Archive for the ‘Israel’ Category
Thira- Two years ago when I was here on this island, the principal of the Santorini archipelago in Greece’s Cyclades group, I was quietly reading the Eleventh Day The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan. That book was a2012 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the History category. When nearing the last chapter and scanning the footnotes I was delighted that one of my articles was cited in them.
Here I am two years later catching up on some much needed personal writing. Seeing as we recently passed yet another 9/11 anniversary, it is clearly not one of those topics that will ever be “over” like the endless accounts–each one claiming to be more definitive than the last–put out by publishing houses each year on the Second World War (a.k.a. The Great Patriotic War).
I will never forget taking my photojournalism portfolio by an agency in Manhattan in early 2002 after coming home from six weeks in Afghanistan and Central Asia and a photo editor telling me: “sorry but Afghanistan is kind of like, over…” I heard similar things regarding 9/11 less than a year after it took place. But it is obvious these events will never be “over.” They steered the course of world history in our lifetime. It is simply arrogant to think otherwise. Short sighted people working in fast-paced New York media may have been eager to move on to the next story but I was not. I covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, sure, but even at the time I saw it all as a unified story where each successive event was linked to previous ones to form a continuum of globalized conflict that didn’t respect the Westphalian state system.
I recall talking to a close friend here on the island two years ago and telling him about the book I was then reading and the writing I was doing. His first reaction was “but what about building 7 (WTC 7)?” WTC 7 is the lynchpin of 9/11 conspiracy theorists often known as “truthers.” The perfect pancaked collapse of WTC 7 lead skeptics and the paranoid to insist WTC 7’s collapse was what is called a controlled demolition–meaning it was premeditated which would then imply that perhaps all of 9/11 was some sort of “inside job.”
One of the things people can never accept about 9/11–especially those who were not physically in lower Manhattan that particular day–is that even though it was a televised and well-documented tragedy is that there are some things that all of us will simply never know and we must accept this fact. There were so very many moving parts in the 9/11 attack and ensuing tragedy that it will never be possible to know everything. In a city of 8.5 million in an event with thousands of simultaneous deaths, many people cannot accept that everything about this event cannot be known or understood in its entirety in our time.
For those who actually witnessed the horror that day, not much more need be said in many cases. For those who were far away or too young at the time, they have the luxury of viewing 9/11 as some sort of theoretical abstraction to be neatly dissected by its various anomalies in the realms of physics, chemistry or engineering. I witnessed WTC 7 engulfed in flames when I arrived via bicycle well after the collapse or the South Tower.
Of course the U.S government, particularly the Executive Branch has done virtually nothing to quell those of a conspiratorial bent. So many documents remain classified or partially redacted. Any why, we must ask? To protect princes and princesses in the Saudi regime in order to not disrupt the flow of oil to U.S .shores? Or is it merely the bureaucratic culture of secrecy continually perpetuating itself? In the era of wikileaks and Edward Snowden, one may wish some dusty 9/11 documents be released rather than, say, embassy cables from Mauritius. There was a grandiose conspiracy behind 9/11 and it was cultivated in a suburb of Hamburg, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, San Diego and Tarnak Farms outside Kandahar and a litany of other locales rather than at Langley or at Larry Silverstein’s office in Manhattan.
Why certain people prefer to entertain conspiracy theories is often a broader question involving human psychology. The conspiracy theorists are correct on something though. The American government is hiding things about 9/11 from its citizenry. But it is to protect its own tragic incompetence and ego-driven buffoonery than its dark hand in the 9/11 plot. The U.S. government is not made up of an underground lair of dastardly super villains hatching fanciful plots.
Anyone who has spent anytime in the corridors of Washington knows that it is made up of individuals, some of them intelligent, some of them quite ordinary, who have had often disproportionate power bestowed upon them by a ballooned security clearance system. Some of these individuals have their own spirited agendas such as the preservation of Israeli military superiority in the Middle East, the promotion of hardline Protestantism, retrograde Catholoicism or more mundane concerns such as procuring defense contracts to keep or bring jobs and thereby votes back home in their respective districts. OK, so calling something the “Office of Special Plans” certainly doesn’t help the matter in the eyes of the avidly skeptical. But Douglas Feith was and is an idiot, not Lex Luther.
I very belatedly stumbled onto this 2008 documentary regarding the mystery surrounding WTC 7 by the BBC entitled 9/11 – The Third Tower.
New York- It’s been quite a while since I’ve managed to slug out a blog update due to bouts of sickness, busy-ness, and relaxing-ness. None of that is to say that TWD hasn’t been busy though. Where to begin…well things in Syria have obviously gotten much worse. Kofi Annan’s shuttle diplomacy is clearly an abject failure. Meanwhile the Free Syrian Army position visited by TWD in late January has been overrun according to the Telegraph’s Nick Meo who traveled to Guveççi in early March. After the vicious assault on Homs, I figured reprisals against rebellious bastions in Idlib Governorate would surely be next and indeed they were. I had been contemplating a return to Idlib in the spring but for now I’ve scuttled that idea less a major development occurs. All the talk of a Turkish imposed of led buffer zone is just that…talk.
The floundering Syrian revolution is the saddest quarter of the Arab Spring, beating out the quashed, well contained uprising in Bahrain by a long shot. At least for the near term, it does not appear that any one actor is going to stick their neck out far enough and come to the FSA’s rescue. That is not to say their cause is entirely without hope. Though the stream of Russian-supplied arms through the Black Sea and on to Syria’s slice of the Mediterranean coast certainly does not foster much optimism for those longing to see the end of the conflict. With members of the FSA’s border sentinels back on their heels in Turkish territory, I’m quite curious as to just how that will affect the already rather timid talk of creating some kind of cordon sanitaire hugging the southern Turkish border.
With the fall of Deir ez-Zor last week, the FSA has lost its conduit to smuggled arms emanating from northern and western Iraq. So in sum, things are looking quite bleak. As the FSA has had to concede a succession of tactical retreats throughout March reversing many of their gains from 2011, those that cannot ditch to either Turkey’s Hatay Province or Lebanon’s North Governorate may have to resort to a form of taqiyyah (dissimulation) to save the revolution from Assad’s unforgiving mukhabarat. The bloody war in Syria being waged by Bashar al-Assad is like his father’s much more limited anti-Ikhwan campaign that lasted for several weeks in February 1982 when the city of Hama suffered through a pulverizing scorched earth campaign that was the writ small template for today’s crisis.
The world is paralyzed from acting in any sort of unison on Syria not just because of the well-reported obstinance of Russia and China on the UN Security Council but because that other all-important permanent member, the United States, could not take a firm position because it needed to be clear on what Israel’s position was first. The problem with that scenario has been that the Israelis have not really had a position at all, at least officially. The Israelis, behind the curve more often than not when it comes to change in the Middle East, hoped that the untenable status quo would somehow maintain in Syria so that they could keep their American patrons tightly focused on the Iranian nuclear issue.
Although the US, most notably the State Department, began to put some teeth into their statements regarding the Assad regime, this ends up being empty rhetoric when not backed up by concrete action on the ground of any sort. Now that everyone has twiddled their thumbs for so long, the FSA has lost much of the ground it once de facto controlled.
Though publicly the Israelis find Assad and Co. odious, they would prefer to deal with a rather predictable, supposedly rational enemy they know rather than a collapsed state on their doorstep or an emergent Sunni-led government intent on somehow regaining the illegally occupied Golan which Israel sees as critical to its water supply. And as with Libya, France and Britain cannot really do much in terms of military action without the US. The most important player in the whole deal appears to be the Kremlin which is always a sad state of affairs (see Chechnya, Dagestan et al.). Though every state shall perform diplomacy through the narrow prism of their national interest, having Medvedev (Putin) broker a Syrian peace/stalemate is absurd. The FSA hoped Turkey would have their back but Ankara is too concerned about a resurgent PKK to do anything of substance on Syria. Turkey fears renewed Syrian assistance to the PKK that would allow them to stage attacks on Turkish security forces from Syrian ground as Hafez al-Assad had done until the late 1990s. Depressing all the way around.
While the world has been consumed by the war raging in the Levant, a very important geopolitical development has taken place in what many might incorrectly assume to be a quiet African backwater. A coup d’état took place in Mali last week as a direct result of the Western (and GCC)-backed overthrow and extrajudicial execution of Qaddafi in Libya last year.
With Qaddafi dead and the war in Libya shrunk down to a few internecine militia skirmishes and inter-ethnic squabbles little understood by the outside world, ethnic Tuareg fighters who had fought under Qaddafi’s monochrome green banner returned to their desert home in northern Mali to commence a new, better armed rebellion. There is a long history of the Libyan state, embodied singularly by Qaddafi’s quixotic territorial ambitions, co-opting the dispossessed Tuareg of Mali and Niger for Libya’s own purposes. Qaddafi thoroughly enjoyed making trouble for his neighbors (and anywhere in the world he deemed counter-revolutionary). He harbored rebel leaders from throughout the Sahel region. This interaction gave birth to the musical collective Tinariwen, arguably the world’s most famous beacon of Tuareg culture.
Now Mali’s Tuareg rebels, principally the MNLA, have launched a new war against the Malian state with arms and vehicles looted from the chaos in Libya last year. Mali’s regular army troops outgunned and even reportedly underfed at surrounded garrisons in the country’s three northern regions of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal. In response, a group of disaffected Army officers formed a junta to overthrow the democratically elected government of President Touré (who was just weeks away from peacefully stepping down with new elections on the horizon).
The Arab Spring, which began as a chain reaction of calls for radical reform that quickly morphed into the toppling of strongmen across the region, has now inadvertently toppled a relatively decent democracy. Malian Tuareg who were either no longer needed or no longer welcome in Libya returned home to incite an insurrection to secede from the Malian state to create a Tuareg homeland of ‘Azawad.’ So now poor Mali-recipient of a meager amount of American foreign aid and client state in the Pan-Sahel Initiative/Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative/AFRICOM jumble-has had a fairly civil, democratically elected leader (himself a former soldier who led a coup in toppling dictator in 1991) overthrown by an American-trained, hitherto unknown army captain who leads a junta angry about better armed MNLA rebels who are sort of beneficiaries of American/Western policy. This policy in Libya that greatly helped to collapse the Libyan state structure which gave rise a renewed troubles in Mali (and potentially Niger).
The proverbial genie is out of the bottle in the troubled under-governed Sahel and Qaddafi is no longer around to sort things out. NATO declared the Libyan campaign a success when it officially called an end to Operation Unified Protector on October 31, 2011 without any sort of contingency plans for potential state failure in the countries to Libya’s south. Qaddafi loved to stoke conflicts in Africa and now that he’s long dead, he’s still able to cause immense trouble.
Mali Coup: Arab spring spreads to Africa
BAMAKO, Mali, March 26 (UPI) — Last week’s military coup in Mali, triggered by a Tuareg rebellion and ignited by fighters and weapons from Libya, underlines how deeply the fallout from the year-old string of Arab uprisings is spreading from North Africa to non-Arab West Africa.
“The current crisis … has the potential to create further destabilization in the wider Sahara and Sahel regions beyond the current chaos in Mali,” observed analyst Derek Henry Flood, who witnessed the 2011 Libyan conflict at close quarters.
“In simplest terms, the Arab Spring has now bled into Africa. And the mercurial, egomaniacal (Moammar) Gadhafi is no longer available to mediate such deadly disputes.”
The coup by disgruntled soldiers of Mali’s 7,000-man army overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure, an ex-soldier.
He went into hiding with loyalist troops, including his old 33rd Parachute Regiment, leaving open the possibility of a counter-coup in the nation of 15.4 million.
The irony is that while the Arab leaders targeted by the popular uprisings against them throughout 2011 were dictators and despots like Gadhafi, Mali’s Toure wasn’t one of the autocratic “Big Men” of Africa like the late Sese Seko Mobuto of the Congo or the murderous Charles Taylor of Sierra Leone, but a democratically elected leader.
Indeed, the U.S.-supported Toure had been instrumental in moving Mali, a vast landlocked desert state south of Algeria, from a military dictatorship to a passably democratic state over the last two decades.
Toure “was on the cusp of stepping down at the end of his first term in what should have been a peaceful transition” in presidential elections scheduled to begin April 29, Flood observed.
These aren’t likely to happen now since troops led by mid-level officers seized power Thursday.
Led by a U.S.-trained officer, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, they apparently struck because of discontent in the military that Toure wasn’t doing enough to support them in fighting a rebellion in the long under-governed north along the Algerian border.
The nomadic Tuareg have been a problem for centuries. Their secessionist insurrection had been stiffened by heavily armed tribal fighters who fought for Gadhafi’s regime and had long battled the Bamako government in the non-Tuareg south for independence under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.
In recent months thousands of tribesmen have returned to Mali, armed with missiles and mortars that left the Malian army badly outgunned. In January, they rekindled the MNLA’s revolt.
The coup itself seems to have been touched off by a mutiny among troops in the north reeling under an MNLA onslaught led by Gadhafi’s Tuareg veterans.
Now the MNLA, having seized most of the north and with the military in disarray, is apparently moving south toward the capital, with government troops reportedly fleeing in the Tuareg path.
Algeria, the regional military heavyweight, is increasingly concerned that Mali will become a haven for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. This group has been extending its operations across North Africa and into the Sahel states of Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.
Other countries, particularly impoverished Niger with vast uranium deposits, are seen as increasingly vulnerable to AQIM and its allies, which have in recent years included Tuaregs across the region.
Many Nigerien Tuaregs also fought in Gadhafi’s forces and they’re going home armed with heavy weapons.
Niger had a coup of its own in 2010 and struggled with a Tuareg revolt in 2007-09.
The MNLA has overrun towns and military bases along Mali’s border with Niger, Algeria and Mauritania.
Algeria, which has ducked the worst of the Arab Spring, is to have elections in May amid widespread discontent. The last thing Algiers wants is more trouble from the southern desert while it battles AQIM.
Links between the jihadists of AQIM and the Tuareg are patchy but they may yet find common cause.
The March 20 arrest in Mauritania of Gadhafi’s infamous and fugitive intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senussi, after he flew in from Morocco on a forged Malian passport “illustrates that the effects of regime change in Libya will be felt across Africa for some time to come,” Flood noted.
“It’s now clear that the consequences of the Western-backed Libyan campaign have now unequivocally traveled from North Africa to what is distinctly West Africa.”
Antakya- I’m sitting here typing in a dark, musty hotel room at 5am in the Levant. Hatay to be exact. Hatay may very well be a part of the Turkish Republic but it is also a little talked about corner of the greater Levant. Sometimes journalism is like what they say about war: lots and lots of waiting around doing nothing punctuated by extreme adrenalin rushes. I arrived in Antakya today which was blanketed in fresh snowfall. As the light went descended below the surrounding peaks, a bone chilling cold set in. Thanks to a contact I made on Lightstalkers, I met with a translator whose office happened to be directly across the street from my hotel. He told me that whatever I am trying to do here will not be easy. The local authorities from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs do their best to keep the Free Syrian Army on a tight leash.
I’m waiting to hear from a contact in the Syrian National Council to try and circumvent some of these restrictions. So for now I wait. The border is lined with tanks and snipers watching for anyone crossing in or out of Syria. In some stories that came out in 2011, some of the then newly arrived refugees claimed the snipers were Irani (Iranian), perhaps meaning they were on loan from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As anyone reading this blog might now, Tehran is terrified of losing their air bridge to Hezbollah in South Lebanon and the Bekaa. Syria is the air to land conduit for Iranian weapons and materiel to reach their proxies in the Israeli border. And Hezbollah needs Iran to act as a lever over the Syrians. And the Israelis need the entirely untenable status quo to remain in Syria for the time being for their storm clouds to appropriately gather over Netanz etc.
The transformation of Syria into some kind of a representative state which would mean being governed by its Sunni demographic majority is much too much for all of the regional players save for possibly Ankara. One of the key issues in this region is that everyone is too used to the status quo. Addicted to the status quo is probably more accurate. And that goes for Western analysts from 1967 onward as well. Syria is trying to jump out of the box it has been stuck in since 1970 when Hafez al-Assad came to power.
But the sand is running through the hour glass for the Assad regime. Sure it is still clinging to power and may do so for some time to come, but this is not 1982 Hama. Too much blood has been spilled and this time the revolution is being televised on Youtube. The MB in Hama thirty years ago had no such outlet for that massive crime against humanity that left one of Syria’s principal cities in ruins and sent MB members fleeing to distant corners of the Arab world to escape the Assad family’s wrath. Hafez al-Assad crushed their revolt and that was essentially the end of it…until now.
In short, it is a complicated mess here. A Sykes-Picot nightmare. Better than sitting in New York though…
New York- I posted a new video on my still nascent youtube channel about covering a mass guerrilla funeral on August 17th, 2006 in Srifa, South Lebanon after the U.N. mediated ceasefire. My driver Kamal was from the neighboring village and was curious to revisit the area and check on the homes of his two brothers and their families who hadn’t left. Israeli UAVs buzzed overhead as the town buried its martyrs. Thirty coffins were interred in a mass grave which was then covered over with concrete slabs to seal the dead men into the soil for eternity. The heat and wretchedness of the event was the most intense thing I’ve ever experienced.While virtually all media accounts of the war described it as strictly between the IDF and Hezbollah, on the ground in South Lebanon, Harakat Amal-the armed wing of the “Movement of the Disinherited” and Hizb-i-Shuy’ui-i-Lubnani-the armed wing of the Lebanese Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) fought the IDF in united front to defend South Lebanon and the Litani river from the invading forces. The Israeli invasion enhanced social cohesion amongst groups that had fought one another and which there had often been a great degree of animosity. The LCP had once fought Amal in the context of the civil war and Amal had once battled Hezbollah. The LCP’s local party headquarters had been demolished by the IAF if one needs context as the LCP cadres’ participation in the conflict. What fascinated me was the Guevarist theme of the LCP fighters.
A few years later I was leafing through Gilles Kepel’s Beyond Terror and Martyrdom at Kramer Books in Dupont Circle when I happened to see a reference on page 71 stating that, “Che Guevara was rumored to be from southern Lebanon.” Of course I haven’t heard this reference anywhere else. The wikipedia entry on Guevara says he’s Castilian, Basque, and Irish.
In a strange personal footnote to my experience, while photographing the event there was a gangly European photographer who I assumed was either Dutch or Scandanavian. He stood out even more because it was standing in the raised plow of a backhoe photographing from above. I wondered briefly who he was and how he knew about the funeral. A few weeks later I was back in New York walking with a friend exiting the turnstile of the West 4th street subway, the same super tall Dutch looking guy from Srifa was coming through the next turnstile the other way into the station. I didn’t bother to tell my friend because knowing he knew nothing about the international journalism scene, my shock would be lost on him. A year later when the NOOR photo agency was founded around the time of the annual Perpignan festival, I pieced it together to realize it was Kadir van Lohuizen that had crossed my path in South Lebanon and the West Village in the course of a month in 2006. Weird. I seriously doubt he recognized me that evening in the subway.
Obama appeared in Misr yesterday. Misr, for those who are not acquainted, is the endonym of Egypt as Deutschland is the endonym of Germany. Americans and other concerned parties might do well to address people how they prefer as Obama made a large effort to do. Obama spoke to a crowd of 3,000 Masri and even received several bouts of applause. I viewed the speech with a mix of hope and skepticism. I posted a piece on the HP entitled “The End of the Clash of Civilizations?” Here is the link. Peace in the Middle East.
Somewhat amusingly, my name turned up on Mort Zuckerman’s US News & World Report site’s opinion page. The author describes me as “Liberal” which I found kind of funny seeing as I try and stay above the fray in being labeled one way or the other. I’m guessing USNWR would take me as a Liberal merely for either being on the HP or because I’m not a card-carrying Likudnik. But hey, any press is good press!
General John Abizaid, the former Commander of U.S. Central Command spoke at NYU’s Center for Law and Security on the primary challenges the United States Armed Forces face today and in the near term along with a host of experts on counterinsurgency (COIN), critics, and A-list journalists.
Abizaid described Islam across the spectrum of the twenty-seven nation CentCom theater as being in a “fight with itself.” The four challenges for the U.S. in the region are Sunni extremism, the rise of King Abdullah’s feared “Shia Crescent”, the ongoing Arab-Israeli war and the securing of oil and other natural resources. General Abizaid stated that the political and economic center of gravity in the world has shifted to the East and that military power would eventually follow if history can be seen as a blueprint for the future. In order to maintain order, the United States must get out of an “occupational strategy” and enter a more coordinated “cooperative strategy.” Abizaid told of his strong dislike for “political-military friction” and that in the traditions of which he aspired, commanding officers are meant to remain neutral and stay clear of Republicans and Democrats alike avoiding involvements in Beltway entanglements that can further polarize the public-military discourse.
John Nagl is a retired Lieutenant Colonel and distinguished COIN expert, President of CNAS , and author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife who spoke of the massive paradigm shift that took place in calm after Desert Storm. The shift Nagl described was in the eyes of America’s enemies, allies and rivals. The warfare that would follow could be either high end (nuclear) or low end (guerrilla) with virtually no set piece battles in between. The Gulf War demonstrated that the United States could not be opposed military-to-military on the battlefield. “Tank-Tank”warfare as he put it was unlikely to occur on future battlefields (with the Russia-South Ossetia-Georgia war an exception). The military held that if “You can skin a cat, you can skin a kitten” and that fighting a small war was just a slimmed down version of fighting a large one rather than a mission that employed an entirely different skill set. Nagl told audience members that the U.S. must have a balance of preparedness through a whole spectrum of combat and risked negating itself if it swung too far in either the small or large war direction. The U.S. military was structured for offensive and defensive combat but now was operating along a crucial third tier, that of stabilizing operations. A key part of these type of operations was not Marshall Plan post-war style reconstruction but reconstruction as a core component within a theater of active combat.
Retired Lieutenant General David Barno who commanded American forces in Afghanistan from late 2003-2005, talked of the country as an “In-Conflict Reconstruction” and described his troops as doing “Armed Nation Building” (which I thought was a brilliant term) “because you get killed by doing unarmed nation building.” Barno described today’s war-fighting environment as one that no longer allowed for humanitarian space (think Sri Lanka). Lt. General Barno said this in response to a question I put to the panel about the conflation of nation-building and humanitarian work with armed state and non-state actors alike (The former being say, U.S. forces in the Balkans, an example of the latter being LeT in Azad Kashmir after the 2005 earthquake). I mentioned the sight of an American officer in post-invasion 2003 Karbala sitting behind a hospital administrator’s desk paying out freshly minted $20 bills to nurses and doctors who hadn’t been paid for months. On the surface it may have appeared to be a nice gesture by the officer in question but appeared to be a grave violation of the Geneva Convention. Suzanne Nossel of HRW said the line had been blurred between traditional civil and military lines in a conflict zone which confused the issue as soldiers, even while carrying our nation-building efforts, can still be considered legitimate targets under international humanitarian law. Although there was an emerging common ground between human rights groups and armed forces (I’m assuming she meant Western armed forces), that we as a public should remain cautious about ceding the idea of humanitarian space in war.
I attended an event with Alastair Crooke, author of Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution and veteran EU Middle East diplomat at the New America Foundation here in Washington. The event was webcast on the The Washington Note and Crooke’s presentation was little short of spellbinding. Flanked by Amjad Atallah and Daniel Levy from NA’s Middle East Task Force, Crooke took the audience through the rise of modern political Islam in the late twentieth century beginning with the earthquake of Imam Khomeni’s revolution up until the present. In a thorough bit of comparative historical analysis, he wove the narrative of the pairing of an evolving Protestant Reformation in the heart of what would become modern Europe with Enlightenment capitalism and the invisible hand. This pairing according to Crooke, led to the rise of the Western notion of strong individualism which would later clash with Islam’s concepts of communitarian social equity and justice. The invisible hand was meant to maximize human, and therefore individual, wealth. Combined with a belief in the “spontaneous natural order of the body politic” spurred by competitiveness would form the two pillars of modernity that would bring Islamic societies to near extinction with the rise of the (Westphalian) nation state and attendant human rights.
According to Crooke, “powerful, unitary nation-states were necessary to create economic markets.” Thus with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire came a modern dark age for traditional Islamic societies. Western Europe’s Sykes-Picot version of the Middle East, creating definable state borders with centrifugal client leadership (and subsequent dependent economies) was devastating to regional cultural order. Using the rise of Kemalism in Turkey as a prime example, Crooke noted the Armenian Genocide and the state orchestrated oppression of Kurds as “Mountain Turks” and transfer of the indigenous Greek population as an enormously destructive result of revolutionizing Turkey from a fluid multi-ethnic empire to a monolithic market-state modeled after Western Europe.
In the aftermath of the Great War, simultaneously, Marxism was attacking Islamist ideology from the bottom up squeezing religion out of the political space as revolutionary communism mimetically competed with branded Western capitalism throughout most of the twentieth century, much of it through imperial or neo-imperial enterprise. Genuine political Islam says that “social justice must be subordinate to markets” making it diametrically opposed to the “two pillars of modernity” mentioned above. Crooke mentioned that what most in the West consider “revolutionary” Islam is in fact a counterrevolutionary brand of the faith’s implementation of politics. Islam’s counterrevolution is “dogmatic and anti-heterodox”. The West has used this form of Islamism in it’s containment strategies of “Nasserism, Marxism, Shi’ism, and Soviet Communism” to name several.
Containment strategies in their inherent quality are by and large a short term, ill conceived methodology that often give birth to larger, less reconcilable quagmires. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the mujahideen in 1980’s Afghanistan are examples of this flawed policy. Amjad Atallah noted that U.S. policy in Cold War Afghanistan didn’t differentiate between sponsoring Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami and Ahmad Shah Masood’s Jamiat-i-Islami and even encouraged the more virulent ideology of the former rather than the more pragmatic Islamism of the latter.
The West, he said, ends up on the wrong side (of history) with its policies and actions (that are reinforced) with its own dogma and literalism. Having Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia (read: apostate) on the “throne” in Baghdad, the seat of Abassid glory, is akin to Hulagu’s sacking of the city’s ancient incarnation in the twelfth century and heretical Mongol siege of the city in the eyes of Salafis.
Speaking on the transformational ascendency of Hassan Nasrallah across the breadth of the Middle East among Sunni and Shi’i alike, Crooke said “If you want to get a taxi quickly to the airport in Doha, wait until Nasrallah gives a televised speech”. Nasrallah’s charisma breaching entrenched social and doctrinal boundaries in part highlights the struggle for the future of the whole region within the Middle East’s competing indigenous ideologies since the era of classic great power competition in the Middle East has ended and a new era of affinities both regional and imported, rather than hardened alliances, has been ushered in.
As Israeli tanks and soldiers pound their way through the Mediterranean’s most destitute outpost, let’s think about how we arrived at this point.
During the 2006 war between the Israeli state and Hezbollah, the Middle East raged with hell fire once again. Israel has been battling the Shia milita cum political party for decades most notably in the unsuccessful offensives of 1993 and 1996. The Israelis have tried to “dislodge” and “cleanse” the Party of God from southern Lebanon with both airstrikes and a failed twenty-two year military occupation. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have never been able to accomplish their goal of neutralizing their northern enemies much less quell internal and external Palestinian dissident factions. In July and August of 2006, the IDF and the Israeli Air Force (IAF), attempted to achieve the same goals with an unyielding strategy of occupation and collective punishment. However, there has been a drastic paradigm shift in the power dynamic of the Middle East, and Israel’s political and military leadership hasn’t altered policy or their grand designs accordingly. Today the IDF and IAF are reigning down terrifying technology on their southern Sunni enemies, Hamas in Gaza. In contrast, Iran’s clerics appear relatively comfortable and unfazed.
In the recent past Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicly stated a sort of “let’s not be more Catholic than the Pope” policy regarding Iran’s patronage of Palestinian resistance movements. Though the Iranian government has said that if the Palestinians come to a lasting accord with Israel regarding their future that Iran would be forced to accept such an outcome, the Iranian establishment is only too pleased when tensions between Israel and its Palestinian and Lebanese neighbors become physically acrimonious. When Sunni Arab Hamas acts out its agenda in a violent form, it doubles as a fitting proxy for Iran’s schizophrenic dreams of regional hegemony. In a clever dichotomy, Iran is both Persian and Shia (de facto anti-Arab/Sunni) on one hand while striving to appear broadly Islamic and anti-Western on the other. The Nasserite dinosaurs in Egypt and Syria appear pathetic in comparison. The Iranians, being enshrined as pariahs since the end of the Carter administration, are perhaps the only power in the region that feels no compunction whatsoever to acquiesce to any international status quo since the demise of Iraq and Afghanistan as fellow black sheep states following their respective Anglo-American overthrows. In short, Hamas is backed by a power with which the United States has essentially no leverage. With Israel, in the eyes of America’s critics, the U.S. does not posses enough leverage to reign in its undisciplined client. American diplomacy is faltering either way.
While fearing and antagonizing Iran, Western powers and Israel failed to recognize its ascendency in the region and in the context Asia as a whole. While the Op-Ed pages of major American newspapers are constantly touting the “Rise of India” and the “Rise of China”, they seem to missing a third and vital player: the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran. While more as an Asian regional power than a world power, it is likely due to our bias and consistently backfiring, think tank-inspired policy that leads Americans to readily ignore this almost passé sea change. Pundits often decry Iran as a power in persistent decline and as a volatile “petro-authoritarian” clerical fiefdom ready to implode at any moment in some unwieldy demographic time bomb. None of these things have happened. Iran has been consistently gaining strength and has only been encouraged by rudderless American leadership for the last eight years.
Just as the Chinese are asserting themselves in the Pacific theater by vastly increasing their naval capabilities and the Indians are opening up consulates in Afghanistan, the Iranians are firming up their doctrinaire military proxies in the Middle East and Central Asia. Foremost among Iran’s proxies are Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Hezbollah are part indigenous resistance movement and part creation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. Hezbollah was formed in the early 1980’s to resist the military occupation of Lebanon by foreign forces; those consisted of an invading Israel from the south and American, French, Italian and British troops landing in the country under the guise of peacekeeping.
Today Hezbollah is an extraordinarily powerful political force in the Lebanese polity holding ministerial positions in the country’s cabinet and multiple seats in parliament. Hezbollah demonstrated its heightened state of popularity within Lebanon when the group’s leader Secretary General Seyyid Hassan Nasrallah held a vast rally in which several hundred thousand (perhaps half a million) supporters turned out in a nation of just 4 million. Nasrallah defiantly declared a “Divine Victory” over Israeli forces and claimed that his party’s strength had not only remained undiminished, but rather the opposite had happened. Hezbollah had increased in strength and even formed an alliance with former rival General Michel Aoun’s Maronite Chrisitian “Free Patriotic Movement”. In a bizarre alliance achievable perhaps nowhere else but the Byzantine corridors of Lebanese politics, a secular Christian General once allied to Iraqi Sunni President Saddam Hussein can form a partnership with an audacious Shi’ite leader allied to the Iranian clerical establishment in Qom.
Though much of neo-conservative doctrine is viewed as bankrupt, the world is still forced to sift through its ideological rubble. Their talk of a “Greater Middle East” (read: Greater Israel) lives in intellectual isolation from reality. Sheikh Nasrallah’s sheer defiance and emboldened stance are in large part the product of Iran’s strengthening hand across its sphere of influence which now stretches from the Mediterranean Sea (Gaza) to the China’s western frontier (Persian-speaking Tajikistan).
Since the last gasps of the Carter years, American policy has been to isolate Iran politically, economically and when possible, militarily, in retaliation for being tossed out along with the Shah in the turmoil of 1979 when embassy staff were humiliatingly taken hostage and paraded on the world stage. Four years later, the Cold Warriors in the Reagan administration were routed out of Lebanon after the Marine barracks and US embassy bombings in Beirut, both of which were later ascribed to Hezbollah (albeit inconclusively). Israeli foreign policy has coincided, at some points converged with, and at other points, overridden America’s stated policy of post-revolutionary Iran as a sworn enemy to be thwarted at every turn. Today however, the notion of exporting sweeping eschatological revolution is now largely seen as defunct, and the only glowering a long dead Ayatollah Khomeni does these days are from billboards in Tehran and faded posters in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
The American military inadvertently elevated Tehran greatly in its response to the Wahabbi-inspired Sunnist suicide attacks against the United States in the fall of 2001. American commanders struck out by demolishing the minimal infrastructure of the militantly anti-Shia Taleban government in Afghanistan. Well less than two years later, the US eviscerated the authoritarianism of a vehemently anti-Persian Ba’ath party in Baghdad. By smashing the vitriolic Sunni regimes on either side of the modern Iranian state, itself a truncated core of the millennia-old Persian empire, Iran could now vastly expand it’s influence among it’s destabilized neighbors across their broken borders.
American foreign policy had performed an awkward u-turn after being attacked not by oft loathed millenarian Shi’ites, but rather by radical young men who were the sons of several outwardly pro-American Sunni states. For decades, the United States was closely allied with regimes that were both majority and minority ruled by Sunni governments unsympathetic to the generally poor, pious Shia populace in their midst. Desperately trying to ignore Iran for years and trying to undermine Hezbollah while Lebanon festered in civil war and occupation were seen as appropriate measures of inaction that fit squarely into a long outdated Arabist, pro-Sunni paradigm.
In the post-9/11 environment, the US quietly proclaimed a transparent victory for human rights in Afghanistan in the name of the Hazara, an embattled pro-Iranian Turkic Shia minority in the nation’s center. Shortly after Americas’ perceived Afghan triumph, key players in Washington and London wasted no time courting at motley parade of long exiled Iraqi Shia dissidents who could be brought in from abroad and placed in power in a simplistic Pentagon plan in the coming aftermath of toppling the dreadful President Hussein. For a brief but crucial period, American and Iranian interests dovetailed rather neatly. Suddenly, Shi’ites, once thought as a bloc of anti-American firebrands in the broad Western political psyche, now seemed a reasonable alternative to some of these odious regimes. This scenario would suit both Iran and our own neoconservative demagogues quite well. The romance between the U.S. and Iran after 9/11 was short lived. It ended in a bitter break-up once American troops occupied Iraq. Iran insisted on muscling its way into Afghanistan and Iraq during periods of heightened vulnerability the way it had done previously in Palestine and Lebanon. Previously, the Iranians could inflict pain on America indirectly by antagonizing the Israelis whereas now they have been able to clandestinely battle the “Great Satan” itself.
The significance of those 34 days of destruction in the Levant in 2006 may have seemed inconsequential when compared to the ongoing fitna, or intra-Islamic sectarian warfare, in Iraq. But one should realize the “Iraq Effect” (my quotes) in the context of the Lebanon war and the ongoing violence in Gaza. Iran has not been isolated further by being flanked by US troops on both its’ eastern and western frontiers as Pentagon planners would have dreamed. It has been fortified by such actions. As Israel risks treasure and futility in Gaza repeating many of its failures in Lebanon, Iran will undoubtedly feel victorious by default no matter who the tactical victor. As well as the industrial rise of China and the intellectual rise of India, a third power has risen in Asia and it is the Lion of Persia. Unlike the latter, this has certainly not been to everyone’s liking.