Different Perspectives

August 23, 2012

Hezbollah’s Military Wing

There are many perspectives within the Middle East about Hezbollah. These perspectives vary from person to person when they presuppose what Hezbollah is, who it symbolizes, and what it’s achieving.

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A powerful Shi’ite tribe in Lebanon (The al-Meqdad clan) announced today that it has kidnapped more than 20 FSA or Free Syrian Army (The Sunni organization that I wrote about yesterday) soldiers in Beirut in response to the alleged abduction in Damascus of one of their own by members of the FSA.

The Lebanese news organization Naharnet quoted an al-Meqdad tribal leader as saying, “The family’s military wing kidnapped several Syrians. We are not afraid of anyone.”

Among those said to be abducted by the Meqdads in Lebanon within the past 24 hours was a Sunni member of the Syrian army who defected. Lebanon’s LCBI has confirmed that a former captain in President Bashar al-Assad’s army is among those abducted.

The Meqdads said they are not taking sides in the Syrian conflict, and that they “just want our son to come back to Lebanon safely.” Hassan Salim al-Meqdad was reportedly detained by the FSA on Monday. The opposition group accused the 39-year-old Lebanese national of being a member of Hezbollah.

As I have stated in previous posts, Hezbollah is a Shi’a militant group. It has a paramilitary wing that is one of the stronger militant movements within the Middle East. Hezbollah has been a recipient of military and financial assistance from Syria for years, and I have hypothesized that Hezbollah would be one group with loyalties to the Syrian regime that could stand in opposition to rebel Sunni groups in the civil war.

For more on Hezbollah and its role in the Syrian conflict, read my article here: http://nottheology.com/2012/08/02/hezbollahframework/

Money and Expectations

August 14, 2012

Over the weekend U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Turkish officials in Istanbul to work on contingency plans for the eventual fall of the Syrian regime. Secretary Clinton says that it’s urgent to prepare for a transition in order to make sure Syria’s institutions remain intact.

Syrian opposition groups are hoping that the U.S. will do more than just design transition plans. Many are calling for U.S. involvement in overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad’s rule through military and monetary support.

The U.S. Treasury has granted a license to an American-based organization to raise money on behalf of a coalition of armed opposition groups known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The “Syrian Support Group” (SSG) is a nonprofit organization that has an office in Washington, DC. The nonprofit is primarily comprised of Syrian ex-pats (12 are on its board of directors) and they volunteer their time to support “peaceful protests in Syria” as well as the FSA.

The SSG’s director of government relations, Brian Sayers, has suggested in media interviews that the nonprofit is providing needed intelligence to the U.S. government (through contacts it has on the ground) in exchange for the U.S.’s facilitation of monetary donations to the FSA.

As I have stated previously, there are possibly hundreds of opposition groups in Syria. Several of these groups consider themselves to be the incumbency for the opposition. These groups are not part of a larger monolithic whole; rather, they are  divergent ethnic groups that are often antagonistic and even violent towards one another.

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New Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi yesterday ordered the retirement of Defense Minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi as well as the military’s Chief of Staff Gen. Sami Annan. Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, is Egypt’s first democratically elected president. Morsi also restored to the presidential office powers that were taken from it by the military before his election.

Earlier today, Egypt’s military signaled its acquiescence to the shake-up. A posting on a Facebook page known to be close to the country’s military said the changes amounted to the “natural” handing over of leadership to a younger generation. Furthermore, the country’s official news agency quoted an unnamed military official yesterday as saying there has been no “negative reaction” from within the military.

Morsi has appointed Tantawi and Annan to be his presidential advisers during their retirement. This has sparked speculation that the shake-up of the military brass was part of a “safe exit” deal struck between Morsi and the generals to shield them against prosecution for any alleged crimes during the time they ruled the country.

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Earlier today, Iranian state television broadcast the opening remarks of a 29-nation conference on Syria hosted in Tehran. Iran is attempting to position itself as a peace-broker for the Syrian civil war.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi opened the conference by calling for a “national dialogue” between the Syrian regime and opposition groups.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran firmly believes that the Syrian crisis can only be resolved through serious and inclusive talks between the government and opposition groups that enjoy popular support in Syria,” Salehi said. The Foreign Minister further explained that Iran “rejects any foreign and military intervention in Syria and backs and supports U.N. efforts to resolve the crisis”.

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I came across an article and thought I would share it. If true, the sect/cult in question would be a good representation of a group denouncing civil society and turning its back on modernity.

Enjoy: 70 sect members found living underground in Russia — For Nearly 10 years! 

The Axis of Resistance

August 8, 2012

Iranian security chief Saeed Jalili, yesterday pledged Tehran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Members of Iran’s government joined Mr. Assad during talks in Damascus broadcast by Syrian state television. Mr. Jalili said, “Iran will not allow the axis of resistance, of which it considers Syria to be an essential part, to be broken in any way.” 

The “axis of resistance” refers to Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

As I alluded to in my post yesterday, the Lebanese Hezbollah has operated as an instrument for the radicalized Shi’ite community. The “axis of resistance” is a purely Shi’ite alignment of nations that seeks to be a counterweight (within the Middle East) to the power of the Sunni alignment of nations led by Saudi Arabia.

Iran is seen as the de facto leader of this Shi’ite alliance. The biggest effect the Iranian Revolution of 1979 had on the Middle East was to encourage the most uncompromising elements within the Shi’ite community to fight a regional counteroffensive against what was then a Sunni status quo.

Iran has been attempting for years to export its revolution to the rest of the Muslim world. The social norms and values espoused by the Iranian Revolution encourage Shi’ite legitimacy and political power.

The Middle East has been dominated by Sunni power centered in Saudi Arabia since the creation of the Islamic conference in 1969. However, Iran has considered itself the true standard-bearer of Islam since its revolution, despite its Shi’ite minority status. Iran considers the Saudis to be “usurpers who sold oil to the West in exchange for military protection–a retrograde, conservative monarchy with a facade of ostentatious piety” (Kepel 2000).

As I explained yesterday, the Shi’ite faith has always appealed to the poor and oppressed waiting for salvation. Iran’s propaganda promotes an “Islam of the people,” and incites the poor to rise up against the impiety of Sunni-lead governments.

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A reader recently asked why I focused on Hezbollah last week in posts about the Syrian civil war, so today I’d like to provide some additional context.

First, there are many ways to analyze the ongoing conflict in Syria. It can be seen as a revolution against an authoritarian regime, or as a proxy war between Sunnis and Shi’a, or as means for al-Qaeda and similar organizations to find new relevance. All of these approaches are helpful in understanding the nuances of actors and motivations in the war.

Second, Hezbollah has undeniably been an instrument of the Syrian government. Syria has helped to fund and train Hezbollah militants since the group’s inception. If the government has used Hezbollah to attack groups outside of Syria in the past, there is no reason to think it won’t use them to attack groups inside of Syria now. Furthermore, there is premature speculation in the media that the fall of the Syrian regime could spell the end of Hezbollah.

Personally, I am particularly interested in how a Shi’ite group like Hezbollah may try to counter the growing Sunni presence of al-Qaeda. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was not inaccurate when he characterized the opposition as “al-Qaeda terrorists” during the early days of the war. Many within the Western news media balked at that suggestion, but al-Qaeda was among the hundreds of opposition groups in Syria at that time and their numbers have only grown since.

The al-Qaeda fighters pouring into Syria from Iraq promote a jihadist vision that is global in scope, intolerant of other Sunni doctrines, and fanatically anti-Shi’a. Al-Qaeda’s main grievance with the Syrian regime is that it is run by Alawites, people who belong to a branch of Shi’a Islam. Syria’s population is over 70% Sunni, yet the country is run by minority Shi’ites who make up only around 12% of the population.  Al-Qaeda wants to change that.

The Shi’a were an early Islamic political faction (Party of Ali) that supported the power of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the fourth caliph (ruler) of the Muslim community. Ali was murdered in 661CE, and his chief rival, Muawiya, became the new caliph. It was Ali’s death that led to the great schism between Sunni and Shi’ite.

Caliph Muawiya was succeeded by his son Yazid, but Ali’s son Hussein refused to accept Yazid’s legitimacy. Fighting between the two denominations resulted. Hussein and his followers were massacred in battle near Karbala in 680CE,  and the deaths of Ali and Hussein gave rise to the Shi’a sect of martyrdom and a sense of betrayal.

The Shi’ite faith has always appealed to the poor and oppressed waiting for salvation. It is a messianic tradition in that it awaits the coming of the “Hidden Imam” (Allah’s messenger) who will reverse the fortunes of sect members and herald the end of the world.

Shi’ites  currently make up about 15% of the Muslim population worldwide. Al-Qaeda has vowed to wipe the Shi’ites from the face of the earth. The only way that the Alawite population can survive in the current Syrian climate is to use their own groups such as Hezbollah to push back against the al-Qaeda machine.

To sum up, I have focused on Hezbollah because that organization is a significant- and significantly underreported- player in the Syrian conflict.

Kofi Annan Leaves Syria

August 3, 2012

Another blow has been dealt to the Syrian peace process.

Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has resigned from his role as the U.N.’s chief peace negotiator in Damascus. The announcement comes as the severity of fighting has risen in recent weeks. This is yet another sign that there will not be a peaceful end to the Syrian civil war any time soon.

Mr. Annan had been in this role since February, but success always appeared to be a long shot for him: It can be almost impossible to demilitarize a conflict with so many moving parts. As I have written, there are possibly hundreds of opposition groups within Syria vying for a leadership position in the rebellion. Getting all of these groups to the table would be a daunting task in and of itself. Even then, getting them to agree on anything is another matter entirely.

So what are the consequences of diplomacy failing?

I’ve noted previously that the Syrian military is using war planes to fire on the opposition. These are fighter jets and helicopters that were designed to fight a different kind of war (a war with another state actor). This could indicate the military’s desperation and hint at a disintegration of its other capabilities.

Reports now attest that portions of the rebel opposition have become more capable and better organized since al-Qaeda got involved in the fight. News reports out this morning cite intelligence sources indicating that a substantial presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq is within Syria. This compounds matters.

Al-Qaeda operatives have previous combat experience, and they are probably offering to help the local opposition forces be more effective. Al-Qaeda will likely embed their fighters in existing opposition forces and move to systematically co-opt the agenda of these groups, once they are in place.

Western intelligence services need to find out who and where these operatives are – and fast: Syria is known to be armed with a substantial stockpile of chemical weapons. It will be vital for western governments to ensure that those weapons do not fall into terrorist hands.

The organization known as Hezbollah first appeared in Lebanon in 1982 with the purpose of targeting and attacking Israeli, American, and French military forces. A loose federation of Shi’a and incendiary groups, Hezbollah emerged as a response to foreign military occupation of Lebanon.

On June 6, 1982, Israel invaded Southern Lebanon in what would become known as the 1982 Lebanon War. With 3,000 tanks and armored vehicles and 78,000 combat soldiers, Israel would go on to occupy the southern Lebanese region. Among Israel’s  intentions was to remove a Syrian influence from Lebanon and to expel the Palestinian Liberation Organization from the area. Israel believed that its actions would lead to regional stability; however, Hezbollah was born one month later as a resistance movement.

Former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak described Hezbollah’s creation in a June 8, 2009 article for Time Magazine entitled “A Brief History Of: Hizballah.” Barak described the effect of Israel’s invasion by saying, “When we entered Lebanon, there was no Hezbollah… It was our presence there that created Hezbollah.”

Initially, Hezbollah had almost no popular support among the Lebanese people. However, the longer Israeli troops occupied Lebanon (a total of 18 years) the more that resentment grew within the population. Specifically, Shi’a resentment led to the forming of several militant organizations.

Hezbollah responded by expanding into an umbrella organization that coordinated the operations of what were otherwise a detached aggregation of preexisting Shi’a tribes and social groups. Israel’s invasion solidified these differing groups by giving them the common purpose of resisting an occupation.

Hezbollah experimented with a stratagem of suicide attacks during the first year of its formation. The first couple of attacks targeted Israeli forces, but the third attack was on U.S. Marines in Beirut. A fourth attack later struck French soldiers the same day as the third attack.

Scholar Robert A. Pape has argued that the vastly different groups involved in Hezbollah’s coordination of early suicide attacks  cooperated, because they saw such attacks as a legitimate means of self-defense. However, Pape contends that not all of the groups involved saw suicide attacks as an act of religious martyrdom. Pape’s research has led him to believe that early suicide bombers acted for the secular reason of advancing their community’s economic and political  power. This secular justification, according to Pape, was offered in hundreds of speeches and interviews by early resistance leaders (Pape 2010).

Hezbollah leadership slowly started a discourse over the nature of suicide attacks and religious martyrdom as the group continued to coordinate and consolidate its power over smaller organizations. This discourse was used to encourage new bombers and to replenish their ranks.

As Hezbollah’s influence grew, it began to receive funding from the Syrian and Iranian regimes.

The Hezbollah movement has been a real problem for Israel. Many Israelis will tell you that Israel has not had a broad strategy for dealing with this group; instead, the country finds itself continually stuck in an ad hoc military campaign. Hezbollah has emerged as a symbol of armed resistance against Israel, and has gained a following among Shi’a, Sunnis, and non-Muslim Arabs over the years.

That pan-Arab support may be dwindling, however.

As I noted in my post yesterday, there are reports of sectarian conflict erupting as a part of Syria’s current civil war. The Syrian regime has been a major supporter of Hezbollah both financially and politically. As denominations and tribes battle one another on Hezbollah’s border, one can only guess at how the current climate may affect Hezbollah’s infrastructure and mission.

Sunni militants are trickling into Syria to battle President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as well as Shi’a militias who are also battling the regime. The Sunni terrorist organization al-Qaeda has used the Syrian civil war as a recruitment tool and fundraiser after years of loses to U.S. and Iraqi forces. The influx of Sunnis has added to the destabilization of the region, and it has galvanized Shi’a militant organizations to combat the incoming Sunnis.

According to Reuters, senior officials in Baghdad believe that seasoned al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq “are crossing the 680 km (422 mile) border into Syria to liaise and conduct attacks on Assad’s government.”

Hezbollah may very well move to counter al-Qaeda’s growing influence in order to retain its own power.

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