Richard Whittall:

“The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer has helped me immensely with great information and perspective.”

Bob Bradley, former US and Egyptian national coach

"James Dorsey’s The Turbulent World of Middle Eastern Soccer (has) become a reference point for those seeking the latest information as well as looking at the broader picture."
Alon Raab in The International Journal of the History of Sport

“Dorsey’s blog is a goldmine of information.”

Play the Game

"Your expertise is clearly superior when it comes to Middle Eastern soccer."
Andrew Das, The New York Times soccer blog Goal

"Dorsey statement (on Egypt) proved prophetic."
David Zirin, Sports Illustrated

"Essential Reading"
Change FIFA

"A fantastic new blog'
Richard Whitall of A More Splendid Life

"James combines his intimate knowledge of the region with a great passion for soccer"
Christopher Ahl, Play the Game

"An excellent Middle East Football blog"
James Corbett, Inside World Football

Friday, September 19, 2014


Soccer Can't Fix Shit in Israel or Anywhere Else

September 18, 2014 | 7:25 PM



In the summer of 2004, Bnei Sakhnin became the first 
Arab Israeli soccer team to win the State Cup, a knockout 
tournament comparable to England's FA Cup. The Israeli 
paperHaaretz called it the "first major sporting success 
of an Israel-Arab club," including the first UEFA Champions 
League spot for an Arab club. The news made 
international headlinesand was a source of pride amongst 
Arab Israelis.
Bnei Sakhnin's success further attracted global attention 
due to the team's message of coexistence. Despite playing
in a predominantly Muslim 25,000-person town, Sakhnin
had a Jewish manager, three Jewish players, and played
the Israeli National Anthem before matches. Bnei Sakhnin's
captain and star player, Abbas Suan, became a national hero
amongst Arabs and Jews alike when he scored a key goal
for Israel's national team against Ireland.

This wasn't exactly a peaceful time in the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict (not that there really is such a thing), but, for once,
the term "soccer diplomacy" seemed to actually mean
author James Montague describes Arab Israelis as "viewed
suspiciously both by their Jewish countrymen (for being pro-
Palestinian fifth columnists) and by the wider Arab world (for
being Zionist collaborators)." Over the phone, Montague
emphasized that there were very few symbols of Arab equality
within Israel at the time, giving Bnei Sahknin an important role
for the approximately 1.5 million Arabs within Israel's borders.
"Sakhnin is a symbol for all the Arab minority inside Israel,"
one fan told the BBC in 2004. "If the team wins, it's as if all the
Arabs in this country win."

You would think a team with 1.5 million supporters wouldn't
have trouble finding sponsors, yet a reporter for Haaretz told BBC 
that "Jewish companies don't sponsor Sakhnin." Indeed, the club
has had trouble staying financially afloat, partly because few Israeli
soccer teams are financially sound. James Dorsey, author of the
via email that "Palestinian clubs in the Israeli Premier League will
find winning sponsorship more difficult."

Like in many other leagues, some Israeli clubs stay afloat through
wealthy benefactors willing to sink significant funds into the team.
Russian-Israeli billionaire Arcadi Gaydamak donated $400,000 to
Bnei Sakhnin in 2005, and another $440,000 after Sakhnin's
relegation the following year. This was a remarkable gesture
considering Gaydamak owned ultra-right wing club Beitar
Jerusalem, whose supporters proudly state the club has never
employed an Arab. "I am donating NIS 2 million toward
coexistence, fraternity and peace between Arabs and Jews in
Israel," Gaydamak told Haaretz. "Soccer is important to a lot of
people in Israel, and I wish to take advantage of this to bring
the two peoples closer."

Still, the oddest influx of cash came from one of the 32 United
Nations member states that does not recognize Israel. In 2006,
after years of playing its 
shabby state of its home grounds, Bnei Sakhnin received $6
million from Qatar Sports Investments for its stadium, since
renamed Doha Stadium. In July, Qatar 
announced another round of funding to the tune of $2.5 million,
or more than half of the team's annual budget.

According to Montague, Qatar wants to be a "diplomatic hub,"
acting as a mediator between the United States, Israel, Hamas,
and the Muslim Brotherhood, among others. Despite not
officially recognizing Israel, Qatar is one of the few Muslim nations
that allows Israeli athletes to compete on their soil. "The
investment in the stadium in 2006 fit into its foreign policy that
seeks to play a mediator's role as a way of maintaining good
relations with all parties and projecting Qatar as a good
international citizen," Dorsey told me. "The same goes for the
more recent investments in Israeli Palestinian soccer clubs."

But over the last decade, Jewish attitudes towards Bnei
Sakhnin and other Arab Israeli clubs have become more
extreme, reflecting a general shift across Israeli politics.
According to Foreign Policy, right wing parties would win
56 seats in the next election, a 13-seat increase over last
year, while the center-left would shrink by 11 seats.
As a result, much of the goodwill from Bnei Sakhnin's success
has been undone. In a match against Beitar Jerusalem last
December, Al-Monitor reported that Sakhnin fans waved
Palestinian flags and Beitar supporters ripped and burned a
Quran. The post-match focus was not on the burning of holy
 texts, but the waving of flags. Miri Regev, a right-wing
Knesset member, wrote on her Facebook page, "The situation
where a [soccer] club receives support from the State of
Israel as part of its sports-sponsorship policy, while the club
fans are waving the flags of Palestine, is unacceptable."
According to Al-Monitor, she vowed to introduce legislation
to expel Bnei Sakhnin from the Israeli Premier League.
Beitar has always abused Arab Israeli clubs—the chants in
2004 were "Death to the Arabs," although Beitar is similarly
cruel to left-wing Jewish clubs—but the Gaza War in
2008-09 was a turning point of sorts as the far-right
expanded to encompass much of Israeli politics. As usual,
the problems extend far beyond soccer.

The 2009 election in Israel saw a shift to the right among
Jewish Israelis. A conservative coalition led by Benjamin
Netanyahu took power and enacted a strategy of isolating
Gaza financially, politically, and militarily with the intent of
neutralizing Hamas. Qatar's continued financing of Hamas
did not bode well for popular sentiment of a team that plays
in a building called Doha Stadium.

Neither have rising tensions between Israeli Jews and Israeli
Arabs. Palestinian Knesset member Hanin Zoabi is
serving a six-month ban from Knesset debates for saying on
a radio interview that the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers
wasn't terrorism. She is now under investigation for "inciting
others to violence and insulting two police officers" during an
anti-war political rally, according to The Times of Israel.

Arab-Israelis have always had to live with tension between
their heritage and their country of residence—tension that is
only increasing. Montague pointed out that in the last few years,
the West Bank Premier League has become an increasingly
attractive destination for Arab Israeli players who no longer
tolerate the rampant racism in the Israeli league. (The West
Bank league doesn't allow foreign players, except for Arab
Israelis, and has comparable wages to the Israeli league.)
Further, Jewish players have become more skittish about
joining an Arab Israeli team. Bnei Sakhnin, once the model
for cooperation, no longer has any Jewish players. The
problem is not that Sakhnin is no longer an outlier, but that it
ever had to be one. As a Sakhnin fan told the
New York Times Magazine in 2011, "for us, soccer is the only
place we're equal in this stinking country.

Women’s right to attend sports events at centre of Iran’s culture wars

Iranian volleyball fans (Source: International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran)

By James M. Dorsey

A British-Iranian woman imprisoned In Tehran for attempting to watch a men’s volleyball match is at the centre of Iran’s cultural wars that constitute the backdrop to efforts to resolve problems with Iran’s nuclear program and a struggle between reformists and conservatives in advance of parliamentary elections 18 months from now.

The arrest In June of 25-year old Ghoncheh Ghavami together with more than a dozen other women as they tried to enter a stadium where the Iranian national men’s team was playing Italy was first disclosed earlier this month by The Guardian. Ms. Ghavami’s attempt to enter Tehran’s Azadi stadium was part of a protest staged by dozens of women against the fact that Brazilian women had earlier been allowed to attend a volleyball match between their country’s national team and Iran.

Ironically, volleyball, the setting for the latest phase in the battle for Iranian women’s sporting rights, is also a 21st century’s US-Iranian equivalent of Chinese-American table tennis diplomacy in the 1970s that opened the door to the establishment of diplomatic relations. “We see (volleyball) as an incredible opportunity to promote goodwill and understanding between the Iranian and American people,” State Department communications adviser on Iran Greg Sullivan told Al-Monitor as Iran’s national team played a series of friendlies in the United States. In contrast to Iran, Iranian-American women had no problem attending the friendlies.

The volleyball protest followed widespread rejection by coffee shop owners and female soccer fans in Iran of restrictions on women watching publicly screened soccer matches during the recent World Cup in Brazil. They openly flaunted with no government response orders by authorities to keep television sets off during World Cup matches. The orders were intended to prevent men and women from publicly watching matches together.

Soccer features also in street art battles that are a key venue in Iran’s culture wars. A recent mural on one of Tehran’s main thoroughfares pictured a woman wearing a national soccer team jersey as she washed dishes at home. The mural went viral on social media. In the mural, the woman raises a cup of yellowish dishwash solution as if it were the World Cup trophy in what was seen as a rejection of conservative notions that a woman’s place is at home.

At stake in the battle is however far more than just women’s sports rights. Those rights are part of a larger struggle for Iran’s future as Iranian negotiators meet in New York this month with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to reach agreement on resolving the Iranian nuclear problem before November 24 deadline. Iranian conservatives fear that a successful negotiation would strengthen the hand of supporters of reformist president Hassan Rohani in parliamentary elections scheduled for the spring of 2016.

With popular support for the nuclear talks, conservatives hope to thwart Mr. Rouhani by appealing to traditional values in their effort to undercut his efforts to reduce repression and allow for greater freedom of expression and access to information, promote gender equality, and ease cultural and educational restrictions. Mr. Rouhani like other members of his Cabinet regularly posts messages on Facebook and Twitter despite the fact that access to social media sites is frequently blocked in Iran. The president has also argued publicly that freedom is a precondition for creativity and has contradicted conservative efforts to curb fun.

The culture wars last month kicked into high gear when parliament impeached Mr. Rouhani’s minister of science, research and technology, Reza Faraji-Dana, on charges that he had reinstated academics and students who had been barred by the president’s hard line predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Parliament is likely to target other members of Mr. Rouhani’s Cabinet.
Iranian spiritual guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has so far allowed Mr. Rouhani to move forward with the nuclear talks and efforts to improve Iran’s sanctions-hit economy but has sided publicly with conservative moves to stymie his liberalization moves.

In one of the latest salvos in the culture wars, Iran’s state-owned media and conservative websites reported earlier this month that Shahla Sherkat, the editor of a newly launched women’s magazine, Zanan-e Emruz (Today’s Women), would be charged with promoting feminism after publishing a story on Iran’s restrictive sports stadium law and an interview with a human rights activist opposed to the death penalty.

One conservative website criticized the government’s licensing of Zanan-e-Emruz on the grounds that “feminist views are in clear opposition to the Quran.” Ms. Sherkat told AFP that she had been accused by Iran’s media watchdog of publishing pictures of women that portrayed them as objects.

An acclaimed women’s magazine that was edited by Ms. Sherkat for some 16 years was closed down in the Ahmadinejad era after it ran a cover story headlined: ‘Freedom: Where Can We Scream?’ The cover picture showed two women carrying a sign saying “Tehran Stadium Has a Capacity of 100,000 people.’ The word people was crossed out so that the sign read: ‘Tehran Stadium Has a Capacity of 100,000 men.’

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

China and the Middle East : Embarking on a Strategic Approach

RSIS Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary and analysis of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views of the authors are their own and do not represent the official position of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU. These commentaries may be reproduced electronically or in print with prior permission from RSIS and due recognition to the author(s) and RSIS. Please email: for feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentary, Yang Razali Kassim. 

No. 183/2014 dated 16 September 2014
China and the Middle East :
Embarking on a Strategic Approach
By James M. Dorsey


As the United States becomes embroiled in yet another military intervention in the Middle East, China is embarking on a long-term approach to the region that would secure its access to resources and trade, and enable cooperation with the US on Chinese terms. The approach takes as its starting point that with US influence in the region in decline, political and economic indicators suggest that it’s just a matter of time before the pendulum swings in China’s favour.


CHINA HAS embarked on a Middle East strategy that is shaped as much by contemporary US predicaments in the Middle East as it is by a set of foreign policy principles that contrast starkly with those of the United States, with a determination not to repeat what China views as US mistakes. While there appears to be broad consensus on these points, China’s policy community seems to be divided on a host of questions related to integrating them into a comprehensive policy towards the region. These questions range from the role of democratization to the degree to which China should assert its influence in the region.

The extent of the policy debate was evident during a recent government-endorsed two-day symposium between Chinese policy analysts and former ambassadors to the Middle East and several of their scholarly Western and Arab colleagues. A glimpse of those differences goes some way to explain the focus of the Chinese policy debate. The debate is framed by an emphasis on external rather than domestic drivers of crisis in the Middle East and the importance attached to the formal aspects of political processes such as Chinese official statements and outcomes of elections in the region irrespective of whether they were free and fair, for example Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s re-election in June, rather than political reality on the ground. Ironically, framing that alongside the principle of non-intervention in a country’s domestic affairs effectively amounts to support for autocratic regimes in the Middle East, a policy for which the United States has paid dearly.

The end of US hegemony

The contours of Chinese policy in the Middle East and the assumptions on which they are based have begun to emerge even as US credibility is undermined as a result of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, US support for political change in the region is perceived to be misled; US reluctance to become further embroiled in the region’s conflicts foremost among which is Syria, and its inability to nudge Israelis and Palestinians towards a resolution of their dispute. “US backing off on the Syrian chemical weapons issue signalled the end of US hegemony,” said An Huihou of Shanghai International Studies University’s (SIIS) Middle East Institute who served as Chinese ambassador in five Arab countries.  An was referring to the Russian initiated negotiated resolution of the issue after US President Barack Obama last year shied away from acting militarily on what he had earlier described as a red line.

Like geopolitics, economics also mitigate in China’s favour. The era of an economic focus of oil-rich Gulf states on the United States and Europe ended last year when China replaced the European Union as the region’s foremost trading partner, pushing the US to second place and India moving Japan out of third place. “It’s a shift from the old industrialized powers to the newly industrialized powers,” said Tim Niblock`, a renowned expert on Gulf-Asian relations.

Chinese President Xi Jinping outlined his country’s policy framework towards the region when he called in June of last year for the revival of the Silk Road under the motto of One Belt, One Road. “The Silk Road is an important guide for China’s Middle East diplomacy,” said Wang Jian, director of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences’ West Asia and North Africa Research Centre. “Arab countries are at the western intersection of one road, one belt,” added SIIS’s Ye Qing.

Lofty principles; harsh reality

Leaving aside the sheer audacity and scope of Xi Jinping’s Silk Road project  that focuses on integrating the enormous swathe  of  territories between China and the Middle East by concentrating on infrastructure, transportation, energy, telecommunications, technology and security, applying China’s lofty principles is easier said than done and raises a host of unanswered questions. Its insistence on multi-polarity as opposed to US dominance in the Middle East implicitly means that the status of the US in the region would have to deteriorate further significantly before Washington, despite Obama’s willingness to consult with others in contrast to his predecessor, George W. Bush, would be willing to entertain the Chinese approach.

In the absence of US acquiescence, that approach risks Chinese interests being threatened by the spiralling violence in the region, including the feared spill over of Islamic State-style jihadism in Xinjiang. Non-intervention coupled with unconditional aid could further threaten Chinese interests if and when political change occurs as happened in Libya after the overthrow of Col. Moammar Qaddafi. Qaddafi’s immediate successors threatened to disadvantage China in the reconstruction of the country because of its ties with the Qaddafi regime to the bitter end.  China and the US could find easier common ground on the principle of adherence to international legality, a principle Obama emphasised when he was first elected. However, that has so far been thwarted by the blocking of resolutions regarding Syria by China and Russia rendering   the United Nations Security Council impotent .

China’s policy approach to the Middle East is reinforced by its conclusion from the US predicament in the region that no one power can help the region restore stability and embark on a road of equitable and sustainable development. “Replacing the US is a trap China should not fall into,” Wang Jian said. At the same time, he justified Chinese non-interference with the government’s conviction that the chaos in the region meant that this was not the time to intervene – an approach that many in the Chinese policy community believe allows China to let the US stew in its own soup.

At the crux of the Chinese debate is the same dilemma that stymies US policy in the Middle East: the clash between lofty principles and harsh reality that produces perceptions of a policy that is riddled with contradictions and fails to live up to the values it enunciates. Non-intervention coupled with economic incentives has so far allowed China to paper over some of those dilemmas. That may be more difficult to maintain as the crisis in the Middle East escalates and potentially spills out of the region and closer to home and China’s economic stake increases. To many in the Chinese policy community, dealing with this dilemma makes cooperation between the United States and China an imperative. The question however is: on whose terms?

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Wurzburg and the author of the blog.The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Click HERE to read this commentary online.

Nanyang Technological University
Block S4, Level B4, 50 Nanyang Avenue, Singapore 639798
Tel: +65 6790 6982 | Fax: +65 6794 0617 |

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Palestinians pressure UEFA not to award the tournament to Israel

By James M. Dorsey

Palestinian soccer clubs and non-governmental organizations have called on European soccer governor UEFA to this week shy away from awarding Israel the right to host the 2020 UEFA European Championship.

The campaign against Israel, one of 12 hopefuls expecting a decision in a September 19 UEFA meeting, is part of a boycott campaign that was boosted by the recent seven-week long Israeli Palestinian war in Gaza. The war ended with a ceasefire designed to open the door to negotiations on long-term arrangements that would lift an Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the strip.

The clubs and NGOs reminded UEFA president Michel Platini in a letter dated September 9 that he had warned Israel that it “must choose between allowing Palestinian sport to continue and prosper or be forced to face the consequences for their behaviour.”

The letter signed by a host of clubs and other NGOs puts Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestine Olympic Committee and the Palestine Football Association (PFA), both of which were absent among the signatories of the letter, in a difficult spot.

Mr. Rajoub, widely believed to be positioning himself as a candidate in Palestinian presidential elections, helped Israel in early June avert sanctions by world soccer body FIFA by dropping calls for the suspension of the Jewish state’s membership. Instead, Mr. Rajoub agreed to the establishment of an independent FIFA committee tasked with monitoring progress in the removal of Israeli obstacles to Palestinian soccer such as restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinian players and officials as well as the import of soccer-related goods. The commission is scheduled to report back to FIFA’s executive committee in December.

The Palestinian sports czar argued in a recent 20-minute Al Jazeera talk show entitled ‘Is it time for a sporting boycott of Israel?” that “the main obstacle is the occupation and their treatment daily of the Palestinian sports community with hatred and enmity; restricting the movement of the players, staff and officials and even the movement of our national teams, whether men or women, from inside to outside (of the West Bank and Gaza) or inside the occupied territories.. We need to try to develop and invest in football in Palestine, despite the difficulties we face... We believe football should remain a tool to build bridges between people. Personally, I've been very saddened by the loss of Palestinian life in the conflict,” Mr. Rajoub said.

Mr. Rajoub’s assertions of Israeli harassment were given a boost by a letter of 43 mostly active Israeli reservists stating that they would refuse future service in the Israeli military intelligence wing, Unit 8200, which is often described as the equivalent of the United States National Security Agency. Unit 8200 monitors Palestinians using sophisticated technology. The Israelis said in their letter to Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, Israel Defence Forces chief of staff Binyamin ‘Benny’ Gantz, and head of military intelligence Brigadier General Herzl Levi that their refusal was a result of the methods used by Unit 8200 and the toll they take on innocent civilians in occupied Palestinian territories.

The letter said the methods included gathering personal information about a person's sexual preference, marital fidelity or health needs and using it to blackmail the individual into collaborating with Israeli authorities. The letter quoted its signatories as saying in the form of witness statements that "the notion of rights for Palestinians does not exist at all, not even as an idea to be disregarded" and "any Palestinian may be targeted and may suffer from sanctions, such as the denial of permits, harassment, extortion, or even direct physical injury." The Israeli military denied the allegations in a statement saying that "the Intelligence Corps has no record that the specific violations in the letter ever took place." The statement said Unit 8200’s mission was to protect Israeli civilians.

The campaign also casts a shadow on the credibility of the Palestine Authority (PA) headed by President Mahmoud Abbas that has walked a thin line between backing sanctions against Israel in the wake of the war in which some 2,000 Palestinians were killed and more than 10,000 wounded. Some 70 Israelis also died as a result of the hostilities.

Mr. Abbas’ PA needs to be seen as adopting a harder line in pressing Israel to genuinely negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians after Hamas, the Islamist militia that controls the Gaza Strip, emerged reinvigorated as the force that had confronted Israeli military superiority. The campaign to pressure UEFA is part of a broader Palestinian move to force Israel’s hand by gaining recognition of Palestinian statehood through membership in international organizations. That campaign is tempered by Mr. Abbas’ need to avoid disrupting his financial lifeline by crossing PA’s Western donors. As a result, Mr. Abbas has shied away from plans backed by Hamas and other militant Palestinian groups to charge Israel with war crimes in the International Criminal Court.

The Palestinian soccer clubs and NGOs asserted in their letter to Mr. Platini that awarding Israel the 2020 European Championship would be tantamount to rewarding it for its widely criticized conduct of the Gaza war. Israel has been accused of at best failing to avoid high civilian casualties during the Gaza war and at worst targeting highly populated areas. Israel has argued that it was aiming at military targets but that Hamas and other Palestinian groups had been using civilians as human shields by stationing their rocket launchers and other weapons in densely populated areas.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Committee, which had been campaigning for the sanctioning of Israel before the Gaza war quoted its Gaza coordinator, Abdulrahman Abunahel, as saying that “giving Israel the privilege of hosting a major international sports tournament just weeks after it has carried out a bloody massacre of Palestinians in the besieged Gaza strip would give a green light to future war crimes. Palestinians in Gaza enjoy the beautiful game as much as anyone else but Israel has launched a war on football, killing footballers, bombing stadiums and refusing to allow players to travel to matches. UEFA must live up to its stated commitment to human rights and show Israel the red card.”

Mr. Abunahel was referring to the deaths during the war of 19-year old players Ahmad Muhammad al-Qatar and Uday Caber as well as 49-year-old Palestinian soccer legend Ahed Zaqout and the reported destruction of 32 Gazan sports facilities and damaging of some 500 athletes’ homes.

The letter charged further that awarding the European tournament to Israel would legitimize Israel’s alleged displacement of Palestinians from predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem, which it said was void of soccer facilities as a result of restrictions on Palestinian development. Israel’s allies, including the United States, recently criticized the Jewish state for its expropriation of 400 hectares of land between Jerusalem and Bethlehem as collective punishment for the killing earlier this year of three Israeli teenagers.

“If UEFA decides to allow part of its football tournament to take place in Jerusalem, it will be providing tacit support to the serious violations of international law that Israel is committing in the city”, Mr. Abunahel said.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Fighting the Islamic State: What about the day after?

RSIS Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary and analysis of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views of the authors are their own and do not represent the official position of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU. These commentaries may be reproduced electronically or in print with prior permission from RSIS and due recognition to the author(s) and RSIS. Please email: for feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentary, Yang Razali Kassim. 

No. 180/2014 dated 11 September 2014
Fighting the Islamic State:
What about the day after?
By James M. Dorsey


The US’ military operations against Islamist jihadists in Iraq and possibly Syria risk repeating the West’s failure to embed kinetic interventions in post-conflict reconstruction policies to address the core grievances of populations in the Middle East and North Africa.


The beheading of a second American journalist and the likely execution of a British national have left  US President Barak Obama and other Western leaders few options but to step up military operations against Islamist jihadists in Iraq and expand the battle into Syria.

The focus on confronting the militant jihadists however risks repeating the West’s failure to couple military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya with policies that address post-conflict reconstruction of healthy, pluralistic societies. Similarly, the lack of support for more moderate rebels in Syria failed to take into account the consequences of allowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to squash his moderate opponents and enable the rise of groups that cast him in the role of a bulwark against terrorism.

Failure of war on terror

As a result, more than a decade after then US President George W. Bush declared war on terrorism in the wake of Al Qaeda’s spectacular 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, militant jihadists have morphed into lethal military organisations capable of conquering and holding territories in countries as far flung as Syria, Iraq, Libya and Nigeria. The Islamic State, the militant Islamist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq, is moreover financially self-sufficient, reaping up to an estimated $1 billion a year in revenues from captured oil assets as well as extortion and kidnappings.

The rise of groups like the Islamic State or Boko Haram in Nigeria effectively signals the failure of the war on terror in eradicating Islamist violence or at least putting jihadists on the defensive. The exception may be Somalia where Al Qaeda affiliate Al Shabab has suffered loss of territory, but is still capable of launching deadly attacks in the capital Mogadishu or Al Qaeda itself which appears to have been more concerned in recent years with survival than with plotting an offensive global strategy.

At the core of continued Islamist successes, is the failure of the United States to embed counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency strategies into a comprehensive policy that addresses core grievances on which the Islamists thrive: a changing geo-political environment in post-revolt Middle Eastern and North African countries in which autocratic and sectarian rule as well as colonial-era national borders are being questioned, and the propagation of a puritan, intolerant interpretation of Islam by one of its closest allies, Saudi Arabia.

The failure disregards a rare acknowledgement by Bush shortly after the 9/11 attacks that the United States had become a target because it had for decades emphasised stability in the Middle East and North Africa maintained by authoritarian rulers rather than the installation of regimes that catered to people’s needs and aspirations. President Barak Obama’s hope of minimising US military involvement in the Middle East with the ending of more than a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with no real plan for the day after produced a return to the very policies that Bush identified as co-responsible for militant jihadist violence.

Putting military action at the core

The confrontation with the Islamic State inevitably will involve an increased US military commitment albeit in cooperation with America’s Western allies and regional forces like Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi military forces. It is an involvement that puts military action rather than politics at its core despite US pressure that led to the replacement of sectarian Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki with an Iraqi leader who promises to reach out to the country’s disaffected Sunni Muslim community.

Al-Maliki’s rise as an authoritarian leader who monopolised the state’s levers of power and alienated large segments of the Iraqi population in the process was in part the result of a US return to an emphasis on stability in a volatile part of the world rather than support for transition even if it is at times messy and produces problematic leaders.

So is the Obama administration’s decision to drop pressure on Egypt despite the fact that the country has reverted to the repressive rule of a military commander-turned-president by an election that hardly could be deemed free and fair. As is the administration’s treatment with velvet gloves of Saudi leaders who share a puritan Wahhabi interpretation of Islam with their jihadist detractors that subjects women to their male guardians, propagates intolerance towards those with alternative interpretations of religious texts, and encourage divisive, sectarian policies. Saudi da’wa, the proselytising of its religious precepts funded by the country’s oil wealth, which kicked into high gear after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, has sparked intolerance in Muslim communities across the globe, such as in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Levelling the playing field

Decades of entrenched autocratic mismanagement and abusive rule in the Middle East and North Africa cannot be erased overnight. Similarly, they cannot be reversed by foreign intervention. Populations in the region will have to chart their own course in struggles that are likely to be volatile, messy and at times bloody. The US and others cannot do it for them. They can however help in levelling the playing field by living up to their democratic ideals and adhering to Bush’s realisation that US policies in support of autocratic regimes help create the breeding ground for ever more effective and brutal groups such as the Islamic State.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Click HERE to read this commentary online.

Nanyang Technological University
Block S4, Level B4, 50 Nanyang Avenue, Singapore 639798
Tel: +65 6790 6982 | Fax: +65 6794 0617 |