Islam Edit Bureau
Transforming To a Juggernaut in Syria
in Disunity in the Middle East
Money and UK Elections
If I Were
By New Age Islam Edit Bureau
wisdom that Syria will turn out to be “Hezbollah’s mini-Vietnam”, and that the
Iranian backed Lebanese armed group could encounter its gradual collapse in the
conflict, is proving to be misguided three years into its involvement. While
Hezbollah is losing manpower and assets in Syria, it is also expanding its
foothold and leverage across the country and gaining military expertise.
One of the
most intriguing stories from Palmyra after ISIS lost the city late March was a
New York Times photo essay from the 2000-year-old ruins. The story's
significance was not just in the headline or the photos documenting the archaeological
and cultural damage incurred by ISIS, but also in how it came about.
It was eye
catching that Hezbollah – a designated terrorist organization by the United
States- escorted and guided the New York Times tour to the ancient ruins. This
image encapsulates where Hezbollah stands today in Syria, overshadowing the
regime and the opposition, and running its own show in Syrian territory.
and Strategic Advantages
Back in May
2013 when Hezbollah officially declared its entry to the Syrian war, a US
official told me that "there is a silver lining over here", mainly in
having two terrorist organizations bleed and fight each other in Syria. The
official was referring to Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah.
later, however, this silver lining is heavily tainted by the fact that
Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and the more notorious terrorist organization ISIS control
large swaths of land and operate at large in Syria.
that a safe haven will help bleed out terrorist organizations is a dangerous
and naive myth that has backfired on the West in the long term. Some of the
Brussels and Paris attackers spent time with ISIS in Syria, while Hezbollah is
now a juggernaut with offensive capabilities and territorial gains across the
that a safe haven will help bleed out terrorist organizations is a dangerous
and naive myth that has backfired on the West in the long term
Israeli scholar told a Washington audience recently that the strategic picture
is shifting regionally in Iran’s favor, and that Hezbollah has gained the upper
hand in Syria without losing its stronghold on Lebanon.
hand started in 2013 when Hezbollah tipped the balance in the conflict, helping
the Assad regime retake the town of Al-Qusair and moving from there to Homs and
to the South, while securing Damascus, training paramilitaries and then
expanding presence to Aleppo in 2015.
an estimate of more than 1200 fighters dead and reports about a serious
financial crisis, Hezbollah's territorial gains in Syria have granted it direct
access and supervision over some of the weaponry supply routes to its home base
and as Nadav Pollak and Muni Katz illustrate here, Hezbollah is adding
offensive capability and gaining firsthand fighting experience on foreign
territory and against a military insurgency. It is almost a reversed role for a
party that fought Israel defensively from its home turf in the 1990s and in a
full blown war in 2006.
weaponry front, regional analyst Elijah Magnier recently reported that
Hezbollah has acquired surface-to-air missile capability. Hezbollah's Secretary
General Hassan Nasrallah regularly speaks of acquiring more sophisticated
weaponry since 2006.
own rhetoric and regional perception has also changed following its
intervention in Syria. While the wrath in the Arab street against the party for
supporting Assad, has completely shattered the party's image in 2006 as leading
the fight against Israel, it has not affected its calculus.
who is now active in 3 military fronts outside Lebanon: Syria, Iraq, and Yemen,
is promising a long involvement regionally. Nasrallah said in a recent
interview that his party “will not withdraw from Syria even if the Iranians
decide to do so.” The rhetoric channels this regional expansion, attempts at
shoring up its base to win these conflicts while securing its military
capability and playing politics in Lebanon.
media now portrays Hezbollah as “an army in every sense”, with an estimate of
“45,000 fighters, including 21,000 standing forces, and more than 100,000
increasingly accurate rockets and missiles of which several thousands are mid
and long range.”
as well, Hezbollah has improved its relations with Russia. A high level source
in Beirut tells me that "Moscow and Hezbollah are coordinating very
closely the military action plan in Syria." Russia's air cover was crucial
in the Palmyra battle and in the fighting around Aleppo, both of which involved
Hezbollah’s ground troops.
culturally, the Hezbollah effect is more visible in Syria. The Shiite Ashoura
rallies have gradually grown in numbers in Damascus, and talk about Sunni-Shia
population swaps between Hezbollah and the rebels now takes place openly in
For a party
that entered the Syrian war to protect the "axis of resistance", it
is slowly taking over this axis and replacing the Assad regime with its own
troops and spheres of control inside Syria. This dynamic is an asset for Hezbollah,
whose sole objective is to gain presence and influence, operating with impunity
as a non-state actor, without being burdened by the Vietnam playbook.
12 Apr 2016
In the 15th
century, the Ottoman Empire, drawing inspiration from Persian and Islamic
precedents, created what was known as the "millet" (nation or
community) system which granted each recognised religion or sect a great deal
of autonomy in managing its own affairs, from setting laws to collecting and
heyday, the millet system - which was progressive by the standards of the time
- enabled the Ottomans to prosper as a patchwork of languages and cultures.
under strain from imperial decline and growing nationalism, the millet system
was creaking and seriously showing its age by the 19th century, prompting a
series of reforms, known as "tanzimat", aimed at creating a uniform
and equal Ottoman citizenship.
region today - even in Israel - personal status and family laws are partially
based on or inspired by the millet system. This means that, in the Middle East,
we are destined - or doomed, depending on your perspective - to be born into a
pre-determined religion or sect, regardless of what an individual actually
With the exception
of Tunisia, where identity papers do not mention religion, this accident of
birth shapes the most intimate aspects of our lives, including marriage,
divorce, inheritance and death.
happily belong to your designated community and are satisfied to live by its
religious laws, then your life will be a contented one.
you reject some of the traditional tenets of your faith, such as Christians who
believe in divorce or Muslims who believe in equal inheritance rights for men
and women, then life may prove difficult.
are discriminated against by pretty much every religion and sect, are
particularly vulnerable when disputes arise, such as Christian women battling
husbands who have converted to Islam for custody of their children.
addition, if you belong to an unrecognised religious minority, such as Hindus
or Buddhists, then you may have trouble practising your faith.
Now if you
don't believe in God, you are still stuck with the religious label attached to
you at birth, and face the risk of prosecution or even persecution in some
in Egypt, there is no law against atheism and atheists are coming out of the
closet, despite piecemeal attempts at repression. Syria once allowed complete
freedom of belief, including atheism, though it severely restricted political
effect of the millet system was that three neighbours and friends - for
example, a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew - living in, say, Cairo might share
the same language, culture and social reference points, yet officially belong
to different "nations".
Christians, Muslims and Jews from opposing ends of the empire, who would not be
able to comprehend each other's speech and even culture, would be members of
the same "nation".
manifestation of the millet system also encourages institutionalised
discrimination against minorities, by blocking minorities from the upper
echelons of politics in many countries and enabling unscrupulous civil servants
and security officials to mistreat those who are different.
early days, this system was workable in a vast and diverse empire confident in
its variety, but in the contemporary, embattled nation-states of the region the
modern vestiges of the millet system have proved an obstacle to forging a
common national identity.
how much nationalists insist that God is for the individual and the nation is
for everyone, the confessional courts, even if they only deal with personal and
family law, suggest otherwise, particularly in the minds of religious
conservatives and radicals.
hazard to say that the religious and sectarian strife we are witnessing in the
Middle East is, in part, down to these divisions. This is because defining a
person's religion and sect from birth, and providing them with differential
treatment because of it, leads to social rigidity, identity politics and the
difficulty in forming hybrid identities.
example of this is Lebanon, where religion and sect do not just govern issues
of personal status, but define the country's political landscape, with its
strict laws on which political positions go to which community. This
perpetuates the small nation's divisions.
cases, it even facilitates persecution. For example, the religion field on
Iraqi identity cards has been misused by the Islamic State of Iraq and the
Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and other militias to target citizens who belong
to other religions and sects.
there are reformers who are striving for change, and they have scored a number
of recent successes. This includes the introduction of civil marriages in
Lebanon and the removal of the religion field from Turkish ID cards.
It is time
for Middle Eastern countries to remove all mention of religious and sectarian
affiliation from official documents, and to abolish religious family courts.
not only be good for the freedom of belief - not to mention love and the
equality of citizens - it would also reinforce a sense of common national
identity among communities within a country, promoting a sense of unity in
hardening of European attitudes toward Muslims in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo
massacre and the attacks in Paris and Brussels is assuming a far grimmer aspect
than it is comfortable for liberal opinion to acknowledge.
furious anti-Muslim sentiment now infuses public discussion across the whole
political spectrum. Even attempts to understand terrorist violence are being
denounced by left and right alike.
attitudes have not hardened to quite this extent in the UK, it is perhaps only
because there has not been a recent terrorist strike on British soil. They are
already unsympathetic enough. As elsewhere, alarm about the migrant crisis and
concerns about terrorism, border controls and national security are blurring
into a single, hyper-inflammatory issue. The composite issue in question is
looming large in the campaign to elect a new mayor of London that takes place,
along with local elections, on May 5. It may loom larger still in the run-up to
the historic referendum on UK membership of the European Union, which takes
place on June 23.
this background, the fact that the front-runner for the London mayoralty, the
former Labour government minister Sadiq Khan, is a Muslim, has assumed a
special importance. The remarkable thing is that Khan has maintained a steady
opinion poll lead, despite strenuous efforts by his chief opponent, the
Conservative Party candidate, Zac Goldsmith, to smear him as a friend of
street-fighter, Khan has gone to great lengths to underline that he is extreme
— extreme in the cause of the safety of the people of London. Mindful of his PR
vulnerabilities, he has missed no opportunity to proclaim his determination to
establish the closest possible relationship with the police and security
services. Yet if Goldsmith has an apparent advantage over him when it comes to
“security,” there is another respect in which Khan has what may prove a
decisive advantage over his rival. For whereas Goldsmith is the son of a
billionaire, Khan is the son of a bus driver, and in a time of austerity, with
rough sleepers proliferating on the streets of London, his modest origins
appear to be doing his campaign no harm whatsoever.
Goldsmith’s wealth had the potential to be toxic even before the eruption into
the news of the Panama Papers, the flood of data exposing the tax avoidance
schemes of vast numbers of politicians and public figures, including the leader
of Goldsmith’s own party, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron. Damaging to
his government and the Conservative party, as well as to the campaign to keep
the UK in the European Union that he is leading, Cameron’s initial reluctance
to divulge his family’s past offshore financial arrangements is also damaging
to Goldsmith’s bid to become London mayor.
of David Cameron and his colleague George Osborne as they have sought public
backing for stringent retrenchment measures is that ‘we are all in this
together’. It is a refrain that, in the face of ever-starker inequalities, is
widely regarded as an insult to the public’s intelligence. It could be said
that young Muslims, among whom unemployment is endemic, have particular reason
to be sceptical about Conservative talk of togetherness. Indeed, if truth be
known, the tearing apart of the wider social fabric is not least among the
welter of factors making for radicalization. Yet this is an issue few wish to
go near. Least of all is it addressed by the academic “experts” on
“radicalization” with Muslim backgrounds who have become increasingly prominent
in the British media. Loath to challenge the status quo, they seldom discuss
larger ills: Socioeconomic divisions of staggering scale, the absence among the
young of faith in the future.
prevail in next month’s election, Sadiq Khan may prove neither willing nor able
to press for a bigger, more candid debate about the UK Muslim community.
Nevertheless, for him to become the first Muslim mayor of a major western
capital would be a development of incalculable symbolic significance. For
Muslims in London and beyond, much is riding on his success.
historic visit by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman to Egypt this
week marks a major shift in post-Arab Spring geopolitical reality in the Arab
world and the Middle East as a whole.
has reinforced the foundations of a long-term strategic, economic and
political, partnership between Riyadh and Cairo at a time when the Arab world
is suffering from lack of leadership and a common direction. The
destabilization of the region has passed through many important milestones in
the past few decades. But one can argue that the US invasion of Iraq in 2003
was a particularly catastrophic development; one that triggered a series of
events that ended up in enabling Iran to penetrate the heart of the Arab world,
shifted attention from Israel’s occupation of Palestine, unleashed horrific
sectarian conflicts and neutralized the historical roles of Baghdad, Damascus
and Cairo. And finally the invasion of Iraq was the catalyst that led to the
birth of militant radical groups that waged war in the name of Islam and
ushered in a wave of global terror.
also argue that regional chaos, which deepened following the events of the Arab
Spring, has benefitted powers that saw an opportunity to implement an agenda of
expansion, polarization, political opportunism and siege. What is happening in
Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen leaves no doubt that Tehran has a vested
interest in destabilizing the Arab world allowing it to force itself as an
undisputed regional power.
Obama administration, the US chose to lead from behind and give up its
historical ties with the region. Certainly this policy has its critics, both in
the US and abroad, but one cannot deny that it has allowed Iran to have a free
hand in a region that is now suffering from a power vacuum.
in mind it was pivotal that Riyadh would take it upon itself to act on
different fronts in order to build strategic alliances that would challenge
Iranian ambitions and fill in for America’s strategic withdrawal. Aside from
leading an Arab coalition in Yemen to restore a legal government and derail
Iran’s attempt to create a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia
remains a chief component in international efforts to bring about a just
political solution in war-torn Syria.
assembled an Islamic military coalition to thwart threats to the region and in
Cairo King Salman announced that an Arab anti-terrorism force will also be
created. He noted that terrorism is today the region’s most immediate
challenge. And by talking about terrorism, Saudi Arabia is keen to underline
that it is not only Daesh that must be confronted but all groups that use
religion and divisive sectarian ideologies to sow hatred and trigger religious
And in that
sense one must address Iran’s role in backing and leading Shiite militias in
Iraq and Syria that seek to kill and displace Sunnis and others.
Riyadh-Cairo strategic partnership acknowledges the important role that a
strong and stable Egypt can play in thwarting new and existing regional
threats. Abandoning Egypt would have been a terrible mistake that would deepen
the region’s problems and invite additional divisions. Saudi Arabia is well
placed to lead a new Arab coalition that would ensure the stability of
countries like Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco, and help others rebuild and
heal such as Libya, Sudan, Yemen and Syria in the future.
GCC remains the only viable grouping of Arab countries that has survived the
geopolitical upsets of the last 15 years, which have wreaked havoc on the Arab
world. Saudi Arabia is well positioned to reverse the destructive tide that is
sweeping the region. By investing in a stable Egypt that country can assume its
responsibilities as a regional power; providing counterbalance and re-engaging
in the region’s political processes. The absence of Egypt from the region’s
problems is being felt and its role must be restored.
strategy is timely. With Iran having a free hand in many Arab countries and
with the US quietly stepping down from its historical role, the challenge must
be met by building a strong Arab coalition with a clear vision. Economic
cooperation will stabilize countries like Egypt and Jordan, two states with
close relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region. Their stability is
paramount to a secure Gulf area. But that coalition must be expanded and the
formation of an Arab force to combat terrorism is a move in the right direction.
It will be important to see what steps will follow King Salman’s bold
initiatives in Egypt.
situation hasn’t changed much since Egypt was a monarchy during the era of King
Fuad and then King Farouq and when it turned into a republic following a
revolution and then became socialist. This was followed by the era of Anwar
Al-Sadat and the Camp David Accord, and of Hosni Mubarak and Mohammad Mursi of
the Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries have always considered Egypt a
basic pillar in their strategic calculations.
relations were once unstable for around five years in the 1960s, the entire
region was disturbed. Relations, however, restored their historic path
immediately after the 1967 War, as the region’s stability is based on Egypt and
explains the uproar stirred by the Egyptian opposition, particularly opposition
figures who reside outside Egypt, and the parties allied with them prior to and
during Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman’s visit to Egypt.
opposition wanted to embarrass Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and the
Egyptian government because it knew it could not prevent the visit, which
turned out to be the most important one since King Faisal’s meeting with Gamal
Abdel Nasser. That visit, in 1969, corrected and solidified the relations,
which we see today. The opposition exaggerated its narratives about
Saudi-Egyptian disputes regarding the region and resorted to these
exaggerations to create doubts about the success of the visit.
surprise, however, is that the agreements signed between the two countries were
more significant than what we had expected. The agreements are unprecedented
and they came as a surprise even to those who know how close the ties are
between King Salman and President El-Sisi.
Most of the
agreements are related to strategic projects of which the most important is
building a bridge that links the two countries and the two continents, Asia and
Africa, together. This bridge is no less significant than the Fatih Sultan
Mehmet Bridge, the Turkish Bosphorus Bridge, which links Asia and Europe. After
this bridge over the Red Sea is built, it will become the first geographic
passage between Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
agreements also included power-related projects. There are 15 other agreements,
which will enhance the relation between the two shores of the Red Sea. The
Egyptian opposition and the rivals of Gulf countries, particularly of Saudi
Arabia, have a short-sighted vision that aims to sabotage relations to serve
their immediate interests. However, for Cairo and Riyadh, the relations between
the two countries have been of strategic importance since 1936.
Saudi Arabia do not allow disturbing the balance of these relations due to
disagreements over minor bilateral stances or different points of view
regarding regional developments or journalistic articles.
politicians differentiate between what’s strategic and what’s minor, between
higher aims and tactical initiatives, between disagreements and differences and
when it comes to their calculations, they leave space to act and be diverse and
to even disagree.
is that most of the frequent complaints by both the parties — Egypt and Gulf
countries — are related to the weaknesses in implementing the cooperation
already agreed upon. Therefore, both parties want greater cooperation but the
work mechanism often confronts obstructions that are not political at all.
countries want to increase their investment and economic projects in Egypt and
the Egyptians also want that. What ruins collective efforts whether on the
level of the governmental or private sector is old bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is
the worse enemy than all other lurking enemies.
countries’ huge financial investments and international commercial partnership
team up with Egyptian firms and enter the biggest market in the region, they
can turn Egypt’s developmental problems into traits and transform the
overpopulation into an example to the power of Egypt and the region and thus
put Egypt among the ranks of tiger economies. The financial surplus and
overpopulation require brave political decisions to overcome the slow pace.
Egyptians, the Gulf citizens and all the Arabs want to overcome this crisis of
chronic failure. Truth be told, the ambitious agreements which King Salman and
President El-Sisi signed express the hopes of the region’s people — hopes that
they have a future that’s better than our current situation.
governments to focus on building, developing and meeting their needs and not to
take political stances and repeat their statements. These promised projects
represent the biggest program for work between two countries in the region.
Egyptian opposition wants is to thwart any cooperation to prove that the
government has failed and thus corner it although most of the affairs discussed
during King Salman’s visit were related to development plans that concern the
present and the future of 100 million Egyptian and Saudi citizens. They aim to
enhance their lives and their children’s future away from political tampering.
Egypt is a
country with huge capabilities and it deserves everyone’s attention because the
region stands strong when Egypt is solid. The US is encouraged by Iran’s
openness and considers the latter a promising state although when comparing it
to Egypt, it’s a very underdeveloped system. In response to the international
project to make Iran succeed, we must bet on Egypt. This is what the Saudis,
Emiratis and the rest who believe in developmental projects and not just
military ones are doing.
Were an American
in 2016 are in the throes of an election year. The US presidential elections
are in full swing to determine who will be the next face in the White House
come January 2017. And as most Americans go, they will fall into three
categories. There will be some who will vote Democratic; there will be others
who will vote Republican; and there will be a significant number who will
decide to abstain from voting altogether.
only 57% of the eligible voters cast their ballots in 2012 with the majority
among them deciding to keep Barack Obama for another four years, leaving an
estimated 93 million US citizens who chose to ignore the whole process.
presidents go, I believe that Obama has done a credible job for his country. He
restored some of the glitter that was tarnished by the previous administration.
Obama also assumed a country on the verge of financial meltdown and turned
things around for the better for most Americans. But we are not speaking about
Obama here, but rather about the face that will replace him come next January.
intending to cast their vote have choices that have gradually narrowed down to
four candidates running for the presidency today. Now why would I care who
replaces Obama? I have no voice in their political process or any voting
privileges. At best I am a sideline spectator watching the current circus of
candidates each selling themselves to the American public.
But I do
care. I spent some of my teenage and formative years in that country. I learned
distinct survival skills that I have carried on till today and I am grateful
for many other things learned or acquired during my times in the USA.
than anything I care because the President of the United States has a large
impact on what happens in the region I live in through policies or actions
taken by his administration. We painfully witnessed the results of the previous
administration of George W. Bush and his cohorts, a government that was hell
bent on wars and mayhem and whose misguided adventurism the world is paying a
price today in the form of Daesh (so-called IS) and similar hybrids of
murderous mutants. Even my country has not been spared from the scourge of
definitely I am interested in what happens during the Democratic and Republican
conventions during summer and in the results that would follow come the first
Tuesday in November of this year when the new president would be determined.
the Republican side you have two leading contenders — Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
Right away I am going to tell you I do not trust Cruz. He’s slicker than a used
car salesman, and changes into more colors than a chameleon. And he is not only
bad for America with his distinctive divisive edge but unsafe for our region as
well. In fact he is downright dangerous as I see it.
the other hand has been in the limelight for his outspoken views on just about
everything including his abrasive and downright insulting remarks against
Muslims. But Trump is a businessman and a pragmatic one. He is his own man and
will not be bought easily. I have come to believe as of late that he would be a
better Republican choice than Cruz once seated in the Oval Office. He will
focus on the interests of Americans first and that is perfectly fine with me.
that that he as president would be neutral between Israel and the Palestinians
while Cruz openly boasted to an AIPAC audience, “Let me be very, very clear, as
president, I will not be neutral. America will stand unapologetically with the
nation of Israel.” Sorry Cruz, but I do not see that as being in line with the
interests of the USA. You are dangerous, period!
Democratic side, you have Hillary Clinton versus Bernie Sanders. Hillary was
previously a wife of a US president and a Secretary of State, but she is too
locked in with self-interest groups and Super Pacs to do Americans any real
good. I also suspect that with her at the helm, Americans will once again hear
the beatings of new war drums and more military adventurism. She is too far indebted
to the industrial military complex to do otherwise. She will be serving them
and not the people. She will be a bad choice as President of the United States.
have Bernie Sanders, a US Senator and a Jew. Sanders is by far the most honest and
fair politician of the lot in that he has maintained his stance towards the
goodwill of Americans first beyond anything else during his tenure. He does not
waffle like Clinton or is abrasive like Trump. Neither does he project a
perilous uncertainty a Cruz presidency will likely usher in. On the domestic
front, he stands for the concerns of the average Joe.
against the US invasion of Iraq. He has constantly maintained an impartial
stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and has even been bold enough to
criticize the heavy-handed policies of the Israeli government against Israeli
civilians. Jew or no Jew, he is an American first, and does not encourage an
image of warmongering.
books, the United States of America would be best served by Bernie Sanders as
the next President. And so would the region I live in.