The Hezbollah Dilemma

On March 22, American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Lebanon to convince countries in the region to join the United State with enacting harsh sanctions against Iran. The US believes that Iran is funding terrorist organizations around the world and believes it must be stopped.

Under the Trump administration, the US has been hard against Iran by increasing sanctions and pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Deal. Pompeo discussed Hezbollah with the Lebanese government. According to Pompeo, Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and will start wars, end democracy in Lebanon, and allow Iran to rule it.

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri understand the United States’ perspective with the issue of Hezbollah, but they view Hezbollah as a legitimate party organization, not terrorists.

Hezbollah has 70 of the 128 seats in the Lebanese Parliament and has gained momentum in recent years. However, the US continues to sanction them and Iran. President Aoun has said that even though these sanctions target Hezbollah, Lebanon suffers as well. Pompeo says that if the Lebanese government helps him, the US will help Lebanon.

The issue Lebanon faces is quite difficult because Hezbollah is an important actor since the Lebanese Civil War. Their military power is also important because they help defend Lebanon against its enemies, such as Israel.

Lebanon does not want to cut ties with the US but they cannot afford to lose an important military and political actor. But Hezbollah is not just invested into Lebanon, they also have a presence in Syria and support Al-Assad militarily. This is also a conflict of interest for the United States.

In previous administrations, they have all condemned Hezbollah and deemed them to be a terrorist group, but no other president has been so severe against the group and Iran than Trump.

This dilemma has been shrugged off year after year by both the Americans and the Lebanese, but it could change today. The economy of Lebanon could suffer under the sanctions posed on Hezbollah; thus, forcing the Lebanese to change their political affiliations with the group.

The country has not been this stable in decades. Lebanon is open for commerce, tourism, and development. They do not want Hezbollah to be in the way of being more connected with the rest of the world.


Nick Webb is the Research Fellow at Rise to Peace.

 

Iraq in Rubble after ISIL

At the beginning of 2019, the size of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been reduced greatly by a coalition including the United States. Unfortunately, people return home to discover their towns in rubble.

The fight has been going on for over four and a half years yet ISIL has been forced to retreat to a small area in Eastern Syria called Marashida. At the height of ISIL’s power, they had controlled 10 million people.

This contributed to the massive refugee crisis out of Syria and Iraq.

Buildings are destroyed, streets are gone, and there are few public services  There are only bullet holes, twisted shrapnel, and dust. Yet despite their difficulties, the Iraqi government nor any other Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) is supporting them.

There are no hospitals either, or any sort of aid. They have no other choice but to rebuild alone. Civilians are exhausted from movement, fear, and the thought of uncertainty.

They just want a place they can have a healthy and safe life.

Yet some are worried because of President Trump’s announcement to withdraw troops from Syria. He claims that ISIL is destroyed yet that is incorrect.

The villagers are worried that ISIL will return to oppress them once the United States leaves. This will not only create havoc for the population, but ISIL could start to recruit again, thus growing in numbers and territory.

American military leaders do not know when they should withdraw from Syria, even though the president has made announcements about.  This uncertainty creates instability all over the world. Russia is going to involve themselves more in Syria, NATO is unsure on how to react.

President Trump might not follow through with this move. If he does pull out, it would be best if NATO and other European Union (EU) countries stepped in to make sure that the terrorists are defeated and that human rights and peace are achieved at the end of the conflict.

Having Russia being the only other party involved in Syria would be dangerous for the global order and regional order in the Middle East. It is against US and EU interests and would be detrimental on the process of having freedoms in the Middle East post-conflict.

The returning of refugees and civilians back to their hometowns in Syria have been dramatic due to the destruction of their schools, hospitals, and homes.

Many are hopeful for the future but struggle to rebuild because they are alone on this venture.  The uncertainty created by the US for proposing a pull out of military forces in Syria create worries for the people living there and that this will create the growth and spread of ISIL again.

It is imperative to have the EU and NATO to maintain strong even if the US pulls out to be a voice of freedom and human rights.

 

 


Nick Webb is the Research Fellow at Rise to Peace.

The Mysterious Case of Mohamad Jamal Khweis

Mohamad Jamal Khweis while in Kurdish custody. Image Credit: Associated Press.

Few in Alexandria, Virginia, would have suspected that the man driving a bus for the elderly would travel halfway across the globe to join the Islamic State (IS) and wage violent jihad. But this is the case of Mohamad Jamal Khweis, who went by the kunya Abu Omar al-Amriki while living in the self-declared caliphate. While the story of Khweis can be compared in some ways to others, not much is known about the actual path of radicalization he took in the lead-up to joining the IS. Khweis consistently lied and changed his story throughout his capture, interrogation, and trial, forcing officials to play a guessing game. What is known about Khweis’ case is analyzed here.

Khweis grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., graduating from Edison High School in Fairfax County in 2007. As the child of two Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, Khweis grew up attending mosque. However, according to his parents, he was not particularly religious growing up. After high school, Khweis got a job as a bus driver for the elderly and disabled. He drank and smoked cigarettes, not activities associated with a devout extremist.

However, something happened between 2007 and 2015. Khweis lied to family and friends in late 2015, a month after the IS attacks in Paris, when he began scheduling travel to Europe. In mid-December Khweis travelled to London before making several stops across Europe en route to Turkey. In Turkey, scheduled contact was made with an IS facilitator who directed him, along with several French would-be jihadists, across the Turkish border and into Syria.

Upon arrival in Raqqa, which was under IS control at the time, Khweis underwent religious training and began work doing miscellaneous household tasks for caliphate fighters. According to documents discovered by forces combating the IS, during this time, Khweis indicated that he was willing to become a martyr by utilizing himself as a suicide bomber for the caliphate.

After months of cooking, cleaning, and taking out the garbage, Khweis grew increasingly frustrated by his lack of military training. Throughout his time in the caliphate, Khweis was also routinely ill from consuming poor-quality drinking water. These factors, and possibly more, combined to make his frustrations unbearable. When Khweis was relocated to IS controlled territory in Tal Afar, Iraq, he made an “escape.”

Kurdish Peshmerga forces discovered Khweis walking alone, and after it was confirmed that he was not a suicide bomber, he was taken into custody. When Khweis was captured he carried several hundred dollars in Iraqi and Turkish currencies, three cell phones, and his Virginia driver’s license. At first, Khweis stated to his captors that he had been deceived by a female he met in Turkey into coming into Syria and essentially becoming a slave; however, this story quickly fell apart. Peshmerga forces were able to contact American authorities to inform them of Khweis’ presence, and he was quickly transferred to American custody. In American custody, Khweis changed his story over 15 times between intelligence interviews and criminal investigation interviews.

Even so, authorities obtained enough information to levy criminal charges. Lawyers representing Khweis argue that this was unfair, and that Khweis gave false information to investigators out of desperation to return to the United States. However, many indicators disprove this- including signs of remaining loyalties, such as Khweis’ refusal to identify or provide any information on Americans he knew who had also joined the IS. Throughout his criminal trial, Khweis again changed his story multiple times, at times even indicating that his time in the caliphate was a mistake made after a night partying in Turkey.

Extremist propaganda was discovered on Khweis’ cell phones after capture, but once again eluding to his own radicalization, Khweis stated that the propaganda was only on his devices because he was conducting research into life in Syria. It is unclear if he was radicalized by online propaganda like so many others. There has not been any mention of other radicalized individuals whom Khweis may have been in contact with in the United States. Ultimately, there is no strong evidence to suggest how Khweis fell towards extremist ideology.

Although a clear path towards radicalization cannot be observed due to Khweis’ lack of cooperation, some comparisons can be made to other cases of radicalization. First, Khweis was the child of Muslim immigrants, growing up in the United States in the wake of 9/11. This time challenged many young Muslims, leading many to seek answers about their identities. It was also a time which caused notable marginalization, or at the very least perceived marginalization, of Muslim communities in the United States.

Circumstantial evidence would suggest that Khweis was vulnerable to radicalization due to his perceived marginalized position in American society. As a child of Muslim immigrants in post-9/11 America, Khweis certainly grew up with various forces pressuring him and challenging his identity. While not much more can be properly guessed about what exactly occurred along Khweis’ journey, his uncooperative nature and refusal to provide information about other American jihadists belies the fact that he likely remains radicalized. Fortunately, his 20-year sentence for providing material support to the IS will provide critical time that may lead to more cooperation and insight into his beliefs and radicalization process.

 

John Patrick Wilson is a Law Enforcement Professional and Research Fellow for Rise to Peace.

ISIS Threat

Since ISIS’, or Daesh’s, ascension to power, following the chaos of the Syrian uprisings in 2011, the world has watched as these Islamists used increasingly brutal tactics to secure huge swaths of land in both Syria and Iraq. They targeted fragile, war-torn countries with low state capacity and worked to push their own agenda. The religious fundamentalists quickly gained international fame as they exploited the realm of social media to a new level, posting videos and creating multiple accounts on different platforms to attract followers from across the globe. However, the magnitude of their global attention eventually worked against the organization as the United States and other nations showed support and entered Syria for the sole purpose of extinguishing ISIS.

Over 30,000 airstrikes later and aggressive military policies by the United States, backed by around sixty-eight other countries, ISIS has lost most of its territory it formerly held in Iraq and Syria. Despite this, the group has managed to keep a small piece of land near the Syrian-Iraqi border for more than a year now. The plot of land is tucked around a quaint Syrian town known as Hajin in the Deir al-Zour province. Occasionally, militants still attempt to stage an attack outside of the small parcel of land they control, but even these attacks appear feeble and unorganized, like the last breath before they cease to exist any longer, unlike their prior attacks. Especially the attacks that took Europe by surprise in 2014 and 2015. However, it has been more than four years since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Daesh, declared the caliphate and those attacks seem to be a distant memory to many. Today it appears to most of the world that ISIS is not only no longer a threat but has been eradicated from existence.

Maxwell B. Markusen, associate fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in D.C., spoke to the New York Timesand stated that this rhetoric commonly being used is destructive as it insinuates that ISIS is no longer a threat. Although the area they control has seriously diminished, this is not the case. ISIS’ lightning fast rise to the forefront of the world’s most feared organizations is mainly the result of the propaganda and recruitment arm that remains active. ISIS is currently broadcasting their videos and messages at a similar pace as they were when at the height of their power. There were more attacks in 2017 than in 2016 and although the numbers of successful attacks have gone down significantly, attempted attacks continue at a pace similar to that in 2015. Although their territory has diminished it is thought that they still retain around 30,000 members in total throughout Syria and Iraq, though these numbers cannot be confirmed. The American led fight to take Hajin, the last place ISIS officially operates from, is proving harder than anticipated, even with the help of the Syrian Democratic Forces. ISIS is pushed back against a corner and has no problem fighting like there is nothing to lose. They have been reported to use the civilians which has only slowed fighting further.

Recently, President Donald Trump tweeted a video statement where he declared, “we have beaten them, and we have beaten them badly. It’s time to bring our troops home…We won.” While many families will be rejoicing as their sons and daughters are sent home, one must wonder if pulling the estimated two thousand American troops out of Syria is the correct move. Not only is ISIS’ presence and influence still widely felt, it leaves only Russia, Iran and Hezbollah as the major players in the geopolitical center of the Middle East. Bordering Syria are five of the U.S. allies: Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon. None of these allies will appreciate the abrupt removal by the U.S. Once the U.S. leaves they give up their position of diplomatic leverage and forfeit it to the aforementioned countries still involved. The announcement came as a surprise, but will no doubt be greeted warmly by both Russia and Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria. Russia has long fought for sole influence over Syria and has long desired it as a military base for their naval and air forces. The Trump administrations own team seems to have been taken by surprise as well. Brett McGurk, the State Department’s Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, said at a briefingon December 11th, “if we’ve learned one thing over the years, enduring defeat of a group like this means you can’t just defeat their physical space and then leave. You have to make sure the internal security forces are in place to ensure that those gains, security gains, are enduring.”

Haphazardly pulling troops out may seem like a good move after years of being stationed in a war zone, but McGurk is accurate in his assessment. The U.S. has on more than one occasion, think Afghanistan and Iraq, acted against unfit regimes or terrorist organizations and then quickly left soon after the fighting slowed. ISIS is not obliterated; they still exist and are actively recruiting new followers. Leaving a country without infrastructure or institutions to maintain peace will only result in the resurfacing of the movement. The age old saying, ‘history repeats itself’ will ring true if the U.S. chooses not to learn from its past. In this situation, the U.S. should not pull out all troops and leave the region void of its influence. Instead, the U.S. should focus on rebuilding what they have aided in destroying and use their influence to not only keep ISIS at bay but also to work with other nations, including Syria to rebuild the country and its institutions. This in the long run will leave less space for terrorists’ organizations such as ISIS to flourish as many of the capabilities to protect against extremism are found within strong infrastructure and institutions.

Voting in Syria: Elections Signal an End to ISIL

On September 16th Syria held its first local elections in government-controlled areas since anti-government protests and protracted civil conflict broke out in 2011. Polling booths were open from 7 am to midnight, having been extended five hours to accommodate the throngs who wished to participate. 

Though the EU, US, and Gulf Cooperation Council dismissed the election as illegitimate, it is meant to signal to the world that the country is on the path to recovery. And that its people are actively involved. There were televised events showing voters casting ballots in Damascus, Tartus, and Latakia. Surprisingly, elections were also held in Deir ez-Zor, a city recently recaptured by Syrian troops. Deir ez-Zor had been occupied by the Islamic State for years. Within a year the city was able to drive ISIS out, regroup, and function well enough to host elections.

Four years ago, when the country was in its most violent convulsions, an election would have been unthinkable.

There has been speculation that the election serves the sitting regime’s purposes. That it helps unite citizens against ISIL and it alerts terror groups that the ruling party has regained control. Four years ago, when the country was in its most violent convulsions, this was unthinkable. Roads were impassable, and people were afraid to leave their houses. Thus, for some, the act of casting a ballot is a message to ISIL and other terrorists that the people have taken their control back.

More than 5 million refugees and 6 million internally displaced people will not be able to vote. Syrian law prohibits voters from casting ballots outside of their municipality. However, given the progress in Deir ez-Zor, Syrians hope the entire country can be free of violence and people can return home and cast their votes with time. The election has encouraged people. Perhaps the seemingly interminable chaos can end. And perhaps Syrians can vote for leaders to rebuild their country. In addition to demonstrating to the terrorists that they have no place in Syria, the election is a way for the regime to rebuild hope with a people who have lost it over seven years of conflict. 

More than 5 million refugees and 6 million internally displaced people will not be able to vote

While the election represents a bit of progress, state oppression remains a reality for most Syrians. Some see the vote as a ploy by the regime to demonstrate its power. Not an opportunity for the people to use their voices. Such people argue that election results are predetermined. To be sure, Syria is a long way from open elections. Ones where candidates and parties truly represent the people’s will. But ISIL will be excluded from elections, and we can all say good riddance.

A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Damascus, Syria. chinadaily.com

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