Category Archives: Guest Author

Lacking coherent vision, U.S. strikes against Syria would be vain

Today’s guest author is Matthew Gilchrist (@gilchristms). He holds an M.A. in Middle East Studies from the Elliott School of International Affairs, specializing in U.S. foreign policy and security studies. He previously lived in Lebanon while studying at the American University of Beirut and worked at the news website NOW Lebanon. Gilchrist now works in Washington, DC.

Over the past week the Obama administration has built its case for what it claims could be one-time airstrikes in Syria to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for its alleged use of chemical weapons, which, according to U.S. estimates, killed more than 1,400 Syrian civilians on August 21. The administration says that an airstrike is necessary to preserve the integrity of the “red line” Obama drew a year ago and to protect Syrian civilians from further attacks.

If the U.S. stands passively by, Assad will use his chemical stockpiles with impunity, setting a dangerous international precedent. But, the administration adds, an American response must be neither too soft nor so strong that it results in the fall of Assad. American actions are intended neither to bring about regime change nor as a pretext for greater involvement in Syria’s civil war, we are told.

Unfortunately, airstrikes are unlikely to achieve anything that could lessen the suffering of the Syrian people or push Assad to the negotiating table. It will most certainly not stop his government’s use of conventional weaponry that has already killed tens of thousands. The strikes will only serve to assuage the Obama administration’s doubts about its own international credibility while creating greater instability and uncertainty in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Israel.

Furthermore, discussion of these strikes – seemingly only  popular in the White House, a few congressional offices and the Élysée Palace – fail to take into account the views of Syrian and Arab publics, who overwhelmingly oppose another American military intervention. American military involvement will do further damage to its image in the Arab world, make a bad situation worse in Syria by exacerbating refugee flows to neighboring countries, and risk reprisal attacks by Syria, Iran, Hezbollah or their proxies that could escalate the Syrian conflict and inflame the region.

Meanwhile, American efforts to prove Syrian government culpability in the August 21 chemical attack have ignored key questions, which without U.N. Security Council approval of a military response further undermines the administration’s claim to legitimacy for any possible military action. Why, for example, would the Syrian government carry out an unprecedented chemical attack a mere 20-minute drive from the U.N. weapons inspectors’ headquarters in Damascus? With U.N. inspectors on the ground in Syria, it is fortuitous for the rebels that the attack came when it did and should raise concerns about their own involvement.

Much of the evidence cited in the unclassified U.S. assessment of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons released on Friday is circumstantial and relies on assumptions of prior government culpability in chemical attacks. The most vital piece of evidence the administration cites is a communications intercept “involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence.” However, no transcript was provided in either English or the original Arabic, nor was it divulged whether this individual is thought to have played a role in the alleged attack. Lacking context, this “senior official” may have been merely speculating on an event to which he had no connection. With the option of military force on the table, more transparency, evidence and context are necessary for the administration’s claims to be convincing beyond a reasonable doubt.

While suspicion must fall first and foremost on the party in possession of both massive stockpiles of chemical weapons and the means to deliver them – the Syrian government – the U.S., its European allies and the U.N. have an obligation to consider alternative scenarios and investigate the possibility of rebel involvement. Contrary to the administration’s claims, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a rebel faction or a group of defected Syrian military officers could have acquired an amount of sarin gas from among Syria’s own stockpiles or from abroad, and staged the attack to bring about a Western military intervention. Knowing that the Americans will blame Assad for the attack, and with so many dead already, might not a thousand more be justifiable if it hastens the end of the war?

Unfortunately, questions such as these are all too often dismissed and discredited by virtue of their popularity with Russia, China, and most damningly, the Syrian regime itself. The Syrian civil war has so polarized the Middle East and the international community that a critical and thorough debate no longer seems possible.

The U.S. must be careful if it chooses to pursue airstrikes against the Syrian government. If the American response is miscalculated and does greater damage to Syrian government assets than intended, the scales could tip in favor of the rebels and throw Syria into a new, bloodier stage of its civil war. The ascendant rebel forces might push deeper into Damascus, seeking to fully dislodge the regime from its capital stronghold, while Assad would quicken the pace of his unrelenting campaign against rebels and civilians alike. Hezbollah or its proxies could strike at Israel, whose own retaliation would be catastrophic for Lebanon and the region.

The Obama administration does not have the best interests of the Syrian people at heart, but rather its own vanity and sense of purpose – one not shared by the Syrian people or its Arab neighbors. Without a strategic vision for how airstrikes could bring about a  resolution to the Syrian conflict or facilitate real negotiations, the administration’s actions are either folly that will accomplish little and be forgotten, or will lead to deeper American involvement and greater suffering in Syria and the region.


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Peace Process Restarts, Harsh Realities Endure

Today’s guest author is Allison Good, an independent analyst and freelance journalist. She tweets @Allison_Good1 and currently resides in Israel.

Well, it’s official: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will resume in Washington next week with talks between Israeli Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni and veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. Secretary Kerry’s framework, which does not involve preconditions on either side, is being hailed by many as a major breakthrough, as the last round of talks fizzled quickly in 2010. But while it is truly impressive that Kerry has managed the near-impossible feat of bringing Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table, the question of whether the talks will actually lead to anything of substance requires a more pragmatic approach, particularly when it comes to considering the patterns of Israel’s engagement in the Oslo Process over decades.

First, the negotiators themselves are not the ultimate decision-makers for their respective parties. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never hidden his disdain for Livni, while Erekat does not have nearly as much political clout as he did during the Oslo Process in the 1990s. On the Israeli side, at least, Livni’s role gives Netanyahu someone in the center to blame if she fails. I would certainly expect Livni and Netanyahu to be constantly at odds while the former is working in Washington and there are factions within the Palestinian Authority that would rather see Erekat fail as well. Of course, it is impossible to tell right now what the dynamic between Erekat and Livni will be. They could end up being well-matched negotiating partners. But core issues like settlements, refugees, and Jerusalem could be their downfall–if they get that far.

This brings us to the second factor that needs a realistic examination. The core issues–Jerusalem, settlements, right of return of Palestinian refugees, and borders–have proven elusive for decades. While historically Israel and the Palestinians have been able to reach interim agreements, core issues have always been left on the back burner, only up for negotiation at the last possible minute. The Hebron Accords and Wye River both succeeded because it was stipulated that core issues would be debated at a later date, while President Clinton’s Camp David summit failed because of disagreement over core issues that were introduced, particularly the status of Jerusalem.

Although we do not know all the details of Kerry’s framework yet, it is highly unlikely that a hawk like Netanyahu would have agreed to it if Jerusalem was on the chopping block to start. Of course, Netanyahu did agree to a settlement freeze in 2009, but building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank has been pursued aggressively in the past few years. There may be more wiggle room on borders, but Netanyahu would have to give up most of Israel’s presence in the Jordan Valley, which he has always considered to be a strategic advantage.

Another issue that requires careful thought is Netanyahu and his coalition. After all, he was already skating on thin ice with the Hebron Accords in 1997 during his first term as Prime Minister, and his missteps at Wye caused his coalition to collapse, resulting in 1999 elections that replaced Netanyahu with Ehud Barak. Netanyahu’s now-famous speech at Bar Ilan University in 2009, in which he endorsed the two-state solution for the first time, was seen as a positive evolution, but regardless of whether he was sincere, he has clearly chosen to cater to his popular right-wing base rather than put his vision into action. Indeed, it is likely that Netanyahu will pull out of these negotiations if the Palestinians provoke an impasse by asking for what he considers to be too much.

On the Palestinian side, Abbas is also constrained by domestic politics. It must have taken some extreme wrangling to get the PLO and Fatah to agree that the time is ripe for talks. All it takes is one wrong move by Erekat–or one unreasonable Israeli demand–for Abbas to feel insecure enough about this position at home that he feels the need to break things off. This is not a case in which Abbas feels that he has nothing to lose, but there are limits to what they are likely willing to accept. The Palestinian Authority has sunken deeper into political and economic disarray in the past few years and Abbas and Erekat will have to tread very lightly. But attempting to please both the Israelis and the Palestinian public is a zero-sum game that automatically imposes consequences for pleasing one group or the other. Erekat’s challenge will be to strike a balance that mitigates any fallout on either side.

So why agree to negotiate at all? The answer is unclear at this moment. Perhaps Netanyahu is looking for talks to eventually collapse, hoping that such an exercise will help his political future by enabling him to blame the Palestinians, thus allowing him to push negotiations further down the road so he does not have to make concessions during his term in office. Maybe he will refuse to bow to pressure from fellow Likud politicos and HaBayit HaYehudi leader Naftali Bennett at the last minute, even though Bennett has already threatened to throw the coalition into crisis if Netanyahu agrees to negotiate based in the 1967 lines. More likely, though, he is moving on the peace process to please Secretary Kerry and the U.S., with no intention of signing any agreement whatsoever.

Abbas, on the other hand, knows his own political career is coming to an end. It is entirely possible that he believes he has nothing to lose, and that this is a legacy he wants to leave. But it is more plausible that he also wants something to show the Americans to prove that he is making an effort.

The U.S. will certainly offer packages of carrots to both sides during forthcoming talks that will entice each party. Unfortunately, history shows that these carrots cannot overcome the stalemate on final status issues. Netanyahu refused to move on implementing the Hebron Accords (the 1997 agreement that provided for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank) even after Clinton offered him a bilateral defense treaty. Reassurances for the Palestinians will certainly take the form of increased aid, but Erekat knows there are concessions he cannot make, despite the Palestinian Authority’s desperate need for more cash.

There are way too many ifs to know how the talks will proceed and whether they will end with some sort of interim or comprehensive agreement. However, given the realities on the ground, all signs point to a repeat of 2010 and the further deterioration of the peace process, which many have declared dead for years. Kerry’s effort to take it off life support is bold and unexpected but applause and optimism are much too premature.

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Syria: Preparing for Self-Government

Joseph Sadek is today’s guest author. He received his B.A. in International Relations from The Ohio State University and currently works for the John Glenn School of Public Affairs in Washington, DC.  Joe hopes to receive his M.A. in Foreign Policy Studies with a concentration in Middle Eastern affairs in the coming years. You can find more of his commentary at

Last Tuesday, President Obama recognized the Syrian opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime for the first time. A handful of European partners, the Arab League, and the GCC have already recognized the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the sole representative of the Syrian people. The following Wednesday, the Coalition and “Friends of Syria,” including the United States, met in Morocco to support the most urgent needs of the rebels. There has been much anticipation for the fourth summit beginning with the development of a new Syrian government.

Certain expectations have been set for the Coalition to speak to the needs of the Syrian people and their demands, including Assad’s departure. The body’s predecessor—the Syrian National Council (SNC)—failed to unite the opposition-held towns and military forces within Syria. Yet, it’s still unclear whether the new 60-seat Coalition, 22 of which belong to the SNC, will be able to do more than politic. Contrary to the cynicism and doubt that lingers, the National Coalition can be a positive force for Syria to achieve two very crucial ends.

Coalition chief Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib

Undoubtedly the primary goal of the Coalition is to secure food, medical supplies, and arms from the “Friends of Syria.” In the eyes of the United States and Europe, arming the rebels is worrisome, especially if forces are linked to al-Qaeda (e.g. al-Nusra Front). Here, the importance of the National Coalition and its inclusivity­—currently encompassing 90 percent of the rebel forces—is underscored. Although hesitant, the Friends of Syria must recognize that empowering the Coalition gives them legitimacy. It’s worth noting that the coalition’s leader, Sheikh Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, is a devout Sunni and former Imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. He maintains a broad contingency of Christians and Druze. Further investment in the National Coalition will only strengthen these pluralistic forces.

The second and long-term task of the National Coalition is building their governmental framework as it was outlined by the Syrian National Initiative (SNI) on November 1. The SNI continues to build its legislative body, military council, judicial council, and transitional government, which are essential to a post-Assad order. So far, what has been neglected is developing a constitutional framework—an important foundation for any government.

Although seemingly daunting, the National Coalition must begin developing a constitutional blueprint for self-government. The primary task of Sheikh al-Khatib and George Sabra, head of the SNC, will remain to support the ground war against Assad. But the three Vice Presidents of the Coalition and leaders such as Riad Seif, architect of the SNI, can begin developing this framework and its most important document. These individuals along with representatives from Syria’s 14 provinces that make up the Coalition are broadly supported domestically and internationally. Preparing a constitutional blueprint will still require drafting the actual document once Assad presumably relinquishes his authority in Syria; yet, this preliminary step can hasten the process and give robustness to a potentially contentious post-Assad transition.

Currently, Egypt is witnessing its difficult transition to democratic pluralism because deep-rooted institutions of Egyptian government and civil society made reform difficult. Egyptians did not harvest all the fruits of their revolutionary labor because the Muslim Brotherhood, judiciary, and military councils assumed power ahead of a pluralist constituency, and today Egyptians are struggling with their democracy, which may be compromised.

Syrians, on all accounts, will face even more adversity and diverging interests once they begin to rebuild their government. Specifically, they’ll have to navigate multi-ethnic and multi-religious politics as well as soothe popular mistrust of Alawites, the religious minority to which Assad belongs. The protection of minority rights will safeguard the fragile transition of power. If the Coalition can draft a new constitutional framework effectively, and they have the political capital to do it now, they’ll set a precedent of pluralism as the foundation of their new government—a principle that will protect their diverse social fabric.

Today the Syrian people are fighting the battle of their generation. As they become more entrenched in this bloody struggle it is increasingly important to ensure their revolutionary goals are achieved, including democracy, civil and human rights, and economic prosperity. The National Coalition has a huge role to play in the revolution and it must boldly look to the future to cultivate pluralism and to move Syria towards self-government.

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The Most Important Uprising You Haven’t Heard Of

In red: Saudi Arabia’s troubled Eastern Province

Our guest author today is Matthew Kimmel, who has had an academic interest in the Middle East since beginning his B.A. in Global studies at Arizona State University, where he wrote his undergraduate thesis on Civil Society and Democratization in Saudi Arabia. His experience in the region includes living in Israel and conducting research in Cairo. He has worked at the Institute for National Strategic Studies and received his M.A. in Middle East Studies from George Washington University in 2012.

While the world has watched with rapt attention at the numerous uprisings and wars that have spread across the Middle East in the past two years, one long simmering uprising has escaped most people’s notice. The Shi’a of Saudi Arabia have long had a tense relationship with the ruling monarchy, which has become violent in the past. The most notable case of this was in 1979, when an uprising centered around the town of Qatif resulted in an unknown number of casualties and the Saudi government declaring a state of emergency and calling in the national guard headed by prince Abdullah, who is now king.

Since then, there has been a tense relationship between the Saudi government and the Shi’a highlighted by periods of attempted reconciliation and increased repression. These tensions boiled over again in the months following the start of the Arab Spring. 2011 saw hundreds of protesters arrested, dozens injured, and at least 14 civilians killed (along with 2 security officers). The self perpetuating cycle of protests, violent crackdowns against the protests, and even larger protests against violent crackdowns continued. By the start of 2012, protests were tens of thousands strong and occurring regularly.

Then, on July 8, the Saudi government made a move that sent the protests into a frenzy and may stand out as the perfect example of how not to quell protesters. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, one of the most prominent Saudi Shi’a leaders, was shot and arrested. (The government claims that he was shot during a fight with security forces sent to arrest him; protesters claim he was shot without provocation). Nimr had long been a thorn in the side of the Saudi regime. As early as 2009 he had spoken out in favor of using protests to pressure the regime to enact reforms allowing for increased religious, economic, and political rights for the Shi’a.

As the protests grew in the first few months of the Arab spring, Nimr al-Nimr was one of the only clerics who endorsed the protests rather than urging a return to homes and negotiations. After pictures of the cleric bloody and battered emerged, massive protests erupted and another two Shi’a were killed. Since then tensions in the Saudi eastern province have gone from bad to worse. Another two people were killed on August 3, and protests have continued regularly with the latest one happening on November 9. Violence against Saudi security force has also continued, with a series of attacks against police patrols and stations occurring last month. While these attacks have so far been small-scale and localized, there is the risk that unrest in the region could spread and have potentially devastating effects. Perhaps the best example of this is the massive cyber attack Saudi Aramco suffered over the summer, which many in the kingdom blamed on the Saudi Shi’a.

On August 10, Aramco suffered a massive cyber attack, which crippled the company for several days but, thankfully, did not result in any oil loss. While many have blamed Iran for this act of cyber warfare, the relatively unsophisticated nature of the programming as well as the fact that the attack was carried out by an Aramco employee with access to the network led many in Saudi Arabia to blame the attacks on Shi’a who were working with Iran.

Agents of Iran or Agents of Reform?

The kingdom’s authorities often use the claim that the Shi’a are agents of Iran as a means of dismissing the protests in Qatif. Early statements against the protests in the Eastern Province described the protesters as acting “to disrupt security at the behest of a foreign country which tried to undermine the security of the homeland in a blatant act of interference.” Additionally, it has been common for Saudi media sources such as Al Arabiya to hint that Syria and Hezbollah are involved in this unrest, further creating links to Iran. These actions allow for the Saudi government to discredit these protesters.

However, anyone with a decent knowledge of the leadership of the Saudi Shi’a and their goals over the past 20 years knows that they are not anywhere near the agents of Iran that the Saudi government claims they are. It is important to note, however, that, the leadership of the Saudi Shi’a have lost credibility with many of the youth in Qatif as they have continued to call for reconciliation and a stop to protests. This conciliatory tone has enraged many of the region’s youth who see it as proof that the Shi’a leadership does not represent their interests.

Despite Saudi claims, the Shi’a leadership connections to Iran are rather weak. While many of the prominent Shi’a clerics such as Hassan al-Safar did have some religious training in Iran and spent time in the country studying, their ties to Iran have usually been weak. When the leaders of the Shi’a uprising of 1979 were forced into exile, they found themselves in London—not Tehran. Secondly, the rhetoric of these religious leaders has none of the theocratic tones that one would expect from Iranian agents. Much of the Shi’a leadership has been pro-democracy and supported religious pluralism. Finally, the demands of the Shiite’s initial protests were based on simple demands for greater inclusion and spending. While there was some degree of protests against the Saudi role in the clampdown of protests in neighboring Bahrain (the Shi’a communities of these two countries have a good amount of historical connections), initial demands were based far more on local, economic, and religious grievances. This is in keeping with historical precedent in which the Saudi Shi’a have protested for three key areas- greater religious freedoms, greater infrastructure investment, and greater inclusion.

Due to the religious nature of the Saudi government, Shi’a religious activity has been greatly restricted. Shi’a Ashoura ceremonies have traditionally been tightly curtailed and the Saudi education and religious systems are filled with instances of anti-Shi’a propaganda. Additionally, the area around Qatif has traditionally been neglected; they were the last to receive modern sewer systems and many Shi’a activists have complained about the lack of government investment. Lastly, the Shi’a are completely shut out from the higher echelons of business and almost the entirety of the government. As such, the Shi’a see themselves as second-class citizens and are protesting against this fact, not because they are part of some broader Iranian backed “Shi’a crescent” stretching from Iran to the Levant and south into Saudi Arabia.

If the Saudi government is to stop Qatif from continuing to be a center of discontent and from becoming more chaotic they may have to resume the reconciliation process that King Abdullah began after the wave of terrorism that struck the country after 2003. This would relax tensions, and help create a more inclusive kingdom. Given the increased tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the complex interplay between religion and state in the region, this seems unlikely, especially as protests and arrests continue. Additionally, the Saudi government does have the ability to use increasing amounts of force, and may see violence as preferable to changing the religious and political status quo of the kingdom.

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In Syria, Echoes of the Conflict in Yugoslavia

Andrew Kirkby is our guest author today. He is an M.A Candidate in Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. He also holds an M.A in Middle Eastern Studies from the American University of Beirut. In addition to living in Israel and Lebanon, he has also traveled through the Middle East, the Former Yugoslavia and the Former Soviet Union. Previously, Kirkby worked at the Center of Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at AUB. He will be interning at the Institute of National Security Studies in Tel Aviv this Fall.

If there was an obituary for the Annan plan it would read:

The Annan plan was an idealistic attempt to mediate a conflict with a regime that possessed a mentality that browbeating its opponents into submission was its only option. Because of Russian and Chinese intransigence in the Security Council, the Assad regime was shielded from any consequence for not abiding by the plan, thus predetermining its demise. In its short life, the Annan plan was cynically manipulated as a means to buy time by the Syrian government and its patrons, China and Russia. If the Annan plan has taught us anything, it is that conducting polite diplomacy against the backdrop of mass violence is bound to fail just like previous attempts in Bosnia and Rwanda.

As the Syrian crisis approaches its eighteenth month, a new reality is beginning to take hold. The Syrian government is looking less like a government and more like a powerful sectarian militia. According to a recent International Crisis Group report:

“[The Regime] is mutating in ways that make it impervious to political and military setbacks, indifferent to pressure and unable to negotiate. Opposition gains terrify Alawites, who stand more firmly by the regime’s side. Defections solidify the ranks of those who remain loyal. Territorial losses can be dismissed for sake of concentrating on “useful” geographical areas. Sanctions give rise to an economy of violence wherein pillaging, looting and smuggling ensure self-sufficiency and over which punitive measures have virtually no bearing. That the regime has been weakened is incontrovertible. But it has been weakened in ways that strengthen its staying power.”

For this reason it is increasingly unlikely that Bashar al-Assad with fall like other Arab despots, such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Assad and his Alawite-dominated regime formulated two military options from the beginning of this crisis. Option one was to crush the uprising and reassert totalitarian control; Option two, the contingency plan, was to withdraw to the Alawite mountains and coast, where they are a majority, and carve up a secure enclave. In light of troop withdrawals from large swaths of eastern Syria and the Golan, the regime’s inability to crush the opposition, and intense fighting in cities such as Aleppo and Homs, it appears the more sinister contingency plan is starting to take shape.

An appropriate historical model to view military developments in Syria is that of Yugoslav People’s Army (Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija or JNA). During the course of the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991-1992, the JNA morphed into the Bosnian Serb Army and the Serbian-Montenegrin Army. This was driven by the fact that Federal control over the JNA was asserted from Belgrade, which was dominated by the Serbian ethno-nationalist Slobodan Milosevic after 1989. It was from Belgrade that Milosevic, in January 1992, issued the secret order instructing the General Staff to transfer all Bosnian Serb JNA troops back to their native Bosnia while withdrawing all Serbian troops back to Serbia. (By this point in the conflict most troops from the other Republics had deserted.)

In doing so, Milosevic set the groundwork for the future Serbian Army and Bosnian Serb Army (Army of Republika Srpska or VRS). In May 1992, the JNA withdrew from Bosnia and dissolved itself. The JNA’s huge military arsenal fell into the hands of Serbia and its Serbian allies in Bosnia. As a result, Bosnian Serbs vastly outgunned their Bosnian Muslim and Croat opponents. After three bloody years and numerous atrocities committed by VRS—including the massacre at Srebrenica and the Siege of Sarajevo—NATO finally stepped in and defanged the Bosnian Serbs in Operation Deliberate Force, thus pressuring their patron Milosevic to sign the Dayton Accords, ending the long conflict.

Although the Syrian Army has yet to withdraw to the Alawite region and become an Alawite Army, events on the ground are driving it in that direction. Up to this point in the conflict most defectors have been Sunnis; experts say that virtually none of the 80,000 young men—mostly Sunni—expected to show up for mandatory military service this year have responded. As a result, the regime, out of fear of arming potential opponents, has not deployed ordinary units. Rather, it has relied almost exclusively on elite Alawite units such as the Republican Guard’s Fourth Armored Division and the four main intelligence services. (The Republican Guard and Fourth Armored Division are both commanded by Maher al-Assad, the President’s brother, and have a combined strength of 60,000; the intelligence services have an estimated 150,000 members.) These units also control Syria’s huge chemical weapons arsenal—believed to be one of the largest stockpiles in the world. According to Akil Hashem, a former Syrian tank commander: “When the military gets new weapons like a new tank, it goes immediately to the Fourth Division and the Republican Guards. This is the main force the regime depends on to end the revolution. It is not likely to have defections in these units.”

Serving, as an auxiliary unit for the official government forces, have been the ruthlessly loyal—however unofficial—Shabiha, reportedly commanded by Namir, Fawwaz and Munzir al-Assad, all members of the Assad clan. The supposed motto of the Shabiha is, “Bashar, do not be sad: you have men who drink blood.” Similar to the notorious Tiger paramilitary of the Yugoslav wars, which often recruited soccer hooligans, Shabiha recruits tend to possess brute strength, low intelligence and blind allegiance. The Shabiha’s use by the Assad regime also resembles Arkan’s Tigers during the Yugoslav wars. Their unofficial status as “armed gangs” offered both governments plausible deniability in cases of ethnic cleansing. Tactically speaking, the Shabiha, like the Tigers, have committed their worst attacks often after large government artillery barrages. Examples include Houla and Al-Qubeir.

The increased use of paramilitary forces such as the Shabiha is also reminiscent of the Yugoslav conflict in that sanctions and war gave rise to an economy of violence wherein pillaging, looting and smuggling thrived. In such economies, groups such as the Shabiha or Arkan’s Tigers, which operate unofficially and have criminal histories, are empowered. Syria only needs to look to its neighbor Lebanon to see how a protracted conflict can criminalize an economy and empower militia warlords who, in turn, further perpetuate the violence for economic gain. The longer this conflict continues the more powerful such groups will become. It is often said that kings make wars. However, it can also be said that wars make kings. In the case of Serbia, the Yugoslav wars elevated Zeljko Raznatovic (aka Arkan), the commander of the Tigers, to a level rivaling only Milosevic himself.

If analysts view recent developments through the prism of securing an Alawite enclave, a new picture of the conflict begins to emerge. The extreme violence inflicted on cities along the Aleppo-Damascus highway—in Hama, Rastan, Homs, Haffeh, Talbiseh and Houla—can be seen as an attempt to drive Sunnis east of the Orontes River in order to create a strategic buffer zone for a future Alawite statelet. (It has been reported that up to 600,000 Sunnis have fled Homs.) Moreover, the strategic abandonment of large swaths of land—in eastern Syria, Kurdish areas in the north, the Golan and a number of border crossings—can be seen as a way for the regime to augment its forces elsewhere.

Although Damascus and Aleppo are outside the traditionally Alawite regions, they are geographically significant for the regime. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and main commercial hub, is vital. If the rebels are able to take Aleppo, they could link up with the rebel-held Idlib province, thus creating a significant “safe haven” along the Turkish border. Aleppo, like Benghazi in Libya, could also serve as a seat for an alternative government. And lastly, Aleppo’s economic significance will be critical to Syria’s future  no matter who runs the country.

According to Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, “[the regime] will contract. Maybe first towards Damascus, and then perhaps to the coast.” Damascus is vital for the regime in that any public announcement of a withdrawal to the coast would be a clear admission of defeat, in a struggle that Assad is determined to win at any cost. Also it is important because it is the seat of government in Syria. Currently, Maher al-Assad and his elite Fourth Division are tasked with protecting the capital. The Assad regime (under Hafiz and Bashar) has also for years lured Alawites to settle in Damascus. Aash al-Woro and Mezzah 86 are two predominantly Alawite neighborhoods. Mezzah 86, which is on the western edge of Damascus, is home to many members of the security forces and the ruthless Shabiha, for example.

The future of any independent Alawite state is questionable. It would not be economically viable; the main commercial hubs are outside the Alawite region and Syria’s oilfields are located in the northeast. Most important, however, is the fact that all regional players as well as the international powers—Russia, China and the U.S.—are against the Balkanization of Syria. Russia and Syria’s neighbors, which have restless minorities also, would loathe the emergence of independent sectarian states. The withdrawal of government troops from most of the Syrian Kurdish region and their subsequent replacement by Kurdish groups—including Syria’s Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD)—has alarmed Turkey. Because of the regional consequences, a wholesale partition of Syria into independent states is unlikely.

Although it is unlikely that Syria will completely disintegrate, it’s equally improbable that any new government will be able to assert the same level of authority as Assad. Because of the presence of numerically large but geographically compact minorities (e.g. Druze in the As-Suwayda Governorate, Alawites in the Latakia and Tartus Governorate, Kurds in Al-Hasakah Governorate, etc.) and the tactics employed by the regime to create a rift between those minorities and the Sunni majority, a future Syria will likely be decentralized.

The Kurds will surely want a larger role in a new Syria and will probably push for regional autonomy like their ethnic brethren in Iraq. Relative to their position before the conflict—lack of citizenship, the neglecting of Kurdish education and restrictions on opening a business—the Kurds could ultimately be the biggest winner in this conflict.

The Druze are another important minority. Because they tend to accommodate themselves to the status quo, they could serve as a bell-weather for the direction of the country. What ultimately happens to the Druze in Syria will also be of great interest to Israel. Most of the Druze living in the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967, have refused Israeli citizenship and still identify themselves as Syrians. As a result, the future Syrian government’s treatment of the Druze could also impact relations between the Druze of the Golan and the Israeli government. For example, a less inclusive Sunni Islamist government in Damascus could actually lead to the Golani Druze to accept Israeli rule.

It is highly unlikely, if the regime loses Damascus, that it and its Alawite supporters will relinquish control over the elite military units. Although many people are banking on a palace coup to end the bloodshed, this result is doubtful. Even if Assad were to be killed in a palace coup, anyone who would be able to conduct such an operation would probably be Alawite too. In a statement made last week on CBS, King Abdullah of Jordan said, “If he [Bashar al-Assad] does go, by whatever means, I don’t see that the system around him is capable of changing.”

So if the regime loses Damascus, I believe it will reconstitute itself—with or without Bashar—in an Alawite enclave, where it could demand a role in a new Syria or be subject to a prolonged siege that only the international community could break. Although we have yet to witness large troop moments to Alawite territory, there are reports of Iranian armaments going to the Alawite Mountains. Hundreds of thousands of Alawites have reportedly moved back to the relative safety of the Tartous and Latakia Governorates.

Ultimately, the Assad regime will lose control of Damascus. However, because of the growing sectarian nature of the conflict and the regime’s “divide and rule” tactics, a future Syria will likely see a weak central government with strong autonomous regions. It could look a lot like Iraq or Bosnia.

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Saving UNESCO After Palestinian Membership

Jason Stern is a M.A. Candidate in Middle East Studies at George Washington University. He blogs and tweets under the handle @IbnLarry.

To recap yesterday’s events, UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as its newest member, bolstering Mahmoud Abbas’ attempt to gain international recognition in lieu of a functioning peace process. In all, 107 states voted in favor of admitting Palestine, with 52 abstentions and only 14 nays.

As promised, the US voted against the measure and immediately cut its funding for UNESCO. The US provides UNESCO more than $80 million a year, or about 22% of the group’s budget. While $20 million have already been provided this year, the remaining $60 million will be sorely missed. Programmatic and staff cuts will be unavoidable. Given the impending damage, it’s clear why there were so many abstentions. These states were not expressing ambivalence towards Palestinian membership, but rather towards the implications of that membership to UNESCO’s mission.

Not surprisingly, the US vote and funding cut sparked a litany of criticism against the Obama administration. For example, Electronic Intifada co-founder Ali Abunimah tweeted, “Obama has turned out to be the most anti-Palestinian president since … um GW Bush an [sic] Bill Clinton.” He continued, “US cut funds to UNESCO because of Obama’s anti-Palestinian vote that he hopes will increase his campaign funds from Zionist fanatics.”

Such lines of criticism—and Abunimah was one of many pushing them—are patently unfair. According to the State Department, “Palestinian membership as a state in UNESCO triggers long-standing legislative restrictions which will compel the United States to refrain from making contributions to UNESCO.”

These legislative restrictions derive from two laws in particular passed back in the 1990’s (full text here). The first prohibits funding any organ of the UN that treats the Palestinian Liberation Organization— which formally represents the Palestinians at the UN— as a member state.  The second prohibits funds to any UN organ that “grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.”

These laws are pretty clear. If UNESCO recognizes the Palestinians as a member state, then the Obama administration has no choice but to withhold funds for UNESCO. And as far as I can tell, there are no waivers to this requirement. As such, critics can blame the law or blame Obama for not trying to change it, but they cannot blame him for following the law.

Moving beyond the blame game, there is no doubt that defunding UNESCO is against US interests. UNESCO does far more than protect cultural sites. It hosts educational exchanges, disseminates scientific findings, supports intercultural dialogue, and promotes gender equality. It also raises awareness about the Holocaust, as Elise Labott notes. Moreover, defunding UNESCO sends the wrong message to the rest of the UN and our international partners. For those reasons, the State Department also emphasized today that “the US remains strongly committed to robust multilateral engagement across the UN system.”

The administration will have to rely on some creative thinking to both uphold its domestic legal obligations and its desire to remain an actively engaged leader in the UN system.

Luckily, the legislative restrictions themselves present a potential opportunity to help square the circle. Specifically, the law requires that prohibited funds “remain available until expended and may be reprogrammed or transferred to any other account […] to carry out the general purposes for which such funds were authorized.” In other words, US funds intended for UNESCO won’t be lost to the budgetary abyss. In fact, they can still do some good.

One option could involve asking other states to transfer funds away from other UN organs and into UNESCO. In return, the US could use our withdrawn UNESCO funds to make up for any gaps left behind in the other UN institutions. For example, France – which voted for Palestinian membership – could reallocate X million from UNDP into UNESCO, and the US would then fund UNDP X million using our UNESCO dollars. The US would be in compliance with domestic law and the funding levels at all UN institutions would remain untouched.

A second option and potentially complementary option would be to allocate the UNESCO funds for programs currently under the chopping block in Washington but still serve UNESCO’s greater purpose. For example, the Fulbright Program is facing additional cuts this year, despite its importance in promoting educational exchanges and foreign-language learning. This option won’t stop damaging UNESCO as an institution, but it would minimize the harm done to UNESCO’s overall mission.

I hope the administration is considering these and other potential work-arounds. However, such options will ultimately only serve as stop gap measures. The issue of Palestinian statehood will not go away, and the US will face more UNESCO-type dilemmas in the future. Even if we cannot change our policy on Palestinian statehood, we at the very least must preserve our flexibility in dealing with future challenges caused by Palestinian recognition bids. As a first step, Congress should repeal these two outdated and burdensome laws.

Yes, their repeal would cause an outcry amongst those who view anything remotely pro-Palestinian as anti-Israel. But these critics would best heed the musings of Yousef Munayyer: “Just wait until the US pulls out of the IAEA when Palestine applies. Iran will get a kick out of that.” As the inflexible law now stands, we’d have no other choice.


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Iranian Conservatives Divided Ahead of Parliamentary Elections

Reza H. Akbari is a research associate for The Century Foundation‘s and an MA candidate in Middle East Studies at the George Washington University. Reza researches Iranian domestic politics, U.S. foreign policy toward Iran, Shiite politics, political transition, and democracy. He has previously served as a Program Officer for a prominent non-profit organization in Washington, D.C. focusing on human rights issues in Iran. He also served as a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a Project Assistant for Princeton University’s Iran Data Portal.

Today’s headlines are dominated by Iran after a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. was revealed yesterday. Open conflict among the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Iran may not be imminent, but conflict within Iran is ongoing, as conservative factions struggle to form a unified camp and President Ahmadinejad’s party is marginalized even further.

Iran’s maverick president has caused so much acrimony since his disputed re-election in 2009 that the conservatives are more fractured than ever. This fragmentation not only presents obstacles to running the country, but also poses problems for the conservatives as parliamentary elections approach in March 2012.

As the conservatives gear up for the upcoming polls, coalitions and alliances are proving to be more difficult to form than ever. One reason for this was the recent fierce battle between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, which alienated some of the newcomers to the conservative camp. For example, Ahmadinejad’s Chief of Staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaiee and his supporters were labeled as the “deviant movement” for their unorthodox, and by some standards heretical, views of Shiite theology. Conservative camps had to choose a side. They were either with the Supreme Leader, or with their nonconformist president.

Partisan infighting is not a new phenomenon. The 32-year history of the Islamic Republic consists of complicated and nuanced internal strife between the country’s numerous political factions. Evidently, the reformist years of President Khatami, 1997-2005, and the events following the disputed 2009 presidential election highlighted the distinctions between the reformist and conservative factions of the regime. However, misguidedly, the country’s ruling conservative faction is often painted as a monolithic and unified force. In fact, there are numerous shades of conservatism in Iran, which frequently cause disputes among the ruling clerics.

Case in point was the reaction of the conservatives to the results of the contested 2009 presidential elections. More traditional conservatives, such as Mohsen Rezaei, influential politician and former Revolutionary Guard Commander, went as far as to question the election result, while more radical individuals, such as Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, hardliner cleric and a member of the Assembly of Experts, decidedly announced their support for the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Conservative rifts will not have an immediate impact on Iran’s nuclear policy or the country’s general attitude toward the United States. The diversity among the conservatives is related to their ideological and domestic policy differences. As for Iran’s nuclear program, the extreme majority of the conservatives agree with the country’s right to pursue its nuclear ambitions. This is a domestic battle and the winner will attempt to impose his own version of conservatism while in power.

In preparation for the upcoming elections, Iran’s conservative forces have started an inner- party dialogue, which is often backed by public statements indicative of their progress. The conservative forces consist of traditional factions, neo-conservatives, and right-leaning groups.

The Traditional Groups

  • Combatant Clergy Association, Jame’e-ye Rowhaniyat-e Mobarez, founded in 1978, plays an important role in deciding the conservative political agenda in the country. The positions by the group tend to be aligned with the government and based on the traditional conservative line of thinking. Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, Chairman of the Assembly of Experts and the head of Combatant Clergy Association, has expressed concern about the divisions in the conservative camp, and he is attempting to act as an appeasing force among the different factions.
  • Society of the Lecturers of Qom Seminary, Jame’eh-ye Modarresin-e Howzeh-ye Elmiyyeh Qom, founded in 1961, is a conservative group that nominates the lecturers of the Qom seminary who are aligned with the regime. The society is headed by Mohammad Yazdi, Iran’s former Head of Judiciary. More than likely, this group will play the role of an appeaser in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
  • The Islamic Coalition Party, Hezb-e Motalefeh-ye Eslami, founded in 1962, is traditionally close to Iran’s bazaari merchants. They helped in funding the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran during the 1979 Revolution. They are one of the most powerful and influential conservative coalitions and have strong connections with the non-governmental financial institutions. They tend to lean toward moderate conservativism.
  • The Followers of Imam’s Line and the Supreme Leader, Jebhe-ye Peyrovan Khat-e Emam va Rahbari, is a coalition of 14 conservative political groups. Habibollah Asgaroladi is the chairman of this coalition and they tend to function under the umbrella of the the Hezb-e Motalefeh-ye Eslami.

Iranian New Conservatives

The participation of three influential figures who comprise the new conservative camp is important to note; Ali Larijani, Chairman of the Parliament, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Mayor of Tehran, and Mohsen Rezaie, former IRGC commander and a member of the Expediency Council.

It is difficult to gauge the involvement of these individuals in the upcoming parliamentary elections, but more than likely they will act as influential figures who will set forth the agenda of the conservative party as a whole. The trio does not represent new figures in the Iranian political scene, but their emphasis on liberal economic policies, moderate political ideology, and criticism toward the radical factions has earned them the title of the “new conservatives” in Iran.

Ali Larijani is not part of an official conservative group, but he and his brothers hold key political positions in the system. He is the parliamentary member from Qom, which has made his relationship with the ruling clergy more significant and more influential.

As the mayor of the capital, Ghalibaf has proven to be a capable technocrat, managing one of the largest urban areas in the world. He tends to stay away from any political infighting and often uses his newspaper—the Tehran Emrooz—to broadcast his opinions.

Mohsen Rezaie founded the Resistance Front, Jebheye Istadegi, after the 2009 presidential elections in order to analyze the issues facing the conservatives. He is a regular commentator on various media outlets.

The Radical Right

  • Esfandiar Rahim Mashaiee, president Ahmadinejad’s closest confidant and his in-law, is the main organizer of support for the president and his faction in the parliament. After the political battle between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, this group has an uncertain future. It is not clear if they will have enough political influence to carry on.
  • Society of the Devotees of the Islamic Republic, Jam`iyat-e Isargaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami, informally referred to as Isargaran,is a radical right-wing group, which was originally founded by Ahmadinejad. After the president’s scuffle with the Supreme Leader, Ahmadinejad’s name has been removed from the society’s executive board.The group has focused on highlighting the economic class differences existing in Iranian society. They pander to the impoverished individuals in the public and have been claiming to pursue “justice, simple living, and combating economic corruption.” The executive board consists of 16 individuals, headed by Hossein Fadaie.
  • Unwavering Front, Jebheye Paydar, headed by the conservative cleric, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. This coalition has entered the arena to serve as the alliance against candidates supporting Mashaiee. This group does not believe in the political philosophy of the more moderate factions, such as the Combatant Clergy Association and Society of the Lectures of Qom Seminary, and individuals such as Mahdavi Kani.This group has distanced itself from the “deviant movement,” but it still supports Ahmadinejad. It is attempting to make a distinction from the Mashaiee camp and the president.

At a cursory glance the Iranian conservative block might appear to be a unified and cohesive body, but in reality it consists of a number of diverse factions and individuals with different beliefs. Although the internal political struggle does not have an immediate impact on Iran’s posture toward the United States, it has major implications for the future stability and nature of the regime. Understanding the differences between the various conservative groups in Iran can help us form a more complete picture of the ambiguous decision-making process in Iran.


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