The Merger of Jihad Franchises in Syria: A War of Islamisms

22 11 2013

Syrian Rebels

syria_heavy_weapons_rebels.si

The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) accidentally beheaded one of their own commanders recently. Meanwhile, jihadist rebel groups have been fighting against the secular or more moderate Free Syrian Army forces, as well as against Syrian Kurds. Now, a group of Islamic rebel forces has announced a merger: “A statement posted online said Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Suqour al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Haqq, Ansar al-Sham and the Kurdish Islamic Front had agreed to a ‘gradual merger’. It said the new Islamic Front will be an ‘independent political, military and social formation’ to topple the Assad regime and build an Islamic state” (BBC News, Nov. 22, 2013).

Throw into that mix Shia fighters in Assad’s camp, including Hezbollah, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and other pro-Shia Islamist militias, and now we have a full-fledged complex multidimensional sectarian war vying for a dominant Islamism to take hold of Syria.

The announcement of the new Islamic Front “may also challenge the growing influence of the two al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist rebel groups, the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), although they have co-operated with some of its component groups in the past.”

In sum, Syria embodies multi-layered “spiders web-like “ networks of Sunni and Shia militias and paramilitary forces, and this can only continue to plunge Syria into violence and chaos not unlike the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), although Syria’s war is at least a hundred times worse and intense and potentially will last a lot longer.

The supporters of these proxy rebel groups, like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other GCC states on the Sunni jihadists’ side, and Iran on the Shia side, have no regard for the innocent civilians suffering horrifically in Syria and also as refugees in neighboring countries. These proxy supporters are as guilty of atrocities as Bashar al-Assad. All sides are guilty of war crimes.

More crucially, this merger of jihad franchises in Syria encompasses a “war of Islamisms,” wherein even after Assad’s downfall, these religious rebel groups will continue – and possibly intensify – the war in power struggles, in order for their own Islamist ideology to win. We have seen this pattern of the war of Islamism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In particular, once the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan (1989), the multitude of Islamic fundamentalist/militant warlords and militias proliferating throughout the Af-Pak region turned their guns against each other. Within that scenario the Taliban arose and engaged these warlords in the Afghan civil war. We know the rest of the story, once the Taliban succeeded in taking Kabul and creating the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

I have called the Syrian civil war the “Afghanistan of the Middle East.” I would love to be proven wrong about that, but this merger of Islamic rebel groups and the power struggles between the Islamic Front and the Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups portend a similar outcome to Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew. The war of Islamisms is nothing new, especially in terms of the sectarian rivalry between Sunnis and Shias. That’s as old as Islam itself. Now, we see the power struggles in the post-Arab Awakening Middle East and North Africa consist of all shades of Islamists trying to climb over each other for the seats of power. This is all at the expense of civilians, both Sunnis, Shias, Christians, and secularists.

To quote U.S. President John F. Kennedy, “Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.”

Those waging the war of Islamisms seem to fail miserably in grasping that concept.

Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College.
The views expressed are personal.

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Bastion of Islamism: Egypt and the New Middle East

25 06 2012

I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime.  I lived in Egypt for four years, under Mubarak, and I never would have guessed that within a few years he would be overthrown, and the arch nemesis of the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), would win an election.  Yet, it has happened, and after a very long, drawn out, meticulous reading of the election results on Sunday afternoon, which I presume has served as a torture tactic in Egyptian prisons, finally the commission announced MB candidate Mohamed Morsi as the winner of the run-off, beating the former Mubarak PM Ahmed Shafiq.  Of course, the real hard work begins now, in dealing with old and new political institutions, the religious establishment, and the demands of the revolutionaries.  Plus, external powers will have to be reassured of the preservation of their regional interests.  The status quo persistently lurks in the shadows.

In my opinion, neither Shafiq nor Morsi were good candidates for a progressive future.  The former represents the Mubarak regime, and the latter’s religious platform generates apprehension especially among many women, religious minorities (i.e., the Coptic Christians), the revolutionary youth movement, and secularists and moderates.  Morsi inherits an unenviable task and circumstance, although anyone in his shoes would have faced similar daunting challenges.

Some of the pressing priorities and challenges awaiting him are worth reviewing:

Economic challenges:

This is by far the number one priority and challenge that Morsi faces.  Tourism has been hit hard since the 2011 revolution, and businesses and industries have suffered losses.  Labor disputes have erupted, and in fact a labor dispute is what started the whole revolutionary movement (April 6th youth movement).  Getting the economic engine going and in fact getting it to surpass previous growth levels will be analogous to climbing Everest ten times.  But, that is what’s needed.  Going back to pre-revolution economic status will not be sufficient.  For this to occur, the Egyptian economy will have to open up and diversify significantly, plus simultaneous advances in education and training (including technological training) must be implemented.  Given the meager literacy rates in Egypt (males 77%; females 62%), that alone will be a formidable challenge.

Political challenges:

There is already talk about SCAF setting a trap for Morsi, especially given that the constitution has yet to be written.  The political challenges are immense, and the uncertainties regarding SCAF’s agendas are great cause for concern.  Morsi will have to tread with extraordinary political savvy, and his lack of previous political experience already renders him politically handicapped.  He will need the most politically shrewd and skilled circle of advisers around him.  How likely that is remains to be seen.

Ideological challenges:

Internal ideological challenges within the MB, but also involving the religious establishment, will create factionalism and could engender indecision and/or poor social policies.  If Morsi gives in to pressures for instituting strict Islamist policies, many aspects of socioeconomic development and human rights can be seriously derailed and undermined.  Another ideological challenge is the impact of regional developments, mainly what’s happening in Syria, which in reality symbolizes the Sunni-Shi’ite rivalry (i.e., Asad’s alliance with Iran and Hezbollah).  Although Morsi has already expressed improving relations with Iran, the Syrian conflict, along with a possible US-Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, could escalate the sectarian tensions in the region.  In that scenario, Egypt will be compelled to side with the status quo.

Regional challenges:

Israel is the number one regional relations issue for Egypt, and Morsi’s position regarding the Camp David Accords will be greatly scrutinized especially by Western powers.  In addition, instability in Libya next door may have an impact on political and security issues in Egypt, not to mention the problems in Sudan.  Floods of refugees into Egypt have long caused pressures on the local economy, and with continuing conflicts in these neighboring states, it could worsen.  Morsi says he wants to improve relations with Iran.  Given Iran’s support for the Asad regime in Syria, this might not prove a popular stance domestically, but it is still a step in the right direction, since Egyptian-Iranian relations have remained strained for years.  Who knows, at some point maybe Egypt could play a significant role in diplomacy involving Iran and her adversaries in the region and also in the West.  If Egypt can rise once again as a major regional player, then that will truly be a huge feather in Morsi’s cap.

External foreign relations challenges:

Egypt’s relations with the US and other Western powers will be critical for her socioeconomic development.  The caveat in this is the gauntlet laid down by SCAF, much of which remains unknown, in terms of treading that path smoothly in the transition process.  So far, the US has congratulated Morsi upon his win.  But, that does not mean that he will not be viewed with skeptical eyes and heavy scrutiny.  Moreover, he risks undermining his own credibility if he starts to wave the Islamist flag a bit too fervently.  Morsi and his government will have to maintain a delicate balance between Islamism and democracy, and along those lines, the “Turkish model” of the AKP has been repeatedly cited.  Morsi and company will remain under the microscope for a long time.

Morsi will face many pressures and temptations to invoke and perhaps implement stricter Islamic rules and policies in post-Mubarak Egypt.  If he leans more towards such matters and issues, then it will be an indication of his lack of focus on the real priorities of the country, those that pertain to socioeconomic development and progress, alleviating poverty and illiteracy, and improving the quality of life for the masses.

If other Islamist parties/organizations are any indication of the direction that they are inclined to take, for example Hamas and Hezbollah, then there is every reason to be skeptical about the MB in Egypt.  Islamist groups in the region have failed miserably to illustrate a keen capability to govern effectively and uphold fundamental human rights.  In the end, the successes of Islamist parties may render the region a bastion of Islamism, but with nothing substantive to show for it.  Let’s see if they can prove the skeptics wrong.

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






Bibi, Can You Say that with a Straight Face? Or, Is Hezbollah / Iran Really that Stupid?

14 02 2012

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu may have broken the nano-speed record for blaming Hezbollah/Iran for the recent attacks in India and Georgia targeting Israeli diplomats.  However, today’s incident of an Iranian national lobbing explosives in Thailand – albeit not targeting Israelis – might add to the validity of Bibi’s claims.  Still, when Israel instantly blamed Hezbollah/Iran after the attacks in Delhi and Tblisi, many people scratched their heads.  It looked all too convenient.

We probably should not dismiss all possibilities all together, though.  But, it’s hard to fathom that Hezbollah/Iran could really be that stupid, as to incite, provoke, and prod the “Grim Reaper.”  It really is not in the interest of Iran or Israel and the US to trigger a conventional war that would result in countless civilian deaths on all sides.  You will never catch me using that ugly artificial term, “collateral damage.”  It’s human loss of life.  But, why all the chest thumping in Iran and Israel?  It’s counterproductive, and could inadvertently escalate tensions into an all-out war.

According to Reuters (Feb. 13) –

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed both Iran and Hezbollah, accusing them of responsibility for a string of recent attempted attacks on Israeli interests in countries as far apart as Thailand and Azerbaijan.

‘Iran and its proxy Hezbollah are behind each of these attacks,’ said Netanyahu, who dismisses Iran denials that it is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. ‘We will continue to take strong and systematic, yet patient, action against the international terrorism that originates in Iran.’

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast rejected Netanyahu’s accusation, saying it was Israel that had carried out the attacks as part of its psychological warfare against Iran.

‘It seems that these suspicious incidents are designed by the Zionist regime and carried out with the aim of harming Iran’s reputation,’ the official news agency IRNA quoted Mehmanparast as saying.

Israeli officials have long made veiled threats to retaliate against Lebanon for any Hezbollah attack on their interests abroad, arguing that as the Islamist group sits in government in Beirut, its actions reflect national policy.

… B.K. Gupta, the New Delhi police commissioner, said a witness had seen a motorcyclist stick a device to the back of the car, which had diplomatic registration plates.

‘The eyewitness … says it (was) some kind of magnetic device. As soon as the motorcycle moved away a good distance from the car, the car blew up and it caught fire,’ said Gupta.

The Iranian scientist killed in Tehran last month died in a similar such attack by a motorcyclist who attached a device to his car. No one has claimed responsibility for that, although Iran was quick to accuse agents of Israel and its U.S. ally.”

 

The stakes couldn’t be higher.  Also, in many respects, both Iran and Israel are guilty of many crimes.  Let’s not forget the 1994 Jewish center bombing in Argentina, and Iran’s Defense Minister Ahmed Vahidi is alleged to have planned this heinous attack that killed 85.  Israel has bombed civilians in the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon with impunity (and yes, Hamas often provokes such retaliation when it launches rockets indiscriminately into Israeli areas); and Israel also engages in both targeted killings and collective punishment.  The latest incident was the January 2010 killing of a Hamas military commander in Dubai, with operatives entering the UAE with plagiarized European passports, which angered many European countries.

The bottom line is that both Iran and Israel have bloody hands, and it’s not productive for them to continue escalating tensions that can drag a conflict-weary region into yet another devastating war.  Too many innocent civilians will pay the price for the follies and callousness of these governments.  How many times must we remind them that WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER!

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





Syria, the Big Russian Bear, and Iran

8 02 2012

When I lived in Damascus, at the time the TV had only two channels.  One of them used to broadcast Russian ballet performances quite regularly.  Also, Iranian pilgrims were everywhere.  An entire segment of the Syrian tourist industry has been set aside just for Iranian pilgrims visiting important Shia shrines.  I saw busloads, and I even learned that certain hotels were exclusively serving Iranian patrons.

So, the official public UN stance of Russia in vetoing the resolution last week, along with the Iranian regime’s less public military and security support for the Assad regime, all come as little surprise to me.  But, both Russia and Iran are playing a most heinous and ominous role in the destruction of the Syrian people, including countless unarmed civilians, women, men, and children alike.  Michael Weiss published an article in the Telegraph that explicitly describes what’s happening in Syria, and the complicity of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah in the slaughter of thousands:

For those who haven’t had lunch today, I encourage you to see up-close what Russian weapons and Iranian and Hezbollah ‘military consultants’ have helped accomplish in Syria. This video is of a young boy in Homs. His entire lower jaw has been removed from his head and I’m told that this is more watchable version of the footage; an earlier reel went round where he hadn’t been anaesthetized yet.”

(NOTE:  You can find the hyperlink to the video inside Michael Weiss’s article:  http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/michaelweiss/100135384/russia-iran-and-hezbollah-are-already-intervening-in-syria-why-arent-we/WARNING:  It’s very graphic).

 

“Vladimir Putin’s copper-bottomed support for Bashar al-Assad at the UN Security Council can be taken in one of two ways. There will be those who claim that here was one organized crime lord pledging solidarity with his human ferret counterpart. The two men really do understand each other and are even beginning to replicate each other’s CVs.  Assad is doing to Syria what Putin did to Chechnya a decade ago and under the same pretext of combating “terrorists”.  Moscow had its dodgy apartment bombings in 1999, blamed with credible evidence on the FSB, to justify the razing of Grozny. Damascus has had its spate of “suicide bombings” lately, blamed by the regime on the following actors: al-Qaida, the United States, Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian opposition and loyalists of former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam. Footage showing the mukhabarat’s theatrics before and after these incidents matters not at all because the Assad regime, with a little help from Russia Today and other Kremlin mouthpieces, has also blamed “foreign media” for presenting a mere domestic misunderstanding as a full-blown humanitarian crisis.  Taken another way, Putin’s support for Assad is a foreign policy “victory” that comes at just the right time for Russia, weeks ahead of a presidential election. 

…If certain comment editors have difficulty finding Syrians on the ground who want NATO fighter jets overhead, I’ll be glad to introduce them to several.

Here is al-Sheikh: ‘As an activist and a coordinator for the Khaled Bin Waleed brigade, I state that we in Homs, Idlib and Damascus suburbs call for unilateral American and British intervention. We also want to improve our relations with the US administration and people after the revolution, but we need you to save us. We are getting slaughtered, save us’.”

You don’t need me to point out that the United Nations has miserably failed the Syrian people.  The UN is broken and is far from democratic.  If anything, this whole incident underscores the need for a UN overhaul; at a minimum, there should be provisions for those countries that wish to implement the R2P mandate in cases such as Syria to override Security Council vetoes.  I am a diehard believer in state sovereignty, but I am a human rights activist first and foremost.  Russia, Iran, and China have done a tremendous disservice to humanity.  Now, Assad is having a field day in exterminating his own people:  protesters and by-standers alike, civilians making a run for it to grab some bread (now in dire short supply), families huddling in their homes, and individuals picked off by snipers.

This reminds me of the bloody, ruthless killings in the former Yugoslavia.  The Yugoslavia analogy is not off base… remember how long it finally took Western powers to intervene in Bosnia and stop the massacres?!!  You’d think that we all have learned from lessons past.

The Syrian people have the right to live without fear.  Most of all, they have the right to live.  What the hell happened to the “Responsibility to Protect” civilians, that was so potently invoked in the case of Libya?  I write this with a very heavy heart for Syria, and wish that ballet performances would have been the extent of Syrian-Russian relations.  Sadly, it’s not.

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