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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.
* 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.
* 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.

* 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.
* 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.
* 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.

Jabhat al-Nusra losing support among rebels, tribes in south Syria

Jabhat al-Nusra losing support among rebels, tribes in south Syria

by Tarek Al-Abed 
On May 7, Syria’s Daraa province witnessed three events. First, battles broke out in the western countryside and militants started advancing toward the province. Second, a march was staged in support of the regime, near the location where armed confrontations were underway. Third, tension between Jabhat al-Nusra and other armed groups escalated in the south, against the backdrop of the arrest of Ahmed Nehme, leader of Jabhat al-Nusra’s military council.

In addition to this, extremist armed men released 40 persons, including 15 women and children, who were kidnapped in the northern countryside of Latakia, after the armed men had stormed into a number of towns in August.

Militants announced their control of the hills of Matouq al-Kabir and Matouq al-Saghir and the town of Kharbat Fadi, in addition to a military checkpoint in the vicinity of the village of Ankhel, south of Daraa.

Opposition field sources, however, said, “Supply corridors were opened to advance farther into the west and south toward the city of Nawa and the countryside of Quneitra, where various military centers affiliated with the army, such as in Tal Oum Houran, are located. It has also become possible to control the hills, from which any movement was stopped with fire and sniping.”

The sources added, “The battle was fought with the participation of al-Mathna Islamic Movement and the Islamic Front — Ahrar al-Sham in particular — in addition to many brigades affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), such as the Hamza Battalion, the 69 Special Forces group, the Yarmouk group, the Ghuraba Houran Brigade, al-Muhajireen Brigade, al-Ansar Brigade and the al-Madfaiya First Regiment.”

People took to the streets in support of the army and armed forces in the city of Azraa in the countryside of Daraa, 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the location of the battle. SANA news agency reported, “The residents of the city took to the streets in support of national principles and a constitutional referendum.” The participation of state officials in the march for the first time in this region, such as Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, was worth noting.

On another note, tension continues in the Houran plains, as Jabhat al-Nusra is still holding Nehme captive as well as the leader of the al-Fursan First Regiment, Ahmad al Masalama. Jabhat al-Nusra disseminated a video showing the confessions of Nehme, who admitted his responsibility for a number of battles that ended with defeat. This video was considered an attempt to galvanize public opinion against him.

Jabhat al-Nusra called for the formation of a joint tribunal with the FSA, whose members were on alert due to the fact that Nehme and Masalama belong to tribes in Houran. This augurs an impending risk of confrontations erupting between armed groups in the region.

Some sources said, “The risk could expand to include large-scale fighting, given that the Houran community is based on tribalism that forces it to defend and care for each other. Additionally, a large number of battalions are made up of members of the same tribe. Some of them fight members of their own tribe who are fighting with the FSA and Jabhat al-Nusra, which means that there is a possibility of internal conflict.”

On the other side, some activists noted a new rigor on the part of Jordan in dealing with the battalions. The latter fear Amman will cut ties if the crisis of detainees by Jabhat al-Nusra does not end. Jordanian intelligence is facilitating the transport of injured people, ammunitions and displaced people through unofficial corridors. This could completely stop and create a crisis, with the FSA militants paying the price. This explains the escalation and galvanization on the part of scores of brigades and battalions in the countryside of Daraa in anticipation of any potential battle with Jabhat al-Nusra.

In Deir el-Zour, clashes between the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) on one hand, and Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Front and FSA-affiliated factions on the other, continued, notably on the axes of Jdid Aqidat, Jdid Bakara, Harmoush, Tabiya and Sobha.

Yesterday [May 7] was the deadline set to accept the initiative of the Furat tribes, of which Jabhat al-Nusra announced its approval. ISIS continued to ignore the initiative. The fighting grew fierce in Aqidat in particular, as new reinforcements came to ISIS from the town of Maadan in Raqqa under the leadership of the military leader of ISIS, Omar al-Shishani. Meanwhile, Amer al-Rafdan, the ISIS emir in Deir el-Zour led the attacks on the axis of Harmoush, knowing that false news about him being killed was disseminated.

The fighting zones witnessed a heavy displacement of residents, especially after all parties carried out field executions upon entering the region. This has instilled fear among residents and led them to flee their homes to more secure regions, if there are any.

Armed clashes between the two parties were accompanied by fierce media campaigns on social media led by the supporters of both sides. These campaigns aimed at demoralizing the other party through posting false news. For example, stories were posted on the injury of ISIS emir in Hassakeh, Abu Osama al-Iraqi and his transfer to an intensive care unit. This false news was countered with factual information related to the Jabhat al-Nusra emir, Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti, fleeing to Turkey.

To preview Syria’s future, consider Algeria today

To preview Syria’s future, consider Algeria today

Algeria was destined to become an African powerhouse. The largest country in the continent, it is populated by only 39 million people but endowed with huge natural resources: 159 trillion cubic feet (tcf) and 12.2 billion barrels of proven natural gas and oil reserves, respectively, and vast expanses of land, desert, and mountains. A country rich with such resources should not have a problem building a sustainable economy. However, corruption and a brutal civil war similar to the one going on in Syria transformed Algeria into Africa’s most disappointing state. How and why did such a promising country sink so low?

The first reason is systemic corruption and gross mismanagement. Since independence, Algeria embraced a state-managed economy and political system. The government confiscated private land, nationalized natural resources and exerted a monopoly on economic institutions. By mid-1980s, the government was essentially bankrupt. To stimulate economic growth, President Chedli Ben Djedid liberalized the economy, privatized some economic sectors, returned some land to its original owners, and democratized the political system, allowing political parties to challenge the ruling party that had monopolized power since independence.

In a series of elections that started in 1989 and continued through 1991, the Islamic Front for Salvation (FIS) won overwhelming majorities, which upset France—its former colonial occupier—and France’s Algerian allies, prompting the Algerian military to sideline the president, cancel the second round of elections (scheduled for early 1992), and establish a governing military junta. These actions started a 10-year intense civil war that killed an estimated 200,000 people and devastated the economy. When first elected in 1999, Abdelaziz Boutaflika issued an amnesty that encouraged some fighters to lay down their arms, but low-intensity confrontation continued until this day.

On April 17, 2014, Algerians, perhaps still traumatized by the civil war, voted for a president who is too ill to deliver a single campaign speech let alone run the country. The scene of Bouteflika being wheeled into a polling station to cast his vote for himself as did 82% of eligible voters (unverifiable government figures) indicates that Algeria has lost hope and is clinging to the past. The psychology of Algerians voting for an ailing president may explain the desire of many Syrians to stick with President Bashar Assad.

Although Assad is in much better health and control over a better military, governing during and after the civil war will be a herculean task for many reasons.

First, Syria never had and never will have the natural resources Algeria has enjoyed. Second, unlike the Algerian rebel fighters who fought from the mountains, Syrian rebels occupied cities and towns turning civilian areas into war zones. Third, while Algerian rebels were Sunni Islamists fighting secular Sunni Muslims, Syrian rebels are extremist Sunnis fighting moderate Sunni Muslims, Shi`ites, Nusayris, Druze, Christians, and anyone else who is not on their side.

The Algerian conflict was, to some extent, a national one. The conflict in Syria is a proxy war involving regional and global powers. Moreover, the Syrian war has turned into a religious war authorized by the spiritual guides of the global Muslim Brotherhood movement, like Qaradawi, and of the fighting Salafi groups. Algeria was not declared “land of Jihad”; and Western powers did not join al-Qaeda in an effort to overthrow the government of Algeria the way they have been doing in Syria.

Given these key differences, it is unlikely that the Syrian war will be shorter than the Algerian one. Ending Syria’s a war must involve more actors and more governments, an unlikely scenario at this time. This means that Syria’s war will likely last more than a decade, will kill more than 500,000 people, will displace more than 10 million people, and will cost at least one trillion dollars—a huge cost not only for Syria but for the world. This much we can project based on what we have learned from Algeria’s civil war. Preventing this from happening depends on all actors to change their calculus immediately and do all that is in their power to stop the war in Syria.
* 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.

What President Obama should tell the Saudi rulers?

What President Obama should tell the Saudi rulers?


President Obama

On the same day when Saudi Arabia issued a royal decreecriminalizing Saudi citizens’ participation in the war in Syria (or joining Jihadi groups), the White House confirmed that President Obama will be visiting the Kingdom in March. It seems a reasonable assumption that during this v­isit, Obama will attempt to synchronize U.S. and Saudi diplomacy over two key issues: the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, and the crisis in Syria. 
The agenda of the meeting in Riyadh could in fact be reduced to a single conversation about Iran, since Iran is also a key ally of the Syrian government. Rather than focusing on these issues, however, the President should focus on convincing the Saudi rulers to abandon their reliance on violent sectarian warriors to exert influence in the region and around the world, especially their support of religious zealots attempting to overthrow governments the Saudis don’t like. 

The Saudi rulers cannot escape responsibility from inciting religious violence by distinguishing between public and private dichotomies. Claiming that the Saudi government does not incite sectarianism and violence, but that private entities and individuals do, is not supportable by the known facts. A government that controls all aspects of public and private life, including limiting the rights of citizens to engage in mundane daily acts like driving a car, should certainly be able to control the speech and actions of satellite television preachers who broadcast bank account numbers for donors to support “jihad” against infidels, deviant sects, and secular regimes.

Asking the Saudis to end their support of religious zealots does not mean that Saudi Arabia, or any other country for that matter, should stop supporting peoples who rise up to demand that their governments respect their dignity, life, and property. It is a false dichotomy to argue that supporting the Syrian people, for instance, necessitates sending arms and fighters.

Using religious zealots in pursuit of foreign policy goals abuses the Islamic institution of jihad—the declaration of which has historically been the province of governments, not individuals with access to satellite television, a large number of followers on Twitter, or brainwashed youth in failed states. If the Saudi rulers are sincerely moved by the plight of the Syrian people, they should have the moral and political courage to send troops, so that there is accountability and clear line of responsibility. But when the Saudis look the other way while preachers incite young people from the Kingdom (including members of the Saudi armed forces) and from neighboring countries to cross into country and wage “jihad,” then they should be reminded that they are responsible for destabilizing the region and the world when they fail to put the Jinni back in the bottle.
* 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.

Breaking the Cycle: Could Iranian and U.S. officials overcome their mutual distrust?

Breaking the Cycle: Could Iranian and U.S. officials overcome their mutual distrust?

Breaking the Cycle: Could Iranian and U.S. officials overcome their mutual distrust?

Rafsanjani and Khatami
After inking an interim agreement at the end of 2013, Iran and the P5+1 must now finalize a final nuclear agreement within six months. If they fail, U.S. and Iran will relive the cycle of mutual hostility in which the two countries have been entangled for more than three decades. Both parties seem eager to break that vicious cycle this time around. Iran has its own reasons: no actual interest in building nuclear weapons and strong interest in finding new markets and opportunities for its emerging economy. Western powers claim that the devastating effects of the harsh economic sanctions and the election of moderate Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani, are the main reasons for optimism. Let’s examine both reasons in the context of historical facts.

Immediately after the 1979 revolution, Iran was subjected to a devastating war, spearheaded by Saddam Hussein, who was financed and/or backed by most of the Gulf States and their Western allies, including the United States. After eight years of war, nearly 300,000 Iranians lost their lives and Iran’s economy was diminished by an estimated $550 billion. The end of the war did not bring any relief: Iranian assets were frozen and U.S. administrations incrementally continued to impose new economic sanctions, including a comprehensive trade and investment ban on Iran that took effect in June 1995. Yet, then, too, Iran elected a moderate president: Hashemi Rafsanjani (major ally and supporter of current president, Hasan Rouhani).
Characterizing the way Iranians perceived the U.S. administration, on October 25 1996, President Rafsanjani said that the U.S. administration’s role in the region and posture towards Iran cannot be trusted because the U.S. is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Two days later, the U.S. administration, which was then headed by another pragmatic president, Bill Clinton, insisted that he would like to hold talks with Iran on bilateral differences. A senior White House official, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau, indicated that the dialogue should focus on “real differences between the two countries such as Tehran’s support to terrorism, its opposition to the Middle East peace process and its desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction.” (as quoted in Khaleej Times October 27 1996). Earlier that same week, Pelletreau told business executives in Dubai that he was “hopeful Washington would begin a dialogue with Tehran within the next four years if U.S. President Bill Clinton is re-elected in November.”
Reacting to this overture, the daily Iran News, which reflected the views of Iran’s foreign ministry, said a win by Clinton and an administration reshuffle during a second term “could pave the way for reduced hostility in U.S. foreign policy [towards Iran].”
The conservative daily Jomhuri Eslami, on the other hand, blasted Pelletreau’s remarks as an “election publicity ploy used by Clinton for domestic consumption. This is not the first time that Washington officials have requested dialogue with Tehran and, naturally, they will not get a positive answer this time either,” wrote the daily quoting an unnamed informed official.
Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, too, downplayed the prospects of a meaningful change in U.S. policies towards his country: “The American politicians’ mistake was to use this method 9threats] against a powerful and self-reliant entity such as the Iranian nation. Even if there were 10 powers such as America in the world confronting such a nation, they could not bring any harm to this nation. Where we can in the world we will expose injustices perpetrated by America. And everywhere, we will be on the side of those oppressed by arrogance.”
In November of 1996, Bill Clinton was elected to a second term. He had about one year to work with Rafsanjani, who was in his second term and constitutionally barred from running again, to settle some of their differences. He did not take that opportunity. Still, Iranians elected another “moderate” president, Mohammad Khatami, a former minister of culture, who would govern for two consecutive terms. Still nothing happened. The administration’s desire to enter into a dialogue with Iran was torpedoed by legislative actions adding more sanctions, which gave credence to opponents of normalization, and by accusations that Iran was involved in the bombing of the U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. Still the White House remained hopeful, without initiating any actual steps that could break the ice.
On May 29 1997, President Clinton described the landslide election in Iran of “moderate” president as “interesting and hopeful.” He called it “a reaffirmation of the democratic process there.” Clinton, again stressed that what “we hope for is a reconciliation with a country that does not believe that terrorism is a legitimate extension of political philosophies.” But these reconciliatory words were undone by Congress.
A group of senators, including then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, suggested that President Bill Clinton ought to intensify U.S. efforts to isolate Iran, not scale it back. “We urge you to maintain and intensify your efforts to isolate the Iranian regime through diplomacy and multilateral fora, since there is simply no reasonable cause to believe this regime can be reformed from within,” they said in the letter to Clinton, signed by 10 senators and dated February 10 1997.
An aide to Senator Alfonse D’Amato, who sponsored U.S. sanctions bill against foreign companies investing in Iran, slammed European nations for not backing the measures. Gregg Rickman, D’Amato’s legislative director, declared that “if our friends in Europe wish to deal with the devil then so be it. Europe can either be part of the problem or part of the solution.”
The legislative measures were not a reflection of public will, American experts’ recommendations, or world community inclination. As Reuters reported (October 29 1996), “unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States on Iran were condemned by all sides, including a former senior White House official.”
A former aide to President Carter during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis warned that the measures would do little to combat terrorism and threatened to backfire if oil supplies run short. “There is no evidence whatsoever that the actions taken will remedy those problems,” said Gary Sick. He added that “the effect of imposing a ban on Iran has been to reduce spare [oil output] capacity in the world.” He argued that “if we have another oil crisis people will discover these sanctions were counterproductive.”
France, a major ally then and now, defended on May 20 1997 the right of its oil companies to sign contracts with Iran despite unilateral U.S. sanctions, saying that Tehran “was not subject to any international embargo.” Interestingly, this week (February 11, 2014), the French president, Francois Hollande also defended French businesses’ rush to seek investing opportunities in Iran when President Obama reminded him that the sanctions are still in place.
White House overtures did not go anywhere because of increased sanctions imposed by Congress and because of Saudi Arabia’s attempts to link Iran to terrorist acts that killed American troops in the Kingdom. In June of 1996, a bomb attack killed 19 American airmen in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. A report in the Washington Post linked Iran to this bombing citing Saudi security officials’ claim that characterized the attack as “a broad conspiracy backed by Iran.” When asked to comment on the report, then U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry said that “the U.S. has not found a culprit for the bombing and have reached no conclusions about who was responsible for this.”
President Clinton, too, said on December 13 1996 that “the investigation is not completed. I have not been presented with any final conclusions.” Five months later (April 21 1997), the new Defense Secretary William Cohen said that the “evidence concerning the Khobar Towers bombing thus far is fragmentary, incomplete and very circumstantial. We do not have any concrete evidence of any country being directly linked to the bombing.”
It became clear with time that no government was actually behind this attack and that Saudi Arabia may have wanted to accuse Iran to dispel any perception that the Kingdom is an incubator of extremism. It took years before intelligence officials began to suspect that al-Qaeda or groups affiliated with and/or inspired by it could be behind the attack.
Revising the events of that decade underscores the cycle of distrust that paralyzed the two nations’ leaders. Hope for normalization of ties with Iran evaporated under the heat of regional and internal politics. Each side found reasons to mistrust the other. The 1990’s was a decade lost and the presence of three pragmatic presidents in Iran and the U.S. was an opportunity wasted.
The opportunities of that decade were lost but the same exact circumstances are presenting themselves again now. A pragmatic president occupies the White House, a moderate president in Tehran, a common global threat represented by al-Qaeda, and a challenging deadly crisis in Syria. Will both sides recognize the pattern and try to end the cycle of mistrust or will past grievances and unhealthy pride derail the efforts that are now underway.
Looking at past statements, it would appear that both sides are held hostage to the circumstances that drove them apart. They are recycling the same claims and counter claims when they need to focus on the moment they are given and on the possibilities ahead of them. In both countries, leaders who tried to work out their differences two decades ago are still around: they are institutions of authority in of themselves and a repository of firsthand knowledge about international affairs. Perhaps President Obama and President Rouhani could call on Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Mohammed Khatami—a tiny club of former “moderate” presidents, to sit down outside the confines of governing institutions and talk about their respective grievances, fears, and hopes and make recommendations to the two  governments to solve this dispute once and for all.
With the rise of sectarianism, threats to minority communities, and the new conditions produced by the Arab Spring, Iran’s role in bringing stability to that region is undeniably crucial. In Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, and Afghanistan, Iran could play a stabilizing role. Dialing down the rhetoric and backing off from confrontational postures between the U.S. and Iran is good for the two countries, for the region, and for the world. The two countries can start a new chapter if they commit themselves to the principle of mutual respect. A settlement of this running feud would free both governments to focus on building opportunities for their respective peoples, not building weapons of killing and destruction. Attempting to bypass Iran during this unpredictable times amounts to willful forgetfulness of the immediate past and stunning ignorance of the facts.
* 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.

Turkey’s lost and future opportunities in Syria

Turkey’s lost and future opportunities in Syria

by Foti Benlisoy and Annalena Di Giovanni


A few months ago, in January 2013, an accident in a steel factory of Gaziantep, a bordering town in southwest Turkey, claimed the lives of seven workers. Under normal circumstances such news would have passed unobserved and eventually forgotten; Turkey is after all a country in which workplace accidents in factories are a daily, albeit silent, occurrence. But this time two among the seven workers were Syrians. And like most Syrians, they were unregistered, insecure, and deprived of any protective measures while on duty.

Syrian refugees, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, are the new source of manpower in southern factories. Employed outside any state regulation, they are desperate enough to accept work for any pay and condition. In a word, they are cheaper than local labour and Kurdish seasonal workers. Another very telling episode is that of a factory in Adıyaman where employees on strike are voicing concerns that they face the sack and replacement by cheaper and more submissive Syrian refugees. In a war of poor against poorer, local workers already uneasy with aid and facilities provided by the government to the refugee camps are now afraid to lose their jobs, while traders and merchants lament their plummeting revenues from exports and tourism in Syria. For the population of southern Turkey, the struggle against Bashar Al-Assad is simply a catastrophe. And for this catastrophe they are blaming the Erdoğan government, and his support to the Syrian opposition. 

But while Erdoğan’s on-going endorsement of the Syrian opposition is more than obvious, it is also clear that toppling the status quo was not previously a pressing necessity for the Turkish leadership. Since the opening of trade with Syria in the early 2000s, exports towards Syria tripled in the space of 7 years to more than two billion USD and – right before the uprising started – they were forecast to double again by the end of 2015. Now exports in Syria dropped by 66.5% in 2012, with peaks of 100% losses in cities like Hatay and Gaziantep. If trade was skyrocketing, direct investment was just about to start, as well as ties between the business elites supporting both governments. Although the liberalizing reforms of Bashar had so far attracted a mere figure of 18 private firms opening their business in Syria – mainly in pastry manufacture, cement production, and hospitality – by 2011 the stakes had been raised. 

One example was the massive Taj Halab project, a giant mall of a 150,000 square meters area directly outside Aleppo. This would have been a 180 million USD joint venture between the Syrian Sham Holding, and the Turkish Rönesans İnşaat – a construction company active in countries like Ukraine, Turkmenistan, Libya and Russia. Major contracts for the water system too had just been awarded to Turkish companies. Needless to say, all plans and construction have stopped. The issue now is how to salvage the business interests they represent.

When discussing a Turkish role in post-conflict Syria, it is important to keep in mind that it is not a ‘neo-Ottoman’ ideology or ‘imperial’ nostalgia guiding Turkey’s foreign policy; nor will mere Islamist solidarity be driving what we can expect to be Turkey’s consistent role in war-battered areas.

Simplified media narratives tend to borrow the argument that the AKP’s Islamist roots inevitably sustain a dream to revive the Ottoman Empire and, eventually, support its Arab Sunni brothers. But behind Davutoglu’s assertive regional strategy, there is a wealth of Turkish capitalists who are increasingly investing abroad and looking for new opportunities to expand Turkish capital. This is because of the very nature of the AKP, a party that emerged as a winner in the late nineties after a decade of short-term governments and political instability. It was the AKP that solved the crisis of power for a new capitalist class without political representation by securing new investors who needed new policies suitable to their business interests. And one has to look at these years of economic integration and the promotion of a Turkish cultural image to consolidate a material base abroad as measures on behalf of the business class. 

Turkish soap operas, Fetullah Gülen’s schools teaching African or Central Asian kids Turkish language and culture, even the Turkish Language Olympics; the rising profile of Turkey simply means that Turkish investments abroad can eventually entrust their expansion on a receptive, Turkish-educated local business class. However, it was the issue of marketing a cultural image in conjunction with the needs of the Turkish political class that was missing. This changed with Erdoğan. It is with very pragmatic eyes that we must evaluate his role as the rising Turkish star among the Arab masses buying into the aesthetics and values he promotes.

From the 1990s it seems that Turkey decided that with respect to the Balkans, the Caucasus region, and its Arab neighbours, it was going to engage in a policy of investment to enable Turkey to leverage its crucial geostrategic location at the crossroads of the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. Turkey also has pursued a very aggressive set of policies of investment in both Africa and Central Asia. So, reengagement with Syria and the Arab world was one piece of a much larger project, one which should not be mistaken for any kind of reinvention of the Ottoman Empire. Rather it allows Turkish government to expand on what it had already been doing domestically: a neoliberal economic strategy of investment as a basis for growth, the development of constituencies, and foreign relations.

Whatever Erdoğan and Davutoğlu had in mind when they started pushing Assad for reforms, they would not have expected this to take so long – and at such costs. This is the irony of Turkey: they were trying to transform Syria into a safe market haven, but it is now just a lost market. Of course, Turkish capital will recover, and that business class so at ease with AKP policies will benefit from whatever will come out of the current crisis. But while they are right in expecting that they will eventually have the lion’s share in the upcoming Syrian reconstruction, the AKP might in fact find itself paying a high price for its regional policies. Because beyond bigger business interests, there are the smaller entrepreneurs who have lost trade, there are the seasonal labourers and the factory workers who have lost work. They are the larger electoral basin of Southern Turkey. And they will hardly forget the catastrophe that hit them, the day Erdoğan decided to take sides on the Syrian issue. And they might remember it when it is time to vote.

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