Category Archives: Lebanon

A Peace Package for the Middle East

Three highly-dangerous Middle East problems — Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the bloody civil war in Syria, and the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict — pose a grave challenge to President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team of John Kerry at State, Chuck Hagel at Defence and John Brennan at the CIA, notes Patrick Seale.

Three highly-dangerous Middle East problems — Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the bloody civil war in Syria, and the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict — pose a grave challenge to President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team of John Kerry at State, Chuck Hagel at Defence and John Brennan at the CIA. America’s vital interests in the Middle East, its political reputation, its ability to project power and influence are intimately tied up with the way it deals — or fails to deal — with these problems. So what advice might one be bold enough to give to President Obama and his team?

Each of these three problems is profoundly destabilising for the region as a whole and risks triggering a war of unpredictable consequences. Taken separately, each of them has so far defied resolution. One suggestion is that tackling them as a package might prove more effective.

Consider, for a moment, how closely inter-connected they are. No one is more concerned than Israel about Iran’s nuclear programme, which it sees as a threat to its military supremacy and ultimately to its security. It fears that a nuclear capable Iran would restrict the freedom — which Israel has enjoyed for decades — to strike its neighbours at will, when they seem threatening.

Iran, however, does not stand alone. Its fate is closely linked to that of Syria, its principal regional ally. Syria has also been the most ardent champion of Palestinian rights and of Lebanon’s freedom from Israeli control. Indeed, the so-called ‘resistance axis’ of Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hizballah has sought to deter or contain Israeli attacks while challenging U.S.-Israeli hegemony in the Levant.

Needless to say, Syria’s calamitous civil war has gravely weakened the resistance axis. Israel’s dearest hope is to destroy what remains of it by urging the United States and its allies to bring down the Tehran and the Damascus regimes, thus freeing Israel from any constraint from these powers in its relentless drive for a ‘Greater Israel’.

It can thus be seen that Iran’s nuclear programme, Syria’s existential crisis and Israel’s land hunger are inextricably linked. Attempts to deal with these problems separately have so far failed. The obvious conclusion is that they may be better dealt with as a package. These are not marginal problems which can be left to fester. If the United States wishes to protect itself, its interests and its allies in a highly turbulent environment it must make a supreme effort to resolve them.

Moreover, this is a unique moment: President Obama has been re-elected for a second term. His political authority has been enhanced. The world is looking to him for leadership. Although many other foreign policy problems clamour for his attention — the rising colossus of China first among them — he knows that the Middle East, for all its maddening complexity, latent violence, and the current resurgence of Al-Qaeda, not least in Syria, cannot be ignored.

He should consider the possibility of a trade-off between Iran’s nuclear programme and a Palestinian state. The proposal is simple enough: If Iran were to agree — under strict international supervision — to give up, once and for all, its ambition to become a nuclear-capable state, Israel would, in exchange, agree to the establishment of an independent Palestine on the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in East Jerusalem. The exact terms of the trade-off would evidently need negotiation and refinement, but the main lines and necessary mutual concessions of an Israeli-Palestinian deal have been extensively debated and are widely known.

Such a bargain between Iran’s nuclear ambitions and an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is not as far-fetched or as fictional as it may sound. Iran has boxed itself into a corner. It knows that the United States will not allow it to become a nuclear power. It wants a dignified exit from its present predicament and an end to crippling sanctions. Israel, in turn, faces international isolation — not to speak of the permanent threat of terrorism — if it insists on stealing what remains of the West Bank. It, too, needs a dignified exit from the insanity of its fanatical settlers and religious nationalists who, if unchecked, would condemn Israel to pariah status and permanent war. A trade-off would resolve two of the region’s most intractable problems to the great benefit of everyone concerned. Peace and normal relations with the entire Muslim world would be Israel’s very substantial reward.

What about Syria? It lies at the very heart of the regional power system. Its on-going civil war is threatening to destabilise its neighbours — Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. Israel itself will not be immune. Islamist fighters, some linked to Al-Qaeda, are flowing into Syria, while refugees are fleeing out to neighbouring states in very large numbers. The toll of dead and wounded is heavy, material destruction great and human misery incalculable.

It is by now abundantly clear that there is no military solution to the conflict: Neither the regime nor its opponents can hope to win an outright victory. No outside power wants to intervene militarily. Yet the regime and its enemies are incapable of negotiating an end to the conflict without outside help.

What should the international community do? First, the United States and Russia (with active support from other powers) should join together in imposing a ceasefire on both sides of the conflict. This could involve deploying an international force around Syria’s borders to prevent the inflow of fighters, weapons, and other military equipment to both government and rebels.

Secondly, major external powers — Arab, Western, Chinese, Russian and others — should solemnly pledge to contribute to a Syria Reconstruction Fund of some $10bn-$15bn. The money would be entrusted to the World Bank and disbursed only when a permanent ceasefire is in place and when some clear progress is made towards a negotiated settlement. The existence of the Fund will provide a real incentive.

Thirdly, the United Nations Secretary General, with unanimous backing from the Security Council, should summon a conference of national reconciliation in Damascus attended by regime representatives as well as by all Syrian factions, groups, parties and prominent individuals prepared to renounce war.

The task will not be easy. The wounds of the conflict are very deep. But for the sake of Syria and its neighbours — for the sake of peace in the region — a supreme effort must be made to prevent the collapse of the Syrian state and its possible fragmentation. The difficult task will be to reshape Syria’s political system on democratic lines. Political freedoms will have to be guaranteed, individual rights respected, police brutality ended, the rule of law observed, government services restored and minorities protected. An essential goal must be the preservation of the Syrian Arab army as the indispensable institution of the state. In Iraq, it was the disbanding of the army which led to the collapse of the state, triggering the catastrophic civil war from which the country has yet to recover.

If Barack Obama were to adopt the programme outlined above and throw his full weight behind it, his place in history as a great peacemaker would be assured.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).

This Is Not a Revolution

The New-york review of books|

November 8, 2012
Hussein Agha
and Robert Malley|

All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest

—Paul Simon

Darkness descends upon the Arab world. Waste, death, and destruction attend a fight for a better life. Outsiders compete for influence and settle accounts. The peaceful demonstrations with which this began, the lofty values that inspired them, become distant memories. Elections are festive occasions where political visions are an afterthought. The only consistent program is religious and is stirred by the past. A scramble for power is unleashed, without clear rules, values, or endpoint. It will not stop with regime change or survival. History does not move forward. It slips sideways.

Games occur within games: battles against autocratic regimes, a Sunni–Shiite confessional clash, a regional power struggle, a newly minted cold war. Nations divide, minorities awaken, sensing a chance to step out of the state’s confining restrictions. The picture is blurred. These are but fleeting fragments of a landscape still coming into its own, with only scrappy hints of an ultimate destination. The changes that are now believed to be essential are liable to be disregarded as mere anecdotes on an extended journey.

New or newly invigorated actors rush to the fore: the ill-defined “street,” prompt to mobilize, just as quick to disband; young protesters, central activists during the uprising, roadkill in its wake. The Muslim Brothers yesterday dismissed by the West as dangerous extremists are now embraced and feted as sensible, businesslike pragmatists. The more traditionalist Salafis, once allergic to all forms of politics, are now eager to compete in elections. There are shadowy armed groups and militias of dubious allegiance and unknown benefactors as well as gangs, criminals, highwaymen, and kidnappers.

Alliances are topsy-turvy, defy logic, are unfamiliar and shifting. Theocratic regimes back secularists; tyrannies promote democracy; the US forms partnerships with Islamists; Islamists support Western military intervention. Arab nationalists side with regimes they have long combated; liberals side with Islamists with whom they then come to blows. Saudi Arabia backs secularists against the Muslim Brothers and Salafis against secularists. The US is allied with Iraq, which is allied with Iran, which supports the Syrian regime, which the US hopes to help topple. The US is also allied with Qatar, which subsidizes Hamas, and with Saudi Arabia, which funds the Salafis who inspire jihadists who kill Americans wherever they can.

In record time, Turkey evolved from having zero problems with its neighbors to nothing but problems with them. It has alienated Iran, angered Iraq, and had a row with Israel. It virtually is at war with Syria. Iraqi Kurds are now Ankara’s allies, even as it wages war against its own Kurds and even as its policies in Iraq and Syria embolden secessionist tendencies in Turkey itself.

For years, Iran opposed Arab regimes, cultivating ties with Islamists with whose religious outlook it felt it could make common cause. As soon as they take power, the Islamists seek to reassure their former Saudi and Western foes and distance themselves from Tehran despite Iran’s courting. The Iranian regime will feel obliged to diversify its alliances, reach out to non-Islamists who feel abandoned by the nascent order and appalled by the budding partnership between Islamists and the US. Iran has experience in such matters: for the past three decades, it has allied itself with secular Syria even as Damascus suppressed its Islamists.

When goals converge, motivations differ. The US cooperated with Gulf Arab monarchies and sheikhdoms in deposing Qaddafi yesterday and in opposing Assad today. It says it must be on the right side of history. Yet those regimes do not respect at home the rights they piously pursue abroad. Their purpose is neither democracy nor open societies. They are engaged in a struggle for regional domination. What, other than treasure, can proponents of a self-styled democratic uprising find in countries whose own system of governance is anathema to the democratic project they allegedly promote?

The new system of alliances hinges on too many false assumptions and masks too many deep incongruities. It is not healthy because it cannot be real. Something is wrong. Something is unnatural. It cannot end well.

A media war that started in Egypt reaches its zenith in Syria. Each side shows only its own, amplifies the numbers, disregards the rest. In Bahrain, the opposite is true. No matter how many opponents of the regime turn up, few take notice. It does not register on the attention scale. Not long ago, footage from Libya glorified motley fighters with colorful bandanas and triumphant spiel. The real battles, bloody and often from the skies, raged elsewhere. Casualties were invisible.

Throngs gather in Tahrir Square. The camera zooms in on protesters. What about the unseen millions who stayed at home? Did they rejoice at Mubarak’s overthrow or quietly lament his departure? How do Egyptians feel about the current disorder, unrest, economic collapse, and political uncertainty? In the elections that ensued, 50 percent did not vote. Of those who did, half voted for the representative of the old order. Who will look after those who lie on the other side of the right side of history?

Most Syrians fight neither to defend the regime nor to support the opposition. They are at the receiving end of this vicious confrontation, their wishes unnoticed, their voices unheard, their fates forgotten. The camera becomes an integral part of the unrest, a tool of mobilization, propaganda, and incitement. The military imbalance favors the old regimes but is often more than compensated for by the media imbalance that favors the new forces. The former Libyan regime had Qaddafi’s bizarre rhetoric; Assad’s Syria relies on its discredited state-run media. It’s hardly a contest. In the battle for public sympathy, in the age of news-laundering, the old orders never stood a chance.

In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain, no unifying figure of stature has emerged with the capacity to shape a new path. There is scant leadership. Where there is leadership, it tends to be by committee. Where there are committees, they emerge mysteriously to assume authority no one has granted them. More often than not, legitimacy is bestowed from abroad: the West provides respectability and exposure; Gulf Arab states supply resources and support; international organizations offer validity and succor.

Those in charge often lack the strength that comes from a clear and loyal domestic constituency; they need foreign approval and so they must be cautious, adjust their positions to what outsiders accept. Past revolutionary leaders were not driven by such considerations. For better or for worse, they were stubbornly independent and took pride in rebuffing foreign interference.

Not unlike the rulers they helped depose, Islamists placate the West. Not unlike those they replaced, who used the Islamists as scarecrows to keep the West by their side, the Muslim Brotherhood waves the specter of what might come next should it fail now: the Salafis who, for their part and not unlike the Brothers of yore, are torn between fealty to their traditions and the taste of power.

It’s a game of musical chairs. In Egypt, Salafis play the part once played by the Muslim Brotherhood; the Brotherhood plays the part once played by the Mubarak regime. In Palestine, Islamic Jihad is the new Hamas, firing rockets to embarrass Gaza’s rulers; Hamas, the new Fatah, claiming to be a resistance movement while clamping down on those who dare resist; Fatah, a version of the old Arab autocracies it once lambasted. How far off is the day when Salafis present themselves to the world as the preferable alternative to jihadists?

Egyptian politics are wedged between the triumphant mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, more hard-line Salafis, anxious non-Islamists, and remnants of the old order. As the victorious Brotherhood tries to reach an arrangement with the rest, the political future is a blur. The speed and elegance with which the new president, Mohamed Morsi, retired or sidelined the old military leaders and the quiet with which this daring move was greeted suggest that the Islamists’ confidence has grown, that they are willing to move at a faster pace.

Tunisia is a mixed tale. The transition has been largely peaceful; the an-Nahda party, which won the elections last October, offers a pragmatic, moderate face of Islamism. But its efforts to consolidate power are a source of nervousness. Mistrust between secularists and Islamists is growing; socioeconomic protests at times become violent. Salafis lurk in the wings, assailing symbols of modern society, free speech, and gender equality.

In Yemen, former president Saleh is out of power but not offstage. One war brews in the north, another in the south. Jihadists flex their muscles. The young revolutionaries who dreamed of a complete change can only watch as different factions of the same old elite rearrange the deck. Saudis, Iranians, and Qataris sponsor their own factions. Minor clashes could escalate into major confrontations. Meanwhile, US drones eliminate al-Qaeda operatives and whoever happens to be in their vicinity.

Day by day, the civil war in Syria takes on an uglier, more sectarian hue. The country has become an arena for a regional proxy war. The opposition is an eclectic assortment of Muslim Brothers, Salafis, peaceful protesters, armed militants, Kurds, soldiers who have defected, tribal elements, and foreign fighters. There is little that either the regime or the opposition won’t contemplate in their desperation to triumph. The state, society, and an ancient culture collapse. The conflict engulfs the region.

The battle in Syria also is a battle for Iraq. Sunni Arab states have not accepted the loss of Baghdad to Shiites and, in their eyes, to Safavid Iranians. A Sunni takeover in Syria will revive their colleagues’ fortunes in Iraq. Militant Iraqi Sunnis are emboldened and al-Qaeda is revitalized. A war for Iraq’s reconquest will be joined by its neighbors. The region cares about Syria. It obsesses about Iraq.

Islamists in the region await the outcome in Syria. They do not wish to bite off more than they can chew. If patience is the Islamist first principle, consolidation of gains is the second. Should Syria fall, Jordan could be next. Its peculiar demography—a Palestinian majority ruled over by a trans-Jordanian minority—has been a boon to the regime: the two communities bear deep grievances against the Hashemite rulers yet distrust each other more. That could change in the face of the unifying power of Islam for which ethnicity, in theory at least, is of little consequence.

Weaker entities may follow. In northern Lebanon, Islamist and Salafi groups actively support the Syrian opposition, with whom they may have more in common than with Lebanese Shiites and Christians. From the outset a fragile contraption, Lebanon is pulled in competing directions: some would look to a new Sunni-dominated Syria with envy, perhaps a yearning to join. Others would look to it with fright and despair.

In Bahrain, a Sunni monarchy intent on retaining power and privilege violently suppresses the majority Shiites. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states come to their ally’s rescue. The West, so loud elsewhere, is mute. When Libya holds elections, Islamists do not fare well; their opponents believe they finally achieved their one victory in a country that has no tradition of political openness, lacks a state, and is sated with armed militias that regularly engage in deadly clashes. An octogenarian leadership in Saudi Arabia struggles with a looming transition, lives in fear of Iran and its own population, doles out cash to fend off dissatisfaction. How long can all this last?

Mohamed Morsi; drawing by John Springs

In some countries, regimes will be toppled, in others they will survive. Forces that have been defeated are unlikely to have been crushed. They will regroup and try to fight back. The balance of power is not clear-cut. Victory does not necessarily strengthen the victor.

Those in power occupy the state, but it is an asset that might prove of limited value. Inherently weak and with meager legitimacy, Arab states tend to be viewed by their citizens with suspicion, extraneous bodies superimposed on more deeply rooted, familiar social structures with long, continuous histories. They enjoy neither the acceptability nor the authority of their counterparts elsewhere. Where uprisings occur, the ability of these states to function weakens further as their coercive power erodes.

To be in the seat of power need not mean to exercise power. In Lebanon, the pro-West March 14 coalition, invigorated while in opposition, was deflated after it formed the cabinet in 2005. Hezbollah has never been more on the defensive or enjoyed less moral authority than since it became the major force behind the government. Those out of power face fewer constraints. They have the luxury to denounce their rulers’ failings, the freedom that comes with the absence of responsibility. In a porous, polarized Middle East, they enjoy access to readily available outside support.

To be in charge, to operate along formal, official, state channels, can encumber as much as empower. Syria’s military withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 did not curb its influence; Damascus simply exerted it more surreptitiously, without public glare and accountability. Tomorrow, a similar pattern might hold in Syria itself. The regime’s collapse would be a significant blow to Iran and Hezbollah, but one can wonder how devastating. The day after such a long and violent conflict is more likely to witness chaos than stability, a scramble for power rather than a strong central government. Defeated and excluded political forces will seek help from any source and solicit foreign patrons regardless of their identity. To exploit disorder is a practice in which Iran and Hezbollah are far better versed than their foes. Without a Syrian regime whose interests they need to take into account and whose constraints they need to abide by, they might be able to act more freely.

The Muslim Brotherhood prevails. The newly elected Egyptian president comes from their ranks. They rule in Tunisia. They control Gaza. They have gained in Morocco. In Syria and Jordan too, their time might come.

The Muslim Brotherhood prevails: those are weighty and, not long ago, unthinkable, unutterable words. The Brothers survived eighty years in the underground and the trenches, hounded, tortured, and killed, forced to compromise and bide their time. The fight between Islamism and Arab nationalism has been long, tortuous, and bloody. Might the end be near?

World War I and the ensuing European imperial ascent halted four centuries of Islamic Ottoman rule. With fits and starts, the next century would be that of Arab nationalism. To many, this was an alien, unnatural, inauthentic Western import—a deviation that begged to be rectified. Forced to adjust their views, the Islamists acknowledged the confines of the nation-state and irreligious rule. But their targets remained the nationalist leaders and their disfigured successors.

Last year, they helped topple the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, the pale successors of the original nationalists. The Islamists had more worthy and dangerous adversaries in mind. They struck at Ben Ali and Mubarak, but the founding fathers—Habib Bourguiba and Gamal Abdel Nasser—were in their sights. They reckon they have corrected history. They have revived the era of musulmans sans frontières.

What will all this mean? The Islamists are loath either to share power achieved at high cost or to squander gains so patiently acquired. They must balance among their own restive rank-and-file, a nervous larger society, and an undecided international community. The temptation to strike fast pulls in one direction; the desire to reassure tugs in another. In general, they will prefer to eschew coercion, awaken the people to their dormant Islamic nature rather than foist it upon them. They will try to do it all: rule, enact social transformations incrementally, and be true to themselves without becoming a menace to others.

The Islamists propose a bargain. In exchange for economic aid and political support, they will not threaten what they believe are core Western interests: regional stability, Israel, the fight against terror, energy flow. No danger to Western security. No commercial war. The showdown with the Jewish state can wait. The focus will be on the slow, steady shaping of Islamic societies. The US and Europe may voice concern, even indignation at such a domestic makeover. But they’ll get over it. Just as they got over the austere fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia. Bartering—as in, we’ll take care of your needs, let us take care of ours—Islamists feel, will do the trick. Looking at history, who can blame them?

Mubarak was toppled in part because he was viewed as excessively subservient to the West, yet the Islamists who succeed him might offer the West a sweeter because more sustainable deal. They think they can get away with what he could not. Stripped of his nationalist mantle, Mubarak had little to fall back on; he was a naked autocrat. The Muslim Brothers by comparison have a much broader program—moral, social, cultural. Islamists feel they can still follow their convictions, even if they are not faithfully anti-Western. They can moderate, dilute, defer.

Unlike the close allies of the West they have replaced, Islamists are heard calling for NATO military intervention in Libya yesterday, Syria today, wherever they entertain the hope to take over tomorrow. One can use the distant infidels, who will not stay around for long, to jettison local infidels, who have hounded them for decades. Rejection of foreign interference, once a centerpiece of the post-independence outlook, is no longer the order of the day. It is castigated as counterrevolutionary.

What the US sought to obtain over decades through meddling and imposition, it might now obtain via acquiescence: Arab regimes that will not challenge Western interests. Little wonder that many in the region are persuaded that America was complicit in the Islamists’ rise, a quiet partner in what has been happening.

Everywhere, Israel faces the rise of Islam, of militancy, of radicalism. Former allies are gone; erstwhile foes reign supreme. But the Islamists have different and broader objectives. They wish to promote their Islamic project, which means consolidating their rule where they can, refraining from alienating the West, and avoiding perilous and precocious clashes with Israel. In this scheme, the presence of a Jewish state is and will remain intolerable, but it is probably the last piece of a larger puzzle that may never be fully assembled.

The quest to establish an independent, sovereign Palestinian state was never at the heart of the Islamist project. Hamas, the Palestinian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, harbors grander, less territorially confined but also less immediately achievable designs. Despite Hamas’s circumlocutions and notwithstanding its political evolution, it never truly deviated from its original view—the Jewish state is illegitimate and all the land of historic Palestine is inherently Islamic. If the current balance of power is not in your favor, wait and do what you can to take care of the disparity. The rest is tactics.

The Palestinian question has been the preserve of the Palestinian national movement. As of the late 1980s, its declared goal became a sovereign state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Alternatives, whether interim or temporary, have been flatly rejected. The Islamists’ plan may be more ambitious and grandiose but more flexible and elastic. For them, a diminutive, amputated state, hemmed in by Israel, dependent on its goodwill, predicated on its recognition, and entailing an end to the conflict, is not worth fighting for.

They can live with a range of transient arrangements: an interim agreement; a long-term truce, or hudna; a possible West Bank confederation with Jordan, with Gaza moving toward Egypt. All will advance the further Islamization of Palestinian society. All permit Hamas to turn to its social, cultural, and religious agenda, its true calling. All allow Hamas to maintain the conflict with Israel without having to wage it. None violates Hamas’s core tenets. It can put its ultimate goal on hold. Someday, the time for Palestine, for Jerusalem may come. Not now.

In the age of Arab Islamism, Israel may find Hamas’s purported intransigence more malleable than Fatah’s ostensible moderation. Israel fears the Islamic awakening. But the more immediate threat could be to the Palestinian national movement. There is no energy left in the independence project; associated with the old politics and long-worn-out leaderships, it has expended itself. Fatah and the PLO will have no place in the new world. The two-state solution is no one’s primary concern. It might expire not because of violence, settlements, or America’s inexpert role. It might perish of indifference…..

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On Syria and way beyond, an interview with Guenter Meyer

On Syria and way beyond
By Lars Schall

One of Europe’s most outstanding experts on the Middle East, Professor Guenter Meyer, addresses in this exclusive in-depth interview for Asia Times Online the Syrian civil war and its international dimensions.

Professor Dr Guenter Meyer has for almost 40 years carried out empirical research on the social, economic and political development in Arab countries and has published more than 150 books and articles, especially on Syria, Egypt, Yemen and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. He directs the Center for Research on the Arab World at the Johannes Gutenberg

University in Mainz, Germany, which is one of the world’s leading information centers for the dissemination of news and research on the Middle East. Professor Meyer is chairman of the German Middle East Studies Association (DAVO), president of the European Association for Middle Eastern Studies (EURAMES), and chairman of the International Advisory Council of the World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies (WOCMES).

Lars Schall: Professor Meyer, since our perceptions are framed by the media, how do you feel about the coverage of the conflict in Syria in the Western media?

Guenter Meyer: My perceptions are not only framed by the media, but also by my own experience in Syria and by contact with Syrians, other Arab experts and political activists of the Arab spring. The information I receive from these sources and also from Arab news media covers a much wider range of views and assessments than the rather one-sided reporting in the majority of the Western media.

LS: What kind of things do you have to criticize in particular?

GM: Until recently mainstream reporting in most Western media was clearly biased. It focused mainly on the distinction between the “bad” Syrian regime, which has to be toppled, and the “good” opposition, which has to be supported because it is fighting against a corrupt, authoritarian and brutal government. This perception has changed gradually during the past few months. More and more media are reporting about the conflicting interests of the highly fragmented oppositional groups as well as about the atrocities of the rebel groups and their crimes committed against the civilian population, especially against Alawites but also against Christians.

The influx of Salafis, jihadis and followers of al-Qaeda and the expectation that radical Sunni Islamists will control Syria after the fall of Bashar al-Assad are disturbing themes that are now also reported in Western media. After a long delay, the news coverage of the development in Syria does no longer focus only on spreading the political view of the “Friends of Syria”, but has started to provide a more comprehensive picture about the highly complex situation in Syria.

Nevertheless, there is still a bias when it comes to the reporting of massacres. The majority of Western media – and also Western governments – tend to take the information offered by oppositional sources for granted that government forces, in particular the Shabiha militia, are responsible for the cruel killings of civilians, many of them women and children. At the same time, evidences of a systematic “massacre marketing strategy” [1] by the rebels are rejected as propaganda of the Assad regime. It is obvious that in many cases, especially in the massacres with the highest number of victims at Houla [2] and Daraya [3] oppositional forces committed brutal crimes against civilians in order just to blame the government for these massacres. Through this strategy they try to manipulate public opinion and influence political decision making against the Syrian regime.

LS: Would you say that those who want to explore the interests that collide in the conflict in Syria would do well to examine the geopolitical importance of Syria for the Eurasian energy chessboard? I mean, ultimately Syria is a main transport hub for future oil and gas pipelines, right?

GM: Whenever you try to analyze political conflicts in the Middle East and get to the bottom you are likely to find oil or gas. The present conflict has been linked to Syria’s role as transit country for Iranian gas export. Last year, a contract was signed between Iran, Iraq and Syria to build a natural gas pipeline by 2016 from Iran’s giant South Pars field to the Syrian Mediterranean coast in order to supply Lebanon and Europa with gas. As a result Turkey would loose her highly profitable and political important position as the dominant transit country for gas from Russia and the Caspian Basin. [4]

Could this expected competition have been a reason for the Turkish government to give up its good relations with the Syrian regime and support the opposition? This is rather unlikely. During the last few years, Iran has signed numerous Memoranda of Understanding and contracts with foreign governments and companies to exploit Iranian gas and oil fields and to build pipelines. None of these schemes has been executed, as a result of the US embargo against Iran. Therefore, it has to be supposed that the contract to build a pipeline to Syria was signed mainly for domestic political reasons of the Iranian government. One has also to question the economic viability of this project. Why should gas from Southern Iran be exported to Europe when the highest demand for Iranian gas comes from neighboring Pakistan and India?

There is another project that would make much more sense. In 2009, Qatar had proposed to build a pipeline from the emirate’s giant gas fields via Syria to Turkey to be connected with other pipelines to Europe. [5] Based on this scheme, Assad loyalists had claimed that the unrest in Syria is not an uprising but a Qatari-instigated aggression designed to dominate the country and ensure Qatari access to the Mediterranean Sea for its gas export. However, this argument can be regarded as a conspiracy theory. [6]

LS: Are the discovered energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean and Levantine Basin also of interest here?

GM: The untapped natural gas finds are extremely important for Israel, which will no longer have to rely on the insecure supply of gas from Egypt. The discovered gas reserves are so huge that Israel can not only achieve energy independence but will also benefit from lucrative export deals. Further gas and even oil reserves are expected to be discovered in the offshore areas of Syria and Lebanon. [7] Nevertheless, the newly discovered resources have no direct impact on the present crisis in Syria.

LS: When it comes to the Western powers, are they especially intended to weaken the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis?

GM: There are numerous statements from the US government which stress the geostrategic importance of the ousting of the Syrian regime so that both Iran and Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon will loose their most important ally. The Iranian and Syrian supply of military equipment to Hezbollah will no longer be possible. The weakening of the military force of this Shiite organization means that its impact on the power structure of Lebanon and especially its ability to attack Israel will dramatically decline. [8] The fall of Bashar Al-Assad will also weaken the influence of Russia and China in the Middle East and strengthen the role of the US and Saudi Arabia in this region.

LS: Are we currently experiencing a “Balkanisation of Syria” or a “Balkanisation of the Middle East” in general?

GM: During the last decades Syria has been a secular state with a strong focus on pan-Arabism. Now the ethnic and religious frictions have become a dominant factor and threaten the unity of the Syrian state. The worst case scenario would indeed be a “Balkanization” for Syria, which means that the country is split into a northeastern Kurdish state providing a safe haven for the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] and a nightmare for Turkey, an Alawite state in the western mountains and the coastal area, a tiny Druze enclave in the south, and a Sunni state in central Syria. Only the last one would probably have sufficient economic potential to exist on the long run.

Other experts suggest a “Lebanonization” scenario that pins down the Syrian army and weakens the central government in Damascus. [9] The model of an “Iraqization” of Syria might also have chances to become reality, with several autonomous or semi-autonomous regions. Similar demands are also raised in the oil-rich east of Libya, where large parts of the population no longer want to be dominated by the center of the political power in Tripolitania, the western region of Libya.

LS: Do we see in Syria a similar situation as earlier in Libya or is it very different?

GM: The situation in Libya was completely different. Gaddafi’s military forces were far too weak to resist the combined military power of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] which was authorized by the UN Security Council to intervene in Libya. Large parts of the population and almost the entire east of Libya opposed the authoritarian regime so that foreign advisers were able to move freely in this part of the country, support the oppositional fighter groups with heavy weapons and train them how to use the sophisticated military equipment.

Bashar Al-Assad, on the other hand, can rely on the excellently trained and best-equipped Republican Guards and the 4th Armored Division – elite troops who are almost entirely Alawites. The Syrian air force and in particular the air defense force are equipped with the latest Russian military technology. A recent analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came to the conclusion that the Syrian air defense is five times more sophisticated than [former Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi’s. [10]

A military offensive by foreign troops to oust Bashar al-Assad would be an extremely risky and expensive operation. In addition, there is no chance that Russia and China will accept a UN resolution for a military intervention in Syria. Under these circumstances, the US, France and the UK have so far only resorted to training opposition fighters on Turkish territory close to the northwestern border of Syria and to supplying them with communication means and other non-lethal equipment. At the same time, Iran is using civilian aircraft to fly military personnel and large quantities of weapons across Iraqi airspace to help Syria crush the uprising, according to a Western intelligence report seen by Reuters. The Iraqi government, however, denies that such flights are taking place.

LS:We know that forces of al-Qaeda are fighting on Syrian soil. Ed Husain, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote about this:

By and large, Free Syrian Army (FSA) battalions are tired, divided, chaotic, and ineffective. Feeling abandoned by the West, rebel forces are increasingly demoralized … Al-Qaeda fighters, however, may help improve morale. The influx of jihadis brings discipline, religious fervor, battle experience from Iraq, funding from Sunni sympathizers in the Gulf, and most importantly, deadly results. In short, the FSA needs al-Qaeda now. [11]

That’s quite a statement after more than 10 years of the so called “War on Terror”, isn’t it?

GM: Indeed! There are many similar reports – among others from the Eastern Euphrates valley near the Iraqi border – where opposition fighters had for several months tried in vain to take over garrisons from the Syrian army. At last, they asked an al-Qaeda group for support. As a result of their attacks the army withdrew from this base within a few days.

The al-Qaeda fighters and jihadis are not only from Arab countries, especially from Iraq, Libya, the Arabian Peninsula, but also from Pakistan and include even radical Islamists from European countries. Their number is rapidly growing. This is the major reason why the US government has been so reluctant to supply the opposition fighters with surface-to-air missiles, which might end up in the hands of al-Qaeda or Hezbollah. It has only recently been reported that the Free Syrian Army acquired 14 Stinger missiles. So far, however, it has not been confirmed that these weapons were used to attack Syrian fighter planes and helicopter gunships [12].

LS: What kind of importance has it that al-Qaeda is a Sunni terrorist organization?

GM: About 70% of the Syrian population are Sunnis. Many of them regard the ruling Alawites not as real Muslims. The same applies to al-Qaeda, which demands that all Muslims should unite in order to eradicate the Alawite “infidels”. However, this does not mean that al-Qaeda and other foreign jihadis are supported by all Syrian Sunnis. Quite the contrary. The vast majority is rejecting both the extremist views and the intervention of radical foreign Islamists.

LS: It is said that Syria’s ruler, Bashar al-Assad, could use chemical weapons. What is your view on that?

GM: The regime has assured that it will never use chemical or biological weapons. This statement can be regarded as reliable because the use of weapons of mass destruction or even the movement of such weapons would mean “crossing the red line”, as President Obama threatened. A massive military intervention against the Syrian government would be the consequence [13]

However, there are detailed reports that NATO powers in coordination with Saudi Arabia are preparing a fake attack with chemical weapons in southern Syria for which the Assad regime will be blamed in order to justify a massive international invasion. [14]

LS: Do we observe in the Syrian conflict certain developments like under a microscope: the US can no longer afford financially some certain types of adventures and has reached the limits of its influence, while the Russians and the Chinese don’t want to be told what to do in the Middle East?

GM: The financial aspect is very important from the perspective of the US government, but there is also President Obama’s promise “to bring our boys back home”. A new American involvement in another war is extremely unpopular, especially during the present presidential election campaign. Concerning Russia and China, they have important geostrategic interests in Syria. There is no compelling reason why they should give up this comfortable and influential position.

LS: With regard to the external influences, it was written recently that European and Arab states pay high government officials, if they turn away from Assad. [15] Your thoughts on this?

GM: This applies not only to leading representatives of the Syrian regime, but especially to members of the Syrian army. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have publicly announced that they will spend at least US$300 million to pay the salaries of the oppositional fighters and also financial incentives to motivate soldiers from all ranks to defect from the military forces and to join the oppositional troops. Under these circumstances, it is really astounding that only so few officers, generals and leading members of the regime have defected until now. This underlines how stable the power of the government, the military and the security services still is.

LS: How would a European attitude look like be considered worthy of support?

GM: Let me start by explaining why the present European attitude is not worthy of support. The leading governments of the EU have discarded a political solution of the Syrian conflict and opted instead for the – at least indirect – support for a military ousting of the Assad regime. They are co-operating in particular with the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and which consists mainly of Syrians who have lived for a long time in Western countries, especially in the US. These people want to rule post-Assad Syria, but they are by no means accepted by the majority of the population living in Syria.

In Berlin, for example, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik) in cooperation with the US Institute of Peace arranged the facilities for members of the Syrian opposition and international experts to meet in order to plan for “The Day After”. [16] The result is an agenda to create a new political system in Syria according to Western democratic standards and values after the fall of the present regime.

This plan was designed without any knowledge about the future distribution of power among the various forces that might be involved in the toppling of the government, and with only a little participation of the numerous oppositional groups inside Syria. It is not surprising that such a plan was rejected by members of the inner Syrian opposition as an “academic exercise” with no relevance at a time when the outcome of the Syrian crisis is still completely open. The same applies to various government-sponsored committees planning the Syrian future in Paris, Rome, Istanbul and Cairo.

The frequent demands that the extremely heterogeneous opposition should unite have turned out to be futile. This applies also to the latest attempt of the French President Francois Hollande, who also offered to recognize a new Syrian government-in-exile. The proposal was immediately rejected by the US government as untimely due to the lack of unity among the opposition groups.

Much more relevant for the present development of the crisis is the proposal to establish a safe haven for Syrian refugees. This was first demanded by the Turkish government and was recently supported by the French president. At present, more than 80,000 Syrians have arrived in refugee camps in Turkey; 100,000 have been declared by the Erdogan government as the maximum number of refugees to be accepted on Turkish territory. Additional refugees have to be accommodated in a safe buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. The same has been proposed along the Jordanian border.

At first sight such a demand might appear to be rather harmless and unproblematic, involving only a limited military intervention. However, the establishment of a safe buffer zone in Syria can only be achieved by a full-scale war of NATO and allied troops from Arab countries against the strong Syrian armed forces. To protect the refugees in the safe haven, a no-fly zone has to be established, which can only be controlled after NATO has gained air superiority over the total Syrian territory.

This would involve the destruction of the Syrian air force with about 400 fighter planes and the huge arsenal of highly sophisticated anti-air craft missiles. The size, expenditure and duration of such an intervention would be tremendous as the MIT analysis showed. [10].

One has also to keep in mind that in legal terms such an attack could be carried out under the rather controversial international norm of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). But its application has to be approved by a resolution of the UN Security Council, where a veto from Russia and China can be taken for granted.

Coming back to the question about the position which should be supported: the most sensible position and the only one that would allow a peaceful solution is still the [Kofi] Annan plan [proposed by the former United Nations secretary general] involving not only the opposition and their supporters, but also the governments in Damascus and Teheran in the negotiation about the future development of Syria. However, there is no chance that this proposal will be accepted by the opposition in exile and its supporters in the US, the Arab League, Turkey and the EU.

LS: What do you think about the helping hand that the Bundesnachrichtendienst [BND – Germany’s foreign intelligence agency] is giving to the rebels?

GM: The German newspaper Bild had revealed that members of the BND stationed on ships near the Syrian and Lebanese coast and at the NATO base near Adana collect intelligence on the movement of Syrian government troops and share this information with the forces of the Free Syrian Army. [17] The same applies to agents of the British intelligence service based in Cyprus and also to the activities of US intelligence agents and spy satellites.

more …

The Destruction of Syria

By Patrick Seale | September 2012|
Once one of the most solid states in the Middle East and a key pivot of the regional power structure, Syria is now facing wholesale destruction. The consequences of the unfolding drama are likely to be disastrous for Syria’s territorial integrity, for the well-being of its population, for regional peace, and for the interests of external powers deeply involved in the crisis.

The most immediate danger is that the fighting in Syria, together with the current severe pressure being put on Syria’s Iranian ally, will provide the spark for a wider conflagration from which no one will be immune.

How did it come to this? Every actor in the crisis bears a share of responsibility. Syria is the victim of the fears and appetites of its enemies, but also of its own leaders’ mistakes.

With hindsight, it can be seen that President Bashar al-Assad missed the chance to reform the tight security state he inherited in 2000 from his father. Instead of recognizing—and urgently addressing—the thirst for political freedoms, personal dignity and economic opportunity which were the message of the “Damascus Spring” of his first year in power, he screwed the lid down ever more tightly.

Suffocating controls over every aspect of Syrian society were reinforced, and made harder to bear by the blatant corruption and privileges of the few and the hardships suffered by the many. Physical repression became routine. Instead of cleaning up his security apparatus, curbing police brutality and improving prison conditions, he allowed them to remain as gruesome and deplorable as ever.

Above all, over the past decade Bashar al-Assad and his close advisers failed to grasp the revolutionary potential of two key developments—Syria’s population explosion and the long-term drought which the country suffered from 2006 to 2010, the worst in several hundred years. The first produced an army of semi-educated young people unable to find jobs; the second resulted in the forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of farmers from their parched fields to slums around the major cities. Herders in the northeast lost 85 percent of their livestock. It is estimated that by 2011, some two to three million Syrians had been driven into extreme poverty. No doubt climate change was responsible, but government neglect and incompetence contributed to the disaster.

These two factors—youth unemployment and rural disaffection—were the prime motors of the uprising which spread like wildfire, once it was triggered by a brutal incident at Dar’a in March 2011. The foot soldiers of the uprising are unemployed urban youth and impoverished peasants.

Could the regime have done something about it? Yes, it could. As early as 2006-7, it could have alerted the world to the situation, devoted all available resources to urgent job creation, launched a massive relief program for its stricken population and mobilized its citizens for these tasks. No doubt major international aid agencies and rich Gulf countries would have helped had the plans been in place.

Instead, the regime’s gaze was distracted by external threats: by the Lebanese crisis of 2005 following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri; by Israel’s bid to destroy Hezbollah by its invasion of Lebanon in 2006; by its attack on Syria’s nuclear facility in 2007; and by its bid to destroy Hamas in its murderous assault on Gaza in 2008-9.

From the start of Bashar al-Assad’s presidency, Syria has faced relentless efforts by Israel and its complicit American ally to bring down the so-called “resistance axis” of Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah, which dared challenge the regional dominance of Israel and the United States.

Syria had a narrow escape in 2003-4. Led by the Pentagon’s Paul Wolfowitz, the pro-Israeli neocons embedded in President George W. Bush’s administration were determined to reshape the region in Israel’s and America’s interest. Their first target was Saddam Hussain’s Iraq, seen as a potential threat to Israel. Had the United States been successful in Iraq, Syria would have been next. Neither Iraq nor the United States has yet recovered from the catastrophic Iraqi war, of which Wolfowitz was the chief “architect.”

Syria and its Iranian ally are once again under imminent threat. The United States and Israel make no secret of their goal to bring down both the Damascus and Tehran regimes. No doubt some Israeli strategists believe that it would be greatly to their country’s advantage if Syria were dismembered and permanently weakened by the creation of a small Alawi state around the port city of Latakia in the northwest, in much the same way as Iraq was dismembered and permanently weakened by the creation of the Kurdish Regional Government in the north of the country, with its capital at Irbil. It is not easy to be the neighbor of an expansionist and aggressive Jewish state, which believes that its security is best assured, not by making peace with its neighbors, but by subverting, destabilizing and destroying them with the aid of American power.

The United States and Israel are not Syria’s only enemies. The Syrian Muslim Brothers have been dreaming of revenge ever since their attempt 30 years ago to topple Syria’s secular Ba’athist regime by a campaign of terror was crushed by Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s president at the time. Today, the Muslim Brothers are repeating the mistake they made then by resorting to terror with the aid of foreign Salafists, including some al-Qaeda fighters flowing into Syria from Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and other countries further afield. The liberal members of the Syrian opposition in exile, including several worthy academics and veteran opponents, are providing political cover for these more violent elements.

Some Arab Gulf States persist in viewing the region through a sectarian prism. They are worried by Iran’s alleged hegemonic ambitions. They are unhappy that Iraq—once a Sunni power able to hold Iran in check—is now under Shi’i leadership. Talk of an emerging “Shi’i Crescent” appears to threaten Sunni dominance. For these reasons they are funding and arming the Syrian rebels in the hope that bringing down the Syrian regime will sever Iran’s ties with the Arab world. But this policy will simply prolong Syria’s agony, claim the lives of some of its finest men and cause massive material damage.

America, the dominant external power, has made many grievous policy blunders. Over the past several decades it failed to persuade its stubborn Israeli ally to make peace with the Palestinians, leading to peace with the whole Arab world. It embarked on catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It failed to reach a “grand bargain” with Iran which would have dispelled the specter of war in the Gulf and stabilized the volatile region. And it is now quarrelling with Moscow and reviving the Cold War by sabotaging Kofi Annan’s peace plan for Syria.

There can be no military solution to the Syrian crisis. The only way out of the current nightmare is a cease-fire imposed on both sides, followed by a negotiation and the formation of a national government to oversee a transition. Only thus can Syria avoid wholesale destruction, which could take a generation or two to repair.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press). Copyright © 2012 Patrick Seale. Distributed by Agence Global.

The Syrian Spillover.

Is anyone prepared for the unintended consequences of the war for Syria? |

The Syrian civil war has gone from bad to worse, with casualties mounting and horrors multiplying. Civil wars like Syria’s are obviously tragedies for the countries they consume, but they can also be catastrophes for their neighbors. Long-lasting and bloody civil wars often overflow their borders, spreading war and misery.

In 2006, as Iraq spiraled downward into the depths of intercommunal carnage, we conducted a study of spillover from recent civil wars in the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere in order to identify patterns in how conflicts spread across borders. Since then, Iraq itself, along with Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen, have furnished additional examples of how dangerous spillover can be. For instance, weapons from Libya have empowered fighters in Mali who have seized large swathes of that country, while al Qaeda-linked terrorists exploiting the chaos in Yemen launched nearly successful terrorist attacks on the United States.

Spillover is once again in the news as the conflict in Syria evinces the same dangerous patterns. Thousands of refugees are streaming across the border into Turkey as Ankara looks warily at Kurdish groups using Northern Syria for safe haven. Growing refugee communities are causing strain in Jordan and Lebanon. Meanwhile, the capture of 48 Iranians, who may be paramilitary specialists, could pull Tehran further into the conflict. Israel eyes developments in Syria warily, remembering repeated wars and concern over the country’s massive chemical weapons arsenal. For the United States, these developments are particularly important because spillover from the civil war could threaten America’s vital interests far more than a war contained within Syria’s borders.

Of course, much will depend on how exactly this spillover plays out — and certainly no one yet knows what will happen in the wildly unpredictable war for control of Syria. But if past informs present, the intensity of the war effect typically correlates strongly to the intensity of the spillover, often with devastating consequences. At their worst, civil wars in one country can cause civil wars in neighboring states or can metastasize into regional war. And it’s the severity of the spillover that should dictate the appropriate response.

There are five archetypal patterns of spillover from civil wars.

Refugees: Spillover often starts with refugees. Whenever there is conflict, civilians flee to safety. The sad truth about civil wars is that often civilians are targets: Without clear front lines and when “enemy combatants” can be any young male who can pick up a gun, the danger is clear. So the goal of the warring armies is often to kill as many of the other side’s civilians as possible or at least drive them from their homes. To avoid the rapine and economic devastation that accompany these kinds of conflicts, whole communities often flee to a foreign country or become displaced within their borders, as more than a million Syrians have.

In addition to their own misery, refugees can create serious — even devastating — problems for the nations hosting them. The plight of Palestinian refugees and their impact on Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria since 1948 is a case in point, contributing to instability in their host countries, international terrorism, and wars between Israel and its neighbors.

Beyond this, refugees can often become carriers of conflict. Angry and demoralized refugee populations represent ideal recruitment pools for the warring armies; the Taliban have drawn from angry young Afghan refugees raised in Pakistan, offering them a chance for vengeance and power. Indeed, refugee camps frequently become bases to rest, plan, and stage combat operations back into the country from which the refugees fled. For instance, the camps set up in the Democratic Republic of Congo after Rwanda’s genocide quickly became a base of operations for fleeing Hutu rebels to regroup.

Terrorism: Many civil wars have become breeding grounds for particularly noxious terrorist groups, while others have created hospitable sanctuaries for existing groups to train, recruit, and mount operations — at times against foes entirely unconnected to the war itself. The Palestine Liberation Organization, Hezbollah, the Tamil Tigers, and al Qaeda, to name only a few, all trace their origins to intercommunal wars.

Today, after years of punishing U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, al Qaeda’a core is weak, but its offshoots remain strong in countries wracked by internal conflict such as Yemen and Somalia. The most recent flare-up is in Mali, where fighters fleeing Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya fled with arms looted from his arsenals, and have seized parts of Mali, in some areas even imposing a draconian form of Islamic law. While there had been intermittent rebellions in Northern Mali for years, the civil war in Libya vastly increased the capability of the rebels and created a worse terrorism problem for the region, andpotentially for the world.

These terrorist groups rarely remain confined by the country’s borders. Some will nest among refugee populations, launching attacks back into the country in civil war, and inviting attack against the refugee populations hosting them. In other cases, terrorists may decide that neighboring regimes or a segment of a neighboring society are aiding their adversaries and attack them to try to scare them into stopping their assistance.

Terrorists often start by flowing toward civil wars, but later begin flowing away from them. Jihadists first went to Afghanistan to fight in that civil war in the 1980s but by the 1990s began using it as a base to launch attacks against other countries — including, of course, the United States on 9/11.

Secessionism: As the Balkan countries demonstrated in the 1990s, seemingly triumphant secessionist bids can set off a domino effect. Slovenia’s declaration of independence inspired Croatia, which prompted Bosnia to do the same, which encouraged Macedonia, and then Kosovo. Strife and conflict followed all of these declarations.

Sometimes it is the desire of one subgroup within a state to break away that triggers the civil war in the first place. In other cases, different groups vie for control of the state, but as the fighting drags on, one or more groups may decide that their only recourse is to secede. At times, a minority comfortable under the old regime may fear discrimination from a new government. The South Ossetians, for example, accepted Russian rule but rebelled when Georgia broke off from the Soviet Union, as they feared they would face discrimination in the new Georgian state. After Russia helped South Ossetia defeat the Georgian forces that tried to re-conquer the area in 1991-1992, the next domino fell when ethnic Abkhaz also rebelled and created their own independent area in 1991-1992. The frozen conflict that resulted from this civil war finally burst into an international shooting war between Georgia and Russia in August 2008.

Radicalization: One of the most ineffable but also one of the most potent manifestations of spillover is the tendency for a civil war in one country to galvanize and radicalize neighboring populations. They regularly radicalize neighboring populations when a group in a neighboring state identifies with a related group caught up in the civil war across the border. These tribal, ethnic, and sectarian feelings always predate the conflict, but the outbreak of war among the same groups just across the border makes them tangible and immediate — giving them a reason to hate neighbors and resent their own government.

They may demand that their government or community leaders act to support one side or another. Alternatively, they may agitate for harsh actions in their own countries against groups they see as sympathizing with the enemy side over the border. Thus, the Iraqi civil war of 2005-2007 galvanized Sunnis in Egypt, Jordan, the Maghreb, and the Persian Gulf states both to demand that their own governments do more to support the Iraqi Sunni groups and (at least in the Gulf) to demand harsher treatment of their own Shiite populations.

At its most dangerous, this aspect of spillover can contribute to civil wars next door. The Lebanese civil war that began in 1975 prompted the Syrian Sunnis to launch their own civil war against Bashar al-Assad’s father in 1976, a conflict that only ended with the horrific massacre of 20,000-40,000 people at Hama in 1982.

Intervention: But perhaps the most dangerous form of spillover is when neighboring states intervene in a civil war, transforming a local conflict into a regional one. Perversely, the goal is often to diminish the risks of spillover such as terrorism and radicalization. But it can take many forms: intervening in a limited fashion either to shut down the civil war, to help one side win, or just to eliminate the source of the spillover. Occasionally, a neighboring state will see a civil war as an opportunity to grab some long coveted resource or territory.

Typically, even limited intervention by a regional power only makes the problem worse. Countries get tied to “clients” within the civil war and end up doubling down on their support for them. They assume that “just a little more” will turn the tide in their favor. Worse still, they can see neighborhood rivals intervening in the civil war and feel compelled to do the same to prevent their enemy from making gains. So when Rwanda and Uganda intervened in Congo in the mid-1990s to drive the genocidaires out of the refugee camps and topple the hostile regime in Kinshasa that supported them, so too did Angola, which sought to block them. As the conflict wore on, several powers tried to carve out buffer zones where their preferred proxies would rule — and where they could grab some of Congo’s abundant natural resources. Seven of Congo’s neighbors ended up intervening, turning the Congolese civil war into what became known as “Africa’s World War.”

At its worst, this pattern can produce direct conflict between the intervening states over the carcass of the country in civil war. Syria first intervened in Lebanon in 1975 to end the radicalization of its own Sunni population. But the Syrians soon found that diplomacy, covert action, and support to various proxy groups were inadequate and reluctantly launched a full-scale invasion the following year. For its part, Israel suffered from terrorism emanating from the Lebanese civil war and covertly supported its own proxies, launched targeted counterterrorism operations, and even limited military incursions, before deciding in 1982 to invade to try to impose a single (friendly) government in Beirut. The result was a conventional war between Israel and Syria fought in Lebanon. But even winning did little for Israel. Thirty years later — 18 in painful occupation of southern Lebanon — Israel still faces a terrorism problem from Lebanon, and the Jewish state’s nemesis, Hezbollah, born of the Israeli invasion, dominates Lebanese politics.

Bad Signs in Syria

Our 2006 study also examined the factors that lead to the worst forms of spillover. They include ethnic, religious, and other “identity” groups that are in both the country caught in civil war and its neighbors; neighboring states that share the same ethno-religious divides being fought over by the country in civil war; fragile regimes in the neighboring states; porous borders; and a history of violence between the neighbors.

Unfortunately, Syria and its neighbors exhibit precisely these traits, explaining why we are already seeing the typical patterns of spillover from the Syrian civil war, and why spillover from the conflict could get much worse.

The Syrian conflict has produced more than 120,000 officially registered refugees, but the real figure is closer to 300,000. Turkey has 43,000 registered refugees from Syria and probably more than 25,000 that have not registered. The Turks believe that the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a separatist Kurdish terrorist group, is using this population to infiltrate Turkey to launch a new violent bid for independence. Ankara is convinced that PKK fighters allied with the Alawite regime have taken control of parts of Syria, particularly in ethnically Kurdish areas of the country. In response, Turkey is aggressively enforcing the sanctity of its border even as it assists Syrian refugees who are taking the fight back home. Public opinion in Turkey is strongly anti-Assad, and popular frustration grows as Ankara seems unable to stem the violence.

Iraq is already struggling to avoid sliding back into its own civil war. It doesn’t need any pushing from Syria, but that is just what it is getting. Iraqi Sunnis identify wholeheartedly with their Syrian brethren whom they see as fighting against a Shiite-dominated government backed by Iran — which they see as an exact parallel with their own circumstances. External support to the Syrian opposition from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Sunni Arab governments is reportedly flowing through the Sunni tribes of Western Iraq, many of which span the Syrian border. This support appears to be an important cause of the resurgence of al Qaeda in Iraq and the worsening sectarian violence there. The Iraqi regime (rightly) claims that it is fighting the same terrorists that the Alawite Syrian regime is struggling with on the other side of the border. As the Alawites are a splinter of Shiism, the growing cooperation between Damascus and Shiite-dominated Baghdad is feeding Sunni fears of a grand Shiite alliance led by Iran. All of this conjures a self-fulfilling prophecy about sectarian war.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurds are now contemplating a bid for independence in a way that they haven’t for many years. Key Kurdish leaders, including Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani, have concluded that they cannot work with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — whom they routinely brand as a “Shiite Saddam.” And they increasingly believe that Turkey might eventually be persuaded to support such a bid. This makes whatever happens with Syria’s Kurds of particular importance. Indeed, Barzani and the Turks are wrestling against the PKK and the Syrian regime for the loyalty of Syria’s Kurds, who might well attempt to declare independence, putting pressure on Iraq’s Kurds to do the same.

Lebanon may be suffering the worst so far. It is inundated with Syrian refugees — 30,000 have registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but the latest spike in violence probably added at least another 10,000 — a number the tiny country simply cannot handle. The Syrian conflict is tearing at the seams of Lebanon’s already fragmented politics. Its Sunnis champion the Syrian opposition while Shiite Hezbollah backs the Syrian regime, provoking gunfights in the streets of Beirut and Tripoli. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is reportedly funneling arms to the Syrian opposition through Sunni groups in Lebanon and opposition groups are building bases in Lebanon, triggering reprisal attacks by Syrian regime forces and their Hezbollah allies.

So far, Jordan has escaped relatively unscathed, but that may not last. Amman already faces huge challenges from its Palestinian and Iraqi refugee populations, and now refugees from Syria have begun to flow in (almost 40,000 officially at last count, but other sources put the number closer to 140,000). Syrian army and Jordanian border patrol forces have clashed as the Jordanians have tried to help Syrian refugees. Moreover, many Jordanians, including not only those of Palestinian descent but also the monarchy’s more traditional supporters, have lost patience with King Abdullah II’s endless unfulfilled promises of reform triggering rioting and terrorism there unrelated to Syria’s troubles. More refugees, terrorism, and a further radicalized population could be more than the Hashemite Kingdom can take.

Remarkably, Israel has gotten off scot-free, so far. While we can all hope that will last, it would be foolish to insist blindly that it will.

The longer the civil war in Syria lasts, the more likely it is that the spillover will get worse. And it’s possible this war could drag on for months, even years. The United States and other powerful countries have shown no inclination to intervene to snuff out the conflict. Within Syria, both the regime and the opposition have shown themselves too powerful to be defeated but too weak to triumph. The war has also left the country awash in arms, so any new government will face a daunting task unifying and rebuilding the country. Most ominously, the opposition is badly divided, so victory against Assad might simply mean a shift to new rounds of combat among the various opposition groups, just as Afghanistan’s mujahideen fell to slaughtering one another even before they finished off the Soviet-backed regime there in 1992.

In the best case, the current problems will deepen but not explode. Refugee flows will increase and impose an ever greater burden on their host countries, but the stress won’t cause any to collapse. Terrorism will continue and more innocent people will die, but it won’t tear apart any of the neighboring states. And, from the narrow perspective of U.S. interests, the violence would remain focused within Syria rather than becoming regional, let alone global. Various groups — starting with the Iraqi Kurds — will continue to flirt with secession and other tensions will simmer, but none of these factors will boil over. The neighbors will provide some forms of support to various groups within Syria without crossing any Rubicons. Overall, the Middle East will get worse but won’t immolate.

This best case is not very good, and unfortunately it’s also not the most likely. Worse scenarios seem more plausible. The fragility of Lebanon and Iraq in particular leaves them vulnerable to new civil wars of their own. It might be hard, but it is not impossible to envision a regional war growing from the Syrian morass. Turkey seems like the primary candidate to up its involvement in Syria. Fears that Kurdish secessionism may spread, mounting criticism that the regime is ignoring atrocities next door, or a risky belief that Ankara could tip the balance in favor of one faction over another might eventually lead the Turks to intervene militarily — grudgingly and in a limited fashion at first, of course. If the plight of the Assad regime worsens, and if the Turks are heavily engaged, Iran might press Baghdad to increase its direct support of the Alawites and step up its own aid. Baghdad will be reluctant, but it might feel more inclined to do so if the Turks continue to support the Iraqi Kurds in their fight with the central government and if worsening internal divisions in Iraq — doubtless exacerbated by spillover from Syria — leave the Maliki government even more dependent on Iranian support.

An embattled Alawite regime — especially one facing ever greater Turkish intervention — might opt to employ its chemical warfare arsenal or, alternatively, amp up terrorist attacks on Israel to try to turn its civil war into an Arab-Israeli conflict, a development that could turn public and regional opinion in favor of the regime and discredit Assad’s opponents. Under those circumstances, Israel might mount limited military operations into Syria to take out its chemical weapons caches or terrorist bases, which no doubt would have repercussions among Syria’s neighbors and Arab states in general.

So far, the humanitarian nightmares of Syria have evinced little more than pity from the American people and only modest aid from their government. After a decade-plus of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is justifiably deep ambivalence about new military commitments in the Middle East. Stories of the humanitarian nightmares of Syria have evinced little more than pity from the American people. This creates a dilemma for the Obama administration and concerned Americans as they watch Syria burn: They have no interest in getting involved, but standing idly by is risky. If spillover from Syria worsens, squaring this circle could prove a major challenge.

At the very least, Washington should place a premium on keeping the Syrian civil war from dragging on indefinitely. Stepping up our efforts to arm, train, and unify the Syrian opposition factions that matter most — those fighting the regime within Syria rather than those squabbling outside it — would be a good place to start. Progress is likely to be limited, but Washington carries a bigger stick than the regional allies already backing Assad’s opponents and U.S. leadership can help prevent them from working at cross purposes. Supporting the efforts of our regional allies to feed, shelter, and police their refugee communities would be another option. Some neighbors could also use help dealing with their own political and economic problems, which could help them better weather the spillover from Syria. And some medicine might be needed along with the sugar: Pressing our regional friends to begin overdue reforms will help mitigate the discrimination and misery among their own populations that can act as kindling when sparks from Syria come flying their way.

The Syrian civil war is undoubtedly a tragedy for the people of that country. The longer it burns, though, the more likely it will ignite something much worse. However difficult it is to end the fighting today, it will be even harder as the violence snowballs and spillover grows. Less can be more when it is soon.

Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack are, respectively, the director of research and a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Daniel Byman is also a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. They are the co-authors of the 2007 study Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War.

Which country will be next?

Sunday, July 22 2012 –

Conflicting reports from and about Syria indicate that perhaps the Syria chapter of the so-called Arab Spring – or should I say “the Greater Middle East and North Africa Project”? – is approaching a close as well. Whatever opened in Libya, Egypt or Tunisia with the closure of the “spring” may soon open in Syria as well.

Barack Obama, the American president who has proved to be a “Black Bush,” and may indeed be worse than the original white one, the other day voiced his praise for the Muslim fighters for democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere. His words reminded me, and perhaps many others, of the Rambo series: fighting hand-in-hand with the Muslim Taliban and other Muslim guerillas against the Soviet infidel occupiers in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union is long gone, and Americans are now fighting the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other Muslim guerilla groups in Afghanistan in a war that has begun to turn into a second Vietnam.

Yesterday was the time of the “Green Belt Policy” devised by the great strategist Zbigniev Brzezinski, the aim of which was to shield and contain the advancing communists. Today, many people have fathered a bastard called the Greater Middle East and North Africa Project. It is still ambiguous. Some say its goal is to change the political map and produce a more secure living area for the Jewish state; some claim is it a project to domesticate the rough Muslims into a milder version of Islam, allowing some sort of democratic governance, thanks to a friendly Muslim cleric now living in Pennsylvania. Those goals might be valid, but it is obvious that the real aim of the project is to convert these large regions into an open market and capitalize on their vast natural riches. That’s what must be seen after the mask is removed: the mask that says the aim is to bring democracy to those countries, grieving under dictatorial, oppressive regimes.

Guess who is the co-chair of the project, which has been under implementation for quite a long time through exploitation of governmental woes, poverty, oppression and gross violation of human rights? Turkey, where critics of the Islamist government are either physically imprisoned or imprisoned in their brains, scared to speak or write. Who is financing it? The Saudis and the Qataris. Are they more democratic than, let’s say, Syria?

In some parts of the region, disorganized, unarmed and civilian opposition groups were armed to the teeth and organized as much as possible; “advisors” helped them to develop strategies, and they began “rebelling” against oppressive regimes. In some other parts of the same region, neighbors and regional organizations helped with international approval to silence people demanding rights, at gunpoint or under the turrets of tanks.

The operation is continuing: On a December day in 2010, Mohammed Buazizi converted his body into a torch to herald the “coming of spring.” Tunisia plunged into unprecedented chaos; 23-year-old Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime collapsed within days. Since then, Iraq has become further destabilized, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi has become history, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has been toppled, and now Bashar al-Assad of Syria appears to be on the way out.

Which country will be next? Saudi Arabia? Turkey? Which country, indeed?

President al-Assad accuses Turkey for of helping Syrian “Terrorists”

DAMASCUS- 04/07/2012 President Bashar al-Assad stressed in part 2 of the interview he made with the Cumhurieyt Turkish daily that the Government of Erdogan has gone beyond the fraternal relations with Syria to direct interference and to get involved later in the bloody events through providing logistical support to terrorists.

Following is part 2 of his interview with Turkish daily the Cumhurieyt:
Journalist: Mr. President, Syrian-Turkish relations were excellent in recent years on the political level as well as the personal and family levels between you and Prime Minister Erdogan. Could you please tell us what happened to these relations so that things reached the current situation?

President Assad: First of all, we have to identify who changed. Look at Syria’s relations with other countries and you’ll find that our relations with Iraq, Iran, Jordan and other countries have not changed and remain the same. On the other hand, you can see that Turkey’s relations with most countries of the region, not only with Syria, have changed.

As far as we are concerned, what changed on the Turkish side is that in the first stage of the crisis, Turkey transgressed against the brotherly relations with Syria and started to interfere directly in Syrian affairs, which is absolutely unacceptable for us in Syria. We are an independent country which respects itself and respects its sovereignty. That was in the first stage.

Later on, the Turkish government started to get involved in the bloody events in Syria by providing logistic support to the terrorists who have been killing innocent people. The Turkish government started adopting policies which are dangerous both to the Turkish people and the Syrian people. That is as far as the political aspects of the relations are concerned. I will not talk here about the personal characteristics of this man who, in his statements, has transgressed against the moral and ethical values that should characterize any politician in the world or even any human being.

Journalist: Mr. President, you said that you do not allow any foreign intervention in internal Syrian affairs. But Erdogan, in almost every speech he made, used to say that he told you, asked you, advised you; and that you promised him, or told him that you would do this and that. What did he say to you? And what did you promise him?

President Assad: First, what you are saying about these statements is evidence of what I said: that he was interfering in our internal affairs. Based on the principle that he has nothing to do with internal Syrian affairs, how could I promise him? Isn’t that evidence that he was lying?

He used to ask me and provide advice; and I have my vision of things which I have announced in my speeches. He used to advise concerning reforms; and we announced a package of reforms six days after the beginning of the events in Syria in March 2011. We have implemented everything we promised, even changing the constitution completely. If you ask him now, he might talk about reform. But let me raise the question now: if he were genuine in calling for reform, why didn’t he talk about it years ago, since the beginning of our relations with him in 2004?

Has he suddenly felt love, affection and concern for the Syrian people? Is it logical that he should feel more concerned for the Syrian people than I do?

What would you say about me if I told you that I am more concerned about the Turkish people than you are as a Turkish citizen? You would no doubt say that this is hypocrisy. Let Erdogan concern himself with his internal affairs and not with others’ in order to preserve what remains of the zero-problem policy that can be implemented.

Journalist: If you want to sum up, Mr. President, what did Erdogan want?

President Assad: In brief, he had an agenda wider than the Syrian issue. It concerns his personal position and the position of his team. He wanted the terrorists to have a free hand in Syria, that they shouldn’t be arrested or imprisoned, and that we do not defend ourselves. Then, things will be alright for him.

Journalist: What do you mean by the terrorists? Do you mean the Muslim Brothers?

President Assad: Years before the crisis, Erdogan was always concerned for the Syrian Muslim Brothers. He was concerned about them more than he was concerned about Syrian-Turkish relations. There is no doubt now that they are one of his main concerns in the Syrian events, namely defending and helping them. Of course, we do not allow this, neither for Erdogan’s sake nor for the sake of anyone else in the world.

Journalist: It seems that bridges between you and Erdogan have been destroyed.

President Assad: I think so, because he lost his credibility. Rebuilding these bridges depends on his ability to restore credibility on the Arab arena in general, not only in Syria, because this is not a personal issue. When he has the courage to stop and acknowledge his numerous mistakes at this stage, I don’t think the people of our region, and the Arab and Syrian people in particular, will have a problem in forgiving him. And I believe that the Turkish people will forgive him too.

Journalist: Mr. President, concerning Syrian-Turkish relations, there has been a number of incidents. An aircraft was downed; Prime Minister Erdogan threatened you, deployed forces on the borders and made all the noise you’re aware of. What is, in your opinion, the way out of the Syrian-Turkish crisis?

President Assad: The way out is that the Turkish government corrects the mistakes it made in dealing with the Syrian situation, not manipulating or exploiting any event in order to create big problems, and putting the interests of the Syrian and Turkish people before the narrow personal interests of their officials. So, the way out is there and the process is quite simple and not difficult at all. I am sure that the Turkish people, and the Syrian people, will support this, and at the forefront at these people will be the families of the two Turkish pilots. It is enough for Erdogan to listen to the statement made by the father of one of the pilots to find the way out.

Journalist: You said that Erdogan has changed. Why, in your opinion, has he changed? And what are the things which changed in him?

President Assad: The circumstances have changed, and these circumstances showed Erdogan’s reality. I’ll give you some evidence. For example, we heard a lot of shouting in defense of the Palestinians in 2008 when Israel attacked Gaza. But two and a half years before that, we did not hear that kind of shouting when Israel attacked Lebanon. The resistance was there in both cases, and Israel killed in both cases, and in both countries the number of martyrs was approximately 1500.

Journalist: Why, in your opinion?

President Assad: Because he showed his sectarian mentality. Because the difference between the two cases is only the sectarian aspect. Today, Erdogan is shedding the tears of hypocrites for the Syrian people. Why hasn’t he cried for those killed in some Gulf countries, although they are innocent, peaceful and unarmed? Why isn’t he speaking about democracy in some Gulf countries?

Journalist: Which country?

President Assad: Qatar, for instance. Why didn’t he do anything after the Marmara ship incident except shouting? Why did he challenge Israel, and then suddenly agreed to deploy the missile shield in Turkey? Did he deploy it in order to protect Turkey from the attack of a hostile country?

Did America build these bases in order to protect itself against this region? Which country in the region has the capability to threaten America?

No country. So, the answer is that he deployed it to protect Israel. These circumstances revealed Erdogan’s reality, no more, no less. Erdogan hasn’t changed. What has changed is the way the people of the region look at him. He has failed on the Arab arena. He no longer exists, neither him nor his credibility.

Towards a new Arab cultural revolution

By Alastair Crooke-
Jun 13, 2012 –

The “Awakening” is taking a turn, very different to the excitement and promise with which it was hailed at the outset. Sired from an initial, broad popular impulse, it is becoming increasingly understood, and feared, as a nascent counter-revolutionary “cultural revolution” – a re-culturation of the region in the direction of a prescriptive canon that is emptying out those early high expectations, and which makes a mockery of the West’s continuing characterization of it as somehow a project of reform and democracy.

Instead of yielding hope, its subsequent metamorphosis now gives rise to a mood of uncertainty and desperation – particularly among what are increasingly termed “‘the minorities” – the non-Sunnis, in other words. This chill of apprehension takes its grip from certain Gulf States’ fervor for the restitution of a Sunni

regional primacy – even, perhaps, of hegemony – to be attained through fanning rising Sunni militancy [1] and Salafist acculturation.

At least seven Middle Eastern states are now beset by bitter, and increasingly violent, power struggles; states such as Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen are dismantling. Western states no longer trouble to conceal their aim of regime change in Syria, following Libya and the “non-regime-change” change in Yemen.

The region already exists in a state of low intensity war: Saudi Arabia and Qatar, bolstered by Turkey and the West, seem ready to stop at nothing to violently overthrow a fellow Arab head of state, President Bashar al-Assad – and to do whatever they can to hurt Iran.

Iranians increasingly interpret Saudi Arabia’s mood as a hungering for war; and Gulf statements do often have that edge of hysteria and aggression: a recent editorial in the Saudi-owned al-Hayat stated: “The climate in the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] indicates that matters are heading towards a GCC-Iranian-Russian confrontation on Syrian soil, similar to what took place in Afghanistan during the Cold War. To be sure, the decision has been taken to overthrow the Syrian regime, seeing as it is vital to the regional influence and hegemony of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” [2]

What genuine popular impulse there was at the outset of the “Awakening” has now been subsumed and absorbed into three major political projects associated with this push to reassert primacy: a Muslim Brotherhood project, a Saudi-Qatari-Salafist project, and a militant Salafist project. No one really knows the nature of the Brotherhood project, whether it is that of a sect, or if it is truly mainstream [3]; and this opacity is giving rise to real fears.

At times, the Brotherhood presents a pragmatic, even an uncomfortably accomodationist, face to the world, but other voices from the movement, more discretely evoke the air of something akin to the rhetoric of literal, intolerant and hegemonic Salafism. What is clear however is that the Brotherhood tone everywhere is increasingly one of militant sectarian grievance. And the shrill of this is heard plainly from Syria.

The joint Saudi-Salafist project was conceived as a direct counter to the Brotherhood project: the Saudi aim in liberally funding and supporting Saudi-orientated Salafists throughout the region has been precisely to contain and counter the influence of the Brotherhood [4] (eg in Egypt) and to undermine this strand of reformist Islamism, which is seen to constitute an existential threat to Gulf state autocracy: a reformism that precisely threatens the authority of those absolute monarchs.

Qatar pursues a somewhat different line to Saudi Arabia. Whilst it too is firing-up, arming and funding militant Sunni movements [5], it is not so much attempting to contain and circumscribe the Brotherhood, Saudi-style, but rather to co-opt it with money; and to align it into the Saudi-Qatari aspiration for a Sunni power block that can contain Iran.

Plainly the Brotherhood needs Gulf funding to pursue its aim of acquiring the prime seat at the region’s table of power; and therefore the more explicitly sectarian, aggrieved discourse from the Brotherhood perhaps is a case of “he who pays the piper” … Qatar and Saudi Arabia are both Wahhabi Salafist states.

The third “project”, also highly funded and armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar – uncompromising Sunni radicalism – forms the vanguard of this new “Cultural Revolution”: It aims however not to contain, but simply to displace traditional Sunnism with the culture of Salafism. Unlike the Brotherhood, this element, whose influence is growing exponentially – thanks to a flood of Gulf dollars – has no political ambitions within the nation-state, per se.

It abhors conventional politics, but it is nonetheless radically political: Its aim, no less, is to displace traditional Sunnism, with the narrow, black and white, right and wrong, certitude embedded in Wahhabi Salafism – including its particular emphasis on fealty to established authority and Sharia. More radical elements go further, and envision a subsequent stage of seizing and holding of territory for the establishment of true Islamic Emirates [6] and ultimately a Kalifa.

A huge cultural and political shift is underway: the “Salafisation” of traditional Sunni Islam: the sheering-away of traditional Islam from heterogeneity, and its old established co-habitation with other sects and ethnicities. It is a narrowing-down, an introversion into a more rigid clutching to the certainties of right and wrong, and to the imposition of these “truths” on society: it is no coincidence that those movements which do seek political office, at this time, are demanding the culture and education portfolios, rather than those of justice or security. [7]

These Gulf States’ motives are plain: Qatari and Saudi dollars, coupled with the Saudi claim to be the legitimate successors to the Quraiysh (the Prophet’s tribe), is intended to steer the Sunni “stirrings” in such a way that the absolute monarchies of the Gulf acquire their “re-legitimisation”‘ and can reassert a leadership through the spread of Salafist culture – with its obeisance towards established authority: specifically the Saudi king.

Historically some of the radical Sunni recipients of Saudi financial largesse however have also proved to be some of the most violent, literalist, intolerant and dangerous groups – both to other Muslims, as well as to all those who do not hold to their particular ‘truth’. The last such substantive firing-up of such auxiliaries occurred at the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan – the consequences of which are still with us decades later today.

But all these projects, whilst they may overlap in some parts, are in a fundamental way, competitors with each other. And they are all essentially “power” projects – projects intended to take power. Ultimately they will clash: Sunni on Sunni. This has already begun in the Levant – violently.

Continued 1 2

Fears of extremism taking hold in Syria as violence continues

By , Published: April 22-

BEIRUT — As Syria’s revolution drags into its second year amid few signs that a U.N.-mandated cease-fire plan will end the violence, evidence is mounting that Islamist extremists are seeking to commandeer what began as a non-ideological uprising aimed at securing greater political freedom.

Activists and rebel soldiers based inside Syria say a small but growing number of Islamist radicals affiliated with global jihadi movements have been arriving in opposition strongholds in recent weeks and attempting to rally support among disaffected residents.

Western diplomats say they have tracked a steady trickle of jihadists flowing into Syria from Iraq, and Jordan’s government last week detained at least four alleged Jordanian militants accused of trying to sneak into Syria to join the revolutionaries.

A previously unknown group calling itself the al-Nusra Front has asserted responsibility for bombings in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo using language and imagery reminiscent of the statements and videos put out by al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations in Iraq, although no evidence of the group’s existence has surfaced other than the videos and statements it has posted on the Internet.

Syrian activists and Western officials say the militants appear to be making little headway in recruiting supporters within the ranks of the still largely secular protest movement, whose unifying goal is the ouster of the regime led by President Bashar al-Assad.

But if the United Nations’ peace plan fails to end the government’s bloody crackdown and promises of Western and Arab help for the rebel Free Syrian Army do not materialize, activists and analysts say, there is a real risk that frustrated members of the opposition will be driven toward extremism, adding a dangerous dimension to a revolt that is threatening to destabilize a wide arc of territory across the Middle East.

“The world doing nothing opens the door for jihadis,” said Lt. Abdullah al-Awdi, a Free Syrian Army commander who defected from the regular army in the summer and was interviewed during a visit he made to Turkey. He says that he has rebuffed several offers of help from militant groups in the form of arms and money and that he fears the extremists’ influence will grow.

“This is not a reason for the international community to be silent about Syria. It should be a reason for them to do something,” Awdi said.

Flow of jihadis reported

U.S. officials and Western diplomats in the region, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, say they have seen several indications that al-Qaeda-like groups are trying to inject themselves into the Syrian revolution, although they stress that the Islamist radicals’ impact has been limited. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called on “mujaheddin” to head to Syria in support of the rebels earlier this year, and Western diplomats are convinced that operatives affiliated with al-Qaeda carried out a string of bombings in Damascus and Aleppo between December and March.

The diplomats say dozens of jihadis have been detected crossing the border from Iraq into Syria, some of them Syrians who had previously volunteered to fight in Iraq and others Iraqi. There may also be other foreign nationals among them, reversing the journey they took into Iraq years ago when jihadis flowed across the border to fight the now-departed Americans.

The Syrian government facilitated the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq for many years, and there are widespread suspicions that it may be covertly reactivating some of those networks to discredit the revolutionaries, deter international support for the opposition and create conditions under which the harsh crackdown by authorities will appear justified.

The regime portrayed the uprising as the work of radical Islamists in its earliest days, and the reports that extremists are surfacing in Syria only play into the official narrative, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

“This drip, drip, drip of extremists across the border . . . there are signs the regime is aiding and abetting it,” Shaikh said. “And it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

It is also plausible that these groups, adherents of a radicalized form of Sunni Islam, have turned against their former benefactors and are making their way back to Syria motivated by religious and sectarian zeal. Although many Syrian opposition activists insist that their revolution is not sectarian, a majority of Syrians are Sunnis, while Assad, along with most leading figures in the regime and in the security forces, belongs to the Shiite-affiliated Alawite minority, lending a sectarian dimension to the populist revolt.

Syrian activists and rebels insist that the extremists are not welcome in communities that have long prided themselves on their tolerance of the religious minorities in their midst, including Christians, Alawites, Druze, Kurds and Ismaili Shiites.

A rebel leader in northern Syria who asked to be identified by his nom de guerre, Abu Mustafa, described how he and his men drove out a group of about 15 radicals, all of them Syrian but none of them local, who arrived in a northern village in January. Led by a commander who identified himself as Abu Sulaiman, the group tried to recruit supporters for an assault on the nearby town of Jisr al-Shughour.

Abu Sulaiman “had money, he had weapons, and he sent a guy to negotiate with me, but I refused,” Abu Mustafa recalled in an interview in Turkey. “We asked him to leave, but he didn’t, so we attacked him. We killed two of them, and one of our men was injured. Then he left, but I don’t know where he went.”

“The good thing is that Syrians are against giving our country to radicals,” Abu Mustafa added. “But these groups have supporters who are very rich, and if our revolution continues like this, without hope and without result, they will gain influence on the ground.”

A largely secular revolt

There is a distinction between the naturally conservative religiosity of Syrians who come from traditional communities and the radicalism of those associated with the global jihadi movement, said Joseph Holliday, who is researching the Free Syrian Army at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington and believes extremists are a small minority.

“While there are elements [in the opposition] that are very conservative, they are not the driving force,” he said. “There is definitely an argument to be made that this will increase over time, because insurgencies often become more extremist over time, but for now the driving force behind this revolution is secular.”

Adherents of the strict Salafi school of Islam have emerged in many Syrian communities and are playing a role in the opposition, but they, too, are to be distinguished from the jihadis, said ­Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

“People who are local and pious and moving in an Islamist direction and are taking up guns don’t have the same organization and are not necessarily the same thing as jihadists, who are not necessarily al-Qaeda,” he said. “There’s a range of different directions and trends.”

Many activists fear, however, that the influence of the extremists is growing as Syrian rebels who have for months appealed in vain for Western military intervention look for help elsewhere.

“Of course it is growing, because no one is doing anything to stop it,” said a Syrian activist who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears retribution from some of the radicals he has encountered while attempting to organize the opposition in many northern communities.

“They have rules,” he said. “They say: If we give you money, you have to obey our orders and accept our leadership. Some of my friends drink alcohol, and they aren’t like this. But when they find no other way to cover their expenses, they join these groups and then they follow them.”

Special correspondent Ranya Kadri in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

© The Washington Post Company

Damascus Focuses on Containing Foreign Intervention

Published on Al Akhbar English (
By: Ibrahim al-Amin [1]
Published Monday, February 20, 2012

The Syrian regime’s military crackdown against armed rebel groups clearly enjoys Russian support. Moscow believes that President Bashar Assad is obliged to carry out this crackdown for a number of reasons, not least to reduce his foreign enemies’ room to maneuver.

The focus is currently on Homs, but that does not mean that there are no plans by the military to extend it to other areas.

The strength of the armed groups in some areas is not the main difficulty facing this campaign. Nor is a lack of local public support, other than in areas such as Zabadani, some villages in the province of Damascus Countryside, and Hama. It is that the Syrian leadership wants the task accomplished with the minimum number of casualties.

That means two types of casualties.

First, the civilians who get caught up in such battles, whatever their politics.

Not that the regime is solely to blame for civilian deaths – which is the impression given by the Arab and Western media outlets engaged in the war to topple the regime. The armed groups have caused the deaths of many civilians as well as military and security personnel. Some have committed atrocities.

The armed groups have become the new regime in some areas where they have succeeding is asserting their control, forcing out all agencies of the state – whether traffic police, security personnel, or public officials. They have violently enforced their dictates, whether for general closures at times of their choosing, or for contributions to the revolution’s coffers.

These demands are presented as religious strictures. One prominent Idlib clergyman tells of being question by locals about their religious obligation to pay money to the armed groups. They asked for his help in ensuring that the regime’s corrupt security agencies are not replaced by these groups that commit clear crimes and seem to include growing numbers of non-Syrians.

The manner in which these groups are dealt with is the regime’s second consideration.

It believes, on the basis of its intelligence assessments, that only about 30 percent of its armed opponents are ideologically-motivated. They appear prepared to fight it to the death, along with their supporters among the population.

The remaining 70 percent are thought to be anti-regime protesters who took up arms, but without training or organization. Some high level officials believe such people acted “impulsively” and can be dissuaded. They favor mediation via their families or other go-betweens, to urge them to surrender themselves and their arms, and benefit from a general amnesty that will be issued as soon as security is restored.

Syrian officials make clear, accordingly, that the military campaign currently underway is not an all-out assault.

They acknowledge that the security forces carried out a harsh crackdown in Damascus Countryside. They argue that it was imperative to prevent any creation of enclaves near the capital.

But they say the army is employing other methods in Idlib and Homs. These are mainly joint security-military operations, based on intelligence gathered about armed groups, to destroy their fortified locations, or launch surprise attacks on their gatherings. The armed forces then withdraw and redeploy.

In other words, military operations in these areas are to be based mainly on “attrition” in confined neighborhoods. They will also be accompanied by attempts to negotiate via intermediaries. Such negotiations have led to the surrender of tens of gunmen in different parts of the country, with the mediation of families or clan elders. These have not been covered by the media.

Media coverage is still not treated as a major part of this battle by Syrian security and military chiefs. Media outlets engaged in the campaign to pressurize Syria are unconcerned about the accuracy of their coverage or the reality of the situation as witnessed by people on the ground. But journalists close to or supportive of the regime complain that it fails to provide them with enough detailed information to help them counter that campaign.

Nevertheless, it is reported that some military units protested against the “new level of constraints” which they have been ordered to observe. These are said to have resulted from consultations with the Russians and Iranians. The thinking is that Assad, while acting to reassert the authority of the state, could not re-consolidate his rule in a country with huge numbers of bereaved families.

The Russians believe they are providing Syria with support it needs to counter attempted external political or other intervention against it. Western diplomats accuse Russia of going further, and providing it with intelligence support to track the movements of armed groups.

Russia has not made any comments on this matter. Its focus now is on how the regime can achieve successes on the ground which would restrict the protests to peaceful demonstrations in areas and districts from where it does not feel threatened. That would better enable it to conduct the political struggle.

Moscow is convinced that the regime must implement its reform program quickly and appoint a new government, even if the opposition does not take part in it. There is a belief there, as in Iran, that applying the reforms would have a tangible effect on the public, and affect attitudes to both the offshore opposition and the question of stability – which is today’s overriding preoccupation for most Syrians.

In the opposing camp, the regime’s foreign enemies appear to be inching closer to a game of Russian roulette. The various means of pressure they have applied to date – propaganda, political, and diplomatic, even meddling on the ground – have failed to achieve the desired outcome. That forces stark choices on them, including to risk a major military or security action, directed either against the army or leading regime figures.

This prospect prompted Russia and Iran to send messages to all parties concerned, notably Turkey, France, and some Arab states. Some of these messages were delivered on the ground, visibly or otherwise.

Moreover, the approach taken to the Syrian crisis by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in his latest speech, implies he is not alone in wanting to stop members of the March 14 coalition from aiding Assad’s opponents, especially his armed opponents.

What is being hatched on borders?

Some time ago, Lebanese security agencies attached to different government ministries gathered intelligence about what was going on at the border. Their work was not fully co-ordinated. The Information Branch did not share its data with Army Intelligence Directorate or the General Security Department.

Nevertheless, the conclusions drawn from some of this intelligence by the Lebanese army, and by some political figures, was enough to ring an alarm bell.

Patches of territory along the eastern and northern borders were being turned into military zones and training camps. Many of these lie in barren areas (east of the village of Aarsal in the Bekaa valley), or open country. Some are in villages in the district of Akkar, where “Future Movement Islamists” wield powerful influence.

The reports spoke of cooperation between local smugglers and these armed groups. It also documented people coming and going, while they collected various types of weapons and ammunition to sell to them. The money available seemed to increase by the day. Some operatives based in Beirut and other cities would be tasked with purchasing communications and photographic equipment.

Copies of some of these reports evidently reached Damascus. It cross-checked them with its own intelligence, and put together a dossier, which was then sent to Lebanese officials.

This was done either by the Syrian Ambassador in Beirut Ali Abd al-Karim, or the Secretary-General of the Lebanese-Syrian Supreme Council, Nasri Khoury. They sent copies to the president, prime minister, speaker of parliament, relevant ministers, and military and security chiefs.

The dossiers were accompanied by a formal request from Syria to Lebanon: that it take measures, in accordance with the binding agreements to which it is party, to prevent its territory from being used as a conduit for violent or illegal activity against Syrian territory.

Army commander Jean Kahwaji did not secure clear, official, and full political backing for an extensive military and security operation to secure the border areas in question. He employed other means to disrupt the armed groups, but that fell short of meeting the Syrian demands.

The failure to provide political backing, it is said, was because some in authority feared clashes could result between the army and Lebanese groups allied with the Syrian gunmen. Ominously, some officials quietly suggested to military commanders that the problem could be left for the Syrian army to deal with itself.

It later became apparent that this is precisely what was hoped for by the Arab/Western “operator“ of the political-military assault on Syria. The Syrian army could be lured into a military operation on the Lebanese border, which might force it at some point to advance into Lebanese territory, even if only by a few meters or kilometres. That would be used to justify a diplomatic outcry, aimed at getting UN resolutions issued to extend the mandate of UN forces in the south to cover the northern and eastern borders too.

That would present us with a quite different dossier.

Ibrahim al-Amin is editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Ibrahim al-Amin