Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Countering Islamism

          On October 19 the British government announced a raft of new security measures designed to counter the domestic Islamist threat. They were the outcome of an intensive exercise undertaken by the UK civil service over the summer, while parliament was in adjournment.

          The new measures, among other things, enable parents of children under 16 to request the cancellation of their passports; there is to be a ban on radical preachers posting material online; new extremism disruption orders will prevent individuals from engaging in extremist behaviour; law enforcement and local authorities will be given powers to close down premises used to support extremism.

          Together these and other steps add up to the UK’s Counter-Extremism Strategy, the first effort by a world power to tackle domestic Islamism head-on. There is to be no shilly-shallying around the nature of the danger facing Britain – and, by extension, the civilized world – nor the multi-faceted effort that needs to be taken to counter and conquer it.

          The groundwork for this initiative was laid in a seminal speech delivered on July 20 by the UK prime minister, David Cameron. Uniquely among world leaders who have spoken on this issue, Cameron addressed his Muslim co-citizens candidly. Without beating about the bush, he asserted that condemning violence was not enough. Too many ordinary decent Muslim citizens, he maintained, while thoroughly disapproving of violence, allowed themselves to be seduced by Islamism to the extent of subscribing to intolerant ideas which actively promote discrimination, sectarianism and segregation, thus fostering the very climate in which extremists can flourish. It was clear from what he said that Cameron places high on his list of “intolerant ideas” the mindless anti-Semitism that is endemic to extremist Islamism.

          Cameron also singled out ideas “based on conspiracy: that Jews exercise malevolent power; or that Western powers, in concert with Israel, are deliberately humiliating Muslims, because they aim to destroy Islam. In this warped worldview, such conclusions are reached – that 9/11 was actually inspired by Mossad to provoke the invasion of Afghanistan; that British security services knew about 7/7, but didn’t do anything about it because they wanted to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash.”

          Cameron pointed out that the backgrounds of those convicted of terrorist offences often reveal that they were first influenced by what some would call non-violent extremists.

          “It may begin,” he said, “with hearing about the so-called Jewish conspiracy, and then develop into hostility to the West and fundamental liberal values, before finally becoming a cultish attachment to death. Put another way, the extremist world view is the gateway, and violence is the ultimate destination.”

          The adherents of this ideology, he claimed, are overpowering other voices within the Muslim debate, especially those trying to challenge it.

          To counter this threat, he asserted, Britain intends to confront, head on, the extreme ideology that underpins Islamism – the cultish worldview, the conspiracy theories, and its malevolent appeal to the young and impressionable. The new strategy will involve exposing Islamist extremism for what it is – a belief system that glorifies violence and subjugates its people, not least Muslim people – and will contrast the bigotry, aggression and theocracy of Islamism with the liberal, democratic values that underlie the Western way of life.

          A key part of the action programme will be to tackle both the violent and the non-violent aspects of the creed. Cameron was clear that this would mean confronting groups and organisations that may not advocate violence, but which do promote other parts of the extremist narrative.

          “We’ve got to show that if you say ‘violence in London isn’t justified, but suicide bombs in Israel are a different matter’, then you too are part of the problem. Unwittingly or not,” he said, “and in a lot of cases it’s not unwittingly, you are providing succour to those who want to commit, or get others to commit to, violence.”

          He insisted that condemning a mass-murdering, child-raping organisation was not enough to prove that a person was challenging the extremists. The new strategy would demand that people also condemn the wild conspiracy theories, the anti-Semitism, and the sectarianism.

          Acknowledging the religious aspect of Islamist extremism has proved a stumbling block for many previous attempts to combat the problem. Britain’s Counter-Extremism Strategy will face the issue fairly and squarely. As Cameron pointed out, simply denying any connection between the religion of Islam and the extremists doesn’t work, because these extremists are self-identifying as Muslims.

          “They all spout the same twisted narrative, one that claims to be based on a particular faith. It is an exercise in futility to deny that. And more than that, it can be dangerous.”

          To deny that Islamism has anything to do with Islam, claimed Cameron, means that the critical reforming voices from within the faith are disempowered – religious heads who can challenge the scriptural basis on which extremists claim to be acting, and respected leaders who can provide an alternative worldview that could stop a teenager’s slide down the spectrum of extremism. The UK’s Counter-Extremism Strategy will empower, support and fund those individuals and organisations from within the Muslim community that are dedicated to countering extreme Islamism and its nihilistic philosophy.

          Although an independent Counter-Extremist Project has been running in the US for the past year, and a European counterpart, CEP Europe, was launched in Brussels on June 29, the only government to have grasped the nettle is the UK’s. Britain alone seems to have taken on board the extent of the threat facing the civilized world, to have analysed the issues coolly and hard-headedly, and to be in the process of devising a comprehensive strategy for countering it. In short, the UK is seizing the initiative in the major struggle of our times – a war to the death between a liberal way of life, rooted in parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, and those intent on destroying those values and substituting their own narrow and extremist version of sharia, not shared by the majority of the world’s Muslims.

          It is a war the world can, must, and surely will, win.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 29 October 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 30 October 2015:

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Time for moderate Muslims to bite the bullet

        It is time moderate Islam recognized who its real enemies are, where its real interests lie, and take action accordingly.

        While Islamic State (IS) and the Islamic Republic of Iran – the powers that rival each other in seeking religious and political domination in the Middle East and beyond – have been forging ahead, intent on imposing their own versions of extremist Islam on a reluctant world, moderate Arab and other Muslim states have equivocated. Other considerations have been given priority over confronting them.

        For instance Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, procrastinated for a long time before attacking IS in Syria, fearing to boost Kurdish forces which were successfully combatting the extremist organization. It was only when IS itself mounted terrorist attacks within Turkey that Erdogan took action – although, even now, he seems to be striking IS and Kurdish forces indiscriminately, in a morally ambiguous strategy dictated by the imperatives of the forthcoming elections in Turkey.

        In Yemen it took an Iranian-backed takeover of the capital, Sana’a, and the imminent likelihood of a takeover of the government itself, to move Saudi Arabia to take action. The growing involvement of IS-affiliated Yemeni extremists, and a power struggle between them and the terrorist group “al-Qaeda in Yemen” combined to produce a state in meltdown. A contributory factor leading to Saudi action was perhaps the bombs that exploded outside two mosques in Sana’a after Friday prayers on March 20. Nearly 140 people were killed and 350 wounded, while shortly afterwards responsibility for the outrage was claimed by the group “Islamic State in Yemen”.

        Six days later, on March 26, taking the world by surprise, Saudi Arabia began airstrikes against the Iranian-backed Houthis, with the intention of restoring the legitimate government in Yemen. Within only a few days Saudi had welded together a coalition of Arab states in support of the assault, including Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.

        By the last days of March the Houthi advance had been halted. During the summer Saudi and coalition forces drove the rebels out of Aden, enabling the Yemeni prime minister, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, to return from exile on September 16. And now the Houthis – together with Yemen’s previous president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been supporting them – have agreed to a seven-point plan, brokered by the UN, which includes a ceasefire and the return of the government to Sana’a. Saleh told the Lebanon-based al-Mayadeen TV station on October 12 that he was ready to quit his position as head of the country's largest party, the General People's Congress (GPC), to facilitate an end to the fighting that has killed more than 5,000 people.

        Saudi Arabia’s resolute action is a template for how moderate Muslim nations can, and should, face up to Islamist extremists elsewhere in the Middle East – IS in particular, but Iran too, should its overweening ambition, especially if eventually backed by nuclear weaponry, ever get out of hand. Iran has been supporting terrorist attempts to undermine Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states for decades. Armed with nuclear weapons, Iranian-supported jihadists would constitute a threat that could not be ignored. A nuclear arms race is the last thing the Middle East needs, but nuclear deterrence may eventually be the best road to security for moderate Islam, and an effective counter also if Russia were tempted to support Iranian adventurism.

        Just like Iran, IS has an inherent strategic need to keep expanding its influence. The only way to defeat it is to halt it in its tracks, crush it militarily, and chase it out of its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, where it has overrun, and now controls, vast swathes of territory. The task is no mean one, and requires exactly the kind of united front that has challenged, and is overcoming, the Iranian-backed rebellion in Yemen. Russia’s pro-Iranian involvement in Syria is a hazard, but not insurmountable.

        Declaring himself the caliph of the entire Muslim world, the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, demands the allegiance of all Muslims in his self-appointed task of overturning existing states and substituting the rule of IS. To perpetuate its image of invincibility, IS’s influence simply has to continue growing. To stand still is to decline.

        At first glance, al-Baghdadi has succeeded beyond all measure. By the middle of 2015 no less than 35 jihadist groups in some 14 countries, including Pakistan and Nigeria, had pledged allegiance to IS. As a symbol of its alleged authority, it also announced the establishment of wilayat (governorates) in a number of these countries.

        Barak Mendelsohn, Professor of Political Science at Haverford College and a Research Fellow at Harvard, has analysed IS’s apparent growth and believes that, notwithstanding the fanfare surrounding these announcements, in reality IS's presence and power outside Iraq and Syria is very limited. The stronger groups who joined IS, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in Sinai and Boko Haram in Nigeria, are in decline, and where Boko Haram is concerned, it is unclear to what extent it accepts al-Baghdadi's authority.

        Mendelsohn maintains that IS’s early victories, astonishing as they were, reflected the poor state and morale of its opponents in the Iraqi army, and the lack of advanced armament by the Syrian rebels, more than the prowess of its own forces. Moreover, when it pursued the genocide of the Yazidis, threatened Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region, and beheaded American hostages, it forced the United States to intervene.

        By doing so, it may have initiated the start of its own decline, for ineffective as the US airstrike policy may have been, it opened the way for Russia’s intervention on behalf of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Russia’s military might may be mainly focused on Assad’s domestic Syrian opponents, but IS is also in its sights.

        The question remains – why has the moderate Muslim world left so much of the running to non-Muslims? Russia indeed faces the risk of homeland terrorism from IS, and the West from both IS and Iran, but the Muslim states of the Middle East and beyond face even more direct religious and political threats, namely their own subversion and overthrow.

        Terrorism, extremism, and power-crazed ambitions to conquer the world must be confronted. It is time for the moderate Muslim world to commit wholeheartedly to the battle.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 October 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 23 October 2015:

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Hope for South Sudan

          To begin at the beginning, South Sudan – Africa’s youngest state – was born in the flames of civil conflict. Its achievement of independent status in July 2011 was the culmination of more than a century of armed struggle by autonomy-seeking southern Sudanese activists. But taking up arms to achieve one’s ends is a difficult habit to break. Only four years after its birth, the infant state of South Sudan is itself engaged in a bloody civil war.

          The original cause of conflict between northern and southern Sudan is largely explicable in terms of demography. Most inhabitants in the northern parts of the country are Arab by descent, and Muslim by religion. The south is home to most of the 570-plus Sudanese tribes, very few of whom are either Arab or Muslim. A fair proportion were converted to Christianity by western missionaries. 

          Conquered by Britain in the last decades of the nineteenth century, Sudan was subsequently administered by Egypt, under Britain’s watchful eye, in an arrangement known as the Condominium Agreement. It lasted from 1899 to 1955, but tensions were present from the start between the northern part of the country and the south, which soon began demanding autonomy if not outright independence. The taut situation erupted in 1955 into what became known as the first Sudanese civil war. During the 17 years of conflict that followed, half a million people died, but the 1972 agreement which ended the fighting did not solve the underlying tensions.

          So 1983 saw the start of a further 22 years of internal conflict between the central Sudanese government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army of the south. The conflict officially ended with the signing of a peace agreement in January 2005.

          Six years later, in January 2011, an overwhelming majority of South Sudanese voted in a referendum to secede from Sudan and establish an independent state. On July 9, 2011 South Sudan became Africa’s 54th nation state, and the 193rd country recognised by the United Nations. The country was formed from the 10 southernmost states of Sudan.

          It is not, perhaps, surprising that the first nation to recognise the new state was Sudan, followed by the US and the EU. An eyebrow might, however, be raised on the news that, within 24 hours, the very next nation to grant it formal recognition was Israel.

          Israel’s ties to Sudan’s southern region go back to the 1960s, when it offered aid and training to the rebels fighting the northern government. Prior to South Sudan’s declaration of independence, discreet relations between its government-in-waiting and Israel had been conducted for many months. They culminated in a meeting in September 2011 in UN headquarters between Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. An official visit to Israel by President Kiir followed in December.

          Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based TV network, explains these close yet discreet relationships as an Israeli effort “to build a Christian alliance in Africa to fend off Arab influence and the growing Islamic trends there.” The relationship has certainly flourished. Israel and South Sudan have exchanged ambassadors, though Kiir’s repeated declaration that he intends to establish the South Sudanese embassy in Jerusalem, the one location studiously avoided by all other countries with diplomatic ties with Israel, has not yet been realised. He has had other things on his mind.

          In December 2013 the young state was plunged into a power struggle between Kiir and his deputy, Riek Machar, whom he had sacked. Machar put himself at the head of an armed rebel movement, and the fighting became an ethnic conflict between the president’s Dinka people and Machar’s Nuers. Tens of thousands of lives were lost, and some 2.2 million people driven from their homes

          An internationally-mediated peace agreement, signed by the two sides in August 2015, was almost immediately rendered inoperative. The agreement included a power-sharing arrangement allowing Machar’s rebels to choose the governors of two states, Unity and Upper Nile. However on October 4, Kiir suddenly announced that South Sudan’s 10 existing states would immediately be divided into 28. Inevitably Machar declared that the decree amounted to a “violation of the peace agreement and a clear message to the world that President Kiir is not committed to peace”.

          As Kiir signed the decree in the capital, Juba, more fighting was already taking place in Unity and Upper Nile, the rebels and the government accusing each other of starting the bloodshed.

          In the midst of all this turmoil is there any spark of hope for South Sudan?

          Well yes actually, there is, and it comes from a most unexpected source.

          On the day that South Sudan came into being – July 9, 2011 – a football player named Richard Justin Lado left Sudan and headed for the land of his ancestors. “My family came from South Sudan,” he told a FIFA journalist, “so it wasn’t a difficult choice for me. I just followed my heart.”

          Lado immediately became his country’s first football captain, and it was not long before he became a national idol. Just minutes into South Sudan’s maiden international match against Uganda in the capital of Juba on July 10, 2012, he sent the 22,000 crowd delirious by scoring the Bright Stars’ first ever goal.

         And then just a few weeks ago, at their 13th attempt, the Bright Stars scored their debut win, when they unexpectedly beat Equatorial Guinea, the 2015 CAF Africa Cup of Nations semi-finalists, 1-0 in the September qualifier for the 2017 continental finals.

          South Sudan had the chance to build on this success when they faced Mauritania, ranked 55 places higher than them, in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia qualifier played on 7 and 8 October (spread over two days because of the weather). To their great credit they drew 1-1, scoring their first World Cup goal, The honour went to Dominic Abui Pretino. The sides met for the second leg on October 13, and although South Sudan went down 4-0, nothing can detract from their success in reaching the qualifier.

          A united country – that is the dream of the South Sudanese. “The national team is a great example of unity,” said Lado. “The players come from every ethnic group, from all over the country, and we play in harmony… we’ve tried to make football a force for ending all the damage caused by war.”

          If anything is likely to put an end to the endless political rivalries and pull the nation together, it is the continued success on the football field of South Sudan’s Bright Stars.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 14 October 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 20 October 2015:

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Getting to the bottom of the Temple Mount

          Arab-Israeli tension over the Temple Mount is again at boiling point – a depressingly recurrent phenomenon, but scarcely surprising given the fragile arrangements under which the area is administered. These rules, or understandings, are frequently referred to as the “status quo”, and charges by both sides of infringing them, or harbouring the intention of infringing them, are legion.

          “Status quo” is a phrase with a comforting air of permanence to it. Where the Temple Mount is concerned, permanent is the last thing they are. Based on rules formulated just after the Six Day War in 1967 by Israel’s then Defence Minister Moshe Dayan and Muslim religious authorities, the so-called status quo has proved surprisingly inconstant over the years.

          The Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif in Arabic, Har Ha-Bayit in Hebrew) is an elevated walled area the size of 27 football pitches within the old walled city of Jerusalem. The Mount is dominated by three major Islamic edifices ­– the gold-covered Dome of the Rock, the al-Aksa mosque and the Dome of the Chain. Originally the site of the biblical Jewish temples, the Mount lay derelict for six hundred years after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. Following the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in the 7th century, the Dome of the Rock was constructed around 690 by order of Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik, to be followed by the Dome of the Chain, and a few years later by the al-Aksa mosque.

          The whole Temple Mount area, and especially the Roman retaining wall running along the Western side, which is all that remains of the Second Temple, is the holiest site in Judaism. Sunni Muslims consider the Mount the third holiest site in Islam and the place from where Mohammed ascended to heaven.

          Before Israel’s war of independence in 1948, the Mount, the Dome and the mosques were administered by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, a religious foundation, under a status quo agreement dating back to 1757, and confirmed in 1919. Two basic principles of this later understanding, known as the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement, were that Muslim holy places should be under Muslim control, but that nothing should ever interfere with the free exercise of religion in the holy places of Jerusalem. Under this long-standing status quo not only the Temple Mount, but also its religious structures, were open to non-Muslim visitors for four hours each day, except Fridays.

          When Jordan captured the Old City of Jerusalem in 1948 during Israel’s war of independence, this status quo arrangement was abandoned. Under Jordanian control all Jews were expelled from the Jewish Quarter which was then destroyed, many religious sites were defiled, the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was desecrated and the whole Western Wall area became a slum.

          A few days after Israeli troops captured the Old City during the Six-Day War in June 1967, a meeting was held at al-Aksa between Moshe Dayan and the Muslim religious authorities of Jerusalem with the aim of reformulating a status quo. It recognised the Waqf as an arm of the Jordanian Ministry of Sacred Properties, and handed it the responsibility for managing the site. Under the new arrangements Jews would be able to visit the Temple Mount, but they would not be allowed to pray on it. Israeli sovereignty would be applied to the Mount as to the rest of Jerusalem, and Israel would assume responsibility for security.

          The prohibition against Jews actually praying on the Mount became the cause of much resentment among right-wing Jewish groups. From time to time attempts were made, both politically and by way of direct action, to permit Jewish prayer. All were unsuccessful. Each attempt, however, was seized on by Islamist extremists as a cause célèbre, and an excuse for riot.

          In 2010 rumours, vigorously promulgated by Islamist elements, that Israel was either about to destroy the al-Aksa mosque, or to permit Jewish prayers on the Mount, led to enraged Muslims pelting visitors and the police with stones, firebombs and fireworks.

          During riots on the Mount in November 2014, dialogue with the leaders of the Waqf and the rioters failed, and for the first time Israeli police entered the al-Aksa Mosque, which was being used as the base for the violence. Peace was restored, and the Israeli government stated repeatedly that no change to the status quo was contemplated, but in fact this episode resulted in further revisions which are still in force. Non-Islamic visitors cannot visit the Mount on Fridays or Saturdays, visiting is restricted to four hours, entering the mosques is forbidden, and Jews with a religious appearance must visit in groups monitored by Waqf guards and the police.

          Despite these efforts, in the middle of September violence once again engulfed the sacred compound. Murabitun and Murabatat (male and female Islamist activist groups) had taken to gathering daily on the Mount to intimidate tourists in general and Jewish visitors in particular. A Defense Ministry decree outlawed them from entering the holy site. Three days of violence ensued. Visitors and police officers were showered with rocks, firecrackers and pipe bombs.

         The Palestinian Authority (PA) strongly condemned Israel for allowing Jewish “extremists” to “storm” the Temple Mount, and designated Israel’s decision to ban Muslim women and girls – presumably the Murabatat – as a “flagrant assault on freedom of worship.” The PLO Executive Committee held an emergency meeting and called for “confronting Israeli terror schemes” against the Islamic holy sites. PA President Mahmoud Abbas liaised with Jordan’s King Abdullah, who declared Israeli actions provocative.

          “If this continues to happen...Jordan will have no choice but to take action,” said Abdullah.

          Nothing and nobody seems capable of dissipating the suspicion and mistrust – not even Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In his speech at the UN on October 1, calling on the PA president to start working with Israel to advance peace and reconciliation, he said: “President Abbas, here’s a good place to begin. Stop spreading lies about Israel’s alleged intentions on the Temple Mount. Israel is fully committed to maintaining the status quo there.”

          But the status quo, even in its current attenuated form, is a step too far for extremists like the Israeli-Arab member of Israel’s Knesset, MK Jamal Zahalka. During the last week of September he positioned himself at the Mugrabi gateway entrance to the Temple Mount (the only one of the eleven gates in its walled enclosure allowed to non-Muslim visitors) and bellowed at those entering: “Get out of here. By what right are you here?” 

        The answer, if any of the visitors had chosen to shout back, is “By right of the status quo.” 

        The Temple Mount issue is a microcosm of the Arab-Israel dispute, and as intractable. Solve the one, and you solve the other.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 7 October 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 8 October 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 23 October 2013:

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Russia's game in Syria

          Alexander Golts knows what he is talking about. As deputy editor of Yezhednevny Zhurnal and a columnist for the Moscow Times, he is perhaps Russia's most respected journalist on military and security matters. How does he view President Vladimir Putin’s substantial military intervention on the Syrian battlefield?

           For substantial it undoubtedly is. A senior US official confirmed on September 18 that in the previous 10 days more than 20 Condor transport plane flights had delivered tanks, weapons, other equipment, and marines to Russia’s new military hub near Latakia in western Syria. This was followed by 16 Russian Su-27 fighter aircraft, along with 12 close support aircraft, 4 large Hip troop-transport helicopters and 4 Hind helicopter gunships.

          Russia’s military build-up in Syria now includes surface-to-air missiles as well as combat aircraft, and by the end of September it had started flying drone aircraft on surveillance missions. On September 24, Moscow announced that over 40 naval “combat exercises” were due to start in the eastern Mediterranean, including rocket and artillery fire at sea and airborne targets.

          Putin maintains that his sole motive is to fight IS. "We support the Syrian government in fighting the terrorist aggression,” he recently asserted. However, more than one defence analyst has pointed out that Islamic State (IS) has no air capability. The only logical explanation for the range of sophisticated aerial and military hardware being poured into Syria is that Putin has a deeper purpose than simply fighting IS – namely to establish a significant military presence in the Middle East.

          In short, Russia's support for Syria has become the latest front in a wider battle being fought by the Kremlin for influence on the international stage. As Alexander Golts has it: "All Russian policy in Syria is very clearly directed at overcoming international isolation because of Ukraine." Putin’s annexation of Crimea, and his subsequent military involvement in eastern Ukraine, led to sanctions and the diplomatic cold-shoulder by Western powers. It is this that he is countering in his Syrian adventure. He is bulldozing his way to a position of influence and power in the region, a position in which the West simply has to take account of him.

          Putin’s initiative is a clever, multi-faceted manoeuvre. He is killing three or four birds with one stone. For example, any Syrian regime change could seriously prejudice Russia’s long-standing military and commercial interests in Syria. Foremost, of course, is the naval facility at Tartus, Russia’s sole outlet to the Mediterranean, but also at stake would be billions of dollars of commercial investments including oil and gas infrastructure.

          Then, he is worried about the effect on domestic security if IS were to take over more of Syria than is already in its possession. IS already exercises a malign influence on young Muslims across the world, and Russia has an Islamist insurgency of its own in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. Some of IS’s top military commanders are of Chechen origin. Further IS successes could pose serious security risks within Mother Russia.

          Putin recently said something of especial significance. Speaking at a regional security conference in mid-September in Tajikistan, he not only defended his support for the Assad régime, but encouraged other countries to do the same.

          "We have been, and will be, providing all necessary military-technical assistance [to Syria] and we call on other countries to join us."

          His actions, no less than his words, have won grudging admiration in a number of quarters, together with recognition by the US administration that he must now be taken seriously as a major player on the Middle East scene – to the extent that Secretary of State John Kerry now concedes that President Bashar al-Assad might indeed be allowed to retain power for a period, and Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has said that the West will have to engage with Assad if it is to have any chance of resolving the Syrian civil war. Britain is already indicating a similar shift in policy.

          Fortune favours the bold, and Putin has stepped in where others have feared to tread – on the very ground of Syria, Fighting IS at long distance and without boots on the ground, the preferred method so far of the US, the UK and the West generally, has proved an abject failure. According to the assessments of American intelligence agencies IS is as strong today as it was when the US launched its allied air strikes against the organization in August 2014. “We've seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers," said a defence official, citing estimates that put the group's strength at 20,000 to 30,000 fighters, the same as when the strikes began.

          The time has come for some clear thinking. Which poses the greater threat to the world – the despotic Bashar al-Assad, responsible though he undoubtedly is for horrific war crimes against his own people during his desperate effort to retain power; or the monstrous, barbaric, inhumane and philistine IS and its power-crazed leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled caliph of all Muslims, determined to subject first the Middle East, and then the whole world, to his rule?

          UK Middle East expert, Con Coughlin, believes that deep-rooted confusion lies within the highest ranks of both the American and British governments over what should be the main objective in Syria – overthrowing the Assad regime, or destroying IS.

          “Whatever his sins – and they are many,” asserts Coughlin, “Assad does not constitute a threat to the outside world… it is the terrorist fanatics associated with IS who pose the greater threat.” He might have added that chasing IS out of Syria and restoring stability is the most effective way to halt the massive outflow of civilians from that war-scarred nation, and to ease the migration crisis that is nearly overwhelming Europe.

          The logical conclusion sticks out a mile. If Putin wants to wage total war against IS, the West should be prepared to give him total backing. If part of his strategy is also to defeat other enemies of Assad, the West should negotiate a deal under which it keeps its eye on the IS ball. The prospect of a “grand alliance” to defeat IS is becoming a possibility. In short, as Alexander Golts so astutely asserts in a piece for the Moscow Times on September 21: “By raising the stakes in Syria, the Kremlin has achieved the status of a major player that is indispensable to the West.”

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 1 October 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 6 October 2015:

Published in the MPC Journal, 2 October 2015:
In English:

in Arabic:اللعبة-الروسية-في-سوريا/