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Middle East

Proposition for ending the crisis in Syria: concurrent devolution of power regionally and military action against genocidal fighters nationally

Proposition for ending the crisis in Syria: concurrent devolution of power regionally and military action against genocidal fighters nationally


 

Syrians as refugees because of this level of destruction of their cities

Politics is the art of compromise. Successful politicians rarely give ultimatums because doing so would limit their ability to navigate complex issues. In 2012, President Obama underestimated the complexity of the crisis in Syria. He drew a “red line” for President Assad: the use of chemical weapons would have “enormous consequences” and would “change [his] calculus” on American military intervention in Syria’s civil war. A year later, someone used weaponized chemicals, killing hundreds of civilians. Although no investigation was conducted to identify the perpetrator at that time, the U.S., encouraged by its regional allies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, accused the government of Bashar al-Assad. Just days before world leaders were to meet in New York, U.S. bombing of Syria was all but certain. Then two key events changed the course of history. First, Prime Minister David Cameron, initially supportive of military intervention, was restrained by the British parliament. As of September 7, 2013, the U.S. Congress was also set to not authorize the use of force in Syria, especially if it was not authorized by the UNSC. Second, U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, made a “silly mistake”, to borrow the words of some observers.
 

On Monday, September 9, 2013, Kerry, then on his way to a meeting in Europe, made the gaffe that saved his boss. Answering a reporter’s question, he said that Assad could avoid an American attack by turning over “every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.” The State Department tried to take back Kerry’s comments by saying that he “was making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied he used.” Nonetheless, Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, put Kerry in check:  Moscow urged Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control. The next day, the Syrian government “welcomed” Russia’s proposal. The U.S. Senate, having scheduled a vote for Wednesday on whether to back a proposed punitive strike, postponed it. The U.S.-planned “surgical strike” against Syria did not take place. 
In hindsight, and given the abysmal results of the yearlong airstrikes on ISIL, the U.S. administration should be thankful for Russia’s intervention that allowed Obama to save face, while eliminating a dangerous weapon that could be used by the Syrian government or its opponents if storing facilities fell under their control. Above all, Russia’s plan for Syria’s chemical weapons was a lifeline for President Obama, who was headed for defeat, at least in the House, on his request for approval for military action.
Fast-forward to September 2015. Russia, once again, might be offering the U.S. and its allies a lifeline: an opening to chart a new course for its military and political plans in Syria. Clearly, U.S. bombardment of ISIL positions from the air is not producing any significant results, and the U.S. cannot find a reliable “moderate” partner that could hold cleared territory.
Since the start of the Syrian crisis, the U.S. and its regional allies—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey—have insisted that Bashar al-Assad must step down before they stop their support for rebel fighters. In fact, the AKP-led Turkish government has insisted that it would not fight ISIL unless it and its allies are allowed to fight the Syrian government troops as well. In other words, working with the Syrian government to combat terrorism is out of the question in the eyes of these governments. Russia, on the other hand, has insisted that fighting terror groups in Syria must be a priority and must be coordinated with the Syrian government.
There is a growing body of evidence pointing to the fact that U.S.-Saudi position is untenable. 
First, Turkey is now fighting its own war on terror at home. ISIL suicide bombers have killed Turkish citizens inside Turkey. The AKP government chose to re-open its war on Kurdish fighters and ignore the threats posed by ISIL. Some Turkish towns are now off-limits to Turkish government forces.
Second, the U.S. planto train and equip “moderate” rebel fighters and use them to fight ISIL on the ground in Syria has failed in a spectacular way: the first group of fighters inserted into Syria was immediately attacked by al-Nusra, killing many of its members and capturing the rest. Moreover, a leader of this U.S.-trained group declared that his fighters will never attack their “brothers in jihad,” which of course would include ISIL.
Third, al-Nusra has been reluctant to enter into open war against ISIL. Last week, al-Nusra’s overall leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, ordered the group to cooperate with ISIL, despite his rejection of ISIL’s declared restoration of the caliphate under the leadership of al-Baghdadi.
Fourth, Saudi Arabia has claimed that Assad lost legitimacy because he has killed civilians in Syria. Now that Saudi Arabia is bombing civilians in Yemen and siding with an unelected ruler of that country, they have lost that moral high ground. The Saudis, Qataris, Bahrainis, and Emaritis are all involved in an illegal brutal war. It is also possible that that Saudi Arabia will lose territory to the Houthis before the war on Yemen is over. The Saudi rulers themselves might face serious criminal charges since they stand accused of committing war crimes in Yemen.
Fifth, the refugee crisis is spreading to Europe, and the longer the crisis in Syria is made to last the more people will be leaving that country. Only an end to the violence and the creation of an international recovery plan could stop the flow of refugees. The countries that supported the armed rebellion are responsible for the humanitarian disaster and for recovery costs.
Sixth, even if President Assad were to step down or be removed, there is no evidence that members of the warring factions will stop fighting, lay down their arms, and go back to doing what they were doing before the crisis. Events in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen indicate that armed groups are intent on taking over and holding territories. These non-state actors are not wrestling away control over towns and cities from government forces only, but also from each other. These groups do not believe in the devolution of power, they want all power for themselves forever and through the gun.
The war in Syria is a classic proxy war going bad. Too many states have too many proxy fighters all fighting the Syrian state and each other. Relying on non-state actors to carry out violence against the state is a dangerous and destabilizing strategy that will affect not only the target country, but other nations in the region and around the world. Violence will reach neighboring nations like Lebanon, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan and the refugee crisis will continue to affect Western countries. The war in Syria and Iraq must end in order to minimize the spread of violence and the increased number of displaced people. However, for the war to end, states party to this conflict must employ both military and political strategies concurrently—not just one or the other. 
The concurrent military and political solution is necessitated by the following facts:
1. The Syrian government will not be able to re-establish pre-crisis conditions. Too many people have died, too many people have been displaced, there has been too much destruction, and there is too little trust and good will—making it impossible to start a reconciliation and recovery phase without the inclusion of local leaders.
2. Syria has been flooded with all kinds of weapons and ammunition, making the task of keeping peace and order all over Syria a herculean one. The government will need some of the armed groups to manage some of the towns and cities that were outside the control of the Syrian state.
3. Syria has always been a mixed society. The country consists of an amalgam of sectarian, religious, ethnic, and tribal communities. During the crisis, and when the government failed to protect all citizens in all of Syria, these communities armed their own local committees (lijan sha`biyya/difa` dhati) to defend their towns and cities of residence. It is unlikely that these traumatized communities will disarm immediately and trust their fate to this or a future government—with or without Assad. 
4. While some armed groups are interested in preserving the diversity of the Syrian society, other fighters who embrace and practice genocidal ideas, like ISIL, al-Nusra,  and Ahrar al-Sham are determined to cleanse the regions they control of ethnic, sectarian, religious, secular, and any group that is not them. Moreover, these genocidal groups do not believe in any degree of public participation in electing regional or national political and administrative leaders. 
These facts create a set of conditions and variables that require a concurrent military and political solution. A solution that supports the national government’s fight against genocidal fighters and put Syria on a path to deliberate devolution of power. The devolution of power could be achieved through purposeful political reform that would allow towns and cities a healthy degree of autonomy without risking the territorial integrity of their country and the abrupt collapse of the state. The fate and future of Assad and his government can be determined after local governments have been established, through national elections under a new constitution that reflects the new conditions.
The Russian military buildup in Syria might provide the world community with an opportunity to start an effective collective plan of action in Syria. The Western coalition that has been bombing ISIL from the air for more than one year without success could have another partner, who is not the Assad regime, on the ground. Russian troops could open the necessary channel of communication between the Western coalition and the Syrian government. Together, and after securing authorization from and monitoring by the UNSC, the Syrian and Russian troops could secure local elections in towns and cities freed from genocidal fighters. These local elections will provide some opposition figures with a chance to gain power, through the ballet box, over regions where they have influence and if they have influence. 
This approach will necessarily mean that Kurdish regions, Shia towns and cities, and tribal communities (`asha’ir) will emerge as self-governing, semi-autonomous regions within Syria. This kind of solution would preserve Syria’s state institutions, offer Syria’s minorities a degree of self-rule, and fight genocidal warriors. A Saudi-Western solution preconditioned on the removal of Assad and his generals will cause the disintegration of Syria, the permanent displacement of millions of Syrians, and the spread of violence to neighboring states. In the end, peace in Syria depends on a gradual devolution of power and diminished use of violence by non-state actors. It cannot depend on using those non-state actors simply as tools for regime change.
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Slaying, Slaughtering, and Burning: ISIL, the Cinematic Caliphate

Slaying, Slaughtering, and Burning: ISIL, the Cinematic Caliphate

By Islam Sakka*
Watching the latest videos posted by the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS, IS), it is easy to see the changes in cinematic technique and the group’s choice of English as the main language. Their latest video, showing Jordanian pilot Moaz Kasasbeh being burned alive, sets a new precedent for brutality, ruthlessness, and high quality propaganda.
Ramallah — Before ISIL, most jihadist videos only documented various kinds of combat operations. The camera was always present to record the battles, to be incorporated in a single tape as part of a detailed report, which was released periodically as part of the counter-propaganda through which the group was trying to compete with the global media.

In the nineties, the video “Russian’s Hell (Chechen Mujahideen)” set an unusual precedent. Youths rushed to watch and share the video, and jihadist songs were recorded on cassette tapes. Islamist fighters witnessed a period of glory in Afghanistan. Anecdotes about God supporting them and sending angels to fight with them went unquestioned. This was before everyone realized, years later, that the angels were highly-accurate US missiles.
Today, we are witnessing a completely different era, marked by a jihadist movement far more advanced than anything we have seen before. They coincide with a far more sophisticated viewership, who have access to the source of information and can scrutinize any image. Today’s viewers, who live in an age of instability where conspiracy theories prevails, have come to question everything. There is a direct relation between the new public psychology and ISIS’ new style of audiovisual production. Increasing suspicion has to be met with greater propaganda.
Jihadist forums discuss the appearance of the first media follow-up units of the jihadi groups, which have started filming videos with a storyline. It was simple, specifically with the “Mujahideen Shura Council” group. According to the script, the photographer is required to follow and capture the suicide bomber, especially when the bomber appears to be loving his life: we see the would-be suicide bomber swimming in a river, eating fruits, making a light joke before walking to the camera and talking about the bliss of Jihad. In the next scene, the man reads out his will, before we see him driving in the booby-trapped car bomb in the darkness of night. He touches the car with his hands, as if stroking a familiar pet. His eyes shine because of the night photography technology used by the photographer. The whole scene is bathed in green light, then a distinctive button emerges from this uniform color. He says that this simple little button is his key to heaven and its doe-eyed women (houris). It’s simple: just press this button. You won’t feel a thing.
The age of ISIL
Since the emergence of ISIL, a group that declared itself an Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant, the group’s media strategy has passed through several stages. Although these stages are a major leap in creative terms, it is necessary to discuss this advancement and its significance, rather than just its technical characteristics. Although the company existed previously, the name al-Hayat Media Center (HMC) makes an appearance in every ISIL production and video. The group has moved from recording events with regular cameras, to becoming a media strategy organization whose task is to shape the group’s upcoming messages to the world, and to convey the message of the Mujahideen, who “with their blood are marking a new era of victory for the nation in history.” Accordingly, what distinguishes ISIL from other jihadi movements is its ability to attract the Muslims of Europe.
Editing programs and high resolution cameras existed well before ISIS. But why have professionally edited, English-speaking videos appeared only recently? Video editing and filmmaking professionals can easily recognize professional work. These films were obviously made by persons who studied the craft, and probably acquired experience in a European creative environment, not through the amateurish YouTube videos.
The latest ISIL videos — “Salil al-Sawarem,” “The Flames of War,” “In Spite of Unbelievers,” and “Healing Hearts” (featuring Jordanian pilot Moaz Kasasbeh being burned alive on Tuesday), clearly betrayed a shift in cinematic technique, and the shift to English as a main language. In “The Flames of War,” for example, slow motion effects were employed in a highly professional manner, which is uncommon in filming real-life videos. A suicide bomber raids an enemy center and blows himself up. His militant comrades step in later. One of them gets wounded while running. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s mobilizing words and a sad song play in the background. ISIS soldiers are seen running in the background. The man lies wounded on the ground. The photographer continues to capture this moving scene from afar. The man bleeds for a long time, while the photographer continues to take various shots. The wounded soldier dies. The scene ends. The photographer was finally able to capture his shot. The scene returns to normal speed.
“The Flames of War” ends with perhaps the harshest scene ever. The English-speaking ISIS member stands in front of the group’s flag. Behind him, a number of men are seen digging in the ground. Seconds later, we learn that they are digging their own graves. ISIL adopts a similar technique in all its videos, in which prisoners express apologies and regrets before their death. We know that ISIL does not keep prisoners, opting instead to kill them. Still, prisoners always appear in the videos trying to appease the soldiers, to no avail. We see the prisoners lined up in an execution-style position: sitting on their knees with their hands tied behind their backs. With small pistols this time, the soldiers fire several shots at the head of each victim. From another angle, again, we see all prisoners fall in the hole they have dug themselves.
This execution scene was unusual at the time. But after the release of the short movie “In Spite of Unbelievers,” it is fair to say that ISIL’ visual production has assumed a new dimension. Here, there are clear directorial directives based on a pre-planned and agreed-upon scenario. But only the executioners know the director’s orders. The scene opens with a number of ISIL soldiers from different nationalities, as is evident from their physical appearance. Each one of them holds the neck of another man. The prisoners walk with their faces down and are herded like sheep by their slaughterers. On the side of the screen, there is a wooden box containing a number of new knives. Each ISIL soldier walks past the box and removes a knife without looking at the camera. They walk in a line until there are no more knives.
In the next scene, the prisoners are made to sit on their knees, in an execution position, with a slaughterer behind each one. With a high level of craftsmanship using at least three cameras, the soldiers are seen passing the knives through their fingers, while a look of confusion appears on the faces of the prisoners. An ISIL member begins to speak in English. Then comes the most elaborate scene in the history of jihadi film-making: the slaughter scene.
You can only hear the sound of the air. All sounds were intentionally muted to create an atmosphere of anticipation. This is how ISIS wanted it, and this is how we unconsciously deal with it. The knife grazes the prisoner’s neck. The sound of tearing flesh can be heard clearly. The sound bite was obtained from foreign video-editing sites, and was masterfully inserted into this scene. Plenty of blood is seen, and even heard, pouring. In slow motion, the leader of the slaughterers stares at us. It is not a common stare. It is the look of death, which cannot be explained. But it came in response to a strict directorial command, whereby the man was directed to look at the camera before slitting the man’s neck. The scene ends with a shot of the heads placed on the bodies they were severed from.
The burning of Moaz al-Kasasbeh
The latest ISIS video, showing Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh being burned alive while confined in a cage, has a feature we know from previous ISIS video productions. It opens with an assertion of the defeat of the enemy and the destruction of its aides. What’s new, however, is the masterful narration in the first half of the film. This masterful use of various editing programs is probably the work of a respectable television station, unless we assume that Kasasbeh was executed a month before the release of the film. In addition to political factors, the release may have been delayed to allow the completion of the film, which takes a long time.
Among the justifications offered by ISIL in the film, the pilot offers a detailed account of the events that led to his capture by the terrorist group. Here, we are presented with all reasons that “demand” the man’s execution, and this time the man himself presents these reasons. Meanwhile, the viewer realizes that the man will inevitably die. But how?
The pilot, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, is shown in a state of confusion, perhaps surrendering. Scenes of him walking strangely are intercut with flashbacks. The director inserts footage of previous events into the scene, a technique often used to link the current story with its causes. Here, ISIL presents the second justification to viewers. We have gotten used to one thing: the more elaborate the introductions and justifications, the harsher the end.
Images of the pilot in captivity are interspersed with images of his glory days, flying a plane and bombing targets, and a sensational, cinematic scene of him standing in front of a group of uniformed ISIL soldiers in a torn down area, perhaps due to international coalition airstrikes. It’s the same military uniform ISIL members appeared in when the pilot was captured. They all carry identical guns.
The man is standing, and we have no idea what he is thinking. He has probably stopped thinking. The terrible state of surrender and submission by all prisoners executed by ISIL can only be explained in two ways: The first and most likely theory is that ISIS soldiers perform a large number of mock executions on the victims, who face death many times before discovering that they will not die now, and thus reach a state of apathy. The second theory is that the victims have been anesthetized, and thus appear in a state of loss and indifference, or completely surrender to the ISIL knife.
We see more flashbacks scenes. We see the bodies of ISIL victims, followed by shots of the face of the pilot in his orange jumpsuit, surrounded by the insurgents. Sound is muted. We can only hear the sounds of wind and breathing, and see the faces of angry militants and that of the surrendered pilot. The contrast of faces continues until the next scene.
Suddenly, the pilot is seen inside the cage. His clothes are wet, and we discover understand that he was doused with a flammable liquid. His head is down. The video-maker demonstrates advanced editing skills, alternating between close-ups of the pilot’s confused face and long-shots of him looking down at his feet. We see soldiers; there are always soldiers. We can hear no sound but the sound of wind. A song starts to play in the background, its volume gradually increasing. The video exhibits a professional sense for combining sound and imagery. Execution time has come. One of the soldiers sets the fire. The camera follows him from a higher angle. This method was used for the first time in the film: an attempt to further humiliate the victim by making him look small. This technique is known in the filmmaking industry — shooting from a lower angle makes the protagonist appear grand. In this case, the final scene, with the victim, was also filmed from a higher angle.
What’s new in the film is that the orders came from the director to the victim, not the executioner, as in the video, “In Spite of Unbelievers.” The first orders are evident in the pilot’s walk in an orange jumpsuit in the first scene of the execution video. They are also evident in the rapid alternating images of the pilot’s confused face and with his face down. The prisoner looks up and then straight to the camera. His moves were certainly in response to the director’s orders. In one second, viewers can feel the humiliation and psychological destruction being felt by the victim. He is looking at you through the camera. It is his last look of confusion.
The shooting of the film took considerable time. We know that from the sunlight that shone after the victim had been standing for a while in front of us. But the shooting location did not change. The most surprising thing in the film is the iron cage, which can be interpreted as a sign of a tragic fate. We are watching a man wearing an execution jumpsuit confined in a cage. This is an ordinary scene we see in courts across the world, but to be a hostage held by ISIL, the issue is beyond the cage and the jumpsuit. For the victim Moaz al-Kasasbeh, he was expected to receive a painful execution if a deal to release him was not reached. Yet, even more sinister minds could not have foresee his death by burning. Kasasbeh burns, and through sophisticated filmmaking techniques we experience all possible feelings. We could almost smell the burning. Words of Ibn Taymiyyah are shown on the screen. This is the third and final justification by ISIL in this film: Our actions are part of our faith.
ISIL’ audiovisual achievements and propaganda cannot be ignored. This is an unprecedented phenomenon we are witnessing. The Islamist group is leading the media war, and its responses are not limited to dull documentation of events as was the case in Iraq years ago.
Conspiracy theories have started to resurface. It has been said that these scenes were shot in high-budget studios, and must be backed by the CIA. However, observers of the development of productions by jihadi groups know that such theories are unfounded…and ultimately, the real tragedy here is that these videos are very real and authentic.
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* Translation from Arabic

Iran’s emerging institutional power and its effect on negotiations with the United States

Iran’s emerging institutional power and its effect on negotiations with the United States


On the eve of the Republicans’ takeover of the U.S. Senate and increased control of the House, the Wall Street Journal revealed, on the authority of anonymous sources, that President Obama had sent “secret letter” to the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran took its time confirming it had received such a letter. The official confirmation ultimately came from the secretary general of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), Ali Shamkhani.


Shamkhani, a former navy admiral now heading the powerful body that oversees defense policy and consists of thirteen members representing various branches and agencies of governance, said that Iran responded to President Obama’s letter, which was not the first of its kind. He also indicated that the “wording of the letter seemed to be constructive as it did not attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of the country.” The confirmation also came after a crucial round of negotiation between top diplomats from the EU, Iran, and the U.S. that took place in Muscat, Oman. Especially given that this is not the first letter, it should not be a significant event. But it is, for several key reasons.

1. Although President Obama’s letter was addressed to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution (his official title is rahbar-e inqilab), Seyyed Ali Khamenei, on the occasion of being discharged from the hospital after a medical procedure, the reply came from the SNSC. The fact that the SNSC responded to the letter instead of the office of the leader or the president signals at least two things: the significance of the content of the letter (relating to national security) and Iran’s emerging institutional power. Indeed, the leader, as he is addressed in Iran, wields considerable power and influence. However, given that the letter came shortly after he had been treated for cancer, Iran chose to send a strong signal that its national security and foreign policy matters are not decided by one individual, high and revered as he may be, but are handled through proper institutions. The implication of Iran’s emerging institutional power cuts both ways. It can provide reassurance that a deal, if reached and confirmed by the various governing branches, will enjoy the backing of a stable regime. On the other hand, Iran’s emerging institutional power means that the West cannot wait out the process until a new, “moderate” leader succeeds Khamenei. In other words, Iran’s current foreign and defense policies are likely to last for generations.

2. President Obama’s letter, however, sends the opposite signal—especially in that it was sent just days before the election of a new Congress. Even if President Obama expressed openness to starting a new chapter with Iran, Iranian leadership seemed interested in American institutional commitment to making progress on the nuclear issue, sanctions, and combating terrorism. This distinction revealed itself in Oman when Iranian negotiators insisted that any final agreement on the nuclear issue must include the lifting of all sanctions, including those imposed by Congress.

3. In the past, the U.S. administration has argued that hardline figures in the Iranian government are the cause of failed attempts to reach a negotiated agreement. With both Iran’s new “moderate” president and the same “hardline” supreme leader committed to negotiations, it is now the U.S.’s shift in institutional power that is threatening the process and undermining the President’s efforts. In other words, the new Congress may render what used to be reassuring American institutional power a thing of the past if President Obama fails to reach a deal within the allotted time—before November 23, which is fast approaching.

4. Since Iran and the P5+1 inked the interim agreement nearly a year ago, Iran has received some of its frozen assets, continued nuclear research and development without expanding uranium enrichment, and struck a number of trade and economic agreements with a many foreign companies, including European ones. Most of these agreements were structured in a way that would mitigate current or future Western sanctions. In other words, with or without agreement, Iran is in a better position than before it signed the interim agreement. If the U.S. administration keeps its current sanctions or imposes new ones, it would be like someone cutting the branch of a tree they are sitting on. In other words, it would deprive American companies and individuals of opportunities made available to everyone else thanks to the interim agreement.

U.S. policy makers have been accustomed to dealing with Middle Eastern countries that lack established institutional power. It was often the case that when a U.S. administration wanted a particular Middle Eastern country to do something, it simply asked the king, emir, or shaikh of that country to issue a decree. Iran’s emerging institutional power requires a new strategy in the Middle East for U.S. foreign policy to be relevant.

In addition to a strategic policy shift, both the U.S. and Iran ought to put their grievances on the table and deal with them openly and respectfully. Indeed, Iran has a long list, ranging from the U.S.’s meddling in Iran’s internal affairs and overthrowing elected governments, to siding with the Shah, to aiding Saddam during his eight-year devastating war, to shooting down passenger airliners. On the other hand, the U.S. could ask Iran to stop glorifying attacks on diplomatic missions and hostage-taking. Perhaps the airing of grievances in a mutually respectful manner could move the conversation forward to the point where both parties can work together on very difficult issues that are now increasingly threatening the region and the world.

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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Combating ISIL should not be America’s business, it is Saudi Arabia’s

Combating ISIL should not be America’s business, it is Saudi Arabia’s

ISIL is a global threat but it is a bigger threat to the Middle East than to U.S. homeland. It is a bigger threat to Muslims than to Americans because, until now, the absolute majority of victims are Muslims. The U.S. could be part of a coalition that should combat ISIL but it should not take the lead. Saudi Arabia should take the lead in fighting ISIL because Saudi Arabia helped create it in the first place. The ideology and practices of ISIL are derived from the brand of a religious tradition called Salafi Wahhabism that was founded in Saudi Arabia and promoted by Saudi preachers under the patronage of the Saudi ruling family. Therefore, the fight against ISIL is Saudi Arabia’s and the rulers of Saudi Arabia must be forced to take the lead in this war.

The link: Like ISIL, Saudi Arabia sanctions public beheading

The war on ISIL as outlined by President Obama is ill-conceived and will be poorly executed. A war on ISIL led by U.S. and Western countries will create sympathy to ISIL, weaken legitimate governments and international institutions, and create more chaos in an unstable region. 

If the U.S. military bombs ISIL in Syria without the consent of the government there and provide more political and military support to armed opposition groups in that country, it will foster the idea that the U.S. is taking side in a sectarian, ethnic, and regional war. Bypassing the Syrian government to fight ISIL will create more ISILs. 

This war cannot be just a war on ISIL, it must be a war on all ISILs, in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and wherever they exist. In other words, this war ought to be a war on genocidal ideologies like ISIL’s, Nusra’s, and many other armed groups in Syria. ISIL, like al-Qaeda before it, is a Saudi freaky invention and the Saudi rulers must be held responsible for combating it now. The Saudis should form an alliance with Qatar, Turkey, and takfiri preachers whom the rulers of the kingdom allowed to proselytize on satellite televisions to uproot it militarily and ideologically. The rest of the world should only offer assistance—not lead.
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* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

I know why I’m obsessed with Jews, but why are you?

I know why I’m obsessed with Jews, but why are you?

by David Palumbo-Liu*

Knowing how public I’ve been in support of the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctionsagainst the state of Israel, a Jewish colleague came up to me on campus one day to talk. “I know why Im obsessed with Jews,” he said, “But why are you?”  I could hear both puzzlement and pain in his voice. 
It was clear at that moment that there were two kinds of “obsession” at work in his imagination.  For him, a Jew should properly – perhaps obsessively – care about their fellow Jews.  But my friend couldn’t help but wonder why I, as a non-Jew, would also “obsess so much” about his people, especially from a critical perspective. 
My reply was pretty automatic: “I’m not obsessed with Jews,” I said, “I’m concerned about the Palestinians.”
I know and like this person a lot. In essence I don’t think his political position is much different to mine, except in terms of tactics. I think he trusts me too.  But his statement revealed an important and discouraging assumption:  one is naturally drawn to care about one’s own people, and it is unexpected – even odd – that someone from outside one’s group should care as much. 

Taken in its most negative form, this attitude would conceive of an outsider’s interest as intrusive if it is not entirely positive. And that’s one of the main problems one faces when speaking of Israel and Palestine: not only does the line that’s drawn between groups seem hard and fast in terms of communication and ideology, but empathy and caring also seem to be contained within those lines as well.  
Under such conditions, what are the possibilities that the conflict could ever be transformed?
According to the philosopher Richard Rorty, the transformation of human thought and feeling is not only possible, but natural: “We have come to see that the only lesson of either history or anthropology is our extraordinary malleability.” All people can change, Rorty is saying, especially when they open themselves up to new stories about others: stories that lead them to “tolerate, and even to cherish, powerless people – people whose appearance or habits or beliefs at first seemed an insult to our own moral identity, our sense of the limits of permissible human variation.”
This is not a new idea.  Literature has long been considered the best vehicle for moral instruction exactly because it can take people out of their narrow sense of self and their self-centered habits of the mind.  But what kind of stories would be most effective in this way?
In one of the worst current violations of human rights and international law – Israel’s bombing and land invasion of Gaza – the news is full of stories in the form of photographs, reports, and news clips of the tragedy.  But it isn’t enough just to put them out there for the world to see.  Although there are clear signs of a shift in attitudes toward the conflict, we need to go further than simply registering immediate impressions of who is good and who is not.
I believe that one of the main reasons why many people remain unchanged in their sympathies is that they are still too deeply rooted in the belief that certain people are worthy of their care, while others that fall outside their group are not only notworthy of the same care, but they are not even worthy of full recognition as human beings like themselves. As a result, the stories of people most like oneself are listened to with more openness and empathy than others.  But in both cases, these stories are caricatures, simplifications. The actual, complex, stories of real people are ignored.
In the case of the Palestinians and Israelis, the dominant narratives describe the other entirely as ‘terrorists,’ or as the only aggressors in the conflict who deserve the rocket fire that’s raining down on them.  To simply flip sides and say that now it is Israel or Hamas that is in the wrong, or in the right, doesn’t help much in the long run.  We have to see a larger picture. We have to look more clearly at the actual political contexts of what is happening, and with that knowledge transform the ways in which we see people as blind agents whose identities are immutable.  We need to see the real workings of history, culture, and politics in shaping human action. In the process, all those involved can be humanized.
While to be ethically consistent one must urge that both sides accept this imperative to resist stereotyping and its attendant racism, there is no question that until very recently, one side of the conflict has had its story largely obscured or erased from the historical record, and that is the story of the Palestinians.  Ironically, it is precisely because of the Israeli invasion of Gaza that more and more people around the world are coming to know that history, and world opinion is shifting as a consequence. That is not only a political transformation, it is also a humanistic one.
The hope is that humanizing Palestine will allow others to see Palestinians as full human beings, and that, in turn, will transform the ways in which they are both perceived and treated. But again, such efforts at transformation must fight against entrenched habits of the heart and mind that confine people’s empathy to those who are most like themselves.
I admit that there’s a natural propensity to care for those with whom we have the most intimate relationships.  But it’s all too easy to let that inclination confine our sense of responsibility within narrow limits.  If we linger in that narrow circle, how is it that we would ever change?  And if others remain locked in their own limited loyalties and commitments, how can they ever change themselves?
Change – especially in times of crisis – requires that we re-examine not only the stories we hear, but also why we care about them, and crucially, how we act as a result.  This is not an abstract exercise. It’s critical in determining how we treat others.  Change requires openness, but it also means unlearning our habits of caring.  We must leave ourselves open to transformation even if that means going against our political biases.  Without the capacity to respond to the historical moment, we not only abrogate our freedom to think and to act, we also make democracy into a hollow concept, an empty routine.
It’s terrible to think that only a massive human catastrophe and moral failing like Gaza could break through the habits of the mind and heart.  But the ways in which the world has regarded the Palestinians – or rather has disdained and disregarded them – are finally, slowly, changing.
During the last mass bombing of Gaza in 2012, I argued the need for another narrative about the founding of the state of Israel. We have heard and deferred to the story of the Holocaust for so long that that the tragic story of the Jewish people has been allowed to blunt criticism of the means by which the Zionist state of Israel was created, and has been expanded illegally through the persistent growth of settlements in the Occupied Territories.
Today however, as the number of Palestinians killed in “Operation Protective Edge” rises above 1700, the vast majority of them innocent civilians (and mostly children), many people are responding to their plight in a different way. How was this allowed to happen, they are asking, and what roles have the United States and other powers played in bringing the catastrophe to pass? 
A recent Gallup poll, for example, shows a slow but distinct generational change, at least in the USA, where more and more Americans, mostly younger, are willing to hear that other story.  This is a point I make in a recent article in Salon: “there is now a widening band of light in between the heretofore seamless merger of the Holocaust and Founding narratives, resulting in a weakening of the former in its capacity to act as an alibi for the latter.  This is especially important with regard to the US, which has been the world’s most generous supporter of Israel.  Growing up well past the postwar era, increasing numbers of young people in the US find the Holocaust narrative to be less absolutely and unquestionably adequate as a rationale for  supporting the horrible killings in Gaza.  And as they learn more, their support will wane further.”
This is significant because only greater knowledge of our own responsibility for the catastrophe is likely to make us act in a different way – to end the killing and compel others to act with us.  In this shift, the first thing to set aside is the habit of caring only for those who look, speak, act and think like us.  Our “obsession” with those who are similar needs to be converted into a deep concern for those who are different, and who are easily ignored. 
To do this means listening to their stories, and respecting them as rightful narrators of their own historical situation.  While there are no guarantees, if we can expand our circle of care we can begin a process of transformation that will help us see a way out of the comfortable but narrow worlds in which we live.
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* David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford.  His most recent book is The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age.  His blogs for Truthout, Salon, Huffington Post, Al Jazeera, Boston Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books can be found at palumbo-liu.com. Follow him on Twitter @palumboliu.
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