New Age Islam Edit Bureau
Dec 22, 2015
The Battle within Islam and President Obama
By Derek Harvey
Muslim Immigration in Europe: Origins, Failures and Prospects
By Hochine Drouiche
Fighting terrorism with Arab forces
Inside Iran’s Secret War in Syria
By Heshmat Alavi
Neocons Object to Syrian Democracy
By Robert Parry
The Battle within Islam and President Obama
By Derek Harvey
Dec 16, 2015
President Obama needs to accept that our current conflict is as much against the idea of radical jihadism as it is against the physical presence of ISIS. Furthermore, by failing to define the religious-political ideology underpinning the enemy, the president contributes to an environment where all Muslims are increasingly looked at with suspicion. And when President Obama says that we are not at war with Islam, he is implicitly acknowledging to the public that Islam does have something to with extremism, disorder, and violence.
President Obama has also inadvertently cast a blanket of suspicion on the Muslim community through his rhetoric and framing of the challenge. Wouldn't it be better if instead the president and the Administration defined the real enemy – a narrow band of radical extremists? However, the president framing makes this more about the Muslim community here at home which feeds into an Islamophobia narrative, and less about addressing the radical Islamic threat.
Many Muslim reformers in this country would like the Obama Administration's support in their efforts to frame the problem for what it is – radical Sunni extremism - so that they can face the issue of tolerance and reform within the faith. However, many American Muslims express concern and even fear about speaking out – not just fear of home-grown radical jihadists but also a deep-seated concern about the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Many American Muslims don't think CAIR represents them, and that the CAIR approach further alienates and divides Americans of all faiths. These are the "silent majority" among American Muslims.
Last Sunday, President Obama said, "we cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam." No, Mr. President, this is more of a war between and among Muslims, and failing to come to terms with this fact contributes to Islamophobia at its worst. Overseas, Muslim leaders like King Abdullah of Jordan and Egypt's President Sisi recognize the nature of the threat and are calling for a 'religious revolution' in Islam. They understand the threat is the extremist interpretation of Islam - the virulent idea. In fact, Pew Research has shown that the majority of Middle Eastern Muslims fear Islamic extremism too. And as former French Prime Minister Valles said after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, " This is a war on violent radical Islam. It is a threat to liberty, freedom, solidarity and modernity."
In these perilous times, it is good to recall what Clausewitz said: "The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman or commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature."
It is also worth remembering that the seeds of strategic failure often occur due to leaders not understanding the character and nature of the conflict in which they are engaged. Strategic failure occurs when the development of clear options and subsequent decisions are not based upon a well-grounded understanding of the operational environment, situation awareness, and an insightful understanding of the enemy. Not understanding the radical jihadist enemy – whether ISIS or al Qaeda - leads to failing to correctly define the problem and answer the right questions up front. In the cases of both Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. leaders did not adequately understand nor anticipate the kaleidoscope of actors, groups, and agendas in dealing with the many challenges. In our current case, the president and his team are demonstrating that they do not understand this multidimensional enemy.
For decades, the United States has downplayed the role that religion plays in Arab politics, governance, and security due to a lack of understanding and a reliance on secular state actors. (That is until the Arab uprisings and the overthrow of leaders in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.) Importantly, these leaders were never as secular as the CIA and others wanted to believe, and their corruption of civil society helped create today's poisonous mix. Through this phenomenon, we witnessed the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State, and Iran orchestrated Shia militia and security coordination across the region. What we are now witnessing throughout the region is the potent mobilizing force of Islamic sectarianism and radicalization resulting in widespread instability, violence, brutality, and conflict. However, the reach of the radicalization is not limited to conflict within Islam in the Middle East – but it is inspiring, recruiting and hitting targets in the West as seen in Paris and San Bernardino.
The heart of the problem, at least since 9/11, is a failure to define and fully grasp the enemy, the kind of war we are in, and the larger strategic context that includes multiple dimensions of an intra-Islamic fight about the role of Islam in private and public life. The president's framing of the conflict as simply against terrorism contributes to ambiguity and uncertainty, and Americans keenly sense a disconnect from what they see in the news and what they hear from the administration. The American people know that terrorism is a tactic – it is not the enemy.
The extremist jihadi agenda is a dangerous virus and overly focusing on the degrading and defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq, is by definition failing to understand that this is a fight with a virulent idea. To be successful, we must accept the nature and character of the enemy and the kind of war we are fighting. Our fight since 9-11 against terrorism, mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan, has failed in large part because we misunderstood the enemy and had no larger strategic context for defeating radical Islam.
So what are we dealing with at this point?
The radical jihadist agenda is advanced and supported by Saudi Arabian support for Wahabbism. Saudi Arabia and its close partner, Pakistan, with its thousands of Madrassas and support for Deobandism, are a key source of instability within Islam and threats contributing to regional instability. Saudi support for Wahhabism is the major challenge. Wahhabism has an intolerant and totalitarian approach that undermines more moderate and even mystical oriented elements of the Muslim faith such as Sufism. This intolerance creates an environment conducive to intimidation, coercionand violence directed at other Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Moreover, Saudi Arabia's Wahhabism undermines women's rights, gay rights, free speech, free association, religious freedom, and liberal ideas in general rooted in respect for human rights and diversity. What goes on inside the sovereign country of Saudi Arabia is not so much our concern, but we do care when Riyadh supports Wahhabi expansionism. Nonetheless, we may not be able to so neatly separate these issues for many reasons to include the Saudi Arabia internal problem is a major reason they export the ideology through terrorism or as proselytizers of extremism.
Saudi Arabia's financial support is critical for Salafi and Wahhabi expansion through education and mosque construction, and support to violent groups such as the Taliban, ISIS, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), or the Haqqani Group. The European Parliament reports that the Saudis have spent more than $10 billion around the world to support charitable organizations such as the World Assembly of Youth, which are viewed by many as simply platforms to promote Salafism and Wahhabism – simply another manifestation of the ISIS interpretation of Islam.
Donors from Saudi Arabia have been key to the past success of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and for financing other extremist aspirations. In fact, many intelligence officials and jihadist analysts see Saudi Arabia as merely a watered down version of the Islamic State. Although ISIS seeks to topple the Kingdom, for now, many Wahhabis supporters see ISIS as more important to checking Iranian and Shia influence in both Iraq and Syria.
Meanwhile, ISIS is metastasizing throughout the Middle East, North Africa and into Central Asia. The Soufan Group report says that foreign fighters have doubled over the past 18 months indicating the continued success and appeal of the Islamic State. A more recent concern is that for Jordanian refugee camps it is estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of refugees support the Islamic State.
The unfortunate reality is that it is hard to combat a virulent idea that is grounded in the origins of the faithful and within a major religion. Ultimately, this is not about challenging Islam or fundamentally changing Islam. It is about acknowledging the ongoing debate and violence within Islam, which is about not just about defeating the Islamic State or al Qaeda. Ultimately, success depends on understanding that the conflict is rooted in a fight against an idea; an idea that is deeply rooted in an Islamic strain of thought incorporating the end of days, Islam as the final and perfect revelation, that the Quran is the word of God, and that there is a death penalty for questioning aspects of the faith or for leaving the faith.
Although the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not focus on the intolerant and violent aspects of the Quran and hadiths, nonetheless there exists a reluctance to openly address hard issues or to question aspects of the faith. There is a good reason for this reluctance, since over the years when thoughtful thinkers, working within the structure of Islam, attempted to offer criticism they have been declared apostates, jailed, or killed. And as long as this fear is there, there will be a hesitance to push back against the radicalism whether at home or overseas. Unless we confront the ideas – which begin by properly defining the threat – then this narrow core of radical Islamic ideology will continue to grow.
Events in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq show the increasing importance of sectarianism to outcomes in the region. Recent events give witness to the fact that violence; conflict and sectarianism have imploded within the Islamic umma. This has occurred both between the Sunni-Shia communities and within each of those communities independently and furthermore at varying levels within states such as Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, and between states such as between Iran, Syria, Egypt and the Gulf States. The "annihilationist" agenda of Sunni extremists – basically the willingness to tear everything down to recreate the Caliphate is just one accelerating element. The intra-Sunni and Sunni-Shia conflict intersect with challenges of Arab political decay, underdeveloped civil society, and often with ineffective/corrupt governance. Moreover, Iran is sponsoring its own brand of militant Islam that could evolve into another accelerating element.
The intra-Sunni fight is characterized by an intra-Jihadist conflict for dominance, and a broader jihadist challenge to "establishment" Sunni thought about religion, governance, society and security. Most attention is focused on the active political engagement, mobilization, and violence emanating out of "Sunni jihadism", from the Muslim Brotherhood, the ultra conservative ideology of the Salafists, to extremist violence exhibited by a range of jihadists, to brutality and savagery as represented by the Islamic State. Within the "extreme jihadist" movements there is at times even violent competition among and between groups (e.g. Islamic State vs. Jubat al Nusra and AQ) over leadership of the international jihadist brand.
These dynamics are compounded by the fact that broader Sunni-Shia tensions have become exacerbated through the break down of state authority, security, and the erosion of social contracts resulting in violent conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt extending into the broader Middle East and South Asia. Sunni-Shia conflicts have escalated into crackdowns and brutality in Lebanon and Bahrain. The Sunni – Alawi/Shia Syria's civil war at its core is a fight over the future -- sectarian identity, power, and influence. While Iran continues to seek nuclear capabilities and sponsor violence hoping to expand Shia dominance, Saudi Arabia, and others respond by supporting proxies.
Furthermore, the intra-Sunni and Sunni-Shia conflict have intersected with challenges of Arab political decline, underdeveloped civil society, economic frustration and grievances and ineffective/corrupt governance. Therefore, from local communities to the nation-state level, we are witnessing a confluence of conflict and frustration, within local communities, between communities, and the state and between states. As a result, the Islamic community has effectively imploded due to the collapse of authoritarian rule in a number of nation states. The result is that there is now a struggle for political and economic power and a fight over which interpretation of Islam will influence societies and new leaderships. Secular-oriented totalitarian regimes are not the solution going forward, so the challenge within these communities is to find a workable solution.
The Sunni-Shia conflict and the two dimensions of the intra-Sunni conflict have displaced the broader conflict between Muslims and the West as the primary challenge facing the Islamic societies of the Middle East for the foreseeable future. The sectarian conflict is the primary mobilizing factor within Arab political life today; overall this trends reflects an immense challenges for civil society, governance, development, the rule of law, and security. The many manifestations of the internal Islamic fight will shape future governance, civil society, development, security and even boundaries in the region. This is what the president needs to understand to shape an effective strategy.
The impact on development, security, governance, civil society and, in fact, the current state boundaries in the region make it especially important for the United States to better understand all aspects of Islam and its potential sectarian tendencies seriously as a mechanism for attaining political and economic authority.
Whether we want to fight radical Islam or not is irrelevant. It is unavoidable. Whether we want to deal with domestic subversion and domestic enemies or not is irrelevant. As Paris and San Bernardino have reminded us again, failing to define the enemy and ignoring our enemy doesn't mean they will ignore us. In fact, it may create space for them to become more dangerous and more lethal. And it does risk strategic failure.
U.S. interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan were far more costly in blood and treasure because decision makers did not define the enemy and did not sufficiently understand the kind of war in which we were engaged resulting in a failure to adapt and shape a spectrum of military operations and civilian programs accordingly. There are similar problems and challenges for President Obama's approach to dealing with the Islamic State, and it is resulting in similar outcomes. Michèle Flournoy, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, said recently, "It's (ISIS) something that's a long-term challenge that we need to deal with, and I don't think we are fully resourcing a multidimensional strategy."
As Senators McCain and Graham wrote this week, "What's needed is a comprehensive civil-military strategy to destroy ISIS quickly, while creating conditions that can prevent it, or a threat like it, from ever re-emerging. America must not only win the war but also prepare to win the peace. The U.S. has repeatedly failed to do this, and cannot afford to yet again."
The formula for winning must take into account the need to combat the virulent idea that is radical Sunni Islam, and that this also means addressing the source of support found in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for this backward thinking ideology. Identifying and combating the ideas of radical Islamic ideology is necessary or it will continue to grow. The sure path to undermine suspicion about our Muslim neighbors and friends is for President Obama to provide clarity about the character of the extremist jihadist threat and the kind of war we are jointly engaged in with our moderate Muslim friends and partners in the Middle East.
Colonel (Ret.) Derek Harvey is a Middle East specialist, Islamic scholar, and terrorism expert. He served as an advisor to multiple U.S. Commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Muslim Immigration in Europe: Origins, Failures and Prospects
By Hochine Drouiche
Islam in general, European Islam in particular, is called to reform its way of thinking and reasoning; otherwise, it will be swept away by time or become a source of anxiety and war, this according to Hocine Drouiche, imam at a Nîmes Mosque, who spoke at a conference in the Czech capital of Prague titled ‘Migration: a response to a forced relocation’.
Held on 11 and 12 December, the seminary was organised by the European People's Party, as part of its studies and policies dedicated to migrants. In addition to the Imam Drouiche, vice president of the Association of Imams of France, Catholic, Jewish, Orthodox religious leaders attended the event, along with Members of the European parliament.
For Imam Drouiche, the version of political Islam that is spreading in Europe (exported from migrants’ countries of origin, particularly Arab countries) is too confrontational and based on outdated historical interpretations. In his view, European culture can be a model to inspire the reform and modernisation of Islam, so that it can assimilate reason and human rights.
Social studies show that there is no standard European model of integration nor single national models for immigrants or first-generation Muslims. This is the case s because [Europe’s] "living together" is based on the principle of subsidiarity, which in European jargon means that immigration falls under the jurisdiction of [European Union member] states and local authorities, in accordance with the system of host countries.
At the same time, if we tried to lock in the experience of immigrants, their first generation offspring or Muslims to, for example, France’s republican and Jacobin model, the UK’s communitarian model, or Germany’s allegedly multicultural federalist model, we would be turning the thing into an even greater caricature.
Muslim immigration in Europe could lead to intercultural conflicts within local societies. With globalisation, such conflicts could turn into actual wars, especially between extremists on both sides.
Immigration calls for the study into the problems of history, and the differences in cultures and religions, which were the cause of several wars between peoples, especially between the Christian West and the Muslim East.
According to many Muslim thinkers, the tendency of Islam and Muslims towards domination or new conquests comes from a misunderstanding of the history of Islam, which emerged primarily to free human beings and make them sole responsible for their actions.
No one has the right to judge others or prevent them from choosing their own religion or way of life. This requires a lot of work and commitment in Islamic research and jurisprudence.
If integration means anything, it is the fruit of permanent adjustments between communities and policies. It is even more the fruit of an often-contentious dialogue between dominant groups (North Africans in France, Turks in Germany, Indians and Pakistanis in the UK), local and national government institutions, and their respective perceptions of each other.
In order to understand the failures, prospects and consequences of Muslim immigration in Europe we must return to its cultural roots and the sources of the adversarial relationship found between European Muslims and local societies.
We must look at:
• the Islamic discourse and Islamic thinking towards Europe;
• the literalist reading of religious texts and the narrowed place of reason in the cultural life of European Muslims;
• the importation of negative views about Europe (anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, Crusades, the Holocaust and Judeophobia, etc.) from Arab political Islam;
• and the inability of differentiating oneself from the political positions of Arab societies.
One can clearly see that the Islamic discourse in France is emotional, populist and confrontational. Reforming its form and content becomes necessary for societal stability, the future of living together and the future of Islam in Europe.
Centred on self-pity and emotion, this Islam encourages young people to proselytise, and encourage various kinds of jihad (physical, electronic, financial, etc.) to achieve Islam’s global domination instead of engaging in a rational discourse that encourages respect for religious and cultural diversity.
Imported from Muslims’ countries of origin, this discourse centred on force and the will to dominate may become a factor in the destabilisation of the relationship between European Muslims and Western societies, especially at a time of deep economic crisis, and rising political extremism in several European countries.
Consequently, European Islam tends towards power and domination before dialogue and integration, death before life, imitation before analysis and creativity, emotion before reason, and the past before future. Such a literalist interpretation will eventually bring Muslims and Islam in direct conflict with Christian values, as well as the history and culture of local societies.
Whilst Islam came to free men and women from all forms of slavery and persecution, offering a religion of peace, equality and living together, today’s Muslims suffer from multiple dangerous handicaps that are incompatible with their religion and universal values that today constitute the international family.
Muslims have their work cut out against:
• a feeling of superiority of the Muslim nation over other nations;
• the absolute certainty of holiness and superiority of Muslim culture;
• the absence and refusal of any critical thinking vis-à-vis religious rules or cultural life in Muslim society;
• the [desire to] return to a perfect and holy past (hence, since an ideal model existed in the past, there is no need to look for anything in the future);
• and a refusal to change.
Islam, which is a laboratory of life and hope, faces today a real crisis that has turned it into a religion of death, hatred and terrorism.
Western civilisation is unique in its inventions, achievements, creativity, and technology but also in it human rights, individual freedoms, humanism, and capacity to progress and reform.
Dominated by contemporary political Islam, modern Islamic thinking does not fully recognise such values, which are the best mechanisms for political governance that humanity has known; or it deems them as in direct contradiction with the values of Islam. Consequently, from an Islamist perspective, democracy, liberalism and secularism are considered disbelief and apostasy.
Muslims persecuted by Islam
Many Muslim thinkers, journalists, women and men have been murdered, jailed or exiled to Europe and the United States because they are secular, liberal or because they changed religion or became atheists.
Anti-colonial, anti-imperialist political Islam reformatted and reprogrammed Islamic reasoning by relying on self-pity informed by a general conspiracy theory, which promotes the disastrous idea according to which the whole academic world – its universities, research centres and think thanks – was created to plot against the Muslims!
This kind of political Islam, which experienced serious failure in the Arab world, has imported the same ‘resistance’ plan into Europe where Muslims have graduated from being immigrants or refugees to being full citizens thanks to Europe’s exceptional democratic and human values. Lest we forget, many Muslims have lived for decades in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, etc., and yet are still without voting rights or citizenship.
European Muslims ought to double check and review their plans to adapt Islam to the values of local societies so that they can be realistic. We must also keep in check the pride that many representatives of political Islam present today on the European scene.
The West with its values and its progress can be the best example for building a prosperous future. Otherwise, we shall continue to engage in wishful thinking, trying to replicate a past deemed holy and sacred.
The Muslim world has lived through centuries of scientific, technological, economic and social backwardness. This has morphed into a deep cultural and rational crisis. As a result of globalisation, local crises have spilled over its borders, and the whole world has begun to suffer the effects of Muslim crises.
Such suffering can lead to rejection, even hatred, especially if Europe’s Muslim elites fail to take on their historical and moral responsibility to reform their religious discourse and find a positive and sincere balance, without any desire for cultural or religious domination, so as to reassure local societies with respect to their culture, religion, future, etc.
A majority of Muslims no longer identifies with an Islam that pushes more back into the past than forward into the future, towards power rather than dialogue, towards hatred more than love.
For centuries, rationalists did not have a place in Muslim intellectual life. From the Mu`tazilites and the Ikhwan al-safa to Avicenna (ibn Sīnā), al- Fārābī, Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Mohammed Arkoune, Nasr Abu Zayd, and Taslima Nasrin, these and other free thinkers fought a close-minded and sometimes violent and terrorist cultural and religious system.
Fortunately, Muslim immigrants to Europe do not advocate the same ideas. Europe has become the land of refuge for many Muslims who no longer recognise themselves in their society or who no longer accept the model of Islam proposed by various Islamic groups that end up killing each other!
Fighting terrorism with Arab forces
21 December 2015
If intentions are honest and inaction gives way to action, this year could conclude with local, regional, and international agreements to stop the bloodletting in Yemen, Libya and Syria, through solutions sponsored by U.N. envoys, now a key component of conflict-ending strategies.
Successful diplomacy is about the art of the possible, but failure is always a risk if radical differences are kicked down the road, as part of a permanent strategy in the pursuit of solutions rather than a tactic. Indeed, what this would do is perpetuate one de facto reality after another, at the expense of principles and serious solutions, thereby turning any peace process into something that slowly numbs the momentum that once existed behind it.
This is exactly what happened to the so-called Middle East peace process, which did not end the occupation, which almost precluded the internationally backed two-state solution, and removes all serious objections to illegal Israeli settlement-building.
What is happening in the Syrian Vienna process is reminiscent of the enthusiasm that accompanied the Palestinian-Israeli peace process upon its birth in Madrid, but the rest is history.
The Vienna process, which resumes in New York on Friday in a meeting bringing together foreign ministers of 19 nations, is a necessary investment in the political settlement.
It is crucial for Saudi Arabia and Iran to sit around the same table. The same goes for Turkey and Russia, despite their complex differences and recent escalations.
Meanwhile, postponing discussions about the fate of Bashar al-Assad to the end of the transitional political process could be necessary. However, Syria cannot afford the prolongation of its five-year humanitarian crisis, as the major powers vie to conduct strikes against ISIS without a plan to protect civilians under the group’s control, who are now treated as collateral damage in a strategy that avoids deploying ground troops against the terror organization.
Killing and displacing thousands to eliminate ISIS seems to be collateral damage with international consent, but this is a big mistake. To be sure, the ceasefires being prepared by the U.N. in Syria excludes areas controlled by ISIS, Nusra Front and their allies, who will be bombed by an international coalition from the air without a matching strategy to secure the areas in question on the ground.
Humanitarian safe zones
The Saudi-proposed Islamic anti-terror alliance could be very important if it ends up establishing a joint ground force, which would then operate on the ground in tandem with international airstrikes. Since the refugee crisis is bound to worsen as a result of the intensifying war on ISIS, it is time for serious efforts to establish humanitarian safe zones, instead of also kicking this issue down the road.
Yet both of these tacks require, in turn, the tackling of the problem of Iran-backed militias in Syria. The U.S., Britain, France, and Germany must engage in serious dialogue with Iran on the Syrian issue, instead of postponing this while legitimizing Iranian violations to preserve the nuclear deal with Tehran.
Earlier this week, the U.N. Security Council held discussions regarding resolution 1737, which prohibits Iran from deploying military forces, advisers, armaments, or militias outside its borders. Both the U.S. and Britain confirmed the resolution, which was adopted under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, had been violated. However, they were content with verbal criticisms and pretexted Russian and Chinese protection for Iran from accountability.
Even when Iran conducted a missile test violating a ban on its ballistic missile program, Washington was keen to contain the issue to prevent the Republicans from raising it in Congress. The test, despite even violating the nuclear deal itself, was thus ignored.
The same happened when it was proven that Iran had engaged in efforts to build nuclear weapons, in contradiction of its own claims, Washington ignored the otherwise major issue.
Iranian President Hassan Rowhani was right on the mark when he said the closure of the Iranian nuclear history was a huge “political victory” for Iran.
By contrast, Iraq had paid a high price because what the U.S. and the international community demanded of it was the opposite of what it demanded – or gave on a platter of gold – to Iran. Indeed, Iraq was asked to prove it had destroyed its biological weapons. Iraq’s WMD stockpiles were then removed by U.N. teams and later in U.S. military operations. This is not to mention falsely claiming Iraq still had WMDs as a pretext for the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Star of the debate
In the latest debate between Republican presidential candidates, they all insisted on blaming U.S. President Barack Obama for exempting Iran from accountability, and rushing to conclude a nuclear deal with Tehran. However, they all collectively ignored the role of former President Bush in attracting terrorism to Iraq and disbanding the Iraqi army, which radically contributed to the emergence of ISIS.
Remarkably, ISIS was the star of the debate, which portrayed the group as a terrible enemy posing a huge threat to U.S. national security. The candidates spoke about changing regimes in the Arab region beginning with the Arab Spring, rather than Bush’s war to overthrow Saddam Hussein as they should have.
They differed over whether the train of regime change – after passing through Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen – should stop with Bashar al-Assad in Syria. As some argued, Assad is needed to defeat ISIS, while others argued that it was his departure that is crucial for defeating the ultra-radical group.
Some candidates tackled the U.S. role in fomenting Sunni-Shiite strife. Some urged a partnership with Tehran, Assad, and Moscow, as others objected, saying this would undermine the more crucial partnership with Sunnis against Islamic extremism and radicalism, Sunni and Shiite.
In truth, this discussion is unusual, because the American people in general do not want to listen to it and do not want to learn about U.S. involvement in creating radicalism. In this regard, the debate was useful because it raised issues like Shiite radicalism, sponsored by Iran, and Sunni radicalism, which the Arab countries and Turkey are required to fight in earnest through both measures in their countries and military forces.
The Saudi initiative for a 35-nation Arab-Islamic coalition could be taken to the Vienna process meeting in New York. The focus there will be on the details of forming a ground force that would practically be the boots on the ground for international airstrikes. However, there are very significant complications, and it is not clear how Russia will deal with this development, especially if Turkey is not part of it.
The Saudi initiative is valuable because it proposed Arab intervention in Syria instead of leaving the arena open to Turkey and Iran. It is useful because it comes at a time when there are many criticisms being voiced against Arab and Sunni absence from the fight against Sunni extremism.
What matters is that Arab and Islamic countries should be serious and should have a clear strategy, which is yet to appear.
The Saudi efforts to determine which Syrian opposition factions will be present at the Vienna table in New York. So will be Jordan’s efforts to define which factions are terrorist groups in Syria. These two elements were agreed during the second round of the Vienna process, and are subject to further deliberation in New York, especially that Russia has reservations on the meeting in Riyadh regarding the definition of Syrian opposition.
However, Russia needs to compromise because it is desperate for an exit strategy from its costly military adventure in Syria. Yet President Vladimir Putin will not concede easily, because he is adamant about achieving a victory. For one thing, Putin had found U.S. complacency regarding his airstrikes against the Syrian opposition rather than ISIS, meant to bolster the Assad regime.
Putin is also determined to prevent Turkey from scoring points at his expense. However, at the same time, he needs an exit strategy from the Syrian quagmire. Thus, Putin may find the Saudi and Jordanian efforts to be his ticket out, albeit with some provisos.
The Obama administration in turn stands to gain from Russian intervention, which spares it the need to be implicated in Syria. For this reason, the U.S. does not mind showing complacency regarding the fate of Assad in the transition in Syria and regarding Iranian involvement in Syria. The Obama administration essentially wants two things: Not to become entangled in Syria and preserving the nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran, believes Russia’s role is conducive to this, which is why it turns a blind eye to violations.
However, the presidential elections could force the Obama administration to show some adaptability and flexibility. If so, this would be an opportunity for the Arab countries to develop a clear strategy for what they want in Syria and for what they are willing to offer to end the Syrian tragedy.
Meanwhile, the U.N. process led by envoy Staffan de Mistura must be wary of the postponement of key principles that it must otherwise safeguard, such as the protection of civilians, and not be drawn into ostensibly higher priorities such as the war on ISIS.
The U.N. must not turn its back on principles like accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, regardless of whether they are perpetrated by governments or terrorist groups. It must object to the legitimization of violations against international resolutions, including those issued under Chapter VII of the Charter, under the pretext of the priority of crushing ISIS. The U.N. must become involved in the deferral of major issues, and claim this is the art of diplomacy.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Dec. 18, 2015 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham
Inside Iran’s Secret War in Syria
By Heshmat Alavi
Dictators are generally known for implementing repressive policies against their own people. Ayatollahs in Iran benefit a major additional characteristic. They have masqueraded themselves as representatives of the religion of Islam claiming their fundamentalist views are the teachings of Islam. This jobbery has given them tools to label their adversaries as enemies of God and Islam. It has also provided them the grounds to open their way into Islamic countries posing their regime as an alternative to inhabitants in conflict with their local administrations. It was in this path that Iran’s “missionaries” were followed by military advisers such as General Qassem Soleimani, and other commanders of Iran’s terrorist Quds force. Decades of such cultivation on lands irrigated by appeasement and unstable benefits of western governments led to the existence of Houthis in Yemen, Hizbollah in Lebanon, Nouri Maleki in Iraq and finally support for Bashar Al Assad in Syria. Bloomberg news agency reported Iran spent billions of Dollars annually on supporting the Assad regime in Syria. The eruption of the Arab Spring, however, along with uprisings inside Iran, bolstered and united the local revolutionary groups who found Iran as their real enemy. Iranian meddling forces received setbacks in different countries as well as in Syria.
In Syria With the aid of Russian airstrikes, Iranian-backed foreign fighters, and forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad were on the march. Iran became the ground army fighting to save its embattled ally Bashar al-Assad, while Russia became his air force. Yet Iran and its proxies have taken some significant high-ranking casualties since the start of their recruitment and deployment efforts to Syria. So far, they’ve lost third lieutenants all the way up to generals. The deaths are starting to bring about questions that what Iran’s “revolutionary guards”- IRGC- are doing there.
Both Russia and Iran have supported Bashar al-Assad’s regime, naming them close allies in the Syrian civil war. But they have considerably different motives for their support–motives that make their cooperation quite unstable. Assad’s fall would leave Iran isolated in the Middle East; Iraq would be its only regional ally. Iran needs him as Syria’s leader if it wants to be a regional power. Russia’s Syrian involvement is based on different geopolitical principles. Russia is trying to protect authoritarian regimes from Western military interventions. When Russia began air operations in Syria on Sept. 30, the idea was to provide forces loyal to Assad with air support to push back rebel forces that have been fighting the government for four-and-a-half years.
The military intervention in Syria is set out in an agreement between Moscow and Tehran that says Russian air strikes will support ground operations by Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese Hezbollah forces, said one of the senior regional sources.
The decision for a joint Iranian-Russian military effort in Syria was taken at a meeting between Russia’s foreign minister and Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei a few months ago. Soleimani, assigned by Khamenei to run the Iranian side of the operation, travelled to Moscow to discuss details. He also travelled to Syria several times since then, Khamenei also sent a senior envoy to Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin, a senior regional official said. Putin told him ’Okay we will intervene. Send Qassem Soleimani’. Major General Qassem Soleimani’s visit to Moscow was the first step in planning for a Russian military intervention that has reshaped the Syrian war and forged a new Iranian-Russian alliance in support of Assad.
The alliance, however, does not seem to be solid. Deep distrust, economic competition and conflicting ideological agendas are three tensions that make the Russia-Iran alliance quite unstable. These tensions could create a division amongst the pro-Assad forces in Syria. Ruslan Pukhov, a member of Russia’s Defense Ministry's public advisory board said. “Things on the ground are not going well — Assad's Army is tired, the Iranians are not very skilled and the rebels they are fighting are quite experienced”.
Heavy losses also created disappointment on the Iranian side. “The northern friend who came to Syria to provide military support recently did so to serve its interests,” said Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, IRGC Chief Commander. He added that Moscow “may not care if Assad stays as we do”.
The London-based daily Asharq Al-Awsat reported Iran has started to withdraw its elite Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces from Syria.
Among the reasons for the retreat is the heavy losses suffered by Iran during the two months since Russia has begun conducting military operations there. A Free Syrian Army officer who’s been snooping on the local communications stated that tensions between the Russians and Iranians have been mounting, due to daily casualties incurred by Iran, as a result of the Russia’s pushing for increased ground operations.
A Russian news agency reported on December 15th that the loss of a significant number of Iran’s IRGC commanders in Syria made this regime to lessen its military forces in this country. The report said Iran has reduced its forces from 7000 to 700.
On Dec, 11th, Bloomberg quoted American military officials that they have witnessed considerable number of IRGC forces in recent weeks retreating from the combat zones in Syria.
Reports have also been circulating that the commander of the IRGC-Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, was seriously wounded during a battle in Aleppo. On November 28 statement by theNCRI Security and Anti-terrorism Committee had reported that Qassem Soleimani, the criminal Commander of the terrorist Quds Force getting wounded in Syria. He was then transferred to a hospital in Iran. Iranian officials’ refusal to talk about his whereabouts bolsters the facts that confirm the regime’s defeats in Syria.
Heshmat Alavi is a political activist and supporter for regime change in Iran. He writes on Iran and the Middle East. He tweets at @HeshmatAla
Neocons Object to Syrian Democracy
By Robert Parry
The Washington Post’s editorial board is livid that President Barack Obama appears to have accepted the Russian position that the Syrian people should decide for themselves who their future leaders should be – when the Post seems to prefer that the choice be made by neoconservative think tanks in Washington or other outsiders.
So, in a furious editorial on Friday, the Post castigated Secretary of State John Kerry for saying – after a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow – that the Obama administration and Russia see the political solution to Syria “in fundamentally the same way,” meaning that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could stand for election in the future.
The Post wrote: “Unfortunately, that increasingly appears to be the case — and not because Mr. Putin has altered his position. For four years, President Obama demanded the departure of Mr. Assad, who has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people with chemical weapons, ‘barrel bombs,’ torture and other hideous acts. Yet in its zeal to come to terms with Mr. Putin, the Obama administration has been slowly retreating from that position.”
The Russian position, which Obama finally seems to be accepting, is that the Syrian people should be allowed to choose their own leaders through fair, internationally organized elections, rather than have outside powers dictate who can and who can’t compete in a democratic process. Obama’s previous stance was that Assad must be prevented from running in an election.
But that meant the Syrian bloodshed and resulting chaos – now spreading across Europe and into the US political process – would continue indefinitely as the United States took the curious position of opposing democracy in favor of an insistence that “Assad must go,” a demand favored by US neocons and liberal interventionists, Israel and regional Sunni “allies,” such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.
To the chagrin of the Post’s editors, Obama finally ceded to the more democratically defensible position that the Syrian people should pick their own leaders. After all, if Obama is right about how much the Syrian people hate Assad, elections would empower them to implement their own “regime change” through the ballot box. But that uncertain outcome is not what the Post’s editors want. They want a predetermined result — Assad’s ouster — regardless of the Syrian people’s wishes.
And regarding the editorial, you also should note the reference to Assad killing “his own people with chemical weapons,” an apparent allusion to the now-discredited – but still widely accepted (inside Official Washington at least) – claim that Assad was behind a lethal sarin gas attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013.
To this day, the US government (or, for that matter, the Washington Post) has not presented any verifiable evidence to support the Assad-did-it allegation, but it nevertheless has become an Everyone-Knows-It-To-Be-True “group think” based on endless repetition, much as Official Washington concluded that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had WMD stockpiles, based on the fact that it was stated as flat fact by lots of Important People, including the Post’s editorial writers.
Official Washington’s epistemology seems to be that if enough Important People say something is true, then it becomes true – regardless of where the actual evidence leads. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Collapsing Syria-Sarin Case.”]
Other parts of the Post’s attacks are equally dubious in that the Post’s editors — who were all-in for the “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq and wouldn’t think of sharing blame for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed as a result of President George W. Bush’s Washington Post-endorsed invasion — are now outraged over Syria’s homemade “barrel bombs” and blame Assad for all the deaths, even though many of the dead were Syrian soldiers killed by Islamic jihadists, armed and financed by US “allies,” Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others.
And, by the way, some torture blamed on Syria was carried out in coordination with the Bush administration’s “extraordinary rendition” program as part of the “global war on terror.” For instance, Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who was seized by the US government at New York’s Kennedy International Airport in September 2002 while on his way home to Canada, was shipped to Syria as a suspected Al Qaeda member. Arar was tortured in Syria before being cleared of suspicions by both Syria and Canada, according to a later Canadian investigation.
But, hey, you don’t expect The Washington Post’s neocon editors to give you any honest context, do you?
The more immediate issue is the Post’s fury over the prospect that the Syrian people would be allowed to vote on Assad’s future rather than have it dictated by neocon think tanks, Islamic jihadist rebels and their Turkish-Saudi-Qatari-Israeli-CIA backers.
The Post’s editors wrote, “On Tuesday in Moscow, Mr. Kerry took another big step backward: ‘The United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change,’ he said. He added that a demand by a broad opposition front that Mr. Assad step down immediately was a ‘non-starting position’ — because the United States already agreed that Mr. Assad could stay at least for the first few months of a ‘transition process.’”
Kerry “now agrees with Mr. Putin that the country’s future leadership must be left to Syrians to work out,” the Post’s outraged editors wrote. Yes, you read that correctly.
Though the Post predicted on Friday morning that the notion of the Syrian people being allowed to decide their future leaders was “a likely recipe for an impasse,” later on Friday the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously in favor of a roadmap for a cease-fire in Syria, negotiations on a transitional government and elections within 18 months after the start of talks.
The agreement makes no reference as to whether Assad can or cannot run in the new UN-organized elections, meaning apparently that he will be able to participate – surely to the additional dismay of the Post’s editors.
Obviously, the UN plan faces many obstacles, especially the continued insistence on “regime change” from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other Sunni-led regional governments, which disdain Assad who is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shia Islam. Further condemning Assad in their eyes, he seeks to maintain a secular government that protects Christians, Alawites, Shiites and other minorities.
The Saudis, Turks and Qataris have been among the leaders in supporting violent Sunni jihadists, including Ahrar al-Sham and Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, which operate under the Saudi umbrella called the Army of Conquest, which has received hundreds of sophisticated US-made TOW missiles that have proved devastating in killing Syrian government troops. Israel also has provided some support to these jihadists operating along the Golan Heights.
While Turkey, a member of NATO, denies assisting terrorists, its intelligence services have been implicated in helping Nusra Front operatives carry out the Aug. 21, 2013 sarin gas attack outside Damascus, with the goal of pinning the blame on Assad and tricking Obama into ordering a devastating series of air strikes against Syrian government forces. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Was Turkey Behind Syria Sarin Attack?”]
Turkey also has allowed the hyper-brutal Islamic State to transit through nearly 100 kilometers of openings on the Syrian-Turkish border, including passage of vast truck convoys of Islamic State oil into Turkey for resale, a reality that Obama recently raised with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long promised but failed to seal the border. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “A Blind Eye Toward Turkey’s Crimes.”]
At home, President Obama also faces political difficulties from Israel and from Official Washington’s alliance of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists who have made Assad’s ouster a cause célèbre despite the disastrous experiences overthrowing other secular regimes in Iraq and Libya.
In the past, Obama has been highly sensitive to criticism from this group, including nasty comments on the Post’s editorial page. But the Post’s ire on Friday suggests that – at least for the moment – Obama is putting pragmatism (i.e., the need to stop the Syrian killing and the global insecurity that it is causing) ahead of neocon/liberal-hawk ideological desires.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book,America’s Stolen Narrative,either inprint hereor as an e-book (fromAmazonandbarnesandnoble.com).
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