DO20. November 2014

The Kurdish Issue and the Islamic State (IS)

by Walter Posch, SWP Berlin

The rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq is widely understood as a threat to the whole region and the entire international community. It is with this insight that the US has decided on airstrikes, and convinced some of their local allies to contribute militarily. According to international and Iranian media reports, US and Iranian interlocutors have even held talks about the common threat, without, of course, coming to any tangible conclusion, let alone cooperation. At the time of the UN General Assembly, Americans and Iranians were back to where they had been before: agreeing to disagree on regional policy.

Hence, action to subdue IS on the ground seems to be limited to airstrikes, financial sanctions, the build-up of a new volunteer army, and military support for the Kurds, which is better for the Kurdish forces of the KRG, and of course the Iraqi government. Even for the most illiterate in military matters, this seems to be a modest, albeit expensive contribution to fight an organization that excels militarily, seems unstoppable, has displayed a range of savagery, including the enslavement of women and children of the Ezidi Kurds, plays the Western media skillfully and – just to top it – recruits in Europe and is building up a terror infrastructure in the West. Thus arises the question: what to do next? And therein, as the bard would tell you, lies the rub.

The issue is as much about vision and ideas about the region as it is about strategy and/or military planning. Apparently, all actors on the ground know what they want, why they want it, and how they envision shaping their region. Iran wants to keep Asad in power, strengthen its grip on Iraq, check the
Saudis, and prevent Kurdish independence. Turkey focuses on the PKK and wants to see Asad go. Saudi Arabia wants Iran’s influence checked and, like Turkey, wants to see Asad gone. Asad wants to stay, and dubs resistance against him Islamist, tacitly hoping the West will bomb the Islamists away. All players have followed up on their intentions quite consistently. If they can avoid it, none of them would like to deploy painful and expensive military means. Instead, their disagreements are fought out by proxies. This is not the case with the West. True, there is some idea about preferring stable nation states with more or less democratic and pro-Western regimes to emerge. Given the fact that such a benign scenario will most likely not emerge, the West should take a combination of restringing measures in order to contain and on a later point to destroy IS, combined with a long term commitment of support for newly emerging players. Because one thing is clear neither the EU nor the US or the G7 have enough manpower – let alone political will – to stop IS by force. These measures can be summarized as follows:

  • Regard the fight against IS as three fights, depending on the “theater” of war: the fight against the international jihadists, the fight in Syria and the fight in Iraq
  • Realize that regional powers have framed their strategic competition in religious terms, which means the West is unable to propose a counter-narrative, which would be a precondition as a starting point for any peace process; hence the confrontation will last for long, perhaps longer than a generation;
  • Muster support of the few remaining militarily capable and secular and/or pro-Western organizations, even if they are aligned to banned organizations such as the PKK
  • Help facilitating Turkish-Northern Syrian/Kurdish relations
  • Realize the entrenched Asad regime is of no real value in the fight against IS
  • Support a thorough security sector reform in the Iraqi KRG region and underpin it with a long term commitment
  • Realize that Western and Iranian interests align in Iraq but diverge over Syria
  • Continue cooperation with Saudi and other moderate Arabs and Turkey over Syria
  • Ponder limited military cooperation with Iran against IS in Iraq, coordinated via the Iraqi government

The end of the “strongmen era”

Perhaps it helps to start with stating some obvious facts, such as the end of stable dictatorships, the rise and radicalization of political Islam, regional strategic competition expressed in sectarian hatred, and the Kurdish question.

Although slightly embarrassing, dealing with stable dictators or strongmen was the only way for Western elites to engage with the Middle East, and maybe it was even the preferred one. The “stable dictators” ruled their countries with a mix of nationalist Arab and – more or less – secular ideologies, plus the hard fist of the security apparatus, which was often manned and staffed by relatives, party cronies or related tribes. It is a moot point to muse about whether the “stable dictatorships” were already a model of the past when the shah fell in 1979, or whether one should take 1992, the year of the Basra intifadha against Saddam Hussein or any other date, as its endpoint. The fact is that what replaces the dictator is not liberal democracy, but some form of political Islam.

In general, followers of political Islam are anti-Western and anti-imperialist by inclination. For them as for their nationalist forerunners the Palestine plays a central role in their political thinking, they differ however on their religious as opposed to nationalist interpretation of the “Palestinian cause”. But it is the economic and moral bankruptcy of the secular elites that brings them to power: political Islam is populist too, promising work to the working class and economic liberalization to entrepreneurs. The social differences are dissolved with public morality, hence the importance of issues like the headscarf.
Politicians and scholars in the West, especially those from Europe, have long searched for organizations and parties who would combine political Islam with democracy. But political
circumstances in the region are not conducive to the work of democratic parties, Islamist or not. And even in Turkey, circumstances more tolerant of the ruling Islamic-conservative AKP bewildered many of its former friends and benign transatlantic supporters with outlandish remarks and occasional disrespect for democratic rules and procedures.

The sectarian divide

The rise of political Islam with or without only minor democratic values would have been less problematic, if it wasn’t combined with sectarian hatred. This too is a result of several factors. History and middle-class bigotry is the base for it, but Saudi-Iranian competition is one of its main triggers. Both countries used to wind up or scale down the sectarian factor for tactical purposes. However, Arab nationalism neutralized sectarianism to a certain degree, because it was a challenge to both Tehran and Riyadh. With the end of Saddam’s Iraq and the US’ reframing of the Iraqi society in sectarian terms – some scholars went so far as to describe three ethnic (!) groups in Iraq: Sunni, Shii and Kurds – Pan-Arabism was kicked out of the political arena and driven underground. Given circumstances in Iraq over the last decade, it had to undergo a marriage with radical Sunni Islam, as we can observe with the Islamic State (IS), which integrated many Baathist nationalists. Of course to publicly reject Iraq as an Arab country because it has a Shiite Arab majority had to drive the Arab Shiites throughout the region into Iran’s arms, regardless of whether they follow Khamenei as Supreme Leader or not, notwithstanding the big cultural differences between the Arab and Iranian Shiites.

Iran’s allies

As the simplistic equation Shii=Persian and Sunni=Arab does not allow for any differentiation, it allows the hawks in Tehran and Riyadh to continue their confrontation from Baghdad to Damascus. Obviously, they are trying to avoid a spillover into Lebanon, where Iran has already taken deadly blows like a bomb attack on its embassy.1 In general, the situation is a bloody draw: the Iranians had to mobilize all of their reserves to support its one and only ally, the embattled pan-Arab, Baathist and secular dictatorship of Bashir Asad. Tehran admits the presence of military and intelligence advisors and a certain amount of volunteers from the wider Shiite communities in the region. However, its biggest asset is the Lebanese Hezbollah. The political price for the Syrian theater is already high, because it led to Hezbollah’s political isolation in Lebanon and destroyed their reputation in the Arab world that they gained in 2006 after the 33-day war. A different situation prevailed in Iraq. The Iranians had been aware of the reconfiguration of radical Sunni-Arab and Baathist forces at least from 2012 onwards. What is unclear is whether they were aware of the weakness of the Iraqi army. In any case, towards the end of 2013, they reactivated their creation from the long Iran-Iraq war: the Badr Brigade.

The Badr Brigade

Badr consisted of Shiite Iraqi volunteers who were sympathetic to Ayatollahs Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim and Muhammad Baqer al-Sadr. They were organized as an infantry brigade under the command of Iran’s “Corps of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution”. After the end of the war, Badr was further “Iraqized” when Hadi Ameri assumed command in 1992. It was he who led Badr to Iraq in 2003, where they fought some skirmishes with Saddam’s troops, and it was he who made his Brigade “vanish” before it could be forcefully disbanded by the US Viceroy Paul Bremer. Meanwhile Ameri held some government positions at ministerial levels, such as transport minister, and members of Badr became integrated into the Iraqi administration, some of whom were able to take over positions in the security apparatus, certainly against the will of the US. Reactivating Badr was a meaningful step on behalf of the Iranians, and it was not undertaken without Iraqi consent. Badr will not only be a Shiite militia, but enjoys a special status, as it signed an agreement with the Iraqi army. Not much is known about the contents of this agreement; most likely it contains issues like recruitment and areas of responsibility. What is known is their new base – the former MKO headquarters “Camp Ashraf” near Baghdad.

Tehran’s tempered ambition

It was largely thanks to Badr that the Iraqi government was able, with Iranian help, to push back the advance of IS. For Iran, the main risk was that after Mosul, Erbil might fall, and this radical anti-Shiite force might show up on the borders of the Islamic Republic. As seen from Tehran, preventing IS from entering Baghdad or Erbil and pushing them back from other strategically important and Shiite inhabited areas, such as the Shiite Turkoman village of Amerli, saved the day. The Iranians know they are in no position to retake Mosul for the Iraqi government. In the end, Tehran is content to hold the frontline in Iraq, where it converges with a more or less clear line of delineation between Sunnis and Shiis in Iraq. Beyond that, Iran knows about its own limits, and therefore seems not to have a great appetite to go after IS in Syria. In other words, Iran commits itself to contain IS and does not promise to destroy it, a promise it may find hard to live up to militarily anyway. Tehran prefers to send volunteers, military advisors and intelligence. The better part of the latter belongs to a specialized unit called “niru-ye Qods” commaned by Qasem Soleymani, an Iranian major general who enjoys some celebrity status in the Western press. Apparently, Qods is responsible for coordinating military support between Iraqi Shiite and Kurdish groups. In short, Iraq and Syria have shown the limits of Iran’s capability for projecting its power. Iran is no longer the revolutionary, aggressive, pan-Islamist power it was 30 years ago, but rather it became a concerned Shiite nation state that is careful not to punch too often beyond its weight.

The Kurdish issue

The Kurdish issue goes beyond Iraq, but it helps to better understand the current situation by starting with an analysis of Iranian-Kurdish relations. A multiethnic country on its own, Iran has actively cooperated with Turkey and Iraq for years to prevent an independent Kurdish state from emerging. But at the same time, both imperial Iran and the Islamic Republic have worked with Iraqi Kurdish political groups – namely the Kurdistan Democratic Party/KDP led by the Barzani family and tribe, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, in order to pressure concessions from the Iraqi central government. Depending on political circumstances, Iran supported both Kurdish parties with military advisors and arms from the 1970s until today. In the 1980s and 1990s, Iran took in large numbers of Iraqi Kurdish refugees, among them well-known pro-Western Kurdish politicians like Jelal Talabani, Masud Barzani or Hoshyar Zebari, to name the most prominent ones. Iran was also a tacit party to the Drogheda agreement conducted between Turkey, the US, the UK and the Kurdish parties in Iraq, which ended the inner-Kurdish civil war in the 1990s. And Iran is an important economic partner to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Yet Iran’s help and support for Kurdish groups is far from being altruistic, and does indeed come with strings: in exchange for arms and support, both Kurdish parties were obliged to deny safe haven to Iranian Kurds fighting Tehran.FN As a result, Iran’s domestic Kurdish opposition was successfully emasculated from the 1980s until around 2002.


After the fall of Saddam and the establishment of the KRG in 2003, Tehran and Ankara did not have any reason to be satisfied with the status quo: the Kurdistan Region is a de facto bi-partisan state, where two parties dominate their respective zones of influence. Due to his excellent relations with the West and control over Erbil, Mas’ud Barzani is widely regarded as quasi-president of Kurdistan – i.e. the KRG region plus “contested areas” such as Kirkuk – and insists that Kurdistan has all the attributes of a state, a fact that can be easily rejected when looking at essential issues like its security apparatus. As an example, each party still prefers to keep its party militia under its own command, and does not allow for a unified command under the defense or peshmerga ministry. Only after the fall of Sinjar in August 2014, when the weakness of peshmerga forces was revealed, did public pressure force both parties to address this issue. The reasons for the peshmergas’ failure are still awaiting examination. Dated weaponry may have been a reason, but this cannot explain everything.
TEXT In any case, as “first aid”, European countries have delivered modern anti-tank weapons and started training peshmergas from the KDP.

The fall of Sinjar was crucial not only because it stained the reputation of the peshmerga, especially those who are under the control of Masud Barzani. More important is the fact that another player forcefully entered the scene and was able to cover the flight of the Ezidi population from the advance of the IS: the PKK.


The PKK has undergone an impressive recovery following their military defeat in the 1990s and the capture of their leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999. At the beginning of the 2000s, splits in their own ranks, the war weariness of the Kurdish population in Turkey, and the loss of backers like Hafiz Asad’s Syria made the organization look like a spent and isolated force. Öcalan, who remained the ideological and political head of the organization, even in his prison cell, reacted to the new situation with a comprehensive review of the organizational setup and the strategic aims of the organization. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) was renamed or remodeled as KCK (Confederation of Kurdistan Communities), the aim of an independent Kurdish state was officially abandoned and instead, a system called “democratic confederalism”, which encompasses national boundaries, was introduced. In other words, the PKK/KCK prepared the buildup of a parallel administrative-political system, which tolerates but does not share power with other political parties. This is reminiscent of various “people’s fronts” created in the mid-20th century, and a typical form of organization rooted in the far left wing of the political spectrum. The PKK/PYD’s exclusionist policies created tensions with Barzani, who has some followers and a rudimentary party structure in Syria too.

Öcalan was clearly following a double strategy: on one hand he supports the peace process in Turkey – and it took the Turks about a decade to realize there will be no tenable peace without involving Öcalan – and on the other side, he analyzed the consequences of the US led invasion in Iraq for the Kurds: after Saddam’s Iraq, the ayatollahs’ Iran and Baathist Syria may be next. Hence in the years from 2003 onwards, he ordered the creation of several PKK clones, such as PJAK in Iran and PYD in Syria, who enjoy a high degree of autonomy but still remain under firm command of the military political center in Qandil. The best proof of Qandil’s oversight is an agreement between Murat Karayilan, a member of the leadership council, and the Iranian authorities in 2011. After Iranian security forces had captured Karayilan, both sides agreed that in exchange for setting him free, the PJAK would retreat – to Syria.

Rojava and the Fight against IS

Meanwhile, young Kurds from Iran, Iraq and Syria started to fill up the ranks of the new PKKs/KCK’s military apparatus (guerilla), both in the regional organizations and with the military center in Qandil (HPG). It is in this context that the situation in Syria became so important, because the PKK only rules directly in the three Kurdish regions of Syria (Rojava). Its local branch, the PYD, was able to build up an efficient administration, including self-defense forces (YPG, Self-Defense Units, and asayish, police), face down Kurdish competition, and maintain a delicate balance by not openly breaking ranks with the Syrian regime, but not supporting it either. Although the whole setup was defensive in nature, the PKK was able to come and cover the flight of the Ezidis from Sinjar. Therefore, the confrontation with IS had to come sooner rather than later.

IS operates largely in the Sunni-Arab region of Syria and Iraq. There, it tries to capture and hold as many strategic nodal points as possible in order to consolidate its territory. Sinjar is one of those points, and Kobanê in Rojava is another one. Kobanê is a relatively isolated Kurdish enclave in Northern Syria with a strong Kurdish hinterland on the Turkish side of the border. Concentrating on an important border town like Kobanê makes sense: it is relatively weak, hard to defend, and once captured would bring an important border crossing under the control of IS. Crushing the PYD/YPG there would be a serious blow to the self-confidence and manpower of the PKK-fighters in all of Northern Syria and beyond. From a Turkish perspective, IS routing the armed PKK forces in Syria would be an ideal outcome, because it would fulfill a long-standing aim the Turkish army was unable to achieve. At the same time, Turkey’s government does not share the same assessment of the West on the danger posed by IS. Instead, both the leadership of the Islamist AKP and the country’s security elites see a bigger threat in the PKK. Naturally, an assessment like this has to lead to a more cavalier position towards the recruitment of Islamists in Turkey, letting through foreign fighters and allowing medical treatment of IS militants in Turkish hospitals. But it also explains why many in the West doubt the Turkish narrative on what had happened with its diplomats taken captive in Mosul. Erdogan refused for a long time to call IS “terrorists”, and gave in only when NATO allies and the international media accused him of complicity.

In hindsight, it appears Turkish authorities had already expected the fall of Kobanê for a long time, since Ankara had prepared refugee camps awhile ago and even published exaggerated numbers of refugees. With the fighting having dragged on for over a month, the political mood in Turkey as well as internationally has changed. The “Kobanê resistance” became an important cause célèbre for all Kurdish activists, especially those who are sympathetic to the PKK. The mishandling of the case of Kobanê might be the straw to break the camel’s back in the Turkish government’s dragging of the peace process, and therefore may destroy everything Erdogan has achieved in the Kurdish issue so far. As a warning, Cemil Bayik, co-head of the KCK who resides in Qandil, issued a statement that if Kobanê falls because Turkey refuses to allow military help for the Kurds to pass through, the peace process in Turkey is in danger. A few days later, Öcalan reaffirmed Bayik’s statement, and thus declared it “official” PKK policy. But ending this peace process may be a bigger disadvantage for the PKK/KCK than for Turkey, which could legitimately claim its good will to the international community, especially to the Europeans, who are traditionally more sensitive on the Kurdish issue and minority rights.

Besides, a resurfacing of the civil war in Eastern Turkey will yield no other results but terror and disrupt Turkey’s still fragile economy. For Öcalan, any resurgence in hostilities means his influence over developments in the Kurdish cause and the control over KCK events and procedures will decrease. For Erdogan, a direct military confrontation in Northern Syria would be a high risk endeavor too: if the Turkish army goes after IS, their followers and sympathizers in Turkey will wreak havoc, but the same will happen if Turkish troops try to crush the PKK in Kobanê. Hence, the Turkish army will most likely continue to do “business as usual” on the border and wait in cold blood until the resistance in Kobanê either falls or is victorious. At the same time, Erdogan will try to reassure the international community about Turkey’s earnest will to fight “any terror group” in Northern Syria, which translates to IS in Western countries, but to the PKK in Turkish ears.


One notable aspect of IS’ expansion is how well it fits into the strategic setup of regional powers: without necessarily being in cahoots with the caliphate, Saudi Arabia benefits from its presence as it pushes back Iranian influence in Iraq and checks the Syrian regime. From a Syrian perspective, IS checks the Kurds’ and other Islamists’ positions and for Saudi Arabia, it checks Iran’s position. Iran is unhappy about IS, but is content to see it active west of Shiite dominated areas. And for Turkey, IS may crush the PKK and check Asad. Seen from this angle, IS functions as a buffer preventing the direct confrontation of regional players.
The West has no clear vision or idea on the region, but at least some positions and commitments are clear: to crush the IS because via its expatriate members from Europe and elsewhere, it is on its way to becoming a bigger threat than Al-Qaida. A super-Al-Qaida, so to speak, which combines elements of organized crime with military power, terrorist capacities, and a rudimentary knowledge of how to run state-like structures.
If this is the aim, airstrikes are not enough and military action on the ground is needed. Here, one has to observe the fact that there are two theaters: Iraq and Syria.

No Asad

Syria first: This situation led to the facile, understandable but erroneous conclusion that Western countries should swallow their pride and cooperate with the Syrian regime against radical political Islam. But the problem is that Asad is simply a dysfunctional dictator. Most certainly, he may drag on for as long as this conflict lasts, but he is no position to conduct any decisive military action. After all, he is fighting on so many fronts that he cannot afford to open a new one against IS. At least for now, IS is not his priority, nor is it the priority of his allies, Iran and Hizbullah. Obviously, they are content to see IS establish itself in the East and the North of the country, fighting other groups there.

More FSA

Among them is the Free Syrian Army, the very militia the West pushed but could not deliver. There is no other way than reviewing past mistakes and retraining, re-financing and re-supporting the FSA throughout Syria. Some of this is already on the way, and the US already trains Syrian volunteers in neighboring Arab countries. But even so, it will take time and before these troops are combat ready. But combat readiness and military skills are not everything. One reason why, for example, relatively modestly trained Shiite militias prevail is faith and ideology. The battle against IS is not only a military one, but also an ideological one, and there, the West does not have much to offer. Whatever the West promises ideologically (democracy, secularism, human rights, economic liberalization, women’s rights), it is in a difficult position when it comes to the martyrs’ paradise promised by IS (literally so!). Let alone the fact that even more secularly inclined groups have their doubts about Western sincerity, given its position on Palestine. This ideological weakness was one of the main reasons why splinter groups trained by the US would later join IS.

Hence Sunni Islamists stick with Sunni Islamists, and Shiite Islamists with Shiites. In this identity game, the West has no card to play. The only possible thing to do is to reframe the political discourse again in a more secular direction, for instance by stressing the fact that sectarianism is just a cover for strategic power games, and thus contribute to the “secularization” of the conflict. This does not leave many choices in the Syrian theater. Except one, and that is a taboo: the PYD.

Safe haven in Rojava

In fact, it is surprising to witness the physical survival of an organization like the PKK in the Muslim Middle East where religion and sectarianism are irrelevant, women equal to men, and which has political aims one can understand and negotiate about. This is not to ignore the PKK’s more sordid aspects, like the bizarre Öcalan leadership cult, its undemocratic structure (it is rather a “people’s democracy”) and its involvement in organized crime in Europe. What remains is the fact that in Syria, the PYD is the only remaining relevant secular power, and the only one that in spite of its anti-imperialist Third-Worldly ideology is not essentially anti-Western; in Syria, that is what is needed.

Yet, in order to come to any tangible results, one has to address Turkey’s legitimate security interests first. And this means a reinvigoration of the peace process inside Turkey, and a guarantee for Ankara that all PKK guerillas be pulled out of the country, that the PYD sever its ties with Qandil and the KCK system and stress its nature as a Syrian Kurdish party. In exchange, Turkey should allow military aid to be delivered under Turkish control and with Turkish cooperation to the PYD. In the midterm, this means an emancipation of the PYD/YPG from the PKK, and a relationship of Rojava to Ankara similar to the one that exists between the KRG and Turkey. Thus Rojava would be more than Turkey’s envisioned “buffer zone”, but could become a safe haven for all Syrians on Syrian territory.

Security Sector Reform in Iraq

This brings us to Iraq, and here too, one key to the solution is in Kurdistan. At the same time, one needs to face the reality that the Iraqi army must be rebuilt and reformed, and the whole counterinsurgency strategy reviewed. In short, the country is in a situation worse than before General Petraeus initiated the Sahwa, and succeeded in isolating and crushing Al-Qaida. These years have been wasted and the situation has been aggravated, because unlike a few years ago, Shiite militias have now been strengthened and play an important role in the country’s security setup.
Here, the first priority is to remain realistic, as any reform will be long-term and there are no short-term fixes. However, Western governments are well-advised to actively pressure Baghdad for a reconciliation process with its Sunni Arab population. Only once Baghdad initiates meaningful steps in this direction can other attempts (counterinsurgency, security sector reform, etc.) be envisioned. And only then, i.e. when the Iraqi government does its “homework”, would it make sense for the US to directly or indirectly talk to Tehran about Iraq’s future.

This may take several years, while the West has to deal with the situation on the ground in the mountains. The sorry performance of the peshmerga and the disunity of the KRG security apparatus is the final proof of the necessity of security sector reform in the KRG. The first step, the delivery of modern weapons systems to KRG forces by Germany, is actually the first step in the right direction, and certainly the first step in a long-term commitment for Kurdistan. It should quickly be followed up by immediate steps under US-led international supervision. It is not so important whether one draws on NATO, the EU, or the national assets of the willing and the capable. What is important is that the following fields be addressed, including the military, with training facilities, new command structures separated from the political parties, and the unification of the peshmerga units (unified uniforms, promotion system etc.; a military reform would necessarily have a certain DDR aspect). This alone will take time, but unlike in the rest of the country, the preconditions are not all that bad in Erbil, Duhok, Suleymaniya and Khaneqin. What holds true for the military must apply to the intelligence and police services too, but it is less pressing, since other countries also have several intelligence organizations. The core is to refit the structures of intelligence sharing and evaluation. This is related to a general problem in the KRG: the weakness of impartial regional institutions vis-à-vis party structures. This problem was partially addressed by EUJUST Lex, which trained police officers and reformed the penitentiary system, but was closed down in 2013.

Although there is no going back to EUJUST Lex, the necessity of police reform is still evident in the KRG, and should be part of the commitment high ranking European politicians have promised KRG leadership on various visits over the last several months.

DO13. November 2014


Mutual mistrust

Nobody can deny that the relations between the West, especially the EU and Russia are not in good shape. Maybe some on both sides are happy about it. Some regarded the pragmatically good relations of the times after the break down of the Sovietunion always with mistrust and skepticism. And you could find them amidst the nostalgic dreamers of the Russian empire and the Sovietunion as well as amidst those, especially in some new member countries, for whom the Russian imperialism is „genetically“ founded. For some of them, Putin’s Russia was and is the same as the Sovietunion and therefore Putin was and is another Stalin.

On the other side some nostalgics of the the strong Russia – before or inside – the Sovietunion have a deep mistrust against the West with its liberal values and especially with its new freedoms for homosexuals and secular, even anti-religious tendencies. It is in line with these tendencies that the former KGB officer Putin is on very good terms with the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church. We should never forget the parallelism of the domestic and foreign policy of today’s Russian policy.

Missed chances after the Sovietunion’s breakdown

This trend has its origin in the Russian history and its use by today’s Russian ideologues and politicians. But this new trend, which is based on old and traditional structures, ideologies and policies was also supported by the „one sided“ enlargement of EU and NATO.  Nevertheless one can understand that, regarding the history of Soviet domination and policies after the World War II -and partly even before – there was a strong incentive and pressure to go foreword as quickly as possible with enlargement and integration of the the now liberated countries into the Western political and military structures.

But we have to recognize that the enlargement was planned and at least seen by Russia as a strategy according to the principle: „The winning takes it all.“ And in politics also in international politics, this is never a good and successful principles. The neglect of any strategy to involve and include – parallel to the enlargement process – Russia into a comprehensive defense structure in Europe was a grave mistake. Such a wide ranging and courageous strategy should have been considered from the beginning.

The later reaction of the so called Medvedev Plan, when he was Russian president, was typical for the Western lack of visionary ideas and conceptions towards a wider European strategy. Maybe the Medvedev plan had in mind  to exclude the US from a European security structure, but this was never tested. Anyway, the EU never seriously and in right time tried to present and offer a far reaching and innovative approach to an all – European security structure with Russia and the USA as strong partners.

Acute crisis with Ukraine’s rapprochement with EU

The diverging courses of the EU and Russia became acute with the approaching of the EU enlargement process to the borders of Russia in what was called the „Near Abroad“ of Russia. With a certain stabilization of Russia, also due to high energy prices and the build up of financial reserves, Putin became much stronger and assertive in his new presidential period. Just at this time, the negotiations about an Association and Comprehensive Trade Agreement with Ukraine and some other countries of the common neighborhood came into its final phase. Armenia withdrew from an already fixed agreement. With Georgia and Moldavia Russia had not really new and strong measures and tools of pressure at hand. Both countries already were affected by Russian sanctions and support for breakaway regions. And these countries were not as strategically and ideologically important as Ukraine.

Negotiations with Yanukowitch & Co.

In regarding and evaluating the Russian reactions to the negotiated agreement with Ukraine, it has to be underlined, that these negotiations were done principally with President Yanoukowitch and the government of Prime minister Azarov from the Party of the Region. And all other negotiators like Andriy Klyuyev were representing the same party. And in all talks – and I myself had many talks with them, often bilaterally – they underlined the willingness to sign the agreements negotiated. Only at the very end came the No from Kiev, due to the enormous pressure from Moscow. The decline of signing the agreement had the protest at the Maidan as consequence. This was less a probes against Russia as such as a protest which was directed against the interruption of the association process, which was rightly interpreted as a stop to the internal reforms of a corrupt system. This system with many deficiencies concerning the state and rule of law was an obstacle to the modernization of the country and the development of democracy.

Even then the EU tried to mediate between the Maidan movement and Yanukowitch. But the trust into the Ukrainian President, who recently switched from Yes to No and was seen as the symbol of a corrupt system was no longer existing. And the fact, that Russia is not „using“ Yanoukowitch as the legitimate president and that it had respected the recent presidential and parliamentary elections is clearly a sign for their recognition of him as a persona non grata in Ukraine. As in the years after the break up of the Sovietunion also in course of the negotiations of the association agreements the EU may have made mistakes not considering Russia’s concerns and fears. But we had respected the elected representatives of all these countries and their clear willingness to come to an agreement with the EU.

Crimea and secession

On the other hand, the support for the secessionist movements in the Eastern region and the well prepared and illegal annexation of the Crimea was violating clearly internationally law and also the Budapest agreement in which also Russia recognized the territorial integrity of the new Ukraine. This was and is a behavior the EU could not and cannot accept. One cannot compare this enforced annexation with the lengthy process of giving Kosovo – after many years of suppression – the chance for independence. Even in the case of Kosovo, the EU did not support an annexation by a foreign country, for instance by Albania, and the West especially the EU is trying to find an agreement with Serbia and to establish good relations between Kosovo and Serbia, including supporting the Serb minorities in Kosovo. It is along and internationally accorded process to a new regional order.

The choices of the EU

The EU had basically three choices how to react to the direct Russian interference:
neglect it,
go for the military option, directly or by delivering weapons to Ukrainian government
or decide on sanctions, political a or economic nature.

To neglect the annexation and the support for separatist movements would signify acceptance and would have brought enormous strain and divisions inside the EU. The military reaction would never met consensus inside the EU and even NATO and would have been disastrous. So sanctions are the least damaging reaction for the EU, the least damaging, but not without damages for the EU itself and some serious setbacks!

EU and Russian sanctions

Sanctions in an economically and politically interconnected world create always collateral damages also for the countries who decided on sanctions and apply them and not only in the countries who are the target of sanctions. In addition they go against the ideological supported principle of free trade. And they always raise the questions how and under what conditions to get out of the sanctions, what kind of exit strategy has been considered if any. This was as well the case with the sanctions concerning imports of wine, meat, fruits etc. Russia levied against some of its neighbors. And it is now the case with the different kind of political and financial sanctions decided by the EU.

And we should not forget the very differentiated gas prices as political tools, which sometimes can also be interpreted as sanctions. The same could be said about the insistence to deliver gas to Europe not via Ukraine but either directly or via countries which would have no conflicts with Russia.

What we all missed was the chance to have a joint policy concerning the Russian gas transfer and transition to Europe via Ukraine. Already at that time some of us in the European Parliament suggested a joint EU. Ukrainian and Russian ownership of the transport infrastructure. A joint pipeline ownership would create a strong common interest on the functioning of the gas transport, otherwise everybody would loose. This joint ownership could have been – and may still be – the basis for a common policy on economic policies. Ukraine’s economy and its regional position would give a clear preference for a strategy of a tripartite policy for economic development, the gas business and a security structure.

Concerning the legal basis the EU is bound by the law, which finally is interpreted by the European Court, which already in the past decided against several decisions for example taken against Iran. We have to wait, what kind of decision will be taken in the case of sanctions against Russia or Ukraine. It is known, that several Russian companies and also Ukrainian individuals have appealed to the European Court to challenge the legal basis of the sanctions.

New basis for sanction regimes

Independently from the legal questions, the EU should create a legally sound and reasonable basis and framework for sanction regimes, to which CEPS made recently some proposals. One of the vital questions is of course if sanctions will reach the goal intended with them. And what kind of goals will be chosen. The costs of the sanctions on all side should be taken into account. Also the unintended effects should be considered. And most importantly it should be clearly evaluated if sanctions are in line with the other political aims and objectives of the EU foreign and security policy.

The costs of sanctions

Concerning the costs – of the sanctions imposed on Russia and the counter-sanctions with which Russia retaliated  – a recent study done by the very reliable Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (WIIW)  shows that they may go up to one percent of Russian GDP for the period 2014 – 2016, primarily on account of increased investment risks. You had already before some capital flights and reduction by foreign investment, but sanctions seemed to have strengthened this development. One of the consequences of sanctions is that Russia is less able to meet the challenges of slow growth and increasing inflation than without. And the devaluation of the Rubel will even increase inflation!

A much smaller impact is evaluated for the EU, alas with a  very wide spread between different countries, depending on their exposure to the Russian market. The Baltic states and Finland are much more affected than for example Austria. For Lithuania and Estonia the costs would be about 0,4% and for Austria less than 0,1%.

Apart from these costs, we have to realize, that Ukraine is of course the biggest victim of the dispute. And Ukraine stays the biggest single trade partner for Russia. And Russia needs Ukraine for energy imports.

Russia’s economy and the oil price

Unfortunately to this day, no exit out of the crises is visible. The separatists still have the support, at least politically and morally by Russia and even the Minsk agreement seems not to be respected. And this means, the sanction imposed by the EU will not be lifted. Especially as some hope, that the decline of the oil and gas price will in particular hit Russia and force Putin to a change of course. Some even speculate, that the lowering of the oil price is artificially manipulated by the US and Saudi Arabia to the detriment and disadvantage of Russia and Iran, which has been officially denied.

Russia today is economically and financially not in a very good position. Some of the sanctions, especially concerning new technologies, the reduction of foreign investment from the West and the decline of income from energy exports is creating a lot of problems for Russia. But Russia still has financial reserves. And politically Putin could rally many friends around him and received strong public support. In addition many elite groups,  who had different views before, now have to support the Russian foreign policy. This is the non-economic effect. Even if it is called „collateral“ it is a major effect.

New Russian alliances?

And of course President Putin and Russia will look for other alliances in the  Eurasian neighborhood and in China. But that will be not so easy, as the Russian actions against Ukraine and other neighbors has met mistrust and not found much support. The resurgence of Russian nationalism and imperialistic tendencies is not a god basis for a close cooperation. Even some Chinese companies, for example those with subsidiaries in the USA, are not happy to work together with Russian companies, because of fears to be sanctioned by USA. On the other hand, some countries like Kazakhstan and Belorussia have got a stronger position because they are the source of western imports into Russia affected by sanctions to Russia.

Looking to the high importance of energy exports, the strong dependence on European markets and the extensive use of Dollar and Euro an alternative direction towards Asia and especially China is not easy. Nevertheless Europe must be careful and vigilant and enhance its relations with all those who could be attracted to a strong alliance with Russia against the EU. Otherwise China would be the big winner, at least politically.

From status quo to Helsinki II

We have to recognize that the overall situation in the relations between Europe and Russia will not easily improve. We will have to leave with frozen and /or lukewarm conflicts, hoping we can avoid of overheating. But this is not a stable and secure situation. We should look for ways to overcome this fragile status quo. And the minimum would be a de-escalation of words. We have to stop the war of words in order to prevent the outbreak of a real war.

What we would need in addition, are channels of dialogue which would prepare an exit strategy for both sides. With the annexation of the Crimea and the support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine and by thus violating the Minsk agreement, it will be difficult. Both sides do not want to be seen as week and compromising too early. But a Helsinki II process to give the whole Europe a new security structure would be necessary. A courageous reset in the relations between the EU and Russia will be vital for peace in Europe. And to be honest it would include a stop of NATO enlargement, should not include a stop to EU enlargement and must include a new all- European security structure. This cannot be done without the USA.

But it will be vey difficult to agree on the neutrality for Moldavia, Georgia and especially Ukraine. The leading politicians in these countries will argue, that only NATO would protect them against Russian intervention. And of course for the USA even if they are not eager to extend NATO into this conflicting zone, they never like neutrality. And if Russia would take that initiative it would be met with much resistance and skepticism. And if we can find an agreement in Europe is at least at the moment doubtful. But the initiative must come from the European Union. And Austria and several institutions like this can be helpful to keep the dialogue going. It is in anyway better than war and also better than economic and political sanctions.

One possibility to take steps towards an agreement is of course to think about a renovation and reconstruction of the OSCE. Here we have European Union countries and other European countries, Russia and the USA and others together and a sincere dialogue would all of them give the possibility to bring in their ideas. The OSCE now as a platform and in future as a reconstructed and strengthened security organization could be the way out of the present stalemate.

Yalta – Helsinki – and now?

Next year, 2015, we will remember speciall  the Yalta Conference of 1945 and the Helsinki Conference of 1975. Both were historic events in reconstructing the political and security landscape of Europe. The one helped to overcome the war started by Nazi Germany, the other confirmed national sovereignty but added the necessity to respect the different human rights as basis for European security. Commemorating these two historic events is not enough. We need a new event which would again bring a new and comprehensive security structure not based on division, confirming the Helsinki principles but finding a new consensus between EU, USA and Russia.

DI11. November 2014

Israel’s One-State Reality

MO10. November 2014

Building Berlin’s Wall helped avoid a nuclear confrontation

FR03. Oktober 2014

How America Helped ISIS

How America Helped ISIS


Austin, Texas — The Islamic State terrorists who have emerged in Iraq and Syria are neither new nor unfamiliar. Many of them spent years in detention centers run by the United States and its coalition partners in Iraq after 2003. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, spent nearly five years imprisoned at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. A majority of the other top Islamic State leaders were also former prisoners, including: Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Abu Louay, Abu Kassem, Abu Jurnas, Abu Shema and Abu Suja.
Before their detention, Mr. al-Baghdadi and others were violent radicals, intent on attacking America. Their time in prison deepened their extremism and gave them opportunities to broaden their following. At Camp Bucca, for example, the most radical figures were held alongside less threatening individuals, some of whom were not guilty of any violent crime. Coalition prisons became recruitment centers and training grounds for the terrorists the United States is now fighting.
This process began when coalition forces arrived in Iraq in 2003 and detained alleged terrorists with little preparation or oversight. Although soldiers tried to document the circumstances behind the detentions of Iraqis and foreign fighters, the process broke down under the pressure of fighting, the shortage of trained Arabic speakers, and the fog of war.
Simply being a “suspicious looking” military-aged male in the vicinity of an attack was enough to land one behind bars. There were 26,000 detainees at the height of the war, and over 100,000 individuals passed through the gates of Camps Bucca, Cropper and Taji. Quite a few were dangerous insurgents; many others were innocent.
Small-time criminals, violent terrorists and unknown personalities were separated only along sectarian lines. This provided a space for extremists to spread their message. The detainees who rejected the radicals in their cells faced retribution from other prisoners through “Shariah courts” that infested the facilities.
The radicalization of the prison population was evident to anyone who paid attention. Unfortunately, few military leaders did.
At Camp Bucca, the extremists forced moderate detainees to listen to clerics who advocated jihad. The majority of prisoners were illiterate, so they were particularly susceptible. Prisoners frequently refused medical attention and vocational training for fear of breaking religious rules. The prisons became virtual terrorist universities: The hardened radicals were the professors, the other detainees were the students, and the prison authorities played the role of absent custodian.
Policies changed in 2007, as American military leaders began placing more emphasis on understanding the detainee population. Where possible, the military tried to separate hard-line terrorists from moderates. Prisoners gained more access to programs that taught vocational skills, literacy and a moderate version of Islam.
Some of these reforms worked, but the damage had already been done. The terrorists had four years to network, recruit and impose their extreme version of Islam on thousands of detainees.
One of us served at Camp Cropper in 2009 as a compound intelligence liaison officer with the tasks of collecting information on detainees and disrupting extremist activity. Fulfilling the first priority was relatively easy; the second was nearly impossible.
The compound’s “emirs” controlled the prison population. Detainees, for example, refused to watch television or play ping-pong, lest they face the judgment of the Shariah courts. Moderate detainees suffered repeated physical assaults from radicals. When they fought back, they were punished by the prison authorities.
Insurgents with damning evidence against them were released because of the incompetence of the Iraqi court system and America’s refusal to share classified evidence. Efforts at expediency drove both policies, and the mistakes compounded one another.
By December 2009, only a few thousand detainees remained in the prisons and Camp Bucca was closed. Although American soldiers, backed by intelligence agencies, tried to identify the most threatening detainees, that effort was doomed to failure. Poor record-keeping, limited language skills, detainee obfuscation and the pressure to cut costs prohibited the effective evaluation of prisoners.
The most extreme radicals were never slated for release. A number of them had already been sentenced to death and were awaiting transfer to the Iraqi justice system. But after the United States withdrew, these prisoners found themselves in Iraqi custody. The Islamic State made a priority of freeing these extremists as they conquered large parts of Iraq this past summer. With a new lease on life, these former prisoners are now some of the Islamic States’ most dedicated fighters.
The United States should keep this lesson in mind as it begins another counterterrorism campaign in Iraq and Syria. Large detention facilities only create the seeds for further radicalization and violence. There is strong evidence that the prisons run by the Iraqi and Syrian governments have already had this effect.
The United States must convince its regional partners to avoid mixing radicals and moderates, and provide alternatives to prison for small-scale criminals. If we continue to replay the history of mass incarceration in the Middle East, we will remain stuck in the current cycle where our counterterrorism efforts create more terrorists.

Andrew Thompson,a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, served for eight years in the United States military.Jeremi Suri, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of “Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama.”

A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 2, 2014, in The International New York Times.

FR22. August 2014

The Middle East’s Three Timelines

BERLIN – Three distinct timelines are shaping developments in the Middle East: the short-term timeline of daily struggles and politics; the medium-term timeline of geopolitical shifts, which is measured in decades; and the long-term timeline of sociocultural transformation, or what the historian Fernand Braudel called the longue durée. Understanding each is essential to craft an effective strategy in the region.

The first timeline certainly receives the most attention. The media report relentlessly on the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas; recent negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program; ongoing opposition activity and political repression in Egypt and Bahrain; and the slaughter and humanitarian tragedies unfolding in Syria and Iraq.

But political thinking in the Middle East is often linked to the second timeline. Indeed, it is impossible to grasp the region’s contemporary history and politics without understanding the emergence of the regional state system after World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire.

For example, there are the constant reminders that external powers – most notably, the United Kingdom and France – established the existing borders. Resistance against the so-called Sykes-Picot order nurtured the founding myths of many states and political movements in the region.

That order has remained largely intact for almost a century, enabling the emergence of separate, though not necessarily exclusive, political identities in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and, to varying degrees, in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries. It has dictated the political parameters for 4-5 generations in the Arab world, including today’s main protagonists, who have battled over it, adapted to it, and attempted to manipulate it.

But the system may finally be unraveling. The border between Iraq and Syria is evaporating, as the Sunni militants of the Islamic State capture a widening swath of territory. And the rise of Kurdish military forces against them raises the possibility that a full-fledged Kurdish state will eventually emerge.

Meanwhile, the tenuous status quo in Israel and Palestine is crumbling. With a two-state solution less likely than ever, the area is likely to experience the creeping consolidation of a one-state reality.

In the Persian Gulf, ongoing international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are but the latest chapter in a struggle over strategic hegemony, security, and economic interests. And, though the world’s appetite for energy resources from the Gulf will not diminish anytime soon, the structure of influence may be set to change again.

When it comes to external power brokers, the United States plays the largest role, having replaced Great Britain by the 1970s. It now must learn to cope with the growing influence of India and China, as well.

But it is the leading regional powers – Iran and Saudi Arabia – that have the greatest potential to transform the Middle East. The question is whether they will continue their competition for regional dominance, regardless of its destabilizing impact, or become pillars of a new regional security structure.

Such a structure has become all the more important as the major external powers’ appetite for sustained involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts wanes. Having learned the hard way that they cannot dictate regional political outcomes, Western powers – as well as Russia, China, and India – will likely limit their involvement to protecting their direct interests and, if necessary, containing regional threats.

Wherever the political and socioeconomic conditions of the short- and medium-term timelines fail to provide order and stability, the confessional, ethnic, or tribal identities that emerged over the longue durée gain prominence. The extent to which identities are invented matters little, as long as their invocation helps to appropriate elements of history and harness them to current political goals.

Episodes from this timeline thus become as relevant as recent events. The conflict over the succession of religious leadership following the death of the Prophet Muhammad nearly 1,400 years ago is the origin of the split between Sunni and Shia Islam. The battles between the Fatimids and the Abbasids, the Crusades, the Mongol invasion, the Ottoman conquest, and, of course, Western imperialism all serve as points of reference for today’s struggles.

But these events provide more than explanation; they often provoke powerful responses. Consider the Islamic State’s recent declaration of a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria. Most Sunnis are outraged by the brutal behavior of the Islamic State’s self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and consider his claim that he will eventually “conquer Rome” ridiculous.

Nonetheless, the symbols and “memories” from the longue durée that Baghdadi uses – such as the black flag of the Abbasids and the glorious stories of a time when the caliphate constituted a great power and a lodestar for all Sunnis – have an enduring impact. Of course, these ideas would amount to little were they not backed by modern weaponry, and had the countries whose territory the Islamic State is seizing not failed to create inclusive social contracts. But they imbue the Islamic State’s project with a powerful historical narrative that cannot be dismissed.

Navigating this narrative can be tricky for external actors. They must neither ignore the longue durée nor believe misleading claims that the struggle is really over the legitimacy of opposing interpretations of the faith.

More generally, these actors’ actions in the region must never be shaped by the delusion that the Sunnis, Shia, or any other ethnic or religious minority is on their side. One lesson common to all of the Middle Eastern timelines is that all local actors are on their own side – and more than willing to draw foreigners into their wars if doing so fortifies them against their enemies.

DO21. August 2014

Enough Hate for Everyone

Muslims and Jews Are Targets of Bigotry in Europe

Love hateLONDON — A few years ago, I was a guest on “Start the Week,” a BBC radio discussion show. Among the other guests was the novelist Eva Figes, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and a fierce critic of Israel. Israel, she suggested, would have built gas chambers to exterminate the Palestinians but for the fear it would “be found out.”

What astonished me was not simply Ms. Figes’s comment itself, but the fact that I was the only one who challenged her on it. The other guests may well have felt that a Holocaust survivor had some special license to speak harshly about Israel; I certainly don’t see them as anti-Semitic. But in suggesting without a speck of evidence that Israelis had a desire to build gas chambers, Ms. Figes had, for me, given the history of the Holocaust, crossed a line.

What the incident revealed was that many anti-Semitic ideas have become such an acceptable part of the liberal view on Israel that they are barely seen as such anymore. They have become almost invisible.

I was reminded of that discussion as the question of anti-Semitism has returned to Europe — often disguised as anger against Israel’s assault on Gaza. Synagogues have been attacked, Jewish-owned shops smashed, Jews beaten up. At pro-Palestinian demonstrations in London, placards comparing Israelis to Nazis have become common. There have even, reportedly, been chants of “gas the Jews” at demonstrations in Germany.

Today’s anti-Semitism in Europe is more than a replay of old themes; it is also the product of new developments. One is the growth of Muslim communities, or rather, their transformation.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Muslim communities in Europe were broadly secular. Since the late ’80s, though, secular movements have been marginalized, while religious fervor has grown. Support for the Palestinian cause has always been strong, but only recently has a fervent anti-Semitism become entrenched.

It might be convenient for some to simply blame the growth of reactionary tendencies within Muslim communities for the new anti-Semitism, but the truth is more complicated. A 2008 survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project showed that hostility to Jews had increased in most European nations.

In Britain, Muslims make up 4.6 percent of the population; in France, 7.5 percent. The proportion of people who possessed unfavorable views of Jews in those countries was, respectively, 9 percent and 20 percent. But in Spain, where just 2.3 percent of the population is Muslim, almost half the population was ill disposed toward Jews, a figure that had more than doubled in three years. In Poland, there are just 20,000 Muslims, or about 0.1 percent of the population; more than a third of Poles held anti-Semitic views.

In other words, there is no clear correlation in Europe between the level of popular anti-Semitism and the size of the Muslim population. In fact, it is in those countries with fewer Muslims that anti-Semitism seems most prevalent.

One explanation for this is that many of the drivers of change within Muslim communities that have paved the way for greater hostility toward Jews have had an equally corrosive effect on public opinion at large. The rise of identity politics has helped create a more fragmented, tribal society, and made sectarian hatred more acceptable generally.

At the same time, the emergence of “anti-politics,” the growing contempt for mainstream politics and politicians noticeable throughout Europe, has laid the groundwork for a melding of radicalism and bigotry. Many perceive a world out of control and driven by malign forces; conspiracy theories, once confined to the fringes of politics, have become mainstream.

Anti-Semitism has become a catchall sentiment for many different groups of angry people. The distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism has eroded, as many see Israeli action in terms of grand conspiracies. Thus someone can imagine that Israel would build gas chambers on the West Bank if it could get away with it.

Perhaps in no country are the corrosive effects more visible than in France. And perhaps no figure better represents the character of the new anti-Semitism than the stand-up comic Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, notorious for popularizing the “quenelle,” a hand gesture that, for some, is an expression of hatred for the system, and for others, an anti-Semitic taunt. In reality, it is both: Dieudonné’s popularity shows how inchoate anger against “the system” and anti-Semitic sentiment can all too easily become fused, and his success rests on his ability to blur the two.

But Jews are not the only object of this free-floating rage. The Pew survey showed not just that anti-Semitism had increased throughout Europe, but also that the “publics that view Jews unfavorably also tend to see Muslims in a negative light.” The fusion of xenophobia, conspiracy theory, identity politics and anti-politics that has nurtured the new anti-Semitism has also cultivated hostility to Muslims. The Pew report found that in every country surveyed, “Opinions about Muslims in almost all of these countries are considerably more negative than are views of Jews.”

Against this background, what is troubling is that many who rightly challenge anti-Semitism do so in a way that fuels anti-Muslim prejudice. Many commentators talk of anti-Semitism as an almost wholly Muslim problem, and have used the growth of anti-Semitism to question the wisdom of allowing Muslim immigration to Europe. Others suggest that Muslim support for Palestine shows that Muslims cannot be truly integrated into Western societies.

Such arguments only entrench further hostility toward “the other,” and so inflame not just anti-Muslim but anti-Jewish sentiment, too. Israel’s action in Gaza should not be a moral shield for complaisance with anti-Semitism in Europe. But neither should anti-Semitism be a moral shield for the justification of anti-Muslim prejudices. Bigots on both sides need to be held to account.

Kenan Malik, a writer, lecturer and broadcaster, is the author, most recently, of “The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethic

MO06. Juni 2011

Why the Jewish state now?


Israel’s raison d’être was as a Jewish state, yet for almost four decades
after the 1948 declaration of its establishment its Jewishness was not inscribed in any law. This essay, a structural-historical discourse analysis, seeks to explore what led up to today’s insistent assertion of the state’s Jewish identity. To this end, the author traces Israel’s gradual evolution from its purely ethnic roots (the Zionist revolution) to a more civic concept of statehood involving greater inclusiveness (accompanied in recent decades by a rise in Jewish religious discourse). The author finds that while the state’s Jewishness was for decades an assumption so basic as to be self-evident to the Jewish majority, the need to declare it became more urgent as the possibility of becoming “normalized” (i.e., a state for all its citizens) became an option, however distant. The essay ends with an analysis of Israel’s demand for recognition as a Jewish state, arguing why the Palestinian negotiators would benefit from deconstructing it rather than simply disregarding it.

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