Archive for the ‘Hezbollah’ Category
New York- I have a new article out on how the ongoing war in Syria is helping stoke sectarian tensions in Iraq that are manifesting themselves in the form of daily suicide bombings, shootings, and dual massive AQ jailbreaks. My article examines how the unrelenting carnage in Syria has not only taken the place of Iraq in the global media spotlight, but is also directly fueling renewed conflict in Iraq itself. The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), sometimes referred to as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has now added “ash-Sham” (“the Levant”-i.e. Syria and perhaps they’re including Lebanon as well). So the ISI is now the ISIS. Sunni Salafism has only expanded in Syria as the fractious umbrella of the Free Syrian Army is simply a much less efficient fighting force than their jihadi counterparts.
At the same time, Hezbollah from Lebanon and Shia groups from Iraq are officially sending in fighters to both the front line in places like al-Qusayr and to protect Shia holy places like the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab on the outskirts of Damascus and When the Sayyida Zainab site is perceived as threatened, it makes for a an easily rallying call for Shia on either side of Syria to mobilize to protect and defend not only the religious pilgrimage site, but also the Assad regime that controls the territory such a site rests on.
Both Salafi-jihadis and more Qom-oriented activist Shia have been working to unite Syria and Iraq as a single battleground. Though there are important schisms within the Shia perspective such as Najaf vs. Qom and creating a Sunni Islamic state within borders of a finite post-colonial nation-state vs. an idealized borderless caliphate, it cannot be denied or played down that the wars in Syria and Iraq are now inextricably linked. And Lebanon has been drawn in in full view in terms of sub-state or non-state groups protecting what the believe are their interests in Syria.
This is not at all to suggest there aren’t very local contexts underlying the individual decisions of specific militant movements on when to act and how to pursue their goals. Within the two respective wars there has been for some time been speculation about whether the more dominant phenomena is competition between groups or cooperation between them based on clearly drawn ideological lines. But when one goes to the trouble (or risk) of taking an on the ground look, the old adage tends to ring true that the situations are neither black nor white.
Many Western analysts believe in taking stands based on what stands for empirical data in what are quite confusing battle fronts in reality and then sticking by said positions, perhaps engaging in a passive-agressive tête-à-tête via social media rather than admit they made need to adjust their stance in the face of a new ground reality. Iraq and Syria are deeply complex places plagued by schism upon schism whether in the realms of theology or politics. These dynamics are fluid and will remain so with even the most nimble global shuttle diplomat having neither the knowledge nor the resources to quell them. The United States may have pulled nearly all of its troops out of Iraq in December 2011 but the war is far from over.
Barcelona- Partly out of boredom and partly out of the itch to simply create something new out of old, I threw together this photo montage over the weekend. In this era of digital photography where one shoots thousands of frames rather than analog hundreds, I was reflecting on how almost all of the images I make will never see the light of day in this regard. I put this video together in a largely random fashion with images that have been just sitting in my laptop for years. I put the photos in the order they came to me as I grabbed them one by one from various folders containing my view of many of the biggest news events of the last 10 years.
Interspersed with them are much more sublime moments of everyday life around the world. An elephant in Thailand, an aged priest in Ethiopia, a glitzy office tower in Manhattan. This has been my reality and is our collective reality. Globalization and social networking simultaneously accelerate worldwide travel and technological integration while hyper compartmentalizing our lives. We speak more so to only those who we want to and listen to those with whom we already agree.
No one knows just where any of this is going. Billionaire fraudsters suddenly imprisoned, social revolutions springing up from seemingly nowhere (though not quite), calcified dictatorships counted on for decades in the interests of “stability” suddenly crumbling to pieces, it seems as if the entire world order is in question.
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 have an article out in today’s edition of Asia Times Online on my view from a rain soaked Hatay Province of events just over the border in a besieged Syria. It’s been raining here nonstop since my arrival, which I’m told is the norm at this time of year. It’s cold and damp. I unknowingly checked into an Alawi-owned hotel in the center of town. As soon as I arrived I met with a brilliant and incredibly friendly translator who warned me of Assad’s spies in the city and the perceived allegiance of their co-religionists here on the Turkish side of the border. The Alawis of the hotel would surely notify the local Syrian mukhabarat stationed here, the translator told me. They would be alerted to my presence upon arrival. This was apparently accepted as the norm in Antakya. When my sources showed up for an interview in my room, their first comments was, “you had to check into an Alawi hotel?” They laughed and I made a self-depracating comment about being a naive Westerner who would never have guessed where I was staying would be an issue.
It’s always an awkward juxtaposition to be in such a vibrant, relatively healthy community when next door to a hot war where shells are falling. I’m sitting in limbo in my hotel, which I must say is fantastic for the price ($39 USD a night for a king size bed and great wifi). I wait patiently for a contact to call me for a lead into the next story. I duck into a hallway to get out of the constant deluge. He tells me of danger ahead. A zone where journos aren’t collaterals but rather the targets of snipers and tank operators. I must tread with caution. I tell him I’ve been to Libya and was nearly hit by a Qaddafist sniper last summer. I don’t want a repeat of the same. Or do I?
Here’s the reality of the journo mindset. When everyone was kept out of Syria and that was simply accepted as the status quo, there was no issue. But as soon as one person gets deep into Homs behind the lines with the Free Syrian Army or talks about freely walking around the liberated town of Zabadani, that raises the bar for everyone. It is a furious momentum that builds around a set of extremely driven, competitive, often brilliant people where one’s feet can float off of firm ground drunk on the false notion of invincibility. It is all a farce. Yet it goes on. None of the bogus justifications or rationales in the world can make sense of dying in another man’s war.
When I noticed on Twitter that the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson (whom I met in Libya a few times) was inside Homs, and I’m sitting, twiddling my thumbs in Turkey, it gave me that feeling. Of course Jon Lee made it inside Syria. He wouldn’t accept anything less than being on the first tier of a story. A guy like him doesn’t waste his time on the periphery. He goes for the jugular of the action, the beating heart of the story.
I can perfectly picture the journo hotel in Damascus. Blackberrys abuzzing, people staring at their MacBooks pretending not to notice one another, nervous freelancers networking amongst A-listers. Then again, I always see myself as an outsider never fully wanting to be on the inside. It is as if I am stuck in the mindset of the D.C. hardcore scene circa 1981 and I never want to sell out. Just a Minor Threat. I remember seeing Tim Hetherington outside the hospital in Ajdabiya about a month before he was killed in Misrata. Jon Lee was there. Everyone who was left in Libya seemed to have turned up that day. I stood in the morgue silently looking at horrific casualties. I was warned by a group of edgy fighters at the western gate not to dare return the following day or there would be severe consequences. The following day a group of journos were grabbed out of their vehicles by Qaddafists. I was in a cramped minivan making the 14-hour trek back to Alexandria with a Libyan family lucky enough to have the money to go to Cairo.
To try and get in becomes a nearly irresistible urge. I fight a battle between the lusts of my lucid imagination and my more over the horizon goal of living as long as possible. There is only so long I can people watch non-hijabed gorgeous Alawi or Alevi or whatever Westernized looking Occidental girls strut by in the cold rain from the open air juice bar or çorba (soup) stand. I joked with my translator friend that there are probably more girls in Turkish-Kurdish areas of Germany rocking hijab than those in downtown Antakya. The mix of ethnicities and sects here makes for a colorful human cast. Yesterday after hearing the fajr azan (the morning call to prayer), for the first time I’ve ever noticed in Turkey (save for possibly once in Trabzon a decade ago), I heard church bells ring out. For a moment in time it feels like a paradise of fierce torrents until I remember that there are Soviet-era Syrian tanks facing Turkey not so far away at all.
There is a war nearby with a gravitational pull. You can tell yourself, “just one more harb (war), one more thawra (revolution), and then I’ll quit.” I’m not forcing myself to be here. Hell, I love it here. It’s damn exciting to be crass about it. Throughout the ummah, everything seems to take place in the shadows, within the whispers. And that, to be frank, is part of the draw. A world of public denial, a culture of the unspoken. Sex, drugs, war, it’s all available from Morocco to Mindanao. A quick phone call, a short text message, a soft knock on a hotel door. Here in this lovely rump province of French Mandate Syria, the Sajak of Alexandretta, I somehow feel at home. In fact, there is no place I would rather be at the moment.
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.
New York- While I am in total go mode getting ready to launch my new publication, Militant Leadership Monitor, from the Jamestown Foundation, I want to quickly plug a couple of friend’s projects. Jen Marlowe is still hard at work traipsing around South Sudan, first on the Huffington Post, and now on PBS’s World Focus site with a story titled “In South Sudan, schools still function under trees” about the difficulties of building a basic school facility (I suppose as ostensibly simple task in other places) in Warrap State, a previously non-existent political entity that was created under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement where the GoSS is to build it’s first oil refinery.
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.