by Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror
The threat that embodies the current clash of civilizations more than any other is the threat of radical Islam • ISIS is not alone -- there are others just like it, only without the beheading videos • Iran poses a far greater threat than ISIS.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, toward the end of the previous century, it felt as though history was ending and that the world would make a shift and dance solely to the beat of the American drum. In other words, it felt as though slowly but surely the world would march toward a more democratic future, with an open, global economy, in many ways dictated by the American model.
But shortly after the start of the third millennium, on Sept. 11, 2001, the biggest terror attack in history was perpetrated on American soil, of all places. On the surface, it looked like this event didn't change much -- life went on as it did before, rapidly returning to its usual track. But that was an enormous optical illusion: Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida had an enormous impact on the American lifestyle. But even more importantly, they had an enormous impact on the Sunni perception. In his decision last week to go to war against the Islamic State group, U.S. President Barack Obama signaled that we are in the midst of a "clash of civilizations," even if he doesn't like to admit it.
The U.S., and possibly even the entire democratic-Western world, will continue to fight radical Islam. This war has been ongoing for at least 13 years. This war is currently being waged in Iraq on the basis of what the Americans call a "perfect storm" -- a collection of unrelated, unpredictable events that, together, cause a much worse situation than each one alone. It is not a conspiracy, or someone's colossal mistake, it is simply history unfolding and it is nearly impossible to change history's course.
The breaking point: Sept. 11, 2001
The origins of this terrible perfect storm lie in events that are very different and far apart from one another: The first important event, chronologically speaking, was the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's victory over Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Khomeini succeeded in supplanting the shah's regime with an Islamic republic led by religious figures. It was a historic revolution that brought the Shiites to the forefront after hundreds of years of passivity and resignation to their inferiority as the Muslim minority. It demonstrated that a country could be run by the principles of Islam.
The Iranians took advantage of their victory to promote Shiite agendas all over the Middle East, and in Lebanon they were even successful. Their actions injected the Middle East with new dynamic forces that sparked discomfort and disquiet among a number of Arab states. The Iranians worked toward developing Shiite terror organizations (Hezbollah) as well as Sunni terror organizations (Hamas, Islamic Jihad) as part of their efforts to change the face of the Middle East.
The second event that contributed to the perfect storm was Afghanistan's extremist Sunnis' ability to stand strong in the face of the world's largest secular superpower -- communist Soviet Union -- causing its collapse, if you ask them. This success served as solid proof of radical Sunni Islam's invincible power. Likewise, this success set off a Sunni renaissance that ultimately led to the establishment of al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia, its transfer to Afghanistan and its focus on battling the only superpower left in the world -- the U.S. As aforementioned, the most blatant example of the Sunni awakening was the massive terror attack on September 11, 2001.
In the wake of this act of terrorism that occurred on its soil, the U.S. declared war on Sunni terrorism and used its military might to invade Afghanistan, the home of al-Qaida, and to conquer Iraq.
The third event that led to the perfect storm was what has been known as the Arab Spring, which, all at once, obliterated much of the world order created by the colonialist countries after World War I. This opened a window that let out many of the dark forces that had been forcibly suppressed by the totalitarian regimes in those countries undergoing this "spring." People began focusing their loyalties on their clans, tribes, nationalities and religions instead of their countries.
The geographical system that imposed itself on the citizens and prevented the outbreak of these dark forces completely disappeared in large parts of the Middle East (Libya, Syria and Iraq are the most obvious examples). But even in states that remained entirely intact, ostensibly, the leadership, which remained dictatorial, must take them into consideration when making its decisions.
Tectonic, yet localized shifts also occurred: The first shift was a direct result of the war in Iraq, where the U.S. succeeded in overthrowing one of the strongest dictators in the Arab world -- Saddam Hussein. This event set precedents, both in regard to the killing of a dictator and in regard to the intervention of one country in the affairs of another. This war also led to Iraq's ultimate collapse, in the absence of Saddam's iron fist.
Another shift occurred in three different places in three separate elections -- Palestinian, Egyptian and Turkish. In each of these elections, representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood were voluntarily elected by a majority of the population, without any coercion.
This multiple victory indicated that Islam's growing political power in our region was not just a random, localized blip on the radar, but rather a deep, wide historical process, and a reality that many in the Arab-Muslim world find desirable.
In Egypt, apparently learning from what happened in Turkey, the generals recognized the danger and staged a counter-revolution. In Turkey, this change signaled the end of the longest and most impressive effort to turn a Muslim country into a secular state with Muslim citizens.
These major events are joined by a number of influential factors that may be less significant, but still present in the construction of the Islamic threat: A tiny country in the Gulf, with an infinite amount of resources, is funding and maintaining terrorist organizations like Hamas in Gaza, the Islamist opposition in Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. On top of that, it is doing everything in its power to undermine moderate dictators, mainly through the media network it funds -- Al Jazeera.
In conclusion, the Arab Spring put the power in the street. The dictators, none of whom are promoting democracy, cannot ignore the street, but also don't want to give up their power.
The Qatar effect
The events in the Middle East, which stem mainly from internal processes, are compounded by three external phenomena. The first is the absence of an international body that can act as an arbitrator or mediator and impose sanctions on rogue countries that jeopardize international stability, intervene in their neighbors' business, fund terrorism, engage in terrorism or murder their own citizens. The United Nations is a bankrupt body, both practically as well as morally. No one takes the U.N. seriously.
Europe has gone silent and removed itself from the Middle Eastern equation. It doesn't have the desire, the means or the political structure necessary to make decisions and carry them out. The individual member states of the European Union bear more significance than the Union as a single national entity.
The U.S. has been trying to minimize its commitment to its allies in general, and to the Middle East in particular. In some cases, it is not willing to pay the price of maintaining the "Pax Americana." The U.S. is the only remaining superpower in the world (despite other powers' gains, mainly China). But it is tired of being the world's policeman, even though it is irreplaceable in this role.
Moreover, in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, many view the U.S.'s power as waning, including its economic power. Then there is also the disappointment with the U.S. for abandoning friends and ignoring them in their time of need (deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for example).
The combination of Middle Eastern turmoil and the absence of an external force, be it a superpower or an international body,capable of and seeking to stop the wild forces running amok in the Middle East, increases the likelihood of horrifying results in the region.
In the middle of this perfect storm, there is Israel -- the anomaly. Jewish and democratic. The dark forces of the Middle East are well established along Israel's tempestuous borders. Radical Salafists in Sinai, the armed Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas in Gaza, and to some degree in Judea and Samaria as well.
In Lebanon, the Iranians established the strongest terrorist organization in the world, possessing advanced military capabilities -- Hezbollah. In Syria there is a giant mess thanks to Sunni organizations of varying degrees of radicalism. At the radical end of the spectrum there is the organization that calls itself the Islamic State group, or ISIS as some have called it.
Bear in mind that despite the differences between them, all radical Islamist organizations have one common fundamental principle: they all believe that Islam should rule the world. The dispute among them, in most cases to the death, revolves around the question of which version of Islam should rule the world. Therefore, they are all united by a hatred for Israel. They are even willing to overcome their differences and help each other fight Israel from either side of the Islamic fence. That is how Shiite Iran, which is currently killing Sunnis in Syria, Iraq and in the Sistan and Baluchestan Province, can back a Sunni organization like Islamic Jihad and provide so much help to the radical Sunni organization Hamas.
Don't forget Iran
Whether intentionally or not, Israel is seen as a foreign agent in the region -- an outpost of another world: the hostile, democratic-liberal, long arm of the West, led by the U.S. The truth is that we are precisely that. That is why we mustn't forget the most important thing: in this cruel world, where our enemies wield 21st century weapons with a 7th century mentality, there will be no room for us is we lose our power, or the determination to use it.
A long time will pass, and many wars will be waged before the rules that currently govern Europe, or the relationship between the U.S. and Canada, can be applied to the Middle East without causing a catastrophe. A former leader of a Western country told me recently that he understands that Israel is on the front lines of the war between the modern democratic world and the forces of radical Islam. Not everyone understands that.
Obama's declaration of war against ISIS, one of the more prominent dark forces mentioned above, is enormously important because it will help combat the spread of the organization, even if it fails to obliterate it.
But it is imperative that the war against this vocal group, which managed to draw a lot of attention with its penchant for beheading prisoners, does not overshadow the need to fight and stop other radical Islamist groups. ISIS is not alone -- there are others just like it, but without beheading videos. Israel's battles against Hamas and against the nuclearization of Iran are not separate from the various efforts to stop radical groups in the Muslim world.
In direct relation to Israel, but also, in my opinion, to the rest of the world, Iran poses a far greater threat than ISIS. We cannot allow the justified feeling of disgust and horror brought on by the shocking ISIS beheading videos mix up our priorities.
A nuclear Iran will back organizations that will not hesitate to kill anyone who stands in their way. This is a purely potential future threat, but if it materializes it will be far worse than the threat of the Islamic State, against which a U.S.-led coalition is being formed.
Two final remarks, one philosophical and the other practical
In the spirit of the chaos theory, one could say that even if we have reliable, detailed information about the different factors that converged to bring about the current situation, there is no way to predict what the future holds on the basis of the same phenomena. Furthermore, external intervention in the process, like an attack on ISIS by the U.S.-led coalition for example, could have unpredictable ramifications that no one is even imagining today. As Professor Joseph Dan once said about all phenomena in the natural world and in human society: "There are reasons, but their results are impossible to predict. A small number of factors can develop into infinitely variable results, and there is no way to accurately predict the outcome." In other words, we should always view our ability to assess future developments in the region with a degree of humility.
Therefore, it is advisable to follow two important rules on the practical level: the first rule is that we must always prepare for the worst possible outcome of the current situation, after outlining a number of potential outcomes. We have no way of knowing what will happen, therefore we need to speculate a range of logical eventualities to know how to prepare and what risks to take, in light of the other possibilities.
The second rule has to do with taking risks. Since Israel is a small country facing a complex reality, it should refrain from actions that involve risk, even if the potential payoff is hefty. It is always advisable to prefer the risk-diminishing options. This is not the time to dare and take risks. Rather it is time to minimize risk as much as possible.
In Israel's current state, in the absence of any real margins of safety, it is best to take as much precaution as possible, even when there is a price to be paid, certainly when dealing with the drastic changes in the Middle East and absolute uncertainty about the future. Energy must not be wasted on anything but fighting the main threats.
Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror
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