Not the face of Iraq’s insurgency
The news, if it proves true, that Musab al-Zarqawi has been forced to step down as the leader of a coalition of Jihadi groups in Iraq underscores a point made here last November: That by exporting terror operations into neighboring Sunni Arab states, Zarqawi was not only antagonizing an important support base of the Iraq insurgency, but also enfuriating his Baathist allies who depend on such regional support.
Writing immediately after the Amman hotel bombings attributed to Zarqawi, I noted: “Jordan has long been considered a relatively friendly entity as far as the Baathists are concerned — Saddam’s daughters took refuge there after the war, and remember, the late King Hussein refused to join the coalition in the 1991 Gulf War even though such key Arab states as Egypt and Syria actually sent troops to fight alongside the U.S. Jordan’s Palestinian majority, and its long-established economic ties with Iraq made it difficult for the Hashemite monarchy to side too openly with the U.S. in the invasion. Saddam has historically been very popular among Jordanians. And, it’s a relatively safe bet that the Baathists are taking full advantage of that history, and more importantly, of the growing misgivings in Amman over the fact that the U.S. has essentially authored a takeover in Baghdad by pro-Iranian Shiites…
“It’s quite conceivable that they’re running all sorts of clandestine financial and other logistical and support operations from Jordan. Antagonizing Jordanians and their government — and the wider Arab world — by sending suicide bombers into their capitals is anathema to the Baathist agenda, because it weakens the regional support that will be all-important to their ability to sustain the insurgency. The Baathists, if anything, will be looking to amplify the sympathy in Arab capitals for the plight of the Sunnis, because this will strengthen their position, both in the future political process (when the U.S. has to begin negotiating a new compact with the region) and also, their ability to raise funds and support in Arab capitals…
“The Baathists are unlikely to stand by and watch their own interests imperiled by those who would seek to make Iraq a new headquarters for terror attacks across the Middle East. Their objective, after all, is to restore some version of a regime detested by al Qaeda.”
The regional “export” of terror, as well as the grisly televised beheadings and the sectarian dimension of Zarqawi’s takfiri ideology that declares Shiites apostates, and therefore fair game — a position that drew public criticism even from Ayman Zawahiri — appear to have prompted even some of his jihadist allies in Iraq to downsize his role.
After all, the Sunni insurgents’ claim to regional support has never been greater, because of what the Arab regimes perceive as the turnover of Baghdad to proxies of Tehran. Allowing Zawahiri to be perceived as the leader of the “resistance” was counterproductive. Indeed, if the reports prove true, they’re an indication that the Sunni insurgency, even in its Islamist form, is insisting on its nationalist rather than transnational-jihadi character.
The implications of this shift correspond with an under-reported and -explored dimension of Islamist politics. Western news media and politicians often lump together all groups proclaiming Islamist ideologies as simply part of a global movement to restore Islam’s lost caliphate. But it’s far more complex than that, obviously, and there’s a fascinating — and strategically very important — distinction to be made between nationally-based political movements and insurgencies whose orientation and demands are national in character and the sort of Jihadi Comintern that Bin Laden and Zawahiri (and lately Zarqawi, too) have tried to create.
That distinction was highlighted, recently, when Zawahiri devoted one of his televised sermons to demanding that Hamas not compromise and continue to wage war on Israel. The rant was remarkable for the sense that it conveyed of the Qaeda leadership getting more and more anxious over the decision by Islamist movements to enter the mainstream: He had previously ranted against Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood engaging in peaceful demonstrations and entering parliamentary elections. And like the Brotherhood, which ignored his advice, Hamas publicly slapped down Zawahiri and said the Palestinians did not need al-Qaeda’s advice.
This dynamic may be one of the most important indicators out there, even though it’s being largely ignored by the Bush administration. That much is clear from the experience of Alistair Crooke and Mark Perry, who lead a team of retired U.S. and British intelligence professionals in a series of exploratory talks with leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Brotherhood recently in Beirut. They gained important insights into the nature and concerns of these movements and the prospects for achieving peace and political solutions to the conflicts in which they are engaged. Yet, even though the group was composed of longtime trusted intel operatives from their own side and allies, the U.S. government did not even accept the group’s offer of a debriefing, offering the rather infantile excuse that this would “legitimize talks with terrorists,” clinging instead to the feelgood but unhelpful insistence that such groups disarm and renounce violence before anyone can engage with them. (Where have the grownups gone, I sometimes wonder, watching the Bush administration’s conduct of national security policy.) Perry and Crooke respond:
“The question of legitimacy is important because for democracies, legitimacy is not conferred, but earned at the ballot box. Hamas and Hezbollah would welcome a dialogue with the West not because it would confer ‘legitimacy’ – they already have that – but because such a dialogue would acknowledge the differences between Islamist movements that represent actual constituencies from those (such as al-Qaeda and its allied movements) that represent no one….
“There is no question that two of the groups with whom we spoke – Hamas and Hezbollah – have adopted violent tactics to forward their political goals. They are not alone: Fatah (whose candidates for election the US supported with US$2 million in campaign funds) continues to use violence (and kidnap Westerners), so do the Tamil Tigers, so did the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the African National Congress. So too does the United States. America’s insistence that Hamas and Hezbollah ‘renounce violence’ and ‘disarm’ is dismissed by these groups as not only an invitation to surrender but, in light of the continuing and increasingly indefensible use of alarmingly disproportionate US and British firepower in Iraq, the rankest hypocrisy.
“The West’s seeming abhorrence of violence is derived from its deeply rooted belief that political change is possible without it. But defending this proposition requires an extraordinary exercise in historical amnesia….
“The leaders of major Islamist organizations view the issue of violence in the same way Americans do – as a legitimate option that is applied to establish deterrence and stability and to defend and promote their interests. For Hamas and Hezbollah, ‘armed resistance’ is a way of balancing the asymmetry of force available to Israel. Both groups place their use of violence in a political context.
” ‘Armed resistance is not simply a tool that we use to respond to Israeli aggression,’ a Hamas leader averred. ‘It gives our people confidence that they are being defended, that they have an identity, that someone is trying to balance the scales.
“Hezbollah puts this idea in the same political context: ‘It may be that some day we will have to sit down across from our enemies and talk to them about a political settlement. That could happen,’ reflected Nawaf Mousawi, the chief of the Hezbollah’s foreign relations department. ‘But no political agreement will be possible until they respect us. I want them to know that when they’re sitting there across from us that if they decide to get up and walk away, they’ll have to pay a price.’
“The West’s insistence that opening a political dialogue be preceded by and conditioned on disarmament is simply unrealistic: it suggests that we believe that ‘our’ violence is benevolent while ‘theirs’ is unreasoning and random – that a 19-year-old rifle-toting American in Fallujah is somehow less dangerous than a 19-year-old Shi’ite in southern Lebanon.
“In fact, political agreements have rarely been preceded by disarmament. United Nations demands for the disarmament of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) in 1978 unraveled a conflict-ending political agreement (a situation put right when the rebels were allowed to keep their weapons), and Northern Ireland’s ‘Good Friday Agreement’ allowed the IRA to keep its weapons until a political process (leading to ‘decommissioning’) reflecting their concerns was put in place.
“The West often views Islamic violence as random and unreasoning, but Hamas and Hezbollah believe that violence can shift practical political considerations to create a psychology in which armed groups can use the tool of de-escalation as a way of forwarding a political process. That is to say, absent a political agreement, Hamas and Hezbollah will not voluntarily abandon what they view as their only defense against the overwhelming weight of Israeli military power.
“Disarmament (or ‘demilitarization’) is possible: it worked in Northern Ireland and South Africa. When coupled with substantive political talks, the unification of armed elements into a single security or military force – demilitarization – provides the best hope for increased stability and security in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza.”
Indeed. But I fear the politics of adoloscent posturing that we’ve seen from the Bush administration on most of the complex issues such as Iran, North Korea and Hamas will preclude Washington from exploring the potentials that Perry and Crooke’s group appear to have identified.
Tags:iraq; insurgency; qaeda; hamas; zarqawi