Welcome to Extremistan

The threat and promise of the fracturing of the Middle East.

Anyone with a brain or a heart cannot help but be deeply disturbed by the unending and seemingly accelerating torrent of grim -- sometimes horrifying -- stories emanating from the Middle East. This week's gruesome, heartbreaking news of the beheading of American photojournalist James Foley is shocking evidence to this effect. But shattering as it is, it is one man's tragedy; daily, thousands across the region suffer equally devastating losses far from the spotlight, unnoted by the media. 

Still, amid the turns for the worse and the region's growing complexity, there are signs of hope, ones that come even from those who are immersed in and buffeted by regional developments. Nasser Judeh is the foreign minister of Jordan. His country, one of America's most vital allies in the region, has to date been an island of stability even though it is at the epicenter of much of the region's upheaval. As he told me, since Syria came apart, upwards of 700,000 refugees have fled to Jordan. That has brought the total number of Syrians in Jordan to 1.5 million, approximately 21 percent of Jordan's population and has put a very heavy burden on Jordan's economy and infrastructure. Today, in fact, Jordan is home to more Syrians than any place other than Syria. The Islamic State (IS) now operates in regions of Syria and Iraq that abut Jordan's northern and eastern borders. The Muslim Brotherhood has sought to sow unrest in Syria as it has in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. While Jordan has a long-standing and solid peace with Israel, the boiling-over of tensions between Israel and Palestine has potentially significant ramifications for Jordan half of whose population is of Palestinian origin. (Because Jordan's leaders believe the Israel-Palestine dispute is "the root cause" of so many of the region's problems, Judeh emphasizes Jordan's on-going commitment to a resumption of peace negotiations.)

Yet despite this, Judeh observes, "There are some signs of progress, of hope."

When asked to point out some areas in which he sees such signs, he says, "The new government in Iraq is a step in the right direction. Of course it is too early to assume any final outcomes, but they are at least trying to address the vital issue of inclusiveness in the government. And the international community is trying to support them. You will see more signs of support in the near future too, I believe."

When asked about the significance of recent victories against IS as a result of coordinated actions that have included U.S. air power, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and the Iraqi military, Judeh cited the importance of the retaking of Mosul Dam. "The failure of that dam could have been a catastrophe, sending a wave of water to Baghdad. At least now there is a better chance it will be properly maintained and secure." He also observed that IS has yet to challenge Jordan's borders, in large part, he believes, because it so clear to the militants that the response from Jordan would be one of overwhelming force.

As my conversation with Judeh went on, even more encouraging signs could be found -- even in a discussion laden with the legitimate concerns about the region's unrest and the growing threat of extremism that extends from Africa to the heart of Asia. These are perhaps subtler, but they come from the fact that Judeh, following the example of Jordan's King Abdullah, is seeing the region's disparate upheavals in a more strategic context -- seeing their connections and looking for opportunities amid the shifting sands even as both the king and his minister remain keenly aware of the risks they and their neighbors face. 

For example, when looking at the situation in Syria and Iraq, Judeh offers a clear-eyed depiction of the situation on the ground. While explicitly opposing partition of these two countries he notes that in fact, they both have been divided up by circumstances and demographics in a similar way. "In Syria, from the north, down along the Mediterranean coast and all the way to the south you have what you might call Regime-istan. It is controlled by Assad and extends to the Golan Heights because he feels it is convenient to maintain the possibility of provoking or confronting Israel.  In the northeast you have an area controlled by Kurds, a Kurdistan. And then in the south you have Sunni-stan, which itself is divided, partially controlled by militants in the east and southeast into what you might call Extremist-stan."

"You have a similar thing in Iraq," Judeh observes, "From Baghdad south to the Gulf, you have Shiastan. In the north, Kurdistan. And the rest is divided Sunnistan with Extremist-stan, controlled by ISIS, in the northwest and west, extending from Mosul into Syria."

While this fragmentation has come at a huge cost, it has also made it possible to see more clearly who is who, what alliances are possible, and where core challenges lie.

For example, there is the collaboration of the United States and the Kurds and the recognition within Baghdad that some concessions to the Kurds will be needed in order to ensure the defeat of IS. Perhaps more importantly, there is the recognition that the Sunni areas -- Sunnistan -- are not monolithic. For now, Extremistan is only part of it.  And this drives home a vitally important message: Not only is it is essential to defeat IS and other extremists -- both militarily and by cutting off their sources of funding -- but an organized political alternative to IS must be offered within Sunnistan and as Judeh points out, "this must be linked to effectively empowering Sunnis within the Iraqi political process."

Jordan has taken the initiative on this front, having hosted Sunni groups from Iraq to Amman to discuss ways they can better create the institutions and processes to viably counterbalance the extremists' brutal techniques. One such meeting took place a few weeks ago and, according to Judeh, another may take place in the next few weeks.

This recognition of the need for grass-roots, alternative, and more moderate Sunni political organization is one of the most important initiatives that must be undertaken in an effort to bring sustainable stability to the region. It is a sensitive subject for many of the more moderate regimes in the area, especially given their histories as monarchies. But adaptation has been a hallmark of Jordan since its inception whether in terms of embracing a peace with Israel or in terms of pre-empting much of the unrest associated with the Arab Spring with a series of reforms.  While the pace of such reforms has been criticized by some, it cannot be denied that Jordan has, in the words of Judeh, "defied the expectations of some. Since the beginning people have said, ‘Jordan is vulnerable.  Jordan cannot survive.' But we have not only grown but have come out on top. We've been quite a success story and we are committed to continuing to do so going forward.  Modern Jordan is almost a hundred years old...and has faced and weathered many a storm and gets stronger by the day."

Seeing the situation for what it is, doing so with a strategic sense, and seeing regional players leading the actions required to give stability and progress a chance are not commonplace developments in the modern Middle East and yet, here is another example. Jordan's cooperation with its Gulf and other regional allies on these issues -- joint planning, sharing intelligence, and working constructively with the other international players -- are also encouraging signs.

Again, with half the world at risk from spreading Islamic extremism, it would be premature to suggest any of these hints of progress amount to a turning point.  We are likely in the very early stages of a process of geopolitical upheaval associated with these tensions within the Islamic world. It could very well go on for decades.  But any strategic assessment must be careful to identify opportunities as well as risks. 

Judeh identifies some. Others are also perceptible amid the fog of the region's conflicts. The United States, recently hesitant to get sufficiently actively involved in addressing the threat of extremism in the region...and possibly exacerbating that threat with its focus on rapid withdrawal from the region and leaning away from recent conflicts...has now gotten engaged in the battle with ISIS. Progress is being made.  We are also more actively supporting groups like the Kurds which have long sought more military assistance (which was denied in part because of objections by Iraq's Nouri alMaliki). 

Further, in a remarkable, as yet undocumented, not fully understood development, the mission against is the Islamic State is being undertaken by what might be called the Alliance Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken. It brings together -- with a level of coordination that must be greater than anyone will publicly admit -- the very strangest of battlefield bedfellows: the United States, the Kurds, the Iraqi regime, Iran, Russia, some NATO assistance, and Bashar al-Assad's regime. It has the tacit support of everyone from Israel to (most of) the Gulf Cooperation Council. The perceived level of threat from IS has the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia characterizing it as "enemy number one of Islam." More broadly, worldwide, countries like China, India, and the countries of the European Union recognize this threat. Setting aside the bizarre reality that the Iraqi government, put in place by the United States, is flying Russian-made planes in consultation with Iranian leaders with the support of the United States, the Peshmerga, and the Syrian air force, there is an opportunity for progress against this threat here.

And at some point, even the fractures that this period of unrest has revealed in the old maps of this region marking its deeply-flawed colonialist legacy, leave us with a perspective like Judeh's that helps us see where the work needs to be done to stabilize the region even as it also describes the potentially catastrophic cost of failing to follow through on that work.

Photoillustration By FP


Would American Money Have Saved James Foley?

European governments pay millions of dollars in ransoms to free their hostages. The White House needs to decide whether it’s willing to sacrifice principle for people.

The bloodthirsty jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) have murdered James Foley, an American journalist who was kidnapped in Syria in November 2012. They also have threatened the life of Steven Sotloff, another American freelancer, who was seized last August, and who has written for Foreign Policy on three occasions. The executioner in the video warned President Barack Obama that Sotloff would die if the White House continues its bombing campaign in Iraq. I assume that the president has asked intelligence and special forces operatives whether Sotloff could be freed in a raid. I hope he determines that he can be, but it's very unlikely. According to the New York Times, a rescue attempt earlier this summer came to naught when commandos air-dropped into a remote region of Syria failed to find the hostages. The record of rescue attempts has not been good since American helicopters came to grief in the Iranian desert in 1980. And IS could be shuttling Sotloff anywhere in their vast "caliphate."

It is a gut-wrenching moment. And it's impossible not to think about how it could have been otherwise.

Sotloff had been seized a few weeks before I arrived on the Turkish-Syrian border to write a piece for FP about the rampant kidnapping of journalists by IS (at the time, still ISIS) and other Islamist extremists. I never met him, but he was a good friend of Barak Barfi, an Arab scholar and fellow at the New America Foundation who served as my guide and mentor on that article. I talked to many of the people who had advised Sotloff on when and where and how to cross into Syria that last time. (Little of that made its way into my dispatch, since I went to great lengths to protect the identity of journalists then being held.) Some of them thought he had not taken proper precautions; but the situation had deteriorated so rapidly over the summer of 2013 that even a few of the world's most experienced war correspondents had escaped being seized only by a stroke of luck. Sotloff was one of the unlucky ones.

Being kidnapped is not usually a death sentence, whether for diplomats or businessmen or tourists or journalists. Most kidnappers in war zones view their prey as a commodity. The Taliban who kidnapped New York Times correspondent David Rohde in Afghanistan at first sought to trade him for money. In Syria, the nationalist rebels who seized journalists in the first years of the war usually held them briefly and then sold them off. ISIS, however, was different. They asked nothing, and divulged nothing. Their victims simply disappeared. And yet, it seemed, they had not been killed. No one knew what, if anything, they wanted. Perhaps they weren't sure either.

And then, earlier this year, some disappeared journalists began to emerge. Two Spanish journalists were released in March. The following month, four French journalists emerged from captivity. It was widely assumed that ISIS had demanded ransom, and that the European governments had agreed to pay. European governments generally agree to make, or facilitate, ransom payments, which are believed to have run as high as $10 million.

Neither the United States nor Britain makes payments of this sort, and both countries sharply criticize European governments for doing so. But perhaps that's why no American or British journalists have been freed during this period. In August, of course, the United States began bombing IS positions in Iraq, further complicating any official attempts -- if they were made at all -- to free Foley and Sotloff. They were thus available to serve as punishment, and as blackmail.

This raises an agonizing question: Should states pay ransom to kidnappers? If you are a friend or loved one of the victim, the answer is obviously yes. But even a more remote observer could cite the moral argument that the obligation to treat people as ends rather than means -- what Kant calls the "categorical imperative" -- forbids one to place the life of the abductee in a balance with abstract goods, like "sending a message" that kidnapping doesn't pay. In any case, the consequences of capitulation are remote and hypothetical; the life is terribly real. Israel, the most hard-nosed of democracies, has been prepared to pay a terrible price to retrieve its captured soldiers; in 2011, the state handed over 1027 prisoners, a quarter of them serving life terms, in exchange for Gilad Shalit. Israelis understand that by doing so they may encourage further kidnapping, and thus further endanger their own security; it is a price they are prepared to pay.

Journalists are not soldiers, and Americans are not Israelis. And U.S. presidents are clearly not moral philosophers. The president has an obligation to consider the consequences of his decisions, and act accordingly. The consequences of capitulating to terrorist kidnappers are ruinous. As a recent New York Times investigation revealed, "Kidnapping Europeans for ransom has become a global business for Al Qaeda, bankrolling its operations across the globe." That's why no European government will admit to making payments. The thought of Steven Sotloff jammed into a pit, awaiting death, when he might have been freed for nothing more than money, is unbearable. But the thought of rewarding the Islamic State for its savagery is also unbearable. A humane response to a monstrous act engenders more monstrousness.

At the end of the video apparently showing Foley's execution, Sotloff is shown kneeling; the IS executioner says, "The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision." The plain implication is that President Obama could save Sotloff's life by calling off the American bombing campaign in northern Iraq. One might say that this represents another stage of the moral dilemma; but here the calculus is unambiguous. To call off the bombing is to endanger thousands of Iraqi civilians now menaced by the jihadists' advance; and there is no guarantee that IS would have even a modicum of compunction to spare their captive's life -- even if they got what they wanted. Nevertheless, you would not want to be in Obama's shoes right now.

The liberal state is awestruck, and often paralyzed, in the face of evil. We shiver when we hear a Taliban or al Qaeda warrior boast, "We worship death and you worship life." To seek death over life is to gain mastery over those who love life. That's why the suicide bomber is such a fearsome weapon. In fact, peace-loving people are prepared to fight, and risk death, to preserve everything that makes life worth living. Yet there is a terrible insight in that death-swagger. When our cherishing of each life leads us to surrender to blackmail, we fortify the death-cult; we abet evil.

One wishes, of course, for some sort of Gotterdammerung out of Inglourious Basterds, in which the former victims rise up to give the monsters a taste of their terrible medicine. That's what the movies are for. In real life, Obama has done what he can do by sending American warplanes to hammer IS positions in Iraq. For the moment, at least, he has saved Kurdistan from being overrun, and driven the jihadists away from the Mosul Dam. That's a very good start. There may be nothing Obama can do to save Steven Sotloff. But there is a great deal he can do to show the criminals of the Islamic State that the West is prepared to defend the values it professes.

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