Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Difference Between Pragmatism and Loyalty

The most important thing to read on Syria this week is not the news that the regime drove rebels out of the Khalid bin al-Walid Mosque in Homs, but rather this opinion piece by Thorsten Janus and Helle Malmvig in the Christian Science Monitor.  But their proposal depends upon the distinction between pragmatical allegiance and belief-based loyalty.  This crucial distinction affects the Syrian Civil War on both sides, and it deserves to be unpacked more explicitly.

The idea is simple: not everyone who declares allegiance to someone agrees with everything that person espouses.  This is true of political parties.  Cold War-era American propaganda pitted the “godless Communists” in the USSR against the “Christian nation” of the USA, so I was surprised to learn, while visiting the Indian state of Kerala, that the local Communist party has many members drawn from the large South Indian community of St. Thomas Christians.  Indeed, the current president of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, is a Christian member of one of Syria’s Communist parties.  The conflict between Christianity and Communism is very real in some quarters (as Russian Orthodox priests will tell you) and not in others, and depends widely on what those two terms are understood to mean in various locales.  Not everyone who votes for a Communist party candidate has drunk deeply of doctrinaire Leninism or Maoism (although some have, to be sure).  Some simply see the Communist option as better than any available alternative.

This distinction between pragmatic acceptance and doctrinaire loyalty plays out on both sides of the Syrian Civil War.  On the rebel side, international observers have been alarmed at the increasing influence of jihadi extremism, usually linked to al-Qa’idaFree Syrian Army commanders have complained of soldiers defecting to Jabhat al-Nusra, and cited the lack of ammunition held by the FSA compared to the free-flowing arms of the jihadi Jabhat al-Nusra as an explanation for this trend.  In other words, as Salim Idris has grown increasingly frustrated at the failure of western nations to provide his Free Syrian Army with weaponry, the more extreme groups have plenty of weaponry from international sources supporting their jihad against the infidel Syrian regime.  The idea is that many of those fighting for jihadi groups do not necessarily agree with the ideology, but are willing to tolerate it for the sake of getting what they desire more, which is the weaponry to fight against the regime.  This is precisely the argument made by Mouaz Mustafa, the head of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, according to an interview with him two weeks ago, as to why the US should get more involved with the Syrian Civil War.  On his view, providing weapons with secular strings attached will not only contribute to deposing President Bashar al-Assad, but will also diminish the appeal of jihadi groups, because they will no longer have the advantage of greater resources.

On the other side, religious minorities in Syria have by and large not participated in the rebellion, and in many cases have actively supported the regime.  This is equally true of ‘Alawites, other Shi’ites, and various Christian groups.  This does not mean that they approve of everything which the Syrian Army is doing; it merely means they regard the regime’s side of the Civil War to be more likely to hold a future for them.  They have reason to be alarmed.  Attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt have increased progressively since the 2011 ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, escalating again after the ouster of Muhammad Mursi because his supporters blame the religious minority for the coup.  When two months ago a Syrian rebel commander filmed himself cutting open a killed ‘Alawite soldier’s corpse, removing an internal organ, and biting into it while spewing threats against all ‘Alawites, he made clear to the ‘Alawites that they have no future in a post-Assad Syria.  That has been the message many Syrian Christians have taken from the abduction and murder of Christian clergy by rebel forces.  Fearing a sectarian cleansing of all non-Sunnis, most religious minorities in Syria see no choice but to support the regime.

The Syrian rebels have done very little to convince religious minorities that a post-Assad Syria will be better for them, or that the occasional vague assurances of minority rights in the future Syria will be enacted.  The one-sided portrayal of the Syrian Civil War by the US government, lionizing the rebels and demonizing the regime, has left many Syrian non-Sunnis feeling that America has betrayed its principles of democratic pluralism and minority rights.  This is where the proposal of Janus and Malmvig could be so important.  If the US and the US-backed rebels could somehow convince non-Sunni minorities that they will be allowed to continue breathing in a post-Assad Syria, then their support for the regime might be less unshakeable.  Janus and Malmvig are banking on the fact that the minorities themselves do not want violence, and probably do not like Assad, so an option which assures their future safety would be very welcome to them.  It is an interesting proposal.

The question is whether that assurance could be given in any credible way.  Would Shi’ites and Arabic Christians trust themselves to an American or UN peacekeeping force?  Or would they suspect the force would fail to prevent them from falling victim to violence by other segments of society?  If the Free Syrian Army declared an amnesty for all ‘Alawites, would any ‘Alawites entrust themselves to the mercies of a force whose commanders have promised to purge all supporters of the regime?  Or would they not rather continue to support the regime, distrusting promises of safety from some rebels while others call for their blood?

With regime forces gaining ground in Homs, many non-Sunni minorities may be feeling that they have chosen the winning side.  But if additional arms flows to Syrian rebel forces again reverse the tide of this long-running civil war, as has happened in the past, then the minorities may feel that their backs are against the wall and they have no choice but to live or die with the regime.  The real importance of the minorities will be seen in their potential as stalemate-breakers.  When two armies are very closely matched, even a small force can shift the course of battle.  This was clearly demonstrated in May when Hezbollah, with fewer than 2,000 soldiers, joined the Syrian Army against the rebels, each of which has over 100,000 soldiers, and yet it is precisely from May that regime forces have begun to gain ground against rebel forces.  If the rebels continue to scare non-Sunni religious minorities with threats of vengeance and extermination, they will simply make it all the harder to defeat the regime.  On the other hand, if the rebels address concerns of non-Sunni rights for example by punishing violence targeting religious minorities in rebel-held territory and providing special protection to religious buildings of other groups, then they might gain ground by undercutting Assad’s support.  The civil war in Syria may be won or lost by the allegiances of non-Sunni religious minorities, whose primary motivation will not be ideology but a pragmatic calculus how to survive the war and its aftermath.

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Found: New non-News on Abducted Bishops

Hürriyet Daily News, a Turkish news outlet, ran an article two days ago with the headline “Three suspects who allegedly killed Syrian bishops captured in Turkey” which made me think that perhaps there was some news about the abducted metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo, Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yaziji.  The two were abducted three months ago on April 22 and no solid news has been heard of them since.  Unfortunately, it seems this article got a little muddled as to why three foreigners (a Chechen, a Russian, and a Syrian) were briefly arrested in central Turkey between Konya and Ankara.  It mentions a video depicting the beheading of a priest and other Christians one month ago, and indicates that none of those victims were either of the bishops, but we knew that.  Were these three detained and released on suspicion of being in the video, which has nothing to do with the bishops, or were they arrested out of some suspected connection to the bishops, which has nothing to do with the video?  In any case, they were swiftly released, so the upshot is that there is still no news about the abducted bishops.

Needed: (Near-)Consensus on Legitimacy

When Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi went on national television on July 2 to rebuff calls for his resignation, he repeatedly stressed his “legitimacy” (الشرعية), apparently using the word 56 times in this single speech.  His supporters are now protesting to demand his return to office using “legitimacy” as their watch-word.  His detractors insist that Mursi lost any legitimacy due to his divisive and economically damaging politics.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Civil War continues because the diplomatic log-jam has not been broken between countries who consider Bashar al-Assad the legitimate president of Syria and those who reject his legitimacy (some of which recognize the Syrian National Council as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people”).

In the ebb and flow of promises of military support and the accusations of promoting terrorism, there are two easy errors to make on the subject of legitimacy.  One, all too common for observers from far away, is to ignore legitimacy entirely, regarding it as unimportant relative to the issues of people dying and suffering, and the question how to end the bloodshed.  The other, all too common for participants and observers near at hand, is to consider legitimacy as something obvious, so that my view of legitimate government is the one that all right-thinking people must hold.  On this view, anyone disagreeing with me over legitimacy is a terrorist, a propagandist, or a dupe for one.  These two errors are not mutually exclusive, of course, and probably most people unreflectively hold to both, to one degree or another.

Legitimacy matters.  In peace time, legitimacy is the difference between taxation and extortion.  It is the difference between “necessary measures” and repression.  Some degree of legitimacy for government is necessary to enable stable social functioning, since people do not wish to pay taxes to or register with a government they view as illegitimate.  A loss of governmental legitimacy in the eyes of people with power will lead to an attempt to change the government.  For that reason, legitimacy is a crucial part of any ruler’s staying in power.

This was understood well by Timur Lenk (d. 1405, better known in English as “Tamerlane”), the last great Central Asian warlord, who conquered from the borders of China to the Bosphorus Strait (in modern Istanbul).  In his society, to be a legitimate ruler required two ingredients: giving your soldiers plunder, and descent from Genghis Khan (d. 1227), the Mongol conqueror whose grandchildren ruled from the Pacific to the Mediterranean.  Unfortunately for Timur, he was not descended from Genghis Khan himself, so while he was effective in battle he could not rule in his own name.  To get around this, he took a no-name Mongol who happened to be descended from Genghis and made him a puppet Khan, ruling in his name.  When his Khan got uppity, he killed him and replaced him with one more docile.  To increase his own standing in this society, Timur married a princess descended from Genghis Khan, acquiring the prestige of being a “son-in-law” (kuregen).  On his last campaign rumors were even circulating that he himself was descended from Genghis, certainly fostered by the ruler, perhaps planning to dispense with the puppet khan and rule in his own name.  Timur died en route to invading China, and he never ruled in his own name, but his sons did, so apparently the rumor worked.

In this progression from royal “protector” to royal son-in-law to would-be Khan, victory was not enough.  These rumors were not to flatter Timur’s vanity but to assuage his worries about legitimacy, for he knew his troops would not fight in the name of a nobody, and anyone not descended from Genghis Khan was a nobody.  If Timur had not very carefully cultivated these successive steps of legitimate rule, he would have been abandoned by his own army, as other Mongol and Turkic princes were at key moments in their own attempts to rule.  Legitimacy is the glue that holds the state together.  Legitimacy matters.

But as Timur’s example also shows, there are different ways of claiming legitimacy.  So the opposite error, that of assuming that legitimacy is obvious to everyone, and every “right-thinking” person must agree with me, is also wrong-headed.  Just as in civil society people disagree widely on the best way to solve issues such as the failing Egyptian economy or the priorities for urban development in Istanbul, so legitimacy is usually a subject of disagreement.  Dynastic wars in medieval Europe and the Middle East occurred between rival family members who each claimed to be the “legitimate heir to the throne.”  When Genghis Khan began to conquer Muslim-occupied territories in 1219, there was a debate among the Muslim religious leaders about whether the new “pagan” rulers were legitimate or not.  A verdict of illegitimacy would entail a personal obligation upon every Muslim to resist the new government to the point of death.  (Needless to say, those in favor of Mongol legitimacy won the argument, by claiming that their victory was given by Allah as punishment for Muslims’ sins and religious laxity.)  In the modern period, civil wars happen precisely when large segments of the population disagree with each other about what is the legitimate government, and are willing to kill or be killed to make the point.

But legitimacy is also not a discussion where everyone gets a voice.  Some people matter rather more where legitimacy is concerned.  Timur was worried primarily about the opinions of the other Turko-Mongol military leaders who commanded the personal loyalty of their troops, who might turn against him and challenge him in battle.  In 20th-century Turkey, democratic legitimacy for many decades was arbitrated by the military, which deposed any prime minister the generals deemed overly (and therefore illegitimately) religious.  Legitimacy is argued by those who have the means to make themselves heard or the means to act upon their decisions, so while popular opinion often matters in civil society, it is never simply a matter of polling.  Minorities and marginalized populations such as refugees are not the ones determining the legitimacy of the government.

In those Middle Eastern countries experiencing instability today, legitimacy is a key issue which needs to be recognized and addressed on its own terms.  Legitimacy is not a war that can be won exclusively with funding or funneling arms, the favored strategies of Western diplomacy, and any country which wishes to intervene positively in the Middle East must engage with these debates directly.

In Egypt, supporters of Muhammad Mursi contend that legitimacy is granted exclusively through the ballot box, and a military deposing a president elected by even a narrow margin is necessarily a coup.  Opponents of Mursi contend that democratic legitimacy requires “playing well with others” rather than playing “winner-take-all,” and Mursi’s decision to rush a constitution through a rump parliament consisting only of his party members and boycotted by other groups cost him whatever legitimacy was conferred at the ballot box.  (They also often point to his presidential decree last November which made his actions above judicial review, which he eventually retracted in light of continued pressure, but only after the constitution was pushed forward.)  Both sides have accused the West of betraying its democratic principles by siding with the other party, either by refusing to call the military’s ouster of the elected president “a coup” or by refusing to call Mursi “illegitimate.”  To avoid increasing bloodshed, Egypt needs a nation-wide dialogue, involving supporters as well as detractors of Mursi, to establish the criteria for legitimate government.

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad and his father before him contended that legitimacy was measured in social stability rather than political participation or particular freedoms.  (This is actually a very ancient defense of a ruler’s legitimacy, from the days when monarchs were considered to be the bridge between the gods’ favor and the prosperity of the land and its people.)  But his attempts to enforce social stability by military force have progressively alienated those segments of the Syrian population who identified more with the people being killed than with the government.  The rebels contend that the Assad regime has lost all legitimacy due to the deaths of around 100,000 people in the civil war.  Meanwhile the increasingly prominent role played by jihadis within the rebel forces have caused Assad’s supporters to believe his claims to be the bulwark between them and social disintegration, blaming those 100,000 dead on the rebels instead of the regime.  The Assad regime, along with Russia and China, have viewed the West’s threats to arm the rebellion as illegitimate foreign trouble-making against the legitimate government.  Meanwhile the rebels have felt betrayed by the West’s failure to provide greater firepower against the illegitimate regime.

Legitimacy also plays a vocal role in the protests in Turkey against the Erdoğan government’s development plans in Taksim Square.  Supporters of Erdoğan insist on his electoral victory at the ballot box, labeling the protesters looters and trouble-makers, while his critics call him the prime minister of the 51% who voted for him, namely not the legitimate prime minister of all Turkey.

The lack of revolutions in a generation in Western Europe, and longer in North America, has made westerners complacent about government legitimacy.  Sure, there are a few quacks on the far right and the far left who are trying to bring down the government, but most westerners feel these fringes are not much of a threat, and are amply dealt with by the police structures in the various countries.  But the lack of serious challenges to government legitimacy in the West should not obscure analysts’ engagement with the issues around the presentation of legitimacy in the various Middle Eastern conflicts.  In each case, a plausible account needs to be given within the cultures present as to how a legitimate government is to be instituted and maintained.  This has not been done, but a lasting peace requires it.  The conflicts in the Middle East will not be won by force alone.  They will either be won with words, or postponed for later.

Also about Egypt:

Also about Syria:

The Human Dimension of Syria’s Conflict

This past week, US Secretary of State John Kerry toured the largest Syrian refugee camp, the Za’atari camp in Jordan, and encountered “the human side of this crisis,” as he put it.  Indeed, the situation in the camp is very difficult, so difficult that thousands of Syrians have left the camp to return to the civil war in Syria.  There has been intermittent reporting about the endemic sexual violence suffered by women in these camps.  The human side of the Syrian Civil War, as seen in the Za’atari refugee camp, is very bleak.

But it is also only one side of the suffering.  Three weeks ago the LA Times ran an interesting piece on two religious minority shrine enclaves, the town of Saydnaya with its ancient Greek Orthodox monastery of the Virgin and the Sayyida Zaynab suburb of Damascus with its grave of Zaynab, the daughter of ‘Ali and Muhammad‘s daughter Fatima.  The human side of the Syrian Civil War includes besieged minorities expecting to be annihilated if the regime falls.

One quotation in each of these articles stood out to me:

  • “A 43-year-old woman in a tan jacket and gray headscarf asked Kerry what the U.S. is waiting for. As a superpower, the U.S. could change the equation in Syria in 30 minutes, the woman said. Like other refugees, she asked not to be named for security reasons.”
  • “‘I have a question for you,’ Azar [the head of Saydnaya’s defense] asks a visiting U.S. reporter. ‘Why does America want all the Christians out of the Middle East?'”

The first quotation shows how the myth of American omnipotence is taken for granted among refugees, generating a lot of anger at US failure to take their side in the conflict.  The second quotation shows how the unintended consequences of previous US interventions in the Middle East, such as the targeting of the Iraqi Christian population in the sectarian violence following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

These pieces are best read together to get a sense of the multiple human sides to a conflict which has torn Syria apart.  What is clear is that there are no good options for anyone in this war.  What is often forgotten is that none of the fighting forces, rebel or loyalist, are “the good guys.”

Found: The Power of Lost Causes

A week of peaceful demonstrations on opposing sides of Egypt’s political divide is a welcome change from last week’s news of violent confrontations between activists for and against deposed President Muhammad Mursi or between Mursi supporters and the Egyptian armed forces which deposed him.  As the anti-Mursi demonstrations shrink in size, having achieved their goal of removing the president, the sit-in of Mursi supporters around Cairo’s Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya Mosque (مسجد رابعة العدوية) may become an important canary in the coal mine of Egyptian democracy.

This demonstration of Mursi supporters is almost assured to be futile.  Mursi will not be returned to power by ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi and his forces, the very people who deposed him and now have him in custody.  Mursi supporters in the square may have rallied tens of thousands, perhaps even a hundred thousand, but that is far less than the hundreds of thousands in Cairo and perhaps over a million across Egypt who called for Mursi’s removal on 30 June.  This will not be sufficient popular pressure to bring Mursi back, even as participants vow not to leave the square until Mursi is reinstated.

But to be powerful, the pro-Mursi protest must continue and remain peaceful, neither of which is assured.  If Mursi is a lost cause, the place of the military as arbiters of election results is a very real issue.  Although al-Sisi claimed that the removal of Mursi was not a military coup but the army acting out the will of the people, the group which organized the 30 June demonstrations against Mursi publicly complained that they were not consulted in the constitutional decree speedily issued by interim President ‘Adli Mansur.  If Egyptians too quickly pack up and go home, they will have handed the Egyptian military a precedent that can be invoked to remove any future elected official unappreciated by the armed forces.  All future civilian Egyptian heads of state are certain to have learned the lesson.  Since the anti-Mursi camp sees their job as done, the pro-Mursi sit-in can keep the question of the army’s role in the ouster of President Mursi in the public eye, but only if it continues.

But if the pro-Mursi demonstrations turn violent, then the army will have an excuse to crush the protesters as opposed to the Egyptian state.  Unfortunately, it really does not matter whether this violence is started by the protesters or by the army, because in either event both sides will blame the other, as we saw with the violence of last Monday.  The power of the pro-Mursi demonstrations to call for democracy depends upon their continued peacefulness.

But if the pro-Mursi sit-in in Cairo continues and continues peacefully, they represent a salutary challenge to the army-run interim government which is desperately claiming that it did not come to power through a coup but through the will of the people.  The government’s ability to maintain this claim may depend on its ability to allow a peaceful protest of thousands of people who view it as illegitimate.  Although many, perhaps most, Egyptians do not sympathize with the die-hard Mursi supporters, a government crack down on a peaceful protest may increase their public support, and certainly would increase the plausibility of the Muslim Brotherhood’s claims that it is being illegally suppressed.  The continuing – though futile – pro-Mursi sit-in around the Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya Mosque may demand that the army and its interim government live up to their promises of supporting democracy for the entirety of the Egyptian people, even those who disagree with them.  The continuation of that sit-in will build Egyptian trust in their developing democratic system; the cessation or termination of the pro-Mursi movement will only lead to further troubles.

Strange as it may sound, Egypt’s best hope for democracy may lie in a long-running, peaceful, and ultimately futile sit-in of Mursi supporters.

The Expected Fate of US Arms in Syria

President Obama promised military aid to the Free Syrian Army in June, although apparently delivery has been held up by US congressional concerns about where the weapons would end up.  The Free Syrian Army responded saying that the necessary safeguards are already in place and US weapons will not end up in the hands of Islamists such as the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.  But yesterday USA Today ran an article pointing out that US weapons are ending up in the hands of Shi’ite pro-Assad militias, as well as being used by Jabhat al-Nusra (mentioned, but not emphasized, by the article).

Now, this is not necessarily a contradiction: the weapons currently being used by forces which the US government would prefer not to arm are likely hold-overs from previous US wars in the Middle East, such as the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan of the past decade.  But it does reveal how little the US can control who gets US weapons once they are handed over.

Given earlier reports that the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra coordinate on the battlefield, and that soldiers fighting for the Free Syrian Army have defected to the better-equipped Jabhat al-Nusra, it is hard to regard the two rebel militant groups as fully distinct, however distinct their command structures are.  Even if FSA commanders do not share weapons in advance of a coordinated battle, as they might be tempted to do in order to increase the likelihood of victory, it would be expected that common soldiers defecting from FSA to Jabhat al-Nusra would take their FSA-issued weapons with them.  As Islamist assassinations of secularist commanders increase, such as today’s murder of Abu Bassel al-Ladkani, the weapons issued to FSA commanders may be seized by the Islamists.  Thus the expected fate of US weapons shipped to Syria will be that they will turn up in future conflicts wherever black market salesmen can sell them.

The Guardian yesterday posted a detailed article discussing Jabhat al-Nusra and how it is running the territory under its control in eastern Syria.  The “emir of gas” (the refinery manager) interviewed in the article was another example of an FSA soldier who defected to Jabhat al-Nusra, and he declares enmity not only against Jabhat al-Nusra but against the “apostate secularist state” which would be founded by the FSA in case they win.  He speaks explicitly of a post-Assad war between jihadis like Jabhat al-Nusra and secularists in the FSA, as I also anticipate.  Another commander of Jabhat al-Nusra spoke explicitly of the power struggle with the Islamic State of Iraq, the al-Qa’ida affiliate in neighboring Iraq which attempted to unilaterally annex Jabhat al-Nusra, leading to a rebuke from al-Qa’ida’s supreme leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.  The article paints a much broader picture of Jabhat al-Nusra than merely a fighting force, and shows the divergent Syrian viewpoints on the efficacy of the al-Qa’ida affiliated revolt.

Found: Dissension in Hezbollah’s Ranks

It remains interesting to me which news stories spread between which news media cultures.  Yesterday I found a news story about Hezbollah only picked up in English by Lebanese and Israeli news outlets after being run in Arabic only in London’s Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat (“The Middle East”), although today Asharq al-Awsat published the English translation of yesterday’s Arabic article.

It is especially surprising that this article received a limited run because it describes dissension within Hezbollah’s members over involvement in the Syrian Civil War.  Evidently a certain number of rank-and-file Hezbollah members have petitioned the central Hezbollah command to bring their sons home from the war.  It also reports unidentified Hezbollah estimates that they have sent 20 units of 100 men each into Syria, for a total Hezbollah force in Syria of 2000 men minus casualties.  The report indicates that Hezbollah leaders are asking Iran to step up Iranian support for Assad, saying the Lebanese militant group cannot handle the task of supporting the Syrian regime alone.  Although Hezbollah is suspected of having sent fighters to aid Assad earlier, it was only with the siege of al-Qusayr by loyalist forces in late May that Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, publicly announced Hezbollah’s involvement in the fighting in Syria.

The Arabic article has additional details about Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah which are missing from the English translation, but which I am too busy to translate right now, although they may help explain the Israeli interest in the report.  The Arabic also contains a short synopsis of the latest quarrel between Subhi al-Tufayli, former secretary-general of Hezbollah and since 1992 head of a more extreme splinter group off of Hezbollah, and the current leadership.  Al-Tufayli, himself a Shi’ite cleric, apparently pronounced a fatwa saying any members of Hezbollah killed fighting for the Syrian Regime are in hell, a move sure to reduce popular support for Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria.  Hezbollah apparently responded by getting an Iranian Shi’ite’s fatwa against al-Tufayli himself.

Followers of Lebanon’s intricate political dance will not be surprised, however, by the Maronite Michel Aoun‘s defense of Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War.  Aoun’s “Free Patriotic Movement” party (التيار الوطني الحر) has been allied with Hezbollah since late 2006, and currently leads the “March 8 Alliance” of political parties in parliament, a coalition including Hezbollah.