Archive for ‘Shi’ites & Shi’a Islam’

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 It’s the outdated information.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.

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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.

February 8, 2011

Realingment in the Middle East

by Gedalyah Reback

Speaking from a perspective just before Shabbat here, with a week’s worth of headlines rattling around my brain, my instincts tell me this country, Israel, will simply need to continue punching above its own weight in the Middle East.


Along the Israeli-Egyptian Border.

No matter who takes over Egypt, things promise to get more difficult. But that can be limited. Everything gets better before it gets worse, but it does not have to stay that way. The truth is, Egyptians under a democratic regime would loathe the idea of going to war and would oppose an Islamic Brotherhood attempt to send the country into a collision course with Israel. Additionally, the party has to recover credibility it lost to years of being co-opted by the Mubarak regime.

Even so, Israel will have to prepare for the worst case scenario – the Muslim Brotherhood wielding absolute power, repealing the treaty between the two countries and arming Hamas. But the Muslim Brotherhood is not the only player in Cairo, and will have to deal with an emergent movement of opposition parties over the next few months. Iran’s proclamations Egypt is heading down the path of Islamic revolution is more rhetorical than actual. Besides, whatever gains made by the Muslim Brotherhood would be more than offset by new protests in Tehran itself, which seem to be inevitable.

Over the next few months, the Israeli government is going to have to redesign its foreign policy approach. Firstly, it should praise the revolution in Egypt, even if this causes fallout with Mubarak. In the same way Mubarak knows Israel cannot do a thing about anti-Semitic propaganda in state media, Mubarak has no choice for his own sake but to continue a strong embargo on Hamas and block arms shipments.

Over the next few years, the democratization of the Middle East, be it slow or quick, should be the cornerstone of an ideological foreign policy. It has to be. Without such support, Israel will not be able to shake an additional association with authoritarian regimes throughout the region. Simultaneously, democracy enables Israel to more easily lobby different constituencies in various countries seeking support for, at the least, treaties, and at the most, alliances. Minority groups in North Africa like the Berbers or Coptic Christians, the Kurds, Maronites and Druze of the Fertile Crescent, provide stark and realistic possible allies.

Most importantly, Israel will have to engage Egypt intimately and assertively. Congratulating Egyptians publicly for whatever achievements they obtain is a priority. Offers to protect a moderate and democratic government from the Saudis or Iranians should be made. Offers to mediate between Egypt and lower African countries (with whom Israel is growing closer to) give plenty of reason to maintain a balanced relationship.

A free media in Egypt may be the most important development. Even under Mubarak, as mentioned above, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda have been common. It was not so much out of undercutting the Israelis that such things were printed in Egyptian papers, but to feebly distract Egyptians from the slew of domestic issues they faced and displace any resentment they had toward the Mubarak regime.

Such simplistic thinking did not do justice to Egyptian wits, nor does this meager paragraph do justice to this topic. But Israel and Egypt are far from getting a definitive divorce. There is plenty of reason to think the relationship can actually be improved as so long as the Israeli government makes a persistent effort.


Tahrir Square on Friday, February 4, 2011 – “Day of Departure”

Any vocal support from Jerusalem now can go a long way in tripping up any Iranian designs to take advantage of the situation, poor more fuel on the fire and push the protest movement across the Iranian border.

March 30, 2010

Syria Will Never Break Away from Iran

by Gedalyah Reback

The opening American policy toward Syria is encouraging Syria to rebuff American requests to dissolve its regional alliances without worry of consequences from the United States. Warming relations with Syria is based on the idea that Damascus would break away from the Iranians and Hezbollah in return for American ties and a Golan-conceding peace agreement. The idea is naive and could force Israel to take unpopular action against Hezbollah or Syria sooner rather than later.

Deep Syrian-Iranian Ties

Syria is too well-entrenched with Iran to disengage. For years, Syria has depended heavily on Iranian security cooperation and diplomatic strength. Syria has long fallen out with other Arab powers, always on the outs with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (that Syrian-Iraqi hostility has not ceased with the new government).

During the Iran-Iraq War, Syria supported the Iranian position in the Arab world, and even supported Tehran logistically. Occasionally, Syrian airspace was used to conduct bombing runs on bases in Western Iraq, a total affront to the massive Arab financial and logistical support given to Iraq during the war. Unfortunately, too many Middle Eastern experts view the alliance as a “marriage of convenience” to put it in the words of Scott Lasensky of the United States Institute of Peace. That view reflects an immediate reality of 1979, when an isolated Syria was itching to find new allies in the region and rushed to support Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution. But most importantly, this alliance is not simply diplomatic or strategic.

The Syrian regime is dominated by one ethnoreligious group in particular, Alawites. This offshoot of Islam has classically been considered beyond the pale by most Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and outright heresy among today’s many fundamentalist groups. Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power in 1970 clashed openly with the Syrian constitution that required the president to be a Muslim. But a 1974 declaration by the late Shiite authority living in Lebanon, Musa al-Sadr, 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.

But a political break with the regime in Tehran would also expose the Syrian regime’s social clout. The Muslim Brotherhood, emboldened by a break in the Iranian relationship and sudden reciprocal hostility from Hezbollah and Tehran, would be able to pressure the regime in Damascus.

A break would also deprive Syria of its arm inside Lebanon – Hezbollah. By abandoning Iran, Damascus would have abandoned the Islamic Revolution, a staple movement in the official ideology of Hezbollah. Hezbollah would begin to counter Syrian influence in Lebanon.

Syrian Control of Lebanon

In addition to this facet of Lebanon, Syria has managed to consolidate its hold on the country’s leadership since the implementation of the Obama Administration’s warming policies. Saad Hariri, who publicly accused Bashar al-Assad of orchestrating his father’s infamous assassination in 2005, has felt compelled to actually visit the Syrian president in Damascus. The same awkward, patronizing trip will soon be made by long-time Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. That visit is being propagated by Hezbollah.


Current Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri Meeting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in Syria

After several high profile assassinations, including that of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s mentioned above, Hezbollah occupied large swathes of Beirut and forced the government to invite militia to have ministers in the cabinet. Jumblatt’s visit is likely to include a stark warning from Assad about his political position and physical safety. As Jumblatt alleged that Assad had threatened to “break Lebanon” in his and the elder Hariri’s presence in August 2004, the Syrian dictator is not averse at all to threats.

These developments from furiously anti-Syrian politicians deviates from Hilary Clinton’s pledge last year the US “will never make any deal with Syria that sells out Lebanon and the Lebanese people.” US policies are implicitly making that declaration heartless.

What the Obama Administration is doing is compelling an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Golan while simultaneously strengthening Syria’s stranglehold on Lebanon, in return for a hardly timid alliance with Tehran.

The best course of action is to continue tightening the screws on Damascus. The Syrian regime is hardly a buoy of importance to the “Arab street” or “Muslim world” for whom he is so desperately seeking to enhance his credibility. The administration’s policies have emboldened Syria to strengthen its ties with Iran and Hezbollah, in spite of the announcement of a new ambassador and continued public urging by Hilary Clinton to cut off arms shipments to Hezbollah and roll back ties with Iran.

Hindsight and Foresight

After Syrian withdrew from Lebanon, the country was euphoric and Hezbollah’s political position substantially weakened. In the wake of the emboldened new government’s pressure on the militia to give up its weapons, Hezbollah capitalized on Operation Summer Rains to coax Israel into a war on its northern front. It gave Hezbollah fodder to use politically and a pretext to assert itself against the government in Beirut. With the US alleviating pressure on Syria, the country has slipped from the Western orbit.

Continued threats against Lebanese politicians, arrest of Kurdish and human rights activists, and shipping of weapons to Hezbollah do not warrant a new ambassador for Damascus and will not persuade Syria in anyway to end its military alliance with Iran and Hezbollah. The administration would be better off isolating Iran’s economy and pressure Syria in the way the Bush Administration did in the early 2000s, lest an emboldened Syria wreak havoc on Lebanon’s political echelon an instigate a new war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Joshua Reback has a BA in Middle Eastern Studies from Rutgers University

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