Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church, and Syria

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.

James Gelvin, The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know

The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to KnowThe Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know by James L. Gelvin

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.

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A Syrian partition?

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

Hamas and the Arab Spring

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.
This has opened up tensions between the Gaza-based leadership and the political bureau (based in Damascus) as the political leadership has to figure out how to deal with Fatah and Israel in the new environment. The column also contained this surprising statement:
[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 my non-expert opinion, talk has been cheap in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at least since Oslo in 1993. Without holding Israel blameless, I think that the words of various Palestinian parties has been cheaper, at least partially because Palestinians don’t have a unified polity as the Israeli government does (not that there aren’t divisions in Israeli society, but I would think that a government viewed as legitimate by a population allows for promises to be kept in a way that is more difficult for the geographically divided, stateless Palestinians). So it’s a surprising statement in the sense of “hmm, that would be great if it happened,” not “a resolution to the conflict is at hand!”

Sunnis and Shia in Bahrain

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.
It is interesting that the Islamists support the monarchy in Bahrain given what I learned this weekend at a Middle East institute. One of the presenters, Barbara Petzen, told me that Bahrain offers Saudis pleasures forbidden in Saudi Arabia with the full knowledge of the government.
Ottaway also writes there is a Bahraini branch of Hezbollah supported by Iran (there’s also one in Iraq). Saudi concerns about Iran pop up more than once in Ottaway’s piece. Here is one example:
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.
Hat tip: Hussein Ibish

U.S. policy in the “Arab Spring”

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.