ISIS

By Dana Busgang

On August 7th, 2014, President Obama announced that the US military would be joining a broad coalition of Western and Arab nations with the specific intent to stop the advance of the Salafi Jihadi militant group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). While the US military has been involved in Iraq off and on over the past decade, this would be the first time that US bombs would be dropped in Syria. About a year ago, the Obama administration was inches away from launching airstrikes against the Assad regime in Syria, but backed off at the last minute when a diplomatic agreement was reached with the assistance of Russia to rid Syria of chemical weapons—a “red line” for the Obama administration. Despite the lack of military action against the Syrian regime, the US government has continued to support “moderate” Syrian rebels fighting the regime.

The clear target of the anti-ISIS coalition is the aforementioned Islamic State group. However, the US has begun quietly targeting other groups. In early November, reports were released that US airstrikes had targeted the al-Qaeda linked group Jabhat al-Nusra in northwestern Syria. Back in April 2013, long before the international war against ISIS began, the head of the then Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that al-Nusra had been a branch of ISI in Syria, and the two groups would now become one group—the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. However, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, the leader of al-Nusra, rejected the merger, claiming he had not been consulted and confirmed his allegiance to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. After months of tension between the two groups following the proposed merger, al-Qaeda officially broke ties with ISIS in early February 2014, claiming that ISIS “is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group…does not have an organizational relationship with it and [al-Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their actions.” Following this announcement, open war broke out between al-Nusra and ISIS factions, culminating in an ISIS offensive in Syria’s al-Zor province that left hundreds of fighters from both groups dead.

In addition to launching strikes against al-Nusra, the US military has also conducted air strikes against the Khorasan group in Syria, another al-Qaeda affiliate that very little is known about. The strikes against Khorasan began in September 2014, and have continued into November, with US officials justifying the strikes by claiming that the group was involved in planning “imminent” attacks against the West and the US.

While both Jabhat al-Nusra and Khorasan are designated terrorist groups (although more moderate than ISIS) and part of the al-Qaeda network, the original strategy of defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria made no mention of combatting al-Qaeda and ISIS simultaneously. The two groups, at least for the moment, are sworn enemies and compete with each other for control of land and control of the broader Syria rebellion against the Assad regime. Trying to eliminate two major players, and two enemies, in the Syrian civil war could prove dangerous and counter productive to US led efforts. There have been reports of al-Nusra and ISIS co-operating in order to take on larger (and common) enemies, like the Syrian regime, or the US backed anti-ISIS coalition. While both groups are dangerous on their own, the two of them combined could pose an unprecedented threat to the future of the fragile region. Although the two groups still seem to be in opposition to each other, continued air strikes on both groups could lead to a reunion against a greater enemy.

The other often-ignored variable in this equation is the effect of US airstrikes on the beleaguered Syrian regime. The US has pretty much abandoned hopes of arming moderate rebels to fight Assad’s forces, as this has proven problematic and unsuccessful in the past. The US will also not engage in direct warfare against the Assad regime, in efforts to prevent US troops from being involved in another war in the Middle East. Despite the lack of action, the US still condemns the Assad regime and believes it needs to be deposed. However, it seems that while the US has been focused on defeating ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, the regime’s forces have been steadily regaining territory and strength. As the US bombs the two most powerful enemies of the Syrian regime, are they inadvertently helping Assad regain control of his country? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be affirmative. The Obama administration is currently targeting what it sees as the greater of two evils in Syria, but in order to ensure that Syria does not fall back into the hands of the authoritarian Baath regime, new policies to counteract the gains made by the regime at the expense of ISIS must be enacted.

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By Joshua Shinbrot

A Hamas soldier carries a rocket over his shoulder during the 2009 Gaza War. Source: Zoriah

This summer, thousands of Hamas rockets were fired at Israel sending countless Israelis sprinting for the nearest bomb shelters. While Israel’s retaliatory strikes attracted massive criticism from European countries, the Arab world was largely silent. Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, Arab nations that had historically championed the Palestinian cause, watched quietly as Israel worked to deal a devastating blow to Hamas in response to incessant rocket attacks.

It appears that times and attitudes are changing in Egypt. After the ousting of Egyptian President Mohamad Morsi, Egypt’s military began a massive crackdown on Morsi’s political organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas was founded during the First Palestinian Intifada as an extension of the organization that brought Morsi to the Egyptians. Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood has a presence in Saudi Arabia. The rise to power that the Muslim Brotherhood experienced in Egypt during the Arab Spring demonstrates a potential threat to the stability of the Saudi Arabian monarchy. Consequently, many Arab countries that desire stability see the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization that needs to be eliminated and were not about to criticize Israel for retaliation against it.

The Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots are most certainly not the only problem in the region. ISIL (Islamic State and Iraq and Levant) seeks to establish a caliphate in the Levant region. This territory includes Iraq, Syria, Southern Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian territories. ISIL has played a major role in the destabilization of the Assad regime in Syria, and has become a household term for its swift territorial gains in Iraq.  A combination of ISIL’s economic resources and its recent capture of territory, poses a direct threat to the established states in the land it hopes to occupy, as well as states in the vicinity. Saudi Arabia, for example shares a border with Iraq and has legitimate concerns over ISIL’s influence in land just north of its border. This concern has been epitomized by Saudi Arabia’s participation in airstrikes against ISIL. It is also worth noting the parallel between US-Saudi cooperation against ISIL today, and US-Saudi cooperation against Iraq when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1991.

Overall, Hamas and ISIL comprise a common threat to Israel and its Arab neighbors. Cooperation, particularly between Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, could prove extremely beneficial to all four nations in confronting this threat. By sharing intelligence and military resources these nations could, with US assistance, counter the threat of ISIL. The cooperation between these nations to confront the threats posed by the Muslim Brotherhood, including Hamas, and ISIL could lead to a greater mutual understanding of each nation’s security concerns. Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear capability and the threat that poses to dominant Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt is likely to rank highly on the list of common enemies countries in this region face. The destabilizing effect that Iran has had on Syria, and its influence in the region through its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, also make the list of common enemies of the Israelis, Egyptians, Jordanians, and Saudis alike. Perhaps these shared hazards may even provide sufficient incentive for cooperation, that a new balance of power may emerge in the Middle East.

Hamas and ISIL constitute an immediate, significant, and mutual threat to moderate Arab nations and Israel. The potential benefits of cooperation between these nations far outweigh the very real dangers of extremist victory and should not be ignored.

The benefits of cooperation may provide not only opportunities for peacebuilding between Israel and Arab states with which it has no peace treaty, but also with the Palestinians. Addressing the common threats faced by Israel and its Arab neighbors will necessitate diminishing Hamas and Hezbollah’s capacity for violence. It will not be possible to counter the Iranian threat to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, without diminishing the influence of Hamas and Hezbollah in the region, and consequently the threat they pose to Israel.   What would be the consequences of a disempowered Hamas and Hezbollah? The answer to that depends on which organizations would fill the power vacuum that Hamas’s absence will create. However, at the moment, there are very real threats that former enemies now commonly face. Cooperation, among the actors will produce tangible benefits and a lack thereof will have detrimental consequences. At present, there is an opportunity for cooperation and perhaps even a more peaceful Middle East. Israel and its Arab neighbors should be encouraged to take advantage of it.

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