Inside the Middle Eastern Crisis: An interview with Italian journalist Nino Orto

The first time I met Nino Orto, he had returned to Israel and the Palestinian Territories to immerse himself in one of the world’s most complex conflicts. A boisterous Italian from the island of Sicily, Mr. Orto is a journalist  dedicated to the Greater Middle East and a specialist on Syria, Iraq and Salafist-jihādist groups operating across the region. He works for several Italian newspapers and has a range of rich experiences covering the dynamics of the region from covering the aftermath of the historic Tunisian revolution to analysing politics and society during his time in countries such as Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories throughout his extended career. Having studied journalism and international relations at The University of Rome and University LUISS Guido Carli, Mr. Orto also wrote the book ‘Business, Lead, Dollars: The privatisation of the Iraq War’ which investigated the privatisation of war in Iraq during the American occupation of the country between 2003 and 2011. He is the founder and chief editor of Osservatorio Mashrek, a platform which conducts in-depth analysis of geo-politics and conflict across the Middle East and North Africa. 

When did you first decide you wanted to go into journalism? 

The first time I decided to become a journalist and specifically focus on the Middle East was after the September 11 attacks at the age of fourteen. I was young, but I wanted to understand why these grotesque bombings had happened. From then on, I began to study, travel across the Middle East and started writing articles at the age of seventeen. I went to Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan during this time. 

The Syrian War, together with the rise of ISIS, has created some of the most eye-catching headlines over the last few years, conflicts which you had studied since the 2011. What are your thoughts on the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS? Do you think that the Syrian Crisis could be a factor that catalysed the rise of ISIS and the Sunni revolution? 

Absolutely. In Syria, I had the opportunity to visit historic cities and towns such as Aleppo, Damascus, Hama and Palmyra. Syria, like many other Arabic countries, under President Bashar al-Assad was stable at the time but when you met numerous people living under the regime you could understand that many people (particularly the Sunnis) were not happy with the political situation. The Alawites who were predominantly based in Damascus and lived in a different world when compared to other parts of Syria. It was diverse religiously and in the capital city it did not matter which background you came from. The city had a reputation for supporting education, unique cultural experiences and mixed secular and religious communities. It was a lovely environment to live in. Politically, as with the rest of Syria, there remained no freedom. The atmosphere in Damascus was no exception to this rule and this placed limits on how I could operate and with such a high intensity of political repression, in the context of the Arab revolutions, it did not surprise me when the Syrian revolution occurred in 2011.

While short-term factors such as the Syrian War created an environment which was permissive for the rise of ISIS in the region, what do you believe (aside from the civil war) allowed the movement to achieve more power in the region and gain traction across the Arab world? 

Historically, ISIS has been a long-term nightmare in the making driven by many different factors, conflicts and events. The beginning of the organisation should be pinpointed to 2004 when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, future leader of the terrorist state, moved from Afghanistan (following its invasion by NATO) to Iraq. The fall of Saddam Hussein was the first phase. The occupation of Iraq by American and British soldiers provided the catalyst for ISIS to grow in the chaos of the post-Saddam era and this was greatly accelerated by the Bush administration's incompetent management of the state-building project. After the fall of the regime, Al-Qa'ida in Iraq under the leadership of Zarqawi embedded itself in the Sunni insurgency against the Americans and strengthened the opposition. Al-Qa'ida in Iraq, with the support of the Sunni opposition and tribes, gained considerable combat and military expertise from former Ba'athists, established a safe haven in the Iraqi Sunni heartlands and organised their own state.

ISIS was not born in 2014. They had simply reorganised and evolved after the Surge (2007-2008) of General David Petraeus. The organisation has the same structure as Al-Qa'ida in Iraq during the 2000s. ISIS, it must be emphasised, is not a new phenomenon. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the current leader of ISIS, declared a caliphate in June 2014, however Baghdadi is a puppet who lacks considerable military experience. Despite the lack of existing documents, it is clear the real leaders of the group are the Shura council and the Military Commission.

Survivors of Saddam Hussein's regime form the backbone of ISIS. The biggest military leaders are from the former Ba'ath party who have expertise in intelligence, arms deals, military tactics, media image and methods of terror. These men have years and years of expertise serving in Saddam's military upper hierarchy which was primarily composed of Sunnis. The first phase was the American-led invasion of Iraq. The second phase was the Sunni insurgency against the occupation.

The third phase was the Surge of General Petraeus which was monumental, not because of Al-Qa'ida's setback but  because of how and what they learned from their mistakes in the Iraq War. Their cruelty of Al-Qa'ida and Zarqawi against the Sunni tribal leaders and the wider population gave the Americans the opportunity to defeat them by utilising the "Sunni Awakening" to turn tribal groups against Al-Qa'ida in Iraq who Zarqawi had alienated (political incompetence which led to his betrayal by the Sunni tribes to the Americans and Jordanian intelligence). After Zarqawi's death, Al-Qa'ida in Iraq reformed into ISIS as they understood that in order to grow as state they had to effectively cooperate with the Sunni tribes and leaders. This is why ISIS had the astonishing military successes they had in 2014 and beyond.

ISIS are also stronger because they now have full support from many in the Sunni population due to the grave errors of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This is phase four during which the former Prime Minister, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and supporting militias led a sectarian and political campaign against the Sunni leaders and politicians following the departure of American and British soldiers. Their brutal methods, including torture, rape and human rights violations, drove many Sunnis (who felt betrayed by Baghdad and Washington) into the hands of ISIS which had already been greatly strengthened by the historical cross-border ties between Syrian and Iraqi tribes which helped the group seize Raqqa during the peak of the Syrian War. The alliance between tribal groups and jihādist cells, phase five, helped complete the rise of ISIS. Without the base of the Sunni tribes, ISIS could not survive. 

What will happen to ISIS after the fall of Mosul? How will ISIS feature as a faction in the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars in 2017? 

I do not think anything will change. Mosul and Raqqa are unlikely to collapse in the next few months perhaps even the next few years. There are two fundamental issues, the first is military. Conquering the city of Mosul from ISIS will be too costly in manpower for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) who need expertise and financial support to complete their objectives. Equally, if the ISF were to recapture Mosul who will manage the city in the face of an ISIS-led insurgency? We have to remember the American army (the most powerful military in the world) could not manage the Sunni insurgents without the critical support of Sunni tribal leaders, let alone the Shiite-led insurgency by Muqtada al-Sadr. How can we expect the Shiite-dominated Iraqi military to replicate the American formula? The government in Baghdad needs the critical support of these tribal leaders who they have alienated and the support of the Kurdish peshmerga who desire increasing autonomy (if not independence) from central government.

The second reason the situation will not change is geo-political. If ISIS were to disappear, who would manage Raqqa and Mosul? The Kurds? The Turkish government? A corrupt kleptocracy in Baghdad? The Turkish government do not want the Kurds to obtain more power in Syria and Iraq. If Turkey do not want this then the Russians will follow suit if Syria is to become a federal state (divided between Sunnis, Kurds and Alawites). This could be an option in 2017-2018, one which is very advantageous for all regional actors who want to have ISIS as an enemy, an organisation which is portrayed as a global threat. For regional powers, ISIS is a very useful geo-strategic proxy and if they were to be defeated, regional and international powers will be asking themselves where the jihādists and foreign fighters fighting for ISIS and other jihādist cells will go. For the Western powers, regional power-brokers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, this is a huge problem for policymakers as it would increase the number of terrorists attacks on their own soil. 

The lines we see on the map of the Middle East no longer exist. President Trump seems to have little interest in Syria and Iraq and seems more concerned by Iranian expansion and the growth of Tehran's influence and power in Iraq and Syria because of the rise of ISIS. Without ISIS and extremist Salafist-jihādists cells operating in these two countries, there would be no less of a reason for Iran to be in Iraq and Syria. ISIS is a useful enemy for every regional power. 

What are your views on the regional ‘Cold War’ between the Gulf States and Iran?

This confrontation will go on for many years. President Trump it seems has decided to support the Sunni-dominated countries in the regional Cold War against the 'Shiite Crescent' of Iran. Speaking plainly, Iran, its Shiite allies and supporting militias won the wars in Syria and Iraq. After five years, the Shiite powers emerged victorious. The question is where will the next theatre of war be? It could be Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Syria again. It is very difficult situation to predict where everyday the situation changes rapidly.

The war in Syria is over for now as there is no more interest for international powers to pursue the conflict after agreements between Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. For the Sunni opposition within Syria, they will likely be forced make an agreement with the government in Damascus which could result in Syria becoming a federal state divided along sectarian and ethnic lines. President al-Assad will be victorious but he will be dependent on outside support for some time. The regime lost significant power and survived only because of Russian and Iranian support and the military strength of political organisations such as Hizbullah. President Trump will support the Sunni countries to counter-balance what the United States and Israel will see as the rise of Shiite power in the Greater Middle East.

The latter will be of great concern to the Israeli government who are worried by developments in Syria. If there is peace in Syria, Hizbullah fighters will return to Lebanon to regroup against Israel's northern frontier. It is not a question of numbers even though Hizbullah have lost many men in Syria and undoubtedly the conflict has been a deadly experience for Hizbullah and the Lebanese people. However for Hizbullah, the experience in Syria has helped them gained further expertise and more armaments. Their numbers, which were diminished by the Syrian War, will be replenished eventually. 

Since the Arab Revolutions began, how do you think Turkey has reacted to the Arab Revolutions

Since the Arab Revolutions started, Turkey has attempted to reestablish itself as a leader of the Sunni resurgence across the region. Turkey and Saudi Arabia were in contest with each other for this prize. Despite this though, both failed and become weaker after six years of interventions across the region in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The Turkish nation and Saudi Arabian monarchy are both considerably weaker economically, politically and socially and prone to bouts of internal violence. The Saudis invested billions into attempting to remove Assad from power and failed and this resulting weakness will be exploited by jihādists who despise the al-Saud monarchy. 

What do you think of Russian involvement in Syria and Iraq? Do you think Russian and Chechen jihādists will use "Syraq" as a platform for domestic conflicts with Moscow? 

This could be a future problem, however I expect Russia will defeat the jihādist groups as they did in the 1990s and early 2000s during the wars in Chechnya. The Russian government is not a Western government so it will be less concerned with collateral damage and human rights when it is warring with extremist cells in Russian territory. A Chencen uprising would will be a short-lived and bloody affair. Concerning Syria, I think that Russia will retreat from the Syrian theatre despite Russian military's expanded presence in Tartous and the rest of the country, its support for the Shiite powers and improved diplomatic relations with the Turkish government.

In contrast to Syria's catastrophe, Tunisia must have been a heavenly proposition for you. Following the revolution in 2011, you were in Tunisia several times, a country which was to be the catalyst for the Arab revolutions and a country which has witnessed momentous change since 2010. Do you think the revolution has succeeded or do you think it is still evolving? 

Tunisia was the cradle of the Arab revolutions. There were many factors that led to the Tunisian revolution in 2011, the most important being the high level of education of the young Tunisians and the strong influence of Europe in the country which is geographically situated close to Italy were many Tunisians live. This indirectly influenced the situation inside Tunisia and encouraged the people to rise up against President Ben Ali. The revolution is still evolving and there are many problems to resolve in relation to corruption and the brutality of the security apparatus against activists and citizens which still utilises similar methods to that under Ben Ali's dictatorship. Despite this, I still believe there is still a democratic process which is leading the country in a good direction especially when you compare the country to Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt. All the other countries since the Arab Revolutions have gone backwards while Tunisia is moving steadily forward and the only revolution which is working across the region. 

You were in the ‘Red Zone’ of Kasserine, a stronghold for Salafi-jihādists cells in southern Tunisia covering developments there for Italian media. Describe your time in Kasserine. Is Tunisia as stable as Western media, policymakers and public opinion would like to believe? 

It is a very complicated situation. Tunisia is stable yet it cannot be denied that  there are forces outside the country which are attempting to plunge the country into chaos. Kasserine, like many other provinces in the south and west of Tunisia is facing many problems of inequality. El-Kef, a city situated close to the Algerian border, is another haven for jihadist recruits. These two places I visited and covered had many deep-rooted social and economic problems. 

There were high rates of unemployment amongst young people, poor infrastructure, a lack of social programmes and there had been a decline in tourism after the revolution which helped fuel poverty. All of these factors led to an increasing connection between smugglers (historically a source of income for the populations) and jihādists sleeper cells. Under Ben Ali, smuggling represented 70% of the income of El-Kef and Ben Gardane due to a lack of investment by the former president who had remained predominantly focused on coastal areas of Tunisia (the economic hubs of the country). This created a chasm in wealth and opportunity between rural and urban areas. After the revolution, the smugglers and jihadists became one network. This helped to radicalise young Tunisians in rural areas and villages. When I asked these young men "Why are you fascinated by the jihadists and want to go fight in Syria?" they simply responded "Look around you. There is nothing. There are no jobs. There is no freedom and there is no possibility of a future. What can we do? I can go die in Syria for Allah."  

There were many troubles in Tunisia after the elections in 2014. After Rached Ghannouchi, co-founder and the Ennahdha Party (Renaissance Party) won the elections, many members of the former party of Ben Ali tried to sway public opinion that Ghannouchi and his party were making a push to Islamise Tunisian society and set the country back by decades. However, Tunisian political culture helped prevent the country's disintegration into civil war and a ominous confrontation between secular and religious Tunisians. Tunisia is a unique example of the Arab Revolutions not because there is no struggle between activists, secularists and religious groups, but because these confrontations never resulted in a civil war.

Why has Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab revolutions and the most westernised of Muslim societies, sent the largest contingent among ninety countries of foreign jihādists to Iraq and Syria? 

This is a one million dollar question! Many researchers and journalists inside Tunisia are attempting to understand this phenomenon. In my opinion, it is the security environment inside Tunisia which does not permit extremists and sleeper cells to pursue their agendas. These would-be jihādists as a result operate in collapsed states where such activity is permissive (Libya, Syria, Iraq). Another answer to this is that at the beginning of the revolution under Ennadha, many jihādists felt safe and had little interest in violence or in undermining the political situation across the country. After 2012, extremists became closer because of the backlash against them. Tunisians, religious and secular, did not like jihādists nor did they approve of the violent methods or strategies they advocated. Promoting extremism (rhetorically and politically) in Tunisian society came at great risk of arrest, societal shame and a security crackdown. 

Equally, Tunisia's location close to Europe and countries such as Italy and France ensured that the government and security forces received plenty of support from Western states to counter radical political movements. In the case of Tunisia, poverty, poor education, and  the woes which followed for men and women from the working class formed the bulk of foreign fighters because there was a lack of political, social and economic opportunities for them and this eventually drove such people into Syria and Iraq.

It was very easy for extremists, the press and several media outlets to manipulate individuals to pursue jihād abroad. This is another problem. Ghannouchi and his party had many connections which helped support the growth of jihādism after the revolution. Before the revolution under President Ben Ali, the religious and cultural model in Tunisia was very tolerant and open. After the revolution, while this religious model remained tolerant, Ennahdha and many Saudi Arabian and Pashtun Afghan religious officials and groups began to sponsor, fund and influence Tunisian models and attempted to change the outlook of the Tunisian religious communities. 

There was a restructuring of the religious press in the country and this changed the mentality of many religious people. The Saudi Arabians attempted to undermine traditional religious models. This project failed as Tunisians largely chose to reject the Wahabbist doctrine promoted by the Gulf State. Equally, after the deposition of Mohammed Morsi by a military coup and second Egyptian revolution, Ghannouchi chose to recalibrate the party's strategy fearing that what had happened in Egypt could happen to Ennahdha if they repeated Morsi's and the Muslim Brotherhood's mistakes.

You have also lived in and visited Israel and the Palestinian territories on numerous occasions. Following your most recent time reporting there, how would you describe the situation on the ground? 

The situation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories has been slightly exaggerated by the media. Of-course there is a conflict and brutality being perpetrated by the Israeli military and security forces and Palestinian militants. However, the media doesn't adequately cover the real conflict happening there. There are many Israelis who are also pushing for peace just like the Palestinians who are being hindered by the internal and external pressures which discourage the resolution of the conflict at this moment.

 It is incredibly complex. There are too many actors, too many interests and it is difficult to predict what will happen. Despite this, the conflict is not as black and white as Western audiences would like to believe. The main problem from an Israeli standpoint is the power of the right-wing and the settler parties, the latter of whom represent the most powerful parties inside Israel. Netanyahu is one of the most important leaders who defends the interests of the settlers and the weakness of the Israeli left has empowered the settler movement and they are paralysed because the Palestinian political parties are not giving the Israeli left any bargain for a potential peace deal. As a result, the key people leading the conflict and peace-process are the right-wing politicians and groups in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps. 

Do you think that a two-state solution agreed under the Oslo Accords is feasible anymore? Do you believe the Israelis, Palestinians and other minorities are facing a one-state reality? 

The situation in the Palestinian Territories, in my opinion, is irreversible. There are too many settlements and too many secular and religious settlers in the West Bank which are provided strong support by Israeli government and non-government interests. The Israelis are winning on several fronts in the conflict, they are coordinated, have a strong leadership and the Palestinian leadership is weak. Corruption in the Palestinian Authority, which has frequently used European Union and non-governmental aid for themselves, has resulted in Palestinian leaders being more hated by the Palestinian people than the Israelis because they do little for their citizens. 

There are many examples of Israelis and Palestinians cooperating, for example many Palestinian people work in settlements and companies in Ariel. The path to peace and for both parties to accept each others existence and rights will be a long-term process for the Palestinians and hard-right Israelis. Without a clear agreement between the two leaderships, particularly the Palestinian leaderships' disunity, Israel will and can act with impunity predominantly because of political opportunity, not ideological agendas. The Palestinians, particularly the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat (1929 - 2004) have had many opportunities to make peace and create a state. 

Is a third intifada likely?

The situation can escalate at anytime in the Palestinian Territories. However if a Palestinian intifada (revolt) were to occur it would, in my opinion, be directed against the Palestinian leadership. 

Do you think Barack Obama’s legacy in the region will have a lasting impact?  

Mr. Obama's legacy will have a significant impact. I believe President Obama's approach was too weak. Certainly Mr. Obama took the prudent step of not intervening in Syria as such an act could have led to a major regional war and after four years I remain adamant he made the right decision not to intervene in the Syrian Civil War. However,  he avoided too many confrontations with the Shiite powers such as Iran, Hizbullah and Syria. The cost of this approach may be seen in the next few years and particularly with Donald Trump at the helm of the White House. In fairness to Mr. Obama, his presidency occurred at a very difficult moment in Middle Eastern history when the Iraq War and the revolution and counter-revolutions across the region had created enormous upheaval, violence and turmoil. Any choice or move against a particular group or country would have impacted another country in the region as seen by the American-led intervention and the deposition of Saddam Hussein by the administration of George W. Bush.

Matthew C.K Williams

For more information and original analysis on the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars as well as the evolution of salafi-jihadist movements visit Mr. Orto's website, Osservatorio Mashrek.