Ticket to Heaven: The Engine behind the Violence in Syria and Iraq

14 06 2014

Iraq fighters

Iraq map

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The pundits are churning out words like geopolitics, sectarianism, mission failure, and strategic expansionism regarding the current dynamics and jihadist gains in Iraq and in some parts of Syria. But, there is an underlying concept that serves as the driving engine for jihadism in the 21st century, and it is as old as Islam itself.

That concept is martyrdom, and intrinsically linked to it is the concept of jihad, two sides of the same coin. Although these are not new concepts in Islam, they have morphed over the last few decades. They now encompass the act that is prohibited in Islamic law, suicide, as well as the chillingly subjective tool of takfir, that is, rendering someone a “non-believer,” and hence allowing him or her to be fair game as a target for jihadists.

These are the concepts that are fueling jihadism today, and when we peel back the layers of the Sunni-Shia rivalry and geopolitical ambitions on all sides, the core concepts of martyrdom and jihad function as the meat on the bones of jihadist ideology. Martyrdom and jihad were useful tools in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. However, armchair militant clerics are continuing to exploit these concepts for their own political, ideological, and strategic agendas.

Normally, religious concepts are a façade for territorial and geopolitical goals. The real objectives are usually gaining territory, ruling over people, toppling regimes, and basking in the glory of power, wealth, and totalitarian control over others. In the case of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the tangible goals still exist, but its followers are feverishly driven by ideology, the primary engine of their violent vehicle. And now, with the sharpening of the Sunni-Shia face off, the religious potency of each side’s motivations only becomes more acute. This is not to say that they are not your basic thugs and gangsters; yes they are indeed. But, add to the mix their puritanical religious obstinacy and combine that with their fearless attitudes towards death because of the concept of martyrdom, and then we have a recipe for disaster unfolding before us.

Both Sunnis and Shias embrace the concept of martyrdom, albeit with some nuanced distinctions. For both, martyrdom is a ticket to heaven, that is, eternal residence in paradise. The definition of a martyr is also generally similar in both sects, but for Shias it is dramatically and emotionally manifested in the slaughter of Imam Hussein and his family in Karbala at the hands of the Sunni Caliph at the time, Yazid. If you think that these 7th century events are long forgotten, think again. Twitter and social media are abuzz with profile names and labels like “Mu’awiya,” the Umayyid Caliph and father of Yazid, and invocations of Ali and Hussein.

Given that the new wave of conflict in Iraq is intensely along sectarian fault lines, the symbolism of Karbala only magnifies itself. For would-be jihadists and martyrs on both sides, religious history never dies. It only continues in ensuing chapters. We are witnessing the next major chapter in the Karbala legacy. Now that Iraq’s prominent Shia Ayatollah Sistani has made a call to arms to fight against the ISIS/Sunni onslaught, the new Karbala chapter is certainly about to be written.

Another dimension of these recent developments is that the ISIS incursion into Iraq is resurrecting the Iran-Iraq War “chapter two,” with the difference this time being that Iran will be fighting against primarily non-state actors in Iraq, with all of her state military assets along with her own non-state assets as well, and whereas in the first Iran-Iraq War the sectarian identities of Sunnis and Shias did not play a significant role – this was a major miscalculation by Ayatollah Khomeini. This time, sectarianism will be the primary reason and calculus for the bloody conflict ahead. Don’t forget that the first Iran-Iraq War lasted eight years. To refresh your memory, here is a description of the Iran-Iraq War, courtesy of Juan Cole in an article for Moyers & Company:

“From September of 1980, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army invaded Iran’s oil-rich Khuzistan Province, until summer 1988 when Ayatollah Khomeini finally accepted an armistice, Iran and Iraq fought one of the Middle East’s longest and bloodiest wars. Its trench warfare and hidden naval encounters recalled the horrors of World War I, as did the Iraqi Baath government’s deployment of mustard gas against Iranian soldiers at the front and sarin gas against Kurdish civilians suspected of pro-Iranian sentiments.”

This second conflict is likely to match or surpass that, with varying degrees of intensity. Also, just like the first Iran-Iraq War, this one will also have powerful regional proxies backing their respective militias and armies. Some analysts are speculating that the venomous and violent nature of ISIS will oddly put Iran and the United States on the same side of this particular conflict. But in general, as in the case of the Syrian civil war, Iraq’s next conflict will be yet another Saudi-Iran face off vis-à-vis proxies.

ISIS has been disowned by Al Qaeda and other extremist jihadist groups fighting in Syria, because the former is considered too extreme even for them. Moreover, there is no doubt about ISIS’s anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Jewish and anti-Christian sentiments. That has been made crystal clear with its actions and abuses against Syrian Christians; and, like all extremist groups, their first targets always are women. Iraqis are right to be terrified. Those Iraqi and other Sunnis who are celebrating the ISIS gains are delusional. All you have to do is see what is happening in Pakistan with the Taliban wreaking havoc against their own supporters. These are rabid dogs that bite the hands that feed them.

It is impossible to argue against a deep belief in martyrdom, jihad, and salvation in paradise. Yet, that is exactly what must be done. The failure to win the ideological battle only yields more bloodshed and intolerance.

No amount of airstrikes, bombings, intelligence, and counter-terrorism strategies will be completely successful without taking on the core ideology that drives individuals to jihad and martyrdom. Both Sunnis and Shias adhere to this ideology, hence the challenge is ever greater.

Ultimately, this will become a national security threat to the United States and European allies. The “foreign fighters” who constitute the volunteer jihadist fighters include many westerners among them. Many countries in the Middle East, Europe and the western hemisphere are worried about these fighters returning home, and then turning their guns and lethal expertise against their own governments and citizens. Since the contexts of jihad and martyrdom are increasingly translated in very nebulous ways, the ideology poses a dangerous threat to everyone.

Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College.

The views expressed are personal.

 

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The Militant Sunni Juggernaut & the Anti-Shia Hatred that Fuels It

10 01 2013

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Lashkar-e-Taiba

Stop Shia Killings

“Yes, we must finish them off.”  This was the response when someone from one of the Gulf Arab countries (to remain nameless) was asked about going after (i.e., killing) Shias following Bashar al-Assad’s fall in Syria.  I have predicted a Shia massacre, I even called it a genocide, in a post-Assad Syria.  This quote only confirms my fears and suspicions.

 Twenty-four hours after I heard this quote the vicious killings of mainly Hazara Shias in Pakistan took place in Quetta.  Ongoing violence in Iraq continues to target Shias there, and the Sunni-Shia hatred and violence in Syria has already spilled over into Lebanon, where they tortured and slaughtered each other with relish during the civil war (1975-1990).

 Ironically, it is the majority Sunnis in the Middle East, especially in the Persian Gulf region, and parts of South Asia who sing the victim songs about how Iran is trying to “spread its ideology” and subjugate them all.  There is no denying that upon Ayatollah Khomeini coming to power in the 1979 revolution, one of his expressed priorities was to spread the Islamic revolution throughout the region.  However, given the fact that the vast majority of the regional demographics consists of Sunnis – with exceptions in Iraq and Bahrain – the fear of the successful spread of Twelver Shia ideology is unsubstantiated and grossly overblown.  And the regional actors know this.  Yet, they continue to fan the flames of sectarian hatred and fear.  I have come across numerous Sunnis from the Gulf region who don’t hesitate to judge Shias as “non-believers,” or “non-Muslims.”  Surely they have their counterparts among Shias, but Shias are greatly outnumbered, and in fact in Sunni majority countries they face increasing discrimination, prejudice, and even violence, not unlike many Christians in the Middle East and Hindus, Bahais, Ahmadis, and a host of other minority groups in Pakistan.  We must add girls and women too, but gender violence is a whole other can of worms.  I predict that persistent gender violence will trigger the true downfall of these regions, if they don’t get their acts together to protect girls and women.  But, that topic is for another article.

As much as we can try to attribute the recent attacks in Pakistan to what’s to come with US troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, the fact is that systematic targeting of Shias has been going on for a long time now.  Many refer to it as the “Shia Genocide,” and there is basis for this term.  Just look at the number of deaths and injuries, and frequency of attacks, which have been rising steadily in recent years.  The Pakistani government is unable (and unwilling?) to enforce law and order in general, let alone pertaining to sectarian massacres.  It seems not only helpless, but also oblivious in many ways, and that will be to Pakistan’s detriment, as if matters can get any worse.  And, with Pakistan, it’s not just the internal violence that is sucking the country into its own self-constructed black hole, but it seems the military is itching for a fight with India again with the border skirmishes in Kashmir’s LOC.  There is a real potential in the coming months and maybe year or so for the Pakistani military to step in completely and carry out yet another coup, especially now that the US will be less active in the region.  If things get even uglier with the Indo-Pak skirmishes, the Pakistani military just might see that as an opportunity to make its move on the Zardari government.  Let’s see what happens.  My predictions are not always right, but who knows what’s around the corner for the Af-Pak region?

 The outlook for these regions is grim, especially given that law enforcement cannot provide basic security for the general public.  Plus, rule of law practically does not exist, and if it does, it’s usually in favor of the wealthy and powerful elite.  Meanwhile, the bloodshed continues with impunity.

 While I in no way support the brutal Iranian regime (which also viciously represses its own minority groups), as a political scientist, I can assess that, with all these targeted Shia killings proliferating in the Middle East and Pakistan, and the inevitable fall of Bashar al-Assad in Syria (Iran’s only strong ally in the region), the clerics in Tehran can only see more reason to weaponize their nuclear program.  Ominously, that will result in a domino effect with the rest of the region acquiring the same nuclear status.  That is for certain.  Then, we will witness the Sunni-Shia rivalry armed with nuclear weapons.  That is one very scary thought.  But, since the regional governments do nothing to prevent the sectarian bloodshed now, that is the outlook we can expect in the future.

 The governments in these regions need to wake up to these dark realities.  They are so preoccupied with their own prejudices and self-interests, but this is truly at the expense of the masses.  Nothing can be gained from all the violence at the hands of militants, regardless of their sectarian identities and ideological orientations.

 The other open secret that everyone sees, but has not received due attention, is that most of the militants in these regions are hard-core Sunni extremists.  With all the fear mongering about Iran spreading its ideology, the majority of violent acts being carried out from North Africa, in the Middle East proper, and in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Kashmir are at the hands of Sunni militants, primarily espousing some form of Salafism, and many of whom, if not most, are supported financially by the Saudis.  When we peel back the layers of political, military/security, financial, and other variables in this scenario, we see that at the core of it all is the Sunni-Shia rivalry (i.e., Saudi versus Iran).  These militants have many other motivations and agendas as well, but one of the main priorities they embrace is to “cleanse” their societies of Shias and other minority groups.  The Taliban committed horrendous Shia massacres during their rule in Afghanistan.  This is nothing new.  The only thing that is new and alarming is the militant Sunni juggernaut sweeping across these regions unchallenged.

 NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views





Neo-Interventionism in Syria and Casting Blind Eyes

22 07 2012

“’As we watched the efficient attack on Assad’s National Security council on Wednesday, Assad found himself one minister of defense and brother-in-law short.  Interventions have been taking place in the 17 month old conflict since its inception, and the only issue now is for those who have picked their horse – in this case, the unpredictable, unknown creature called the Syrian opposition – to bide their time.

What we are watching now is the increasingly rapid entropy of the Assad regime and not without the considerable aid from several intelligence agencies which are many and varied – Jordanians, the Central Intelligence Agency, British, French and Turkish agents’.”

This is a quote from an online blog called “Above Top Secret,” which includes analysis from Stratfor Intelligence (a private open-source intelligence firm).  I was also recently quoted for a Reuters piece on Syria speculating the same thing:  that the sophisticated bombing successfully taking out key senior officials in Assad’s inner circle could not have happened without outside help, as well as an insider turncoat.  It was indeed a spectacular attack that has shaken but not collapsed the regime.

The alleged outside support, which I am coining “Neo-Interventionism,” is not new or unique to the Middle East, especially in terms of supposed covert assistance being given to Syrian rebels.  However, this neo-interventionism is unique in the sense that the outside supporters of the opposition see Syria as a means to undermine the Iranians.  And, as much as some are profusely denying that a sectarian component exists in this scenario, it is clear as day that the backing of the opposition by conservative Sunni / Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, is imbued with the Sunni-Shiite rivalry and geopolitical, regional, and ideological competition.  No one would be happier to poke the Iranian regime in the eye, and pull the rug out from underneath them, more than the Saudis and their allies, which includes Western powers.

Yet, many scholars, analysts, media, and regional and Western powers are conveniently turning a blind eye to this and a few other uncomfortable truths.  Among these is the fact that the Saudis and Qataris are not involving themselves out of the goodness of their hearts.  They see a golden opportunity here, but with gross disregard to the regional risks and perils that such neo-interventionism harbors.  Part of my neo-interventionist theory is that old lessons from history are never learned, and the parties involved are bound to repeat history, like the civil war in Syria that is very similar to the civil war in Lebanon (or will ultimately morph into such).  The only difference is that now there are some new actors involved in new contexts.  The configurations and in some cases even the grudges remain unchanged.

Another uncomfortable truth is that atrocities and crimes are being committed by both the Asad regime and the opposition rebels.  Robert Fisk of the Independent reports at least 200 women outside of Homs have been raped by both sides, and the actual numbers of victims could be much higher throughout Syria.  Extrajudicial killings and kidnappings are also taking place.

Yet another uncomfortable truth is that no one actually knows the composition of the rebels, and that among them are some unsavory characters, including hard-line Salafists, criminals, and drug addicts.

Quoting Robert Fisk again in his piece dated July 22, entitled “Sectarianism Bites into Syria’s Rebels,” he cites a young man who works for the Syrian opposition, upon his arrival to an office in Beirut.  He bears a message for the opposition in Beirut just before the Damascus operation:

“His story was as revealing as it was frightening. Damascus was about to be attacked. But the fighters were out of control. There were drug addicts among them. ‘Some of our people are on drugs,’ the visitor said. ‘They will take anyone out. We can’t guarantee what some of these men will do. If they went into Malki [a mixed, middle-class area of central Damascus], we couldn’t protect any of the people who live there. We are against the Salafists who are fighting – there are good Syrians, Druze and Ishmaeilis [Alawites] who are with us. But if we capture Damascus, we don’t know how to run a small town, let alone a country’.”

If there is a lesson to learn from it’s the case of Libya, which is still a mess and where violence and kidnappings continue to plague society.  But, Libya is nothing compared to Syria, especially with the potential for spillover of the civil war into Lebanon.  If we think the case of Libya is turning into a transitional nightmare, then we must brace ourselves further for Syria’s civil war, as well as for the uncertainties pertaining to the post-Asad era.  There is much speculation about what a post-Asad Syria would look like, but another uncomfortable truth is that the likelihood for power struggles, sectarian cleansing, ideological spats, and chaotic violence is very high.

There is no doubt that the Syrian civilians are suffering, including refugees fleeing to neighboring countries.  They deserve security and protection, and a long-term solution for the future health of their country.  In my opinion, the Asad regime and the rebels are disregarding the plight of the civilians caught in the middle of the conflict zones.  And, the rest of the world is impotent, except for the neo-interventionism, which is myopically pursuing respective national interests, rather than genuinely concerned about the innocent non-combatants.

Says Robert Fisk:

“Now, of course, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where al-Jazeera is based, make no secret of the funds and weapons they are running into Turkey and Lebanon for the resistance – without apparently caring very much who the ‘resisters’ are. The Lebanese army managed to stop one out of five shiploads of guns, but the others, carried on Sierra Leone-registered vessels, were able to unload.”

If either side – whether the Asad regime, the opposition groups, Free Syrian Army / rebels, and the foreign supporters – really cared about the Syrian civilian population, they all would stop what they are doing right now, lay down their arms, and sit at the negotiating table.  Obviously, they each have their own agendas for Syria and possibly the region, and their actions show that the civilians are pawns and dispensable entities.  Syria can end up becoming the Middle East’s Afghanistan.

Fisk’s last paragraph says:

“One of the two organizations that claimed responsibility for last week’s Damascus bombing, Liwa Islam – the Islam Brigade – raises again the Salafist element in Syria’s armed opposition. One newly arrived refugee from Syria told me last week that they have forbidden alcohol and openly say they intend to die fighting in Damascus. Given the savage response of the Syrian regime, they may get their last wish.”

It doesn’t seem to matter to them who gets in the way.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views





The Saudi Specter in Syria and the World

10 02 2012

My recent post about Syria, the Russian bear, and Iran passionately describes the plight of innocent civilians being killed in Syria.  While my supportive sentiments for the human rights of Syrians remain steadfast, there are some developments and stories within the stories that are not reaching the mainstream press, and are alarming signs that Syria may be spiraling into another Lebanon (i.e., the civil war in Lebanon, 1975-1990).

One of these signs is the sectarian strife, where reports about Sunnis and Alawites targeting each other, as well as kidnapping for ransom and release of detainees, are surfacing.  Of course, the Assad regime itself has most likely intensified such sectarianism, but nonetheless, the fierce sectarian violence witnessed in the Lebanese civil war is a potential scenario in today’s Syria.  I have already seen at least one anti-Shiite posting on Facebook in reference to Syria.

This brings me to the other specter pertaining to Syria:  the Saudis, with their Wahhabi and very anti-Shiite (read “anti-Iran”) agenda for the region.  No one should be surprised with Saudi propositions for the need to end the slaughter in Syria.  But, we should read between the lines very carefully, considering the source.  Al Arabiya quotes Saudi King Abdullah as calling for “‘critical measures’ to be taken on Syria, warning of an impending ‘humanitarian disaster’.”

Uh-huh.  This is the same Saudi monarch who sent tanks and troops into Bahrain and viciously cracked down on and killed and abused countless civilians to quell the uprising there.  But you see, the Bahraini protesters were mostly Shiites, and once the dust settled in Pearl Square, Shiite shrines were systematically bulldozed.  Starting to see the picture folks?

In my book, the Saudi “government” is never sincere about humanitarian issues.  Look at their own track record inside the kingdom; it’s the epitome of intolerance.  The Saudis are one of the creators of the Taliban, and the supporters and exporters of the most intolerant, ultra-orthodox / literalist, violent, misogynist, and militancy-inspiring ideology in the world, that is, Wahhabism.

If you have any doubts about the Saudis’ human rights track record, go to the Human Rights Watch website and read the country report on Saudi Arabia (http://www.hrw.org/middle-eastn-africa/saudi-arabia).  And, here is another example of Saudi intolerance, reported in David Keyes’ article in the Washington Post (Feb. 9):

“Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari was detained in Malaysia on Wednesday night and is likely to be extradited soon to Saudi Arabia, where he will be tried for blaspheming religion. Kashgari, 23, had fled the kingdom Monday after he received thousands of death threats. His crime? He posted on Twitter a series of mock conversations between himself and the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

‘On your birthday I find you in front of me wherever I go,’ he wrote in one tweet. ‘I love many things about you and hate others, and there are many things about you I don’t understand.’

Another reads: ‘No Saudi women will go to hell, because it’s impossible to go there twice.’

The tweets came to light last week around a celebration of Muhammad’s birthday, and Kashgari’s ordeal began. Hours before he was detained, Kashgari spoke to me by phone from the house in which he was hiding. ‘I was with sitting with my friends and one of them checked Twitter on his mobile phone,’ he said. ‘Suddenly there were thousands of tweets of people calling to kill me because they said I’m against religion.’

… Kashgari noted with sadness that many young Saudis are leaving their country in hopes of escaping the government’s repressive policies. ‘It’s not logical that, if someone disagrees with the Saudi government, that he should be forced to leave the country. Many of those who have been arrested are fighting for simple rights that everyone should have — freedom of thought, expression, speech and religion.’

The young writer surmised that the threats against him were, in part, a result of the tens of millions of dollars the Saudi king allotted to the religious police last spring. Many Saudi dissidents have noted increased repression in the past few months and are terrified of the ascent of Crown Prince Naif, who has served as interior minister for decades.”

Reports are indicating that Saudi King Abdullah has personally demanded Kashgari’s arrest.  If Kashgari is extradited, he faces the possibility of execution for blasphemy.  This is coming from a strong US ally.

All of this does not in any way exonerate the crimes of the Assad regime.  But, we must remain vigilant about scrutinizing sources of information and news, and read between the lines when heads of state in the region so vociferously call for action to help the Syrian civilians.  Clearly, they have their own agendas, and that couldn’t be more the case when it comes to the Saudi king.  Hypocrisy, intolerance, and systematic anti-Shiite agendas constitute the Saudi specter concerning Syria.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.