Archive for ‘Mediterranean-Caucasus’

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 7, 2012

The Importance of Water: The Ancient Key to Power in the Middle East

by Gedalyah Reback

Historically, the Middle East hosted the most well-known empires known to us today. The Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians and rulers from modern Turkey dominated the region. Rarely if ever was there a power centered in the Land of Israel or Syria that dominated the region. Only with Islam’s Caliphate, centered in 7th century Damascus, did that change. The reason is simply because this area doesn’t have the natural resources to support a large population that Egypt’s Nile or Anatolia’s forests or Iraq’s rivers do. All that is changing today and Israelis should be well aware of it. There are key elements to Israeli technological innovations and its military policies that make it an unprecedented phenomenon in Middle Eastern power.

Water

The main reason Egypt, Anatolia (Turkey) or Iraq have been the homes to the major Middle Eastern powers is because of the access to natural resources. Egypt & Iraq don’t have much in terms of wood or stone – as a matter of fact many of the bricks common citizens used in construction were mud bricks. What they lacked in such things they maintained in water. In the desert Middle East particularly, that has been the fundamental element to power. The Assyrian and Babylonian empires both centered themselves on the Tigris & Euphrates rivers of Iraq. Egypt, of course, has had the Nile. Israel has only the Jordan and it hardly supports a massive population.

But two things have changed the game that give Israel a power advantage. For one, Israel has developed the desalinization industry, converting sea water to fresh drinking water to support a rapidly growing population. Secondly, Egypt and Iraq might be overpopulated. Without this Israeli technology, its use of the aforementioned rivers is excessive. Even though Israel, Jordan & the Palestinians have decimated the health of the Jordan River, desalinization replaces the supply, in fact increasing it and even making Israel a possible exporter of water.

The more Israel increases this resource, the greater its power might become. The fact that producing more water is tied to continuing to develop and refine new technologies also speaks well to the economic power of Israel. This is one of many reasons that Israel’s diplomatic issues and impasse with the Palestinians does not undermine Israel’s strength as much as it would a small state centuries ago.

Navy

Indisputably, that power would be nowhere if it weren’t for the stimulus of Western weapons that have enabled Israel’s modern army. But it’s not just the most capable air force in the Middle East that is giving Israel its might. Israel might control the most powerful navy in Israel’s history. While it has nowhere near the manpower that Turkey has, it does own 4 Dolphin submarines bought from Germany with 2 more on the way. Further, because of Israel’s newly found natural gas wealth resting miles off the coast, its navy is considering an unprecedented build-up of armor to defend against Lebanese and Turkish attacks.

Historically, the empires of the Middle East relied on land power – infantry & cavalry – to conquer and defend. In fact, between 1100 & 1500, the Ayyubid and Mamluk Empires of Egypt had virtually no naval power. The Crusaders had such an advantage that those empires decided to desert the coast of modern Israel and move cities inward, merely to avoid giving their enemies usable ports and a strong foothold on land. Every time a ruler would have the initiative to build a fleet, budget cuts or pressure from conservatives ended the project early. The Ottoman Empire did not repeat this mistake, but they did not possess the power to defeat European naval powers like the Portuguese & Spanish in the early 1500s to stop the rapid expansion of European colonies and thus European power.

With increasing threats from smuggling, terrorists and even Turkey, Israel is on the verge of creating the certifiably strongest navy in Middle Eastern history. Merely maintaining one that can tango with the other powers in the region reads well for Israel’s future in the region, certain to solidify military abilities that historic powers have lacked.

If Israel continues its water projects and rehabilitates the Jordan River & Dead Sea, it would consequently be extending its technological abilities and the ecological health of the country. In so doing, it would enhance the natural strength of the country and the availability of natural resources. If that is an indicator of where countries can go, the Jewish State would theoretically be on the path to becoming, at least on a regional level, a superpower.

April 30, 2012

Considering the Holocaust, Will Israel Have the Balls to Recognize the Armenian Genocide?

by Gedalyah Reback

Originally posted in The Beacon Mag

Last May, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin pledged he’d recognize the Armenian Genocide in the Knesset. Rivlin’s a moderate in the Likud Party, but he’s been a hawk on the issue. For five years, the Knesset has been debating commemorating the Ottoman Empire’s crimes. In 2011, they finally made the discussions public. So why is it so hard to acknowledge something that even Hitler supposedly did as early as 1939? According to one translation, the scumbag put it this way:

“Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

So until now what’s kept Israel from acknowledging the disaster? Quite simply, it would piss off Turkey.

Jews in other places around the world recognize the crime, and the Turks aren’t around to bully them into not. The USC Shoah Foundation, which sports many high-value Jewish donors, is adding 400 recorded testimonies from survivors of the Armenian Genocide to its archives. This is a major change for the foundation’s Institute, which has only focused on the Holocaust till now. In 2007, the Anti-Defamation League recognized the WWI massacres. The Zionist Organization of America also recognizes it. But the ADL’s head Abraham Foxman did so only after pressure from inside his organization. While Foxman wanted to protect Israel’s diplomatic position, his own organization pressured him to face the facts. Inside Israel, now that Turkey’s on the outs with Jerusalem, what could possibly justify continuing this ridiculous policy?

Azerbaijan. Despite whatever denials the government here in Israel cooks up, the security asset the Azeris are in the fight against Iran is tremendous. Israel might use Azerbaijan as a staging ground to attack nuclear sites, so reports say, so now denying the Armenian Genocide seems as important as ever. On April 6th, an Azerbaijani news outlet got to interview the country’s ambassador from Israel. What he said was revealing:

Question: Recently, the committee of the Knesset has discussed so called “Armenian genocide”. Will this issue come to the agenda of the Israeli parliament?
Ambassador Michael Lotem: The committee will discuss, but I think it will not go beyond. This issue should be kept to historians, not dealt by the politicians.

No matter how many meetings there are in the Knesset, Israel’s Foreign Ministry still seems to be revealing the country’s intent. Any Knesset meeting on the subject is a publicity stunt aimed at scaring the Turks. It’s not serious. It’s embarrassing as a country so intent on highlighting the devastation of the Holocaust that its leaders are apathetic to the idea of recognizing other crimes. Benjamin Netanyahu has used the Holocaust as a point of comparison to Iran’s intent regarding Israel’s Jews, so what good could it possibly do to diminish another genocide and risk diluting the significance of the Holocaust in the eyes of the world?

Turkey still refuses to recognize the magnitude or viciousness of the slaughter, arguing the numbers of those killed and the circumstances – battle as opposed to systematic murder. But a wave of European countries do not just recognize the event but criminalize denying it. On April 9th, it was reported the head of the Slovakian Supreme Court would have any Turkish official prosecuted if he dared deny the genocide on Slovakian soil. France pissed off Turkey several year ago when it passed its own version of the law. France’s statute was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court there, but the attitude toward the event is clearly on equal terms to how countries treat denial of the Holocaust. Europe is awash with these laws. Germany is the most famous for it, but in other countries the statutes exist: Austria, France, Poland and Portugal. Spain is more lenient about denial per se, but specifically prosecutes justifying the Holocaust. Israel has its laws outlawing Holocaust denial, but hasn’t even brought itself to acknowledge the mere happening of the Armenian tragedy.

Recognizing it will deepen Israel’s relationship with Turkey’s rivals: Greece and Cyprus. Turkey usually threatens consequences for diplomatic ties if another country recognizes the genocide. That threat means little these days in Jerusalem. Without leverage on Israel, the Jewish voice on the matter will weigh heavy against Turkey in the court of international opinion. Whatever problems Israel has diplomatically, its authority on genocide issues and its intimate connection to the Holocaust make the Jewish point of view extremely important to advocates of genocide prevention and recognition (see Armenia, Rwanda, Darfur).

Otniel Schneller, a member of the parliament, rolled out the identical argument for avoiding the issue as others had in the past, saying “Sometimes our desire to be right and moral overcomes our desire to exist, which is in the interest of the entire country.” But it’s more paranoid than proven that Turkey or Azerbaijan could have such a devastating effect on Israeli security. Turkey’s relationship has gone to crap with Israel, Syria and Iraq over the last several years, leaving it with little leeway for its own foreign policy in the region and thus little to threaten Israel with. Regarding Israel, the Jewish state lets other countries dictate its talk in the strangest ways, and the state is only undermining its assertiveness letting pressure from a non-ally, Turkey, bully the Jewish state into avoiding a simple moral statement. Turkey and Azerbaijan still need Israel as an ally against Iran; not just the other way around. Not acknowledging Jewish sovereignty on the issue is not merely impotent, but hits at the ‘galus’ mentality.

Recognizing the “Forgotten Holocaust” this year is a promise of Rivlin’s, but he’ll have to put his money where his mouth is to end this embarrassing situation. Rivlin and the entire Knesset will soon get their shot. It’s disgraceful it’s taken so long, but perhaps this year the ball will drop.

April 21, 2012

Israel’s Navy Expanding to Defend Offshore Gas

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel has expanded its relationship with Greece for two reasons. The first is because Greece is the natural alternative to having an alliance with Turkey, which is falling apart. The second is Greece is the natural patron of Cyprus, the other country about to win big from natural gas fields discovered in the Mediterranean Sea. Israel is planning to develop several fields, so naturally they will want a strong relationship with the other country nearby, Cyprus. The fields are in the “territorial waters” of the two countries, that is the area of ocean or sea water that is within legal range of a country’s coastline.

But that also involves Lebanon. Lebanon is nowhere near as advanced as Israel in its ability to explore for mineral deposits offshore. But now that Israel has hit the jackpot, Lebanon is making claims that some of the fields are in Lebanese water. The maps would have to be manipulated to make that true, but that hasn’t stopped Hezbollah and the rest of the Lebanese government from making an issue out of it. Hezbollah added fuel to the fire, threatening Israel if it crossed into the ambiguously defined Lebanese waters. In kind, Israel promised it would defend its gas deposits with force.

There is teeth to the Israeli words while little to Hezbollah’s. Despite what little naval options Hezbollah or Lebanon would have, Israel is stacking up. The navy is negotiating with South Korea and Hyundai to buy a bunch of new frigates. Israel recently had a spat with South Korea’s military industry because Jerusalem chose to buy a squadron of training planes from Italy instead of the Koreans. Filling the need to bulk up the navy and stay on good terms with South Korea is like killing two birds with one stone. Some even want Israel to stock up on bigger sorts of ships like destroyers and cruisers.

Israel is also replacing its joint naval war games with the Turks by conducting new ones with the Greeks. Greece is a patron to tiny Cyprus, so any business or military affairs happening on the island resonate in Athens. Greece is equally involved in the cultivation of the natural gas deposits as Cyprus or Israel, so the Greek navy will be the first natural ally for the Israelis in the Mediterranean.

Cyprus might end up mediating between the Israelis and the Lebanese on a maritime border. Cyprus already has working agreements with both countries on exploration, but both could be undermined if either country cannot begin working offshore. Lebanon refuses to ratify its agreement with Cyprus until it gets clarity on its southern border, forcing Cyprus to get pro-active about solving the dispute. Israel and Lebanon are also beginning to cooperate in other ways on the waters of the Mediterranean Sea – blocking Palestinian activists from crossing into Israeli waters on Land Day and Nakba Day. There is room to settle the dispute, but it might have more to do with Hezbollah’s willingness to cook up an issue to fight about then actually taking a pragmatic approach to the issue.

Turkey is the big reason though to bulk up. Initially you’d think I’m talking about the Flotilla incident in 2010, when the Israeli navy boarded a ship and killed nine Turkish activists on their way to protest the blockade of Gaza. The reason to buy bigger boats has more to do with Turkey’s relations with Cyprus. Turkey has a tense relationship with Cyprus. In 1974, Turkey invade Cyprus and carved out the northern third of the island as a separate country for Turkish residents – Northern Cyprus. Only Turkey recognizes the country, and in September 2011 signed a joint exploration deal with the tiny country to search for gas off the Northern Cypriot shore.

Turkey has had fierce rhetoric since and its own naval maneuvers, rattling its sabers in the direction of the Greek, southern Cyprus working with the Israelis. In December, Turkey drove ships toward the fields claimed by Israel and the southern Cypriots and fired in the direction of the fields. Israel and Cyprus have asked for help from the US to keep the Turks back, but the tensions are hot as Turkey seeks to stake a claim for itself and its tiny Northern Cypriot neighbor. The International Crisis Group in the beginning of April accused Turkey of a series of provocations against southern Cyprus, and told Turkey to discipline itself.

April 19, 2012

Turkey’s Alevis: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 16, 2012

Turkey & Israel: The Turkeys in Turkey – Business Still Flourishing

by Gedalyah Reback

So I’m sitting in class at Hebrew University listening to the latest lecture on Ottoman history. Going over the economic history of the empire, it can get relatively boring: the social structure brought on by hyper-organized guilds, economic protections, imports & exports, etc.

It’s all boring, but extremely relevant from where I sit in the academic capital of the Jewish State. Today, Haaretz posted a report that Israeli tourists were starting to go back to Turkey for cheap, close-by vacations.

Turkey has always been an economic hub being a fertile, particularly after the mass import of American products hit Europe. They went on to become niches for the cuisine in certain countries: the tomato sauce of Italian pasta & pizza; the potato in Ireland; the renown industry for Swiss chocolate. Gold proved to be a much bigger influence. Because so much extra entered Europe, the price of it went down and caused tremendous economic problems, particularly in the Ottoman Empire. It has always been a large market sitting between the centers of trade in India & Europe. That status is extremely true today, as its economy has grown roughly 10% annually like clockwork for the last ten years. That even includes strong economic relations with Iraq and especially Iraqi Kurdistan, even though there is a long-standing rivalry between the Kurds & the Turkish government.

But while we’re talking Turkey, we have to mention the recent failures in the relationship between the growing economy there and the strong one in Israel. The context of today’s trade is remarkable, because both sides have seen a massive collapse in military and diplomatic relationships. On the military side, the Turks have gone out of their way over the last three years to keep Israel from joining military exercises with NATO or bilateral games between the two countries on their own. In turn, Israel has scrapped some lucrative military industrial deals with the Turks, including a project to develop unmanned drones that Israel ended up shifting to Azerbaijan, costing Turkey access to new technology and massive economic losses. Prime Minister Reccip Erdogan was apparently livid when the Azeri deal was announced.

But other trades seem to be on the up & up despite the threats by diplomats and ministers to break the relationship further. In fact, the economic relationship seems to be completely independent of the military and diplomatic ones.

Traditionally, Turkey was a hub for agricultural exports to Europe from Asia, mainly in livestock. That included a breed of guineafowl nicknamed the “turkey hen” or “turkey cock” (i.e. a Turkish chicken). Peacocks and pheasants made their way through in addition to all the raw materials and silks from India & Persia. Livestock isn’t the main staple of the economy now. That would be manufacturing and machinery, in which Turkey is heavily involved in an international market where parts are imported or exported, assembled, then redistributed. Today, Israel is heavily involved and invested in that industry. About 900 Israeli companies are apparently active in Turkey and the Turks are the 8th largest export market for Israeli industry. Israel is only 17th to Turkey for centers of export, about 1.5% according to the article linked above. But Israel has free trade agreements with the United States and is a member of the European economic alliance, the OECD. Turkey is also a member, which not only means the two economies have easy access to each other but also are forbidden by organizational rules from boycotting other members of the alliance.

Turkey’s name has been significant in American exports since before the United States’ founding. The name of the newest discovery in cuisine, the turkey, came from being mixed up with the above mentioned “turkey hens” that came from India (India, “Hodu” in Hebrew, also being the origin of the Hebrew name for the turkey: “hodu”). What was once the tomatoes, turkeys and gold of the Americas has become chemicals, manufacturing and consulting services between the Turkey and the New World. With the US so close to Israel, it’s imperative that Turkey maintain its economic ties with Israel if it wants to maintain some level of diplomatic niceties with the United States. So while the reasons Turkey is stuck with Israel are apparent, they’re intertwined with the reasons Turkish businessmen aren’t looking for ways to divorce themselves from the Jewish State’s economy.

Turkish merchants haven’t forgotten Israel’s tech industry either, and their pressure on the government in Ankara has made it tough for politicians to follow through with threats against Jerusalem. The military is not the only interested consumer. Israelis are known for selling start-ups, but now they seem to be buying them. An example is the Turkish company Med Ilac, a medical tech company gobbled up by pharmaceutical giant Teva for 10s of millions of dollars. With medical and digital tech hubs in the Middle East located in Israel, the Turkish government has little pragmatic reason for severing the relationship with the Israelis to that degree.

As Turkey tries to break into the tech and R&D worlds, it’s previously close connection with Israel effectively makes the relationship indispensable. The Turkish military will look for ways to renewed cooperation, especially in weapons and communications. This is a general analysis, and it even reflects some of the points Israeli PR makes about industry and technology when it tries to draw attention from contentious Israeli issues like politics and the Palestinian territories. But it’s indispensable truth. Israel and Turkey will probably repair their relationship on financial grounds more than on strategic ones, but it seems inevitable.

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.

April 10, 2012

Israel, Azerbaijan & New Problems Recognizing the Armenian Genocide

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel will be testing its relationship with Azerbaijan much sooner than people would have thought. FP’s enlightening article on an Israeli-Azeri alliance surprised countless journalists, politicos and Israel enthusiasts, so hearing Israel might risk jeopardizing would seem downright stupid. But that assumes that everything you need to know about Azerbaijan was in that article. Like my previous post on Armenia, most of the focus has been on Turkey. Israel can’t commemorate the Armenian Genocide without drawing Turkish ire. That’s far less of an issue with Turkish-Israeli ties already so cold they couldn’t get more frigid. But with Azerbaijan, suddenly Israel might have the same problem as it did with Ankara and the Turks.

Azerbaijan is itself a Turkic country (as opposed to “Turkish,” “TURKIC” is a much broader category that includes a bunch of ethnic groups, countries and languages spread across Asia). It has a strong historical relationship with the Ottoman Empire and the Turkic tribes that eventually made their way to Anatolia and founded that empire. What separates Azerbaijan from Turkey and other Turkic countries is that it is Shi’ite Muslim, like Iran. Unlike Iran, Azeris are secular, mostly thanks to being a part of the Soviet Union until the early 1990s. The break-up though led to a reigniting of Azerbaijan’s historical rivalry with the nearby Armenians. With both groups having their own countries, the two have been at war since the end of the Soviets, with heavy historical baggage being carried by both sides of the conflict.

The war with Armenia makes recognizing the Armenian Genocide in some ways even touchier an issue than it would be for Turkey. The Armenians, for their part, also see Azeris as having been complicit in the entire episode. That being said, Azerbaijan also doesn’t recognize the massacres as having been anything other than the collateral damage of war and nowhere near anything as systematic as the Holocaust.

But the world disagrees, like has been said millions of times. So now Israel faces the Azeris and not just the Turks when it comes to putting this issue to rest. A diplomatic crisis might be in the offing. On April 6th, an Azerbaijani news outlet got to interview the country’s ambassador from Israel. What he said was disturbing:

Question: Recently, the committee of the Knesset has discussed so called “Armenian genocide”. Will this issue come to the agenda of the Israeli parliament?
Ambassador Michael Lotem: The committee will discuss, but I think it will not go beyond. This issue should be kept to historians, not dealt by the politicians.

Azeris are disturbed by the idea that more countries could recognize the event as a genocide, something publicly humiliating for Azerbaijan as much as it has been for Turkey. But why is Israel nervous about the entire thing? The questioner’s perspective seems to be one of anxiety, not anger. Despite the grandstanding and outrage from Turkey whenever a country brings up the historical calamity, it’s not power the Turks project but nervousness. Turkey and Azerbaijan need Israel as much as Israel needs them, and not just on this issue. More practical issues, like defense and the economy, have made the two countries’ relationship with Israel important. Azerbaijan might be an asset against Iran – a possible base for Israeli jets, rescue crews and monitoring technology – but Israel also has been big for the Azeri economy and giving Baku’s leaders more of an outlet to the outside world. The government there has a sullied rep, so good press fighting the dark side in Iran is welcomed press.

Members of the Knesset have always been split on the issue of disrupting ties with Turkey over this, but it’s an untested theory that Turkey would disrupt ties with Israel. It’s even further unknown, probably more improbably Azerbaijan would do such a thing. Armenia also has a border with Iran, and Azerbaijan would be in dire straits if it sacrificed all its connections with Israel in retaliation for the way Israel looked at history. It would be more ironic and humiliating if that resulted in Israel building up its ties with Armenia, creating a major problem for Azerbaijan’s security that wouldn’t have existed if not for a stubborn, emotional reaction to a token acknowledgement of an event 100 years in the past.

Israel lets other countries dictate its talk in the strangest ways, and the state is only undermining its assertiveness letting pressure from a non-ally, Turkey, bully the Jewish state into avoiding a simple moral statement. Turkey and Azerbaijan still need Israel as an ally against Iran; not just the other way around.

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