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The West Asia program provides original research on developments in the Middle East and Central and Southwest Asia, including as they impact on Australia. Central research issues include relations between West Asia and East Asia, the Arab uprisings and geo-political change in the Middle East and Australia’s relations with the Gulf.

Latest publications

Foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq: The day after

In this Lowy Institute Analysis, Research Fellow Dr Rodger Shanahan and Nonresident Fellow Lydia Khalil argue that an increasing number of foreign fighters are likely to leave Syria and Iraq in the coming months and years, especially after the collapse of Islamic State’s caliphate, exacerbating the terrorist threat faced by the international community. Shanahan and Khalil highlight both the scale and nature of the long-term security threat that the foreign fighter cohort will pose, and ways in which the international community can ameliorate the threat.

Photo: Getty Images/John Moore

Indonesian students in Egypt and Turkey

In this Lowy Institute Report, Lowy Institute Deputy Director, Anthony Bubalo, together with Sidney Jones and Nava Nuraniyah from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta examine the effect of the current turmoil in the Middle East on Indonesian students studying in Egypt and Turkey. Based on extensive face-to-face interviews, the Report looks at how political unrest in Egypt and Turkey, and the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, have affected students’ views of democracy, religion, political leadership, and terrorism. The Report also examines the case of two young Indonesian students in Turkey who left to join Islamic State in Syria.

Photo: Getty Images/Joel Carillet

The Middle East in 2016 (part 5): Cultivating order

Part 1 of this seven-part series is here; part 2 here; part 3 here: and part 4 here.

In February 2014 I visited Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan, near the Syrian border. According to official estimates it today houses around 80,000 refugees from the conflict in Syria, although in 2014, the Jordanian police commander of the camp put the population at some 110,000.

The thing that strikes you about Za'atari is how flat, arid, dusty, and white the terrain is. On an overcast day, such as the day that I visited, the terrain, the white UNHCR tents and the pale sky all fade into one another. In fact, were it not for the dark-coloured clothes of the refugees and the blue UNHCR logos on the tents the whole camp might disappear into the landscape.

Za'atari is a great metaphor for the Middle East at the moment, and not just because it is harsh and bleak. Walk through the camp and you find surprises such as the enterprising refugee I spotted who had somehow contrived a garden out of the chalkly white rubble on which the camp had been built. Rocket, mint, and other plants rose barely a foot above the soil, forming a dense lawn over a few square metres; green shoots among the uniform bleakness of the camp.

In my previous post I argued that the focus of Western policy needs to be on helping to build a new, more stable, political order in the region, as the old order decays and in some states, collapses. This will require changes to the way most states are run.

The best way to do this is not for the West to dictate some new order in the Middle East (even if this were possible, which it isn't); nor is it to try to replicate the type of liberal democratic societies that have taken decades and in some cases centuries to build in the West. Instead what the West should do is to identify and cultivate indigenous green shoots of political, economic and social change that will, over time, create a less violent, more stable and more durable regional order.

Like the little garden I found in Za'atari, these green shoots do exist and in some instances are already being supported by Western donors. For example, Tamkeen in Syria, which is supported by UK DFID and EU funding, is helping local communities in northern Syria deliver services, but most importantly develop experience in local governance.

Likewise, despite the upheaval caused by the Arab uprisings in recent years, the start-up sector seems to be growing, if from a very low base. Money for these start-ups is also being generated.

It may even be the case that some of the youthful energy that went into the Arab uprisings is now being directed into business as the space for political activism shrinks. As one young Egyptian activist noted to me a few years ago, the failure of the uprising meant that he and some of his friends were returning to their professional lives. In his particular case he was going from being a videographer of the uprising to setting up his own advertising and video production company.

There are also more substantial and more obvious green shoots. Tunisia is one of these. Whilst Tunisia's transition to democracy has been fitful and difficult it is still the only country whose uprising can still be described as a relative success. In the same way as its overthrow of the Ben Ali regime inspired uprisings in other countries, the success of its transition to a new more durable political order could serve as a model for other countries in the region.

Act short-term, think long-term

Western governments have a long history of supporting governance and economic reform programs in the Middle East. Some of these have been very effective, but the effort in sum has also been, variously, half-hearted, grandiose and all too often sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.

To be fair, encouraging, cajoling or even just nudging governments in the Middle East to undertake comprehensive economic, social or political reforms is hard work. Western governments do not have much leverage, or at least not much they are prepared to use. And it is relatively easy for even friendly Middle Eastern governments to portray these efforts as high-handed foreign interference, as has been the case in Egypt, for example. 

A 'green shoots' approach would have three main components.

The first would be a much more intensive, comprehensive and coordinated effort to identify green shoots of positive change. Rather than focusing just on emerging threats in the region, Western countries need to lend equal weight to identifying emerging opportunities, from local experiments in good governance to new sectors of economic entrepreneurship.

The second component would be a coherent and large-scale effort to support and protect these green shoots. This wouldn't necessarily mean, in the first instance, more money for the region. But it would mean in some cases a shift in where and how that money is spent.

Take for example US non-humanitarian (military and economic) aid to Egypt and Tunisia. The Obama Administration is planning to double its aid to Tunisia, and extend $500 million in loan guarantees, out of recognition that the country's political transition could be an important model for reform in the region. But excluding the loan guarantee, this is still less than a tenth of what the US is planning to give Egypt, which these days is not a model for anything in the region other than hyper-repression

The money and the expertise does not just have to come from Western governments, however. Foreign investment, for example, will be critical to the transformation of Middle Eastern economies. But Western governments and agencies can help ensure the money comes into the region by working with Middle Eastern government to reform investment and other economic regulations.

The effort to support green shoots also needs to be coordinated to ensure that financial resources are well directed, and that lessons learned are exchanged. Donor coordination has been difficult to achieve in the past, not just in the Middle East. But if Western countries can coordinate military campaigns in the region there is no reason why they could not coordinate good governance ones.

Coordination is also important in terms of leverage. Middle Eastern governments are well versed at playing off one Western donor against another. Coordinated pressure may not work in every case, but it will provide Western countries more leverage than they currently have.

That is not to say, however, that this effort to support green shoots of change in the region would, or should, in every instance be pursued in opposition to regional governments. Some regional governments will welcome technical assistance in reforming their economies or bureaucracies or indeed investments in new industries that produce large numbers of new jobs.

In some instances changes to economic or social order will be resisted, perhaps quite vociferously, by elites who feel their interests threatened. In these cases using political or economic leverage may be necessary, especially where elites either threaten or are an obstacle to a green shoot growing. But in other cases it may be possible to work around those elites, especially when it comes to promising but small-scale projects that might not initially seem threatening to them.

The question of how you work with or around existing regimes, including some that may be allies, also relates closely the third component of a 'green shoots' approach: an effective communications strategy.

Western leaders will need to communicate in some overarching way that the West's approach to the region is changing, while avoiding the mistake of the grandiose rhetoric of the past.

None of what I am proposing means that current, short-term efforts to deal with the consequences of the Middle East's disorder should be abandoned. Western governments should still be conducting a military effort to destroy ISIS, and it will still be necessary to conduct drone strikes against other extremists in the region from time to time. Western governments will also need to continue managing, as best as they can, the humanitarian impact and refugee outflows caused by the region's conflicts.

But these short-term fixes need to be matched by some longer-term plan to deal with regional instability in a sustainable way. I would argue than an approach focused on cultivating green shoots over the longer term is better than the alternatives: on the one hand, some grand scheme for regional transformation; or, on the other hand, doing nothing.

Critics will argue that all this sounds neat, familiar and perhaps even naïve in exposition, but very tough in implementation. My counter is that the West no longer has a choice. The old domestic orders in the Middle East will continue to decay and will need to be replaced. The West can either help some citizens of the region build new, more positive, more stable domestic orders; or it can sit and watch other citizens of the region replace the old orders with something much less stable and far less savoury.

The Middle East in 2016 (part 2): The old order will continue to decay

Part 1 of this seven-part series is here.

One of the enduring myths of the Arab uprisings is that it was primarily a brave, noble but ultimately vain attempt by young liberals to overthrow the old authoritarian order in the Middle East. Many observers now dismiss the uprisings as a passing episode; a failed experiment with democracy that has mostly resulted in violence and disorder, and seen a return to repression.

Like all myths this one contains a kernel of truth. Young liberals and others deserve credit for the role they played in overthrowing long-time authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. But a closer diagnosis of the uprisings finds that these regimes were less overthrown than collapsed as a result of their internal frailties.

In this regard, the Arab uprisings did not precipitate the current regional disorder. The uprisings were instead one significant consequence of the gradual but terminal decay of the old political order in the Middle East. The Syrian civil war and the emergence of Islamic State have been other consequences. Most importantly, we need to understand that the decay of the old political order throughout the region is far from over.

One of the interesting things about the Arab Middle East in the modern era (post de-colonisation) is that all states, whether republican or monarchical, came to be run in more or less the same way. Strong, one-man, one-party or one-family regimes ruled through a combination of co-option and coercion. The state provided public goods in return for public loyalty, and when this did not work, the state used its security forces to preempt or discipline dissenters.

In the decades leading up to the uprisings, the ability of all Arab Middle Eastern states to co-opt their citizens deteriorated (to differing degrees, and with a few exceptions). Among other things, populations got bigger, economic rents declined and regimes atrophied. Moreover, new generations of citizens raised new demands for material improvements or political and social freedoms that the old order was incapable of accommodating.

The failure of the Arab state was anticipated in a series of Arab Human Development Reports published by the UN between 2002 and 2009. What wasn't predicted in these reports was when the moment of crisis would come. The fact that the trigger was provided by an isolated, desperate act of protest by an unassuming Tunisian street vendor underlines just how frail the old political order in many Arab states had become.

But the uprisings didn't just expose the old order's inability to co-opt, it exposed its inability even to coerce. We often forget this, but in every successful Arab uprising the military abandoned the long-time ruler. In cases where the military stuck with the ruler, as in Bahrain and Syria, the regime survived. This lesson has not been lost on other rulers in the region.

But coercion alone is not going to save the old order. Syria is the best illustration of this. Assad has had to destroy his country to save his regime, but it is still far from guaranteed that he will remain in power in the longer term. This is also true of Egypt.

Egypt's faltering autocracy

Ironically, the collapse of the old political order in the Middle East also partly explains the failure of the Arab uprisings, particularly in Egypt.

The standard narrative of the Egyptian revolt privileges the role played by media-savvy, twitter-wielding liberal activists. The truth is that the protests that precipitated the downfall of the Mubarak regime temporarily brought together a broad cross-section of Egyptian society that had lost confidence in the old order: liberals and young idealists seeking democracy; young thugs seeking confrontation; Islamists seeking an Islamic state; the poor and the aspirational middle class seeking material change; and of course the political opportunists.

Against this background it is hardly surprising that Egypt's transitional period proved to be tumultuous and violent. Egypt's post-uprising rulers and pretenders struggled to either meet or manage the diverse and often unrealistic expectations most Egyptians had for change. It was at this point that the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, launched a coup against then-President Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and then won popular endorsement in what was effectively a one-horse election.

Sisi capitalised on public exhaustion, a desire for stability, and well-founded fears about the Muslim Brotherhood's competence and commitment to democracy. In fact, Sisi seems to remain genuinely popular, although it is difficult to tell by how much and with whom.

But this is unlikely to last. Rather than trying to build a new, more durable, political order, Sisi, the Army and other elements of the old regime, such as the police and the judiciary, are trying to renovate the old one. They are trying to do this by cracking down on dissent and building up the economy. Neither approach is likely to work.

In the 12 months after the coup against Morsi, some 41,000 Egyptians were imprisoned, according to the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social rights, or 'just' 22,000 if you believe Egyptian Ministry of the Interior. The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned and its leaders imprisoned. Non-Islamist political movements, such as the April 6 movement, suffered a similar fate. A previously relatively vibrant media and civil society are today harangued, arrested and largely domesticated.

But if Egypt is now more authoritarian than it was in Mubarak's time, and indeed even in Morsi's time, it is also less stable. There is a major jihadist insurgency in Sinai, a growing jihadist threat in the rest of the country and there are still regular strikes and small-scale protests.

Sisi's efforts to revive the economy have delivered paltry results. There have been modest economic reforms, the launching of grandiose national projects such as the building of a new capital, and lots of money has flowed in from the Gulf. But tourism, a major source of income, remains stagnant because of terrorism. Economic reforms don't go nearly far enough, partly because they threaten the economic interests of the old Mubarak-era business cronies who are once again backing the regime. And as they did in the Mubarak era, mega-projects will fail either because of the incompetence of a still sclerotic bureaucracy or the corruption of business elites.

One effect of the current round of repression is the hollowing out of Egypt's moderate middle. Political activists who had drawn a line at violence have either withdrawn from politics or, as seems to be the case with the younger cadres of the Muslim Brotherhood, are turning to violence. 

There is a view that another uprising in Egypt is unlikely in the short term. This may be true. Egyptians may be growing less supportive of Sisi's promises but they are probably still wary of any return to revolutionary tumult. Nevertheless, we will probably see growing violent tensions between state and society this year. Indeed, one of the consequences of the regime's hyper-repression is that the fuse to violent confrontation is now much shorter than it used to be. And there is a lot of tinder lying around. The spark might be one of the regular protests or strikes, if it is repressed particularly harshly by the security forces; or it might be the rough treatment of an activist that becomes a cause celebre. But this time, rather than igniting the largely peaceful protest that Egypt witnessed in 2011, something far more ugly and violent could erupt.

Photo by Flickr user Dan H.

The Middle East in 2016 (part 1): Levantine limbo

This is the first post in a series of seven on the Middle East in 2016. The first three will look at what I think will happen in the region this year; the second three will discuss how I think Western countries should respond; and a final post will discuss Australian policy.

To understand what will happen in the Middle East in 2016 the most obvious place to start is Syria. Indeed, so many issues are bound up in the Syrian conflict that what happens there will determine a lot of what happens in the broader region, not just this year, but in coming years as well.

This conflict drives the current humanitarian and refugee crises. Its outcome will determine not just who rules Syria (or parts of it), but also the future of Islamic State and other extremist groups. It will decide whether Iran consolidates its position as the region’s ascendant power and what role other regional powers will play. It is shaping (negatively) perceptions of the West in the Middle East and it will largely define what role the US and Russia play in the region in coming years.

With so much at stake it is hardly surprising that shifts in the conflict have tended to be grinding to date. When one side makes gains, the other side, with the support of its external allies, fights back. The result has been less a stalemate than a see-saw of escalation and counter-escalation.

In recent months, however, the conflict has swung more decisively in the regime’s favour. Russia and Iran’s muscular intervention last year has saved Assad, caused massive new humanitarian suffering, but probably also helped to make possible recent moves to cease hostilities and resume peace talks.

More significantly, there is unlikely to be a military counter-move that will shift the momentum back in favour of the opposition. US military efforts will remain focused on Islamic State and other extremist groups. This will also mean that the US will continue to place pressure on Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other regional players to limit the amount and type of military aid they provide to the opposition lest it fall into the hands of the extremists. Any (unlikely) change in US policy would need to wait for a new administration next year.

Meanwhile, talk of a direct Saudi or Turkish military intervention is mostly just that; talk. Saudi Arabia lacks the capability and the will to make anything more than a token military intervention on the ground. Turkey has greater will and capacity, but probably does not want to fight a war with Russia (and its NATO allies certainly don’t want it to). But even if there were some significant new military intervention against the regime it would probably just see the saw again.

Against this background it is very difficult to see how the armed opposition could, on its own, shift the momentum of the conflict back against the regime. Indeed, the most extreme, and in some respects more effective, parts of the opposition will be targeted more intensively this year. So far the US-led effort to degrade and destroy Islamic State has been slow and fitful, with uneven results. But this doesn’t mean that this effort won’t work over time, especially as the Obama administration grudgingly agrees to requests from its military for more special forces on the ground.

In recent months Islamic State has suffered a series of serious military reversals: it lost control of Sinjar cutting the highway linking its capital in Syria, Raqqa, to its biggest outpost in Iraq, Mosul; it lost control of Ramadi in Iraq to the Iraqi army with strong US support; and its siege of the strategically important Kweiris airbase in Syria was broken by the Syrian army with heavy Russian support.
More military setbacks for Islamic State can be expected, perhaps punctuated by the occasional tactical gain. In particular, the US and its allies will focus on dislodging the group from Raqqa this year and maybe even Mosul. But any gains against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq will come at the cost of more terrorist attacks in the West and elsewhere as the group tries to compensate for its losses on the ground.

Who will pay for Russia’s facts on the ground?

Russia’s military intervention and the declining power of the opposition means that Moscow will continue to set the terms for any diplomatic moves to settle the conflict in 2016. Such a settlement seems unlikely at this stage, but for the Russians it does not really matter. They will use ceasefires and the diplomatic process to reinforce the facts on the ground established by their military campaign.

But the Russians are also at an interesting point in Syria. In some respects Moscow (and Tehran) are in the same position as Washington was in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Russians have secured their man, but having your client in the capital, or even in control of key cities, is not the same thing as having him govern the country over the long term.

The US invested billions of dollars and made a huge effort to extend the writ of the regimes it supported beyond the boundaries of Kabul and Baghdad, with very mixed results. It is hard to see Moscow putting the same resources and effort into trying to re-build governance, security and the economy in Syria, or even a rump of Syria (and not just because Moscow watched Washington’s efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq fail).

But Moscow may also be thinking it can get others to do this job. Short of other options (at least ones that it is prepared to take), the West’s focus has been on building and maintaining the cessation of hostilities and providing some humanitarian relief to help stem refugee flows, while intensifying the assault on the extremists. The problem is that, even if all of this works, the limited triage now being applied in Syria won’t significantly stem the human suffering and refugee flows caused by the conflict.

Syrians will still be left sitting among the ruins of their broken society, economy and national infrastructure. The number of humanitarian refugees seeking to leave Syria may ease, but the flow of economic ones will probably increase. Indeed, even if Islamic State is destroyed other extremist groups will rise to take its place in the ungoverned and misgoverned spaces that will remain in the country. (Although, there will also be other communities in Syria that will continue to escape the control of either the regime or the extremists)

As Richard Gowan has argued, assuming that the current limited cessation of hostilities does not break down completely (a big 'if'), the UN could well be placed in the 'morally and politically invidious position of trying to consolidate peace on terms effectively set by President Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Moscow and Tehran'.

Western capitals are in a similar position. It seems unthinkable that the West would even consider making investments in post-conflict stabilisation in a way that might prolong Assad’s rule in Syria. But faced with a choice between consolidating the current fragile cessation of hostilities on Moscow and Assad’s terms, or a continuation of the fighting with all the consequences that this entails, Brussels, Washington and New York may gradually and grudgingly choose the former.

This is in effect the ‘Assad as the least-worst’ option argument. The problem is it's pretty hollow. It is true that for a while Assad may be able to count on some combination of defeat, exhaustion, consent and continued coercion to ensure his rule over a rump of the country. But this won’t last long. To remain in power, let alone extend to other parts of the country, he would need to rebuild infrastructure, reconcile warring communities and provide jobs, security and a new social contract with Syria’s citizens. If all this sounds fanciful, it’s because it is.

But even if it is true that Assad is not a viable option for returning stability to Syria, it does not mean that the Russians will quickly or easily abandon him. No-one will be more receptive to Russian interests in Syria than Assad because no-one owes the Russians (and the Iranians) more than Assad does. Moreover, jettisoning its chief client would be a strange way for Moscow to celebrate its victory on the battlefield and the reputation it has earned for sticking with its allies.

Indeed, hoping that the Russians will abandon Assad may repeat the mistake made by Western capitals at the outset of the conflict when they assumed Assad would quickly fall. Forced to accept Russian terms for re-launching the diplomatic process last year, this year Western capitals may find that Moscow is not only expecting them to accept its terms for a settlement in Syria, it wants them to foot the bill as well.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user David Axe

Iran election: A vote of confidence in President Rouhani

Results from Iranian parliamentary and assembly elections held over the weekend have not yet been finalised, however what we know so far is encouraging.

First of all, turnout is an important indicator of popular legitimacy.  Presidential elections normally see a much greater turnout than parliamentary ones in Iran, but this election also featured the Assembly of Experts.  So a turnout of around 62% of voters nationwide (50% in Tehran) for this type of election can be considered a strong one.

Second, the results reinforced the wider phenomenon of commercial and political capitals, such as Tehran, not being representative of the country as a whole.  There was without doubt a very strong showing for moderates in Tehran, with all 30 parliamentary seats going to  allies of President Hassan Rouhani. Some 15 of the 16 Assembly seats allocated to Tehran also went to moderates.  But in Iran, like nearly all countries, there is a political divide  between urban and rural areas. Those who study Iran understand that Tehran can be something of a mini political ecosystem, separate from the rest of the country.

Third, this is not so much an affirmation of reformists as a rejection of conservatives.  The widespread culling of most reformists and many conservatives by the Council of Guardians prior to the election meant that there was a limited ideological range of candidates from which to choose.  Despite this, conservatives suffered significant losses at the ballot box.  This is a vote of confidence by the public in the policies of President Rouhani, whose negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (also known as the Iran deal) last July saw him deliver on the main electoral promise made in his presidential campaign.  The expectation is that he will have greater freedom of action to pass legislation to address the chronic unemployment and inflation from which Iran suffers. However, while there are more moderates than conservatives confirmed in parliament, there are also many independents, though we won't know the final numbers for some time. In more than 20% of seats, no candidate achieved the minimum 25% of the vote necessary to win so runoff elections will be held. This means that the true character of the parliament may not be known until May.

Even theocratic systems of government require popular legitimacy to survive and the mood of the electorate will certainly have been noted by the Supreme Leader and the conservative factions in Iran.  How both of them react to the electoral result, as well as how parliament forms, will determine how much progress moderates can make in shifting the tone and policies of the Iranian government.  It could be the change in the composition of the Assembly of Experts may, in retrospect, come to be viewed as more significant in the long term than the change in parliament. 

Photo courtesy of United Nations

Islamic State propaganda and the mainstream media

In this Lowy Institute Analysis, Lauren Williams examines Islamic State’s use of the Western media to disseminate its propaganda. Williams argues mainstream media outlets have a responsibility to treat Islamic State-produced material more critically, expose the weaknesses of its messages, and place greater effort into counter-messaging.


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