Archive for ‘Iran & the Persian Gulf’

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.

May 10, 2012

Bringing Kadima into the Government Increases the Possibility of a Multilateral Strike on Iran

by Gedalyah Reback

Shaul Mofaz‘ win in the Kadima primaries just three weeks ago was about a lot more than the survival of Tzipi Livni. Read the postmortem reports about Tzipi Livni’s political career and you find that her inability to compromise with other politicians was what ultimately doomed her candidacy to remain at the top of Kadima. When Ehud Olmert resigned his post in 2008, she couldn’t form a coalition with other political parties and had to hold a new election. Even after winning those elections in March 2009, 28 seats versus Likud’s 27, she still couldn’t compromise enough for any parties in order to get them to agree to joining a new coalition. That’s why second-place Likud ended up leading the government. Livni made things worse by opposing everything Likud did in power, even though they were often continuing a lot of the same policies she supported while she was in power the previous administration.

In reality, this primary was about whether or not to join the Likud-led government. Now Mofaz, former head of the IDF and Minister of Defense, is a member of the administrative Cabinet and Deputy Prime Minister. He has been revered for his performance during the Yom Kippur War and an appropriate leader in the event there were a war with Iran.

And that might be what has made this deal happen. Benjamin Netanyahu would have won the September elections easily, with few parties offering much opposition or alternative. But instead of going to elections and refreshing his term as Prime Minister, which would then be guaranteed to last at least until September 2016, he will lead the largest coalition in Israeli history and its largest cabinet (94/120 Knesset members; 33 members of the cabinet – over a 1/4 of the Knesset). Why? Perhaps because he wants political strength to strike Iran.

When the government he formed took power in Spring 2009, worries circulated worldwide about the direction of policy and particularly the influence of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Leading Yisrael Beitenu, he has been extremely outspoken about the uselessness of the peace process and applied enormous social pressure on Israeli Arabs. Many on the political scene thought there would be massive diplomatic boycotts of the figure, and they’ve been right. Ehud Barak has met with a number of Western leaders in place of Lieberman. Avoiding Lieberman preceded the actual diplomatic crisis two years ago when Israeli commandos killed 9 Turks on a boat running the Gaza blockade. Many people wanted Kadima to join the government in order to blunt Lieberman’s influence and impact policy on the peace process.

What impact this will all have on policies toward settlements and relations with the Palestinians remains to be seen, though the first hints of change are breaking through. But Shaul Mofaz is important for the reason he effectively opposes a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. His coming in gives the government a number of things. On the one hand, it eases Israel’s trigger finger, which many have speculated has been on the verge of a strike. But on the other hand, Mofaz is a defense man, and a unity government like this might signal leaders’ preparing for a strike and ensuring near universal political approval. Regarding diplomacy, Mofaz becomes the instrument others have hoped for since 2009. He opposes striking Iran, but has called striking Iran under certain scenarios “unavoidable.” He is rational and flexible. He enhances the image of Israel’s government abroad, even by just a bit. Bringing a qualified voice of caution into the mix brings Israel’s position closer to the Western powers negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. Closing the gap, Israel’s aggressive stance is going to start sounding more rational as Mofaz probably will cool the rhetoric, talk about calculated steps and especially emphasize multilateral, international opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapon.

So if things do break down, Mofaz and his Kadima Party will make it easier to talk alliance with other countries, and maybe even increase international support for a future unilateral Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

April 15, 2012

Israel’s Submarines Might Pack a Surprise for Iran

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel has been buying Dolphin class submarines from Germany the last couple of years. Last year, Germany might have even been delaying deals in order to push Israel on the peace process, but as it turns out Israel has gotten more armor from the European giant. In February, it leaked Israel might be buying three more.  That barely amounts to a handful, but the costs make the deal for Israel’s F-35 stealth planes look like a bargain.  Apparently, they cost about $659 million apiece.  But all in all, what could Israel do with merely six submarines?  No other country in the Middle East has that many, but what good does it do compared to the punch planes will have against foes in the field?

What should be appreciated is that Middle Eastern countries have a horrible history keeping navies.  It has been an Achilles’ heel for the past empires of Egypt and the Ottomans in the face of European technology and firepower, going back a millennium.  Facing Crusader threats in the late 1200s (opens PDF), the Egyptian rulers of medieval Palestine decided to literally destroy their own coastline because, “we just can’t defend her.”  Without a navy, they expected to spend infinite sums on maintaining coastal defenses, so they decided to level the fortresses and evacuate the coastal cities, forcing the major fights onto land.

The policy was extremely self-defeating, as it ruined the economic prospects of empires’ different territories and made holding them a chore.  They constantly had to keep troops in the field occupied and interested since they had made places like Ashdod, Yaffo and even southern Lebanon desolate and into a backwater.

Boats & Planes

But with the advent of the air force, is Israel really correcting a historical error by several Middle Eastern powers by investing heavily in this sort of navy?  Planes today effectively represent the navy, even in the United States.  The planes that live on aircraft carriers are actually navy planes.  Israel’s main enemies are adjacent or so close they can be reached in minutes if not seconds.  What do the submarines add?

They add the ability to quietly extend Israel’s reach in the Mediterranean and perhaps even the Persian Gulf.  These submarines can launch torpedoes, and Israel has invested the time into the tests and training on how to shoot them.  In 2000 & 2002, apparently working with India the two countries tested cruise missiles off the coast of Sri Lanka.  The range was thought to be short, but the boats Israel is buying and the ones the orders it’s already received from Germany could fire weapons with much longer ranges like the ones used by the United States.

A cruise missile is much harder to shoot down than a plane, and it takes less work to fire a missile 1,500 kilometers than launching a plane.


Ultimately, Israel would have to get these submarines in range to fire.  If Israel had a 1,500-km capable missile, it would be able to hit anywhere in Iran from the Persian Gulf. It’s not an issue. They’ve been there before. But could Israel keep a constant presence in the Gulf at cost and be ready to enter into any battle? Israel only has 4 of its submarines right now. Two more are on the way, but won’t arrive till 2014 & 2016. If Israel goes it alone, does the punch just four offshore secret weapons weigh heavily enough to impact the fight?

April 11, 2012

Iraq’s New F-16s

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel isn’t as anxious about Iraq’s new fighter jets as it is anxious to get a hold of some new ones for itself. Over the last few years, Israel’s been eager to be the first country to buy the newly developed F-35 Lightning jet fighter – a stealth jet. It placed its first order last year for 20 of them at a price tag in the billions of dollars.   Once Israel gets them delivered – maybe as early as 2015 – Israel will have, indisputably, the most powerful air force in the Middle East by a much greater margin than it has now.  So why make any sort of fuss over Iraqi planes which are actually an older model? Iraq has no air force of comparison right now anyway.

Israel might want to cover Iraqi skies on its way to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. It might also be anxious that those planes could end up aimed at Israel eventually, the beginning of a reconstituted Iraqi military that was once Israel’s greatest threat.

Saddam’s Iraq

Saddam Hussein posed the most significant military threat to Israel when he was in power.  He kept the Jewish state on its toes.  Even before Saddam, Iraq was viscerally opposed to Israel.  Iraqi Jews suffered Iraqi pogroms and expulsions before, during and after the Israeli War of Independence.  Arab nationalism particularly in Iraq took an emotional, near-psychotic approach to Zionism and Israel’s existence.  Iraq’s army was part of the Arab coalition in 1948.  Iraq’s army actually occupied the northern West Bank and Sh’khem/Nablus.  In 1973, Iraqi tanks entered the Yom Kippur War and fought Israel’s.  Israel’s strategy in the West Bank until 2003 was to defend against an Iraqi invasion.  In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq to destroy its nuclear facilities.  A rebuilt Iraq could one day be hostile – again – to Israel.

Arab Air Forces

Last year, a deal that gave Saudi Arabia a new fleet of F-15s caused the same sort of headlines. Saudi Arabia is a much more capable country than Iraq, buying a super package of military machines for over $60 billion including jets and helicopters. That deal increased pressure on Israel to pay the cash for the stealth jets, and the pressure on the United States to get the deal done and deliver the weapons to Israel.  Other Arab countries have sophisticated abilities also, like the United Arab Emirates (80 F-16s & 30 French Mirages) and Bahrain (33 F-16s & 16 Northrops).

Iraq is getting 36 F-16s, apparently as strong and capable as the planes Israel’s air force uses.  That could mean an even fight in the skies if the planes were to tango, like they might if Israel tried to hit Iran.  Iraq did buy sophisticated radar systems just last month.  But would Iraq actually get into a dog fight with the much more experienced and massive Israeli Air Force?  The US thinks the new planes can handle Syrian or Iranian jets while not standing a chance with Israel’s.  But is the Iraqi Air Force really going to be standing in the way of Syria’s or Iran’s?

Iraq & Iran

Iraq will eventually emerge from its internal problems. So the concern about the planes is more on the distant future, when Iraq might consider using them for offense. But this isn’t Saddam’s country. Ruled now by Arab Shi’ite Muslims, the conflict between Shi’ite Iran and the Arab World has put Iraq into a neutral position.  Given that, Iraq could play a moderating role, or at least stay as far away from conflict as possible.

The idea Iraq might be neutral is as much wishful thinking as a peace treaty between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  The Iraqi government and military have strong, intimate ties with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.  Iraq’s political and religious elite spent decades of exile in Iran both in the seminaries and in the trenches against Saddam Hussein.  Iran offered asylum to the major Shi’ite religious families the Hakims and the Sadrs, both of whom have major representation in the big Shi’ite political parties in Iraq.

Iran’s influence has grown since the US military left Iraq last year.  How much is unclear, but whatever amount is enough to concern Israel’s strategists.  Now with Syria on the brink of collapse, Iran might want to replace its top Arab ally with a new one with more potential, far more assets and a steadier cultural connection (Shi’ite Islam).

This is all a brief overview of things.  But it’s important to pay attention to Iraq in the years to come and especially the opportunities weapons and technology companies will get to rebuild Iraq’s depleted military.  The Iraqi Air Force might only be one facet of the military, but it’s the most lucrative and packs the biggest hypothetical threat from a rival Iraq hostile to Israel.

November 9, 2011

Iran’s Nuclear Fallout

by Gedalyah Reback

Originally Posted at New Voices

Though defeating Iran is a given, the costs of a war with Iran would be dramatically high. This much has to be made clear.

Israel will never go it alone. The country does not have the assets currently to make any sort of unilateral assault sustainable against multiple foes at once. It would involve the United States, United Kingdom and probably most of NATO. That being said, it will never come to that level of shooting. The optimal idea would be to see the Arab Spring pay forward the revolutionary zeal and topple the Iranian domino.

That scenario has been in the dream box of international strategy for well over ten years. Sporadic riots at Tehran University in 1999 and 2003 fueled speculation something could happen. In 2009, a month of marches and riots protested an apparently fraudulent re-election for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Six months later, a revolutionary leader’s death kindled the spark again. 2011 has put the country’s leaders on edge. With its former ally Muammar Qaddafi gone and Syria’s brickwork becoming as shotty as the bullet-holed façade of its cities’ buildings, there is plenty to fear from losing another ally and then seeing the people’s reaction.

The speculation making waves here is coming from a sporadic amount of reports there would be some approval for a strike. Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is supposedly still vulnerable to a military assault, if only the meddling media did not constantly ruin the element of surprise. Note my sarcasm, but the string of coincidences slipping into Western and Israel news reports the last two weeks seem well-timed and point to something interesting. What that is happens to also be a matter of speculation, but that is why I write these things.

To recap, three reports having to do with the Israeli military have been featured recently. The Israeli Air Force was recently in Italy conducting [incoming self-promotion] “long-range” training, including mid-air refueling of fighter jets. The second piece has to do with a surface-to-surface missile test conducted in full view of the most-populated urban area in Israel. Couple that with the civil defense drill last week in case of an attack. Thirdly, news reports have slipped that there have been recent meetings where Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak have been trying to win over enough of the cabinet to approve a military strike against Iran.

All these things have gained denials and fits of frustration from spokespeople and ministers here. But all these events coincide with today’s release of a report on Iran’s nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency is going to report incriminating evidence there is a military angle to Iran’s research, and that is big. Knowing this report has been in the offing, there has been speculation the Israeli government is making the idea of war with Iran sound more rational and preparing to use a window of opportunity to gain global sympathy and attack. The Israeli military has denied the missile test had anything to do with the report and that it was scheduled months ago.

But so was the report. In other news, the United Kingdom is also talking up the military option. There seems to be some sort of consensus about preparing the military to go to war with Iran. The last time the element of surprise was sacrificed for an operation this big was Iraq. The US started moving troops into Kuwait in 2002 – six months ahead of the invasion.

I cannot say I am convinced though. Governments let things “slip” all the time in order to put something into the media’s purview – a desirable topic, a favorable opinion or a point of distraction. The fact that Israel conducted a missile test of all things in both broad daylight and right over the country’s center instead of its desert indicates they are trying to push the issue publicly. But it is not the Israeli public that needs convincing. All of Israel’s governments have been hawks about Iran – there is hardly a difference between Netanyahu and Olmert. It’s the rest of the world Israel is posturing toward. Iran is going to lose points and Israel’s military is going to gain some benefit of the doubt from this, even from European publics. “They are not warmongering,” so the thinking might go. “That’s the Iranians. I understand wanting to be ready just in case.”

Public relations and public perception are all important. That subject has driven Jews mad since the Obama-Netanyahu implosion started two years ago. If Israel does eventually decide to press the red button, global sympathy is going to play a role even if it will not be the major deciding factor.

One more thing to consider: Israel is trying to get advanced submarines from Germany. The last few weeks have seen that deal threatened by the apparent Israeli policy on settlements and the Palestinians. If it is more than that, it could be Germany suspects Israel IS moving toward a strike. Coordinating jets and offshore submarines might make the whole war thing a lot easier. Okay, my conspiracy theories are exhausted for today.

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

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.


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.

January 26, 2011

Why Egypt is both the Same as, and Different from, 1979 Iran

by Gedalyah Reback

The Tunisian revolution will set the tone for the coming year. There are a number of tinderboxes in the Middle East that seem to be crackling as 2011 opens. Tunisia seems poised to provide the spark that could make 2011 the biggest year in the Middle East since 1979.

1979 was a phenomenal shift in the strategic outlook of the region. The first reason that comes to mind would be the Iranian Revolution, itself dominating the month of January that year and culminating on February 11th with the return of Ayatollah Khomeini from exile. But also that year Saddam Hussein consolidated his rule in Iraq and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. These events set the stage Iran’s reach into Lebanon, its alliance with Syria, the heating up of the Syrian-Iraqi cold war, and the Arab obsession with destroying the Shiite revolution in Iran. In addition, Saudi Arabia extended its influence in order to combat 1) Iran and 2) the Soviet Union. Militant Sunni doctrine would spread to mobilize Muslims against Shiite and Communist movements.

2011, though still nascent and yet to provide all the major changes that it would take to rival 1979, has seen the outbreak of protests against four authoritarian regimes, the ascent of Hizbullah to power in Lebanon and a sudden jolt to the ability of the Palestinian Authority to negotiate with Israel. Considering developments over the last two years, and obviously since September 11, 2001, the region will not look as it did this past December when we enter 2012.

Egypt is the major chess piece. Continuing protests, fueled by years of frustration and motivated by Tunisians’ success, signals at least the beginning of a necessary period of reforms to pacify fed up Egyptians, if not an outright and brutal confrontation with the regime.

The protests that brought down the Iranian government 32 years ago began in 1977. The pattern of protest was uniquely Shiite. Every forty days after a suppressed demonstration, mourning caravans would commemorate those killed in the protests according to Shiite tradition, which in turn became political demonstrations in and of themselves. This pattern resulted in steadily growing protests that culminated in the involvement of armed opposition, popular revolt and the exile of the Shah.

Egypt is not restricted to a steady pattern of protests like Iran. That history made the Iranian opposition strategy in 2009-10 easier to predict for Iranian security services, enabling a more congruent system of tactics to be implemented to cut off demonstrations in the winter last year. Egypt does not have a revolutionary history, and its security services are equally as resented as the Iranian SAVAK at the point of the Islamic Revolution.

Most importantly, the distinction in opoosition leadership is pronounced. The most popular and credulous would be Mohamed Elbaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who had announced his candidacy for president in next year’s Egyptian elections. His international standing is a stark contrast to the figure that was Ayatollah Khomeini. Additionally, Elbaradei’s goals are much more generic, while Khomeini carried with him a fully developed doctrine of religious rule, velayat e-faqih, upon his return from exile in February 1979.

Mohamed Elbaradei

For any arguing the Muslim Brotherhood would assuredly take the lead in an Egyptian revolution, perhaps on par with Khomeini’s religious leadership. There is no undercurrent of Islamic fundamentalism ready to take the helm in Egypt. The population is aware of the human rights violations of established dictatorship and the brutality of the Iranian revolutionaries. It would find itself hardpressed to welcome a religious party that might perptrate the same misbehavior as the current Iranian elite. While there may be sharp differences between Sunni and Shiite doctrine, they would make little difference for Egyptians looking for democratic government. It is important to know the Brotherhood is seen as corrupt and inept. Early in the week, its leadership announced its non-participation in the planned demonstrations, citing its being held on a national holiday for the country’s police.

The irony of such a situation is iconic for Egyptian cynics. As elsewhere in the Arab world, supposed democratic opposition is more often a tame form of political theater. But as is often the case near the end of flimsy regimes, the artificiality of their politics and placation to the regime becomes too obvious to take seriously. Egypt, whether it be now or it be in the next couple years, will more than likely be free of Hosni Mubarak by reform, by revolution or by his passing.

Iran’s revolution caught the entire world, particularly the Arab world, off guard. In a way, it showed Iran was at a stage in its political evolution to tolerate such dramatic changes whereas the Arab world was not. But the tremendous international opposition to that revolution made its leadership more consolidated and extreme, particularly in the face of a US and Arab-backed Iraqi effort to dislodge the new regime.

Egypt, if it shifts, would likely not provide the throne to an authoritarian figure, but it could seek to dominate Middle Eastern politics and offer itself as a serious contender for global leadership in an increasingly multipolar world. It would likely not undertake the aggressive tone of Iran’s objective to ‘spread its revolution’. It has an opportunity to challenge Turkey and modern Iran for the helm of the Middle East, with an advantage being an Arab state. Mohamed Elbaradei, the likely victor of these changes, would leverage that international standing and popularity to solidify permanent political reforms and seek a balanced relationship with, not set himself in opposition to, the United States.

The next few days are crucial for American influence in the Middle East, and there is an opportunity for the Obama Administration to demonstratively engage the general population of the Arab world as he promised to do in Cairo two years ago. The fallout between the US and Iran does not have to repeat itself with Egypt, especially given the groundwork has already been laid for engagement. It is in the best interests of the US not to support Hosni Mubarak, rather to actually compound the pressure on him. If the US opts for caution, Obama and his engagement doctrine would likely come to mean nothing and his personal credibility would be totally destroyed. If his policy of balance with the Muslim world is to mean anything, the last month’s pattern of Arab protests should demonstrate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot resolve all the region’s problems nor America’s tenuous position among Arabs on the street.

Revolutions can become extreme as happened with Iran, or they can be stable and world-changing, as with the US. Whether Egypt becomes a positive facet in the Middle East or an agitator, and whether Egypt’s minority Christians and multiple political outlooks are tolerated, may depend on its engagement with the outside world and the support other countries offer it. In this last point, it is what the world can do differently this time, not what Egyptians do differently from Iranians, that may distinguish an Egyptian Revolution from the Iranian one.

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