US, UK, Israel should help form an Arab NATO - opinion

The US and UK helped Islamic militias flourish in the MENA region; they can help defeat them now.

 US PRESIDENT Joe Biden gestures as he delivers remarks at the White House in July on the administration’s drawdown efforts in Afghanistan. (photo credit: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Joe Biden gestures as he delivers remarks at the White House in July on the administration’s drawdown efforts in Afghanistan.
(photo credit: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/REUTERS)

When the Taliban swiftly conquered Afghanistan under the watch of United States (US) and international troops, one of the lessons learned was that war in the region was no longer between nation states, but by non-state armed groups and militias not subject to the authority of states or international law.

Revealingly, there is no universally agreed-upon definition of non-state armed groups in international treaties, according to the website of the international humanitarian NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). Even more telling is the Albert Camus quote, “Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world,” the organization displays on some materials:

This begs the question: How can nations stop the affliction of armed groups upon world peace when they can’t even agree on how to define them, let alone defeat them?

The international consensus is that armed militias follow the orders of internal or external forces with expansionist ambitions that use them as tools to achieve their goals by proxy. Accordingly, what is more important than the pursuit of a definition is the unmasking of the forces or nations who control the armed militias. Indeed, international courts have ruled that when a non-state armed group acts under the control or on behalf of a foreign state, that foreign state will be held responsible.

For example, Iran is responsible for the actions of a staggeringly large number of non-state armed groups. Iranian-backed militias in several Arab countries answer directly to officers in Iran’s Quds Force, the unconventional warfare and military intelligence operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which controls Iran’s allied militias abroad. According to US intelligence reports, among these actions includes involvement with Kataeb Hezbollah – the strongest faction in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) – Iraq’s Imam Ali Battalions, the Muqtada al-Sadr armed group who are responsible for killing thousands of US, British, European, and Arab peoples, and helped Iraqis and Afghans liberate from the oppression of previous regimes; the Ansar Allah (Houthis) in Yemen; Hezbollah in Lebanon; and Liwa Fatemiyoun in Syria. These are but a few among many more examples of the armed organizations affiliated with Iran.

WAVING THE Hezbollah flag in Marjayoun, Lebanon. (credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)WAVING THE Hezbollah flag in Marjayoun, Lebanon. (credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)

What is more dangerous is that the leaders of these organizations are transforming themselves from gang members into statesmen who hold control over national decisions of who is friend and who is foe.  In many cases, they decide between war and peace.

Iran’s control over these groups and the power it has gained by strategically exercising that control has played a decisive role in shaping its own international relations. Since President Joe Biden came into office, Tehran has reopened diplomatic channels with Washington and Riyadh. Simply stated, the increasing success of non-state armed groups is dangerously becoming the basis on which the future of the world is being determined.

While much has been written about these groups and their complex histories, how we deal with them deserves our immediate attention. The West’s involvement with armed groups in the MENA region arguably began in 1928 when Britain donated £500 to Hassan al-Banna shortly after the Egyptian schoolteacher and religious leader founded the Muslim Brotherhood. The group expanded exponentially in the 1950s when the West, including US and British intelligence, supported the Brotherhood in Egypt as a force to counterbalance the nationalist trend led by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had tried to monopolize pan-Arabism to impose his dominance over other Arab countries.

The danger began, as it so often does, with terrorist groups the West thought could be manipulated. For example, an empowered Brotherhood began executing its own plans and agendas that were wholly incompatible with Arab and Western interests.

Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan provides the second clearest development in the inception of many non-state armed groups we know today. From the end of World War II and throughout its cold war with the Soviet Union, the US was eager to establish itself as the dominant leader in world affairs. It found fertile ground in the ongoing 1980s conflict between a group of Afghans supported by the Soviets and Islamic jihadist groups, such as the Mujahideen. Based on Pakistani intelligence, the US decided to support the jihadist groups by secretly supplying $2 billion in weapons in the hopes of avoiding a repeat of its failed experience in Vietnam, but the US made one of its biggest mistake in history.

Let us not forget that among those Mujahideen members was a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden, whose inherited wealth provided the Mujahideen with money, weapons and fighters. When vicious infighting among US-supported Afghan factions erupted after the Soviets retreated, a mullah named Mohammed Omar resolved the conflict by organizing a new armed movement backed by Pakistan called the Taliban.

Having spent billions to help foster the Taliban, the US has had to spend trillions more to fight them. Worse than this, militants associated with bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda hijacked four US airliners and attacked the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, killing almost 3,000 people. What was the US response? To wage war against the armed groups it helped establish and to adopt policies that exacerbate the problem. The US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq only increased popular grievances in the region, allowing terrorist organizations to promote themselves on religious grounds as champions against corrupt and oppressive regimes and foreign occupiers. Al-Qaeda spread in Iraq and moved into Syria after the Arab Spring against corruption and economic stagnation in the early 2010s.

The negative impact of US policies in the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular goes beyond this issue to the formation of new non-state armed groups that the US has no direct role in establishing. Hezbollah is a prime example. Before Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 due to international pressure led by the US, the Syrian army was responsible for security. After Syria left Lebanon with US and French blessings, Hezbollah, which works for Iran, began to grow in strength from the collapse of the state’s power and institutions.

The July 2006 war with Lebanon was Israeli’s great gift to Hezbollah. Despite the destruction of their country, the collapse of its institutions and the displacement of approximately one million of its residents, the people of Lebanon declared Hezbollah the only defender of their homeland. Thus, Hezbollah was able to force negotiations on the superpowers (albeit indirectly) and consolidate its strength in Lebanon.

Currently, the US contributes to the growth of these organizations and the increase of their influence by its failure to take any action to limit their power, thus fueling the spread of their destabilizing influence. Case in point: the nuclear deal negotiations between Washington and Iran. The Biden administration’s desperate attempts to return to this deal and the concessions it made will lead to the consolidation of Iran’s proxy armed presence in the region’s countries.

This is especially clear in the case of Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is always ready to ignite war in the territories whenever it suits Iran or when Iran needs leverage negotiating with the US.

Indeed, the US and British role in bringing Hamas to power and allowing it to overcome Fatah – whom I do not consider as an honest representative of the Palestinian people, but better than the rule of the militias – and to control the Gaza Strip. Speaking volumes is the silence on Iran’s political and financial support for Hamas, a designated terrorist organization. Giving Hamas a role in the peace process with Israel serves to reinforce the conviction among some Palestinians that only Hamas has the power to restore their rights.

Another example is the peace agreement the US signed with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Dozens of foreign officials, including the Turkish foreign minister and the US secretary of state, witnessed the signing ceremony in the Qatari capital of Doha in February 2020. With a stroke of a pen and the blessings of great Western nations, the Taliban was transformed from a nine-year-old terrorist organization into a political entity worthy of trust in a peace treaty agreement.

Other agreements with similar armed organizations loom in the future of Yemen, especially after the Biden administration removed the Houthi group from its designation as a terrorist organization and list of sanctions, without even asking it to stop chanting death to America, death to Israel slogans, and slogans that call for the death of their Saudi, Emirati, and Arab brothers. Such actions only increases the Houthi’s influence in Yemeni affairs and allow other nations to view it as an equal rather than the terrorist organization it is.

Likewise, what brought the pro-Iranian armed militias in Iraq to its current influence as a force that seeks to impose its rule and secure firmer Iranian control in the region? The goal of establishing the PMF, as well as Saraya Al Salam – one of Iraq’s largest paramilitary groups led by Muqtada al-Sadr, was to participate with US forces in Iraq to fight ISIS and, as usual, this backfired.

The armed militias turned into a political and parliamentary force that supports Tehran’s interests, and the Saraya Al Salam turned its guns against US troops in Iraq. Although al-Sadr, whose political party commands the biggest bloc in Iraq’s parliament after general elections in October, met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, one of the region’s most outspoken critics of Iran. In 2017 he visited Saudi Arabia, and he traveled to Tehran in 2019 to meet with Supreme Leader Khamenei and Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. As well, in 2020 al-Sadr traveled to Tehran again to meet with other leaders of Iraq-affiliated Shiite militias.

Although the US considers al-Sadr as moderate, he leads the largest and most dangerous of all the militias serving Iraq’s expansionist ambitions. I have lost count of how many thousands of Iraqi citizens, and US and British troops Saraya al-Salam has killed under al-Sadr’s leadership and how much he has contributed to disrupting the building of the Iraqi state and army.

The US could have avoided all this if it had adequately trained the Iraqi army, which fled from ISIS fighters despite its numerical superiority, leaving behind a treasure-trove of equipment and weapons.  They are following Tehran’s orders and trying to find the opportunity to implement the plan of establishing facilities approved by the world, and are succeeding. The Iraqi army was infiltrated and the US did not know it, and that was a calamity. The past is prologue when one compares this outcome to events in Afghanistan. This leads one to wonder what did the US do for two decades in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Gaza.

In his recent book, Do Morals Matter: Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump, US diplomat and scholar Joseph S. Nye Jr. argues that when judging a president’s foreign policy, the end results and the means used to achieve them are as important as the moral soundness of their intentions. Through the multifocal lens of means, morality and intended results, have US policies in the Middle East succeeded? The answer is a resounding no.

In the Arab world, some say that the US foreign policy succeeded with distinction and superiority in spreading chaos. This is due in large part because the US sought to manage but not resolve Mideast conflicts.

Washington and Whitehall would be wise to re-evaluate the global role they play, as well as how the instability of this region is directly connected to earlier US and British policies. Despite the continuous efforts of the US and Great Britain to appease political Islam movements, neither nation will remain safe from violence that does not honor the principles or values of true Islam. Make no mistake, these movements despise the values of democracy and freedom that many Arabs – I am first among them – believe in, learn from and must defend on a daily basis.

Arabs have soundly rejected these organizations, and we have rejected the US gamble that these movements and their affiliated armed militias can ever serve as an alternative ally against existing authoritarian regimes. This was incontrovertibly proven by the second revolution Tunisians launched with their president, Kais Saied, against the Muslim Brotherhood government of Rached Ghannouchi, who tried to deceive the world that his party was a civil and non-ideological entity. The opposite is true. The Brotherhood used Islam to declare a caliphate after it strengthened its foundations and seized the state. We thank God that the Brotherhood failed to take control of Tunisia, as it had failed before in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, and other states in the region.

People of the region are expecting support for real democracy from the US that will lead them to safety after decades of wars, conflicts and destruction. The US, Great Britain, and Europe hold the keys to the region’s peace and democratic nation building that will undoubtedly help ensure their own strength and security – without having to fight wars or rely on militias that only speak the language of violence and exclusion.

Perhaps the greatest support the US, Great Britain, and Europe can offer the region is reviving the idea of the creation of a Mideast collective defense alliance, first proposed in 2017. It would include the six Gulf states (the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar), Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab states that wish to protect the interests of their countries, their citizens and their religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) from the dangers of radical organizations that want to return to the time of the caliphate.

Only the combined forces of an Arab NATO with support from the US, Europe, and Israel can end the role of armed militias and allow the Arab world to focus on building a secure homeland for its citizens in complete peace with its neighbors. Some may argue that there are countries that do not have formal peace agreements with Israel, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait; nevertheless, I urge them to cooperate militarily with Israel on security issues to protect their country from the dangers and true threat of armed organizations. Israel is not the real enemy, but those who spread fear, corruption, and destruction.

In conclusion, since the US and Great Britain helped militias flourish in the MENA region, it only seems fair that they help establish an Arab NATO with Western and Israeli support that is capable of defeating them.

The writer is a Jordanian entrepreneur and a writer with weekly columns in the Arab press.