Authoritarian and Religious States Are Not Friends of the West

In the Sunni parts of the Mideast, both authoritarianism and fundamentalism are on the rise. The national security interests of Western societies are undermined by treating a state in either category as an ally. Authoritarian and religious regimes do not share core Western values. Cooperation with such regimes is certainly possible on a case-by-case basis but viewing them as allies grants them a dangerous and inappropriate hold over the freedom of maneuver of the West.


Getting too close to Mideast states that mistreat their own populations and promote a state religion has hobbled Western foreign policy for decades, entangling the West in alliances that are set-ups for increasingly dangerous and expensive blow-back. The long list of examples, from the first Afghanistan war to 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq to the rise of the Islamic State, is no secret, but Western regimes remain blind to the harm they are voluntarily causing. Arming the Saudis to serve as a proxy army to attack Yemen now, six months later, seems certain to lead to unnecessary blow-back against the West in the near future. The toleration of Israeli mistreatment of its Palestinian subjects and its interference in Western efforts to find a nuclear compromise with Iran have plagued and undermined the national security interests of the West for years. The reliance on jihadi militias far more sympathetic to the ideology of the Islamic State than to Western principles of nonsectarian democracy for the purpose of overthrowing Assad is another thoughtlessly short-sighted tactic, as Obama has now begun to recognize.

A deal with Moscow to partition Syria and recognize Rojava would address Western national security concerns and the interests of the Syrian people better than the further stimulation of Sunni radical militancy.


The extremism of authoritarian regimes at war is just as bad as the extremism of religious movements at war, and in the Mideast the one cannot be separated from the other.Given the dangers inherent in encouraging Sunni extremism, a better short-term approach would include the following:

  • developing a joint policy with Moscow to recognize Rojava, provide the Kurds with defensive weapons, and encourage the Kurds to practice the non-sectarianism they preach in return for recognizing Russia’s interests in preserving its Damascus position;
  • terminating the policy of encouraging the Saudi military intervention in Yemen and promoting a government of national unity with the implicit assumption that Yemenis are the ones who have the right to run Yemen, not Saudis;
  • employing diplomatic, economic, and judicial pressure to put hold key figures across the region responsible for their mistreatment of civilians; ineffective as that may be over the short term, it would still constitute a major step forward from the traditional international practice of letting the major political criminals escape unpunished;
  • defining the saving of as many Syrian refugees as possible this decade’s global goal, analogous to the far less significant “man on the moon” program of an earlier era;
  • making it absolutely clear to regimes that receive Western largesse that making war on civilians for sectarian reasons, be they Kurds or Palestinians, is behavior unacceptable in the 21st century.


The list of Mideast reforms consonant with genuine, long-term interests of Western societies is long, but war is an extremely expensive, unreliable, and inefficient way to achieve these reforms. Indeed, war is counter-productive. Even military victory for the West in a Mideast war constitutes a strategic defeat for the West. Riyadh’s Yemen adventure has not just empowered jihadis in Yemen but weakened Saudi Arabia, while making the most aggressive forces within the Saudi regime more bold. Ankara’s increasingly aggressive stance toward Syria is profoundly entangled with its increasingly sectarian stance toward its own Kurds. If the cost of eliminating Assad turns out to be the destabilization of Turkey, and we are already well on the way to that outcome, it will be far too high a price to pay. If the cost of achieving a military zero-sum victory in Yemen is a Saudi-Iranian war or just the defeat of Iranian moderates and further alienation of Iran it will be a Pyrrhic victory for the West. Far more effective over the long run would be a Mideast policy emphasizing support for those Mideastern societies that reject expansion, military solutions, sectarianism, and fundamentalism. Such societies and regimes do exist in the Mideast (e.g., Tunisia, the Kurds, Morocco), and the West would serve its own interests well by establishing a policy that sends a clear message to the world that such states will benefit from their rejection of prejudice and repression. Conversely, the states that occupy minority regions to which they have no legal right, discriminate against minorities, promote proxy wars, or promote educational systems that teach fundamentalism should know that they will pay a price.

Cooperation with regimes that are authoritarian, sectarian, or religious should never be automatic. Rather, it should be cautious, with judgment made on a case-by-case basis. The default diplomatic position of the West regarding states that promote sectarianism, repression, or religious discrimination should be keeping one’s equilibrium…like a judo wrestler: maintain distance, watch carefully, search for positive-sum interactions, verify…don’t trust. In this spirit, Western arms should be offered only for strictly understand and controllable defensive purposes. A situation in which it is rational for the West to encourage a Sunni state that is fundamentalist or moving toward greater sectarianism and greater authoritarianism and greater religious extremism is rare in the extreme and not remotely justifiable today.

Suppressing the Kurds to Install Turkish Authoritarianism

Erdogan and Davutoglu are implementing a broad policy of suppressing democratic activism by all Turkish citizens under the cover of a sectarian war against the 20% of the Turkish population of Kurdish origin. While nothing unusual for the region, it is a shocking reversal of behavior for the country that was leading the region toward modernization…and the ability of Turkey to recover any time soon remains unclear.


Erdogan is implementing a three-pronged domestic political policy:

  • a military campaign against Kurdish rebels;

  • a sectarian campaign to punish and humiliate the Kurdish population;

  • a thinly disguised terror campaign to destroy the democratic Kurdish/progressive opposition.

The first may be shortsighted and counter-productive, but it is typical of politicians, who tend to prefer short-term solutions. The second is the core of what makes the military campaign counter-productive, for it will instill hatred for the AKP and ethnic Turks throughout the Kurdish 20% of the population; this second sectarian campaign seems designed to permanently disenfranchise and repress the Kurds, much as Shi’i militias have done to Iraqi Sunnis, and is being implemented under the cover of the well publicized military onslaught of the Turkish armed forces. The third is, judging from the evidence, the purpose: to destroy democratic opposition to the AKP. Were this not Erdogan’s purpose, it would be in his best interest to encourage Kurdish democratic action in order to weaken public support for Kurdish radicals; instead, Erdogan insists on lumping all the Kurds together, making very clear both by rhetoric and military action that no peaceful political participation will be permitted either for Kurdish citizens of Turkey or for any Turkish citizens who wish to engage in free speech or political action that opposes Erdogan’s policies. Indeed, he even lumps Syrian Kurds together with Turkish Kurds, effectively getting out in front of Kurdish public positions by promoting a common Kurdish front against Turkey!

The abrupt about-face by Ankara away from integration of Turkish Kurds represents a major step back toward secular conflict and authoritarianism for the region that merits comparison with the Egyptian military coup that overthrew the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood regime; the Pakistani military campaign in Waziristan; Israel’s military, economic, and political repression of Palestinians (whether civilians, activist Hamas officials in Gaza, or submissive West Bank authorities); the suppression of Shi’i democracy activists in Bahrain by the regime with the Saudi military; suppression of peaceful democratic participation by Iranian reformers in 2009; and the Maliki policy of discrimination against Iraqi Sunnis that sparked the rise of the Islamic State. The first essentially knocked a weakened Egypt out of regional affairs, while third destroyed Iraq as a functioning, unified state. The rest at least temporarily reinforced authoritarianism and deepened sectarian hostility. The consequences for Turkey will greatly depend on the willingness of Erdogan and Davutoglu to shift course once again and start respecting the civil rights of peaceful Kurdish citizens and the rights of all Kurds, including honest journalists and dissident professors, to participate in political affairs.

At the moment, Turkey’s future looks remarkably dim, in comparison to only a few years ago: this fall the Turkish people responded to Erdogan’s demand that they choose between order and chaos. Turks chose chaos, and now they have it.



Mapping Mideast Chaos

Many factors, mostly long-lasting dynamics rather than discrete events, influence Mideast chaos, and they work in non-linear fashion at very different tempos. Here’s a simple map of some factors discussed in this blog.


Two key dynamics causing frustration in Muslim societies are the vicious cycle of “arms for oil” and the now virtually universal attitude of global regimes that (borrowed from the old Likudnik attitude) war is the answer to all questions. Resulting Muslim frustration feeds back in numerous ways but eventually results in refugee flows.


  Arms for Oil —>  Muslim Frustration  <—War Is the Answer |




Refugee Flows


Refugee Policy & Global Security

Politicians in the U.S. (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren notably excepted) are absorbed with tossing out buzz words and insulting each other; the bureaucracy is fighting fires; the media report the most trivial remarks of the most trivial politicians, because that sells. Who is thinking about the future?

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Does ISIS Equal al Qua’ida?

Whether ISIS equals al Qua’ida appears to be a matter of some dispute in Western policy-making circles. The answer depends on the point of the question. Yes, they differ in significant ways, but the real weakness in Western policy toward Muslim societies lies in the failure to see the forest more than in the lack of data about the trees: the psychological constraints inhibiting Western policy-makers from feeling sympathy for Muslims.

The combination of Salafi fundamentalism (in itself an extreme and historically marginal faction within Islam or even just Sunni Islam) with a belief in violence (not coincidentally marching in step with the Western tendency to rely on war as the answer to all disagreements with Muslim societies) is a new threat to global stability arising from a rapidly evolving reinforcing feedback loop between Western behavior and Muslim frustration. This feedback loop is the key to understanding the sudden prominence of violent jihad, a new dynamic powered by the widespread popular feeling among Sunnis that they have no other options. That is the high-level dynamic that must be understood to design an effective Western policy.

One of the most ironic examples of the rapid evolution of Muslim behavior as it responds to Western intrusion is the unification of Zarqawi’s super-extremist Salafis with Saddam’s unemployed, secular officer corps to lead a Sunni revolt riding on the backs of mistreated Sunni civilians to form ISIS–united by their marginalization at the hands of Washington, Tehran, and Baghdad.

One step down, the key dynamic is the speed of Salafi jihadi tactical evolution in contrast to the blind Western insistence on repeating the same failed strategy of trying to bomb people into altering their ideology. As with the highest level dynamic (the reinforcing feedback loop between jihad and Western behavior), tactical adaptation is also a dynamic that characterizes both branches of Salafi jihad.

This is certainly not to equate the two branches of Salafi jihad. For those chasing individuals or those dealing with the tactics of defeating a highly networked gang vs. a geographically-based functioning state, the two are obviously different. Those concerned with underlying ideology will also see numerous distinctions, and the West is unlikely to make easy progress against Salafi jihadism unless it manages to understand such internal jihadi debates as that between ISIS and al Qua’ida theoretician al Maqdisi.

Strategically, however, the contextual similarities Western leaders tend to find too embarrassing to recognize are the key to creating effective policy to counter the growing Salafi challenge. These contextual similarities include:

  • a lack of Western sympathy for peaceful Muslim political protests;

  • a typical Western response, once Muslim protest attracts Western attention, based not just on force but on utterly out-of-proportion force that punishes the already victimized Muslim society;

  • a tendency to think short-term, exploiting extremism in Muslim societies for short-term political gain, akin to allowing a forest fire to rage in order to roast marshmallows;

  • and finally the apparent inability of Western politicians to understand how easily an insurgency can trap an unwitting adversary into defeating itself by thrashing wildly, causing widespread civilian casualties, and pushing those frustrated citizens further into a corner.

The result is the now familiar pattern of empowering extremists: the rise of Hamas because the calls of Palestinians for freedom were ignored; the rise of Hezbollah because Lebanon’s fate at the hands of the Israeli invaders was ignored; Maliki’s Iranian-backed discrimination against Sunnis pushing them into the arms of the joint rebellion of ISIS and the remnants of Saddam’s officer corps; the rising influence of Salafi extremism in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars as the doors of peaceful democratic action to address the grievances of both Sunnis and Kurds in Syrian as well as Houthis in Yemen were slammed shut, one after another.

The West could in principle simply “do no harm:” avoid interfering, buy oil from those who wish to sell it or go without, and never–ever–sell arms or provide military training or supply intelligence to a regional regime. Not only is this degree of self-control beyond imagination, it is morally questionable. Few are the regional regimes so pure that they have the moral right to demand full sovereignty over their citizens (“state sovereignty” is a concept that emerged out of desperation to stop Europe’s own period of sectarian madness called the Thirty Years’ War, not a concept adopted because it is remotely just). Moreover, many in the West would argue that its principles (if not very much of its behavior) are a gift that should be actively offered, not just passively displayed. If the West is to take the risk of promoting the rule of law, civil liberties, and non-sectarian principles of governance, then that offering of gifts must, to be effective, be made sympathetically to avoid the charge of self-serving hypocrisy.

The core weakness of Western policy toward the Muslim world is the psychological inability of Western policy-makers to feel sympathy for Muslims.

Sunni Militias in Syria

French professor Fabrice Balanche has laid out the contradiction-laden military situation in Syria as a result of the Syrian Kurds’ daring crossing of Erdogan’s hostile Euphrates red line and asked the important question about who would gain. So difficult is this question to answer that even the major protagonists don’t seem to have a very clear idea.

One of the complexities of the Syrian conflict is distinguishing among the Sunni militias. Going from Islamic State to an unstable collection of groups that, on any given day, may cooperate with IS tactically while disagreeing ideologically or fight against IS while espousing essentially the same goals, perhaps it is no wonder that no one appears able to distinguish one from the other. World leaders essentially claim that there are “good Sunni terrorists” (mine) and “bad Sunni terrorists” (yours), al Qua’ida Salafi jihadists we can work with, al Qua’ida Salafi jihadists we cannot work with, and IS Salifi terrorists–whom we certainly cannot work with but with whom we trade, who are allowed to replenish their ranks via our territory, whom we bomb…but not so hard as to harm them.

But it is impossible to define rational tactics or meaningful strategy without figuring out who your enemy is. The history of the war in Iraq after the U.S. invasion makes clear that distinctions among Sunni militias matter: Sunni tribal militias defending their traditional lands effectively resisted the jihadis, who had a fundamentally different ideology. When traditional sectarian communities are given genuine opportunities to defend themselves, they frequently are content to do so, without exhibiting any desire to pillage or redesign the world.

If Syrian Sunni communities were afforded the chance for self-preservation without subjugation, many would probably consider it a privilege. Similarly, if the Turkmen were offered such an opportunity rather than being used by Turkey as agents of influence, they might well be content to have their homeland and stay there. Similarly again, if the Kurds were offered Rojava in return for being good neighbors to locals not Kurdish and to neighboring states like Turkey, they would have a huge incentive to stay home and out of trouble. Erdogan apparently cannot conceive of such a thing, and a lot of U.S. officials also have trouble with this simple and proven approach to peacemaking (despite the temporary success of the Iraqi “Sunni Awakening,” which should probably have been labeled the “American Awakening”).

Politicians have surprising difficulty dealing with positive-sum solutions. The result is that an endless array of tiny sectarian communities, out of insecurity, are driven into a cycle of violence. Each little drop of gasoline on the flames, albeit having the ability to raise the temperature, is helpless to lower it, thus becoming consumed. The only winners are those big and reckless enough to ride the flames.

Losing Control of Foreign Affairs

International law is collapsing in the Mideast-Central Asian region, and its replacement by conflict between states, client statelets, and private militias poisoned by the rising use of mercenaries threatens to cripple the ability of states to manage foreign affairs. As bad as the record of states has been, the behavior of private armies, free from any society’s control, promises to be far more dangerous.

International law, so painfully designed in recent centuries to offer human civilization some measure of protection by both giving states control over military force and regulating how those states use that monopoly, is collapsing before our eyes in the Mideast-Central Asian region because of the short-sighted misuse of power by all sides, but in particular by those very global powers most responsible for designing and benefiting from the current system of international law. In essence, international law offers states a monopoly of force plus total control over their own populations in return for constraints limiting their legal rights to start wars. People are thus sacrificed in cases where repressive regimes exist in hopes at least that this very imperfect system will inhibit war. The greater the education of the masses and the better the exchange of information among increasingly connected societies, the more repressed populations will protest and organize to combat repression. Since the weaknesses and injustice inherent in current international law are not being addressed as fast as people worldwide are becoming aware of their rising potential to take matters into their own hands, the system is cracking and–in the Mideast-Central Asian region–is collapsing.

This process of collapse begins with local dictatorships being protected by global powers, which leads to local protests that are repressed with violence, thus promoting radicalization leading to wars of national liberation, civil wars, a steady rise in the use of violence both by local dictatorships and the repressed populations. The violence radicalizes both sides while also offering all manner of opportunity for war profiteers, criminal gangs, extremist groups, and arrogant politicians willing to sacrifice their people for personal gain. This cycle of violence is now provoking the rise of secretly sponsored militias and private militias in a cycle of institutional decentralization that may well be even more dangerous than the cycle of violence provoking it.

The cycle of institutional decentralization is leading to a loss of control over military force, a nightmare scenario in which private armies are gaining sufficient power to challenge states. Both Syrian and Iraqi society have already reached the point where it is virtually impossible to distinguish “good” militias from “bad,” or even to tell what side a particular militia is on…or what its political goals are. At best, militias protect only a favored ethnic group, thus provoking beggar-thy-neighbor civil wars; at worst, they are no more than self-financed criminal gangs. Locally, people are desperate for any organized force that offers them a modicum of security; internationally, aggressive global powers are seeking ways to maintain the benefits of empire without paying the price of actually doing the fighting, a contradiction seemingly resolved first by remote-controlled drones and second by hiring mercenaries. The latter is a pact with the devil in which states relinquish power to private armies that have no purpose but to foment the endless violence that justifies their paychecks. The rich states doing the hiring either do not care about civil liberties and the rule of law in the first place or blindly make exceptions for their mercenaries, who end up with blank checks to act with impunity outside of the legal system of the hiring state. When their power reaches a sufficient level, they essentially transform themselves into independent pirate enterprises that have no societies over which to rule and simply run amok. While the Islamic State and Boko Haram may be the obvious examples, Shi’i militias in Iraq; the FARC in Colombia; a variety of militias in Syria patronized by the Gulf States, the U.S., and Turkey; the Taliban in Pakistan; Hezbollah in Lebanon; Hamas in Gaza; and militias in Nigeria and Somalia are equally pertinent examples. Another important but murky layer is the pseudo-official militia, of which many examples exist, including illegal settler military groups in Palestine protected by the Israeli regime, Colombian armed groups formed by cattle barons protected by the Colombian regime. As these three layers interact, even official state governmental structures may decline into something more properly considered to be what might be called “semi-official client militias:” no longer real states, controlling perhaps little more than the former state capital, supported only by a minority of the population, and manipulated by a foreign patron. Baghdad under U.S. occupation, Bahrain after the Saudi military intervention (supported by Pakistani mercenaries), the restored Yemeni regime re-installed by Saudi Arabia, Baghdad today as an Iranian client entity, and Damascus under Russian protection exemplify this layer.

The New World Order

Client Pseudo-States

Semi-Official Militias

Private Militias

Corporate Armies???

The result is a nearly complete continuum of official to private military regimes, all calculating the degree to which, on any given day, they should fight with or trade with any of their many active adversaries. It appears, for example, that one day historians will tell us that virtually every state opposing the Islamic State both attacked the IS and simultaneously purchased from IS the oil that keeps it afloat. Perhaps the only people to whom this insane situation makes sense is the war profiteers.

The one element missing from this continuum going from official states to private armies is the corporate army, though the story of Blackwater illustrates how rapidly we are approaching a world in which a private corporation will be able to launch a war against a state.

…Erik Prince, who is a top target on Al-Qaeda’s ‘hit list’, has moved to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where the crown prince Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan is paying him $529 million to create an 800 person battalion[10]. Trained by Prince and US Navy SEALs, the small army will serve as sort of Praetorian Guard for the crown prince’s own purposes, a useful tool during times of turmoil in the Middle East. It would not be the first time that a foreign player has patiently watched the US experiment – and struggle – with a concept before adopting it and all best practices as their own. []

Already Blackwater is, independently of the U.S., organizing military forces for other countries, very possibly for uses that will harm U.S. national interests. A U.S. corporation enriched by the U.S. government as a security arm of the U.S. government has now morphed into an independent international player completely outside of the bounds of international law, as much a lone wolf as a terror gang and with potentially far more power. Whatever loyalties or moral self-constraint Blackwater may have, its evolution shows where current trends are pulling naïve and short-sighted governments: toward a world in which private interests increasingly control global politics, even to the extent of fielding private armies. Corporate armies already play key roles in wars among states, enabling tiny rich states to become overnight military powers; how far behind, if no action is taken, will be the decision of a private corporation to invade a state?


  • Saudi Arabia and/or the UAE have hired hundreds of ex-Colombian army soldiers to help it subdue Yemen. With the half century-long Colombian civil war now winding down, Colombia has many veterans with broad experience repressing the poor, supporting rich cattle barons, and punishing democracy advocates: just what the petroshiekhs and their Salafi allies need to colonize Yemen. [Middle East Eye 11/2/15.]
  • According to mercenary analyst Tim Shyrock, “Without much notice or debate, the Obama administration has greatly expanded the outsourcing of key parts of the U.S.-led counterinsurgency wars in the Middle East and Africa…” [The Daily Beast, 12/10/15.]
  • Houthi forces have reportedly killed Blackwater mercenaries in Yemen. []