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.