Archive for ‘Muslims & Islam’

June 8, 2012

The Dark Knight’s Allegory for Terrorism

by Gedalyah Reback

The Dark Knight rises back next month. His arrival is significant for a number of reasons, and they all deserve to be quantified. But what’s socially important about The Dark Knight Rises is it’s attitude toward modern problems. The first two movies have been culturally significant. The Dark Knight was called “the first great post-9/11 film.” They’ve incorporated the political atmosphere of the times into the plot lines, with Ras al-Ghul’s League of Shadows organizing a massive chemical attack on an American city and the Joker’s tactical threats against landmarks and transportation effectively besieging a modern Gotham. The third film seems to be building on economic divisions and plans to round off the latent theme of terrorism, a tremendous combination of themes. But I felt it was important to describe in detail what Nolan was able to do with his modern Caped Crusader to match him to the spirit of the times.

Batman Begins’ Allegory for Al-Qaeda

The movie is about fear. That is the essential thing to understand. In Batman Begins, the story is indisputably is about Bruce Wayne. Everything revolves around his experience, but that’s an invested experience. He grows into the idea he has to be the guardian angel where no one else will be. Becoming a source of good that literally fights crime necessitates overcoming fear, whether one is training to be a Marine or run for office in a country known for its assassinations.

Along the journey he’s acquainted with Ras al-Ghul. In the comics, he is more science fiction, a hundreds-year-old noble who’s keeps himself living by means of a completely fictitious chemical pit. He’s experienced wars and pain over his lifetime, but has also had time to amass great wealth and build a network of global assassins. He is a man of principle, making him a mirror for Bruce Wayne’s morality throughout the comics. It’s no different in the film.

But his name makes the reason behind choosing to use his character much more obvious. His name is Arabic. Ras al-Ghul literally means “demon head” (related to “rosh” in Hebrew and “ghoul” in English), symbolizing the dread he can instill. In my mind, he and the themes of the movie have always made this the first real attempt to incorporate the epic problems of international terrorism a plot device in a movie that has nothing to do with Islam or the Middle East.

Adapted for the movie, the scifi is eliminated while maintaining his personality. He serves as the ideal model for today’s Islamic fundamentalism, motivated by an ingrained religious ideal to cleanse evil from the world by launching full-scale war against it. There is no concern for collateral damage. Their plan in Begins is to hit Gotham with a weapon that would tear at the sullied fabric of its society.

Challenging the Validity of Terrorism

Channeling the power of fear is a sub-element of the overarching theme. The secondary villain, The Scarecrow, makes that obvious. His background as a psychiatrist informs him how to design a chemical weapon that would induce panic and insanity. The weapon would literally make Gotham City’s citizens kill each other. Ras wants to use it to strike terror in the hearts of Gothamites, while Wayne wants to turn that strategy on the criminals who count on it. In al-Ghul’s words, “Gotham will tear itself apart through fear.” But Wayne wants to “turn fear against those who prey on the fearful.” His struggle to overcome fear is a model he wants to project for those Gothamites, and consequently their future is not lost, much less are they deserving of being punished for others’ sins.

What is lost here is Batman can’t deny the corrupt nature of the city. Wayne takes a stand that “there are good people” in the city and that the only strategy to save the city is to take the fight to criminals and go through the court system to establish the rule of law, perhaps its own statement about modern politics. It is a message as applicable to the Islamic fundamentalism of our age than the prisons of Guantanomo Bay.

Wayne is trained by al-Ghul’s League of Shadows, and has to complete his journey by executing a known murderer. But this criminal hasn’t gone through a trial nor been proven guilty. His execution has no justice connected to it. The scene here nestles the idea of what a stable society looks like squarely in the face of the terrorists who aim to destroy it. Al-Ghul says “no one can save Gotham,” denying that anything can challenge a belief he follows religiously – the only way to wipe evil away is to stab it in the heart in one massive blow.

Batman challenges an international organization motivated by an infallible ideology. He squares off with people whose answer to criminality, selfishness, and moral decay is destruction instead of redemption. Begins, not just the character, invests stock in the notion that people can change, but it will not be overnight. Begins is a classical comedy with a happy ending, firmly establishing someone whose challenged the norms of human failure and stood up to people’s nature to bully or to run; their nature to give into their desires or give up on the world; their nature to turn on each other rather than on the real problem.

Batman Begins challenges the idea of terrorism by instructing us how not to be terrified, and goes further by tearing into its own self-justifications. It takes a dramatic adventure to deliver the point, but it’s difficult not to see it. And like all great teachers, the writers and director don’t give just one lesson. A deeper inspection of these themes continues in The Dark Knight.

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June 3, 2012

Syria’s Alawites (and other Minorities) beyond Wikipedia and the News

by Gedalyah Reback

Wikipedia is a great website. Ignore it at your own peril. Teachers and professors talk it to hell, but not using it is to ignore a tremendous tool that Google considers the automatic top result on virtually any academic topic. Most professors don’t understand that the reason you shouldn’t cite it as a source isn’t due to its lack of reliability. It’s because the information of its articles are constantly changing. You should be checking the footnotes and hitting the links listed at the bottom of the page. New information makes the date you accessed it originally constantly irrelevant, but letting it point you in the right direction is assuredly a good strategy for writing a paper or thinking of a research topic.

So when it comes to Middle East topics, it’s not so much the subjectivity I worry about – even on articles covering things like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s the outdated information. In terms of minorities, Wikipedia seems much more like an aggregate for recycled, archaic information than it does a reliable source of the modern state of different religious or ethnic groups.

The particular page of concern for me is this one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Syria. What the page has to say about Alawites is peculiar: “Although they are settled cultivators, Alawis gather into kin groups much like those of pastoral nomads. The four Alawi confederations, each divided into tribes, are Kalbiyah, Khaiyatin, Haddadin, and Matawirah.”

The information is correct. But it was a better summary about 100 years ago. Alawites, Ismailis and Druze have not been left out of the age of the internet, digital music, cars or the urban explosion. Every group has moved away from rural lifestyles into Latakia, Hama, Homs and Damascus. But most importantly of all, the community’s conservative roots have been decimated by the modern age. A combination of Arab nationalism, feigning devotion to religion and the marathon of Western cultural influences into the year 2012 have made religion a weak link among Alawites. In the spirit of the age, the experience is defined by a raw, dark, realpolitik approach to life. Alawites’ main concern right now is living under the thumb of political Islam defined by the Muslim Brotherhood. More relevant than referring to the group’s religious history is its political history. The Ottoman Empire made great efforts toward the end of its existence to push Syria’s Alawites to embrace the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam in custom, law and sect. By the time the empire fell, the community’s leadership was either running to Shi’ite Islam for legal inspiration or enthusiastically defining the community’s independence.

After 90 years of secular Arab nationalism and a Western culture not at all defined by religious tradition, secularism is perhaps the more dominant trend in Alawite and other minorities’ religious identities in 2012 Syria. bear this in mind for your next term paper. But also bear in mind “secular” doesn’t imply atheist, agnostic or apathetic regarding religion. It can merely imply someone doesn’t live his or her life in accord with it, or doesn’t want religious affairs mixed up in government or politics. But in terms of tribal authority, or the authority of religious figures, it’s virtually non-existent. The effective leadership of the Alawite community is Bashar al-Assad and the disproportionately Alawite Syrian armed forces.

This doesn’t mean religion is finished for the Alawites. It would be just as naïve to say the same for the American Northeast and West Coast. Religion is hardly on its way out. How Alawites deal with religion in the future will likely change, but contemporary Western trends will hardly be the end of the story or the ushering in of a sudden wave of secular or atheist Humanism. Alawites have had the opportunity for years to eliminate other elements of religion in Syria’s political life and have balked at the opportunity. A number of minorities are converting to Twelver Shi’ite Islam.

So when you look at a map on the news describing where the Alawites are, or what percentage of people actually believe in a certain religious idea, take the statistics and the graphics with a grain of salt. A lot of the research is out of date and the conclusions conveniently organized. Surveys have never been rich enough to absolutely define the beliefs of many Middle Eastern minorities, much less nail down an arbitrarily line on the map defining where they live. The information is helpful, but trends like urbanization and the ability to commute long distances make looking at these sources as infallible or perfectly accurate extremely precarious.

May 20, 2012

Israel Deploys Heavy on the Egyptian Border

by Gedalyah Reback

The prospects for the future between Israel and Egypt are still ambiguous. Egypt’s Sinai is more of a worry than it’s been at any other point in the past 30 years. Since last year’s Egyptian Revolution, Egypt’s natural gas pipeline exporting fuel to Israel has been attacked 14 times. Amidst Israel’s lacking popularity with Egyptians, their government suspended its gas deal with Israel two weeks ago, claiming the deal undervalued the exported fuel and demanded renegotiation. But without the threats to the pipeline, there would have been little motivation to implement the move.

This is the first significant move by Israel’s military to prepare for engagement along the Egyptian border. Two major concerns hang over the heads of Israeli security personnel, on the one hand something a near-term concern and on the other a long-term one. Firstly, like with the pipeline, Bedouin in the Sinai desert might present a threat to Israeli tourists in Egypt. There have been terrorist attacks on resorts in the Sinai before, but the concern is more acute now. Egyptian police initially abandoned the Sinai during the revolution last year. They’ve slowly returned to respond to local instability, though after months of sabotage attacks. With some Bedouin motivated by Islamic militancy, the concern is more terrorists might try to infiltrate Israel.

But, Israel took the initiative last month when the high brass of the IDF requested the Knesset authorize a larger reserve call-up than usual to patrol not just the Syrian, but also the Egyptian border. According to the Reserve Duty Law, updated in 2008, veterans can be called up once every three years unless the IDF requests permission to call up more people more frequently. In this case, six battalions will be split between the two borders with permission to call up 16 more if necessary. The threat from armies is not the priority, but the one posed by smuggling and border raids by terrorists. In the words of Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Harel, “The army needs a better ‘answer’ than in the past to the threat.”

There is a fading worry Bashar al-Assad would start a war with Israel to distract Syrians from instability at home, focusing rage on an external tormentor. That would probably split the feeble Syrian army at this point. The real concern is Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Here’s why:

Guns to Gaza

The peninsula is home to two different concerns. In Northern Sinai, Bedouin manage smuggling routes into Gaza. In the beginning of May, the Egyptian government captured a massive cache of weapons heading there. That includes huge caches of captured weapons Libya’s rebels sold to Hamas last year. The north’s main city is slowly slipping out of reach of the rest of Egypt. El-Arish is littered by pictures of the fundamentalist presidential candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail, showing where Egypt’s Sinai is headed. Construction supplies are stolen by corrupt workers and sold off to be smuggled to Gaza. But most unsettling of all, human trafficking is enforcing the industry of these same crime rings, including kidnapping for ransom, torture, rape and organ theft.

Bedouin leaders are unsettled by where their tribes are going. With unemployment as high as 90% in the Sinai, they receive a lot of lip service from the country’s leaders but little practical help. Consequently, smugglers continue to invest in their businesses, the more and more brutally. Despite whatever imperative local chiefs have, they don’t have the power and few have the will to make progress.

Human Trafficking, Organ Trafficking and Slavery

Egypt’s Bedouin are closely related to the tribes in the Israeli Negev. The international border between the two territories is only 100 years old, and for much of that time Israel had control of both areas and no fence separated the areas. Bedouin still wander the desert, crossing borders with ease and without hesitation. Consequently, crime syndicates on the Egyptian side would be well-connected on the Israeli side.

Sudanese and Eritrean refugees are caught in the middle. Escaping the conflict zones in their countries, they head for the closest First World state they can – Israel. Traveling north through Egypt, they hire Bedouin trackers to get them across the desert to an unguarded gap in the Israeli border. Presumably they can restart new lives or head to Europe. But many of them are turned on and kidnapped by their handlers. Taking $3,000 for the service of guiding them through the desert, their relatives are called with demands of $30,000 or even $40,000 for their release. Contacts report the captives are tortured with electric cables, even as they are put on the phone to plead for their families’ help. With Egyptian police failing miserably to enforce order, families are left to sell all their possessions with slim hopes anyway. The European Union has a resolution on the table demanding Egypt do more, acknowledging the situation.

On the Israeli side of the border, the situation is being overlooked. Ministers are actually more concerned with deporting refugees already in Israel than they are about the ones already lost on their way. Concerns, however exaggerated, range from thinking Islamic militants are sneaking into the country to parts of the country being over-run by refugees. No matter the motivation, it is a PR nightmare for the country that the focus is on gettign rid of the refugees rather than saving their brethren from an apparent common enemy.

South Sudan

Israel has built a relationship with South Sudan. The country only went independent last year and has seemed to be the natural ally, being the enemy of Arab northern Sudan. It’s that Sudan, the north, which has fueled much of the conflict that drove refugees to Israel in the first place. Jerusalem has been concerned with arranging deportation with the South Sudanese government, but has invested little into fighting a Bedouin threat that South Sudan also wants stamped out.

Israel will need to shift its focus if it wants to get ahead of the game in the Sinai Peninsula. Bringing attention to the human component of Bedouin crime rings in the Sinai will go a long way in pressuring Egypt to be more aggressive in policing what is supposedly its own territory.

Without more aggressive measures from Cairo, Israel’s different branches of military will have to do the work themselves. That should not mean a full scale invasion, but it would imply a lot more covert activity, making alliances with certain tribes and not others, as well as working with South Sudanese to penetrate and neutralize groups that are smuggling as much armor as they are human cargo.

May 16, 2012

Modern Shi’ite Islam: 201 – the Power of the Scholars

by Gedalyah Reback

But what is it that gives Shi’ite leaders their power? It’s not the guns on the street that fuel Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq or Nasrallah in Lebanon. The influence is a mix of religious prestige and control of resources. Both men govern strong militias, but they owe their power to different influences. Amazingly, neither of them is considered authoritative scholars in Shi’ite Islam. They are militiamen or carry the name recognition of their relatives.

Those scholars are called “mujtahidun,” Arabic for “adjudicators.” They are the elite of the scholars in the Shi’ite world, the most capable and intelligent in being able to analyze centuries of scholarship and jurisprudence. Over the last 200 years, their political power has grown to the point they’re resented.

In the 19th century, Shi’ite Islam was split between two movements: the Akhbaris & the Usulis. The first considered Islamic law as fully laid out, outlined and organized. There was nothing new to contribute to analyzing the original sources of Islamic law – the Quran and the Hadith. Trying to draw new conclusions would be violating the legal precedents previous scholars had set in place. Akhbaris looked at complex legal analysis – “ijtihad” – as categorically forbidden.

The Usulis are the intellectual antithesis. Their belief that the world is constantly changing or new legal scenarios present themselves made their idea that ijtihad was not only permissible but necessary much more practical. That practicality crushed the Akhbari movement, which was too rigid to respond the changing social and economic climate for Shi’ites in Iraq & Iran living under European influence and Ottoman modernization.

The Mujtahid practices Ijtihad. Achieving such an influential title is not necessarily a formal process, but a mujtahid is expected to have studied for years, probably decades, in order to earn it.

The Usuli emphasis on a mujtahid’s ability also translated into giving a mujtahid more communal authority. Suddenly, a mujtahid is considered a strongly qualified person to decide major economic and social issues in the Shi’ite community. Combine this new emphasis to that authority with the access to charitable donations and managing locally owned religious property, and the power of a mujtahid became much stronger.

Colonial influence by the British and resentment of the Ottoman Empire helped create political issues that made these legal scholars politically popular. When the British forced the Iranian Shah to outsource ownership of local tobacco crops to European monopolies in 1891, a renowned Iraqi scholar publicly banned smoking, destroying the tobacco industry. The ban was lifted only when the Shah cancelled the international contract. It strengthened the position of not just Iraqi scholars but also the power of Shi’ite scholars to extend their influence beyond their own borders.

In 1935, after years of Shi’ite scholars protesting the Sunni-heavy national curriculum of schools and Shi’ite marginalization from the government, they were instrumental in organizing an armed revolt against the Sunni-dominated government. It was the effort to force Shi’ites into a national draft that sparked the rebellion, and showed the political and even military power scholars were gaining as the main legal authorities in their religious communities.
Even though Iraq came down hard on these scholars in the years afterward, the idea they were the most qualified to lead the community fed the creation of religious political parties in the 1950s & 1960s in Iraq.

Big-name scholars Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim and the prodigy Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr lent their support to these political movements in the 1950s. Both were members of religious dynasties, much like there are Jewish leaders today who might hail from the Feinstein or Soloveitchik Rabbinical dynasties.

Ayatollah Khomeini also had a tall soapbox in Iraq while exiled from Iran, bringing that idea of political authority full circle into a highly developed constitutional system led by a “Supreme Leader,” officially a steward for the 12th Imam, running the Iranian government. His idea has been enshrined as law; only the most learned scholar can be appointed as the head of the Shi’ite world, whose de facto capital has become the capital of revolutionary Shi’ite Iran, for now.

May 15, 2012

Modern Shi’ite Islam: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

The Shiite world has often been ignored in historical research and political value. We seemed to have only started caring again when the United States and United Kingdom invaded Iraq. Suddenly, a secular Sunni elite was toppled, giving rise to a majoritarian state ruled by a conglomerate of Shiite political parties closely connected to Iran. But the flood of new books on the community is limited to topics of international security, terrorism and war. The modern sense of Shi’ism has been defined more by the experiences with the Ottoman Empire and internal tension over the dogma of the religion.

Traditionally in Shiite Islam, the idea that any one figure could rule it was actually borderline heretical. Twelver Jafari Shiite Islam is named “12-er” because it reveres 12 successors – “Imams” – to the Prophet Muhammad and his nephew Ali. For the first 300 years of Islamic history, Shiite leaders were constantly on the run or in hiding. Sunni rulers or religious rivals (often the same enemy) pursued their Shiite rivals, causing a number of sub-splits in the Shiite community that created communities that revered each Imam individually. As one religious leader would die, competition would envelope Shiite rivals for the position. Zaidi Shiites (Fivers) and Ismaili Shiites (Seveners) each see the fifth or seventh Imams as the last legitimate princes of the Shiite dynasty, while Twelvers don’t believe the dynasty ended until the disappearance of a 12th successor. The religion eventually coalesced, seeing this 12th Imam as an exile spiritually empowered that will miraculously reemerge to reassume control of the Islamic community in the End Times. To say anyone else is entitled or qualified at all to lead the community in a formal capacity was consequently a theological controversy.

During the 19th century, Shi’ism, more specifically Twelver Jafari Shi’ite Islam, underwent an intellectual civil war. The first side of the coin was the conservative Akhbari school of legal thought. Their approach to religious law was that it was static. Trying to elucidate new principles of law, even in relation to unprecedented questions facing the community, was considered categorically forbidden. Their philosophical opponents were called Usulis, who argued it was impractical not to open up the possibility of reinterpreting old jurisprudence to apply to the modern era. Eventually, the Usulis proved much more adaptable to the changing environment. Only in Bahrain did the Akhbari school manage to survive, but the philosophy of Bahraini Shi’ism has been heavily influenced by foreign communities over the last 150 years.

But Usuli thinkers have become more reflective of the static Akhbari approach. Because religious thinkers and legal scholars were able to make themselves more relevant as interpreters of Islamic law in relation to new problems, their own positions got to be more socially important. With that, their institutions and resources became central elements of the community and their personas representative of the community as a whole. With this, extremely loyal followings coalesced around them. Even beyond that, the suddenly important position of the most exceptional scholars took on more religious meaning. Thinkers began arguing they were the only ones qualified to lead Islamic communities, even beyond Shiite centers.

That opened up the door for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Developments in Usuli philosophy challenged the traditional attitude to leadership in the community. He developed a concept called “Rule of the Jurist,” theorizing that the most learned scholar was the only legitimate leader of Shi’ite Islam in absence of the 12th Imam. His ideas, published in the 1960s while in exile in Iraq, built on ideas from other leading Shi’ite thinkers throughout the 1900s. By the time he led the Islamic Revolution in 1979, no other authoritative scholar in Twelver Shi’ite Islam had the recognition Khomeini did. That also was true regarding wealth and resources. That same year, Saddam Hussein took the helm as Iraq’s president, and within a year he destroyed any armed or political opposition among Iraqi Shi’ites. In 1980, ordering the murder of the revered Iraqi scholar Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, he pushed other religious leaders either into submission or into seclusion. Only Khomeini’s Iran had the ability to lead the Shi’ite world, sponsoring the community of Lebanon and pushing for more influence in Persian Gulf countries – even among the traditionally Akhbari community of Bahrain.

Only with the rise of democratic Iraq has Shi’ism begun to see a rapid shift away from the philosophy one man could be an infallible leader to the Shi’ite world. On the one hand, Iraqis are aware of the oppressive policies of the Iranian government toward its citizens, including rival Shi’ite scholars. On the other hand, Iraq’s most renowned cleric – Ayatollah Ali Sistani – is a student of Ayatollah Khomeini’s main rival Ayatollah Abu al-Qasem al-Khoi. They personify the idea that no one scholar can be considered more authoritative than another recognized as his intellectual equal. With Iraq’s sudden Shi’ite awakening, there is a rival center of Shi’ite culture.

Modern Shi’ite Islam is a rich and changing world. This can only serve as a broad introduction as to the nature of power in the Shi’ite world, but it is an important gateway to understanding why one man might claim himself a legitimate pretender to a religion’s throne.

April 19, 2012

Turkey’s Alevis: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

There’s been attention on the Alawite sect of late. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad comes from the sect, and the sectarian implications of the violence in Syria is huge. I recently posted about members of the religion who live in the Turkish-Syrian border area and how their emotions could complicate Turkish intervention in Syria.

Another group weighs even more heavily on Turkish politics: the Alevis. Their name has a similar origin to the Alawis’, but there are few similarities after that, religiously. Both groups are outgrowths of mainstream Shi’a Islam. Politically, the two groups have been traditionally marginalized and faced discrimination for their unorthodox beliefs. But the ambiguity of both groups’ religious beliefs has caused a lot of confusion. Religion and Middle East scholars often mix the two groups up unintentionally, making studying the two minorities unnecessarily difficult. That confusion even runs through the groups themselves. Since Alawites kept many particulars to their dogmas under wraps to a degree and Alevis are both secularized and don’t emphasize religious practice, the two groups have members who think the two religions have a lot more in common than they actually do.

Their beliefs are much more esoteric than mainstream Islamic sects. There are ideas similar to the Catholic trinity, heavy borrowings from Sufi ideas & a heightened appreciation of Muhammad’s cousin Ali.

Alevis might make up as much as 20% of Turkey’s population, though that rarely factors into political analysis. The party of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is religious in nature, Sunni to be specific. Its popularity and indicator of resurgent religiosity in Turkey overshadow the diversity that actually does exist in Turkey. Alevis’ religion also has origins in the various Sufi sects that once had much more influence in Turkey during the period of the Ottoman Empire. It made telling the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, in general, a difficult task. The groups has been influenced by Sufi spirituality, making their religious culture much richer in arts, dances and meditation. Because of the former influence of Sufis, Sunni Turks also felt their impact. That translates today in political terms.

Alevis have a tremendous but nuanced influence on the country. Because they are such a large group, their votes can make a difference. The fact the head of the Turkish opposition is an Alevi could spell future electoral trouble for Turkey’s leaders. Alevis also appreciate the secular traditions of modern Turkey much more than the current ruling party. Disenfranchised secular voters, combined with agitated minorities, could swing an election. In fact, it’s their religious beliefs that are actually a political issue in Turkey. Much of the ambiguity scholars reflect about Alevi and Turkish Sunni commonalities is because the Turkish government has maintained a policy that doesn’t recognize the minority as a separate religion. Recognition is important for many reasons, of late to avoid the mandatory Sunni-oriented Islamic classes in public schools. Because of that, the sect’s only institutions and places of worship don’t get the sort of government support that Sunni places do. Though the assumption they are Sunnis should enable money to flow to their centers, unofficial discrimination still exists.

On Syria, the confusion about Alevis’ connection to the Alawites isn’t the only thing that matters. Alevis might feel that an aggressive government policy toward Syria would actually be a Sunni push against a minority-ruled regime. If that were to happen, it could initiate the political backlash mentioned above.

April 16, 2012

Hezbollah in Iraq

by Gedalyah Reback

Pulling from the very pages of Hezbollah’s own news website itself, Muqtada al-Sadr recently sent a delegation to visit a Lebanese prisoner in Baghdad named Ali Moussa Daqdouq. The US arrested him in 2007 and obtained a confession he was training fighters inside Iran to fight in Iraq. In February, it was reported the US wanted to try him and extradite him from Iraq.

There hasn’t been much other evidence that Hezbollah is active in Iraq, but what does exist is substantive. There’s even less about what that might mean in the long term. What is suspected of Daqdouq is he was recruiting and training for Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq (AAH), responsible for over 6,000 attacks on American soldiers. Hezbollah was apparently operating under the supervision of the Iranian Al-Quds force, and not the leader of training.

Hezbollah is a small organization heavily dependent on outside aid to function. Some have said Hezbollah is sending arms to Syria to aid its crackdown, but that seems unnecessary considering the larger resources available to the Syrian army. Hezbollah’s involvement in Iraq might indicate it has some decent relationship with other parties there, but it is not as important as Iran’s influence in Baghdad. Hezbollah might have little impact on Iraq nowadays with slightly more stability and a heavily Shiite Iraqi military fighting Sunni insurgents and no US soldiers to attack.

April 15, 2012

The Syrian Civil War and Israel’s Strategy

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel has to watch what is happening inside Syria extremely closely. Despite whatever announcements the government there or the rebels make, neither have proven trustworthy or able to verify any claims they make in the media. Who wins this power struggle, which will probably go on for at least a few more months, will have control over Syria’s foreign policy with both Iran & Israel. Neither side is likely to make a quick peace with the Jewish state. Frankly speaking, the two sides’ fighting will be what preserves Israeli security on the northern border.

Syria & Hezbollah’s Abilities Impaired

With Syria’s ability to make war completely incapacitated by the civil war inside the country, its resources are limited. It cannot expect to simultaneously support Hezbollah financially or logistically while it has priorities at home. And if Syria were to make war with Israel to try to deflect attention from the civil strife at home, perhaps in some naive attempt to unite the population against a common enemy, Israel’s military superiority and a probable strong support for the Jewish state’s retaliatory war effort would end the regime in Damascus. Even going through a proxy like Hezbollah is not so much of an option for this sort of distraction tactic, simply because of the reasons mentioned above that Hezbollah wouldn’t have the ability to sustain a war effort against Israel without dependable supplies coming from Syria.

Whom to Support?

The only certainty from Israel’s perspective is continued civil war. That also goes for what helps Israel’s security. The possibility is real that the two sides could fight for years, especially without intervention. If that happens, the two factions might try to solicit support from neighboring states. The rebels already have support from the West & Turkey. Even if the government offered Israel a favorable peace deal, Jerusalem probably wouldn’t risk its reputation to support such an unpopular and criminal regime – especially if it weren’t guaranteed they’d come out on top.

Then comes what options there are with the rebels. The rebels are mainly Sunni Muslims, the majority in the country and arguably the historically most hostile religious domination to Israel’s existence. This is a generalization, but it’s true Israel has always considered alliances with angry minorities and marginalized groups. That approach was active in Iraq with the Kurds and Lebanon with the Maronites (Catholics). In this case, the government is run by Syria’s minorities (Alawites, Druze, Ismailis & Christians). There is no automatic strategy for Israel to take.

Worldwide the argument has trended toward arming Syria’s rebels. Certain Arab countries already claim to be doing so, and the idea is popping up in Europe. Even the United States’ hawkish senators Joe Lieberman & John McCain are backing the idea, even though Syrian rebels have made statements accusing Israel of working with the Syrian regime and have even peddled anti-Semitic ideas like the matzah blood libel.

What Israel will do is likely, though not guaranteed, to be one of two options: 1. stay out of it or 2. arm both sides. This second tactic has been used before. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the United States simultaneously armed Saddam Hussein and the Iranians. It wasn’t just because America’s allies were divided on which country to support, rather there was value in keeping these two otherwise hostile countries from turning their attention to closer American allies like Israel or Saudi Arabia. Even the Israelis were involved in the Iran-Contra scandal that funneled weapons to the Iranians.

A Quick Scenario

Other countries certainly have a stake in the outcome in the Syrian Civil War. This article only focuses on Israel’s approach, and in a very general way. This post is lacking not mentioning how Turkey fits into the mix. Future posts will cover that. But these are fair and important points to make regarding Israeli policy toward the Syrian Civil War. This being said, I would think the Israeli military might actually be leaning toward supporting the regime in Damascus. This isn’t because Israel would want Assad to win.

The side map shows roughly where Syria’s minorities live, mostly along the coast and adjacent to the Golan Heights. Some people have suggested before that if a war like this were to have ever broken out, the regime might cut its losses and consolidate its supporters and the minority populations into a de facto separate state from the majority Sunnis. If that were to happen, there would almost certainly be continued war because that minority country would have full control of the coastline and crush the economy of the desert interior. That is just one scenario where the Syrian Civil War could actually create two separate countries who would have a much harder time threatening Israel’s security with such little resources divided between the two “new” countries.

If it were to come close to the end, forcing the two sides to continue fighting would keep them from quickly rebuilding a decimated Syrian military that would be hostile to Israel. This deserves much more though. I leave it at here for now.

May 22, 2011

Obama Can Still Steal Iran’s Thunder: Support Bahrain’s Shiites

by Gedalyah Reback

Originally Posted on New Voices

President Obama missed a major opportunity last week: to become repressed Shiites’ patron and steal Iran’s thunder.

The crackdown in Bahrain, more than any other Arab country, offer a stupendous opening to US foreign policy and the regional balance of power. The United States should consider an aggressive policy against the Bahraini monarchy, solicit the popular support of the oppressed Shiite population, and replace Iran as their potential patron. The gigantic naval base in Bahrain should be moved to Kuwait or India, and the Saudi Arabia should be threatened with losing its contracts with American military suppliers.

Barack Obama did make clear statements about Bahrain, but unless sanctions slip through his slips or threatening to pull out that base, Bahrain’s citizens won’t take him as seriously as he needs to be taken.

For anyone who needs specifics, here is the summary: Bahrain is among many other countries that have suppressed popular uprisings (i.e., peaceful protests). Bahrain is different than Libya and Yemen because the government is dominated by a minority (30%) Sunni regime governing over a majority (70%) Shiite population.

It is not so much Bahrain that the US does not want to offend – a number of other countries want the US navy’s business. It’s the Saudis. Saudi Arabia does not necessarily think Iran actually has control of what is going on in Bahrain. In 2009, Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen when a small group of Shiite rebels started making progress against the government there. No analyst thinks Iran was helping them, but Saudi Arabia insinuated it. Saudi Arabia wants to stomp out Shiite uprisings before there is one in their own backyard. Fifteen percent of the country is Shiite, and the Saudi royal family does not want to sacrifice oil profits to pesky things like social and economic concerns of a despised minority.


Saudi Arabia rolls in

The US cannot be Saudi Arabia’s lackey. The entire time the Obama Administration has focused on Israel in the eyes of the Arab world, it ignored the possibility that Arabs might need to contest their own governments first.

But as things build up, Iran will make the effort to establish a foothold in Arab countries. In 1982, Iran took advantage of the Lebanese Civil War and the Israeli invasion there to create Hezbollah. Iran cemented its role as patron to Lebanese Shiites – that does not have to happen in Bahrain, Yemen or Saudi Arabia for that matter.

A consistent American approach, like President Obama asserted the other night when talking about the Arab revolts, will go far for all Arabs. But reaching out to Shiites would give them something far more preferable to the repressive regime of Iran. Bahrain’s citizens want it.

March 27, 2011

Syria’s Protests: Civil War? Peace with Israel?

by Gedalyah Reback

Syria
Captial: Damascus
Population: ~22,000,000; 70% Sunni Arab, large minorities of Kurds, Christians, Druze and Alawite Muslims
President: Bashar al-Assad
Former President: Hafez al-Assad

__________

The revolutions that started in North Africa are creeping into Israel’s domain. The Levant – the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean Ocean that is home to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan – is reacting differently to the wave of uprisings than have countries like Egypt and Tunisia.

What separates this area from those two countries is something subtle – diversity. Jordan’s politics are plagued by the division between ethnic bedouin tribes and descendants of Palestinian refugees and immigrants. Lebanon’s divisions are accentuated by the domination of Shiite Hezbollah, plus Christian and Druze communities. Israel wonders what directions things could go with its own Druze, Bedouin and Palestinian sectors. Palestinians are divided politically and have struggled to find a reason to protest – the involvement of the Israeli army, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas has complicated Palestinians’ thinking regarding against they should direct their protests.

But the protests in the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan are mildly jarring. The uprising in Syria is most serious. This will have serious implications for Israel – even more than the revolution in Egypt.

1982

The last time anything approaching these type of protests was in 1982, in Hama. The current Syrian president’s father massacred 10,000 people by shelling the town. Since then, the country has not had any significant opposition.

But 1982 was very different. The struggle between the state and the Islamists was sectarian. This year’s protests are about social freedoms and opposition to authoritarian government – the general theme of the Arab uprisings. Authoritarianism was the central theme then as well, but it carried with it sectarian implications.

The Syrian regime is dominated by one ethno-religious group in particular, the Alawites. This offshoot of Shiite Islam has classically been considered beyond the pale by most Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and outright heresy among today’s many fundamentalist groups.

Alawites had long been oppressed by the Sunni majority in Syria. When in 1970, a young air force officer named Hafez al-Assad toppled the Syrian government, he saturated his regime with Alawite officials, essentially guaranteeing a loyal support system of fellow Alawites eager to avoid letting militant Sunnis oppress their community. In 1973 Assad tried to impose a new constitution on the country with one essential change – the president would no longer have to be Muslim. This and other aspects of the constitution caused major protests.

The Muslim Brotherhood launched a campaign of terrorism against the government in 1976. Its tactics against the regime included assassinating major Alawite politicians and Alawite recruits to the Syrian army. This added to the urgency for the Syrian government.

The Alawites and Shiites

The constitution protests motivated Assad to reach out to the most popular figure in Shiite Islam at the time: Musa al-Sadr. Originally Iranian, he is related to Muqtada al-Sadr of Iraq (the anti-American cleric behind much of the sectarian violence since the American invasion). Musa al-Sadr had moved to Lebanon and founded the Shiite party Amal, whose militia preceded the rise of Hezbollah. He recognized the group as members of his sect. The regime in Iran, including Ayatollah Khomeini, have continued to support that understanding. Despite the clash between Sunnis and Shiites in today’s antagonistic Muslim world, this status is enough to keep political opponents at bay. When Syria reached out to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, it both broke its isolation in the Arab world and reinforced its attachment to Shiite Islam.

American Strategy: Break the Alliance

Over the past several years, American strategists have talked openly of pulling the Syrian government away from its alliance with Iran. The idea has been to make a peace deal with Israel conditional on Syria severing diplomatic relations with the Iranians, whereby they would receive the Golan Heights and the United States would end sanctions against Damascus.

This approach is incredibly naive. The Syrian government is too well-entrenched with the Iranian government to ever sever that alliance. Just as much as Iran has seen Syria as a gateway to the Arab world whenever it is isolated, Syria has used its relationship with Iran as leverage to keep that bridge open – ending its own isolation in the Arab world.

The religion issue makes that alliance all the more important. Breaking ties with Tehran would endanger the regime. Iran would openly denounce any attempt to associate Alawites with Shiite Islam, ending the protection provided by al-Sadr in 1974. Just as severe, Damascus would lose its alliance with Hezbollah in Lebanon, reducing Syrian influence there. Breaking the Syrian-Iranian alliance means breaking the Alawite-Shiite alliance, and that’s a major endeavor for the Assads who fear what would happen to their community.

Latakia and the regime Splitting

Alawites historically have centered along the Syrian coast near the city and within the province of Latakia. I have heard the idea in the past from professors that if the regime lost its grip on power, it could relocate to this city and consolidate its power there. That could effectively split Syria, into at least two pieces, and instigate a civil war between the much better armed, Alawite-led Syrian army and whatever rebels were fighting it.

This scenario seems more feasible considering it is what just happened in Libya, but there is of yet no indication there would be mass splits in the Syrian army and mass defections of units or government ministers.

All of this is background to however events in Syria develop.

In Relation to Israel

It seems this will undermine the confidence of any American advisor or politician who wants Israel and Syria to sign a treaty. If the regime is not popular and especially if it is weaker, there will be less pressure on Israel to trade back the Golan Heights. That is, at least for now.

But I would suggest another point: If the regime in Syria falls, a peace treaty could become more likely if there is a strategic calculation on the part of Israel it could make peace with a new government in Syria that is enjoying popularity and would otherwise be more aggressive toward Israel. That is not guaranteed, but a possibility.

That contrasts with the impossibility that Israel would sign a treaty with a weakened Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. If he remains in power, he will either have crushed a rebellion in a way similar to his father and become more isolated (allowing Israel to avoid American pressure to reenter negotiations), or he will have a weaker grip on power and Israel’s entire political establishment will feel uncomfortable making an agreement with a weak government.

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