A Regional Survey2019
by Professor S Abdallah Schleifer
US-Iran tensions have escalated over the past year and a half. They worsened in the spring and summer of 2018 and have continued to escalate as the crisis over the fate of Idlib in Syria deepened.
Idlib province remains the last Syrian province still—as I write in the first week of October 2018—under rebel control. It is estimated that by the summer of 2018 there were at least 80,000 rebel fighters (some of whom are foreign volunteers who infiltrated into Syria through Turkey, which has been a supporter of the armed rebellion to overthrow the government of Bashir al-Assad from the beginning.)
Most of the rebel groups in Idlib are Islamist; many of those can be described as Salifi-Jihadi or Takfiri-Jihadi. And after some infighting among the groups, 60 percent of the province came under the control of Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), a very radical Islamist coalition which established a civil authority of sorts in their capital—Idlib City—and elsewhere in the province. There the HTS has reportedly imposed its perverted understanding of Islamic law to the great discomfort of the Sunni Muslim civilians living in Idlib..
HTS is dominated by the previously well-known rebel force Jabhat Al-Nusra, which dissolved its links with Al Qaeda for purely tactical reasons and with the approval of Al Qaeda’s leadership, so that it would appear as a group within the spectrum of a national Syrian identity rather than a global identity as in the case of Al Qaeda, which had weakened the Jabhat’s appeal to the rebel-minded sectors of the Syrian people.
Over the years, HTS (as it is now known) has demonstrated that its fighters are among the toughest of all Syrian rebel groups and capable of great brutality. It was one of two Islamist militias that took over the province when the Syrian Arab Army in the earliest years of the civil war abandoned much of the Sunni-dominated northern Syrian provinces to concentrate on a more defensible line running from Damascus to both southern Lebanon—the original heartland of Lebanon’s Shi’a community and the birthplace of Hezbollah—and also a defensible line to Latakia—the Syrian Alawite heartland and birthplace of the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad..
The two Islamist rebel groups, once settled down in Idlib, predictably fought each other. HTS was the winner and thus from the beginning dominated what then was but a modest rebel presence in Idlib province. What is particularly fascinating—when considering how and why Idlib became the last rebel bastion in Syria—is that back in late December 2017 and early January 2018, the Syrian Arab Army—the name of the government’s armed forces launched an offensive into the southernmost part of Idlib, this northern, predominantly Sunni Syrian province. That first offensive into Idlib by government forces was initially quite successful but was never pursued.
Meanwhile, in what appeared to be Syrian government policy, when rebel forces were defeated elsewhere, the local ceasefire agreements (often negotiated by members of a Russian Reconciliation Commission on behalf of the Syrian government and its armed forces) invariably specified that rebel fighters who refused to be reconciled, along with civilians who supported the rebels or were so suspected by the Syrian Arab Army, were invariably sent on to Idlib.
The population of Idlib has swollen, nearly doubling since the civil war began, by the many defeated but irreconcilable fighters and the more opposition-minded, if not necessarily pro-rebel, civilian refugees pouring in as well as civilian refugees from the earlier fierce fighting in Aleppo and the Aleppo countryside close to Idlib, where to this day rebel pockets exist.
Reconciliation also meant that all heavy and medium-sized weapons were turned over to the Syrian Arab Army and that government officials who had mainly fled the rebel takeovers in the first years of this seven-year-old rebellion would return to these reconciled former rebel cities, towns and villages and resume providing former rebel-controlled provinces with government services. As for the reconciled former rebel fighters, they would stay on to serve as a local, lightly armed security force under the guidance of Russian military police who have fanned out into now-reconciled territory.
The second largest rebel force in Idlib is an alliance of largely Turkish-supported, armed, trained and salaried Syrian rebels called the National Liberation Front (the NLF) put together in August 2018 to counter HTS. It includes, a bit reluctantly, HTS’s brief former ally at the time of the Islamist rebel takeover of Idlib. This radical Islamist force which eventually would turn, as a defeated rival, reluctantly like some of the other rebel groups now linked together in the Turkish-dominated NLF—groups which are not creatures of the Turkish Army, but could not withstand on its own any attack by the HTS.
The most recent truly significant event—the Sochi Ceasefire agreed upon by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meeting for four hours on September 17 at the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi concerning the fate of Idlib—has put a hold on what would have been a devastating fight to the finish between the rebels and the superior forces of the Syrian Arab Army (re-equipped with heavy artillery and new conscripts to make up for its losses of infantry be they dead or deserters), its Iranian and pro-Iranian allies on the ground, and the Russian Air Force, bombing and directing rocket fire from above. With increased levels of artillery fire as well as bombing runs directed at rebel forces in Idlib province in the beginning of September, it was assumed that a push into Idlib was imminent. For the civilians, that would have been a humanitarian disaster.
That is because for the three-million Syrians living in the province there is nowhere to go as refugees. The Turks, who are already hosting more than three million Syrian refugees, cannot consider taking in more Syrian refugees from Idlib, where several thousand Syrians had already fled and so Erdogan has been calling upon Russia and Iran to deter the Syrian government from moving ground forces into Idlib province.
At a joint press conference after their meeting, Putin and Erdogan announced they had agreed to create a demilitarized buffer zone in Syria’s Idlib province to separate government and rebel forces. Putin said the buffer zone would be 15 to 25 kilometers wide and come into force by October 15th. This would entail a “withdrawal of all radical fighters from Idlib including the al-Qaeda-linked HTS.”
The two leaders also agreed on the withdrawal of “heavy weaponry from this zone” in the detailed account provided online by the RFE/RL news group, including tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and rocket launchers belonging to all armed groups.
Erdogan said the two countries would carry out coordinated or joint military patrols on the borders of the buffer zone. “The Opposition will continue to remain in the area where they are. In return, we will ensure that the radical groups, which we will determine with Russia, will not operate in the area under discussion”. Neither Putin nor Erdogan explained how they planned to differentiate “radical” rebels from other anti-Assad groups. Earlier, Turkey’s Hürriyet Daily quoted Erdogan as saying Ankara’s calls for a ceasefire in Idlib were bearing fruit after days of relative calm. “It looks like we have obtained a result with the efforts which we made,” he told reporters on a flight back to Ankara, “But we are still not satisfied.”
The Sochi Ceasefire Agreement puts a halt to an imminent frontal assault scheduled at the end of September 2018 by the Russian-backed Syrian Arab Army and its pro-Iranian allies against the rebel forces holding Idlib (including at that time the Turkish-backed NLF and even possibly those Turkish Army units that have strengthened their forces in the 12 outposts on the Idlib-side of the province’s border).
The Turkish army was manning these outposts, originally created to prevent any violation of Idlib’s previous Russian-Turkish negotiations making Idlib a de-escalation zone, but it was periodically violated by the HTS slipping out of the province to raid Syrian Arab Army positions and using drones to harass a Russian air base in Syria.
But now the NFL and presumably the presence of Turkish troops at outposts on the borders of Idlib no longer are identifying themselves as supporters of the rebels as a whole (which included the HTS) since Turkey committed itself with Russia at Sochi to somehow force HTS fighters (referred to at Sochi as “radicals”) out of an Idlib, that remains (as of early October 2018) in the hands of rebels rendered relatively more moderate and without the heavy weapons required in any attempt to recover its previously held positions ( most of Syria.)
There is also the possibility, however faint, that the rebel forces during the Sochi Ceasefire prevailing in and around Idlib in early October 2018, undergo a civil war within a civil war: non-Islamist groups and the numerous Turkish-armed Islamist groups in Idlib end up in a coalition fighting HTS, particularly if by mid-October 2018 the conditions of the Sochi Ceasefire—which differentiates in the treatment of terrorist rebels (the HTS) and the other rebels, many under the banner of the Turkish-supported NLF—are implemented.
(For history buffs that is what happened ultimately within the ranks of Spanish Republican forces during the mid-1936-1939 Spanish Civil War when units of the Spanish Army led by General Francisco Franco attempted an unsuccessful coup against the Republic’s left-liberal Popular Front coalition government that included the Spanish Communist party along with the larger Socialist party and a group of liberal parties but was also supported by the then-powerful Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalist trade union movement and its peasant leagues in the poverty-stricken peasant villages of Spain’s lush southern agricultural provinces. The coup failed because the Spanish Republican Guard stayed loyal and the trade unions’ members—anarcho-syndicalists as well as socialists and communists—were armed by the Republic at the very last minute.
But despite the failure of Franco’s attempted coup, conservative Catholic forces, alarmed by the Republic’s ruling Popular Front coalition’s anti-clerical legislation: nationalizing Church properties and then requiring the Church to pay rent to the government for using the properties and prohibiting Catholic priests from leading street Processionals on Holy Days, and the killing of priests, monks and nuns as a murderous reaction in working class neighborhoods to the attempted coup. As monarchists—some of whom were passionately Catholic, along with Spain’s basically secular Fascist party—the Falange rallied to Franco’s side along with most of the Spanish Army, and a civil war was on.
The war raged on with foreign intervention on both sides—bombers and fighter planes of Hitler’s Luftwaffe (air force) and Italian ground troops coming to the aid of the Nationalist forces (and providing prestige for the fascist Falange among Franco’s mass base of support).
Falange membership increased rapidly during the civil war. On the other side, the Spanish Communists, with its highly disciplined members of the party fighting on behalf of the Republic and also benefiting in terms of prestige from the presence of Soviet Russian warplanes on the side of the Republic, as well as the presence in Spain of some 20 thousand foreign volunteers—mostly Communists and Democratic Socialists largely recruited by communist parties in Europe, the UK and the United States, which during the great global Depression that began with an American stock market crash in 1929 and continued through the 1930s—had considerable influence among intellectuals, artists as well as trade union leaders and leftist-inclined politicians.
As was the case with the foreign volunteers serving in the International Brigade in Spain, foreign volunteers not only from the Muslim world but also as Muslims from Europe, the UK, America, and the Chechen Republic (a part of the Russian Federation) took high casualties as assault forces for the Takfiri and Salafi jihadis among the rebel forces. Unlike the Spanish civil war, where recruitment of foreign volunteers was done by holding rallies and publishing articles in the relatively limited circulation of various leftist and liberal publications in the West that sympathized with the Loyalist cause, the most brutal of all the Takfiri or Salafi jihadi groups, da’ish recruited volunteers through its slick videos posted on the internet, and the videos promise engagement in justified and organized violence, weapons and uniform. They brought alienated and spiritually empty non-Muslims to convert, not initially to Islam, but to da’ish and only then to Islam as dues that one must pay to join any organization.
The various Spanish supporters of the Republic from communists, socialists, militantly secular liberals and even in a way the anarcho- syndicalists, were known as Loyalists, as in loyal to the Republic. In the first week of the civil war, more than half of Spain was held by Loyalist forces. But the better-organized Nationalist forces under Franco—the undisputed head of the unified Nationalist movement who had most of the Spanish Army fighting for him, as well as very effective Moroccan forces from then-Spanish-ruled northern Morocco—slowly but steadily captured or liberated (depending on one’s perspective) most of Spain, just as the Syrian Arab Army has slowly but steadily recovered almost all of Syria, all but for Idlib and scattered Rebel pockets in the vast Aleppo countryside.
So too with Loyalist Madrid, besieged but still defending its lines to other parts of Spain still in Loyalist hands, much as the rebels who had taken Aleppo were in touch with rebel groups throughout Syria until besieged Aleppo was finally taken back by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies.
As for Spain, in the shrinking territory still Loyalist, the Spanish Communist Party (like the HTS in the shrinking Syrian territory still held by rebels) overplayed its hand in asserting its leadership and increasing secret-police control of the Republic (read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia) such that a Loyalist but anti-Communist general of the Loyalist army led his forces in an attack against the Spanish Communist party and its units within the Loyalist army just before Franco’s forces overwhelmed what remained of the Republic.
As far as role-playing, but in no way in any ideological sense, the HTS is playing out its role among the rebel forces similar to that of the rising power of the Spanish Communists within the Loyalist Forces of the Republic more than 80 years ago. And in my hypothetical civil war, the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF), especially if their ranks are hardened by Turkish special forces, will take on the HTS. In my hypothetical civil war within a civil war it will be the NLF that will be playing the role of the anti-Communist forces within the Loyalist Army command that turned on the Spanish Communists in the last days of the Spanish Republic.
The moral of all of this is that Syria, however tragic, is not some unique experience—that civil wars often turn out to be intrinsically brutal, destructive of places as well as people, and ferociously bloody.
More Americans died in the 19th century Civil War between the northern and southern states than have died in all of the wars Americans have fought in, before and after the Civil War, where in border states brother often fought brother, as no doubt has happened in Syria.
It was in Spain that a city was first leveled by air force bombing—Hitler’s Luftwaffe. That historic moment lives on in-a-manner-of-speaking as an abstract but pictorial sense of mayhem, chaos and agony in what is probably Picasso’s most famous, and most popular painting: Guernica. At the time Picasso was a member of the Communist party, but his painting hangs in that vast gallery just off New York’s elegant 5th Avenue—the ever-fashionable Museum of Modern Art.
And what were the losses in Guernica then or Aleppo now for that matter, compared to the leveling of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War Two—a war that took at least 60 million lives which involved nearly the entire world on one side or the other: The Axis powers vs. the Allies. The World in a civil war between itself. But now, back to Idlib.)
By the summer of 2018 The Syrian Arab Army—with the significant help of the Iranian-supported Hezbollah, as well as pro-government Syrian Shi’a militias and contingents from large, neighboring Iraqi Shi’a militias—reportedly under the command of officers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s Al-Quds unit, had recovered from the losses of men and territory in the first years of Syria’s civil war.
What has developed in Idlib is the buildup of a variety of rebel forces, including some fighters from those presumably non-Islamist rebel forces trained and armed by America that had captured and then lost two provinces close to the Syria-Jordan border. But rather than submit to the re-establishment of Syrian government control (as many if not most of their comrades did), some chose to go to Idlib.
Most recently there are reports that da’ish fighters—from among the surprisingly large number of survivors from the so-called Islamic State capital in Syria, which fell in the fall of 2017 to a predominantly Syrian Kurdish force supported on the ground and in the air by American forces—have made their way from the Syrian south to join up with the rebels in Idlib.
Consider if the Sochi Ceasefire, which has held since the second week of September 2018, somehow fails, and the Syrian Arab Army and its allies do launch a devastating attack on Idlib despite Trump’s warning, and much of the rest of the world’s pleading that they do not do so, given the realistic dangers of a humanitarian disaster. Then there is the almost unimaginable possibility of American war planes which originally provided air cover for Syrian Kurdish forces effectively fighting da’ish to suddenly provide air cover for the Idlib rebels (now composed mainly of al-Qaeda’s-former affiliate HTS, da’ish fighters and other extremist but not necessarily terrorist, Islamist groups). In Trump’s warning and that of others connected or defending his administration, such a course of American action is hinted at.
And what if a chemical warfare attack is carried out either by the Syrian Arab Army which one might think would have no reason to use chemical warfare against the rebel forces in Idlib since it has done particularly well in retaking almost all the cities towns and villages once held by the rebels, or a false flag chemical warfare attack is secretly staged by some brutal and desperate Takfiri-Jihadi rebel factions in a bombing or shelling disguised as a government attack. The purpose of which would be to prompt Trump to “retaliate” with- at the very least -American air power unleashed against Syrian government forces as he has already done in an immediate emotional response in two earlier chemical attacks.
Adding to the issue is the contradictory nature of U.S. policy. This is not exclusively a problem with U.S. policy toward Iran, nor exclusively a problem of State Department personnel differing, at the very least in tone, with the White House and with their relatively recently appointed head—the hawk Mike Pompeo. In other words, there are serious contradictions within the Trump administration itself.
That perhaps is a major explanation for contradictions within the very mode for expression—the almost daily tweets—by U.S. President Donald Trump announcing his attitudes and policies nestled between his other tweets ranting against the leader of any state or organization that has criticized him or, as in the case of the Palestinian Authority (PA), has also openly rejected his instructions. (More on this later.) These are easily available to any of that large population of the world that has access to the internet or follows the news carried in printed editions of the press. In the case that many of Trump’s potential followers are nominally literate but effectively illiterate, they can follow him by listening to the radio or watching TV.
This is not to mention those allied or opposing individual heads of state who until recently would have been informed of an American President’s policy positions on occasion by presidential phone calls or some sort of text delivered to someone specifically or to all at a time by diplomatic channels. There is a major, centuries-old reason for the existence of ambassadors or at least some form of diplomatic presence. This breach is an added cause for embitterment against Trump by many members of America’s foreign service: the diplomats and other staff of the State Department.
And that is why when Trump addressed the UN General Assembly early in October 2018—an audience that included, as per UN tradition, many visiting heads of state or high-ranking representatives of heads of state—and began his speech by praising his administration’s accomplishments as greater than any other American administration, his audience first chuckled and then laughed at him.
Consider Trump’s statement to the press on July 30th 2018 that he was ready to meet with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, “anytime they want to meet” and with no pre-conditions. It seemed like a re-run of the Trump and the North Korean leader Kim’s war of words: Words from both leaders threatening nuclear war and then ending up like pals at their Summit in Singapore and then a “deal” which may go anywhere or nowhere.
Then, barely an hour or so after Trump’s sudden announcement that he was willing to meet with Rouhani, his hawkish Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tells an American TV network (which means the world) that he supports a Trump-Rouhani meeting. But before that happens, Pompeo goes on to say Iran must accept pre-conditions for a summit meeting which Trump had just said would have no pre-conditions.
So could this have been simply Trump’s art of the deal (the title of one of his best-selling ghost-written book) in which the President and his Secretary of State do everything to threaten and intimidate and then at the last minute there is a sunny summit?
Trump was so polite in Singapore that it bordered on a newly discovered friendship with Kim Jong-un during their meeting. But Trump’s words with Iran this time around and over a period of many months going back to his 2016 campaign for the presidency have been far more extreme than the Iranian President’s words. There is no comparison to U.S.-North Korean tensions with their pre-summit mutual threats—be they implicit or explicit—of nuclear war.
When running for President in 2016 Trump promised he would pull out of the 2015 Obama-negotiated nuclear deal with Iran and Trump kept that promise in May 2017.The other powers (including Iran, until now) that signed on to the deal have vowed to stay on despite Trump’s declaration that the U.S. was restoring secondary sanctions against any nation or company trading in certain quite limited areas, most painfully in financial services, but by November 2018 to include the purchase of Iranian oil and gas, which is another and most serious matter. Iran in turn had committed to curtail uranium enrichment capacity that would prevent it from developing nuclear weapons and would submit to stringent verification processing in exchange for relief from painful and even potentially crippling U.S.-imposed trade and financial sanctions. And according to international inspectors, at least up until this moment, which is many months from the time Trump withdrew from the Agreement, Iran had kept its side of the deal.
Since then, perhaps as self-justification for keeping his campaign promise which meant going back on America’s word, Trump and his Secretary of State escalated the level of rhetorical threats. But even granting that possibility it is interesting in comparison that Pompeo did more than just badmouth the North Korean government—not a terribly difficult task—but once Trump and Kim were suddenly on the same page for a summit and Singapore selected as the site, Pompeo starting talking about a “Libyan model” for North Korea’s denuclearization.
So the Singapore summit, if we recall, was actually briefly cancelled. And we all should remember that happened because of what Pompeo was saying. Those remarks infuriated the North Koreans who did not remain silent about it. Again, as we all should remember, the ultimate outcome of Pompeo’s “model” was the overthrow of Libya’s Gaddafi who might have wiped out the rebels very early on into the uprising if France hadn’t intervened with air strikes on Gaddafi’s army, then en route to Benghazi to smash the uprising.
This intervention was followed by the U.S. Air Force carrying out airstrikes nearly all the way to the fall of Tripoli and Gaddafi’s subsequent capture and murder. Most likely if Gaddafi had actually succeeded in making a couple of nuclear bombs and had secured from North Korea a few long-range missiles capable of reaching America, neither France nor America (“leading from behind” was Obama’s phrase) would have intervened on behalf of a rebellion in its earliest and probably defeated stage.
Disclosure: I was not so prescient on that one, and my rather sudden bad misreading of history led to an almost immediately embarrassing and regretful return to political activism: I was Adviser to the Cairo-based “Friends of Free Libya”, initially formed with a prominent Libyan family in exile in Cairo who were my friends. My misplaced enthusiasm ended the moment the Libyan rebels captured Gaddafi. This was a moment partially recorded and quickly re-broadcast and posted online. It was not the typical revolutionary excess that ultimately can be passed over if the revolutionaries had simply put Gaddafi—the moment after his humiliating capture in some sort of huge empty drainage pipe—up against the wall to be shot dead by an on-the-spot assembly of a combined instantaneous judiciary also serving as a firing squad. For indeed, we have long forgotten or forgiven the cruel Russian Bolshevik murder of the last Tsar and nearly his entire immediate family, well after he had been overthrown by the significantly more moderate Menshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic party (doomed to be overthrown along with their Social Revolutionary party allies) and put under house arrest in the Russian countryside
Instead, Gaddafi was sodomized with a bayonet and then murdered, not executed. At that moment I remembered that no real revolution has ever been “good” except the American War of Independence, indulgently and more popularly known now as the American Revolution. That is because it really wasn’t a revolution, like the French Jacobin, Russian Bolshevik and German National Socialist (Nazi) and—to a much lesser degree, the Iraqi and Syrian Baathist/Arab Nationalist and Egyptian Nasserist socialist revolutions were.
It was Englishmen struggling by and large non-violently for their rights as Englishmen and so embittered by the British parliament and the British King’s indifference to their rights that they opted to fight for independence. It was a successful revolt that established itself eventually as a state just as the Arab Revolt for independence from an Ottoman empire that had been taken over by the cadre of militantly secular Young Turk officers would lead to a Hashemite Kingdom in Jordan, which would endure quite successfully, and in Iraq, which tragically, did not.
But back to the difference between North Korea and Iran: The difference is so tremendous that it would make Trump overconfident. The only thing North Korea and Iran have in common is that both have suffered from Americans sanctions. But North Korea has nuclear bombs and transporting missiles that could reach America. Iran has neither.
So Trump could alternatively threaten Iran with either regime change or destruction “the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before” (i.e. nuclear warfare) in a tweet warning Rouhani “never ever to threaten the U.S. again.” Trump was alluding to the Iranian President’s own warning that a war with Iran would be “the mother of all wars.” But Rouhani’s threat was at least qualified by stating that peace with Iran “would be the mother of all peace.”
In another barely mentioned aspect of this story, Rouhani was actually responding to that 12 item list put together by Pompeo of what Iran must do to lift the sanctions that were first lifted by Obama as part of the Iranian Nuclear Accord and then re-imposed by Trump when he withdrew the U.S. from that accord. Without Iranian compliance to Pompeo’s list, secondary sanctions against any country purchasing Iranian oil or gas would go into effect in November of 2018.
It was inconceivable that the present Iranian government could accept any of the items on that list, which included Iran ending all support for Hezbollah, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Hamas in Gaza; to withdraw all forces under Iranian command in Syria; to disarm the large pro-Iranian Shi’a militia in Iraq and to apologize for all of its subversive behavior in the region.
So what it did signify, and Pompeo has more or less confirmed this, is that if conditions get even worse in Iran because of sanctions, Pompeo expects that Iranian public opinion would decisively turn against the regime, already under some pressure from recent demonstrations , leading to regime change. Although more recently Pompeo now denies that America is seeking just that.
But regime change seems far-fetched. Pompeo has argued that Rouhani is no different than the hardliners within the Iranian political establishment. Given the tight grip Iranian Security and the Revolutionary Guards have exercised against serious protest demonstrations in the past characterized by live gun fire and severe torture, it is hard to image regime change; except a partial and reverse regime change, where the hardliners and especially the Revolutionary Guard get Ayatollah Khamenei to depose Rouhani.
Indeed there are reports that the latest wave of Iranian youth demonstrating against Rouhani’s government were initiated and led not by young liberals but by hardliner youth to undermine Rouhani. But in Pompeo’s wording, whenever he referred to regime change, which obviously meant the Supreme Leader as well as the President.
What can Iran still do? Possibly do what Saddam Hussein threatened to do during the massive and long U.S. build up that led to the “Desert Storm” attack against the Iraqi Army then occupying Kuwait in 1991 as well as the destruction of much of the Iraqi infrastructure: to threaten to seriously attack Israel. I stress seriously for after Saddam threatened to attack Israel with missiles with chemical warheads if America attacked Iraq, Saddam was duly warned by America that Baghdad would be wiped off the map if he so dared. So instead he fired off a few missiles armed with only conventional explosives that did minimal damage. His threat turned out to be a fiasco.
But at the time, well before a protracted “Desert Guard” (which sounded like some sort of Bedouin contraceptive) became “Desert Storm” and in one of my more prescient moments, I suggested in a talk at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in America that the only card Saddam had to play was to threaten to use his missiles armed with one or more of the varieties involved in chemical warfare, against Israel.
But Iran is the weapons supplier, trainer and presumably the main funder of Hezbollah, the well-armed and trained Lebanese Shi’a militia and political party. Iran can threaten both the U.S. and Israeli governments that Hezbollah will attack Israel if the U.S. attacks Iran. By now Hezbollah has an estimated 10,000 conventional high-explosive missiles in well-hardened launching sites that could overwhelm the Israeli counter-missile “Iron Dome” defense system, particularly if such an attack were initiated with, let us say, a few hundred missiles launched simultaneously and the internal “ready-alert” pulled off in the strictest secrecy, which Hezbollah (unlike once active Palestinian Fedayeen groups affiliated to a greater or lesser degree to the PLO) is capable of maintaining.
Israeli sources almost painfully indicate that the possibility of a massive Hezbollah missile first strike is actually far more troubling to the Israeli armed forces (the IDF) than the Hezbollah units, pro-Iranian Iraqi militias and Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces in Syria along with missile sites which the Israeli Air Force had already, and usually discreetly, attacked on many occasions through 2016 and in the Spring and Summer of 2018. In August 2018 the Iranians had begun to install missile sites in Iraq, further way from Israel than those that were destroyed in Syria, yet still capable of hitting Israel. What Israel plans to do about that, or is already doing, but nobody’s talking, is at this pre-publication moment, unknown.
Trump had also pledged during his 2016 presidential election campaign to try and improve relations with Russia which he certainly has done before, during and after the Summit in Helsinki in July 2018. Nothing of significance was said by either Putin or Trump about their one-on-one meeting prior to the press conference that ended the one day summit. But the following day the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman confirmed that an agreement had been reached to cooperate in Syria.
Even before the summit, conditions in Syria had increasingly pointed towards such an understanding. Prior to the siege of Idlib, Trump had already informed the largely American armed and trained rebel forces in the provinces of Daraa and presumably the neighboring province of Quneitra that America would neither intervene nor resupply them just before an imminent government offensive to retake those two provinces actually began and was quite rapidly successful. And Russia has since said it would work diplomatically to get Syria to take steps to “restore peace” along the Golan Heights border line.
That suggests dealing in some way with Pompeo’s demand and Trump’s apparent demand and their Helsinki Summit, that Putin pressure Syria to get Tehran to pull Iranian militias and Revolutionary Guards allied to the Syrian government completely out of Syria, which everyone assumed was a negotiating position which Putin has since said was impossible.
The most that Russia could probably secure would be for the Iranian and pro-Iranian foreign forces now in Syria to be kept back from the formerly rebel-controlled Syrian territory on the Golan Heights (adjacent to the Israeli-occupied portion of the Syrian Golan Heights) which is now back in the hands of the armed forces of Bashir Al-Assad’s government: the Syrian Arab Army.
Sources suggested that in return for that, Trump would withdraw American troops that had been working with the Kurds against da’ish and recognize a major role for Syria’s President Bashir Al-Assad in, at the very least, any transitional phase of a “political settlement, if not an even-more-enduring role as President given the military reality in Syria.
Before the Trump-Putin Summit, the Syrian Arab Army had already driven rebel forces out of the two remaining Damascus suburbs in rebel hands, followed up by an offensive before, during and after the Trump-Putin Summit that effectively secured the two sensitive provinces which shared a border with Israel and with the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights.
Only one province, Idlib, has remained in rebel hands in all of Syria. It was seized by a rebel coalition of Sunni Islamist militias in the spring of 2015. From that moment two pro-Assad Shi’a villages in Idlib came under a very tight rebel siege, just barely surviving in the way of food and ammunition periodically dropped by the Syrian Arab Army’s air force. The two villages held out for a little more than three years. But in the summer of 2018 the villagers, including the pro-government fighters in the two villages, were able to completely evacuate and were transported in 120 crowded buses to Syrian-government-controlled territory. The buses were sent in by the Syrian government as part of a secret deal negotiated in Istanbul between representatives of the HTS and the Syrian government, well before this date but the deal had usually fallen apart whenever very small groups of villagers tried to evacuate and were hampered or attacked by the HTS rebel besiegers. Part of the deal was the release by the HTS of some 1,500 Syrian Arab Army prisoners it was holding.
At least one Beirut-based Western analyst, Sam Heller, who is a fellow at the Century Foundation think tank, has suggested to the Arab Gulf newspaper The National that the Syrian government decided to make Idlib its “dumping ground.” That might explain why the seemingly easy and successful Syrian Arab Army penetration into the southernmost part of Idlib province which began back in late December 2017 was suspended early in 2018: according to Heller, it was because Idlib was “the least hospitable one possible—one run by predatory jihadist factions that would be culturally alien to people from, for example, the Damascus countryside,” and invariably would end up fighting each other. Heller’s point was that this strategy “has also given the regime a useful bogeyman, allowing it to point to this low-functioning jihadist thing in Idlib as the real alternative to its own rule.” And so it has come to appear.
Which is why it is difficult to understand Trump’s sudden warning to Russia in Syria at the invitation of its disdained but internationally recognized Syrian government along with its allies not to storm into Idlib and set in motion a tremendous catastrophe for its civilian population. But to warn rather than appeal given that the slightly more than 2,000 American soldiers and warplanes are not there at the invitation of what can legitimately call itself the legitimate government (a body that has had a monopoly of power in a specific territory and approximately shares the cultural values of the people it rules over the government of Syria
Prior to the Putin-Erdogan Sochi Ceasefire, many other voices had taken up this position – not warning the Russians and the Syrian government as Trump has, but strongly appealing to them not to attack and create either a humanitarian disaster that had appeared to be a real danger given an imminent attack on Idlib where no doubt the predominantly Islamist remaining forces would have made their last stand.
Meanwhile what we are now missing on our TV screens are the Syrian “White Helmets”. These rescue workers and their families fled Syria after government forces advanced into Deraa. Officially known as Syria Civil Defense, and wearing white helmets, they had been highly visible in TV footage of them in action saving possibly thousands of Syrian lives in Rebel-held areas, digging the living out of the ruins of shelled or bombed-out buildings during several years of attacks by the Syrian Air Force and of late and perhaps more significantly, Russian warplanes.
Around 800 were expected but only 422 were able to make it past the Syrian Arab Army checkpoints and the revival and expansion of da’ish in that same area. Israeli soldiers and allegedly Western forces had helped the White Helmets and their families to cross over from Syria into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and from there via Israel into Jordan. Israel helped in the evacuation at the request of President Trump and the leaders of other nations, according to the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The White Helmets and their families who made it out of Syria were received by the UNHCR in Jordan who were seeking asylum in Canada, Germany and the U.K. at the request of these countries. But that is no help for the tens of thousands of Internally Displaced Persons who no longer have the option of crossing over into Turkey and the refugee camps there or into Jordan and refugee camps there. Both Jordan and Turkey have closed their borders: both are already hosting more than one million Syrians, so in the name of the rarely credited predecessor to the Tahrir Uprising in 2011 Cairo—and I don’t mean the Muslim Brotherhood. I mean Kafeya!!! My New-Yorker-born translation is Enough Already!!!
The Syrian Kurds are concentrated in a broken string of towns and villages along or close to Syria’s border with Turkey and to a degree close to Syria’s border with Iraq. When Syrian government forces abandoned much of the north a year or two after the civil war began, the Kurdish fighting forces—the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and the more recently organized Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—either simply took over uncontested villages, or moved more aggressively against da’ish which had taken over key towns close to the border with Turkey, which—when controlled by da’ish—had enabled thousands of radical Islamist volunteers from both Muslim majority countries and from Europe seeking to join da’ish to easily cross over from Turkey, and for wounded da’ish fighters to be easily taken across the border into Turkey for medical care.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) includes anti-da’ish Syrian Arab militias that are also pro-government and thus anti-rebel, but most fighters and the leaders are predominantly Kurdish, drawn from the YPG. And at least one time, in the first battle for Aleppo, the Kurds living in Aleppo also fought rebel forces. Both the SDF and the YPG have been supported by the U.S with arms and air support, which was particularly important when the SDF/YPG succeeded in capturing Raqqa—da’ish’ capital—in Syria in the fall of 2017.
The Turkish government which has been fighting a Turkish Kurd insurgency (the PKK) on and off for a couple decades insists that the Syrian Kurdish political party which established the Syrian Kurdish forces in the YPG and now also in the SDF is actually the Syrian branch of the PKK. The U.S as well as Turkey have denounced the Turkish PKK as terrorists. The YPG/SDF forces deny there is any connection and the U.S. accepts that, which takes some straining to make that denial with any certainty and has led to growing tensions between U.S. and Turkey with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly denouncing the U.S.
The U.S. says it has armed and supported the Kurdish forces because they have been the most effective armed force in Syria fighting da’ish. But that hasn’t prevented Turkish armed forces—both air force and infantry along with the Turkish funded, trained and armed northern Syrian branch of the Rebel “Turkish” Free Syrian Army (the TFSA) from attacking, alongside Turkey’s official armed forces, the Syrian Kurds. This has particularly been the case since January 2018 when the Turkish military launched Operation Olive Branch in the SDF/YPG-controlled Afrin district. As it has done in the past, Turkey said it was also attacking da’ish but in Arfin there were no da’ish forces and elsewhere Turkish air force attacks against da’ish were slight compared to their bombardment of the Syrian Kurds at the very same time. By March 2018 Turkish forces and the TFSA had driven the Syrian Kurdish forces out of Afrin.
The U.S. position is not clear—the Pentagon has provided aid, arms and training for the Syrian Kurds and threatened Turkey if they attack American soldiers working with SDF/YPG forces. But Trump had declared he was ending all aid to the Kurds even before he had informed the largely American armed and trained rebel forces in the provinces of Daraa and presumably the neighboring province of Quneitra, that America would neither intervene nor resupply them just before an imminent government offensive to retake those two provinces actually began. And presumably Trump was expected in 2018 to pull out the estimated 2,000 American soldiers in Syria working with the Kurds.
But that all has changed now that it is clear that da’ish and its so-called Khalifa (Caliph) had survived the fall of Raqqa. And while figures vary dramatically according to the Pentagon or the UN, no one doubts that there are certainly several thousand da’ish fighters still operating in parts of Syria, as small units but all with communication links to the highest levels of leadership and several thousand still operating in Iraq, where they have been killing the mayors of Iraqi towns and the muktars (local leaders) of Iraqi villages, at the rate of at least one Iraqi government official a week.
When Erdogan launched his periodic interventions in Syria he also threatened a severe response to any Turks protesting against these interventions against Syrian Kurdish forces. Hundreds have been detained for participating protest demonstrations as have nearly 100 politicians and journalists and nearly 1,000 social media users, as well as high-ranking members of pro-Kurdish and left-wing political parties in Turkey. The crackdown is reminiscent of Erdogan’s reaction at the time of an attempted coup in the summer of 2016 when he used that very inept attempt as an excuse to fire close to 200,000 public servants in government institutions as well as staff from private schools identified as sympathetic to his then-leading opposition: the Gulenist movement. That also included a very severe crack down on the press, forcing the firing or resignation of journalists sympathetic to his former ally-turned-opponent Gulen.
When Erdogan first took power 16 years ago he eased pressure on Turkey’s Kurds, but since 2015 scores of Turkish Kurd associations, media, schools, and cultural organizations were closed down in reaction to growing Kurdish power just across the border in northern Syria. On the Turkish side of that border there are large concentrations of Turkish Kurds that were no doubt sympathizing and possibly providing supplies to the Syrian Kurds fighting da’ish
It was da’ish’ cross border attacks against Turkish Kurds that soured Turkey’s initial tolerance and even some clandestine arms shipments for da’ish in Syria until 2015—only a few years ago. But whether serving as Turkey’s President or Prime Minister, Erdogan has already been reliably quoted as saying he considers the Turkish Kurdish PKK as more of a threat to Turkey than da’ish, and the Syrian Kurds as an extension of the PKK—an extraordinary remark considering that whatever the PKK is—one could describe it as blending Turkish nationalism, Marxism and a cultish devotion to its founder, the now deceased Abdullah Ocalan, into an apparently coherent ideology for some or many of the Kurdish Turk minority communities. And judging from videos of a few members of the SDF/YPG fighting forces participating in rallies holding up large poster-mounted photographs of Ocalon, the PKK founder is also revered by some of the Syrian Kurds.
The SDF—with its predominantly Kurdish fighters and the entirely Kurdish YPG supported by American air power and artillery—defeated da’ish in the Fall of 2017 in hard fighting to take Raqqa, then the capital of the so-called Caliphate. At the time an American spokesman declared that da’ish had been defeated. But by early 2018 it was becoming clear that da’ish was still operative. Thousands of da’ish fighters managed to escape the siege of Raqqa. How could have that have happened?
A very large number of da’ish fighters—estimated at 20,000—had been concentrated in Raqqa and the rural villages in the Raqqa district. The da’ish military and political leadership knew that ultimately they could not withstand the combination of intense American firepower and the battle- hardened fighters of the SDF/YPG. So it would be reasonable for many da’ish fighters and the highest rank of da’ish leadership to move out quietly at night from Raqqa itself in small squads under the command of a squad leader before the SDF and the Americans had seriously penetrated the district much less Raqqa itself.
Some of these da’ish fighters found refuge in Turkey, or if foreign fighters, moved on from Turkey to return to their homes in other parts of the Arab and Muslim world or to America, the U.K. and Europe. Some defected to a reviving Al-Qaeda in Syria. But most of the da’ish fighters were to be concentrated in the Yarmouk basin in Syria or operate in small guerrilla and terrorist style units. Over the last few months of 2018 they have staged suicide bombings in Syria and in Iraq. According to reports from Baghdad the Iraqis are building or preparing to build a wall on the border with Syria in the hope that it will halt or at least diminish infiltration of some of the da’ish still present in Syria from crossing back into Iraq. da’ish has been attacking the Syrian Druze in Suweida province, kidnapping women and girls, and killing a few hundred Druze. For da’ish the Druze like the Shi’a are Muslim heretics deserving death, but these attacks may prove to be a great blunder by da’ish, since the Syrian Druze if mobilized, have a history as great fighters.
The drawn-out Syrian civil war has been a terrible burden to neighboring Jordan. More than an estimated 1,300,000 Syrian refugees fled to Jordan, which expects those refugees will soon return home now that it appears the rebel forces concentrated in Idlib are facing defeat and significant fighting in Syria will soon stop. Small groups of refugees have already been making their way home, particularly those from the nearest Syrian province of Daraa
Serious but mostly non-violent demonstrations took place in Amman and elsewhere in the Kingdom against austerity measures in effect imposed on Jordan by IMF conditions in the Spring of 2018. HM King Abdullah II responded with empathy: the new taxes, which were “the last straw” that had brought thousands of demonstrators into the streets were withdrawn and the despised Prime Minister replaced by a highly respected, popular member of the cabinet who pledged to ease the economic situation.
In June there were good tidings. Significant financial relief in two aid packages: a $2.5 billion package jointly pledged by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait followed a few days later by $500 million package from Qatar. Another boost in morale came in July: H.M. King Abdullah II was the recipient of the prestigious Templeton Award in recognition that he has done more to seek religious harmony within Islam and between Islam and other religions than any other living political leader and for the spiritual values he has encouraged in Jordan and elsewhere in the Arab world. (see pages 55, 155, and 186 for more information on three of these initiatives)
It seems helping Jordan is the only thing that Qatar could agree on with rivals Saudi Arabia and the UAE and their partners Bahrain and Egypt collectively referred to as The Quartet. The crisis began in 2017, reportedly triggered by a faked Qatar News Agency report attributed to the ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. The Quartet’s demands were: Qatar must break its ties with Iran, which the Quartet accuses of waging subversion in the region; to stop aiding Muslim Brotherhood and sheltering its leaders; and to close down Al Jazeera for its pro-MB perspective. Following an earlier threat by Saudi Arabia to build a trench along the borders with Qatar which would cut off all of Qatar’s land access and a commercial as well as touristic boycott of Qatar, Saudi Arabia has threatened to invade Qatar if they proceeded to buy a Russian air defense system. Qatar recently announced its own boycott of Quartet products and declared it would not be party to any conflict with Iran. Aside from Trump’s informal but quite-public reversing of support for Qatar the U.S. has maintained a neutral position, calling on both sides to find a diplomatic solution. The Al Udeid air force base is the largest American base in the region. So the big question in Washington D.C. is whether Qatar will try to stop the U.S. from using the base to attack Iran in the event of war.
It is hard to say when the war in Yemen began, because wars have been a dominant mode in Yemen for many decades. Yemen is both the poorest country in the Arab world and probably at this point in time, the most tribal, and there might be a relationship between all these aspects. Technically speaking the latest war began in 2015 when the Houthis—who are Zaidi Shi’a living in the northern highlands and believe they are not treated justly by the predominantly Sunni government—overran the capital Sana’a, but not before they had defeated a northern tribe with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis.
Saudi Arabia quickly organized a coalition of nine Middle Eastern and African countries with support from the United States and began to bomb the Houthis. Until very recently the Houthis had little or no connection with the very much larger Shi’a sect known as the Twelvers, who make up most of the population of Iran and 60 percent of the population of Iraq. The Saudi warplanes frequently target large gatherings of Houthis. It is a rather tragic bit of irony the targets most often are funerals, and in Sana’a can often include as many or more Yemeni Sunnis as Zaidi Shi’a. At least 15,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed, perhaps even more because there are few human rights groups and medical aid teams operating in the countryside. The death toll is so high considering Yemen’s small population.
In recent decades Yemen has imported almost all the food that the population consumes. In part that is because so much productive farmland has been switched over to the more profitable growing of khat – a mild narcotic consumed by almost the entire adult population of Yemen In the face of Saudi Arabia’s persistent accusation that the Houthis were allied with Iran, the son of the Houthi leader visited Qum, the religious center of Twelver Shi’a in Iran. He was so impressed by the leading religious personalities there that upon his return to Yemen he led the Houthie community to adopt Twelver religious liturgy as well as Iranian Islamist slogans, which is quite a betrayal of Zaidi tradition since the Zaidi Shi’a were probably closer to Sunni Islam than to Twelver Islam.
Most of the food in Yemen is imported and after nearly three years of Saudi and UAE blockades of most Yemeni ports. Famine as well disease are beginning to take their toll. More than a million people have cholera and thousands have died from the disease. American Senators and Congressmen have begun to question American support for the Saudis in Yemen but Trump’s Administration has refused to criticize the Saudis who made a big impression on Trump both with the lavish receptions in his honor in May 2018 when he visited the Kingdom, his first stop en route to his first global tour as President. His hosts, King Salman and his very active son, the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman have signed on to buy—over a period of ten years—350 billion dollars’ worth of American products, primarily military, including tanks and aircraft. MBS, as the Crown Prince is referred to in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, serves as Minister of Defense, along with other responsibilities, and is considered with his father’s approval and even encouragement as an energetic reformer. Because of his reforms women now drive cars, movie theaters have been opened and concerts are open to the public. Western as well as Arab media are fascinated by MBS but of late there has been criticism because of the arrest of some Saudi women activists and most recently the disappearance of the well-known Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who has been a vocal critic of the Saudi regime, and in particular MBS..
As Minister of Defense, MBS was also responsible for the Saudi intervention in the Yemeni civil war. It was one of his first accomplishments which one senses that MBS now greatly regrets.
So far Saudi ground troops have not been committed to fight in Yemen, but UAE troops have most dramatically attempted to seize the Hodeidah port city, which is the Houthis’ major port for bringing in food as well as other aid from a variety of humanitarian organizations concerned about the spread of famine and disease in Yemen. The assault upon Hodeidah was briefly suspended given the casualties caused by landmines and sniper fire and concerns about the civilians inside the besieged port as well as the inability of humanitarian organizations to ship in medical supplies, and perhaps basic food items.
March 30, 2018 marks the beginning of The Great March of Return, what was intended to be a non-violent series of protests launched in Gaza close to the Gaza-Israel border. Also known as the Gaza Strip because of its dimensions, 41 kilometers long and from 6 to 12 kilometers wide, the Strip contains a population of nearly two million. Unlike the West Bank which is in no way as confined as Gaza, most of the inhabitants of Gaza are considered as refugees, in what is one of the most densely populated places in the world. It would take at least a few pages of type-set print to describe the variety of hardships imposed upon the people of Gaza. Here are just a few: 97% of Gaza’s tap water is undrinkable due to high salinity and/or sewage pollution forcing Gazan, many if not most of whom are impoverished, to purchase water from local desalination facilities at excessive prices. Since Palestinians are unable to pay Israel for the electricity in provides, Gazans are receiving electricity for only four hours a day.
Originally organized by independent activists (meaning none were members of either Hamas or Fateh or presumably any of the smaller factions), the leadership and organization of the March demanded that the Palestinian refugees (which includes all the descendants of the original refugees who fled their homes 70 years ago) have a Right of Return, that the siege of Gaza be lifted, and that the decision to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem be revoked. On the first day some 35,000 Palestinians participated, and since then Friday demonstrations have averaged about 10,000, with much smaller numbers during the week. Palestinian casualties have been high: at least 140 were killed between March 30th and the 15th of May; between13,000 to 14,000 were injured by live ammunition. On May 13, one day before Israeli and American high ranking officials and public figures such as President Trump’s daughter and his son-in-law celebrated the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem, the demonstrations peaked as 35,000 marched with thousands approaching the fence. One Israeli soldier was slightly wounded and 60 Palestinians were killed at twelve different clash points along the fence. Not what any soldier would consider acceptable odds. Was split screen simultaneous coverage of Ivanka enjoying the party at the embassy and Palestinians getting shot down approaching the border fence worth those odds.
If one million Palestinians in Gaza marched for Return, nothing much would happen except lots of Palestinians, perhaps thousands, getting shot down trying to crash through the flimsy gate, which is quite reasonably possible, and get past the IDF, which is not. Even the Arab Peace Plan alluded, if I recall correctly, to a just settlement, but did not use the phrase the Right of Return: because anyone who is not blinded by either despair or hatred or a reasonable mixture of both, knows there will never be a Return as long as there is an Israeli Army, Navy and Air force-with an arsenal of nuclear bombs thrown in as well.
On the other hand there is “Trump’s Deal of the Century – The Big Deal”. This starts by refusing to provide the millions that the U.S. significantly funds UNRWA with. This severely cuts the medical and basic educational needs of millions of impoverished Palestinians just about wherever there are Palestinian refugee camps, especially in Gaza where those needs are the most apparent; even cutting off 12 million dollars for private charity financed hospitals providing medical care including operations otherwise not available for the impoverished Palestinians of occupied Arab Jerusalem. Hospitals which according to the Israeli government are operating inside Israel and certainly regularly inspected like any hospital operating in Israel.
Then there is closing down the Palestinian Authority’s embassy in Washington D.C. which exists primarily to facilitate dialogue between the U.S. and the PA. Officially these measures are to force the PA back to the negotiating table with Israel under American auspices. But in fact what it appears to be are the preliminary steps in the Victory Concept that is held by many Israelis in circles close to Netanyahu-that peace with the Palestinians will come about not through compromise but for Israel and its greatest ally, the United States, to undertake all available harsh measures just short of war, to so damage the Palestinians that they must acknowledge to themselves that they have been defeated, and having admitted as such to the Israelis and the rest of the world, Israel would then issue the terms for effectively the Palestinian surrender described as a Peace Agreement.
Only Trump supporting the Victory Concept would explain why the three Americans chosen to represent the U.S. in working for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement are Modern Orthodox. While traditional Judaism or what is now called Ultra-Orthodox, is at best openly hostile to the very concept of Zionism, the Modern Orthodox are openly supportive of the state of Israel. All three—Trump’s son-in-law as the President’s special representative, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel who prefers to refer to the West Bank and the Golan Heights as disputed territories rather than occupied territories – precisely the Israeli government’s unique terminology, and as U.S. Special Representative for International Negotiations, a former Vice President of the Trump Organization, all three have special interests and/or investments in the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
There are good arguments for the PA to be at any peace table with representatives of the present Israeli government, even knowing the Israeli side is not at all serious about real peace, but nevertheless to sit there perhaps day-dreaming to pass the time of day but to be there so Israel cannot play the game it always does of “not having a partner with whom to make peace.” But to go to that table unaware of the Victory Concept being in play would be the worst reason to go there.
Trump’s first play in the Victory Concept was his announcement back in December 2017 that the US would be moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That is where, on the Western side of the city, all the ministerial offices as well as the President’s office are located and where one does whatever business one does with Israel. All that Trump really did was to turn a de facto situation into a de jure capital. In itself nothing has changed, and there was even a sentence in Trump’s announcement for the Palestinians, that the boundaries of the Jerusalem he was now recognizing as Israel’s capital would be determined in negotiations between the concerned parties.
But U.S. formal recognition did what it was not intended to do—revive global pro-Palestinian sensitivities which were overshadowed or more accurately dulled as it were over the past few years given the way military conflict be it in Syria, in Iraq (with a revived da’ish) in Yemen, and in a regional cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Qatar on Iran’s side and Abu Dhabi and in a most muted fashion, Egypt, with the Saudis.
An example of the Trump Effect was the decision of the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque to declare 2018 as The Year of Jerusalem” devoting a major conference to Jerusalem. Until recently the Grand Sheikh has publicly opposed Muslims making religious pilgrimage to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Occupied Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif. But PA President Abbas in a speech at the Azhar conference, joined his voice to that of the Mufti of Jerusalem, whose office is within the Haram al-Sharif. As one of the three most favoured pilgrimage cities in Islam, the Arab Jerusalem economy has always revolved around pilgrimage trade. Today a majority of Jerusalemites hold on, living below the poverty line and nothing would please the Israeli government more than if they all give up and abandon the Holy City. So it is critical that Muslim pilgrimage be restored. There was much discussion of this issue after Abbas spoke, most of it favoured restoring the pilgrimage. The Grand Sheikh has not expressed, as yet whether he has changed his position.
A key piece of the Victory Concept is the new Israeli Nationality Law approved by the Israeli Knesset in July 2018.This law declares quite boldly that only the Jewish people of Israel have the right of self-determination. Where is that right to be exercised an innocent to Middle East tensions might ask. Why nowhere else but in the unmentioned word – Palestine. Article 4 of the Law says that Arabic will no longer share with Hebrew the status of an official language as it has since the earliest years of Israeli statehood. Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin pleaded unsuccessfully with Prime Minister Netanyahu to remove a clause in the Law before it received final approval that would make it legal to deny Arabs the right to live in Jewish villages. I wonder how many very old American Jews living in New York will remember the great legal battle to outlaw “run with the land deeds” in which the buyer of property with such a deed would violate their contract of purchase if they in turn attempted to sell or rent their property to Jews and African-Americans. Such deeds were finally ruled unconstitutional by the New York State Supreme Court in the mid-1930s.
President Al-Sisi won a second term of office in the 2018 election. A bit of irony there when the President complained that no serious candidates ran against him in that election. His one opponent was a relatively obscure supporter of Al-Sisi who was more or less dragged into running against the former Field Marshal. But Al-Sisi also called upon the multitude of parties to merge into one major opposition party and one major party supporting the present government. Sisi does retain grudging popular support for the return of security: terrorist attacks have ended in what I always think of as “the mainland” and are now confined to a running battle with da’ish in the northern Sinai that, despite a lot of misguided reporting in American media, existed well before the Muslim Brotherhood took power via free but unfair elections for parliament as well as the presidency and then lost both after one year of rule, when the Egyptian Army intervened.. The worst atrocity in the history of da’ish terrorism in Egypt occurred in late November 2017 when da’ish killed 350 worshipers at Al Rawda Mosque in a small town in northern Sinai. The mosque was favored by Sufi tariqas in the district which is probably why it was singled out for attack. Meanwhile Harsh “reforms” insisted upon as conditions for a 12 billion dollar IMF loan, led to a 50 percent devaluation of the Egyptian Pound in late 2016 and an incredibly painful phasing out of government subsidies of gas, cost of electricity, water not just for poor Egyptians but even for the middle classes. Egyptians appreciate stability but you cannot put stability on the dinner table and eat it.
The Deputy Chief Editor Farah El-Sharif, PhD candidate at Harvard University, has taken note of the need to expand the survey beyond the Middle East and she now adds these following thoughts:
More Muslims live in India and Pakistan today than in the entire Middle East and North Africa, and more than two-thirds of the world’s entire Muslim populations inhabit the Asia-Pacific region. Despite this, there is a tendency to focus on the Arabic-speaking world as the key representative of Muslim affairs. However, judging by numbers alone, non-Arab Muslims far outweigh the number of Muslims of Arab descent. The disproportional attention is not only partial against the millions of Muslims outside the Arab world world who make up the world’s majority, but tells an incomplete story about the state of Islam and Muslims in the 21st century.
At the same time, it is understandable that Arab world should take the biggest share of global news coverage, given that the highest concentration of Muslims live in the Arab world. Coupled with the fact that the Middle East usually takes the geo-strategic political cake, so to speak, and that Arabs make-up the majority of the world’s estimated 68.5 million displaced persons in the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Arab or not, most of the world’s refugees today are Muslim. Whether as displaced refugees in Myanmar or Afghanistan or as persecuted minorities in India or China, being Muslim today is unpopular at best, and dangerous at worst. While it is impossible to shed light on the status of non-Arab Muslims in a single essay–whose populations range from Albania to Chad and Bangladesh–we will attempt to shift our focus away from the Arab world, and highlight the main currents and conditions of the Muslim world at large.
Does a “Muslim world” exist, however? On a theoretical plain, recent scholarship has debated the efficacy of the very idea of a “Muslim world.” Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s “The Myth of the Muslim Country” and Cemil Aydın’s The Idea of the Muslim World, for example, contest the idea of a civilizational monolith intrinsic to the Muslim world. In pre-modern times, Christendom and Islamdom existed in clearly delineated territorial and religious space. After global secularization, the “Muslim world” denotes an assumption of Muslim unity, which the above-mentioned authors argue is but a mere illusion. Some have responded to this scholarship by deeming it too historicizing, and for diluting the enduring agency of a collective, united ummah in the Muslim imaginaire. Tracking the discourse surrounding it is useful insofar as it traces the coercive power of secularization and exceptionalism when it comes to Islam and Muslims in the modern era. Whether an illusion or not, it cannot be denied that a common feeling that binds Muslims the world over exists, no matter their geographic location. For the greater part of the pre-modern period, that feeling endured due to the universal primary tenants of the faith and the centrality of the authority of the Prophet Muhammad. This, coupled with the unyielding absence of a centralized political governing body–there is no “Muslim Pope”, nor the Muslim equivalent for the State of Israel–proves that the idea of a “Muslim world” is more than just an Orientalist projection.
It is rather bittersweet that the 10th anniversary of the Muslim 500 should come in confluence with a tempestuous time for Muslims globally. The unmistakable rise of persecution of Muslims in China, Myanmar, and Central Africa is shadowed by a world stage of strong-man politics and exclusionary rhetoric in much of the public discourse in the global north. Yet, it is also bittersweet that through these seemingly worst of times, a democratic resurgence in many parts of the Muslim world has proven that these are the best of times as well, at least in terms of political participation. In Pakistan, Malaysia and Turkey, key elections in 2018 have brought on a sense of renewal and hope for much of these countries. If the buds of hope witnessed in the Arab Spring were short-lived, perhaps the winds of change blew southeastward to the Asian Pacific.
For the first two decades of the 21st century, that common “feeling”, perhaps, is one of estrangement, one that is prophetically foreshadowed by the hadith of regarding the reception of Islam in later days: “Islam began as something strange and it will return strange as it began.” There are no more strangers today than the Uighur Muslims living in Kashgar, Xinjiang province. The region is vital as it is China’s biggest domestic producer of oil and gas and has become an important trade link for investment and trade, hence the crackdown on its Muslim inhabitants carries strategic political and economic motivations for the Chinese state. The Xinjiang Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group of around 10 million Muslims, are the world’s most heavily surveilled community. Their persecution has worsened in recent months, with 500 police officers deployed to every 100,000 citizens, who routinely conduct what is known as fanghuiju; intrusive inspections to report on “extremist” behavior such as not drinking alcohol, fasting during Ramadan, sporting beards or possessing “undesirable” items, such as Qur’ans or prayer mats. Videos have surfaced of Urumqi police forcibly cutting shirts of Uighur women with scissors in the streets if they are deemed too long.
The most horrifying feature of the state’s persecution of Xinjiang province Muslims are the hundreds of “re-education camps” where some 1 million Uighurs are thought to have disappeared. The Chinese government denies the existence of such camps, but procurement for contractors to run the camps are on public record, in addition to numerous eye-witness reports by “cured” prisoners. Countless families have reported friends and family members missing. In re-education camps, prisoners are subject to torture, and the cruelest tactics to achieve “Islamic erasure”: in some camps, some are forcibly fed pork or are not permitted to eat until they denounce Islamic teachings or praise the Communist party. In January, Shaykh Muhammad Salih Hajim, a widely respected and renowned elderly Uighur alim, died in detention in Urumqi. It is estimated that a sixth to a third of young and middle-aged Uighur men are currently interned, or have been at some point in the past year. In stranger-than-fiction dystopian fashion, the state has also enforced the infamous Chinese "social credit system" on the Uighurs that rates the "trustworthiness" of each citizen by points. Going below a certain number of points can mean immediate detainment.
It has become increasingly harder for foreign journalists to enter Xinjiang, and the Chinese government’s escalating repression on the Uighur community allegedly stems from fears of separatism. But by enforcing such extreme measures to persecute the Uighur minority and crackdown on their very existence, these policies only add fuel to the fire of marginalization. Being Muslim in China today is to live under extreme caution at all times, out of fear of torture, detention or even death.
Unlike the Uighurs, the Rohingya’s persecution by the state has led to a mass exodus and large-scale refugee crisis. Their severe repression by the Rakhine Buddhist State security apparatus is comprised of the most severe forms of persecution by mass burnings, shootings and forcible displacement. Myanmar expert Professor Imtiyaz Yusuf argues that the root of Rohingya persecution is not religious, but rather to do with racism and citizenship. It all began when the Burmese citizenship structure placed the Arkaan Muslims at a disadvantage since they took the area as their homeland in 1940; Myanmar has a three-tiered citizenship system made of "full," "associate," and "naturalized" citizenship. The Rohingya are denied all three types of citizenship, thereby deeming them perpetually “stateless.” The delegitimization of the Rohingya culminated in a law which prevented them from becoming Myanmar citizens, with more recent laws even requiring them to supply proof that their ancestors had settled in the country before the 19th century. As of 1994, the Burmese stated ceased to issue Rohingya children with birth certificates. As a result of the fierce crackdown, 1.5 million Rohingya are today living in exile in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, India, Malaysia, Thailand, UK, USA, and Australia. Many lives have been lost, children dead or orphaned, men burned alive, and entire Rohingya villages razed to the ground. When all is done, the chastisement of Aung San Suu Kyi–Myanmar’s human right’s icon–though justified, did not deem effective in bringing justice to the genocide and displacement of the Rohingyas. While she and others in the Myanmar military apparatus certainly should be held accountable for their silence and complicity, Suu Kyi’s fall from grace was low hanging fruit to assuage mass guilt on the part of the international community. A more serious recourse of accountability should have been taken to fully integrate the Rohingya as equal Myanmar citizens 80 years ago. The repercussions of decades of injustice have only worsened the present lives and the wretched future of the Rohingya people.
Indian Muslims and Islamophobia
If it does not abate, the rise of India’s right-wing Hindu nationalist bend is doomed to repeat the same mistakes of the Burmese and Chinese states. The recent surge in mob lynching against Muslims and other minorities has reached alarming levels. In June of 2018 in Hapur, two Muslim men were attacked, kicked and dragged on the street while police stood by guarding the mob, leading to the death of one man. In another incident, an elderly Muslim man, was pulled by his beard and dragged through a field as he begged for mercy while amused onlookers took videos of the lynching and shared it across social media, which is becoming common practice with acts of mob violence in India. In the same month, a young man was killed in Alwar for allegedly being a “cow smuggler.”
A report by data-based news agency India Spend found that “Muslims were the target of 51% of violence centered on bovine issues over nearly eight years (2010 to 2017) – and they comprised 84% of 25 Indians killed in 60 incidents. As many as 97% of these attacks were reported after Narendra Modi’s government came to power in May 2014.” Modi was the head of the state of Gujarat when hundreds of Muslims were killed in the riots of 2002. Immediately after the attacks in Hapur, Jayant Sinha, one of the most important ministers in Modi’s cabinet, honored eight men accused of lynching and killing a Muslim man.
In Assam State, as many as 7 million Muslims have been deleted from its master list of “citizens” simply due to their “questionable” origins or unfit faith profession. The country’s Supreme Court (SC), which is supervising the entire process, will intern those who don’t make it to the master list of citizens, thereby breaking up families and spurring added suspicion towards Muslims all over India. Though there are more Muslims in India (172 million) than the entire population of Muslim-majority Saudi Arabia (32 million), but the dehumanization of Islam and Muslims by advocates of Hindutva–a far-right Hindu nationalist agenda championed even by parties and individuals that hold the highest offices in India– shows no signs of abating. The effects of this toxic rhetoric has rippled to neighboring countries, for it is not only in Denmark and France that Muslim women face persecution for their dress, but in Sri Lanka, where Hindu nationalists protested outside a private school against Muslim teachers wearing abayas as a slight against “Hindu culture” earlier this year. The alarming rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric in India, Sri Lanka and elsewhere proves that Islamophobia’s geographic reach is not simply contained in the West as manifested by Trump’s Muslim travel ban or Boris’ burqa-ban, but is rather becoming a global phenomenon: even, or perhaps at a more alarming rate, in Muslim-majority societies. Strong-man politics and fascist ideologies are making a comeback the world over, or perhaps they were simply dormant and are merely reawakening. Are we really doomed to repeat the woeful persecutions of the 20th century? Are Muslims the final enemy standing?
There is a strange imbalance when experts and pundits discuss the so-called “War on Terror” and counter-extremism initiatives. The focus on Islam and Muslims as the sole object of deradicalization efforts is a red herring. Despite being the global enemy du jour, in reality the majority of the world’s Muslims make up some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. There are those who live in dire conditions and in environmentally fragile areas that constantly get hit by deadly floods and typhoons, such as in Indonesia or Bangladesh. Others are undergoing the constant threat of displacement, persecution, or discrimination in their fragile homelands whether it is in Yemen, the Balkans, the Central African Republic or Myanmar. Far from being highly weaponized diabolical extremists, the fact is that millions of Muslims are simply struggling to survive or meet their daily needs and represent some of the most economically impoverished and downtrodden communities on earth today.
Perhaps the most pleasant respite from this year’s news roundup from Muslim-majority countries has been the remarkable resurrection of democracy in Malaysia and Pakistan, and to some extent in Turkey. Though each case is markedly different, one thing is true: the majority of Malaysian and Pakistani voters have called for real change in their respective countries, whether it was in the form of the unlikely alliance between political legends Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim, or the triumph of Imran Khan’s vision for “Naya Pakistan.” The return of Mahathir and Imran’s victory, though not for the lack of challenges and detractors, have proven the obvious: when given the chance, Muslim-majority populations are capable of forging a sophisticated vision for their collective futures, one that emphasizes free and fair electoral systems and one that champions concrete steps towards reform and justice. It is our hope that prosperity may triumph over despair, justice over persecution and that above all; may humanity and compassion be that binding “feeling” that glues the global ummah together.
S Abdallah Schleifer
Emeritus Professor & Senior Fellow
Kamal Adham Centre for Television & Digital Journalism
The American University of Cairo