Israeli think tank: Don’t destroy ISIS; it’s a “useful tool” against Iran, Hezbollah, Syria
Head of a right-wing think tank says the existence of ISIS serves a "strategic purpose" in the West's interests
By Ben Norton, Salon.com, Aug 23, 2016
Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at Salon.
According to a think tank that does contract work for NATO and the Israeli government, the West should not destroy ISIS, the fascist Islamist extremist group that is committing genocide and ethnically cleansing minority groups in Syria and Iraq.
Why? The so-called Islamic State “can be a useful tool in undermining” Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and Russia, argues the think tank’s director.
“The continuing existence of IS serves a strategic purpose,” wrote Efraim Inbar in “The Destruction of Islamic State Is a Strategic Mistake,” a paper published on Aug. 2.
By cooperating with Russia to fight the genocidal extremist group, the United States is committing a “strategic folly” that will “enhance the power of the Moscow-Tehran-Damascus axis,” Inbar argued, implying that Russia, Iran and Syria are forming a strategic alliance to dominate the Middle East.
““The West should seek the further weakening of Islamic State, but not its destruction,” he added. “A weak IS is, counterintuitively, preferable to a destroyed IS.”
Inbar, an influential Israeli scholar, is the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank that says its mission is to advance “a realist, conservative, and Zionist agenda in the search for security and peace for Israel.”
The think tank, known by its acronym BESA, is affiliated with Israel’s Bar Ilan University and has been supported by the Israeli government, the NATO Mediterranean Initiative, the U.S. embassy in Israel and the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
BESA also says it “conducts specialized research on contract to the Israeli foreign affairs and defense establishment, and for NATO.”
In his paper, Inbar suggested that it would be a good idea to prolong the war in Syria, which has destroyed the country, killing hundreds of thousands of people and displacing more than half the population.
As for the argument that defeating ISIS would make the Middle East more stable, Inbar maintained: “Stability is not a value in and of itself. It is desirable only if it serves our interests.”
“Instability and crises sometimes contain portents of positive change,” he added.
Inbar stressed that the West’s “main enemy” is not the self-declared Islamic State; it is Iran. He accused the Obama administration of “inflat[ing] the threat from IS in order to legitimize Iran as a ‘responsible’ actor that will, supposedly, fight IS in the Middle East.”
Despite Inbar’s claims, Iran is a mortal enemy of ISIS, particularly because the Iranian government is founded on Shia Islam, a branch that the Sunni extremists of ISIS consider a form of apostasy. ISIS and its affiliates have massacred and ethnically cleansed Shia Muslims in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
Inbar noted that ISIS threatens the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. If the Syrian government survives, Inbar argued, “Many radical Islamists in the opposition forces, i.e., Al Nusra and its offshoots, might find other arenas in which to operate closer to Paris and Berlin.” Jabhat al-Nusra is Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate, and one of the most powerful rebel groups in the country. (It recently changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.)
Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based militia that receives weapons and support from Iran, is also “being seriously taxed by the fight against IS, a state of affairs that suits Western interests,” Inbar wrote.
““Allowing bad guys to kill bad guys sounds very cynical, but it is useful and even moral to do so if it keeps the bad guys busy and less able to harm the good guys,” Inbar explained.
Several days after Inbar’s paper was published, David M. Weinberg, director of public affairs at the BESA Center, wrote a similarly-themed op-ed titled “Should ISIS be wiped out?” in Israel Hayom, a free and widely read right-wing newspaper funded by conservative billionaire Sheldon Adelson that strongly favors the agenda of Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In the piece, Weinberg defended his colleague’s argument and referred to ISIS as a “useful idiot.” He called the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran “rotten” and argued that Iran and Russia pose a “far greater threat than the terrorist nuisance of Islamic State.”
Weinberg also described the BESA Center as “a place of intellectual ferment and policy creativity,” without disclosing that he is that think tank’s director of public affairs.
After citing responses from two other associates of his think tank who disagree with their colleague, Weinberg concluded by writing: “The only certain thing is that Ayatollah Khamenei is watching this quintessentially Western open debate with amusement.”
On his website, Weinberg includes BESA in a list of resources for “hasbara,” or pro-Israel propaganda. It is joined by the ostensible civil rights organization the Anti-Defamation League and other pro-Israel think tanks, such as the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).
Weinberg has worked extensively with the Israeli government and served as a spokesman for Bar Ilan University. He also identifies himself on his website as a “columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel.”
Inbar boasts an array of accolades. He was a member of the political strategic committee for Israel’s National Planning Council, a member of the academic committee of the Israeli military’s history department and the chair of the committee for the national security curriculum at the Ministry of Education.
He also has a prestigious academic record, having taught at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown and lectured at Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Oxford and Yale. Inbar served as a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was appointed as a Manfred Wörner NATO fellow.
The strategy Inbar and Weinberg have proposed, that of indirectly allowing a fascist Islamist group to continue fighting Western enemies, is not necessarily a new one in American and Israeli foreign policy circles. It is reminiscent of the U.S. Cold War policy of supporting far-right Islamist extremists in order to fight communists and left-wing nationalists.
In the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the CIA and U.S. allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia armed, trained and funded Islamic fundamentalists in their fight against the Soviet Union and Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed socialist government. These U.S.-backed rebels, known as the mujahideen, were the predecessors of al-Qaida and the Taliban.
In the 1980s, Israel adopted a similar policy. It supported right-wing Islamist groups like Hamas in order to undermine the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO, a coalition of various left-wing nationalist and communist political parties.
“Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation,” Avner Cohen, a retired Israeli official who worked in Gaza for more than 20 years, told The Wall Street Journal.
As far back as 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower insisted to the CIA that, in order to fight leftist movements in the Middle East, “We should do everything possible to stress the ‘holy war’ aspect.”
Note: Original Efraim Imbar article below and link to PDF.
The Destruction of Islamic State is a Strategic Mistake
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 353, August 2, 2016
Hebrew version of this article
The West should seek the further weakening of Islamic State, but not its destruction. A weak but functioning IS can undermine the appeal of the caliphate among radical Muslims; keep bad actors focused on one another rather than on Western targets; and hamper Iran’s quest for regional hegemony.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently gathered defense ministers from allied nations to plan what officials hope will be the decisive stage in the campaign to eradicate the Islamic State (IS) organization. This is a strategic mistake.
IS, a radical Islamist group, has killed thousands of people since it declared an Islamic caliphate in June 2014, with the Syrian city of Raqqa as its de facto capital. It captured tremendous international attention by swiftly conquering large swaths of land and by releasing gruesome pictures of beheadings and other means of execution.
But IS is primarily successful where there is a political void. Although the offensives in Syria and Iraq showed IS’s tactical capabilities, they were directed against failed states with weakened militaries. On occasions when the poorly trained IS troops have met well-organized opposition, even that of non-state entities like the Kurdish militias, the group’s performance has been less convincing. When greater military pressure was applied and Turkish support dwindled, IS went into retreat.
It is true that IS has ignited immense passion among many young and frustrated Muslims all over the world, and the caliphate idea holds great appeal among believers. But the relevant question is what can IS do, particularly in its current situation? The terrorist activities for which it recently took responsibility were perpetrated mostly by lone wolves who declared their allegiance to IS; they were not directed from Raqqa. On its own, IS is capable of only limited damage.
A weak IS is, counterintuitively, preferable to a destroyed IS. IS is a magnet for radicalized Muslims in countries throughout the world. These volunteers are easier targets to identify, saving intelligence work. They acquire destructive skills in the fields of Syria and Iraq that are of undoubted concern if they return home, but some of them acquire shaheed status while still away - a blessing for their home countries. If IS is fully defeated, more of these people are likely to come home and cause trouble.
If IS loses control over its territory, the energies that went into protecting and governing a state will be directed toward organizing more terrorist attacks beyond its borders. The collapse of IS will produce a terrorist diaspora that might further radicalize Muslim immigrants in the West. Most counter-terrorism agencies understand this danger. Prolonging the life of IS probably assures the deaths of more Muslim extremists at the hands of other bad guys in the Middle East, and is likely to spare the West several terrorist attacks.
Moreover, a weak and lingering IS could undermine the attraction of the caliphate idea. A dysfunctional and embattled political entity is more conducive to the disillusionment of Muslim adherents of a caliphate in our times than an IS destroyed by a mighty America-led coalition. The latter scenario perfectly fits the narrative of continuous and perfidious efforts on the part of the West to destroy Islam, which feeds radical Muslim hatred for everything the West stands for.
The continuing existence of IS serves a strategic purpose. Why help the brutal Assad regime win the Syrian civil war? Many radical Islamists in the opposition forces, i.e., Al Nusra and its offshoots, might find other arenas in which to operate closer to Paris and Berlin. Is it in the West’s interests to strengthen the Russian grip on Syria and bolster its influence in the Middle East? Is enhancing Iranian control of Iraq congruent with American objectives in that country? Only the strategic folly that currently prevails in Washington can consider it a positive to enhance the power of the Moscow-Tehran-Damascus axis by cooperating with Russia against IS.
Furthermore, Hizballah – a radical Shiite anti-Western organization subservient to Iran – is being seriously taxed by the fight against IS, a state of affairs that suits Western interests. A Hizballah no longer involved in the Syrian civil war might engage once again in the taking of western hostages and other terrorist acts in Europe.
The Western distaste for IS brutality and immorality should not obfuscate strategic clarity. IS are truly bad guys, but few of their opponents are much better. Allowing bad guys to kill bad guys sounds very cynical, but it is useful and even moral to do so if it keeps the bad guys busy and less able to harm the good guys. The Hobbesian reality of the Middle East does not always present a neat moral choice.
The West yearns for stability, and holds out a naive hope that the military defeat of IS will be instrumental in reaching that goal. But stability is not a value in and of itself. It is desirable only if it serves our interests. The defeat of IS would encourage Iranian hegemony in the region, buttress Russia’s role, and prolong Assad’s tyranny. Tehran, Moscow, and Damascus do not share our democratic values and have little inclination to help America and the West.
Moreover, instability and crises sometimes contain portents of positive change. Unfortunately, the Obama administration fails to see that its main enemy is Iran. The Obama administration has inflated the threat from IS in order to legitimize Iran as a “responsible” actor that will, supposedly, fight IS in the Middle East. This was part of the Obama administration’s rationale for its nuclear deal with Iran and central to its “legacy,” which is likely to be ill-remembered.
The American administration does not appear capable of recognizing the fact that IS can be a useful tool in undermining Tehran’s ambitious plan for domination of the Middle East.
BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family
Prof. Efraim Inbar
Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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