Michael Totten recently linked to Robert Kaplan’s 1993 examination of Syria’s history, tracing it from the large geographical area called “Syrion” to the modern state.
Recently, Walter Russell Mead and Peter Berger both wrote about Russia’s history as the protector of Orthodox Christians in the Middle East and how it applies to Russia’s stance on Syria. Here’s the New York Times article that they both referenced.
About three years ago, I linked to an article in National Geographic about the renewed ties between the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Gelvin’s The Modern Middle East: A History has been incredibly helpful to me in understanding how the modern world has shaped the Middle East. Modern concepts of progress, state power, and economics have all made a big impact, coming together in what has been called the “interventionist-redistributionist” model that prescribes a government that actively manages the economy and an extensive welfare state. Gelvin believes that the major factor in the Arab uprisings has been their governments’ revisions of this model through opening up markets and reducing welfare expenditures. These reforms reflect the influence of neoliberalism, in vogue since the reforms of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and others.
The book is formatted as a Q&A, covering both the region in general and the specific countries where the uprisings have occurred. Gelvin is a talented writer with a good sense of humor, and the book is quite informative. He will probably need to come out with future editions of it as things change in the region.
Michael Young writes that the Syrian regime may be trying to prepare for the worst and defeat the uprising at the same time:
These parallel objectives—preparing for an Alawite mini-state and ruling over Syria as a whole—have come together in the Homs plain and along the corridor northeast, between Homs and Aleppo. In order for Assad to subjugate Syria, he can afford little to lose control over that passage. At the same time, if the Alawites hope to make safe an eventual statelet, they cannot allow Homs to be controlled by their foes. That explains what we are seeing today, as the Syrian army prepares to recapture Homs from the opposition.
He links to this interview with a former Syrian vice president, confirming this strategy.
HT: Michael Totten
Hussein Ibish writes that the Arab Spring has disrupted Hamas’ base of support:
For more than a decade, Hamas’ strategy was based on being simultaneously allied with both the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood network and the, essentially, Shiite, Iranian-led alliance. This incongruous ideological contortion was made possible by a narrative embraced by both of these broader anti-status quo alignments: that the Middle East was the site of a trans-historic battle between a “culture of resistance” and a “culture of accommodation.”This narrative has collapsed completely, and is rapidly being replaced by a new sectarian order pitting Sunni actors, including both Arab governments and Islamists, as well as Turkey, against what is now perceived as the non- or even anti-Sunni alliance led by Iran. This realignment has been most starkly illustrated in Syria, whose pro-Iranian government is now supported entirely by non-Sunni forces in the Middle East and opposed by virtually all Sunni ones.
[Political bureau head Khaled] Meshaal, according to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has agreed that resistance to occupation must be nonviolent and must seek to create a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. A spokesman for Hamas leaders in Gaza appeared to confirm these commitments, but reiterated that Hamas would not recognize Israel.
In an article from early April, Marina Ottaway gives some good background on Bahrain:
The population of Bahrain is predominantly Shia. Estimates range from as high as 75 percent in the past to about 65 percent at present—but these figures are imprecise. The decrease is the result of an extraordinary attempt to change the composition of the population in order to dilute the Shia presence. While the government has never admitted the existence of such a program, there is no doubt that the regime has granted Bahraini citizenship to thousands of Sunni immigrants—estimates vary widely, from about 60,000 people (according to Bahraini human rights sources), to as much as double that figure. What is clear, however, is that many of the new citizens were recruited into the security forces and have become the hated face of the repression.The ruling al-Khalifa family is Sunni, as are all ruling families and republican governments in Arab countries—with the exception of Syria and Iraq. It thus receives strong support from the Sunni population, including from Salafis and Muslim Brothers who tend to be strongly anti-government in other countries. Discrimination against Shias is rife. They are mostly excluded from high government positions and the military and security forces. They also constitute the bulk of the poor.
By March 8, radical groups closed the door to any possibility of reconciliation and compromise by announcing the formation of the Coalition for a Bahraini Republic—the name clearly explained its goal.The coalition included three organizations: al-Haq, al-Wafa’a, and the Bahrain Freedom Movement, all Shia organizations that had rejected political participation under the 2001 constitution. A key player in the coalition’s formation was Hassan Mushaima, an exiled al-Haq leader who was unexpectedly and surprisingly allowed to return to Bahrain after the outbreak of protest and became the group’s most public face until his arrest on March 17.The call for a republic was an open challenge to the Bahraini ruling family and to all other Gulf rulers. The idea of a true constitutional monarchy—one where the king rules but does not govern—remains anathema to all Gulf monarchies, including in Kuwait, where the ruling family has been forced to co-exist with the cantankerous parliament.With the exception of Saudi Arabia—where theological arguments deny that the king’s power can ever be limited or shared because it emanates from God and the sharia—most Arab monarchs, including Bahrain’s, have proven willing to accept façade reforms as long as most power remains firmly in their hands. By calling openly for a republic, the Coalition for a Bahraini Republic crossed a red line: republic meant the overthrow of the ruling family. Furthermore, although the coalition did not call for an Islamic republic, Sunnis in Bahrain and beyond are convinced that republic can only mean an Iranian-style theocratic system.
Jeff Goldberg’s new article in The Atlantic Monthly reports on the emerging Middle East policy of the Obama administration. He writes, and recommends, that this policy is based on a balance of the promotion of democracy and U.S. interests in containing Iran and preserving access to oil (a similar “values and interests” formula that Hussein Ibish has described and commended):
In these early days of the Arab revolt, President Obama and his administration, already busy with other wars, are struggling for clarity. At a time when policy makers are wrestling with what might be called, in a nod to the president, the fierce incoherence of now, the administration has to bring about the marginalization of anti-modern, anti-Western, Islamist-oriented political parties, while not seeming to be working toward that goal. It has to continually decide which governments of the Middle East deserve the support of the United States and which deserve abandonment. This question points up a core contradiction of the moment: at the same time America is working for permanent and dramatic democratic change in certain republics of the Middle East, it has, 235 years after freeing itself from the rule of a despotic king, gone into the monarchy-maintenance business, propping up kings, emirs, and sheikhs who, though they may be as venal as Ben Ali, Qaddafi, and Mubarak, have oil the West needs, and who serve as a counterbalance to the greatest threat facing the U.S. in the Middle East, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Goldberg’s recommended approach shows his assumption that we must continue to have a strong presence in the Middle East as well as the challenges posed by when we try to maintain the Pax Americana:
Creating an overarching doctrine suitable for the moment is an almost impossible task, particularly during a crisis that demands from American policy makers analytical humility, doctrinal plasticity, and a tolerance for contradiction. Analytical humility is called for because the trajectories of the Middle East’s revolutions are still difficult to discern, and because it is not yet clear that tyranny is, in fact, in permanent eclipse. Doctrinal plasticity, which in a less value-neutral way could be called hypocrisy, is a necessity because, while it is true that President Obama, to the surprise of many, has shown himself to be more of a liberal interventionist than a cold-eyed realist, it is also true that America retains fixed, and vital, interests across the Middle East, interests that have already forced America to side with monarchs over the masses they rule. And a tolerance for contradiction is vital not only because America’s democratically elected government is scrambling to keep monarchs on their thrones, but because people across the Middle East are embracing American ideals—freedom of speech, financial transparency, leaders who are chosen by the people and are accountable to them—while at the same time distancing themselves from America itself, and rejecting American assumptions about what freedom is meant to look like.
Nawaf Obaid writes:
A tectonic shift has occurred in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Despite significant pressure from the Obama administration to remain on the sidelines, Saudi leaders sent troops into Manama in March to defend Bahrain’s monarchy and quell the unrest that has shaken that country since February. For more than 60 years, Saudi Arabia has been bound by an unwritten bargain: oil for security. Riyadh has often protested but ultimately acquiesced to what it saw as misguided U.S. policies. But American missteps in the region since Sept. 11, an ill-conceived response to the Arab protest movements and an unconscionable refusal to hold Israel accountable for its illegal settlement building have brought this arrangement to an end. As the Saudis recalibrate the partnership, Riyadh intends to pursue a much more assertive foreign policy, at times conflicting with American interests.
The backdrop for this change are the rise of Iranian meddling in the region and the counterproductive policies that the United States has pursued here since Sept. 11. The most significant blunder may have been the invasion of Iraq, which resulted in enormous loss of life and provided Iran an opening to expand its sphere of influence. For years, Iran’s leadership has aimed to foment discord while furthering its geopolitical ambitions. Tehran has long funded Hamas and Hezbollah; recently, its scope of attempted interference has broadened to include the affairs of Arab states from Yemen to Morocco. This month the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Gen. Hasan Firouzabadi, harshly criticized Riyadh over its intervention in Bahrain, claiming this act would spark massive domestic uprisings.
Obaid describes Saudi priorities: stable Arab monarchies (see some background here on the expansion of the Gulf Cooperation Council), “orderly transition” in Yemen and Syria (if necessary), strong opposition to the Iranian-aligned Maliki government in Iraq, restricting Iranian influence in Lebanon and Syria, and a “just settlement” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the plan proposed by the Saudi king (when he was crown prince) in 2002. The kingdom will also increase its military capabilities to combat Iran and international terrorists. Obaid concludes:
Saudi Arabia has the will and the means to meet its expanded global responsibilities. In some issues, such as counterterrorism and efforts to fight money laundering, the Saudis will continue to be a strong U.S. partner. In areas in which Saudi national security or strategic interests are at stake, the kingdom will pursue its own agenda. With Iran working tirelessly to dominate the region, the Muslim Brotherhood rising in Egypt and unrest on nearly every border, there is simply too much at stake for the kingdom to rely on a security policy written in Washington, which has backfired more often than not and spread instability. The special relationship may never be the same, but from this transformation a more stable and secure Middle East can be born.
Obaid certainly likes to praise the stability and virtue of the Saudi regime. The op-ed excerpted above includes a link to another op-ed which explains the reasons for this stability.
Hat tip: a gleeful Jeff Goldberg, who asks “Does This Mean We Won’t Have to Save Saudi Arabia Anymore?” and gives the improved Saudi military “at least six hours” in a serious contest with the Iranian military.
Marc Lynch describes the expansion of the Gulf Cooperation Council:
The Gulf Cooperation Council surprised virtually everyone yesterday by announcing that it would begin membership talks with Jordan and Morocco. While actual membership is likely a long way off, the announcement signals a new alliance in the region which conspicuously omits Egyp, along with more obvious candidates for GCC membership such as Yemen and Iraq. This expanded GCC would of course no longer really be an organization of states in the Gulf. Nor would it be a club for small, rich oil producing states. Instead, it seems to be evolving into a club for Sunni Arab monarchs — the institutional home of the counter-revolution, directed against not only Iran but also against the forces for change in the region. Where the United States fits in that new conception remains distinctly unclear….
The two things which Jordan and Morocco do have in common with the GCC states, of course, are a Sunni monarchy and a pro-Western alignment. The creation of a Sunni King’s club would bring the region back even more viscerally than before into the classical Arab Cold War of the 1950s and 1960, when conservative monarchies faced off against pan-Arabist republics. Neither Jordan nor Morocco really faces the same sectarian Sunni-Shi’a issues as do most of the Gulf states, however, despite King Abdullah of Jordan’s “Shi’a Crescent” ramblings of the mid-2000s and his enthusiasm to be part of any pro-U.S. and anti-Iranian alliance available. Iran simply doesn’t loom as large for Morocco as it does for, say, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. The real point here would seem to be a promise of GCC, or more specifically Saudi, assistance to those non-Gulf monarchies in order to prevent them from going too far in meeting popular demands for reform. Such a Sunni King’s Club would be a counter-revolutionary institution, one which would work directly against hopes for change in the Arab world.
Lynch isn’t sure whether it represents a major alignment or not, but it’s interesting to consider this in light of both the anti-Israel and anti-US resistance bloc (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas), Shia influence in Iraq, and the recent revolutions.
In a recent article at Bookforum (also posted at his blog), Hussein Ibish argued that the Western image of the “Arab street” as a menacing outgrowth of a dysfunctional culture has been disproved by the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions:
The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia should put paid to such rubbish once and for all. Any serious, honest appraisal of what is spreading throughout the Arab world refutes every aspect of this pernicious mythology. Certainly, the size, scope, and bravery of the demonstrations for democracy, good governance, and accountability mean that no one can continue flogging the Orientalist shibboleth that Arabs are inherently resistant to change—at least not with a straight face. Likewise, the idea that Arab political culture is inherently violent has been most eloquently debunked by the extraordinarily self-disciplined nonviolence of the protesters in Egypt and Tunisia—in spite of extreme provocation and abuses by the police and government-paid hooligans.
The allied Orientalist idea that Arabs are culturally lacking social consciousness cannot survive the spontaneous creation of an ad hoc social order under the most difficult circumstances in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt and Tunisia. Demonstrators banded together to protect one another—especially Muslims and Christians at prayer. They also joined forces to defend institutions such as the National Museum, create neighborhood-watch committees to prevent looting and banditry, provide medical care, and so forth. After the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and a night of delirious celebrations, the Egyptian protesters even returned to the square and cleaned it up, handing it over to the country’s provisional new military authorities in almost pristine condition….
Islamists may be hoping to gain from new political openness and elections, but their rhetoric and symbolism have been almost absent from the Arab uprisings. Orientalist stereotypes have long discounted the importance of national identity and sentiment—and social consciousness more generally—in the Arab world. But the recent secular and ecumenical agitations for political reforms have shown the true, unsuspected reach of nationalist movements in the region—and their ability to motivate millions of ordinary Arabs across the urban social spectrum to risk all for change.
Ibish, a fellow at the American Task Force for Palestine, also writes to contradict the notion that the Palestinian question is no longer at the forefront of Arab political consciousness:
However, Arab protestors do share one central grievance that should be of urgent concern to Western policy makers: resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestine that began in 1967. Some Western commentators seem determined to juxtapose the movement for self-determination within autocratic Arab states with the struggle against the occupation—and to argue, nonsensically, that because Arabs are willing to demand their own freedom, this somehow means they don’t care about the Palestinian cause. Israeli right-wingers and their American neoconservative allies have been flailing away vigorously at this straw man—but either they’re being deliberately deceptive or they’re not paying attention to what the protesters and Arab public opinion are saying about Israel and the Palestinians. There is no question that the Israeli occupation is still the prism of pain through which most Arabs view international relations—and that they are passionate about the cause of Palestinian freedom. The rash of Palestinian denialism on the right also doesn’t logically square with concomitant anxieties about the future of Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt. There is no indication of any plausible future Egyptian government abrogating the treaty—but as the frequent alarums of hard-line Likud leaders demonstrate, the Israeli right knows very well that even though the Arab peoples are proving they’re willing to fight for their own freedom with great bravery, that doesn’t mean they withhold support from the cause of Palestinian independence and the campaign to end the occupation.
Throughout the article, Ibish also discusses a number of books that reflect Western views of Arab culture.
One follow-up question that I would pose to Ibish is this: neither Islamism nor pro-Palestinian sentiment has been at the forefront of the demonstrations. Why do you believe that the former is unimportant while the latter remains important. I imagine that he would have a thoughtful answer to this question, but I would like to see it addressed.