The new Middle East: Part 1

Editor’s note: In the first of a two-part series on the new Middle East, Denise Natali, Natan Sachs, and Jared Cohen discuss who can replace the United States in the region, Israel’s strategy, and how to combat ISIS in the digital age. This interview was originally published by Foreign Affairs.

HOST: I’m Katie Allawala, and this is Foreign Affairs Unedited.

After generations of authoritarian stagnation punctuated by moments of domestic repression and interstate war, in recent years, the Middle East has begun to move.

In the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, we set out to examine the contours of this new Middle East, including whether Washington would continue to pull back from actively managing the region, or would develop an appetite for renewed intervention.

What tied every article in the series together was a sense that this New Middle East is very much a work in progress.

In this edition of Foreign Affairs Unedited and the next one, we’re delving deeper into the topic, with interviews on who can replace the United States in the region, Israel’s strategy, how to combat ISIS, what Iran really wants, and why it is time to break ties with Egypt.

First we go to Denise Natali.

Natali: This is Denise Natali. I am the Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. I just want to affirm that these are my views and not those of the United States Government or the National Defense University or the Department of Defense.

HOST: She’s spent a good part of the last 20 years living in the Middle East, and recently, as the United States has pulled back, she’s started seeing some fear set in.

Natali: So, one of the changing goal in the Middle East is what local perceptions are of who is going to lead and how they get recognition, who’s their international alliance and ally will be, and what the world order will be. You have a sense of on the ground, of either confusion or this whole sense of who is going to save us, and people just taking advantage of the fact that there is change going on without a clear leadership.

Turkey is a regional ally and Turkey has filled in, in some ways, but cannot certainly replace the United States. You had an increasing Iranian influence and engagement in Iraq, in the north of Iraq and the Kurdish regions in the south, because Iranians were able to get in, quickly secure their interests militarily, economically, politically. And now we see again in Syria, Russia’s engagement as well being able to go in and fill that vacuum of who is going to, let’s say influence the sub-state actors.

And again I say sub-state actors because we do have the central governments that are weakened that the United States continues to maintain these relationships with, but it’s the sub-state small non-state actors now, that are all seeking to take advantage of this. You ask the local people on the ground, they’re continually hedging their bets. They’re wanting to know, “Is the United States gonna be here in two years? Who else is going to secure our interests? We don’t have central governments to do it anymore, we need to ally with another strong regional power.”

There is no neutral broker, anymore, in the Middle East, and not that the United States is always completely neutral, but I do think this is where we have a very valuable role.

HOST: And so, from Syria, to Yemen, and beyond, proxy wars rage with no real end in sight. After nearly 15 years of fighting in the region and facing a domestic energy boom, U.S. policymakers might be tempted to throw up their hands. But Natali argues that there are still things the United States can and should do to protect its interests.

Natali: It’s so easy to pass up and say the United States has no more leverage anymore and it doesn’t matter, and I don’t necessarily agree. We’re not as directly engaged anymore and we’ve lost leverage, that’s clear, but there are still some of these groups, and I will go back to the Kurds, they will certainly look to the United States. With that said, how can we lead from behind and still secure our interest? Well, one of the things I think we should be doing more of and that we haven’t done is to not assume that the regional partners with whom we are coordinating our interest within the Middle East, they don’t necessarily have the same strategic priorities and threat perceptions as we do.

So, using local partners on the ground may be cosseting in many ways, but we have to know at what point, what are the conditionalities of it? Who’s in charge? Are we setting up the next territorial conflict? Are we using local partners that are actually undermining our longterm interests? These are things that I think that we really need to sit down and more strategically calculate before we choose these local partners, and I would say, in an ad-hoc manner.

HOST: The proof, she says, is in the ISIS campaign.

Natali: So let’s look at this countering ISIS campaign; yes we have our Kurdish partners, yes they have been extremely effective. In terms of fighting ISIS, I don’t think anybody can dispute that; however, we are now setting up the conditions and the nature of the way that this is working out and that this led to territorial engineering, demographic engineering, undermining regional alliances that could be backlash against the Kurds. There are Arab communities that are very angry and all of these other tensions in Turkey as well because of these other local conflicts in which ISIS has been superimposed. So that’s the political quagmire that we may get ourselves involved in, if we, again, go into these engagements without understanding that we’re actually putting fuel on pre-existing fires.

HOST: From an evolving U.S. strategy in the region we go to an evolving Israeli one. Foreign Affairs’ Simon Engler sits down with Brookings’ Natan Sachs to discuss the strategy and the real reason for increasing tensions between Israel and the United States.

Engler: As you noted in your latest piece for Foreign Affairs, Netanyahu has developed a reputation as a hawk, in particular among many European and American progressives. But you make an interesting claim in your piece that Netanyahu is not so much a hawk as he is a conservative. How would you define that conservatism?

Sachs: Well, I think the distinction is really about how war-ready a leader is. Netanyahu, when you think of the length of his term, has actually been involved in very few wars. But he has been very obstinate in American eyes and European eyes in moves towards peace. So, in a sense, he’s been very cautious or conservative on both war and on peace. And in particular, I characterized his approach as anti-solutionism. It’s not that he doesn’t wish for a good outcome, but he, right or wrong, and I think often he is wrong, but believes that there is no solution to these problems. Trying to solve them despite this fact, will cause more harm than good.

Engler: And how are we seeing that disillusionment play out today?

Sachs: Well, if you look at the way Israelis think about most things that they could do about the Palestinians, you still see echoes of all of this.  While most Israelis would say they’re fine with the two-state solution, in theory, they don’t believe it can happen, they’re very deeply skeptical about it. Israelis feel basically at an impasse with the Palestinians and a feeling that there’s nothing to do.

And so when Americans and others criticize Netanyahu, even if Israelis disagree with Netanyahu on some things, and many of them disagree with him very strongly, they tend to side with Netanyahu in this feeling of, “What does the world want from us?

Engler: Time also seems to be working against the faith that Israelis and Palestinians alike put in the future prospects of a two-state solution. How do you see that faith being rebuilt in the future?

Sachs: It’s gonna be a hard pull. It’s not gonna be easy. We already see a lot of skepticism. I think it’s probably still possible but it’s very hard, both because the cynicism on both sides towards each other is great and has been building for two decades at least, of course many more, but two decades in this iteration of the peace process. But I think there are very important things that can be done.

For example, Israel could start to bring back some of the settlers, incentivize their return to Israel proper and limit the daily conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Again, this will not solve everything, this isn’t peace, but it could start moving things in the right direction.

Engler: Is there a role for the United States in promoting those kinds of interim steps?

Sachs: Absolutely. I think the United States is often blamed for the fact that there is no solution and ironically, actually, it should not. If there is no solution because the parties aren’t there, that is not necessarily the United States’ fault. But the United States has had an approach that is sort of all or nothing; either we reach a final status agreement or there’s no fallback. And so to a certain degree, I think the United States might reconsider things that in this administration have not been considered, which are interim agreements, things that look much less nice, much less like peace, but could move things slightly in the right direction.

Engler: In your piece, you mentioned that in some respects, Netanyahu and Obama share a vision for how to approach the Middle East’s ongoing conflicts. But of course, also in many respects, they diverge to a great extent. Can you speak to that?

Sachs: Sure. I think there’s something a bit ironic about this relationship. The President and the Prime Minister, of course, don’t get along, that’s not a secret. But also, ideologically, they come from very different camps, Netanyahu is conservative in many respects, not just in foreign policy, and Obama is, of course, a liberal in many respects. But the irony is that, on foreign policy, with regard to the Middle East, on many fronts, instincts are similar. They’re both quite conservative and cautious in terms of using force, in terms of what they might be able to achieve.

There are two major exceptions, one is Iran and the other is Palestinians. And these are things that the President has identified as areas where there could be breakthrough, and there he has put a lot of effort, diplomatic effort. In one case… Successful, from the administration’s perspective on the Iranian issue, and in one of course, it was unsuccessful on the Palestinian issue. It so happens that these two issues are exactly the ones where Netanyahu wanted Obama to be conservative.  And so we have a similarity, an ironic similarity, but a divergence on the two issues that Netanyahu cares the most about: Iran, from a strategic perspective and the Palestinians from an ideational, fundamental perspective for Israel.

HOST: From a very old conflict in the Middle East, we go to a very new one. In its march through Iraq and Syria, ISIS seems to have almost re-written the terrorist handbook. I talked to Jared Cohen, Director of Google Ideas and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, about ISIS’ digital strategy.

Allawala: So you wrote in your recent article for Foreign Affairs that ISIS is the first terrorist group to hold both physical and digital territory, can you explain a little bit more about what that means?

Cohen: I have a fundamental vision of the world that there’s no such thing as cyberspace, and there’s no such thing as physical space. There is one international system and it has a digital front and it has a physical front. So when I look at what ISIS as a terrorist group that’s also a non-state actor is doing, I look at them seeking to control physical territory, and I look at them seeking to control certain forums or pockets of the internet.

Allawala: And if ISIS is one of the most successful terrorist groups that’s doing these, is it because ISIS is doing something different, or because the digital part of the international system has grown so much?

Cohen: I think it’s a combination of the two. In the article, I say that ISIS is a harbinger of things to come. They certainly been more effective at exploding the digital domain and holding territory in the digital domain than any terrorist group that came before them. That being said, there’s plenty of mischievous groups out there from troll farms to cyber armies that have also have been very effective and by the way, use the same tactics. But ISIS is the first terrorist group to use these tactics.

And one of the things that I argue in the article is that, when you look at ISIS’s activities in both the physical and the digital domain, the anomaly here going forward is not what they’re doing online. The anomaly is in fact their ability to hold such vast physical territory. That’s a much more unusual and much more difficult thing for a terrorist group to achieve. And I find myself wondering or asking the question, “If ISIS loses its physical territory, or of a successor to ISIS is only able to hold digital territory, but not the physical territory, will they use their presence online as a way to justify the fulfillment of that prerequisite and then use that to establish a caliphate?” These are some of the questions that we need to ask.

Allawala: I’m really curious to hear you say that in the future, the digital presence is going to be typical, and the physical presence might be an anomaly. Will that make it easier in some senses to fight terrorism?

Cohen: So even though the digital front that we see in sort of ISIS’s multi-dimensional threat is more complex in some respect to newer, certainly larger. It’s the front that we have a better chance of winning. So there’s all sorts of constraints that you have in the physical battle against ISIS. In the sense that it ranges from political will, you have to sort of factor in state sovereignty, local presence… There’s any number of factors that one has to consider not to mention the risk associated with putting physical bodies in the harms way, either on the ground or in the air.

The benefit we have with regards to fighting ISIS on the digital front is, there’s literally no risk in a surge, it doesn’t require political will, it doesn’t require putting troops into harms way. Two, the enormity of expertise on technology exist not in the Islamic state, it exist within the sort of pockets of entrepreneurship that are far more robust and exist in every country on earth except maybe North Korea and Eritrea.  And there is entire ecosystems of people looking at building technological solutions to things like Cyberbullying to Troll Farms, to other nefarious cyber activity that can be harnessed towards this, even though it’s in a completely different context.

Allawala: Could you give a few examples of the kind of tactics they’re using and the kind of tactics that the west or whoever is going to be fighting ISIS should use in response?

03:28 COHEN: Of course and ISIS, they use lots of digital tactics, ranging from something called “Hashtag Bombs”, where they get all their online supporters to use the same hashtag at the same time, so that way they can elevate a particular message that they want disseminated. And again lots of things like that. But the main one that I want to talk about is something that I allude to in the article and specifically call out, which is there is four types of digital foreign fighters. One which is not human. They basically have trolls within their ranks who spend all day every single day creating fake accounts. And then there’s very simple software that one can write to sustain those accounts in an automated fashion. In this sense it’s analogous to IEDs, in the sense that a human being basically creates it and then it’s sustained by a machine.

If you wanna solve the problem of IEDs on the battlefield in the physical domain, the way to do it is not to only focus on getting the actual IEDs off the battlefield, because they cost just a few dollars to make and they’re easy to replace, and it’s a little bit of a game of whack-a-mole. The real way to solve the IED problem in the physical domain is to go after the people giving the orders, to go after the supply chains, etcetera. And we need to think about online accounts belonging to ISIS in much the same way. And we’re quite excited about some of the opportunities for instance to use machine learning, to scale the ability of moderators to be able to enforce codes of conduct on different, sort of, platforms and publishing assets. So, I think there’s a of potential machine learning approaches that we can take to, potentially, address this challenges.

ALLAWALA: Well, it sounds like there’s almost a division of labor here too. So if one task is taking out the actual people running the main accounts, which I suppose is a military or government responsibility, and the other is technical, should that be done more by the private sector? You mentioned in the article, I think, that Twitter had suspended 10,000 accounts or something like that on a single day that were linked with ISIS. Google and Facebook and Twitter have flagged violent and hateful content. Is that something that should happen in concert with government initiatives, or instead of or on their own? ABOVE]]

COHEN: I think it’s all of the above. So, when I look at the world that we live in today, it’s multidimensional. Every challenge in the world, of which ISIS is certainly one, has a physical dimension and it has a digital dimension, and I don’t believe that there’s any one individual entity or organization that has all of the technical and subject matter expertise that’s needed to address this challenge. What you really need here is a sort of societal coalition of the willing of sorts where everybody has a role to play and I don’t know that there needs to be a center of gravity, necessarily.

So, government has one set of motivations and incentives, private sector has a set of motivations and incentives, and NGOs have a set of motivations and incentives, etc, and at times they’re aligned. At times they operate in parallel but, my view is, the advantage we have here is nobody wants to see ISIS thriving on the internet.

HOST: In the future, much of foreign policy may occur online. That could be a boon to the next generation of foreign policymakers.

COHEN: What I would encourage students that are studying foreign policy to do is to use their unique position as digitally savvy to look at the sort of universe of international relations challenges that they’re interested in, and the way that they are gonna be able to exercise a comparative advantage is not just by applying a physical world lens to it, which is what they are learning in school, but apply that digital lens that they use in their day-to-day lives to that same challenge, and ask the question, “Does it look exactly the same?

HOST: That was Jared Cohen on digital counterinsurgency.

We’ll be back in two weeks with part two of our Post-American Middle East series. In the meantime, check out the latest issue of Foreign Affairs and let us know what you think of it. You can email us at [email protected]. If you like the podcast, please leave a review on iTunes. It really helps other listeners find us.