By Paul McGeough
Sydney Morning Herald
He expected it. But when the call came mid-morning on Thursday, Nizam Mougherit froze – the caller was threatening to behead Ibrahim, the 35-year-old’s younger brother who serves in the Lebanese Army.
Since early August, the so-called Islamic State and the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front, two of the strongest forces in the civil and sectarian war tearing Syria and Iraq apart, have been taunting the families of 37 cops and soldiers who were captured as the Islamists overran Arsal – a small town high in the wild mountain country that serves as Lebanon’s border with Syria, and a little more than 120 kilometres north-east of the capital.
“I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown,” Nizam told me of a chilling exchange with a male who identified himself as an IS operative and who then proceeded to lecture Nizam on the need for the families to put more effort into daily protests, at which they’ve been pushing for the Beirut government to comply with the jihadis’ demands for a prisoner swap – freedom for Ibrahim and his military and police colleagues, in return for the release of as many as 100 Islamist militiamen locked down in Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh Prison.
“We need to do a deal fast,” the man from IS told him. “You have 48 hours – or the remaining prisoners will be executed by beheading.” There’s a Potemkin village feel to the tents erected on the pavement of Beirut’s Riad al-Solh Square, named for the country’s first post-independence prime minister – he was assassinated in 1952. But the families come out to protest because they were effectively ordered to do so by their kin’s captors – so there’s just a few slabs of bottled water and none of the musty, dug-in permanence that characterised the encampments of the global Occupy movement or of Ukraine’s Maidan protests.
All involved here are Lebanese, not Western, which might explain why the plight of the dozens of prisoners and their families has failed to punch through as an international news story. But the threat is real – two of the hostages already have been beheaded and a third was gunned down, according to Islamic State’s social media postings.
A Qatari government official is mediating between the Beirut government and the Sunni fighters who have retreated into the mountains behind Arsal – but so far, no deal. And a few hours before Nizam Mougherit’s phone exchange on the urgency of beheadings, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon weighed in, expressing “grave concern” over what appears to be the Syria-based fundamentalist militias’ probing the defences in Lebanon’s border region, which are controlled by the Lebanese Shiite militia and political party, Hezbollah.
Sit in the square with the families – sisters and wives, cousins and uncles milling with framed or banner-sized portraits of the captives – and it seems that the crisis roiling the Middle East is being miscast. As governments around the world opt in or out of the reluctant warrior Obama’s coalition, the focus stays narrowly on the fighting in Syria and Iraq and keeping both countries as the post-Ottoman Western constructs that they are.
It all seems to miss the point that this already is a regional, if not global conflict, in which the stakes are much higher than who turns on and off the lights in Damascus and Baghdad.
This is not just about skirmishing spilling over borders into Turkey and Lebanon, but about the direct involvement of forces and funders, policymakers and provocateurs from right across the region, seeking to direct the course of the violence to pursue outcomes in Syria and Iraq, but also in pursuit of bigger but tangential regional agendas.
Beyond Lebanon, it has gone virtually unnoticed that two beheadings have been carried out and many more are threatened; and that a diplomat from Qatar is attempting to defuse a situation that gives Ban Ki-moon sleepless nights. The Saudis, who are Sunnis, are pumping $US1 billion ($1.1 billion) worth of French-supplied weapons into Lebanon; and right behind them are the Shiite Iranians, promising their own, separate weapons consignment for Beirut – value not disclosed.
Yet these little bits are parts of a dreadful whole, the complexities and dangers of which seem not to have been grasped around the world. The gifts of weapons from Riyadh and Tehran are just part of a slew of current arms deals in the region, estimated to be worth more than $US50 billion. And while all those weapons, no doubt, will help grow an already huge refugee crisis in the region, a UN appeal for $US1.7 billion to help the refugees, has received pledges for just 36 per cent of that target since it was launched late last year.
It’s all done with such naiveté and Boys’ Own enthusiasm, that you wonder if our leaders obsess about military options alone, because to kick butt is easier than all the other stuff that could be done.
More than a decade after the 9/11 attacks and an al-Qaeda-induced realisation that US intelligence services had nodded off on the Middle East, Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment credits the Obama administration with rightly sensing that apart from the military, there are ideological and religious dimensions to this conflict.
But then Professor Brown writes: “They are, however, particularly ill-equipped to understand, much less participate in, the non-military aspects of the struggle. And the consequences may not only be misunderstanding it, but more troubling, a return to the pattern of opportunistic alignments with autocrats that served US policy well in the short term, [but] at tremendous long-term cost.”
While all effort now goes into military attempts to solve a conflict for which all, from Obama down, admit that there is no military solution, a grim warning was issued in July by the UN negotiator who spent two years in search of a political solution to the crisis triggered in Syria by the last of the Arab Spring uprisings in the region.
“There is a serious risk that the entire region will blow up,” Lakhdar Brahimi warned in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine, in which he predicted dire consequences for Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. “The conflict is not going to stay inside Syria. It will spill over into the region. It’s already destabilising Lebanon [where there are] 1.5 million refugees – that represents one-third of the population – if it were Germany, it would be the equivalent of 20 million people.”
Analysing the global misreading of how events might unfold in Syria, Brahimi harped back to an earlier assignment in his career: “It reminds me a lot of 1999 – then, I resigned from my first assignment as a UN special envoy to Afghanistan, because the UN Security Council had no interest in Afghanistan, a small country, poor, far away. I said one day it’s going to blow up in your faces – it did [and] Syria is much worse.”
And as for the notion implicit in the rhetoric of Obama and his coalition cheerleaders, that Syria somehow is to be rescued by and into the civilised world, Brahimi thinks otherwise – “It will become another Somalia. It will not be divided, as many have predicted. It’s going to be a failed state, with warlords all over the place.” And to the extent that there is a military solution – Washington and Canberra and the rest say that they will retrain the Iraqi military, on which the US already has spent hundreds of billions and lost thousands of its own troops in the process; and set up shoestring budget camps in Saudi Arabia to train ‘vetted moderate’ Syrian rebels to fight IS and the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
All of which prompted a gem of self-contradiction this week by Obama spokesman Josh Earnest: “Our strategy [in Syria] is reliant on something that is not yet in place…” But with intelligence agencies warning that as many as 6000 volunteers have flocked to IS training camps since the start of the US-led bombing in Iraq in August, other experts predict that if they continue to bomb the forces and facilities of the Nusra Front, which is al-Qaeda affiliated but opposed to IS, it would drive many Syrian Sunnis, and probably Iraqis too, to fight against the US and its allies.
Despite the coalition hype, it will be years before the Iraqi military or the Syrian rebels become effective fighting forces, and if past conflicts are a guide, only months will have passed before we are hearing complaints that there are no targets for air strikes. So who’ll provide boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of capitalising on air strikes over Syria and Iraq in the short-term and holding territory in the medium-term?
As it is, a good few of Obama’s Western allies are refusing to do air strikes in Syria and all are refusing to send troops to Syria. At the same time, news reports suggest that the US is doing the lion’s share of the current air strikes – despite several of the Gulf monarchs sending some of their air fleets.
But what about the Arab armies – why have they not been dispatched?
Those of us who were in the combined coalition columns as the first President Bush’s coalition forces rolled across the desert to liberate Kuwait in 1991, still chortle at the Saudi officer class, a good number of whom drove their own luxury SUVs to war, because they would not deign to ride in military machines.
With so much at stake in the region, perhaps one of the more disturbing aspects of the conflict as it shapes up, is the likelihood that the coalition will hew to the agenda of one of the myriad parties involved, at the expense of coalition unity and cohesion. Another is the inevitability that crisis momentum demands mission creep; or worse, that human error or mischief making could knock the whole venture off its axis.
What might be this crisis’ Franz Ferdinand moment? Recall that the archduke’s assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 precipitated World War I, the aftermath of which was so ruinous for the Middle East.
When I posed this question to the Beirut-based analyst Toufik Shouman, he responded: “We’re practically in a World War III moment now, but it’s controlled geographically and militarily…and what prevents the world from being dragged into a major global conflict is the [agenda differences] in the coalition that prevent agreement on the way forward, but you can’t rule out the Franz Ferdinand moment.”
Shouman ticked off the likely targets, if IS was to opt to take the fight beyond Syria and Iraq – the list of embassies, consulates and businesses representing the coalition countries would be long. He concluded: “… and IS claims that it is ready to attack targets in the US itself.”
Dr Anthony Cordesman, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, rebukes the US in a paper he published on Thursday. On the great difficulty of implementing coalition-based strategy, he writes: “This is particularly true when the US fails to honestly address its own problems and mistakes, minimises the costs and risks involved, and exaggerates criticism of its allies.”
Acknowledging the risk of mission creep, he said in a phone interview: “But you have to understand that there will be immense pushback against any effort to escalate – the US and its allies will try to control the mission to do what was originally described.”
But ask him about that Franz Ferdinand moment and suggestions pour out of him. Syria could shoot down a Turkish aircraft; the humanitarian dimension could be messed up; human displacement – “you can surely count on people to not understand that intervening to deal with a few thousand people can displace hundreds of thousands”; if IS advanced to a position from which it “threatened all of Iraq”; Iraq’s Sunnis could refuse to co-operate with the new Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad; if violence broke out between Turkey and its Kurdish minority and Iraq’s Kurds attempted to join in; if the Assad government in Syria was to step up its bombing of rebel forces “it could become a political problem too big to ignore”; and lastly, if IS was to lash out with a campaign of terrorist attacks that would provoke demands to escalate the coalition campaign.
“Fully agreeing” with the idea that the conflict has been miscast as war in two countries, rather than as a regional or even bigger conflict, veteran White House adviser and CIA analyst Bruce Riedel’s response to questions was a dire email in which he posits the current crisis in a seriously global framework.
“Al Qaedaism, the ideology, is stronger today than ever, thanks to the failure of the Arab spring and the battlefield has expanded from Mali to Pakistan and beyond to Australia and Europe,” he writes.
“The worst nightmare for me is a terror attack that provokes Indo-Pakistan war; second, is a Mumbai-like attack in a Western city.”