Sectarianization: Steven Heydemann & Joshua Landis on the Trajectory of the Syrian Nightmare

October 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to interview two of the leading Syria experts in the world, Steven Heydemann and Joshua Landis, about the “big picture” of the Syrian conflict and the wider crisis engulfing the Middle East today, as part of the CMES Conversations series produced by the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. Landis, while best known as a blogger and commentator on Syria, is an historian. Heydemann is a political scientist who has written an influential study of Syrian politics covering the years 1946-1970.

The two interviews offer contrasting perspectives, but both take us several steps back from the news cycle and place the events unfolding in the region today in a wider historical, comparative and global lens. This was the focus of the forum that brought them to Denver, “Sectarianization: ISIS, the Syrian Conflict & the Future of the Middle East”. Sectarianization will be a central focus of our  in the coming months, and is the theme of the book my colleague Nader Hashemi and I are currently co-editing (our last book being The Syria Dilemma).

Steven Heydemann is Vice President of Applied Research on Conflict at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). He’s the author of Authoritarianism in Syria: Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946-1970, the editor of War, Institutions and Social Change in the Middle East and co-editor of Middle East Authoritarianisms: Governance, Contestation, and Regime Resilience in Syria and Iran.

Our interview revolves largely around Heydemann’s far-reaching report “Syria’s Uprising: sectarianism, regionalisation, and state order in the Levant”, published by the European think tank FRIDE. Have a look:

Joshua Landis is Associate Professor in the College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where he is also Director of the Center for Middle East Studies. Widely regarded as one of the leading Syria experts in the world, he is the former President of the Syrian Studies Association. He writes and edits the widely-read blog Syria Comment.

Our interview revolves principally around two of his recent articles: “The Great Sorting Out: Ethnicity & the Future of the Levant” and “Why Syria is the Gordian knot of Obama’s anti-ISIL campaign”. Have a look:

The West’s Syria policy has been shaped by media missionaries

October 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

A version of this appeared in The National:

nationalThree beheadings have compelled the US into an action that nearly 200,000 gruesome deaths had failed to precipitate.

Last Monday, the US launched a bombing campaign in Syria putatively aimed at the extremist jihadi group ISIL. Also targeted were some “Al Qaeda-linked” organisations. The strikes killed many members of Jabhat Al Nusra (JAN) and Ahrar Al Sham (AS). Both groups are hardline, but their focus is regional. Neither threatens the US; both fight ISIL. But for the US, according to one administration official, it is all “a toxic soup of terrorists”.

Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad concurs. State media quoted him as supporting any international effort to combat “terrorism” in Syria. For weeks, his regime had been volunteering itself as an ally to the US in its “war on terror”, a status that it had enjoyed under George W Bush. Damascus was once a favoured destination for CIA rendition flights.

It is possible it got its wish. The Syrian opposition, which western polemicists habitually describe as “US-backed”, received no warning of the attacks. Assad and Iran did. Syria’s UN representative Bashar Ja’afari was personally briefed by Samantha Power. The Free Syria Army (FSA) learnt of the attacks from the news.

If JAN and AS have ended up in the same “toxic soup” with their rival ISIS, then it has much to do with poor intelligence and an impoverished media discourse.

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Shock and Awe versus Dentists, Farmers and Students

September 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

binladensWhatever the hearts-and-minds rhetoric at the United Nations, in Syria the Obama administration is feeding the flames of Sunni extremism, and proving once again the truism that the American state is an enemy of the Syrian people (as it’s an enemy, like all states, of all peoples, including the American).

We expected strikes on ISIS. Some of the strongest strikes (and the strikes are far stronger than in Iraq), however, have been aimed at Jabhat al-Nusra (the Victory Front), the organisation from which ISIS split. Nusra is certainly an extremist Salafist group, and is openly linked to al-Qa’ida. Because its ideology terrifies not only minorities but also huge swathes of the Sunni population, it’s also a strategic obstruction in the way of the Syrian revolution. In August 2013 it participated (with ISIS) in the only documented large-scale massacre of Alawi civilians in the conflict. On the other hand, Nusra (unlike ISIS) was until yesterday actually fighting the regime, not other rebel groups. From January, along with every rebel formation, it’s been fighting ISIS too. And its leadership is entirely Syrian. Many Syrians, not necessarily extremist Salafists themselves, admire Nusra’s victories against their most immediate enemy – the Assadist forces dropping barrel bombs and raping and torturing at checkpoints. A sensible answer to Nusra would be to provide weapons and funds to Free Army forces who would then be in a position to gradually draw men from the organisation, slowly making it irrelevant (most men don’t care about the ideology of their militia’s leadership; they care about food and ammunition). But the Americans are allergic to working with the people on the ground most immediately concerned by the outcome, and bomb from the air instead. Nusra is now abandoning front line positions (in some areas the regime may be able to take immediate advantage). One Nusra leader has already spoken of an alliance with ISIS against the Americans.

Syria’s new daily routine: the Americans and Gulf Arabs bomb the Salafist extremists while Assad bombs the Free Army and Islamic Front (and of course civilians – as usual it isn’t being reported, especially not now the televisual US war is on, but about a hundred are being killed every day). The headline in regime newspaper al-Watan reads “America and its Allies in One Trench with the Syrian Army against Terrorism”. The opposition reads it this way too. Several demonstrations yesterday condemned the American strikes, called for America’s fall, and for solidarity with ISIS and Nusra. A sign at one protest read: “Yes, It’s an International Coalition Against Sunnis.”

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Three Monsters

September 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

threemonstersPart of me, of course, is happy to see bombs fall on the heads of the international jihad-fascists tormenting the Syrian people (I refer to ISIS, not the Shia jihad-fascists fighting for Assad, who I’d love to see bombed too). Mostly, I’m just disgusted. In the name of disengagement the West not only refused to arm and supply the democratic Syrian opposition – even as Assad launched a genocide against the people – the United States actually prevented other states from providing the heavy weapons and anti-aircraft weaponry the Free Army so desperately needed. It was obvious what would happen next. The Free Army – and the Syrian people – were increasingly squeezed between Assad and the ISIS monster. And now the Americans are bombing both Iraq and Syria. This is where ‘disengagement’  and ‘realism’ has brought us.

ISIS, like Assad, can be hurt from the air but defeated only on the ground. Obama and the Congress have just agreed to spend $500 million on training 5000 vetted members of the Free Syrian Army – the same people that Obama mocked as irrelevant “pharmacists, farmers and students” a few months ago. The training won’t be finished for eight months, and anyway will be of little use. The Free Army now houses some of the best, most battle-hardened fighters in the world. They don’t need training; they need weapons. In the present balance of forces, in any case, the wounds inflicted by America’s photogenic bombing run may not translate into any improvement on the ground. Only Syrians can improve things on the ground.

The West was not moved to act by 200,000 (at least) slaughtered, or nine million homeless, or by barrel bombs, rape campaigns, starvation sieges or sarin gas. It was only moved when an American was beheaded. The inconsistency is noted well by Syrians. In some quarters, an assault on ISIS which is not accompanied by strikes on Assad and aid to the Free Army will be perceived as a Western-Shia-Assadist alliance against persecuted Sunnis. This could increase the appeal of ISIS and successor Sunni extremist groups.

ISIS has many parents, but the first of these, in Syria at least, is Assad. He released extremists from prison while he was assassinating unarmed democrats. He sectarianised the conflict by setting up sectarian death squads and by bringing in Iran-backed Shia militias from Iraq and Lebanon. His scorched earth policy made normal life impossible in the liberated areas, creating the vacuum in which organisations like ISIS thrived. And until this June, he had an effective non-aggression pact with ISIS, not fighting it, buying oil from it. From January, on the other hand, all opposition militias – the Free Army groups and the Islamic Front groups – have been fighting ISIS (and losing thousands of men in the struggle). These fighters are not about to become an on-the-ground anti-ISIS militia, as the Americans seem to want. They know the truth – that both states, the Assadist and the psychotic-Islamist, are absolute enemies. There’s no destroying one without the other. And both must be destroyed by Syrian hands, not by foreign planes.

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The Islamic State

August 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

VICE News reporter Medyan Dairieh spent three weeks embedded with the Islamic State, gaining unprecedented access to the group in Iraq and Syria as the first and only journalist to document its inner workings. Once you watch the film you’ll understand why my friend Faisal al Yafai calls them “a cancer of the Middle East politics and society“.

The Islamic State, a hardline Sunni jihadist group that formerly had ties to al Qaeda, has conquered large swathes of Iraq and Syria. Previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the group has announced its intention to reestablish the caliphate and has declared its leader, the shadowy Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the caliph.

The lightning advances the Islamic State made across Syria and Iraq in June shocked the world. But it’s not just the group’s military victories that have garnered attention — it’s also the pace with which its members have begun to carve out a viable state.

Flush with cash and US weapons seized during its advances in Iraq, the Islamic State’s expansion shows no sign of slowing down. In the first week of August alone, Islamic State fighters have taken over new areas in northern Iraq, encroaching on Kurdish territory and sending Christians and other minorities fleeing as reports of massacres emerged.

Fathers of ISIS

August 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

There’s no need to stoop to conspiracy theories to understand the ISIS phenomenon. In this brilliant summary, first published here, Ziad Majed explains the organisation’s origins.

The organization abbreviated as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is not new in the region, nor is it a newfound expression of the crises afflicting Arab societies at a moment of profound transformations, initiated by 2011 revolutions.

To the contrary, ISIS is the offspring of more than one father, and the product of more than one longstanding and widespread sickness. The organization’s explosive growth today is in fact the result of previously existing, worsening conflicts that were caused by the different fathers.

ISIS is first the child of despotism in the most heinous form that has plagued the region.

 

Therefore, it is no coincidence that we see its base, its source of strength concentrated in Iraq and Syria, where Saddam Hussein and Hafez and Bashar Al-Assad reigned for decades, killing hundreds of thousands of people, destroying political life, and deepening sectarianism by transforming it into a mechanism of exclusion and polarization, to the point that injustices and crimes against humanity became commonplace.

ISIS is second the progeny of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, both the way in which it was initially conducted and the catastrophic mismanagement that followed. Specifically, it was the exclusion of a wide swath of Iraqis from post invasion political processes and the formation of a new authority that discriminated against them and held them collectively at fault for the guilt of Saddam and his party, which together enabled groups (such as those first established by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) whose activities have been resumed by ISIS to get in touch with some parts of Iraqi society and to establish itself among them.

ISIS is third the son of Iranian aggressive regional policies that have worsened in recent years — taking Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria as its backyard, feeding (directly or indirectly) confessional divisions and making these divides the backbone of ideological mobilization and a policy of revenge and retaliation that has constructed a destructive feedback loop.

ISIS is fourth the child of some of the Salafist networks in the Gulf (in Saudi Arabia and other states), which emerged and developed throughout the 1980s, following the oil boom and the “Afghan jihad”. These networks have continued to operate and expand throughout the last two decades under various names, all in the interest of extremism and obscurantism.

ISIS is fifth the offspring of a profound crisis, deeply rooted in the thinking of some Islamist groups seeking to escape from their terrible failure to confront the challenges of the present toward a delusional model ostensibly taken from the seventh century, believing that they have found within its imaginary folds the answer to all contemporary or future questions.

ISIS is sixth the progeny of violence, or of an environment that has been subjected to striking brutality, which has allowed the growth of this disease and facilitated the emergence of what could be called “ISISism”. Like Iraq previously, Syria today has been abandoned beneath explosive barrels to become a laboratory, a testing ground for violence, daily massacres and their outcomes.

ISIS, an abominable, savage creature, is thus the product of at least these six fathers. Its persistency depends on the continuation of these aforementioned elements, particularly the element of violence embodied by the Assad regime in Syria. Those who think that they should be impartial toward or even support tyrants like Assad in the fight against ISISism fail to realize that his regime is in fact at the root of the problem.

Until this fact is recognized — that despotism is the disease and not the cure — we can only expect more deadly repercussions, from the Middle East to the distant corners of the globe…

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Updates

August 21, 2014 § 2 Comments

Liberated Kafranbel, abandoned to Assad's bombs, pays tribute to James Foley

Liberated Kafranbel, abandoned to Assad’s bombs, pays tribute to James Foley

Everything’s burning from Libya to Iran. I’m working on fiction, so not responding except in Facebook bursts. Here are a few status updates, starting with today’s:

A year ago Assad’s fascist regime sprayed sarin gas over the Damascus suburbs, killing over 1400 men, women and children in five hours. Hundreds more died from the effects in the following weeks. Obama had given Assad effective permission to use tanks, artillery, missiles and war planes against the Syrian people (and had ensured that the people remained unarmed), but made large-scale chemical attacks a ‘red line’. We soon saw that the red line meant nothing. An alliance of the British Labour Party, Tory back benchers, UKIP, the BNP, the US Congress and the Tea Party helped Obama step away, and to hand the Syria file to Putin’s Russia – the same power arming the criminal. So the genocide continued, and continues, to the mood-music accompaniment (in the liberal-left press) of absurd conspiracy theories, racist slanders, and willed deafness to the voices of those suffering.

(On absurd conspiracy theories, read this. And here is one of the best accounts of the Syrian revolution and counter-revolutions I’ve read.) It would be great if the US were really ‘withdrawing’ from the region, as some claim Obama is doing, leaving the people there to solve their problems independently. But Washington is not withdrawing – it continues to back the murderous coup junta in Egypt, and the Israelis as they pummel the refugees in the Gaza ghetto yet again for no more than psycho-symbolic reasons. Washington actively prevented states which wanted to aid the Syrian resistance from providing serious weapons. The result is the Islamic State (or ISIS) phenomenon – also provoked by Malki’s Iran-backed sectarianism in Iraq, and the US occupation and sanctions beforehand, and Saddam Hussain before that – and now American bombing runs in northern Iraq. Obama’s ‘withdrawal’ is as illusory as the Stop the War Coalition’s Putinesque ‘pacifism’.

This was from yesterday:

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