Tag Archives: Bashar al-Assad

The Why and How of US Intervention in Iraq

Last night President Barack Obama announced that US military would be conducting two missions in Iraq.  The first, already started when he made the announcement, is dropping food and water supplies on the besieged civilians, mostly Yezidis, in the Sinjar mountains after their city of Sinjar was overrun by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), after reports of deaths due to dehydration among the children.  ISIS regards Yezidis as a devilish sect to be exterminated.  The second US mission is to use airstrikes to prevent ISIS from posing a threat to American personnel in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, or in Baghdad.

Not all analysts support US military intervention in Iraq; one cogent statement of the case against airstrikes is here.  I agree with almost the entirety of that argument, and have repeatedly written against US military intervention in the Syrian Civil War.  Why should the US intervene in Iraq, but not Syria?  Basically, there is no way for the US to do more good than harm in Syria, but the costs of letting ISIS continue to terrorize Iraq and Syria outweigh those of striking ISIS, not only for Iraqis, but for the world. Continue reading

The Perils of Partitions: Iraq & Syria

I just published an opinion piece on Muftah.org entitled “The Perils of Partitions: Iraq & Syria” which begins:

The idea has been suggested repeatedly that Iraq, and now Syria, need to be partitioned.  As the argument goes, the region’s post-World War I boundaries, which were drawn by the British and French with little regard to local realities, should not be defended.  Both Syria and Iraq are socially divided along sectarian lines. According to this reasoning, once each sect has its own state, the conflicts engendered by these divisions will disappear or at least be minimized.  As the argument goes, Iraq is already partitioned, to a degree, given the legal autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is the most peaceful and secure portion of the country.

Proposals to divide Iraq and Syria along different boundary lines make a lot of sense and are very attractive.  The only problem is they will lead to massive population displacement, the impoverishment of minorities, and genocide.

(Read the article…)

Missing the Boat: Public Religion in the Middle East

A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia.  A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation.  Both are worth reading.

By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events.  The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion.  It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures.  When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else.  Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.

Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private. Continue reading

Lost: The Meaning of “al-Anfal”

What’s in a name?  News outlets (e.g. here and here) are reporting increased violence in Latakia province, a province on the Syrian coast with a population which is majority Alawite and from which the ruling Assad family itself comes, in an offensive by Syrian rebel groups Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham (labeled “Sham al-Islam” by al-Jazira) and Ansar al-Sham (probably not the branch of the Iraqi Ansar al-Islam, but rather the Latakia branch of the Syrian Islamic Front) labeled “Anfal.”  In a long sentence like that, with all those things to look up, it can be easy to miss the codename adopted for the jihadi offensive.  It’s just a word, right, not people, guns, or territory?

Words are also power, and names mean stuff, especially in Arabic.  “Muhammad” (محمّد) means “someone highly praised,” and the name of the Muslim general who conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders, Saladin (صلاح الدين), means “the righteousness of the religion (of Islam).”  The Syrian president’s last name, al-Assad (الاسد) means “the lion.”  So what does “Anfal” mean?  A quick look in an Arabic dictionary gives it as a plural of nafal (نفل), meaning “plunder, spoils of war.”  (Entertainingly, Google Translate only suggests the meaning “clovers,” if it is not a proper noun.)  So if we stop here, we are left with the impression that the jihadis are advertising the fact that they are just in it for the money, boasting that they are sell-outs.

That seems unlikely.  Much more likely, and important whenever dealing with jihadi names, is to look to the Qur’an.  In this case, the eighth chapter (or sura) of the Qur’an is entitled “al-Anfal.”  Traditionally said to have been revealed after the Battle of Badr, the verses of this chapter attribute victory by a smaller Muslim force coming from Medina against a larger and better-equipped Meccan army to divine assistance (Q 8:1, 5, 9, 12, 17, 30) due to the Meccans’ opposition to Muhammad’s new preaching of the unity of Allah (Q 8:6, 13, 36-37).  The chapter paints the Muslims’ enemies as beyond any possibility of redemption, not listening even though they claim to hear the message, and they would even turn away from Islam if they did at any point heed Muhammad’s message (Q 8:23).  Applying that situation to the present day, the jihadi rebels seem to be likening the regime forces to the Meccans, alleging that they are not valid Muslims, and expecting God’s assistance even against a larger and better equipped force.  (It is not unusual for al-Qa’ida to assert that Alawites, Shiites, and even Sunni Muslims who reject al-Qa’ida are not Muslims.)  With this parallel reading between the traditional past and the bleak present, Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies may be trying to boost morale by appealing to verses such as Q 8:26:

And remember when you were few and considered weak in the land.  You were afraid that people would capture you.  Then He sheltered you and supported you with His help (naṣr, related to Jabhat al-Nuṣra’s name), and He provided you with good things so that you may be thankful.

There are several other verses which might appeal to the extremist rebels at the present time (exhortations to fight to expunge false religion, for example, in Q 8:39, or how Allah is said to distort the appearances of relative numbers in Q 8:43-44, or threats against those who retreat in Q 8:15-16).  There is a lot more here, and of course, all of these verses need to be interpreted through the hadith and commentaries (tafasir), both medieval and recent, which comprise the sunna (something like “traditional norms”) from which Sunni Islam derives its name.  (There is no analogue of sola scriptura within Islam.)

But there is perhaps also another, more recent, echo of the name “Anfal” in a military context, which may be on the minds of Syrians, and should cause greater concern.  Just over a quarter century ago, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein authorized his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid to massacre tens of thousands of Kurds (and other minorities) in northern Iraq, and to seize anything of value, in a campaign code-named “al-Anfal.”  The poison gas attack in Halabja in March 1988 is the largest chemical weapons attack against a civilian-inhabited area in history, and the campaign as a whole attempted to accomplish genocide and forced Arabization.

It would be surprising if extremist Sunni jihadis were deliberately evoking the genocidal campaign of a secularist Ba’athist dictator in Iraq.  (Despite US government allegations of links between al-Qa’ida and Saddam Hussein’s government, subsequent investigations have denied any evidence of links, and there was little ideological sympathy between the two groups.)  But if they are, they could be using their own “al-Anfal” campaign as a planned attempt at genocide against the Alawite majority in Latakia province, perhaps attempting to terrorize their opponents into submission.  Even more insidiously, since the port of Latakia is the point of egress for the regime’s chemical weapons, it could be that the jihadis are hoping to intercept these chemical weapons shipments and use them against the civilian population, just as Ali Hassan al-Majid did in Halabja in 1988.

Such tactics seem to me doomed to fail.  Making clear to the Alawites that they have no future in a post-Assad Syria will not cause Bashar al-Assad’s knees to tremble, but will rather redouble his efforts against the rebels.  (The grotesque terror tactic has been tried before, such as when one extremist rebel leader cut open an Alawite corpse and bit into an organ.)  Even more so, any rebel disruption in the exportation of the regime’s chemical weapons will not only slow down the process, it will also give the regime cover to use chemical weapons itself, since it will be impossible to prove which side used it once it is proven that the rebels have such weapons.  (Al-Qa’ida’s desire to obtain such weapons is already documented, for example, at #4 here.)  The core of the international argument that the August 2013 Ghuta poison gas attack was perpetrated by the regime is that there is no evidence that the rebels have such weapons.  If it becomes clear that some rebel groups also have chemical weapons, that argument will not hold water.  In other words, an extremist rebel attempt to capture chemical weapons will most likely result in increasing chemical weapons attacks by both sides.

But even if the extremists’ decision to label an offensive “al-Anfal” does lead to tactics which are ultimately doomed to failure, other countries should not sit idly by while a terrorist group attempts to initiate a genocide, with or without captured chemical weapons.  It is not true that my enemy’s enemy must be my friend, and al-Qa’ida and its various affiliates and jihadi allies are enemies not only of Syrians (of whatever sect), but of civilians everywhere.  Turkey should take a stronger line against extremist rebels, and may be encouraged to do so by diplomatic pressure.  The capture of a border crossing into Turkey clearly shows that the extremists involved expect some benefit to come from across the border.  While I doubt Bashar al-Assad would be willing to barter his resignation for UN Security Council approved international military assistance against al-Qa’ida, the fact that Turkey is a NATO member means that action can be taken to the north of the border.

Watching and Waiting

I haven’t posted recently, in part because I’ve been waiting with such bated breath to see how the chemical weapons disarmament deal will play out.  It will be practically impossible to ensure Syrian compliance, and what happens when the next chemical weapons attack occurs (with again the US blaming the regime and Russia blaming rebel provocateurs, regardless of who actually sets off the attack) will be a sticky issue.  But an agreement is far better than no agreement, even if of course it does not go nearly far enough.  The appendices to the UN chemical weapons report were very incriminating to the Syrian regime, which predictably rejected the report along with Russia.  Since then, however, the horrible attack on the Nairobi shopping mall, the condemnation of Bo Xilai, and the US budget showdown have again removed Syria from the headlines.

At the end of this week I will be giving a 10-15 minute presentation on the crises in Syria (and Iraq as well) to a concerned church group.  What can one say in 10-15 minutes about a civil war as complicated as Syria’s, to say nothing of the resurgent sectarian violence across the border in Iraq?  We’ll see what I do end up saying.  I’ll post some version of my remarks here.

Syria’s Solution Depends on Moscow

On Wednesday hundreds of people (some sources say as many as 1400) died in Syria, evidently related to a chemical attack on a rebel-held area north-east of the capital, Damascus.  Apart from the scale of the casualties, there is much in this news which is not new or surprising.  As usual in Syria, rebels and regime accuse each other of deploying chemical weapons while denying their own use thereof.  Internationally, various governments support their chosen factions, as the US, UK, and France all publicly blamed the Assad regime, while Russia’s Foreign Ministry suggested that rebels staged the attack in order to provoke international intervention.  American rhetoric in favor of military intervention in Syria has certainly ramped up as a result of the attack.  Nevertheless, the Assad government puts forward a bold face, indicating that an American attack is very unlikely given the current international impasse.

What is more surprising is that Russia also called upon the Syrian regime and opposition to cooperate with UN chemical weapons investigators already in Damascus and permit them access to this fresh site.  The Syrian government has reportedly agreed to do just that.

This has put the western governments who have been consistently calling for Assad’s removal in something of a difficult position.  Before the Syrian regime announced it would allow UN investigators access to the site, the argument was made that they “must have something to hide.”  (The argument, though widespread, is always the argument of the group which controls the courts.  As the history of American criminal courts amply demonstrates, one can be found guilty of a crime one did not commit based on being the wrong color.)  Now that the Syrian government says it will facilitate the investigation, Western hawks are forced to argue that this cooperation is “too little, too late,” and that an investigation five days after an attack is worthless.  This despite the fact that the UN investigators were already in Damascus to investigate attacks from March.  If five days is too late for an investigation, it is unclear what good the UN investigators could do in Syria at all.

As Paul Thomas Chamberlin commented on the day of the chemical weapons attack, the US has a very bad track record for intervention in Muslim areas of Asia and Africa, a history of counter-productive intervention spanning decades.  The parallels between the proposed US support for rebels in Syria and the US sponsored Mujahhidun fighting against the Soviet-sponsored government in Afghanistan, which reduced Afghanistan to the rubble we see today, are frightening.  Of course, the Russians didn’t come out of Afghanistan looking like heroes either.

But the US track record even in the current Syrian conflict does not inspire confidence.  Given the long-standing hostility between the US and the Assad regime, a byproduct of Syria’s alliance with the USSR and cold antagonism to Israel, the US rashly called upon Bashar al-Assad to step down as soon as the protests started in March 2011.  Thus the US lost whatever positive influence it might have had over the regime (not that it ever had much).  With the recognition of the Syrian National Coalition and the progressive revelations how much the SNC has cooperated with the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, the US has provided its critics with the easy tagline that the American government is supporting terrorism.  When the US and the Russians agreed about the importance of holding peace talks in Geneva “to find a political solution,” the Russians got the Assad government to agree to the talks, while the US-backed rebels refused to participate.  The Syrian government is still touting its willingness to participate in Geneva.  The US hasn’t mentioned Geneva recently.

I think it would be very foolish for the US to intervene militarily without waiting for word from the UN chemical weapons investigators.  To strike at Assad without UN support would convince many in the Middle East of American arrogance and willingness to act as judge, jury, and executioner for a “justice” tailored to suit its own ends.  (And although I prefer to give governing bodies the benefit of the doubt, I find myself troubled by the rising prominence of “defending our national interests” in US government statements about Syria.)  The mess in Syria will have no easy solutions, and for the US to enter Syria now will simply ensure that the mess which follows the war is blamed on the US intervention.  And as media reports almost invariably indicate, the information coming out of Syria could not be verified, meaning we really have little idea who is doing what to whom in the countryside around Damascus.

But I am not a quietist, and I certainly do not believe that the US should just “let them kill each other,” as certain callous Islamophobic westerners are arguing.  The US can certainly help now by continuing to provide defensive technology, by providing humanitarian assistance to refugee camps, and by helping the countries hosting the refugee camps provide police presence in those camps.  Although media reports have depicted Western politicians repeating the mantra of “no boots on the ground,” if a military intervention is needed, I think putting “boots on the ground” may be the best way to humanize the process, far better than raining terror from the skies.  “Boots on the ground” may deliver humanitarian assistance in ways that hellfire missiles cannot.

But in order to facilitate the end of the violence in Syria, and particularly of the secularist vs. jihadi rebel infighting which will inevitably follow Assad’s departure, the US needs to work diplomatically with Russia and wait for the UN chemical weapons inspectors to do their job.  When the US intervenes, I think it needs to do so as part of an international coalition including Russia.  Moscow has been much more effective about influencing the situation in Syria than the US has been.  If the US can get over its spat that Russia provided temporary asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden (which led President Obama to cancel his state visit to Putin, evidently because revealing that a government is flagrantly breaking its own laws is treasonous), then it just may be able to work with Moscow over how to bring the Syrian conflict to a halt.  Now, Russian president Vladimir Putin‘s civil rights record is also a problem, but if Russia can be disengaged from supporting Assad, Iran will not be in a position to hold up Assad, and China is unlikely to invest what Russia has been doing in order to keep Assad in power.  That is probably the surest way to ensure that Syria does not turn into an al-Qa’ida stronghold training terrorists for the next twenty years.

A critical component of the rule of law is due process, and due process takes time.  That time is costly, as thousands are dying in Syria.  But due process is precisely what distinguishes seeking the common good from self-serving bullying.  If the US is serious about seeking what is best for Syrians, then it needs to support all Syrians and not just its favored faction, and it needs to allow the UN chemical weapons inspectors to do their job.

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.