Monday, February 13, 2012

What can Iraqi merchants tell us about the impact of sanctions on Iran?

Will Israel attack Iran? Will the US give Israel the “green light” to conduct such an attack? Might the US even join Israel in attacking Iran? The rhetoric surrounding Iran’s development of a nuclear energy program has increased dramatically during the past month, particularly after Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, suggested that an Israeli might attack Iran might as soon as this coming May or June.

Clearly, Iran’s nuclear program is not limited to increasing its energy production. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has stated that the program is not limited to energy, but intended instead to lay the basis for developing nuclear weapons. Israel is concerned that if it waits, Iran will have time to bury its nuclear program in underground bunkers after which it will immune to air attacks.

The behavior of Iraqi merchants may suggest reasons why Israel and the US should think twice about mounting an attack on Iran. Merchants in the Shiite shrine cities of al-Najaf, Karbala’, and the Baghdad quarter of al-Kadhimiya, site of the splendid al-Kadhimayn Mosque which celebrates Twelver Shiism's 7th Imam, Musa al-Kadhim (a mosque I once had the great fortune to visit), and elsewhere in Iraq, are increasingly refusing to accept the Iranian toman (rial).

Iraqi merchants who serve the thousands of Iranian pilgrims who travel to Iraq to visit Shiite holy sites, and who trade with Iran, state that, if the toman continues to lose its value, they will no longer accept Iranian currency. While many merchants express sympathy for Iranian pilgrims who, they point out, are often of very modest means, they cannot afford to continue to lose money. As one money changer noted, a month and a half ago he exchanged $10,000 daily in tomans while now that figure has dropped to only a $1000 per day.

Hotel owners in al-Najaf and elsewhere likewise complain about the decline in value of the toman. An owner of a large hotel in al-Najaf, Khalid Abu al-Jeej, notes that many hotel owners have been experiencing a sharp drop in profits. As a result, many are only accepting payments from Iranian guests in US dollars. Of course, as the Iranian toman buys less Iraqi dinars, fewer pilgrims are visiting Iraq, further cutting into the profits of both Iraqi and Iranian businessmen.

The drop in the value of Iran's currency is not only significant because it is hurting Iranian pilgrims and Iraqi and Iranian merchants. The economic narrative is much broader and more complex than that. The Iranian middle classes are scrambling to convert their tomans into dollars. Many Iraqis have been hired by Iranians to convert tomans into US dollars at Iraqi banks. This behavior has led the Iraqi Central Bank to begin to impose restrictions on who can change tomans into dollars, putting further pressure on the Iranian currency. Iranians hire Iraqis to convert tomans into dollars as a hedge against further losses as the toman continues to lose value.

What do these developments have to do with the current Iranian nuclear weapons crisis? The rapid loss of value of the Iranian toman suggests that the international sanctions imposed on Iran are having serious negative consequences for its economy. President Obama has shown excellent leadership skills in refusing to succumb to the rhetoric of a nuclear armed Iran, which is being used to mobilize an attack on Iran. Instead, President Obama has chosen to pursue a steady ratcheting up of the international sanctions regime which is now having a serious impact on Iran.

Already there are signs that the Iranian regime is very nervous at the international opposition to its nuclear program. It realizes that its position domestically is not particularly strong. On the one hand, there is intense infighting currently underway within the political elite that sets the supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against those of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. On the other hand, the regime faces declining popularity among the populace at large. Both of these considerations mean that challenging the US, Israel, the European Union, and other major powers such as India is not necessarily the most sensible policy to be pursuing at the present time.

In an earlier post, I discussed the possible consequences of an attack on Iran and argued that it would be a lose-lose situation for all parties concerned. If Israel attacks Iran, international sympathy will swing towards the Islamic Republic and further isolate Israel in the Middle East and the larger international community. For Iran, such an attack could set in motion processes that lead to the collapse of the regime. For the US and the West, an attack on Iran would result in huge increases in the price of oil, dealing a serious blow to the global economy and sending many countries into an even deeper recession.

For Iraq, the continued economic travails faced by Iran - problems that will only increase in the short term - are having a negative impact on its own economy. These problems are raising questions inside Iraq about the Maliki government’s close ties to the current Iranian regime. Questions include: why should Iraq be so closely allied with a regime that is becoming an international pariah?

Steady as she goes - to invoke a tried and true saying - is the best antidote for Iran’s effort to become a nuclear power. Tightening the existing sanctions regime and persuading Iran’s trading partners not to purchase its oil will bring Iran to the bargaining table. This can be accomplished in time to prevent Iran from achieving an end that no one, aside from its few allies, wants to become a reality, namely the development of nuclear weapons which would further destabilize the Middle East, an outcome that the region can ill afford.

(For more information on Iraqi responses to Iran's economic woes, see al-Hayat, February. 6, 2012)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Opposition Groups in Syria: Myths and Realities

Guest author - Andrew Spath

Revolutionary periods have a way of compressing history. Events unfold so quickly, and the flow of information is so dense, that our ability to comprehend them is diminished. This condition pervades the present political situation in Syria, fostering numerous popular fictions that contribute to miscalculating strategies of action. Two related popular fictions stand out in assessing the prospects of prolonged civil conflict or outright civil war. The first fiction insinuates a clear bifurcation between regime supporters and regime opponents. The second fiction, related to the first, suggests that sectarian divisions define clear lines of support and opposition to the Ba‘athist regime.

Fears abound among analysts and onlookers, including the Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi, that Syria is moving closer to a civil war that would include drastic consequences for its neighbors. [1] The protocol between the Arab League and the Syrian government to send observers to Syria[2] has thus far failed to stem the violent repression of on-the-ground activists. Opposition groups in and out of Syria[3] and some of the Arab League observers themselves[4] have little faith in the mission as currently constituted. Amid intense debate in and out of Syria over the internationalization of the crisis and outside intervention, there is consensus among opposition groups on the desire for a change in governance. However, there is little programmatic unity over how to change it and what will follow it.

Much of the commentary on the situation in Syria – as was the case in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and elsewhere – pits the government and its supporters against “the opposition.” United in the desire to see traditional Ba‘ath Party dictatorship give way to some form of pluralism in “the Syria of tomorrow,” [5] opposition groups otherwise diverge on crucial issues pertaining to both the short-term strategies of resistance and long-term political and ideological commitments. [6] Identifying and discussing “the opposition” in monolithic terms reifies the notion that there is a single voice to which opposition positions and statements can be attributed, [7] ignoring clear and consequential differences among its diffuse parts.

The Arab League and international community have made clear the importance of a cohesive opposition with diverse representation. In a meeting with representatives of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the most visible coalition of opposition groups outside the country, Hillary Clinton stated directly that “the future and legitimacy of the opposition depends on its… ability to organize and unify its ranks,” prompting efforts to work toward consolidation. [8] Yet the ability to coalesce around shared interest in ending autocratic rule in Syria remains elusive.

The challenge is most apparent among the two most prominent and internally diverse umbrella organizations – the SNC and the National Coordinating Body (NCB). While disagreements within the SNC have been apparent since its genesis, [9] in-fighting flared recently over a draft agreement between the two organizations, signed by SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun and NCB representative Haytham al-Manna, that was summarily rejected by the SNC executive council. [10] The most contentious points of disagreement are support of foreign intervention, dialogue with Assad’s government, and relations with the Free Syrian Army. [11]

Fissures within the opposition in general, and within the SNC itself, are exacerbated by a lack of coordination and clarity in public statements. Contradictions between personal views of the Council’s members and its stated positions on international intervention plagued the effort to bring together the SNC and NCB in December. [12]

The divisions among regime challengers do not end there. There are, of course, significant differences between secularists and Islamists. [13] But even among the Islamists, as seen recently in Egypt, different views persist about the direction of the revolution and visions of a post-Assad Syria. Only recently have leading Muslim scholars from various Islamic trends come together in search of a formula to unite in support of the revolution. [14]

Moreover, growing feelings of frustration toward the larger opposition organizations persist among many protesters on the ground. With a growing power vacuum on the ground, divisions are sharpening between the activists on the ground and the opposition in exile. [15] Bearing the immediate threats of the government’s violent tactics to suppress the uprising, it is not surprising that some protesters feel the dissident parties in exile are “in one valley and the [domestic] revolutionaries in another valley.” [16]

The oversimplification of a singular “opposition” suggests that there is a coherent and coordinated government waiting in the wings that will facilitate a smooth transition upon Assad’s downfall. The model reflects the Libyan experience of creating an internationally recognized transitional council as the legitimate representative of the opposition, a designation sought by the SNC since October and one that may facilitate international intervention. [17] While the Libyan opposition became decidedly militarized, the Syrian National Council is treading a fine line between advocating military intervention and its commitment to “safeguarding the non-violent character of the Syrian revolution” that bolsters its domestic and international legitimacy. [18]

Recently, the SNC began direct coordination with the Free Syrian Army, though the body has been careful to convey that the FSA is not its “armed wing.” [19] Unlike the Libyan Transitional Council, however, the Syrian National Council has yet to gain international recognition as the sole representative of the Syrian people partly because of the challenges to coordinate and unite the various opposition factions.

Identifying these lines of difference within the Syrian opposition is not to suggest that integrating these disparate groups is unlikely or imprudent. It instead requires that observers confront realistically the complexities of unifying a wide array of political organizations, warns against actions that may exacerbate divisions, and questions the relevance of the Libyan model in the Syrian context.

The challenges of coordination and unification generate a justified fear of extended civil war and increased sectarian violence. But contrary to some analysis, the distinction between Syrians who support the government and those who oppose it does not follow a strict dichotomy between the Sunni majority and Syria’s minority communities. Nor does it follow a dichotomy between Alawi (the minority Shi’a sect of the Assads that dominates the government’s security apparatus) and non-Alawi Syrians. Prominent Alawi member of the SNC Munther Majos emphasizes that many in the Alawi community have been “vulnerable to the injustice of the Syrian regime,” especially in the last two decades as the regime has become more personalized and family-centered. [20]

Across the board, opposition organizations have worked to dispel the fears of minorities and challenge the framing of the crisis in sectarian terms. [21] They have charged the government with provoking sectarian conflict and have made it a point to highlight the significant involvement of Alawis, Druze, Kurds, and Christians in their ranks and on the street, particularly in highly heterogeneous cities like Tartous and Banias. [22]

Since the beginning of the revolution, concerted displays explicitly against sectarian discord demonstrate the alternative narrative of national and confessional tolerance and the shared plight of life under autocracy. [23] Protest chants, official stances of opposition groups, and online Facebook pages[24] explicitly reject the politicization of Syria’s diverse ethnic and religious identities. Prominent Druze leader Walid Jumblatt called on the Druze forces in the Syrian military not to participate in the suppression of the opposition. [25] Prominent Christians like Michael Kilo and Fayez Sara are notable members of the opposition, and some Christian leaders have recently stated that they “stand with the demands of the Syrian people.” [26]

At the same time, should a power vacuum, military intervention, or other sources of violence escalation add to fears of anarchy and chaos – an image Bashar al-Assad refers to frequently[27] – a convergence of people into their respective ethno-confessional social groups is very possible. Recent months have not been absent of explicitly sectarian attacks and rhetoric, particularly in areas of Homs. [28]

A nuanced view of the situation displays that sectarianism is “not merely a scarecrow wielded by despots to resist change… but is also not an undying and eternal fact.” [29] Across the board, opposition groups have maintained strong nationalist and anti-sectarian language in their founding documents and public statements. Comparisons with Syria’s neighbors in Iraq and Lebanon, and the vast sectarian violence that were part of civil wars in each country, provide little leverage for anticipating what will unfold in Syria. Iraq’s sectarian crisis was exacerbated by foreign military intervention, and Lebanon’s ethno-confessional composition is more balanced than the Sunni-majority Syrian society.

Despite representation of the various minority communities in both the active support and active opposition to the government, many Syrian minorities are taking a more passive “wait and see” approach to the crisis. The challenge is that the longer people wait and the more they see, the more likely it is that fears of violence will increase and sectarian divisions will harden. Simply, sectarian violence is an open question rather than a foregone conclusion.

The declared anti-sectarian nature of the revolutionaries across organizations provide a better model for post-Assad governance than the prospect of smaller insurgent groups that may seek to exploit sectarian identities for political or material purposes. A turn to violent opposition of any kind plays directly into the hands of the government as it attempts to divide, and thereby weaken, the opposition by exploiting fears of “leaping into the unknown.” [30]

More careful assessments of the situation in Syria will consider the complexities of both opposition politics and dynamics of sectarianism. Questions remain as to whether the leading opposition organizations can allay sectarian anxieties. Their best chances of doing so are through further inclusion of the many segments of Syrian society, sustained inclusive rhetoric, and coordination among the opposition bodies in the absence of unification.


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Andrew Spath is a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University’s Department of Political Science, where he studies on comparative politics and international affairs. His research interests focus on Arab states of the Middle East, specifically dealing with leadership succession, political mobilization, regime transformations, and the rule of law. He can be contacted at:

This article was originally published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute in its Middle East Media Monitor E-Note series, January 2012.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Envisioning a Post-Asad Syria: The Future of Past Relations

Ghaidaa Hetou, guest author

“al-Asad’s Syria,” a slogan adorning countless government and private buildings in Syria for over forty years, is symbolic of the political transformation this country is currently experiencing. For ten consecutive months, Syria's citizens have braved capture, humiliation, and torture in order to speak and be heard. The process of disentangling Syria from the private fiefdom that al-Asad dynasty has created must proceed down a long and winding road.

The political awakening that has engulfed the Arab world took on a peculiar meaning in this famously stable country. This particular uprising is a testament to the possibility of change in the most unlikely of places, and to the uncertainty shrouding the political unknown which presents a security risk of the highest order.

The Syrian regime has shown that it is not capable of containing the growing protests with means other than increasing military and security operations, which is an inherently self-defeating tactic. In turn, the protests have not reached the critical mass seen in Tunisia or Egypt, nor have anti-regime armed groups been able to establish a military stronghold in any of Syria’s main cities that would then allow for a regime change, resembling what occurred in Libya. The Syrian situation is similar to that of Yemen, with the uprising taking a long, slow and winding path, often violent, yet tempered by proposals for resolving the conflict offered by neighboring and friendly countries.

The Syrian unrest started in March of last year when demonstrations broke out in Dar’a, a town to the south of Damascus, which subsequently spread to other towns. Over time, the protests have become increasingly marred by violence involving armed groups and army defectors. The military and security operations, and sieges that have befallen a number of Syrian cities, such as Dar’a, Homs, Hama, Idlib, Dayr al-Zor, and Banias, have fueled a type of uprising that is unrelentingly, with the level of demands being raised whenever the regime proposes a new set of reforms. Christians and Kurds have been reluctant, up until recently, to join the demonstrations. Bashar al-Asad used to enjoy wide and genuine popularity due to his anti-imperialist foreign policy, but this support quickly eroded due to over 6,000 casualties since the beginning of the protests.

As of now, both government and the opposition are experiencing an exaggerated sense of unease in entering direct negotiations that would facilitate a transition of political power. Declaring an end of the Arab League’s failed observatory mission in Syria, which was designed to bring an end to government violence, paved the way for enforcement of the Arab League’s proposal to end the Syrian crisis to be transferred to the UN Security Council. However, Russia and China vetoed the western backed Arab plan, and Russia proceeded to negotiate a transition of power in Syria directly with the al-Asad regime.

What do these developments this mean for Syria’s traditional allies: Iran, Russia and Hezbollah? What are the strategic options available to Syria’s neighboring countries? How will the United States integrate a post-Asad Syria into its overall policy in the Middle East? When and for what political price will al-Asad’s allies give up on his regime?

A Strategic Hub in Perpetual Transition

Geopolitically speaking, Syria is a strategic hub for the following reasons: Syria is Turkey’s open door into the Arab Middle East, Lebanon’s economic lifeline, Iraq’s security and trading partner, China’s hope of reviving a modern Silk Road, Iran’s ally, Israel’s border guard since 1974, and provides Russia’s its only port in the Mediterranean. Syria is, along with Iran, a regional counter weight to pro-western Arab countries, primarily the Gulf States.

The Syrian uprising is evolving along a slow and painful path precisely because of the high stakes involved in its outcome. All regional and international parties at least agree that the transition in Syria needs to be peaceful, and occur without foreign military intervention. Syria’s political awakening is crucial precisely because it carries profound implications for the entire Middle East. For neighboring and regional countries: Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Turkey, Jordon, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, to countries that have interest in maintaining or re-establishing their strategic depth in the Middle East such as Turkey, Russia and China, the final outcome of the Syrian crisis will have profound consequences for their internal politics and foreign policy.

Most importantly, the political awakening in Syria has important implications for America’s standing in the Middle East. Can the United States regain some of its standing in the region, especially after the military withdrawal from Iraq, by supporting a peaceful political transition in Syria? We will offer some answers to the questions posed by analyzing the implications of a post-Asad Syria on some of the stakeholders.


Since the success of the Islamic revolution in ousting Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979, Iran established close ties with Syria. The close ties were not based on ideological preferences, given the Islamic nature of the Iranian government and the secular nature of the Syrian government. Rather, the close ties were the product of the system at the time: the threat to Syria posed by Saddam Husayn’s Ba’thist regime in Iraq, Egypt’s peace deal with Israel, and Iran’s isolation in the Arab world. This bilateral relation evolved to become a strategic pact, with multiple security, military, educational and trade agreements to boost. Iran’s current ties to Syria are not of the disposable type.

What kind of assurances does Iran need to withdraw its support of the al-Asad regime? Iran faces its own domestic struggles, not to speak of its controversial nuclear program. Another external concern is Iran’s relations with the Arab Gulf States and Lebanon, given that Iraq is now largely in Iran’s sphere of influence.

To complicate matters (or simplify them), the Arab Gulf States dare not threaten Iran at this time. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are contending with political challenges in their respective countries as their populations increasingly question the political status quo. Any military pressure on Iran will result in exacerbating the delicate internal political conditions in the GCC countries.

What might lead Iran to change its Syria policy? First, assurances with regards to reasonable nuclear inspections and resumption of nuclear talks, with Turkish and Brazilian consultation. Second, a gradual rapprochement with the GCC countries. Third, assurances that the Syrian opposition will not threaten Iran’s strategic access to the Mediterranean. Fourth, reinforcing the idea that the oil pipeline stretching from Iran to Syria, through Iraq, should be viewed as supporting Syrian national interests, rather than viewing it as a project in ideological terms. Finally, as a key power broker in Lebanese politics, Hizballah needs to remain an integral part of the Lebanon’s political, social, and economic structure. Because Hezbollah receives support from Iran, a post-Asad Syria will need to deal with this reality by accommodating Hizballah’s concerns in its relations with Lebanon, Israel and Iran.


Prior to 2004, Turkey turned a blind eye to the Arab world, until signing a free trade agreement with Syria. Among the tensions between the two countries prior to 2004 were Kurdish freedom fighters who maintained guerilla bases in northern Syria, water resources given the construction of the Anatolia project which dammed the Euphrates River, and the annexation of the Hatay region in 1939. The strained relationship between the two countries began to ease when Syria expelled Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1998, and signed the Adana agreement in 1999 in which Syria agreed to refrain from harboring Kurdish fighters. Syrian-Turkish relations have improved tremendously in the last ten years, to the extent that Turkey invested considerable political capital in the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Asad. At the beginning of the 2011 uprising, it tried to mediate and encourage the regime to implement significant democratic reforms, early and swiftly, advice that was not heeded.

What are Turkey’s main interests in a post-Asad Syria? First, Turkey was able to make a seamless transition from support for the al-Asad regime to becoming a supporter of the Syrian opposition as evident by its early hosting of opposition conferences in Turkey. In addition, Turkey was able to establish good working relations with Mohammad Tyfour the head of the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which provides a cue to Turkey’s sympathies towards the predominantly Sunni uprising in Syria.

Second, Turkey is certain to resume its economic interests in post-Asad Syria, an option that was not available to Turkey in post-Qaddafi Libya. Turkey’s inconsistent diplomacy towards the Libyan uprising jeopardized its economic and financial interests in Libya. The lesson learned by Turkey will not to be repeated in the Syrian case. Third, Turkey maintains a strategic relationship with Iran. Hence both countries have an interest in reestablishing stability in Syria. The Syrian unrest has necessitated and deepened Turkey’s bilateral relations with Iran, which is part of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmad Davoud Oglo’s Strategic Depth policy in the Middle East.

Fourth, looking to the east, current developments in the international system will naturally lead Turkey to extend its diplomacy, military and trade relations beyond Iran to China. Finally, it is imperative for Turkey to diversify its relations with the countries of the Middle East. To be identified as a Gulf State ally is not in Turkey’s best interest, especially given the current political awakening in the Middle East. The logical conclusion of this consideration will be for Turkey to align itself with post-authoritarian governments while preserving its economic interests with all the regions’ states.


Russia’s relations with Syria, which is also known as “Russia’s Israel,” are a product of the Cold War as much as a product of ideological cohesion. This relationship is fundamentally built on military, training and security considerations sense. Russia’s treaty for its naval base in Tartus on the Mediterranean, which president Putin renewed in 2008, is another reminder of the importance of Russian-Syrian relations. The Syrian opposition, in this sense, has not struck the right tone during its negotiations with the Russians during the past few months, which explains in large measure Russia’s reluctance to support regime change in Syria.

What are Russia’s interests post-Asad Syria? First and foremost, both Russia and Iran seek a continuity of Syria’s foreign policy in the post-Asad era that will insure Russia’s and Iran’s strategic objectives.Second, due to Russia’s mediation role in the Syrian crisis, it faces the dilemma of having to deal with a Syrian opposition that represents the antithesis of Ba’thist ideology, making it naturally sympathetic to pro-western interests. For Russia, the Syrian crisis is a race against time to preserve its foothold in Syria while institutionalizing a post-Asad government which fits its ideological desiderata.

Third, during the post-Asad era, Russia will need Syria much more than Syria needing Russia. This is probably the most difficult hurdle, in addition to the tremendous amount of good will Russia needs to show to a post-Asad government in order to overcome the negative effect of Russia’s recent veto in the UN Security Council of the Arab League proposal for a transfer of power in Syria. Nevertheless, preserving good relations with Russia in the post-Asad era will be in Syria’s national interests. In terms of Syria’s foreign policy to the East, it will not be able to ignore Russia.


China is becoming an increasingly powerful player in the Middle East. The political awakening in the Middle East has presented unprecedented opportunities for China. The economic clout which China is capable of exercising through support of development projects in the Middle East is without parallel. Still calculating its interests in the Middle East, China is still reticent to assume a leading role in political initiatives in the region.

China joined Russia in vetoing the UN resolution against Syria, but it quietly faded into the background, leaving Russia to absorb the international outrage that followed the Security Council vote. Not surprisingly, China supports a peaceful transition in Syria, but is adamantly opposed to foreign military intervention in Syria, a position supported by Russia and many Arab countries.


In bringing the Syrian crisis to an end, Iran, Turkey, Russia and China converge in their support for non-military intervention and a peaceful transition of political power. All four countries face the task of repairing their image as past supporters of nit only the al-Asad regime but authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East. The potential for establishing amicable relations with a post-Asad government, as well as engendering the good will of the Syrian opposition, will be increased if they make more of a concerted effort to devise a plan that would facilitate a political transition in Syria.

A peaceful transition of power in Syria would preserve the quiet border between Israel and Syria. It would also undercut the increasing calls for a Jihad in Syria against Bashar al-Asad’s “infidel government,” a development that might get out of control and spill over into neighboring Jordon, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon if the crisis continues and violence escalates. The United States has an interest in supporting a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis in a matter that would preserve its good standing with the Syrian people. How the US will balance its own interests with those of all the parties concerned remains a daunting task.

Ghaidaa Hetou is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. She can be contacted at