It’s al Qaeda, Stupid!

Bilal Y. Saab
Bilal Y. Saab Senior Research Assistant, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

January 18, 2008

This time in Middle East relations, it is crucial to get it right and fast. Why? Because the stakes are so high.

Failure to have comprehensive peace between Arabs and Israelis is going to have consequences and repercussions of a magnitude we have never seen before. In other words, failure, at the risk of sounding too cliché, should not be an option.

A realist pause would suggest that failure can never be discounted in the Middle East given the miserable record of the many ambitious attempts in the past to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to make serious breakthroughs on the Syrian-Israeli track. So far, those anticipating the failure of Annapolis appear more rational and more confident than those betting on its success. And it’s not just a hunch or a feeling. Events on the ground speak for themselves: Israel continues to collectively deny Palestinians their basic rights for what Hamas and other militants do, while Hamas continues to provoke and threaten Israel by terrorizing its people.

Predicting who will have an upper hand in screwing up the process of peace is impossible and futile. It could be anyone or all of them, separately or at the same time. It could be Israel not agreeing to freeze its settlement expansion; it could be Hamas conducting a terrorist operation resulting in mass casualties; it could be Olmert and/or Abbas not being able to deliver on their promises, weak leaders that they are.

But process, we are told, is better than no process at all. True, but what has fundamentally changed is the rise of a new and much more fanatic evildoer in the Middle East: al-Qaeda. Today, located at the heart of the Arab world, al-Qaeda has become a real player in the peace process; its voice is much louder and its actions much deadlier than those of the other spoilers, namely Iran, Syria and their proxies. The Middle East peace puzzle has a new piece. The problem is, this piece does not and cannot fit.

The continuation of the status quo – no peace, just process – will unquestionably empower the already powerful forces breeding radicalism in the region. Popular frustration, despair, realization and conviction in the region that Annapolis will not produce any meaningful results and will not give Palestinians a viable state is going to persuade people in the region that the use of force is the only tool to achieve their aims. Some will fight like nationalists. For example, Syrians have repeatedly said they might recover the Golan by creating a Hezbollah-like guerilla force. Others will stray, go extreme and join the global Islamic insurgency. This means more recruits for al-Qaeda – music to the ears of Osama bin Laden, whose focus these days has been redirected toward Palestine, after he apologized to Palestinians in his latest message for not giving enough attention to their cause.

You can imagine from here the sort of nasty scenarios that could happen were al-Qaeda to expand in the Middle East: Gaza could become an Islamic emirate in Palestine (Fatah al Islam, an al-Qaeda sympathizer group which recently fought the Lebanese army for more than three months in the northern part of that country, has already named an emir in Gaza) and Lebanon, already experiencing one of its most serious political crises since its second civil war, may well sink into the abyss were another Nahr al Bared scenario to emerge in another refugee camp.

By spilling over from Iraq into neighboring countries and gaining new safe havens, al-Qaeda could start working on its tactical and strategic objectives. On the tactical level, al-Qaeda would work on triggering wars between its adversaries and has already begun trying. The recent firing of rockets by al-Qaeda in Iraq from southern Lebanon into northern Israel is only one example. We have seen that scenario before, only with different actors: the 1978 and 1982 Israeli invasions of Lebanon were largely in response to Palestinian attacks from southern Lebanon. At the same time, al-Qaeda would assiduously work on causing a war between Syria and Israel and a round two between Hezbollah and Israel. The biggest prize for al-Qaeda, obviously, is to ignite a war between Iran and the United States – something al-Qaeda’s Iraq leader, Omar al Baghdadi, has talked about in a recent message. On the strategic level, al-Qaeda would start planning for one of its most precious goals: taking the fight to Israel’s backyard by actively supporting Palestinian radical jihadists in their war against the Jewish state.

So how do you stop these terrible scenarios from happening and how do you reverse the powerful trend of radicalization? Through peace. With peace comes hope, prosperity and human development. From a counter-terrorist perspective, peace wonderfully dries up the swamp of terrorism and puts a serious dent in al-Qaeda’s recruitment process. Al-Qaeda, more than ever, has turned into an ideology and without its foot soldiers. This ideology can be neutralized if we realize that defeating it once and for all will require winning the war of ideas.

At Annapolis, the Bush administration got it mixed up. There is nothing wrong in rallying the pro-U.S. Arab states to better contain the long-term threat of Iran, but the real and more imminent danger is not the Islamic republic, it is al-Qaeda.