This blog is intended to provide the reader with important world news with an emphasis on Middle East and North Africa. It will publish news, analyses, comments, and opinions concerning those two regions. However, We welcome any comments, news or opinions which are related to their countries. You can visit too www.asswak-alarab.com for more information.
Vladimir Putin and Bashar al Assad (Source: kremlin.ru)
A year ago, President Obama
opined that Russian intervention in Syria would turn into a quagmire. One year
later, however, Russia is expanding and consolidating its positions and goals
in Syria. Bashar Assad’s rule looks more secure than ever, buttressed by
Russian weapons (including chemical weapons), intelligence, diplomatic support,
and money. Moreover far from reducing its military footprint, Russia is
expanding it. The Duma is about to ratify agreements essentially giving Russia
permanent air bases like Hmeymim air base and Tartus. Thus Moscow, for the
first time in over forty years, now has permanent bases in the Middle East,
both in Syria and in Cyprus. Moreover, it is an open secret that Moscow would
like to obtain a base at Alexandria like the one it had in the 1970s. In August
2016 Moscow revealed that it is now operating out of the Hamadan air base in
Iran. However, within days the Iranian government pulled the plug on Russia,
criticizing its inconsiderate and ungentlemanly attitude. Iranian Defense
Minister Hossein Dehghan also noted that Moscow acts like and wants to show
that it is a great power.Obviously this episode cries out for
explanation but it should not be taken as indicating that Moscow has now
descended into a quagmire or, in the Russian phrase, stepped on a rake.
While this episode strongly suggests that Russo-Iranian ties are
more fragile than Moscow believed, it does not disprove the fact that both
sides have hitherto collaborated quite well up to this point in Syria and that
they share a common objective of preserving the Assad regime in power. Iran
apparently could not stand the publicity about this base and was upset that
Moscow had “blown its cover” by announcing it was flying missions form Hamadan.
Evidently Tehran would have preferred not to open itself up to charges from the
entire Middle East (and presumably Washington) or to the domestic opposition
within Iran about letting foreign powers have a military base in Iran from
which they could launch sorties with impunity. Indeed, the presence of
this base was surprising for the following reasons. Moscow’s acquisition of the
right to use an Iranian air base is the first time the Iranian regime has
allowed any foreign military presence in Iran, something that contravenes the
fundamental message of the Iranian revolution of 1979 that is the regime’s
claim to legitimacy. It also represents a violation of UN Resolution 2231
forbidding foreign bases in Iran — passed as part of the 2015 deal to prevent
Iranian nuclearization. It may well be the case – though we cannot be certain –
that once the implications of this fact became clear to Tehran, notably that it
jeopardized the continuation of the agreement with the 5+1 of 2015 regarding
Iranian nuclearization and could lead to serious economic harm that second
thoughts about having this base prevailed. Beyond that, this base, especially
if it had continued, would have extended Moscow’s rapprochement with Tehran and
the two states’ military cooperation beyond arms sales. As it is, Iran has not
only now acquired the formidable S-300 surface to air anti-pair missile, it is
now negotiating for Sukhoi fighter jets. And that negotiation appears to be
unaffected by the decision to suspend Russian use of the base.
Russia’s and Iran’s violation of UN resolutions in this context
are not totally unexpected, since Iran’s ongoing missile program is also a
violation of Resolution 2231. The Russian use of incendiary weapons against
civilians in Syria violates the Chemical Weapons Convention going back to 1925.
Thus both Iran and Russia have ignored agreements while Washington and the
international community look the other way, and are basically saying, we will
do as we please whether you like it or not and you either cannot or will not do
anything about it. So while this episode suggests that Irano-Russian ties
are more problematic than Moscow might have imagined, there is no reason to see
here a rupture of those ties or a divide in the fundamental identity of Russian
and Iranian interests regarding Syria. Nor is this an obstacle to these two
governments’ further cooperation on Syria and other issues.
None of this should surprise anyone. Since Catherine the Great,
Moscow has sought bases in the Mediterranean, and even the Adriatic Sea. Thus
Catherine’s forces occupied Beirut for 18 months in 1772-74, and a generation
later Paul I went to war on behalf of Malta, undoubtedly with similar
objectives in mind. Throughout the nineteenth century Russian encroachments on
the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans were a fundamental aspect of European
diplomacy. In World War I, in the allied negotiations around bringing Italy
into the war on the side of the Entente, Russia sought to gain a naval base
through Serbia in the Adriatic. Stalin sought bases and colonies in the
Mediterranean after World War II; Brezhnev obtained and lost the base at
Alexandria. And now Putin has obtained the bases in Cyprus and Syria and has
sought a naval base at Bar in Montenegro on the Adriatic and a land base at Nis
in Serbia. Indeed, Moscow has consistently sought bases for what is now its
Mediterranean Eskadra (Squadron) – even when it did not have the capacity to
operate or utilize them – in order to lay down a marker, stake a claim, and
force others to recognize it as a great power with a sphere of influence in the
Mediterranean. These bases would also challenge NATO’s Mediterranean presence,
guarantee Russian freedom of maneuver in the Black Sea, and encircle Turkey, a
centuries-old Russian objective.
But the loss of the base at Hamadan does upset Russian plans.
Had it been able to preserve that base, Russia would then have been able to
project power constantly throughout the Levant, (the Eastern Mediterranean) and
the Middle East, and force its way to an equal status with Washington in
determining future security outcomes there. Apart from its logistical and
tactical advantages in having a base in Iran from which to pursue Syrian
targets and objectives, Moscow would also gain from a base in Iran because it
could then project Russian air power all the way out to the Gulf where the US
Fifth Fleet is stationed. Acquiring such a capability is a long-standing
Russian objective; so Iran’s decision does strike at Russia’s larger ambitions.
In 2014, Moscow indicated its desire, even well in advance of its actual naval
capabilities, to project power into the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, so this base
could have been a down payment on that ambition as well. Meanwhile Washington
keeps appealing for Russian cooperation in Syria only for Russia to break every
agreement and intensify its support for Assad to the point of using chemical
weapons in Aleppo, if not elsewhere.
While Russia will undertake the occasional bombing of ISIS, it
clearly is more interested in equal status with Washington in an anti-terrorist
coalition against Assad’s opponents, not Washington’s. And this is the case
even though ISIS clearly presents a threat to Russia by its own admission and
has evidently now carried out some small-scale terrorist operations in Russia,
even beyond the North Caucasus. Therefore we can expect that Moscow will use
its ever-stronger position in Syria and the Middle East to coerce Assad’s
opponents still further into preserving his state if not his leadership. It
will also likely demand that Washington support Assad’s remaining in power, or
at least his regime’s remaining in power. Moscow appears wedded to Assad
personally, especially as Putin has told him that Russia would not let him
down. So while there may be interludes where the attack on Aleppo is stopped
for a while ostensibly for humanitarian reasons, it is most likely that the
overall battle will continue on Assad’s and the Russians’ part to vanquish the
insurgents and force them to accept his rule over most, if not all of Syria.
We may also expect broader
diplomatic initiatives by Russia to extend its weapons and economic connections
to Iran, and not only regarding the Middle East. The revelations of a
Russian base in Iran suggest as well that Moscow is looking for other bases in
the greater Middle East even if this episode has had an unfortunate ending for
Russia. In this context we should remember that, since “power projection
activities are an input into the world order,” Russian force deployments into
the greater Middle East and economic-political actions to gain access,
influence and power there represent competitive and profound attempts at
engendering a long-term restructuring of the regional strategic order.And that region is not just the Middle
The recent tripartite summit with Azerbaijan and Iran clearly
signals an effort to involve Iran in the latest of Russia’s transcontinental
trade and transportation initiatives of a railway from Russia to Iran thorough
Azerbaijan. Moscow will also undoubtedly continue to pursue expanded arms sales
to Iran and endeavor to persuade Iran and other Gulf states, including Saudi
Arabia, to raise energy prices by curtailing production or by some other means.
Russia’s position in Syria will undoubtedly be used as leverage to induce
Riyadh to accept such ideas although there are clearly no guarantees of
success. We can also expect Russian efforts to insert it into schemes for a
Gulf security bloc and to sell more weapons to Middle Eastern clients (e.g.,
Egypt and Algeria). Indeed, past experience shows that energy deals, arms
sales, and the quest for Russian military bases are all intimately linked as
part of a grand design. Russia will continue, for example, building an
anti-access area denial air and ship capability for its Mediterranean Squadron
at its bases in Syria, Cyprus, and in the Caucasus as it already is doing.
Finally, Moscow has successfully forced Turkish President
Erdogan to come to St. Petersburg and fawn all over Putin, and not just for
supporting him against the insurgents who tried to oust him in a coup on July
15, 2016. Erdogan now says Turkey will implement the Turkstream energy pipeline,
Akkuyu nuclear plant, and engage in military-technical cooperation with Russia.
Indeed, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has offered many recent statements
attacking NATO, and all but saying that Turkey will buy weapons in the future
from Russia among other producers. Both sides are also establishing a mechanism
for ongoing military-intelligence coordination, supposedly against ISIS. Apart
from this Russo-Turkish cooperation against ISIS there are signs that Turkey
might have to agree to a “decent interval” for Assad to stay in power before
leaving as part of a projected settlement. Yet Putin has certainly not stopped
supporting the Turkish or Syrian Kurds whom Ankara suspects of having committed
recent terrorist attacks in Turkey. Neither is Russia going to be deterred from
supporting Assad, and it will only lift its economic sanctions on Turkey dating
back to the end of 2015 only gradually. Meanwhile Turkish officials have more
than once hinted at offering Moscow access to Incirlik Air Base. Therefore it
is hardly surprising that there are mounting reports in the media sounding
alarms that Turkey is in fact compromising its membership in NATO as Erdogan
ruthlessly moves to stamp out all opposition and re-establish an
authoritarian-cum-Islamist state in Turkey rather on the model of what Putin
has done in Russia.
Even with losing the base in Iran Russia has achieved virtually
all of its strategic aims in Syria including some it had not originally sought
or expected. In addition we also see the evisceration of the pro-Western
Kemalist Turkey, the expansion of Russian military power throughout the Middle
East – even if that expansion has hit a temporary bump in the road – and the
continuing disarray – to put it mildly – of U.S. policy. Indeed, insofar as Syria
is concerned, it is not inaccurate to say that Washington neither has a
strategy, nor a coherent policy, or any idea how to use the instruments of
power at its disposal to achieve anything in Syria. One year after intervening,
Putin – rather than entrapping himself in a quagmire – has achieved his avowed
political and military objectives: coordinating with virtually every Middle
Eastern state, exposing the fatuousness of U.S. policy, forcing Washington to
accept its leadership in Syria, and establishing permanent and expanding
military lodgments, all at a very low and affordable cost. Indeed, it is the
U.S. that appears to be in a quagmire in Syria, not Russia. Given this unbroken
and consistent series of successes for Putin in the Middle East, the prospect
of a Russian quagmire seems low.
· * This article
was published first by Foreign Policy Research Institute on August 23, 2016
· * Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign
Policy Research institute as well as at the American Foreign Policy Council.
The military situation
in Syria has turned against the U.S.-supported opposition over the past year,
due mainly to Russian intervention. Now, the failed coup in Turkey and subsequent
crackdown there stand to reduce the capabilities of a key U.S. ally. Without
some rebalancing now in favor of the opposition to Syrian dictator Bashar
al-Assad, the prospects for a satisfactory negotiated political transition are
In a dissenting internal memo last month, 51 State
Department diplomats advocated attackson Syrian government forces to end
their aggression against the country’s civilian population, alter the military
balance and bring about a negotiated political solution. President Obama has
focused instead on fighting terrorism in Syria, but U.S. targets are limited to
Sunni extremists such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates.
There is also a Shiite terrorist organization in
Syria: Lebanon-based Hezbollah. It should not be immune.
Hezbollah was founded to resist the Israeli
occupation of Lebanon in the early 1980s and takes credit for the eventual
Israeli withdrawal from that country. Tightly allied with and supported by
Iran, it has become the dominant political force among Shiites in Lebanon,
where it not only participates in national politics but also runs its own
security forces and provides social services to Shiite populations.
Covertly since 2012, and overtly since 2013,
Hezbollah has deployed forces inside Syria, where its thousands of fighters are
aligned with Assad’s army and mainly Shiite and Alawite militias against mainly
Sunni forces that Assad regards as terrorists. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard
Corps pays Hezbollah’s bills and provides its command-and-control operations.
Hezbollah forces have been particularly effective along the border with
Lebanon, which provides it with strategic depth and supply lines.
Hezbollah is a major
factor in the military balance in Syria. Along with the Russian air interventionbegun last September and the Iranian
Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah’s fighters have enabled Assad to make progress
against his opponents, especially those associated with the Free Syrian Army
fighters backed by the United States. That progress has hardened Assad’s
negotiating stance and blocked the U.N. search for a political solution. Assad
is winning, and he sees no reason to accept a transition away from his rule.
A shift in the military balance is essential to
ending the war, which is what Washington says it wants. But Obama has
steadfastly refused to go to war against the Syrian, Iranian or Russian
government. Even if he wants to, it is doubtful he has authorization from
Congress to do so.
But Hezbollah is a
non-state actor. It is also a U.S.-designated terrorist group that has murdered
Americans, among many others. Most Republicans and Democrats would applaud an
attack on Hezbollah, even if some in both parties would bemoan a move that
suggested widening commitments overseas.
inform Tehran, Moscow and Beirut that Hezbollah should withdraw from Syria by a
certain date or the United States would target any of its troops attacking
non-extremist opposition forces in and around Aleppo and elsewhere. If
Hezbollah failed to withdraw, the United States would then need to be ready to
attack as soon as the ultimatum expired.
or U.S. targeting of Hezbollah would send a strong but still limited message to
the Syrian opposition and its allies in Turkey and the Persian Gulf: We are
prepared to attack Shiite as well as Sunni terrorists, but it’s up to you to
take advantage of the opportunity and come to the negotiating table ready to
reach a serious political settlement. It would also send a strong but likewise
limited message to Iran and Russia: We will not continue to tolerate your
intervention in Syria without responding. The time for a political settlement
How would the players
in Syria react? Hezbollah would likely try to strike at accessible U.S. assets
or citizens in neighboring countries, most likely in Lebanon or Iraq. It might
also launch rockets into Israel. The Islamic State, which uses Hezbollah’s
involvement in Syria as a recruiting tool, would be undermined. Russia and Iran
could in theory up the ante, escalating their involvement in Syria, but in
practice they both appear to be close to the limit of lives and treasure they
are willing or able to expend there. Assad would be outraged and promise
revenge, but the Syrian government is even more clearly at the limit of its
non-extremist Syrian opposition would applaud and press hard against the
territory where Hezbollah is deployed. Gulf states would likewise welcome the
U.S. action and redouble their efforts to support the opposition. Israel knows
all too well how to react to Hezbollah attacks in order to re-establish
deterrence. Turkey might complain that the United States was not also acting
against the U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters whom Ankara regards as terrorists, but
the Turks would still benefit from any consequent military progress against
Assad by non-Kurdish forces.
In short, U.S.
targeting of Hezbollah would mostly please and embolden Washington’s friends
and discomfit its antagonists. It would also reassert U.S. commitment to
fighting terrorism of all sorts, renew Washington’s commitment to holding
Hezbollah accountable, hasten an end to the Syrian civil war and make a
political settlement more likely. That is not a bad balance of risks and
* The writer is a
professor and director of the conflict management program at the Johns Hopkins
School of Advanced International Studies, as well as a scholar at theMiddle East
* This opinion was published first by Washington Post on 27/07/2016
US President Obama with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister BenjaminNetanyahu
As the Republican and Democratic
parties convene in Cleveland and Philadelphia, we expect to see numerous signs
of the deepening polarization that has dominated this campaign season. One
issue that has traditionally shared bipartisan support is how the United States
should approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, this year both
parties have shifted their positions farther from the center and from pastDemocraticandRepublicanplatforms. This swing impacts whether
the Obama administration, which has devoted significant time and resources to
the negotiations, will issue a parting statement on the conflict.
In Cleveland last week the Republican partyadopted a platformentirely dropping the two-state
solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a move that puts the party
further to the right than eitherAIPACorIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu. The platform states, “We reject the false notion that
Israel is an occupier and specifically recognize that the Boycott, Divestment,
and Sanctions Movement (BDS) is anti-Semitic in nature and seeks to destroy
Israel.” This language, combined with Republican nominee Donald Trump’s
apparent disinterest in the conflict, makes it unlikely a Trump administration
would prioritize Israeli-Palestinian issues or make any serious attempt at
Conversely, this year’sDemocratic Party platformreaffirmed the United States
government’s long-standing commitment to seeking a two-state solution in the
region. But the party took a notably progressive turn, highlighting both the
importance of Israel’s Jewish and democratic future and Palestinian freedom “to
govern themselves in their own viable state, in peace and dignity.” Thecontentious fight over the
Democratic Party language, combined with Democratic nominee Hillary
Clinton’s (and her potential First Gentleman’s) passion for this issue reveals
an intent by a future Clinton administration to reinvigorate negotiations.
Likely to drive the administration’s calculus are the Democratic
and Republican nominees and their political motives on the U.S. led peace
process. The time to watch for a potential move, therefore, is between November
and January. Given the administration’s support for its own party’s nominee, it
is in Obama’s interest to keep the peace process on life support—but without
resuscitating it—through January. Publicly, but somewhat unenthusiastically,
supporting the various international initiatives and allowing other states and
international organizations to sit in the driver’s seat sets a future Democratic
administration up with the best chance of success.
Lessons from getting Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the
table over the years include the wisdom to refrain from yelling about past
progress in negotiations. Publicly revealing how far Netanyahu and Abbas were
willing to go in 2014 would only harm the next administration’s efforts at
resuming negotiations. Keeping the “Kerry Framework” in the administration’s
pocket allows a Clinton administration to take ownership of the peace process
should she be elected.
Alternatively, if Trump is elected, the Obama administration
would have nothing to lose in revealing the fruits of its efforts in 2013-14.
The administration would have little concern for derailing a possible Trump
attempt (which is not likely to take place in any event) and could determine
that releasing some sort of Obama or Kerry Parameters would shed a positive
light on the administration’s legacy. Furthermore, should the Republican Party
win the White House, neither Obama nor Kerry is likely to care about the damage
that releasing such a document might do to either Netanyahu or Abbas.
The party conventions have solidified the deep divides—both
between and within the parties—regarding the U.S. approach to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict this campaign season. This divide, combined with a
renewed international focus on the conflict, virtually guarantees that the
administration will keep the conflict on the back burner before November. The
election, therefore, will not only determine our next president but also the
fate of the “Obama/Kerry Parameters”.
· * Note:
Ariella Plachta, an intern with the Center for Middle East Policy, contributed
to this post.
· * Sarah Yerkes is a visiting fellow in
theCenter for Middle East Policyand a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs
fellow. She is a former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff,
where she focused on North Africa. Previously, she was a foreign affairs
officer in the State’s Department’s Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs.
Much has been made, particularly
by Israelis, of the expanding horizons for collaboration between the Jewish
state and Arab Gulf states. Israeli ministers and business people lose no
opportunity to tout Israel’s interest in expanding ties of all sorts in a
region viewed as a valuable market for Israeli industry and an intelligence
Meetings that once were held in the dark are now on public
display. Relations that were once conducted solely by intelligence officials
now feature diplomats and the formal establishmentof relations with countries such as
In a notable development, Saudi Arabia wonkey recognitionfrom Israel—and Egypt and the United
States—as a strategic partner in regional security in the Straits of Tiran.
Such achievements expose not only the alluring prospects of such a dialogue,
but also its enduring, critical limitations.
The nascent coalition linking Israel with the Gulf was born as a
coalition of countries that are united by their common failure to dissuade
Washington from its path of rapprochement with Iran.
Washington and Tehran just celebrated the one-year anniversary
of the J.C.P.O.A., which remains the signature foreign policy achievement of
the Obama administration. Saudis and Israelis looking to roll it back must
contend with the fact that, in an era when the Middle East is shaking under
their feet, the Iran deal represents a relative rock of stability and
policy achievement unmatched elsewhere in U.S. efforts in the region.
Washington’s relations with Tehran may not blossom, but they will be difficult
to reverse—a fact that critically weakens the foundations of underlying
Israeli-Gulf cooperation and limits the effectiveness of an ‘alliance’ based
upon undermining the principal diplomatic and strategic achievement of your
indispensable, superpower ally.
It is also true that one need only scratch the surface to reveal
vital differences in Israeli and Saudi views on Iran itself. Israeli bluster
aside, considered Israeli opinion and policy is far more sanguine about Iran
than is the case in Riyadh.
Even at the height of concerns about an Israeli military strike
against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, Israel’s security establishment
successfully tamed the wilder, undisciplined instincts of many in Israel’s
political class. The generals have long understood the vitality of Israel’s
strategic superiority and are prepared toaccommodatean American-led deal with Tehran in a
fashion that contradicts visceral Saudi opposition to the mullahs.
Such differences are apparent in other arenas as well. This is
certainly the case concerning Syria, where the prevailing Israeli view is
sympathetic to the Assad regime. As a consequence of its understandings
with Russia, agreed-upon limits have been set to Iranian and Hezbollah
deployments—a display of realpolitik toward the Damascus regime that Riyadh is
loathe to adopt.
For Israel, its problems with Iran are of relatively recent
vintage. In contrast, it retains a historic and strategic interest in limiting
Arab power—an interest that stands in opposition to declared Arab objectives.
Israel’s newfound Arab friends must be ready to address the unexpected,
destabilizing pressures that will result from an Israel freed from any concern
about constraining Arab power—in Palestine and Lebanon in particular.
In Lebanon, Israel and Gulf states have a shared antipathy
toward Hezbollah, but there is no interest in Arab support for an Israeli
military campaign in Lebanon or more improbably Syria.
Similar considerations illustrate the limits of Arab
understanding of an aggressive Israeli policy toward Gaza.
Israel’s response to the Arab Peace Initiative is also an
instructive case in point.
Long ignored by Israeli leaders—Ehud Olmert did not even bother
to read it—Israel’s strategy is to pocket the historic promise of peace with
the Arab and Islamic worlds as simply a basis for further discussion.
More broadly, Israel has turned the historic formula at the
heart of A.P.I.—peace with Palestine is a gateway to rapprochement with the
Arab world—on its head. “The Arab Peace Initiative,”explainedSaudi prince Turki al-Faisal in a
public discussion with former National Security director Yaakov Amidror, “is
the formula that can bring us together. But the general [Amidror] sees
otherwise. He wants us to start cooperating with Israel, and do whatever is
done in that journey, and forget about the occupation of Palestine and various
other issues that deal with the daily occurrences that are taking place on the
ground in Palestine, whether it is expansion of Israeli settlements in the West
Bank, whether it is the roadblocks — all the issues that you are all aware of.”
Jordan is another useful example of both the advantages and
built-in shortcomings of such an Arab strategy. Egypt and Jordan enjoy
relations with Israel based upon signed peace treaties. Yet even this
achievement has not been sufficient to shield either country from dramatic
challenges posed by Israel.
There has been an indirect Israeli security umbrella over Jordan
since Black September 1970. This protection, however, has failed to pay
dividends for Jordan on the Palestine front. Indeed, in terms of national
security threats, the prospect of a Palestinian retreat to Jordan—pushed by
Israeli policy unfettered by Arab or international pressure—is a constant
source of concern to Jordanian officials. And among Israelis, there is a long
and widely held view that considers a Palestinian takeover of Jordan and the
demise of the Hashemites to be an Israeli interest, and only a matter of time.
With Egypt, there are many indications that relations with
Israel have never been closer. This honeymoon is fueled, however, by
unprecedented national security challenges suffered by Egypt in Sinai.
Israel’s unilateral retreat from Gaza in 2005, its serial wars there since, and
the attendant effort to force Egypt to assume the burden of Gaza’s welfare,
illustrate the limits of their cooperation.
A long, long road has been travelled since the famous ‘three
no’s of Khartoum’—no recognition, no negotiations, no peace—in the aftermath of
the June 1967 war. The iron wall separating Israel from its Arab neighbors is
indeed showing cracks, but the prospects for a turn from confrontation to
cooperation is still hampered by real differences of interests and priorities.
Aronson writes about Middle East affairs. He consults with a variety of public
and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and
development issues. He has advised the World Bank on Israel’s disengagement and
has worked for the European Union Coordinating Office for the Palestinian
Police Support mission to the West Bank and Gaza.
Fighters posing with the flag of Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi.
The Syrian civil war has seen the
rise of a number of formations that promote the idea of building a native
Syrian Muqawama Islamiya('Islamic
Resistance') and Hezbollah. Examples includeQuwat al-Ridha(recruiting mainly from Shi'a in the
Homs area), theNational Ideological Resistance (based in
Tartous/Masyaf area), the Ja'afari Force(recruiting
mainly from Damascene Shi'a) andal-Ghalibun.
Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (the Imam Mahdi Brigade), referring to the
twelfth Shi'i Imam, is another group along these lines. For comparison, the
National Ideological Resistance also has the label Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi (The
Imam Mahdi Army).
Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi appears to have at least two sub-components:
the Imam Ali Battalion and the Special Operations al-Hadi Battalion. The
at least two squadrons: the first led by "al-Saffah" and
the second led by "Abu Ali Karar."
The information available on Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi through social
media is patchy at best, but I was able to speak to the commander of the Imam
Ali Battalion, who goes by the name of al-Hajj Waleed and is from Ba'albek in
the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon.
According to al-Hajj Waleed (who is
a member of Hezbollah), Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi was set up two years ago by
Hezbollah and has recruits from all of Syria.
Of course, this latter assertion is a fairly standard rhetorical
line. Private Facebook accounts run by those associated with Liwa al-Imam
al-Mahdi largely point to origins in western Syria.
The commander added that the group has participated in a number of
battles, including Deraa, Quneitra, Ghouta, Aleppo and the Ithiriya-Raqqa
route. Some of these operations (e.g.fighting
in south Aleppo countrysideand
positions on theIthiriya
hills) have been mentioned on social media.
In total, Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi's contribution to the fighting in
Syria seems similar in scale to that of theJa'afari Forceand
theNational Ideological Resistance. Al-Hajj
Waleed gave his toll of killed ('martyrs') and wounded at 25 and 55
Thus, the military capabilities of these groups should not be
exaggerated, but it is apparent how Hezbollah is trying to project influence
into Syria through the creation of multiple formations and brands in order to
* Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a
research fellow at Middle East Forum'sJihad Intel
Turkey's July 15 coup, as cartoonist Assad Binakhahi suggests, was a gift for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
It is amazing that the Crescent and
Star never ceases to shock with the most unexpected insanity. The capacity to
shock is a feature most observed at times of war. And Turkey is at war – a
schizophrenic civil war.
The May 1960 coup was a conventional
coup d'état but, like July 15, was outside the chain of command. So it was
simply called a coup d'état.
March 1971 was called a "soft
coup." September 1980 was a conventional coup – this time inside the chain
of command. Some called it the "people's coup" after more than 90
percent of Turks approved its constitution and generals as their leaders.
Turkey had a "post-modern
coup" in February 1997 and an "e-coup" (in reference to the
anti-government, pro-secularist memorandum posted on the military's website) in
If history will have to name the failed
coup of July 15 the best way to recall it would be as the "absurd
coup." The events of July 15 looked less like a coup and more like a
Turkish opera buffa, a tragic one though, with the curtain closing with more
than 200 people getting killed.
Fortunately, even an absurd coup can
give an unruly nation a temporary sigh of unity. Pro- and anti-president Turks
seem to have united - which is great - probably until they start firing at each
other again, which is not so great.
With or without unity against any
military intervention in the democratic system, absurd or not, the great
Turkish divide is there and will probably deepen, exposing Turkey's hybrid
democracy to further risks of "road accidents" of this or that kind.
Turkey's "war of religion"
will not disappear just because the pro- and anti-president forces of the
country have united against a coup attempt. It is a war of religion between the
adherents of the same sect of the same religion.
It was not without a reason why the
anti-coup crowds that bravely stood against the troops and their commanders did
not mostly chant pro-democracy slogans when they took to the streets but rather
passionately chanted "Allah-u Akbar" (God is the greatest).
They were there not to defend democracy
in the word's liberal meaning. They were there to defend the man whom they view
as the guardian of their faith, hence their readiness to kill or die, or to
lynch the pro-coup troops, and a journalist who was just photographing the
scene. Willing lynchers who defend democracy chanting Islamist slogans? Nice
Whether the perpetrators belong to the
clandestine Gülenist terror organization or were a bizarre coalition of
secularist and Gülenist officers, they were simply moronic thugs in military
uniforms. Speaking to a "pro-democracy" crowd of fans who interrupted
his speech with the slogan "we want the death penalty [back],"
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that the Gülenists had been secretly – and
illegally - trying to capture the state over the past 40 years. And now they
finally staged a coup.
The president was probably right. But
he did not explain why he allied with them during the 37.5 years of the
Gülenist campaign to capture the state – until he and the Gülenists broke up in
December 2013. Remember his famous complaint: "Whatever they [Gülenists]
wanted, we gave them."
This is the last act in the
hundreds-of-years-long opera buffa of in-house fighting between various
Islamist factions, not just Turkish. Despite the bloodshed and tragic scenes,
like in any other Turkish opera buffa, it often can be amusing, too.
Newswires dispatched a story that said
Saudi King Salman congratulated President Erdoğan for the return to
"normality" – normality here must mean the defeat of undemocratic forces
and return to the democratic regime. Hybrid or not, Turkey at least features a
ballot-box (head-count) democracy. Let's hope one day King Salman's Kingdom too
returns to normality.
· * Burak
Bekdil is an Ankara-based columnist for the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet