Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Blow-back from Syria in Iraq: what does the future hold?

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham
There is little question that the security situation in Iraq is deteriorating.  The origins of Iraq's current security problems can be traced back to the 2010 elections.  Despite losing the elections, Nuri al-Maliki was able to manipulate domestic and foreign support to retain his position as prime minister.  Subsequently he set out to solidify his power through initiating a number of sectarian policies that alienated Iraq's Sunni  minority.

Since its inception, how has the Syrian civil war  affected Iraqis politics?  How has its development interacted with the destructive policies pursued by Maliki? Likewise, what impact has the Syrian crisis had on Iraq's Kurdish provinces, that comprise the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)?  Has the combination of sectarian rule and the blow-back from the Syrian crisis intensified sectarian identities and could it lead to a breakup of Iraq?

Perhaps most disturbing is the inroads that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham (Levant) - the ISIS - has made in Iraq's western al-Anbar Province.  During the height of post-Saddam sectarian violence, al-Anbar had been a hotbed for al-Qa'ida activity led by the notorious Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi.  With the rise of the "Anbar Awakening" ( al-Sahwa), al-Qa'ida was sent running and stability returned to the region. Prior to the 2010 parliamentary elections, the province  was prospering and it appeared that its Sunni population might  be integrated into the new Iraqi political system

Nuri al-Maliki's sectarian policies changed all that.  His fear of and increasing reliance on Iran for support alienated large segments of the Iraqi population, especially the Sunni Arab minority.  As matters got worse, especially after Iraqi helicopter gun ships attacked peaceful Sunni protestors in Hawija, near the city of Kirkuk, this past April 23th, and Maliki continued to harass Sunni Arab leaders, such as the moderate former Finance Minister Rafi' al-'Issawi, ISIS began to make inroads in al-Anbar and elsewhere.

The logic of the uptick in anger in al-Anbar and throughout the so-called Sunni Arab Triangle is understandable given the the political marginalization of the Sunni Arab population.  What is less clear is why there has likewise been a recent increase in violent activity in the KRG.

When US forces invaded the Kurdish region in 2003, it quickly dispatched the Islamist Ansar al-Sunna group with the help of Kurdish Peshmerga forces.  At that time, estimates of support  for the Ansar al-Sunna, whose influence was limited to a small region near the city of Halabja,, were between 1-2% of the Kurdish population and then only along the border region with Iran due, in large measure, to Iranian financial support.

Arguments have also been offered that the strong tribal nature of Kurdish society cross-cuts religious identities.  The widespread membership of Kurds in Sufi orders, including the Kurdish Regional Government's political leadership, such as the Naqshibandiya and Rifaiya,  and the diversity of religious minorities, such as the Yazidiya and others, have been thought to have promoted an atmosphere of religious tolerance in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Thus it has been a great shock to the Kurdish political elite and much of the Kurdish population to find Kurdish youth attracted to Islamist groups fighting the Bashar al-Asad regime in Syria.  Recent reports indicate that youth returning from the Syrian conflict have organized local Islamist groups that have planned and carried out terrorist attacks within the KRG.

This month, the KRG Interior Ministry moved to ban the use of mosques for any non-religious activities.   Fearing that mosques were bringing together radical clerics and youth influenced by Islamist groups in Syria, efforts have been made to root out Islamic radicalism before it has a chance to spread (see al-Hayat, December 20).  The secret police realize that in the KRG, as throughout the Middle East, radical Islamists possess a significant advantage over other political forces ,namely the ability to use the large infrastructure of mosques as an organizing tool.

The reasons why youth in al-Anbar might support the ISIS are fairly clear.  However, why have Kurdish youth come to give support to radical Islamist organizations?  The answers are complex and cannot be reduced to one cause.  First, there has been a long-term antagonism among Kurdish youth who do not possess the necessary wasta (influence) that would allow them to find employment as a result of ties to one of the two main political parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) or the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Second, the Kurdish political elite is not in as strong a position as once was.  The unraveling of the PUK, especially now that it has lost its leader, Jalal Talabani, and the rise of the Gorran (Change) Movement that began in 2009 have eroded its strength and demonstrated that it vulnerable to political challenges.  PUK weakness and the Gorran Movement have encouraged Kurds to mount more challenges to the Kurdish elite.

A third and very important reason for the rise of radical Islamist sentiments is the ideological vacuum that exists in the KRG and throughout much of the Middle East.  Arab nationalism has collapsed, Western liberalism is seen as suspect and unable to deal with social needs such as employment , education, housing and health care, and communism is viewed as an archaic and historically irrelevant.  Radical Islamism is thus "picking up the ideological pieces," as it were, of failed and discredited ideologies.

Political elites have been unable to articulate alternative ideological visions.  Those parties that have proposed moderate Islamism such as the Nahda Party in Tunisia , the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey appear to many youth as impotent, incapable of generating economic growth that helps the less fortunate of society and unable to meet the aspirations of the under 30 generation, a very large demographic in the contemporary Middle East.

Radical Islamism, whether of the Sunni or Shi'i variety, offers a well articulated vision of the future, however unrealistic it appears to outside observers.  Radical groups such as ISIS and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) offer action and immediate results through armed struggle. Those youth who feel that their lives are stagnant see in these movements a way to escape from the feeling of having no hope in the future, not to speak of the meaning many find in becoming "true believers," committed to the cause of building an Islamic state and ridding the Middle East of those who exploit political power for particularistic ends.

It is not so  much the strength of radical Islamism as it is the failure of corrupt and sectarian political elites to articulate an inclusive political vision that offers social justice and at least a modicum of democracy.  The failure of elites, such as the Iraqi political class in Baghdad, and the Kurdish political class in Arbil and Sulaimaniya, to negotiate and compromise with rivals only serves to radicalize youth still further as they see that no solutions to the problems they face will be forthcoming.

Unless there is a change in the structure and political disposition of the two political elites that control Iraq - Arab and Kurdish - the security situation will only worsen, especially if the Syrian crisis drags on, which it almost undoubtedly will.   The Italian political theorist, Antonio Gramsci, noted many years ago that, to be successful, a political class must exercise "moral and ethical leadership."

The Maliki-Barzani axis exercises no such leadership.  Instead, it offers corruption, nepotism, authoritarian rule, and a lack of government services.  Arab and Kurdish rule in Iraq is devoid of ideological content.  Now it cannot even invoke its "fallback" position - support us because at least we offer you, the citizens of Iraq, security from terrorism.    Arab and Kurdish rule is political minimalism at its worst.

Education of Arab and Kurdish youth is key to fighting support for radical Islamism and their fellow travelers, the  numerous criminal syndicates that have proliferated throughput Iraq.  However, a successful pedagogy would involve inculcating in youth values that are antithetical to the political rule that currently prevails in Iraq.  Tolerance cannot develop alongside sectarianism.  Negotiation cannot develop alongside authoritarian rule.  Civic engagement cannot develop alongside corruption and nepotism.

What are forces outside the region doing to address the spread of radical in the Arab East (al-Mashriq al-'Arabi)?  Very little in terms of policies that will,have ab impact on the long term stability of the region.  Conforming to the adage that "better to support the devil you know than the one you don't," the US, the EU, and international NGOs and funding agencies turn a blind eye to the self-destructive policies followed by the Maliki and KRG regimes.

The only positive development has been the refusal of the US to become involved in saving the Maliki regime.  It will not commit any significant military resources to the central government.  Likewise, the US refuses to play favorites with the KRG or establish any military bases there.  It continues to scold the KRG for its thinly veiled threats to leave Iraq and declare independence in its struggle with Baghdad over the extraction and sale of oil and natural gas in the KRG.

Realizing that neither Iran nor the US will come to his rescue, Maliki has been forced to reach out to the remnants of the Arab Awakening in al-Anbar Province.  This has least forced him to soften his sectarian policies and pursue a more cross-ethnic agenda.  Likewise, the Kurds realize that they cannot afford to anger the US - their main foreign ally - and thus need to tone down their hostile rhetoric towards Baghdad.

Still, these short-term strategic calculations by the Arab and Kurdish political elites do not address the underlying problems in Iraq - the need to use revenues from hydrocarbon wealth to solve the country's myriad problems, implement democratic reforms and pursue cross-ethnic alliances - at the political social, cultural and economic levels - that will lay the basis for long-term stability and national reconciliation.

While the international community cannot solve Iraq's problems, it can at least keep up the pressure, in a more open and public manner, to force Iraq's political class to begin to offer the country's citizenry the rule they deserve.  This represents the only way in which disaffected youth will be drawn away from supporting political extremism in the region.

How does the emergence on 2011 of demonstration against the al0Aada regime in Syria  leading to demoinstartion and then violence again st the central governmentand

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Could the Iranian nuclear agreement lead to a decrease in sectarian politics in the Middle East?

New York John Kerry, Javad Zarif
John Kerry and Mohammed Javad Sarif
What impact will the agreement between the P5+1 (the US, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany) and Iran have on sectarian politics in the Middle East?  Is it true, as many Western analysts argue, that sectarianism is ingrained in the region's political fabric?  If so, does that mean that the agreement will do little to reduce sectarian tensions? Or could the decision by Iran to submit to demands by the international community to eschew developing nuclear weapons lead to major political change in the Middle East?

The assessment offered here argues that the recent nuclear arms agreement will have significant positive ramifications for Middle East peace and stability.  Indeed, analysts in the Arab world are already picking up on the agreement's implications for Iran's relations with the predominantly Sunni Arab Middle East.  An example is Umar Qaddur's Op-Ed piece, "Does a less nuclear Iran mean that it will be less Shiite as well?, that appeared in al-Hayat, on December 1st. 

First, the Iran - P5+1 agreement has already had a significant impact on the Iranian economy.  Second, it has improved relations between Iran and the Gulf states, especially Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.  Third, if the 6 month agreement turns into a long term solution to Iran's efforts at nuclear weaponization, then it will probably mean a change in Iranian politics towards Iraq and possibly even towards the Syrian crisis.  Finally,  if a long term agreement follows a 6 month rapprochement between Iran and the international community, then we will certainly see a reintegration  of Iran into the global economy with all the political ramifications that such a development implies.  Let's examine each on of these issues in turn.

An immediate impact of the nuclear agreement has been to invigorate the Iranian economy and raise hopes among the Iranian middle classes in particular that they can look forward to a brighter future.  Many Iranians are tired of the crippling sanctions they have endured as a result of their country's nuclear weapons program and fear the possibility of a Israeli or even US military attack.

In the first day after the agreement was announced, purchases of foreign currency dropped 30% in the expectation that the Iranian rial would rise in value in relation to the dollar.  During the last month, the Iranian stock market has experienced a significant improvement, increasing 14% in value.  Private sector entrepreneurs and public sector managers have welcomed the lessening of constraints on Iran's ability to purchase spare parts and other supplies necessary to insure the proper functioning and growth of the economy.

Iranians have been suffering under a 40% rate of inflation which may actually understate the actual level.  The middle classes have increasingly found it difficult to sustain their standard of living.  The loosening of international sanctions has given the middle class a new sense of hope that their economic fortunes might improve.  Coming on the heels of the decisive victory of the moderate cleric, Hassan Rouhani, over hardliner Saeed Jalili, middle class Iranians also hope that the state's turn towards at least some liberal reforms may be in the offing.

What is key here is the chafing that the middle classes have felt under the severe international sanctions regime that will continue to cost the country at least $30 billion this year even with the agreement (see The Economist, November 30).  Their delight at the nuclear agreement was evident at Teheran's airport when large crowds welcomed Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Sarif and his negotiating team back to Iran, while extolling the virtues of President Rouhani.  If more  moderate elements within the Iranian polity acquire greater influence, then the ability of hardliners, such as the Revolutionary Guards, to continue to play the sectarian politics game could very well decline.

Now that the cat has been let out of the bag, there will be no forcing it back in.  The very fact that Supreme Leader Ali Khamanie praised Rouhani and the agreement indicates that hardliners are aware of middle class discontent.   If hardliners seek to return to the approach of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who consistently called for the destruction of Israel and whose policies were instrumental in bringing about the harsh sanctions regime, and no long term structural relief occurs, the regime could face not only increasingly severe economic constraints, but greater expression of middle class discontent.  We need only remember what occurred in June 2009 when thousands of Iranian turned out to protest the reelection of Ahmadinejad as president in what many considered to be a stolen election.

The recent whirlwind tour of Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Sarif to Arab Gulf states indicates that Iran wants to tone down, if not eliminate, the "cold war" that has pitted it against Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies.  The visit by the UAE's foreign minister to Teheran and Iran's indication that it is willing to discuss the status of three islands near the Straits of Hormuz seized from the UAE by the Shah in 1971 - Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs - are further indicators of improved relations between the Arab Gulf and Iran. And while Saudi Arabia has indicated that " this is not the right time" for a meeting, Iran has called for just such a meeting which will undoubtedly occur in the near future.

These developments not only bode well for increased stability in the Gulf, but for a decrease in the shrill "Sunni-Shiite" political rhetoric that has characterized much of Gulf politics since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.  They will also constrain the ability of sectarian groups on both sides of the ethno-sectarian divide to manufacture Arab-Iranian hostility to promote their own personal agendas.

A third possible ramification of the initial and hopefully long-term agreement is the possibility of Iran playing a more constructive role in Iraqi politics.   At present, Iran is sponsoring a number of Shiite militias in the south to assure that Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki understands its ability to influence "conditions on the ground," and thus does not work against their interests in Iraq. These militias create serious political instability, seen especially in the ongoing battles between the remnants of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi) and the so-called League of the Righteous People (Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq), led by former Mahdi Army commander, Qays al-Khazali, that is currently supported by Iran (see al-Hayat, December 1).

A reinvigorated Iranian economy, a more robust middle class, and a willingness to conclude a side agreement with the US over their respective spheres of influence in Iraq may lead the Islamic republic to withdraw its support of destabilizing militias and inside rely more heavily on wielding its economic influence inside Iraq through increased trade and investments.  Such efforts, especially if they involved explicit messages to Iraq's Sunni Arab minority of such a new policy orientation, could greatly reduce sectarian tensions which represent a political powder keg at the moment as violence continues to escalate throughout Iraq.

While the US and Iran have been at loggerheads since the 1979 revolution, each has an interest in  containing the power of radical Sunni Islamists in the region.  A potential beneficial outcome of a US-Iran rapprochement, assuming Iran is serious about limiting its nuclear energy program to peaceful uses and allowing meaningful verification of the program, could pay dividends in the Syrian civil war.

In return for greater Western help in curtailing groups like the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (al-Dawla al-Islamiya li-l-'Iraq wa-l-Sham), Iran might be willing to ease Bashar al-Aad out of office in return for a government that was not hostile to Iranian interests in Syria but which was willing to implement democratic reforms and engage in a policy of national reconciliation.  Such a turn of events would dramatically undercut the power of both Sunni and Shiite sectarian elements in Syria, especially given the overwhelming rejection of sectarian politics by the vast majority of the Syrian populace.

Finally, and this might be the most important impact of the mini-agreement between the West and Iran on ending its nuclear weapons program, we may see new investment by Western firms in the Iranian economy.  The World Bank has indicated that Iran's oil industry cannot alone sustain a population of 82 million.  To meet its energy and production needs, Iran needs to import natural gas.

The interest that many Western oil firms have expressed in investing in Iran's energy sector, and the outmoded sector's need for investment to upgrade production, could signal the beginning of Iran's  reintegration into the global economy.  The impact of significant foreign investment and renewed economic growth would constitute another blow to the regime hardliners who have used sectarian identities to promote a radical foreign policy that has made Iran a pariah state in the Middle East.

The key here will be the United States.  On the one hand, the Obama administration and it allies in the P5+1 must keep the pressure on Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons capabilities and provide for an inspection regime whereby the international community can be assured that nuclear energy is only being developed for peaceful domestic uses.

Attempts by the US Congress into impose new sanctions on Iran - assuming Iran lives up to its agreements - must be blocked through a campaign to educate American lawmakers on the stakes involved in preventing more conflict in the Middle East, such as an Israeli attack on Iran, and the regional nuclear arms race that would certainly ensue should talks break down and Iran proceeds to actually develop nuclear weapons.  Having Saudi Arabia (which reportedly has asked Pakistan if it could purchase nuclear weapons), Turkey, Egypt, and perhaps Algeria seeking to develop nuclear weapons in the world's most unstable region would constitute a disastrous turn of events

At a most basic level, the ability not only to keep Iran at the negotiating table and moving towards a final agreement, but the ability to ratchet down sectarian identities and violence in the Middle East as well, lies as much in Washington, London, Paris, Moscow, Beijing and Berlin, as it does in Teheran.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Hawza vs. the state: Islam and democracy in contemporary Iraq

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
With all the focus on "radical Islamism" (a caricature of orthodox Islam based in ignorance and sectarian violence), little attention has been paid to clerics who have fought sectarian entrepreneurs who seek to politicize religion and manipulate it for personal ends.  The al-Hawza al-'Ilmiya, the network of Shi'i seminaries in and around the shrine city of al-Najaf in south-central Iraq, has been particularly effective in this struggle.   Led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leader of the world's Shi'a, the Hawza has fought against corruption, lack of government services and, above all, sectarian violence.  What do the Hawza's actions, as well as those of other moderate clerics, tell us about religion and politics in contemporary Iraq?

Recently, Ayatollah al-Sistani's representatives have waged a  public campaign against the proposed government budget of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.  Sistani's representative in the shrine city of Karbala', Ahmad al-Safi, used a very effective phrase in his Friday sermon (al-khutba) on September 27th in which he declared, "Relying on oil is dangerous because oil will not last until the Day of Judgment."  Instead, al-Safi argued, the state should be investing in agriculture, industry and investment which continue to be neglected (al-Hayat, September 28).

The cleric further argued that "there is no strong economic plan for the future in the budget."  Despite Iraq's abundant oil wealth, al-Safi called upon al-Maliki government to think about future generations. Depending solely on oil is dangerous.  The cleric called upon economic planners to think in terms of  a multidimensional strategy in which other sources of revenues would be developed to augment the country's hydrocarbon wealth.

At the same time, al-Safi called for more investment in building schools as a sign of respect for Iraq's youth, which constitutes 70% of the populace under the age of 30.  Every new school requires training at least 20 new teachers, he declared.  In his view, the Ministry of Education should take its responsibilities more seriously if the next generation of Iraqi youth is to be properly educated and meet its potential as individuals and as citizens contributing to the common good.

Sadr al-Din al-Qabbanji
In al-Najaf, meanwhile, Imam Sadr al-Din al-Qabbanji, who delivers the Friday prayer (khutbat al-jum'a), called upon the government to transfer the country's security portfolio to the Badr Organization.  A militia that had once been part of SCIRI (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq)  - now known as the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), the Badr Organization, which became a political party once it split from the SIIC, is  known for its military prowess.

In calling for this change in policy, al-Qabbanji was responding to the terrible increase in violence during the past 6 months.  This past September, the UN reported that almost a 1000 Iraqis were killed and over 2000 wounded, by assassinations, or suicide or car bomb attacks.  Criticism has been directed at the government for relieving competent security personnel from their posts and replacing them instead with those loyal to the current government.  Qabbanji emphasized that he was not calling for militias to control the country, but that there was a need to employ the most efficient counter-terrorism forces in light of the dramatic spread of violence.

These criticisms come in the wake of earlier comments by Ahmad al-Safi in which he asserted that low level  government bureacrtas were imnpeding the work olf the priovate sector, thereby forcing many companies to leave Iraq.(al-Hayat, September 14). In a sermon he delivered on Friday, September 13th, al-Safi  argued that small business sector is critical to the Iraqi economy.  However, private companies suffer from financial and administrative impediments created by government employees who prevent them from completing their work.  He noted that many companies that came to Iraq to engage in reconstruction have been stymied in their efforts to complete their projects and have left without completing them.

In the latter part of his sermon, al-Safi called on the government not to interfere with teacher evaluations of their students.  He asked that teachers to be treated with respected and in a manner consistent with Iraqi law.  In light of the fact that many government employees are not well educated, and often lack reading and writing skills (a problem created in large measure by the collapse of the educational system during the UN sanctions regime of the 1990s), al-Safi realizes the need for high educational standards if Iraq is to experience economic growth and social development.  Using bribes to get degrees and pressuring teachers to give students evaluations, degrees and entrance to universities  for political reasons, or due to bribery, rather than  merit, troubles al-Safi as it does many other Iraqis.

In asserting that government employees refuse to help private sector companies unless there is personal gain involved, Ayatollah al-Sistani is once again criticizing the Maliki government, through his representatives, for doing little or nothing to reign in corruption. Fortunately, unlike during the days of Saddam Husayn's rule when a cleric who criticized the government, even mildly, would be assassinated after the Friday prayers, the Shi'i al-marja'iya (the Shi'i religious authorities) do not have to fear for their lives in post-Ba'thist Iraq,

In this new quasi-democratic environment, the Shi'i clergy, under Ayatollah al-Sistani's leadership, has become a major force for democratic reforms, promoting anti-sectarianism and instilling a greater civic consciousness among Iraqis. What is especially significant is that Sistani and his representatives are not focusing on issues related to personal status law, such as marriage and divorce, inheritance and child custody, which have been the traditional concerns of the Hawza.

Instead, the Hawza is entering new territory and challenging the Iraqi government in areas of public policy not usually seen as the purview of religious clerics.  Criticizing government economic and education policy is important, however, as these issues are uppermost in the minds of most Iraqis who, public opinion polls over and over again demonstrate, are most concerned with jobs, the safety of their families and improving economic opportunities for their families.

In criticizing the government, the Hawza and other Shi'i clerics are pushing for greater transparency and rationality in decision-making, tackling corruption and promoting market forces, and improving Iraq's security situation.  One of the bright lights in Iraq's attempt at a transition to democracy comes from what many analysts would think to be an unusual source, namely Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the clerics of al-Hawza al-'Ilmiya, as well as moderate members of Iraq's Shi'i clergy.  These activities should be kept in mind next time a Western analyst argues that Islam is implacably opposed to democracy.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The ghost of Khomeini in the streets of Baghdad: the need for national reconciliation in iraq

Ayatollah Khomeini in Baghdad's Liberation Square
The recent controversy over the posting of photographs of the late Ayatollah Khomeini in city squares and along major thoroughfares in Baghdad caused a tremendous stir among Iraq's Sunni Arab population.  It even led to a fight between 2 deputies in the Iraqi parliament. 

For Iraq's Sunni population, these photographs  touched on one of their deepest fears, namely the idea that Iraq has fallen under Iranian control.  What does this latest indicator of sectarianism tell us about identity politics in contemporary Iraq and the future of political stability in the country?

For Sunni Arab politicians who reacted against the posters of Khomeini and the current Iranian ruler, Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei, they have a very short political memory.  Prior to 2003, Saddam Husayn's portrait in every government office and his photograph was de rigeur on the front page of all Iraqi newspapers.  Nevertheless, the posters represent a provocative act and were obviously designed to sen an implicitly sectarian message to Arab Sunnis and Kurds.  Iraq's Shi'a now control the government  and can count on Iran's support to keep political power resting in the hands of Shi'i parties and political elite.

Those who jump to the conclusion that the controversy surrounding the photographs of Khomeini along Baghdad thoroughfares is yet another indicator of Iraq's basic sectarian nature would be well advised to consider a number of historical facts.  First, the Ba'th Party was controlled through its first two iterations by Shi'is.  Fu'ad al-Rikabi ran the party from its founding in Iraq in 1952 until 1961.  During the mid-1960s, the party was dominated by 'Ali Salih al-Sa'di, a Fayli (Shi'i) Kurd.  Only after General Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr and Saddam Husayn seized power in a bloodless coup d'etat in 1968 did power gravitate towards Sunni Arabs.

Even during the 1970s, many Shi'a joined the Ba'th Party holding out the hope that it did not consider ethnic or confessional background important for party membership. And several Shi'is became high ranking party officials before Saddam Husayn seized the presidency and place al-Bakr under house arrest in 1979.  Following his seizure of power, many top ranking Shi'a party members were executed by Saddam, not because they were Shi'a but because he viewed them as potential competitors for power.

An analysis of sectarian identities is beyond the scope of this post (for a more in-depth analysis, see the special edition of the International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies, vol. 4/number 3 (2010),  which I guest edited, "The Question of Sectarian Identities in Iraq").  While always part of the political landscape to some degree, the issue of sectarianism has become a particularly salient issue in Iraqi politics since the toppling of Saddam Husayn and the Ba'th Party in 2003.

The coming to blows by Haydar al-Mulla, a Sunni Arab member of the al-'Iraqiya Coalition and Kadhim al-Sayyadi, a member of the al-Ahrar bloc, affiliated with Shi'i cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, led Council of Deputies speaker, 'Usama al-Nujayfi to suspend the parliamentary session see al-Hayat, and al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 27).  The cause of the argument, which escalated into blows, was al-Mulla's request that the parliament discuss the posting of the photographs.  In subsequent statements, al-Mulla asserted that the posting of the banner and posters with Khomeini and Khamenei's photographs violated Iraq national sovereignty.

Shi'i leaders, such as Ibrahim Ja'afari, head of the Iraqi national alliance, responded by saying that these posters are religious in nature and reflect the loyalties of large segment of the Iraqi populace (i.e., Shi'a) who have loyalties to religious figures such as Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei.  Mulla responded that Sunni Arabs had removed pictures of Turkish Prime Minister, Rejep Tayyib Erdogan - considered to be sympathetic towards radical Islamists fighting the Bashar al-Asad regime in Syria - from areas under their control.

Clearly, those who put up the banners and posters knew that they would be incendiary in nature.  In not too subtle terms, these symbols of Iran's Islamic Revolution sent two messages, not only to Iraq's Sunni Arab population but secular Shi'a and Kurds and other minorities as well.  Power in contemporary Iraq resides in the hands of the Shi'a and is controlled by Shi'i parties and political elite.

In an Op-Ed contribution published in al-Hayat on September 6th, "What does 'Khomeini's photograph' want from Baghdad " (madha turid 'surat al-Khumayni min Baghdad?), Syrian writer Hamud Hamud argued that the problem is not just the Shi'i political elite "rubbing it in" that they control Iraq, but the problem that Sunni Arabs face in their own identity politics, namely the lack of any credible leader behind whom they can coalesce in seeking to gain more power at the state level.

Certainly few Iraqis, apart from a few unreconstructed Ba'thists, would offer a Saddam Husayn type figure as the symbolic standard bearer of the Sunni Arab community.  Despite being a member of parliament, Ayad Allawi, head of the secular al-'Iraqiya Coalition, which won the 2010 parliamentary elections, seems to have opted out of active politicking.  Iraqi Islamic Party leader and former Iraqi Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashimi, remains in exile in Turkey under a sentence of death, should he return to Iraq, allegedly running a terrorist ring in 2006.  The young, popular Sunni Minister of Finance, Rafi' al-'Issawi, is likewise charged with promoting terrorism. 

As Humud notes at the end of his Op-Ed, Khomeini's picture is not only part of an effort to dominate political discourse in Iraq but its public culture as well.  As such the posting of Khomeini's photograph is much more than just a political "slap in the face" by the Shi'i political elite to Iraq';s Sunni Arab minority.  It is as much an indicator of where Iraq's Shi'i political elite wants the country to go in the future, a future dominated by a destructive sectarianism that will marginalize all but the majority Shi'i population.

On the occasion of Iraqi Prime Miniuster's Nuri al-Maliki's visit to the United States, it is time for the Obam,a adminstration to make clear that his government needs to become more inclusive,  Supplying Iraq with attack helicptors and eventually F-16 fighter aircraft should be contingent on Maliki following a policy of national reconciliation.

Such a policy would involve, first and foremost, public statements by Maliki that he taking a new tack - one that seeks to give all Iraq's political groups a seat at the national political table.  Holding a national reconciliation conference, first behind close doors and then, after Iraq's competing parties agree at least on the need to continue a dialogue that will promote national unity, rather than  sectarianism, would go a long way to combating the violence that threatens to push Iraq back to the height of sectarian violence between 2004 and 2007.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Syria Won’t Be Like Iraq

Guest Contibutor Gerald B. (Jerry) Thompson , COL (Ret), USA, a former military officer and DOD official, is currently a consultant on Middle East affairs. 

“We’re not very good at understanding other societies.  Every game is an ‘away game’ for us.”
Ambassador Ryan Crocker
Speaking at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, 9/17/ 2013

Every country’s political culture is unique.  Syria is no exception.  As we search through our recent past experiences in intervention operations such as Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan for lessons that may apply to our consideration of intervention in Syria, we need to be sensitive to the differences in political culture we encountered in each situation.  Our ability to discern such differences is not a notable U.S. talent nor, as a consequence, have we shown much ability to adapt policies and strategies to these differences.
Our understanding of the “other” culture - in this case, Syria’s political culture - more than our own or others, should shape our analysis of the situation and the political and operational concept of any intervention we might contemplate, especially regime change.
Comparing our experience of invasion, occupation and regime change in Iraq with the situation we confront in the Syrian insurrection raises a number of issues that deserve analysis.  Among these are differences in the political cultures of the two countries that have received far too little attention.  Among these is the difference in the role sectarian, ethnic and class identities played in the political culture of Syria and Iraq.  
 In Syria, these communal identities were manipulated to structurally reinforce regime legitimacy.  In Iraq, they were repressed, even denied to exist, as Saddam tried to impose a greater “Iraqi” identity in their place.  It is too simplistic but it frames the thought to say, “Saddam’s Iraq was anti-sectarian while Assad’s Syria was and is sectarian.”
My concern is that communal rivalry in a post-Asad Syria may become irreconcilable and make successful governance impossible.  Should this occur, the fragmentation of Syria would become virtually inevitable; the continuation of the conflict among mini-statelets would become quite possible, and could, very plausibly, destabilize the Middle East region.  In such circumstances, redrawing the map of the Middle East is not an inconceivable outcome.  If the United States were to choose to somehow mitigate that outcome, the diplomatic effort required will be unprecedented.
What have we learned from our experience in Iraq that is relevant to Syria?
Both Syria under the Assad regime and Iraq under Saddam Hussein were rigorously repressive, pervasive, authoritarian regimes.  Neither permitted any meaningful opposition.  In Iraq, as a result, there was no alternative legitimate entity able to step in and govern when Saddam Husayn’s regime collapsed.  In the short term, a power vacuum developed and the aggrieved population took out their revenge on their oppressor, primarily in the form of massive looting.  Less visible was the campaign of deliberate assassination, notably by Badr Corps operatives, taking targeted revenge against former Ba’th Party members.  Both the broad-scale looting and the direct, targeted revenge were soon subsumed in broader civil conflict.
It is not my purpose here to analyze the post-regime change civil conflict in Iraq except to say that it is helpful to think of it as many separate, often overlapping conflicts: 
·       A resistance campaign against the occupation by primarily Sunni Arab groups, often operating in tactical alliance with al-Qa’ida-affiliated “foreign fighters.”
·       An internal struggle for leadership among several predominantly Shi’a groups.
·       An internal struggle for leadership among several predominantly Sunni groups.
·       A broad but disorganized resistance against the central government seen variously as dominated by former exiles, or under the influence and control of Iran, or simply exerting unfair and unjust control and influence.
·       A wary confrontation between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central government in which both attempted to define the relationship between the two entities on their own terms.
Taken together, there was widespread civil conflict and resistance against the occupation forces which reached extremely high levels of violence, caused enormous human suffering and impeded development of a post-Saddam governing authority with broad political legitimacy.
At their heart, each of these overlapping conflicts was fought over the question of the distribution of power, authority and the benefits of the state.  With the exception of al-Qa’ida, no group was attempting to win sole authority.  All groups realized that, at some point, there would need to be a political settlement and they fought to maximize their relative position whenever that day might come.  al -Qa’ida was the exception and its maximalist goals resulted in its influence being diminished.  This struggle continues.
So, very broadly, there was a pattern in Iraq and there is a high probability that we will see a similar pattern in Syria:
·       Regime collapse;
·       Power vacuum;
·       Revenge taking;
·       Struggle for relative power in the successor regime.
Most notable for the purpose of comparing the experience of Iraq with what may possibly be expected in Syria is the lack of truly sectarian motives in the Iraqi civil conflict, especially when compared with the form of communal conflict we may see in post-regime change Syria.
Sectarianism in the Political Culture of Syria Compared With Sectarianism in Iraq
The role of sectarianism in Syrian political culture has been very different from the role of sectarianism in Iraq for more than a generation, perhaps three generations. 
Since the end of WWI, France, then Syrian regimes, manipulated communal identities in a structural way to produce a complex balance of these interest groups.  “Divide and conquer” was the way it was described, but the reality was both more complex and often more vicious that that sound bite implies.  As a consequence, Syrian political culture has a deep experience of ethnic and sectarian group identity being part of the structure of the governing regime’s legitimacy.
This was never the case in Iraq.
Saddam Husayn’s regime in Iraq was virtually anti-sectarian throughout its tenure.
Some readers will question this assertion, given the common media and politically driven image of Saddam’s regime as a Sunni chauvinist tyranny led by a clique of a previously unknown tribe which held power by brutally suppressing the disadvantaged and disenfranchised communities of Iraq, notably the Shi’a and the Kurds, but also the Christians,Yazidis, Turkmen.  Actually, this common image of Saddam’s regime is more caricature than truth.  Of course, like all good caricatures, there is a kernel of truth in it.  But, taken literally, it is at least as misleading as it is revealing, and it has mislead us in a great many ways in post-Saddam Iraq.
It is more accurate to see Saddam’s regime as having metamorphosed through stages, over 30+ years and three major wars (and several internal conflicts), rapid development and more rapid decline.  For its first decade and into the early years of the war with Iran, Saddam’s regime was dogmatically anti-sectarian.  By the end of the Iran war, it had become a Stalinist-clone personality cult in which the currency for access to power was loyalty to Saddam.  However, even then, sectarian identity had little to do with the legitimacy of the regime in any structural sense.  Joseph Sassoon noted in his Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, based on post-2003 access to the Ba’th Party files, that the Ba’th Party database format did not provide a space for “sect” or “religion” right on through the 1990’s.
This is very different from the more structural role that sectarian and ethnic identity has played in Syria, which favored Alawis, coopted certain elites and minority communities and deliberately repressed others, notably Sunnis and, perhaps especially, Sunni Islamists, such as members or sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Syrians were favored or denied on the basis of who they were in addition to their loyalty to the regime.  In Iraq, the currency of favor was simple – loyalty to Saddam.  If Saddam felt an individual was loyal, he/she would be advanced – without regard to that person's communal origins. 
How might “sectarian conflict” evolve differently in Syria compared to its experience in Iraq?
In Iraq, the population as a whole was repressed.  In Syria access to privilege (and repression) has been manipulated among narrowly based family and communal groups. 
Whereas in Iraq, resentment of the regime was broad-based, it was also focused on the Ba’th Party and Saddam’s personally directed security apparatus.  When the regime fell, revenge taking was targeted on these specific people – relatively well-defined, personalized targets.  And, the revenge-taking phase was quickly absorbed into a wider, more complex internal struggle for relative strength in the post-Saddam governing entity.  Limiting ourselves to the very strictest definition of the term, “sectarian conflict” never happened in Iraq.  What happened was a fundamentally political competition among groups struggling for power.

Post-Asad Syria may be very different and could become much more violent than Iraq. In Syria, the targets of resentment for revenge taking are more likely to be groups rather than specific individuals: communal groups such as Alawis and Christians, coopted families who have been part of the regime’s patronage and power networks.  Such groups are likely to be targeted because of their group identity without regard to what they may or may not have done politically as individuals.  We have already seen examples of such behavior.
The phase of revenge taking and the competition for power in the follow-on regime in Syria may well blur together and take the form of an identity war.  This could become a true inter-communal conflict in which interest groups aim to eliminate the potential power of their competitors for the sake of their own survival.  Instead of evolving toward a political competition over the distribution of power, the conflict could spiral downward.  A kind of mutual genocide is not unthinkable in that we could see communal groups attempt to annihilate other groups for the sake of their own survival.
At that point, we would have reached sectarian war in the fullest sense the term implies.
What are the potential consequences of regime change/regime collapse in Syria?
The violence of Syria’s insurrection is spreading into Iraq and Lebanon and cross-border incidents have occurred in Turkey, Israel and Jordan.  This spread of Syria’s violence is likely to continue.  In the event of regime change/collapse, the violence of Syria’s insurrection could expand rapidly and uncontrollably. 
In the power vacuum and revenge taking following regime change/collapse, some degree of territorial fragmentation of Syria will be a virtual certainty.  In the power vacuum after Asad’s removal, revenge taking on the basis of group identity or inter-communal violence in the competition for power, as described above, will cause the various groups to seek security in geographical areas where they are predominant and can establish control.  These areas may very well take on the behaviors of mini-statelets as they take action to protect their security.
Where this fragmentation may lead is a matter of speculation.  In the short term, it could mean that the Syrian nation-state as it has been known through most of the 20th century will effectively cease to exist.  Whether it may be drawn back together by a future post-Asad regime is certainly doubtful but not impossible.  It happened before, under the French mandate.  
Fragmentation might lead to some form of highly decentralized or federated system of governance.  On the other hand, these decentralized communities of Syria might establish relationships with similar communities along Syria’s current borders, blurring the meaning of those borders, perhaps rendering them effectively void.  
Ultimately, this sort of process could lead to a “Greater Kurdistan”, uniting the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq with the Kurdish region of Syria.  Would this entity be nominally part of Iraq? Or Syria?  An “Alawi homeland” might emerge in the northeast of Syria.  Similarly, there might emerge a “Sunnistan” in Syria based around Damascus, Homs and Hama that might merge with a self-declared autonomous region of Anbar/Salah ad-Din in Iraq.  
And then, there’s Lebanon and Jordan.  It is not inconceivable that we could see the end of the post-WWI order of nation-states in the Middle East. Re-mapping the Middle East is a real possibility.  Such an outcome would certainly cause stress among long-term United States interests and relationships in the region. 
What could mitigate that outcome?
Revenge taking presumes a power vacuum after regime collapse/removal.  If a capable entity were available and able to step in and exercise governing authority immediately, it is possible that the revenge-taking phase could be preempted or, at least, substantially constrained. 
Such an entity would have to be regarded as legitimate by a preponderance of the population and, in particular, the communal groups themselves.  This means that it would have to have been existing and present in some capacity for some time prior to regime change/removal, have demonstrated its capacity to govern, and the various groups would have satisfied themselves that their concerns would be treated fairly by this entity.  That is a very tall order.
For such an entity to emerge and prove itself will require the support of the various external supporters of the different groups contending for power in Syria now.  This will require the cooperation and collaboration of Russia, Iran, Turkey, the European Union, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE as well as Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.  Obtaining that sort of support from this group of interested parties is also a very tall order.
Despite the difficulty, this sort of outcome – providing a relatively orderly transition of power rather than an abrupt and conclusive change or collapse of the Assad regime – is far preferable from the standpoint of both strategic interest and minimizing human suffering.
Achieving this outcome will require extraordinary diplomacy, subordinating all other activities to the diplomatic effort.  The scope would be broad, including military and humanitarian assistance to the opposition, sanctions and concessions, and what may seem to be unrelated diplomacy and programs with Iraq’s neighbors, including with Iran and Israel and Russia.  The United States will have to prioritize and may well find itself turning these other programs to support this diplomatic effort that is focused on Syria. 
The United States has never pursued this type of policy before, ever, anywhere.  We should expect that success in Syria will challenge the United States' own capacity for diplomacy and its understanding of governance in other cultures.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Middle East at Chicago Ideas Week

Chicago Ideas Week began its third annual season this past week.  An offshoot of TED (Technology, Education, Design), CIW has been presenting a series of stimulating and provocative panels all this week (Oct. 14-20) which emphasize not only great analysis but innovative ideas on how to solve many of the world's problems.

I had the pleasure of participating in an event, "The Middle East: After the Arab Spring."  This talk was sponsored by Time Magazine and hosted by its International Editor, Bobby Ghosh, who reported from Iraq between 2002 and 2007.  As I learned from CIW organizer, Amy Walsh, this talk was the first to sell out and thus we had an enthusiastic and attentive audience.

Time International Editor, Bobby Ghosh
Besides Bobby Ghosh and me, the talk featured Ronny Edry, the founder of Peace Factory, Lara Setrakian, founder of "Syria Deeply," Rula Jebreal, Foreign Policy Contributor at MSNBC, and Ayman Mohyeldin, Foreign Correspondent for NBC News.

I began the talk with a presentation that focused on Iraq.  I posed the question whether there still is a possibility to bring democracy to Iraq.  I noted that Iraq’s politics differs considerably from that of other Arab countries,l except perhaps Tunisia and, to a lesser extent, Lebanon.

The Iraqi parliament has held anti-corruption hearings that led to the resignation of an important cabinet minister in 2009 who was a close ally of current prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki.  It has forced the cancellation of arms sales from Russia after it was discovered that the weapons systems were vastly overpriced.  The parliament has passed  term limits legislation limiting the prime minister and other top officials in the executive branch to 2 terms in office.  It also introduced a vote of no confidence in prime minister Maliki, based on his efforts to build a new authoritarian state and his failure to implement the democratic reforms he promised after the 2010 national parliament elections.
In my presentation, I pointed to Iraq's "youth bulge," namely, that 70% of Iraq's population is under the age of 30.  While many youth are members of criminal and terrorist organizations, it is democratically oriented youth who are the main drivers behind Iraq's large number of civil society organizations.  These organizations work to protect women's rights, have created a large and influential blogosphere, and have produced highly popular television programs, including "soap operas," that satirize  sectarianism and a program that featured houses rebuilt after being destroyed as a result of sectarian violence.

I reported on my research with Iraqi youth that I am conducting with my colleague, Dr. Faris Kamal Nazmi, a distinguished social psychologist who teaches at Salahiddin University in Erbil.  Of particular interest are youth attitudes towards religion.  Do Iraqi youth view religion as a vehicle for promoting tolerance and political pluralism, or do they interpret religion in sectarian terms?  The results thus far indicate that educated middle class students are adamantly opposed to sectarianism and the politicization of religion which they see as a threat to their future. 

Baghdad:  Please..! Please! No discussion of religion and politics in my shop
Indeed, in Iraq, many students we interviewed considered clerics to be politicians rather than men of religion.  For many youth, Islam is interpreted more as a political ideology than a religion because they see so many clerics involved in politics and pursuing their own personal agendas, rather than seeking to help the community at large.  Few youth attend the Friday prayer (khutba) and those that do often said only because they are forced to do so by their parents.  These Iraqi youth, especially those who are part of the educated middle classes, show no interest whatsoever in participating in religiously motivated violence.

I ended my talk with suggestions how Americans can become more involved in the Middle East.  Establishing "sister cities" and "sister schools" with counterparts in Iraq (and in other countries in the Middle East) can be a way of getting to know Iraqis and Middle Easterners face to face.  With Skype, social media and other forms of technology, Americans can bring the Middle East right into their homes.

Muslims are the fastest growing demographic in the United States.  Civic groups can arrange forums in which Muslim, Christian and Jewish clerics can discuss the issue of religion and violence, both in the US and abroad.  Invitations can be sent to Muslim clerics in the Middle East to visit the United States and engage Americans in an important dialogue about how to improve communication between the West and the region.

 In the spirit of being fed up with waiting for governments to address major foreign policy issues, Ronny Edry decided to act to try on his own to defuse tensions between Israel and Iran.  Founder of Peace Factory, he took the photograph shown here and uploaded it to his Facebook page with the note, "Iranians, we will never bomb your country.  We love you."

Within hours, thousands of Israelis and Iranians had "friended" one another.  Soon Israelis and Palestinians were doing the same thing.  Then the movement spread to Europe and other parts of the world embracing other contentious issues not related to the Middle East.  At one point Ronny noted in his talk, there were 100,000 people involved in the "We will not bomb you" campaign and when anyone posted "Iran" or "Israel" on Google, the Peace Factory came up first.

Now the movement has joined Stanford University's Peace Innovation Lab to move the project to the
next level. According to Ronny, the slogan, "Peace, it's viral," demonstrates how ordinary citizens can use social media to promote conflict resolution globally when politicians fail to meet their responsibilities to insure that their country does not needlessly go to war.

Following Ronny's presentation, Bobby Ghosh engaged Lara Setrakian, Rula Gebreal, and Ayman Mohyeldin in a discussion of the Arab Spring.  Posing a number of sharply focused questions, Bobby was able to elicit a highly informative analysis from three of the best young analysts of contemporary Arab politics.

 All three journalists agreed that the most important result of the Arab Spring is the destruction of the "wall of fear."  Never again will Arabs submit to authoritarian rule and fail to hold their political leaders accountable for their actions.  At the same time, they also drew parallels between the United States and the Arab Spring, noting that it took until 1783 for the US to complete its constitution and establish a federal state.  When considering the Arab Spring, democracy cannot be built overnight.
Bobby Ghosh interviews Rula Gebreal, Ayman Mohyeldin and Lara Setrakian

Lara Setrakian decried the lack of knowledge Americans have of the Syrian conflict. She pointed out that most Americans are unaware that Syrians emphatically reject living under the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Asad or an oppressive regime run by radical Islamist forces linked to al-Qa'ida. This was the reason Lara created "Syria Deeply," an information platform that is designed to enhance foreign policy literacy through using the most up to date forms of digital technology.

Rula Jebreal called for a "paradigm shift" in United States foreign policy.  She argued that the disproportionate influence wielded by a small number of lobbying groups in the US Congress prevents the US government from adopting a more rational and problem-oriented foreign policy in the Middle East.  Rula cautioned that the Arab Spring's success in toppling dictators is only the first step on a long and bumpy road to democracy.

Ayman Mohyeldin agreed that the Arab Spring is only the beginning of a long process.  When asked by Bobby Ghosh whether New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was correct when he asserted that the Arab Spring had "let the tiger out of the cage," Ayman agreed, and argued that and it will not be put back in.   He also predicted that, if the military does not follow its stated six month road map to put Egypt back on the road to democracy, Egyptians will once again take to the streets, as they did when they demanded the ouster of former Muslim Brotherhood president, Muhammad Morsi.

Chicago Ideas Week was strong on analytics but also strong on proposing solutions to the myriad problems facing the United States and the world.  CIW is an excellent example of American civil society in action given the service it provides to Chicago and the world beyond.

Photo credits:  Houston Cofield/Chicago Ideas Week.  Thanks also to Amy Walsh, Nina Ryan and Meg Handler for help with this post.