Throw Gasoline on the Fire: The Rush to Arm Syria’s Fragmented Rebels

With Russia and China blocking serious international action on Syria, numerous states have begun seeking ways to intervene indirectly. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are reportedly already giving weapons to the Syrian rebellion. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has suggested that this is among the options on the table in the long run for the U.S., and in today’s New York Times, Roger Cohen argues that the time to start sending in weapons is now. Cohen:

In short, Syria is dangerous. But that not a reason for passivity or incoherence. As the Bosnian war showed, the basis for any settlement must be a rough equality of forces. So I say step up the efforts, already quietly ongoing, to get weapons to the Free Syrian Army.

Cohen extends the argument in that vein–that a stronger FSA will be a viable opposition, forcing Assad to negotiate and ushering in a new era of stability. Failing to arm the Syrian rebels ensures that the present bloody stalemate will continue. Shipping weapons, training rebel forces, and creating humanitarian enclaves will bring the conflict to a resolution, or at least to a ceasefire. In return for some modicum of authority, the FSA will be expected to guarantee the rights of minorities, assuaging Alawite and Christian fears of Sunni vengeance.

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Iran’s Star-Crossed Regime; Pro- and Anti-Regime Hackers Accidentally Working Together?

The leadership of the Islamic Republic must feel like today emerged from the bygone era in which the rulers of Mediterranean and Near Eastern societies would only take action after careful consultation with their astrologers, for the stars aligned against them. The opposition has chosen 25 Bahman, which in most years falls on February 14th, for an annual protest which has forced the regime to crack down publicly for the second year in a row. February 14th is of course also Valentine’s Day, a holiday which the regime despises as a symbol of Western sexual mores. The Washington Post‘s Tehran correspondent, Thomas Erdbink, reported that restaurants in Tehran were heavily booked. Khamenei and his ilk are unable to prevent a dual challenge to their regime–one political, one social.

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How would a Syrian civil war affect American interests?

The Russian-Chinese veto of a rather weak Security Council resolution that would have increased the international pressure on Syria has brought the international search for a diplomatic solution to an impasse. Moscow and Beijing have signaled that they have no interest in lending international legitimacy to a campaign for the end of Assad’s rule, so further actions will risk their fury. It’s likely that the next step will be stronger moves from the Arab League and the Arab Spring’s new great power, little Qatar. However, the end of the U.N. process has provoked a gush of violence around Syria that will certainly yield more calls for physical action. Calls for international support for the Free Syrian Army rebel group are becoming more common. This is an aggressive step that could lead to an all-out civil war. If the rebels win, there could be great opportunity for a regional transformation–Iranian influence in the Levant would be strangled, and a new government might change Syria’s decades-old rejection of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Lebanon might become more stable. However, a rebel victory is hardly certain. Several constituencies within Syria still want Bashar in power, and he’s being fed a steady supply of Russian arms. Providing the rebels access to similar volumes of weaponry might yield a long and bloody war. How would this affect America’s interest in the region?

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Oh, you’re still here? Moderates lose another battle in Iran

Islamic Azad University, Iran’s largest academic institution, has seen a change at the helm, with its president of nearly three decades, Abdollah Jasbi, removed and replaced by Farhad Daneshjoo. Daneshjoo, according to Payvand, is an Ahmadinejad ally, and his appointment was opposed by the quasi-moderate former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rather liberal son Hassan. In this regard, it’s a defeat for the moderates–an enemy has been placed at the helm of a massive educational institution, a position that gives him significant political leverage given the active role that Iran’s students have long played in the nation’s politics. What’s most surprising about this is not that the moderates lost a battle–for they’ve done a lot of that since the end of the Khatami presidency–but that they were even able to contest it at all. In most areas of Iranian politics, the moderates have long been squeezed out, and the real battle is now between the clerical and anticlerical conservatives.

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Free Syrian Army: We’re buying guns from Assad’s militia

An anonymous Free Syrian Army officer, speaking to London’s Asharq al-Awsat, said that the militia is buying weapons from a number of sources, including the Assad-sympathetizing shabiha militia. This shows the danger that Assad has put himself in with his many unsavory bedfellows. The Shabiha got their start as (to borrow a phrase from Assad’s lexicon) armed gangs that made their money through smuggling that the regime tolerated as long as they remained loyal. Now, while they help Assad wipe out his unarmed opponents by day, they aid his armed opponents by night. That’s the cost of doing business with these types.

This might be a foretaste of a future Iranian revolution, should one occur. The IRGC, like the Shabiha, is not loyal to the regime alone–they have growing interests in the economy, including in the black market. If the Islamic Republic starts to fall apart, elements of the Pasdaran might start playing both sides in much the same fashion.

This is not the only unsettling news about semi-official forces moving weapons. There have been reports in the Israeli media that Hezbollah has taken possession of some of Syria’s formidable arsenal of chemical weapons. If they can integrate these into their array of rockets, Israel will be at a new level of vulnerability. Reports indicate that perhaps 40% of the Israeli population does not have gas masks. An all-out Hezbollah rocket attack would be a disaster for Israel; a chemical attack would be even worse. This prospect could shape Israel’s strategic calculations toward Hezbollah and its allies Syria and Iran.

 

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Two Visions of Freedom: Understanding the Arab Spring’s Democracy

After being initially embraced by many Westerners, the Arab Spring has become a subject of concern. The crowds of Tahrir and Tunis chant for freedom, for participation, for democracy; their spokespeople are young “latte liberals” with perfect English; their rallies see Muslims and Christians side-by-side in clouds of tear gas. However, the elections they established have heavily favored Islamist parties who are ambiguous on religious pluralism, on nonsectarian governance, and on individual liberty. What’s going on?

The logos of the hardline an-Noor Party (left) and the more moderate Freedom and Justice Party (right), two Egyptian Islamist parties that will likely be able to form a strong coalition should they choose. (Image via the FJP's English website, fjp25.org)

There are of course many factors driving this gap. The people that came out to protest in Tahrir, especially the ones that Western (and Qatari) media outlets chose to interview, were not a representative sample of the Egyptian public. At the core, however, are two different visions of freedom. In Egypt, and in many Middle Eastern countries, a collective vision of freedom predominates; in America, and many Western countries, an individualistic vision of freedom predominates. The West’s confusion thus results from a miscommunication–when Westerners cheer for “freedom” in Egypt and beyond, they expect one thing and find something unfamiliar. Individual freedom is the right of one person to choose to live their life and express their views as they see fit, provided they do not harm others. Collective freedom is the right of a common group to live in a society that accords with its vision.

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Gingrich the Nasserite

Newt Gingrich has found himself at the center of a firestorm after remarks in an interview in which he called the Palestinians “an invented people,” stating that they are Arabs first and foremost. This has predictably drawn heavy criticism from his rivals to the GOP nomination and from Palestinian leaders. Saeb Erakat even called the remark “the most racist statement [he’s] ever seen.” Gingrich’s remarks in full:

I believe that the Jewish people have the right to have a state. Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, who are historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places and for a variety of political reasons, we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s. I think it’s tragic.

Yeah, it’s simplistic. It’s hard to argue, for starters, that Arabs strongly identified with the Ottoman Empire that conquered them–it’s typically regarded by Turks and Arabs alike as a dark age. It’s also a bit silly to talk about how Palestinians “had a chance to go many places,” considering that Palestinian refugees are still second-class citizens in many Arab states, even if they’ve been there for generations.

But let’s give the former Speaker some intellectual credit. (He is, after all, to use his own words, “the most seriously professorial politician since Woodrow Wilson,” in what be the only time the name Wilson was referenced glowingly by a Republican.) There is, in fact, a historical rivalry of the Palestinian and Arab identities, and it plays a prominent role in pan-Arabist thought, especially that which originated in Egypt. Mr. Gingrich is, in other words, a Nasserite. Nasser wanted to unite all Arab peoples in one state. One of the fundamental goals of pan-Arabism, by geopolitical necessity, was thus the elimination of Israel, as Israel physically divides the Arab world into two parts.  He thus saw the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964 as a serious threat to pan-Arabism, because it claimed that a Palestinian movement, not an Arab one, was most suited to the task of returning Palestine to Arab rule, and because it replaced the notion of one unified Arab people with parochialism. Nasser’s Syrian rivals were wise to this, and accordingly heavily backed the PLO and other Palestinian movements, allowing them to use Syrian territory and weaponry to conduct guerrilla raids into Israel.

Recall also that in Nasser’s day the territories which we now call Palestine–the West Bank and the Gaza Strip–were not Palestinian. Gaza was a part of Egypt; the West Bank a part of Jordan. Both Egypt and Jordan had very difficult relationships with their Palestinian subjects, but they were nevertheless in control. Advocacy of a return to this era is known as the three-state solution; it’s extremely unpopular because the Palestinian populations were never really beholden to or respected by Cairo and Amman. To advocate it is to ignore the last 50 years of Middle Eastern history. That’s the most charitable interpretation of what Gingrich  was saying–namely, the best solution for Palestine is for it to be absorbed by its neighbors. The less charitable interpretation, and what I suspect Gingrich actually intended to convey when he spoke, is that Israel should control both the West Bank and Gaza, and that the Palestinians should leave these areas and go live somewhere else. This position is most closely matched by the old Gush Emunim movement, which sought to settle the West Bank and Gaza to hasten the return of the Messiah. It’s a position that is not advocated by any major Israeli party. Gingrich, in his effort to show his pro-Israel credentials, positioned himself to the right of almost everyone in Israel. It’s a bit reminiscent of Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress earlier this year, in which the Israeli PM was repeatedly interrupted by applause, despite the fact that he made several remarks that were, in the Israeli context, partisan.

Gingrich’s remarks, then, weren’t as wildly unjustifiable and racist as they seemed, but they also did not show he has a deep “professorial” understanding of the challenges of the Middle East. As it turns out, his aides have stepped in to end the controversy, saying that Gingrich favors a two-state solution: “a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which will necessarily include agreement between Israel and the Palestinians over the borders of a Palestinian state.” However, the spokesman added,

understanding “what is being proposed and negotiated” requires a grasp of “decades of complex history — which is exactly what Gingrich was referencing during the recent interview.”

 

Well, almost.

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Is Iran’s Oil Ministry–and OPEC–Run by an Idiot?

I just watched Talk to Al Jazeera’s latest, an interview of Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi by Teymoor Nabili. I hadn’t seen more than photographs and brief quotes from Qasemi before, so it was quite interesting to see him speaking at length. Watch a few minutes of the interview, get a feel for the man–is it just me, or is he a bit slow? It takes about  ten minutes for him to say anything that, in translation at least, doesn’t sound like one of his assistants bullet-pointed a Wikipedia article on the international oil market, and the entire time his eyes are half-closed as he speaks in a monotone. (One wonders whether he’s gotten into Iran’s ample supply of opium.) Most of his answers seem to be little more than a statement of the most basic and uncontroversial facts about whatever is being discussed. His reply to a question on whether OPEC would cut production quotas now that Libyan production is coming back online provides a sample of the trivialities that dribble from his ample jowls:

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FP: Drugs Rampant in Iran

Great article in Foreign Policy on Iran’s drug troubles, accompanied by a photo set. It’s interesting to note that this UNODC report on drug use in Iran, which says that 2.26% of the nation is addicted to opiates, is actually by far the most optimistic picture of Iran’s drug problem that I’ve ever seen. Mainstream figures seem to be around 5%, and the most pessimistic say 10-15%. This might be the case more in Iran’s minority-dominated peripheries, where it’s said that addiction is so common that some factories give employees a break during the workday to use drugs.

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Whose Fault Is the Israel-Palestine Impasse?

Comment I wrote for a course; the topic is two articles in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, pitched as a debate on Israel’s current weak international position. The first is Ronald R. Krebs’ “Israel’s Bunker Mentality: How the Occupation Is Destroying the Nation.” The second is Yosef Kuperwasser and Shalom Lipner’s “The Problem is Palestinian Rejectionism: Why the PA Must Recognize a Jewish State.” Both articles are well-written and worth reading, but both, in my opinion, miss the mark.

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