Facing the jihadi threat

As Iraq and Syria collapse, and China and the US rework their Mideast strategies, Netanyahu outlines a regional security policy for Israel.

An Islamist fighter takes part in a military parade along the streets of Syria’s northern Raqqa province on June 30, after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria declared an Islamic Caliphate (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Islamist fighter takes part in a military parade along the streets of Syria’s northern Raqqa province on June 30, after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria declared an Islamic Caliphate
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In late June, after a string of military successes in Iraq, the motley group of Sunni jihadist fighters known as ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – declared the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate.
More than signaling any real changes on the ground, the declaration was a symptom of a wider Middle Eastern malaise – the disintegration of once powerful states and the ambitious region-changing goals of some of the non-state actors filling the vacuum.
For now the “Caliphate” is supposedly in parts of Iraq and Syria. The jihadists’ aim, however, is to extend it to the rest of Iraq and Syria and, from there, at the very least, to Kuwait, southern Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and Cyprus.
Already entrenched in Syria and Iraq, the jihadists are also active in Lebanon, pressing on Jordan and operating through cells in the Sinai.
The immediate danger to Israel seems relatively minor. But if the jihadists were to gain control of substantial land areas in any of the states or entities bordering on Israel, they could pose a serious threat.
Almost a century after the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France, the artificial states they created are collapsing along sectarian and tribal lines. In parallel, there seems to be a subtle ongoing shift in great power roles – with the US scaling down its regional presence and China looking to expand and protect growing economic interests.
Already under threat from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, Israel’s response to the growing jihadi menace has been to fine-tune its security doctrine. This entails, inter alia, strengthening its border defenses, looking to enhance security cooperation with moderate Middle Eastern state actors, and ratcheting up its security demands in the context of any settlement with the Palestinians.
One of the main reasons for the American military presence in the Middle East is precisely to fight radical Islamist terror. But there are two diametrically opposed schools of thought in Washington. One argues that an overblown American regional presence.
Therefore, its advocates say, the US should reduce its presence to a minimum and the terrorist threat will decline in direct proportion. On the contrary, the opponents insist, America must defeat the terrorists in the region, before they get to the US itself.
If America pulls out, they say, the terrorism will follow all the way back to the American mainland.
In a major policy address at West Point in late May, US President Barack Obama took the middle road. He drew a clear distinction between terror that directly threatens the US and terror that does not. America, he said, should fight the first kind and empower others to fight the second. In other words, it should fight Al-Qaida, but leave the jihadists in Iraq and Syria to its regional allies. “We have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat; one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stirs up local resentments… We need partners to fight terrorists alongside us,” he declared.
The degree of American presence in the Middle East does not depend only on Obama’s anti-terrorist strategy. America’s regional allies are also concerned that the US “pivot to Asia” could come at their expense.
American officials deny this. They point out that the US still maintains around 35,000 military personnel in the region, stations its 5th Fleet in Bahrain and deploys some of its most advanced military technology in Israel and elsewhere. It also has strong military partnerships with Israel, Egypt (now on hold) and the Gulf States.
Nevertheless, America’s growing military involvement in Asia seems to be of a different order altogether. The US has concluded new defense arrangements with the Philippines and Vietnam, and carried out joint military exercises with Japan. But most important by far is the new American Air-Sea Battle strategy, ASB, a huge military program designed to contain China. It entails the purchase and development of state-of-the-art weapons capable of neutralizing Chinese systems on land and at sea, at a projected cost of $524.5 billion over the next 10 years.
Will this huge regional shift in investment and deployment of weapons systems, including destroyers, submarines, maritime patrol aircraft, escort ships, long-range bombers, F-35 fighters, aerial tankers, ballistic missiles and lasers come at the expense of America’s capacity to project power and fight terror in the Middle East? America’s perception of what it needs to contain the Chinese threat in Asia, its newfound independence from Middle Eastern oil, Obama’s new doctrine for fighting only terror that directly threatens the US and the fact that America may be on the verge of a nuclear deal with Iran, all indicate a potentially significant American down-scaling of its Middle Eastern presence.
For China, the reverse is true. Now the world’s biggest energy consumer, it gets nearly 55 percent of its oil from the Gulf and it sees the continued flow of Middle Eastern oil as vital for its national security. Its overarching Middle East policy, dubbed “One belt and one road,” aims to create a modern version of the old Chinese-dominated “Silk Road” for a trade belt across Asia, extending as far as the Middle East and beyond.
The volume of Chinese trade with and investment in the Arab countries is growing rapidly. In early June, the China- Arab States Cooperation Forum convened in Beijing and unanimously approved China’s “One belt and one road” strategy.
The Chinese outlined ambitious plans to increase the volume of their trade with all 22 Arab states from $240 billion in 2013 to $600 billion by 2024, and their annual investments over the same period from $10 billion to $60 billion.
By creating goodwill, extensive trade relations and mutual dependencies, the Chinese hope to secure their oil imports. As further insurance, they plan to build overland fuel pipelines and railroads to circumvent a possible American maritime blockade.
There is also a military component. The socalled Chinese “String of Pearls” comprises a string of Chinese bases or footholds from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan on the Red Sea and Piraeus on the Mediterranean, through the straits of Mandeb, Malacca, Hormuz and Lombok, with maritime centers in Thailand, Burma, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Somalia. There are no Chinese troops in the Middle East or US-style military alliances. Indeed, China prefers being a “free rider” under an American security umbrella – leaving it to the Americans to maintain or restore regional order and stability from which the Chinese also benefit. But they are quietly developing their own security assets, just in case.
For now, China’s growing regional presence does not constitute a threat to Israel.
The military aspects are muted and China’s close ties with the Arab world – and with Iran and Turkey – do not preclude similarly close ties with Israel. Indeed, given China’s growing regional presence and the enormous economic openings it offers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made upgrading Israel’s economic ties with Beijing a high priority. He visited Beijing in May last year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Israel in December, and the two men met again in Davos, in January, helping to promote trade, joint projects and hi-tech deals.
The volume of annual trade between the two countries already tops the $8 billion mark, making China Israel’s single second largest trading partner after the US. Nevertheless, the possible American downscaling of its regional presence and China’s growing influence could become a longer-term strategic concern for Israel.
For Netanyahu, far more immediate is the growing jihadist threat from Syria and Iraq.
In late June, he outlined a new regional security policy designed to meet it. It had four main components:
Strengthening Israel’s border defenses:
This, Netanyahu said, would entail building a new eastern border security fence stretching from Eilat in the south to the Golan Heights in the north. Israel would also need to maintain a security border, manned by IDF troops, along the Jordan River. “We must have the capacity to stop the waves of terror and fanaticism that could come from the east along the Jordan River rather than on the outskirts of Tel Aviv,” he declared.
Maintaining Israel’s military hold over the West Bank:
In order to ensure that any future Palestinian state remains demilitarized, Israeli forces would have to remain in the West Bank. “Maintaining the demilitarization of the Palestinian state must be in Israel’s hands. Otherwise, it will simply be unsustainable,” Netanyahu insisted. The IDF’s objective would be to prevent jihadi or other weapons’ smuggling across the Jordan River and jihadi or other terrorist cells forming in the West Bank. This Israeli military presence, he argued, was not incompatible with Palestinian sovereignty – just as the US presence after World War II in Germany or Japan was not incompatible with German or Japanese sovereignty. In other words, besides his demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people and stop incitement against it, Netanyahu is now also demanding a long-term Israeli military presence in the West Bank.
Building an axis of regional cooperation:
To contain Shi’ite radicals led by Iran and Sunni jihadists led by ISIS and Al-Qaida, Israel and the West should build and nurture an axis of moderates, including, for example, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt and Jordan. As part of this vision of a beefed-up moderate axis against the radicals, Netanyahu announced his support for an international effort, if necessary, to help Jordan resist jihadists on its Syrian and Iraqi borders, and for recognition of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, which could serve as another buffer against the jihadists.
Preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state, in Netanyahu’s view, by following the Syrian chemical model – in Iran’s case, taking all enriched uranium and the means of producing it out of the country – and not the North Korean model – prevention by monitoring – which failed.
Netanyahu’s critics on the center-left argue that the trouble with his four points is that the demand for an extensive and long-term Israeli military presence in the West Bank virtually rules out the possibility of accommodation with the Palestinians. And without an Israeli- Palestinian détente, at least in the making, the Arab states won’t join his proposed axis of regional cooperation. He will also likely find himself with significantly less international support.
Worse, the critics argue, Netanyahu is using a remote and, for now, insignificant jihadi threat to manipulate public opinion into supporting his bedrock view of fortress Israel in an inherently hostile Arab sea. The best way to contain the jihadi threat is to reach an accommodation – first with the Palestinians and then with the moderate Arab world, the critics insist.
In their view, Netanyahu is sacrificing Israel’s most profound strategic needs for far less significant tactical gains. An Israeli military presence in the West Bank may make establishing terror cells more difficult – but it prevents the possibility of an accommodation with the Arab world that would make an infinitely greater contribution to Israel’s national security.