The Stimson Center held an event last week, entitled, Salafists And Sectarianism: Twitter And Communal Conflict In The Middle East. Speakers included Geneive Abdo, a Fellow at the Stimson Middle East Program, and Khalil al Anani, Adjunct Professor Johns Hopkins/SAIS, moderated by Mokhtar Awad, a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress.
The Shi’a-Sunni divide has become one of the most destabilizing factors in the Middle East—with no end in sight. The rise of the Salafist anti-Shi’a discourse is of great interest, as the movement has cleverly exploited the current sectarian conflict in Syria, with spillover effects into parts of Iraq and Lebanon that have succeeded in furthering their rhetorical and theological positions.
Abdo presented an overview of the findings of her recent paper, including suggestions on the future of extremism and social media. She opened with the question of why now? The disruption of the longstanding political order in the Middle East, as well a shift in power dynamics from a Sunni ruled Arab world to increased Shi’a control, has led many Sunnis to believe that the survival of their sect is at stake. Beyond the search for land and power, Salafis truly believe that the Shi’a are not real Muslims, and are out to destroy Sunni believers.
This evolution of sectarian tension post-Arab Spring was not anticipated. She points to the example of Bahrain, where the revolts started as a peaceful reform movement with both Sunnis and Shi’as were protesting together. This has sadly not remained the case. The Salafis are interesting not only for the window they offer into the world of anti-Shia discourse, but also for their recent entrance into the political sphere. They are less violent than their jihadi counterparts and have a broad constituency. “Celebrity sheiks” have amassed giant followings on twitter, examples of whom include Adnan Al-Arour and Mohammad Al Arefe, who has 11.5 million followers on Twitter.
Khalil Al Anani underlined that violent Salafists are dominating the discourse. Non-violent ones are often overlooked, yet they are operating more and more in the public sphere, and have obvious mass appeal. The traditional Salafist traditional discourse is widely disseminated using modern technology. The anti-Shi’a discourse is not limited to the Salafists, and has been picked up by some others. The rise of Salafists goes hand in hand with the rise of sectarian tensions. It has also helped to empower non-state actors, by increasing their following. An example is Yemen, where the fight against the Houthis has been framed as the fight against Iran’s goals to recreate the Safavid empire and to butcher all the Ah’l-Sunnah.
Mokhtar Awad discussed social media use in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia has the highest Twitter penetration rates in the Middle East, accounting for over 40% of active twitter users in the region. However, there is an inherent problem with Twitter, as 140 characters does not lend itself to the expression of nuanced views. Islamist embrace of Twitter has fueled the sectarian divide, as their ideas are retweeted thousands of times, reaching hundreds of thousands of people. The online discourse is dominated by Salafists, as proved by the Islamic State’s embrace of Twitter and other social media tools as a means of gaining followers and disseminating their message. How does the Western world counter this messaging? Alternative narratives are needed to balance the discourse of extremism, yet who will provide this?
Dylan Clement, a Syria Program Assistant at the International Republican Institute, asked some good questions in responses to my pieces advocated Free Syria on protected areas inside the country. Here are his questions and my answers:
Q: Through its usage of chemical weapons, the regime has proven its willingness to break international norms and in particular defy the United States. With that in mind, how would the regime react when faced with the possibility an alternative Syrian government taking hold in these de facto no fly zones?
A: The regime would certainly test the will of those who say they will protect them. We would need to be prepared to respond with proportional force against whatever applied the test. The problem will be that the artillery, mortars or aircraft concerned may disappear, or be parked next to mosques or schools. Then we need to be prepare to widen the circle of targets. This might well lead to escalation that we would have to be prepared to match.
The elimination of the bulk of the regime’s chemical weapons is perhaps a better indicator of its response to threat than its continued use of chlorine.
Q: I’m not sure the opposition structures that exist, ie the SOC/SIG, are competent and cohesive enough to provide actual governance alternatives in these free areas inside the country…
A: I don’t think the SOC/SIG would in the first instance be responsible. It would have to be local councils. Their connections to the SOC/SIG are tenuous at best. It is their connections to local liberated communities that are important.
Q: What if [Jabhat al] Nusra takes refuge in these areas as well? Given the level of cooperation between Nusra and ‘moderate’ rebel groups up to this point (and the lack of precedent for civilian opposition leaders in denouncing al Qaeda), a situation may arise whereby the US is providing air cover for Nusra’s attacks against the regime. That would be awkward.
A: This is a serious question, as a successful protected area would necessarily attract Nusra or other extremists. The Syrian forces responsible for protection on the ground would have to take care of that issue. My understanding is that the US-trained forces are prepared to oppose Nusra and the Islamic State, and their logistic and financial train presumably provides the US with leverage to insist.
But we have to be careful. Treating all Islamists as enemies would only make things worse, and there is necessarily an area of ambiguity: is the guy with the beard who disapproves of women appearing in public Nusra, Islamic State or just a devout Muslim with conservative social views? There will be no way to avoid issues of that sort as things unfold in Syria.
An update of peacefare’s software this afternoon has created problems I have not yet solved. Some graphics, buttons and items on the right sidebar are still missing. Apologies for our somewhat less than ship shape. I’m working on everything and hope to recover most things in the next day or so. Never update should be my motto, I’m afraid.
In the meanwhile, enjoy the post below!
Some of us think the best of the new year will come January 4, when Downton Abbey starts up again in DC. But if you can’t wait that long, here’s a teaser:
It’s a charity thing. I trust season 5 will be a good deal better.
Proceedings kicked off at Thursday’s Middle East Institute conference with a panel on A Middle East in Flux: Risks and Opportunities. Moderating was peacefare’s Daniel Serwer, presiding over a star-studded panel consisting of Juan Cole, professor at the University of Michigan, Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Algeria and Syria, Paul Salem, vice-president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute, and Randa Slim, director for Track II initiatives at MEI.
The panel focused on long-term forces and factors in the Middle East and North Africa. Cole drew attention to the youth bulge, low investment, lack of jobs, and the effects of climate change on the region. The population is growing as resources are shrinking. Dwindling water supplies will create immense social pressures, and may lead to mass migrations and regional tensions, including over water supplies. Sea level rises will inundate the low-lying plains in southern Iraq, areas of the Nile Delta, and other inhabited areas.
This will happen as hydrocarbon production levels off and even declines, squeezing countries made rich by petrodollars. The region needs sustainable development, Cole underlined, which means a shift towards solar and wind power and a big increase in technological capacity.
Agreeing on the importance of resource and economic constraints, Salem underlined the collapse of already weak and corrupt institutions in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. With the failure of the Arab uprisings in these countries, the region has lost its sense of direction, as well as any semblance of regional governance. There is no real alternative to accountable, inclusive and ultimately democratic governance, but it is difficult to see how the region will get there from the disorder into which it has fallen. It needs high-value exports that it is unable to produce today.
The currently oil-rich region must adapt now, before it is left without options. Ford predicts that the Middle East will become a major food-importing region. To generate the revenue needed to pay for this food, the region will need to attract investment. Businesses will want to see fair and honest rule of law before sinking money into the region. Failing to develop economies producing more than commodities risks condemning the region to an impoverished and unstable future.
The panel considered the role of religion in the future of the Middle East, but it said notably little about sectarian or ethnic strife, which is more symptom than cause. Ford hopes that Islamists will be pulled towards the center of the political spectrum, as political Islam cannot provide the answers to all the socio-economic problems faced today. But this only applies to those Islamists actively engaging within the political system. There will be no single solution. With the region in such a dramatic state of flux, Salem cautions that there is a developing contest for defining the region’s cultural identity. Sheikhs, militias, and jihadists are competing to define the future of society and culture in the Middle East. The cacophony risks drowning out more moderate reformers and democrats.
Slim underlined the importance of Iran’s trajectory for the region as a whole. Whether a nuclear deal is reached and the choices Tehran makes about support for its allies in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain and Palestine will affect Iran’s relations with its neighbors in the Gulf and with the West. There is great potential for improvement, but also serious risk of deterioration if those in Tehran who want a nuclear deal have to pay for it by giving others a free rein to do what they want regionally.
The West must engage better in the battle for hearts and minds. For Slim, the key battle ground is online and across smart phones. ISIS releases thousands of propagandistic tweets, videos and online messages every day. Jabhat al-Nusra has a similarly slick media operation. Media literacy in the Arab world is high. The West should not let extremists be the only voice in cyberspace. Twitter and Facebook are theatres in the war against violent doctrines just as much as Kobani.
But the ideological battle cannot be won only through convincing words and media campaigns. Robert Ford recalled the warm reception he had received at a university in Algeria, which had a link with a university in the US. The few graduating from the program had all found employment. The result was goodwill from an much wider section of the local population. Providing quality education, developing human connections , and working to build the skills that bring employment and prosperity are vital in combating ideologies that preach hatred.
The path to long-term success and stability in a region facing increasing chaos can be summed up by two 1990s political catch phases. Bill Clinton’s “it’s the economy, stupid”, and Tony Blair’s “education, education, education.” Military campaigns against threats such as ISIS may sometimes be necessary, but in the long term the region’s future will be determined by other factors: demographic and climate pressures, the search for dignity, institutional strength and economic success or failure. The US and its allies cannot determine the outcome. They can only encourage and support local actors as they seek to achieve stability and prosperity.
Oil prices are down by about 20% from their recent peak (or 15% from their three-year plateau around $100 per barrel) and likely to stay low for months if not years. Downward pressure will continue unless the Saudis are prepared to rein in their production (no sign of that yet) or prices decline enough (to $70 or less) to turn off the flow of tight oil and gas in the US, which has become a major factor on world markets.
There is a lot of benefit to be seen from lower oil prices. From the US perspective, cutting revenue flow to the governments of Russia, Iran and Venezuela is a big plus. Putin, who is already feeling substantial pressure from European Union and US sanctions, faces serious financial difficulties. Iran, likewise hurt by sanctions, will find it difficult to generate anything like the revenue it needs to fund economic recovery, even if sanctions are lifted. Venezuela was already headed towards a financial crisis. Its budget is almost entirely dependent on oil revenue.
Major oil and gas producers in the Gulf will be hit as well. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates , Kuwait and Qatar as well as Iraq will feel the pinch. They are far more likely to cut their spending on various international causes than risk austerity at home. That could mean scarcer resources for the restored military autocracy in Egypt, Yemen’s besieged government and Syria’s opposition. It could also mean less revenue for Islamist extremists of various stripes, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, for which oil sales are a significant portion of revenue.
Lower oil prices will also give a boost to global economic growth, particularly in the US and Europe but also in China and India. The Economist worries that the lower prices may be due to slack economic growth and that lower prices will do little for consumers, but then it gives ample evidence that the lower prices are in fact due to higher production. If past patterns hold, global economic growth could gain by a significant 1% over current 3.3% predictions for 2015.
What has happened in the past couple of weeks is part of a broader secular trend that will have profound impacts on geopolitics and economics for a long time to come. Production of oil and gas is rising sharply in the Western Hemisphere, especially in the US, Canada and Brazil. Demand is rising principally in the East, where economic growth is strong, the economies are still heavily dependent on energy, and energy resources are scarce. This trend has implications for future security risks and burden sharing: it will not make much sense for the US to carry most of the burden of ensuring the security of the strait of Hormuz when 90% or more of the oil shipped through this classic “choke point” is going to India, China and other Asian consumers.
Asian consumers should be stocking 90 days of imports, as members of the International Energy Agency are required to do. They should also be providing some of the naval assets to protect the strait of Hormuz. That will require a major rethink on the part of the US, as well as creation of a multinational force that the Asians can feel comfortable joining.
There are calls in Congress to curtail the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which is slated for use in an oil supply disruption. That would be an unwise move, as a major disruption of oil markets anywhere means a hike in prices everywhere. The US may be much less dependent on the Middle East in the future, but it will still be vulnerable to the economic damage of an oil supply interruption.
We have tended to view the rise of Asia as a challenge. But of course it is also an opportunity. The US will soon be the world’s largest oil and gas producer. If the Washington can continue to moderate American demand and in addition decides to allow oil and gas exports, the assumption of its declining influence could soon be proven, once again, a mirage.