Unconventional thinking about the Middle East.

Friday, August 25, 2006

New Column: Islam and the City

I have a new column out about the city of Aleppo, Islam and the City. I am travelling again, this time through Syria and Turkey. I always promise to blog while on the road, and then never get around to it. So, sorry. I will be writing my columns regularly, though.

Gulle Gulle

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

New Column: Battle for Baghdad

Kindly have a look at my new column, Battle for Baghdad. I take a look at the new Iraqi Army and what role it sees for itself.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Some Thoughts From Israel

Here are some thoughts that were sent to me by my good friend Michael Bavly, who is watching all this unfold from Haifa and the Galilee. He is 33, a lawyer, a Lieutenant in reserve and a gentleman. He can be reached at mbavly@shalam.org, and I have benefited from his viewpoint and thoughts. Here they are in three seperate essays:

The View from Northern Israel

When I just arrived to the US, back in 1996, I was afraid I would get mugged while riding the subway. So, each time I would ride it by myself I would sit tight, hold on to my luggage, and occasionally look around, jilting my head sporadically, moving my eyes rapidly, and even growl, all in order to create the impression that I am a madman not to be messed with. Such is the strategy employed by Israel these days – so all will know that the landlord lost it. Beware, and back off!

The problem with this war, besides the fact that the IDF has already killed more than 120 Lebanese civilians, and the Hezbollah killed more than 12 Israeli civilians, is that it has no clear objective. One can name several probable outcomes, but at the end of the day this war is about payback. All the chatter since Wednesday noon is about "making them pay", "taking Lebanon back 20 years", and simply "showing them". Needless to say, that's not how one should wage war.

War cannot be based on revenge. War, and any use of military forces, necessitates clear political objectives. These objectives are meant to activate as well as restrain the military. As of today, such objectives have not been clearly defined by Israel, and instead we hear an array of slogans based on the whim of the current spokesperson – "Hezbollah shall not remain near the Israeli border", "Hezbollah shall not fire rockets at Israel"… Hold on a second, does anyone remember Gilad Shalit? Ehud Goldwaser? Eldad Regev?

Let's pause for a second and try to award real value to the events we have been witnessing. No doubt that the current round of blows has been instigated by the Hezbollah. But let us not get carried away with allegations of escalation, because there Israel is to blame. Israel was the first to massively attack civilian targets and cause civilian fatalities. Israel is the one that killed 10 Lebanese civilians for every 1 Israeli civilian fatality. There is no doubt that Israel has retaliated with great force, massive bombardment, and indifference which we have not seen in years, but it cannot all be justified. The Israeli Air Force circles the skies of Beirut, the Beirut International Airport has been bombed and taken out of commission, the border crossings to Syria are jammed-packed and most of the main roads have been bombed as well, and lastly, the Israeli Navy has placed a blockade on the shores of Lebanon. Vengeance is understandable, but we mustn't ignore the fact that the destruction and suffering experienced by the Lebanese people is 10 times greater than that which the Israeli people experience.

And then there is the Hezbollah—an organization that behaves like a true enemy: it hates us, taunts us, stuns us, kills us. Truth be told, the Hezbollah does not represent, by any means, an existential threat to the state of Israel; but occasionally it carries out a successful military operation. And when it succeeds, Israel is rattled, politicians get more airtime, and anchors and commentators quench their egos. Essentially, this entire round of violence is due to the fact that the Hezbollah's military operation last Wednesday was successful – perhaps because the IDF soldiers were not prepared, perhaps because the reserve soldiers were overconfident, and perhaps because the Hezbollah soldiers were simply better, and maybe they were plain lucky.

In any event, I look at all of this and I think to myself 'what losers'. What a loser is the IDF that soldiers are kidnapped from within Israeli territory. What arrogance is displayed by the IDF when a Navy boat is hit by a missile and the best excuse to offer is "we didn’t know they had that type of missile." What loser of a nation stands still at the news that the leader of its enemy is about(!) to broadcast a pre-recorded speech. What losers are the Israeli leaders (supported by zealous media) that arrogantly blabber baseless commentary as if victory is at hand, as if triumph is measured by the destruction we shed on Beirut… as if we were never part of this movie before.

And behind the arrogant and egocentric Israeli attitude, the main problem is revealed – that of the Israeli public. The Israeli public, which we all support and care for, the society that withstands so much but also flees the northern towns, this public is now revealing its true colors. These colors are of a blood thirsty public, full of vengeance, and, above all, a crybaby public. A child often cries not because of the pain, but because of the surprise it got hit. And such is the Israeli public: surprised, embarrassed, egocentric, and seeking vengeance! In the morning of last Wednesday, not knowing what had happened, I could hear the Boom-Boom-Boom; by the afternoon it was replace with Kill-Kill-Kill.

The public is somehow allowed to seek revenge. Leadership, however, must not act upon vengeance. A responsible civil leadership must always ask itself what are the objectives sought, which once attained, would allow the cessation of hostilities. Absent such clearly defined objectives, there will be no exit strategy. Absent an exit strategy, there will be no civil control over the military might. Absent civil control over military might, there will be no utilization of warfare outcomes. And absent utilization of warfare outcomes, an illusion that something was done is created. And illusions, as we know by now, tend to blowup in our own faces.

I wish that Israel would stop acting based on vengeance. I wish my Israeli Prime Minister would finally declare clear and sensible objectives. I wish we would stop being so arrogant, smug, and knowing-all. I wish we would show some respect to the Hezbollah as a military foe, and also show respect to the Lebanese people as a northern neighbor. I wish we would realize and understand that we are killing Lebanese civilians, and that the sufferings we inflict by far exceed that which we endure. I want to know exactly what it is we are fighting for and what we are trying to achieve. And I want us to understand that we are not alone here in the Middle East, and we cannot simply do as we please.

The Price We Pay


The concept of 'a just war' used to be a war to which there was no other alternative. Somewhere along the years, however, the term 'a just war' received a meaning of a war in which we have the legitimate right to act with military force. Therein, perhaps, lies the difference in perspectives between those who support this war and those who criticize it. The majority of Israelis see this war as a legitimate response to an unprovoked attack on Israel. In war, however, it is better to be smart than just.

The sequence of events of that crucial Wednesday, when two IDF soldiers were abducted and the current mess began three weeks ago, was such that it was actually Israel that first massively struck civilian targets. The Israeli government/army chose to attack an array of targets, including civilian ones, in response to an unprovoked, perfectly carried out, military operation. It is true that Israel responded to a clear act of aggression, but Hezbollah's aggression was aimed at an Israeli military objective, not a civilian one.

One may think that Israel's reaction was just and proportional, but let there be no doubt that Hezbollah attacked Haifa and other Israeli civilian targets only after Israel reacted the way it did. In any event, a discussion of Hezbollah's moral standards cannot, and should not, be used as a means to legitimize the Israeli conduct. Israel's behavior needs to be measured against its own moral standards and not based on the conduct of others. Furthermore, the issue is not who struck first, and the responsibility rests on Israel because of the particular manner it chose to react. (Which, by the way, raises the question of what ever happened to the ever so popular policy of "we reserve the right to respond in the place, manner, and time we shall deem fit!" ??)

The immediate, domestic consequence of Israel’s retaliation is that northern Israel is semi-abandoned and mostly shut-down. Except for essential services, food markets, and gas stations, most businesses are closed. In addition, post offices and banks operate irregularly, and much of the population has moved south. The siren is sounding the alarm to find shelter about six times during the day, and reportedly, the Hezbollah is firing an average of 110 rockets per day, at mostly civilian targets in Israel. Luckily, many of the rockets land in open areas, but a sufficient number of them have hit homes, cars, and factories, and they have resulted in a few dozen fatalities and hundreds of injuries. Overall, there is massive support for the government and the IDF's actions in Lebanon, but after three weeks of fighting a few voices of dissent are also heard.

With emotions running high, the situation is often blamed on Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Southern Lebanon back in the summer of 2000 – "it is the price we pay for leaving southern Lebanon"; "it is the price we pay for letting the Hezbollah arm themselves uninterrupted for 6 years." Few remember now that during the years leading up to the 2000 withdrawal Israel paid an average price of 100 dead IDF soldiers each year, while since the withdrawal the average number of IDF casualties dropped to two per year. Then came Wednesday, July 11, 2006, and in three weeks the Israeli civilian and military casualties has tripled that of the death toll of the past 6 years combined. On the other side of the border the number of Lebanese civilian and military casualties number in the upper hundreds, and the damage to the civilian infrastructure is huge, but still immeasurable at this point. So, this is the price we pay these days, it is a price we pay for maintaining the illusion that Israel, as a nation, is doing all that it can to bring about peace to the land.

The uncompromised-pursuit-of-peace illusion is a myth that has been blinding the Israeli public for years. It is a myth because the 2000 withdrawal was unilateral, and because after the withdrawal Israel simply sat there without genuinely campaigning to make peace between itself, Syria, and Lebanon. The illusion was further nurtured by portraying the withdrawal to the Israeli public as yet another huge gesture towards peace; however, following the withdrawal Israel closed itself off within its borders, it publicly rejected the Saudi peace plan of 2002, and IDF airplanes continued to violate Lebanese airspace. In reality, the 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon was simply an act that ended an 18 year military occupation of a foreign land, and the decision to withdrawal was based on purely selfish reasons – the cost of IDF fatalities was too high to bear. But now, it seems, the price of warfare has become lucrative again.

This military campaign has been going on for more than three weeks now, and with casualties mounting and no visible military or political achievement in sight, the time has come to stop arguing over legitimacy and start focusing on how to end this current round of violence. And while you are at it, don’t forget Gaza. It is time to cease-fire and to find a different way to move on and out of this bloody stalemate. Surely, the price we have paid by now is high enough.

What should Israel do?

First of all, even if my answer would have been "I don't know," it still does not make the current military action the only viable option. One can always name threats to Israel and therefore can always name possible military "necessities". But even when the IDF is required to act, certain ground rules must apply. First, it is the civil leadership that activates the army and not vice versa. Second, the civil leadership needs to decide on clear objectives and guidelines for the military action. Third, no military should be deployed without having an exit strategy. Fourth, comprehend that a stick is only as painful as the carrot beside it; absent a carrot, in the form of attainable and sensible political objectives, the stick ultimately looses its effect. Fifth, military targets must be distinguished from civilian targets. And lastly, the civil leadership must be ready to accept the ramification of its actions, including the probable harm inflicted on its own citizens.

I would like Israel to understand all of the above. I would like Israel to act within the moral standards it aspires to hold. Israel should stop hurting the Lebanese society. If the numbers do not speak for themselves, I don’t know what does. More than 200 Lebanese civilian casualties, and about a 15 Israeli civilian casualties. If Israel decides to use the IDF, with its sophisticated military force and high moral grounds, then such civilian death toll is simply unacceptable. Israel has to do a better job in reducing the amount of civilian Lebanese casualties.

After taming the use of its military force, Israel needs to embark on an equally massive diplomatic campaign. It must get the active involvement of neighboring Egypt and Jordan, of the EU, the UN, and of course the US. Numerous international players can be of aid here, and Israel should ask for their assistance in attaining the goals set out by the civil leadership. A combined effort is the way to go, combined military and diplomatic, combined regional and international.

What should be Israel's objectives? Achieving security and peace in the northern front, and the safe return of its kidnapped soldiers. Achieving security and peace means that Lebanon would assert its sovereignty over the entire country. As far as Lebanese foreign affairs is concerned there can be just one sovereign. As far as domestic Lebanon, it is up to no one else but the Lebanese themselves to decide. Lebanon is home for distinguish ethnic groups, and the Hezbollah is the vocal representative of the Shiite population in Lebanon; they are Lebanese citizens, and Israel cannot expect them to simply vanish, it's just not going to happen. But there can be a just and fair expectation for a quiet border between Israel and Lebanon, much like the one between Syria and Israel.

Achieving a quiet border between Lebanon and Israel would probably necessitate the dismantling of arms of the Hezbollah. It would mean that someone other than Hezbollah would have to secure the border from the Lebanese side. This means that Israel, Lebanon, or some sort of an international task force, would take over the positions in the south. Israel already occupied southern Lebanon once – not a good idea. In any event, any sustainable solution would necessitate some sort of international cooperation.

Ultimately I fear an uncontrolled Israeli military action that would further complicate Israel. I fear that the IDF will dictate (deliberately or by accident) the policy instead of the civil leadership dictating to the IDF. Force alone never solved things, it only made people eventually realize that the price of warfare is too high, and then they all talked. The expectation that Israel is able to simply impose a solution as it deems fit is a fundamental misunderstanding of international relations.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Zarqawi's Anti-Shia Legacy: Original or Borrowed?

I wrote a paper titled "Zarqawi's Anti-Shi'a Legacy: Original or Borrowed"? and it can be accessed here at the website of the Hudson Institute's Center on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World. I submitted this paper two months ago, so events that have happened since are not in there. Check it out. I think it is brilliant, but I could be biased...

Thursday, August 03, 2006

New Column: Quietly Smiling (Update August 4, 2006)

Check out my new column on the flare-up in Lebanon over here, Quietly Smiling. Whoever guesses which General I had in mind gets a salute...

UPDATE (August 4, 2006):

This piece of reporting by Neil MacFarquhar (NYT) out of Damascus on the whole Shia-Sunni dimension is interesting and in line with the point of my column...

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
The New York Times

August 4, 2006 Friday
Late Edition - Final


HEADLINE: Hezbollah's Prominence Has Many Arabs Worried

BYLINE: By NEIL MacFARQUHAR; Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo for this article, and Jad Mouawad from Mukhtara, Lebanon.



To one Damascus University professor, the faint echo of Israeli bombs exploding in the lower Bekaa Valley brings two fears. He recoils at the destruction he imagines across the border, less than 10 miles from his village home, but deeper down he worries that any Hezbollah triumph will come at the expense of his own Sunni branch of Islam.

''Since the Americans invaded Iraq we have all become aware of the danger from the Shiites,'' said the professor, who asked not to be identified by name because discussing sectarian rivalry is taboo in Syria, an authoritarian state run by a religious minority. ''Ordinary people only think of Hezbollah as fighting against Israeli aggression. But the educated classes think that if Hezbollah controls the region, then the Sunnis will be abused.''

Intensifying Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq in the last couple of years has already raised sectarian awareness across the Middle East in ways not experienced since the Islamic Revolution in Shiite Iran in 1979. The fighting in Lebanon promises to further increase Sunnis' unease about Shiites challenging their dominance.

Mushrooming public support for Hezbollah has overshadowed the issue somewhat, with public anger focused on Israel for the civilian deaths and widespread destruction in Lebanon. Yet sectarian disquiet persists in whispered conversations, on Web sites, in the corridors of government and in mosques.

Governments like those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, whose initial criticism of Hezbollah proved untenable, use ''Shiite'' as a euphemism for Iran's waxing regional influence; the religious put more emphasis on doctrinal differences.

Zabadani, a Syrian resort in the pine-shaded mountains facing Lebanon, fills with Arabs from the Persian Gulf each summer. Many interviewed at random along the main street said they supported Hezbollah in its fight with Israel, but some made their distaste for Shiites clear.

''They think they will be the leaders of all Muslims, and I don't want that,'' said a 45-year-old high school math teacher from Riyadh, who declined to give his name due to the topic's sensitivity. ''Hezbollah is Iranian; everyone knows that.''

He described some of the rituals Shiites perform, including beating and cutting themselves during Ashura to commemorate the battlefield martyrdom of Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson. ''This is wrong!'' he said, his face contorting in disgust. ''I don't want to see all this blood.''

The Sunni-Shiite rivalry dates back almost 1,400 years, to Islam's earliest decades. After the Prophet Muhammad died, the group that became the Shiites backed his son-inlaw Ali -- Shiite means partisan, as in partisans of Ali -- as his rightful heir. Ali and his sons died in a series of battles lost to the caliph ruling from Damascus.

The Shiites make up about 15 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. There is little difference between Sunnis and Shiites when it comes to basic rituals like prayer and fasting, but Shiites have a more hierarchical system. Fundamentalist Sunnis label some Shiite practices -- treating dead religious figures as saints, for example -- as blasphemy.

In Saudi Arabia, puritanical Wahhabi Muslims lace their writings with suggestions that being a Christian or a Jew is far preferable to being Shiite -- often referred to as rejectionist, for rejecting the true faith. And they often disparage the Shiite practice of takiya, or sanctioned lying about beliefs, an insurance policy developed during repeated Sunni inquisitions.

One prominent Saudi cleric, Abdullah bin Jibreen, just reissued a fatwa accusing Shiite groups like Hezbollah of habitually betraying Sunnis. ''It is not appropriate to support this rejectionist party and to fall under its authority, and it is not appropriate to pray for their victory and control,'' the fatwa read in part.

Arguments raged in Internet chat rooms, including rare public criticism of senior clerics for being too aloof from the Arab struggle against Israel. Mohsen al-Awaji, a well-known Saudi religious activist, said such fatwas seemed as though they ''came from another planet.''

But some called Iran's Islamic Revolution one of the worst disasters ever visited on Sunni Islam. In Lebanon, Walid Jumblatt, the political leader of the Druse sect, an offshoot of an esoteric branch of Shiite Islam, is among the few who dare voice the belief that Hezbollah needlessly brought destruction raining down.

In an interview in his mountain redoubt at Mukhtara, Mr. Jumblatt said Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, represented the same ideology espoused by Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- awaiting the return of the Mahdi, or savior, at the end of the world.

''He's part of the Shiite Armageddon,'' Mr. Jumblatt said of Sheik Nasrallah.

In a televised speech last Saturday, Sheik Nasrallah tried to assuage fears about Shiite dominance. ''I say to the Lebanese that none of you should be afraid of the victory of the resistance, but you should be afraid of its defeat,'' he said. ''It will be a victory for every Arab, Muslim, Christian and honorable person in the world who stood against the aggression and defended Lebanon.''

He also referred to the sectarian tension, thanking those who confront attempts to sow sedition and tear apart the ranks of Muslims.

Since the beginning of this outbreak of violence, extremist Sunni groups like Al Qaeda have tried to portray their struggle as parallel with Hezbollah's, as a fight against Zionism and the sinful West. But the late Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, issued long screeds that labeled all Shiites heretics deserving death for collaborating with the Americans.

Even mainstream Sunni leaders like King Abdullah II of Jordan spoke darkly of a ''Shiite crescent'' emerging from Iran through the Persian Gulf to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The Shiites were last ascendant from the 10th to the 12th century. During much of that period a Shiite dynasty ruled Egypt and a large swath of the region, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Saladin, the commander who captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, overthrew the dynasty. So the comparisons now springing up between Sheik Nasrallah and Saladin are anathema to Shiites.

Modern Egypt lacks any significant population of Shiites and views them with some tolerance.

In a recent newspaper column, Ahmed Fouad Negm, a poet, described an episode at a rally in support of Hezbollah. A clean-cut young man -- the archetype of a secret-police infiltrator -- shouted, ''You people, Hassan Nasrallah is a Shiite!''

A woman yelled back in mock horror, ''Does that mean he's Christian?''

The security agent, answered, ''No, of course he's Muslim.''

''So why are you picking on him?'' the women responded, prompting widespread snickering.

Egypt's grand mufti, Sheik Ali Gomaa, the country's highest religious authority, issued a statement supporting Hezbollah, while Sheik Youssef Qaradawi, whose program on Al Jazeera makes him one of the Arab world's most influential clerics, defined supporting the guerrillas as a ''religious duty.''

The Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni Islamist group founded in Egypt, has been particularly outspoken. Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a member of its guidance office, said that the United States had invaded Iraq to divide Muslims and that it was better to support a Hezbollah-Iranian agenda than an ''American-Zionist'' one.

''Which one is more dangerous to the Muslim world?'' he said in an interview, before attacking ''the regimes who tremble before Iran. They are weak and tattered regimes who don't acknowledge the will of their people.''

When pressed, though, a vague ambivalence emerges. ''Iran would be at the end of our list of enemies, even though it's not an enemy,'' he said. ''Let's combat the American danger on the region before we 'compete' with Iran.''

Unease exists in Egypt on a popular level, too. Sheik Khalid al-Guindy runs a well-used dial-a-fatwa service, where the faithful can pose religious questions. Most callers voice frustration over not doing enough to help, but a few raise sectarian doubts, he said.

They ask questions like ''Does this mean that the Shiites are the ones who are right and the Sunnis have been mistaken?''

''The problem is that they are looking at the battle as one between Israel and a specific group -- the Shiites,'' Sheik Guindy said he told his callers. ''This is not true. The battle is against Islam specifically and the Arabs generally, and we shouldn't differentiate. I think talking about sectarian differences at this time is one of the greatest sins.''

Syria has long adhered to a secular, pan-Arabist viewpoint, not least because a tiny minority of Alawites -- members of a Shiite offshoot -- control the country. Here, even in official news reports about Iraq's sectarian fighting, a bombed mosque is not identified as Shiite or Sunni.

But recently Sheik Mohamed al-Bouti, a populist imam, was allowed to address the differences. The sheik a Sunni cleric, recently interrupted his usual televised Koranic lesson to describe the whispered fears he was hearing at his mosque that a Hezbollah victory would expand the ''Shiitization'' of the Arab world.

''Oh my followers!'' he said. ''This is wrong! This is what Israel wants! These sectarian differences will only lead to strife. When there is war, when there is holy jihad, then we have to unify as one Islamic and Arab nation. Hezbollah is fighting on behalf of the whole nation.''

Watching the rising tide of Islam, even secular Syrians who support Hezbollah worry that their lifestyle is at risk. Leaving the Arab-Israeli dispute unsettled for decades has opened the door to all manner of religious extremists, they argue.

''The idea of a Shiite crescent is imaginary,'' said Hunein Nemer, a lawyer and one of the Communist Party members of Syria's rubber-stamp Parliament. ''But let me tell you a fact: once this situation lasts for a long time, then the influence of the Islamic groups will grow more and more.''

URL: http://www.nytimes.com