North Africa, West Asia

'Something wicked this way comes': the Arab transitions (part 2)

An excerpt from a NOREF report on the background to the current situation in the Middle East, focusing on the aftermath of the 'Arab Spring'. Part two: Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

George Joffé
21 September 2015

The situation in Syria, Iraq and Yemen

Two developments characterise the situation in Syria: the slow reversal of fortunes in favour of the Assad regime and the marginalisation of all moderate opposition groups to that regime, whether Islamist or secular. With help from Iran and Hizbullah in Lebanon, together with more covert support from Shia groups in Iraq, the Syrian army over the past year has been able to begin to claw back control over the central spine of Syria—the main road linking Damascus to Homs and Aleppo. This is being done at immense cost to the 22 million-strong Syrian population: according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. By January 2015, 206,000 Syrians had died since the beginning of the civil war and around 1 million have been wounded. There are also 3 million Syrian refugees in surrounding countries and a further 6.5 million Syrians are internally displaced—almost half the total population.

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Majid Almustafa/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Quite apart from this appalling human cost, there has been a strategic cost as well—one that the Syrian government seems willing to bear. This is that vast tracts of Syrian territory are being alienated from its control. One-third of the country is estimated to be under the control of extremist groups, mainly in the north around Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, where the Islamic State (IS) holds sway, with an enclave in the south along the Golan Heights and next door to Israel under the control of the Nusrah Front. Strangely enough, the Israeli government appears unconcerned about its new neighbours, being more worried about its older enemy in Lebanon, Hizbullah. Along the borders with Iraq and Turkey, Syria’s Kurds are busy carving out a new autonomous Kurdish region and confronting IS. Then there is the question of the future status of Turkey’s substantial Kurdish population and, in a more remote future, the issue of Iranian Kurdistan as well.

Kurdish success in Syria, incidentally, raises questions about Kurdish ambitions for national independence or, at the very least, autonomy, in both Syria and Iraq. There have already been suggestions from Irbil that the time has come to consider unity between the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish autonomous regions and ambitions for independence remain strong, particularly after Iraq’s Kurds have effectively annexed the Kirkuk region and have similar ambitions towards the area around Mosul, once IS has been expelled. There are, however, two major problems and several minor ones with this scenario.

Firstly, Iran is completely unwilling to consider any change in the status of its Kurdish population, not least because of the implications this might have for its other minority communities, among which native Farsi nationals form a bare majority. Secondly, Turkey is extremely suspicious of the dominant political movement among Syria’s Kurds, the Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (PYD), which it sees as an extension of the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistani (PKK), considered to be a terrorist movement in Turkey. It is therefore not prepared to endorse a separate Kurdish entity under PYD control in Syria. On the other hand, Turkey has acted in recent years as patron to Iraq’s Kurds, effectively guaranteeing the Kurdish Autonomous Region’s status against pressure for further integration from Baghdad.

It would, therefore, have an interest in extending its control over Syria’s Kurds if the knotty problem of the PYD could be resolved, even if they were politically integrated with Iraqi Kurdistan. The real problem, therefore, is Turkey’s relations with the PKK, and this is currently under discussion as the Erdogan regime negotiates a comprehensive and permanent deal with Abdallah Ocalan, the imprisoned PKK leader who has been held in isolation in a prison on the Sea of Marmara since 1999. If a new and acceptable status for Turkey’s Kurds can be achieved, then Turkish suspicions towards Kurdish autonomy in Iraq and Syria might dissipate. It is extremely unlikely, however, that Turkey would embrace the idea of Kurdish independence, because of the implications that this would have for its own territorial integrity—and the Kurds will not be strong enough in the foreseeable future to demand it.

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Björn Kietzmann/Demotix. All rights reserved.

A major reason for the dramatic growth in extremist control has been the reluctance of the Syrian regime to actually confront the groups concerned, apparently because their success feeds its own narrative that the real cause of the civil war has been the growth in Islamist extremism, not its own repressive brutality. This is, of course, not the only reason, for the fragmentation of the Free Syrian Army, in theory supported by the US and Europe, and of moderate Islamist groups supported by the Gulf and Turkey, has allowed the extremists to dominate the resistance arena. And, behind this has been the unwillingness of western powers to actually provide the military muscle that the moderate opposition would have needed, particularly after the Syrian chemical weapons programme was disbanded in 2013, partly because the opposition, both civil and military, has proved to be so fragmented over the past three years.

Now, of course, the military campaign being waged by the US and its 60-member coalition against IS in both Syria and Iraq has taken precedence, with the bizarre consequence that the west – the sternest critic of the Assad regime – is tacitly seeking the same outcomes as the regime that it condemns. And the essential mediators of this new implicit relationship will be Russia and Iran, two states with which the west is otherwise at odds over Ukraine and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, respectively.

Indeed, it has been the extension of IS into Iraq that has occasioned the greatest international alarm. This began in January 2014, although the group itself originates in Iraq, because its immediate precursor had been al-Qaeda in Iraq during the previous decade at the start of the century. The movement has been able to capitalise on the resentments of the Sunni minority community there, particularly as a consequence of the particularism shown by the al-Maliki government, which deliberately marginalised and victimised them. A combination of government insensitivity and army brutality at the end of 2013 transformed a local demonstration in Ramadi into a province-wide tribal and popular protest throughout Anbar Province. The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), as it then was, seized the opportunity, with its local allies, to exploit the situation and was soon entrenched in Ramadi and Falluja, the two main cities in the province, while the government discovered the consequences of having transformed, for reasons of sectarian political control, the new Iraqi army into a corrupt sectarian force with little real military capacity.

Soon the conflict in Anbar spilled over into sectarian suicide attacks in Baghdad and surrounding cities by sleeper cells long positioned there by Sunni extremists and the former Ba’ath resistance, now concentrated in the Jaysh Rijal Tariqa Naqashbandi, a resistance movement derived from the former Ba’ath Party and the Naqashbandi order. By mid-year, ISIS, as the core of the newly awakened Sunni resistance, expanded its reach into the predominantly Sunni provinces in northern Iraq and, in a lightening move, seized control of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, while the Iraqi army there crumbled before the onslaught, which had pitted a guerrilla force variously estimated at 1,500-3,000 men against Iraqi army units between 30,000 and 40,000 strong. ISIS forces then moved southwards towards Baghdad, but were eventually thrown on the defensive by a combination of Kurdish peshmerga forces and Shia militias, backed up by units of the Iraqi army. In September, at the beginning of Ramadan, IS was proclaimed in Mosul as a caliphate, becoming the nemesis of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, which had laid out the outlines of what were to become the states of the Middle East (see Joffé, 2015b).

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Boris Niehaus/Demotix. All rights reserved.

ISIS’s success was also to prove to be the nemesis of the al-Maliki government, for Iraq’s international partners combined with his domestic opponents to force the prime minister from office, to be replaced by a more moderate Shia figure prepared to try to rebuild Sunni confidence in the post-invasion Iraqi political system. At the same time the gratuitous brutality of IS, with its publicised beheadings of hostages and its overt challenge to the formal geopolitical order of the Middle East, persuaded the US to organise an extensive air campaign against it in both Syria and Iraq that has severely hindered its potential to extend the territories under its control.

Once again, as in Syria, the short-sightedness of western policy has produced another contradictory result, for Iran has actively engaged in supporting both the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Kurds, thus making it into an objective ally of its greatest opponent—the US. And in fact, although there is no concerted planning, the two countries are now in contact over their individual operations against IS, a development that Iran will undoubtedly—and probably correctly—assume gives it increased leverage in the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 group, where a framework agreement is due by the end of March.

Yemen has become the poor sister of the crises in Iraq and Syria, yet it has the potential to profoundly destabilise the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, Yemen’s crisis is a product of three separate but intersecting crises that all pre-date the Arab Spring, but have been intermingled with it because of the way in which demonstrations in 2011 in Change Square in Sana’a targeted the 34-year-long regime of Ali Abdullah Salih, the nexus of the three crises. The problems that Yemen faces arise from, firstly, the Al-Houthi rebellion; secondly, the Hirak (Southern secession) movement; and, thirdly, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and in one way or another all of them relate to policies long followed by the Saleh regime. These policies were devoted to reinforcing the regime against Saudi and tribal challenges, whatever the implications for North Yemen and, later, Yemen itself. Initially, its major opposition came from the al-Islah movement, derived from the Hashad tribal federation, itself backed by Saudi Arabia. This, however, has changed during the last decade.

The Al-Houthi rebellion began as a Zaidi[1] political movement in 1992, calling itself Ansar Allah, but was transformed into an anti-government rebellion in 2004, largely because of its opposition to the Saleh regime’s policies of engagement in the US “war on terror”. Since then, despite a series of broken ceasefires, six attempts by the government to suppress it and one war with Saudi Arabia, the movement has continued to enjoy widespread Zaidi support, especially from its support base in Sa’ida Province north of Sana’a. In late 2014 it occupied the capital and at the start of 2015 took over the presidential palace, forcing both the president and the government to resign. It has also moved south, challenging AQAP in its tribal redoubts, and seems set to impose a new government on the country that will be more sympathetic to Zaidi sentiment. It has even been said to have been in contact with Ali Abdullah Saleh himself as he seeks to regain power by whatever means might be available. Saudi Arabia asserts that the movement has been funded by Iran, which now seems to be the case, although for many years this was not so, and the GCC, which had considered letting Yemen join it, is becoming increasingly alarmed about the regional implications of the situation in Yemen.

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Luke Somers/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The Hirak movement is really part of the fallout of the end of the cold war in 1989. One consequence was a Soviet decision to end its subsidies to the People’s Republic of South Yemen, which had been established at the end of 1967 as the sole Marxist state in the Middle East. This loss of support, coupled with a bloody settling of accounts within the leadership of the country’s sole political party, the Yemeni Socialist Party, forced the South Yemeni government to accept the option of reconciliation and reunification with North Yemen, by then already under the control of the Saleh regime, to create the current state in 1990. The reunification turned out to be a disaster in which southern political leaders felt profoundly marginalised, so in 1994 they tried to secede from the union. The resulting six-month-long civil war enforced the union and the dissident leadership fled into exile.

Southern resentments, however, have not abated and in recent years have been increasingly overtly expressed. In 2007 these protests were organised into demonstrations by the Hirak movement, a coalition of a series of Southern protest groups with differing agendas, united only by a desire to rebalance the North-South divide in Yemen in favour of the South. As the Al-Houthi movement has extended its control, so Hirak has begun to entrench itself in Aden and the Hadramauth and now refuses to recognise the authority of the Sana’a government.

AQAP in Yemen is a consequence of two quite separate developments. The first was the attempt by the Saleh regime to bolster its support base by allowing radical Islamic groups in the Middle East to find a refuge there. Such groups were also mobilised during the Yemeni civil war in 1994 to aid the Yemeni army in its victory over dissidents in the South. It was only after the USS Cole was attacked by al-Qaeda in Aden harbour in October 2000 that the regime, reluctantly and under US pressure, turned against such groups.

The second development was the expulsion of al-Qaeda from Saudi Arabia at the end of the last decade after a sustained but ultimately unsuccessful campaign there against the Saudi state. The remnants of the group gathered in South Yemen and coalesced with other groups to form AQAP in 2009. The group has benefitted from its protection by some of the local tribes to confront the Yemeni government and army and has also transmuted into Ansar al-Shari’a (Yemen), developing a policy of engagement with local populations to found an Islamic state, as occurred in Sinjibar in 2011, rather than simply maintaining its original aims of combating the “near” and “far” enemies of an Islamic order.[2] The movement now also confronts the Al-Houthi movement as it moves southwards, but is also threatened by a US drone-assassination campaign against its leadership since 2012.

The Yemeni government, therefore, is confronted with a far more complex threat than is the case elsewhere in the Middle East and one, moreover, with roots buried in the pre-2011 era rather than in the events of 2011. It is a threat that is compounded by Yemen’s resource scarcity, partly human-made and partly the result of the country’s extremely poor resource endowment, apart from some oil and gas, the exploitation of which is constantly interrupted by tribal attack on production facilities in attempts to gain concessions from the government. Yemeni agriculture has been virtually destroyed by the cultivation of qat, which occupies 40% of all available agricultural land and demands water that could otherwise be used for food production. And in Yemen’s harsh mountainous environment both water and land are in very short supply.

In short, the Change Square demonstrations coincided with these far older problems in creating an intolerable situation for the regime. Nonetheless, the regime did manage to hold on to power until December 2011, despite provoking a civil war centred on the capital, Sana’a. It was only when a GCC-brokered ceasefire and mediation plan intervened that the then-president was persuaded to step down and go into temporary exile in the US. He was replaced by Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who has attempted unsuccessfully over the last three years to mediate with the Al-Houthi movement and the Hirak while confronting AQAP against a background of tribal unrest and discontent. It is his government that the Al-Houthi movement now threatens to unseat.


[1] The Zaidi are a Shia movement derived from the fifth Shia imam, Yahia bin Za’id, the son of Za’id bin Ali, the third son of the caliph, Ali, alongside Hassan and Husain. Za’idi beliefs are close to those of the rationalist Mutazilites and the legal system (fiqh) parallels the Hanafi mandhab.

[2] The terminology comes from Muhammad Faraj, who defined the “near enemies” as autocratic and morally deviant regimes (at least as far as the Islamic ideal was concerned) in the Arab world, while the “far enemies” were those regimes outside the region (such as the U.S. and European Union) that supported them. Both, therefore, would be legitimate objects of jihad – his sixth but neglected obligation as a matter of faith on all Muslims. The distinction recalls Ayatollah Khomeini’s distinction between the greater and lesser Satans. See Faraj (2000).

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