The threat posed by the Islamic State, strife in Yemen, political turmoil in the GCC. To understand these issues and to get up to date we turned to Dr. Theodore Karasik, INEGMA Dubai think tank Director of Research and Consultancy talked with Patrick Ryan on August 22, 2014 from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Focus KSA: Special Report – Region in Crisis – Dr. Theodore Karasik
[SUSRIS] Welcome to Focus KSA. I’m Patrick Ryan from the Saudi-U.S. Relations Project, or SUSRIS.com. Focus KSA is a joint project between SUSRIS and the Saudi-U.S. Trade Group.
We have a special edition today. We’re with Dr. Theodore Karasik, the director of research and consultancy at INEGMA, a think tank in the United Arab Emirates. We’re bringing you a special program today so that Dr. Karasik can talk about some developments in the Arabian Peninsula, the region that a lot of people are focusing on today, not just the specialists who always look at what’s happening in the Gulf and the region, but it’s attracted world wide attention for the crises that have beset the area that western and local decision makers and policymakers are having to grapple with. Dr. Karasik has been kind enough as he always is with SUSRIS to talk to us about the perspective from the Gulf on these issues and some of the inside information and details that he is aware of through his contacts in the Gulf.
So we’re pleased today to welcome back to Focus KSA Dr. Ted Karasik. Ted, good day – thanks for joining us again.
[Karasik] Thank you.
[SUSRIS] Let’s start with an issue that’s probably made the biggest news this week, the ongoing campaign in Iraq with ISIS or the Islamic State, ISIL, Daesh — the various incarnations of names have portrayed this phenomenon which started with the civil war in Syria and has stretched into Iraq. It threatens the stability of Iraq, first campaign towards Baghdad and then fighting in the north, and the U.S. becoming involved at Mt. Sinjar and now protecting the Mosul Dam.
Yesterday there was a press conference at the Pentagon, Secretary Hagel and our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey – they were talking about the degree of the threat. And all eyes are on Iraq and ISIL and the Islamic State. So why don’t you give us your perspective on what’s going on in this area?
[Dr. Theodore Karasik] Very good, thank you. I think it’s important to understand the Islamic State and its ideology and its drivers for what it’s trying to do. I think one of the first places to look at that is the release of a very glossy English language magazines, Dabiq.
Dabiq is the legendary place in Syria where the final battle will occur according to apocalyptic discourse in Islam. This is highly significant because this publication, which by the way is made in Berlin, is being distributed to English readers as a recruitment tool, but also to show people that the group has intentions of “hot-wiring the apocalypse.” That means to make the apocalypse come sooner.
Right now what ISIS is trying to do is to be violent through the decapitation of Jim Foley and also to make the U.S. and the U.K. try to come to Iraq to fight ISIS on the ground. This is part of the apocalyptic discourse to have the final battle between true believers and the crusaders.
At the same time ISIS has been developing its order of battle. We need to look at what they’ve been able to capture. They have French, British, Russian and American equipment. A lot of the American equipment is brand new. It’s advanced. They have missiles. They have MANPADS. They have armaments that they can put together to use in attacks. They haven’t even started this yet, and at the same time they also have been able to put together UAVs and to be able to conduct overhead flights. They use these UAVs – they used four of them when they tried to enter Jordan about a month or so ago. These were just one-way flights but they were able to get the imagery. And then on July twenty-fifth they were able to actually put together what we would call a UCAV [Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle] that was eight meters from wingtip to wingtip, and was of a east European airframe. It apparently had on it fuel air explosives. The Jordanians were able to bring those down because it came from central Syria over into Jordan right around where CENTCOM Forward Headquarters is. The Americans wanted to shoot it down with a Patriot, the Jordanians wanted to bring it down because they wanted to investigate what it was. Low and behold the Islamic State is able to put together crude but potentially effective UCAVs.
This calls for all kinds of analysis necessary to determine what the Islamic State’s order of battle is and what they may be doing in the future because what they plan to do is to continue to carve up and carve out real estate in order to capture the resources and the hearts and minds of other people that surround the current battle area.
[SUSRIS] Well it seems that the airstrikes in the north have blunted the offensive that threatened the Kurdish region and has pushed back the Islamic State somewhat. What’s the thinking as to their actual strength when faced with a determined and well-equipped foe such as the U.S. forces that have been employed in the north?
[Karasik] Interestingly enough the perception from here is that the U.S. is not doing enough airstrikes and local leaderships want these airstrikes to expand because they see ISIS as a group who will be able to fade away and then quickly come back. This is also part of ISIS’s plan is to be able to go out, grab something significant of strategic interest and see how long they can hold it, then withdraw back. They’re good at using camouflage for some of their equipment. They have plenty to spare so doing targeting of artillery or of humvees, or whatever only barely scratches the surface. They could even flee back to Syria, and since there’s no air campaign there yet they might be able to regroup and then go ahead and try to strike out again. So I call this a band-aid solution, and it’s very loose.
[SUSRIS] Right. Well the Pentagon press conference yesterday, I think, it came out that there had been 90 strikes to date, and those primarily were to prevent attacks against the Yazidi who had moved to Sinjar Mountain, and then in and around the dam. It was discussed that really the only way to take on the Islamic State in a full assault to do with severe damage was to go into Syria. But what in your mind is likely to happen in that regard, because the United States as we know has the domestic concerns first of all about getting involved in Iraq again, but the thought of opening up a campaign in Syria is maybe not a bridge too far, but it’s a long distance bridge for policymakers to get to.
There was a Pew Research poll earlier this week which said the American public was just narrowly in the majority to use force in the north for humanitarian purposes but it has yet to come around to getting back into Iraq in a major way.
[Karasik] Unfortunately ISIS is such a threat, and as was presented at the Pentagon within the last twenty-four hours that there needs to be a substantial campaign against ISIS in Syria. Now, Assad’s air force has already struck ISIS. This is not enough. The Russians may get drawn into this to support the Syrians. To be an international campaign to target ISIS in Syria because mitigating this group now is imperative. It appears to be their plans for expansion further into Syria and into Jordan and into Saudi Arabia, as well as in Kuwait. Kuwait is probably the one state that’s the most susceptible because Kuwait has the proper ingrediants inside of the country for those people who actually support ISIS. There’s money coming from Kuwait to ISIS. There is the tribal factor in Kuwait that sees what’s happening in Iraq – they tend to gravitate towards this as an alternative style of government.
Having said all that, the United States really needs to think hard about conducting air attacks in Syria and making an agreement even if temporary with Assad because this threat from ISIS is greater than any threat from Assad. It’s the lesser of two evils. So there needs to be a discussion about this in Washington – serious and fast – in order to make a determination of how to move forward in this arena.
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[SUSRIS] Can you comment about the forces used against ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq? We saw that the Iraqi forces collapsed in front of the campaign initially, but now there’s been some political evolution in Baghdad and presumably a lot of hand holding from others to get the central government in Iraq to face up to this threat.
We also have the Kurds in the north who had fought against the Islamic State and had asked for additional support. Presumably that support has been provided. It seems to have gone well around the Mosul Dam. What’s the correlation of forces and the prospects in Iraq for non-U.S. ground activity?
[Karasik] It seems that the Iraqis along with the Kurds are finally patching up their differences because of the threat from the Islamic States, and as you said, Pat, the advisors on the ground, the Americans seem to be helping in this regard.
I think there are too many wild cards here. One are the Shiite militias that have yet to really act out in any fashion, and the second is what the Iranians are planning to do in Iraq.
It seems that both the Shiite militias and the Iranians are standing back and waiting to see what happens. I think that’s an invitation for ISIS to try to provoke a sectarian battle. We have to recognize also that the Iraqi military, which was mostly a Shiite force, now contains no Sunnis, practically, so when we look at engagement between ISIS and the Iraqi military it is a Sunni-Shiite battle, which is something that ISIS wants.
I think also that you’re going to see the Iraqi military along with the Kurds and the Peshmerga and so on – we even saw the PKK get involved, and we might even see [?] get involved too in order to protect the interest of the Kurds. We also haven’t seen yet, but we might see activity towards the south where the real oil fields are and where the major production is. ISIS may want to strike out there. That’s when the Shiites will get involved because that’s mostly their territory.
[SUSRIS] We’re talking with Dr. Theodore Karasik, the director of research and consultancy at INEGMA, a think tank in the Gulf, and he’s been kind enough to join us today to provide a snapshot of what’s happening in Iraq. And we’re going to shift gears and talk about GCC developments. We don’t want to bury the lede, Ted, but there’s a lot going on in the GCC as well, and you’ve been keeping us up to date with it. Any last thoughts on Iraq and the Islamic State and prospects there?
[Karasik] I just think that the Islamic State does represent this major threat. I know the GCC states are preparing their homeland security or already have, to watch out for this threat, watch out for recruitment, for finances and so on.
I think that the GCC states are also looking for international assistance, particularly from the U.S. and from the U.K. on what to do about ISIS. They are also turning towards the Russians despite the Ukraine-Russia confrontation. These are all becoming interconnected, plus Gaza and the Israelis to make for what I’m calling a “holy mess.” This is all interconnected now, so one event could lede to the equivalent of knocking over a house of cards.
[SUSRIS] Right. Well let’s turn to the GCC, and as I said I don’t want to bury the lead, but you’ve got some reporting and analysis to do on developments in the Gulf. Do you want to start this off?
[Karasik] Yeah, I’ll take the lead on that. First of all, there’s a major development brewing regarding Qatar’s membership in the GCC. It appears that Qatar has not adhered to the Riyadh Agreement signed late last year.
There were thirty-seven action items that the Qataris had to do in order to maintain good relations or reestablish relations with the other Gulf states. These – the bulk of these action items have not been done, so there is now a move on to suspend Qatar from the GCC.
This is occurring at the same time that in Oman the Sultan apparently is terminally ill with pancreatic cancer and we’ll have a succession question there, but it also takes Oman out of the dispute.
There is talk as it was when the ambassadors were pulled from Qatar that there will be a closing of the border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as the potential for a sea blockade of Qatar in order to get Doha to reverse its actions. Of course if this moves through this will push Qatar closer to Turkey and to Iran, which is the emerging new bloc. We’ve seen that already in the negotiations regarding Gaza. The GCC states are very angry with the United States because Secretary of State Kerry was pushing for the Turkey-Qatar plan as opposed to the Egypt-Saudi Arabia plan. So this is another division line being formed.
On top of that in this coming week there’s a meeting of Muslim scholars in Turkey where of course there is a new, more powerful president with the foreign minister now as prime minister. Turkey now is a major supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. This clerical meeting will feature Khaladawi and other senior clerics who will be electing a new leader, and this looks like that it’s going to be very much a way for Qatar to come under the umbrella of Turkey and vice versa.
So we have these division lines appearing and on top of that we have the Houthis closing in on Sanaa. There appears to be a plan to take Sanaa and then divide it into twelve districts in order to take over the country and perhaps have the prime minister become the new acting leader. This of course is going to set Yemen off into another spasm of violence. It will also make the Saudis nervous about what’s happening to their south and to their north, and please note that AQAP in Yemen has basically gone silent, which is illustrative of what is happening with the Houthis in Sanaa. I have recently been talking about the emergence of new emirates across the MENA region, and we may perhaps see a new emirate pop up in Yemen very soon as a means of governance.
[SUSRIS] We shared that important essay that you wrote for El Arabiya about the Thirty Year War and the Islamic Emirates with our readers, so that’s an on target piece. AQAP in Sanaa went silent?
[Karasik] AQAP hasn’t really been doing as much activity as they were doing. It might be related to the Houthis closing in on Sanaa. It could also be that they’ve undergone a period of quiet in terms of their internal disputes because we’ve had several AQAP members come out and pledge bayat or allegiance to the Islamic State. This is a phenomena that is slowly taking off throughout the al Qaeda franchises of a division developing within their leadership and within their ranks about who to follow – is it Al Baghadi or to follow Al Zawahiri – so this might be a reason why AQAP has gone quiet.
[SUSRIS] So, a holy mess in the north, holy mess in the south, and a political unraveling in the Gulf. You had mentioned developments in Oman as well that you want to discuss?
[Karasik] Yes. Apparently the Sultan of Oman is terminally ill with pancreatic cancer. He’s been supposedly in a hospital in Germany. What will happen with Oman when he passes away, which could be whenever, there will be a process where the Defense Council and or the family council will come together in order to determine who the new Sultan will be.
There’s speculation about who will be the next Sultan. I think some of the states in the GCC want to make sure that the next Sultan is someone who will be an active participant in terms of what’s happening in the region to perhaps be a negotiator, but also to be more closer to Riyadh’s line. We do see a lot of activity between the Kingdom and Oman, both politically and economically in the last six to eight months.
This is an important development. Of course Riyadh was using Oman for negotiations with the Iranians about some kind of reconciliation, although that seems to have fallen apart because of what’s happening in Iraq.
So we’re going to have to watch and see who may be the candidates, and of course there are rumors about a letter or a will that contains three to five names of potential candidates for who will be the successor. It looks like that the successor may be someone from the military, which would make sense.
[SUSRIS] Well that’s certainly more worrisome news from the region. It was just the other day that the Diwan of the Royal Court in Muscat issued a statement that he was in good health, so apparently this is not yet in the public domain. How reliably do we take this reporting of his health?
[Karasik] Well, of course you have to be very careful with information you receive, but in conversations that I’ve had with now three individuals about this who are pretty reliable I would tend to agree with their assessment, which is why I’m speaking about it now.
[SUSRIS] It is always curious that when someone issues a report of someone’s good health that that’s the time to start digging into what’s behind it.
[Karasik] People who study Oman have looked at this issue. They know that one day when it comes, what the constellation will be at that time and will play into what will happen in the country. Of course the country is divided into a couple of different sectors, if you will, between north and south, and also between the wadi and the coastline. You have other factors for example with illegal supply routes in the south that go into Yemen and so on. So there’s a lot of issues that could creep up and all of a sudden we’re dealing with a whole new ballgame in the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula that we didn’t see two or three months ago. So I think this needs to be taken into consideration.
[SUSRIS] Well, it’s clearly as I said a worrisome development in Oman and coupled with the political troubles in the GCC and military-political troubles in the region portends for lots of interesting times for analysts such as yourself.
I’ll remind everyone that this is Focus KSA, a joint project of the Saudi-U.S. Relations Information Service, SUSRIS.com, and the Saudi-U.S. Trade Group (SUSTG.org).
We’re here with Dr. Theodore Karasik, the director of Research and Consultancy at INEGMA in the United Arab Emirates, and Ted as always we appreciate your time. I know you’re pressed for time, so we’ll wrap it up.
We’ve gone through the situation in Iraq with the Islamic State — what’s happening there, its military vibrancy, the prospects for dealing with it which include having to get more involved, going against it in Syria; the developments in the GCC with Qatar; the prospects for the Houthis in Yemen. Can you draw the postscript for us here and put this all in some context, and perhaps inform us of what implications are for Riyadh and the United States in the near and mid-term?
[Karasik] Yeah, I think that the near-term implications are that the U.S. and the Saudis are going to have to work closely together even though they may have major differences about many issues in the region.
Clearly Saudi Arabia has been relying on Egypt and Pakistan to help fortify the military despite what Prince Miteb said during his visit up there along the border. There is also a requirement for Saudi Arabia to be watching very carefully the growing influence of ISIS in Saudi Arabia. There is this disconnect between the elders if you will within the clerical universe and the young people. There’s this issue of why no fatwa has been issued by the Saudi clerics regarding ISIS and the reason is basically because young people don’t listen to the older clerics because they’re seen as being part of the government.
The U.S. needs to reengage with Saudi Arabia plus their Gulf allies to show they won’t back down like they have in Syria as well as the mess, in their perception, the mess they created in Iraq. It’s time for the United States to stand up and actually make a stand in order to protect the rest of the region. That means that the United States and Saudi Arabia need to work with other allies in order to have a coalition come together very quickly to deal with ISIS because this group is very, very dangerous. There are – myself and some other colleagues feel that we’re upon another 9/11-type moment, and how that could take shape and when needs to be thought out very carefully.
[SUSRIS] Well, we appreciate your time again Ted, and thanks for all that. We’ll continue to trust your availability to keep us up to date on these things that may be flying below the radar on this side of the pond.
We’re grateful for your insights and perspectives and news reporting.
[Karasik] Thank you very much.
[SUSRIS] This is Patrick Ryan at Focus KSA, and we’ve been talking with Dr. Theodore Karasik, the Director of Research and Consultancy at INEGMA in the United Arab Emirates, and we will keep you up to date on these stories and more. Ted, have a great evening in the Gulf, and we’re signing out here.
[Karasik] I will. Thank you, Pat.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles. …more here
Read more about this topic and more from Dr. Karasik:
A New Thirty Years War – Karasik – SUSRIS – Aug 18, 2014
Focus KSA | Conversation With Theodore Karasik: Iraq Crisis (Pt 2)(Transcript) – SUSRIS – Jul 5, 2014
Focus KSA | Conversation With Theodore Karasik: Iraq Crisis (Pt 1)(Transcript) – SUSRIS – Jul 5, 2014
Mideast Crises Provide Kremlin Opening – Karasik – SUSRIS – Jun 30, 2014
Hagel and the GCC: Partnership and a Saudi Military Sweep – Karasik – SUSRIS – May 20, 2014
Strategic Implications of Saudi Arabia’s Military Parade – Karasik – SUSRIS – May 5, 2014
What’s Behind the GCC Fracture? – Karasik – SUSRIS – Mar 6, 2014
Saudi Arabia And The U.S. To Cooperate On Syria – Karasik – SUSRIS – Feb 25, 2014
Analysis | Obama’s Anticipated March to Saudi Arabia – Karasik – SUSRIS – Feb 6, 2014
The Kingdom and the Kremlin: A Conversation with Dr. Theodore Karasik – Aug 7, 2014
Transition in the Kingdom: A Conversation with Dr. Theodore Karasik – SUSRIS – Jun 18, 2014
The Moscow-Riyadh War of Words: A Conversation with Dr. Theodore Karasik – SUSRIS – Apr 9, 2012