The Syria Problem

September 3, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama’s surprising announcement Saturday that he would go to Congress for use-of-force authorization against Syria will require the president to extrapolate what a strike will accomplish and what contingency plans his administration has should the conflict spread.

A swift resolution is unlikely. Meaningful changes in Syria will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve under any circumstances.

Syria6000

The real threat is the conflict spilling over. If the U.S. attacks Syria, expect Hezbollah to hit Israel from southern Lebanon and the Israelis to retaliate over a period of weeks.

Iran will rattle its sword, but any rhetoric about attacking Israel will be a bluff. If Tehran were to strike Israel, its nuclear facilities would immediately be a target; therefore, Iran will be happy to use Hezbollah as a proxy.

The threat of spreading conflict will drive up oil prices. Key oil-producing countries like Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia could be drawn into the strife and cardinal transit points for oil transport like the Persian Gulf and Egypt may be jeopardized.

I think it is safe to expect oil prices to hit $120 to $125 a barrel, up from about $107 now. The impact on American drivers will be about a 15 cent a gallon increase.

Even if Assad is ultimately removed from power, broader unrest in the Middle East will continue for decades and any rebel faction that takes over Syria will be anti-American while al Qaeda (an important contingent of the opposition) will be well positioned to gain power and influence.

In reality, war between the U.S. and Syria has already commenced.

The pro Assad Syrian Electronic Army hacked the U.S. Marine Corps website over the weekend. The electronic attack was aimed at discouraging U.S. entry into the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels. The hackers left a message stating that Mr. Obama is “a traitor who wants to put your lives in danger to rescue al Qaeda insurgents,” according to the New York Post.

The hackers then urged the Marines to rebel against their commander-in-chief and to join the civil war on the side of the Assad regime.

Many people are asking themselves, if the U.S. attacked Syria, how would we define winning and losing the conflict? While Mr. Obama has yet to define to the world what he would consider to be a win, members of his administration have voiced how the U.S. could lose.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been resolute that the consequences of inaction in Syria would be dire.  Mr. Kerry has said that if the U.S. doesn’t act, it would send a signal to Iran and North Korea that it is okay to advance their nuclear programs and to move ahead in proliferation of their weapons. Kerry said that it is important to show that if a red line is crossed, the U.S. is prepared to back it up.

No matter the outcome, the U.S.’ standing in the Muslim world will continue to erode.

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Decentralized Terrorism

July 23, 2013

Is the rise of Islamic extremism the great issue of our age?

The effects of Islamic terrorism are not just felt in the Middle East but around the world. A Pew Research survey about religious extremism published in late April found high levels of concern among Americans, Russians, and Central Asian Countries. And other national public opinion surveys find most Americans remain concerned in general about terrorism. In Europe, the newspaper Austria Today reported an upswing of concern regarding “Salafist extremist teenagers” among the Austrian population, and Germany has recently banned three ultra-conservative Islamic sects including Salafism.

Salafi Woman

Al Qaeda has become more decentralized with most terrorist activity being currently conducted by local franchises. The U.S. State Department’s latest annual country report on terrorism has acknowledged that local al Qaeda affiliates “seem more inclined to focus on smaller scale attacks closer to their home base.” However, al Qaeda is not the only problem.

Iran is sending its own terrorist operatives in Hezbollah to demoralize and intimidate Western countries.

The U.S. State Department now concedes that Hezbollah, with Iran as its state sponsor, is considered the most technically capable terrorist group in the world.

In March a criminal court in Cyprus found a Hezbollah member guilty of helping to plan attacks on Israelis on the Mediterranean island, and  Hezbollah has been implicated in terrorist attack in Bulgaria’s Black Sea resort of Burgas last year that killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian. 

The Iranian-backed organization plays a pivotal role in Lebanese politics, dominating the government since 2011. It has since sent its members to bolster Syria’s President Bashar Assad’s forces in their assault on rebel-held areas.

As Hezbollah’s hand in the Syrian conflict has become public, Lebanon has seen a spike in Sunni-Shi’ite tensions that has sparked gun battles in several cities around the country. Many Lebanese Sunnis support the overwhelmingly Sunni uprising against Assad in Syria, while Shi’ites generally back Hezbollah and the regime in Damascus.

Many more international extremists are connected to Pakistan, a state rocked on a daily basis by attacks from the Taliban and other jihadist extremists on schools, government officials, and others. Yet the United States government has given Pakistan $23 billion in aid since 2002, because the American government relies on Pakistan for its prosecution of the war in Afghanistan.

United State’s President Barack Obama’s administration has assessed that Syria has likely used chemical weapons twice in its civil war. This has intensified calls where I work on Capitol Hill for a more aggressive U.S. intervention in Syria. However, American lawmakers are far from agreeing on what a greater American role would look like.

The U.S. intelligence community has determined that Syria has crossed the red line set out by Mr. Obama, who has said the use or transfer of chemical weapons would constitute a “game changer” to his policy of providing only humanitarian and nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition.

Hagel Middle East Syria

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the news yesterday during a trip through the Middle East. “It violates every convention of warfare,” Hagel told reporters in Abu Dhabi.

Several U.S. Senators have since renewed their calls for stronger U.S. intervention in Syria without United Nations involvement.

New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says that he supports working with regional partners, establishing a no-fly zone with international support, and potentially arming vetted rebels in some sort of controlled process.

“It is clear that we must act to assure the fall of Assad, the defeat of extremist groups, and the rise of democracy,” Menendez said in a written statement.

However, calls for intervention in the Syrian civil war are being met in the U.S. and elsewhere with trepidation.

The Syrian military’s defense mechanisms are sophisticated and located within major population centers. Removing those devices could cause mass civilian casualties. This will make instituting and maintaining a no-fly zone very difficult. Furthermore, potential ethnic divisions within the country are severe.

There is also a lot of concern within the Western intelligence communities about who some of these various groups are aligned with. Some groups have ties with al-Qaeda and other groups have ties to other jihadi organizations. Another particular concern is the role that Hezbollah may be playing in the war.

Hezbollah is a Shi’a militant group. It has a paramilitary wing that is one of the stronger militant movements within the Middle East. Hezbollah has been a recipient of financial assistance from Syria for years, and what actions it is taking during the civil war remains unclear. Hezbollah would be one actor that could stand in opposition to al-Qaeda (a Sunni organization).

Indeed, there are reports coming out of Syria that sectarian conflict, between Shi’a and Sunni groups as well as between tribes within those denominations, is erupting in the wake of conflict between rebel forces and the military.

The Syrian civil war is a very complicated contest. The breakdown along ethnic lines will be every bit as problematic as it was in Iraq – only Syria has chemical weapons.

There are many ways to analyze the ongoing conflict in Syria. It can be seen as a revolution against an authoritarian regime, or as a proxy war between Sunnis and Shi’a, or as means for al-Qaeda and similar organizations to find new relevance. All of these approaches are helpful in understanding the nuances of varying actors and their motivations in the war.

Further debate on a U.S. response to Syria is expected later today after lawmakers receive a classified briefing on the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons.

The White House said that the administration will wait to announce its next moves until a United Nations investigation into the two suspected cases of chemical weapons produces “credible corroboration” of the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “If it is verified, then obviously it is a crossing of the red line and would greatly change our posture there.”

Different Perspectives

August 23, 2012

Hezbollah’s Military Wing

There are many perspectives within the Middle East about Hezbollah. These perspectives vary from person to person when they presuppose what Hezbollah is, who it symbolizes, and what it’s achieving.

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A powerful Shi’ite tribe in Lebanon (The al-Meqdad clan) announced today that it has kidnapped more than 20 FSA or Free Syrian Army (The Sunni organization that I wrote about yesterday) soldiers in Beirut in response to the alleged abduction in Damascus of one of their own by members of the FSA.

The Lebanese news organization Naharnet quoted an al-Meqdad tribal leader as saying, “The family’s military wing kidnapped several Syrians. We are not afraid of anyone.”

Among those said to be abducted by the Meqdads in Lebanon within the past 24 hours was a Sunni member of the Syrian army who defected. Lebanon’s LCBI has confirmed that a former captain in President Bashar al-Assad’s army is among those abducted.

The Meqdads said they are not taking sides in the Syrian conflict, and that they “just want our son to come back to Lebanon safely.” Hassan Salim al-Meqdad was reportedly detained by the FSA on Monday. The opposition group accused the 39-year-old Lebanese national of being a member of Hezbollah.

As I have stated in previous posts, Hezbollah is a Shi’a militant group. It has a paramilitary wing that is one of the stronger militant movements within the Middle East. Hezbollah has been a recipient of military and financial assistance from Syria for years, and I have hypothesized that Hezbollah would be one group with loyalties to the Syrian regime that could stand in opposition to rebel Sunni groups in the civil war.

For more on Hezbollah and its role in the Syrian conflict, read my article here: https://nottheology.com/2012/08/02/hezbollahframework/

The Axis of Resistance

August 8, 2012

Iranian security chief Saeed Jalili, yesterday pledged Tehran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Members of Iran’s government joined Mr. Assad during talks in Damascus broadcast by Syrian state television. Mr. Jalili said, “Iran will not allow the axis of resistance, of which it considers Syria to be an essential part, to be broken in any way.” 

The “axis of resistance” refers to Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

As I alluded to in my post yesterday, the Lebanese Hezbollah has operated as an instrument for the radicalized Shi’ite community. The “axis of resistance” is a purely Shi’ite alignment of nations that seeks to be a counterweight (within the Middle East) to the power of the Sunni alignment of nations led by Saudi Arabia.

Iran is seen as the de facto leader of this Shi’ite alliance. The biggest effect the Iranian Revolution of 1979 had on the Middle East was to encourage the most uncompromising elements within the Shi’ite community to fight a regional counteroffensive against what was then a Sunni status quo.

Iran has been attempting for years to export its revolution to the rest of the Muslim world. The social norms and values espoused by the Iranian Revolution encourage Shi’ite legitimacy and political power.

The Middle East has been dominated by Sunni power centered in Saudi Arabia since the creation of the Islamic conference in 1969. However, Iran has considered itself the true standard-bearer of Islam since its revolution, despite its Shi’ite minority status. Iran considers the Saudis to be “usurpers who sold oil to the West in exchange for military protection–a retrograde, conservative monarchy with a facade of ostentatious piety” (Kepel 2000).

As I explained yesterday, the Shi’ite faith has always appealed to the poor and oppressed waiting for salvation. Iran’s propaganda promotes an “Islam of the people,” and incites the poor to rise up against the impiety of Sunni-lead governments.

Read the rest of this entry »

A reader recently asked why I focused on Hezbollah last week in posts about the Syrian civil war, so today I’d like to provide some additional context.

First, there are many ways to analyze the ongoing conflict in Syria. It can be seen as a revolution against an authoritarian regime, or as a proxy war between Sunnis and Shi’a, or as means for al-Qaeda and similar organizations to find new relevance. All of these approaches are helpful in understanding the nuances of actors and motivations in the war.

Second, Hezbollah has undeniably been an instrument of the Syrian government. Syria has helped to fund and train Hezbollah militants since the group’s inception. If the government has used Hezbollah to attack groups outside of Syria in the past, there is no reason to think it won’t use them to attack groups inside of Syria now. Furthermore, there is premature speculation in the media that the fall of the Syrian regime could spell the end of Hezbollah.

Personally, I am particularly interested in how a Shi’ite group like Hezbollah may try to counter the growing Sunni presence of al-Qaeda. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was not inaccurate when he characterized the opposition as “al-Qaeda terrorists” during the early days of the war. Many within the Western news media balked at that suggestion, but al-Qaeda was among the hundreds of opposition groups in Syria at that time and their numbers have only grown since.

The al-Qaeda fighters pouring into Syria from Iraq promote a jihadist vision that is global in scope, intolerant of other Sunni doctrines, and fanatically anti-Shi’a. Al-Qaeda’s main grievance with the Syrian regime is that it is run by Alawites, people who belong to a branch of Shi’a Islam. Syria’s population is over 70% Sunni, yet the country is run by minority Shi’ites who make up only around 12% of the population.  Al-Qaeda wants to change that.

The Shi’a were an early Islamic political faction (Party of Ali) that supported the power of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the fourth caliph (ruler) of the Muslim community. Ali was murdered in 661CE, and his chief rival, Muawiya, became the new caliph. It was Ali’s death that led to the great schism between Sunni and Shi’ite.

Caliph Muawiya was succeeded by his son Yazid, but Ali’s son Hussein refused to accept Yazid’s legitimacy. Fighting between the two denominations resulted. Hussein and his followers were massacred in battle near Karbala in 680CE,  and the deaths of Ali and Hussein gave rise to the Shi’a sect of martyrdom and a sense of betrayal.

The Shi’ite faith has always appealed to the poor and oppressed waiting for salvation. It is a messianic tradition in that it awaits the coming of the “Hidden Imam” (Allah’s messenger) who will reverse the fortunes of sect members and herald the end of the world.

Shi’ites  currently make up about 15% of the Muslim population worldwide. Al-Qaeda has vowed to wipe the Shi’ites from the face of the earth. The only way that the Alawite population can survive in the current Syrian climate is to use their own groups such as Hezbollah to push back against the al-Qaeda machine.

To sum up, I have focused on Hezbollah because that organization is a significant- and significantly underreported- player in the Syrian conflict.

The organization known as Hezbollah first appeared in Lebanon in 1982 with the purpose of targeting and attacking Israeli, American, and French military forces. A loose federation of Shi’a and incendiary groups, Hezbollah emerged as a response to foreign military occupation of Lebanon.

On June 6, 1982, Israel invaded Southern Lebanon in what would become known as the 1982 Lebanon War. With 3,000 tanks and armored vehicles and 78,000 combat soldiers, Israel would go on to occupy the southern Lebanese region. Among Israel’s  intentions was to remove a Syrian influence from Lebanon and to expel the Palestinian Liberation Organization from the area. Israel believed that its actions would lead to regional stability; however, Hezbollah was born one month later as a resistance movement.

Former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak described Hezbollah’s creation in a June 8, 2009 article for Time Magazine entitled “A Brief History Of: Hizballah.” Barak described the effect of Israel’s invasion by saying, “When we entered Lebanon, there was no Hezbollah… It was our presence there that created Hezbollah.”

Initially, Hezbollah had almost no popular support among the Lebanese people. However, the longer Israeli troops occupied Lebanon (a total of 18 years) the more that resentment grew within the population. Specifically, Shi’a resentment led to the forming of several militant organizations.

Hezbollah responded by expanding into an umbrella organization that coordinated the operations of what were otherwise a detached aggregation of preexisting Shi’a tribes and social groups. Israel’s invasion solidified these differing groups by giving them the common purpose of resisting an occupation.

Hezbollah experimented with a stratagem of suicide attacks during the first year of its formation. The first couple of attacks targeted Israeli forces, but the third attack was on U.S. Marines in Beirut. A fourth attack later struck French soldiers the same day as the third attack.

Scholar Robert A. Pape has argued that the vastly different groups involved in Hezbollah’s coordination of early suicide attacks  cooperated, because they saw such attacks as a legitimate means of self-defense. However, Pape contends that not all of the groups involved saw suicide attacks as an act of religious martyrdom. Pape’s research has led him to believe that early suicide bombers acted for the secular reason of advancing their community’s economic and political  power. This secular justification, according to Pape, was offered in hundreds of speeches and interviews by early resistance leaders (Pape 2010).

Hezbollah leadership slowly started a discourse over the nature of suicide attacks and religious martyrdom as the group continued to coordinate and consolidate its power over smaller organizations. This discourse was used to encourage new bombers and to replenish their ranks.

As Hezbollah’s influence grew, it began to receive funding from the Syrian and Iranian regimes.

The Hezbollah movement has been a real problem for Israel. Many Israelis will tell you that Israel has not had a broad strategy for dealing with this group; instead, the country finds itself continually stuck in an ad hoc military campaign. Hezbollah has emerged as a symbol of armed resistance against Israel, and has gained a following among Shi’a, Sunnis, and non-Muslim Arabs over the years.

That pan-Arab support may be dwindling, however.

As I noted in my post yesterday, there are reports of sectarian conflict erupting as a part of Syria’s current civil war. The Syrian regime has been a major supporter of Hezbollah both financially and politically. As denominations and tribes battle one another on Hezbollah’s border, one can only guess at how the current climate may affect Hezbollah’s infrastructure and mission.

Sunni militants are trickling into Syria to battle President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as well as Shi’a militias who are also battling the regime. The Sunni terrorist organization al-Qaeda has used the Syrian civil war as a recruitment tool and fundraiser after years of loses to U.S. and Iraqi forces. The influx of Sunnis has added to the destabilization of the region, and it has galvanized Shi’a militant organizations to combat the incoming Sunnis.

According to Reuters, senior officials in Baghdad believe that seasoned al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq “are crossing the 680 km (422 mile) border into Syria to liaise and conduct attacks on Assad’s government.”

Hezbollah may very well move to counter al-Qaeda’s growing influence in order to retain its own power.

The United Nations has reported a significant escalation in Syria’s civil war: the country’s military has begun using warplanes to fire on the opposition rebellion.

Sausan Ghosheh, the spokeswoman for the U.N. mission in Syria, said that international observers had witnessed warplanes firing in Aleppo (Syria’s largest city) where intense fighting has been raging for 12 days. Ghosheh said the situation in Aleppo was urgent, with “heavy use of heavy weapons” including tanks being used by both sides.

Calls on the United States and NATO to intervene in the conflict are being met in the West with trepidation.

The Syrian military’s defense mechanisms are sophisticated and located within major population centers. Removing those devices could cause mass civilian casualties. Furthermore, potential ethnic divisions within the country are severe.

There are possibly hundreds of opposition groups in Syria. Several of these groups consider themselves to be the incumbency for the opposition. These groups are not part of a larger monolithic whole; rather, they are  divergent ethnic groups that are antagonistic and even violent towards one another.

There is also a lot of concern within the Western intelligence community about who some of these various groups are aligned with. Some groups have ties with al-Qaeda and other jihadi organizations. One particular concern is the role that Hezbollah may be playing in the war.

Hezbollah is a Shi’a militant group. It has a paramilitary wing that is one of the stronger militant movements within the Middle East. Hezbollah has been a recipient of financial assistance from Syria for years, and what actions it is taking during the civil war is unclear. Hezbollah would be one actor that could stand in opposition to al-Qaeda (a Sunni organization).

Indeed, there are reports coming out of Syria that sectarian conflict, between Shi’a and Sunni groups as well as between tribes within those denominations, is erupting in the wake of conflict between opposition forces and the military.

The Syrian civil war is a very complicated contest.

Rebel opposition groups control very little in land or resources within Syria. Groups hold small swaths of land along the Turkish border, but scarce else.

Bottom line, this conflict has the potential to persist for quite some time.

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