The Syria Problem

September 3, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama’s surprising announcement Saturday that he would go to Congress for use-of-force authorization against Syria will require the president to extrapolate what a strike will accomplish and what contingency plans his administration has should the conflict spread.

A swift resolution is unlikely. Meaningful changes in Syria will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve under any circumstances.


The real threat is the conflict spilling over. If the U.S. attacks Syria, expect Hezbollah to hit Israel from southern Lebanon and the Israelis to retaliate over a period of weeks.

Iran will rattle its sword, but any rhetoric about attacking Israel will be a bluff. If Tehran were to strike Israel, its nuclear facilities would immediately be a target; therefore, Iran will be happy to use Hezbollah as a proxy.

The threat of spreading conflict will drive up oil prices. Key oil-producing countries like Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia could be drawn into the strife and cardinal transit points for oil transport like the Persian Gulf and Egypt may be jeopardized.

I think it is safe to expect oil prices to hit $120 to $125 a barrel, up from about $107 now. The impact on American drivers will be about a 15 cent a gallon increase.

Even if Assad is ultimately removed from power, broader unrest in the Middle East will continue for decades and any rebel faction that takes over Syria will be anti-American while al Qaeda (an important contingent of the opposition) will be well positioned to gain power and influence.

In reality, war between the U.S. and Syria has already commenced.

The pro Assad Syrian Electronic Army hacked the U.S. Marine Corps website over the weekend. The electronic attack was aimed at discouraging U.S. entry into the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels. The hackers left a message stating that Mr. Obama is “a traitor who wants to put your lives in danger to rescue al Qaeda insurgents,” according to the New York Post.

The hackers then urged the Marines to rebel against their commander-in-chief and to join the civil war on the side of the Assad regime.

Many people are asking themselves, if the U.S. attacked Syria, how would we define winning and losing the conflict? While Mr. Obama has yet to define to the world what he would consider to be a win, members of his administration have voiced how the U.S. could lose.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been resolute that the consequences of inaction in Syria would be dire.  Mr. Kerry has said that if the U.S. doesn’t act, it would send a signal to Iran and North Korea that it is okay to advance their nuclear programs and to move ahead in proliferation of their weapons. Kerry said that it is important to show that if a red line is crossed, the U.S. is prepared to back it up.

No matter the outcome, the U.S.’ standing in the Muslim world will continue to erode.

Two audacious and carefully coordinated jailbreaks that occurred in Baghdad over the weekend and which killed at least twenty security guards have now been claimed by the al Qaeda affiliate al Qaeda in Iraq. The al Qaeda franchise has been emboldened in recent months and these latest efforts have freed hundreds of Islamic militants including many senior al Qaeda officers. 

Prison guards in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib

The main target of the jailbreaks was the infamous Abu Ghraib prison which became famous in 2004 when American military prison guards were exposed for abusing its prisoners.

Until the attack, Abu Ghraib was one of Iraq’s most secure locations, and this is yet another example of security all over the country disintegrating.

More than 2,500 people have been killed in Iraq in the past three months alone while over 90,000 people have been killed next door in Syria since the beginning of its civil war. 

There is a real danger that many of these freed militant fighters will cross the border into Syria to join the ongoing sectarian war. Al Qaeda’s Sunni fighters have been heavily involved with trying to bring down the Shi’ite Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad.

The Syrian civil war has become ground zero for the Middle East’s sectarian conflict, and the violence is drawing in fighters (both Sunnis and Shi’ites from other countries) into Syria to join the battle. The resulting sectarian violence is then leaking over the Syrian border back into Iraq as well as into Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, and Iran. This means Iraq could revert to being devoured by sectarian conflict as it was a decade ago, but the even bigger fear is that other countries could follow. 

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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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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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