Archive for ‘Syria & the Syrian Civil War’

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 It’s the outdated information.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.

April 22, 2012

Golan Heights’ Druze: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

The Golan Heights is a disputed territory to the southwest corner of Syria and in the northeast corner of Israel. Once used as a high ground from which to launch shells into the Galilee Valley, the Israelis captured it in two days during the Six Day War. It was not an empty area. Maybe 100,000 Syrians lived there. But most of its poor inhabitants fled immediately. The only group that largely stayed were the Druze: “Around 7,000 remained in six Druze villages: Majdal Shams, Mas’ade, Buq’ata, Ein Qiniyye, Ghajar and Shayta. They are estimated to number 20,000 today.” There are populations of Druze in Israel and Syria. Nothing was particularly different about the Golan’s Druze until this moment. None could have guaranteed they’d be virtual Israelis into infinitude, but that has what happened.

In 1981, Israel annexed the Golan Heights for several reasons. Unlike the West Bank, it was a direct front with a sworn enemy, unlike the West Bank regarding Jordan. Jordan was not as hostile an Arab state as Syria, nor did the issue of negotiating territory with the Palestinians come up with the Golan – it was never Palestinian. So only the Golan and East Jerusalem have been annexed from the conquests of the Six Day War, leaving both populations with unique residency rights in Israel. The Golan Druze face a different social situation than the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. They were citizens of Syria, and their territory was recognizably Syrian. East Jerusalem was void of an internationally recognized owner. So here, nationality was neither in dispute nor coalescing. East Jerusalemites have experienced waves of Arab nationalism, Jordanian citizenship and Palestinian nationalism both under the Jordanians and under the Israelis. Golan’s Druze were cut off from their indisputable home government.

Druze are generally labeled fiercely loyal to their home regimes, no matter who’s in charge. Along the same lines, the leadership is generally pragmatic. In Israel, Druze living in the Carmel and the Galilee aligned themselves with the Jews in the Israeli War of Independence. Today, they are the only ethnic or religious group aside from Jews who are obligated to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (a request made by the group’s leadership).

The Druze of the Golan don’t have any sort of requirement. The reasons are simple. For one, their loyalty is ambiguous. There have been vocal pro-Assad demonstrations in the Golan for years. The community has either been motivated by a genuine patriotism for Syria or fear that a land-for-peace deal might bring vengeful Syrian police to arrest anyone who advocated against Damascus while the territory was Israeli. But secondly, while it’s practical for the Israeli government to hold back anyone whose loyalty to the Jewish State is just non-existent, it’s also a humanitarian gesture and obligation that they don’t serve in the IDF. It is illegal under international law to force residents of an occupied territory to serve in the conqueror’s army. Even if it weren’t, it would be cruel to compel service to anyone who is conflicted about their national identity.

Golani Druze carry Israeli residency cards and have virtually open access to the country’s services without some of the rigors of citizenship, but maybe about 10% of them have accepted Israeli citizenship. Many Druze have taken the opportunity to attend universities, a fictional example of which coming from the Israeli film “Syrian Bride.” On the Syrian side of things, there is an exchange between the two countries for Golani college students to go for free (with Syrian government funding) to universities in Damascus. Funerals also bring visitors, who more and more over the years have gotten more relaxed ruled on moving between the borders.

After almost 50 years on the Israeli side, the attachment to Syria is breaking. The lot of native Israeli Druze is noticeably good. Despite whatever social and economic issues might exist for the small Israeli Druze community, it doesn’t approach critical levels. Intermingling is also much easier than with Syrian Druze. The social scene is also available to the younger Golani Druze, being just another opportunity to immerse themselves on the Israeli scene.

With no clear way of returning the Golan Heights to Syria, much less to a Syria ruled by Bashar al-Assad, Golan’s Druze will probably continue to adopt Israeli citizenship at an increasing rate.

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.

April 11, 2012

Syria’s Alawites: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

If you are trying to follow what’s happening in Syria, you’ve inevitably heard of the Alawites / the Alawis.  Bashar al-Assad is one of them, as is the rest of his family.  They are a religious group virtually unique to Syria, isolated to a few tribes along the Syrian coastline, living in the mountains.  They might number 2 million, but that’s only a fragment of Syria’s 22 million people.  It’s not quite the equivalent of a Jew becoming President of the United States in terms of numbers, but the chances of that happening you’d might have thought would have been a thousand times better after you hear their background.

There’s a lot of baggage that comes from their experience under the Ottoman Empire, but as of the 1920s they were living under French occupation.  They’d always had a tense time with their Muslim neighbors, but that didn’t make them automatic allies with the French.  They might have been the most anti-French of all the groups in the country, and the reasons are sort of complicated.  But as as the 20s and 30s rolled on, the community’s experience became interwoven with the rise of Arab nationalism.  The ideology promised equality among Arabs no matter their religious and no matter their tribe.  It had a massive appeal to Alawites, Druze and Shiite Muslims in Syria and Iraq, drawing a lot of minorities toward politics.

Politics

In Syria, the ideology was vibrant, and helped military recruitment.  Throughout the 40s and 50s, Alawites, Druze and Ismailis all disproportionately represented their groups in the army.  By the 1960s, these minorities were disproportionately powerful in the officers’ corps.  This was important politically, because Syria was going through a stream of military takeovers.  As governments fell, newer and newer leaders took control.  By 1970, Air Force Colonel Hafez al-Assad had enough support to make the effort himself.  He succeeded and named himself president of the country, eliminating rivals (even among his own Alawi kin) very quickly.  Until 2000, he ruled the country with an iron fist, leaving the country to his son Bashar when he died.  Things had been much less ruthless up until 2011, but that’s merely in body count.  Syrian human rights violations have been extremely prevalent.  Politically, he has also eliminated competition and allocated money and resources to Hezbollah and Hamas.

The Army

Today, the Syrian military is overepresented by the Alawite minority, but also has other minorities heavily involved.  Some estimates dare to guess as much as 70% of the military is Alawite, remarkable in a country where they are 12% of the population.  Their being the military elite is tremendously significant.

The ethnic tension between Alawites and Sunni Muslims (the majority), is absurdly high.  Most of the defections from the military have not been Alawite, but Sunni and maybe a few Shiites.  The opposition, specifically the “Free Syrian Army,” claims there are Alawite defections, but the evidence has been little and the speculation more prevalent.

The Minorities

Protesters, fugitives and the organized rebels have been fighting a PR war with the government in Damascus.  While Assad has made an effort to keep the wedge between his community and Sunnis alive, others have been trying to minimize it.  In the words of one protester, “It is a Syrian uprising against a dictator’s regime, and for that reason there are protesters from Alawite, Christian, Druze, Ismaili and other sects.”  So far, minority groups have not invested highly in the rebellion, so the most powerful men of Syria are still all in with the government.  As general a statement as that is, it is a fair intro or summary of the situation.

Just how many Alawites – or other minority Syrians for that matter – are defecting from the Syrian army?  There are ways of analyzing it, but for now I’ll leave you with that.

July 12, 2011

South Sudan and Palestine: One is Different from the Other

by Gedalyah Reback

Benjamin Netanyahu was wise to immediately recognize the new Republic of South Sudan over the weekend. Some analysts saw it is as a convenient way to show Israel off as a consistent, ethical country. Recognizing a state which won its independence through negotiations is apparently the right message to send as it argues against Palestinian unilateralism. But the moment might present more implications for Israeli foreign policy which might have been unthinkable in 2010. An editorial by G Pascal Zachary recently published by The Atlantic challenged readers to rethink Africa and to rethink independence. He suggested that there is nothing rational about preserving Africa’s borders – they are artificial he reminds us, being inventions of European empires less than 200 years ago. They represent European divisions, not African ones, and forcing countries and their very diverse or combative tribes to stick together may be wishful thinking and mortally fallible.

The creation of South Sudan builds a case for more countries to be created. Somaliland, Puntland and Darfur are offered as African examples of appropriate candidates for independence by Zachary. The implications come in that Israel too should come to embrace this philosophy. This initially would seem counter-intuitive – pushing for the independence of new countries might justify the independence of Palestine at a time not of Israel’s choosing nor at its convenience. But this is not a self-defeating proposition. New countries offer new partners for Israel, whether they are partners in peace or partners in war.

It is in Israel’s immediate interest to facilitate the rapid build of South Sudan. The country needs roads, new oil pipelines and cheap means of transportation for 8 million people. It also sits in the heart of Africa and adjacent to traditional enemy, the Republic of Sudan, who has been caught twice in the past two years facilitating weapons supplies on their way to the Gaza Strip. So too, the deployment of ambassadors, CEOs and perhaps even generals is warranted to other would be republics in the now defunct Somalia, the “crumbling empire” of Sudan as Zachary so calls it, and all around the southern Sahara. Yigal Palmor said it himself in 2010, Israel might align with and recognize Somaliland as part of its fight against Islamic militants in the Horn of Africa

The Balkans and the Caucasus have seen the birth of Kosovo, Abkhazia and South Ossetia over the past three years. These examples will quickly be project into the Middle East. Libya faced the prospect of a long-term division just this year, and speculators foresee Syria too could split between ethnic rivals as well.

As Israel expands the reach of its ambassadors, it should opt for the less conventional path as well, embracing the breakaway states of the new world. These states face the same challenges tiny Israel fought in its struggle for recognition. Few states enjoy global support and some only enjoy the recognition of a single patron. Abkhazia and South Ossetia depend on Russia; North Cyprus on Turkey. They are likely to embrace back seeking support wherever they can find it. This could be the making of a modern incarnation of the Doctrine of the Periphery. It is well worth consideration.

March 28, 2011

The Druze between Israel and Syria

by Gedalyah Reback

In Israel, Druze are overrepresented in the Israeli Defense Forces and the Knesset relative to their population. In Lebanon, Druze had their own militia during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and have their own political party today. In Syria, Druze rebels were instrumental in fighting the French during Syria’s 1925 uprising.

The basic idea is that they are loyal. Druze are stereotyped to be extremely loyal to whatever government they live under, hence the large amount of Druze in Israeli combat units and presence of Druze politicians in ultra-nationalist parties as extreme as Yisrael Beitenu. But this is just a stereotype. Druze are not monolithic, and in any case support for one’s country could mean supporting the government for one person while replacing it with something better for another.

Deputy Galilee and Negev Development Minister Ayoub Kara, himself a Druze and a member of Likud, threatened Assad that Israel might intervene if the Druze of Syria are attacked. But what likelihood any one community could face Assad’s wrath would probably be nill – Assad does not want to give anyone an excuse to make a scenario like Kara’s a reality.

What appeal the protests have for the Syrian Druze though is ambiguous. Israeli media seems to be one of the key gateways to gauging Druze opinion. In the Golan Heights, what Syrians that have stayed there since the area was conquered by Israel in the Six Day War are virtually, 100% Druze. So far Druze in the Golan Heights seem to be confident that 1) Assad will survive these riots and 2) Druze will support him. It’s apparently true: the major Facebook group supporting the revolt is asking Druze to join the uprising (since they seem not to have done so already).


Ayoub Kara: Member of the Knesset and apparently ready to rock

What Ayoub Kara seems to be hinting at is an alliance: Israel with the Druze. It is an interesting idea, especially coming from a Druze himself: Israel being a patron to people in another country. I would guess he wants Israel to expand its influence in Syria, and supporting a community with no allies would be the natural place to start. But I cannot help thinking this is a fantasy with Druze being as loyal to their countries as they are.

But it is also worth saying since Israel has no other natural ally – there is no second Jewish state to form a natural alliance with – supporting other long-oppressed minorities in the Middle East against Sunni or Shiite rivals would make strategic sense. But is there a need for the Druze of Syria? That’s a question for Ayoub Kara. I don’t have an answer.

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.

March 27, 2011

Middle East Realignment: Syria and the Potential for Civil War

by Gedalyah Reback

Syria
Captial: Damascus
Population: ~22,000,000; 70% Sunni Arab, large minorities of Kurds, Christians, Druze and Alawite Muslims
__________

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. 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 – a climax to a six-year-long insurgency by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Additionally, the struggle between the state and the Islamists was sectarian. The Syrian regime is dominated by one ethnoreligious 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, which made the rise of Hafez al-Assad a dramatic turn of fortunes. He saturated his regime with Alawite officials, essentially guaranteeing a loyal support system of fellow Alawites eager to avoid letting militant Sunnis take control of the government. The Muslim Brotherhood’s 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: deciding to devastate Hama despite heavy civilian casualties was much easier when considering the danger the Alawite community could face if the Muslim Brotherhood took over the country.

The Alawites and Shiites

The Alawite identity of the Syrian elite still plays significantly in the way it makes decisions.

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.

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.

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.

April 14, 2010

Syria is Looking for a Way Back into Lebanon

by Gedalyah Reback

Syrian policy, faster than Iranian policy, is driving the region toward war with furiosity. Much of this is a direct cause of the United States’ reducing pressure on the Assad regime at the same time Tehran gives Syria breathing room. The transfer of scuds to Hezbollah is part of a series of maneuvers on the part of Damascus to reassert its military influence and control over Lebanon that is nothing short of expansionary.

Since the opening given to him by the Obama Administration, Syrian pressure on Lebanese politicians has become unbearable. A dozen high-profile assassinations have occurred in Lebanon the last five years, prominently that of Rafik Hariri but hardly the climax of the killings. Without the US, Lebanese politicians are visiting Damascus with visited often arranged by Hezbollah. So far, the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and even Prime Minister Saad Hariri have felt the compulsion to visit Assad – often awkward and mafia-reminiscent politics.

Syria’s recent offer to control to help control violence between Palestinian fighters in Qusaya and Kfar Zabad needs to be seen as part of a strategy to make Syrian intervention again part of Lebanese political discourse. Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea cynically commented on the Syrian offer, blaming Syrian training and funding of Palestinian guerrillas for the flare ups.

Michael Young, an opinion editor for Lebanon’s Daily Star, openly referred to the Scud transfers as an attempt to lay that groundwork on a more massive scale for redeployment. If Hezbollah were to start a new war with Israel, Syria could enter Lebanon on the premise of checking Hezbollah’s power, much as it did in 1976 in regards to the PLO.

His scenario is awkward, precisely because it overlooks the causus belli the Scuds might represent in regards to an Israeli offensive against both Hezbollah AND Syria. But it relates the concern that many in Lebanon have about Syrian plays inside of Lebanon regarding Hezbollah, Palestinian militias and threatening the political echelon. More than likely, the more Hezbollah continues to strengthen itself, the more Israel would consider attacking the militia, which might solicit extensive international pressure on Israel and force it to make consessions.

While the peace process would necessitate what Western countries would see as an Israeli withdrawal, Syria sees it as an opportunity to meet Israeli military contraction with Syrian military expansion. Israel’s best move would be to draw up its military contingencies while renewing pressure on Hezbollah and Syria diplomatically. With politicians in Washington clamouring for a change in the Obama Administration’s policy, it is an issue Jerusalem cannot led fade to the background.

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

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