Nader Hashemi and I have an essay titled “Playing with Fire: Trump, the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry, and the Geopolitics of Sectarianization in the Middle East” in the Mediterranean Yearbook 2018, published by the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed). We examine the deterioration of sectarian relations in the Middle East in recent years, with a focus on the escalation of the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry. We show how the Trump administration in particular has exacerbated these already volatile dynamics and suggest a shift in the policies of Western governments toward the region aimed at defusing the sectarianization process. Download the PDF.
Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with the Lebanese scholar Gilbert Achcar for a conversation about the complex situation in the Middle East and various myths about the region that permeate the global leftosphere. The conversation was recorded for the podcast of Chicago DSA, the Chicago chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.
Achcar has been called “one of the best analysts of the contemporary Arab world” (Le Monde) and “the preeminent Marxist scholar of the region” (CounterPunch). He is Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at SOAS, University of London. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder (2002), Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007), The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives (2010), The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (2013), Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism (2013), and Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (2016).
This article was first published at the New Arab.
In 2011, people in the eastern Ghouta (and throughout Syria) protested for freedom, dignity and social justice. The Assad regime replied with gunfire, mass arrests, torture and rape. The people formed self-defence militias in response. Then the regime escalated harder, deploying artillery and warplanes against densely-packed neighbourhoods. In August 2013 it choked over a thousand people to death with sarin gas. Since then the area has been besieged so tightly that infants and the elderly die of malnutrition.
Seven years into this process – first counter-revolutionary and now exterminatory – the Ghouta has tumbled to the lowest pit of hell. This didn’t have to happen. Nor was it an accident. Local, regional and global powers created the tragedy, by their acts and their failures to act. And Arab and international public opinion has contributed, by its apathy and relative silence.
Blame must be apportioned first to the regime, and next to its imperialist sponsors. Russia shares the skies with Assad’s bombers, and is an equal partner in war crime after war crime, targeting schools, hospitals, first responders and residential blocks.
Then Iran, which kept Assad afloat by providing both a financial lifeline and a killing machine. Iran’s transnational militias provided 80% of Assad’s troops around Aleppo, and some surround the Ghouta today. Their participation in the strategic cleansing of rebellious (and overwhelmingly Sunni) populations helped boost a Sunni jihadist backlash and will continue to provoke sectarian conflict in the future.
But the blame stretches further. American condemnations of the current slaughter, for instance, ring very hollow in Syrian ears. The Obama administration, focused on achieving a nuclear deal with Iran, ignored Iran’s build-up in Syria. It also ensured the Free Syrian Army was starved of the weapons needed to defend liberated zones. And by signalling his disengagement after the 2013 sarin atrocity, Obama indirectly but clearly invited greater Russian intervention. Since the rise of ISIS, the United States has focused myopically on its ‘war on terror’, bombing terrorists – demolishing cities and killing civilians in the process – but never deploying its vast military might in a concerted manner to protect civilians. Objectively, despite the rhetoric, the US has collaborated with Russia and Iran.
French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, called for a humanitarian truce to allow civilians to evacuate. This sounds humane, and if the fall of Aleppo is any guide, it’s probably the best scenario Ghouta residents can expect. But the proposal’s lack of ambition illustrates the current dysfunction of the global system. Instead of acting to stop the slaughter and siege, European statesmen support mass population expulsion, requesting only that it be done as gently as possible.
First, ISIS claims responsibility for a suicide attack which killed Saudi soldiers in Aden, Yemen.
Second, according to this article, printed in full below, Israel has agreed to provide intelligence on the Syrian opposition to Russia, to help it with its bombing runs. In return Russia promises to stop weapons flowing through Syria to Hizbullah, and to tolerate any Israeli bombing of Syria. The last paragraph says that Tzipi Livni, Israel’s former Foreign Minister, “has called for direct cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah in order to protect Israeli interests.”
UPDATE: My friend Elizabeth Tsurkov says this: “Israel is simply ensuring that it can bomb Hizbollah/Iranian targets without being shot down by Russian jets of S-300 systems. There’s no indication anywhere that Israel is sharing intel with the Russian regime on this issue. … Middle East Monitor is a site that it known to fabricate stories.” She may well be right about the source, and about the intelligence sharing. But Russian-Israeli military cooperation is increasing, not only in Syria.
Mainstream and leftist opinion – often guided by a cabal of ageing orientalist white men (Cockburn, Fisk, Bromwich, Glass, etc) – will continue to hold that Saudi Arabia controls ISIS and Russia is lined up with Assad and Iran in a confrontation against the Zionist West, which is intent on Assad’s downfall. These useful idiots are smoothing the way for the fascist-imperialist axis.
Meanwhile Russian fire falls on Syria’s liberated cities, striking the Free Army in Homs and Jaysh al-Fateh in Idlib, Hama and Lattakia, striking also buildings used by self-organising civilian revolutionary committees and Byzantine ruins outside Kafranbel. Dozens of civilians have been murdered. One in twenty of Russia’s strikes have targetted ISIS.
It seems regime/ Iranian ground offensives will follow, particularly in northern Homs and the areas of Hama and Lattakia near the regime’s coastal stronghold. The aim is to shore up Assad’s collapsing regime in the fifth of Syria he retains. The larger hope is to destroy the opposition, leaving only Assad and ISIS standing. Then the West may more openly back Assad to take the rest of the country back.
The imperialist assault will undoubtedly extend the war in time and expand it in space. The coming months may see grievous setbacks for opposition forces. In the end, however, Russian bombs will not be able to alter the demographic reality any more than Assad’s bombs or the Iranian militias could before. Assad is running out of fighting men; foreign troops, however many arrive, can extend but not win his war. And not only the opposition militias but the majority of the Syrian people too will refuse to cooperate with any plan envisaging regime survival. For them Assad, not ISIS, is the supreme evil, and with good reason: Assad’s forces are responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilians killed and driven out.
Beyond that, Russia’s economy shrank by 5% last year. Russia isn’t strong so much as it is constantly appeased. But Syria’s fighters are in no mood for appeasement. When the Russians first walked into Afghanistan, when the Americans first walked into Vietnam, they thought their operations would be easy and brief…
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:
Al Jazeera’s excellent Fault Lines on the US role in the Gulf, particularly its deliberate support for the repressive Bahraini monarchy.
Fault Lines’ Seb Walker travels to the Gulf to look at US policy in the region, and to explore why the United States has taken an interventionist policy in Libya, but not in Bahrain, where there has been a brutal crackdown on protesters. Why does the White House strongly back democracy in one Arab country, but not another?
Freelance journalist Glen Johnson recently traveled on a human smuggling boat from Djibouti to Yemen, where he was arrested and imprisoned for two weeks. The following is an excerpt from his report on the voyage for Al Jazeera:
I waited for an hour while people filed onto the boats, departures of each boat were staggered by around 15 minutes. Gradually the Affar left and one of the smugglers approached and signalled to me. While dozens of crabs scuttled across the sand, I waded out waist deep and clambered into the boat’s bow. Nearly 50 people were crammed into the boat, which was essentially a fishing dhow. The passengers were squeezed one next to the other as the boat set-off.
A young man from Ethiopia – his forehead covered in a line of 10 faded, blue tattoos depicting the cross – said there was no work in Ethiopia; in Saudi Arabia he would have everything, like his friend in Riyadh, the capital.
“Ethiopia is a very big country. I have no job and no monies. I calling to my friend and he says about his big house and big car. I say I must go, go, go.”
He had little money, but was carrying a block of hasheesh, to sell in Saudi Arabia. Other passengers carried bottles of vodka, to sell to Yemeni bootleggers in order to fund the rest of their trip to Saudi. Those who could not afford to pay for a vehicle would attempt the journey on foot.