Muslims returning from fighting in Syria, foreign intelligence agencies estimate that about 20 percent of them were diagnosed with mental illnesses before they left for the Middle East. A large percentage of them have prior records for both petty and serious crimes. And the vast majority of them come out of urban neighborhoods torn apart by economic hardship.”

The big difference is that this article focuses on local culture, local social networks and “Rambo-envy.”:

  • “For foreign fighters the religious component in recruitment and radicalization is being replaced by more social elements such as peer pressure and role modelling,’’ said a January 18 report by Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, which deals with militant networks. “Additionally the romantic prospect of being part of an important and exciting development, apart from more private considerations, may play a role.”

This account would fit in well with the Feminist literature on how the formation of particular dysfunctional types of masculine identity leads to violence.


Finally, the Economist’s Daily Chart provides some statistics on attitudes toward Muslims in Europe. The graphic tells a sad tale of Islamaphobia: “an Ipsos-Mori poll in 2014 found that on average Belgian respondents thought 29% of their compatriots were Muslim. The actual figure is closer to 6%.”


Will the Islamic State survive 2016? -al Monitor


With another bombing in Europe, two questions come to mind. First, is this there a direct connection between the attack and the way the war in Syria is unfolding? Second, how much longer is this going to last?

The answer to the first question is: maybe. Attacks of the type we saw in Brussels and Paris earlier are consistent with a “globalist approach” being advocated by one faction within ISIS to compensate for losses in Syria and Iraq.

  • The main fissure is between those advocating spreading the struggle globally to overcome the pressures IS is under in Iraq and Syria, and those preferring a localist approach of standing firm in Syria and Iraq. This fissure is bound to widen as IS comes under heavier pressure in Iraq and Syria. The IS attack Jan. 12 against German tourists in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet and the March 19 suicide attack against Israeli tourists at Istanbul’s Taksim could well be interpreted as a move toward the globalist approach, to spill the clashes over to Turkey. By telling Turkey, “If you get tough against us, you will pay the price,” IS is also trying to divert attention from Iraq and Syria.


The answer to the second question is complicated. On one hand, ISIS is losing ground in Syria:

  • In 2015, IS lost 14% of the territory it once controlled. It has lost another 8% in just the first three months of this year,

However, the article argues we should not overemphasize the importance of territorial losses at this point:

  • The approach to IS should be a population-centric strategy that aims to slowly erode its popular support, which may take years. The endgame of this struggle should be reintegration of Sunni bodies to political processes in Iraq and Syria, first at local and then at national levels. This is what the current situation in the field, Iraq’s experience of the past 10 years and Syria’s crisis of the past five years tell us.

Trudeau’s Middle East Policy Takes Shape -Various


It took a while, but Justin Trudeau is putting his mark on Canada’s policies in the Middle East. Last week, the Trudeau government announced that it was removing some sanctions on Iran, and Stephan Dion said Canada wanted to restore ties with Iran, albeit slowly, and “with its eyes wide open”. The rational so far has largely been economic. With Iranian President Rouhani visiting Europe to drum up investment and trade, Canada is losing its chance to get into Iranian markets. The kicker was the Iranian deal with Airbus for new aircraft, which left Canadian company Bombadier with one less potential customer for its struggling C-Series airliner. The economic argument works two ways though. Of course, trade is an end in itself for the Canadian government. However at the same time, the Trudeau government had campaigned on renewing ties with Tehran and was looking for the right opportunity. The trade angle gives the Trudeau government an easy way to deflect conservative criticism for opening dialogue with Iranian government. The Globe and Mail article linked below gives a summary, and shamelessly, includes a short quote from myself.

Canadian exporters buoyed by reduction of sanctions against Iran

This week, the Trudeau government also announced its new Iraq policy. Again, Justin Trudeau campaigned on reversing the Harper government’s policies, this time the commitment to bombing missions against ISIS. Trudeau waited several months before keeping his promise, which was not surprising given Canada’s alliance commitments, not to mention the Paris bombing. The new policy, as promised, does put an end to the bombing mission and increases humanitarian aid. However it does not mean Canada is reducing its involvement in the conflict. Indeed, Ottawa is more than doubling the military personnel deployed to the fight against ISIS and promising a two year commitment. Trudeau seems to be looking for a middle ground on this policy, keeping his election promises without alienating Washington. According to the CBC the details are as follows:

“It will also increase by 230 the 600 Canadian Armed Forces members deployed as part coalition mission.

Canada’s military effort under Operation IMPACT will also include maintaining aircrew and support personnel for one CC-150 Polaris aerial refuelling aircraft and up to two CP-140 Aurora aerial surveillance aircraft. Canada will also send troops to mark targets for the coalition partners.

Canada’s new contribution will total more than $1.6 billion over the next three years and include:

$264 million to extend the military mission in Iraq and Syria for one year until March 31, 2017.
$145 million over three years in non-military security efforts, such as counter-terrorism initiatives.
$840 million over three years in humanitarian assistance.
$270 million over three years to “build local capacity” in Jordan and Lebanon, where there are a large number of refugees.
An increased diplomatic presence in the region.”

ISIS airstrikes by Canada to end by Feb. 22, training forces to triple

US’ Syria Policy ‘Paralyzed’ by Rhetoric that Assad Must Go, Says Hagel -Atlantic Council


Agree or disagree, this is a pretty good example of a realist approach to US foreign policy and the situation in Syria. It is not particularly concerned with a pragmatic response to the crisis than Assad’s moral baggage, or his ideological posture which is anti-Western, anti-Israeli & pro-Iran:

“Former Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, thinks that the Obama administration has become “paralyzed” by its rhetoric that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must step down, said budget cuts have pushed the United States “perilously close” to being unable to maintain its military dominance, equated the Republican presidential campaigns to an amateur talent contest, and had some advice for Donald Trump: “focus on uniting this country, not dividing it.”

“We have allowed ourselves to get caught and paralyzed on our Syrian policy by the statement that ‘Assad must go,’” Hagel said at the Atlantic Council on January 13. “Assad was never our enemy. A brutal dictator? Yes.”

But, he added, important lessons should have been learned from the ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. Following Hussein’s execution in December of 2006, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s divisive policies deepened the sectarian divide in the country and contributed to the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). In Libya, the toppling of Gadhafi by rebels aided by a Western military campaign in 2011 plunged the country into a downward spiral of chaos from which it has yet to recover.

“You can take a brutal dictator out, but you better understand what you may get in return,” Hagel said. “We never asked that question: What is coming after Assad?”